A 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 one’s surprise, after I wrote that post the dog was rehomed. It’s what the owner reveals about what happened next that I think should be interesting to us.
To make a long story short, the dog is fantastic in his new home. Anything that was described as bullying, insecurity, undesirable behavior… all gone. The puppy is one of the most talented the new home has ever seen.
Since the first owner makes her living as a dog behaviorist, this should give you something to think about.
I’ve now talked to several people who have either trained for many years or who are observation-based behaviorists (the kind who sit in a dog park for six hours and stare at dogs – try it sometime if you want to blow your mind) who say, very firmly, “There is nothing in any temperament test or aptitude test or tea leaf reading that can equal looking in the mirror. You want to know what kind of dog you’re going to end up with? Look at yourself.”
The more rescue I do, the more dog swapping I do, the more the dogs move in and out of my home, the more I am convinced that is the truth. The key to success is the OWNER, and each owner has strengths and weaknesses that bring out the best and worst in various dogs.
There are a few things I am really good at. I can get dogs to eat. ALWAYS, I can get dogs to eat. I can get sick dogs healthy. I can get crazy dogs to calm down. I can get status-obsessed dogs to be respectful. Bad, naughty, pushy dogs love it here. When I have dogs with those needs, I look like a total miracle worker without having to do that much at all.
There are also some things that I am TERRIBLE at. I am not good with soft dogs. Scared dogs, I can reach, but temperamentally soft dogs I constantly make mistakes with. I am too “big” for them, too loud and too gestural and I make the wrong noises, I think – I try to jolly them along with my usual oh-what-glorious-fun-we-shall-have language, and they go under the deck. When I have a soft dog I am constantly having to remind myself to shut up and slow down and make myself tiny, and even then I don’t think I can really reach them. I am really bad with dogs who need to be protected. Some owners, and you know the ones, build this wonderful cocoon around their dogs. Dogs who feel lost and alone and insecure, the ones who remember every slight, come into those homes and find that warm nest and snuggle in and thrive. I am HORRIBLE at that. I am a big meathead, I trip over dogs, I sing and yell and act like an idiot most of the time, and I do best with dogs who forgive and forget instantly.
The people who are fantastic with soft dogs but who buy a harder dog because the temperament test “told” them to end up with insecurity and bullying. The ones who are good with harder dogs, but who buy a dog who is soft because the temperament testing told them to, end up with miserable scared flinchy dogs.
Both owners feel that they’ve been failed, by the breeder and by the dog.
And, almost invariably, when the dog is returned or given up or sold into the type of family or home that meets its needs, all the “problems” vanish with nobody having to do anything. Dogs turn around completely in about fifteen minutes.
I think as breeders we need to do a better job defining our puppies and our owners. All the temperament tests I’m aware of score the dogs according to some ideal, with the dogs scoring 3s (or Bs and Cs or whatever other middle road the test defines) being the ones that will thrive in almost any home, so the ones that score in the middle are the ones we put in the homes who want a dog to do obedience, or the homes where there are a bunch of novices, or the homes with little kids, or whatever.
But is that really true? Do we really want to put “average” puppies in those homes, without thinking about it a little deeper than that? I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that I can’t anymore. Those novices might in fact need a really, really soft dog. Or they might need a hard-nosed brat dog. Just because they’re novices, or have little kids, that doesn’t mean that their fundamental personality thrives with our middle-of-the-road puppies. We need to temperament-test the owners even more than the puppies!
Bringing it home and smacking me with it upside the head:
In the course of dog-swapping this last weekend, Bronte went back to New York with Kate. As you may remember, she was going to stay with Kate forever-n-ever after the puppies were born, but she got REALLY sick and wouldn’t eat, so she came back to me. For a year and a half Bronte’s been a soft dog in my house, living the life that soft dogs live here, which means she sits on the couch and worries a great deal about whether I’m going to spontaneously fall over or start singing off-key, and on a regular basis her fears are realized. This weekend, after watching Bronte play with her kids, Kate said “I want her back.”
Those who are not show breeders may not realize how incredibly sacrificial this is – Bronte is a pet now, spayed. Kate doesn’t have a ton of spaces for dogs, and Bronte would take up one that “should” go to a show dog or growing-up puppy. Even if Kate rehomes her from New York – which she may do and has more than my blessing to do – for weeks or months Kate’s got to deal with another dog. None of us have a lot of money, and another mouth to feed is not a small consideration.
As soon as they got home, Kate called me and said “Joanna, she is SO HAPPY. Bronte is the happiest I have EVER seen her.” She’d been there an hour and she was flirting with everybody and sparkling with joy.
THAT is what happens when a dog is in the right situation. She went from me, who was not right for her no matter how hard I try, and into a situation where she felt like she fit, and instantly she knew.
Plus she gets the pimped-out ride.