If I had a nickel for every time that someone said to me “Danish GutterHund, and you know they are like potato chips, you can’t just stop at one” I would be a moderately wealthy behaviour consultant. When I first got involved with dogs almost everyone I knew only had one dog, or maybe a dog and a cat and very few people had multi dog families. Now multiples seems to be more and more common. We had a family join us recently who have FIVE dogs and had just gotten another puppy. Increasingly I am being asked for help integrating the newest puppy into a multidog household.
I have lived with more than one dog for most of the past twenty years because when John and I moved in together, he had a dog and I had a dog. When his dog died, we had a brief period where we only had one dog, but we have almost always had two, and often had three or more dogs living full time with us. When we were raising service dog puppies, we integrated a new puppy into our home at least once a year, so we have this down to a bit of a science.
To start with decide on what the rules are. This is a good idea even if you are preparing for your first dog. It is much easier to teach your puppy what you want him to do if you have spent a little time ahead of time working out what the rules are going to be. In our house, dogs are not permitted on furniture, they are not permitted to rough house indoors, they are expected to sit before doors open and they can touch their toys but nothing else in our very messy house. When the resident animals know the rules, then it is much easier for the new animals to learn the rules.
From time to time I meet a very unruly adolescent dog and the owners tell me that in the past they had older resident dogs teach the youngster the ropes and they expected the current older dog to pass along the rules of the house to a puppy. While the adult dogs are helpful in modelling good behaviour in your home, they cannot be responsible for teaching the puppy what is expected. The older dogs and other pets don’t have thumbs and cannot open doors, operate the car or control any of the fun stuff that comes to young dogs who are well behaved.
When we bring a puppy home, he spends his first two months or until he outgrows our puppy crate in our kitchen. We live in a 160 year old farm house, and our kitchen has a door directly to the outside, making this a great place to toilet train puppies. We work strange hours and we tend to be up at about 8 in the morning and the first thing we do is clip a leash on the puppy and take him outside to toilet. Then he comes in and stays with us as we do our morning routines of making coffee, hitting the bathroom, cleaning teeth and so on. When we have the early morning basics underway, we hand feed the puppy a meal, usually as part of a training session. The adult dogs eat in their crates separately.
After the puppy eats his breakfast, we go outside again to toilet and sometimes if the weather is good to have some outdoor exploring and play time. We live rurally which means that there are lots and lots of outdoor rules to learn too. We want our pups to like our horses, but we don’t want them to harass the horses. We have electric fencing and eventually pups learn that they mustn’t touch that or they will get hurt. We also live near a busy highway so we have boundary training to do so that the dogs learn never to go across our driveway towards the unsafe road. If the weather doesn’t co operate we will play with the pups in the kitchen. We have a system that helps us to teach puppies what to do. We have a giant puppy toy box filled with everything a puppy could possibly want to play with. The pup is permitted free access to the toy box when he is loose. We also have dozens of shoes and boots and other household items that just hang out on the floor of our kitchen. When a puppy interacts with an item that is permitted he gets to keep playing. When he touches an item he may not we call out a warning signal; “that’s enough”. If the puppy stops immediately he gets to continue. If he continues to touch the forbidden items, then we say “too bad” and put him in his crate for a short period of time. After a few minutes, the puppy comes out and gets to try again..
Baby D’fer explores the adult dog water bowl. It was raised because we had an elderly dog who had difficulty dropping his head to drink. Notice that I am right beside him actively supervising what he is doing. Supervision is key to success with young dogs.
You may notice that so far I have not mentioned having the adult dogs interacting with the puppy. After the pup has had his morning play time, I allow the adult dogs up and the pup can see the adults through the crate and they can get to know him without being harassed by him. In our current home we have three adult dogs. One of our dogs, Eco is a great dog for interacting with puppies. He sets boundaries and shows them cool things. He gets time through the day to interact in a supervised way with the pups. Another of our dogs does not like puppies at all and he never gets to interact with them. Our third dog has not yet had a chance to help raise pups because she has so far been too young, but I am better that she will be terrific with them. Through the day, we provide opportunities for the puppy to interact with the adults in supervised structured ways, but we don’t just let the puppy loose with the adults without guidelines.
D’fer meets Bear for the first time. Notice that John is right in the middle of things. Bear didn’t like puppies and John allowed him to escape through his legs and kept his hand on D’fer so that he could not follow. When an adult dog tries to avoid a puppy, we support the adult dog; the puppy can learn some manners before he is required to put up with D’fer loose in the house. D’fer and Bear went on to become fast friends as D’fer matured into adulthood.
