Read an Excerpt
Why Do You Want a Dog?
REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS FOR A WIN-WIN RELATIONSHIP
MYTH: Any dog can easily fit into your family unit at any point in your life.
REALITY CHECK: You should carefully consider why you want a dog in your life, what kind of dog you want and what a successful interspecies relationship means to you before you even think about shopping for a dog. Having a dog will likely be at least a sixteen-year commitment, but it can become a prison sentence for both species—and the dog too often pays the ultimate price, with his or her life.
The Doggy Dogma Assessment When I first meet a client, I ask them three really important questions. It’s not a pop quiz that I can mark with a pass or fail grade in red ink. That would mean I believe I know the one right answer to each question, but I don’t. Although some people love “playing God” in this way, I don’t feel I have the right to do that.
The first question is “Why do you want a dog?” Or if my client already owns a dog, “Why did you want a dog?” The second question is “ What do you want your dog to be able to do?” And last but not least, I ask, “What does success mean to you in a dog-human relationship?” I pose these questions because my clients’ responses give me some fascinating insights into their frame of mind, as well as a family’s dynamics and their expectations not only about the role they want that dog to play in their life but also about how they imagine their own life.
Until recently, the answer to these three questions was probably much simpler in most cases: “I want a dog to herd cattle”; “ . . . to protect the flock of sheep from predators”; “ . . . to help with the hunting.” Nobody is sure exactly why humans decided to roll out the red carpet for dogs, but one theory is that the least skittish and aggressive wild canines were the most likely to be cu rious about us and the most willing to interact with us. In fact, anthropologists have theorized that when we started living with dogs fifteen thousand years ago—a time when it is believed domestic dogs diverged from their wolf ancestors1—we mostly cherry-picked the ones that were naturally submissive and friendly, so they’ve evolved to get along with us.2 That makes sense to me. You wouldn’t be able to develop a bond with a dog that bolted as soon as it saw, heard or smelled you coming.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have dug up a lot of evidence to support their theories that dogs have had an intimate relationship with humans for a long time. The oldest dog burial site found to date is about fourteen thousand years old. It’s in Germany, about an hour south of Düsseldorf, and the dog skeleton there looks like that of a small sheepdog. But the buried remains of dogs have been found all over the world, often alongside those of humans.3
So if you have a dog, you are part of an ancient tradition—though you likely had different motivations for owning a canine than the humans who hunted or travelled with dogs so many centuries ago. In this chapter, I’ll talk about the many reasons people choose to have dogs in their lives and their various expectations about the kind of relationship they want with them. As I mentioned earlier, it’s great to have expectations about our dogs and it’s important to set goals for both species. But some expectations simply don’t fit in with our own lifestyles. So many people saddle both themselves and their dogs with unrealistic, and sometimes downright impossible, hopes and dreams. And those expectations often underestimate or utterly ignore the skills and needs of dogs.
WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER
Dogs have been helping humans for a long time. In some regions, herding, hunting and sled dogs still work by our sides, helping us survive. Nowadays, we also have guide dogs, rescue dogs, police dogs, de-mining dogs (dogs who detect land mines) and dogs that detect cancer.4 Dog companions can have a therapeutic effect on people who have anything from heart disease to mental illnesses. Recent dog DNA sequencing has also revealed that they have much the same DNA as humans,5 so gene research with dogs is helping crack a variety of human diseases.6
In the past decade or two, dogs have also become a hot topic among behavioural scientists at universities all over the globe.7 Chimps might be our species’ closest relatives, but researchers have recently found that dogs are better thanchimps at problem solving and at perceiving and responding to human methods of communication, such as pointing, nodding, glancing and other specific body and facial cues.8 Dogs have also been found to be better than their closest relative, the wolf, at problem solving because they’ve evolved with humans for at least fifteen thousand years. Even six-week-old puppies still living with their four-legged moms respond to humans, which suggests that they are evolutionarily predisposed to follow our cues.9
You Complete Me, Rover A common response to the “Why do you want a dog?” question is “I had a dog as a kid.” That answer sounds pretty simple, but there are usually some really interesting backstories involved when a client says something like that. If you’ve thought the same, maybe you have beautiful, gold-tinged memories of running through the woods with Rover. You might want to recapture your youth and a simpler “dog days of summer” time in your life when you didn’t have a care in the world. Or you might want a second crack at that “dog that got away”—whether she ran away from home, never to be found again, or your parents sent her off to “a better place,” which you now know was actually the animal shelter.
