Pyrrha: A portrait

My imagination has constructed a vivid backstory for Pyrrha, composed of stories from the rescue workers who sprung her from that prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The images, although they are entirely created in my mind, often make me too sad. I do have some facts about her. She was called Katie then, and she lived her whole life in a small wire pen with a plastic doghouse in it, on top of which she liked to sit. A man named John kept her and her family members in similar states of neglect. He tossed kibble at them through the chain-link fences a few times a day. This was the extent of their human interaction. Katie was scheduled to become the next breeding bitch, but then John got tired of the work and upkeep and told the rescue he would kill all the dogs he had if they didn’t come get the animals in the next few days.

Her half-brothers, Archer and Ammo, were so psychologically damaged and so emotionally attached to one another that when the rescue tried to separate them to send them to separate foster homes, Archer scaled a 7-foot-tall privacy fence to get back to his brother. They did finally separate them, but Ammo died just about a year later, from a cause unknown to me. All of the shepherds sprung from that operation, Pyrrha’s family, were surprisingly gentle. They were afraid of everything, but they never lashed out at people.

We met Pyrrha in a small grassy area outside of a Petco. Her foster mom had a puppy in a tote bag and Pyrrha on a pink leash. She was being called Lyndi then. She was too afraid to greet us, to interact with us in any meaningful way, but I saw this beautiful, damaged dog and instantly made up my mind to take her. She sat on Guion’s feet in the grass, and this was enough to convince us.

With Pyrrha at Blue Mountain Brewery
Our first photo together. 18 May 2012.

We, of course, had no idea all that would go into raising an extremely fearful German shepherd. Our first dog. We renamed her Pyrrha after one of the towns in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which we had been reading together at the time. She hid from us in corners of the house for days after we adopted her. Truthfully, I am surprised that my first instinct wasn’t to return her. She was so unlike any dog I had known. I had never really been around a deeply anxious dog before. But I was instantly committed to her. Whatever it took to get her to a stable state, we were going to do it. She wasn’t going to be returned again.

Objectively, she is a very beautiful dog. I am often surprised at how sound she is, considering her background. She has had no serious health issues (knock on wood), and her build is stronger and sounder than most purebred shepherds; none of the exaggerated back end, sloped hocks, etc. People often tell me that she is the lovelier of the two dogs, the more ladylike one, the more graceful one. Her coat is a light cream in most places, and I imagine she will fade to almost pure white in her old age.

Regal
3 February 2013.

Pyrrha likes to moan and happily growl when she does her morning stretches. Or when she is receiving a particularly good petting session. Sometimes she sounds like a bear. Or a corpulent man waking up from a nap.

She is most truly happy and carefree when:

  • Someone is giving her meat.
  • She is playing with other dogs.
  • She is exploring the outdoors off leash.

Otherwise, she seems to reside in a perpetual state of unease. Or perhaps hyper-awareness?

I am thankful for her behavior with house guests, because we have a ton, and she is generally good with them all. There have been moments when she is unhappy about an unfamiliar man entering the house, especially if I am not around, but she warms up to them quickly after the initial shock. She is, however, a huge fan of women and meticulously inspects lady crotches as soon as they cross the threshold of our house.

The only man she loves is my brother-in-law Alex. She treats him with the same energy and devotion as she treats women she likes, which I hope he finds to be a compliment. My best guess is because Alex is quiet and sensitive. He always interacts with her in the way that she prefers, which is not to seek her attention, but to give attention when she asks for it. When he visits us, she will happily spend an hour at his feet, a scene which leaves me constantly marveling.

Sometimes, for reasons I cannot detect, in the safety and quiet of our home, she will come up to me with her ears pinned back to her head. There is nothing awry that I can tell; no one is acting in a threatening manner toward her; Guion is in another room. And so I pet her and speak to her soothingly, and then gently push her ears forward. I don’t know if this actually improves her mood, but I like to think it does. In the same way that pop scientists say that sitting still and forcing yourself to smile, even if you are not happy, will make you feel happier.

She adores other dogs, which is something that strangers would probably never guess, based on her on-leash reactivity toward them. On walks, she acts like she wants to murder every dog she sees. But leash-free in a wide space? She is totally thrilled by their presence.

Fostering six German shepherds with her in our tiny house was a marvelous experience. Having other dogs in the house really opened her up and created space between her and her myriad fears. She loved Brando best, of all the fosters we had, although she and Rainer got quite close as well (probably because we had him the longest). Laszlo was very annoying to her, because he was the baby, but she treated him with gentleness all the same. We never had to worry about her behavior when other dogs were afoot; she’d never start a fight or push buttons unnecessarily. She was just happy to exist in a space with more of her kind.

