MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
So Many Dogs, So Little Time
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT DOG
The odds that you and your dog will live happily together for his whole life go way up if you, the smart human, the one with all the choice in this situation, give at least as much attention to the characteristics you want in a dog as you would to picking a date on Match.com, and then try to pick a dog who kind of sort of fits the bill. You can get a terrific dog by dumb luck—I know, because twice now I've adopted dogs who just happened to show up at the right moment—but really, it's not the best strategy.
The Internet's rich in quizzes and checklists that offer to tell you what kind of dog to get. I tried a couple while I was working on this chapter. I was afraid they'd be silly, and they are. They ask stupid questions—for example, "Do you want a guarding dog?" How can I put this? You don't want a guarding dog. Dogs bred and reared to be suspicious of strangers make, let's say, problematic family pets; for one thing, they can't distinguish among burglars, your dinner guests, and a bunch of EMTs. You might want a good-size dog who can bark on cue, but I promise you that's about all the guarding you need.
As for the quiz results, they were loopy. One told me I should get a "Faux French Bulldog," whatever that is (is it made of polyester?), or one of several other currently popular designer mixes. Another suggested a mixed-breed (so far, so good) or a Field Spaniel as my two best choices. Oh, lord. I have lived with several dogs and worked with hundreds, so I kind of know what I like. I like whip-smart, athletic, sociable, better-keep-me-busy-or-I'll-get-annoying dogs, and although I can handle springtime shedding, the thought of grooming a dog regularly all year round makes me want to disembowel myself.* I'm a sucker for Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes. I really like herding-dog mixes. And—wild card here—I am a pushover for a nice Chihuahua. Spaniels … People, I know some great spaniels, but they're not the right dogs for me. As for supporting the puppy mill/designer mix industry—no. Just no.
The results were not only way off base in terms of my actual preferences, they were also way too specific. Not that it doesn't make sense to consider breed type—it does, because breeds and groups of breeds (and their mixes) tend to show behavioral similarities. But a list of five or seven or a dozen breeds implies "Get one of these and you're set." It's not so simple. When you get a dog, even a dog who belongs to a known breed, you don't get a breed; you get an individual dog, who may or may not have read the breed description (which may or may not be worthless, anyway; see "What If You're Looking for a Particular Breed?"). Work the other way around: Consider what qualities you want in a companion dog, and then look for those qualities. Breed and breed group can narrow your search, but the dog you're looking for may turn up pretty much anywhere.* This is the beauty of the behavior descriptions and matchmaking paradigms some shelters use—they focus on the qualities of individual dogs and try to pair human adopters with compatible dogs.
And, oh, yes, then there's love. Love is not so predictable. You may fall in love with a completely inappropriate dog. It happens. Frankly, all my dogs have been more or less inappropriate in one way or another. If you thought you wanted a sweet, soft spaniel mix but then fell head over heels for a fast, independent Jack Russell Terrier, fine! But, having chosen that JRT, you must now live up to her; no getting mad when she'd rather learn new tricks than cuddle. As the great trainer Leslie Nelson has said, "Love the dog you have, not the one you wish you had."
Falling in love with a dog who's not your type is not necessarily bad; you thought you wanted to cuddle on the couch all evening, but hey, teaching a new trick every other day turns out to be a blast, it gives you a huge sense of accomplishment, and you're crazy about your brainiac dog. Excellent. Purposely adopting a behaviorally troubled dog is quite another matter. Don't do it. Shy dogs, scared dogs, fear-aggressive dogs will pull at your heartstrings—of course they will. Then they may refuse to set foot outdoors, or may growl and snap at children or visitors, or may send other dogs and people to the hospital; and then you have to pay someone a lot of money to help, and have I mentioned yet that no ethical trainer will guarantee a happy result?* A really difficult dog may also turn you into a trainer specializing in behavior modification, which is what happened to me. Not that it hasn't been great, but there are less emotionally trying routes to a new career. Behaviorally healthy, "easy" dogs also deserve loving homes. They really really do.
How to Decide What Kind of Dog You Want
Dogs take a lot of time and work, so start by walking yourself and your family through a typical day and see how—and whether!—a dog would fit in. Consider the following questions.
• Can you easily see when you'd exercise the dog?
• How will you manage to get a nine-week-old puppy outdoors to pee and poop every hour or two for his first week in your home, and with gradually decreasing frequency afterward?
• On what weekday evenings can you and your partner reliably attend that basic manners class?
• If you work long hours, who'll give the dog a break or two so she isn't crossing her legs all afternoon and into the evening?
• Do you come home from work wiped out? Your puppy or dog will need attention, care, and training regardless.
• If you have children, are they mature enough to understand that animals are not toys—that they feel pain, need rest, and sometimes want to be left alone?
• Who will supervise the puppy/dog during your kids' playdates and make sure the children don't overwhelm him, or vice versa?
• Are your children mature enough to participate in care for your dog?
• If you have other animals, how are they likely to respond to the new adoptee? If they are old or ill, can you realistically and humanely expect them to adapt?
If, on reflection, a puppy would be more work than you and your family can manage right now, but you long to have a dog, seriously consider adopting an adult from a shelter or a rescue group. I'm not necessarily talking about an adolescent or young dog, either; she'll be almost as much work as a puppy, at least for a little while. Think "mature adult" or even "senior citizen."
MATCH UP NEEDS AND PERSONALITY
So you've decided that your life has room for a dog, and you have some idea of whether you're up for the challenge of a puppy or might do better adopting an adult. Now it's time to match personalities.
