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What dog breed is right for you?

Unfortunately for dogs (and for people!), one of the most common reasons for dogs being relinquished to shelters or rescues is not because there is anything wrong with the dog (or with the people), but simply because there is a mismatch between dog and human. A busy household that brings home a high energy breed and then doesn’t have the time to exercise it, resulting in a dog who destroys the house while everyone is away for the day is a good example. Or an elderly man whose well-intentioned child buys him a boisterous large breed puppy as a companion only to have the pup turn into a boisterous LARGE puppy, resulting in a dangerous situation for all. Or someone who depends on dog-park play as a way to exercise her dog bringing home a pit bull only to find out she doesn’t play well with other dogs.

All of these situations can end up extremely frustrating and potentially heart-breaking for the owners, and for dogs who get turned over to shelters, possibly life-threatening. And many of them can be avoided by being realistic about the type of dog who will fit into your lifestyle, as well as the traits that certain breeds are prone to.

So how do you avoid them?

1. Start with a list: What traits do you want in a dog? Do you want a couch-potato or do you want a marathon runner? Do you want a dog who is friendly with strangers or who is a one-person dog? Here’s the most important part: BE REALISTIC. Look at what your lifestyle really is. Even if the Border Collie you grew up with on the farm as a kid was the perfect dog, it doesn’t mean one will fit well into your 40-hour-work-week, small-apartment-with-no-yard adult lifestyle.

Do you legitimately have time to exercise that Labrador Retriever? Do you really want a protective dog when you have young children and their friends running through the house? When you say you want a smart dog, do you want a dog whose mind has to be occupied all the time or he’ll get into trouble occupying himself, or do you actually want a dog who is laid back and easy to train? Do you need a dog who plays well with other dogs?

Do you really want this?

Do you really want this?

Or would this be a better match?

Or would this be a better match?

2. Then make another list: What can you not live with? Again, be unflinchingly honest. Is an alarm bark when the mail drops through the slot ok but a dog who likes to announce every bird who flies past the house more than you can tolerate? How much fur are you willing to vacuum off the couch in an average week? Is it going to aggravate you having to scrub slobber off the walls? Can you afford to pay for a groomer every 6-8 weeks? Do you need a dog who is going to be good with kids and is it a deal-breaker if he is not?

Let me sing you the song of my people.

Let me sing you the song of my people.

3. Try a breed selector. There are a number of them available online, and some are better than others. Animal Planet has a nice one. So does Iams and Dogtime. The results you get are not written in stone, and you may get different results from one quiz to the next, but they can at least give you a jumping-off place and some different breeds to further explore to see if they are a good match for your lifestyle.

It is also important to keep in mind that while breed traits were developed with predictability in mind, all dogs are individuals. If you fell in love with your friend’s German Shepherd who has never met a stranger and loves everyone, keep in mind, that is not typical of the breed and that the pup you pick out may be suspicious and standoffish with strangers. It is really important to do your homework, especially if you are going to be getting a puppy.

Awww puppies!

Awww puppies!

There are some great websites out there that give you the basics on each breed. I really like the one on Vetstreet. But nothing is going to be a better educator than spending some time around dogs of that breed. This can be tricky if you’ve fallen for an unusual or rare breed (like the Cirneco D’Elletna that I’ve recently been eyeballing), so seeking them out at dog shows and talking to people in the breed might be extremely important. What looks good on paper may not translate into a good match in the house.

It might also be important to let go of preconceived notions. Not all Labs make great family dogs. In fact, many of them don’t. Dalmatians look great on the movie screen, but they were bred to run next to a carriage all day long and thus are extremely high energy. Bedlington Terriers might look like cute little lambs, but they can be very serious vermin-hunting terriers. Not all pit bulls are dog-aggressive but it needs to always be in your awareness (and it’s not all in how you raise them.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly

To this end, it might be worth considering looking for an adult dog, whether a retired (or failed) show dog from a breeder or a pure or mixed-breed dog from a (breed-specific or all-breed) rescue or shelter. Adult dogs tend to be fairly “what you see is what you get”, and especially if you have a complicated, busy family (multiple dogs, kids, cats, whatever), finding the specific “right” dog for you- regardless of breed- is really what is going to make things work best in the end.

A good match makes all the difference.

