WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

 

For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel.  Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother.  Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either.  Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either.  Which brings me to a thought about our dogs.  How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?

Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important.  In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me.  Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model?  Opportunity?  Nope.  I just don’t have the patience for the work!  I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.

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This is just not me! I would not be happy doing this type of work. Sometimes we ask our dogs to do work that they don’t understand or like. We should ask ourselves if this is actually a good idea. Copyright: fashionstock / 123RF Stock Photo

So what about our dogs?  You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes?  Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work.  “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got.  And good for the handler in recognizing that.

There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance.  These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job.  Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be?  Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that. 

The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do.  As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know.  Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise.  What might happen?  Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by? 

Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that.  Some dogs don’t though.  Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking.  When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy. 

All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you?  What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it?  Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?

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Agility is a sport that many different dogs like, but even in such a middle of the road sport, there are dogs who don’t think this is fun. It is important to listen to our dog’s preferences especially as we ask them to perform more and more difficult or advanced work! Copyright: mackland / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour.  I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him.  As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months.  The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable.  The husky was no dummy!  He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running..  He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash.  The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler.  By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity.  As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer! 

Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do.  Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow.  The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd.  The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting.  As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks.  He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems.  Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears.  There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears!  Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun.  Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.

14438710 - dog retrieving a canada goose
This dog is big enough to pick up a goose and carry it and he has enough coat to tolerate the kind of weather in which goose hunting happens. He should also like to swim, and be tolerant of gun shots to be good at this work. In other words, this is a job for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but likely not for a Yorkshire Terrier! Copyright: schlag12 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog.  If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated.  I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career.  I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog.  The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions.  I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog.  We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.

If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity.  There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep.  These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot. 

If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether.  If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often.  The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

THE MYTH OF THE MIXED BREED DOG

Originally posted September 15, 2010

The tabloid type expose of the underbelly of the world of purebred dogs would have you believe that every purebred dog is going to die of a horrid disease or be subjected to the whims of vanity of the well heeled owners who purchase these dogs.  As with the “Baby born to two headed woman” type of headline, there is usually more to the story than meets the eye.  Yes, there are well heeled owners who are purchasing dogs who will match the sofa and yes, there are people who will dispose of a wonderful, valuable animal just because it no longer suits them.  There are also thousands upon thousands, perhaps even millions of people who are devoted to breeding healthy examples of their breed.

The progenitor of the purebred dog is a smallish, motley character called a village dog.  The village dog is usually a smooth coated dog between fifteen and forty five pounds.  This is the pariah dog, the dingo, the village dog still found on the streets in remote towns today.  This is the dog who like the raccoon in North America, often makes a better living by scavenging our leavings than he might by actually hunting on his own.  He may be any colour, and he often has spots.  His ears will be somewhat floppy, or even tulip shaped (not actually tulip shaped, but in truth, with strongly cupped cartilage and smallish pointed flopping flaps), his tail will often curve upward, perhaps even extending over his back.

This dog is typical of the village dogs found in middle to northern Ontario.  Her structure and coat allow her to be a very successful scavenger.  After she was removed from her feral existence, she struggled initially with apartment living, but went on to be a successful companion.  This type of behavioural flexibility is quite typical of village dogs.
This dog is typical of the village dogs found in middle to northern Ontario. Her structure and coat allow her to be a very successful scavenger. After she was removed from her feral existence, she struggled initially with apartment living, but went on to be a successful companion. This type of behavioural flexibility is quite typical of village dogs.

The village dog is indeed much less likely to suffer from the genetic conditions that strike down many of his purebred relations.  He will never suffer from the breathing and eye problems that plague the short nosed or brachiocephalic breeds.  Hip dysplasia will not likely strike these dogs; they are structurally efficient animals.  Skin rashes, allergies and gastro intestinal problems are unlikely to hit these dogs.  They are usually free from heart problems and progressive retinal atrophy.  The village dog, being much closer in type to the ancestral dog, is often calm in the house, active out of doors, a careful eater, and may be aloof from strangers and other dogs.

The village dog is the way he is because he evolved to follow us around, and live in our shadow.  The village dog is the way he is because evolution culled and indeed continues to cull members of his tribe who cannot keep up to our niche.  Village dogs were once the most common dogs in the world.  They evolved to be efficient in following us, efficient scavengers, efficient at avoiding getting close enough to get into trouble.  Historically, the life of a village dog would have necessitated being picky enough about his food that he would avoid eating things that would make him sick, but voracious enough that he would be willing to eat a wide range of things.  He would need to be tolerant of the person throwing out the remains of their dinner or the night’s slop jar, but not so friendly that he would be injured by an intolerant person kicking his ribs.  He would need to be agile enough to thwart efforts to keep him out of the garbage.  His sight and his hearing would need to be acute enough to tell him when trouble was coming.  Village dogs without these traits could not make an efficient living.  Simply put, village dogs come from hardy stock.

We don’t see many village dogs in North America.  When dogs are found in our urban dumps, we trap them, we “rescue” them, we shoot them and we poison them.  We don’t let them hang out at the dump, eating refuse.  We don’t allow them to live stray in our cities, and when a family of them arrives, efforts are made to prevent them from being successful.  If a family of village dogs is hanging out near a farm, they need to be very shy in order to survive; farmers are well within their rights to shoot a dog who might be a threat to their livestock.  They are here though, just not common.

