When Compare Leads to Despair

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“She is our third Golden Retriever and the other two never growled when we went near their food bowls.”

“Our last Labradoodle loved every person he met. This one hides and growls if people come over to visit.” 

“She’s our second German Shepherd. Our other one just left our cats alone.”

“Our previous rescue dogs have all been super chill but our recent rescue can’t ever settle down and is always getting into everything.”


I’m sure you’ve detected a running theme in these imagined but all too real scenarios behavior consultants and trainers hear all of the time. Well-meaning dog owners can’t help but compare and contrast their current dog with the dogs they’ve shared their homes with in the past. Truth be told, it’s not just clients we are working with that make a habit of comparative thinking. Parents do it. Teachers sometimes do it. Bosses can be guilty of it as well. Honestly, we all do it, even if we aren’t always completely aware of that fact. 


To Compare Is Human…..

We, humans, are hardwired to compare and contrast. It is an adaptive behavior and a survival technique. Our ancestors had to be able to critically assess which of the foods they were foraging for were safe for consumption and which ones would have limited the gene pool by poisoning them. Being able to compare, among many other things, a potential meal’s texture, color, shape, size, and structure was integral for making sure that the item being analyzed was safe for ingestion. Being able to contrast two similar plants, one which was safe to eat and one which was not, was a skill that has kept us humans on planet Earth for generations upon generations. And beyond survival, being able to critically compare can help us classify and categorize information which in turn can certainly help us simplify our lives. 


Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Lemon?

Take fruit as an example. I, for one, am glad that I can simply look at an orange and a lemon and immediately tell the difference between two fruits that fall under the citrus fruit category. No need to cut open and taste each one. Past experience has taught me to expect that an orange will taste sweet and a lemon’s tang will cause me to pucker up my lips, usually, before the lemon even reaches my mouth. 

Being able to compare the taste of a lemon to an orange saves me a whole lot of time and is incredibly helpful when I am looking for a sweeter beverage to accompany my eggs and bacon in the morning. I challenge anyone to substitute unsweetened lemon juice for orange juice as their breakfast drink of choice and tell me they absolutely love it! This is just one of the many ways that comparison helps us to make an informed (and in the fruit example, a much more palatable) decision. 


Which Brings Us Back To Dogs

When it comes to our dogs, however, one of the unfortunate side effects of comparing one dog to another can be that the comparison very often comes with preconceived expectations (the reason why my lips would pucker before I even brought the lemon up to them) of how our dog will or should behave or perform or what they will enjoy or how they will make us feel or laugh or smile. When the dog doesn’t, or simply can’t, live up to those expectations, there is all too often the inevitable disappointment or letdown that follows. Which typically doesn’t feel all that great and can lead to a sense of defeat or dare I say, a sense of despair. 

We are oftentimes left wondering, “Where did I or my dog go wrong?” Which in turn can damage the relationship we have with the dog standing before us; the one who is currently in need of our guidance and help. 


Here Are A Few Questions To Consider

If we know that making comparisons is a species-typical behavior for humans, what can we do about it? First, being fully aware that we have a propensity for comparative thinking can be very helpful. We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. 

Secondly, I want you to honestly ask yourself a few questions. Please ask yourself, is the comparison I’m making between past and present dogs helpful? Is it neutral? Or is it harmful? 

An example of a helpful comparison could be thinking about the difference between your dogs’ body language. Learning how each of your dogs expresses themselves can be a very informative exercise. This type of comparison should be done as objectively as possible and can be a great way to learn each of your dogs’ ways of communicating with you.  

A neutral comparison might be that your current dog loves hotdogs more than any dog you’ve owned before. There is no judgment or expectation of your current dog. Rather, you are observing what your current dog likes to eat without any attached expectation of a certain outcome. 

Conversely, a harmful comparison might be that your current dog lunges at and barks or growls at people and dogs when you walk him down the street. This is a behavior that you haven’t seen in your other dogs. Therefore, you might surmise this dog is “bad.” Or “aggressive.” Or “broken.” This comparison does nothing to inform you about the behavior you are seeing and it is applying a label to your current dog that may not be accurate. 

I’m going to go out on a limb and propose that much of the time, this type of comparison is made out of a sense of frustration and a desire for things to be different. Or better. Or like they used to be. Or how we imagine they should be. Which can turn into wishful thinking and a lot of second-guessing ourselves. So, what should we do instead? 


I’m Glad You Asked

Now that we are more aware of how human nature can lead us down the path of comparative thinking, perhaps a better use of our time would be to see our dogs as the individuals they all are and to accept the things about them that are different than the dogs we’ve owned before. 

I personally think one of the greatest gifts we can give to anyone, regardless of species, is to see the individual in front of us and try to get to a place of understanding and perhaps even more importantly, acceptance of who that individual is. I think of it as an active observation, without judgment, of the individual. Acceptance carries no hidden agenda or preconceived notions. It is simply the act of making peace with the way things are. 

But let’s not confuse a state of acceptance with a state of resignation. The difference between the two is that acceptance can feel proactive while being resigned to a situation is reactive and comes with the added burden of acquiescing to something we didn’t ask for or want. Resignation can leave us feeling powerless and feeling like we have no control over any outcomes. 

However, when we truly reach a place of acceptance of an individual, we can let go of the imaginary ( and let’s admit it, sometimes wholly unrealistic) perfection of who that individual, at least in our minds, is supposed to be. Once we alter our original expectations for this individual,  we can start working on a plan to help the individual with whatever issues may be impeding their success. We do not ask for the individual to be perfect. But for our lives with the individual to be meaningful, connected, and genuine. 


It’s Not Nirvana

Let’s not seek a state of perfection based on past experiences with previous dogs because that ideal does not exist. Not for us and certainly not for the dogs that we invite into our lives. Let’s instead find a reason to love the quirky things that make our dogs the individuals they are. After all, they don’t judge us for singing in the shower, eating Cheetos for breakfast (especially if you would be so kind as to share), or laughing uproariously at Schitt’s Creek. 

And if you find that your dog has behaviors that fall outside of the range of what is considered to be typical for most dogs, please do your research to find a reputable, ethical, science-based behavior consultant. One that keeps up with the latest scientific research and holds themselves accountable for continuing education so that they can be best prepared to help design a behavior modification plan to help you and your dog have a meaningful, connected, and genuine relationship that is not influenced or haunted by the ghosts of dogs gone by. 


Now what?

  • If you find yourself making comparisons, ask yourself is the comparison helpful, neutral, or harmful. 
  • If the comparison is helpful or neutral, continue on. If it’s harmful, however, then dig deep as to why you’re making this comparison. Is it because you’re frustrated or wish things were different with this pet?
  • For those quirks that are truly quirks and are not dangerous or harmful to the pet or others, try looking at them through a different lens to see if you can start to feel differently about them. If those quirks are dangerous or harmful, reach out to our team at [email protected] to schedule a consultation.