Is Your Dog Who You Thought He’d Be?

under tree limb portrait small copyLast night, in a jet lag induced bout of sleeplessness, I watched a Sex and the City marathon. Somewhere in the midst of this guilty pleasure, Carrie or one of the other girls (I can’t be sure—it was 3 a.m.) opined that we might all be better off if we didn’t bring so many expectations into our relationships. Naturally, this made me think of dogs.

In some cases, strict requirements are understandable. Nancy, a trainer, got a dog specifically to do agility. An experienced competitor, she has a high skill level and knows what types of dogs excel at the sport. Not only did the dog have to be nimble and built for speed, but he also had to have certain traits including the ability to focus and the strong motivation that’s often referred to as drive. On the other hand, Sue, a retired woman in her late sixties, spends most of her time at home and wanted a dog for company. She didn’t care much what the dog looked like, or even the breed or age. She just wanted a smallish dog who would cuddle with her at night and not need too much exercise during the day. Nancy’s final choice of a young, intense border collie would not have made Sue any happier than Sue’s eventual adoptee, a sweet, calm, mixed breed senior, would have made Nancy.

For Nancy and Sue, the dogs really did need to meet specific expectations. But most adopters, whether an individual or a family, are simply looking for a dog to fit into their homes and lives without too much trouble. They typically envision an affectionate dog who’s fairly easy to train, won’t make major demands on their lifestyle, and is friendly with the family and visitors. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, really, who goes looking for a dog with baggage? Who wants a long-term project? Regardless, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

My own dogs are both shelter rescues we adopted a few months apart. You might think I wouldn’t care much whether a dog has major issues, since as a trainer and behavior specialist, I know how to fix them. Wrong! Even professionals need a break now and then. My last two dogs were much loved but had their own issues—one with fear and the other, aggression—and I longed for an easier dog. As it turned out, Sierra, who came to us at around age two, had a wicked case of separation anxiety. Bodhi, who was allegedly two but turned out to be closer to one, was steeped in the hormones and outrageous behavior of adolescence. He was a handful and a half; rowdy, destructive, reactive toward other dogs, no manners…I could go on. Suffice it to say that despite careful screening (I still believe that he walked quietly past other dogs during his in-shelter temperament test chanting, I will hold it together until I get adopted, I will…) neither dog turned out to be quite what I was expecting. Working through their issues was challenging at times, but eventually, things resolved. Are they absolutely perfect now? Nope. Who is? Still, I wouldn’t trade either of them for the world.

So what can you do if your dog turns out to be very different than what you were hoping? First, unless you’re an experienced trainer yourself, hire one. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ website is a great place to start your search.) Unless there’s an issue such as major aggression toward a child or some other deal-breaker, be patient and work at it. In the end, sometimes the best course is to change what you can, and then accept and appreciate the being for who he is. I’m sure Carrie Bradshaw would agree.

25 Responses to Is Your Dog Who You Thought He’d Be?

  1. Kuruk says:

    Mama knew I would need lots of work and love since I had no training or socialization at the puppy mill, and now I’m pawfect! 🙂 Woooooowooooooooooo!

  2. threenorns says:

    what i thought i was getting: a purebred female border collie, about 9mo old, to help me manage my daughter, who has asperger’s and, at 18mo old, was a wizard at teleporting herself out of locked rooms to get to the river out back and the dirt road, apparently an unsanctioned NASCAR qualifying track, out front.

    i envisioned a small dog, about knee height maybe less, with the calm serenity of Lassie and the protectiveness of Mary Poppins.

    what i GOT was a 9 *week* old scrap of black fluff who came equipped with the wrong set of wedding tackle.

    i had no time to train him, i had no idea how to train him, i didn’t even know that border collie to dog is like maserati to car and the inevitable resulted: an insanely hyperactive, insanely out of control dog who, even though everybody knew he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, was the terror of the countryside. woe betide the cottagers who, having been absent for the past seven months, decide to spend a weekend at their own property – they had to call me from the car to come and get my dog because he wouldn’t let them out!

    speed control on the road out front – check!: every piece of vehicular traffic was forced to slow down to 10kph and take the single-lane bridge single file (rather than the usual two cars squeezing past each other at recklessly high speeds, often losing paint in the process).

    bears? what bears?

    getting him under control was probably the best experience of my life and my dog is the best dog in the world. my only regret is that he got stuck with me as an owner – he would’ve *shone* had he been adopted by someone who really knows border collies and could have developed him to his potential.