A True Dog Story: Charlie
One of the sweetest dogs I've ever met turned up at the Brookyn branch of the New York City municipal shelter some years ago, brought in as a stray. Charlie was a big (90 + pounds) black mixed-breed, not much to look at and grizzled in the face. He'd come out wagging for walks, then droop when I put him back in his kennel. He wasn't the most interactive fellow in the world, but he had a big neon sign over his head saying "I Am a Depressed Old Dog," so I crossed my fingers and did a formal behavior evaluation (see the section on shelters and rescue groups, later in this chapter, for more about these). Charlie did just fine, not that anybody wanted to adopt a huge, old, not-super-responsive mixed-breed dog. And then he developed kennel cough (bordetella), turning himself into a huge, old, not-super-responsive, sick mixed-breed dog. New York's municipal shelter system must by law accept every animal brought in, so the facilities are chronically short on space. When room has to be made, the less adoptable dogs die first. I did something I never, ever do: I leaned hard on two friends of mine who had recently lost a beloved dog. They didn't want to adopt; they needed time to grieve. Tough, said I.
You know how this ends, right? My friends came to the shelter. They left with Charlie. He lived five more years and became a certified therapy dog. And my friends forgave me my arm-twisting. Scout's honor.
Though online quizzes are useless or worse, certain shelters describe their charges' behavior in a way nicely adaptable to your search whether you're adopting or buying. They rate aspects of doggy personalities on a continuum—"shy" to "bold," for instance, or "affectionate" to "aloof." You can turn that strategy around to help you decide what kind of dog you'd get along with best. Are you …
energetic ___________ laid-back?
If you're on the laid-back end of the spectrum, the questions about how a dog would fit in to your life may already have steered you away from a puppy. Remember, adult dogs vary in energy level too!
impatient ___________ patient?
Impatient people may do best with adult dogs who don't need a lot of training and who don't have problem habits to repair.
anxious ___________ calm?
Anxious people, do yourselves a favor and don't get barky, reactive dogs—they'll make you nuts.
interested in grooming ___________ okay with brushing out the winter coat ___________ bored to tears by grooming?
Say you're bored by grooming but willing to deal with the winter coat, up to a point. No Huskies, Malamutes, or Poodles for you, unless you want to shell out big bucks for grooming.
fastidious ___________ a mudpuppy?
Dogs are filthy, okay? They eat feces and roll in dead things. Accept this. If you're going to need to wash the dog a lot, please also take the time to teach her to enjoy being bathed.
physically affectionate ___________ hands-off?
If you like cuddling with dogs, look for a dog who likes cuddling; you'll be sad if you adopt one who has handling issues or who prefers nearby floor space to the spot next to you on the couch. Also, be aware that small doesn't equal cuddly; people tend to force touch on small dogs, and it makes the dogs crazy.
fascinated by training ___________ bored to tears by training?
If you're bored by training and you get a smart, energetic dog, neither of you is going to be happy.
athletic ___________ a couch potato?
Couch potatoes, how about a nice middle-aged or old dog who's been displaced by the recession or a family illness? Leave the adolescent Pit mixes and the field-bred hunting dogs for people who won't want to kill them two days after bringing them home.
robust ___________ frail?
Say you have osteoporosis and being knocked down could cost you a broken hip. Pass on the body-slamming adolescent Lab mix and go for a smaller, quieter adult dog instead. Also, if you are very small and your prospective dog is very big, think about how you'll physically take care of him if he gets tottery in old age. (Assistive devices do exist.)
quick to go into action ___________ slow to go into action?
If you're proactive, you'll find your dog easier to train. For instance, if you're slow to get up when your puppy starts to sniff and circle, housetraining will be more laborious. There's no shame in being pokey, but you'll probably be happier with a dog whose behavior is low maintenance.
confident ___________ not so confident?
Nope, this isn't about "alpha." It's about stigma. Certain breeds and types are stigmatized, and if you fall for a Pit Bull/Rottweiler/Doberman/Mastiff some folks will curl their lips at you no matter how nice he is. It can be tough to take.
Another question to ask yourself is what aspects of life with a dog might drive you crazy. Check out Chapter 11, "Stuff Dogs Do That Annoys People," for a whole range of normal dog behaviors that tend to get on human nerves. I stress, these are normal dog behaviors; if you can't stand even a little bit of barking, the "breed" you want is the one scientifically known as Felis catus (and its members have their own methods of making people tear their hair out*). I'll offer a few general suggestions, but please bear in mind the following:
1. Every individual trainer's experience is skewed—by whatever her specialty is, by what breeds are popular locally, because small samples are always skewed, by her own perceptions, by her development of a reputation as being "good with X problem or Z breed" (and hence being sent a lot of dogs with X problem or of Z breed).
2. Every individual dog is an individual (at least, behaviorally speaking; there's probably no such thing as a Poodle who needs no grooming). I know a woman who has had four or five Shelties over her lifetime and who swears on her mother's grave that all except the current dog were non-barkers. Whenever I meet someone who has a Sheltie, I tell them about this woman, because I enjoy hearing their bitter laugh.
3. I mention all these breeds as points of reference, not because I believe you should focus your search on pedigreed dogs. Whether a dog's a mixed-breed or a registered Byelorussian Flapdoodle tells you absolutely nothing about her physical or behavioral health or whether you'd enjoy living with each other.*
Quick and Dirty Tip
What Kind of Dog to Get If You Have Kids
You know what makes dog trainers want to bang our heads against the wall? Cute pictures of puppies and babies, or puppies and toddlers, nestled among the daisies, cuddling. Head, meet wall. Here's why.
How much supervision does your toddler need? How wrung out do you get in the course of a day, providing that supervision? Right. How much supervision do you think a puppy needs? Every waking minute. Just like your child. You can't always take good care of two species of infant simultaneously. Say you're bathing Babylini when Puppalini wakes from his nap. Puppalini needs to go out right now, but you can't leave Babylini. Puppalini pees on the floor. Now not only do you have an extra mess to clean up, but also every such accident will make housetraining harder.
Then there's the problem I mentioned in the questionnaire—very young children don't clearly understand that other beings have feelings and needs. (Puppies obviously don't, either.) I was once called to a household where the 10-week-old puppy was growling at the children. They were very nice children, but they did not understand that a sleeping puppy needs his rest. The puppy wasn't a bad puppy; he was exhausted. And exhaustion had brought him to the point where now, at just 10 weeks, he had "aggression toward approaching children" in his behavioral repertoire.*
Please: Either don't get a dog till Junior's old enough to regulate much of his own behavior, or get a middle-aged dog who is housetrained, doesn't need an hour of off-leash aerobic exercise every morning before breakfast, and utterly adores children and also will go take a nap in the master bedroom instead of trying to grab their ankles when they play tag.