If you are integrating a puppy into a home with a cat, you can use the “That’s enough, too bad” system for harassing the cat or cats. I don’t expect puppies to cuddle up with cats until the are much older, so my early introductions are all about being polite to the cat and not playing roughly and setting a boundary and guidelines about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour related to the cat. You must decide ahead of time what you want this relationship to look like and if you have a cat who objects strongly to the dog, you must put the needs of the cat front and centre. Cats usually cope quite well if they have space to go and avoid the dog. Cat ladders, baby gates and hiding spots for the cat help a lot with the cat’s ability to relax in the company of the dog.
Most of my pups quickly learn that after breakfast is a time to chill out and relax, to settle and to rest. The busiest part of the day doesn’t come till late afternoon. After a morning nap, we repeat our early morning routine at noon, training through the puppy’s lunch. Adult dogs are in a different room when we train the puppy. With young pups, we teach a lot of self control activities such as the automatic leave it, waiting for the food bowl to drop and not touching it till told to, waiting at doors and not rushing through them, creating puppies who are mannerly and self controlled. Most of our pups also master sit, down, touch, come when called and go to mat by the time they are about sixteen weeks of age. After lunch, we may take the youngster out for a walk with one adult dog. We have found that walking a puppy in the company of multiple adult dogs is risky; adults get to running and racing and it would be a small thing for the puppy to be tripped on or trampled.
Puppies need naps, just like children do! When you cannot supervise, or if your puppy is tired or if you are between play times, a crate is a perfect place for a puppy to rest.
Our pups go back down for a nap in the afternoon and at about four pm we move our activities to the training hall. When we are at the training hall our pups are always crated in our kennel area where they can be safely contained and kept out of trouble. Our pups usually get into a class at least once a day, and this is where they have their third meal. By having our dogs at the training hall we are able to get them out to pee on a regular basis and they learn that there are behavioural expectations at work.
As our puppies learn the ropes, they get more time out of their crates and doing things and gradually they spend more time both in the house and outside with our adult dogs. When the pups go through periods of testing the boundaries, we back up and give them fewer freedoms. We really feel it is important not to allow our puppies out of our sight until they are about sixteen weeks of age. At that point they start getting more house time as long as they are not making mistakes such as getting on furniture, stealing items that don’t belong to them or playing roughly in the house. At about sixteen weeks, we start adding pups into play groups in our yard. We are fortunate to have a yard attached to our farm house and with multiple dogs we find that it is important to give each dog some time with us alone. This time each day means that the dogs are more bonded to us than to one another, which makes training easier. In our house, adolescent and adult dogs get time in the yard with one another, and time in the house with us, both alone and with the other dogs.
It is also important to keep in mind that your adult dogs didn’t sign up for a puppy and they will need time alone with you. This is where having a crate in the kitchen where we spend the bulk of our time can be really helpful. We can have the adult dogs out with us, and the puppy can learn about the adults in a safe way, but the adults don’t have to put up with a rude puppy who might interrupt time with me. Puppies in our house also learn that it is not always their turn and that if they start to fuss in their crates then everyone will just leave the kitchen.
Bear was never impressed with having puppies around. Generally Crow (the German Shepherd) liked puppies, but he did not like change and the first few days home with a new pup were always difficult for him.
Integrating a new puppy into your home is really a matter of deciding what you want and teaching your puppy the rules. Young pups need lots of supervision and when we cannot give it to them, using a crate is a great way to keep your puppy safe. Not everyone has the luxury that we do of being available for our pups all day long, so sometimes we have to work around other constraints. Many families arrange to come home at lunch time to let their puppies out and then leave again for the afternoon while their pups nap. Sometimes a good strategy is to get a dog walker who can come in and let the pup out while you are away. Whatever your schedule is, working around keeping everyone relaxed and happy depends on knowing what you want ahead of time, and then implementing a plan to meet the needs of your household.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT….when will you have time to fix it?
On Facebook recently a colleague brought up the issue of behaviour clients who when asked why they didn’t go to puppy class respond that they didn’t have time. We hear this regularly. Families get a puppy and then don’t have time for class, don’t have time to train, don’t have time to exercise and then they come to us when the puppy is about 8 months old and tell us that the dog is now a nuisance. Further these clients often tell us that they have limited time and resources to fix their issues.
Everywhere I go, I hear about the pressures of time, and how often we spend time doing things such as surfing Facebook and Twitter or doing things that are empty time fillers. I hear about how fast paced life is and how much we each have to do in such a busy society. Apparently the time saving devices such as laundry and dishwashing machines, computers, faxes and phones have in fact created situations where we have so much more to do in our lives that we are busier than ever. In the face of the pressures of busyness at work, social commitments and activities, exercise demands and the pull and push of taking care of ourselves, our family and our community commitments, then when you get a puppy, he can fall between the cracks of other demands on our time.
