Originally published in May 2013

I specialize in working with “difficult dogs”.  Dogs who bark a lot.  Or who lunge and bite.  Or who dig up the garden, or chase cats, or toilet in the house.  I work with families who have dogs that most people would find difficult to live with.  I also work with dogs who are anxious and fearful, or who really don’t have very good self control or resilience.  The dogs that people describe as stubborn or stupid or willful or having their own mind.  Over and over again, I hear people who say “I wanted a difficult dog” and I wonder “Why?”

I also live with dogs that many folks would consider difficult to live with.  D’fer, my Chesapeake has ideas about how things should work.  And like Captain Picard on Star Trek, he often approaches situations as if to say “make it so”.  He is my service dog.  One day, sitting in a restaurant, while I was talking to my dinner companion, he started to make eyes at the people at the next table.  At first it appeared that the other diners were staring at me.  Then he stood up, nudged my elbow and looked at the other table and then back at me and then back at them.  Clearly there was no work for him to do at the moment and he was making it clear to me that he would prefer to go see what might be up at the next table.  He didn’t just leave though; he checked in first.


D’fer at a hotel.  D’fer has very specific traits that make him good at his job, but that might make him difficult to live with as a family pet.

Why is this difficult to live with?  Consider that D’fer was expressing a very complex concept.  He was bored with being at dinner and would prefer to do something else, but he is also relatively polite and asked first.  The complexity of understanding that there was a social convention, and that he couldn’t just leave (a pretty formal restaurant, incidentally) is pretty advanced understanding, beyond what many toddlers would understand.  The fact that he asked was a reflection of many years of relationship and mutual understanding about how things worked.  Imagine what mayhem might have ensued had he not understood the convention to ask first.  Imagine what things might have been like if he had been the kind of dog who bided his time till you weren’t paying attention and then bolted into the kitchen of the fancy restaurant and helped himself to the prep table.  What Deef did was very DIFFICULT.  And in the wrong paws he would be difficult to live with.

Three times this week clients have said to me “I wanted a difficult dog”.  They all have rescues with various problems.  You can insert your choice of problem-aggression, pica, bolting, disobedience, resource guarding, separation anxiety, it doesn’t matter.  The clients wanted “difficult dogs”.  I wonder why.

I have a complex dog who is able to do difficult things.  He is able to get onto an airplane, follow directions, and slither under a seat to rest beside a dog he met once before (Thanks Air Canada…actually when two service dogs are booked on the same flight, don’t seat them in the same seat if they aren’t booked together; we made it work, but less experienced handlers might not have!) and relax into a very difficult and complex situation.  He would be difficult if he were in the hands of someone who had not channeled his brilliance.  I wonder, when the clients I see say “I want a difficult dog” do they really mean, “I want a dog who has the potential to do difficult things.”  D’fer would not have been able to do any of the difficult things he can do if we first had to work on him learning to be alone.  Or if we first had to work on him not biting people or panicking when the furnace turns on.  We would not have been able to do what we have done had we first had to overcome all the obstacles that my clients are working on.

I challenge people who ask if they want a difficult dog to consider if what they really want is a dog with the potential to do difficult things.  When I think of all the incredible things that D’fer has done, I am filled with joy at what we have achieved together.  When I think of all the goals we worked on together and all the challenges we faced, I am proud of the team that we form together.  When I compare that relationship to the one I had with the dog who lived with me for six years who was afraid of floors, who was afraid of new people, who was afraid of new places and who never really overcame his fears to the extent that he was able to step out with the confidence that D’fer steps out with every day, I realize and recognize that the second relationship, although it was full of many wonderful things was not full of the same sort of wonderful that the relationship that I have with D’fer is full of.  I really think that every dog and person deserve the kind of relationship that I have with Deef.  One that is full of challenges but not danger.  Full of greatness without fear.  My other dog was special, but D’fer and I have surpassed anything that I had ever dreamed of together.

When you are looking for a dog and you want a challenge, I would suggest thinking about what you want in a different way.  Difficult is a wide open idea that can lead you down roads you may or may not want to go.  If your goal is to do public demos with your dog, consider what that might be like for a dog who doesn’t actually like crowds or loud noises.  Yes, we can probably train the dog to accept these challenges, but why do we want to do that?  There are lots of things that I am able to do but that I don’t enjoy doing.  I can learn the task, and I can even have happy moments doing the task, but that isn’t the same as enjoying the job.  Could it be that our egos get in the way?  I think that sometimes they do.

When I think about my goals with my next puppy, I think about what D’fer and I have done together and what traits he has that make it possible for him to be so successful with me.  To start with, he finds difficult situations amusing.  If I am upset he maintains a professional level of detachment while he helps me to deal with my medical issues.  We have trained for the event and when the event occurs, he steps up, does his job and moves along.  He seems to think that is funny even.  He is a great problem solver.  When faced with a new task he loves the challenge of figuring out what to do.  He is active enough to keep up to me for a whole day of work, but not so active that he cannot settle if that work day includes eight hours of lecture.  My shopping list in a puppy includes all the things that made my current dog a success.