While I'm at it, get a medium-size or larger dog. Yes, yes, small person, small dog, very cute. A small, breakable dog combined with a small, active child can all too easily lead to a grouchy dog plus a child clutching his hand and crying, "He bit me!" or a dog with his leg in a cast plus a child crying, "Mommy, Daddy, I didn't mean to step on Scooter!" Or both. Sturdy, solid, adoring, unflappable: That's what you want in a children's dog. (P.S. "Adoring and unflappable" doesn't constitute a license for children to ride on the dog, pull his ears, or jump on his belly while he's sleeping.)
* The parents' failure to supervise and intervene was a problem here, obviously. But we might save a lip curl for the breeder who sold a puppy to a household with a four-year-old and a six-year-old where the parents had never had a dog before.
WANT A QUIET DOG?
Get a Sheltie! (No, no, that was a joke. See a few paragraphs back.) Terriers generally bark a lot; so do Shetland Sheepdogs, Miniature Pinschers, Miniature Schnauzers, and German Shepherd Dogs. Northern-breed dogs (Malamutes, Huskies) yodel. Hounds and Beagles really do howl. It is hard to find a dog that doesn't bark some of the time, but Basenjis are reputedly "barkless." Excitable, playful dogs may bark more than average.
WANT A SUPER-BONDED, SUPER-INTERACTIVE, AFFECTIONATE DOG?
There is a T-shirt that says "Free Tongue Bath. See Pit Bull for Details." Akitas, Shiba Inus, and other Asian breeds are generally not so affectionate, although the other day I met a Tosa Inu who lives for the lap. Most of the Poodles I've met, of all sizes, seem strongly engaged with their people. Ditto a lot of the herding breeds (less so the Cattle Dogs).
Human-oriented dogs tend to be easier for most of us to train than dogs originally bred to work independently and at a distance. (But breed descriptions often need decoding—more about that below.)
If you picture yourself cuddling a small dog, remind yourself repeatedly that "small" and "cuddly" aren't equivalents (a lot of popular terriers are small; Lhasa Apsos were bred as guard dogs and are exactly as cuddly as you might expect a guard dog to be). Pugs are usually friendly, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a rep as sweet-tempered dogs, borne out by the ones I've met. Small dogs in general seem to run to the snappish, but I suspect that's at least partly because people forget even cute dogs need personal space and downtime.
WANT TO RUN OR HIKE WITH YOUR DOG?
You can't run or hike with a brachycephalic (short-headed, short-nosed) dog or a dog with orthopedic or cardiac problems. Choose a young, lean, athletic dog with sound joints and a strong heart.
ARE GROOMING AND DROOL AN ISSUE FOR YOU?
Most dogs shed seasonally, but Northern breeds and other double-coated dogs shed like the dickens. You will be able to build entire new dogs out of what you find in your vacuum cleaner bag. Long or wiry coat = needs careful grooming: Poodles, Airedales, Rough Collies, Maltese, Shih Tzus … Short-coated dogs shed dirt more readily than heavy-coated dogs. Dogs with hairy ear canals, such as Cocker Spaniels, need special care as they are prone to infections (and infections hurt, and pain makes dogs crabby).
Mastiffs, St. Bernards, and other jowly dogs drool. A lot. Really a lot.
DO YOU HAVE PLENTY OF MONEY?
If not, stay away from breeds with long lists of pervasive health problems. See the discussion of pedigreed dogs' health, below.
DO YOU HAVE OTHER PETS?
If so, you need a dog who's animal friendly, or who can easily be taught to accept other nonhuman household members. Terriers were bred to chase and kill small furries; the various retrievers were bred to pick them (and birds!) up and bring them to you; Pit Bulls, Akitas, Chows, and terriers in general are often prone to fight with other dogs. Individuals vary, and plenty of people live with multiple dogs of these breeds and their mixes, as well as with cats and predatory dogs, but expect to have to do some work to keep everybody safe.
WHERE DO YOU LIVE?
Not just city versus country, but hot versus cold. If you live in a warm climate, be aware that to keep a brachycephalic dog comfortable, or in the hottest weather even alive, you may need to run the air conditioning 24/7, 365 days a year. Northern-breed dogs and Newfoundlands aren't crazy about hot summers, either.
At the other end of the spectrum, your Chihuahua or other tiny dog will not enjoy the great outdoors in Minneapolis in February. (Tiny dogs are not being wimps; they have a harder time maintaining body heat than big dogs.) Plan on housetraining to a litter box or pee pad as well as to the outside. Bigger dogs with short coats and no undercoat suffer in cold weather, too. Buy your Pit Bull a nice jacket.
REALIZE FANTASY IS JUST THAT: FANTASY
When you've got an idea of your dream dog's personality, activity level, and age, and how much you can or can't stand dealing with regular grooming, it's time to take a deep breath and step back. You will not get your dream dog. You will get a real dog. The real dog may be quite a lot like your dream dog, and with care and a bit of luck he or she won't come with any dealbreakers. What she also won't be is a perfect match for your fantasies. And a real dog can't get everything right every single minute of every day any more than our family and friends can. I know a woman who hired a trainer to teach her new dog to run to a certain chair and look out the window from it because that's what her old dog used to do. Try to avoid this trap: Your dog will be an individual. In some ways, she may be just what you expected; in others, she'll surprise you, for good and probably for ill.
Once you know and love a dog, you often learn to enjoy qualities that weren't on your short list of "Gee, how fun." I'm just sayin'.
What If You're Looking for a Particular Breed?
Many people try to match their hopes with a specific breed of dog. As I mentioned earlier, this isn't a bad strategy: Breeds do differ behaviorally.