The common myth of the purebred dog holds that it is the progenitor of the mixed breed.  Not entirely so!  In fact, the purebred is the result of selection from the progenitor dog; the village dog.  First came the livestock guardians, and then the hunting dogs, and eventually, the wide range of breeds we have today.  Generally dogs are divided up into one of seven groups.  The sporting dogs are those dogs who are used to hunt game with a gun.  The terriers are those dogs used to kill vermin.  The hounds track and trail with eyes and nose and lead the hunter to the quarry.  Some of them do make kills, but this is the exception not the rule.  The toy breed dogs are the dogs bred as pocket companions, sometimes used to attract fleas from their person, or perhaps to keep the person warm in the winter.  The herding dogs gather flocks of sheep, goats and cattle and move them from place to place.  The working dogs do things like pull carts and sleds, guard and go to war.  And then there is the miscellaneous group of all the dogs who otherwise defy classification such as the Bichon Frise and the Dalmation.

Purebred dogs got to be purebred because humans used the talents of their ancestors in particular ways.  Within any population, there are individuals who will be better suited to one task than another will.  If you lived in a village with village dogs, and a particular dog followed you around, you might feed him.  If his talents as a tracker made you more successful as a hunter, you would feed him more, making it more likely that he would pass along his genes.  If you gave the most talented of his pups to your son, who was also a hunter, you would be making the first tentative steps towards becoming a geneticist and creating a breed.  If in your family, fathers often gave the best pup from their best hunting dog to their sons, it would not take long for a pure breed to develop through artificial selection.  The “best” hunting dog is fed the most and will have the most pups.  The “best” hunting dog may not be successful as a hunter at all; he is just the best at helping you to be a better hunter.

Suppose for a moment that the hunting dogs in your family all had a black coat and a white bib, with long floppy ears, and a broad head, a long, square muzzle and large nares.  Suppose that your dog could find game more effectively than any other dogs in your village, and suppose that your dog had pale brown eyes.  You might breed this dog to every other female dog in the village regardless of her talents.  And yellow eyes might begin to show up more commonly in the dogs in your village.  Now suppose that yellow eyes happen to be common in dogs who also have a heart problem.  As a hunter in a village, you wouldn’t have the tools to determine if your dog has a heart condition.  If your dog dies when he is five by falling off a cliff, you wouldn’t know that he had passed on a heart murmur because it had never caused him any significant problem.  You would not even necessarily make any connection between your favourite hunting dog and the fact that the dogs in your village tend to die before they are ten years old; young for a village type dog.  You would in effect have created a closed gene pool.

Closed gene pools, where only particular members of a species get to interbreed tend to show the problems they carry more prominently than do open gene pools.  Thus, we see more Labrador Retrievers with Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) than we might see in any given population of village dogs; the village dog gene pool is open and the Lab gene pool is closed.  Because the numbers of individuals that carry the gene for PRA is greater in general within the Lab population, more PRA will show up in Labradors.  If you counted all the dogs in the world, and included Labs in that count, and screened all of them for PRA, the overall incidence of PRA would not be higher because of the higher prevalence in Labs; that effect would be offset by some other closed gene pool that did not have an especially high incidence of PRA.

Your hound dog, the black one with the white bib might go on to become the progenitor of the White Bibbed Black-Hound and over generations become emblematic of the type of dog found in your area.  From time to time, a stray might appear in your area from another area, and add his or her genes to the loosely defined “breed” of your region.  As trade and commerce become more sophisticated, White Bibbed Black Hounds (WBBH) might be heard of and sought in other districts.  Around 1850, breed organizations began to form in a manner recognizable by us today.  Consider the WBBH; perhaps in the 1850’s the descendents of your original foundation sire might number in the hundreds.  A small, fairly stable population, of black dogs with white bibs, not terribly long lived, with light brown eyes, wicked at finding the small game that has evolved into the hallmark dish of your region.  Ten villagers get together and form the WBBH hunt club for the promotion and preservation of this special dog.  They decide that they will write down all the names of all the known WBBH’s, and from then on, only dogs whose names are on the list or who descend from dogs whose names are on the list will be considered to be “true” White Bibbed Black Hounds.  A standard description is written, outlining how tall these dogs should be, how heavy they should be and what makings, ear shape and tail set are considered optimal.  Now, the loosely described dog of your region has a registry and a closed gene pool.  They are no different than they were yesterday.  They now just cannot be considered to be WBBHs unless they are registered with this group.

A lovely example of a White Bibbed Black Hound.  Or not!  this is a picture of a dog that would fit the description I imagined for the breed.  When talking about purebred dogs keep in mind that each of the parents must also be of that breed, and that the characteristics of the breed must be passed along down the line.  Copyright: dragonika / 123RF Stock Photo
A lovely example of a White Bibbed Black Hound. Or not! this is a picture of a dog that would fit the description I imagined for the breed. When talking about purebred dogs keep in mind that each of the parents must also be of that breed, and that the characteristics of the breed must be passed along down the line. Copyright: dragonika / 123RF Stock Photo

Initially, nothing will change for this breed of dog.  But without the occasional influx of genetic material, there will be no new variation available to offset any problems that crop up.  Now, instead of culling dogs that don’t hunt, all of the registered dogs will be kept and many of them will be bred regardless of their hunting ability.  Where once the criteria for breeding was solely functional, now the criteria are determined by the written standard.  That these dogs were black with white bibs was incidental to the fact that they were good hunters.  Now, being a good hunter is incidental to having a black coat and the right amount of white bib.  Traits will begin to drift.  Light coloured eyes, once described as characteristic of the breed will soon become defining of the breed, along with that old heart defect that came along for the genetic ride.  Over time, the ability to hunt will be so rarely used as the criteria for breeding that it will erode and disappear.  Eventually the White Bibbed Black Hound will become a large goofy dog, typical of your region, lumped in with the other hounds, but not particularly known as a good hunter.  He may however become some graduate student’s gravy train to academic success when that heart murmur is found to be linked to light eyes, and the breed club can argue about trying to breed the heart murmur out, if having light eyes is the defining characteristic of the breed or if they need worry about this at all.

