Nature and nurture in dog raising

Creative Commons license. Via
Creative Commons license. Via

One of the most important contributions of modern neuroscience has been to show that the nature/nurture debate operates around a false dichotomy: the assumption that biology, on one hand, and lived experience, on the other, affect us in fundamentally different ways. Research has shown that not only do nature and nurture each contribute to who we are, but also that they speak the same language. Both achieve their effects by altering the synaptic organization of the brain. The process by which experience shapes synapses is referred to as “synaptic plasticity.” Although a great deal of synaptic plasticity occurs during early childhood as the brain is developing, plasticity in the form of learning and memory continues to shape our synapses throughout our lives.

— Joseph LeDoux, “Nature vs. Nurture: The Pendulum Still Swings with Plenty of Momentum,” Chronicle of Higher Education (11 December 1998).

Hope B. thoughtfully suggested a post on nature vs. nurture in dog raising, and it’s a great topic. I think most of us recognize, by now, that this isn’t a chicken-or-egg conundrum; clearly, both factors are always at play with every dog (genetics and environment), but it’s a fascinating thing to ponder, especially since dogs can come into our lives at so many different junctures — as purebred puppies, as adult rescues, etc. — and from so many different backgrounds (breeders, shelters, puppy mills, foster homes, the next-door neighbor).

I’d like to frame this post as a discussion of both elements, instead of as a debate between them. As the blog Science of Dogs has clearly explained, the so-called nature vs. nurture debate should have died off a long time ago:

The simple fact is that genes can influence behavior. Behavior can influence environment. Environment can influence genes. It’s an interactive and ongoing bouillabaisse with behavior as the ongoing product, but all are affected by each other. And behavior is not the final product because as long as an organism is alive, it has the potential to change.

— Science of Dogs, “Nature vs Nurture: Time to End the Debate” (25 May 2012)

So here are just some case studies from my own experience. I’d love to hear about yours!

Case Studies


Sam, my little brother, and Emma, circa 2002.
Sam, my little brother, and Emma, circa 2002.

My childhood dog Emma was purchased from a breeder who also raised miniature horses. He was an old farmer who loved his dogs and didn’t compete in the show ring. By today’s standards, he probably would have been classified as a “backyard breeder,” a term of derision, but I think he did a good job by his dogs — even if he probably never considered their genetic legacy or their fitness for herding, etc. But his Aussies were actually “herding” — albeit miniature horses — and so I suppose they were working dogs.

We got to meet both of her parents (Candy and Bandit), and they were sweet, gentle dogs. Candy was a tricolor and Bandit was a blue merle; Emma ended up with strong markings from both sides. Emma was one of the most tricolor-looking-but-technically-blue-merle Aussies I’ve ever seen.

Emma was a really remarkable, intelligent, and beautiful dog. We did not do right by her, and I regret my adolescent ignorance regarding her welfare. Emma is an example of good nature afflicted by misguided or ignorant nurture. My family didn’t really know what a working-line-level Aussie meant. Emma should have been raised on a farm, like the one she came from; at the very least, she should have gotten 10 times more exercise and mental stimulation than we gave her. We lived in a suburban one-story home in a busy neighborhood with a tiny backyard, and so Emma spent most of her time barking. Barking, barking, barking.

My mom got fed up with her and arranged for Emma to go live with some of her college friends, who had acreage in the country. The day my dad took her to her new home, he sobbed, leaning his head on her crate, as he loaded her up in the truck. To this day, I’ve never seen him cry that hard. I got to see her one more time, when I was a teenager, and we went to visit the family who had her. We all cried when we saw her; she jumped right into our car, even though the car was one of her fear triggers, and kissed all of our faces. Emma met a sad end; she was killed by a car and left on the side of the road.

Even though I was a relatively ignorant and powerless kid, Emma’s story is still one of my biggest life regrets.



Her safe space
Pyrrha in her crate for the first time; June 5, 2012.

Pyrrha’s case could be viewed as the opposite of Emma’s: screwed-up nature attempting to be remedied with patient nurture.

Pyrrha came from a backyard breeder in North Carolina. The German shepherd rescue raided his operation when he told them he was planning on euthanizing all of his dogs, because he was tired of being a breeder. (Good solution, dude. Kill all the dogs! Really?!?)

