8 things your new dog doesn’t need

Getting to know Brynn
Our former foster puppy, Trina.

Believe me, I’ve been there: You’re bringing a new dog or puppy home, and you want to go absolutely wild in PetsMart. It’s overwhelming; there’s so much STUFF out there these days for dogs. But here’s a secret tip: You don’t need even a third of the things that giant pet store chains sell.

Here are some things we learned that our dogs actually don’t need.

  1. An expensive dog bed. We threw away hundreds of dollars on dog beds, as our dogs and fosters taught us that dog beds are for shredding for fun or destroying with a variety of unpleasant bodily functions. We now just buy lots of old blankets, towels, and comforters from thrift stores to put in their crates. Recycle, reuse! If the blanket gets destroyed, no big loss. The dogs are comfortable and so is our wallet.
  2. Puppy pee pads. Unless you want your puppy to think peeing/pooping inside is fine, don’t try to house-train with these.
  3. Canned food. Unless you have a toothless dog or one with some serious nutritional issues, canned food is really expensive and generally unnecessary.
  4. A choke collar or a prong collar. Please don’t use these on your dog’s neck. They’re not useful training tools and often just teach a dog to have aggressive reactions. Use a front-clip harness instead.
  5. A head halter. Dogs despise these things, for one, and for another, dogs’ heads are very sensitive, and jerking on a head halter to keep them from pulling is risky and often counterproductive. Head halters make walks miserable for everyone, from my experience. Again, check out a good front-clipping harness.
  6. Rawhides. Dogs really like rawhides, but they’re not good for dogs on the whole and can quickly become choking hazards. They are also not fully digestible, but dogs don’t think of them that way. Benebones are a great digestible alternative.
  7. A Furminator. Just use a standard shedding rake. I dislike Furminators because they rip out the guard hairs of your dog’s coat. You can actually make your dog bald in patches if you go overboard with the Furminator. They’re very expensive and not worth it, in my opinion.
  8. A retractable (Flexi) leash. God, I hate retractable leashes. If you ever want me to start ranting on the street, ask me what I think about retractable leashes. You are not giving your dog more “freedom,” you just have no control over your dog whatsoever, you are not teaching them how to walk on a leash, and you will experience some serious leg burns at some point in your career of using these “leashes.” Just say no.
Look what I found
As Eden can attest, sometimes found wood is the best toy of all.

What would you add to the list? What’s a pet product you see that you don’t think is really necessary?

The way we see pit bulls matters

In the circles I move in, it surprises me whenever I hear that people still harbor such negative opinions of pit bulls or dogs who resemble the bully breed type. When I volunteered at our local SPCA, some of my friends expressed concern about all of the pit bulls there and asked me if I was afraid of them. And I’d say no, I didn’t have time to be afraid of them, because all of them were spending all of their energy trying to crawl into my lap and lick my mouth. I was surprised. Isn’t everyone on board with pit bulls now? Apparently not.

I was also startled, when visiting a beach in Ireland this summer, to see that (really shockingly and stupidly broad) breed-specific legislation was being enforced there. I shouldn’t have been: the United Kingdom and Ireland are on the long list of countries that ban bully breeds.

And just a few weeks ago, Montréal joined the list of major cities that aim to ban pit bulls.* (*It sounds like there is an effort to put this on hold? Will be interested to hear how this develops.) Denver and Miami still ban them, and it is plausible to assume that other cities around the world will continue to buy into breed-based discrimination in the name of “safety” and “public order.” There are still very vocal “advocacy” groups hell bent on outlawing pit bulls.

How I wish more people and more legislators would read Bronwen Dickey’s excellent book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon.

Dickey approaches the story of the “breed” (more like dog type) with the clear-headed mind of a journalist and historian. She is a thorough researcher and weaves together a variety of subjects, interviews, and studies to explain why we see pit bulls the way we do now.

What results is a genuinely fascinating narrative of the ebb and flow of US public opinion regarding this dog. Americans have freaked out about particular dog breeds before — there was a murder campaign over the tiny, innocuous-looking German spitz in the early 1900s (totally surprised to learn about this one), and then, more recently, other German breeds, like German shepherds, dobermans, and rottweilers — but no terror seems to have lasted as long as the one we’ve directed at pit bulls.

Dickey makes a powerful case that a lot of our disdain and fear of pit bulls stems from systemic racism. Pit bulls are often featured in lower-income neighborhoods, and in America, we set up our neighborhoods so that the poorest ones are organized by race. She quotes a Baltimore activist, Lawrence Grandpre, in the Baltimore Sun:

“Over time, it seems that ‘pit bull’ has become a synonym for ‘black,’ and thus a similar bias seems to be at play here. As a black person raised in Baltimore, pit bulls were a central part of the social fabric of my life. The best dog I ever had was a pit bull, and he was the sweetest thing I have ever met. I am confident that if you were to ask the vast majority of pit bull owners in this city, they will tell you the same thing. For black folks like me who grew up with them, we love them because when we were born into a violent world not of our choosing, they protected us.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pit bulls, Dickey concludes, are just dogs. They are no more virtuous or vicious than any other dog. But we have really caused them to suffer because of our own prejudices. It is a sad thing indeed.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in canine and human welfare to read this book and to share it with others.

