buying a puppy, Dog Behavior and Training, Responsible Ownership

Dogs who fail


All dog people read the same sets of blogs, and this week all anybody is reading or commenting on is Patricia McConnell’s blog, because she’s considering rehoming her young puppy (a puppy who is already her second one in the litter – she returned the first puppy she bought very quickly).

This has highlighted what I think is an important concept, which is when you buy a dog to do a job, failure at that job means they leave.

It’s common for breeders to rehome dogs who are never going to finish or who needed to be neutered for some reason or who cannot be bred or who are done producing puppies. Their role is over in the household, so they leave. We breeders like to assign nice words to it, but that’s what’s happening.

Those who are serious agility competitors or performance competitors will rehome dogs who are not ever going to meet their expectations.

Field (hunting or other working) breeders rehome those who cannot reach success in that venue.

Service-dog owners rehome dogs who wash out of the program.

And so on.

I don’t personally have any problem with rehoming; I think it’s usually a great blessing on all sides. As you know, we’re currently looking for a place for Bronte, so I obviously don’t think that changing homes is bad for dogs. Where I start to feel uncomfortable is when the job that’s been assigned is beyond the reach of the dog, so failure and rehoming become almost inevitable.

When people buy a dog “for the kids,” the dog is going to fail, and the dog will leave. It’ll either be rehomed or thrown in the back yard or basement. When people buy a dog to be a child, the dog will either fail or, if it’s such a fantastic dog that it tries to shape itself into a child, be spectacularly twisted into something that’s not really a healthy dog anymore. Either way, it will leave (or check out). In both of those scenarios the failure is a foregone conclusion.

In McConnell’s case, her puppy’s job was to nurture and feed the emotional identity of her older dog, a dog who has had a huge number of issues and who is emotionally frail. He is obviously loved in the way that we tend to love frail creatures, with more than a bit of pity and protectiveness. The puppies she’s bringing in do not feel pity and protectiveness toward this weak creature; they just steal his stuff and run off. Dogs are nothing if not realistic about the ability of another living creature to stand up for himself. And so she replaces the first puppy with the second puppy and is now probably going to replace the second puppy with (something?).

I have Feelings about whether it’s a good idea to buy a dog for a dog, but the fact is that regardless of whether I think it’s a good idea or not, the dogs are failing, and they’re very likely to continue to fail. She looks at her older dog and sees the whole swirl of what he was and how hard she worked and how much better he is and how he’s really almost normal now, and feels that protectiveness and that pride and the affection for everything that he is. That’s entirely natural and normal and the way we all feel toward something we’ve pulled back from the brink. There’s nothing wrong about how she feels. Unfortunately, another dog looks at him and only sees a “kick me” sign.

That’s never going to change; dogs are almost impossible to fool. If at some point she comes across a dog who is so incredibly forgiving and undemanding that he never takes advantage of that weakness, I’ll be amazed but happy for them. But amazed. She’s not doing anything “wrong” – she treats the dogs beautifully, the rehomed puppies come beautifully trained, and so on. I in no way want anyone to think that I don’t respect her as a dog owner. I just don’t think in this case she’s going to ever get what she’s looking for.

I’ve made this mistake, by the way. I try to never write about anything I haven’t failed at. The job I was looking to fill was to replace Lucy, my Dane-of-all-Danes. She died young and it absolutely broke me. I kept looking for her in her daughters and her granddaughters, and I had a very hard time separating my emotional response to them from my emotional response to HER. Any way in which they resembled her was good; any way in which they did not was bad. I sold the wrong puppies from litters because I would try to keep the one that was most like her, even when I had a better emotional connection with a very dissimilar puppy. I was fumbling toward something that was never going to succeed.

What snapped me out of it was Clue, a puppy we bought because the kids were bugging me to get a little dog that could sleep on their beds. I had it all worked out that this funny-looking little thing could be the family house dog and the kids could show her and play around with juniors and so on while I kept my focus on the big dogs. I had just had a couple of major losses and was incredibly discouraged (heck, I’d been discouraged for years) but I was getting ready to send a deposit overseas to import a dog who was closely related to Lucy, to try one more time to get her back.

Well, I think you can guess the rest. Clue came out of that shipping crate and looked at me and all the bushes around us spontaneously flowered and pink-haired unicorns twirled around while Rick Springfield rose up out of the lawn and sang. And she was, ahem, not the kids’ dog.