When I talk about breed and individual selection of dogs, I am often told that a person doesn’t want a dog for sport or service work so any dog will do.  This is a little like saying that you want to get married and it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as they are human.  Are you really sure you would enjoy being married to just anyone?  If you are that easy going, then perhaps yes, just any dog would do.  But the reality is that most of us have criteria for a life partner and also for the dogs who live with you.

Would you marry someone you didn’t know?  Is it enough that they are both human beings?  We need to do a better job of matching dogs up with what we need in our lives. Image credit: goodluz / 123RF Stock Photo

If you are looking for a family pet, you should be aware that this is perhaps one of the most difficult jobs for a dog.  There are rules, but few clear “job expectations”.  Imagine how hard it would be to do your job if there were rules to follow but no job description.  That is in essence what we often expect of our family pets.  They are not permitted on furniture or to help themselves to the garbage, but they don’t really have a job description.  There is nothing to do each day; no tasks to accomplish each day, no chores to be done, and little structure beyond when food is delivered and when toileting opportunities or exercise arises.

Such a difficult situation requires a special individual and I think that we should be every bit as picky about the family dog we want as the working service dog, military dog or drug sniffing dog.  Each of these dogs has traits that are important to their handlers and the family pet has perhaps the most difficult of all the job descriptions; the lack of one.

Family dogs need to be friendly and accepting of people, including strangers.  It is not cool to have a dog who “guards the children”.  Dogs who guard the children without the guidance of a handler who has control over the dog are dogs who end up biting the children’s friends, Aunt Mary and the UPS man.  Dismissing unfriendly or aggressive behaviour in a family dog is foolhardy and dangerous.  Dogs who guard without training are loose cannons, akin to loaded guns stored in the sugar jar.  A trained guard dog will only guard when told to do so, and will stop guarding reliably when asked.  When I do an evaluation of a dog who has been guarding a family member, invariably I find a dog who is not protecting the individual from harm but rather preventing a resource from being shared.  When your dog treats you like a soup bone there is a big problem.

Family dogs also need to be tolerant of misbehaviour on the part of people.  Police dogs are rarely asked to tolerate an unexpected hug or a tolerate a child playing with their food bowl and even though we know that these are dangerous behaviours, choosing a dog who will be tolerant of this is a tactic that will help to prevent undesired behaviour later on.

Family dogs usually live in neighbourhoods.  These dogs should be very tolerant of other family dogs who live in neighbourhoods because they are likely going to encounter one another on a regular basis.  D’fer is an incredible service dog, but chessies are not very tolerant of other dogs and they don’t often make great dog park dogs.  For this reason, a dog like D’fer who is wonderful at his job as a service dog might not make as wonderful a family pet.  When selecting a breed or type of dog to live with, understand that your dog is likely going to meet lots of other dogs in his life and choosing a breed that is known to be difficult with other dogs is not going to make being a family pet easier for your dog.

Family dogs need to be tolerant of environmental changes.  If you have a busy active family, it is unlikely that your dog is going to stay at home all the time.  People take their dogs camping and to the cottage, on road trips and to grandma’s house.  If you have a real homebody of a dog, he is not going to like the changes that often occur in families when they take vacations or have days at the park or the beach.  If you have a dog who is sensitive to noises, new environments, new people and new experiences, then he is not going to be happy with all this moving around.  We can teach him, but it is easier for the dog and for the family if you start out with a dog who is tolerant of all these things.

This is an activity I would not encourage a child to engage in with a dog, but children and dogs do things we don’t expect.  A great family dog needs to be able to tolerate an even enjoy these things.  This dog looks very comfortable here, so even though I would not encourage the activity, it is a fairly safe thing for them to do.  This is a great family dog!  Image credit: nyul / 123RF Stock Photo

Family dogs should enjoy being handled.  There is a difference between tolerating handling and enjoying it.  If the dog isn’t enjoying being handled, then when your child goes over to pat him, he is likely going to be uncomfortable.  Few people choose a dog in order to cause him discomfort, but when you have a dog who dislikes being handled, not only are vet visits more difficult but so are interactions such as your kids playing dress up or putting a blanket over the dog’s head.  These are not activities that I suggest for dogs, but they are activities that children often engage in with the family dog.

When we choose a family dog, we need to take into account more than just how the dog looks or what breed of dog we may have had when we were growing up.  I love my chessies, but I am not sure that they would be a great match for me in the family I grew up within.  We had lots of dogs around us and chessies are very prone to resource guarding too.  Some chessies make great family dogs, but not all of them, and when I think about life from the perspective of the dog, it doesn’t matter what I want him to be, or what I can train him to do, if he is ill suited to the work, then he is not going to be happy.  Too many of my clients have had to completely rearrange their lives in the effort to meet the needs of their dogs, and this is not what we get dogs for either.  When you are considering getting a more difficult dog, I think you may want to consider a bigger picture, and think about what you expect of this difficult dog.  Not only is the wrong dog more difficult for you, it may be a lot more difficult for the dog.  Consider that what you may want is not a more difficult dog but a dog who can do more difficult things.


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