Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Animal Companions: Planning for when they're ill

I recently wrote about planning for the care of our animals if we should become ill. The other side of the coin: do we "plan" for our animals' illnesses or deal with the illnesses as they arise? Hand in glove with this: have you considered before-hand what is a reasonable v. unreasonable amount of intervention to give a sick animal?

When my Wee Bonny Lass was10 years old, I discovered she had a serious case of bladder stones. In fact, she had developed so many stones that she became incontinent, needing to wear a doggy diaper. Bonny was not all happy with the diaper or with the loss of control. My vet explained that the only option was a surgery that would cost more than I had; the vet however was willing to take payments on the surgery.

I was torn.  As a Schnauzer I knew Bonny had a life expectancy of approximately twelve years and she was nearing her 11th birthday. I knew she could not live the way she was and the vet explained that she was very uncomfortable, so my choices were surgery or euthanasia. Given the cost, her age, my limited income logic told me I should let Bonny go. At this point an interesting event happened.

I was not actually in town with Bonny when this happened. I was traveling across the country and Bonny had been left in the care of my sister/housemate. My sister and Bonny had an interesting relationship that included verbal arguments where my sister would shout, "Quit barking!" and Bonny would respond with a low growl. The two of them would then go on like this for up to ten minutes at a time.
"I mean it! Not another sound."
Low growl.
"What did I say!"
"Okay, I really mean it. Shut up."
Low muttering growl.
"Oh my God, would you stop!"
Sulking growl....

When I arrived back in the city late at night, I was prepared to make the hard call. My sister met me in the hallway. "Her surgery is tomorrow morning," my sister said before I could say anything.
"I don't know...."
"No, I'm telling you," my sister insisted. "I've already made arrangements with the vet. I'll make the payments. Bonny is fine...she can still live just fine, she's not in any other pain. I want to do this."

My sister understood how important Bonny was to me. And she and Bonny had their own unique bond. Normally I would not have let someone else make a decision like this in my life but in this case...Bonny's illness had been so sudden and unexpected that I, at a distance trying to make difficult decisions was like a stranger arriving at an accident scene and finding a loved one in the wreckage. I sat back and let my sister keep control of the situation. True to her word, she took care of everything with the vet and Bonny and I were able to concentrate on her recovery. Which happened very quickly and sure enough - Bonny was good as gold for nearly two more years, two years I've always considered a gracious gift from my sister.

Then Bonny met a fight she couldn't win. Congenital heart failure. Although the vet and I tried a few expensive meds, in a matter of weeks it became obvious that they weren't able to give Bonny total relief. I could have kept Bonny alive a brief while longer than I did - perhaps another month or two- but I had seen a beloved family pet in my childhood struggling to breath through one miserable night when her heart started to fail. I vowed that this would not be Bonny's end. I planned the best day I could give her and then, trying to act like we were having just another stop by the vet to pick up meds Bonny was given her final injection while I held her. Staying with her to the end was the last thing I could do for Bonny.

I have had to accompany many animal companions to this final vet visit. It is never easier. Unfortunately, I have only had two pets who were granted death in their sleep. The rest have had to be quality of life calls made by me on behalf of those who rely on me. The elderly cat who stopped eating all but a spoonful of cat food a day; the Boxer whose mind faded; the Rotti who developed a neurological disorder. At what point is enough enough?

I believe owners have to first consider an animal's comfort level. I have seen too many people keep an animal going because the person is not ready to say goodbye. Dogs live in the moment. When they have too many uncomfortable moments in a day then they have lost the quality of life they ought to be able to expect as our faithful companions. We can provide pain relief and other medical interventions. We also must balance what we can do, however, with what we ought to do. Sometimes, every possible measure is not the right choice for the animal.

Cost also is a consideration. I may not be popular in taking this stand and I certainly do believe that when it comes to how an individual chooses to spend their money, he or she has the right to choose to spend it all on an animal companion. I however believe that in a world where too many children go to bed hungry, my money ought to be spent on more than just myself and my companion animals. I do not choose to travel a great deal; I choose to sponsor children and care for sometimes unwanted animals. Each of us has to balance our own moral and  economic scale.

My Lab puppy Lil for example, could have an expensive surgery; the results of the surgery are questionable at best. I will pay for Lil to be on joint supplements for the rest of her life. This keeps her comfortable and mobile and seems reasonable and responsible. I have a desire -- and duty -- to make her as comfortable as I can. I do not feel I have a duty however, to give her every medical opportunity known to veterinary medicine. So she will not have this surgery on her leg joint.

The vet and I agree Lil is very comfortable as she is, happy, healthy, and growing well. As long as I can maintain her in this status I will do so. I also recognize that as a Labrador with a joint injury at a young age, Lil may not be comfortable into as old an age as I had originally hoped. I will therefore have to continue to balance her quality of life with the options that veterinary medicine give me and my own sense of what is reasonable care for a non-human member of my family. As someone who has studied medical ethics I assure you, I extend a remarkably similar rule of quality balance in my own life and medical choices for myself. I am not interested in nor will I accept all potential medical interventions.

