Listen up, guys: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog breed.

The other day, I was listening through some back episodes of the Judge John Hodgman podcast (which, PS, is awesome and beloved by almost everyone I know, including my 85-year old grandmother: go check it out!) There have been a couple of dog-themed episodes of the show, and the one that popped up on my iPod, A Danderous Precedent (ep. 111) was one of them.  The case in the episode involved a nice couple who were interested in getting a dog, though the husband in the couple had what sounded like legitimately horrible and debilitating allergies to furry animals, and had also had a bad reaction to the allergy shots he’d tried (which ended up in multiple hospitalizations for anaphylaxis.) But they had solved the problem, the cheerful young couple proclaimed! They were just going to get a Goldendoodle, which was a breed that, according to some stuff they’d read on the internet, was totally hypoallergenic! Also, Husband Of Couple had grown up with a cocker-poodle cross and hadn’t had any allergy issues, so Cheerful Young Couple had decided that, QED, Husband would be OK with any poodle cross.  The verdict, incidentally, was semi-reasonable, though not perfect: John Hodgman declared that before they got the dog, they needed to spend a bunch of time with a lot of Goldendoodles to make sure Husband actually could tolerate them, and that they should make sure they had a Plan B in place in case it turned out Husband couldn’t handle the dog they brought home. However, even though everyone was nice and reasonable and thoughtful, this episode made me want to throw my iPod across the room. This is not the first time I’ve heard “I’m allergic, so I have to buy a [fill in the blank/probably a doodle]” argument–I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard it, either–and I always find it maddening. Because here’s the thing:

There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.

If you happen to be interested in dog-science stuff, this should not be news to you: the intersection of dog allergies and breed/size/hair type has been studied for years, and overwhelmingly, the science indicates that breed and allergic potential have basically nothing to do with each other. The academic in me requires that I now link to some of those studies, though in many cases, you’ll need a PubMed or Lexus subscription to read the whole thing. However, if you’re interested, here’s a few, and you can at least read the abstracts in all cases:

  • Lindgren, et. al: “Breed-specific dog-dandruff allergens”. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 82, Issue 2, Pages 196–204, August 1988. Conclusion: “There was no significant correlation between [allergy-inducing] skin prick test results and symptoms related to a specific dog breed.”
  • Heutelbeck, et. al: “Environmental Exposure to Allergens of Different Dog Breeds and Relevance in Allergological Diagnostics”. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, Volume 71, Issue 11-12, 2008. Conclusion: “Factors related to individual dogs seem to influence the allergenicity more than breed or gender.”
  • Johnson, et. al: “Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs”. American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy. 2011 Jul-Aug; 25(4): 252–256. Conclusion: “No classification scheme showed that the level of dog allergen in homes with hypoallergenic dogs differed from other homes.”

Many reputable organizations and news outlets have been reporting on these findings and trying to debunk the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ idea: if you don’t believe me and don’t want to read a bunch of studies, here’s The New York Times, here’s our old pals at WebMD, and here’s the Mayo Clinic (though, Mayo Clinic, “just keep your dog outside!” is not actually a good solution to dealing with allergies).  Unfortunately, a lot of times, popular or casual journalists–your Dog Daily, your AKC blogs, your Dog Channel, your random piece on Yahoo! that your aunt forwards you–will start an article out by saying, “Some scientists say that there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog” and then immediately pivot to “but here’s a list of breeds that may be a good call for allergy sufferers!”. This is obnoxious and confuses the issue, because, repeat after me: there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog. There are no breeds that are ‘better’ for allergy sufferers, period, and to say otherwise is at best, misinformed and at worst, disingenuous. To understand why this is, we have to start by looking at the science behind what dog allergies actually are.

So What Does It Mean To Be Allergic to Dogs?

The biggest misconception about dog allergies is that allergy sufferers are allergic to the dog’s hair; this is why some dogs (like poodles) whose coats are similar in texture to human hair and who primarily shed into their undercoat, are mistakenly labeled ‘hypoallergenic’.  Another misconception is that the source of allergens is dandruff, dead skin cells that flake off the dog and float around in the environment.  There is a little truth in both of these things, but neither is 100% right: the biggest allergy offender is actually a sebaceous protein called Canis familiaris 1 (usually shortened to Can f 1). This stuff is present in the dog’s body and leaches out through the skin. Our bodies work similarly: if you’ve ever complained about your face being oily or you’ve gotten one of those extra-gross gooey zits, you’ve had first-hand experience with sebaceous proteins coming out of the skin in unpleasant ways.  Once the Can f 1protein is on the skin, it can stick to hair, which can then come in contact with human skin when the dog sheds or when you touch him (hence, the association with shedding); it can also stick to dried-up skin cells that fall off the body (hence, the association with dander). Can f 1 also shows up in urine and saliva; given that all dogs are a tiny bit gross, these things also have a way of coming in contact with human skin pretty regularly.

What’s the upshot of all this? Basically, it’s that Can f 1 is pretty much impossible to avoid, unless you have a dog that has no skin and does not produce urine or saliva (in which case, take a closer look: that’s either a photograph of a dog or one of those ‘invisible dog on a leash’ things you get at the fair).

They’re Invisidoodles!

Thus: you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hair-not-fur dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a dog who doesn’t shed much, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a supposedly ‘low-dander’ dog, you’re not safe from allergens if you get a hairless dog, and you are DEFINITELY not safe from allergens if you buy a doodle puppy off the internet. At the end of the day, Can f 1 is everywhere, it wants to get on you, and unless you live in a hyperbaric chamber, if you get a dog….it probably will.

Poodles & Doodles & The Whole Kit ‘n Kaboodle

One of the things you might have noticed if you’ve been paying attention at all to the ‘hypoallergenic dog’ debates is that people seem to have a touching faith in the power of poodle genetics to instantly prevent allergic reactions. This was definitely the case with the couple in the Judge John Hodgman episode I was listening to: they were absolutely certain that, as long as there was a touch of poodle in the mix, any mixed-breed dog would have no problem living with a man who went into anaphylactic shock after getting microns of dog sebum in an allergy shot.  Common wisdom makes it sound like poodles are whatever the opposite of Kryptonite is: one dash of poodle and you’ll be protected from allergies for the rest of your life! That is hyperbolic, of course, but if you spend much time online looking at claims from doodle breeders, it starts to drift into sounding like fact.

So, let’s look at the science. Are poodles, in fact, magic? Are they even ‘hypoallergenic’ in the sense that people generally mean? There have actually been several studies on this: one of the most compelling to me has this whopper of a title: “Characterization of extract of dog hair and dandruff from six different dog breeds by quantitative immunoelectrophoresis identification of allergens by crossed radioimmunoelectrophoresis.” [Blands, et. al: Allergy, Volume 32, Issue 3, pages 147–169, June 1977].  This is an older study, but its results were pretty impressive and it spawned a bunch of other studies that basically replicated its findings. Short version: the study got large sample sizes of several different dog breeds, including poodles, and tested each individual dog for levels of Can f 1.  What it found is that levels of Can f 1 were WILDLY different among individual dogs, even within the same breed; they also found a broad spectrum of the allergen even among dogs who were related, which suggests that levels of Can f 1 are probably not genetic (thus, if you’re an allergy sufferer and neither of the two parent dogs trigger your allergies, their puppies might still make you sneeze.) Interestingly, this study also found that, among all the dogs tested, poodles had the greatest discrepancy in Can f 1 levels: that meant that a few poodles had some of the lowest levels of the allergen in the study, and a few poodles had among the highest levels.  So much for magical non-allergenic poodle coats!

