What I learned this week

Cockapoo Puppies
A cockapoo. Source: Flickr, user: melmansur

This weekend, we went to Raleigh for my brother-in-law’s college graduation. I got a bit of time with two dogs there: his housemate’s lab, Sally, and his girlfriend’s cockapoo, Adelaide.

Sally is a two-year-old yellow labrador retriever. She lives in a house with four college guys and so she’s developed an exceptional level of noise tolerance. The first time I met Sally, she was a nine-week-old puppy who was being passed around at a Superbowl party like a bowl of chips. She was pretty sleepy most of the time but handled it all gracefully. Today, Sally is a large, sleek young adult who is smart and devoted. The boys in the house do spend a lot of time with her and have trained her to do a variety of party tricks. She can speak and bow on command and will do just about anything to get her beloved tennis ball.

What I learned from watching Sally, though, was the importance of consistency in cues. I felt frustrated for poor Sally. A new trick she was learning was balancing a tennis ball on her snout and then catching it with a command. Different guys would come up to her and try to get her to perform this task, but often unsuccessfully. I think Sally was totally capable of performing, but the poor dog was so confused. Win, my brother-in-law, gave her the command “hold” while he balanced the ball on her nose. But there were a dozen people moving around and eating in the room and I think Sally was too distracted to perform. Two other guys tried this trick with Sally after Win. The first guy kept telling her “stay” while he held the ball over her nose and the other one gave her the cue “don’t move.” Poor Sally isn’t fluent in English. She didn’t know that these words all meant the same thing. Consistency is key in training; we often forget that dogs don’t speak English and don’t often understand our verbally complex or confusing requests.

Adelaide is a two-year-old black cockapoo who belongs to Tracy, my brother-in-law’s girlfriend. I went over to Tracy’s apartment to meet Adelaide and take her out before we went to a party. She’s a small mop who is so dark that it’s almost impossible to see her black eyes under her curly black fur. Adelaide was very submissive when I met her and so I tried not to reach down or over her when we met; rather, I crouched down a few feet from her and held out my hand for her to sniff and greet me on her own terms. After that initial contact, she was very snuggly and wanted to climb up into my lap.

Tracy shared Adelaide’s back story with me. I suspected that Adelaide might not have benefited from good parentage, since small breed mixes are very often farmed out in puppy mills or by irresponsible backyard breeders. Tracy saw a sign for puppies on the side of the road in her hometown and quickly found herself staring at a puppy mill. She said that Adelaide was kept in a small cage with seven other dogs. The man let out the puppies and Adelaide crawled on top of Tracy’s feet and looked at her. Tracy was heartbroken and conflicted. She was witnessing how terrible and unethical puppy mills were, and yet her heart was drawn to this abused little puppy.

Tracy took Adelaide home and began her long work of training and rehabilitation. Adelaide had some serious food aggression issues, which are quite common to puppies from puppy mills, who have to fight their cage-mates if they want to get enough to eat. She was also extremely fearful of men and is still very wary around them today. Tracy has worked with Adelaide through most of these issues, but she admitted to me that it hasn’t always been easy and she might have made some different choices had she known then what she knows now.

I felt very conflicted about Adelaide’s story. On one hand, I’d never want to give any money to the frankly evil people who run puppy mills. On the other hand, you have to wonder what will happen to these sick, abused dogs. Who else might end up with them? It’s very likely that some other unscrupulous person might end up with these maltreated puppies.

I don’t really have the answers on these questions, but I think about them often. For more information, read the ASPCA’s list of 10 ways you can help fight puppy mills. It’s high time this grotesque phenomenon of the mass production of pets ended.

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