This past weekend, we traveled back to my parents’ house. We had a wedding to attend (one of Guion’s childhood friends) and knew that Pyrrha would be eager to come along for the journey.
She seemed to really like the place when we first visited, and I daresay she remembered the house when we came back. If not the house, she at least was happy to see my parents again and meet my younger brother. I was impressed with how calmly she accepted visitors in a new space. By the end of our time there, she was acting like she owned the place.
My dad is her playmate and my mom serves as my surrogate. My mom and I look and move similarly and I think Pyrrha gravitates toward her for this reason. She likes to walk up to my mom and press her nose to her leg. It’s a funny, simple, reassuring gesture. I’m not totally sure what it means, but it’s cute.
And Pyrrha was positively ecstatic to be reunited with her girlfriend, Dublin.
Dublin is a great match for Pyrrha’s energy level, and we like to say that Dublin is Pyrrha’s therapy dog. She’s showing her how to be confident and calm, how to wrestle, how to chase a Frisbee. It’s very sweet. I’m grateful that she’s right next door and always so eager to play.
Aside from the wedding events, we spent the rest of the weekend with the dogs: Walking them, playing with them, watching them wrestle in the backyard. My kind of weekend!
(*You may have noticed a slight increase in photo quality–although not necessarily skill. This is because I just bought my sister’s Canon DSLR off her. I am thrilled with it, even though I have a TON to learn!)
This past weekend, Pyrrha and I took our first road trip together, to visit my parents, see my siblings, and help my sister with her wedding plans. It was a five-hour drive and Pyrrha handled it like a champ. She slept for the majority of the trip in the back of our little hatchback (which is now coated in wall-to-wall fur). I was very proud, and knowing she was peacefully dozing made me a lot less anxious.
Here are a few recaps of what Pyrrha did over the weekend:
Meeting the family
Pyrrha got to meet lots of family members this weekend, and she did great with everyone. In total, she met my sisters, my sister’s fiance, my grandparents, my aunt, uncle, cousin, the neighbors and the neighbor’s two young girls. Whew!
A few observations: She still warms up to women much faster than she does to men, but after she’d met everyone, she seemed to treat the family with an equal mix of tolerance and occasional anxiety. She became especially fond of my mom. My guess here is that my mom’s body and body language very closely mirrors mine, and I think this makes her feel safe and comfortable. Pyrrha’s other family favorites turned out to be my dad (who speaks dog fluently and loves dogs as much as I do), my mom, and my sister’s fiance, Alex (shown in the last photo). Alex is calm and quiet and has been around German shepherds before. I like to believe that Pyrrha sensed this.
Dublin, Pyrrha’s therapy dog
One of the most encouraging parts of our weekend away was Pyrrha’s interaction with Dublin, the neighbor’s chocolate lab mix, who acts as my father’s surrogate dog.
I wasn’t sure if they would get along at all. Dublin reacts somewhat negatively to new dogs in her territory, especially new female dogs. Add that with Pyrrha’s anxiety about new dogs, and I suspected they wouldn’t be able to interact at all.
So, this is just one more example of Pyrrha proving me wrong and exceeding my expectations. We let them sniff each other through the fence for a bit, and then we let Pyrrha into Dublin’s yard, off leash. All of us humans stayed outside the fence.
Within a minute, after the preliminary sniffs and some tail-tucking from Pyrrha, the two were romping like old friends. It was so heartwarming.
Pyrrha just fell in LOVE with Dublin. (I also couldn’t help but wonder if it had something to do with the fact that Dublin very closely resembles Camden, in color and build.) They spent most of their weekend together and I think Dublin really helped build Pyrrha’s confidence. She was so happy and relaxed whenever Dublin was nearby.
The farmer’s market
On Saturday morning, we took Dublin and Pyrrha with us to the farmer’s market. It was a fairly busy and overwhelming crowd, but Pyrrha handled it like a champ. Again, I think it helped her so much that Dublin was right next to her and was taking it all in with such calmness and apparent lack of concern.
Pyrrha met lots of dogs that morning and didn’t show any signs of extreme fear. I was so proud! I think holding her leash very loosely has improved these interactions tremendously, not to mention that I’m so much calmer about dog-to-dog interactions now.
We were even ambushed by a stray dog on our way over there. It was a rangy-looking basenji-esque mix without any leash or collar. We attempted to throw a leash around his neck, but he growled at us when we approached. He was very friendly to Dublin and Pyrrha, though. Not sure what will happen to that little guy, but I hope he finds a safe place. He seemed very self-sufficient and confident about town, though.
At the lake with Dublin
On Saturday evening, we took the dogs on a brief hike around the lake. Dublin, true to her retriever heritage, LOVES the water and loves retrieving anything you throw into it. Pyrrha, as we’ve learned, is decently scared of water. But after she watched Dublin diving in, she even waded in herself. She freaked out when she went too far and could no longer stand, but she very eagerly waded. Which I take as progress.