If you’d like to see some more recent findings on the subject, the second study I linked above did a similar breed-specific test using fancier and more up-to-date technology: they got basically the same results.  Now, poodles are less sheddy than some other dogs, in the sense that they shed primarily into their undercoat.  However, unless you want a VERY matted poodle, you have to brush that coat out pretty regularly, which means that you are going to come into contact with all of that shed hair and those dead skin cells eventually: Danielle will tell you allllllll about that. And again, in terms of allergen production, poodles are all over the place.

So, if poodles do not actually have magic non-allergenic properties, why is it that doodles are hypoallergenic? The short answer? They are not. Yes, Labradoodles were initially bred in Australia with the intent of creating a guide dog who enjoyed the work and was hypoallergenic.  Guess what? It didn’t work.  Earlier this year, the behaviorist Stanley Coren interviewed Wally Conron, the person who initially crossed Labs and poodles for the guide dog experiment, for Psychology Today.  This article is pretty fascinating, so I’m going to quote it extensively:

Conron immediately discovered that since the Labradoodle is a hybrid and not a pure breed, the resulting puppies did not have consistently predictable characteristics… Even in the nature of their coat — the reason why the Poodle was originally part of the mix— there is lots of variability. Labradoodles’ coats can vary from wiry to soft, and they may be curly, wavy, or straight. Straight-coated Labradoodles are said to have “hair” coats, wavy-coated dogs have “fleece” coats, and curly-coated dogs have “wool” coats. Many Labradoodles do shed, although the coat usually sheds less and has less dog odor than that of a Labrador Retriever. In the Labradoodle there is also no certainty that the dog will be hypoallergenic. Conrad explains that the raison d’être for having these crosses in the first place was to prevent allergy symptoms, and that characteristic cannot be guaranteed by simply creating a Poodle cross. He complains, “This is what gets up my nose, if you’ll pardon the expression. When the pups were five months old, we sent clippings and saliva over to Hawaii to be tested with this woman’s husband. Of the three pups, he was not allergic to one of them. In the next litter I had there were 10 pups, but only three had non-allergenic coats. Now, people are breeding these dogs and selling them as non-allergenic, and they’re not even testing them!”

Jen has written very thoughtfully about the difficulties that exist both in finding a reputable doodle breeder and being a reputable doodle breeder, and I won’t rehash that here. What I will add is that even doodle breeders who are trying hard to keep their dogs’ coats consistent and low-allergen are not having much luck (at least in the US) getting consistency past F1. Here’s what that means in layman’s terms: let’s say you have a Lab dad and a poodle mom. Lab dad and poodle mom have a litter of five Labradoodle puppies, and all of them have perfect non-allergenic coats (this doesn’t ever happen, but let’s just pretend for the moment). Second litter: five more puppies, all with perfect coats. Terrific! However, for a breed to really take off AS a breed, you need to go beyond that. You need to have a second Lab/poodle pairing, and they also need to produce puppies with perfect coats, and then you need to breed one Labradoodle puppy from pairing one and one Labradoodle from pairing two, and all of their puppies need to have perfect coats, and then, once you’re dealing with the great-granchildren of the original pairs, then maybe you’ve got the foundations of a breed. Otherwise, when the original Lab dad and poodle mom die, you don’t have a breed; you just have a handful of puppies whose success can’t be replicated.  Getting past those initial first litters has been hard for doodle breeders; once you start getting into grandkids and great-grandkids of the initial pairing, the coats start getting all wonky again.

And that’s just the dilemma that faces ethical breeders who are at least trying to have some consistency: I’m sure nobody will be shocked when I say that the internet and the classifieds and the pet stores and the puppy mill brokers are freaking awash in doodles. The people creating those puppies are not working hard to create the perfect coat (and temperament, and health profile, and and and). They are happy to sell people on the myth of the hypoallergenic doodle, pocket the two grand per puppy they usually get, and use it to keep creating more dogs who cannot live up to the standards they’re sold under.

Well, my Aunt Mildred once had a Shih Tzu and I wasn’t allergic to him, so now I know I’m not allergic to Shih Tzus!

This is something that comes up a lot: people have a good, non-sneezy experience with one dog of a particular breed and, based on that experience, they decide that that’s the one breed they’re not allergic to.  In a way, it’s sort of sweet: people really, really want a dog, regardless of their allergies, and so they cling on to anecdata and the memory of that one dog that didn’t give them hives in a way that they might not do if they were feeling more rational.  However, we know from the studies we looked at earlier that there’s a lot of variance in Can f 1 levels between individual dogs even within the same breed. What this means is that Aunt Mildred’s dog may actually have had pretty low levels of Can f 1, enough that they didn’t trigger your allergies.  That said, the Shih Tzu you buy in an effort to replicate that allergy-free experience may be an individual who has a ton of naturally occurring Can f 1 and you can’t even go in the house with her.  Because you can’t make useful predictions based on breed, you can’t really use breed as a benchmark to decide whether or not you’ll be safe.

However, what this means is this: unless you have the worst allergies on earth, there are individual dogs out there who are naturally low in Can f 1, and there are probably quite a few dogs out there who won’t trigger your allergies: you just have to figure out who they are. There are two good ways of doing this, and in my opinion, one of the best ways is to make friends with the people at your local shelter.  I want to be up front about this: my own bias is that nearly all casual pet owners and a whole lot of performance/sport people can find the dog they want in rescue or at a shelter.  However, I think shelters are especially good calls for people with allergies: you can meet adult dogs, you can hang out with them, in some cases you can take them on outings and in many cases, you can foster them for a week or two and see how you do with them in the home.  Some of the dogs are going to be Can f 1-heavy and some are going to be Can f 1-light, but the distribution isn’t going to be any different than it would be at a breeder’s, and you’ll have a bigger sample to choose from.  If you explain your predicament to whoever’s in charge of adoptions at the shelter, I bet they’ll be willing to work with you: if you bring a dog home for a trial week and it works out, terrific! You’ve found a dog! If you bring a dog home and spend three days sneezing, the dog gets a fun little vacation from the shelter, probably gets spoiled a little, and when you’re ready, you can try another dog.  If you are really, really set on a particular breed, you can always ask breeders if they have retired show dogs (usually ‘retired’ dogs are just a few years old) or if they have adult dogs who are looking for pet homes; then, you can ask if you can try them out in your home for a week or two.  The one thing I probably wouldn’t recommend is getting a puppy, either from a shelter or from a breeder: in almost all breeds, there’s a significant difference between puppy coats and adult coats, and your allergies may go haywire once your cute little puppy’s adult coat comes in.

I had a Portuguese Water Dog as a kid; have I built up an immunity to Portuguese Water Dogs?

First of all, sing it with me: individual dogs have different levels of Can f 1, so you may have a stronger allergic reaction to different individual dogs. Are you new?

Beyond that, however, is the question of whether children who were raised with dogs have a little more tolerance of Can f 1.  Interestingly, this seems to be a matter of some scientific debate.  One thing that is clear is that being raised with dogs has some effect on your tolerance level: however, some studies say that being raised with dogs and their weird hair and saliva and allergens and microbes helps bolster your immune system and makes it less likely that you’re going to develop adverse reactions.  Other studies suggest that being raised with said allergens and weird microbes can cause a child’s immune system to, more or less, have a total freak out and thus, the child become super sensitive and twitchy around those allergens. This study suggests that children who are born into households containing dogs often develop an immunity to Can f 1, but kids older than three get hypersensitized to it if a dog is introduced into their environment later. If you’re interested in this, you can find an excellent review of these different studies here. Regardless, the fact that you did fine with Polly the Portie as a kid doesn’t necessarily grant you safe passage among Porties from here on out.

What other things can I do to keep from sneezing all over my dog?

If you’ve got a dog already and you’re a little allergic, the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help minimize the issue.