  3. Jerry I says:

    I don’t blame trainers one bit when they go spend $1500 or even more on a well breed dog to do some dream training with. We work hard constantly dealing with dogs that have issues. It is nice to work with a dog without issues. Although, I got Andy from a shelter at 8 weeks old, so you can get good beginnings at a shelter.

    Nicole, you would love him, he looks exactly like Cole, but 20 lbs lighter. In fact I have a hard time not calling Cole, Andy.

    Besides, if we don’t work with them sometimes, how do we know what it is suppose to look like? How do we know what they are capable of out of the gate?

  4. Gretchen Shotwell says:

    I did not get the dog I thought I was getting. I went to the shelter to adopt a senior, black dog. I came home with a 9 month German shepherd mix who ended up having practically every issue under the sun. Did I get the dog I expected? No. Did I get the dog I needed? Yes. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have studied dog behavior and positive reinforcement training nearly as much as I have. I will be eternally grateful to her for that.

  5. Chris Vereide says:

    I’ve had both good and bad behavioral surprises from my two. I’m learning that I need to leave their past behind and let them tell me what they are capable of and what they are not. It was too easy for me to say things like, “He should be able to do this or he will never be able to do this.” I need to let that go and let them tell me.

  6. Rebekah says:

    We had to change what our expectations of Bruce were after adopting him. We realized he was not a “take out in public” dog. We also quickly learned he had fear aggression. With training, love, medication and changing our expectations of him, he has blossomed into a happy boy at home.

    • Rebekah Kornfeld says:

      Rebekah, your comment made my day. We rescued a pit-mastiff-boxer mix as a puppy who is the biggest challenge of my life. He is not a “take out in public” dog and I feel so bad about that. He is very happy at home. How did you make peace with the fact that your dog is not a “take out in public dog”?

  7. Melissa says:

    Personal experience, the extra time, patience and work dealing with a dog that has baggage brings the greatest rewards. We adopted a female Siberian, 2 months younger than our male. She needed a lot of work – training, exercise, love, stability, it took a long time to earn her trust and train her on basics. We had a trainer who pretty much gave up on her.

    She still has her “quirks” and learning, but she has blossomed into a beautiful pup, charm and personality overload. She’s not the same dog that we adopted.

  8. Evelyn Haskins says:

    Dogs and babies!

    We don’t always get what we expect, or get what we want,

    But they come and they widen our horizons SO much. We can learn so much from them.

    There is so much joy that our children (human and canine) can bring to us if we just don’t try to force them into precnceived ideals.

  9. Nina says:

    The fourth dog I got, now one year old, is exactly what I expected. A loving, wild, easy to train American Staffordshire Terrier. Wonderful with people, other animals, expecially cats and human kids. I am very happy that I got him from animal rescue as a puppy and now he is soon to start his training as a visitor dog…

  10. Suzanne Schiavoni says:

    My husband and I are “cat people,” so when we decided to welcome a dog to our home we wanted one that would be low key, gentle and friendly. Hearing that Saint Bernard’s can be “gentle giants,” we got a saint puppy. I read many many books about caring for a new puppy, and thought I was doing everything right… went to obedience school, socialized him, crate trained… Henry is now almost 2. He is a perfect dog… except he is overly protective and fearful of strangers. I’m not sure why he became so fearful, but he did already nip at one person. We have our trainer working with us, but it still isn’t what we ever imagined. Every saint that I know is a sweet tempered lover. Henry is with us, and with the people he knows… So, I read this blog with high interest.