My parents came for a short visit last night/this morning, and we had a great time with them–Pyrrha included!
My dad quickly won her heart by giving her a new rawhide and then wrestling with her in the grass for the better part of an hour. It was so heartwarming to see her play with such energy and vigor, so much like a “normal” 1-year-old dog! My father speaks dog, and all canines seem to instantly recognize this. I wasn’t sure how they’d interact, but I shouldn’t have been nervous: Pyrrha became a big fan of his after only 10 minutes.
Pyrrha was also very quickly enamored with my mom. It was so interesting to note how differently she treated them, though. She seemed to rapidly make the distinction that my dad was for roughhousing and my mom was for gentleness and cuddling. She’d sidle up to my mom, nuzzle her leg, even sit in her lap, but then turn around and give a play bow and invitational nip to my father. Very amusing.
The weather was beautiful last night, so we decided to take her to the downtown pedestrian mall for dinner. She was fabulous. Still a bit antsy when another dog would come toward us, but we didn’t see the extreme crouching and tail-tucking that we’d seen in the past. Pyrrha calmly laid down at our feet under the table, even though there was a sheltie mix at a table a few feet away who was giving her the stink eye. We were very proud of her and I think she was pretty tired by the night’s end. A great way to end yesterday, which we realized was our official adoption day. Trial is over; she’s officially ours!
Tomorrow, a bigger trial, though: Pyrrha will meet my boss’s 7-pound Pomeranian who may be our house guest for next week. If you pray, prayers are appreciated! I’ll keep you posted…
This was not supposed to be my heritage. I was supposed to love dogs. But, in a strange turn of events, the whole reason I developed a dog phobia was because of my father’s deep love of dogs.
The story goes like this: When I was about six years old, my family was living in an apartment complex while we waited for our new house to be built. There wasn’t much to do around there and so my father would often take us girls out for walks. He was thrilled one afternoon to discover that one of our neighbors had a young, handsome doberman pinscher. Dad grew up with dobermans and was enamored with this dog. From then on, whenever he saw that the dog was outside, he’d take us girls out to watch and admire.
On one particular evening, we were watching this boisterous doberman chase a collie in frenzied circles around a patch of grass. I was clinging to my father’s leg, trying to avoid being run over by these whirlwinds of energy, but apparently I wasn’t paying much attention. The dogs, too caught up in chase to notice me, bowled me over and trampled me to the ground. They weren’t malicious in any way, but I screamed and cried like someone had deliberately tried to kill me. I was whisked inside–while I’m sure my father was shaking his head in regret over his totally wimpy girl child.
For years after that, I would cower in fear whenever I saw a dog. I was petrified around them and never dreamed of wanting one. For all my six-year-old mind new, dogs were bloodthirsty monsters.
Part II. What Changed
By the time I was 10 or 11, however, something changed. I wish I could remember what positive event changed my mind about dogs, but I made a complete 180 in my opinions about canines. I became obsessed with them.
Like today, back then I read everything I could get my hands on as a child. My all-time favorite Christmas present was a beautiful, glossy, hardback book of all the dog breeds. (Aside: I found this book on a recent trip home and brought it back to Charlottesville with me. I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed reading it again the whole way back.) For my birthday, I asked for a subscription to Dog Fancy, which I read religiously. I watched the dog shows whenever they came on TV. I begged my mom to always let me go in pet stores so I could compare prices on the dog supplies list that I was already making (so, not much has changed). My sisters and I started a successful pet-sitting business in our neighborhood and I became a small-time expert on calming old Yorkies, walking rambunctious lab mixes, and chasing and capturing escaped West Highland white terriers. (My decision to never get a terrier was solidified during this time.)
And. Like today, I waited a very long time until I could get a dog of my own. When I turned 14 or 15, I finally got to pick out Emma from an adorable Aussie litter on my birthday. It was the happiest day of my young life.
Part III. A Family Who Loves Dogs
I often wonder what it was that triggered my switch from phobia to obsession. As I’ve grown older, the only hypothesis I’ve been able to create is that this shift was caused by the emergence of my family heritage. My paternal family is known for their love of animals, especially dogs. The Farsons would rather die than be accused of being cat people, although I’ve learned that they show kindness and sympathy to all animals. Even cats. Animals are a critical part of living. And to live without a dog in one’s life, well, what’s the point of that?
Although I never got to see my dad’s family that often, the Farson clan lived vividly in my mind from all of dad’s stories about growing up on farms in Indiana. His childhood always sounded so charmed and idyllic to me: Wandering corn fields with a pack of faithful dogs at his side, swimming in ponds, building forts. Dogs were always a central part of his childhood and I longed for them to be a part of mine.
