Conversations with River


IMG_1900-2Today, while I was asking my girl River a question for around the 20th time on our ninety minute public outing, I was thinking about how freaking boring our life together would be if we didn’t have an ongoing flow of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that I stand in a park and talk to my dog like some crazy dog lady (I would… never do that… ) but we do indeed have a back and forth stream of communication. Here are a few things I posed to her today; in long written word here, but we worked through them with body language and a few single words only:

1. “Would you like to enter this fenced park to go swimming in the lake? There are other dogs off leash there, and I know that can be uncomfortable for you, so I’ll let you decide.”

She chose to take a short walk around the area first so she could take in the environment and then pulled me towards the entrance. Once off leash, she ran to the lake and waited for the toy to be thrown without even glancing at another dog. Remember folks, this is my “extremely dog reactive” cattle dog bitch I’m talking about.

2. “That five month old puppy is approaching you. You know you have to ability to not react, and if you quietly lay down and wait for me to deal with the situation you can get back to the toy throwing sooner. Oof. She just stole your toy… Please stay there and I will get it back for you and be very, very happy with you.”

She did exactly that. A very sweet but slightly foolish Doodle puppy stole River’s toy less than a foot away from her feet not once but TWICE and River let it happen. She has learned over the last several years that I can help her handle these predicaments; she does not have to use her teeth or other scary displays on strange dogs.

Heel position right next to the water's edge: a very difficult thing to ask a swim-obsessed cowdog!

Heel position right next to the water’s edge: a very difficult thing to ask a swim-obsessed cow dog!

3. “I know it’s hard for you to think while swimming, but I would really like to do some Rally-O proofing exercises with you and reward all of your brilliance with toy throws. Can you work with me this close to the water and new strange stimuli and I’ll promise to make my other criteria lower?”

She responded with near excellent fronts, finishes, and short steps of heeling less than ten feet from the water! Rally exercises are still pretty new to her, so I was asking a lot, but she gave me her best.

You’ll notice that I never gave her a traditional command during these exchanges. In fact, during our actual verbal communication I did not give her a single cue word other than our Rally practice cues. Leaving other dogs alone, down stays while I got her stolen toy back, and her focus on me versus the humans and dogs in the park were all given. I let her choose what she wanted to do every step of the way and each action of mine was directly in response to her. If she hadn’t pulled me towards the entrance of the park, I would have kept walking down the trail and waited to visit the swimming area until others had left with their dogs. If she had made a move to react negatively towards that puppy (which, honestly, would have been warranted!), I would have moved us much further away and possibly left the area. If she hadn’t been able to focus on me enough in that environment to practice Rally moves, I would have abandoned the idea of difficult proofing until another time with fewer distractions.

These are just a couple of examples from one day, but the list goes on and on; I try to make me and my dogs’ time together one of mutual enjoyment whenever possible. I try to give them as many choices about their life as I safely and sanely am able to. Life with dogs is just far more interesting and rewarding when you treat them as a thinking being with thoughts and feelings about the world. Three years ago, I never imagined that my “super reactive” cattle dog could swim in a fenced dog park with other dogs around without having a complete fit every five seconds. But she did indeed play for over an hour today, with! other! dogs! around!, and I have the photos to prove it. All of our hard work towards building our relationship, trust, and teamwork is paying off. I haven’t needed to teach her any new cues lately. I have never used punishment based training methods for her dog reactivity, and I have never forced her to do anything around dogs she absolutely did not want to do. I did not flood her, I did not strap an e-collar on, she never wore a pinch or choke chain, I didn’t have to train a ton of commands and throw away all of her choices to follow them, and yet… I have a dog I can take to a public lake off leash without huge reactions. Her recall is pretty stellar, her focus is lovely, and she is a mostly happy (I won’t lie: there is still some level of stress around strange dogs and sometimes she can still get a snark in if it’s needed!) little dog who once tried to bite the face off every single strange fellow canine she came across. We constantly improve together thanks in large part to the talks we have like the ones we had today.

So: next time you’re out for a walk, try having a conversation with your dog. You might be surprised how much you can communicate and learn from them without ever opening your mouth.

So your Facebook friend is looking to get a dog…

[Dear TU readers: this post started as a comment to an actual Facebook friend of mine, and then I thought, "Man, I write some version of this comment SO OFTEN: wouldn't it be helpful if I just had a post to link to?" So I wrote one! I'm going to guess that a whole bunch of us have had similar experiences on Facebook, right? If so, feel free to link this sucker to your heart's content. You're welcome!]

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Dear Facebook friend,

Hi there! It’s been a while since we’ve talked! Perhaps you’re an old friend from high school; maybe you’re an aunt’s-cousin’s-neighbor; maybe you’re a good friend who lives far enough away that we don’t have a ton of time to talk dogs in person. Whatever it is: hello!

