My dog’s comfort is more important than your opinion of me

Written on October 29th, 2017

When we first brought my family’s husky home in February 2017, I wanted so desperately for her to be good. I was the one who really pushed to adopt her and had been telling everyone who would listen how unbelievably sweet she was, and I felt as though her behavior would be a reflection of me.
If she was wild or unruly, would that mean my judgment had been wrong? Would it be because I failed her, because I wasn’t a good enough owner?
I spent far too many walks and dog park visits stressing over her conduct. I became anxious if she pulled on her leash or shied away when a kid tried to pet her. I was preoccupied with the world’s perception of my dog…
But I should have been preoccupied with my dog’s perception of me.
Here’s the thing: my dogs are sentient beings. It is my job to protect them — but it is not my job to make sure every stranger we ever meet loves them. My dogs aren’t some objects I get to show off and use to impress people. They are my companions, and my relationship with them is far more important than the disappointment of another human.
My dogs can’t communicate in words like we can, so it is my duty as a responsible owner to watch their body language and keep them comfortable. It is my duty to be their voice.
It is not, however, my duty to please the rest of the world.
If my dog is getting stressed in a situation, I will remove her from it as early as possible. This might mean that I’m leaving a friend’s house to take her home or skipping out on a dog park date a little early, but her well-being has to come first.
If we’re on a walk and a kind stranger asks to pet her and she seems nervous, it is not rude for me to say “sorry, but not today”. If a small child is grabbing at her ears and refusing to loosen their grip, it is not rude for me to take her and leave.
If a well-meaning individual tries to give her commands that are confusing because they don’t know how we train, it is not rude for me to ask them to stop. If another owner’s “friendly” off-leash dog runs up to her without warning and she becomes scared, it is not rude for me to walk her away.
It is not rude for me to protect my dog even if it means disappointing someone else.
Some people believe that as long as they ask, they have the right to pet every dog in the world. Some people believe that a nervous animal just needs more “socialization” in the form of flooding. Some people believe all sorts of different things, and that’s fine — but in those situations my obligation is to my dog first.
If someone thinks I “care too much” about my dog because I’m willing to leave a get-together to take her home if I need to, that’s fine. If someone thinks I haven’t trained her properly because she sometimes gets overwhelmed around crowds, that’s fine. If someone thinks all sorts of other unflattering things, that’s fine.
My priority isn’t what people think of my ability as a handler — my priority is what my dog thinks. Having her trust me and feel safe is far more important than what anyone else could say.
So if she reacts to another dog and I feel embarrassed on a walk, I’m going to focus on what she needs from me. If she is overstimulated and I have to tell the neighbor kids they can’t play with her, I’m not going to worry about them thinking she “isn’t nice” — I’m going to worry about how to make her more comfortable and well-rounded, in the present moment and the future.
Don’t get me wrong — I care about being polite and respectful to the people around me, and I think that’s also a big part of our responsibility as owners — but if doing what’s best for my dog means I’ll get a weird look or a judging eye, then I’m going to be okay with it. No dog is perfect, and I need to be comfortable with the reality that mine won’t always act the way I want.
When she needs my support and correction I have to be present with her, not caught up in worries about what other people think.
At the end of the day, my relationship with my dog matters more than other people’s perceptions of that relationship. I can’t grow with her if I’m focused on everyone else.