    • Wash your dog! There actually was a study done on this recently: it indicated that if you wash your dog twice a week, you will achieve “a modest reduction in the level of airborne Can f 1“.
    • Keep your dog away from upholstery, if at all possible. I am currently being squeezed into a corner on the couch by two of my dogs, and the third is upstairs snoring and shedding all over my bed, so I am not a good role model for this, but fabric tends to collect Can f 1 like gangbusters. If your dog is a couch hog like mine are, you can opt to throw blankets or couch covers over the top and wash those frequently. Also, if you can swing it, hard-surface floors are way better for allergy sufferers than carpeted floors. All of the allergy/athsma orgs recommend keeping your dog out of the bedroom, especially: if you are like me, good luck with that, but it’s probably pretty helpful.
    • HEPA filters. Here’s a lit review on those: it turns out that they’re pretty effective in helping cut down the levels of Can f 1 in the air. Many vacuums have them; you can buy them for your vents; you can get freestanding ones (often pretty cheap at thrift stores: I have three and I don’t even have allergies); if you’re feeling really fancy, you can get whole-house filtration systems.

And yes, that’s a lot of extra work, and it’s kind of a pain, and sometimes, late at night, you might find yourself looking at pictures of cute puppies on the internet and reading about how these guys have perfect hypoallergenic coats, and you might feel your fingers reaching for your credit card, because it is really nice to have a dog, even if dogs make you sneezy. But if you find yourself there, please, just close your browser and repeat after me: There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog.

All About Farm Dogs

Farm dogs have been in my life since day one. My parents  had dogs at their hostel in the mountains. Granted, the hostel was in the rugged, remote parts of Poland, and the dogs didn’t have much of a choice on where to live, but they were farm dogs nonetheless.

Then I grew up to be a horse trainer and farms became the center of my life, along with the dogs that inhabit them.

Iko, one of the best farm dogs I know. She never wanders, protects the chickens and guinea fowl from the foxes, listens the first time every time, and doesn’t interact with strangers without an invitation.

I have met amazing farm dogs. Dogs who watch livestock. Dogs that work. Dogs that happily greet visitors and dogs who sleep quietly in the barn aisle without bothering anyone.

I have also met some dogs that really weren’t cut out for the role. Dogs who wander off the property. Dogs that chase horses. Dogs that kill chickens.

Of course, there are a variety of farm dogs, and their roles are all different. Some farm dogs are meant to do a job. Others are kept around primarily for companionship. Some farms are privately owned, and others are open to the public. Some farm dogs are just that. Others double as family pets. What makes a good farm dog varies from case to case, of course, but there are some things that seem to make or break a good farm dog across the board.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to matter much at all is breed. I have met good farm dogs in all shapes and sizes from Great Danes to miniature poodles. Yes, you read that right, I know a toy poodle who is an excellent farm dog. She lives at a local farm with a farm stand and is an excellent greeter for the clientele. She’s friendly without being obnoxious, but small enough that nobody is afraid of her, even people coming from the city who may not have much experience with dogs.

Of course, there are times when it’s important to have the right breed of farm dog. For example, herding breeds are definitely beneficial if you’re looking for a dog to keep your flock of sheep in check, and a chihuahua isn’t going to do much in terms of guarding your crops.

So what are the traits that seem to make a good farm dog?

1. The ability to learn boundaries.
The most obvious part of this trait is that a farm dog has to stay on the farm! It’s not very helpful if your farm dog takes off and has to be continuously retrieved from the neighbors’ (or the wilderness!) A runaway farm dog is a nuisance of course, but in truly rural areas, it’s much more than that. A dog that leaves a property in the middle of nowhere is likely to get injured or even killed. So a good farm dog has to be able to learn where the edges of the farm are, and know exactly how far he is allowed to roam. Unlike large suburban yards, most farms do not feature invisible dog fence at the edge of the property, and most farmers are busy farming and don’t have time to manage a dog on a leash. In my experience, the most successful farm dogs seem to be born with a natural tendency to stick around.

But learning boundaries is about a lot more than just staying on the property. A good farm dog also has to learn what areas within the farm are no-go zones.

For example, Herbie learned at an early age that she is not allowed in the riding ring. She can go in the barn and the tack room, and has even tagged along on trail rides, but there’s nothing more distracting than a loose dog running around while I try to school a horse.

Herbie leads the way on a first trail ride with a client horse.

Of course, the no-go zones in a farm dog’s life will vary from farm to farm. In some places, dogs aren’t allowed in offices or homes or crop fields. Once again, this often comes down to a dog’s safety. There are parts of a farm that are simply not safe for a dog. For example, my former bosses at the breeding farm didn’t allow dogs in any of the horse pastures because a mare with a foal at her side is likely to kill a dog, who appears like a predator out to kill her young.

A good farm dog sticks around the farm and stays out of places where it doesn’t belong.

2. General obedience
While a farm dog may not need to know all the intricate commands that a rally obedience dog learns, it is important for a farm dog to be obedient in general.

No, cute crowd-pleasing tricks like “high five” or “roll over” may not be useful in the day to day rural life, but basic commands like sit, leave it, and come here are vital and may save a farm dog’s life, or at lease prevent serious injury.

Life on a farm is always changing, and even with a good understanding of the day-to-day rules (this is the front of the property, chickens are not for chasing, don’t go in the horse pasture, etc.) a farm dog has to be ready to listen if circumstances change. For example, a dog who is usually used to guard the perimeter of crops has be able to be called off in the event that an expected guest makes an appearance.

A dog who lives in an ever-changing environment, usually off leash, has to have a dependable recall and reliably listen to whoever is in charge.

Cinnamon, an Australian Cattledog mix, watching over her flock.

3. Appropriate interactions with people
Of course, what defines an appropriate interaction will vary from farm to farm. In a public setting, such as a large riding stable, it is important to have a farm dog who is friendly, approachable, and well-socialized with people of all shapes and sizes. On a working farm, a good farm dog can’t be aggressive towards people, but a dog who is too friendly can be a nuisance and a distraction.

Several examples of the way farm dogs’ human interactions are shaped for their individual settings come to mind. Julio fails pretty badly at being a farm dog because he is easily kidnapped. He will get in a car with just about anybody, with or without an invitation. My boss’s dog, Iko, on the other hand, is very friendly, but won’t approach a stranger unless she is specifically called. My parents’ dogs, who lived in an area where dogs were frequently poisoned or otherwise incapacitated so they couldn’t raise the alarm on farm intruders, were taught to never, ever accept hand fed treats, no matter how tempting.

Tamboo, a farm dog in training, sees guinea hens for the first time.

4. Appropriate interactions with other animals
Similarly, farm dogs must interact appropriately with other animals. This means not killing or terrorizing the livestock or farm fowl. It also means not tormenting the barn cats or fighting with other dogs on the property.

Some farm dogs must learn more extensive animal interactions. They may need to herd sheep or watch cattle or guard ducks. In Iko’s case, she has been taught to kill groundhogs (a pest animal that digs dangerous holes in the horse pasture) and to chase off foxes and racoons (predators who pose a life threat to chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl).

An example of Herbie being a good farm dog is when she alerted Mike to an injured chicken that was hiding in the pony barn, waiting to die. Because Herbie led Mike to the chicken, she was able to get timely treatment and make a full recovery!

Herbie and her chicken, Henrietta

Regardless of the particular set of rules imposed on a farm dog, it is important for the dog to maintain the same appropriate interactions with or without supervision. The fact of the matter is that farm dogs spend a lot of time without a person watching their behavior.

And that ties into my next point…
5. Some degree of bravery
Being a farm dog is often not for the faint of heart. Farms dogs must deal with a lot of situations that house dogs often don’t experience. Loud engines, livestock, fires, strangers, and heavy equipment are all things that a typical farm dog can’t be afraid of. In some instances, farm dogs also have to live outside 24 hours a day, which means spending a night alone with the wildlife can’t be fear-inducing. A successful farm dog is one who doesn’t scare easily and who can sort of take it all in stride.