As with our own health, with our animals' health we cannot foresee all possible illness and accidents. When I went out of my way to add a Lab with healthy joints to my family, I had hoped to avoid the very reality I am living with - a Lab puppy who will always live with a problem joint. The best laid plans of mice and men....

There are several things we can control however. First of course, we can try and be proactive. Keep your pets healthy: annual vet checks; vaccinations particularly for puppies until they develop stronger immune systems (the discussion about how often to vaccinate and what to vaccinate against I will leave for another day); fresh clean water; good food; exercise; socialize. Mental well being is important to animals just as it is to their care givers.

Next, it behooves all of us to set some money aside for the unforeseeable emergencies that will happen to our animals. Some people use pet insurance --read the policies carefully, they don't include regular proactive health care--others have saving accounts. Not all of us will be lucky enough to have a vet who will take payments if something fixable should happen to our beloved companion and we are short of funds. Just as much as I am uncomfortable seeing people spend a fortune on a lost medical cause, I hate to see an animal's life endangered because of a temporary shortage of owner-funds in the face of non-traumatic injury.

I think it might also be important though, in an age where we are faced with so many possibilities in pet care, to think about what we believe. Should our animal's care be at all related to cost? Should it be strictly a matter of what degree of quality of life our animal is enjoying? This is a personal decision that I would advise thinking about before you are in an actual state of needing to provide emergency or end of life care. Also, what standards have you set for yourself so that you are recognizing the signs that an animal has lost their quality of life? For example, when Bonny started to loose interest in chewing things, I knew she was loosing her zeal for life. We need to be honest with ourselves in recognizing those signs that let us know our faithful companions are loosing interest in the things that mean most to them. Bonny was always glad to see me; that wasn't her only purpose in living though and when the other things that mattered to her in life were gone, so was her quality of life.

Lil on the other hand, lives happily in the moment. She doesn't know or care that her one leg is not as mobile as other dog legs. She runs, plays, eats, and sleeps like every moment in the day is the most important. She is a happy puppy. My goal is to keep her as happy, content, comfortable as possible in each stage of her life and to enjoy as many moments with her as life blesses us with. And then to have the grace to recognize when I have once again reached the final life stage with a beloved companion.

This is the best we can do for our companions. To treat them as ends in themselves, never as just holders of our own happiness. They are beings in their own right and deserve the dignity and respect that comes from being a living being with feelings.

I have often found it helpful and comforting to discuss these choices with other people who love animals and who understand how hard decisions can be related to traumatic and end of life care for pets. If you have your own thoughts, ideas or want to use this blog as a sounding board for such discussions please do so.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Animal Companions:Planning for when we're Ill


Among the many things we have to think about in order to be responsible care givers to our animals is -- what happens when we're sick?

Sooner or later most of us will feel "poorly" as my friend from the south says. I'm talking about those days when we have to drag ourselves out of bed, perhaps coughing or even gagging so that we can see to the basic needs of our animals. Fresh water, food, some trips outside. I've miserably stood on the end of a leash, feverish and nauseous, wind howling, cold rain ripping into my face waiting for my schnauzer to decide just where she would eventually relieve herself so that I could pick up after her before crawling back to my apartment and bed.

Currently I'm lucky to live in a small town where I can actually have a house and yard. I still have to drag myself out of bed on my sick days to walk Jenny around the yard in rain, snow, wind, and hail. (Thank God Gracie believes in racing outside, relieving herself and running back in during foul weather.)

That's what happens when we get a little sick and maybe need a friend to come over and take the dog for a walk. I'm also suggesting today though that you stop a do a little planning in case you ever get really sick, need medical attention, or are disabled for a while.

Planning ahead. This is an important aspect of being a responsible animal caregiver. No one plans to be in a car accident, slip and fall, or hundreds of other things that can unexpectedly impede our ability to be independent. But we still need to plan for the general emergencies that may leave our pets needing someone besides ourselves to help care for them.

Maybe you live with an animal like Jenny - older, easy going, doesn't require a lot of extra maintenance. Someone might be able to stop by your house, take her out a few times a day for you. That would take care of her most basic physical needs and might be appropriate care for a few days. It isn't a long term solution though. Older, easy going animals are often also sensitive and rely on human companionship for a sense of well being. Left alone for days on end they can become depressed, stopped eating or drinking, or suffer disruptions in their bowel systems. With an animal like Jenny it can be important to have a backup home where she can stay, someone who can make sure she still has the quiet daily interaction she needs, preferably someone she is already familiar with.