According to the rescue VP, who went on the raid and served as Pyrrha’s foster home, the dogs were kept in filthy outdoor pens. They were completely unsocialized to both dogs and people, and so of course, they all had a ton of fear issues. They were all rather fat, though, because the breeder just gave them tons of food to keep them quiet. I’m not aware of any physical abuse that happened, but Pyrrha, as well as the other dogs from that breeder, were all noticeably more afraid of men than of women.

At 1 year of age, Pyrrha was one of the younger dogs who came out of that situation, and she showed slightly more potential than some of her older relatives, who were almost entirely shut down. I got to meet a handful of her relatives, and what I will say, to the dogs’ credit, is that they were all extremely gentle dogs. For dogs with such a poor upbringing and such a lack of socialization, I continue to marvel at how gentle they were. There was no snapping or snarling or attempts to attack people, which are certainly to be expected of such mistreated, fearful dogs. They were clearly scared of almost everything, but they were very soft, sweet animals, despite it all. Pyrrha is still the same way.

The night we first saw Pyrrha
First time we met Pyrrha, May 2012. See how she was kinda chunky!

Pyrrha was unspayed and intended to become a breeding bitch. I love my girl to death, but I am so glad she was never bred. Not to mention that I think she would have been a pretty lazy mom, but I also believe Pyrrha would have passed on her fearful temperament to another litter of puppies.

She’s made amazing progress since we brought her home two years ago, and she still has lots of progress that will be made. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to “nurture out” Pyrrha’s fearful temperament and her unfavorable background, but she is a testament of how much a fearful dog can learn and grow with patience.


Out back with baby Laszlo
Guion with baby Laszlo.

Laszlo was such a cute, oddly shaped puppy. We fostered him through our rescue organization, and he was our first official puppy foster. His back story was that he’d been thrown over a West Virginia shelter fence in the middle of the night, and that was all anyone knew about him. (He was originally called “Duke,” but I renamed him Laszlo, and his adoptive family kept the name!) Laszlo is an example of uncertain nature raised up through the perfect nurture environment.

I wasn’t tempted to keep him, because Pyrrha didn’t love him that much, and because he had a tendency to get snappish and growl-y when he was afraid. This was surely something we could have worked on, if we decided to keep him. But Laszlo found the absolute perfect home with a young farming couple and their older GSD mix, BB, and their big, lovable cat.

Because of the amazing life he now leads (photos below), Laszlo has blossomed into a really great dog. His human mom works at a winery in the mountains, and so Laszlo gets to go to work with her every day. He lives the old-fashioned off-leash life, and he’s apparently a fantastic dog. I’ve had friends go see him at the vineyard and say that he is the most calm, chill dog they’ve ever seen.

Laszlo "helping" with the harvest.
Laszlo “helping” with the harvest.
Laszlo on the vineyard with his big sister, BB.
Laszlo on the vineyard with his big sister, BB.
Laszlo with his BFF, the family cat.
Laszlo with his BFF, the family cat.

Regardless of his genetic heritage, Laszlo is definitely a win for the nurture side! I don’t think he would have been that great in our household; he really needed that laid-back, anxiety-free owner, and that’s exactly what he got.

So, a lot of text here, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Is nature vs. nurture still a debate worth having?

What do you think? How much of your dog’s temperament can be pinned on nature or nurture? Or both?


Girls and dogs

I was TERRIFIED of dogs when I was a little girl. I remember when the fear began, and I think I’ve recounted it before. My father adores dogs, like I do now. When I was about 6, we were living in a tiny apartment, waiting for our new house to be built. A doberman (my father’s favorite breed) and a rough collie lived in the complex, and Dad liked to take us outside, just to watch the dogs play. One evening, I was completely knocked over and trampled by the dogs (who were just having a case of the zoomies, and not paying attention). I thought they were out to kill me, and I was extremely scared of dogs from then on.

But in a few years, some magical, inherent dog-loving switch turned on–I don’t even know what it was–and I became OBSESSED with dogs, kind of like I am now. I started memorizing dog breeds when I was 8 or 9. I gave complicated advice to the neighbors about what kind of dog they should get, based on their lifestyles. I started a dog-walking business, just to have an excuse to spend time with dogs, since my parents were reluctant to get us one of our own.

And yet I didn’t get a dog of my own until Emma, when I was about 14. I had to wait a long time for her, and I feel like I had to wait even longer for Pyrrha, but I still love to see little girls with dogs. It warms my heart.

