When Academic Life Meets Dog Life

Written by Erin Jones, MSc., CPDT-KA, CDBC

Having a desire for balance between life and work is something that most people can easily relate to. Being in academics can be challenging in and of itself. Add in work and your own dogs, and it can feel pretty daunting at times.

This is my story as a PhD candidate, dog behavior consultant, and dog carer.

My story

I decided to go back to school for my master’s after several years in the dog behavior industry. At around the same time, I branched out on my own and started my behavior consultation business. I spent my entire career working for an amazing and incredibly supportive mentor at a veterinary clinic in Alberta, Canada, so it felt a bit daunting being out on my own.

I also had a dog named Grandma Monday. At the time she was a very elderly lady exhibiting a serious decline in cognitive functions. Her declining health was pretty slow to progress through my two years in school, but she required a lot of attention and extra care. Despite this, it was also relatively easy. She slept a lot, and was content with a Kong, a snuffle mat, and just a couple of slow moderate walks a day. Emotionally, it was taxing, and she required me to be home a lot more than she once did.

Near the time I was finishing my thesis, I applied for my PhD. The only caveat was that the program I wanted was in New Zealand. And everyone knows that grandma dogs can’t fly! Especially to (nearly) the very farthest place I could possibly go. So, I was forced to put my academic endeavors on the back burner while I waited for Grandma Monday to live out her days. Sometimes we just make the necessary sacrifices for the ones we love the most. It was horrible and sweet all at once, and I felt as though the day I chose to say goodbye would never be the right one. And I would always think to myself, was she ready? Or was I ready? Or maybe neither of us were and we never would be.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am, sitting at my desk in Christchurch New Zealand. Six months after starting my PhD, I decided a new puppy would be the perfect addition to my already hectic life. Funny, because I swore on the day that I taught my last puppy class back in 2016 that I would never get another puppy again! But there she was, and here she is — little Juno. A terrier cross puppy, nonetheless. And worth every second of it.

Emotional balance: Down the rabbit hole

A PhD is time consuming, frustrating, and stressful. So is having a brand-new puppy. For the first four, maybe five, months I spent my days on an emotional rollercoaster between pure love and “what the hell have I done?!” Juno wasn’t a confident puppy and still struggles with anxiety issues. I never really doubted my decision, but I did doubt my abilities as a behavior consultant every now and then. Was I taking my own advice? Was I giving this puppy everything she needs? What she wants? How do I even know what that truly is? How does anyone? Don’t get me wrong, I know what is important for learning, development, and enriching her life. And I was meeting her behavioral needs. Was I expecting too much from myself?

The questions kept coming as I dove deeper into my literature review. What is it that they say — the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know? My research is looking at the dog-human relationship and how we are affecting our dogs’ lives, for better and for worse. Imagine that! I was truly living my own research. And I can’t say that Juno and the personal side of life wasn’t a huge influence on how I constructed my methods. I am interested in how much of what we do and what we think improves the lives of our dogs, such as, for example, LIMA-based training, and how much of our own behavior and biases inhibits our dogs’ “dogness.” I’m not just interested in what we do, but also what we expect because of the socially constructed ideas of what makes a good dog “good.”

I am always striving, both as a professional and an academic, to learn ways to better understand how to improve the mental wellness of our nonhuman animal companions. Fundamentally, I think it’s an issue deserving of more consideration. Due to our lifestyles, dogs live restricted lives — behind fences, on leashes, in kennels, making controlled choices, and existing in controlled spaces — a dictatorship, in a way. I certainly agree, there are things that we need to do to keep our pets safe and happy in the long run, even if it doesn’t serve their perceived best interest in the moment. We are gifted with such foresight that we can provide our dogs with safety and health (and perhaps happiness). But what about true happiness? That internal, instinctual, and fundamental feeling of contentment? It is not a word that behavior experts choose to use very often, as we skirt around the unmeasurable emotional lives of our dogs. Without being able to quantify happiness, it is harder to discuss and harder to pinpoint.