What dog breed is right for you?

Unfortunately for dogs (and for people!), one of the most common reasons for dogs being relinquished to shelters or rescues is not because there is anything wrong with the dog (or with the people), but simply because there is a mismatch between dog and human. A busy household that brings home a high energy breed and then doesn’t have the time to exercise it, resulting in a dog who destroys the house while everyone is away for the day is a good example. Or an elderly man whose well-intentioned child buys him a boisterous large breed puppy as a companion only to have the pup turn into a boisterous LARGE puppy, resulting in a dangerous situation for all. Or someone who depends on dog-park play as a way to exercise her dog bringing home a pit bull only to find out she doesn’t play well with other dogs.

All of these situations can end up extremely frustrating and potentially heart-breaking for the owners, and for dogs who get turned over to shelters, possibly life-threatening. And many of them can be avoided by being realistic about the type of dog who will fit into your lifestyle, as well as the traits that certain breeds are prone to.

So how do you avoid them?

1. Start with a list: What traits do you want in a dog? Do you want a couch-potato or do you want a marathon runner? Do you want a dog who is friendly with strangers or who is a one-person dog? Here’s the most important part: BE REALISTIC. Look at what your lifestyle really is. Even if the Border Collie you grew up with on the farm as a kid was the perfect dog, it doesn’t mean one will fit well into your 40-hour-work-week, small-apartment-with-no-yard adult lifestyle.

Do you legitimately have time to exercise that Labrador Retriever? Do you really want a protective dog when you have young children and their friends running through the house? When you say you want a smart dog, do you want a dog whose mind has to be occupied all the time or he’ll get into trouble occupying himself, or do you actually want a dog who is laid back and easy to train? Do you need a dog who plays well with other dogs?

Do you really want this?

Do you really want this?

Or is this a better match?

Or is this a better match?

2. Then make another list: What can you not live with? Again, be unflinchingly honest. Is an alarm bark when the mail drops through the slot ok but a dog who likes to announce every bird who flies past the house more than you can tolerate? How much fur are you willing to vacuum off the couch in an average week? Is it going to aggravate you having to scrub slobber off the walls? Can you afford to pay for a groomer every 6-8 weeks? Do you need a dog who is going to be good with kids and is it a deal-breaker if he is not?

Let me sing you the song of my people.

Let me sing you the song of my people.

3. Try a breed selector. There are a number of them available online, and some are better than others. Animal Planet has a nice one. So does Iams and Dogtime. The results you get are not written in stone, and you may get different results from one quiz to the next, but they can at least give you a jumping-off place and some different breeds to further explore to see if they are a good match for your lifestyle.

It is also important to keep in mind that while breed traits were developed with predictability in mind, all dogs are individuals. If you fell in love with your friend’s German Shepherd who has never met a stranger and loves everyone, keep in mind, that is not typical of the breed and that the pup you pick out may be suspicious and standoffish with strangers. It is really important to do your homework, especially if you are going to be getting a puppy.

Awww puppies!

Awww puppies!

There are some great websites out there that give you the basics on each breed. I really like the one on Vetstreet. But nothing is going to be a better educator than spending some time around dogs of that breed. This can be tricky if you’ve fallen for an unusual or rare breed (like the Cirneco D’Elletna that I’ve recently been eyeballing), so seeking them out at dog shows and talking to people in the breed might be extremely important. What looks good on paper may not translate into a good match in the house.

It might also be important to let go of preconceived notions. Not all Labs make great family dogs. In fact, many of them don’t. Dalmatians look great on the movie screen, but they were bred to run next to a carriage all day long and thus are extremely high energy. Bedlington Terriers might look like cute little lambs, but they can be very serious vermin-hunting terriers. Not all pit bulls are dog-aggressive but it needs to always be in your awareness (and it’s not all in how you raise them.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

To this end, it might be worth considering looking for an adult dog, whether a retired (or failed) show dog from a breeder or a pure or mixed-breed dog from a (breed-specific or all-breed) rescue or shelter. Adult dogs tend to be fairly “what you see is what you get”, and especially if you have a complicated, busy family (multiple dogs, kids, cats, whatever), finding the specific “right” dog for you- regardless of breed- is really what is going to make things work best in the end.

A good match makes all the difference.

A good match makes all the difference.

Confessions of a Dog Gear Hoarder: Ruffwear’s Front Range harness

OK, I admit it. I am a dog gear hoarder. It’s true. If anyone looked in my garage they would see enough canine related supplies to stock an entire boutique. And I don’t mean the cheap big box store stuff, either. I shop for quality made gear that will put up with all the hiking, swimming, off leash running, sports, and general madness that we participate in every week. I am also a sucker for good looking equipment; yes, all my dogs have color coordinating stuff! Every time a new and potentially interesting product comes out from one of my favorite companies, I will probably buy it for at least one of the dogs.

I’ve been a fan of dog gear company, Ruffwear, for years now due in large part to their outdoorsy gear that is also stylish. Since I always walk my dogs in harnesses for their well being, I’ve always been a little bummed that Ruffwear hasn’t made a lightweight everyday harness that I could quickly throw on my guys for neighborhood walks and park outings. I also like having a front clip option for River, who is a strong dog reactive dog that sometimes forgets how to walk politely. However, I will not use any products that restrict proper shoulder movement, which unfortunately happen to be most front clip brands on the market. My three dogs have had several harnesses each but none of them are even close to perfect.

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Enter the brand new Front Range harness from none other than Ruffwear! This thing seriously has it all: back AND front clip options, comfortable but lightweight padding, non-restrictive design, fully adjustable, and even two places for identification. (Also, it looks damn good on my dogs.)

Ruffwear_id

 

 

 

 

I love the ID pocket on top of the harness. It’s just a little velcro pouch to keep a tag in, but it’s a feature I’ve never seen before and I think it is brilliant! Now I don’t have to worry about my dog’s more expensive “tagline” tags getting lost on hikes, and they also don’t need to wear collars. On the inside of the chest plate padding, there is also a spot to write their name and phone number. Do note though that my 32-36lb dogs are both a size small; Ruffwear caters to typical outdoorsy medium-large dogs for the most part, unlike so many other companies. Just make sure you measure your dog before ordering!

Riv_harnessIf your dog is going to wear a harness while doing any actual exercise, it is most commonly recommended by sports vets to fit them in a product that will not restrict their natural strides. The Front Range has a large shoulder opening and fits high enough up on the neck that wearing the harness while running should not restrict any of their movements. Since my dogs often go off leash running and hiking while wearing their gear, this is extremely important to me!

Owen_harnessWhile the front hook attachment isn’t metal like most harnesses, it is still quite sturdy and works well. I have had the best results with using a double clip leash when I want the “no-pull” effects, rather than just attaching to the front. This makes the chest piece slide back and forth a bit less while offering excellent control when needed.

I also love that Ruffwear made it a point not to have the nylon straps touching any potentially sensitive areas on the dog. The neckline and arm pit areas are both covered so there shouldn’t be any rubbing even on short coated dogs. I also really like that it’s easy to take on and off due to the double clips on the top of the harness. The buckles are also stationary, so you don’t have to worry about adjusting the harness to fit your dog then having one of the buckles awkwardly sitting underneath a leg or something.

Owen_harness2All in all, I adore the new Front Range harnesses and have been using them almost daily since I received my order. The product hits all the right notes of functional yet still stylish and I’m sure will hold up well to all of River and Owen’s adventures. This dog gear hoarder is very happy – at least until the next cool product comes along!