I would like to suggest that a puppy, in all of his frenetic and exciting behaviours is an invitation to slow down for a while. To put aside the busy in your life and take the time to do it right. It doesn’t mean that you have to radically change everything you do, but it does invite some reflection on how we structure our lives around change. What you do in the first 8 to ten weeks that you have a puppy will impact the rest of his or her life. Think about that for a minute. If you get a puppy, and you don’t have time to do it right in those first 8 to ten weeks, when will you have time to fix that?
Getting a puppy can be an expensive proposition in terms of money but also in terms of time. We often hear from new puppy families that they are surprised at the costs they are facing both in terms of money and time, so if you can, it is wise to prepare ahead of time. Before a puppy comes home, carve out the time you will need to spend to help that pup develop to the fullest potential. In our experience, a new puppy requires about three hours a day most days, and five hours a day every day you go to puppy class in order to be successful. Luckily those hours don’t all fall consecutively or we would not get anything done!
In the morning, right off the start, we spend about twenty minutes toileting and feeding our pups. Later in the morning we spend half an hour to 40 minutes with the pup. We repeat this at lunch and dinner and then there are a couple of hours in the evening where the pup spends time with us; we don’t count this as time we have to carve out because we are integrating the puppy into what we do instead of carving time out for things that prevent us from doing what we would normally do.
On class days we have to do all that we normally do plus drive to class, participate in class and then drive home. Sometimes we also carve out time for play dates or to invite guests over to meet the puppy, so three hours is an estimate of a normal day, not a day where we do extras. As the puppy gets older, we shift our interactions with our pups so that they are integrated more and more into our lives, but it is important to recognize that having an adult dog is still going to take an hour out of your day each day to do things like feed, water, and exercise your dog.
If you don’t have three hours a day to devote to getting a puppy, plus a couple of hours each week to take him to puppy class wait to get a dog until you have that time. Far too often what we see are nice families who want a puppy and who get one and initially spend 6 to 8 hours a day on the pup and then drop that down to an hour a day after the first three days. Sadly you cannot pack all that a puppy needs into the first three days! Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to raising a successful puppy! On the first day home, I like things to be quiet and calm for the pup. I like things to be low key so that the pup can quietly get accustomed to living in a new home with new routines and rules. When bringing home a puppy is a big to do, a party and an intense activity, and then you don’t follow that up with the day in and day out needs of the pup for structure, supervision and training, there is terrific potential for fallout.
Puppies are a lot like human toddlers. They need guidance and help to understand the world they are learning about. When toddlers are neglected, we know that grade one is much harder for them. When toddlers don’t get their basic needs for play and social interaction with children their own age, they struggle later with making friends when they go out in the world. This is where taking the time to do it right when your dog is under 16 weeks can really matter. If you don’t teach your puppy when he is young what you want him to know then when he inevitably develops problems then solving them is going to require more time and effort than preventing them.
I personally don’t enjoy the puppy phase very much. Cute just doesn’t motivate me! Never the less, when we have a puppy I take the time out of my day and I do the work that is needed to ensure that my pup will grow up to fulfill the potential he deserves. If I don’t have time to meet the puppy’s needs means that I don’t get that particular puppy. Something I think people sometimes forget is that puppies are always going to be available, but not every time that I want a pup will I have the time to meet his needs. If I don’t have time to do it right, I keep in mind that I likely won’t have time to fix whatever problems develop later.
Getting a puppy is a time where you can reflect on the fact that in our busy lives, there is value in carving out that time to slow down and do the job right from the start. Enrol in puppy class. Give yourself a few extra minutes to meet your pup’s needs. Turn off the TV, the Wi, the Xbox, the net and take that time and repurpose it to meeting the needs of the new life you are bringing into your home. The time you take and give to your pup now will mean a world of difference to his life with you forever. If you don’t have the time to do it right, plan on the time you will need to fix it.
When people ask me what the most important thing they can do to get started on the right paw with their puppy I tell them to come to puppy class. The sad thing is that I hear 101 reasons why people don’t think they need puppy class.
Housetraining is going pretty well…he only makes mistakes once or twice a day!
He comes when he is called already-I don’t need to take a puppy class!
I have another dog at home-he doesn’t need more friends than that!
None of my other dogs went to puppy class and they were fine!
If you have thought it, I have probably heard it in answer to why you aren’t coming to puppy class. Why is it then that I am so insistent that your puppy, and my puppy and every puppy deserves puppy class? I have 101 reasons for you to come to puppy class and here are a few of them.
At one conference I attended, we heard that 80% of the dogs who die before the age of two die of preventable behaviour problems, and hundreds of thousands of dogs die before the age of two each year. You can do some simple things to ensure that your puppy won’t be one of those puppies who die of a preventable behaviour problem by coming to puppy class. Do we prevent 100% of the behaviour problems in puppy class? Of course not, but we have a pretty darned good track record, and puppy class is one of the things that has been shown to prevent a lot of behaviour problems.