However, beware the official breed standard, which you can find on the Web site of the American Kennel Club.1 Looking more or less at random through the descriptions offered for several breeds, I found words like "aristocrat," "fastidious," "free and merry." As applied to a dog, what do these terms mean? They don't even come from the "Temperament" section of the standard, which is supposed to describe the breed's personality and behavioral inclinations—and which is invariably shorter than the list of permissible color variations. There are breed standards that include no "Temperament" section at all.* This tells you something about the breed clubs' priorities.
Sometimes you can glean clues to breed-typical behavior from the "Meet the Breed" section at the top of each breed's page at the AKC site. The breed standard for the Lhasa Apso, for instance, has no "Temperament" section, but under "Meet the Breed" you learn that Lhasas, bred as "indoor watchdogs," "can be suspicious with strangers, so early socialization is critical." Oh, how true. But, like the breed standard, "Meet the Breed" sections don't always tell you all you need to know. For instance, English Springer Spaniels in the United States are plagued by aggression, apparently the heritage of a single popular sire.2 You will not find this information on the AKC's breed page (or, for that matter, on most ESS Web sites).
Where else can you look for information? The national breed clubs maintain Web sites, and—surprise!—they too are a mixed bag informationally. Breed aficionados often seem to have a lot invested in thinking their breed is unique, and not only in its looks. The Dachshund Club of America, for instance, is pleased to inform you that Dachsies do something "peculiar": they like to "roll around in smelly things."3 Remarkable! So my Juniper, who weighs 80 pounds and whose mama sure did look an awful lot like a Pit Bull, must be a Dachshund after all. (I don't mean to pick on the DCA, because, believe me, they aren't alone.) Do read what breed people have to say about their dogs, but take with a grain of salt any suggestion that X breed is like no other.
(Also oddly, as much as breed aficionados know about their breed, they often don't know much about modern training. Any number of clients have come to me about some training issue or behavior problem, having first consulted the breeder and gotten terrible advice of the "Show him who's boss" variety.)
Yet another possible source of information: breed rescue groups. For my money, the question to ask is "What are the most common reasons dogs of your breed lose their homes?" The answer you get will reflect someone's personal experience rather than a carefully conducted longitudinal survey, but it may be quite useful. "Because people get X breed and can't keep up with their energy" gives you a good strong hint about X breed's activity level.
Quick and Dirty Tip
Dog Labels to Watch Out For
Certain breeds are often characterized as "stubborn" or "willful." These terms reflect the sordid history of force-based dog training (for more about that, see Chapter 3, "Anything but ‘Obedience'"). You can take them to signify that the dog isn't easily motivated by praise and may fight back when jerked by the neck. Many of the so-called stubborn breeds were historically intended for dangerous work such as going after rats in their dens. How astonishing that they came out tough and independent. You can train them, all right, but you'll do a lot better working with instead of against them, finding ways to reward them rather than being locked in a cycle of "disobedience" and "correction."
I need to put in a word here for German Shepherd Dogs, of whom it's said ad nauseam that they "need a firm hand." GSDs, in my experience, run to the sensitive and easily damaged. Nothing is easier than to make them spooky, and harshness only makes them spookier. Be gentle, consistent, and clear—good advice for any dog.
Finally, keep a sharp eye out for euphemism. In everyday life, "reserved" means "not effusive till she gets to know you," but when it's used in breed descriptions it can mean "will never make friends with anyone she didn't know before she was twelve weeks old." A dog like that makes it tough to have dinner guests.
Talk to people who actually have dogs of the breed you're interested in—not just breeders, not just people who compete avidly in dog sports, but ordinary people who have pets. As a template for your interview, you can use the questions I suggested asking yourself. What's life like with a dog of such-and-such a breed? And here's an info source you may never have thought of: a behaviorally knowledgeable vet or vet tech. My vet-tech friend Jessica has a list of breeds she will not handle unless they're muzzled.* As she's the first to say, it's not that every dog of that breed has a bite history, or even a history of aggression at the vet's. Plenty of those dogs live peacefully with their families, too. But in her (personal, limited, unscientific) experience, the breeds on her list are the ones likeliest to respond with aggression when restrained or handled invasively by strangers.
As for the many commercial Web sites that list a bajillion breeds and their "designer" crosses: Just. Please. Don't. Waste. Your. Time. If there is such a site that provides accurate information and isn't a vehicle for puppy-mill Web sales, I haven't found it. (And the training and behavior sections are usually dire.)
A Word of Caution About "Purebred" Dogs4
Many of us think about dogs automatically in terms of breed—even discussions of random-bred dogs and shelter dogs always refer to the breeds or breed groups they might be mixes of. The whole section you just read relates dogs' needs and behavior to the needs and behavior of dogs who belong to identifiable breeds. So what do we mean when we talk about "purebreds"? This hardly ever seems to be discussed, but it has huge implications for your choice of dog.
The modern dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, which is most of the breeds you're likely to run into, have one thing in common: a closed stud book. That is, if Dogalini is to be considered a member of the breed, both her parents must also have been members of the breed; and if they were members of the breed, then their parents, Dogalini's grandparents, must also have been members of the breed; and so on. This is a big fat problem.
A closed stud book means a limited number of potential mates. When the circle of dogs with whom a given dog may mate is limited, the odds go up that animals bearing deleterious recessive traits will mate with others who bear the same gene and produce offspring. (This happens in humans, too, of course, which is why researchers who study rare genetic diseases gravitate toward the small, isolated groups where such illnesses crop up more often.) Look up any breed you can name, and you'll find a list of genetically linked disorders prevalent in that breed. This didn't just happen; it's the inevitable result of breeding in a closed population. In some breeds the list of disorders is dozens of items long.5
Conscientious dog breeders' answer to this problem has mostly been to support research into screening for genetic disorders and not to breed animals that bear "bad" genes. But although it's good to avoid perpetuating genetic disorders, cutting those animals out of the gene pool has a downside: You lose not only their problem genes but also all the rest of their genetic material. Remember, this is in a closed gene pool, so whenever you cut out all the genes of a given animal, you're also losing some of that gene pool's already limited diversity. And, thanks to sperm storage and artificial insemination, one male dog can sire any number of puppies, even years after his own death. All those puppies are at least half siblings—if they share any grandparents, they're more closely related still.