  11. Until Oct 2012 I had a Golden Retriever (Fuchur) who I got from a strange breeder (one thing she forgot to mention was that both parents were working retrievers) at the age of 8 weeks. Up until he was 3-4 years old, Fuchur only showed a will-to-please himself: his guarding and his hunting instincts were excessive. We ended up doing a lot of courses and seminars until I started canine studies at one of the best German institutions and me changing my whole life from investment banking to becoming a dog trainer. The past 2-3 years in Fuchur’s life I would only have to think of a cue word and he would already perform it. He has helped so many dogs (foster dogs, dogs in training, dogs that had spent their owner’s holidays with us) with his souvereign and spirited attitude. No, Fuchur was absolutely not what I had expected, but definitely the dog I needed at that time.

    And then I did the “mistake” I always warn my clients of… But that is a different chapter… I still love my two “new” girls and I am sure that they are going to have their respective meanings in my life… after the nerve wrecking is over 🙂

  12. Nicole Wilde says:

    It is gratifying to see that so many of you have dogs who didn’t turn out to be what you expected, but that through your efforts, along with lots of love and patience, they turned out to be cherished family members nevertheless. Sometimes our best lessons come through struggle. Thank you all for your stories!

  13. Jannine says:

    A year after I lost my beloved Golden Retriever, I announced that I was ready for a new dog. I wanted a dog 40lbs or less, 3 or more years old, good with people and dogs, any breed except Shepherd. I took in an emergency foster – a shepherd mix from Greece 11 mo old, 50 lbs. Damn. He charmed me with his great qualities – walked like a dream on a leash, gentle with his toys, funny, good with other dogs. But he had loads of fear issues. So “wrong” size, age, temperament, and breed. I knew I was capable of helping him with the issues but I was really reluctant to take on the challenge. I ignored my list, listened to my heart and adopted him. Now, 5 months later, he’s still a “work in progress” of course, but we’re really, really happy. My dog skills have taken another leap forward, I’m fine with ALL breeds, and watching him learn to trust me and the world has been an absolute joy.

  14. After having a leash-reactive (to dogs) Norwegian Elkhound who was also somewhat neurotic and fearful (I had to very carefully manage new people in the house), I hoped to have an “easier” dog the next time around. Two months ago I adopted a little 9 month old girl advertised as a Corgi-Chihuahua mix with an unknown past. I had her DNA tested to come back as a Border Collie/Jack Russell mix, something I probably would not have chosen knowing how challenging both breeds can be. She actually came all the way from a high-kill shelter in Arkansas to Colorado. While she seemingly took everything in stride the first few weeks and I enrolled her in doggie daycare and took her many places, she started exhibiting leash reactivity at first toward dogs, that quickly turned toward people and especially bikes and skateboards. I won’t ever know if I overdid things with daycare and the dog park, or if she was just too overwhelmed in the beginning to exhibit her true colors, but in any case my little Ruby Pearl is here to stay. I’ve sought the help of a professional trainer, we’re experimenting with the Halti, BAT and LAT, and slowly but surely she is making progress. She may never be the dog I can take to the farmer’s market, but she is the dog that surprises me daily with her cleverness. When we adopt shelter dogs, we don’t really get to choose what issues we are taking on, especially because many are not apparent at first. I’m glad I had at least a little past experience with my Elkhound, although at the time I had two dogs and focused more on management than behavior modification. I’m determined to do better by Ruby, and in two months I’ve already learned more about dog behavior and training than my previous fifteen years of dog caretaking. She is incredibly intelligent, picking up new tricks faster than I can think them up, and I think in time while we build our relationship and increase her confidence, impulse-control and relaxation, she will probably turn out to be the dog of a lifetime. While it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for, and some days I’d prefer a carefree stroll over a regimented working walk, I believe she has much to teach me and that I’m up to the challenge of my Ruby in the Rough.