Another common response that clients give, and you might, too, is that they always wanted a dog but their parents wouldn’t allow it. If you’ve thought along those lines, you might have spent half your life feeling ripped off, and having a dog might be a sort of rite of passage into adulthood.
Some people I encounter are planning to have kids in a few years, and they think of the dog as a sort of practice child. Others want a replacement for a dog that recently died. Someare looking for protection. I know a single woman whose home was invaded by five guys. They raped her and killed her German shepherd. She now has two huge dogs; she needs them to feel safe. Others have had a failed relationship or even a string of them, and they’re sick and tired of the two-legged letdowns. So they bring a dog into their world to ease the pain and loneliness, to keep them company and, in some cases, to stand in as a surrogate partner or friend that they can take mountain biking or cuddle with on the couch.
Balancing a hectic life is another reason people get a dog. Rocky’s “parents,” Steve and Peggy, are hard-working professionals: self-described DINKs (Double Income, No Kids). Before Rocky entered their lives, they’d typically cap their long workdays with late dinners in a restaurant. Neither Peggy nor Steve had any previous experience with dogs, but they thought it would help balance their hectic schedules and, in Peggy’s words, “force us to have a home life.” As you’ll find out later, their real-life experience with Rocky was nothing like this initial picture of domestic bliss.
Other people get a dog because they’re depressed or have a physiological illness and their doctor suggests that a dog companion would help balance their health. Sure, studies have found that dogs are great stress busters; they can help us stay physically active and provide us with healthy social companionship.10 Being with dogs can elevate mood and lower blood pressure and stress.11 But we need to be able to provide our dogs with a lot of physical and mental activities so they can also be as healthy and happy as possible. We should be stable on our own two legs and know where we’re going to be for the next decade before committing to owning a dog. A dog sure can inject sunshine into your life, but he can’t do that alone. He’s not a magic genie who can grant all your wishes, especially if you expect him to be the spitting image of your favourite childhood dog or that incredible dog who passed away. If you think your dog will automatically set you up for a better life, whatever that means to you, you—and your dog—will be miserable. There’s a lot of hard work involved, so you’d better be ready to make the effort.
CANINE-HUMAN CO- EVOLUTION
Pioneering dog researchers at the Family Dog Project in Budapest, Hungary, summed up the strong doghuman connection by saying that “there is a large overlap” between the ways humans and dogs behave “because during their evolution in close contact with human groups, dogs evolved functionally similar social skills.” Studying these similar behaviours “widens our possibility for understanding human social cognition.”12
In other words, dogs aren’t slobbering idiots. Complex things are actually going on under their furry hoods. And understanding dog behaviours allows us to better understand human behaviours.
Lassie Come Home Other people have what I call “Hollywood syndrome”: whether they’re five years old or fifty, they have a bunch of sentimental dog movies looping through their heads. They think that having the golden retriever, the Dalmatian(s) or the Lassie dog will automatically open up some magical, perfect world, complete with the dancing, the music and the Technicolor. People get so caught up in the fantasy that they can’t see the amazing dog-in-waiting sitting right in front of them.
Movie-star dogs have to go through months and even years of training and education. Like human movie stars, they’re surrounded by a team of professionals: a number of different trainers, stylists and makeup artists, sitters, managers, agents, lawyers, as well as canine stunt doubles and stand-in dogs to do certain scripted tricks. How can a typical family compete with these pro dogs? They can’t, and they shouldn’t even think of trying. But some dog owners refuse to let go of their illusions and choose to believe that somehow they got a doggy dud and there’s a better Lassie out there somewhere. Too often, that means the entire family unit has to suffer through a sixteen-year prison sentence or the dog gets packed off to the animal shelter or put to death. Whatever happens, it’s certainly not a pretty picture after all.
Before you start shopping around for a dog, ask yourself why you want one, and do your best to make sure that you’re starting your relationship with realistic expectations. If it’s too late for that, it’s still a perfect time to start training yourself to be aware of your own expectations of your dog and of yourself.