Since I was little, I felt a deep connection with my dad’s mother, whom we call Gran. I rarely saw her, but I felt like she understood me. Gran is spunky, energetic, and hilarious. She is a woman who can fend for herself and always has. She raised five highly intelligent children, mostly on her own, and despite all of the obstacles that life threw her way, she is the most optimistic and joyful person I’ve ever met.
Gran is also devoted to dogs. She was likely responsible for the many dogs that my father grew up with. After her children had grown up and left, she worked full-time for the local animal shelter. She eventually adopted a lovely and devoted doberman named Chance, who was the true love of her life.
This Easter, Gran came to visit my family in North Carolina and I was thrilled to get to spend some time with her. Our time alone was spent taking Dublin for a walk around town and I loved every minute of it. I felt so much joy getting to share the company of this woman, my grandmother, whom I rarely saw and yet felt intensely connected to. We talked like had spent years together. And this was mainly because we saw eye-to-eye about dogs. She could read Dublin’s body language like I could. She suspected, as I did, that the Siberian husky we had just passed had likely tried to run away several times. She knew all of the breed stereotypes, all of the problems that keep dogs in shelters, all of the ways people could love dogs better.
My dad’s sister and her family recently went on vacation to the Outer Banks and left their precious, foxy mix breed Sadie with my parents for a few days. Gran apparently called the house four or five times to check on how Sadie was doing (probably nervous that my dad was roughhousing with her or teaching her bad habits, as he is wont to do). Mom joked that Gran would never have called if my cousins, her grandchildren, were staying with us. But the dog! The dog must be looked after.
My dad shares his mother’s devotion to dogs. He acts like Dublin is his dog. He taught her most of her Frisbee tricks, walks her around town, and takes her canoeing with him on Lake Norman.
I think the main reason that my parents don’t have a dog now is because my mother isn’t wildly fond of them. Her family had dogs, like most good suburban 1960s families, but they were not necessarily dog people. They were good and kind to their dogs, but their attention to dogs did not extend much beyond tolerated family pets. (My maternal grandfather may be the one exception to this family rule, for he is a universal animal whisperer. He can mystically charm animals that hate all other people, including squirrels, feral cats, and peacocks.)
But this overarching devotion, this need to share one’s life with a dog, that is something I inherited from my paternal family. That is my deep and lasting connection to the family that I rarely see and yet feel that I will always understand.
Did you grow up among “dog people”? Or did you acquire the trait later in life? Do you think it can be inherited?
In all of my reading and all of my hours spent volunteering at the SPCA, I think one of the main lessons I’ve learned about dogs is this: Many people should not get a dog.
That sounds like an extreme statement. Let me qualify it.
The more I learn about dogs, the more I take them seriously. I used to think dogs were easy pets to have. Just grab a puppy anywhere, bring it home, and it’s your best friend for life! Turns out it’s not that simple. Dogs are complex animals who require a great deal of love, attention, and training. Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human even made me seriously question whether I should get a dog. Her recommendations for dog ownership are somewhat extreme in this modern age. Grandin seems to wish that all dogs could roam free around the neighborhood, like they used to do a few decades ago. Otherwise, she asserts, dogs are not enjoying a joyful life as they are locked up in a crate for 12 hours a day. She has a point.
A cultural misunderstanding of a dog’s complexity is why we have so many truly incredible dogs waiting in the emotional wastelands of our shelters and humane societies. Granted, the shelters are doing the best job they can with the resources that they have–but not even the best shelter can provide a dog with all of its emotional needs. Only a human family can do that.
But what kind of human family should get a dog?
It’s a difficult question to answer, and clearly, everyone has to make that decision for themselves, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’m always dismayed by the number of people I meet who seem fundamentally unsuited to caring for a dog–the people who abandon that briefly loved dog a few months later. I probably see a disproportionate number of these people because I’m a part-time shelter volunteer, but I still think it’s an important issue to address.
It always breaks my heart when I hear about people giving up their dogs. I understand that, in this economic climate, many people can no longer handle the financial burden of a dog (or cat, or gerbil, or what have you). In this respect, it is wise to give up one’s dog to someone who may be better equipped to care for him. However, I am generally appalled by the pet ads on Craigslist from people who are abandoning their animals. These are common excuses that I see:
“We don’t have room in our apartment anymore for our Great Pyrenees.” No, duh. Maybe you should have considered that before you brought that white fluff ball home. That sweet, cuddly pup that looks like a stuffed animal is going to turn into a 130-pound yeti in a matter of weeks.
“We have to get rid of our dog because I’m allergic.” I understand that some people may not know they’re allergic to dogs before they bring them home, but test this one out a bit. Ever stayed at someone’s house and felt congested from their pet’s dander? Maybe dog ownership is not for you. Spend some quality time with some dogs before you commit to bringing one home.
