The Power of Radical Acceptance

Can we make our dogs become something they are not? Learning radical acceptance can be mind-blowing.

By Cheryl VanVoorhies, M.Ed., CTC


How many of us, myself included, have wanted our dog to be a superstar at a dog sport such as agility, rally, tracking, obedience, or nose work?  Maybe the dream is to compete and bring home ribbons while enjoying time with our dog and our friends. Or maybe, you wanted to go hiking with your dog enjoying scenic views together. Did any of that work out for you? Did you have that calm, relaxed, and focused dog every time? Do you have a dog that can go everywhere without lunging or barking at others? I’d imagine for many of us, it’s not always that simple. Let’s admit it; we’ve all had expectations for one of our dogs that they were not able to achieve. 


A recent buzzword flying around is ‘radical acceptance’. How does that relate to you or your dog? In broad terms, it is the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in return reduces the suffering that is caused by them. Sounds simple, right? Yeah, hold your horses (or dogs in this case!), because it’s not as simple as it sounds.


Baby Seele was such a cutie!

When I brought home my oh-so-adorable German Shepherd puppy, Seele, the dog world had changed tremendously since I was younger. I loved that she and I would have so many cool activities in which to participate. I decided to explore them to see in which sport the two of us could excel.


We tried agility and she did well but only as long as no other dogs were around. If she saw another dog she would lunge and bark.  Not exactly ideal for an agility competition. Onto the next activity, rally. Again, she could perform well alone but in our first competition, we were kicked out of the ring by the judge when Seele lunged and barked at a dog in the next ring. When I went back to look at the video of that rally competition, I saw that she was certainly not having fun. She was stressed and unhappy.


I tried tracking thinking, this should be good, no dogs will be around on the scent track. However, I learned that the environment itself was instrumental in her success or failure. She was a sensitive, fearful dog and if anything came by the field where we were searching, she stopped and waited until it passed. We tried multiple times to get certified in order to be able to compete and failed. Ugh! Onto nose work… same scenario; she did great at practice, but in a competition situation, she did not enjoy the experience.  


Feeling sad that I couldn’t do these fun competitive sports, I questioned why. Why is this happening? Well, I knew that both genetics and early life experiences can come into play. Seele had a fearful mother as well as unfortunate interactions with other dogs who aggressively charged her during her formative socialization period. This exacerbated her stress and conditioned her to be fearful of other dogs.


A wise friend and mentor once told me, “Do what your dog loves to do, not what you’d love for your dog to do.” That was an aha moment that gave me clarity! How many of us have pushed our dogs to do things they didn’t really love? Would we do that to our human children? Would we push them to be a ballerina if they wanted to be basketball stars? What happens when we accept our dog’s abilities, skills, and personality? No judgment, just accept them and do what they love to do, even if that means they are simply loveable couch potatoes. Mind-blowing, right?


I can only speak for myself and my dog. Once I had insight into who she was and what she needed, not who I wanted her to be or what I needed, I learned to appreciate her as this relaxed, funny dog who loved being around me in settings where she felt safe and comfortable enough to have fun. I worked on the behavior issues that caused her to stress and have fear, but I no longer expected her to succeed in environments that were wrong for her. We soared as a team and were able to experience safe tracking, nose work practices with friends, or stay at home simply letting her be who she truly was. Our relationship drastically improved and blossomed.


If you have a dog whose behavior you are struggling with, stop to consider if you are applying unreasonable expectations. Perhaps a small dose of radical acceptance is just what the doctor ordered!


Seele is calmly practicing her nose work skills without other dogs around to cause her anxiety.