Originally posted April 2013
It would seem that we are the proud owners of our very own, nine week old dragon. At least that is the joke in our house. She is endearingly sweet, fluffy, and wickedly smart, but she is a dragon none the less. She is particularly a dragon at 7 in the morning when I want to sleep and she wants to get up, go outside to the toilet and then come in and play. Our dragon is Friday, our German Shepherd Puppy.
Friday was supposed to be my service dog when she outgrew being a young dragon. D’fer, my ten year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever is getting close to retirement. He has one bad hip and thousands of miles of travel taking me to conferences and school and meetings all over North America, and he is showing his age. Friday the dragon is the result of several years of research and planning and more than one rejected opportunity. Although we call her our dragon puppy it is a phase, not reality. She won’t outgrow this behaviour without guidance and training, but like a little kid who doesn’t know what to do at a fancy party, she can wreck havoc without effort because she doesn’t yet understand the rules.
I reflect that for some of my students, they end up with dragons when they didn’t intend to. Friday is a dragon because she makes dragon noises in the morning, she is quite sharky and bitey, and she surprises us with her tenacity and resourcefulness even at this young age. We were quite aware that choosing a German Shepherd was going to mean that some of the time, she was going to behave in ways we didn’t like, but that in the end she has the potential to grow into a service dog, if we put the time and effort and training into her.
Similar to Hagrid in similar in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many of my students choose dragons as pets, believing that cute trumps reality. Many of these dogs just don’t belong in their lives. Hagrid’s dragon in the story incubated in his fireplace in an iron pot and then hatched on his kitchen table and promptly set Hagrid’s beard on fire. In the book the dragon caused all kinds of mischief for Hagrid, and with much regret he sent his dragon to live in Romania at a sanctuary. The truth is that when we choose a puppy, we cannot chose based on what we hope or wish a dog will become but rather based on what the puppy has the potential to grow up to be and on how much work we are willing to put into that goal.
My clients sometimes choose dragon puppies because they just don’t know what to expect. First time dog owners often choose dogs based on a single individual they have met, or on looks or colour. Sometimes they choose a dragon because of a dream dog they wished they had as a child. Sometimes they choose a dragon because a “bloke down at the pub traded him to me for a pint.” And when they have a mismatch in their hands, it is much more difficult to get rid of the dragon than it was to get it.
I began my search for Friday about eighteen months before she came home, contacting friends and colleagues and learning about upcoming breedings of Labrador Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and German Shepherds, with Shepherds being lowest on my list. I didn’t find any chessie breedings I was interested in; I was looking for a very particular dog. I have a hard time imagining myself working a German Shepherd in public; German Shepherds have always been my sports dogs; the dogs I goof around with and compete with, but not the dogs who have alerted me to oncoming anxiety. When a German Shepherd litter was available to look at that I was interested in, I went to see, and found what I was looking for; a puppy who is willing to do things my way, who is interested in the world but not spending all of her time exploring it on her own, who is confident and outgoing, but not so over engaged with people that she cannot cope with being in public and not being able to greet everyone she meets. The upside to what I found was that she fit the traits that I wanted. The down side is that she also has some dragonish traits to work through.
As a professional trainer, I recognize her dragon traits and I am prepared to live with them and train through them. I don’t expect her to outgrow her dragon traits; I expect to have to teach her and show her what it is that I want. My clients often end up with dragon puppies and hope their dragons will outgrow this phase without any work from the family at all. There is a great tag line that my friends at Urban Dog made into a poster that goes like this. Dogs don’t grow out of behaviour problems, they grow into them. Hagrid’s baby dragon set his beard on fire but as an adult, that dragon would have seriously hurt or killed someone. Or from Hermione’s perspective, worse, he would have been expelled from school.
When you have a dragon, it is important that you are clear about what traits make him into a dragon and which of those traits you can live with, which ones you cannot and which ones of the ones you cannot you are able to change. If I had not been so picky about the dog I chose when I chose Friday, I might have had a dragon with traits I would not want or could not live with. By spending time and effort in making a good choice, I have a dragon I can live with.