Here’s the deal: you just posted a comment on Facebook about how you were thinking about getting a dog for the first time, you’d like to rescue, and you’re wondering what breed to get. You may also have said some of the things you’re hoping your future dog will have. Maybe you want them to be good with kids. Maybe you want a dog who doesn’t shed. Maybe you think you only want a small dog. I know I don’t normally write big giant comments on your posts, but here’s the thing: I have a LOT of opinions about dogs, and I’d rather write a big long comment on Facebook about dogs than do the dishes right now! So here you go.

The first piece of advice I’m going to give you is this: don’t focus so much on breed.I know, I know: there are so many dogs out there, and thinking about breed helps you focus your search. I get it. But here’s the thing: first off, there’s no breed that’s inherently good with kids (or cats, or whatever). There just isn’t. There are dogs who are bred to be companions, some dogs who are bred to be a little more tolerant of nonsense, etc. However, within those broad breed types, you have a lot of individual dogs with a lot of individual personalities and a lot of individual feelings on kids (or cats, or whatever).  Second, if you’re going through a shelter or non-breed specific rescue, you’re usually going to be dealing with some very fuzzy breed designations that are almost certainly incorrect. This is not because the rescue people are trying to trick you; it’s just that they legitimately don’t know the dog’s background and they’re trying to make a guess based on what the dog looks like. Most rescues hate having to guess breeds for dogs, because they KNOW it’s a guess: the thing is that most shelter software (and Petfinder) requires you to list a breed or breed mix for dogs in the system, so the shelter people have to make a guess whether they want to or not. LOTS of studies have been done about visual breed IDs and those studies find, without exception, visual breed IDs of mixed breed dogs are nearly always inaccurate. If you want more information on this, the National Canine Research Council has a great page here that you can read: here’s one set of pictures from that page that I think really sums it up!

Picture one: a purebred Basenji and a purebred Cocker Spaniel

parents of hybrids

Picture Two: Their Babies

Scott and fuller F1

So, TL;DR–the cute little dog at the shelter or on Petfinder who is listed as a Lab/Pomeranian cross is probably definitely not that (or anything close to it.) If you look at that dog and say, “Ooo, a Lab mix! That means he loves kids, because Labs love kids!”, you are compounding the error.

There’s also no breed of dog that won’t shed–some dogs, like poodles, shed into their undercoat rather than dropping hair, but the flip side of that is that they need to be groomed on a very consistent basis or they’ll turn into a giant mat because the shed hair has nowhere to go. One of the biggest pieces of incorrect information floating around about dogs is the idea that if your dog is a poodle or poodle cross, they won’t shed. First of all, the dog you’re looking at is likely not a poodle cross: see above. Second of all, this!

So really: breed is not the best criteria to use when you’re picking a rescue dog. If you are really really really focused on breed, then go to a breed-specific rescue. However, if what you’re looking for is a nice, fun, family dog, you are unnecessarily limiting your pool by looking only at purebreds. Also, let me say this right now: sure, you can find purebreds in rescue and in shelters, but those purebreds are not the carefully-selected dogs who have been bred thoughtfully with an eye towards temperament and structure that you’re thinking of. The purebred dogs in rescue or in shelters are almost exclusively from crappy breeders, BYBs or mills. This is because good breeders do not let dogs they produce end up in shelters, period. All good breeders will stipulate in their contract that if a dog cannot stay with the family who bought them for whatever reason, they must be returned to the breeder (or the breeder must be involved in the selection of a new home): that is one of the very few iron-clad rules of ‘what makes a good breeder’. Now, are there occasionally examples of carefully bred, purchased dogs who get dumped in shelters in violation of the puppy buyer’s contract? Sure. But usually those dogs are chipped with information leading to the breeder, and usually somewhere there’s a breeder fighting like hell to get that dog back. The breeders whose dogs end up in the shelter and stay there do not, by definition, care where their dogs end up. These are also typically breeders who don’t care about other important stuff, like health testing and temperament. The long and short of it is that if you’re getting a purebred dog from a rescue or shelter, you are not getting a dog who’s any “better” than the mixed breed dogs in the shelter (in the sense that you have any predictability about things like their health or temperament).

So what are you supposed to look for if not breed? Realistically, the best way to find a dog who you’re compatible with is to think about two things: the dog’s personality and the dog’s energy level. You can consider size too, to a certain extent: bigger dogs, can, of course, accidentally knock a child or an older person down (though smaller dogs can trip people!) However, size is usually not as helpful of a metric as the dog’s energy level. My personal go-to dog for families with kids is usually a sweet, lazy old pittie (who are medium to large dogs) because they tend to be very tolerant of kid nonsense and they tend to have low exercise needs. Small dogs are not inherently calm dogs.