A good match makes all the difference.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Dogs, Puppies

 

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In Praise of Difficult Dogs: Luce’s Story

lucesurveyWhen they say that pit bulls aren’t necessarily a great choice for first-time dog owners, they really do mean it. They’re very high energy, they’re smart, they’re demanding, and they’re frequently not good with other dogs. Oh, and they’re really really strong. But I fell in love with the breed anyway, and so when I was in a position to bring home my first dog, I went to the shelter and picked out a cute little young adult pit bull with silly bat ears and a charming snort.

Oh, I had no idea what I was getting into. Not a clue.

I took her home, I named her Luce, (Short for Eleusis, pronounced like “Lucy” without the y). I fell in love.

But oh, was I in trouble.

“Naughty” doesn’t even begin to cover what she was. The first thing she did when set loose in the fenced yard was check each individual board in the privacy fence to make sure it was secure. Not all of them were. She escaped. We fixed that board, she found a new loose one. She managed to crawl underneath the neighbor’s shed. I have no idea what she hoped to find there– adventure, perhaps. Or something to eat.

Her favorite game was to run like a maniac all over the yard and bite my legs on the way past. She was not being aggressive in any way– she was simply playing in a manner that works for playing with other dogs, just not for us tender-skinned humans. It hurt. She thought it was hilarious.

But the hardest thing to deal with was her extreme reactivity to other dogs while on leash. She would pull, she would scream (and I mean scream, not bark), she would lunge. It was scary and embarrassing.

I was completely out of my league, and I knew it.

I was left with the decision of whether to give up and return her to the shelter and an uncertain fate, or to enroll her in obedience class and try my best.

We started Beginner Obedience a few weeks later, and I had no idea that I was embarking on such an incredible and life-changing journey.

We started out our classes completely segregated from the rest of the group. Here is the first thing I learned: a dog who is freaking out (known in trainer-speak as “Over threshold”) cannot learn. Their brains are so busy freaking out that nothing else gets through. So when I was yelling and jerking her leash to try to make her stop carrying on, I was wasting my energy– she could not hear me anyway.

Food is good. Yelling is dumb.

Food is good. Yelling is dumb.

We were set up behind a barrier. Luce knew the other dogs were there, but she couldn’t see them. So while she was distracted, she was able, with the use of high value treats (hot dogs, cheese, meatballs) frequently delivered for the smallest bit of attention on me, so start to calm down and actually learn some stuff. Sit, down, stay, leave it– all those important Dog Skills.

(A note about rewards: They have to be highly rewarding TO THE DOG. While we like to think our dogs work for our love and affection, really they prefer food or toys. Each dog is different– a dog who goes nuts for cheese may not care about hot dogs. A dog who is not accepting a reward that he typically does is probably over-stressed and you need to take a step back in your training and find the place where he’s not stressing.)

The second important thing that I learned was that heavily rewarding the behaviors that I wanted was a whole lot easier and more effective than trying to punish out the behaviors that I didn’t want. It is much easier for a dog to learn a specific behavior to do than to try to figure out from many options what not to do. In this case, I was looking for attention on me.

For her to learn this, she needed to learn self-control.

Self-control is a really hard thing for a lot of dogs, but it is at the heart of so many behaviors that we want, from walking politely on a leash without pulling to responding to a “leave it” command instead of snatching a dropped pill off the floor. We did a lot of work with Luce lying on a mat on the floor (bathmats work great for this) while I rewarded her heavily with wonderful tasty food for being calm and staying on her mat as I gradually increased the amount of distraction..

So proud!

So proud!

The absolute best resource for this is Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. There is also a handy audio version.

It is boring and it is repetetive but it works. Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program builds extensively on Karen Overall’s work. Although it was initially intended as a program for dogs who play sports, it has many “real life” applications, and many people with reactive dogs have had great success with it. The puppy book is a bit easier to follow and works great for adult dogs as well as pups.

It didn’t get better overnight. It took time, patience, perseverance. It took a lot of not giving up even when I wanted to. I took class after class and worked with Luce outside of class, and eventually there were very obvious results. My instructor started encouraging me to do rally obedience trials with her. I laughed and said they can have my leash when they pry it from my cold, dead hands. She said that conveniently, the first level is all on leash.

And so began my journey into the world of dog sports. At Luce’s very first trial, we finished in second place. Together we would go on to earn six rally obedience titles, 4 rally obedience championship-level titles, two traditional obedience titles, and two national rally rankings. She retired– she’s 11 years old now– with the alphabet soup of ARCHX Luce CD CD-H RA RLV RL3 RL2X RL1X CGC TT.

Wall of glory.

Wall of glory.

Not bad for a crazy little red pit bull that somebody threw away. I hope the journey was worth as much to her as it was to me.