All that to say, here are just some cute photos of girls and the dogs they love, culled from my Pinterest board, Woman’s Best Friend.

Source: Les Zigouis.
Tanis Guinness (of the beer fortune) and her pekingese, Ta Wang, at a New York dog show in 1912.
A farm girl and her collie.
Bluetick coonhound and friend. Photo: Flickr user texturejunky.
Young Elizabeth Taylor and a pair of poodles.
Young Queen Elizabeth and her corgi, Dookie.
A little girl and her puppy. Source: LIFE Magazine.
Kisses! Source: LIFE Magazine.
Kristina and Lola the lab. Photo: Stepan Obruckhov.
“1924. Our Billy and me.”
Girl and her patient pup.
Afghan hound love.
Source: Seeberger Brothers.
Photo: Flickr user m.orti.

Did you love a dog when you were a young thing?

Where does your dog sleep?

Does your dog sleep in your bed? A bed of her own? In a crate? Outside?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There are a lot of varying opinions on this topic. Traditional dominance-based trainers are strongly against allowing dogs in human beds, saying that it makes the dog think she can be the “alpha.” This theory is now considered bogus (dogs don’t want to be tyrants; they just want to be comfortable and close to their humans!), but it’s still a belief that persists among many. Other people think dogs ought to always sleep in their own crates. Still others keep dogs locked up in garages or laundry rooms, or worse, outside and chained to a tree.

Growing up, Emma had a bed of her own in the living room, but she quickly decided that was not her thing, and slept the rest of her days in my sisters’ beds. My sisters shared a room and Emma seemed to prefer that room to sleeping with me, to my long-lasting dismay. I tell myself she slept with them because there were more bodies to watch over in that room (my baby brother often joined them on the floor, so she had three kids to watch instead of one moody teenager, me), but I don’t really know why. I’m sure she had her reasons.

I’ve shared a few beds with dogs and the experience has been that dogs are bed hogs. Yep. One of my best friends and I shared a double bed with her adult lab/GSD mix, Ava. Ava wanted to sleep right between us and pound her legs into my back and/or face throughout the night. (I think she was trying to push me, the interloper, out of the bed…) The best animal bedfellow I’ve had was a cat, truth be told: Beloved Kitteh, my Denver roommate. A cat is a good size for a bedfellow, especially a cat with a temperament like this one: Endlessly snuggly and gentle; not the type to bat at one’s eyeballs.

Anyway. My husband has made it clear that he’s not really fond of the idea of sharing our bed with a full-grown German shepherd. And, as dog-crazy as you all know me to be, I find myself agreeing with him on this point. I think it may be a hard thing to prevent–as we both love cuddling with dogs–but I want to make that a house rule from the beginning.

So, how do you make a dog bed appealing? I’m thinking of putting it at the end of our bed, or on either side of our bed. And getting a really comfortable one. While they tend to be a bit pricier, Drs. Foster & Smith has a great selection of high-quality dog beds.

What are your sleeping arrangements with your pooches?

Pup links!

A young Elizabeth Taylor holds court with three dogs. Source: LIFE Magazine.

I was very flattered this past week to receive a mention in the “You Are an Inspiration Awards” from Pamela at Something Wagging. I’ve been so encouraged by Pamela’s blog since I started my dog research, and I look forward to continuing to follow hers and Honey’s adventures.

That said, here are some great dog-related links from around the Web this week:

Therapy Dogs: Born or Made? Patricia McConnell reflects on the qualities a great therapy dog should possess and discusses the age-old question of nature vs. nurture. Basically, if you have a calm, perhaps older golden retriever, your dog should be doing therapy. Bo and Dally would be IDEAL candidates, maybe when they’re older. Goldens were just made for this stuff. (The Other End of the Leash)

My Favorite Dog Training Books. Crystal lists some of her favorite training manuals. I need to read some of these myself! (Reactive Champion)

An Uphill Battle: Tartar in a Kibble-Fed Dog. Stephanie, the Biologist, discusses the problems of tartar buildup in her kibble-fed dog and debunks the popular myth that kibble cleans dogs’ teeth. (Musings of a Biologist and Dog Lover)

Hallmarks of Quality Dog Food. A list of ingredients to look for (and avoid) when shopping for kibble. (Whole Dog Journal)