Puppies are learning sponges and they are almost preprogrammed to absorb the important lessons that they will need to succeed in your home before they are about twenty weeks of age. Before a puppy is 20 weeks of age, he will learn what surfaces are legal to toilet upon, who he is permitted to greet, how to greet other dogs and people politely, what is legal to chew upon and who is the best bet in the house for fun and games. After twenty weeks, puppies are well prepared to learn to apply what they have learned in their first twenty weeks but they are not as proficient at learning the rules of your home. In puppy class you will get help and support you need to be successful. Could you teach this yourself without the support of a class? Sure, but in class you are going to learn what is new in the world of dog training and a lot of the new stuff will not have trickled down to me if I had not been taking continuing education credits all the way along-take advantage of the work your instructor does to keep current on dog training methods.
I often hear that puppies are going to the dog park to learn to interact with other dogs or that there is an adult dog in the home to teach the puppy what to do when meeting other dogs. There are a few problems with this logic. To start with, the dog park is a free for all where any dog can show up and go off leash. If you don’t have control over who your puppy meets, you have no idea if your pup is meeting the sweet older dog who is calm and confident or the bruiser who is looking to roll your puppy and take the stuffing out of him.
Adult dogs have a lot to teach puppies, but one of the things they cannot do is be a puppy themselves. Normal puppy behaviour develops best when puppies have other puppies to play with. Pups have tiny needle sharp teeth and they use these on one another during play. If one pup bites another puppy too had, the second puppy will let out a big yelp and will stop playing with the first puppy. This process of rough and tumble is an important step in teaching young dogs to modulate their bites and acquire bite inhibition. Good bite inhibition is what allows dogs to grab things with their mouths and not do damage, and that skill is fine tuned between puppies, not between puppies and adults.
Waiting to go to puppy class until after the puppy has started showing problems is a common mistake people make all the time. Before a puppy is 16 weeks of age, he will follow you around almost all the time, and if you call him he will come. This is a normal developmental stage for pups. Sometime between 14 and 20 weeks though, your puppy is going to suddenly become quite a bit more independent and the cute little guy who followed you around will suddenly become a whole lot more active and a whole lot less interested in placidly following your lead. One of the things that you get out of puppy class is a chance to teach your pup to come when called not just when he is doing that because he doesn’t have a lot of confidence to explore yet, but to come when called all the time. The more work you put into that right off the bat, in a more formal setting, the more likely it is that your pup will know what to do when he is approaching puberty and beginning to become more independent.
In puppy class we can help you to trouble shoot too; we can help you to head problems off as they develop. From house soiling to inappropriate chewing to jumping up and manners, we are the ones who can help you to develop the best in your puppy before the problems start or as soon as you see them. If your pup has been doing really well with house training and suddenly starts to have trouble, we can usually tell if this is due to how you are approaching house training or if you should go to the vet, and we are really happy to talk to you about how to tell the difference. The same is true when a puppy suddenly develops a dietary issue or if they suddenly stop sleeping through the night. Often, when a pup comes to class with a sudden change we can figure out if the problem is training, developmental or if the pup needs to see the vet.
We can also help you to see when your puppy’s behaviour is typical of his breeding or if it is something else. When families tell us that their retriever puppy is carrying shoes all over the house or that their terrier puppy is digging in the yard, we can tell you that this is pretty normal behaviour for those dogs. When a family comes in and tells us that the puppy is spinning endlessly until he falls over and then repeating that behaviour we can tell you that this is not normal and that there might be a problem. Puppy class is the chance for you to check in with a professional who can help you to understand more about your individual dog because we see so many puppies.
You may not ever have trouble with your puppy and you may in fact already know how to socialize and train a puppy, and I would still suggest puppy class. Heck, I go to puppy class with my own pups. Why? Because it is fun. Because I will get to meet the puppies who will become my dog’s friends when he is an adult. Because I will meet the people I will walk with when my pup is older. Because for 90 minutes each week, I can turn off my cell phone and just focus on everything puppy and watch my pup learn and change and grow. Because it is the first thing that my puppy and I will do as partners. For the rest of his life, what I do with my puppy before 16 weeks will impact the nature of the relationship we will have together, and it all starts in puppy class.
In North America, and likely in other parts of the developed world, we belong to the TV generation. If we don’t achieve a major milestone before the next commercial, then we don’t think we are successful, and we don’t think that we should continue along the route that we are already taking. In behaviour modification and training, slow and steady is almost always the key to success, and that doesn’t happen in the twelve and a half minutes that happen between network commercials. Perhaps if real dog training happened on network TV, people would have a better idea of what happens when you work on training with an animal. Wouldn’t that be a reality show? Four months of weekly installments on a puppy making great strides from time to time, interspersed with long periods of careful development of behaviours that form the foundation for more complex work.