Further resources for dealing with reactive/difficult dogs:
When Pigs Fly Dog Training
DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space
Dr. Sophia Yin
Local behavior consultant Barb Demerest

 
 

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In praise of old dogs.

While October was Adopt a Shelter Pet month, November has a more specific focus: Adopt a Senior Pet.

Mostly people pass over the oldsters in the shelter in search of a young dog. Unfortunately “senior” labels are applied in some shelters to pets as young as six years old! Six is not senior unless you’re looking at a giant breed dog. Six is often the prime of life! And especially for cats.

I understand the idea of wanting to get a pet who will be with you for a very long time. But depending on what you’re looking for in a companion, an older pet might be better suited for your lifestyle. Many of the young dogs in the shelter are large and unruly, with minimal self-control and nearly no manners. Many of them are nice! dogs. They’re happy and they want to play play play. But they require a LOT of effort on your part. Training, enough exercise to tire them out so they’re not over the top in the house. Dealing with the things they’ve chewed up. Not that young shelter dogs aren’t great! But you need to know what you’re getting into if it is going to work.

An older dog presents a different set of issues. Often they’re mellower, housebroken, and they crazy edge of youth has worn off. They’re not into everything ALL THE TIME. Their physical exercise needs are often more easily met and put less strain on the relationship.

Siren at 16 years old.

Siren at 16 years old.

BUT you are also looking at getting into the time of life where more physical problems start to crop up. Joint problems in bigger dogs which can require Joint Supplements or pain medication. Dental issues. All of the older dog diseases like hypothyroidism. So before you jump into adopting an older dog, it is good to make sure that you’re financially able to deal with what you have ahead of you.

The truly senior pets languishing in shelters are what truly break my heart. They often wind up there through no fault of their own. Their owners die. They’re victims of divorce. They just aren’t that interesting anymore. It’s sad. It’s world-rocking to any pet, but especially to an older pet, to end up in a shelter environment. And it makes me terribly sad to think of them living out their last days without someone who truly loves them.

It takes a special person to bring home a truly elderly pet. It’s not something everyone can do, and it’s not something everyone should do. I have done it twice now. My first old dog was a 15 year old Miniature Poodle whose owner had to go into a nursing home. She was a high maintenance little dog with a slew of health problems, but after a lot of long hard soul-searching, I took her on as my very first dog. It was hard sometimes, but it was also wonderful. She was senile and silly and delightful. She was extremely attached to me. (That myth that a dog adopted at an older age won’t bond with you is sooooooooo not true.) I had her for about 18 months before she passed away. It was hard to see her go, but I knew that I had given her what she deserved for that time, and I felt good about that.

Harvey at 11. He lost one of his eyes to glaucoma.

Harvey at 11. He lost one of his eyes to glaucoma.

So good, in fact, that several years later I went out and brought home an old pit bull mix from a shelter. He’d been in and out of the shelter several times, had lived there for a year, and nobody ever even looked at him. It’s really amazing he lived long enough for me to meet him and save him– an old black bully breed is often tops of the euthansia list. But the people at that shelter saw something in him. And I saw it too.

Harvey was a hilarious dog. He was so sweet and eager to please but he was senile and kind of dumb as a stump. I took him to beginner obedience class. He learned to sit and to shake hands and that is all. But it was great fun anyway. He was very much an old man, but he’d still get the puppy zoomies at meal times and made me laugh and laugh. He was a sweet, gentle, placid dog. Not until after he passed away did I learn he had been a cruelty seizure years ago. I never would have guessed that from the way he acted. He loved everybody. Amazing how these dogs can trust when they have every reason not to.

Loss hurts whether it comes after only a year or it comes after 14 years. I do think it is a different kind of loss. When you get a pup, you’re looking at having that dog for years and years. If that is cut short prematurely, it’s a true tragedy. And if you come to the end of those golden years, you have so much to look back on. But when you go into a shelter or a rescue mentally prepared that you’re going to bring home a pet that you will likely not have for a long time, you develop a different kind of relationship. No less close. No less affectionate. But you know. You know what you’re doing, you know what you’re facing, and you know that it is so worth it to that life you’ve provided, finally, with his forever home.

I would love to see more people even consider adopting older pets. Sometimes you’re the right person for it, the right family for it, and sometimes you’re not. But I would love to have more people at least think about it realistically and maybe they will find out as I did, as so many others have, that providing a cushy retirement home for an old guy in need could be a very rewarding part of life.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Cats, Dogs, Shelter Adoption

 

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