Stop Shoulding on Your Dog (and yourself)


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We are trapped in a toxic relationship with “Should” and “Shouldn’t.” That is to say, we are trapped in our own heads with our own worst critic – ourselves. So it’s no surprise that we project that emotional poison onto our dogs.

He should come when I call him.

She can bark at the door but she should calm down when I tell her it’s a friend.

He shouldn’t growl … jump … lick … bite … move.

“Should” and it’s ugly cousin, “Shouldn’t,” are hurtful to us and potentially dangerous for our dogs. “Should” and “Shouldn’t” prowl the borders of  what we’ve dreamt our dog would be, what we’ve wanted him to be, perhaps even before he was born. We wished for a loving companion, a champion, a supportive friend, loyal, reliable, smart, like in the movies. When we actually have a dog we find ourselves very much in the real world of what he is and is not. Perhaps our dog really is loving to us and smart, but not so reliable when it comes to strangers. Maybe our dog scares people and sometimes bites. The parts we dreamt of that overlap with reality (loving and smart) feel good. The parts that don’t line up (reliable, for example) cause us to suffer. In fact, the greater the perceived distance between our dreams and our reality, the more we suffer. It’s in that gap that “should” and “shouldn’t ” wreak havoc.

Our worst critic (remember that’s us) is now our dog’s worst critic. We love him, but he’s also the target of our vitriol. “Should” and “Shouldn’t” box us in and loom heavy over us; they hurl our own sharp words at us; they shame us; they are angry with us. You should go to the gym. You shouldn’t eat that. You should stop this or that vice. You should do better. You should be better. It hurts. We should on ourselves every day, sometimes all day. It’s no wonder we slip into the muck of dog shaming. My dog should behave better. 

“Should” and “Shouldn’t” are the bullies we let into our own heads. They push too many of us to use force and pain in the name of training. Languishing in the chasm between what we imagined our dog would be and who this dog in front of us actually is, we turn to “should” and “shouldn’t” for guidance, our worst critics, our worst enemies. But, instead of offering calm assurance they prod us to hurry up, fix this, make him behave better, make him submit, make him what he should be. And they taunt us – you should show him who is boss, you should be more alpha, you should be the pack leader. You should. You should. You should.

But Michael, you might ask, shouldn’t we have goals for our dogs? How else will things get better?

That is your rational self talking. And yes, I certainly agree. Goals inspire our present moment. They articulate the potential for growth and improvement. Goals invite us to the path toward all that is possible. “Should” and “Shouldn’t” are not goals. They keep us stuck in self-criticism, self-loathing. They reject the present moment over an illusory future laden with vague expectations. They invite us to engage in nothing but our own dissatisfaction. So yes, choose goals. Write them down. Take action. And leave “Should” and “Shouldn’t” behind.

This is one of the first things I learned as a dog trainerTrain the dog in front of you. I’ve adapted it over the years to include Teach the person in front of you. I know “Should” and “Shouldn’t” well. It has become my life’s work (including my personal life) to keep them at arms length or farther. Teaching the student in front of me grounds me in the present moment, right here, right now. I do not know what your dog should be. I do not know what you should be. I’m more interested in what we can all become together, in where the process of learning and teaching may take us. Training with your dog may lead to unexpected places. Perhaps it will be a journey that bridges the divide between what you dreamed your dog would be and who he is now. Or perhaps you’ll will discover something else, a life with your dog you never imagined, one so wonderful you dared not dream it until now.

Michael Baugh specializes in aggressive dog training in Houston TX.