Gracie playing

Gracie and high energy pets are another story. Gracie needs lots of socialization and interaction everyday. She is not well suited to spending several days with just 'upkeep' attention. She needs to play, to be reminded of good behavior, and to have responsible supervision. This is one reason why Gracie started to be socialized into a dog boarding/play group from puppyhood. She regularly spends an overnight there, has play groups she belongs to, and is used to being in her home away from home. I have also had time to find the place I am most comfortable with leaving her, knowing from experience that she will receive the kind of time and attention I consider appropriate. This is a dog boarding situation where she receives much more than basic care: she is given supervised socialization; her manners are reinforced; she receives individual attention, and her personality quirks are appreciated not reviled.

Then there are puppies, like Lil.


Puppies are just growing and learning. If you have a young pup and become ill, is there someone you know and trust who is going to be willing to continue training your puppy in the way that you would? Or is there a trainer you can afford to leave your puppy with? Will the puppy's housebreaking be continued or will the puppy end up being resented by the caregiver becasue they lack housetraining and other manners?

And at what point do you decide it is perhaps time to consider rehoming a puppy if you are suddenly facing an extended inability to personally care for and train her? Puppies ideally need to bond with their person/people when they are young and if the puppy is going to spend a large amount of their early time with someone else, perhaps that should be their permanent bond.

These are practical questions; I argue that everyone should plan for the future of their children and pets rather than hoping that a crises will never happen. I'm also superstitious - if you don't have a plan it makes it that much more likely that you will need one.

You can also help prepare your animals in case they ever need temporary caregivers.

I. Train
Make sure your animals know the basics of obedience. They are just so much easier for both you and others to handle when they know basic obedience. They are also more likely to be able to fit into someone else's household as guests and to be manageable by a visiting caregiver.

II. Socialize
Play dates, public walking places, obedience groups -- these are all ways to socialize your animal to other animals and people. Again, the better socialized and trained your animal is, the more likely someone else will be able to step in and help care for them should the need arise.

III. Network
Meet other people who care about animals. They will often be your best resources for trading both pet care tasks and information about trainers, boarding etc. Networking should also include those who provide pet services. In other words, don't wait until an emergency to use a boarding service. Even if you only leave your pet overnight once in a while this is good practice for both pet and owner if the pet will ever require boarding. If you are likely to need boarding sometimes, then investigate boarding situations and try them.

I'm sure many of you have other suggestions that you've found helpful in making sure your animals have backup care in cases of emergencies. We should also use this opportunity to remind people that animals can and should be planned for in one's Will. If you want to make sure that your companion ends up taken care of in a particular manner, then you need to have a written, legal document that ensures your wishes are carried out. Never assume that other people know and will do what you want with your animal companions should something happen to you. If you have made arrangements you need to make sure that there is a public record of these arrangements to save your companion a potential trip to the shelter. Every shelter I'm aware of has occupants whose owners were suddenly unable to care for them and who did not have a backup plan for their pets.
Hope for the best, but plan for the rest....

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Puppies are cute but can you handle what they grow into?

Puppies are cute.  Even people who aren't crazy about dogs will often oooh and aaaahhh over a little puppy.

Bichon Frise

 It is easy to make an impulse decision to bring a cute puppy home. But what will you be getting yourself into?

Siberian Husky

It is so much better to plan a puppy and think - realistically and honestly - about the amount of time and inclination you have to train, groom, and exercise a puppy and pick your pet accordingly.
Let's talk about what to consider when considering adding a puppy - or adult dog - to your family.

What are your expectations for the role your new dog will fit in your family? Companion; watch dog; lap dog; jogging companion; playmate for the children; hunting partner; good friend?

Some dogs can fit most of these roles; others not so much. For example, some dogs are a little large for a lap:

Tibetan Mastiff

Other dogs, while loyal, don't make the best long distance running partners, particularly in heat.

English Bulldog

If you want a running partner for example, consider a dog breed that was developed to run like the Dalmatian, or a breed that is athletic, like a Weimaraner.

Want a dog that does double duty, for example jogging partner and lap dog, perhaps something like an Italian Greyhound or small Beagle would fit the bill.

Purpose should perhaps be the first consideration when considering a dog. But it is just one of handful of things you should consider.

Whatever purpose you have in mind for your new family member, including couch potato, he or she will still require some exercise and will need to relieve themself. If you don't considering jogging, or even long walks enjoyable, then do yourself and your future pet a favor - get a lower energy dog, or a dog that can be tired out easily. Some smaller dogs for example, can be tired out by having their person throw a ball for them for half an hour. Which means you would have to be willing to throw a ball for half an hour several times a day to wear your pup out.

Consider purpose and the amount of room you have; there are a range of  lower energy dogs which can be found at both ends of the size spectrum.

Japanese Chin

Bull Mastiff

For some people this overlaps with purpose and exercise, for others size is important all by itself. My little sister for example, loves a big dog and adjusts her life to fit whichever breed of big she currently has. Other people want a pocket book dog that they can carry with them. Again, size should never be the lone deciding factor. How much exercise? Is the breed prone to any health problems? Grooming requirements? Activity level? Remember, there are dogs at every size level with different needs and you should be matching the breed with what you can reasonably and honestly expect yourself - not another family member - to give.
The Japanese Chin and Bull Mastiff are both lower maintenance dogs that require modest exercise.