I have a couple of students in class at the moment who tell me that their dogs are bored. Let’s look at what it means to be bored. According to Wikipedia “Boredom has been defined by C. D. Fisher, in terms of its central psychological processes: “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boredom). There is more to it than that, and the boredom article goes on to discuss types of boredom and how they impact learning. Often what I notice in training is that the dog, in theory the learner, is not bored, but the trainer may be bored. Sometimes the dogs who are described as bored are independent and don’t really have buy in to the trainer’s agenda. So what can be done to better engage the trainer and the learner in the process, so that neither one of them experiences this unpleasant, transient affective state?
To start with, define what you want. If you want your dog to be interested in what you want her to do, you have to know what it is you want. If you have a dog who is mostly interested in doing his own thing, happy to turn his back on you, and engage with the universe as it interests him, then you are going to need to consider if what you really want is a dog who will engage with you. If you don’t then training is going to be a lot more challenging, because you are going to be in a battling economy of what is more valuable; me and the training process or every other thing in the environment. Attempting to train by being more interesting than dirt is hard work. Engagement with you is going to be rewarding for both you and the dog if you do it right. Consider playing your dog’s game for a moment.
If your dog is standing on the end of the leash gazing longingly out at the wall opposite you, yearning for the opportunity to explore it, then DO THAT. If you want your dog to engage with you, then engage with her. If you are all about training on your terms only, then you can try something else, but if you want your dog to engage with you on your agenda then at some point you need to meet her half way. Once you start engaging with your dog on his or her own terms, it is much easier to start to get your dog to engage with you. Engaging with your dog can be as simple as opening a bag of dog treats and helping your dog to explore that. Open the bag as you might for a young child. Look in. Offer it to the dog to look in. Before he can shove his whole head in to take everything, pull it away, reach in and get a treat out to share with him. If you use a bag of cheezies, you can give him one and then have one yourself. Sharing is a big part of engaging with your dog.
Once you and your dog are engaged with one another, then teaching skills is much easier. If you want to teach your dog to walk on a leash without dragging you along, you can take your dog on leash to a location where you have control over the stuff she wants. Then wait. If you are engaged with your dog, you will notice subtle shifts and changes in how she experiences the world. If she is standing there longing for the wall, wait. Now it is your turn. If you disengage from attending to your dog, then you won’t catch that moment when she turns to you and asks you what you are doing. She is only going to ask once, so if you miss that chance to share your treats with your dog the moment that she tries to engage the tiniest bit with you, then that chance is gone and the next time she offers to attend to you, she is going to offer you less not more attention. If you catch her asking to join in your game you can offer her something that you both find interesting.
What I observe time and again is that trainers don’t remain engaged long enough to actually get the engagement they want from their dogs. Beginner trainers often stand with their backs to their dogs, looking around at anything other than the dog they have come to train. If you cannot attend to your dog long enough to catch her when she attends to you, then why would you think that your dog will have any more attention than you do? If you cannot give your dog more than thirty seconds to disengage from whatever has caught her eye, then why would your dog stay engaged in what interests you, especially if it is difficult or needs a lot of concentration, as leash walking does?
Dogs are not automatons. They think, they breathe, they have interests of their own and they have their own agendas. We also have our own interests, drives and desires. Often, in order to have a dog, the dog ends up having to accommodate our interests more than we accommodate what they need. The dog’s priorities are her own, and if we are not going to share in what she is interested in, then why do we think she will share in what we are interested in? Most often we choose to get the dog, instead of the dog choosing to live with us, so if the dog is bored, especially in training class it is up to us to determine what she is interested in and use that as part of the training process.
Lately we have had a pile of puppy owners asking us how to prevent their pups from misbehaving. In exasperation, one day John replied “Don’t let him do that!” and the client looked at him completely baffled. One important part of our way of puppy raising is to let the puppies learn through experience what happens if they do certain things. In our house that means that puppies who pick up shoes get put in their crates. Puppies who jump up on me get put in their crates. Puppies who sit nicely get let out of their crates. Puppies who sit and stay get their dinner. Puppies who bark in their crates get to stay right where they are. Puppies who cry in the night get taken outside to pee. The list goes on and on and on as our puppies learn what happens when they do various things. There are some things however that our puppies don’t get the chance to do.
When clients ask us how to stop their pups from toileting in the house, we tell them, don’t let him do that! We don’t allow our puppies out of our sight in the house until they have shown us that they won’t toilet indoors over a long period of time. To start with, our puppies don’t get to explore the house unattended. We don’t let them toilet indoors by making sure that they have lots of chances to toilet outdoors, and we control when they eat so that we know when they will need to go. When they are outside of their crates, they are supervised, 100% of the time and if it looks like they need to go, we gently pick them up and take them out to toilet where we want them to go. We just don’t let them toilet indoors.
