My first dog was perfect. She was sleek and black and poised and majestic. She had a big black head and tiny black ballerina twinkle toes. And she was well-trained, with no real work. She was everything. We were two hearts beating as one. She died two days before Christmas in 2009 and I have never been the same; something changed in my DNA that day.
Many many dogs have come through my home and heart since my first dog, and I have loved them all. I’m afraid, though, that on some days, and for some of their...let’s call them quirks? There was a distinct lack of perfection in what I saw. A lack of twinkle-toes, a lack of ballerina blocky-headedness.
I’ll admit it in retrospect: I was peering through rose-coloured spectacles.
Dog trainers are very familiar with rose-coloured specs, I’ll have you know. And that's because we don't typically meet all the good dogs out there. Most dogs really are just good dogs. Most dogs are sociable, most learn basic commands even with the rather lackadaisical training we toss in their directions, and most slot in just fine with their human family. So when a dog isn’t these things? When a dog guards bones, or bites strangers, or humps the kids or jumps on guests or dumps the garbage? Those are the times a dog trainer is called in. And those are the dogs who tend to get compared with the magic last dog. In fact, a dog trainer’s heart does a tiny heave-ho when a client bemoans “my last dog…”.
Because here's the thing.
My first dog was not perfect. She had occasion to pick fights with other dogs, in particular very nice dogs, for reasons which have never been that clear to me. She charged up barking and scared guests. She didn’t share, even with her dear sister Wilma, who is fluffy and really deserves to be shared with. Rose-coloured spectacles have this tendency to warp things, you see. Maybe because when we remember our old dogs, the memory has to pass through our hearts first and it gets just a tiny bit distorted along the way.
And further, my later dogs were (to a one) just as deserving of all the love and all the exploding hearts that my first dog was. Dogs aren’t moral; dogs aren’t mean. Dogs are the exact thing they are meant to be, as once-wild wolves subjected to thousands of years of selective breeding by us, by humans. They aren’t jealous or greedy or manipulative: they’re mammals. They’re social carnivores. Their behaviour is lawful and predictable and we can change it, usually, with training and knowledge. The fact that one dog happens to be guardy and another has no problem when you take away their bone in no way confers any kind of betterness prize to the latter. It just means that in the genetic and socialization lottery that produces our dogs, one has “guarding” turned on, and the other has it turned off.
So if you’re casting your eye at your newest dog and your heart breaks even a little for your last dog, I’m going to ask you for a favour. Reach up and take off those spectacles. You can honour your last dog by remembering them as they were, with all their real quirks. And you can honour your new dog by seeing them as they are: they’re a dog, not a problem. And they probably love you, a whole big bunch. And they probably need some training, to get past whatever it is that sent you looking for dog training articles in the first place. You can train your guarding dog, your humpy dog, your jumpy dog, your dumpy dog; you can train most anything, I promise. And training, with its repetitions and cookies and regular time commitments and slow, steady progression towards a goal...training usually sets up a cascade of enjoyment, affiliation, and love on the part of us humans. Progress is intoxicating, and training is the ultimate shared journey. Soon, you’ll have a new-found and wide-eyed appreciation of your new dog. You’ll see the rock-solid sit-stay when guests arrive or the happy anticipation of treats when you pick up a previously-guarded bone. You won’t see the also-ran, and you won't feel the need to compare to your old dog.
But don’t worry: there is no economy of the heart. There's no replacement happening. There is plenty of room for both.