Custom-Designed Canines When I ask my second question, “What do you want your dog to be able to do?”, people often respond by telling me that they want a certain breed. In my opinion, our culture is much too breed-centric about dogs. Instead of really digging into what kind of relationship they want with their dogs, people often focus on the look of the dog.
While it’s important to choose a breed that fits your lifestyle and your needs, remember that every dog has a unique personality. People will say, “Well I had a Labrador seven years ago who was so calm and mellow” and assume that’s how all Labs will be. They don’t realize they’re describing a dog’s personality. They get another Lab and feel let down because she isn’t like that at all.
Imagine if you expected that from children: “Oh, the first baby was so sweet and mellow, she slept through the night and rarely ever cried. But the new one . . . We can’t get a night’s sleep anymore! We can’t figure out why he’s not an exact match!” You wouldn’t think that about people, so why view dogs in that way? Every member of your family should be on the same page, or at least in the same book, when they commit first to getting a dog and second to defining what kind of dog suits their lives. But family members will often have very different wants and expectations that would be impossible for any dog to live up to. To illustrate the point, here’s a dialogue I recently had with a married couple:
Wife: I want a pug.
Brad: Okay, that’s a shorthaired breed. It will need to wear a coat in winter if you want to spend a lot of time outdoors.
Husband: I want a bulldog.
Wife: What about a husky?
Brad: How’d you go from pug to husky!?
Wife: They’re beautiful and fluffy.
Husband: I don’t want a dog that needs grooming. I want a dog I can take for runs on the beach.
Brad: Sounds romantic. Why don’t you take your wife to the beach?
Husband: She’s not a runner.
Brad: And you wouldn’t put your wife on a leash and expect her to chase after you for seven kilometres, yanking at her to keep moving when she gets tired or wants to pause to talk to a friend, right?
Husband: Of course not!
Brad: Then why expect that from a dog? Even dogs that like to run long distances need to stop periodically to smell the territory and check out old and new dog buddies along the way. You need to be willing to do that.
Wife: I just want something to cuddle with.
Brad: Sweet. Why don’t you cuddle with Two Legs? He’s there 24/7 for you.
Wife and Husband (in unison): Oh, Brad, don’t be crazy!
What’s so crazy about assuming that a married couple should meet each other’s needs for companionship, love and affection instead of expecting a dog to fill that role? There’s nothing crazy about having realistic expectations of our dogs, like wanting to have a dog that can go off-leash, is well-behaved around kids, respects our human possessions and doesn’t have a meltdown every time we set foot out of the house. Canines don’t come to us pre-programmed like computers, so it’s our job to teach them how to do these things. And if we’re not meeting their needs, they will rebel. No dog could possibly live up to a wild mix of human expectations and be a healthy, well-adjusted dog. They don’t come with an on-off switch that can be used to shut down inappropriate human expectations. And they don’t come with a two-year warranty, though like appliances, they often fall apart around that time, and far too often, it’s only then that owners go looking for someone to “fix” the dog.
There’s no shortage of doggy mechanics out there who are willing to peek under the hood, diagnose the dog’s issues in a seemingly authoritative voice and promise to quick-fix anyone’s troubled pet. Some will even provide a warranty or claim to provide you with lifelong training. Even if they live up to that promise, why would you give them a second chance to wreck your dog even more? Too many dog trainers will actually screw your dog up on the first go, kind of like the shady car mechanic who messes with your brakes, carburetor and windshield wipers along the way, even though these parts had no problems before you walked into the shop. I’ll get into the dog trainer con artists in greater detail in Chapter 4, but for now let’s just say the pet industry is a dog-eat-dog world. I’ve seen many dogs with great potential turned into ticking time bombs because of bad training.
Dogs, Not Bombs Too often, it’s my job to defuse that ticking time bomb or pick up the pieces after the explosion. I love working with dogs, but I don’t exactly relish being called in as a “last resort.” I’d much rather start educating dog owners before they’ve begun window shopping at pet stores or cruising dog shelters, and certainly before they bring a four-legged friend into their lives.