When thinking about grooming consider two not necessarily related concerns: washing/brushing and shedding. I for example grew up with two of the most shedding dog breeds - Labs and German Shepherds. My Collie does not shed more than either of these breeds. She does need a good brush out more often than a Lab but a longer haired shepherd would require just as much grooming.

My Shar Pei on the other hand, while not requiring much brushing, did require regular baths. Shar Pei are one of a handful of breeds that have a unique smell that becomes objectionable to many people if they aren't bathed every four to six weeks. I don't have to bathe my Collie that often. And then there's the English Bull Terrier, you can practically run a hand over them to meet their brushing needs and they quickly bathe and dry.

I would suggest that this is perhaps the most important consideration - which is why I left it for last. This should be a take away final idea.

No matter how much grooming you are willing to do, how much you can afford to vet and feed your pet, how much exercise you will give -- the thing you need to be most honest with yourself about is what level of training you will provide for your pet. If you aren't much of a trainer, and you don't plan to hire and work with a trainer or take classes -- you either need to reconsider having a dog, or adopt a dog that is trained and then at least maintain the level of training the dog arrives with.

Puppies are not born with the behavior that people want. Puppies will nip, chew things, eliminate in the house, and some will push behavior boundaries as they discover what is and is not acceptable behavior. Realizing this, sometimes the best decision you can make is to adopt an adult, dog that has basic training; adopt from a reputable organization that can point you towards an easy going dog that will not challenge you in ways that you are not able to deal with.

There are a growing number of pure bred dogs ending up in shelters and all breed rescues. Some are there due to the economy, health problems their former owners are suffering from, or divorces. Many more are there because their former owners did not realize what they were getting into when they bought that particular kind of "cute puppy" when it was young. Again, this is where a reputable pet adoption agency can be helpful; not only can they tell you about a dog's behavior but many have given the dog additional training in foster homes before adopting it out. Breed specific rescues often excel at this kind of adoption since they know the particular ins and outs of their breed and what areas are most important to consider when training.

For example, labs as a breed can be very orally fixated, so teaching the dog the difference between "toys" and "not toys" is important. Also, as a strong, thick necked breed labs can pull and drag a person when being walked. Proper leash etiquette is another important thing for a lab to learn.

Dogs can best friends, companions, early warning systems, and working partners. The best dog though is the dog that suits you and your lifestyle. Be honest with yourself when assessing what you want and what you have to give and carefully select your family member. Remember, with a little luck the new dog will be part of your life for years.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Dog Behavior IV: Biting

Which dog is most likely to bite you?

Compare the following pictures; which dog would you think most likely to end up biting a person?




I'll explain what I see in the body language of these dogs.
In picture A we have a dog who is barking. She may be announcing someone arriving, a change in the environment, or wanting attention. Her ears are to the side listening, and her lips are covering her top teeth, rather than bearing the top teeth, i.e. she is not trying to intimidate by snarling. Her hackles don't appear to be up. In other words, she is barking...showing no offer of biting. In fact, she doesn't look all that upset, just announcing something she finds noteworthy.

Picture B is a dog whose not happy. Unlike dog A, whose ears are to the side listening, dog B's ears are tense, held stiff and slightly down. His entire posture is stiff, his lips look prepared to pull up. This is a dog that is on edge and if approached too close might well snap quickly or even bite.

Picture C is a dog curling in on itself in a self protective stance. Because this dog is small many people might find it tempting to lean over and pat or stroke the dog to reassure it. That would be an excellent way to get bitten. This dog is clearly telling anyone who can read his body posture that he wishes to be left alone. This is the dog that to me is most likely to result in a bite, because not only is he mentally in a fearful place but physically he isn't as intimidating as dog B. On average, people would find dog B's size and posture together cautionary and would be more likely to approach dog B with a little more caution than dog C. Either dog could bite but C is most likely to be put in a situation that will produce a bite.

In this group of pictures it is the barking dog that is least likely to bite and least likely to be put into a position that will lead to a bite - because barking dogs can be off putting, they often will not have people just walk up and stick a hand out to pet them.

So what situations place a dog in a context most likely to produce a bite?  We are not talking about dogs that are trained guard dogs now, we're talking about the dog that you might encounter in public or at someone's home.

By the way, do not assume that because an owner allows their dog to be off leash in public, that the dog will not bite if approached. Unfortunately, some owners are not responsible and others are just not clued in enough to their own dogs thresholds to realize that the dog is a potential biter. As some of us know, almost any dog can eventually be put in a situation that could lead to a bite -- context matters a lot in the dog world.

Most obvious potential biters: Dogs in pain.
The kindest natured, usually none biting dog when in pain and touched in an area that is painful has the potential to snap in response. This is instinctual reaction -- dogs are born with the instinct to protect themselves and if something is hurting they may well bite at it to defend themselves. It is precisely because this is an instinctual reaction to pain that dogs who would normally not bite have the potential to be put in a situation where they will bite.