Thoughts on Punishment. Reflecting on moving beyond basic punishment paradigms in training. (Save the Pit Bull, Save the World)

Your 2012 Fitness Plan for You and Your Dog. A practical and motivational guide to getting you and your dog in shape for the new year. A dog is such a great motivator for me to get outside and move! (Pretty Fluffy)

Comparing Bergan and Kurgo Dog Harnesses. The most widely traveled dogs give their reviews of two car harnesses. I’ve thought about getting something like this for our future dog. How does your dog travel in the car? (Take Paws)

One Big Dog on a Little, Kitty Bed. I love it when dogs (and cats!) mix up their beds. It’s always funny. (That Mutt)

Indigo: The Hockey-Loving Dog. This focused border collie reminds me of Emma, my childhood Aussie, who was fixated whenever we played hockey on the cul-de-sac. We kind of drove her crazy. It’s torture for a herding dog to watch such a game and not be allowed to get out there and HERD! (Shirley Bittner)

The Dog. My dear friend Rachel writes about her dog Cider‘s displays of devotion when she comes home. So sweet! (Mixed with Gold)

Dogs of my childhood

Sam, my little brother, and Emma. Thanksgiving, circa 2002.

After I got over my dog phobia, when I was around 8 or 9, I swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and became obsessed with dogs–a passion that has clearly maintained itself up to the present. The interesting thing was that until Emma, my family did not have dogs. I have always thought this strange, especially since my father is as fond of dogs as I am. But I think my parents determined that having four young children was enough of a zoo without adding actual animals to the family unit. We had rabbits and fish and mice and parakeets, which I adored to varying degrees, but all I ever wanted was a dog of my own.

To ameliorate this driving need to be with dogs, I started a pet-sitting and dog-walking business in our large suburban neighborhood when I was 11 or 12. My fellow employees were my sisters and a few of our friends. Within a few months, we became the neighborhood’s go-to pet-sitters and raked in quite a lot of cash (to us, at least). We were very popular because we were available during the day, since we were homeschooled. What these people didn’t know, however, that up until this point, all of my purported knowledge about dogs had come from books. I read voraciously, as I still do, but I had never actually lived with a dog myself. My hands-on knowledge with dogs came, therefore, from the trial-and-error of the many years that followed of walking, chasing, feeding, cleaning up after and caring for our neighborhood’s dogs.

The Dogs of My Childhood

Most of these dogs still remain very vividly in my memory. I wish I had pictures of them to share with you. Our first love was Scoop, a giant, lumbering white lab who belonged to our neighbors across the street, Kim and Dave, who later became our closest family friends (and remain so to this day). Scoop was immense, much larger than any labrador I’ve seen, even to this day. I think Dave said that he weighed 120 pounds at his peak, and he was never overweight–he was just HUGE. (Dave had a fondness for polar bears, mainly because they reminded him of Scoop.) Like most huge dogs, Scoop was endlessly gentle and patient. We were tiny little girls, but we could walk him without difficulty on his heavy, black retractable leash.

We recently watched an old home video in which we were putting on some play in the backyard about Vesuvius for a school project. We were simulating the peaceful country life of Italian residents in our homemade film, and my sister was playing a farmer, plowing his field. Attached to the makeshift plow? Scoop, who made an excellent ox. Scoop played along with us and followed our quick and frantic directions. I forget how often he was just a willing and patient companion to our many childhood antics.

He adored the water. I remember walking Scoop with my dad on the neighborhood golf course. Dad had tied a huge, long rope to his collar, because he didn’t like using the retractable leash. We came over a hill and there was a pond resting at the bottom of the high hill. The second Scoop saw the pond, he took off. I don’t think I’d ever seen him move so fast. Dad lost his grip on the rope and Scoop dove into the murky water, swimming happily. Dad started to get anxious that he would get tangled up in the long rope and drown, but he was fine. After he’d had his swim, he climbed out, shook water all over us, and was ready to follow us home.

Dave, a writer, had an office in the top floor of their house with one window that looked out over the street. This was Scoop’s perch, and we often saw his huge, white head sticking out of the window, peacefully watching the neighborhood go by. In his old age, his hips began to go, as with most dogs of giant size. He lumbered around the house and his paws with the overly long nails clacked on Kim and Dave’s floors. Dave once accidentally backed over him in their SUV, while Scoop wasn’t paying attention in the valley of the driveway. He was beside himself with grief, but Scoop seemed unfazed by the incident, and the vet declared him only bruised. He began to go deaf and blind and finally, when he could no longer walk, Dave took him into the vet to be put down. The whole neighborhood grieved for him. We still talk about him in dreamy, mythical terms, the legendary and great Scoop, the immortal lab.