Considering the bizzaro state of current interspecies relations, I guess you could call my picture a sort of fantasy too. But I don’t expect perfection in myself or my dogs and ditto for my clients and their dogs. Flaws, quirks, frailties, self-esteem issues and biases are just parts of any relationship package, and in my mind, there’s no such thing as an off-the-rack training program. With dog training, one size does not fit all.
All animals foster their young and teach them how to survive and prosper in a happy, contented life. If we choose to bring a dog into our lives, it’s our job to take over those reigns and do our best to protect and safeguard our dogs. But if they’re going to fit into our pack, they need our leadership first and foremost. Failure to establish and maintain consistent leadership with dogs is the number one reason interspecies relationships start going off track. And dogs can get even more messed up when they’re forced to play wishbone to caregivers with incompatible ideals about how to raise the dog. A dog can’t possibly function healthfully around that kind of human friction. I’ve seen firsthand how problem dog behaviours escalate in that kind of environment, and sometimes those issues become the tipping point in a relationship, leading to divorce and ugly custody battles. Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, but then a new client pitches me another goopy curve ball or someone emails my website with crime scene photos of a good dog gone bad, and I realize there are still more problems out there than I imagined.
Deadly Consequences of Human Neglect Millions of dogs are abandoned, sent to shelters and euthanized every year. How many of these dogs could have been saved if their needs had been met and they’d been offered some sensible, practical training? More than we would like to know. But I create some of these statistics myself because I am sometimes obliged to make the call to euthanize a dog. It’s the worst part of my job. Nine times out of ten, dogs who end up being put to death because of apparently incorrigible behaviours sent out warning signs for many years that were lost in translation or ignored by their human caregivers.
Bad behaviours sometimes include biting, and every year, there are about 4.5 million of those in the United States alone.13 In far too many cases, the biting dogs became aggressive because they were neglected by a string of individuals long before they lashed out: bad breeders, pet store operators who hawked puppies who’d been ripped from their litters weeks before they should have been and owners who failed to make sure that their dog’s needs were met. Aside from the rare dog with neurological damage, dogs aren’t born killers. They don’t wake up thinking, “Hmm, can’t wait to bite the hand that feeds me.” But that’s exactly what happens when their needs are not met. After all, they’re carnivores with forty-two teeth, just like wolves and foxes and they can use them to injure or kill when they’ve been mistreated or neglected.
We’ve all read the occasional news stories about killer dogs (and subsequent breed bans in some American states) that vilify certain dogs, when in reality, these animals are the victims of bad breeders, trainers and owners. Dog breed profiling fails to take into account all the recent academic research that has found little to no correlation between specific breeds and behaviours but instead underlines the personalities of individual dog owners in shaping dogs’ characteristics.14 Whatever the dog breed, we ignore that important factor at the peril of both species.
TRAINING SAVES DOGS’ LIVES
Sixty-three per cent of American households have a dog, but millions are abandoned and sent to shelters every year.15 Only 16 per cent of these shelter dogs are adopted, and approximately five million dogs and cats are euthanized annually. Statistics from the National Council on Pet Population revealed that a whopping 96 per cent of dogs shipped to shelters had received absolutely no training.16
Pet Detective The third question I ask my clients is probably the toughest of all because it often gets to the deeper issues in people’s lives. Asking someone to define what a successful dog-human relationship is in their view sometimes means putting all their cards on the table about their own life and looking at whether they’re meeting their own goals and definitions of success. If you were asked this question, you might say that when you first got your dog, success meant being able to go on off-leash hikes every weekend. But maybe the demands of your job got in the way; you’re now often working weekends and there’s barely time for quick walks around the block. Your life is stressful and your dog isn’t getting what he needs, so even those short walks become tug-o’-war matches.
When dog relations come under strain, those hopes and expectations go out the window and people revert to a sort of survival mode. Many of my clients become prisoners in their own homes because they’re too afraid to step outside with the dog. That kind of siege mentality just makes matters worse for everyone.
Of course, these problems don’t develop overnight. Many of my dog clients’ negative behaviours have been going on for years, but they haven’t taken them seriously enough until the dog does something really bad or there’s an impending change: a baby is on the way, a new partner is laying down the “It’s Me or Rover” ultimatum or the dog bit another dog, for example. So now, not only do they have to fix learned behaviours and bad habits; they have to do it within a short period of time—or else!