Are we simply thinking of what serves our best interest? Sometimes, yes, probably. It’s what modern life has bestowed onto us. Work, schedules, the need for money, all those silly things we need to survive. But that means dogs spend more time in solitude, or with greater restrictions. Perhaps their walks are shorter. I know I am guilty of this when I have a deadline or an early class to teach, or when I am working on a paper and also trying to play tug with my non-dominant hand without any effort or real connection.

I sometimes feel bad. It’s hard to be put in this position. I know I am not alone when I say I feel guilty when I have to leave Juno home alone. It’s not often, but being a PhD student means meetings on campus, teaching, and campus events and lectures. Add behavior consultations on top of that and the guilt grows exponentially.

Creating a plan for success

Research requires structure. It requires serious organization, as much as it feels chaotic at times. But there are actually programs that help you to organize your work. Data, results, writing, sources, codes, notes, and maybe even cataloging the tears of frustration. It feels like a lot, and it’s overwhelming. That’s why they’ve created extensive and probably very expensive programs to help to keep it from becoming a tangled web.

I have learned a lot from my research, and a lot from Juno (and Grandma Monday and all of the other dogs before her). I have also learned to organize my life a similar way and what I need to do to create happiness and emotional balance not just for me, but for my pup. It’s important to me to have a good work/life balance. The thing I love is spending time with my pup. It grounds and centres me. It also brings me peace of mind when I know that my dog’s needs have been met.

It’s important to remember that learning doesn’t have to be scheduled into sessions. It can be a part of something that you and your dog love doing, and learning happens all the time. For example, I love hiking and so does Juno. We can practice so many things before we leave the house, in the car, in the few hours we are hiking. There are so many opportunities for me to meet her needs and teach her to check in with me, to come when I whistle and to stop and wait. Or to settle in the car. Or to focus around distractions. I could keep going, because those life skills are what are important to for us to enjoy quality time together and to provide her with as much freedom and decompression as possible.

This mind frame has actually helped me understand my clients better too. Most of them are struggling to balance life in much the same way. I make sacrifices but I also prioritize my time. I want to make the most out of those interactions and I want them to be fun and have the most impact for both me and Juno.

How did I end up with this fantastically well-mannered, kind, brave, creative, fun, and confident 1-year-old pup? Well, a lot of effort, of course. But that’s not a new concept for me. I know that you get out what you put into everything in life. And I also know I can balance the frustrations of research with the things I love — Juno and the outdoors being two major ones.

I have started waking up at 5:00 a.m. so that I can spend two hours walking or hiking with Juno and exploring the outdoors. I know that not everyone can do this; it certainly takes discipline, but meeting her needs before I start on my own is important to me. I guess it serves my needs as much as hers; I feel a lot less guilty for the rest of the day! And, not that I have much of a social life with all that academic life entails, but my extracurriculars pretty well consist of spending time with her. I need to give her the best life I can, because it’s extremely important to me.

Having said that, formally “training” her in the traditional sense has been a bit of a side project. I needed to make some choices. What is most important to allow her to have the best life possible? I wanted her to be able to settle while I am working, to have reliable cues so she has ample off-leash time, co-operate in her own nail trims, and to work on counter-conditioning and densitization to her stranger danger and noise triggers. I would love to spend time teaching her all kinds of fun party tricks like weaving through my legs and even sitting (nope, she honestly doesn’t know that one). But, is that truly what she wants to be doing with her time? Maybe, but maybe not. Is it a priority over the fun we have hiking and playing? Nope, not really. So, I made that executive decision for the both of us and I like to think it’s the right one for her and me. It allows me to balance her desires and needs with mine (not that I really desire research work over spending time with her).

I love my work. I love my dog. My dog is actually a huge influence on my work and, without her, it wouldn’t have the same heart and soul that it does. I was able to find a way to take something I love, something I work on in my everyday life, and turn it in to so much more than research or practical application. I am so immersed in dog; I am truly the luckiest person I know!

Erin Jones is a PhD Candidate at the University of Canterbury. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (IAABC), a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), accredited behavior consultant with Companion Animals New Zealand and committee member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers New Zealand. Additionally, she works as a part of the Education team at the IAABC.