If and when Clue goes to her notable reward, she’s taught me not to look for her.

I would never want anyone to think that they MUST keep a dog. In fact, if you can smell failure I’d rather have you rehome the dog soon, while it is still young and will easily and happily adjust to its new home. But I hope we can maybe shape ourselves to give them jobs they have at least a decent chance at succeeding at, give them a fighting chance to stay, so when another decision is made it’s for the happiness of both sides.

(McConnell’s book is wonderful, by the way. You should definitely read it, and I think you should follow her blog as well. Just beware of putting anyone up on a pedestal.)

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  • Reply Kathy J August 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I lost my dog Jack very suddenly at the age of 10. He was a tri collie. He was the best dog I have ever had – in just about every way you can think of. Long series of events later and I get a tri collie as a replacement from the breeder for a young dog that died at 20 months. Color doesn’t matter in collies, each dog is an individual, you need to appreciate each dog for what they are – YEAH RIGHT – that dog looks like Jack so he should be able to be Jack!!!

    Both Jack and this new dog came from the same breeder so in addition to both having the same body type (yes there are types in collies) they also had very similar temperaments. It took me a long time to warm up to this new dog, my head knew he was a different dog but my heart felt he should be Jack. This “new” dog is now 3 and he really is similar to Jack in many ways but he comes with his own challenges that we have had to work through. I really DO like him for who he is and all the time we spend training and showing really helped that happen. So many times I read on blogs or email lists about how someone took one look at a cute puppy and knew that was their dog and they loved them so much on the spot. Swell, but I have always been a person who thought puppies are very cute, and fun to play with, but loving them on the spot? Not so much. It takes me a long time to “love” my dogs. I care for them, train them, live with them and over time the love and respect happen. That puppy cuteness is fine but it’s primary purpose is to keep you from killing them when they do all the stuff wrong they are going to do because they are puppies.

    I ended up loving all my dogs, but in all cases it was a gradual thing – we had to get to know each other first – not such a bad thing, since many times when they get to be old dogs and the old dog problems start, you don’t just toss them out and get a new dog, you have built up this relationship where you realize all the things that dog has given to you and now that they can’t run out and compete at a show you can give them something back in the form of a dignified and respected old age. Oh the things a dog can teach you are so numerous and profound I am not sure you could count them all.

    • Reply Pai August 15, 2010 at 10:14 pm

      ‘I have always been a person who thought puppies are very cute, and fun to play with, but loving them on the spot? Not so much. It takes me a long time to “love” my dogs. I care for them, train them, live with them and over time the love and respect happen.”

      I am the same way… and I often feel guilty, because aren’t you -supposed- to instantly fall in love with adorable baby puppies? But it’s a gradual thing for me, too… I’m the sort who is aiming for a DOG, and isn’t too hung up on the whole ‘baby phase’. Pups are sweet and fun, but I find I start really bonding with my dogs once we start doing Obedience/Agility and actually interacting on a more mature level.

  • Reply kelly August 15, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Agatha’s a smart dog but fortunately I don’t think her reading’s up to the point yet where she can read ‘Dogs Who Fail’ over her baby picture. Nor is she tall enough to see the computer screen. 😉

    Seriously, though, this is a great piece of writing. You’re generous and gracious toward the person you’re challenging. You let yourself be honest and vulnerable about your own failings. That’s the kind of writing that can change hearts and minds.

  • Reply Dotty Debeck August 15, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Hey All, Joanna has written another interesting and thoughtful piece. Check it out!

  • Reply Pam Brand August 15, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    I hear you Joanna. Your description of how you felt when Clue emerged from her crate made me laugh but also remember how I felt when I saw my “heart” dog for the frist time. Lark, too, was a blue merle female. Like your Dane she died young and I looked for her unsuccessfully in her kids. I finally found her in a little black and white I bought from someone else. Thanks for writing!

  • Reply Emily~ DreamEyce August 15, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    In a perfect world I’m sure she could find the right dog for the needs she’s looking to fill. She may go through a lot of dogs, or find a new manner of looking for that right for their situation dog, but the dog could exist; somewhere.

