the ‘average family pet’ experiment

I’m feeling a bit confessional today. Well actually, I’m cleaning out closets and drawers in hopes of expanding my office space, and I am quite amazed with the things, and general stuff I have saved over the years. Living history, or piles of crap. Context and perspective!

Apparently my guilty pleasure is putting pen to paper and writing. Writing. Filling page after page with thoughts, notes, appointments (which I am sure I missed some of those…), blabble, and doodles. This little key board and screen have nothing on my passion for ink and pressed tree pulp. Who knew?

This morning I made a large press pot of strong, black, super hot coffee, and sat on the floor with a notebook that made me smile. Hello 2006!


It was a year that made me question pretty much everything. My beliefs, my skills, my work, my marriage, my plant choices in my garden, and frankly, simply leaving my house in the morning. The only things that kept my grounded were my two children, and at the time, my three dogs.

We often hear of fashion trends, car and driver trends, and investment trends. How often have you over heard a conversation on say, canine behavioral trends, or family pet owner trends? Yes, they are alive and well, and in 2006 those trends hit me square in the face, and changed the outlook of my training business, forever, and for the better.

This is so not scientific, simply my notes and observations.

The Stage:

The majority of my work in 2006 was in-home private training and consultations. I offered some group classes, but spent nearly 30 hours per week working one on one.

And in that year I found a trend.

The Trend:

This trend encompassed 32 pet owners in a two and a half month period. They all shared these traits more or less. NONE of these pet owners knew each other.

  • young adult, mid to late twenties
  • out of college, first career type job
  • responsible
  • long inflexible hours
  • new to the area
  • condo or apartment, little to no yard access
  • no fencing
  • gym membership or other outside of work sporting hobby
  • wanting or had an active social life outside of work
  • newly adopted adolescent or young adult dog
  • all performance dogs, mostly herding or herding mix dogs
  • no previous dog experience, but had hopes of an outdoor mountain lifestyle with their new dog
  • ALL sought advice from new friends, advice was ALL over the place
  • these new performance dogs were getting 15-20 minutes of walks per day during the week, on the weekends more, from 1 hour to all day mountain biking.
  • no active training was happening, just corrections, or simply nothing
  • no bonding or deep relationship feelings were expressed by owners
  • ALL of the dogs were on high sugar dog foods, raw hides, pig ears
  • All wore flea/tick collars (note I have never seen a flea in Bozeman)
  • some on pinch or shock collars, some on halters, some buckle collars
  • damage in home, to self, and others – from mild to pretty ugly
  • outbursts and displays of aggression to other people and dogs – mild to frightening
  • None of these dogs had a history of aggression or destructive behavior on their rescue/shelter paper work

ALL owners contacted me because they recognized there was a problem and they really wanted to do the right thing.


I met with the pet owners, gathered history, observed the household, got a good feeling for commitment or lack there of, and then met their new dog. I observed everyone in action, listened, and listened some more.

  • I wrote out plans and protocols, step by step, to help with better success
  • Organized schedules day by day for some, had more flexible general plans for others
  • Exercise requirements of each dog
  • Worked on nutrition choices with local stores in town
  • Found more interactive toys, set up kennel areas for others
  • Suggested various play groups in town for their extra long days at work, set some up with dog walkers, others with private dog sitters for half the day

I met with these pet owners weekly, and adjusted schedules based on what I was seeing.

Every single one of these 32 pet owners kept telling me ‘how much work’ I was asking them to do, and that they in fact had a life outside of their dog. Every single time, every single meeting, every single conversation, every single e-mail. Too much, there has to be another way.

So I started to question everything. Did I care too much? What was I missing? Was I so out of touch with this generation, a gap in communication? Zealous? Me? Was I in fact asking them to do more than what was possible, reasonable? Was I basing my advice on my experiences with my dogs and my love of training? Yes in part, for sure. Experience and knowledge are my foundation.

The only thing I didn’t question was what I was seeing with the dogs. They didn’t lie, they didn’t hide what was going on, and most were getting a better quality of life, from a  little to a lot. They didn’t act like what I was asking their owners to do was too much. note – But at that time I didn’t know how to put it into words without completely offending the owner. Now I do.

The  Average Family Pet Experiment:

So I turned towards my laboratory. My home, my yard. I decided to live by the trend I was seeing. I was apparently missing something? My dogs were all competing in one sport or another at the time, and we were always working on some new behavior or trick at home. They were use to me coming up with new concepts of sorts.

What would I see, how long would it take, what would be my tolerance level for behaviors outside of neutral?