Pyrrha is a consummate huntress. She has a killer instinct. In another life, she could have been a homesteader’s hunting companion. She’s not a retriever; she doesn’t want to work with you to find something you killed; she wants to kill the thing herself. Early on in her life with us, she caught a live squirrel in her mouth. While on a leash. It is still one of the most impressive things she’s ever done.

She stalks small animals with serious devotion. Eden has no such honed hunting instincts, but she watches Pyrrha’s behavior, and when Pyrrha starts to get into stalking mode while on a walk, having spotted a squirrel or a bird or a cat, Eden will mimic her, even though it’s clear Eden has no idea what on earth we could be hunting.

Watchful shepherd
17 December 2013.

Her life seems to have meaning again when I am home. You haven’t been loved like this until you’ve found a dog who thinks you hung the moon and the stars. It’s intense. And as flattering as it is, I also recognize it as debilitating. Her attachment to me prevents her from happy, carefree interactions with other people. I am repeatedly told that she can’t settle down if I am gone. At my parents’ house, she runs from room to room, looking for me, if I am absent. At our home, it’s more that she sinks into a state of total detachment.

But her eyes light up when I return, and she leans against me and smiles and smiles.

Review: Why Does My Dog Act That Way?

Why Does My Dog Act That Way?

I don’t know why I keep going back to read more Stanley Coren; I never really enjoy his books. But they always sound so interesting! I think I keep telling myself, “Maybe this one will have some pertinent and useful information…” Sigh. Nope.

Why Does My Dog Act That Way? is just more of the same, standard Coren fare: Breed discrimination based only on limiting stereotypes. Like every Coren book I’ve read so far, this one also has a considerable lack of plausible scientific support for his “research,” which presumably backs up his stereotypes. This book is basically an introduction to how Coren judges dogs based on their breed.

While the beginning of the book covers some fundamental material, like how dogs’ personalities are modified by internal or external factors, the rest of the book is haphazardly organized and contains a lot of irrelevant chapters, in my opinion. For example, Coren spends a whole chapter talking about his visit to a dog fight and how it is mostly impossible to trust any pit bull–even a pit bull not bred for fighting–with people, especially children.

As he is wont to do, he then splits up dog breeds into his own categories and then classifies them according to their personalities. The results just give these broad over-generalizations, sweeping across entire breeds: Expect border collies to be high-strung, German shepherds to have fear-based aggression, poodles to be finicky, sight hounds to be virtually untrainable, and so on.

I understand that it’s tempting to do this. We all like to read lists and we all like to read stereotypes, especially when they confirm what we already believe about someone or some dog. I for one, however, want to strive to see dogs as individuals and not make generic assumptions about them based on their breed or breed mix. I’ve met lazy border collies. I’ve met rough-and-tumble poodles. I’ve met very well-trained greyhounds. Every dog is different. I know that there are things you can expect and even predict from certain breeds, but to classify them in such a hard-lined way? No thanks, Stan.

Building the perfect dog

Source: Erin Vey

A dog who has the “ideal” temperament.

Is there such a thing? I doubt it. Dogs, like people, have distinct personalities and like people, dogs don’t always behave like angels. But I think there is truth in the notion that dogs possess naturally distinct temperaments. I’ve met dogs who, despite their difficult circumstances, were overwhelmingly joyful. I have also met dogs who seem inherently grumpy, the equivalent of a canine Mr. Scrooge. I also know that breed is not destiny or prophecy. Background does not always require the same outcome. Every dog is different.

I know all of this, but lately I’ve been thinking about the qualities that are important to me to have in a future dog. I know this is an unrealistic exercise, but it is helpful for me to think about the things I really want in a dog. I also know that most of the things I list below cannot be controlled or, alternately, can be trained into a dog. This is just my detached-from-reality future dog wish list.

So. If I could build my dream dog, these are the qualities that would be most important to me, ranked in order of most important to least important:

  1. A happy, playful personality.
  2. Patient and kind toward people, children, and other dogs.
  3. Intelligent and highly trainable.
  4. Fundamentally calm (meaning he or she is willing and able to achieve a resting state!).
  5. Not excessively vocal.
  6. Athletic, always up for a romp in the woods.
  7. Longer coat.
  8. Medium to large size (50 to 100 lbs.).
  9. Ideally from the herding group (in the future, though, I want to adopt a greyhound).

The rest, I think, will work itself out. Specifically, I want to avoid dogs that exhibit: Excessive solemness, short tempers toward people and other animals, little to no interest in people, hyperactivity, and shyness. Too much to ask for? Probably. I know my already beloved future dog will have problems. I know this. I’m just dreaming on the sunny side of the clouds today…

What quality or trait do you think is most important in a dog? What kind of temperament does your dog have?

