Reevaluating Our Pet’s Goals

Have you ever wanted a goal so badly that you’re driven out of  your comfort zone to achieve it? Have you almost reached that goal only to have the bottom drop out, forcing you to rapidly change course? It is hard to stop midstream to reevaluate and change your path, especially if you have a lot of emotion and time invested in achieving whatever needed to reach your goal.

I’ve raised puppies with a specific goal in mind, whether it’s that they become therapy dogs, earn advanced obedience or agility titles or become conformation champions. Once my dogs enter my household, they rarely leave, so it’s difficult when my high hopes that they’ll fulfill certain goals don’t work out. I’ve had dogs who had to retire from performance events because of sports-related injuries, had to end conformation careers because of genetic conditions that shouldn’t be passed to offspring, and had to retire from obedience competition because they didn’t enjoy it. One dog was trained to advanced obedience titles when he shut down in the competition ring. Could I have spent time working through his fears? Maybe. When I released my expectation and found an activity he enjoyed, his true nature and joy of life emerged. He never did achieve advanced obedience titles, but he loved agility and quickly attained advanced agility awards.

I’ve enjoyed doing therapy dog work but faced some of the same issues. What do you do when you want a goal more than your dog does? It takes some soul-searching, and it can be a personal loss to overcome. I’ve seen trained therapy dogs who didn’t seem to have fun anymore. Maybe they visited too often or didn’t take a break, which is essential for their emotional well-being. Therapy work is both emotionally and physically draining for pets. That one hour visiting a hospital or nursing home, where people’s needs and emotional situations are displaced onto the therapy dogs, can be draining. My own therapy dog will sleep all the way home after a visit. They may not be aware cognitively of what people are saying to them, but they feel the emotional intensity of the various situations. Therapy and service dogs need regular vacations or time-outs to play and just be dogs. They benefit from exercise to release pent-up energy, so they can return to work refreshed.

How will you know when it’s time to retire your dog from his chosen profession or performance event/career? Here are some of the more common indicators that maybe it’s time to find another activity for your dog:

  • The enthusiasm to run out the door with you for a visit is gone or starts to dwindle.
  • Your goal or desire for success or achievement is higher than the dog’s ability to achieve it.
  • The dog is either suffering from an injury or chronic condition, which may postpone competing in dog shows or events. Returning to shows early may be tempting, but rehab is slow, and the risk of reinjury may end a performance career if the dog is not completely healed.
  • Look into your dog’s eyes during training and evaluate whether you’re still working as a team, or has something changed? Who wants this more, you or your dog?

This topic evokes a lot of emotion in me since I’ve experienced many scenarios leading to potentially career-ending decisions. I didn’t make all the right decisions all the time, but I learned from them, which changed my outlook over time. There were many sleepless nights trying to decide whether I made the right decision. I found that if I looked into my dog’s eyes and pushed away my ego and my need to earn a ribbon or award, I came to the often painful truth, the right decision, and I was able to sleep soundly again, knowing my dog’s happiness was placed higher than my own needs or desires.

What are the consequences of these decisions?

  • My dog is less stressed and has a higher quality of life.
  • I may be removed from friends with whom I used to share experiences and travel to shows.
  • My dog and I will have to focus on different goals, while saying goodbye to sometimes years of training.
  • I may lose my identity and have to change my preestablished course. For example, someone once said, “Allison, you usually have an obedience, conformation and agility title on your dogs by now,” after I took a break and changed my normal path. It wasn’t easy to accept, and I felt like a failure.

I have utmost respect for people in the dog community who value the human-animal bond and who make their pets a part of their lifestyles. This increases quality of life for everyone, and at its best moments, life doesn’t get any better. But things can change, even subtly, and it’s important to look for the signs that goals may need to be reevaluated. Circumstances change, and we may need to choose a different path. What doesn’t need to change is our relationships with our pets, who are important members of the family and who just want to please us no matter what we do together. After all, it’s the connection we have with our pets that we remember far after the memories of the ribbons or titles fade.

Allison White