 

 

 

 

The typical disclaimer: Ruffwear didn’t pay me to write this, I just really like their stuff! I did receive a discount on these harnesses as a professional dog trainer, but the opinions above are completely my own.

 

 

The Dilemma of Doodles

Because I’m one of those halfwits who occasionally sticks her fingers in electrical sockets to see the pretty sparkles fly, I thought today I’d do a post about doodles. Or, well, maybe not entirely about doodles, but using them as an entry point to a larger dilemma.

I know a lot of doodles. Labradoodles and goldendoodles are very popular as pets in my neighborhood, and there are a couple of them on the local competition circuit. Like any other group of dogs, some of them are nice and some of them are derpy and a couple of them are flat-out bananas. I don’t have strong opinions about them as a group; my experience with the ones I’ve met has been that they’re all over the place in size, temperament, and structure, and as a result it’s not possible for me to make a fair generalization about the dogs. I’ve met some that I really, really like and some that I really, really don’t.

I can, however, make a broad generalization about the breeders, and that is this: It is incredibly difficult to find a doodle breeder I would wholeheartedly recommend.

When prospective puppy buyers ask me where they can find a good doodle breeder, I come up blank. Every time. It doesn’t help that I live pretty close to mid-Pennsylvania’s puppy mill country, but even without that, I suspect I’d still have a hard time. All the doodle breeders I’m personally aware of exist on a narrow range between “grubby commercial puppy miller who is mass-producing dogs for money” and “loving but profoundly clueless BYB.”

Most of the doodle breeders I know of occupy an ambiguous space between those poles. Generally their breeding stock does not come from the greatest programs in either Standard Poodles or whatever flavor of retriever they’re using, and generally they don’t have multi-generational programs or do a lot of outcrossing to other programs’ proven dogs. It’s extremely rare to find a doodle breeder with verifiable health tests and performance titles on the breeding stock. If you can find a breeder with so much as OFA hip certs and a CGC on the breeding dogs, that right there vaults them to the top echelon of doodle breeders I’ve ever encountered.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that good breeders aren’t out there. I’m saying I can’t find them. And if I can’t find them, what hope does a well-meaning pet owner with zero “dog world” connections have?

This is a pretty good approximation of the face I make when someone asks for doodle breeder recommendations.

Instead, what I usually find is a breeder who uses untitled, untested in-house sires to service untitled, untested in-house dams and sells off all the puppies every cycle, frequently repeating litters but never holding anything back to see what they’re producing or continue moving the program forward. This isn’t necessarily indicative of a puppy mill, but it does typically flag a BYB. Serious breeders don’t generally breed without health tests and titles, strive to establish multi-generational lines, routinely hold puppies back to evaluate their production, and are always looking for the best possible outside dogs to strengthen and broaden those lines.

Lots of doodle breeders also seem pretty happy to rattle off a number of myths ranging from “you get the best of both breeds in a hypoallergenic package!” to “there’s no need to health test the breeding dogs because hybrid vigor means the puppies will be fine!” There is a lot of marketing cant in this corner of the dog world. It’s often hard for me to tell whether the breeders genuinely believe this stuff (in which case they go in the Clueless BYB bucket) or are intentionally spouting snake oil to sucker their buyers (in which case it’s right on over to the Grubby Puppy Miller bucket). This, too, tends to poison my opinion of them as a group.

But even if you can find a program that avoids all those obvious red flags, it’s very nearly impossible to make the next cut from “meets bare minimum standards for potential acceptability” to “might actually be a good breeder.”

The big underlying reason for this — and here’s where we segue into the larger discussion! — is because doodle buyers are pet owners looking for good pets, and doodle breeders are primarily aiming for the pet market in their breeding programs. The Labradoodle might have been invented as a service dog, but very, very few of the people producing those dogs today (none, actually, among the ones that I have personally encountered) are attempting to breed for that purpose themselves. Their buyers aren’t looking for service or performance dogs, either. Everyone who has ever asked me about a doodle has been looking for a pet.

And it is just about impossible to identify a good pet breeder.

It really is. I wish this weren’t such an insoluble dilemma, but I don’t know of any way to reliably cut through the crap and find a good breeder who only produces pets.

The show and sport dog worlds are small and tightly connected. If you spend much time in those circles, you’ll quickly come to know who the good and not-so-good breeders are in Breed X doing Activity Y in Region Z, because people who are knowledgeable about that breed and that activity will see those dogs in action and be able to evaluate them accurately, based on the standards and values for whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing. Those people tend to know and talk to each other. If a breeder is doing a good job of placing puppies in active sport or show homes, and is also actively campaigning their own dogs, then pretty soon word will get out and, within a few years, they’ll have some kind of reputation in the relevant social networks.

The pet world, on the other hand, is very large and very diffuse. It has no clear tests or uniform standards. Everybody thinks their own pet is the greatest dog in the world (which is wonderful, except for when it comes to objectively evaluating breeders). Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not, but separating accurate information from wishful thinking is a whole ordeal in itself. And that’s assuming you can even track down an owner who has a previous dog from the same lines, the dog is old enough to have been evaluated for common genetic health problems, and the dog is a fair representative of what that program produces on average.

The upshot is that there’s not much penalty if pet breeders cut corners — either deliberately or out of ignorance — and produce dogs with physical or temperamental faults. Even huge, notorious commercial breeders like Kimbertal, who have a very long track record of problematic dogs and questionable conduct, don’t seem to have any problem turning a profit year after year.

There’s also no incentive, beyond the rewards of one’s own conscience, for a pure pet breeder to get it right. Their kennel name won’t go on to glory if they produce a truly stellar dog. They won’t get any accolades from their show friends. They won’t have the joy of watching highlight videos of the dog they bred taking home the top prize at a big national championship, or winning a long string of impressive titles. The only reward is that, somewhere, a family will be happy with their stable, healthy, loving pet — and when that happens, the breeder might very well never hear about it, because a lot of people don’t bother communicating unless they have a complaint.

The result of these influences, I believe, is that serious breeders tend to gravitate toward the show/sport/working world, and less serious breeders tend to gravitate toward the pet market.

For most breeds, this isn’t automatically a huge problem. Pet owners can always buy overflow puppies from purpose-bred litters, choosing whatever purpose is most compatible with their lifestyle and preferences. If you’re in the market for a pet Labrador Retriever, you have your pick of lines and types to fit pretty much any kind of home, from sedate conformation champions to go-go-go!! field-line dogs who would love to spend their weekends duck hunting and their afternoons jogging ten miles a day. There’s no need to look for a breeder producing “just pets.” There will be someone out there whose purpose-driven program is established, proven, and produces the right kind of puppies for that home.

But when it comes to doodles, this is a significant problem, because the rules of most registries make it effectively impossible to prove the merits of the dogs in a doodle breeding program. There are no show or sport breeders in doodles, because the structure of those activities discourages competitors from specializing in that niche.

Doodles can’t be shown in conformation, so that’s off the table immediately. Foundation stock — the Standard Poodles and retrievers used to begin the program — can be shown, but that’s a dead end after the first generation.

Doodles can compete in performance, but in AKC events, they must be spayed or neutered first (because, as crossbreeds, they would have to be registered through the Canine Partners mixed-breed program, which requires that the dogs be altered). That also effectively bars breeding stock from participation past the founding generation.

This doodle COULD be great at sports. It might also just be a maniac. Without any track record in performance venues, who can tell the difference?

Some alternative sport registries do permit intact mixed-breed dogs — for example, intact doodles can compete in World Cynosport Rally — and that’s certainly better than nothing. But as a solution to this particular problem, those alternative registries are far from perfect. Access and availability tends to vary by region, and their titles aren’t as universally recognized as the bigger registries’ titles are. They’re also usually not as easy for prospective puppy buyers to verify with a quick online search.

