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?

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?

Keep reading

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?

Review: Purina Pro Plan Savor Tender Strips

As we settle back in to our normal life, the girls are pleased to know that we’re resuming some reviews of products from Chewy.com. We are not paid for our opinions, and we only review things that we feel comfortable about recommending. We are provided with a free sample and asked to write a review, which Pyrrha and Eden are only too happy to help with.

IMG_0780

This time, we got to sample Purina Pro Plan’s Savor Tender Strips.

This is a soft treat that is easily breakable into tiny bits, so even though the strips are big dog-sized (about 4″ to 5″ long), you could break them up into small pieces for training.

IMG_0779

We don’t feed Purina and haven’t been terribly interested in most of their offerings, to be honest, but I was pleased to see that lamb is the first ingredient in these treats.

A bag of the lamb and sweet potato treats currently sells for $5.99 at Chewy.com.

IMG_0782

The girls are trying to contain their excitement:

IMG_0784

(*Note that is a pinecone between them. Not something… untoward…)

They are big fans! I have been using broken-up pieces of these strips to entice Pyrrha while I apply some antibiotic spray to her in the morning (she has an ongoing minor issue), and it certainly helps distract her from any small unpleasantness.

Do you have a favorite type of treat that’s currently in rotation at your house? Do share!

In exchange for our honest opinion, we were provided with a bag of these treats from Chewy.com. I was not paid for my opinion, and I only feature reviews of products I am comfortable recommending to good friends.

How do you train your dog to catch Frisbees?

Easter weekend

When I was 13, I managed to convince my parents to get an Australian shepherd puppy, and the primary selling point for my father was that I told him that Aussies were famously excellent Frisbee dogs. Dad, from whom I inherited my dog-crazy gene, was immediately persuaded. He grew up with two dobermans who played Frisbee with him every day, and a disc-loving dog is a big qualification for him for any dog. So, we get this beautiful Aussie pup, Emma. She’s brilliant, gorgeous, and extremely trainable. But… she has no interest in chasing a Frisbee. Like, ZERO. We could teach her how to army crawl, hop like a kangaroo, and bark on command, but we never succeeded in teaching her how to catch a Frisbee. She’d look at us with complete disdain when we would try to coerce her to chase it.

I open with this story for two reasons:

  1. Breed is not destiny.
  2. Some dogs just will not care about Frisbees. No matter how hard you try. And that’s OK. Dogs should get to do things they enjoy, and if they don’t enjoy Frisbees after your best efforts, it’s OK.
Easter weekend
Dad, playing with Eden. In her, he finally found his dream disc dog.

Our German shepherds are a case in point. Pyrrha, our first dog, has no interest in retrieving, even though she loves hunting. Eden, our second dog, has turned herself into a Frisbee fiend, and it’s the most important thing in her young life. Despite being a German shepherd, a breed that is not especially known for skill with flying discs, I have to say that I am pretty impressed by her skill and unflagging interest in the sport.

So, what if you suspect your dog might be a great disc dog?

Playful Edie

Five tips that helped us make Eden into a disc dog

1: Assess your dog’s build and disc interest

First, unlike some other canine sports, which have modifications for dog size, your dog’s build will certainly play a part in her ability to become a disc dog. For example, brachycephalic dogs (bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, possibly some boxers, etc.) will never be disc dogs, simply because of anatomy: Their snouts are not long enough to catch a disc. It is possible that toy breeds could enjoy catching discs, but sheer size will prove difficult (both in your skill at throwing appropriately and in finding discs small enough for your dog). Dogs who excel at catching flying discs tend to be in the 30–60 lb. range and in a fit and agile state of health. There can be obvious exceptions to this range, and many dogs who will never become champions can really enjoy disc catching, but this limitation tends to hold true. (I was interested to note, however, that there is a “MicroDog” division in the US disc dog competitions, for dogs under 25 lbs. Cute!)

Secondly, it’s important to determine if your dog is even interested in Frisbees. I think one of the simplest ways to assess disc interest is that the Frisbee itself should be a greater reward to your dog than food. For instance, if Pyrrha was given the choice between some cheese and chasing a Frisbee, she’d choose the cheese, every time. Eden is the opposite. The disc is more valuable to her than food. This is a great and clear sign that you have a potential disc dog on your hands.