I have a big advantage over many of my clients though. When I think “DOG” I think about the many different dogs that I know, and I understand that they have a wide range of temperaments and innate traits. Some of my clients have lived for many years with a dog who was very well loved, but extreme in some way or another. These dogs are dogs who may be extremely confident, or they may be very nervous. Perhaps they are impulsive, or have a behaviour quirk such as sensitive feet that make it difficult to cut their nails. The dogs you know inform the picture you have of the dragon you see. If you are accustomed to seeing dogs who spin and bark in their runs because all of the dogs you see are in an overcrowded shelter, then your expectation is that all dogs will behave this way. The same is true if the only dogs you know are calm and easy to handle.
When clients bring me dogs who are dragons, they often identify problems that are different from what I see as the most important issue. I have a client who has a lovely dog who has a very rough play style. This dog is actually quite normal in his play; he is just fast and rough. This client had shelties in her past, and was surprised when her retriever played in a way that she had not seen in her shelties. On the other hand, she had not ever considered it a problem that her dog would not allow her near his food bowl; that was an acceptable behaviour to her because all of her previous dragons had also behaved this way. The resource guarding was a much more serious behaviour problem that could get the dog in a lot more trouble, but in her experience, it was an acceptable and normal behaviour.
Many of my clients expect dogs to exhibit dragon behaviours. This weekend I spoke with a lady and her daughter, who had been bitten by a family member’s dog. Mom considered the bite justified because he was a very protective dog. I think if we were to translate this into a people centric scenario, then we would have a different picture. Imagine visiting a friend’s house and her teen aged son appeared out of the basement with a sword and began threatening you. Would you be okay with that? Would you excuse the behaviour as the son being protective of the house? Would you be upset if he sliced open your daughter, or would you excuse his behaviour as protective? Most of us would view the young man’s behaviour as outrageous and dangerous and if it happened too often, the police and child services would be called out and measures would be taken to prevent this behaviour from continuing.
Dogs and humans have lived together for over fourteen thousand years, and for perhaps as long as 30 thousand years. In general, we have worked out ways to live with one another. Village dogs, the true ancestor of the modern dog, hung out like squirrels do, in our yards. They came close to us, but in general we didn’t touch them or handle them. We still see them from time to time when they are rescued off beaches and resorts. They often struggle as pets, not because they are dragons in their native habitat, but because our homes aren’t their native habitat. If you want a dog who cuddles in bed with you, who will accept all new people, and who never resource guards, then it is quite likely that these dogs will turn out to be dragons in your home. Yes, there are some who make stellar pets and some who compete in dog sports with great success, but there are more who live in people’s homes not meeting the needs of the family and not having their needs met. It is not just the family that has difficulty when a dog is a dragon; often the dogs are not enjoying themselves either.
Being a normal dog in one scenario can translate into being a dragon in another. Herding dogs can also be dragons. I had an elderly client who was given a border collie puppy because she spoke so frequently of the border collies she had lived with as a girl on a farm in the UK. As an apartment dweller, who loved to visit with friends and neighbours and who had a bad hip, she was not prepared to deal with the needs of an active young border collie. This dog developed into a barking, whirling dragon who knocked people over; not at all the calm, well exercised working herding dogs of her youth.
Any dog can be a dragon. Retrievers who fetch everything are often shoe dragons, and terriers who dig are garden dragons. I have known mastiffs, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlanders who are slime dragons from all their drool. German Shepherds and labs can be hair dragons. There are down sides to every type of breed, and if you are willing to live with the dragon side of the dog you have, that is wonderful for both of you. The important thing is to know what dragon traits your dog has, and work with those traits where possible. Hagrid’s dragon ended up in a dragon sanctuary where he could “be with his own kind”. The sad fact is that too many dog end up in shelters, rescues and yes, permanent sanctuaries because the family was unprepared to deal with the dragon traits that come with the particular dog they live with. Before you get a dog, make sure you choose the right dragon. And if like Hagrid, you live in a wooden hut (in the books at least!), perhaps a dragon is not the pet for you.
Our dragon, Friday, learned alternatives to most of her dragon behaviours. She no longer makes dragon noises at seven in the morning. She is well exercised, goes to training classes several times a week and has lots of human and doggy friends. She is excelling at rally, obedience, Treibball and as John’s hiking companion. Friday is a competent service dog, but she doesn’t love the work the way D’fer did, so we are once again, looking for another service dog for me. Sometimes, the intended plan for a dragon doesn’t correspond to the traits they bring along with them, so having a fall back plan is always a good idea. You cannot ship every dog to a sanctuary in Romania where he will be happy with his own kind.