Little dogs, big attitude problems

One of the reasons I’m not overwhelmingly fond of little dogs is that I’ve met very few well-behaved ones.

My theory is this: Little dogs are often extremely cute. If they misbehave, it’s easy to excuse their behavior as an adorable tantrum and not give them any discipline or structure. If a little dog jumps on you–or even growls at you when you try to approach it or take away its toy–it’s easily ignored. They’re so tiny! What could they do? This is not the case if you have a big dog. Big dogs demand obedience training, because they can’t get away with bad behavior as easily as little dogs. If your lab or a German shepherd is out of control, you need to handle that problem ASAP. If your chihuahua or yorkie bites people, well, it seems like no big deal. Because they’re so cute and their teeth are so tiny!

This is not to say that everyone who has a big dog trains him; if only that were true! Rather, my generalization is that people with little dogs, especially toy breeds, seem to have a tendency to skip obedience training altogether. The result is fluffy-faced miniature terrors who become behavioral nightmares, despite only weighing a little more than five pounds.

Case in point. I got really, really frustrated with a woman and her two bichons on Sunday when I was out walking Bo.

Bo is a big, handsome golden retriever. He’s friendly to everyone, but with other dogs, he’s usually quite shy. He always wants to go up and say hello, but he slinks around them. We were walking up the sidewalk and I saw a woman on her cell phone walking two bichons on retractable leashes. I noticed that one of the dogs crouched down in a predatory way as we approached and locked eyes with Bo.

I moved off the sidewalk to let them pass and stepped into the street, giving them quite a wide girth. However, as we passed, this predatory-looking bichon charged after Bo, snarling and snapping at him. The woman did NOTHING to rein her dog in, and since he was on a (#*!@) retractable leash, we had to keep running into the street to get away from him. The dog ends up biting Bo on the back leg as we keep trying to run away from them, made difficult by the dog on the line that won’t be reined in. She laughed and asked me, “Is your dog a puppy?” “What? No,” I said, distracted and still trying to get away from her and her white demons. “Weird. He usually attacks puppies! Isn’t that cute?” she said, and kept walking away. “No, that’s NOT cute,” I said, but she wasn’t listening.

People out there with dogs: How is this in any way acceptable? If I let Bo do that to other dogs (especially other people’s PUPPIES!), I would get written up. I really wanted to bless that lady out. Instead, I just kept walking, fuming. (I admit I was also imagining this scenario playing out if I had a dog who wouldn’t tolerate such nonsense from such a little brat…) Bo seemed fine after we kept moving on, but I was still riled up about it when I got home.

What would you have done in this situation? Is there anything appropriate to say to people with little dogs who don’t do anything to train or control them?


Families raising dogs

Thinking today about stay-at-home moms raising dogs. Source: Flickr, user: hab3045

Did you grow up with great family dog? If so, you should probably thank your mom.

Although this family dynamic is clearly shifting today, a majority of women in previous generations were stay-at-home moms. Dad went to work, the kids went to school, and mom stayed home with Lassie. This means Lassie learned most of her habits and household behaviors from mom. Dad might have reinforced some strong-handed training early on, but Lassie spent the majority of the day with mom. Mom let her out, fed her, disciplined her, groomed her, maybe even walked her. This practice of mom as the primary caretaker and trainer of the family pooch may have fostered some of today’s gender imbalance among trainers and breeders in the canine world, a topic which I’ve speculated on before.

I think back on my own family, growing up with Emma, our Australian shepherd. We were a very unorthodox American family in that both Mom and Dad were stay-at-home parents. For a large part of our childhood, my father was a self-employed computer programmer who worked out of our home. My mother homeschooled the four of us and ran the accounts for the small business she owned with her sister. This means that all six of us were home, together, all day long. I realize today that this closeness of the family led to one very happy Australian shepherd. She got to be with her “flock” all day. This is a huge gift to any dog, but especially to a herding breed. Because of this, Emma never developed any form of separation anxiety.

But she did develop into a dog who didn’t get the proper amount of exercise and who suffered from a lack of consistent training. Early on, my fourteen-year-old self was responsible for training young Emma. I had read all of the dog books; I had been the one to pick out the breed and pick out Emma from her litter–and so I appointed myself as her trainer. Aussies are very smart and highly adaptable puppies and Emma was no exception. She was housebroken in a week and never made an accident in the house for as long as we had her. A few weeks later, she could consistently sit, stay, and lie down. We taught her tricks like rolling over, doing an army crawl, and hopping on her hind legs. She was very bright and eager to learn.

However, my teenage self made the mistake of thinking that training stopped there. We taught her how to do cute things, but we didn’t train her how to do useful things–like how to walk on a leash and how to stop barking. As I gained interest in boys and high school, I unfortunately began to lose interest in Emma. My mom became Emma’s primary caretaker. She fed Emma, she kept her clean, she made sure her heartworm and flea medications were administered. But Mom wasn’t especially interested in training Emma–particularly since my father was more interested in undoing all of the things I had taught her.

My dad loves dogs. He grew up with dozens of different dogs on farms in Indiana. He also loves wolves, though, and tends to think that dogs should be allowed to behave like wolves–at least, to be as wild as they please. In Emma, he found another playmate. Emma loved to tear around the house after him and he would egg her on. He loved making her jump on us while we were sleeping in our beds. He wrestled with her in the living room and enjoyed teasing her, inciting her to bark and snap at him. I was frustrated and distraught; I was watching my supposedly “perfect dog” be ruined. I felt powerless to intercept my father and address the bad behaviors he had taught Emma.

Together, Mom and Dad were on opposite ends with their approach to Emma–something I’m sure she picked up on. My mother wanted her to be obedient, calm, and cuddly. She was obedient if you asked her to do something, but she was rarely calm around my dad and almost never cuddly (probably because my five-year-old brother was always trying to use her as a pillow or as a miniature horse). On the other hand, my father wanted Emma to be his wolfish playmate, a gleefully wild animal with whom he could wreak havoc around the house. The poor dog was constantly getting mixed messages from her family.

I can only wonder what would have happened to Emma if my mom had had more jurisdiction over her. Maybe we wouldn’t have given her away. Emma didn’t deserve to be abandoned by her family. Even though it wasn’t my decision, I will feel guilty about that for the rest of my life.

Regardless of whether or not I end up being a stay-at-home mom, I hope that I’ll be a consistent and faithful parent to my dog. That’s what Emma deserved.