So village dogs evolved into purebreds, but where do the mixed breeds come from?  In North America, there has been a long standing battle between the perception of status associated with having a purebred dog, and the salt of the earth mongrel dog.  With the known mixed breed dog, you can have the best of both worlds.  Breeding a Cocker Spaniel to a Miniature Poodle will give you a smallish dog, likely friendly with most people, likely fairly biddable and likely with a coat you can clip off or leave long and groom as you like.  What you won’t get is a dog who is any healthier than his parent were.

Genetics is not like mixing paint.  If you mix yellow and blue paint, you get green; an intermediate between the two originating colours.  If you mix a Poodle and a Cocker Spaniel, you will not get a dog who is midway between both parent breeds.  You will get puppies with a variety of traits; some intermediate and some more like the Poodle and some more like the Cocker Spaniel.  And if either of the parents had genetic problems, those problems will be passed along; you won’t necessarily get a moderating effect from the non affected parent.

Taking the Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix as an example, consider that epilepsy is a fairly common problem in Poodles.  If the parent who is a Poodle has a genetic form of epilepsy, he will pass that along to some of his offspring.  Lets suppose that fifty percent of his off spring will get epilepsy.  If the Cocker Spaniel parent is free from epilepsy, that won’t dilute the effect of the Poodle’s genes.  50% of the puppies will get epilepsy and 50% won’t.  It won’t mean that 100% of the pups will get a watered down version of epilepsy.

Several years ago, I got a call from a family who had a mixed breed dog who had terrible problems with resource guarding, being handled and going to the vet.  The family had spent over seventeen thousand dollars (Canadian) on their dog’s health over the five years they had him.  He was a Shit-zu/English Bulldog cross.

The family had wanted a purebred Bulldog as this is the dog that the father had grown up with.  In phoning around to breeders they were being grilled by breeders who wanted to know so many things about the family; how many children did they have and how many did they want?  How many other pets lived in their home?  Did they live in a house or an apartment?  How much time would they spend training the dog and how much exercise would he get?  Kyle and Melissa, my clients, felt they were being hassled, not that the breeders were screening for the best possible home for a puppy.

After speaking with several breeders they happened upon someone who wasn’t harassing them, but who did tell them that she was breeding her Bulldog bitch that very week.  She invited them to her tidy home in the country where they met Kisses, a sweet and friendly Bulldog bitch.  She had a shining white coat with a brindle patch over her left eye, and random brindle markings all over her body.  Kisses wanted nothing more than to sit at your feet, leaning on your leg and look adoringly up into your face.  Kyle fell in love instantly, immediately connecting Kisses affectionate behaviour to the behaviour of the Bulldogs he had lived with as a child.  The lady gushed over how wonderful Kisses was and how expensive she had been; four thousand dollars for this dog, she informed my clients.  My clients were a little taken aback at the number, but Kisses was obviously a wonderful dog.

This bulldog has so much extra skin on her face that she will likely at some point require surgery to prevent ongoing skin infections.  If this dog is bred, she will pass along the extra skin and her puppies will suffer the same fate, even if she is bred to a dog of a different breed.  This is the kind of face that Sneaker's mother had.  Keeping in mind that this is a single trait, and does not define the whole dog, we can understand that selecting good healthy parents for our puppies is essential to producing the kind of dog we want to live with.Copyright: razoomgames / 123RF Stock Photo
This bulldog has so much extra skin on her face that she will likely at some point require surgery to prevent ongoing skin infections. If this dog is bred, she will pass along the extra skin and her puppies will suffer the same fate, even if she is bred to a dog of a different breed. This is the kind of face that Sneaker’s mother had. Keeping in mind that this is a single trait, and does not define the whole dog, we can understand that selecting good healthy parents for our puppies is essential to producing the kind of dog we want to live with.Copyright: razoomgames / 123RF Stock Photo

Kisses owner began to tell them about the problems associated with Bulldogs.  As a brachiocephalic breed, Bulldogs are prone to heat exhaustion-Kisses had been in to the vet for that very reason earlier that year when she had been running around the yard and fell over, unconscious.  “Two days in intensive care at the Ontario Veterinary College hospital” cooed the lady.  “Nothing is too good for Kisses.”  “Many Bulldogs have to have eye surgery for a condition called Cherry Eye” she went on.  “Kisses had to have that in both eyes”, she said.  And after she had her puppies, the owner was going to get a special operation to help alleviate her snorting; she has an elongated soft palate, and it flops around in the back of her throat, making it hard to breathe.  “I want to breed her first, though”, the owner said.

My clients, sitting looking at Kisses were becoming more alarmed by the moment.  This didn’t sound like a healthy dog to them.  She oozed charm, but maybe Kisses wasn’t what they were looking for.  As they began to make noises about this, Kisses owner got up and opened the back door.  In swaggered an over sized Shih tzu.  “I know that Kisses has a few problems” said the lady.  “And I know that mixed breed dogs are healthier than are purebreds.  For that reason, I am going to breed Snuffles here to Kisses.  You can have all the things you like in a Bulldog without the health problems.”  Kisses owner went into a long discussion of how Snuffles would mitigate all the problems that Kisses had.  Snuffles stood in the room about ten feet away from Kisses, and stared hard at my clients.  He looked alert, but rigid.  Energetic, but restrained.  The best part was that the lady would only charge my clients $1800.00 for the puppy.

My clients looked at Kisses and pulled out their cheque book.  This puppy would be a lot less expensive than a purebred, and they thought they would be avoiding all the health problems of a purebred too.  Four months later, they picked up Sneakers and brought her home.  A couple of days after arriving home, they took Sneakers to the vet for her check up.  The vet listened to her heart, and looked at her eyes and down her throat.  “Well, you know that all the brachiocephalic dogs have breathing issues” sighed the vet.  “Yes”, my clients agreed; they knew that when they chose a Bulldog.  “I suspect it will be sooner rather than later that we will have to do surgery to remove some of the tissue associated with her soft palate” said the vet.  “She has an awful lot of tissue down there, which will make breathing hard for her.  You are going to have to be very careful in hot weather to keep her from exercising to exhaustion or she will end up in the hospital.”