The result of all that is rapid shrinkage in effective population size, a measure of genetic diversity. A 2008 study in the UK reported that the effective population size among Chows, Rough Collies, English Bulldogs, Golden Retrievers, and several other breeds was under 100 although the actual populations of these breeds ranged from 1,060 to 703,566.6 The smaller the effective population size, the more genetically similar the breed's members are. With a small enough effective population, the members of the breed are nearly clones.7 This is a dangerous state of affairs; here's why.
First, in some breeds the dogs are so close to identical that it's hard to find any at all who don't carry a dangerous gene. All registered Dalmatians in both the UK and the United States, for example, carry a mutation that puts them at risk for urate bladder stones, which cause abdominal pain and if uncontrollable will require euthanasia.
Second, suppose a dangerous pathogen comes along. It reaches two groups, each of which includes a thousand dogs. Group A has a lot of genetic variability; in Group B, the dogs are all genetically quite similar. The odds are that some dogs in Group A will be able to resist the pathogen and recover from the illness, because in all that variability there will be a gene that confers at least partial protection. As for Group B, the odds are that none of them will have any gene that's protective. Bye-bye, Group B.
Some breeders have begun outcrossing their dogs—breeding their dogs with others from related groups, to bring in some genetic diversity. This is the only scientifically credible response to the "clone problem," but breed clubs fight it tooth and nail because outcrossed dogs are no longer "pure."8
Health problems in pedigreed dogs also arise from what's called "single-trait breeding." Suppose you have a town full of people whose reproduction you can control, and you really like redheads, so you allow only the redheads to have children. Hey presto, a couple of generations go by and you've got a town full of redheads. But your new redheaded population will also have another trait you weren't intentionally choosing for: Most will have very fair skin. As a result, they'll be more prone to sunburn and to skin cancer. So in selecting for one trait, you've also increased the odds that your redheads will get sick in a specific way (which may, or, like skin cancer, may not be directly genetic).
There are many analogies in dog breeding. For instance, if you breed dogs to have flat heads and short noses, the way English Bulldogs do, your dogs will also have deep wrinkles in their facial skin, and it turns out that those wrinkles harbor infection and get itchy and sore. (Shar-peis have similar problems.) If you breed dogs to have long floppy ears with thick hair on the inside, they'll be more prone to ear infections. Dachshunds, bred to be long and low, are technically congenital dwarfs, and many of them suffer from intervertebral disk disease, which can paralyze them permanently. Dachshunds account for 45 percent to 70 percent of cases of this disease.9 Roughly speaking, the more a breed diverges from the size and shape of the basic dog body (a Dingo is a good example of a basic dog), the more physical problems it's likely to have. So what's the answer? It's unfortunately more complicated than you may think.
Quick and Dirty Tip
Breeds to Think Twice About
I would never "ban a breed." But I hope I can persuade you not to choose one of the brachycephalic types—English and French Bulldogs and Pugs are the most popular right now. Many of us find those flat faces and pop eyes cute, but the feeling lasts only as long as you're not aware of how much the dogs suffer for that look. Imagine spending your whole life short of breath or close to it; that's what many of these dogs experience. They may suffer from cleft palate, narrowed nostrils, and tracheal hypoplasia, a condition in which their windpipes are so narrow they struggle for every breath. This is to say nothing of their orthopedic, skin, and digestive problems, or how vulnerable they are to heatstroke because they can't cool themselves effectively by panting.10
Should You Just Get a Mixed-Breed Dog?
After reading about all the health problems of "purebred" dogs, you might think the obvious response is to get a mixed-breed. And there is evidence that, in general, mixed-breed dogs are healthier.11 But general statistics can't predict the health of an individual dog. Mixed-breed dogs aren't immune to genetically linked disorders. And factors other than genetics are at work. Early malnutrition can damage the health of a dog with the strongest genetic makeup. Puppies whose mothers had a rough time during pregnancy (from life as a stray, for example) may suffer behaviorally from the stress-hormone bath they enjoyed in utero.12
So the answer isn't as simple as "Adopt a mixed-breed dog." (Though I certainly will support that decision!) Many factors contribute to the overall health of your prospective dog, and the more you educate yourself about them, the better your dog's chances of living a long and happy life. In considering what breed you want, remember that dogs live and suffer inside those exotic, aesthetically fascinating bodies that don't function so well. If you must have a pedigreed dog, please make a thoughtful choice, not only of what breed you want, but about where you get her.
Should You Get a Dog from a Breeder?
One option is to get a dog directly from a breeder. But which breeder? I'm sure it's abundantly clear from the foregoing that a dog's registration with the AKC (or the UKC, or any other body) is no guarantee of anything. Every last pet store puppy comes from a puppy mill—a breeder!—and every last one is registered.*
When choosing a breeder, I'd be wary of one whose dogs competed only in conformation shows, like Westminster and Crufts. Conformation is a beauty contest; breeding for narrow and exaggerated criteria is part and parcel of what got pedigreed dogs into so much trouble. It's a much better idea to look for a breeder whose dogs participate in activities, such as agility and herding, that require actual physical functionality. Be aware, though, that if a breed is more or less divided into working lines and show lines, the working-line dogs are often more intense and energetic.
SIGNS OF A GOOD DOG BREEDER
As I mentioned earlier, a good breeder will perform available genetic and other health tests before breeding a dog. She knows her breed's history and health like the back of her hand; she won't breed dogs known to carry heritable disorders, nor will she breed shy or aggressive dogs. However, as I've explained, this alone won't get pedigreed dogs out of the genetic health trap they're in. So the breeder gets a gold star if she supports outcrossing to increase genetic diversity and reduce or eliminate heritable health problems.