Review: The Canine Good Citizen

The Canine Good Citizen, by Jack and Wendy Volhard

After reading Bad Dog, I felt certain that I’d want to put my future dog through the paces of earning his or her Canine Good Citizen certification. The author of Bad Dog, Martin Kihn, mentions attending a workshop by the authors of this book, Jack and Wendy Volhard. Kihn emphasizes how helpful they were in getting his out-of-control Bernese mountain dog to her CGC certification and so I thought I’d read it in my spare time.

It’s a very slim volume and would be most helpful to those who were actually in the process of training for the CGC test. The book walks you through the 10 tests that the CGC evaluates and provides step-by-step instructions on how to train your dog to perform each task.

The Volhards create a helpful “Canine Personality Profile” for owners. This profile is supposed to help you evaluate your dog’s dominant drives and then use that information to tailor your training regimen. I think it’s an interesting idea and I think I’d probably at least try it once I get a dog of my own.

This book is kind of outdated in some of its training recommendations (recommends aggressive jerks on the leash, for example), but I figure I may reference it again if and when I decide to train my dog to earn his or her CGC certification.

Have you trained your dog to pass the CGC test? Do you have any advice about that test in particular? Do you think it’s worthwhile?

Not so much breed love

dachshund
This is Katie, my Denver landlord's anxious dachshund. Source: Me

As I’m thinking about the dogs that I’d love to have one day, I’m also making a mental list of the dogs I know I wouldn’t enjoy living with. As Stanley Coren points out in his book Why We Love the Dogs We Do, not every human personality is suited to every breed personality. There does seem to be a innate, temperamental reason why some people keep buying golden retrievers or Boston terriers or akitas again and again.

I don’t make this list to say that certain breeds are bad or unlovable, but rather that my personality is not especially keen on their personalities–and I just don’t think we’d live well together.

Yorkshire terrier ♥
A Yorkshire terrier. I add them noting an exception, my friend Emily's giant Yorkie, Oscar, who is precious. Source: Flickr, click photo to see user page.

That said, here is a list of the breeds I’m fairly certain I have no interest in ever owning…

  • Dachshunds.
  • All terriers. Yes, all.
  • Almost all toy breeds (Exceptions: papillon, pomeranian, Cavalier King Charles spaniel).
  • All brachycephalic breeds (pugs, bulldogs, pekingese, etc.).
  • All scent hounds.
  • Dalmatians.
  • Chows.
  • Labs. I KNOW. So un-American! I just don’t love labs. There it is.

What about you? Any breeds you’re pretty sure you don’t want?

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.

Review: Why We Love the Dogs We Do

Why We Love the Dogs We Do, by Stanley Coren

Another book from the dog pop psychologist Stanley Coren! And this book is especially “pop-py.” I read this one because I’ve owned it since I was about 12 and I found it while rummaging through my parent’s attic on a recent visit home. I thought I’d try it out again and see if I learned anything new.

Verdict: Not really. It’s a cute book, especially if you like stories about celebrities and their dogs. Coren certainly did a lot of research on that. But I’m not sure how valid the rest of his “science” is. In Why We Love the Dogs We Do, Coren attempts to provide readers with a personality test that will tell you what type of dog you should get.

He rejects the AKC categories of dogs and instead creates seven new groups of breeds based on the breeds’ typical temperaments:

  1. Friendly (e.g., golden retrievers, labs)
  2. Protective (e.g., akitas, rottweilers)
  3. Independent (e.g., greyhounds, huskies)
  4. Self-assured (e.g., all terriers)
  5. Consistent (e.g., most toy breeds, weirdly)
  6. Steady (e.g., scent hounds, newfoundlands)
  7. Clever (e.g., herding breeds)

Coren then creates a little quiz for his readers to take. After you score your results, you can group yourself into ranges (high, medium, low) on scales of extroversion, dominance, and warmth. From these “scores,” Coren will tell you which of his new breed groups you’ll be most likely to fall in love with. Throughout the book, he gives examples of celebrities and tries to decipher their personalities and evaluate why they loved the dogs they did. For example, Queen Elizabeth II, like myself apparently, scored medium on all of the ranges, which means that she’ll prefer dogs from the Clever group. Her beloved corgis just happen to fall in that group.

I took the quiz and my results recommended that I will love breeds from the Clever group. This turns out to be true for me: Australian shepherds, German shepherds, and border collies are members of this category. I love almost all of the dogs in the Clever or herding group. However, Coren’s quiz also told me that I would like dogs from the Consistent group. In Coren’s schema, Consistent dogs are almost exclusively toy breeds. I turned up my nose at this. I know I wouldn’t enjoy life with a chihuahua or a dachshund.

So, take it with a grain of salt. I don’t think it’s scientific at all, but it is a fun diversion. Kind of like the personality quizzes you’d take in Cosmo or something. If you are absolutely clueless about what type of dog you might like, Coren’s book may be helpful to you. But if you’re already pretty sure what you want, Why We Love the Dogs We Do might just tell you a lot of stuff that you already know.