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.

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Kathy J October 30, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I find that if you really work with dog one of the things you will have to deal with at some point is yourself. I also teach in a high school and the advantage of dogs it that they are gentle in their honesty while teenagers can be pretty brutal.
    In both cases I find that the more you strip off the BS the more you can really work WITH your dog in whatever venue you are interested in.

    I have a friend and her dogs over the years, while very talented in several performance venues have been universally snappy and bad tempered to both other dogs and humans. I have known (and owned) dogs of the same breed and all of them have been happy little campers – I really do think it is the owner.

    My dogs are happy dingbats who like to train and occasionally get titles. Don’t know what that says about me but we all get along with most everyone. My sister’s dogs have all been very nice dogs with underlying insecurity. So there are three examples that I can think of right off the bat that support your idea that it is US – which, frankly, was a hard pill to swallow but that realization has helped me be a much better owner to the dogs I have now compared to my first dogs.

  • Reply Sarah Davis October 30, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    This is so true. One of the reasons I do so well with reactive dogs is because I am a little reactive/hypersensitive myself. The same is true for the softer ones. I find the oblivious rockheads challenge me the most (Ianto , I am talking to you!)

    • Reply rufflyspeaking October 30, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      Ianto can come hang out with me :). Shade’s doing awesome, by the way – eating like a rhino and running all day long. Juno sits and stares at him for hours; she thinks the sun rises over his back. Nice to have a masculine bark around the place, too!

      • Reply Sarah October 31, 2010 at 12:03 am

        Friday fits in well here as well. She got her first lesson here on Thursday evening: toenails get dremeled here too! I am going to play a little on the table with some stacking and snacks tonight.

  • Reply CharlieDog October 30, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    I wish I could send my Ozzy to you. :/ He’s a reactive fear aggressive and a bit dog aggressive (okay, more than a bit) and I have no clue how to help him.

    I can deal with soft dogs. I’m really really good at connecting to scared dogs, fearful dogs that just need security, but dogs that turn aggressive and loud and rowdy because they’re afraid, I can’t do anything with. I just don’t know how to deal with that.

    I can train the blockheads, the over enthusiastic lets be friends with everybody! types and that, but the type like Oz, I’ve been working with him for four years, and still haven’t made very much progress, and the fact that he keeps getting attacked I’m sure doesn’t help.

  • Reply Sarah Keth October 30, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    It is true. I got an email from Breezy’s new family, and it went something like, “when we were at the vet Saturday, there were about 12 other dogs in the small waiting room.” Gulp. If Breezy were still with me, and I took her to the vet and saw 12 other dogs, I would have turned and left. But she did just fine, no bossing of all the other dogs and running her mouth the entire time. I saw it personally with the Westie next door to her new house. She didn’t react at all, just kept walking with a wag in her tail and a pep to her step. 🙂

  • Reply Jeri October 30, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I believe there’s a lot of truth to what you write…if there is one thing that the June situation taught me, that would be it. In the wrong situation, even with a caring and knowledgeable owner, a dog will have all the worst parts of their personality come forward. In the right situation, they will be at ease without trying so hard and all of their best parts come forward.

    I also believe it can be a lot about pack interaction. One very strong personality can have a lot of impact on dynamics (yes, I’m talking about Ella at Kate’s but also about Brady at my own house, and others that I have observed).

    There are some dogs I don’t think I could ever rehome, but others have come and gone for various reasons. I have seen it work out for the best interests of the dog too many times to feel badly about it when I make that decision.
    Jeri recently posted…Remembering back…My Profile

  • Reply amanda October 31, 2010 at 12:22 am

    I agree that often what one person can do with a dog others can’t. Not because they don’t try but because the dog and person are a bad match.

    But in most cases I think that unless the behaviour is extreme enough (depressed, social issues, aggression, etc) that it should be worked out.

    The thing is that yes, there could be a better person out there for that dog- but who knows if that person is going to show up, or how long it may take to find each other.