These disadvantages are hardly insurmountable, but they’re real. They make it harder for hypothetical serious doodle breeders to prove the excellence of their dogs, and for puppy buyers to identify those serious breeders and distinguish them from the BYBs and millers that dominate this niche. Given that doodles clearly aren’t going anywhere — their popularity in the pet market has determined that they’re here to stay — this is not, IMO, a great thing for the welfare of the dogs. That old thought experiment about “what if we outlawed all the knowledgeable small-scale breeders and the only ones that were left were crappy commercial breeders and BYBs?” If you ask me, that’s pretty much where doodles are today.

So what’s the answer? I don’t have one. I wish I did, and I’d be thrilled if you’ve got one to give to me, but as I write this, I’ve got no solution. Again, I think that finding a good pet breeder, let alone a good pet breeder in a stigmatized niche, is one of the most difficult tasks in dogdom. It could have been the thirteenth task of Hercules, that’s how impossible it is.

But I think it would help if some of the stigma surrounding doodles was lessened. We gain nothing by pushing them away. I think it would help if the breeders who wanted to do the best possible job of producing those dogs were embraced by the rest of the community, encouraged to prove their dogs in performance venues, and held to the same standards as any other serious breeder. Health tests, pedigrees, careful tracking to see what they produced.

I also think it would help if puppy buyers had more good breeders to choose from. Right now, mostly what I see is buyers trying to the best of their ability to locate good doodle breeders, failing, and buying from the least bad BYB they can find, because that is the only option out there for them. All that does is incentivize more crappy breeders to produce more crappy dogs. (I realize that the temptation is to say “well then they shouldn’t buy doodles,” but let’s be honest: 99 out of 100 times, that’s not happening, and it’s also not really fair. If you had to choose between an iffy breeder producing a breed you love, versus an ethical breeder producing a breed you had less than zero interest in, which would you choose? Personally, I’d take a BYB GSD over the best-bred Pug on Earth any day, and I’ll make no apologies for it.)

Again: I don’t think doodles are going anywhere. There’s too much demand for them, and too much money involved. Someone is going to produce puppies to meet that demand. Right now, that “someone” mostly translates to “someone not very good at breeding dogs.” And that is, on several levels, not great for the dogs or the owners.

Therefore I, for one, would like to see that change.

Living in a Backward World

upside downGoogling “common dog behavior problems” will bring you to several sites with neatly put together lists of the most common problems dog trainers encounter. Barking, jumping up on people, getting up on the furniture, being hyperactive, and eliminating in the house. All of these are incredibly frustrating to many owners and cause them to seek out help of professionals who are trained to help “fix” these problems.

When Dahlia arrived in our lives we were amazed this dog was dumped and even more amazed no one snapped her up at the shelter. She was quiet. I spent the first few weeks thinking she might have been “de-barked” and it wasn’t until we met up with some fast-moving ATVs on a trail that we heard her make a sound. She didn’t jump up on people. She had no interest in getting up on the furniture. She was pretty much the exact opposite of hyperactive. And she was completely house-trained. She was, in essence, some family’s perfect idea of a pet dog.

Which was why I broke her of half of those habits.

First up…the furniture. As far as I’m concerned, my dog belongs on our furniture. What’s ours is hers. My husband, especially, likes to lounge on the couch with a dog. But nothing we could do would get her up on the couch when we were home. Oh, she’d get on the couch when we were gone. We could see the hair on the couch, after all. And once we parked down the road and crept up to the house and looked in the windows, only to find her lounging on the couch like she owned the place. But get up on it when were home? No way. We suspected there were rules to follow in her former home. So we did what any sane owners would do. We coaxed her up using bits of meat. The first time we managed to get her on the couch she looked like this.

couch1

She was panting, she hung off the edge, she clearly could not wait to get off the couch and did so at the first chance she got. I can imagine the family that should have her rejoicing. Instead, I pulled out some high value treats (hello steak!), something Dahlia absolutely could not resist, and started working with her, getting her riled up, getting her excited. And then I went to the couch and held it just out of her range. She was forced to put her feet up on the couch to get it. REWARD! I held it up again. REWARD! It wasn’t long at all before she was putting her feet up on the couch without my coaxing her. Little by little I made her stretch a bit further to get that treat until she absolutely could not get it without putting a back foot on the couch and leaping for it. Once she did that, REWARD! Rinse and repeat. Then I started to add duration to it, requiring her to stay on the couch for longer and longer times and rewarding her for it. And finally, I asked her to lay down. She was rewarded heavily for each step of the way. Now she spends most evenings looking like this:

couch

And she steals my chair any chance she gets. I’m ok with this.

Next up? Jumping on me. It’s not that I love a dog who jumps up on me. I don’t. But a dog who jumps up on me for fun? And more important, on command? Now we’re talking! This started because I wanted some way to get her excited and something to reward her for in agility class when the dog gives it their all but there was some loss of communication and so things go wrong (my instructor calls this “screw-up cookies” — make the dog do something else and then give them their reward). She wanted something exciting for the dog and let me tell you, sit and down and sit pretty are really not the most exciting of tricks.

So I taught her to jump up on me on command. And this one was really not that difficult. Because Dahlia is nothing if not desperate for food. I often joke that the only reason I got a fluffy dog is so that the hair stops people from seeing all her ribs because my dog acts like she has been starved for centuries around people. So teaching her to jump up was simple. I showed her a treat, got her excited for it, let her sniff it, let her try to get it, and then held it up to my chest. BAM! Dog with paws on my chest trying to get the treat. REWARD! Rinse and repeat until I could slap my chest and she jumped up and put her paws on me.

And finally…barking. The bane of so many dog owner’s existence. The thing that has caused neighbors to get angry, animal control to be called, numerous calls to trainers, and the use of some pretty awful things to get dogs to stop.

My dog? Was silent. Someone would ring the doorbell and she’d happily trot to the door, tail wagging. After meeting her for the first time, our landlord said that he hadn’t been sure we had actually gotten the dog he gave us permission for because he’d never heard her. The mailman, some two years after moving into our place, said “Oh you got a dog!” and was stunned to find out we actually had her all along. Our groomer is always disappointed that we’re the first to pick our dog up because “Why do the quiet ones always go first?” I will admit, there are times I am happy my dog is quiet. We do runs in agility without her barking her fool head off (something that would drive me batty). We can go camping and not worry about her disturbing other campers. There are huge advantages to having a quiet dog.

Which is why, of course, I broke her of that habit, too.

Ok ok, so there were reasons for teaching her to bark. Barking in itself is exciting to dogs. It’s part of why once a dog starts, getting them to stop can be quite the chore. It’s why when one dog starts to bark, the others have to join in. Barking is fun! It might be loud. It might be annoying. But boy is it fun. And Dahlia really needed to learn how to have more fun, especially for agility class. After all, this is a dog that one person told me looked like she was about to share bad news on CNN. She was serious. Serious serious. Get her to bark and…well…

bark-nobark

Just look at the crazy eyes that barking gives her! It excites her. My agility instructor knew this and suggested we teach her to bark on command. There was only one problem: She didn’t bark often enough for me to figure out a good way to teach her. She didn’t bark at the door. At the mailman. At dogs who passed by. At other people. She just didn’t bark. So how do you teach a dog to bark on command who does not naturally bark?

Well, I narrowed it down to a grand total of two things that I knew caused Dahlia to bark:

1. The UPS truck. I don’t know if I’ve spoken of this before, but Dahlia has a rather strange love of the UPS truck. She sees it and she goes nuts. Please note, this is only the UPS truck, not Fed Ex, not U-Haul. Just UPS. Seriously, she goes nuts (for Dahlia at least!).