It was less than a month later that they ended up exactly where the vet had predicted.  It was not a terribly hot day, and Sneakers had recently learned to chase a Frisbee.  Kyle took her out in the yard to play and after six or eight throws she refused to chase.  He took her in the house, and went back to his desk.  Ten minutes later, Melissa came upon Sneakers, collapsed on the floor with her tongue protruding, semi conscious.  They did not make the connection between the exercise, the warm day and the collapse; they thought that Sneakers had been poisoned.  At the Ontario Veterinary College, they figured out very quickly that Sneakers had over heated when they took her temperature.  Sneakers was a very sick dog, and spent four worrisome days in intensive care.  While there, the surgeons had a good look down her throat and recommended that she have surgery to remove the excess tissue in her soft palate as soon as possible.

Three weeks later, barely five months old, Sneakers had the first of seven surgeries she would have in her first year.  She had the tissue removed from her soft palate and then had her nares enlarged; the holes where air goes in the nose were just not big enough for her to breathe normally.  She had three separate operations for cherry eye and entropion, and then she had another operation to remove some of the excess skin on her face as she was getting chronic infections in her nose wrinkles that were interfering with her eyes.

By the time I was called, Sneakers was not a very pleasant dog to be around.  She had hip dysplasia, requiring her to take Metacam on a daily basis for the pain.  She had gastric issues, necessitating a special expensive diet.  She had had several surgeries beyond the ones she had as a youngster to correct knee issues and to remove a sock she ate that got stuck in her intestinal tract.  She had allergies and lived on Vanectyl-P for nine months out of twelve.  And on top of that she guarded any stolen items she could lay her paws on, and would not allow her Kyle or Melissa to touch her anywhere other than on the top of her head.  Kyle and Melissa kept Sneakers strictly separated from their children, a four year old girl and a two year old boy for fear that Sneakers would either inadvertently knock them over or intentionally bite them while guarding a stolen item.  Sneakers was nothing like the Bulldogs of Kyle’s childhood!

When I arrived, I was faced with a stocky, wire haired, ginger coloured dog who barked at the door and then stood back about ten feet and stared hard at me.  On questioning, it turned out this was something she did with all new people.  Sneakers was suspicious of new people and I was warned that she would bite me if I pressed her.  I sat in the living room and took a history, learning all about the many medical issues and surgeries that Sneakers had been through.  Aside from the fact that Sneakers had a plethora of health issues causing her to protest being handled, she also had a serious resource guarding issue.

Resource guarding is the condition that exists when an animal has an item and guards others against theft.  This is a normal behaviour in the context of ensuring that you get to keep your food if you are making your living as a hunter or a scavenger.  This normal behaviour can create huge problems though if you are trying to live with a dog in your home.  Sneakers would not let anyone near her dish when she was eating, near her bed if she was resting or near any toy she had claimed.  She was especially aggressive when she had something like a tissue that she has stolen.  Importantly, resource guarding is a trait often seen in lines and families.

Admittedly, some of Sneaker’s behaviour problems could have been mitigated with early puppyhood training.  Resource guarding in particular is a behaviour that responds well to training.  Over time, Sneakers learned to allow the adults in the home to take things from her and to add things to her food bowl.  Although training was carried out with the children, safety measures were set in place to prevent the children from interrupting Sneakers with toys or food.  Sneakers never had the flexibility of behaviour that would allow her family to completely relax in the protocols or training that we developed.

Sneakers temperament is the sum of her genetics, her early puppy experiences and the environment she currently lives within.  Snuffles, her father, was a tense little dog; stand offish with strangers and not friendly.  This could be due to not being introduced enough people as a puppy himself, but there was likely something that he passed along to Sneakers.  Sneakers mother, typical of Bulldogs had a lot of health problems.  Here is a live case of genetics not working like mixing paint.

In retrospect, Sneakers health and behaviour problems could have been entirely avoided if Kisses and Snuffles had not been bred.  Breeding an English Bulldog to a Shih tzu was asking for trouble.  Like Bulldogs, the Shih tzu is prone to cherry eye, excess tissue in the soft palate and stenotic or small nares.  Shih tzu have back problems  and luxating patellas, and Bulldogs have hip problems.  By the time I saw Sneakers, instead of avoiding health issues, she had suffered from many of those of the Bulldog as well as some relating to the Shih tzu.

Careful breeding, breeding that takes into account that the offspring are going to have to live with the genes they inherit is the least we owe to our dogs.  Choosing dogs that come from healthy stock is entirely possible and reflects the least that our dogs deserve.  Choosing a dog who is ill, committing to their veterinary care and supporting the industry of selling these dogs should appall puppy buyers.  Puppy buyers need to be willing to ask the hard questions; there future dog deserves not only the best of food and the best of care during their lives, but also the best genetic potential BEFORE they are born.

German Shepherds are the breed that I prefer.  Before purchasing my last puppy, I met both of his parents and observed them doing activities like this.  If they could not successfully clear a wall such as this one, I would not expect that they would produce puppies who could do that either.  Know what you want from a dog, and select parents that meet those criteria and when they are bred they will produce puppies that will also fulfill those criteria!  Copyright: mazurik / 123RF Stock Photo
German Shepherds are the breed that I prefer. Before purchasing my last puppy, I met both of his parents and observed them doing activities like this. If they could not successfully clear a wall such as this one, I would not expect that they would produce puppies who could do that either. Know what you want from a dog, and select parents that meet those criteria and when they are bred they will produce puppies that will also fulfill those criteria! Copyright: mazurik / 123RF Stock Photo

Purebred dogs are not the only good dogs available.  There are many, many dogs of unknown or random heritage available.  The key to finding the dog who is healthy, from healthy parents is to find people who are breeding dog on purpose.  The whole point of the dog show industry was originally to put dogs on display so that breeders could choose the best and most optimal mate for the dog he or she had.  Placing the dogs in rank order in theory gives the savvy breeder information about which dog is closest to the breed standard.  Breeding the dog closest to the breed standard is probably a good idea; it is the dog who is most like the breed ought to be.  With dogs of unknown breed, it means that the person in charge of breeding that dog has greater responsibility when it comes to choosing which dog is bred to which.