2: Buy the professional-grade discs

If you dog does have disc interest, pony up for the professional-grade dog discs by Hyperflite. Standard Frisbees are a thinner plastic that will splinter if your dog spends too much time with them, causing not only damage to the disc but damage to your dog’s mouth. The Jawz discs are expensive, but they are worth every penny.

Tip: Don’t leave these discs out and about in your home or yard. A determined dog could do damage to them, and plus, keeping them put away increases your dog’s interest in the discs. We store our discs in our shed in the backyard, and Eden freaks out any time we go into the shed for any reason, because it’s a signal that Frisbee is about to begin.

3: Buy two!

This was a great tip we encountered when we started training Edie with discs. The point of always working with two identical discs is to train your dog to always want to have a disc in her mouth. If you just have one disc, your dog is less motivated to bring that disc to you, because you are going to take it away from her and then what does she have? Nothing. BUT if by the time she chases a disc and looks back at you and you already have another disc in your hand, she is more motivated both to return to you and then to offer some dropping/waiting behavior to get that second disc in the air.

4: Start small

Baby steps! Start with some tracking exercises (e.g., rolling the disc on its side and encouraging your dog to chase it). Then start with short tosses (and practice your own disc-throwing skills!). Don’t throw the disc directly at your dog but rather up in the air, as if you were tossing pizza dough.

In the beginning, let your dog keep the disc only if she catches it in her mouth. If she misses it, praise her warmly, but hold onto the disc yourself and then try another small toss. Keep building on this repertoire until your dog can complete catches on her own.

Praise your dog generously and use food rewards if you think extra encouragement is needed. Once your dog has mastered these shorter exercises, start building distance and elevation into your throws.

5: Train polite behavior early

My husband did a good job working with Eden on this when we first started teaching her to catch Frisbees. We ask her to “drop it,” and he even has a cue for her to drop it closer to his feet if she’s dropped it too far away. Do not throw the second disc until you get that behavior you want (be it sitting or standing and waiting, etc.). The disc is the reward, so don’t give the reward until you get that specific behavior.

Edie still has a hard time ending games and will occasionally choose to “promenade” (what we call her running in huge circles so that the game won’t end) when she gets the sense that we’ve had enough, so we still have to work on that. I’d love to also start working on some more advanced disc dog tricks with her, now that she has nailed the basics. (My dad is especially set on teaching her how to vault off his back and catch a Frisbee. So, we’ll see about that!)

But she’s definitely all in to the game, and we love playing with her.

Easter 2016

Additional Resources

Does your dog catch Frisbees? What tips would you share?

Happy pups at summer camp

As I’ve mentioned, our dogs are living it up at “summer camp” with my parents while we are in London.

My dad faithfully sends us tons of photos and videos, which naturally make me very happy. (For example, he sent 13 dog videos in one day over WhatsApp. Thirteen.) I’m not sure how pleased my dear, tidy mother is about having our monsters for a whole summer, but my father, who is as crazy about dogs as I am, is over the  moon about it.

Dogs at summer campLook how happy these goons are!

Dad’s favorite activity is taking the girls and Dublin (the neighbor’s lab, who is Dad’s de facto dog) out on long walks, all tethered together in this crazy system of ropes:

Dogs at summer campHe still uses the girls’ Freedom harnesses, as you can see, but he eschews standard leashes. To each his own. (At least they are not retractable leashes, which I loathe to no end.)

Pyrrha’s happiness has been the big (very welcome) surprise.

Dogs at summer camp
Dad’s caption for this photo: “Bring it on, world; I ain’t afraid of nothin’!”

She, the dog who tends to mistrust men, has reportedly become very attached to Dad. She brings him toys as an invitation to play (what? Pyrrha?), and she even lies down outside his bedroom door in the morning, waiting for him to wake up. Color me stunned and so, so pleased.

Eden is his trusty athletic companion, however. Dad takes her rollerblading around the neighborhood and on morning trail runs and spends plenty of time perfecting her Frisbee skills. He likes to tell me that Eden is just him in dog form: constantly moving and ready to play 24/7. Sounds about right.

Even though I miss them very much, it brings me a lot of joy to know that Pyrrha and Eden are so happy and so well cared for in our absence. I have full confidence that they are loving life at summer camp, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I expect them to be somewhat disappointed when we come take them back to “normal” life with us at the end of the summer! I think they will grieve. I know my dad will…

Does your family ever watch your dogs for you? How does it go?