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Responsible Ownership

adopting a rescue dog

Sprocket day 4

I’m working all weekend so don’t have time for a long post but he’s doing well.

He’s doing all the things I expect a new rescue to do, and encouraging me with his willingness to listen and snap out of it.

Almost invariably, when they first arrive they’re so thrilled to be out of a kennel and in someone’s arms that they’re stare-y and clingy and manic. I think a lot of people get that response and think they adopted a really, really happy and affectionate dog, when it’s just relief and stress.

A couple days later I always get two things – hideous diarrhea and the first time they growl at somebody. The stool is from the food and water change and the stress of moving. I never worry that they’re sick as long as they have normal timing and urgency – in other words, they can consistently make it outside and they basically act normal otherwise.

The growling is their attempt to set up some order or structure in their lives. They will generally over-react and get possessive about food, mad about beds, react to loud noises, try to “own” a person, etc. I am very forgiving of this kind of stuff and generally try to coddle it rather than discipline it – it’s a totally different approach than I take if one of my established dogs decides to get all full of herself. A new dog is allowed to say “I am very worried that you will take my food” and I’ll tell the kids to stay out of the room where the dog is eating. I usually see a big storm of it and then as long as things are consistent it goes away on its own.

Sprocket is so wired into his tail that he’s showing that possession stress by tail-chasing. I sat and massaged him for a long time tonight, trying to figure out where the body tension was, and he would get tenser and tenser and growl and snarl and roar and then – if I pushed it too long – would break away from me and go after his tail. If I lifted my hands right before he got to that point he’d jump back and then just snort and shake and come rushing back over asking for more attention. He tail-chases more when he’s worried about other stuff, like if one of the kids is jumping on the couch and making noise.

Over the next few days my goals for him are as follows:

Eat a chicken back. So far he’s insisting that they’re not real food, in fact that anything raw is not food. Cooked chicken he goes bananas for. So we’ll sear some and make it progressively more raw until he’s eagerly eating it.

Continue to work on not marking. He’s already much, much better but he needs to be reminded a few times a day.

Start to let me know what triggers his tail OCD. He’s just not telling me that story yet, and I need to help him trust me enough to do so. Right now the answer is “everything” and I need him to relax enough to indicate more specifically what’s going on.

Successes:

He’s becoming more and more physically relaxed – he is playing more and running less. He’s sleeping on my feet instead of beside them. He’s paying attention to what feels good and showing preferences (like jumping on the couch instead of just lying in a corner).

He’s starting to involve his brain a bit. He’s getting interested in following a ball though he’s not fetching it back yet. He’s becoming better at playing with the corgis. He’s smelling more and staring less.

All in all I am very pleased, and glad that my timetable is not urgent for him. I think he’s going to make a really, really great dog for somebody and I am so happy that I have the luxury of really getting to know him so we can place him the very best we possibly can.

adopting a rescue dog

The tail of the issue

Cutie dog, now tentatively named Sprocket because he answered to it immediately but just stared at us when we tried Henson, has been doing great. He’s worn out and tired from a day of playing and is beginning to show a bit of grief – sad, but good. They all seem to come in and act like cracked-out relieved idiots for a few hours or days and then they crash and start to want to tell their story. He’s more clingy tonight and his eyes are less glassy and more relaxed and sad.

One of the things I try to figure out with these guys is what happened – Hartford doesn’t take any owner surrenders so they’re always either dumped or stray. Sparky was left in a yard after people moved out. Wilson was stray, probably dumped because he was older and had temperament issues (now totally gone). Ginny was obviously an owned dog; we suspect that she bolted out a door and whoever owned her didn’t dare to reclaim her (Hartford has a large population of undocumented workers and – though the animal control officer would be very glad to have the dog go home and has no desire to get anyone else involved – that community is understandably very cautious about approaching anything perceived as governmental). This dude was dumped in the corner of a public park. He’s young, obviously cost somebody some money at some point, and is as sweet as can be, which makes me start to look for some issue that led people to not bring them with him when they moved or dump him proactively.

I think – strongly suspect – it’s his tail. He has tail problems, from who knows where (we’ll get him in soon and have the vet check to make sure there’s no pain, but it feels to me more like an obsession than a pain problem), but however it happened he has ended up with a tail-hating issue. If he realizes it’s there – if he brushes it against the couch or if he sits on it accidentally – he begins to growl. If it continues to give him any sensation, he’ll attack it. It’s hilarious, honestly, in a way; you’ll be scratching him and he’ll be loving it and then he’ll start darting his eyes at his tail and making horrible noises. Eventually he can’t take it and he whirls around snarling and trying to bite it. Talk to him and he instantly stops and comes back for more love. He just did it now, as I was typing, because he laid down and his tail brushed the floor. It’s not directed at anyone – I petted him all over and then tugged his tail and he ran AWAY from me to get the tail. But if someone was in the way and he couldn’t get out of a corner or something, I can very easily see him getting them by accident.