When we are asked how to stop puppies from jumping up on guests, we don’t let them do that either; when guests come to the house, we prepare by having our pups in their crates as the guests arrive, and then we bring them to the guests on leash. We know that pups need to learn what to do when meeting a guest, so we don’t just let our pups meet guests and hope for the best; we don’t let them do that. For clarity, what we usually do is to allow the guest in, and then get them seated. Then we bring the puppy in on leash and we work with the puppy, clicking and treating behaviours that he already knows. When he is calm and engaged with someone he knows then we introduce him to the guest, again using the clicker to mark behaviours we like, such as sitting for attention. And we don’t let the guest do our training for us either! We don’t ask our guests to treat the puppy for good behaviour; we know what we want the pup to learn and we don’t leave that to chance.
Often people will ask what to do about pulling on leash and again, we point out that we don’t let puppies pull on leash. Sometimes in training we have to do what is called a work around. In the case of pulling on leash, the work around we use is called the magic collar system; we have one collar that is magic; we only use it for training loose leash behaviour. The rest of the time we use a different collar, harness or head halter to differentiate what we are working on and we teach the pup that the rules are looser in that situation. We work around puppies pulling by teaching that one collar is magic and allows pulling and the other collar is a different kind of magic and doesn’t allow pulling!
How about getting into the garbage? Again, we just don’t let puppies do that! We keep garbage behind gates and doors so that pups cannot get into things. The same is true for almost everything that we do. Getting in the front seat of a moving vehicle? Don’t let your puppy do that by putting him in a crate in the vehicle when travelling. Harassing the older dog in the home? Keep them separate except for training time. Chewing up personal items? Put things away pre-emptively. The key is to think ahead about what behaviours you want your puppy to engage in and what behaviours you don’t want your puppy to engage in, and then preventing your pup from having the chance to do things you don’t want him to do.
The thing to remember about young dogs is that they come without experience. If you are going to expect a young dog to interact with something new in his life, and you don’t structure that interaction to begin with, you are training him to guess and often, being a young animal with an exuberant temperament, he is going to make the wrong choice. When your pup makes the wrong choice, you can do one of any number of things. You can be harsh and punitive and unpleasant and hope he doesn’t repeat the error. Not a good idea but something to think about. You can be gentle but interrupt the puppy; a better alternative, but still not ideal. You can remove the pup and allow him to try again; still better than the last alternative, but still not the best kind of training you can do for a puppy. The gold standard in training is to set your pup up to succeed in the first place by preventing the undesired behaviour from happening.
Perhaps the most confusing to students but common situation is what to do on the street when the puppy meets new people. Our clients usually don’t want their young puppies to learn to jump up to greet, but they also don’t want to not introduce their new addition to the neighbourhood. In this case, we can prevent our dogs from doing things we don’t want by controlling distance. When you are approaching a friend, regardless of if they have another dog or not, there is going to be a point at which your dog begins to get excited. That point, or threshold, is where you need to stop approaching and take a break. Doing this teaches young dogs that they cannot bounce around and be silly when they are meeting and greeting people. By only moving forward when your pup is calm, he learns that self control gets him what he wants.
The biggest error we see at puppy school is the puppy owner who gets a young dog and then allows her to roam free through the house from the first day on. Often things go well at first; for the first few days, while the puppy is novel, family members attend to the puppy and notice when he is getting into things and they intervene. Over time however, the puppy begins to become familiar with the home, and wanders away from supervision. When this happens, you cannot prevent problems and then you have to solve them; not an ideal situation. Next, the family wants to take the puppy out in the neighbourhood, and they start to run into even bigger problems because they don’t have any plans to avoid problems. The puppy learns to pull on leash, jump on people and grab trash and dropped items to play with or eat. In medicine, it is common to say that prevention is the best cure, and this is true of training as well. We need to prevent these problems from starting and start by teaching our pups what we want them to do. The best way to do that involves planning and supervision. It really isn’t difficult but it does mean being aware of what you are doing.
Good planning and supervision means that you know what you want your pup to learn and you set up situations where he can learn what we want him to learn, and then you supervise what is happening to make that happen. One of the best things you can do to make planning and supervision work for you is to join a good puppy class. In class you will likely get a list of behaviours to work on and that can serve as a good guideline to help you to determine what your pup should be doing and at what age. It also provides you with a support group to help you to make your plan work. We even take our own pups to puppy class!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I specialize in working with “difficult dogs”. Dogs who bark a lot. Or who lunge and bite. Or who dig up the garden, or chase cats, or toilet in the house. I work with families who have dogs that most people would find difficult to live with. I also work with dogs who are anxious and fearful, or who really don’t have very good self control or resilience. The dogs that people describe as stubborn or stupid or willful or having their own mind. Over and over again, I hear people who say “I wanted a difficult dog” and I wonder “Why?”