German Shepherd Dogs are my breed of choice.  I have lived with a half dozen or so and known scores more.  When I am choosing a puppy, I first choose a breeder.  The breeder I chose most recently, Robin Winter of Narnia Kennels breeds dogs that are frequently used in police and military work.  She imports beautiful, fit and healthy dogs from Europe to improve her stock and she has a well developed breeding plan for her kennel, stretching generations back and projecting generations out.

What impresses me most about Robin’s dogs are that they can all pass what I call the four foot fence test.  The four foot fence test refers to the dog being able to do the work that he is bred to do.  A German Shepherd ought to be able to easily navigate a four foot fence.  Few will be able to grab air over top; most of them will use the top rail to push off, but four feet should be no problem for a healthy German Shepherd.  My dog’s father, a dog named Val was competing in Schutzhund at the age of nine.  Schutzhund involves being able to navigate a six foot A frame and jump a one metre jump without touching the top rail.  His mother was only three, but she too could do this work.  German Shepherds were bred to work in three disciplines; obedience, tracking and protection.  Eco’s parents were both titled in all three disciplines.  This demonstrates that they are trainable and willing to work with people, and that they have an ability to solve problems.  This is another “four foot fence” that Eco’s parents cleared.  And it is no surprise that Eco is able to navigate a four foot fence, he is highly trainable, he solves problems and he likes working with people.

Every breed has a “four foot fence”.  In fact, every non-breed has a four foot fence.  The village dog’s four foot fence would be to negotiate the complex life of a village; he would need to be able to find food, to avoid being kicked by intolerant people, and to be confident enough to approach people emptying their garbage.  If the dog cannot do this, he is not a village dog.

When looking for a purpose bred breedless dog, you can choose what your four foot fence will be.  You can choose if you want an athletic partner to run and race with.  You can choose if you want a small lap dog who will be calm and quiet in the house.  You can choose whatever you want.  The key to finding the parents of a breedless dog is going to mean a lot more looking around than if you chose a purebred dog; there are few if any organizations that will be devoted to your choice.  If you are looking for a German Shepherd or a Labrador, you will be able to find dozens if not hundred of clubs that can help you to find the pup of your dreams.  If your four foot fence requires that your dog be breedless, you are going to have to do the leg work to find a breeder that will fill your needs of being caring and careful of the dogs they produce.  But your dog deserves to have parents that can clear your four foot fence.

THE MYTH OF THE MIXED BREED DOG

MISMATCHES

Originally posted May 2013

A professional dog trainer sees a lot of stupid mistakes over the years, but probably the most common one is the mismatch of dogs and people.  On a friend’s Facebook page recently, I got into a discussion with a rescuer who insisted that any dog slated to die was a better option than a well thought out, carefully placed and carefully researched puppy.  Her reasons for her point of view had to do with being empathetic to the dog who might otherwise die, but she equated the puppies produced by careful thoughtful breeders to the puppy mill puppies who often end up dumped in the shelter.

I see mismatches all the time.  I see mismatches of giant powerful dogs partnered with people who are physically unable to handle them.  The bull mastiff who was matched with the young, slight girl in her first year of university comes to mind; she wanted a big dog who would protect her.  She had never had a dog before, and she didn’t feel she had the time or experience for a puppy.  She did not sign up for the dog who physically dragged her on his head halter all over the neighbourhood.  She hadn’t anticipated the ramifications of living with a dog who was heavier than she was and chose the dog was attractive to her, instead of the one who would suit her life.  I once trained a boxer as a service dog for a lady in Guelph.  The dog did a great job, but boy did he suffer in the winter.  And then there is the jogger I know who got a greyhound and was saddened by his dog’s lack of interest in jogging, especially if it was raining or wet or cold or snowing or too hot or windy or at night or in the daytime.  In short it was a mismatch because the dog didn’t enjoy the steady rhythm of the run, and would refuse to go out in any but the best weather.

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Here is a mismatch of a dog to his walker!  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_awesomeshotz’>awesomeshotz / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I greatly admire Great Danes.  I think they are beautiful, majestic, compelling dogs.  I like winter camping, swimming, canoeing, cross country skiing and riding my horse.  Great Danes have thin coats and they don’t enjoy things like winter camping.  When I was first involved with dogs, I flirted with the idea of getting a Great Dane and did some research into the breed and discovered that it was not likely going to ever be a good match for me.  They are not active enough, they are not interested enough in training, they are not into bad weather, they are not great swimmers, and they take up a lot of space in a canoe.  Luckily for me and a non-existent puppy, I figured out that we would be a mismatch before I invested in a dog who wouldn’t have made me happy.

In fact, when I first got into dogs, I spent a solid month reading every single breed standard that the CKC then recognized.  It was perhaps the best early education that a dog trainer could have.  I learned that the Boxer had not enough coat, that the Golden Retriever had more coat than I was interested in, that the whippet was too fragile, and that the Kuvas was too independent.  I narrowed my choices down to three breeds; the Labrador Retriever, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever and the German Shepherd.  I chose the German Shepherd and for the most part, shepherds have been a part of my life ever since and a pretty good temperament match for me.  Now I have also lived with two Chessies and honestly, they are an even better match.