But you can’t fix a dog if there are issues among the human pack members. I’m no marriage counsellor or family therapist, but I often have to find creative ways to get people operating in harmony before they can start doing the same with their dogs—like asking a couple to take dance lessons while their teen kids work on dog training or incorporating some dog training into a family picnic to build up a family’s teamwork skills. The goal is to get people bonding and communicating with each other effectively. That often means getting honest and acknowledging that they’ve veered away from their own hopes and ideals about a successful family life.
With dog training, every single member of the family unit should be 100 per cent on board, acting as a team to provide coordinated and consistent structure. People sometimes need to be reminded that any good relationship doesn’t just fall into their laps tied up with a pretty bow—it takes time and effort, openness to change and some sacrifices along the way.
The Pre-Pet Questionnaire I totally appreciate those people who go for pre-pet counselling long before they start window shopping for a new dog. Some of you will roll your eyes at that idea, thinking it sounds like a hokey, new-fangled therapy. But it’s the ideal way to start on the path to success. I also recommend that you think about the following factors before you decide to bring a dog into your life:
* Your life plans in two years (when dogs reach social maturity), five years (when dogs typically hit mid-life and might need some re-training, along with new forms of stimulation) and ten years (when dogs become seniors). If your own life goals include a lot of travel or an intensive work schedule, you might not have enough time to adequately train and bond with your dog during these critical periods.
* Whether you plan to have children in the next few years. If so, it’s ideal to get a dog at least two years before you introduce a child to the household.
* Whether your children are currently old enough to participate in training and bonding with your dog. It’s best to wait until your youngest child is at least three years of age.
* If you’re currently single, whether you plan to start a serious relationship within the next few years. Your future partner might fall for you but not necessarily your dog—and your dog might not like your partner much either.
* If you’re already in a committed relationship, whether both of you can dedicate the time and energy to caring for and bonding with a dog. If you’re going through a rocky patch, consider holding off getting a dog until your relationship is back on track.
Recap: Why Do You Want a Dog?
Whether you’re thinking about adding a dog to your life or you already have one in your family pack, I hope you’ll take some time to think about why you want a dog, what kind of relationship you want with that dog and how you define success in the mix, so you have a realistic set of goals before you start training your pet to become a healthy member of your family pack.
If you already have a dog and this process makes you realize you had unrealistic expectations or weren’t well prepared to devote the necessary time and effort needed to train and bond with that dog, don’t beat yourself over the head about the what-ifs related to your past—my intentions are quite the opposite! Just acknowledge those factors so you can move forward with a new set of goals.
Before we get into the hands-on training, here’s a quick recap of some important factors to consider before you bring a dog into your family, or at least before you start a new training program with your canine companion:
* Interview yourself and every member of your family pack about why you want a dog in the family, how you want to share your life with that dog and what a successful interspecies bond means to you.
* Identify the myths, fantasies and unrealistic expectations that might negatively impact your relationship with your dog—and do your best to avoid saddling your dog with fairy-tale ideals.
* Choose a breed that best fits your lifestyle, but remember that each dog has her own unique personality and that, just like humans, no two dogs are identical.
* Make sure that all members of the family unit are willing to help care for your dog, provide consistent leadership and spend time meeting the dog’s basic needs for exercise, mental stimulation, play and a mixed bag of different activities that nourish his need to be an active, useful engaged member of your family.
* Don’t expect perfection from your dog or from yourself. Dog training can be time consuming and challenging, so never expect a quick-fix, especiallyif your pet has developed problem behaviours. If you decide to work with a trainer, be wary of those who promise fast-track training. You might just be setting yourself up as a repeat customer—or, worse, that training might damage your dog even more.
* Never forget that while a dog has many needs that are similar to ours, they are also related to wild dogs and wolves. Don’t live in fear of your dog’s canine instincts, but be watchful and respectful of how those instincts can have deadly consequences.
* The best way to prime your dog for success is to define your own personal life goals first and to assess whether you’ve strayed away from them. Develop and fortify your bonds with everyone in the family so that you’re in sync with each other when you start dog training.
* If you’re thinking about getting a dog, consider going for pre-pet counselling or sit down and assess your life plans for at least the next decade. If you don’t have a basic road map plotted for yourself, consider holding off on dog ownership until you do.