    I also believe that once you’ve commited to a dog you need to stay commited to the dog. For example- like you, I do MUCH better with a tougher dog. I have a hard time with a soft mushy dog- training wise, and normal day to day. But I have somehow ended up with two of them. Although they aren’t my ideal dog, and we aren’t as succesful together as someone else I would never dream of rehoming them. I knew how they were when I got them and kept them anyway, and I love them to death. I’d never be able to give them away.

    I am just not that type of person. I do understand as a breeder it is different. I am speaking in general.
    amanda recently posted…Trick and a TreatMy Profile

  • Reply Julie October 31, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Love it. I sometimes wonder how easy it is for dogs with a one-person temperament to change alliances, but the dogs that I’ve fostered over the years went to excellent homes and seemed to be very happy.

    I am good with the soft dogs, but my family is not. Both my husband and Son the Younger cannot read a dog to save their lives and come on rather too strong for a softer, shy temperament – but the good part is that once they have fostered here, they have learned that they won’t die. They positively shine if the proper home and aren’t quite as reserved as they might have been otherwise.

    My preferred temperament? I have lap spaniels for a reason…

  • Reply couldn’t have said it better « Hagaren Cardigans November 1, 2010 at 11:35 am

    […] I never have time to post anymore, I’m borrowing this good news from Joanna.  Welcome home, […]

  • Reply micaela November 1, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    I too wish Ellie & I could come to your place and be trained 😉 Maybe that’s a business idea you can explore in the future, a sort of B&B + dog obedience/rehab school.

    Ells and I have a lot of temperament issues in common, and I often joke that she’s my “therapy” dog because she forces me to deal with my stuff (like my near-agoraphobia, can’t really stay home in my shell with a Coonhound, can I?) on a regular basis. But her stubbornness (she is SO TOUGH!) also drives me crazy when it comes to stuff like food, or refusing to pee/poop because she doesn’t think we’ve gone far enough yet. That’s when I wonder what the heck I was thinking when I got a hunting dog bred for serious endurance, instead of a lap dog… I sometimes wonder if we’re the right home for her.

  • Reply Richelle November 1, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    I’m glad Julie mentioned that there are differing personalities in a household that also have an effect on dog behavior. My husband and I are significantly different in dealing with the dogs and we get significant differences in their behavior due to it. He’s louder, bigger, more dramatic, and I’m quieter, calmer, firmer.

    Our three dogs, all the same breed, are all significantly different from each other. One is a constant challenge, all three have things that could be better, and we’re learning as we go along. I know they are teaching me about myself, my husband, and what we need and they need. I pretend to think that we’ll be better at this with time, but the realist in me knows the next three will have other different challenges to learn from. And, like Amanda, mine are where they’ll stay. Whether it’s best for them or us or not, I can’t say, but I do know we’ll all keep learning.

  • Reply Cammy November 2, 2010 at 1:06 am

    This blog really hit home for me and I can really relate. My boyfriend has a dog that is very, very soft. I’ve tried to work with her, but I am just “loud” too! I’m enthusiastic, clumsy and I tend to push dogs to learn more. Poor Abby, she just really wants belly rubs and to sleep in her bed.

  • Reply kat November 3, 2010 at 8:07 am

    so what do you do when you feel that your dog doesn’t massively fit your personality but there is no way you are going to rehome him? First of all I love him and second of all I don’t have the luxury of knowing a great new perfect home.

    I am loud and clumsy he is soft and shy. He even has specific spots in the house where he won’t stand next to me for fear of me dropping something (near where I keep the car keys and a particular cupboard in the kitchen) so apart from trying to be less clumsy what’s the answer? can we learn to be softer? perhaps this should be your next post? I do try to be soft but at the same time I long for a happy go lucky sort of dog who will accept me for me!
    kat recently posted…ProgressionMy Profile

  • Leave a Reply

    CommentLuv badge