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?

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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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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?

Should you get a pug? Or a bulldog?

English bulldog. Creative Commons license.
English bulldog. Creative Commons license.

Short answer: No. Please don’t.

Long answer:

Let’s have a brief and simplistic history lesson of the purebred dog, shall we?

Dogs have been around for a long time. When they were bred in the past, they were bred for function. Dogs that were good at herding were bred to other good herders; dogs that were good at hunting were bred to other good hunting dogs. And then you had sheepdogs and hounds. Their appearance probably varied greatly, but they were prized because they could get the job done.

But around the turn of the century, eugenics started to become popular. Maintaining the “purity” of races was all the rage (and we remember how that turned out, in the form of Nazi Germany). Victorian England decided to turn its racial purity sights onto their beloved dogs, and they created the Kennel Club in 1873 and with it, the notion of a “pure”-bred dog. Dog shows and an invented breed standard allowed wealthy dog owners to breed their pets into status symbols.

Kennel clubs exist all around the world today, and the typical purebred dog is bred to meet a breed standard, determined by a kennel club. This breed standard is determined by the breed clubs, and it is based on a somewhat mythical (and changeable) notion of what the “perfect” example of its breed should look like. Dog shows are strictly beauty pageants. Dogs have to meet an arbitrary, human-defined standard of beauty to be declared fit to be bred. And therein lies the problem.

When we make appearance the primary criteria for choosing a dog, we do a great disservice to the health and welfare of dogs everywhere.

These are the two main problems with making beauty the only thing that counts when breeding dogs:

  • Genetic diseases skyrocket. Among humans, it’d be gross/totally taboo for a grandfather to procreate with his granddaughter. But in the purebred dog world, this is completely common and even encouraged, especially if that sire is a ribbon winner. Naturally, this makes inherited disease vastly more common. As a weird/gross factoid of how far we’ve taken this, Imperial College London found that the approximately 10,000 pugs in the United Kingdom are equivalent to only 50 genetic individuals.
  • Anatomy gets screwed up to meet a capricious breed standard. Again, the breed standard is completely invented. There is no good reason for dachshunds to have one-inch-long legs anymore. There is no good reason for German shepherds to have back hocks that almost touch the ground. There is no good reason for bulldogs to be unable to respirate normally because of their squashed snouts. The dogs are bred this way to meet a breed standard, which is completely made up. And we are destroying their bodies in the process.
Pug. Creative Commons license.
Pug. Creative Commons license.

Didn’t your mother ever tell you looks don’t matter? It’s what’s on the inside that counts? And what’s on the inside of many purebreds, especially snub-nosed (brachycephalic), breeds is royally effed up, thanks to kennel clubs and breed standards.

I always get a lot of hate mail/negative comments when I express this opinion—that bulldogs and pugs are desperately unhealthy and over-bred—but I feel so strongly about this issue that it rolls off my back like water. I also have science on my side, so that helps.

Here’s a great summation of many of the physical problems with pedigree dogs, via following infographic from the RSPCA:

Dogs-deserve-better-infographic

If you have a pug, French bulldog, English bulldog, or pekingese, or any extremely over-bred/deformed purebred, I know you love your dog. I know your dog loves you. They’re little fighters. They suffer and they don’t complain.

I know it’s not directly your fault that your dog can’t breathe or reproduce naturally. It’s the fault of generations of eugenics inflicted on canines to fit a wholly arbitrary breed standard.

French bulldogs. Creative Commons license.
French bulldogs. Creative Commons license.

But what is terrifying and depressing now is how registrations of brachycephalic dogs have soared over the past decade. Pugs and bulldogs are extremely trendy right now. They appear in tons of marketing and ad campaigns, and it’s “hip” to have a dog with a squashed face, especially in big cities. French bulldogs and pugs are small and relatively “lazy” (largely because they are incapable of too much exertion because of their anatomy), and so they appeal to many city dwellers.

I see so many pugs and bulldogs on the street, and I feel crushed a little every time I do. If you even know the slightest bit about canine anatomy, you can observe how much these dogs labor and struggle to even walk or trot short distances, especially on hot days. My hair stylist’s 5-year-old English bulldog dropped dead in the park one summer day because his heart simply gave out. Her vet said she’d seen it happen multiple times with bulldogs. I grow sad when I hear owners laughing about how their pugs or bulldogs “snore” or grunt so much. It isn’t really funny; your dog snores so loudly because she actually can’t get enough air. It’s heartbreaking. Dogs deserve better than this. 

So, what are you to do, if you really like the look of pugs or French bulldogs? Here are a few ideas.

Alternatives to a pug/French bulldog/English bulldog

Puggle. Creative Commons license.
Puggle. Creative Commons license.
  • Puggle. Pug + beagle = dog who can breathe!
  • Pit bull or pit-type dogs. Still the squashed face that may appeal to you, but a much healthier build. And there are TONS of wonderful, happy pitties in shelters all around the country who are desperate to find happy homes.
  • Any mixed breed! Really. Breed is not a great determinant for personality. And modern purebreds, especially brachycephalic purebreds, tend to be genetic disasters.
A pit bull-type dog. Creative Commons license.
A pit bull-type dog. Creative Commons license.

