Monthly Archives

October 2010

Dog Behavior and Training, Responsible Breeding

What rehoming teaches us about dogs… and ourselves

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.

Responsible Breeding

I can’t do this but I can do that

HBO Docu Films: I Can’t Do This But I Can Do That Trailer
Uploaded by HBO. – Full seasons and entire episodes online.

Following up on my last post on bullying:

Doug and I are planning on watching this documentary, which from all accounts is wonderful. I was looking at the trailer again, and I thought – OH MY GOSH THAT IS IT. I CAN’T do this, but I CAN do that.

I CAN’T evaluate heads. I absolutely stink at it. I am always looking for pretty and I am terrible at typey. I CAN evaluate soundness. I CAN’T get to the shows the way I should. I CAN be at home all day long to take care of the dogs and give them constant attention. I CAN’T spend money. I CAN spend thinking time.

We all spend so much time focused on what we CAN’T do, and so many people around us seem focused on what we CAN’T do. But – if we can’t – doesn’t that mean we can’t? Not that we don’t keep trying, but that we forgive ourselves and forgive others and we focus on what we CAN do. I can be the best stay-at-home dog person on earth. I really CAN. I CAN be the very best at judging soundness. I CAN push myself to understand everything I possibly can get my hands on.

You can surround yourself with people who care about what you CAN do or you can surround yourself with people who care about what you CAN’T do. I think it’s about time for me to choose the right one.

Responsible Breeding

Bullying in dogs

Oh, you say, yes, of course. I do know some dogs who seem to get in other dogs’ faces too often.

Well, my lovelies, in this case I’m talking about bullying “in dogs.” The people, not the dogs themselves.

Do you know a bully? It’s come a long way from the recess yard, but not so far at all.

Bullying is a relationship that takes advantage of a perceived imbalance of power, and works that imbalance to the bully’s advantage. Bullies work really hard to feed your perception of the fact that they’re powerful and you’re weak. They flip back and forth between setting themselves up as your only friend and then tearing you down so you stay near them. They want you to think that nobody else will “save” you, which gives them continual power over you. Sometimes the main target is actually someone close to you, so that you’ll drop your relationship with that person and become more closely attached to the bully.

Bullies are the ones who will sell you a dog and then break majors to avoid letting you finish that dog. Bullies will insist that you breed to their dog and then tell you that none of the puppies are worth keeping… oh, except maybe I’ll take this one home with me, as a favor to you, to see if maybe by some miracle I can finish it for you. Bullies will offer you “chances” and tell you that nobody else ever would – the “chance” to finance one of their breedings, the “chance” to sponsor a special, the “chance” to whelp a bitch for them – all of these are legitimate relationships as long as the partnership is equal. You know you’ve been bullied when it’s your pocketbook that’s empty and they’re the ones with the show pick, the breed points, the puppy buyers. If, five years down the road, nobody knows that you had anything to do with it – you’ve been bullied.

This happens in dogs ALL THE TIME. It’s a topic that’s near to my heart this week because one of my friends – NOT IN CARDIGANS; THIS IS NOT A “BLIND ITEM” THAT TARGETS A CARDI PERSON – spent years doing what she thought was cultivating a relationship with an extremely high-profile breeder. “Chances” and “favors” trickled out regularly – your bitch is awful, but you can breed her to my special. I’d never breed that dog, because he’s terrible, but you should enter him in the specialty to make points. Be sure to get in your fee for this show, because the judge will be sure to like your puppy… oh, I’m sorry, I couldn’t make it at the last second; did that break the major? Every time my friend got fed up and said “That’s it, I’m out,” the high-profile breeder would be back, with some delicious favor, a rekindling of the love, compliments and puppy party invitations. YEARS invested in this “mentorship” and in the end all my friend has to show for it is an uncomfortable feeling that she’s been had.

It’s absolutely vital to find mentorship in any breed. You DO start at a lower level, and you MUST be humble enough to take advice. But a mentor sees you as an equal, just an uneducated one. Nothing makes him happier than when you take a dog into the ring and beat his dogs. A bully never wants you to get that far – you can succeed, as long as you don’t come anywhere close to outstripping or even equaling them.