  15. pawsitiveHeather says:

    Yep, I’m a new(er) trainer and didn’t want a project dog. I just adopted a black pitbull with insecurity issues. I think they will go away, but she’s sensitive right now to men and strangers. Dogs, she’s great. Noises, she’s awesome. Commands and leash work – perfect and I’m starting her on eCollar this week along with working on fetch (because she loves it). So, if all I have to worry about is some insecurity… I can handle it.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Heather, it’s great that your new adoptee is so good with basic commands and leash work. About the fear issues with men and strangers, check out my book “Help for Your Fearful Dog.” It’s got information on those topics and gives specific techniques. I assume by eCollar you mean a shock collar–I would strongly advice against it. An electronic collar could easily push a fearful dog over into aggression. There are much better options that won’t stress your girl out. 😉 Congrats on the adoption btw! Wishing you both the best.
      Take care,

      • pawsitiveHeather says:

        I actually don’t use shock collars.E-Collars are a different tool than shock collars. The stimulation is very gentle, and most dogs love it. If you want to learn more, or are interested in reading some cool articles, you can email me here:

        Insecure dogs or dogs who need a bit more confidence actually thrive on using these collars. I have seen it first hand on some of my client’s dogs. I’m going to get some video of her progress when we start.

        I am a certified E-Touch trainer. I took Martin Deeley’s course through the International School for Dog Trainers earlier this year. I like learning about all techniques, positive or not, and I’m happy to add anything in my tool box. I actually have all your books and that’s how I started training 2 years ago. 🙂 That book helped, but since then I have also watched a few seminars and worked heavily with fearful dogs. She’ll come around. Maybe I’ll have a gander at your book again.

      • wildewmn says:

        Hi Heather, while I appreciate that you’ve gone through training with Martin Deeley (I am familiar with him, he’s been around a long time ;)) insecure dogs don’t need shock collars. IMO no dog does. An eCollar works on electronic stimulation, regardless of what you call it. I get that you’re not slapping a collar on a dog and shocking him like some trainers out there. And I agree that it’s good to have many tools in your toolbox; I’m glad that my books were in there too. As far as eCollars, I have read many articles over the years, and have seen them in action with experienced trainers. I have also seen a lot of dogs shut down and trainers then talk about how much better the dog is doing. Clearly, we have a difference of opinion, but that’s what makes the world go around. I always appreciate courteous discourse, whether someone has the same viewpoint as me or not. And I do appreciate that you’ve adopted a dog and are trying to help her get through her fears. I hope you have a gander at the book again and..yes, gotta say it…I really hope you consider doing it without the eCollar. 😉

      • Evelyn Haskins says:

        Shock does not mean something intense, when it refers to electricity. It can be no more than a tingle — but it IS electicity going through the body that experiences the tingle. It can even be below the threshold of awareness.

        in other words IF the collar delivers any electric cutrrent, it IS a Shock Collar. If it is used to deliver a vibration ( from a vibrating gadget) or a sound (from a gadget) then it would not correctly be referred to as a shock collar.

        There are many other, probably safer, ways to communicate to the dog you are training, even from a distance, without delivering a ‘tingle’ 🙂

        Shock collars ARE illegal in Australia now in most States.

        Speaking as someone prone to getting nast electric shocks of Supermarket shelves and counters in dry windy weather i think that banning them is a good idea (shocking counters too — what’s wrong with wood??

      • Evelyn Haskins says:

        PS, Sort of.

        I cannot help thinking about the Milgram experiments and PMcC talking about we our human primate tendency to escalate things when we expect then to work and they don’t 😦

  16. Linea says:

    When I decided to get another dog, I was much like Sue. I’m in my late 60’s, forced into retirement by severe arthritis. A few years before, I’d adopted a feral chi-terrier mix, worked & worked with him & he finally became known as Spike, The Amazing Wonder Dog. He was difficult to train at first, but once he got the hang of things he was, well, amazing! I’d had to re-home him a few years ago when I became homeless. So when I was finally able to find a real home, all mine, I decided to get another dog sort of like Spike.

    I started looking at shelters & on Craigs List. But I didn’t find one who met my specifications. Then one night, I drove about 50 miles & met Ranger. He was about 20 lbs heavier than what I was looking for, but those eyes. It was love at first sight. Then I got him home & found out that the people hadn’t exactly told me the truth about him. They said he was fine on a leash…uh, no. He’d take off running & when he got to the end of the leash he’d nearly pull me over! One night, as we were walking in front of our building, which is up a hill, he saw a cat running down the hill across the street & took off. I nearly toppled down the hill after him. He’s very strong & exuberant & we are completely bonded.