Have you read Pit Bull? What do you think?

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Disclaimer: I was not asked to write this review or compensated in any way. Just really loved the book and wanted to share!

What kind of dog should I get?

Pup friends! A visit from Georgia.
Georgia (L), my in-laws’ dog, and Eden, as puppies.

No, I’m not getting another dog. (You can keep breathing, husband.)

But I am often asked this question, and I hear people asking it all the time. So I thought I’d develop an answer for what I would say, if I had the time and leisure, to someone who asked me what kind of dog they should get.

The most important things to remember, at the start, are:

  1. Breed doesn’t matter that much. Dogs are individuals. They may bear certain traits known to their breed, but it’s not a reliable predictor of temperament, generally. We have two purebred German shepherds and they have wildly different personalities from one another.
  2. Purebred dogs are pretty screwed up, genetically, on the whole. You can find great breeders who are trying to avoid the generations of inbreeding, but be prepared to pay a pretty penny for such a puppy.
  3. Think about your lifestyle and the type of dog that would fit it. Are you a runner? Look for energetic, athletic breeds. Or do you prefer Netflix in the evenings? Look for slower-moving, less active dogs. Consider your home, your city, your work hours, and your family.

We all develop affection for certain breeds or breed types, but the more time I spend reading about and living with dogs, the more convinced I am that we should stop obsessing about breed so much.

We have two purebred German shepherds that we rescued, and while I love them, I wouldn’t recommend shepherds to many people. Our girls are very bright, but intelligent dogs are high maintenance and demanding. Shepherds don’t really let you relax a whole lot. They also have a lot of minor health issues that, although not debilitating, are certainly costly on a monthly basis.

Doggy summer camp
Georgia might be the perfect dog.

Were we to ever get another dog, I’d want one like Georgia, featured above, who is my in-laws’ dog. She looks like a miniature Golden retriever. She’s full-grown and about 40 lbs. and has such a sunny, outgoing disposition. She’s healthy and companionable and sweet and she doesn’t give anyone a moment’s anxiety.

These are the things that would be important to me in another dog, beyond breed. When you are thinking about a dog, think about the dog’s health and structure before you think about their superficial looks or breed label.

I feel like the goal is to get a healthy dog who looks as much like a generic street dog as possible.

Stray dogs in Venezuela. Wikimedia Commons.
Stray dogs in Venezuela. Wikimedia Commons.

Qualities I’d look for in a dog (purebred or no)

  • 20-70 lbs. This is a generally safe and healthy range for a dog of any breed or type. When you start straying to the extremes on either end (too tiny or too giant), you start wandering into the zone of unhealthy pups. Yes, dogs who are smaller or larger than this range can be perfectly healthy, but the good rule of thumb is: don’t get a dog who is too tiny or too enormous.
  • Functional ears (no cropped ears). Dogs’ ears should work to help them communicate.
  • Long muzzle. No brachycephalic breeds for me, ever.
  • No skin folds. Don’t get a dog who was bred to have a lot of wrinkles, which serve no purpose and just cause the dog irritation and infection. This means no pugs, no bulldogs, no shar-peis, no basset hounds, etc.
  • Full tail (no docked tails). I’ve always loved Australian shepherds, but the tail docking is totally unnecessary at this point, and it causes dogs a lot of communication issues with their fellow canines. Our Aussie was constantly getting into spats with other dogs, and I think part of it was her taillessness. (For this reason, I’m interested in English shepherds as a solid alternative to Aussies.) Dogs need tails to communicate.
  • Fur capable of hackle-raising. This is something that John Bradshaw brought up in his book In Defence of Dogs, and I admit it’s not one that I thought about before, but being able to raise one’s hackles is another really important canine communication element that we often breed out of dogs. Super-short-haired dogs (like dobermans, whippets, boxers, etc.) are often not able to raise their hackles.
  • No exotic color patterns (all white, merles). All-white dogs can often be deaf; merles and pronounced spots (e.g., Dalmatians) can be blind and deaf. Avoid purebreds that breed for these traits.
  • Proper proportions (no exaggerated limbs, head shapes, eyes, muzzles). No dachshunds, corgis, pugs, bulldogs, bull terriers, French bulldogs, Boston terriers, pekingese, etc. This criterion rules out a lot of “trendy” breeds right now.

To sum it up: Think about wolves and think about street dogs. Can your purebred puppy communicate like these dogs? Can it run and jump and breathe normally? If not, think about another breed.