“The puppy is nipping at my children.” Yep. That’s what puppies do.
“We’re moving and so we have to get rid of our dog.” I understand that there may be extenuating economic circumstances, but in general, I think it’s cruel to abandon your dog because you’re moving. I myself wouldn’t dream of moving into a place that wouldn’t allow me to bring my dog with me.
Or, the most infuriating: “We just don’t have time for her anymore.”
Frustrating Craigslist posts aside, here’s my amateur’s vision of the types of people who shouldn’t get dogs:
People with young children who want a dog–or worse, a puppy–to be a playmate/guardian for their children. These people really make me the most anxious. I see them come into the shelter with their little kids and ask if we have any puppies available. My guard goes up instantly. There is nothing wrong with getting a dog so your kids can enjoy canine companionship. However, many young parents seem to underestimate the commitment that a puppy demands. It’s kind of like having an infant all over again. And your kids are not going to raise and train that dog for you, no matter how much they beg and plead (trust me. I was that kid once! My mom was the primary caretaker for our dog, and she wasn’t really keen on having that job in the first place). Parents buy a puppy for their kids and then realize a week later, “Oh, crap. This creature needs a lot of attention that I’m not willing or able to give it.” And the dog or the puppy ends up at the shelter, confused and bewildered.
People who travel a lot for work or are never home. A dog will not have a high-quality life if she lives the majority of it in a crate. Dogs are social animals. They need our daily companionship and interaction.
People who don’t have a clue about a dog’s emotional, physical, and mental needs.
People who won’t take the time to train their dog or think that training is “cruel” or somehow makes the dog less happy. Nothing could be further from the truth. A well-trained dog is a happy dog, because she knows where she belongs in the family order. A well-trained dog is mentally balanced, content, and a respectable member of society.
People who will neglect the physical health of their dog. The more reading I do about dog food, the more I am appalled at what we’ve been feeding our pets.
People who won’t spay or neuter their dogs because they think it’s unkind or depriving. Unless your full-time job is a reputable breeder, please, please spay and neuter your dog. The world is filled with unwanted dogs who are the result of irresponsible humans. I see their sweet faces every day at the shelter. Think of them before you hesitate to spay or neuter.
I hope this doesn’t come across as judgmental or cynical, even though it probably does. This post stems from my deep wish that people took dog adoption more seriously. I think dogs in America would be so much better off if their humans took the time to do a little more research. I’m always very encouraged when I do meet other dog owners–like many of the incredible dog bloggers that I link to on my site (on the right sidebar)–who understand, even better than I do, the tremendous commitment we must make to our dogs. I hope I will carefully and judiciously consider all of these elements before my husband and I bring a dog into our home. It’s not a decision to be made lightly. And that’s the main thing I’ve learned.
How about you? What kind of people make the best dog owners, in your opinion?
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.
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.
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.
What little girl hasn’t dreamed of having her own Lassie? OK, so I haven’t stopped dreaming. I love rough collies. I love watching them move. Whenever I see one, I can barely resist the temptation to run up and throw my arms around its neck and bury my face in its incredible mane. I restrain myself–but only with the greatest exertion of willpower.
Thanks to “Lassie,” collies experienced an enormous popularity spike in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, for almost all breeds, popularity comes at a price. For collies, it was quite a big one. Irresponsible breeders who jumped on the popularity bandwagon nearly destroyed this breed by reproducing dogs with Collie Eye Anomaly and bad hips. Today, these congenital defects still run rampant in the breed lineage. The popularity of the rough collie has diminished steadily since its heyday in the 50s and 60s and today, these big, beautiful dogs are somewhat uncommon–even though anyone could identify one on the street and call it “Lassie.”
My mom’s family was one of the many American families who jumped on the collie bandwagon. When she was young, her parents brought home a rough collie puppy they named Missy. Mom spoke fondly of Missy, but her stories indicate that Missy was somewhat neglected and developed a worrisome stereotypy in the back yard. As soon as Missy went outside, she would run for hours along the fence in the exact same loop. Mercifully, my grandparents realized Missy was going insane and they gave her to nearby farmers, where she lived a hopefully happy and long life.
That sad story aside, I’d definitely consider a rough collie if the opportunity presented itself. I am very wary about the breed’s remaining health challenges, but I would pursue a collie rescue or puppy if that is what we decide is best for us. There are many appealing traits of the rough collie. Unlike most reserved herding breeds, collies are very friendly and outgoing. They’re intelligent and loyal. And almost always totally gorgeous. I should stop thinking about this right now. I’m really tempted to keep looking at these collie rescue groups (linked below) and all of the beautiful dogs who need homes…