  • I gave myself a one month time frame in order to see something, that was about the time these pet owners had had their dogs before calling me
  • I wasn’t going to adopt a new dog, just use the three that I had
  • I would not change their gear, harnesses and flat buckle collars. I was not going to harm them in anyway
  • I changed to an average pet food that was higher in sugar. This experiment was less than six weeks so their overall health and nutritional needs would not be greatly altered
  • they would get 15-20 minute walks each week day, and 1-4 hours of activity on the weekend
  • Minimal interaction from me, long periods of time away from home. I was not willing to go more than 5-6 hours away from home, even though most of the pet owners I saw in this trend were gone 9-11 hours
  • No active training or playing
  • I would not add corrections. For my dogs that would have been verbal abuse as they weren’t use to that, so I decided that I would ‘ignore’ instead.

I notified my family of my experiment. They all agreed it would not be as fun as ‘finding the worlds best cheese cake recipe experiment’, but were willing to try with me. I made it quite clear that at any sign of destruction, damage, tension between our dogs, tension between our dogs and people, or complete melt downs, the experiment would be called. I was absolutely not willing to ruin their quality of lives, or set the stage for future problems. I had a month, I was going to bite the bullet, and observe. Honestly, when I set this up I kept hearing that owl in the Tootsie Pop commercial, “how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” Well, I wasn’t to far off…


We lasted three days before the quality of life in our household, for people and dogs changed for the worse. THREE. One two three!

  • tensions
  • edginess
  • palpable restlessness
  • barking
  • whining
  • nudging
  • scratching on the doors
  • extreme leash pulling when out on our 15-20 minute walks
  • some mild food guarding (which we don’t have)
  • paw licking
  • wall licking
  • not wanting to crate up
  • pacing

THREE DAYS! If I had gone one month or more, like many average pet homes, seriously I can’t even go to that thought, it makes me cringe … And to think, in some average family pet homes, dogs go YEARS in this type of dysfunction.

Truthfully it was all I needed to observe. I was not off the mark in my advice, plans, or protocols to these pet owners. In fact I should have asked them to do even more. I just needed a different way to reach them, a new outlook on my business. A way to work with the whole dog, the whole household. Understanding, education, and effort.

After I took my dogs for a ridiculously long hike, gave them a crazy nutritious meal, brushed them, hugged them, and told them how much I deeply loved them, and that we would go back to the ‘tasty treat type of experiments’ from now on, I went and stripped my website.

That was the day I went from being a dog trainer with a business, to owning an ‘integrative dog training’ business. I now worked with the whole dog, in an integrative way, with the emotional, social, physical, and nutritional well being of every dog. I developed awesome partnerships with specialists over the years, that enhanced the quality of life for many of our pet owners.

THE END of the experiment…

And now when I work with owners that want to negotiate the quality of care for their dog, to better accommodate their lifestyle, I simply say, “No you may not”. And this comes from a very kind, knowledgeable, experienced, and honest place. It opens up a very truthful discussion on responsibility, care, and goals for the team. No pet owner can have it all without putting in the time, effort, and love. Have fun, learn as much as possible, and do more. It works.

note – Out of these pet owners in 2006 that fit this trend, that I have kept in touch with, there is mixed news. Two owner/dog teams are now avid back country skiers, and their dogs are happy happy happy. One owner/dog team went on to compete in agility with good success. One team is now active with a therapy group. Two owner/dog teams have become my very close friends over the years. One adores, loves, and hikes with her dog almost everyday. Four turned their dogs back into the shelter.

Now back to cleaning out my closet!



7 Comments Add yours

  1. mtwaggin says:

    I “heart” this post Nancy! In fact it makes me want to cry just a tad. There has been much discussion in the past week between myself and other dog friends on this one point “no bonding or deep relationship feelings were expressed by owners”. I never EVER would mind hearing a friend say “I don’t have time to do such and such because I REALLY need to spend some time with my dogs”. We all have busy schedules but the best dog people will at least feel guilt and repent when they aren’t giving their dogs their due! 🙂

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      I agree with you. I think it would be refreshing and great to hear more often, “I NEED to spend more time with my dog, they deserve this from me”.

  2. Sandra Watson says:


    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Thanks Sandy… love to you and Sophie!

  3. Sarah Rice says:

    I love this! I love spending time with my furry child and I think my love and work into my penny shows!

  4. Kim says:

    Sad and awesome all in one. Dogs are not status symbols or trends for a lifestyle. Holly is on her 6th week of what we both consider “lock-down” for post-surgery recovery…and yet she still is getting far, far more exercise to her body and mind compared those dogs from 2006. I just can’t imagine how her mind and body would be torturing her if she got less than everything I can give her?

    Those owners (not to mention those dogs) were lucky to have found you Nancy.

  5. Lisa denish says:

    I love this post. I have my first dog a Yorkie it’s simple let him be a dog. Dogs are smarter than a lot of humans I’ve met. Word of warning if your dog trainer is telling you to stop your dog from doing normal dog behavior there wrong. If you don’t know what normal dog behavior is you shouldn’t have a dog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s