Towards the end of the walk, I was doing so terribly that someone took a minute out of their meal and stepped out of a restaurant just to heckle me. I remember very clearly a man opening the door across the street and yelling:
“It’s called dog training. You need it.”
At the end of the day he was probably right, but embarrassment doesn’t usually make us bold – it makes us shrink into ourselves and avoid doing the right thing for ourselves and for our dogs. Lucky for me, nothing makes me happier than proving people wrong, so I just went out and became the best dog trainer I could.
I meet a lot of people who are in a similar situation and their solution is simple and easy: avoid embarrassment. They do this by quitting walks or skipping training class and letting their dogs play in the yard as their only form of exercise, all so that they don’t have to go out in the world where they are almost certain their dog’s behavior will make them feel ashamed. They get embarrassed and then stop trying to grow to avoid more embarrassment.
It’s a vicious cycle.
Here are the ways your embarrassment is stopping you from helping your dog:
1) Correcting your dog – This is one of the biggest things people don’t do when it matters. Often people will do a great job of enforcing rules in private, but when their friends come over, they become too timid to correct their dog for barking or jumping up on our guests. Our friends often don’t help us and will say things like “it’s okay, I don’t mind them jumping,” or “I read on the internet you’re not supposed to correct dogs.” At the end of the of day, you know what to do, but the social pressure keeps you from doing it. Just remember, you have to live with your dog and these people who want to make you feel embarrassed don’t. It is your responsibility to make your dog successful.
2) Rewarding your dog – As it turns out both sides of dog training will make you feel embarrassed for training your dog. Maybe someone will make fun of your fanny pack treat pouch you take everywhere with your dog. Maybe someone will shame you for having to “bribe” your dog with treats. Dogs, like humans, love rewards and being paid for their work – don’t let other people make you feel ashamed for your awesome fanny pack if carrying rewards is helping your dog get better.
3) Working through tough situations – If you are working with a dog who has severe behavior issues, letting embarrassment control your behavior as your dog’s leader will guarantee you never make progress. I always tell my clients that when your dog is acting ridiculous, that is when you can really get to work. Our human instincts often tell us the opposite – you’ll see people have their dog start to bark, lunge, whine or otherwise act out and see them start to shuffle away embarrassed with their tail between their legs (metaphorically of course). But when you retreat from your dog’s embarrassing behavior, you’re not going to be able to teach your dog anything. You might even be accidentally rewarding their behavior. When you feel yourself start to retreat, stop yourself and stop your dog. Slow things down and be your dog’s calm teacher. That’s what they need. They have no use for an embarrassed handler who is trying to save face in front of the neighbors. If you can get control of your emotions, then you will start to see changes quickly.
4) Fear of using the correct tools – Many people refuse to use tools that will help their dog because of the stigma associated with them. Some tools are controversial – like prong collars or electronic collars and people are afraid of what others might think of them if they use them (even if they are almost certain the tools will make their dog’s life better). But the biggest one I see pushback on is getting a dog to wear a muzzle – owners often don’t want to have THAT dog that needs to be muzzled. I understand that it’s not the Lassie imagery they dreamt of when they went into the shelter to pick up a dog, but if your dog is biting people, swallow your pride and give you and your dog the safety net you need to go out into the world and get better. Do not let what other people think control you and hurt your dog’s life.
5) Telling people not to touch your dogs – For some reason it is very awkward when people ask if they can pet your dog and you need to say no because your dog is learning to trust that you will control his space. If you hesitate for fear of embarrassment, then anything you are trying to accomplish – whether that be trying to teach your dog not to get overly-excited around new strangers or teaching him how to be comfortable with people again – will not succeed.
Embarrassment is a weak emotion that will keep you and your dog from thriving. If you are working with your dog and things start going poorly and you feel yourself get embarrassed, just take a moment to relax yourself and realize your dog is depending on you to step up and not run away.