But it’s time we spoke up for purebred dogs, who can’t speak up for themselves. Start demanding better breed standards from local breed clubs. Urge the kennel club in your country to take stronger measures to ensure that dogs are healthy and free of genetic disease.

The most important thing is to resist the urge to buy a puppy that’s bred to extremes. If we stop demanding snub-nosed breeds, the supply will decrease. Just say no to pugs and bulldogs. After all they give us, dogs deserve better, healthier, longer lives. And we have the power to give it to them.

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What I’ve unintentionally trained my dogs to do

Serious sentinels

We’re always training our dogs, even when we think we aren’t.

I should repeat this line to myself daily. Dogs learn through repetition and reinforcement, and they are probably inadvertently training us more than we are training them. Because I allow myself to be inattentive and lazy, I have permitted our dogs to practice some less-than-great household habits.

Open door policy

Here are some (undesirable) things I have unintentionally trained our dogs to do (or: A Lesson in How Not to Train Your Dogs). Pyrrha and Eden have learned to:

  • Claw at the outside door because it means that Abby will come open it quickly and be grumpy about it, because we’ve scratched all the paint off and the door now looks like someone was murdered outside it, and she just can’t take it anymore 
  • Come running when they hear the sound of plastic packaging being opened
  • Expect help with a trapped/lost food toy when Abby comes in the room
  • Whine for assistance when a beloved ball is lost under the sofa for the millionth time
  • Flip out when the coat closet door is open, because that is where the leashes live
  • Flip out when a particular cabinet door is opened, because that is where the food lives
  • Bark at the neighbors because it’s super fun and makes Abby really irritated and yell-y

Just to name a few.

I’ve been thinking lately about how I need to really work on these behaviors, in a more concerted way, after watching a video from Kikopup about why letting dogs freak out about meal time is really a major step back in their training. It’s such a simple and true concept, and I’m not sure why I never thought about it before.

So, consider this my promise to myself, and to Pyrrha and Eden, that we are going to team up and start working to erode these oft-practiced behaviors with some switching up of routines, preventing these bad habits from being practiced in the first place, and teaching some incompatible behaviors with tons of positive reinforcement.

What have your dogs unintentionally learned? What have they trained you to do or expect? 

7 ways to keep a German shepherd busy

An important question for anyone with a dog to ask is, What is my dog’s genetic heritage? In other words, what was my dog bred to do? 

Knowing what your dog was bred for is a helpful way to learn what activities will best engage your dog. And all dog breeds, believe it or not, were created to serve a function. We often lose sight of this in our 21st-century approach to dogs, in which the majority of purebreds are created for (a) their looks, based on rather arbitrary breed standards, and (b) for companionship. But many breeds still retain their instincts to work and fulfill specific purposes.

Some breeds’ functions are (etymologically) much easier to guess than others. For instance, retrievers were bred to… retrieve. Shepherds were bred to herd sheep. Sighthounds (greyhounds, whippets, borzois, etc.) were bred for their keen vision in and speed in chasing small game. Other breed names have become misnomers because of ruinous breeding practices. Your modern bulldog, for instance, is certainly incapable of baiting any bulls (much less walking down a sidewalk without having difficulty breathing).

Even if you have a mixed-breed dog, you can probably make some educated guesses, based on your dog’s interests. Does he love to bark and chase and corral moving objects, people, or animals? He could have herding heritage. Is she obsessed with smelling everything? She might have some hound in her background. Does he adore digging holes? You might have a terrier type on your hands.

Dogs in April

We have two German shepherds, and so I am often thinking about what they were bred to do. The German shepherd dog (GSD) was created at the turn of the century by German cavalry officer Max von Stephanitz. Inspired by the English ardor for purebreds, Stephanitz sought to standardize the herding dogs used in Germany and used this dog as his model:

Horand von Grafrath, Stephanitz's model for the German shepherd.
Horand von Grafrath, Stephanitz’s model for the German shepherd.

Shortly after the creation of the breed, Stephanitz founded the first schutzhund (protection dog) club, which is still in existence today. From his model, shepherds have a lineage of herding (believe it or not) and protection (whether of people or property) and working very closely with humans. Stephanitz wanted a dog that looked like a wolf but unlike a wolf, was highly motivated to work with people. Today, German shepherds are most commonly seen in the public eye working with law enforcement, military branches, search and rescue, bomb and drug detection, and cadaver search, just to name a few.

German shepherds are a strong, intelligent, sensitive, versatile, and demanding breed, and therefore, they can be a big pain for us normal people who decide to keep them in their homes. If you’re not going out every day and searching for bombs with your shepherd, how else can you keep her happy and busy? Here are some ideas.

7 Ways to Keep Your German Shepherd Busy If You’re a Normal Person

1: Puppy-play dates

This is not exactly a canine sport, but I think free time with other dogs is especially vital to the health and well-being of a German shepherd.

Play date with Loki
Eden and Pyrrha with Loki, a Newfoundland.