Thinking about what I need in a dog is a great way to start, but there is a second entity in the equation; the people who provide the dogs.  I have seen a lot of breeders who live very successfully with their breed of choice but who give little thought to the ability to cope of the families who purchase the pups they produce.  When you are breeding dogs who are of the right type to fit into the military or police work, then they are not necessarily going to fit well into a family who spends most of their time sitting around the TV.  Dogs like that are dogs who want to work and work hard, every day.  Likewise, if you are breeding low key spaniels with the hope that they will make great family pets, then selling that puppy to a farmer who wants a dog to bring in the sheep is not going to work out well for anyone.

I have puppy buyers who have told me that it is easier to adopt a child than it is to purchase a puppy from some breeders and my response to that is always the same; you have stumbled upon a breeder who really cares about their dogs and where the dogs end up.  Sadly, the amount of information that a breeder often wants sometimes turns off the puppy buyer and then the puppy buyer goes on to purchase a puppy from a less reputable breeder.

Is this your puppy?  Breeders want to know what you intend to do with your puppy.  If you want to play ball with your pup, tell your breeder.  If you have found a good breeder, they will choose the puppy who is most likely to do that with you.  Good breeders are invested in great placements for their pups.  Image credit: ksuksa / 123RF Stock Photo
Is this your puppy? Breeders want to know what you intend to do with your puppy. If you want to play ball with your pup, tell your breeder. If you have found a good breeder, they will choose the puppy who is most likely to do that with you. Good breeders are invested in great placements for their pups. Image credit: ksuksa / 123RF Stock Photo

Ideally, I would like to see puppy breeders approach breeders in a slightly different way.  If you were to approach a breeder by saying “I am interested in learning more about your breed before I decide if it will be a good match for me and my family” then the breeder has a chance to meet you and your family before you are entagled with a potential financial agreement.  That also allows you to meet the breeder and find out about who they are.  If you are already familiar with a breed and you are approaching a breeder for the first time, you may want to approach them in a different way that still allows you to get to know one another without the pressure of a sale.

I am very familiar with the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and I am in the market again for another puppy.  When I approach a breeder, I will probably do it at a dog show where I can talk to them about the dogs that are at the show and the types I am interested in getting.  When I approach a breeder about an upcoming litter, I will share what I am interested in, what I have done with my current dog and what I am planning to do in the future with my next dog.  If the breeder isn’t interested in selling me a dog he or she can step back and indicate that they likely won’t have what I want without the pressure of money on the table.

When puppy clients call a breeder and start out by telling the breeder what colour dog they want, and how much they want to pay, they are setting themselves up for a mismatch.  When breeders talk to puppy owners and they don’t find out about the way that that family lives with their dogs, then the breeder is setting their pup up for a mismatch.  Sometimes mismatches work out, such as the mismatch between my friend Seanna and her Welsh Terrier Cooper, but sometimes mismatches really don’t such as the mismatch between my client who was the first year university student and the bull mastiff.  The thing is that in the case of Seanna and Cooper, Seanna was willing and able to change her expectations to match who her dog was, and modify the activities she did with them so that they would be able to live harmoniously together.

At the end of the day, it is easier to live with a good match than a mismatch and if you have found a breeder who wants to know all about you, thank your lucky stars that you have found a breeder who cares that her pups don’t make a mismatch at your expense.  With the right puppy in your home, and puppy class before 12 weeks, you have a much better chance of having the right match, the first time, and that match will make you both happy for the rest of your dog’s life.

MISMATCHES

HAGRID’S DRAGON

Originally posted April 2013

Friday...Our Dragon Puppy.  She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!
Friday…Our Dragon Puppy. She even had a dragon toy to keep her busy!

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.

Friday is no longer a dragon...most of the time!  As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though!  Slightly dragonish behaviour!
Friday is no longer a dragon…most of the time! As one of the stars of our demo team, she did jump into the audience to visit a friend though! Slightly dragonish behaviour!

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.

HAGRID’S DRAGON

YOU REALLY DON’T WANT A SMART DOG

Originally posted June 2013

One of the most frequent questions I am asked at social functions is “How do I choose a really smart dog when I am looking for a puppy?”  This is a loaded question that really reflects how little people understand what they are looking for in a dog.  I live with smart dogs.  Some of the dogs I live with are really, really smart.  That doesn’t make them easy to live with; it just makes them really good at figuring things out.  Some of the things my smart dogs have figured out are helpful to living with one another.  D’fer for instance figured out how to alert me to oncoming medical events and that has enhanced my life enormously.  He also figured out how to tell when I didn’t quite latch the gate so that he can get into areas I want him to stay out of.  He is very smart, but he is also on his own agenda.

Smart is a trait that we measure differently depending on what we are talking about.  When I am talking to a police K9 Handler, smart often means “tuned into the environment, and eager to participate in the activities related to that particular situation”.  Talking to a service dog handler, they might define smart as “tuned into me and disregarding the environment in order to carry out a handler’s direction”.  Smart is different depending on what work the dog is being asked to do.

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The type of smarts involved with searching luggage are not the same kind of smarts that are involved with pulling a sled or doing agility.  Knowing what kind of smarts you need helps you to find the dog who will make you happy and be happy in your home.  Image credit: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo

There is a different trait that is much easier to live with than smart.  Suzanne Clothier in her CARAT program would describe it as biddability, and she has a long and detailed definition that she uses to describe that.  I think of it as a willingness to engage in the activities that the handler wishes to engage in.  If the handler wants to do some training, this dog is willing to do that.  If it is important to the handler that the dog is willing to stay out of the kitchen, the dog is willing to do that too.  Willingness to do things your way is much easier to live with than smart.  Smart dogs can also be willing, but they are still going to need a lot more supervision to make them successful family pets.