It's not easy for one person to develop a deep expertise about many breeds, so a good breeder specializes in a single breed or maybe, maybe two. Run, run, run from the fellow who advertises six varieties of dog and all their mixes as well.*
Pregnancy, whelping, and nursing all tax the mother dog's body. A good breeder will limit the number of times he breeds a bitch—many will breed a female only two or three times over her whole life. The puppies will be raised in the breeder's home and he'll see to it that they are appropriately socialized. (Livestock guardians intended for work are an exception to this rule—they will grow up with their flock. But you're not getting a livestock guardian as a family pet, anyway.) A good breeder provides pleasant experiences of household life, various people and animals, and all kinds of sounds, sights, and textures. Even tiny puppies are learning machines, so the best breeders start reward-based training of manners behaviors by the time the puppies are a few weeks old.
The care and time involved in raising puppies, and the limits of what can be asked of a female dog's body, mean you'll probably have to wait a while for a puppy. A good breeder probably won't plan a breeding until she has homes waiting for as many puppies as the litter is likely to include. And you will not get a puppy from her by sending her an e-mail and plugging your credit card information into PayPal. She'll want to meet you, and she'll want answers to many questions about your life, your house or apartment, your landlord if you have one, what exercise and training you plan to give the dog, how much experience you have with dogs, and what drew you to her breed. She'll make you agree in writing to return your dog if things don't work out. She may even choose a puppy for you, because she's the one who knows the litter best. I was once contacted by a breeder who refused to sell a perfectly nice but inexperienced woman a puppy unless the woman agreed to hire a reward-based trainer to work with her. Color me awestruck.
A good breeder will encourage you to visit the puppy in the weeks before he's ready to leave his litter. Which is fine, because you'll also want to visit the breeder, especially if you found her on the Internet. Probably most people know that all puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills, but many haven't caught on that anybody can put up a pretty Web site with stock photos of home-reared puppies. Go in person to make sure the reality matches. It's a red flag if the breeder will ship you a puppy without meeting you. Same goes if she asks all the right questions but discourages a visit and instead offers to rendezvous in a convenient parking lot halfway between your homes, where she'll hand over the puppy of your dreams.
It's often said that you should meet both parents of the puppy you want. Do it if you can, but you may not be able to: The sire may be owned by someone other than the breeder who has the dam. But if you're warned away from the mother dog, or she's mysteriously unavailable, go elsewhere. Temperament is to a large extent heritable.13 An aggressive mother certainly can produce nice pups, but why lower your odds of getting a friendly companion? Besides, the person who has bred an aggressive dog is not someone whose work you want to support.
HOW TO FIND A GOOD BREEDER
Plug into a search engine the name of your breed, plus "breeders," and you will be brought to despair at the bajillion hits on obvious puppy brokerages and puppy mills. You can cut through the commercial noise a couple of ways. The American Kennel Club's Web site includes informational pages (of limited use, as I explained above) on all AKC breeds, with links to each breed's national club. In turn, the breed club's site will include a breeder referral page. The breed clubs have codes of ethics that members subscribe to, so this supplies an initial filter for your search.*
A second source of breeder referrals is word of mouth. This could mean your neighbor who has a nice dog, though nice dogs surprisingly often come from unpromising sources. But make it a point to talk to people who participate in formal obedience, agility, herding competitions, and the like.
Finally, there's my preferred route. Get in touch with breed rescue groups (search on your breed's name plus "rescue," or find rescue groups through the breed club's site). Ask to be put in touch with breeders who always take responsibility for relinquished dogs that turn out to have been bred by them. Better yet, talk to the breeders who participate actively in rescue work. And find out, if you can, which breeders don't take back their dogs. The ones who do are the ones who really care. You'll still have to verify the breeder's expertise, of course.
If you buy from a pet store, an Internet broker, or anybody who breeds to score beauty pageant prizes or to make a few bucks, you're supporting the suffering of animals exactly like the companion you love. Yes, it's a project to find a really good breeder. And the odds are high you won't get a puppy tomorrow or next week. Some legwork and patience are a small price to pay if you want a puppy from someone who genuinely cares about dogs' welfare.
Quick and Dirty Tip
Your Guiding Principle for Choosing a Breeder
At every stage, ask yourself whether the breeder is behaving the way you would behave if you cared about the puppies you produced and you wanted them to enjoy healthy, happy lives. If the breeder's policies and actions don't reflect such loving-kindness, go elsewhere.
Should You Get a Dog from a Shelter or Rescue Group?
Adopting a rescue animal is a good deed—and, honestly, my preferred option. Do it with your eyes wide open. Petfinder lists hundreds and hundreds of groups; some are wonderful, some shockingly lax in their policies. Adopt from a careful, responsible organization that works to make good matches between people and pets.
Many people turn up their noses at "kill shelters" and prefer to adopt from facilities that call themselves "no-kill." Several million animals are euthanized in U.S. shelters every year.14 That isn't because the staff of so-called kill shelters are bloodthirsty maniacs. Some animals are desperately sick or badly injured. Some present behavior problems; more about that below. And some die because the shelter is full and there aren't enough adopters. The municipal shelters and animal control authorities that must take every animal brought to them—call them full-service shelters—don't have the resources to keep animals indefinitely.
Besides, life in a shelter, even a modern, well-funded shelter, is stressful and lonely. An animal may start out friendly and calm but grow behaviorally disturbed as time goes by, even to the point where keeping her alive stops being kind. Euthanasia rates have declined in recent decades, but they remain the downstream result of animal-related problems too big for a single shelter to resolve.
"No-kill" isn't a very good descriptor, either. Resources are always finite, so a shelter or rescue can't be no-kill and accept every animal brought to it and provide adequate space and attention for all of them. A no-kill shelter has to limit the number of animals it takes in. Or it has to put an asterisk after "no-kill," with a footnote saying "except for sick animals and those with behavior problems." Or it has to adopt dogs out without worrying too much about whether the match is a good one and what will become of the dogs and humans a year down the line. Or it has to warehouse animals regardless of their mental health and whether it's possible to give good care. Some animal hoarders may get started this way. A rescue group may reasonably decide it can help only x number of animals. But somebody, somewhere, has to deal with the rest.