I also live with dogs that many folks would consider difficult to live with. D’fer, my Chesapeake has ideas about how things should work. And like Captain Picard on Star Trek, he often approaches situations as if to say “make it so”. He is my service dog. One day, sitting in a restaurant, while I was talking to my dinner companion, he started to make eyes at the people at the next table. At first it appeared that the other diners were staring at me. Then he stood up, nudged my elbow and looked at the other table and then back at me and then back at them. Clearly there was no work for him to do at the moment and he was making it clear to me that he would prefer to go see what might be up at the next table. He didn’t just leave though; he checked in first.
D’fer at a hotel. D’fer has very specific traits that make him good at his job, but that might make him difficult to live with as a family pet.
Why is this difficult to live with? Consider that D’fer was expressing a very complex concept. He was bored with being at dinner and would prefer to do something else, but he is also relatively polite and asked first. The complexity of understanding that there was a social convention, and that he couldn’t just leave (a pretty formal restaurant, incidentally) is pretty advanced understanding, beyond what many toddlers would understand. The fact that he asked was a reflection of many years of relationship and mutual understanding about how things worked. Imagine what mayhem might have ensued had he not understood the convention to ask first. Imagine what things might have been like if he had been the kind of dog who bided his time till you weren’t paying attention and then bolted into the kitchen of the fancy restaurant and helped himself to the prep table. What Deef did was very DIFFICULT. And in the wrong paws he would be difficult to live with.
Three times this week clients have said to me “I wanted a difficult dog”. They all have rescues with various problems. You can insert your choice of problem-aggression, pica, bolting, disobedience, resource guarding, separation anxiety, it doesn’t matter. The clients wanted “difficult dogs”. I wonder why.
I have a complex dog who is able to do difficult things. He is able to get onto an airplane, follow directions, and slither under a seat to rest beside a dog he met once before (Thanks Air Canada…actually when two service dogs are booked on the same flight, don’t seat them in the same seat if they aren’t booked together; we made it work, but less experienced handlers might not have!) and relax into a very difficult and complex situation. He would be difficult if he were in the hands of someone who had not channeled his brilliance. I wonder, when the clients I see say “I want a difficult dog” do they really mean, “I want a dog who has the potential to do difficult things.” D’fer would not have been able to do any of the difficult things he can do if we first had to work on him learning to be alone. Or if we first had to work on him not biting people or panicking when the furnace turns on. We would not have been able to do what we have done had we first had to overcome all the obstacles that my clients are working on.
I challenge people who ask if they want a difficult dog to consider if what they really want is a dog with the potential to do difficult things. When I think of all the incredible things that D’fer has done, I am filled with joy at what we have achieved together. When I think of all the goals we worked on together and all the challenges we faced, I am proud of the team that we form together. When I compare that relationship to the one I had with the dog who lived with me for six years who was afraid of floors, who was afraid of new people, who was afraid of new places and who never really overcame his fears to the extent that he was able to step out with the confidence that D’fer steps out with every day, I realize and recognize that the second relationship, although it was full of many wonderful things was not full of the same sort of wonderful that the relationship that I have with D’fer is full of. I really think that every dog and person deserve the kind of relationship that I have with Deef. One that is full of challenges but not danger. Full of greatness without fear. My other dog was special, but D’fer and I have surpassed anything that I had ever dreamed of together.
When you are looking for a dog and you want a challenge, I would suggest thinking about what you want in a different way. Difficult is a wide open idea that can lead you down roads you may or may not want to go. If your goal is to do public demos with your dog, consider what that might be like for a dog who doesn’t actually like crowds or loud noises. Yes, we can probably train the dog to accept these challenges, but why do we want to do that? There are lots of things that I am able to do but that I don’t enjoy doing. I can learn the task, and I can even have happy moments doing the task, but that isn’t the same as enjoying the job. Could it be that our egos get in the way? I think that sometimes they do.
When I think about my goals with my next puppy, I think about what D’fer and I have done together and what traits he has that make it possible for him to be so successful with me. To start with, he finds difficult situations amusing. If I am upset he maintains a professional level of detachment while he helps me to deal with my medical issues. We have trained for the event and when the event occurs, he steps up, does his job and moves along. He seems to think that is funny even. He is a great problem solver. When faced with a new task he loves the challenge of figuring out what to do. He is active enough to keep up to me for a whole day of work, but not so active that he cannot settle if that work day includes eight hours of lecture. My shopping list in a puppy includes all the things that made my current dog a success.
When I talk about breed and individual selection of dogs, I am often told that a person doesn’t want a dog for sport or service work so any dog will do. This is a little like saying that you want to get married and it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as they are human. Are you really sure you would enjoy being married to just anyone? If you are that easy going, then perhaps yes, just any dog would do. But the reality is that most of us have criteria for a life partner and also for the dogs who live with you.