2. The horses outside the agility barn.

The latter was something I could control. It only happened once a week, maybe twice, but I knew the horses would be there and I knew she would bark at them.

So I started with simply showing her the horses and letting her bark. Really nothing more than that. I would walk her to near where the horses were and as she noticed them, I’d say “Where are the horsies?”  You’ll notice in this video that she’s seen them herself but when she pauses and turns away, I ask her the question and she goes back to barking at them. By this time she was starting to recognize that the phrase meant there were horses nearby and she should bark at them.

We did that for a good long while until just my saying “Where are the horsies?” would result in her looking for them, then barking once she saw them. Once I got her looking for the horses automatically when she heard the question, I started shoveling treats in her mouth for barking at them. So I would ask her where the “horsies” were, she would look around, bark, then I would give her a food reward. The actual presence of the horses was an intermediary to her getting food.

I knew I was onto something when I asked her where the horsies were and she didn’t even look for the horses. She simply barked and looked at me instead. In essence, I had eliminated the actual need for the horses’ presence. She now knew that barking was something she would get rewarded for and so looked to me instead of trying to find the horses.

We’ve worked our way up to her barking for going on a walk, for going on a ride, for all sorts of food. We make her bark for her dinner every night. Sometimes I reward her at the first bark, sometimes I make her bark again…bigger…more excited!

And what has that gotten us?

dahlia barking1. A dog who barks more often. That’s right. She now barks at the doorbell. She barks when my husband gets home and she’s really excited. She’s even barked when she’s getting impatient to go on a walk. She has a lot more to say these days.

2. A dog who is easier to get excited in agility class. I ask her “Where are the horsies?” and she immediately goes on high alert, is focused on me, and is up and ready to go.

3. A dog who is happier. It’s like barking freed up some part of herself. She may have more to say now than she used to, but she loves barking. And if that makes her a more joyful dog, then I’ll put up with a few more woofs than I was used to.

Well, we get this:

It’s sometimes strange living in this backward world, hearing about all the trouble folks have with these issues and realizing I’m the weird one who taught my dog to do them. But it’s been the best thing for her. She’s happier. She enjoys agility more. We have a better bond and more fun. I wouldn’t trade my formerly quiet, formerly far too serious dog for the one I have now in a million years.

The Care and Feeding of Your Friendly Dog Trainer

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Fortunately this is neither my Dane nor my couch!

So there you are…you are standing in your living room amidst the remains of your couch, now reduced to upholstery fabric and foam (is this really what they make these out of?   You expected something a little more substantial, given the sum of money you are still paying to that trendy furniture showplace downtown–no payments for the first six months!)  Fergus, your prize Sherpa Double Doodle that cost you more than you paid for that couch, is looking innocently up at you from the scattered tumbleweeds of fiberfill.  “That’s it!  Fergus, you are going to a dog trainer!”

So what should you know about dog trainers?  How do you talk to them?  Not all dog trainers are created equal.  Some have eons of experience, while others do this as a hobby for the neighbor’s dog.  Some have certifications, accreditations, memberships, etc.  Some believe in all positive training methods, while others believe that the shock collar is the only way to go.  Obviously, as a Karen Pryor Academy graduate (that’s the KPA CTP on my name), I’m going to hope that you go with a good dog-friendly trainer.  There are plenty of good articles on how to find a dog trainer, so I’m not going to dwell on that here, except to suggest that you do your research and find a trainer that you are comfortable with.

When you make that first phone call, be reasonable!  Dog trainers are, on the whole, very busy people.  Most keep odd hours and are not necessarily available to drop everything to answer the phone right away.  Usually (hopefully!), this is because they are working with a client, driving to a client, taking careful notes and doing research for or about a client, or, and this happens occasionally, they are outside taking some much needed time off with their own dogs.  Do not be afraid to leave a message.  Most really will get back to you very quickly!

Be polite!  “Hi!  I have a dog in need of training!  What are your rates?  What methods do you use?” works much better than, “I have a dog that needs to be trained.  I can’t afford your exorbitant rates, but if you don’t help me, immediately and for free, I will be forced to take him to the nearest shelter and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT!”  Let me assure you that, when faced will caller #2, I will hang up the phone.  I will not feel even a little guilty about it—life is too short to deal with a stranger’s attempt at emotional blackmail.  I don’t make a lot of money doing this.  Trust me—if there’s a Lexus parked outside, it’s not mine!  My jeans get jumped on and torn, drooled on, probably have remnants of cheese and hotdogs in the pockets despite repeated washings.  I do this because I wake up in the morning and love what I do.  That said, I have to pay for my house, my car, my horse (yes, I have an expensive non-dog hobby too!), and all of the seminars that I try to attend in my not-so-copious amounts of free time.  I simply cannot do this for free.  My prices are as reasonable as they can be while still covering (sorta) my expenses.  If my prices are out of your range, please tell me.  Perhaps we can work something out—a payment plan, or even some bartering.  But do not try to engage my services while attempting to devalue them.  It will just put us at odds, and you will not get very far with me.

Not my Scottie…or my guinea pig! No Scotties or guinea pigs were harmed in the writing of this post. (Note: If I owned a Scottie, I would feel compelled to name him Haggis.)

Be realistic!  Haggis the Scottish Terrier is probably never going to be the dog you can leave loose in your house with your daughter’s beloved pet guinea pig.  Haggis may try to convince you differently, but I believe the guinea pig should have a say in this as well!  Likewise, Snapper the Cocker Spaniel may not want to be hugged and grappled by all sixteen of your grandchildren.  He’d probably be much happier quietly working on a Kong in his crate until the chaos dies down.  Dog trainers can help with specific problems, and we can teach both the dog and the owner a common language so that they can live together happily—but we can’t change your dog’s personality!

Have an open mind!  I am a “clicker trainer” and I explain that right up front with my students.  It is a method that has worked well for me, and I believe in it.  I would love to explain how it works and how we can use it in some completely mind-blowing ways to communicate with your dog.  It takes some skill and timing, and it feels clumsy at first.  Remember when you first learned how to drive a stick shift?  It feels like that! Believe me, I do understand!  Like everything, it takes practice.  I can’t tell you how many times I have clicked, and then lobbed the clicker at my confused dog.  Or dropped the leash, the clicker, the treat, and everything else while fumbling to…oh…what was I doing, ack CLICK!  Trust me, it gets easier! And at the end of it all, you have a dog that is very tightly bonded to you (no, not just your treat pouch).  You have a partner.

Don’t forget your sense of humor!  Be willing to laugh at yourself.  Be willing to laugh at your dog.  Be willing to laugh at me!  One of my favorite training moments was when I was teaching Cherry (my beloved American Staffordshire Terrier) the difference between touching a target with her nose and with her paw.  She was getting frustrated, and I wasn’t reading her frustration level very well.  Finally, after being asked to touch the target with her paw, enthusiastically bopping it with her nose several times, she got fed up, picked up the target (a tupperware lid) and threw it at me!  I still have that lid.  I laugh every time I see it.  But I also learned a very valuable lesson that day.  Cherry now can easily touch a target with the requested body part, and even now knows which paw (right or left) that I want her to touch the target with.  Your dogs will teach you as much as you teach them, but you have to be willing to laugh and learn.  And if you want a quick smile, go watch Fenton, the deer-chasing Labrador retriever, who clearly had better things to do than return to his owner!  Whether the owner realized it or not, he was getting a quick and public lesson from Fenton.  Fenton finds chasing deer to be far more rewarding than returning to his owner for what would otherwise have been a quiet walk in the park.  All of our dogs have a bit of Fenton in them!

