Like It’s Your Last

At one particularly bad class, when Dahlia struggled and I was frustrated, I remember my instructor saying “What if this were your last run ever? What would you think of it?” It was a sobering thought. I was tense and angry and upset and Dahlia was stressed out and unhappy. My instructor followed up with telling us to treat every single run like it was your last one. Because you honestly don’t know when the last one might come. Life can change in an instant and your last agility run might come sooner than you expect.

dahlia-jumpFor Dahlia and I, that was November 9, 2015. I didn’t know it was going to be the last class we would take together. I always imagined the end of our time in agility classes would be something I knew was coming, a decision I made. This is it. This is the end. Then I could go to class and we could celebrate and I could cry when it was over and give her big rewards and tons of love and I would know. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see that the end was coming in the next year or two. Dahlia was nearly 10 and not structurally the best dog for agility in the first place. By 11 or 12, I knew she’d be done and so I had this whole idea in my mind of how it would go.

But things didn’t quite go the way I had intended.

I still remember that last class with Dahlia. It was a tough one. We did a 19-obstacle jumpers with weaves course with a lot of twists and turns and taking the backside of jumps. It wasn’t easy. It was the kind of course that would usually have left me feeling out of my element and left Dahlia shut down a bit. But right away that class, she seemed to be working with me, running faster and harder and with more enthusiasm than I’d seen in a long time. She stayed with me every bit of class.

dahlia-jump2At the end, after running the first half of the course and then the second half of the course, we did the entire thing as if it were a trial situation. Keep your rewards on you, but don’t reward until the end. I still remember the high of that run. Dahlia was amazing and beautiful to watch. I keep a sort of diary about my training this was what I said about that particular run: “Dahlia was damned near perfect. Really. We were working together so well as a team. She was attentive, excited, fast for her, and really just into it. We blew through the whole thing with hardly any hesitation. It felt so good to see her really rocking it and moving the way I always want her to move. She was just so into it and gave it her all. I just love this dog so much and I love working with her in agility. These last classes she and I seemed to be able to reconnect really well and we seem to be working together with amazing ease. Love my best girly!”

When the run was over and we all celebrated her amazing run, the instructor asked if we all wanted to run it again. We had the time. I declined. Dahlia had been so amazing the first time out that I didn’t want to blow it by taking her through it again.

Looking back, I don’t regret that decision at all. Yes, it would have been one more moment with my best girl, but that run, the one that turned out to be her final run, was so amazing that I can always look back on it and say Yes, we got it. In all honesty, my only regret was that I never videotaped that run.

dahlia-tableAt the time of that run, I couldn’t wait to get out there again with her. I had been working with Dahlia for over 5 years and we were finally getting ourselves together and looking like a team.

And then Dahlia was struck down with vestibular disease a month later. Our agility career came to a screeching halt. It’s been a year now since I last went to a class with my best girl. And I miss it every single day. I leave for class with Ben and feel terrible about leaving Dahlia behind.

But at least I know that the very last run of her very last class was a beautiful one that we celebrated. And I have no regrets over that last time out. That’s how I wanted her agility career to end, ultimately, with joy and excitement. And that’s how we went out. I hope your last run is filled with joy.

Thank you Dahlia for over 5 amazing years of being a team!

Thank you Dahlia for over 5 amazing years of being a team!

Let’s Be Friends! : A Few Tips for Introducing Dogs

When I’m not writing for TU, I work with dogs at a large animal sanctuary. We get dogs in from all over with a variety of issues, and while many of them are a little selective with their doggy friends, we try hard at work to find them suitable roommates and playmates.  There are a lot of benefits that come with dogs having friends: first, dogs can play with each other in a way that humans just can’t duplicate, and I suspect it’s a relief for dogs to be able to easily communicate with each other.  An analogy I use a lot is this: if you’re in a foreign country, even if you’re pretty good in the local language, it can be a huge relief to find somebody who speaks your native language and can understand your little idioms and colloquialisms and accents. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to fight to be understood, and while dogs work hard to make humans understand what they’re saying, other dogs speak dog as a first language.

