I wanted a cuddle, jogging, or therapy buddy, but he is nothing like that.
Many people adopt or purchase a companion pet with a vision of the fun and love they will receive from this pet. Long hikes in the woods, fun at the dog park, cuddles on the couch as you watch Netflix are common expectations. Most pets will fill these needs, with little work from the pet parent. Most pets have the temperament, stamina, and socialization to fill these needs. When a new dog or cat has fear of strangers, aggression towards other dogs, or is aloof – there is a mismatch of expectations and needs. If you never lived with an animal with these behaviors it can be very perplexing. The pet can be happy around you but melt in fear around the nicest people you try to meet. Your cat may sleep with you, purr as you stroke its fur early in the morning but lash out at you in the evening. How can a dog be nice to dogs in the backyard, but on a leash, he goes crazy. As I say to my clients, 90% of the time this is a great pet, but the 10% of the time you have this trouble it is a problem, for both the pet and the pet parent.
One of the most emotionally disturbing aspects of this situation is when a client realizes, they did not get the pet they wanted. They wanted a cuddle buddy – but the cat does not want endless cuddles. If a dog is fearful of new people, or car rides going to nursing homes as a therapy animal is out of the question. Leash walks are difficult with a reactive dog – you have to always keep an eye out for stimuli to prevent outbursts. When you realize this, there is a sense of loss, sometimes grief. You are now realizing the life you saw with your pet is not going to materialize. Training, meds, and changes have been made, but this animal will never be that cuddle buddy, hiking pal, or therapy dog.
You may not have realized you had these expectations of this pet. Perhaps all of the pets in your life were cuddly, easy to train, loved people and other dogs, and travel was a breeze. Sure they had some flaws like chewing up part of the couch or barking at the UPS driver. But those were not a big deal – they did not change your life. These past experiences created your knowledge of pets, and your expectations. Pets do not come with an owner’s manual. Many of us base our knowledge of pet ownership on past experience. Few if any potential pet owners contact a veterinary clinic to get information about what to expect in owning a pet. More often, the breeder or a shelter worker is asked these questions. There is a wide variety of the knowledge these people have in informing potential pet owners, and much of it may be mixed with opinion, not facts. This adds to the mismatch.
People put more thought into the coffee maker they purchase than getting a new pet
After 35 plus years of general and behavior veterinary practice, I have come to a few conclusions about pet ownership mismatch. No one has any absolute answer but these are my thoughts, and how to help this situation.
Adopting or purchasing a pet is an emotional decision, not a logical one. We are moved to add a pet to our life because we are filling a want. and perhaps a need. We may not have identified this want-or need but it is there. This is the reason why the way a pet looks is the leading reason people select that pet. People love the beauty of a blue-eyed Himalayan, the round wrinkly face of a Frenchie, or the majesty of a Mastiff. Little thought is put towards how one will keep the special needs of these pets met. The attraction leads to the desire, which fills the want and a purchase is made. Now the pet is in the home, and life begins. If the new owner has not created realistic expectations of grooming, health, exercise, and behavior needs for this particular animal, there is going to be a mismatch.
Breeds can give more predictability for temperament as compared to a rescue. This is another reason why people seek purebreds. We never know the full background of any rescue pet. How a rescue pet adjusts in a new home is a discovery process. That happy-go-lucky dog at the shelter may now meltdown in distress when you leave. Disappointment in not getting the pet one wants is more common with rescue pets as compared to the breed pets based on my caseload.
Dealing with disappointment
So, you don’t have the pet you want. What can you do? You cannot create the pet you want – you can teach these pets new ways to behave, yet there are limits on learning. No matter how much you train, medicate or alter the home some pets will not lose the fear or aggression for certain situations. What do you do now?
First, acknowledge this disappointment. I see so many clients struggling to get the pet to be what they want, exhausting themselves and the animal in the process. The lack of data on rates of improvement with behavior modification, medications, and training also complicate setting realistic expectations. There are no clear markers for knowing when the animal is at the best of its training and learning. This creates more difficulty in knowing what is a realistic expectation.
This is the point where you need to give yourself permission to be disappointed for a little while. It is at this point many clients will call the veterinary office seeking help or a sympathetic ear. If the veterinary staff has never heard you complain or ask about these problems, it may be a bit of a shock to hear how upset you feel. Reach out to your veterinary clinic when you first have difficulties. They may help with advice or referral early on, and they can be more supportive of your disappointment if your pet turns out to be a poor fit.
Acknowledgment and Adjustment
Acknowledging what you are disappointed in your relationship with your pet, and adjusting your expectations is the key to a better life together. When my clients realized that dog parks were out for their dog, but hikes at the state park were fun they saw a way for their dog to be active but not aggressive. You wanted to take your dog to the coffee shop or sit outside at the concert in the park. Your dog is stressed by the noise and activity despite meds, training, and work. So, go without your dog. Take treats for the dogs there who are socializing. Be a support to others and be a source of empathy, especially if you see another person struggling with limits on learning. Your need for social outlets can be met in these ways. Adjusting your expectations will give you relief from your disappointment.
At times, adjustments cannot be made. This can happen with pets acquired to be a personal therapy pet, changing the environment is not feasible, or the humans are completely resistant to change. Take an objective view of this when you realize that this pet is not the one you wanted. Can adjustments be realistically be made? If the answer is no, then rehoming the pet as soon as possible is the best solution. Rehoming is not at all easy – emotionally or logistically. Will a shelter take on this animal? Is there a rescue that can find a good fit? This option is one that takes a bit of work too.
“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans” –
This quote from the late John Lennon is so true. There is a life with or without this pet you are disappointed in. Seeing the real-life you and this animal can have, identifying what you want versus what you need will lead you and your pet to a better life. It may be together or it may be apart. If you need to rehome your pet, it is not a failure. It is the acknowledgment of a real-life for both of you. More often I find pe parents make the adjustments and this opens up a new perspective of life for them. Many people have never explored the state parks, the beaches or got made their cat hunt for their food. Often owners will comment that they now have a more open mindset, and compassionate view of the world because they are seeing the world through their pet’s eyes. This is the gift of companion pet ownership – opening our eyes and hearts to the world.
If you are feeling the disappointment and starting to work through the acceptance and adjustment, here are a few suggested resources to help you through this process:
The Other end of the Leash Patricia Mc Connell Penguin Random house copywriter 2003 – understand why we do what we do around dogs.
Think like a cat by Pamela Johnson Bennett Penguin Random House books 2000 – understand why cats do what they do
How to let go of expectations: a lesson from my dog. Andrea Still https://tinybuddha.com/blog/letting-go-expectations-dogs-wisdom-people-life/
Sally J Foote DVM, CABC-IAABC, LSHC-S