And finally—PRACTICE!  I can tell immediately whether or not you have worked with your dog that week.  It’s obvious.  Even if you tell me you practiced, if your dog is telling me a different story, I am inclined to believe your dog.  This does not mean I am going to call you out on it.  I am far more tactful than that!  But I might suggest far more structured practice times.  We all have busy jobs and busy lives.  My own dogs don’t get as much attention as I would like (one of the drawbacks of working with everyone else’s dogs!).  I’m not going to judge you, just like I hope my dressage coach doesn’t judge me for the occasional weeks that I don’t even climb onto my horse, far less ride him.  But understand that training your dog, as with many things, is a progression, and you are not going to move forward unless you put in the time.  I can teach you, and I can coach you, but I can’t do it for you.

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Farm, Firehouse, and important decisions

Part of the requirements to raising a guide dog puppy is regular attendance at two puppy meetings per month. Many times these meetings involve outings- the mall, grocery stores, hardware stores, etc. The puppy clubs go as a group to work on exposures, positive practices, and so the leaders can see how all the puppies react to certain environments. Following Dierdre’s surgery, and subsequent month off of training, exposures, and general guide dog puppy life, she was slowly eased back into the world outside. And something troubling began to emerge. Following her surgery, Dierdre started to develop fear issues. It started out small, Dierdre jumped at a few noises that normally wouldn’t have bothered her. She quickly developed an irrational fear of the fly swatter, and if we got a mosquito in the house, I’d have to crate her in another room before following the insect around the house swatting at it, otherwise Dierdre would be a trembling mess. She started avoiding the stove when I was cooking, and when the oven door shut and made a *thud* she’d pee all over the floor and run out of the kitchen as far as her little labrador legs could carry  her.

I kept the guide dog school and our puppy club leader appraised of her new issues, and they  began to talk to the roving guide dog trainer who is in charge of all the puppies. She said to keep on eye on it. I got permission to do some LAT and BAT training with her, as well as simple low-impact agility for confidence-building.

Her next meeting was a horse farm, filled with all sorts of smells and distractions. She was nervous at first when we arrived, but buoyed by the happy confidence of her puppy friends, she settled down.

Dierdre practices stay with her classmates

Dierdre practices stay with her classmates

She did well focusing around the horses, even when one stuck his head through the fence to sniff at her. The chickens proved  to be a bit more challenging, and Dierdre completely forgot that there was anything at all to be afraid of at the horse farm.

CHICKENS!!!!!

CHICKENS!!!!!

 

Dierdre calmly walked next to a horse, and by the end of the meeting she appeared to have recovered her confidence and happily sat for a group picture.

IMG_2368Back at home, her fears continued, and she was placed on restricted outings, meaning she wasn’t to go out unless it was to a quiet, familiar area for outings. For nearly 2 weeks she stayed mostly at home, and we worked on her traffic noise sensitivity. Living on a busy road in a semi-rural area meant she had heard traffic from the first day I brought her home, including loud dump trucks and speeding motorcycles. Noises that never bothered her before suddenly made her run behind me in fear.

Two weeks later we all met at the firehouse for our second monthly meeting. The puppies were exposed to sirens, strange noises, firemen in fire suits, and the loud, echoing firehouse bay. Knowing Dierdre’s sensitivities, we went into the building when they turned on the sirens, and she didn’t seem particularly bothered by the noises. But entering the large cavernous garage, Dierdre suddenly tucked her tail and tried to climb into my arms. We sat by the door until she was feeling bit calm, and then she hesitantly walked into the garage. She was unsure of the firefighter dressed in the outfits,  but her biggest concern were the echoes inside, and after a bit of time in the garage, I took her outside.

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Dierdre's not sure about the firefighter

Dierdre’s not sure about the firefighter

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It was arranged that the guide dog trainer would drive over from Tampa for the next meeting, to further evaluate Dierdre. The group leader talked about transferring her to another puppy raiser, in the hopes of changing up her routine and environment, but that idea was nixed by the trainer for fear it would make things worse.

We worked on Dierdre’s fear issues for the next two weeks, but the morning of the meeting, which was held at the local mall, Dierdre refused to get out of my truck. The wind in the tall palm trees was making the palm fronds rustle, and Dierdre flat out refused to get out of the truck as long as the wind was blowing. After a few minutes of coaxing her out with food, we made our way to the front of the mall, where Dierdre was busy looking every which way. Upon entering the building her tail clamped down between her legs and she started shaking, licking her lips and trying to hide between my legs. The guide dog trainer didn’t bother to torture her anymore; she said she was recommending a career-change for Dierdre due to fear, and she excused us from the meeting early. By the end of the week the official notice came that Dierdre was career changed, and I made arrangements to bring her back to the Tampa campus and pick up a new puppy. I asked about keeping her, but our leader said if I chose to keep her, because of her fear issues, I wouldn’t be allowed to raise another puppy. I made the decision not to keep her, and the night before I turned her in, I printed an envelope full of puppy pictures and a letter to her new family.

I cried most of the 4 hour drive to turn her in, and even more when we got to the campus. Luckily, the kennel workers are used to sobbing puppy raisers turning in puppies, so I didn’t get any strange looks. I took one last picture of Dierdre before handing her over. They assured me they would find the perfect home for her from their long list of waiting families looking to adopt.

Dierdre, 13 months old

Dierdre, 13 months old

 

We headed over to the puppy kennel to pick up our next charge, a 12-week old female black lab named Francie. I hoped that puppy breath and snuggles would be a band-aid to the hurt of losing Dierdre. The puppy kennel staff took one look at my red puffy eyes and knew we had just turned in a dog. They’re used to it, too. The quickly got us a bag of goodies and plucked little Francie out of her kennel. She was a porker, nothing like petite, fine-boned Dierdre. Francie quickly earned the nickname ‘chubs’ and I learned that her father was from a different guide dog school, and she was a collaborative breeding. Two of her brothers, Patriot and Flounder, had been delivered to other raisers in our club when the trainer had come for Dierdre’s evaluation.

Francie!

Francie!

 

Francie was adorable, and I hugged her tight the entire way home. It quickly became apparent that Francie was completely uninterested in toys of any kind. They sat on the floor, unplayed with. France wanted nothing more than to cuddle beside you and be snuggled. Baby “chubsy-wubsy” as we came to call her, was an ace student. Her first week home, she had already mastered sit, down and stay. I felt pretty confident that this puppy would become a guide, but I couldn’t stop mourning Dierdre.

There was something different about Dierdre, and despite raising 5 other puppies, I had not wanted to keep any of them even a fraction of how much I wanted to keep Dierdre. After a week and a half of moping about, we put a call in to the guide dog school. I wanted Dierdre back, and if it meant giving up raising and having to turn Francie in, so be it. It was a nerve-wracking two days while they contacted the career change department and made sure Dierdre hadn’t been offered to an adoptive family yet. The director of puppy raising asked the same trainer that came to do her evaluation to take Dierdre and a puppy home for the night and decide if I could continue to raise. The news came back positive: Dierdre wasn’t a puddle of jello, she wouldn’t teach Francie to be fearful. That very next weekend, just 2 weeks after I had given her back, she was back in my arms. As it was an “In For Training” weekend, when puppy raisers bring their puppies to the campus to be formally turned in for guide dog training, another raiser in our club brought Dierdre back for me. I happily signed her adoption papers and took her to the pet store to buy all manner of ‘contraband’ toys she wasn’t allowed to have before. Stuffed things, things with squeakies, things that bounced and rolled. We got her a new collar and harness, took her to play off-leash at the dog beach for the first time, and that night she slept plastered to my side on the bed.

Full of dubachery- playing with stuffed squeaky toys, off-leash at the beach, and sleeping on the furniture. Career changed life is great.

Full of debauchery- playing with stuffed squeaky toys, off-leash at the beach, and sleeping on the furniture. Career changed life is great.