When we are choosing dogs to live with us, we need to go below the surface of what we initially see and decide what is going to enrich our lives and provide for a great life for the dog.  If what we are looking for in a family pet is a dog who is going to hang out with the kids, do a bit of training but not so much training that it takes up three or four nights a week, then a really, really smart dog is not going to make you nearly as happy as a dog who is less smart but more willing.

Even if you are looking for a working prospect, you may not always want the smartest puppy in the litter.  Consider for instance what happens if you want a dog to do competitive retrieving.  You get scores on your dog making the straightest line between the duck they are fetching and you.  Your dog needs to retrieve the way you want him to.  If the terrain is difficult, the smart dog may choose to go around the more troublesome barrier instead of making a straight line.  This is “smart” but doesn’t earn you as many points.

The other thing to consider when looking at a smart puppy is that smart puppies tend to put things together in ways we hadn’t planned.  When we are trying to get a puppy to practice obedience exercises in new venues, the willing but less smart puppy may just do what you want.  The smart puppy may look at the new environment, notice that there is a potential danger and link the danger to the behaviour you are training.  Really smart puppies often develop behaviour problems that we don’t anticipate because they integrate information in ways we don’t expect.  Dogs tend to find connections between events very readily.  If you ask your young dog to sit and a truck backfires, the smarter dog will link the truck backfire and the sit, and may develop a fear of you asking him to sit.  Smart dogs don’t take repeated events to learn something-they learn it in few repetitions and remember it for a long time.  Less smart dogs don’t put things together quite so quickly and this can mean that they don’t develop as many fears.

The other thing to consider about living with a really smart dog is our expectation for their daily lives.  If we want a dog who is going to stay home and hang out in the house, then having a really smart dog means that your dog is going to spend a lot of his day sorting out the way that your home works, and how he can use it to his own amusement.  It can be very amusing to leave a video camera on while you are away, but it can also create a lot of problems.  When I am dealing with a really smart dog left at home alone, I often think about what it might be like to have to live in my house but not touch anything other than the four legal chew items that are left for smart dogs to play with.  I would be bored out of my skull and I would start to develop my own games.

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Left home alone, the smart dog who isn’t permitted on the couch realizes that you aren’t there to tell him to get off.  Smart dogs get in trouble more often than willing dogs.  Image credit: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo

Some of the games that smart dogs engage in are very benign.  D’fer of instance has developed a strategy with toys that is fascinating.  He takes a toy to the top of the stairs and he carefully places it right on the edge of the step.  Often he will re-place the toy several times before he is happy with the placement.  Once the toy is exactly the way he wants it to be, then he steps back one step and then he touches the toy with his nose causing it to bounce down the stairs.  When the toy hits the ground floor, he will race down, get the toy and repeat the game.  This is not a dangerous game, although it can be annoying if you are trying to do something quiet, but it is a game that could go badly wrong if Deef were left without any boundaries or other activities to keep his mind busy.  Imagine what this same game would look like if I had children in the house with toys that he might find interesting.

It amazes me the number of smart dogs who come through my classes who spend their intellectual energy figuring out how to do the letter of the desired behaviour, but who avoid the spirit of the behaviour.  One dog who came through class learned the recall really easily.  He also learned that he could bounce off his handler before sitting in front.  So often handlers ask me in class what they should be reinforcing because their smart creative dogs are adding in bits and pieces that don’t belong in the target behaviour.  Reinforce the wrong part, and you develop a chain of difficult to live with habits such as bouncing off the handler.

All of these observations lead to the question of “how do you know?”  This is not really an easy question to answer, in part because smart comes in so many flavours.  The best place to start is in trying to figure out what you want your dog to do.  Do you want a dog who is going to herd sheep?  Who is going to accompany you to the farmer’s market?  Who is going to do training activities with you?  Who is going to hang out on the front porch and watch the world go by?  Determining what you want to start with helps you to talk to a breeder about what you are looking for in a canine companion.  If you have a great picture of what you want, you can better talk to the person who is producing your puppy about what you need.  When the person who is helping you to find your match understands what you want, then they can spend time observing the puppies they have and figure out if they have the kind of dog you want.

I love environmental enrichment, and I use it in several ways.  When I am raising a working dog, I use enrichment toys to help the dog to develop his ability to problem solve and think about new things.  That helps the dog to figure out how to learn later and it makes the dog smarter.  To achieve this, I give these puppies a wide variety of problems to solve and as soon as they solve one problem I give them a new problem to think about.  For family pets though, I usually recommend fewer not more types of puzzles.  If you teach your dog to search for one particular toy or type of toy, then the dog has an activity that keeps him busy, which is enriching, but isn’t developing his ability to solve complex problems like how to find his way into the kitchen garbage under the sink.

YOU REALLY DON’T WANT A SMART DOG

I WOULD LIKE ACTIVE WITH A SIDE ORDER OF SMART!

Just what do people mean by active when they talk about active dogs?  Everyone seems to want to be more active these days. If you are an athlete, you want to reach that level of fitness just beyond your current ability and you push yourself to do that. If you can run 5 km, how about 6? If you can swim 40 lengths of the pool, how about 50? And if you hike daily, why not get an active dog to keep you company while you do that? Being active on a human level often leads people into the idea that they want a really active dog, but what a professional dog trainer considers an active dog and what you consider an active dog are likely two different things.