Most likely to bite without warning: Fearful dogs.
A dog can be afraid for many reasons, including feeling trapped, cornered, chased or threatened. Probably one of the best ways to get bitten is to confront a fearful dog by rapidly approaching it or better yet, corner it. If you would like to guarantee that you get bitten, corner a fearful dog and then try and grab it. The likelihood of a bite is so high that dog catchers have taken to using long poles with loops on the end to grab stray dogs; they don't want to be bitten.

Learning to read the body language of dogs and knowing when a dog - including a barking dog - is barking or behaving from fear will go a long way towards protecting you from being bitten. The best way to approach a fearful dog -- ignore it. Let the dog approach you if and when it is ready. And when it first approaches you, continue ignoring it. In fact, training yourself not to immediately respond to dogs is one of the best ways to avoid getting bitten. But that is an entire blog topic in and of itself.

Most likely to bite if agitated: Chained or contained dogs.
In some ways this ovelaps with fear biting. But for some dogs it is also frustration or self protection rather than fearful biting. A trapped dog is being placed in a context where it feels an increased need to protect itself and it's territory.  The dog that is unable to escape attention due to a leash, chain, or cage approached by a person (or other animal) that basically "chases down" the animal and insists on direct interaction is basically being asked by the person, "Please, bite me!"
Again, allow dogs to approach you and ignore them until they are ready to do so.

If you are looking for a dog to adopt and see a potential adoptee who is kenneled, you are not necessarily going to see the dog's ordinary behavior until the dog is out of the cage and preferably in a closed private room where it can roam and interact with the people on the dog's own terms. Dogs that are kenneled often act more aggressive than ordinary because they are trapped in a small territory and must protect that territory and themselves - they have no avenue of escape and this can lead to reacting to people in an aggressive manner. Occasionally, a kenneled dog will actually appear more submissive then it normally is; caging can have many different impacts on a dog's behavior.

As with barking, biting does not happen for "no reason." It often happens for reasons that people are oblivious to. For example, I was walking my Shar Pei Ning through a busy street on our way to the park one evening. A number of people had just gotten off at the local train stop and I moved Ning off the sidewalk so she would not be in anyone's way. I then decided to just back her up and have her sit and wait until the departing passengers had passed us. Without warning a man stepped off the sidewalk and in the same move stuck his hand out and straight into Ning's face. Due to the number of years I'd worked with dogs I was actually instinctively able to jerk Ning back out of bite range as she snapped at the man's hand; I physically responded to a situation that experience had taught was guaranteed to produce a bite.

The man laughed. "It's okay," he assured me, "I've been bitten by all the big dogs, Rottweilers, Shepherds, Dobermans..."

I backed away saying, "We have to go now" and Ning and I retreated from the guy who was so oblivious to dog behavior -- and apparently pain -- that he seemed to think getting bitten by a range of dogs was some kind of merit badge accomplishment. Ning was a well trained and well behaved dog who never offered to bite anyone - this was a context that we encountered only that one time in our lives and I honestly wouldn't have thought that someone like this man was out there in the world. I'm actually still a little surprised that my instincts were that fast and I was able to prevent a bite in a situation that still strikes me as unbelievable.
This taught me something very important though - eventually, any dog can be put in a context where there is the potential for a bite.

As responsible owners the best we can do is work with our dogs so that we are knowledgeable about what their typical responses are; remain honest with ourselves about our dogs' potentials; practice reading our dog's body language and responding to it so that we eventually reach the point where we are responding to what they are telling us without needing to think it out. This last stage may be the hardest but it is also where we can find a lot of support. There are multiple books, web pages, and even DVD and TV shows that talk about dog behavior and body language. There are dog behaviorists and trainers. If you want to learn how to read dogs then there are many support sources that you can reference.
And as always, responses, observations, and questions are welcome here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The fun side of Terriers

I have to take a blog at this point to speak in favor of terriers -- or as some people have referred to them -- terrors. They certainly are not for everyone but for those who know and love one or more varieties of this Group, they can be a whole lot of fun.

Bedlington Terrier

As I mentioned in the Dog Behavior III post - terriers tend to notice everything and consider most of it worth barking about. Gracie for example considers herself not just my personal watch dog, but feels it is her duty to keep an eye on the houses on both sides of us, across from us and behind us. This includes informing me of when anyone comes or goes from these houses, puts a dog out or brings it in from these houses, or sometimes - if someone is just walking by any of these houses.

In order to keep her vigil, Gracie sometimes has to bound across the room, leap onto the couch with enough force to bang it back into the wall, then slam her blunt head into the picture window behind the couch and stare out for a few minutes. If all is well she just as quickly returns to playing. If anything is out of place, then she will erupt with a bout of barking. If she can't see anything but is suspicious that something is about to be out of place, she will emit a deep, low growl. The growl usually means I have to look out the window and say, "there's nothing" before she will return to play. I strongly suspect the growl needing my look is really just a test of the emergency broadcast system to make sure I'm ready if anything should ever be wrong.