My sister and I forcing Emma to sleep with us, circa 2002.

When we weren’t walking Scoop, we spent many of our days walking Niko, a young and slender black lab mix. Niko looked mostly lab, but he was skinny and had a deeper chest like a sighthound. We would take him out in the afternoons while his people were at work. Niko had tons of energy and hated being left alone. We liked him, but I particularly recall one afternoon when we wanted to kill him. His mom always left our cash for us on the table and she’d leave a few days’ worth of money at a time. On this particular afternoon, we walked in and saw confetti all over the table and kitchen floor. Niko had shredded our $20 bill, which was a great deal of money to us at that time. We were furious with him. We raged and shouted at him. He slunk away but then came bounding back to us, tail wagging, eager to go on his walk. It was hard to stay angry at him for too long. For whatever reason, we never told his people that he’d eaten our payment and we just went without it for the week.

There was Koosh, the neglected black cocker spaniel who lived all of his sad, lonely life outdoors. His fur was terribly matted and his bangs had grown over his eyes so that they were difficult to find. We were never asked to walk him, but we’d always greet him through the thin slats of the wooden fence, touch the tip of his nose with our fingertips. Our friends, who lived next door to him, swore that he was abused. We spent weeks planning a coup in which we would climb the fence, grab Koosh, and keep him forever, love him and nurse him back to health. We never followed through with this dognapping, but we thought about it every time we passed his fence and saw his sad, mournful eyes.

Then there were the terriers. These terriers solidified most of my poor opinion of terriers, because they were always the most difficult and unpleasant dogs we ever had to work with–though often for no fault of their own.

There was Baron, the aging Yorkshire terrier, who had a foul disposition and had never been fully housetrained. This made for unpleasant pet-sitting, because every day, he’d leave a pile of poop in the dining room and a puddle of urine in the kitchen. His owner’s wife had recently left him and the man was in no state to tend to his sorry little dog. We were called over to take him out frequently, but Baron hated every minute of our visits. He was always afraid of us and tried to bite us when we would try to take him out. We were all bitten several times by this dog, no matter how gently or quietly or calmly we tried to approach him. It was a good day if we were actually able to snap his leash on his collar without getting bitten. Taking the leash back off was another challenge entirely. I remember one day when we were asked to take him out and he had whipped himself into a frenzy. We found one of the fathers in the neighborhood, a huge, tall man, and asked him to come over and help us. Baron was definitely upset by his presence and so the man put on pot holders and picked up the snarling, snapping little dog and just dropped him in the front yard. To our shock, Baron did his business and then quickly slunk inside.

Our childhood friend got a tiny West Highland white terrier puppy and named her Bianca. Bianca was a pretty little nightmare, but looking back, I’m not sure how much of that was our fault. She was pampered by her family and taken to dog biscuit bakeries and given cooked chicken daily. All of these excesses were new to me. But she was never trained to any noticeable degree. You couldn’t open the front door without having someone restrain Bianca, because as soon as she saw the crack of light from the outside, she was gone. And I mean GONE. This little dog could run. We spent many harrowing afternoons chasing her down the busy parkway and tackling her as soon as she would stop to pee (which was the only way we could ever catch her). (Side note: I think Bianca may still be living at this point. She has got to be about 14 or 15 years old now.)

The only terrier I’ve ever loved was Boomer. Boomer was a small, super-high energy Jack Russell terrier who lived with a young family. When her parents started having babies of their own, Boomer’s needs were difficult to meet, and so I became Boomer’s running partner. I would come over in the late afternoon to pick Boomer up and she would jump from the floor to almost over my head when I picked up her leash. Even when she was old, nearly 12 or 13, she was still a bundle of nervous and excited energy. We went running together frequently, up until her family moved away. I still think of her fondly.