So you're not looking for a shelter or rescue group that wears any particular label. Instead, you want to see people doing their best to figure out which dogs can safely be adopted and which dogs and people will suit each other well. While the dog's in their care, they'll work to keep her behaviorally healthy and maybe teach her manners, to make her even more welcome in her future home.
DOG BEHAVIOR EVALUATIONS
Shelters and rescues should use formal behavior evaluations (sometimes called "temperament tests") to judge which dogs can't safely be adopted. Most groups that do this use one of several well-known procedures, or a variation on them.15 Evaluators should be trained and the results of their assessments should periodically be compared against the results of other experienced evaluators. That helps prevent eccentric judgments.
Some aspects of an evaluation reflect normal human interaction with a dog. Others purposely try to push common dog buttons. For instance, an assessment might start with the evaluator just standing outside the dog's kennel, looking at the dog. It's worrisome if the dog reacts to such benign human behavior by throwing herself against the wire and snarling. Later steps involve various kinds of handling, such as wiping her paws and looking in her ears. How does she respond to a human who takes her by surprise? What happens if a human inflicts minor pain, such as a pinch on the flank? Evaluators also try to learn whether the dog gets unmanageably excited or starts biting hard when people play with her.
A biggie is the dog's response to people touching him while he eats, sticking a (fake) hand in his food bowl, and trying to take away a supervaluable chew such as a pig ear. For me, this is often the heartbreaker. A dog may behave affectionately and sociably right up until that fake hand touches her bowl, and then—Cujo.
Many skeptics about behavior evaluation point out that shelter dogs are under stress and that former street dogs may have been chronically hungry for a time. The hole in this argument is that any life includes stress. Certainly it's possible that the dog who leaps at the fake hand and bites it five times wouldn't so much as growl at a human messing with his food bowl if he were living in that human's home. So why not place such a dog in an experienced home with no young children and a rehabilitation plan? Because visitors happen, and kids running up to the dog on the street happen, and getting casual about prevention happens when weeks and months go by with no aggressive incidents. Also bear in mind that dogs with no behavior problems, or only mild ones, die every day for lack of homes.
Of course, evaluations can't guarantee that a dog won't bite. One study found that they can miss territorial aggression, predatory aggression, and dog-dog aggression, in particular.16 But in another study that compared assessment results with the dogs' known histories, the two matched up pretty well.17 The rate at which adopted dogs are returned for biting drops when evaluations are properly taught and used.18 The cold fact is that using behavior as a yardstick, however imperfect, beats making life-and-death decisions on the basis of cuteness.
REMEMBER YOUR DEALBREAKERS
So you're at a shelter, or you're looking at the Web site of a rescue, and they do careful behavior evaluations. Sorry! Still not done! Not every dog adoptable by someone is adoptable by you. Remember your dream dog and know your dealbreakers. A super-energetic adolescent probably won't suit a couple with two-year-old human twins. That family already has enough to keep it busy. On the other hand, if you have a blast teaching tricks, you might looooooove a quick, clever dog who would drive most normal people nuts.
Extra points, then, to shelters and rescue groups that steer dogs and people together by personality. Is this dog barky or quiet? Is he focused mainly on people or on other dogs or on that squirrel down the block? Is she cuddly? Does she live for fetch? Many shelters use the ASPCA's Meet Your Match program, which puts each dog in one of three personality categories. A rescue group that cares for dogs in foster homes may be able to give all kinds of detail about your possible dog. Word to the wise, though: Not everyone who fosters dogs has a sophisticated understanding of their behavior. Every so often I hear a fosterer say, for instance, that a dog is "alpha" when what she means is that he barks and lunges at other dogs. Go for those nuggets of actual observed behavior.
Pet Stores: Just Say No
You'll find no section in this chapter on choosing a good pet store. That's because you should never buy a dog (or any other animal) from one. Ever. The pet store people have learned that their customers want to avoid supporting the detestable puppy-mill industry, so lots of them put up signs saying something like "The puppies in this store come from breeders." Well, yeah, they do. Puppy millers breed dogs. Puppy millers are breeders. So pet-store puppies come from breeders. They just don't come from good breeders.
If you think about this for five seconds, it becomes blindingly obvious. Would someone who gave a rat's patoot about his puppies sell them to a pet store, where they could then be sold on to anybody with a credit card? One more time: Just say no.
Still tempted? Visit Google Images and plug in "puppy mills" as your search term. That's the industry your purchase will help support.
When Should You Get a New Dog?
I would be remiss if I didn't include a section in this chapter on the best time to bring a new dog home. If you're tempted to give a puppy or dog as a holiday or surprise gift, don't. Regardless of a puppy's exact age, you must meet certain needs if he's to have the best chance of growing into a beloved and friendly companion. Housetraining, for one. Many young dogs lose their homes because they've never clearly learned where pee and poop should go.
Now, the key to housetraining success is to confine or diligently supervise your puppy in between frequent toilet breaks. (See Chapter 4, "Housetraining," for a detailed plan.) The ideal is that your puppy never has a chance to eliminate in the wrong place. For the youngest puppies, "frequent" may mean "hourly" whenever the puppy is awake.
Wait, there's more! Excitement and activity—you know, like what goes on during holidays?—get that puppy bladder and bowel zipping right along. Furthermore, up to the age of about four months, your puppy will likely need an overnight outing as well. That is all sounding so compatible with going to Grandma's house, and having the neighbors over for eggnog, and staying up late to assemble the … something or other. Isn't it?
And oh yes—did I mention that the more times your puppy eliminates where you don't want him to, the harder it will be for him to learn what you do want?
Additionally, puppy socialization is harder during the holidays. If I could get every adopter to do two things for their pup, careful housetraining would be second. Good socialization would be first. You can pretty much always repair a dog's bad manners, but when behavior problems—chiefly fearfulness and aggression—are caused by poor socialization, they cannot be undone. That's as close to an absolute statement as any behavior specialist is likely to make. But, you might object, the holidays are an ideal time to socialize a pup. All kinds of people come over. The puppy experiences varied sights and sounds. She'll just naturally be well socialized, right?