Miniature Schnauzer (salt and pepper coloring)

The breed of terrier I have personally spent the most time with - about 24 years - is the Miniature Schnauzer. I love, love, love this breed. They are feisty with attitude, stubborn, playful, loving and completely devoted, silly, smart, and very tuned into their people. My first schnauzer, Wee Bonnie Lass, was a salt and pepper with enough attitude to fill two bigger dogs.

I have a lot of Bonnie stories, but I'll share one that is an example of just how big her spirit was. We were living in Burnaby, Canada (outside Vancouver) in a three story walk-up. Across the street from our building was a more upscale building of condos in which lived a professional dog trainer. This trainer and I would often walk past each other on the way in and out of the large park nearby. One day the trainer came out with a new Rottweiler puppy, which I stopped to admire. While the trainer explained to me that this was his new personal dog, which he planned to train for personal protection, Bonnie was talking to the puppy, who was already slightly larger than she.

Bonnie stood on her back legs with one paw resting on the big male pup's shoulder and explained with a low growl in his ear, that she was the boss of this block. The next thing we people knew, the puppy had flopped down on his back in total submission to Bonnie. The owner was a little embarrassed and directed his puppy to get up, while I pulled Bonnie away. Bonnie at that moment made an impression on that Rotty puppy that she was the dominate dog.
We did not see the Rott and his owner often but whenever we did, Bonnie would determinedly march down the center of the sidewalk oozing authority, and the poor big rotty would leap off the sidewalk in deference, waiting for Bonnie to pass. This continued to embarrass his owner, and it wasn't long before their walk times changed so that we seldom saw each other.

Over a year later Bonnie and I were out for a walk that wasn't at our usual time, and we again encountered the trainer and his now huge, muscled, well trained Rott. They were marching down the sidewalk like they owned it -- then the Rott saw Bonnie. He stopped in his tracks, hesitated. His handler urged him on but he remained frozen as Bonnie marched towards him. His handler was now audible to me, and he was using the commands that usually got immediate response; the handler's face turned red as his Rott leaped off the sidewalk and cleared a path for Bonnie, who was now not much bigger than his head.  As I stopped to smile and say hello. (I'm probably not always as nice as I could be) I 'didn't notice' as Bonnie gave the Rott a look -- with no sound I could hear -- and he tried to disappear behind his handler.  Satisfied, Bonnie and I then sauntered on leaving the two big guys miserable at the edge of the sidewalk. I'd like to think we had absolutely nothing to do with the handler's decision to move out of the neighborhood.

Scottish Terrier

Another of my personal favorites from the Terrier Group is the Scotty. I had a brief but very meaningful relationship with my own adopted, senior Scotty, Duncan (very similar looking to the free stock photo above.) Duncan was just a laid back guy. Unlike Schnauzers, Scotties don't need to be in your shadow every breathing moment. Duncan would climb up on the seat across from me and just look over from time to time just to say, "Hey." I'd say "hey" back and then we'd both return to what we had been doing - me working on my computer and Duncan sleeping.

Duncan was built like a heavy footstool -- wide, low and comfortable -- and had reached the calm point in his life. I'm not sure what he was like before his hearing and vision started to fade but by the time I knew him Duncan didn't find much worth barking about. I would occasionally get one deep bark if he needed my attention but that was pretty much it. He was a solid, reliable little guy who didn't need to be right next to me but who generally was nearby enough that I could see him. The exception was at night. He made it clear the first night that he was too old to worry about following me upstairs or being carried; he comfortably settled down on his end of the couch and slept there soundly every night. Never a cry, bark, or whine. A real steady, dependable dog. I still miss Duncan as much as dogs who I spent over a decade with - he just had that much impact on me. I felt more peaceful when Duncan was in the room and I could just look over and have a calm gaze back from him. I think that calmness is often the gift that adopted senior dogs can bring into our lives.

There are many types of terriers with a range in size, color, and even temperament.Not all terriers are equally active -- Scotties and Dandie Dinmonts are on the quieter end of the scale while being aloof with strangers.
English Bull Terriers are very active and fun loving while being on the stubborn side. There are reasons they have been compared to a five year old child in a clown suit. They have a unique sense of humor and appropriateness and tend to look for potential friends everywhere they go.
On the particularly lively side we have breeds like the Wire Haired Fox Terriers and Bedlingtons. I have heard from more than one person, including trainers that the Smooth Haired Fox Terrier is actually quieter than the Wire Haired.