Then there were Emma‘s sisters. After we picked out Emma from her litter, another friend and her family went to visit the same breeder and came back announcing that they had bought two of the puppies: The runt, which they named Belle, and the biggest female, which they named Tess. All of us only learned later that female dogs often do not coexist very peacefully and that sisters can be especially prone to fighting. We would take Emma over to visit with her sisters, expecting much fun puppy wrestling, but instead, the wrestling turned into full-scale fights, in which ears would be clipped and blood would be drawn. Sibling rivalry at its finest. Shaken, we all determined that the girls should not be permitted to visit one another anymore. As time worn on, Tess and Belle began to fight each other and it got so bad that the family had to keep them permanently separated from one another. There were happy times with the sisters, though, too. Once, we found them all frolicking together in the backyard, each of them trying to grab the same item. As we got closer, we found that they were triumphantly toting around the body of a dead bird and they were competing with one another to see who got to carry the trophy. We were disgusted, but they were extremely pleased with themselves.

All of these dogs still live in mythic proportions in my mind, but as I look back over all of these memories, I am also reminded that no dog is without his or her faults. No dog is consistently perfect, but all of these dogs were perfect guides into the diverse and complex world of canine living.

A dog’s bill of rights

A majestic collie. Source: Flickr, user KerrieT

Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, author of the new book Dog Sense, recently posted a thought-provoking “Bill of Rights for Dogs” on The Bark blog. I quite enjoyed reading it this afternoon.

Bradshaw joins the likes of Patricia McConnell, Temple Grandin, and Alexandra Horowitz, who are actively promoting their important research on the relatively new science of canine behavior and psychology.

Much of what we are learning about dogs is that they are far more intelligent and attuned to the human world than we previously thought. Many widely perpetuated myths about dogs are also being broken down, like the repeated assertion by people like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas that we should think of and treat our dogs as wolves.

Bradshaw has this to say on the topic:

Wolves, which have generally been portrayed as vicious animals, constantly striving for dominance over every other member of their own kind, have been held up as the only credible model for understanding the behavior of dogs. This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner—unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check. The conflation of dog and wolf behavior is still widely promoted in books and on television programs, but recent research on both dogs and wolves has shown not only that it is simply unfounded but also that dogs who do come into conflict with their owners are usually motivated by anxiety, not a surfeit of ambition. Since this fundamental misunderstanding has crept into almost every theory of dog behavior, it will be the first to be addressed in this book.

Like this debunking of the wolf construct, I presume that these canine Bill of Rights emphasize some of these key points from Bradshaw’s book. I found them interesting and encouraging. Here are a few of the points that I particularly liked:

2.          We assert the right to have our perceptions of the world taken into account, especially where our senses are superior to yours.

I think this is a fascinating assertion, especially for its wording. I often forget how much keener a dog’s sense of smell and sound are than mine. As an example of this, I was once walking Bo and we were working on heeling on the downtown mall. I had left a small liver treat in my closed left hand and had forgotten it was there. Bo, however, clearly had not. A few minutes later, he startled me by biting at my fingers. I recoiled and was about to reprimand him when I remembered that he was simply wondering what I was doing, constantly waving that camouflaged treat in front of his highly sensitive nose. “Is this for me?” I can only imagine him thinking. “You keep waving it in front of me while you walk. I assume it’s for me. That’s usually where the food comes from.”

This assertion helps me remember one of the primary things I’ve learned about dogs this year: If a dog does something “wrong,” it’s MY fault for not properly training or guiding him. Which leads me into the next point…

6.          Our language is rich and sophisticated. We assert the right to be comprehended, in the same way that we attempt to comprehend you.

The best books I’ve read about dogs have been ones that emphasize new research on canine communication and behavior. I enjoyed every minute of the books by McConnell, Grandin, and Horowitz, and I look forward to reading more from these three eloquent and respected scientists. I learned so much about the basic ways that dogs communicate with each other and with humans and I feel like this new knowledge has dramatically improved the way that I interact with dogs.

Having acquired this knowledge only makes me wish more dog owners had read these books. I cringe when I see people shouting at dogs for something the dog did an hour ago. I heard a shaken shelter volunteer complain about a shepherd mix named Shakespeare who had attacked another dog that she was walking past him. Half an hour later, she walked by the run where Shakespeare was kept and stood there and yelled at him for what he did. “Bad dog! You’re a very BAD dog, Shakespeare!” The poor dog cowered, totally confused as to why this human was verbally attacking him out of the blue. I feel sorry for the dogs whose people get frustrated because the dog can’t understand their babbling, confusing commands (“Here boy, hey, Max, come here, Max, no, over here, Max, sit. Max! Stay. Why aren’t you paying attention to me? Max, bad dog…”) My heart sinks when I hear people talking about jerking their dogs around or wrestling them to the floor to “show them who’s boss” and establish “pack leader dominance.” It makes me want to carry around copies of The Other End of the Leash and Inside of a Dog to give to every dog owner I meet on the street.