    For the first 6-8 months, I tried everything that I could think of & got advice from a trainer who trained service dogs, but nothing seemed to help. And I realized that I was becoming more & more frustrated & we were no longer having fun together. So I just decided to stop making him into an Amazing Wonder Dog, like his predecessor, & to love him for who he is. He has never bitten anybody, but he does greet new people with enthusiasm. I warn delivery people & they all seem to take his greetings in stride. I take him to an off-leash dog park when I can, but it doesn’t slow him down much.

    So, yes, this dog is not what I was expecting, but we’ve worked it out so I can allow him to express who he really is & most of the time he tries to obey the “no pull” command when he’s on his leash. Of course, when he sees his besties, the humans who live next door, all bets are off!! Oh how he adores them!! I don’t know what I’d do without this dude, & I’m hoping that many years will go by before I have to find out. A little old arthritic lady’s dog, he really isn’t. Who cares?

  17. Julie Ward says:

    i certainly appreciate all of the stories about adapting to the dog you got. it’s admirable really. I also appreciate that rescues can have some hidden baggage that isn’t always apparent in a shelter environment. while I support those that chose this route, I chose a different path. I’ve either bred the dogs I’ve owned or, now at this point in my life, gone to a breeder who I know and trust.

    so, yes, I’ve always gotten the dog I expected. I show in conformation so specific physical attributes are required to be competitive in the ring. mental soundness is also part of the package. I also, for fun, do agility training,

    both of my dogs are perfect for me. both would likely make someone else insane. the very qualities that I cherish (the drive and energy) would not be a good fit for most families.

    puppies certainly don’t read the breed standards but, knowing the breed standard and tendencies and knowing the temperament of the sire and dam is a good predictor of what the puppy will become, or at the very least, the potential for that puppy to become.

    this is one reason that I worry about the demonization of owning a purebred dog. those of us in the fancy see a time when breeding dogs will be legislated into oblivion.

    the replies and stories of all of you that adapted and learned from a challenging dog are wonderful……….but not all challenging dogs are so lucky. sadly, many of those become rescue or shelter statistics. those numbers then get used to further sway the public into demanding AR legislation. ………vicious cycle there.

  18. I have had many dogs over the years, every one was and is a mix breed. Every one had some issue, but half the joy, for me, is learning about and from my new companion. Every dog is an individual and should be treated as such, we can learn more about ourselves, from our relationship with our companion, than we can from most people, simply due to the fact that dogs show how they are feeling without lies. The more I learn to understand dogs the more I love them. Every dog I have owned has surprised and and at times tested me, but above all is the unconditional love they give.

  19. Janet says:

    I love the description of Bodhi’s adoption mantra. We got our dog Calvin from a rescue that had observed he was quiet, but good with other dogs – they housed their adoptees in a dog daycare facility. It turns out that when he came out of his shell, he was not at all quiet, but a barking, fearful-of-everything-including-other-dogs-and-strangers mess. I figure he was just numb in the month he spent with the rescue. We have had him for a year and a half and what a time it’s been. As he is our first dog, we have had to learn SO much. We have been to a number of courses and workshops (it took a while to find the right place that worked with fearful dogs at enough distance for him to make progress), and worked with individual trainers. He has progressed SO far, but still is fearful of many things and situations. I was saying to a friend the other day that we probably *weren’t* the best family to adopt him, as we knew so little about fearful dogs at the time. His first few months were probably terrifying! But we have worked hard to *become* his best family. I am still looking for the ideal dog as a playmate- when we (sometimes) see a dog Calvin takes a liking to, it is usually a dog that looks similar to him. To the rescue’s credit, they only take certain breeds, so it may well have been he got on well with their dogs because of that. We haven’t found the best neighbourhood playmate yet, but I remain hopeful! Regardless, he is a love, love, love and we have learned so much more about dogs than we would have if we had adopted an *easy* dog. I’m grateful to him every day for how much I’ve learned. Love your blogs- thank you.

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