The catch is that appropriate socialization is pleasant and relaxed. (See the next chapter for a detailed discussion and how-to.) Holidays mean hustle and bustle and overexcited, overstressed people—I'm not just looking at the kiddies here! Many puppies, especially those who aren't the boldest in the bunch, can feel overwhelmed. Uncle Jack is feeling his eggnog and practicing the Scottish reel, you and your sister are having a screaming fight over who should have inherited Aunt Minerva's cameos, and while nobody's looking, the neighbor's four-year-old decides to experiment with lengthening Baby Dogalini's tail.
Yes, I know, I'm piling it on. But don't you sometimes feel a bit frayed by the time New Year's rolls around? Puppies need rest and quiet as well as play and engagement. They should meet the wide world enjoyably and be encouraged to explore—not be swamped by Grand Central Station in the living room.
So when's the best time to get a new dog? One aspect of a good time to get a dog is that it comes after you done plenty of preparation—read this book and others, found a vet, gotten your dog supplies ready, and agreed on who's got responsibility for what aspect of your new friend's care.
Assuming all the adults in the household have full-time jobs, a vacation week might be a good occasion to bring Dogalini home—you'll be well able to focus on housetraining, if necessary, and on early manners training. Just remember to incorporate some alone time into your new dog's early experiences of life (or of life with you). That way, your return to work won't come as a rude shock, which could precipitate separation anxiety.
Quick and Dirty Tip
Dogs As Holiday Gifts
Choose a dog bed, chew toys, bowls, leashes, and whatever other doggy paraphernalia suits your fancy. (See the checklist below.) And write your kids an IOU good for one grown-up, child-adoring dog. That's what goes under the tree. Choose and bring home the dog herself at a more appropriate time.
What Do You Need Before Picking Your Dog Up?
You've thought through what kind of dog will fit in well in your household, and you've amazingly been matched with just that dog at a reputable shelter. Before bringing him home, make sure you've got the following equipment:
a flat buckle collar, a martingale collar, or a front-clip harness (or, hey, all three!)
an ID tag with your phone number on it (if you haven't named your dog yet, use a temporary tag)
a six-foot leash (cotton is more comfortable to hold than nylon, but less durable; leather is most comfortable and durable, so choose leather unless you have ethical objections)
the best dog bed you can afford
stainless steel or perhaps ceramic dog bowls. Don't waste your money on plastic bowls.
an appropriate-size crate (see the crate-training section in Chapter 2, "Socialization").
a starter supply of whatever food your dog's been eating, plus whatever food you plan to use
You may also want an ex-pen (essentially, a canine playpen) or baby gates, especially if you're bringing home a puppy.
How to Choose a Good Veterinarian
Just as you select a pediatrician before your child is born, select a vet before you bring your dog or puppy home. You and I are laypeople. We don't know how to assess a veterinarian's breadth and depth of knowledge or her creativity or ability to do the detective work needed to diagnose illness in a patient who can't speak for himself. If you don't already have a connection with a vet you trust, here are some points to consider in choosing one.
Ask for a tour. Call in advance and explain that you're a prospective client. If they're too busy at the moment, set up a time that's convenient for them. If they won't give you a tour at all, forget it.
Your tour should include the surgical room or suite; this should be a separate space, it should be clean, the door should be closed, the space should not be used for storage, and you shouldn't find an office cat hanging out inside. If there's a surgery taking place, you can't go in, of course, but take the opportunity to get a sense of how careful the practice is about sterile procedure. Full gown, mask, and gloves, please, not just a scrub top. And there should be an assistant working with the surgeon.
Check credentials. It's nice if a facility billing itself as an animal hospital is, in fact, accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association. The office will probably post the certificate; if you don't see it, ask.
Diplomas are nice. A very suspicious person could get in touch with the vet school or specialty association, too.
Ask about pain management. Once upon a time, in the Dark Ages, vets used to not give pain meds because pain would supposedly keep the animal quiet after surgery. Notice I mention that was the Dark Ages. Good pain control speeds recovery and helps prevent certain complications, for animals both human and nonhuman.* If the practice you're considering isn't up to speed on this issue, run away screaming.
Is the whole place clean? This is so obvious I almost feel silly including it, but check anyway. Sick animals do have accidents, but the place shouldn't reek.
Is the staff courteous? Look for a pattern, since everybody has a bad day.
Ask for referrals from people you know. They're probably not experts any more than you are, but they can tell you about how gentle the vet and the techs are, whether the office returns calls promptly, how good the vet is at explaining things …
Is the vet a know-it-all? Nothing warms the cockles of my heart like a professional who sometimes says, "I'm not sure. Let me look that up and get back to you." If there's a vet school or specialty clinic nearby, you want to hear that your prospective vet may refer complex or specialized cases to them. (And you might ask that vet school or specialty practice for a referral to a general-practice vet.)
Online reviews may be helpful, but some angry people get very angry indeed, and not always for good reason. People can be unreasonably biased in favor of a professional, as well. And it's not easy to know the source of a review—who's behind that screen name?
Ask about options for overnight care of hospitalized animals. The hospital may have a tech on staff for this, or may pay one as needed. Leaving hospitalized animals alone overnight is a dealbreaker.
Bear in mind that vet school costs as much as med school does and that veterinary equipment and medications cost exactly what their human equivalents do. Surgery to repair your dog's anterior cruciate ligament tear takes the same time and expertise that the same surgery would take if performed on you. Et cetera. Some health conditions get very, very expensive to treat, to the point where money is an issue for most people. Please discuss money frankly with your vet; if she wants a test or a treatment whose cost makes you flinch, let her know, and have an honest discussion about the alternatives. But don't assume that that expensive test is an attempt to fleece you, please.
Having been put through the wringer of how to choose a dog, get ready for the Dog Guardian's First Commandment:
Thou Shalt Socialize Properly.
That's up next.
Copyright © 2011 by Jolanta Benal