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?

What I learned this week

Fernando. I'm kind of in love with him.

This was my weekend at the shelter. The weather was very pleasant for walking and the dogs were especially eager to get outside and stay outside.

I fell in love with Fernando, pictured above. Of all the dogs I’ve met at the SPCA so far, he’s the first one that I would unquestionably have taken home if I had been able to. The picture does not do him justice. He’s tall and graceful and absolutely beautiful in person. I don’t even know where I’d start in guessing what he’s mixed with. The shelter description says he’s an Irish wolfhound mix, but I find that highly unlikely. It’s not like there are a ton of Irish wolfhounds running loose around here impregnating strays. I would guess he has some setter in him, from the freckling on his back and legs, but he looks like he has some shepherd, too. What would you guess?

He’s quite young and was dropped off at the shelter a couple of weeks ago with his brother, Alejandro. Alejandro was adopted a few days ago, and I can only imagine that Fernando will be picked up soon himself. I should be happy for him. Instead, I’m just extremely jealous of his future owners.

From my half hour with him, I’ve decided that he might be the perfect dog. All of the other shelter staff also commented on how wonderful he was and how they too wanted to take him home. His temperament is absolutely golden. He’s lively and sweet and so attentive to people. Even though he is still very young, he walks beautifully on the leash and doesn’t tug at all. He’s also very smart and communicative. If I paused for just a second when we were passing through a door, he’d wait and then paw at it and look up at me, as if to say, “Um, you need to open this now, please.” Killed me.

I wish I could adopt him today. If I could, I would seriously leave work right now and go over there and get him. He’s just the kind of dog I want one day. I’m trying not to be bitter about this. See how hard I am trying?

All the best to you, Fernando. I hope you will find a home with people who are worthy of you.

Meeting Fernando gives me a lot of hope of finding an exceptional dog at the shelter. I’d been waffling a lot in the purebred camp lately, but now I’m feeling like I will probably adopt a dog instead. Even though it feels like betrayal, I’m wondering if an Australian shepherd would be a bad choice for us right now. I know first-hand what high maintenance dogs they are. And after all, I’m realizing that breed doesn’t matter. The only thing that counts is temperament. And I want a dog with a temperament just like Fernando’s. Sigh.

Here are some other sweet, adoptable boys I spent time with this weekend:

Phantom.

Phantom, like most of the shelter dogs, is highly reactive. He jumps and barks up a storm as soon as you pass by his kennel. When I walked in to his kennel to take him out on Saturday morning, he excitedly mauled me and left me with very painful red welts down my left arm. Even though it hurt terribly and started to bleed, I had to remind myself not to be angry at him–even though that’s your first human reaction when a dog hurts you. Phantom wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me; he was trying to show me how THRILLED he was that I’d decided to walk him.

Once we did get outside, he was great and not as bad as I thought he’d be on the leash. I could tell he had a lot of pent-up energy, so I took him to the fenced enclosure with the agility jumps and tunnels. He wasn’t interested in retrieving or jumping, so I walked around with him and had him sit for a treat. He delicately took it out of my hand and then walked over to a far corner of the lot, placed the treat on the ground, and began to bury it. While funny, this action also broke my heart a little bit. Phantom was clearly anxious that he might not get a treat again and so he would bury this one for safekeeping in case he was to return. Heart warmed, when he returned to me, I gave him another treat, which he happily ate right there.

Max.

I think it takes a dog of an exceptionally noble nature to remain calm while living in the stressful shelter environment. Max is one of those noble natures. He looks like an older dog because of his graying muzzle, but his mobility and temperament seem to fit a young adult. He walks very well on the leash–a gift to the tired shelter volunteer whose arm has been repeatedly yanked out of its socket. Max has a spring in his step and wisdom in his eyes. He will make a wonderful dog for someone very soon, I hope.

I will be volunteering again with the SPCA on Friday. There will be an adoption event on the downtown mall and I’m looking forward to seeing some of these deserving dogs find homes.