Good mentors encourage you to listen to everyone. Just like every dog, even the worst, always has at least one wonderful thing about them, a good mentor will tell you to find the one or two good things that are being taught even by their mortal rival. Think of it like a basketball coach – you may “hate” your rival team, even have contempt for their coaching, but your coach should be having you watch the plays over and over to learn from them.

Good mentors want you to be different from them. They want you to find your own voice.

Good mentors are thrilled when you succeed, and they brag about you to others.

Good mentors are fans of your dogs. They encourage, while keeping you aware of what you still need to work on. They should make you feel like you’re half-way up the hill, not in a pit at the bottom and the “mentor” is the only one holding a rope.

Good mentors know that they’re one of many. They never use language like “Nobody else would give you this chance” or “Nobody else would breed to this bitch, but I’ll let you use my dog.”

I am nowhere near strong enough in this breed or any other to be a mentor. I have this blog because I am a nut about research and I can answer some of the simple questions, and because I have the ability to read and apply scientific studies. I never – and you can smack me if I ever do – want to be thought of as presenting myself as an authority on Cardigan breed type. There’s a reason I so rarely post stacked pictures of my dogs or talk about their type; I know perfectly well that I know zip, and anything I do “know” is because fifteen people have agreed that yes, that is a strength in your dog, but that is a weakness. None of them are my own brains. Ask me in twenty years and MAYBE I’ll say that I have something to contribute. In fact, the longer I go the more I realize that breed type is exactly as slippery and artistic as the ancient breeders have always said. Soundness is an engineering problem. You can “get” soundness almost instantly. Breed type is an art degree, and even an art degree doesn’t qualify you to teach art.

I am very fortunate in that my mentors have been fantastic, and have not minded me coming at them with seventy-six thousand questions and then keeping the puppy they told me not to keep. I am even more fortunate to have friends who are honest and encouraging and hysterically funny, and who will tell me that I have a dog with a hideous head and I absolutely suck at evaluating quality x, without expecting me to buy a different puppy from them. I am far too sentimental a breeder to go as far as my mentors have; I fall in love with the wrong dogs and I keep deadwood dogs and I breed because I get so attached to one particular feature that I can’t see anything else. So please, realize that I am not speaking as an authority; I write to myself every time I write a post. But I have seen what it’s like to be happy in dogs and I’ve seen what it’s like to be frustrated and sad in dogs, and I want you to be as happy as I have had the opportunity to be.


Poultry, overwrought

For some reason the hilarity of seeing a chicken on a dog’s head forced me to totally overedit these – I couldn’t leave them alone. Textures! Shadows! Black and white! Someday I’m going to print out one of them really big and put it in my bathroom. Meanwhile, here’s the set:


A feather in your cap

This was, hands down, the most hilarious three minutes of the year. I had this insane idea of making a chicken sit on Ella’s head, and thought I might get one picture if I was lucky. I had Honour go get the gentlest of the (presumptive) hens and Ella was held in an upright position and we pleaded with her to stay still.

The chick was placed on her head, fluttered once, and then decided that dogs’ heads were an entirely natural perch. She looked around, walked here and there, slid down to her neck and climbed back up again – all while I was taking as many pictures in a row as I could make the camera go, and everyone was shrieking with laughter. Poor Ella! She must have had every instinct in her body screaming, but she stayed like a rock while this creature explored her cranium, peeping curiously and looking for crumbs.


Enumerating our sins

In stark black and white.

On the charge of allowing multiple dogs to run off-leash in a strange forest, and further of allowing one to trip and fall in a puddle…

We find the defendants: GUILTY.

On the charge of allowing a dog to karate-chop another dog in the sight of innocent children…

We find the defendants: GUILTY.

On the charge of playing fetch on the yellow line…

We find the defendants: GUILTY.

On the charge of menacing a dog with a juvenile chicken…

We find the defendants: GUILTY.

On the charge of transporting dogs across state lines, unrestrained…

We find the defendants: GUILTY.

On the charge of letting a dog hang his head out the window, aggravated by the use of an extremely pimped-out car…

We find the defendants: GUILTY.

The court concludes that you have shown an utter failure to treat these dogs as anything but PERSONAL PETS. Why, it is almost as though you have forgotten that they are SHOW DOGS. Further reports of unsupervised mixing of a large number of corgis and entire meals enjoyed together, not to mention feeding off plates, as well as a rumor that toddlers were involved, leave us in a state of further suspicion. Do you have any final words?