So, let’s break those categories down a little bit. First, personality:

-As first time dog people, especially if you have kids, you’re probably going to want a dog who’s tolerant, patient and can handle a lot of novel stimulus (a lot of times, when rescues say ‘no kids under 12′, that is code for, “this dog is not that patient and is going to snap at a kid who’s handling her incorrectly”). Rescues will have a lot of different words to describe this–easy-going, go-with-the-flow, low-key–and will almost certainly be able to point you in the direction of a dog who fits that description. 

-It is nice to have a social dog–who doesn’t want their dog to like hanging out with them?–but be a little careful here. That dog who is totally, 100% focused on you when you meet her? The dog who stares at you the whole time when you take her out on a walk? The dog in the run who makes a beeline over to you and hangs out with you the whole time instead of interacting with her runmates or things happening outside? The dog who prompts people to say, when telling the story of her adoption later, “She picked us!” That may be the perfect dog for you, but that might also be a dog who gets really stressed out when you leave her alone or a dog who has a tough time finding something to do on her own when you’re occupied with something else. My pick for an average, busy, new-to-dogs family is not the super social dog who wants to be with you 100% of the time: it’s the dog who comes over and checks in with you regularly and then wanders off to smell an interesting smell or play with a toy.  You guys are probably busy people, and the dog is going to need to have some capacity to amuse herself; really social dogs tend to suffer a little bit when they’re alone, and they can often have a hard time making their own fun.

Next, energy level:

-For an average busy family, I’d look for a dog with low-to-moderate exercise needs. A high-energy dog is not a dog who’s going to be satisfied with playing chuck-it in the back yard, neighborhood walks and the occasional weekend hike. Lots of dogs have vestiges of our agrarian past, when we needed dogs to help us work 10-12 hours a day, imprinted in their DNA. Herding dogs, little terriers (bred to be independent workers who killed invading critters), and hunting dogs are all on this list, and they often don’t adapt well to being casual family pets. Yes, this includes Labs. I know a lot of people in this comment thread are saying “get a Lab” [TU readers: feel free to amend this if everyone's telling your Facebook friend to get a different breed, but let's be real: it's probably Labs, right? Labs or some kind of doodle-something?]  Sure, there are some lazy Labs out there, but Labs are bred to be high-energy working dogs and often are:  my local shelter and most of the shelters I’ve worked at are lousy with busy, energetic teenage Labs who were too much for the families who got them thinking they’d be sweet, easy pets. 

-You know who are frequently going to have those low-medium energy needs I talked about in the previous point? Older dogs. Yes, I know–you are looking for a dog between 1-2 years old, a dog who can grow up with your kids, etc. etc. That’s the dog everyone thinks they want: past puppy stage, but still young and fun. However, here’s something to consider: in my opinion, that’s one of the most difficult ages for dogs, behavior-wise. Dogs all tend to mature at different rates, but usually, they go through teenagerhood somewhere between 1-3 years old. This, not coincidentally, is a very very very very common age for dogs to be surrendered to shelters; teenage dogs, generally speaking, are usually a combination of lots of energy, a clumsy body that they don’t know how to use appropriately yet, a puppy brain, and a selective memory for things like manners and the cues they learned when they were puppies. They do eventually mature, but, like humans, teenagers are teenager-y. Dogs also frequently start getting choosy about other dogs at around three years old (that’s a rough estimate, but it’s a pretty common timeline). As such, the super fun, play-with-everyone two-year old you adopted can turn into a three-year old who doesn’t want to go to the dog park and is yelling at other dogs on the street. Think about the way you made friends when you were kids (“You have a red bike; I have a red bike: WE ARE BEST FRIENDS!”) and the way you make friends as an adult. You’re choosier, right?  Similarly, dogs often get more selective around other dogs as they age: it’s very common occurrence and certainly modifiable with some training. That said, if you opt for a somewhat older dog, you will likely find a dog with a personality that’s a little bit more stable: the dog knows what he likes and doesn’t, and has developed some coping skills around the things he doesn’t like. If it’s really important that, for example, your dog get along with other dogs, you’ll get better information from a six year old dog than you will from a one year old dog. That’s nice information to have when you’re adopting! And even if you get a six year old dog, you’re still going to have that dog for a good long time, likely the better part of a decade.