Smooth Fox Terrier

And I have of course only touched on a handful of the many types of terriers out there, and only a few of the terriers that I particularly like.
I'd like to hear from others about the terriers they've known and loved, and what you've found intriguing about this feisty group of dogs. Please share your stories! If you have questions about any member of this Group please share those also.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dog Behavior III: Barkers

Above we have free stock pictures of a Yorkshire Terrier, a Miniature Schnauzer, and a West Highland White Terrier. These dogs have a handful of things in common: they are all terriers, they were all bred to hunt vermin, and they all tend to bark. A lot. At the same time, they generally have a reason to bark; you can see the reason once you start to think about what terriers were originally bred to do.

If one talks to enough people one will discover that somewhere out there every breed of dog has pretty much contributed one "nuisance barker" to the world. Which raises a noteworthy point: what makes a nuisance barker? Basically, if a dog barks when it's person doesn't want it to or so often and loudly that other people are complaining. This is not the same as a dog barking "without reason." Some people want a dog that will switch barking off and on for people reasons, "Please dog, only bark when a criminal or door-to-door salesperson is approaching."
Unfortunately, this isn't how barking generally works.

Dogs bark for numerous reasons. Maybe they see another animal, or a person, or a vehicle approaching their territory . That's usually something worthy of a bark, "Warning, stranger approaching." Maybe they are hungry, thirsty, cold, scared, lonely. These are also reasons to bark -- remember, a bark is communication. Dogs are pack animals who have transferred their loyalty to humans. They need human contact and company to be healthy and happy. Dogs left out, alone, unattended tend to be lonely and will bark. They have very good reasons for this - they're trying to find another member of their pack who will rescue them from their isolation.

At the same, some dogs were bred for reasons that require more alert energy and as a result, tend to bark more than dogs that were bred for quieter pursuits. Yorkies for example were bred by folks who mined and didn't want to be overrun by rats. A somewhat larger dog at the time, Yorkies were excellent ratters. Eventually Yorkies caught the eye of  aristocratic land owners, who also selectively bred for a smaller dog.

At the same time, these land owners had larger watch and guard dogs like Great Danes and Mastiffs. The problem with bigger dogs is that they are often heavier sleepers, thus the always alert little Yorkies would bark and wake-up the watch and guard dogs when something was out of order. Eventually small dogs were habitually kept with larger dogs to alert the large dogs. Terriers in general were bred to be alert and notice small movements that rodents would make. This requires keen hearing, quick reactions, an ability to notice small details. Wonderful traits for hunting rodents. Not as wonderful if you want a very quiet housemate but don't live on a large estate where there is limited coming and going. For example, kept in a space where they can see and hear things going on all day, Yorkies will tend to bark.

Terriers bark a lot because they notice a lot and they think most of it is worth barking about. This can be very annoying.
Beagles can be barkers. Having been designed to be part of a pack and now kept often as individual pets, beagles often bark looking for communication and company, and from frustration when alone.
Working dogs without a job can become barkers. This includes German Shepherds and Border Collies who were bred to work with people, not alone. They're likely to become barkers out of boredom, frustration, and loneliness.

This is why it is so important to start dealing with a "problem barker" by examining why they are barking. While some breeds are more likely to bark a great deal because they hear ever little noise, dogs don't bark for 'no reason' -- they bark for reasons that may not match a person's reason for wanting barking. They may also be barking trying to communicate their fear, loneliness, boredom, or frustration. If you have a dog that barks far more than you want there are several common reasons: the breed is more alert and 'barky' than suits you as an individual; the individual animal is very alert or sensitive; or the animal is trying to communicate a need that isn't being met. If you're having trouble discerning why your dog barks, it may be worth consulting a dog behaviorist or books on dog behavior to learn more.

If you're planning on getting a dog and you want less barking, look at the purpose different breeds were bred for and how central to their role both working and barking were considered.
Newfoundlands and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers for example, were bred to work in cold water with people. Barking was not central to this role; being willing to jump into icy water without hesitation were necessary. These are dogs that were designed for the cold but did not need to be constantly alert. They therefore are genetically predisposed to be somewhat quieter.These breeds still need exercise and enjoy swimming but if they're going to bark it is most likely to happen when they are excited because they are going swimming.
 Old English Sheepdogs were bred to guard sheep from predators like wolves, coyotes, and other dogs. Barking was only necessary if they noticed an immediate threat to the flock -- that was what they were bred to communicate to shepherds. They are therefore less likely to bark at everything that moves and bark instead at possible threats to their human flock, like intruders to their territory.

working Chesapeake Bay Retriever


Alf, the Old English Sheepdog

Also, compare the immediately above pictures with the pictures of the terriers. To my eye the terriers look more ready to jump at the first sound and let the world know they heard or saw something. While Retrievers are working dogs and need a job, kept active-- for example taken for regular walks-- they are much less likely to be 'barky' than a terrier will be.  Newfs are pretty happy to make it their job to swim and hang out with their people. Sheepdogs will gladly transfer their herding instincts to watching over children.  In other words, one of the keys to finding a dog that barks the appropriate amount for your lifestyle is to find a breed of dog that was bred for a reason that will work into your lifestyle. If you're a jogger, a retriever might be a perfect companion to exercise with you, then sleep while you're at work (rather than barking to alert everyone to everything.)

