The Doggy Expectation Trap

Let go of the vision, so you can meet your actual dog.

You got a golden doodle because you loved the idea of that fluffy white coat that wouldn’t make a mess in your house. But your particular doodle wants nothing more than to romp around in the mud with friends. Every day. Oops.

Alexandria, VA – Some of the happiest dog people I know never even meant to get a dog. Their stories run the gamut – from a stray that showed up on a vacation to a pup inherited from the too-spontaneous college kid – but they all have one key thing in common: the lack of expectation.

Often, when I meet these dogs, I notice a little list of behaviors I would work on, until the owner busts into a big grin and says, “Isn’t she just great? Can’t believe how this worked out.”

Ha! Awesome. Never mind! I’m here if they ever need me.

In contrast, one of the sadder things I see is the much-anticipated pup – long planned for, much-researched – who is a continual source of frustration. From the level of owner emotion on display before our first training consultation, I expect to encounter a very challenging dog. Instead, I meet a regular doggy who just doesn’t happen to match up with a very precise, idealized picture.

Oh, how I hate the extra burden of expectation these dogs carry. The biggest favor you can do your dog is to lose the vision and meet the unique spirit in front of you.

The ghost dog

The most common version of the Expectation Trap is the ghost dog. This is the previous dog who passed on, either recently or decades ago. I hear that these dogs were “perfect” and never (insert undesired behavior here). The thing is, this assertion usually breaks down under a gentle query or two:

  • “Gosh, he was immediately housebroken?” Well, it turns out they got him as an adult, not a puppy.
  • “Wow, you never had to replace anything chewed?” It turns out that this owner was ten at the time, and mom was likely the one noticing and replacing.
  • “She was never jumpy and always just lay at your feet?” Well, it turns out that was absolutely true – in years 11-16.

Generally, we savor our sweetest memories of our dear departed dogs. We remember them at their finest hour. That’s mostly a lovely thing, but it sure is damaging to the dogs who come next.

Do yourself and your new pup a favor: try to avoid comparisons. But if you can’t do that, take off the rose-colored glasses first. They are blocking you from seeing the fresh new possibilities in front of you.

The fictional dog

Sometimes it’s not a departed dog but a fictional one that gets in the way. Some folks have richly imagined visions of what their life with a dog will look like, and when the reality doesn’t – and can’t – match up, it becomes a giant problem. Here are some typical ways the real live dog comes up short:

  • The Non-Dog-Park Dog. That local dog park sometimes looks so fun from the outside that folks end up getting a dog just to be a part of it. They love to think about trotting their happy dog to its favorite place, where, coincidentally, the owner will get to enjoy that easy human socializing. When it turns out their actual dog (like so many dogs) is not cut out for the dog park scene, the sense of dismay – even betrayal! – is overwhelming. “But this is why I got a dog!”
  • The Non-Snuggler. At the root of many a dog acquisition is the vision of never again Netflixing alone. Would-be dog owners picture that couch as a nightly snuggle-fest. How bitter the realization then, when the new dog a) is more of a dog-park dog than a hang-and-chill dog, and b) when the dog finally does get tired, she immediately heads for the nice cool tile on the floor. To add insult to injury, she gets up to move if you go over to cuddle her. “But … I got a dog to have somebody to snuggle with!”
  • The Dog Who Loves the Wrong Person. Sometimes a household decides that one member “needs” to have a special friend. Maybe one dog already loves the hubby, so the wife needs “hers.” Or maybe a son really wants his “own” dog. This vision delights everyone involved, so they pick a dog. Three weeks later, that dog is glued to the side of the wrong person.

Cue the call to the trainer to “fix” things and make the doggy fit into their life just like the vision.

Stacking the deck

In most versions of the Expectation Trap, we trainers can help around the edges. If you get to us early enough, we can help you stack the deck as you choose which dog to get. We can further move the needle toward the vision in those first days, weeks, and months:

  • To help create a dog park dog, we’d be carefully exposing the pup to all sorts of safe-and-fun doggy friends, helping her to have a great time and build her skills. If there’s happy body language telling us the pup is all in at each stage, we’d gradually move from one-on-one play to neighborhood group play, to the dog park when it’s empty, etc. We’d be watching like a hawk to make sure we quit while we were ahead and keeping our distance from trouble.
  • To help create a snuggler, we’d first tire that pup out. (Nobody snuggles when they’re bursting with too much energy.) Then we’d make sure the humans show restraint in their search for the cuddle. With a dog who’s a tentative snuggler, we’d teach the humans to cherish the simple head on the lap without immediately moving in for the whole-body hug-and-massage.
  • To guide the dog toward loving the one he’s “assigned” to love, that human must at first be the giver of all good things: food, play, walks.

You get my drift. There are always some things we can do.

Loving the one you’ve got

Alas, there are no guarantees. My real goal in those training sessions is to get owners to delight in the dog in front of them and to be open to the idea that this dog – this exact dog, without the changes you want to impose, may open an unexpected world to you. Rather than working really hard, often against nature, to shove a new dog into a vision, try being open to the experience this real live dog is just waiting there to give you.

  • Yeah, he’s terrified at the dog park. Maybe that means the two of you will take amazing hikes instead. Maybe you’ll get more nature and more bonding.
  • Bummer, she won’t cuddle. Maybe she’ll draw you to the dog park – the last place you ever would have gone – where you’ll run into your future husband. (After all, I did! Seriously. True story.)

Sometimes I think about how we dog people usually have a few dogs in our lifetime. But our dogs only have us. They live their whole lives with just us. This is it. It would be a shame to keep wishing they were somebody else and letting that hard-headed outlook block us from discovering who they really could be. And who we could be together.

Kathy Callahan (CPDT-KA, FDM) loves to help people and their dogs live happily together. Through her business, PupStart, she offers puppyhood coaching (including a socialization playgroup) and private dog training. She writes monthly for Whole Dog Journal on dog behavior, and she’s the author of 101 Rescue Puppies. Her family has fostered more than 200 dogs. More at

A version of this article originally ran in Whole Dog Journal.

ICYMI: Why You Should Talk to Your Dog

Related Articles

Back to top button