These sled dogs are fit and active, but not necessarily easy to live with; they need exercise and training year round, not just when the snow flies!  Copyright: laures / 123RF Stock Photo
These sled dogs are fit and active, but not necessarily easy to live with; they need exercise and training year round, not just when the snow flies! Copyright: laures / 123RF Stock Photo

Apart from the short nosed “brachyocephalic” dogs such as Pugs, English Bulldogs and Boston Terriers, pretty much any breed of dog is going to be more active than the most active humans. Active humans might walk fifteen or twenty kilometers each day, or they might work out in a gym for a few hours a day, but a truly active dog can herd sheep for twelve hours a day covering distances of up to 100 kilometers during that time. A truly active sled dog can run hard for hours and hours on end in extremely cold weather, again covering much greater distances than we do. Hunting dogs can walk all day with a hunter and cover 40 or 50 kilometers while hunting up or fetching game at high speeds.

How is it that dogs can achieve this super fitness regardless of conditioning when we cannot keep up those fantastic levels of activity? According to Ray and Lorna Coppinger in “Dogs, A Startling New Understanding of Canine Behaviour, Origin and Evolution” dogs have a higher density of red blood cells in their bodies than we do. This means that they can carry a lot more oxygen to their tissues. This means that all things being equal, they can start faster, and run longer than we can, even if they are not a particularly active breed of dog.

For the most part, the really active dogs don’t do best when you try and exercise them to fatigue. To begin with it can be very difficult to do this, and the more often you try the fitter your active dog will get until he is so fit that without large amounts of exercise he will be difficult to handle. Exercise is important for sure; if you have an active dog he is certainly going to need 45 minutes to an hour of off leash running, but more than that can backfire badly on you. One of the most important things you can do to help a highly active dog is to teach him to relax as often as you are able. I live with dogs who would qualify as active, and the most important lesson I teach them is to lie down and chill out and relax and watch the world go by. Really active dogs need a combination of daily exercise, structure and training, social time with their people and other dogs and the opportunity to make good relaxation choices.

If you are looking for a dog, you likely have a picture in your head of what that dog is going to look like before you have a picture in your head of what you would like your dog to do. You can often find whatever look you want in a variety of behavioural packages, so it is better to start with a picture of what you want to do with your dog. Are you looking to explore the world of search and rescue with your dog? Can you find a local mentor? If you answered yes to both those questions, your mentor can probably help you find whatever kind of dog your heart desires! Are you looking for a companion who will need to learn the rules of the road, but who will be happy to get up and join you in your weekend warrior adventures? You can find those traits in pretty much whatever package you want too! The key is to have a really good idea before you start about what you would like your dog to DO before you decide what your dog must look like.

Once you have a good picture of what you want your dog to do with you, then list out the behavioural traits that will make up the dog that you want to live with. Perhaps it is important to you that your dog not think up new and creative ways to get into your cupboards, your trash can, your laundry hamper and the truck of your car. Knowing this means that you not only don’t want a highly active dog, you don’t want the smartest dog either. Smart does not equate to happy or well adjusted in the dog world. Often smart means frustrated by not being able to use your brain all day long.

This is precisely the sort of puzzle that a smart dog likes; the treat is hidden on the table and you have to figure out how to get to it before your people come back and tell you not to do that!  Smart dogs are not always easy to live with!  Copyright: igorr / 123RF Stock Photo
This is precisely the sort of puzzle that a smart dog likes; the treat is hidden on the table and you have to figure out how to get to it before your people come back and tell you not to do that! Smart dogs are not always easy to live with! Copyright: igorr / 123RF Stock Photo

Perhaps you want a running companion. Understanding that dogs really suffer from overheating in the summer, you might want to choose a dog that has a good tolerance for heat with a short coat. Or perhaps your dream dog is going to alert bark when necessary, but has a really great off switch. In that case, search out a low energy dog who does not bark often; he will bark when needed, but not all the time.

Only if you are aspiring to engage in really serious dog sports do you need an active, smart dog. Otherwise a low to medium energy dog who is willing to do things your way is going to suit you fine.  Once you have a great picture of what you want to do with your dog, and you have a good idea of what you want him to look like, how do you know what an active dog looks like compared to a low or medium energy dog? The perpetual motion machine puppy in the litter is not going to be your go to dog! Neither is a puppy whose mom is a perpetual motion machine. If you meet mom and you don’t think right away “wow, I could live with Mom without changing anything” you may want to reconsider a puppy from that litter.  Look for the medium or low energy puppy in the litter and choose a mom who is medium to low energy herself.  Mom should also be really keen to figure out what her people want to do; she should be engaged and interested in people.  If she is aloof and uninterested in people, you can pet her puppies aren’t going to be terribly interested in you either.

In the shelter it can be harder to tell if a dog is high or low energy right off the bat. Some dogs are really shut down in the shelter and although they are high energy, they don’t move around too much because they are frightened, anxious or overwhelmed. On the other hand some notably low energy dogs may look like whirling dervishes in the shelter because they are so anxious that they spend all their time trying to avoid and escape! If possible get a trainer in to evaluate the dog for you, and make sure you read as much history on the individual as you can. Look for the red flag phrases-“Looking for a fur-ever home with a marathon runner” probably translates into “would be a great candidate for the Idatarod and if you miss a walk, you will live to regret it!”.

The brachyocephalic or short faced dogs have a lot of trouble breathing so they are not terrifically active.  They are often subject to heat stroke if you try and exercise them at all!  They are not active dogs! Copyright: kataro / 123RF Stock Photo
The brachyocephalic or short faced dogs have a lot of trouble breathing so they are not terrifically active. They are often subject to heat stroke if you try and exercise them at all! They are not active dogs! Copyright: kataro / 123RF Stock Photo

The bottom line is that unless there is a medical reason for not exercising, such as a brachyocephalic dog’s short face and the breathing issues that come along with that structure, pretty much any dog is going to outrun you, so be very realistic about how much exercise you really want to live with and how smart you think you can keep up with.  A willing couch potato is likely going to make your really happy, and a smart active dog is going to be your first step towards serious dog training as a career.

I WOULD LIKE ACTIVE WITH A SIDE ORDER OF SMART!