So, I don’t even have a dog yet, but I’ve already felt judgment from people about him or her. Crazy, right? When people ask what kind of dog I want, and when I answer that we’re planning on adopting a German shepherd, I always brace myself for this frequent reaction: “Ew, really? Why? They’re so MEAN!” It doesn’t happen every time, but it happens enough to be noticeable.
I also bridle when people express astonishment that I work with and deeply enjoy the company of pit bulls and pit mixes at the SPCA. “But they’re so vicious! I could never be around one of those.” This usually launches me into a 10-minute speech about how pits are unfairly judged and how they are some of the most cuddly, affectionate, and sweet dogs that I ever play with at the shelter.
I try not to get too riled up about it, because the fact is that people have breed biases. I have them, too (although not for the same reasons that people judge GSDs and pits; more in the, I could never live with one myself way). I also understand where some of these breed stereotypes originated. Both German shepherds and pit bulls have been misused by humans for terrible, terrible things in the past (see: Nazis in the Holocaust, Southern police forces during the Civil Rights Movement, dog baiting, and dog fighting, just to name a few). I understand where these negative reactions come from, but they are still dismaying.
It makes me want to try all the harder to raise an upstanding, well-trained, and gentle ambassador for a breed–for whatever breed we end up with. This is notably easier to do if you have a breed like a golden retriever, who are universally loved and lovable in return. But I think there really is something to be said for generous, sweet, and intelligently raised German shepherds, dobermans, rottweilers, pit bulls, chihuahuas, and terriers. They change people’s minds and break down their judgments faster than anything else.
Do you have a dog whose breed or breed mix is often unfairly judged? How do you handle it graciously?
I’ll admit that the toy group and the terrier group are my least favorite groups in the AKC system. Not that I have any personal vendetta against these dogs–I just can’t imagine myself ever living with one of them. That said, I have met some very pleasant terriers and some very enjoyable toy breeds. And my time at the SPCA has convinced me that pit bulls are totally wonderful. (Of all these dogs, I’d be most likely to take a pit home.) And you can’t deny that they are adorable. Look at those faces! That said, here are some toys and terriers I could possibly coexist with.
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.
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.
This slim, colorful little volume is a helpful and basic guide for people who have “difficult” dogs. Trainer Peggy Swager divides dogs into several categories, including those who are naturally very stubborn, independent, controlling, or shy. From these categories, Swager gives advice on how to train dogs with these specific temperaments.
I was relieved to find that Swager is a strong proponent of positive reinforcement training and she often pointed out that the dominating, physical punishment-based methods of training often backfire with shy, controlling, or stubborn dogs. Unfortunately, it is often these “hard-to-train” dogs who receive the most aversive and negative training techniques. But Swager emphasizes that gentleness and respect can go a long way with these difficult personalities.
Swager herself is a long-time parent and trainer of Jack Russell terriers, who are notoriously hard to control and train. I’ve worked with a few JRTs myself and experienced them enough to be thoroughly convinced that I don’t think I could handle one myself. She is a certified trainer and speaks with calm authority about the “problem” dogs she’s encountered.
Overall, the book’s advice skims the surface of the challenges of working with difficult dogs. Swager provides factual but elementary advice on training basic commands. While this information is helpful, I think the guardian of a truly difficult, hard-to-train dog would probably need to look elsewhere for more in-depth counsel. In any event, Training the Hard-to-Train Dog is a great place to start for any person with a shy, controlling, or stubborn pooch.
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?
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.
That said, here is a list of the breeds I’m fairly certain I have no interest in ever owning…
The Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived. I loved this post, because it reminded me of the great dog legends my dad would tell us about his childhood. Ebony, his doberman, was his version of The Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived. (When he met my mom for the first time, he once asked her if she wanted to see a photo of the only girl he’d ever loved. She wasn’t so sure, but then he produced a photo of Ebony from his wallet.) She’ll always live in my memory. (Tales and Tails)
See Scout Sleep. Fashionable and yet pleasantly demure dog beds from See Scout Sleep, featured on Design Sponge. (Design Sponge)
Just Breathe. Another variation on the seemingly endless supply of “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster knockoffs, but I couldn’t help but feature it. It’s cute. And it’s also probably my life motto. (Pawsh Magazine)
Picasso’s Dogs. Stanley Coren reflects on Pablo Picasso’s relationships with dogs. (Modern Dog Magazine)
Dog on a Bed. Even though I’m not sure if I’ll let our future dog on our bed, I will always love photos of dogs on beds. (Shirley Bittner)
Bubble Beth. Exultant joy from this border collie, chasing soap bubbles. (BCxFour)
Woe. WOE! The caption and photo are priceless. (Save the Pit Bull, Save the World)
Get Low. Reason #524 why I will never get a terrier. (Animals Being Dicks)