I have been reflecting a lot on how people choose the dogs they live with. At Dogs in the Park, I see all kinds of dogs; giant mastiffs, and little toy breeds, mixed breeds of all sizes and shapes, as well oodles of doodles. There are a huge variety of dogs out there, and there is likely a dog for every type of person. We have a huge variety of people who show up too! Those who are serious about competing and those who just need a little help with housetraining or coming when called. The endless parade of dogs and people in my classes makes for a lot of observation opportunities.
James Herriot, the author of “All Creatures Great and Small” wrote extensively about his observations of dogs and people in his veterinary practice in the thirties, forties and fifties. He observed that many people ended up with absolutely the wrong dog , often to great hilarity. From the socialite with the farting boxer to the infamous Mrs. Pomfrey who added a pig to her already eccentric home with Mr. Tricki-Woo. At Dogs in the Park, we could add dozens of dogs to the list of mismatches. This isn’t to say that we don’t recognize that people are devoted to the dogs they choose, but sometimes it is hard not to wonder why the older retired couple got the most active Labrador retriever we have ever met or why it is that the family of four sports mad children felt that a small delicate breed might be a good choice. We don’t disapprove, but sometimes we DO wonder.
When I first got involved with dogs in a serious way as an adult, I read every description of every breed recognized at the time by the CKC. A better education as foundation for my career as a professional dog trainer could not have been developed. If you are interested in becoming a dog trainer, this is an exercise that is well worth pursuing. I learned about the varieties of dogs, but I also learned about how they breeds are related, where they came from and how they developed. I learned that some breeds are intended to be aggressive towards other dogs, and some breeds are intended to work collectively in groups. I learned that behaviours such as pointing, retrieving and herding are genetically predetermined and that dogs who have the right traits will show them from an early age. I learned that within breeds there are often types. Perhaps most surprisingly to me, I learned that there are some dogs who would not love to live with me!
That last little gem is what brings me to this blog. Not every dog is going to make every family happy. The idea behind getting a dog is that it should enhance your life. A dog should make your life better every day. Yes, dogs are going to make you change your patterns of behaviour, but they shouldn’t change your life for the worse. A dog should bring positive change to your life, such as increasing the amount of exercise you get, or reminding you that rabbits are perhaps the most mysterious creatures of all and that they can be found in the most unlikely places. A dog should alert you to the dangers of ghosts who run up the walk to your home at two in the morning, and should console you when you lose in luck or love. Dogs are both practical (it is dinner time, feed me now!) and whimsical (this week my dogs have found an old stuffed duck they have had for years; I have no idea where it has been but it has come back to our lives and the dogs are taking turns caring for the filthy dirty, yet beloved duck), and a great match should bring both these characteristics to our lives.
It is always difficult when someone has dreamt of a dog for many years, and has saved and scrimped and scrounged to get this particular type of dog and who then discover that the dog just doesn’t fit into their lives. The first dog that I got as an adult was a German Shepherd and there have been a succession of German Shepherds through my life ever since. We winter camp, and hike together and do dog sports and travel, and they also go out to the barn with me. I have also had Chesapeake Bay Retrievers; a breed that also loves cold weather sports, camping and learning. Imagine though what it might have been like for me had I chosen instead a Jack Russell Terrier or a Chihuahua. These are breeds that don’t love the cold. They are both active and like learning but it wouldn’t be safe for them to do many of the things I have done with my shepherds and my chessies. I cannot imagine going canoing with either of these smaller dogs, even though they both love adventures! Yes, it can be done, but there would have been changes to how I did what I did based on protecting a smaller dog from the extremes of temperatures, predators and falling into water that was beyond their ability to swim within.
I do know people who have taken small sensitive dogs into harsh climates, but doing so changes how they interact with the environment. Perhaps the fastest way to change your life is to get a dog who doesn’t match what you are already interested in. If hiking and camping in the provincial and state parks with your children is what you do, then getting a reactive guarding dog is not going to enhance your experience. Taking that dog to camp means making a choice of either renting a site as far away from everyone else (and the beach and the toilets and the water source) as you can find, or accepting that every weekend you bring your dog is going to be an ongoing discussion of how to get the dog to stop barking. If you live in a tropical country and your passion is sitting out in the sun, getting a husky is going to limit the amount of time you can do that with your dog. If like me, winter camping floats your boat, then getting a Chinese Crested dog is not going be an easy compromise for either you or your dog.
Getting to know the breeds can really help you to make a good match. Purebred dogs are generally divided into 7 different groups; the sporting dogs like the retrievers, spaniels, setters and pointers. Then there are the hounds such as the beagle, the fox hound, the greyhound, and the saluki. Next are the working dogs such as the Rottweilers, the Bernese Mountain Dogs and the Mastiffs. After that come the terriers such as the Welsh Terrier, the Jack Russell Terrier and the Cairn Terrier. The toy breeds include the Yorkshire Terrier, the Coton du Tuleur, and the Havanese amongst others. The non sporting group is a catch all group that includes various breeds including the Dalmation and the English Bulldog. Finally the herding dogs include the Australian Shepherd and the German Shepherd as well as the Border Collie and the Rough and Smooth Collies. Each group except for the non sporting groups has specific traits; the sporting dogs are usually derived from dogs who were used to hunt for instance. Herding dogs herd, and working dogs are often used to guard the home, farm or flock. Terriers were principally used to hunt vermin, although some were bred as all purpose farm dogs. Generally the toy breeds were bred as companions or as trick dogs at court or in the circus. Getting to know the groups and the breeds within them helps you to understand what to expect when you get a dog.
Then there are the mixed breed dogs. Mixes are much harder to predict in terms of what to expect, but as is said in biology, form follows function. Heavily coated dogs are going to tolerate the cold of a Canadian winter far better than a smooth coated breed. Never the less, if you go to the shelter and you see a dog who looks quite a bit like a border collie, but not quite, you may be looking at a cross that is radically different than what you expected. Meet this dog and get to know him before you take him home. I do not support adopt a thons; it does not give families enough time to get to know the dogs well before they come home, and what you thought was a border collie may turn out to be a very fast, not terribly well bonded to humans, predatory dog who just happens to look like a breed that is very fast, that readily looks to people for information, and who should not be at all predatory.
When considering adding a dog to the family, start out by taking an inventory of what your family does on a regular basis. Is your family the kind of family that likes to have lots and lots of house guests? If so, consider that a Rottweiler or a Mastiff or a German Shepherd may not enjoy your lifestyle. Yes, there are individuals within the breed who will adore having guests over, but in general, they won’t; all of these breeds were bred to be suspicious of strangers. If you get a member of that breed who happens to really not tolerate strangers well at all, you are going to have to make a choice to either train the heck out of this dog till he accepts strangers easily, OR lock your dog away when you have guests, OR have fewer guests. Choosing a dog who doesn’t fit your lifestyle isn’t going to make your lifestyle better; it is going to make you change, often in ways you did not predict and do not want.