Like many intelligent and observant breeds, GSDs have a tendency to be touchy. If they are not socialized throughout their lives (particularly when they are puppies), their ability to get along with other dogs can be seriously undermined and lead to unchecked territorial behavior and anxiety-induced aggression.

Four-dog play-date
Josie, a working-line GSD; Finn, a Llewellyn setter; and Eden.

If you have a fenced-in yard like we do, invite other stable dogs that you know and like over for a play-date. If you don’t have a fenced-in yard, try to find a secure area for your dog to interact off leash with other dogs. I personally find dog parks a little risky, but if you have one nearby that you like and trust, go for it! I think this activity is one of the most important for our shepherds.

2: Schutzhund

Schutzhund is a German dog sport that was initially created as a suitability test for German shepherds. Today, all breeds can compete (although the field tends to be dominated by GSDs, Belgian malinois, and other large, working breeds) and the sport tests a dog’s ability to serve as a protection dog. Schutzhund competitors have to perform a series of tasks related to tracking, obedience, and protection.

511px-US_Navy_080728-N-5328N-681_Master-at-Arms_2nd_Class_Joshua_Johnson_performs_patrol_aggression_training_at_NAS_Pensacola_with
Schutzhund practice in the US Navy. Also, this dog is a malinois, but you get the idea. Creative Commons license.

Eden’s parents are both West German imports, and accordingly, both were titled in schutzhund. Her father, impressively, had achieved the Sch3 title (the “master’s degree”), which I think partially explains why she’s so intense all the time. Ha.

Schutzhund is not personally appealing to me, but I know that many greatly enjoy the sport and the bond that they develop with their dogs through it.

3: Herding

Yes! There is a resurgence of interest in German shepherds going back to their roots and herding sheep.

© Mark Härtl, Flickr.
© Mark Härtl, Flickr. Creative Commons license.

It takes a bit more effort and dedication to train a GSD to herd than it might for the typical border collie, but it is possible, particularly if your dog has a working lineage and the proper temperament. To get started in herding, you would want to have your dog assessed for herding instinct by a herding trainer in your area.

I think Eden could be a capable herder if we ever wanted to try. Pyrrha’s hunting instincts are too strong, I think, for her to overcome, and she is also not very confident in general. But it’s certainly a sport I’ve thought about for Edie.

4: Nose work

Nose work refers to trials in which dogs essentially play hide and seek with smells. It can be a great confidence builder, especially for shy dogs.

Pyrrha graduates from Canine Campus
A terrible photo of Pyrrha in class.

Pyrrha is very scent oriented, and I’ve thought about taking some nose work classes with our trainer, who offers a few levels of this canine sport. She is a shy butterfly, and I’ve love to see her excel at a sport that was just her speed.

5: Frisbee

Shepherds can be great disc dogs, as our little Eden has shown us. Eden LIVES for the Frisbee. It is the only thing that matters in her life.

If your shepherd has a fit build and an interest in chasing and retrieving objects, you have a Frisbee dog on your hands!

Easter weekend
Eden the disc-catching shepherd.

For more about teaching your shepherd how to catch (and return!) flying discs, see my post about how to train your dog to be a disc dog.

6: Agility

Your GSD may never be an agility all-star like a border collie, Australian shepherd, or Jack Russell terrier, but it can be a perfect canine sport for the active and motivated shepherd.

© John M (2007), Flickr. Creative Commons license.
© John M (2007), Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Again, because of her Frisbee-related jumping skills, I think Eden could really enjoy and excel at agility. I may have to coerce my husband to build us some little jumps to practice with in the backyard.

7: Therapy work

Do you have a particularly gentle, people-oriented shepherd? If so, consider therapy dog certification.

Meeting Ma-Maw
Pyrrha with my beloved late grandmother.

I think therapy dogs are some of the most beautiful and touching examples of how species can care for one another, and dogs are uniquely designed to lavish affection on people. Therapy dogs can serve a wide range of people and needs, and I am constantly impressed by their versatility.

Pyrrha is a gentle dog, but she is truthfully not a great candidate to be a therapy dog (probably because she still needs so much therapy herself), but under the right circumstances, she is extremely sweet with people, especially with the elderly.

Kisses for Ma-Maw!

These are just a few of the many, many activities that shepherds can enjoy, based on their lineage. It is a pleasure to have dogs who are so willing to work with people and learn new things.

How do you keep your dog active and engaged, based on his or her genetic heritage?

Returning home to a skunk problem

Creative Commons license.
Creative Commons license.

We are settling back into our home life with the dogs, but our backyard seems to have acquired a very unwelcome new resident: a skunk.

Two nights in a row, each dog got sprayed (“skunked”) in the face. Two nights in a row. It is the most unpleasant smell and the least enjoyable bath-time for both dogs and humans. The second time it happened, I opened the back door to let the dogs out for a final potty run, and the skunk was just a few yards away from the door, hanging out under our spruce tree. Both dogs raced toward it, of course, and ignored my hysterical reaction.

We have since set a have-a-heart trap in the backyard, but I don’t know what our plan is if we actually catch it. I’m just very ready for the cute, stinky varmint to live elsewhere.

Have you ever dealt with a skunk problem? Has your dog been skunked?