Would you marry someone you didn’t know? Is it enough that they are both human beings? We need to do a better job of matching dogs up with what we need in our lives. Image credit: goodluz / 123RF Stock Photo
If you are looking for a family pet, you should be aware that this is perhaps one of the most difficult jobs for a dog. There are rules, but few clear “job expectations”. Imagine how hard it would be to do your job if there were rules to follow but no job description. That is in essence what we often expect of our family pets. They are not permitted on furniture or to help themselves to the garbage, but they don’t really have a job description. There is nothing to do each day; no tasks to accomplish each day, no chores to be done, and little structure beyond when food is delivered and when toileting opportunities or exercise arises.
Such a difficult situation requires a special individual and I think that we should be every bit as picky about the family dog we want as the working service dog, military dog or drug sniffing dog. Each of these dogs has traits that are important to their handlers and the family pet has perhaps the most difficult of all the job descriptions; the lack of one.
Family dogs need to be friendly and accepting of people, including strangers. It is not cool to have a dog who “guards the children”. Dogs who guard the children without the guidance of a handler who has control over the dog are dogs who end up biting the children’s friends, Aunt Mary and the UPS man. Dismissing unfriendly or aggressive behaviour in a family dog is foolhardy and dangerous. Dogs who guard without training are loose cannons, akin to loaded guns stored in the sugar jar. A trained guard dog will only guard when told to do so, and will stop guarding reliably when asked. When I do an evaluation of a dog who has been guarding a family member, invariably I find a dog who is not protecting the individual from harm but rather preventing a resource from being shared. When your dog treats you like a soup bone there is a big problem.
Family dogs also need to be tolerant of misbehaviour on the part of people. Police dogs are rarely asked to tolerate an unexpected hug or a tolerate a child playing with their food bowl and even though we know that these are dangerous behaviours, choosing a dog who will be tolerant of this is a tactic that will help to prevent undesired behaviour later on.
Family dogs usually live in neighbourhoods. These dogs should be very tolerant of other family dogs who live in neighbourhoods because they are likely going to encounter one another on a regular basis. D’fer is an incredible service dog, but chessies are not very tolerant of other dogs and they don’t often make great dog park dogs. For this reason, a dog like D’fer who is wonderful at his job as a service dog might not make as wonderful a family pet. When selecting a breed or type of dog to live with, understand that your dog is likely going to meet lots of other dogs in his life and choosing a breed that is known to be difficult with other dogs is not going to make being a family pet easier for your dog.
Family dogs need to be tolerant of environmental changes. If you have a busy active family, it is unlikely that your dog is going to stay at home all the time. People take their dogs camping and to the cottage, on road trips and to grandma’s house. If you have a real homebody of a dog, he is not going to like the changes that often occur in families when they take vacations or have days at the park or the beach. If you have a dog who is sensitive to noises, new environments, new people and new experiences, then he is not going to be happy with all this moving around. We can teach him, but it is easier for the dog and for the family if you start out with a dog who is tolerant of all these things.
This is an activity I would not encourage a child to engage in with a dog, but children and dogs do things we don’t expect. A great family dog needs to be able to tolerate an even enjoy these things. This dog looks very comfortable here, so even though I would not encourage the activity, it is a fairly safe thing for them to do. This is a great family dog! Image credit: nyul / 123RF Stock Photo
Family dogs should enjoy being handled. There is a difference between tolerating handling and enjoying it. If the dog isn’t enjoying being handled, then when your child goes over to pat him, he is likely going to be uncomfortable. Few people choose a dog in order to cause him discomfort, but when you have a dog who dislikes being handled, not only are vet visits more difficult but so are interactions such as your kids playing dress up or putting a blanket over the dog’s head. These are not activities that I suggest for dogs, but they are activities that children often engage in with the family dog.
When we choose a family dog, we need to take into account more than just how the dog looks or what breed of dog we may have had when we were growing up. I love my chessies, but I am not sure that they would be a great match for me in the family I grew up within. We had lots of dogs around us and chessies are very prone to resource guarding too. Some chessies make great family dogs, but not all of them, and when I think about life from the perspective of the dog, it doesn’t matter what I want him to be, or what I can train him to do, if he is ill suited to the work, then he is not going to be happy. Too many of my clients have had to completely rearrange their lives in the effort to meet the needs of their dogs, and this is not what we get dogs for either. When you are considering getting a more difficult dog, I think you may want to consider a bigger picture, and think about what you expect of this difficult dog. Not only is the wrong dog more difficult for you, it may be a lot more difficult for the dog. Consider that what you may want is not a more difficult dog but a dog who can do more difficult things.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.