Second, dogs benefit from keeping their dog skills up. Even dogs who don’t care much for other dogs need practice walking peacefully down the street when other dogs pass them, and having occasional low-stress exposure to new dogs can be a big benefit, even for dogs who don’t really want to play.  Sometimes our ‘playdates’ at work just consist of two dogs peacefully coexisting in the same space, not interacting, just sniffing around and exploring on their own terms.  They’re not very exciting looking, but those low-key encounters can be valuable too!

Because my older dogs in particular can be pretty selective with other dogs, I have absolutely been guilty of limiting their dog-dog social time in the past; however, doing lots of dog introductions at work has gotten me a lot braver about it, and these days, Widget and Nimbus have a several playdates every week, Nellie has periodic playdates with with specific dogs and Lucy’s started to go on group walks where she doesn’t interact with other dogs but walks peacefully in the group. This is a terrific thing for all of them, and I’m glad I’ve started to be able to do it again. Below the cut, I’ll lay out the steps we use for new dog introductions at work, which have also worked really well with my own guys!

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Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

On foster failing, or not

Exactly 10 days ago today, I called my mom after work, and without even saying hello, I said, “Mom, I have to tell you: I have fallen in love.”

There was a pause, and then an audible sigh.

“It’s with a dog, isn’t it?”

Sometimes your mom can know you a little too well.

The object of my affection, and the source of the consternation that lead to this post is this handsome young gentleman:


Hi there!

Meet Shine. He is a cute, twoish-year old little dude who Sarah says looks like a McNab collie and Jen says just looks like a Heinz 57: Herding Flavor. Either way, he showed up in admissions at my shelter, and pretty much the instant I met him, I was all, “GIMME THAT POINTY DOG!” He was doing poorly in admissions–classic ‘dog who is stressed out by a shelter environment and turns into a monster because of it’–and I volunteered to bring him home for a little while, assuming he could work with my group of animals. I knew full well that I kind of secretly totally wanted him and that he would be a dangerous guy to bring home, given that it is not my objective to acquire any more dogs. However, I assumed that he would bomb out at some point in the introduction process and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. To my massive surprise, however, he passed his cat test and all of my dogs thought he was swell (Lucy, my old dog who hates basically everyone, play bowed at him and then got the zoomies, and I will have to plead the Fifth on whether or not that made me burst into happy tears.) So, because I had no built-in excuses left, he is now curled up in a ball with Nellie on my couch, and I have spent the last several days Hamlet-ing around about whether or not to keep him.


Duh, you have to keep me. Nellie thinks I’m great!

[Shine, by the way, is not his official name. Pretty much immediately on arrival, I decided his shelter name was non-euphonious and too difficult to call (plus, he didn't know it), so I decided that he seemed like a Shine and that was now his name. Step one in not adopting your foster dog: DO NOT RENAME HIM! Sigh.]

I have fostered a fair bit, and I am proud to say that I have only ‘foster failed’ (adopted a foster dog) once. That foster fail was Nellie, and the difference between her and my other fosters was that a) I was actively looking for a second dog when I agreed to foster her, and b) I mostly wanted to foster instead of adopt because I thought there was a good chance Lucy might want to murder her, and I wanted to have an ‘out’ just in case. I have had a couple of fosters that I was glad to see go, but I have been lucky in that I have mostly had foster dogs that I’ve adored. There were a couple that I desperately wanted to keep and did not; all of those dogs are in terrific homes and are thriving, and I know now that my decision to let them go was the right one. The stakes on both sides are pretty obvious: of course, if you keep your foster, you get an awesome dog and they get an awesome home. However, if you keep your foster, you also give up your ‘foster slot’, either temporarily (as New Dog adjusts) or permanently (because you are now full up on dogs). Keeping a foster dog means, theoretically anyway, that all of the potential foster dogs you could have taken in will now either need alternate placement or will not be rescued at all. So the decision to keep a foster isn’t tiny, and it’s not even necessarily about just you and the dog.

However, if you, like me, have a foster dog that is currently making your heart go pitter-pat, I thought I’d talk through some of the things I’m thinking about as I agonize over whether or not to keep Shine. If you’ve had to make the To Keep Or Not To Keep decision and had other criteria that you considered, please feel free to share those in the comments! Help me, help your fellow dog nerds.

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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.

In Case of Emergency: Break Bank

Sick days are no fun.

Where do you find the money when your dog needs the vet?