There are innumerable mixed breeds that fit these qualifications, and I think we’d most likely obtain our next dog from a shelter or rescue, aiming for a mixed-breed puppy that appeared to meet this criteria.

But if I were to pick a purebred, I’d be attracted to the following breeds that meet these standards:

English shepherds. By JulieFurgason at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
English shepherds. By JulieFurgason at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
  • English shepherd. This is the classic British Isles sheepdog. They come in a variety of colors and they are just solid working-type dogs who are neither too large nor too small. A bit like Aussies with tails.
  • Berger picard. I love these scruffy French sheepdogs.
  • Greyhound. Greyhounds tend to be among the healthiest purebreds because they are bred for speed, not necessarily for looks, and there are always plenty in rescues who need good homes.
  • Kooikerhondje. I adore these little Dutch spaniels. Perfect size and rare enough here that they’re not unbearably over-bred.
  • Silken windhound. I’ve always loved borzois, but their look is too extreme (that needle-pointed muzzle), and so an American scientist created her own breed (albeit with the rather goofy name), which is like a mini-borzoi. Her careful genetic analysis has led to some of these dogs living to be as old as 17!
Kooikerhondje. Wikimedia Commons.
Kooikerhondje. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s on your list of qualifications for a dog, purebred or not?

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Dog Dreaming

Source: Flickr user pure9. PhotoPin, Creative Commons license.
Source: Flickr user pure9. PhotoPin, Creative Commons license.

Dog Dreaming

W.S. Merwin

The paws twitch in place of chasing
Where the whimper of this seeming-gentle creature
Rings out terrible, chasing tigers. The fields
Are licking like torches, full of running,
Laced odors, bones stalking, tushed leaps.
So little that is tamed, yet so much
That you would find deeply familiar there.
You are there often, your very eyes,
The unfathomable knowledge behind your face,
The mystery of your will, appraising
Such carnage and triumph; standing there
Strange even to yourself, and loved, and only
A sleeping beast knows who you are.

10 best books for dog owners

I have read a lot of books about dogs. I read about 60 books about dog behavior, training, and psychology before we adopted our first dog, Pyrrha, and I still love to read dog books today.

I get asked from time to time by new dog owners about what they should read. Following are the top 10 books I’d recommend to people with dogs, covering everything from training to behavior to history. I link to the reviews I’ve written of these books, and if not available, I provide a link to the book’s Goodreads page.

Dog lovers, read away!

  1. The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell
  2. The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller
  3. Bones Would Rain from the Sky, Suzanne Clothier
  4. For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
  5. Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz
  6. Dog Sense, John Bradshaw
  7. On Talking Terms with Dogs, Turid Rugaas
  8. Love Has No Age Limit, Patricia McConnell
  9. Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt
  10. The Adopted Dog Bible, Kim Saunders

(As you can see, my general opinions is that if you read anyone on dogs, start with Patricia McConnell. I think she’s the gold standard for modern writing on dogs. Her blog, The Other End of the Leash, is predictably fantastic as well.)

Honorable mentions

What are your favorite books about dogs? What would you add to these lists?

Retrieving is uncertain work

Creative Commons license.
Creative Commons license.

Lab Lines
Robert Benson

Retrieving is uncertain work.
Fetch him bright fragrant feathers dead,
He grins and pats his gratitude.
But barf a scented toad beside his bed,
He screams, slams doors and me.

A still warm, gay and bloody duck,
He kneels and gathers like a grail.
But bring up week-old possum warm,
His voice goes grim; his face turns pale.
It’s all retrieval; reactions vary.

Balls or bumpers, birds and toads,
I think it should be none or all.
Last night I urped a knot of tennis net;
Picky bastard won’t ever get the ball.
I’m keeping the next duck too.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Dog poems = always good for a Friday laugh. But it’s also catalyst for a bit of reflection: Isn’t it interesting how vastly our perceptions of appropriate/inappropriate vary when compared with our dogs? It’s all retrieval; reactions vary.

Review: ZiwiPeak jerky treats

I don’t know about you, but we’re always on the hunt for high-quality, small-sized treats for daily training and practice. We’re perpetually working on leash reactivity, and so we try to always have some good reinforcement on hand to rebuild those neural pathways.


Accordingly, we were delighted to try this offering from Chewy.com: ZiwiPeak’s Good Dog lamb jerky treats, which originate in New Zealand.


These are 95% lamb and grain free, and they come in these tiny, lightweight little strips, which are just perfect for handing out and training on the go.


A bag of these treats currently sells for $7.22 at Chewy.com.

Pyrrha and Eden were VERY excited as soon as I ripped that pouch open. They were ready to throw out any trick or behavior to get a taste, and these little treats certainly didn’t disappoint them.

Pyrrha and Eden

What have you been using for training tidbits lately? 

Disclaimer: We were provided with a bag of these treats in exchange for our honest review. We were not otherwise compensated, and we only review products that we genuinely recommend.