So how do you go about finding a dog with a personality and an energy level that works for you? There’s no way around it: you’re going to have to go look at a bunch of dogs. There’s no real online substitute for that. Take an afternoon or three, go to shelters in your area and/or email some local rescues about meeting some of their fostered dogs. Do you want to know how to make a shelter person love you? Go in, and instead of saying “I want this dog I saw on Petfinder because he looks cute” or “I want this dog who looks like a Boxer because I had Boxers when I was a kid and all Boxers are great”,  go in and say, “hey, this is our situation: we’ve got a young kid, we are new dog owners, who do you have that might be a good fit for us?” Shelters and rescues generally loooooooove it when people do this, because they know the dogs really well and can make good solid recommendations for dogs who will fit your lifestyle. There is always some dog at a shelter who all the shelter workers adore, and they say, “It is so crazy he hasn’t been adopted yet!” to each other every time they go by him. Sometimes that dog isn’t the flashiest one in the row, or sometimes he is sweet and mellow and is overlooked, but I guarantee you that dog will still be cute and awesome (because all dogs are cute and awesome.) The people at the shelter are dying to show you that dog, I promise. You also might look to see if your local shelter has any programs in place like the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match program: these programs are designed to match people with compatible pets based on personality, and they have very high success and adopter satisfaction rates.

In addition, some trainers will also help you pick out a dog as one of the services they provide. Look around at the trainers in your area and see if you can find anybody who explicitly offers this. If you don’t find this immediately, call around: track down a local positive reinforcement trainer (the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website has a good database) and ask them if they might be able to help you. There are lots of benefits to this approach. First, you’ve got a second pair of (professional) eyes helping you make the decision, and second, you’ve also made a nice connection with somebody who can help you when your new dog starts displaying issues (which most dogs will do at some point in their lives). Just as you wouldn’t wait until your baby was really sick to start researching pediatricians, it can be helpful to make some contacts with local trainers early: they can often point you towards some good classes to take with your new dog, and if your dog does end up with some quirky behaviors, you already have a nice person in your corner who can help you work on them.

Finally, a quick word on where you should get a dog if you’re looking to adopt. First, if you’re looking to make a real, immediate difference with your adoption, consider starting at a kill shelter. Yes, these can be emotionally draining places to be, and yes, you will look at a lot of dogs and not be able to take all of them home, and yes, you are helping dogs no matter what organization you adopt from, but if you go to a kill shelter, you are literally, immediately saving a life: that’s the reality of it.  There are a zillion awesome dogs at your local pound, I promise. If that’s too emotionally taxing (no judgement!), go to a no-kill shelter. No-kill shelters are very frequently pulling dogs from the local pound, so they help ease the pressure on pounds and decrease the euthanasia rate. The dogs at the no-kill shelter are, generally speaking, safe, so you aren’t faced with the same pressure when you’re choosing one dog over another. Often, no-kill shelters have programs in place for assessing and training the dogs in their care, so you may get a dog who’s had some work put into him!

Next, there’s private rescue. I want to be frank about this: there are awesome private rescues and there are also private rescues that aren’t so great. There are some private rescues who have a dedicated network of tireless volunteers and foster parents who work very hard to match animals with great homes. There are also some private rescues that pull cute fluffy dogs from the pound and then resell the dog for many hundreds of dollars (well beyond the price of the dog’s care). There are some rescues where the dogs are in the best home of their lives; there are some rescues that are indistinguishable from hoarding situations. There’s no independent accreditation for rescues, so do your homework beforehand and make sure you’re not adopting from the rescue equivalent of a puppy mill.  In addition to this, there are some private rescues who are excited to match up people and dogs quickly so they can bring more dogs into their rescue; there are also some private rescues that make you feel like an axe murderer for having the temerity to try to adopt one of their dogs. We’ve talked about this before on TU, and if the comments on that post are any indication, the feeling of being rejected by rescue is pretty common. I don’t want to sound completely snide about that second type of rescue, because I’ve been on both sides of it–I’ve been a foster parent for rescue before, and even though I believe strongly in the concept of open adoption, I found myself immediately clamping down on my foster dog. She MUST go to a home that was interested in pursuing agility or another dog sport, I told myself. They MUST have an active interest in training and be physically active themselves. I turned down so many good adopters because I had The Perfect Home in mind for my foster dog. So really, I can see how rescue people drift into feeling like “most homes are terrible, our dogs are great, we’re going to be super super super picky about where our dogs go”. But what that turns into is all these stifling blanket requirements: you must have an eight foot tall privacy fence, your home must be [x] size, somebody in the home needs to be home with the dog 100% of the time, dogs can only be adopted by a married couple, no adopters under 25, etc etc. Statistically, those kinds of strict requirements do not keep dogs in homes, nor do they increase adoption rates–there are studies! What they do do is make people feel discouraged that they’ll ever be ‘allowed’ to adopt, and then they turn to puppy mills/BYB/Craigslist and other places where they don’t feel judged for being imperfect/human.

So, Facebook Friend/Future Adopter, here’s my last piece of advice: if you run into a rescue who makes you feel terrible the minute you put in your application, don’t waste your time with them. Go to another rescue, go to a shelter; the world is full of awesome dogs, and lots of them are a fit for your family. All you have to do is go out and meet them.