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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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.

Doggerel

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

Doggerel

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.

Doggerel

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.

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?

Napping pub dogs

One thing I will really miss about London was the presence of dogs in pubs.

Gin and Fizzy

This adorable pair is named Gin (the black English cocker spaniel on the left) and Fizzy (the adorable tiny mix, frog-legging), and they hold court at the New Inn in our neighborhood in London.

Dogs in St. John's Wood

Dogs in St. John's Wood

I love them. Gin and Fizzy took their jobs as pub dogs quite seriously, and they were SO deeply mellow that they almost seemed drugged. It’s kind of adorable how sleepy they seemed to be every time we visited.

Are there any pubs or restaurants in your area that are especially dog friendly?

Dogs enjoying Barley Cove

This past weekend, we took a quick jaunt to Ireland’s southwest coast, where we enjoyed the misty beach at Barley Cove.

Barley Cove

And I, of course, enjoyed watching the legal* dogs enjoy the sand and surf. Irish dogs appear to be rather like British dogs, in that they tend to behave themselves very admirably in public.

Barley Cove

Barley Cove

Barley Cove

Barley Cove

(*More on that later!)

Barley Cove

Do your dogs enjoy the beach?

Is a (relatively) leash-less life a key to well-adjusted dogs?

Mint Springs Valley Park hike
Practicing some off-leash hiking, September 2014.

Related to my thoughts on the impeccably mannered British dog and to my dad’s practice with our dogs off leash this summer, I have started to piece together some conclusions about why European dogs have their ish together so much more than American dogs seem to, on the whole.

Some generalizations based on my limited time living in London:

  • Europeans seem to have high expectations for their dogs. They certainly dote on them, maybe even more than Americans do on the whole, but they also expect them to behave well. The (urban) European dog needs to be able to compose himself at a busy café, wait patiently outside a store, and stroll through a park without picking fights or harassing strangers.
  • Accordingly, “training” seems less formal and more about exposure to the world at large. This is also much easier to do than in America, because leash laws—even in a city as large as London—are much more relaxed here than in the States. Dogs only wear leashes occasionally and thus they have to conduct themselves appropriately in public beyond the limits of a leash.
  • All of this exposure and leash-less-ness creates dogs who are, on the whole, relaxed and well-adjusted.

Obviously, not every dog in Europe is well-adjusted. (I saw a miniature schnauzer try to bite the head off a baby Maltese in the street, but this was mainly because the schnauzer was straining at a leash and his owner was shouting, “BE NICE! BE NICE!” which was definitely ineffective and only escalated the situation.) But overall: Such polite dogs.

All of this compounded off-leash time in giant parks has created a culture of European dogs who

  1. have excellent recall;
  2. don’t have reactive outbursts to other dogs or people, in general;
  3. seem calm and self-controlled in almost every public circumstance.

This is the trifecta of good behavior that I feel like the majority of US dog owners I know (myself included) just dream of for their dogs.

And so who is to blame for maladjusted dogs acting up in public? Obviously, we humans are. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

  • For all of my reading, I am a sadly lazy trainer, and I have unwittingly allowed my dogs to practice reactive behavior.
  • I have bad leash-handling skills. And having two reactive German shepherds has proven to be a large stumbling block for my ability to train myself.

Leashes are very helpful and an essential safety component of the 21st-century dog’s life, but I daresay we misuse them more often than we know. I know I am at fault here and that my poor leash-handling skills are often to blame for my dogs’ reactive outbursts. I transfer a lot of tension to the lines when I see another dog, because I also get anxious.

I also have not trained Eden in loose-leash walking, at all. Pyrrha, being so shy, naturally has always wanted to stick close to me, and so I assumed I was just an awesome dog trainer and was magically teaching her how to loose-leash walk, through mind transfer or something. False. Pyrrha just had no interest in pulling. Eden, on the other hand, thinks she’s a husky. Sigh!

So, up next in my chain of pondering all of these “perfect” European dogs: How can I improve my leash-handling skills? More thoughts to come.

Freedom for the pups in Davidson. We're all so delighted to be with family. #doglife #carolinachristmas

What do you think? Are leashes (and thus humans) partly to blame for a lot of the reactive dog behavior we see stateside?

My dad’s off-leash experiments with the dogs

Dogs at summer camp
Photo from Dad; Eden in far background, waiting for the team to catch up; Pyrrha dragging her rope; my mom in the foreground.

Dad calls me every so often to give me dog updates. Unequivocally, Pyrrha and Eden are loving life with him and my mom this summer. They get tons of exercise, personal attention, and play time with Dublin (which is especially great for Pyrrha, who really depends on other dogs to teach her how to behave, and Dublin is a model canine).

He also really likes taking them to a nature preserve and letting them roam off leash. This makes me very nervous, because of all of the contingencies and because we haven’t had a lot of solid practice with off-leash recall, but he doesn’t ask my permission and only tells me about their outings after the fact. Which I am honestly OK with. I would be an anxious mess if he asked me about it beforehand.

Dad called me last week to say there was an “incident” with Pyrrha at the preserve, and I almost had a heart attack waiting for him to tell me what had happened. Did she bite a child? Did she get in a dog fight? I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

But this was the incident: Pyrrha saw a deer and took off into the woods after it. Instead of going after her, Dad said he decided to keep hiking along with Eden and Dublin, who always stick close to him, and hope that Pyrrha would figure out how to find them. He said they walked for a good while, and Pyrrha was completely out of sight. After some more time passed, he started to get concerned that she was lost for good. Just as he was about to backtrack and start hunting for her, he said he heard these pitiful whines from the forest, and Pyrrha was darting around, crying, because she couldn’t find them. When she finally made her way back to the pack, he said she was the happiest he’d ever seen her. I am not sure if she learned anything from this “incident,” but I’m relieved that nothing more dire happened.

Dad said that shortly after she rejoined the group, two big dogs who were also off-leash came into the clearing, and everyone did their greetings politely and tossed off a few play bows. No barking! No lunging! No inappropriate greetings whatsoever. Pyrrha and Eden love other dogs, but they absolutely cannot greet them on leash. They lose their minds and look like vicious monsters if I can’t divert them or increase distance. So, this was a very happy outcome to hear about. Both of our dogs really love other dogs, but you would never guess that if you saw them pass dogs on leash. I’m always happy when they get to interact in an appropriate, happy way with other dogs off leash.

More to come on some theories about off-leash life and well-adjusted dogs, particularly reflecting on my time observing dogs in Europe…