    I’m not at all against responsible rehoming of dogs/animals who don’t fit into a situation, and those adjusted, trained animals are SOUGHT after. ‘Started’ dogs are worth their weight in gold, and when they get into the right home tend to really flourish and shine. I am perplexed that she got an ’emotional support’ dog for her dog, a same-sex puppy, expecting the puppy to act like the elderly bitch that catered to her dog. I would think in that situation, a female puppy would have had higher chances of success, note I say ‘chance’. When adding a new dog to a single-dog household it’s pretty much common knowledge that the best chance of success is opposite sex. Gender competition can play a big role in dog behavior, esp in developing puppies.

    It is hard where she is, as a well-respected professional who’s also human, and lives with a ‘special case’ dog. Most households don’t have a special case dog, and most homes don’t have specific needs like she does. I feel bad because if the puppy had been labeled as a ‘foster’, or ‘I’m growing him out’ no one would be questioning the problems, or her thinking about placement- because of the wording. The possibility of placement would be anticipated by the followers, and fans, much like how dog breeders and rescuers do things… often those ‘growing them out’ dogs will have a list of pet homes begging for them if they don’t turn out, too! It’s accepted practice to have dogs grow out, and adapt before final decisions are made in permanent keeping and I feel that’s because it’s presented that way. In this case, she’s come across as a pet home, deeply emotionally connected and attached to her dogs on levels pet people really relate to. They relate to her, then expect her to be like them… most of which “could never place a dog”, after the moment it walks into their home.

  • Reply Mary August 15, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Joanna, I totally understand where you are coming from with Lucy.

    When we saw our first cardi, Yankee, for the first time it was the same thing. Stars & music & magic – the whole nine yards. Instant connection. To this day I am still totally amazed by it.

    We were incredibly lucky to have her for 16 years and it broke my heart when we had to put her down. She was my heart dog. I was so devastated by losing her that it took over a year to even begin to think about getting a new cardi. Finally, 3 years after Yankee died, we got our Gracie.

    I purposely did not get a Tri; I didn’t want anything to remind me of Yankee. So Gracie is blue merle. And she could not be any more different from Yankee, if she tried. But … some times she does something that is so much like Yankee, it’s scary. They are related, but wow! When that happens, it makes me stop in my tracks in wonder. Is it coincidence or genes?

    But I don’t have that same connection with Gracie that I had with Yankee. Yes, she is an important part of our family & I love her, but it’s just not the same. It took time for us to grow & connect with her. Is that because we really were looking for that same thing & because it didn’t happen right away we kept our distance? Or is it because we don’t want that same level of pain again, at the end?

    I follow Patricia McConnell’s blog. And I understood why things didn’t work out with the first puppy. But now I also wonder if she’s chasing the impossible. And it shows how sometimes it can be so difficult to get 2 dogs to get along & happily be part of the same pack. Which concerns me, since I have been considering for quite some time getting a second cardi, as you & I have discussed previously.

    What kind of connection would I have with the new dog? What if it’s stronger than with Gracie, who was here first? And what will Gracie think of having to share us with a new dog? I still haven’t decided what to do. Lots of questions to think about.

    I think that we always look for that same incredible, heart dog connection. It’s a rare & special thing. And we should thank our lucky stars every day that we have it. But we should never dismiss being attached to our dogs on other levels, as well. The human/canine thing is so complex.

  • Reply Pai August 15, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    I think this is the most balanced, fair description of what Patricia is doing — I agree that she seems misguided and blinded by her emotions on this one.

  • Reply Brooke August 18, 2010 at 3:30 am

    I have had the same thing, where you lay eyes on a dog and just KNOW that is the dog you should have. And I’ve had dogs I’ve loved because they were dogs and I love all dogs, but that it took some time for me to feel that same bond. As an FYI, though, I don’t “do” puppies because puppies are not dogs and you only have puppy for a bit and then one day you wake up and “voila!” you have a dog, and hopefully that dog has a good long life ahead of them.

    On an unrelated note, YAY more Clue puppies soon!

  • Reply Grace August 22, 2010 at 5:33 am

    This is a great post. I’m keeping it for future forwarding needs.

  • Reply What rehoming teaches us about dogs… and ourselves October 30, 2010 at 10:58 am

    […] few weeks ago I talked about this situation, where a dog purchased to fill the emotional needs of a second dog was doomed to failure. To no […]

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