Layla is absolutely spoiled silly, and I’m completely unrepentant. Frankly, I adore spoiling her. I love how opinionated she is, and find it funny when her opinions don’t match up with mine. Why have a pet dog if you can’t spoil her?
That said, I think there’s a fine line that we as pet owners have to walk when we’re spoiling our dogs. I make no secret of how much I adore Layla. She pretty much gets what she wants, but there are limits, and that’s where we need to be careful with our dogs. I’ll let you in on a secret: most of the really spoiled dogs I see are not happy.
Recently, I went on a private training consult to the home of a giant working breed. The dog had been through somewhere between 5-7 homes, and a lovely, well-meaning couple saved her life. The dog had food out whenever she wanted to eat. She had toys everywhere and was given bones and treats whenever she wanted. Her owners heaped love and attention on her. She had some fear aggression issues, and when she reacted to me coming into the house by lunging and barking, her “dad” hugged her and told her it was okay. Her “mom” then allowed her to pull over to me, telling me, “It’s okay, she’ll be fine once she sniffs you.” The dog came right into my space, tense, with very stressed body language. Yikes. (I referred these clients to a veterinary behaviorist due to compliance issues and hope for the best for their dog.)
Dogs like this are quite common, and I see a lot of them for anxiety issues. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Frankly, I think most dogs really like clear boundaries. Dogs who are given everything they want, when they want it, are not dogs who feel secure. It’s a lot of responsibility to give a dog.
So, how do I balance this with my own dogs? I love to give my dogs food, treats, toys, and affection. I love playing with them, exercising them, and training them. I melt when a dog falls asleep snuggled up against me. I prefer to have them in bed with me, and Layla even sleeps under the covers. But things don’t start off that way.
When a dog first comes into my home, that dog doesn’t have any privileges. He sleeps in his crate and there are no toys available other than nylon chew bones in the crate. When he’s not in his crate, he’s on a leash or tethered to me. His meals are fed to him by hand, earned through training sessions, or given in puzzle toys in his crate. Praise and petting are doled out for good behavior, and snuggling sessions are kept short. He’s not allowed on the furniture, and play sessions with my dogs are limited to a few short times a day.
Isn’t this hard to do? Of course! I often foster dogs from very bad situations, and my first inclination with these dogs is to show them just how great life with a person can be. Just like my clients with the giant breed dog, I want to spoil them rotten. I want to stuff them with treats, help them discover the joy of dog toys, and let them run and play with my dogs. I also know that doing all of these things would be incredibly selfish. It would make me feel great, but what would I be teaching that dog? Would I be best preparing the dog for life with his adoptive home?
By starting off with nothing, I am teaching the new dog some very important life lessons. First of all, I’m teaching him to look to me for guidance. Many dogs from bad situations don’t know how to do this. They need to learn that I will protect, provide for, and guide them. I’m also preventing them from making mistakes. Which is more fair: preventing the dog from chewing up my sofa by keeping him on a leash, or getting mad and yelling at him when I left him unattended with the couch and he chewed the arm off? Which do most pet owners do?
As the dog learns to look to me for guidance and learns all of the silly rules we humans expect (don’t pee in the house, don’t chew up the leather shoes that smell so delicious, the dog bed is okay to lie on but the couch is not, the food on the counter is off-limits, humping is verboten), I start to give him privileges. I usually start by providing the dog with more toys, if he likes to play with dog toys (not every dog knows how, especially if he hasn’t ever had toys before or has been punished for chewing on things in the past). I’ll start to allow the dog to mix with my own dogs more, and will allow more play time. Maybe he’ll start to be allowed off-leash in one room of the house at a time (when I’m in the room with him). Some of his food might come from a dog bowl, although I will still hand feed and use some food in training. He’ll be in his crate less, and will get petted and snuggled with more.
The more cooperative and easy-going the dog is, the faster he earns privileges. If he becomes pushy or stops looking to me for guidance, I’ll revoke some of his newfound privileges. This is not a punishment, but is simply fairness. He’s shown me that he’s not yet ready for that level of responsibility, and it’s not fair of me to expect him to follow the rules if he’s just not mature or knowledgeable enough to do so. It would be incredibly unfair of me to get annoyed with him for breaking the rules – if he’s breaking rules, it’s because I’m not explaining things to him or managing him well enough. When a dog breaks our human rules (which must seem incredibly silly to them), it’s a human failing. It is not the dog’s fault.
So where does that leave Layla? Well, Layla’s earned her privileges. She, too, started off with nothing. Is she naughty? Absolutely! However, she’s naughty in a way that I find endearing and don’t mind. She may drive someone else crazy, but the behaviors I don’t like have been eliminated through training and management. What are left are “naughty” behaviors that I find funny or endearing. I love that she’s “trained” me to give her treats for misbehaving – how clever is that?! I don’t care that she steals dryer sheets – it’s adorable when she rolls on them as if they’re the best smell she’s ever sniffed. I don’t care that she demands to come up on my lap while I’m working – I figure I need the break, and enjoy snuggling with her for 15 minutes. I don’t care that she jumps on guests – if the guest is someone who doesn’t like dogs, I put her away before the guest arrives or keep her on a leash. I think it’s funny when she “shows off” for visitors by destroying a cardboard box, whipping her toys around, or playing crazily with Dobby or a foster dog. I like to see her happy, and I like her pushy, clever, manipulative naughtiness. It’s who she is, and she’s perfect. Spoiled rotten brat and all.