This is also an advantage of adopting a dog from a reputable rescue. They have already observed the dog and can tell you the kind of characteristics it is displaying, including when and why it seems to bark. Because they deal with so many kinds of dogs, a rescue can also help you identify a dog that is more or less likely to be too barky for you. This may mean leaving the cute little terrier for people like me, who like big dog attitude in a small package and are willing to put up with the barks as part of the package. (This is also why an increasing number of rescues are trying to adopt particular breeds of dogs out to people who already have experience with that type of dog...a topic we will discuss soon.)

If you are considering adding a particular breed of dog to your family that you have not lived with before and have questions about them, please let us know. Also, if you have noticed particular traits that are specific to particular breeds -- including your own nomination for barkiest breeds of dogs -- please share!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dog Behavior II: Watch Dogs


Two of the watch dogs I have lived with, Jenny the Rough Collie and Wills the Miniature Schnauzer.
Notice that neither has a huge, vicious appearance.


Watch dogs rely on their sense of hearing and smell to let them know when something is out of place in their environment. They note when a stranger -- animal or human -- is approaching or encroaching on their territory.  While a dog can be encouraged to bark at strangers the best watch dogs I've known have had a natural inclination to announce the fact that something is out of place.

A watch dog does just that; they watch, they listen, they observe. Then they bark. They don't attack, they don't lunge at people, they just raise an alarm that something is different from "normal."  If you live with a dog for any length of time and listen, you will often begin to hear a difference in their bark if they are announcing a strange dog is approaching, compared to a strange person.  Of course, some dogs simply have an outraged bark no matter what is happening. I have a neighbor whose frustrated little dog only goes out to be tied up. She tends to bark angrily with the same tone at everything. This makes for a poor watch dog because her owners are so used to her just barking they don't bother to check if she might actually be barking at something noteworthy.

On the other hand, when a dog voices different barks for different purposes and the person learns to listen, barking dogs can be very informative. I can tell by Jenny's bark if she's seeing/hearing another dog or a person. She has an edge to her bark when another dog is approaching that she doesn't get when she sees a strange person. She also has one tone for when someone is walking by outside and another when someone steps onto the porch. Then there is the duty bark. This is when she is letting me know that someone whom we trust is approaching; she informs me while letting me know that this information is a matter of protocol rather than impending danger.

About four summers ago I was sleeping soundly when Jenny woke me with a bark I had not heard before. I was momentarily confused -- it was dark out, about 1:00 a.m. and she was clearly agitated. Sometimes in such a situation an owner might be tempted to tell the dog to be quiet and go back to bed. I think though when a dog is telling you something out of the ordinary is happening that this information is worth checking out. Sometimes a dog's sense of urgency doesn't match mine -- I don't really care if a large dog is walking by the house.

But whatever was bothering Jenny that night seemed very urgent. She was much more agitated than I could remember having ever seen her. Her body language was clearly telling me she wanted to herd me out of my bedroom; her tail was up in a manner that indicated something was urgent. I groggily thought, "skunk in the yard?" Yet I could tell this was much more serious for Jenny than another animal in the yard. I reluctantly got up, opened the bedroom door and she charged out, but again, seemed interested in herding me with her rather than leaving me behind.

On autopilot I trudged downstairs, through the kitchen to the backdoor and the dog pen. As I opened the door Jenny burst outside, her barking more frantic. It took me a moment to make sense of what I saw as I stood slack jawed in the back door. Orange flames and sparks were shooting out from the other side of my neighbor's house; I realized that the house on the other side of them was completely engulfed in flames. As Jenny charged around the pen barking her warning I ran inside and called 911. Then I called Jenny in and ran out the front door in time to see a young man charging onto the porch of the burning house and checking for occupants. Thank God the owners of the house were not home sleeping.

Once the neighborhood was up, the fire truck arrived and Jenny calmed down. She seemed to sense that her duty was to warn everyone and having accomplished that, her work for the night was done.
This to me is an example of ultimate watch dog behavior; when something is really wrong the dog persists in giving warning until humans take action. In fact, this is a level of behavior I wouldn't expect from the average dog; my Miniature Schnauzer who was loosing his hearing and vision simply slept through the whole thing.

Watch dogs do not attack people. In the best possible circumstances they clearly warn us when something is out of place. More often, they inform us of everything that is changing in their environment. For a dog this includes the neighbor's cat hanging out in the yard, the strange dog whose dog tags they can hear clinking from a block away, the person at the front door, a skunk in  the yard etc. A watch dog ideally has a different tone of voice for these different kind of incidents. They are not dogs that bark just to bark or bark in a similar way at everything and everyone. "Barkers" will be the next topic in this series on dog behavior and we'll consider how barkers are, in their own ways, sometimes also telling us something.