Fixing Dogs

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By Sean O’Shea

There’s a lot of talk in training circles and with owners about “fixing” dogs. I think a lot of this started with the very successful show Dog Whisperer. And for all the good that show did (helping folks to see their part in the their dog’s issues, the value of some simple concepts like exercise, disciple, affection, and rules, boundaries, and limitations, as well as inspiring a whole generation of dog trainers), it also had some other, less favorable impact on the dog owners and dog trainers.

The show and its producers had a great main message – that message was far more about personal growth and development, and the impact and value that has on your dog and relationship – but it also had another message or agenda.

That message was that of magic.

That this one person, because of his amazing abilities and finely honed skill set, could take a dog, regardless of the intensity of the issues, and transform that dog. Completely.

This was something that every dog owner and trainer wanted to buy into. That if you cultivated your skills and your mind, to a high enough degree, you too could affect change on that level and magnitude – and that completely.

But here’s the problem, to imagine or believe that a dog – this incredibly complex and emotionally nuanced being, with whatever genetic material and baggage it comes with, and whatever prior experience baggage it comes with and whatever personality/individuality it comes with – to be something that can be transformed into something completely different than what it is and what it contains, is a disservice to dogs, owners, and trainers.

What I’ve seen is a preponderance of owners and trainers that put unrealistic pressure and expectations on themselves and their dogs.
Because this message was packaged and presented so well on the tv show, many of us have been infected with the complete “fix” belief.
But imagining dogs can be “fixed” (and by fixed I mean back to it’s original state/issue-free) is like imagining that you, with all of your past experiences, traumas, challenges, personality, attitudes, and genetics, could be perfect, or issue-free. You can do as much therapy, self-help, and personal work as possible, and you can make enormous strides, and transformations, but you will still be you. You will still have your quirks. You will still have your tendencies. You can become your very best you, but it will still be you. And you won’t be perfect or fixed.

And that’s the truth with dogs as well. It’s not a negative, or a letdown, it’s simply a reset about reality and having appropriate, and healthy expectations. Expectations that don’t put unrealistic pressure on you, your, dog, or your trainer. (I see SO many trainers who feel they have to deliver magic in every session or they’ve failed.)

Can you get a dog who likes to run away to recall every time? Yes. Can you get that counter-surfing dog to stop surfing? Yes. Can you get the resource guarding dog to stop resource guarding? Yes. Can we make amazing, wild, mind-blowing transformations in problem dogs, and can some of these changes happen quickly? Absolutely! I see it every day. But while some of these issues might be resolved, these dogs aren’t fixed. They haven’t had their individuality – genetics, experience, personality removed and replaced – no, they’ve simply been made a better version of themselves. And that should be the goal (and expectation) in both the dog owner and the dog trainer – to make the dog the very best version of himself that is possible. No magic, no fixes, just the progress and transformation that comes from dedicated, consistent work and focus.

The truth is, some dogs will be able to make more progress than others, and some will have more limitations than than others. And that’s just like it is with us. We’re all individuals, and that’s both the beauty and the challenge.

None of us – our dogs or ourselves – get “fixed”. We can only hope that through hard work and focus to be the best versions of ourselves.

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5 comments
  1. Eric Whitley said:

    Great post. I’ve found most owners have a rap sheet on all the things they want a trainer to “fix”. Everything they don’t like about their dog. It’s hard to get them to express what it is they would like their dog “to do”. Just “having” a dog is seldom rewarding to the dog. Having dog jobs is. I’d like to see trainers focus on both sides of that coin.
    I do enjoy your messaging and doing right by the dogs and owners. Keep going!!

  2. Diana Sandlin said:

    Actually , the Dog Whisperer show was meant to show that everyone can train a dog- with the right skills, energy and intention. I got no mixed message from it, just an affirmation that most issues stem from the owner , not the dog itself. And that when we align ourselves with knowledge and the right energy, things work for everyone.

  3. Nancy said:

    The one thing that every dog has are the genes it was born with. Those genes can be masked by good training but whenever tge dog is stressed or under pressure they will come out.

    You cannot make a genetically weak nerved or fearful dog confident. You cannot take a dog with a weak chewy bite into a dog with a deep calm bite. You cannot make a great tracking dog out of one with no hunt drive in its genes.

    Training may mask but cannot change a genetically weak dog. Most temperament is inherited.

  4. Miss Alynette said:

    Thank you for this message. I think at times, I beat myself up because of my own limitations and how they may affect my pup. I know my limitations, I’m aware of my wounds and work on being a better person everyday. My Lady was a stray, abandoned in Griffith Park and I have no idea what her wounds and issues may be, but I’m determined to give her the happiest life I can. I always say that animals have a way of reflecting our own issues back on us, and sometimes the mirror is hard to face, but when I look down at her loving eyes it is so worth it. We’ll face our demons together.

  5. francis said:

    i agree i think that training is very important but i dont believe it can change a dog, it just chnages how the dog behaves in certain situations. i love the show and all the work Cesar does to help dogs and their humans come together for a happy life for all involved

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