9.          We are individuals, each dog with its own personality. We therefore assert the right to be judged on our own merits, and not according to the reputation of breed or type.

The distinct personalities of dogs are one of the features that make them so deeply appealing to me. Like people, no two dogs are exactly alike. Yet we forget this from time to time. I even admit that I’m prone to stereotyping dogs based on their breeds. Volunteering at the SPCA has taught me a lot about this particular point. For example, I’ve worked with some extremely gentle pit bulls and some fearful, snappish hounds. I’ve met beagles who are unusually attentive to people (instead of SMELLS, smells, OMG, smells!). Every dog is different. They all have their quirks.

Understanding this helps wean me off my specific breed biases. I loved our Aussie Emma, but that doesn’t mean that I will love all Australian shepherds. I’ve met some Aussies that are nightmarish. The reason my husband wants a German shepherd is because he fell in love with a wonderful one in Ireland named Reuben. Reuben was an exceptional dog, but that doesn’t mean that all GSDs are going to be exactly like him. They may share some fundamental GSD traits, but their personalities will be very different.

I like to think that there’s a dog out there for me, whether a puppy who hasn’t been born yet or a young dog who is being regrettably shuffled from place to place. I hope I will do him or her justice, respecting these rights of dogkind. Clearly, I can’t wait.

Breed Love: Cavalier King Charles spaniel

If this little face doesn't make you melt, you might be without a heart. Source: Flickr, user hong_songshu

As you can probably tell if you’ve been reading my Breed Love posts, I’m not a huge fan of little dogs. This could be because I have never met a lot of little dogs that I just loved. Maybe I just haven’t met the right one. But if I were ever to get a little dog, I would put my money–and a lot of it–on a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

They’re incredibly popular, particularly among those who can afford them, and it shouldn’t be surprising. Look at those precious faces! At any age, a Cav is guaranteed to be 110% adorable. My well-off great uncle and aunt in Tennessee always had Cavaliers, who fit perfectly into their genteel, posh Southern way of life.

At Timberline Lodge
Handsome black tricolor and black-and-tan cavaliers. Source: Flickr, user kateinoregon

My mother often talks about getting a dog once she’s finally an empty nester and she’s developed a fondness for Cavaliers. One of her main complaints about Emma, our Aussie, was that Emma was not “cuddly;” Emma shared affection on her own terms. Cavaliers are renowned for being extremely snuggly and affectionate; they were bred, after all, to sit on ladies’ laps in drawing rooms for hours upon end. Cavaliers are also quite intelligent and gregarious for being a toy breed. Like most dogs, they take well to being spoiled, but they aren’t as insistent upon pampering as some other toy breeds. For these reasons, if space constraints demanded a small dog, I’d seek out a Cavalier. Wouldn’t you? Look at those faces one more time. All willpower is lost.

Cavalier links:

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.

Things I will never do to my dog

MISERY. Source: Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves.

This post is largely inspired by the wonderful Tumblr, Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves. I would like to hereby declare a series of promises to my yet unknown and unnamed dog, in the hopes that he or she will never end up on that website.

Dog, as your future companion and guardian, I vow that I will never…

  • … push you in a stroller.
  • … make you wear clothes. (At least, not in public.)
  • … give you a stupid, demeaning name (although I may give you stupid, demeaning nicknames).
  • … carry you in a backpack.
  • … let you get away with bratty behavior.
  • … coordinate your “clothes” with mine.
  • … hit you in anger.
  • … make you wear sunglasses.
  • … blame you for your poor behavior; it’s probably my fault.
  • … squeeze you.
  • … throw you in the middle of a lake to teach you to “swim,” as my father did to Emma.
  • … make you wear a diaper. Unless you’re 15 years old and incontinent.
  • … treat you like a human. You’re a dog! That’s why I love you.

How about you? Anything you’ll never do to your dog? Or SHOULD I be willing to push my future dog around in a pram?