It’s the question that everyone dreads but no one really talks about. Here at Team Unruly, we are all advocates of planning ahead for pet emergencies. None of us ever want to be in a position where we can’t afford to give our dogs the veterinary treatment they need.

I have owned Staffordshire Bull Terriers since 2005. Not a very long time, granted, but it has certainly been long enough for me to learn that health-wise, when Staffords are good, they are very, very good. But when they’re bad, they’re horrid. (And when I say horrid, I mean expensive and grey-hair inducing.)

He looks sweet and innocent, but he was actually plotting his next assault on my bank account.

Disasters, I’ve had a few.

I mentioned in a previous post that my first dog, Max, was an ex-stud and show dog who came to me at nine years of age. Over the four years he spent with me, Max needed:

  • two tooth extractions
  • neutering when we discovered he had testicular cancer
  • mole and lipoma removal (he had about 4 of those)
  • four rounds of treatment for eye ulcers
  • diagnostics and treatment for a severe UTI and kidney infection
  • bi-annual cartrophen injections for his arthritis; and
  • a 20kg bag of Hills j/d Prescription Diet food every six weeks.

I can’t remember exactly how much all those trips to the vet cost, but a ballpark figure would be at least $4000. The day before Christmas Eve 2009, when Max was 13 and a half, we took him to the vet with a distended stomach. The vet suspected a large tumour on his spleen and proceeded with surgery. Unfortunately, the tumour had seeded all through Max’s abdomen and there was no hope of treatment. We had to let him go.

The final bill that day was for $2500.00 and I was extremely fortunate at the time to have parents who were willing to cover the bill, as I was working a minimum wage job and was only barely scraping by. Not one of my happier Christmases. For a long time, I thought that most of Max’s disasters were attributable to him being an elderbull. Then I got Tayla as a six month old pup in January 2010 and learned that regardless of age, dogs just hate your wallet. :) Continue reading

Pet Photography Tip #3: Background

We’ve talked about lighting. We’ve talked about composition. You KNOW we’re going to talk about the dogs themselves, but let’s talk about the third thing that makes a photo a good photo, and that is… background. There’s nothing that makes or breaks a photo like what is in the backdrop. We’ve all seen those funny Facebook memes where people are posing for a photo and someone has their pants down in the background. It just totally detracts from the point of the photo. That example is obvious, but there are many more subtle things that make a good (or bad) background for a dog photo.

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Adopting From a Shelter: Go in with a Plan!


Chloe, a former shelter dog on her way to a new beginning.

You have finally made the decision.  You’re going to get a dog!  The first place you head out to is the local shelter and there you are confronted by dogs of all sizes and shapes.  Any one of those amazing dogs could be yours just for the asking!

A tiny older Chihuahua huddles in the back of his kennel, looking up at you with big eyes.  “That one!” you think.  “I would love a small lap dog.”

In the next kennel, a young pit bull jumps up against the bars when you get close, his whole body wiggling with energy, his tail going a mile a minute, flashing you that great big bully smile.  “That one!” you think.  “I love his energy.  I’d love to come home to that sort of excitement.”

In the next kennel, a small Border collie mix is turning in circles, barking madly.  She hasn’t even noticed your arrival.  “That one!” you think.  “She’s beautiful and has so much energy!”

In a kennel further down sits an old Lab, her muzzle grey, her eyes rheumy.  “That one!” you think.  “She’s so sad.  She needs me.”

Each of those faces, so very different from one another, are just some of the dogs you’re likely to come across in a shelter.  There are dogs of every size, breed, and mix in shelters in America.  There are purebreds and mixed breeds, puppies, adults, and seniors alike, all looking for a great new home, all hoping you’re going to be the one to take them home and love them for the remainder of their lives, whether it’s 16 years or 6 months.

I will say this about shelters: It is very easy to fall in love there.  But it is also very easy to fall in love with the wrong dog.

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The Beauty of “No”: Being your dog’s advocate.

The bulldog community frowns upon these shenanigans.

Something miraculous happens when we’re infants. I mean, there’s the walking, the firing of synapses, maybe feeding ourselves our own mushy peas – you know, the basics. There’s something more important than all of that, though, that we really get a good grip on at a young age.

We learn to say “No.”

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