Assuming the tail is the worst thing we find, hallelujah. That’s very fixable with desensitizing. Meanwhile we’re just helping him feel good and normal and cueing him as much as possible. Lots of “great decision there, buddy” and “no, please don’t do that.” He’s already starting to look at me before he makes decisions – sniff at a chair leg (he’s a bit of a Marky McHumperton and is pretty sure chairs need to be watered regularly) and then, instead of pee on it, look at me. I say “Uh-uh” and he is now turning away and walking toward me instead, which gets a “Perfect! Thank you so much for that good decision!” and he gets all waggy (and then attacks his tail, sigh).

Somebody asked in comments how I do the first few days with a rescue – this is it. Consistency, tons of cueing, no overreaction, as much exercise as possible. A bath, always. Good food, always. Lots of watching and trying to see what stuff stresses them, and removing that stress as much as possible. I’ve had dogs throw a fit and then look at me, plainly expecting me to throw one right back. When I instead say “Well, what did you do that for?” they begin the process of redefining their own behavior. I won’t push the “training” aspect until I feel that they are back to being whole, until they’re no longer grieving and have all the tools they need to learn. The first step is when they begin to seek out human contact – not petting, which they will accept even when frantic, but when they wander into the room and plop down on my feet, or when they jump on a bed and stretch out next to a kid. That’s when I know they’re beginning to open up and heal.

adopting a rescue dog

Hello, I like you, won’t you tell me your name?

I don’t have any really good pictures yet, just some snaps in the yard in the bad light, but he’s cute.

In a sort of “Previously on The Dark Crystal” kind of way.

He is a very sweet boy. Not at all shy, happy and confident, gets along with everybody. Quite endearing, honestly. He’s out playing with the ones who are not in (or going out of) heat – just in case I am reading them wrong. I have less than no desire to end up with Cardigan-mystery mix puppies.

The light isn’t good enough to show his coat well, but in addition to the little beard he’s got a strip of long curly hair along his topline but short and smooth coat on his sides. (Lesson 1 about why you don’t breed a smooth-coated dog to a curly-coated dog.) All over he’s rather sparse and it strips out into my hand if I tug. He’s greying all over – he’s for sure got something that greys, like poodle or similar, and will probably grow more and more silver as he ages. I suspect that he’ll be happiest clipped almost completely down into a Boston-Terrier-With-A-Mustache look, but we’ll see. He was fine being bathed, doesn’t really object to anything. I’ll try nails later today.

I still don’t know what he is – he’s bigger than a Boston-Poodle but that’s probably the closest guess, though I rather think there’s more than that in there.

Health-wise he’s perfect. Good heart, eyes (the cherry eye is minor and the tissue is healthy and will be an easy fix), ears, etc. He’s between nine and 18 months old – he has a decent-sized underbite so teeth are less helpful in dating him but I would guess about a year. He’s 21 lb and should be closer to 23; he’s a bit underweight and of course needs a lot of muscle mass. He adores – ADORES – kids.

We’ll keep him a month or two, get him neutered, get the cherry eye fixed, get some muscle on him and some training in him (he’ll offer a sit but on leash he’s horrid – switches between panicking and pulling – probably almost never been on a leash before), get to know him a bit better, and hope by then one of you has fallen in love with him! But my heavens, right now he’s as easy as pie and unless something changes he should be VERY adoptable.

And no, no name yet – anybody see a name there? He is a lot less terrier-y than I thought he’d be; he doesn’t feel like an Angus or Wallace or Lewis. He’s got more of a Fraggle Rock vibe.

adopting a rescue dog

Coming home with us on Wednesday!

Look at this sweet boy!

He’s just a year old or even younger; he was dumped in a park in Hartford. The ACO chased him for days and he just laughed at her, and then came running up to kiss a little girl, who caught him and handed him over. Sounds like our kind of guy.

We’ll vet him in CT, get his rabies shot and a health cert before we bring him home. Once I know what kind of dog he is, make sure he’s healthy and happy, and he’s neutered and his cherry eye fixed, he’ll be available.

After I take approximately 150,000 photos of him.

This is ALL because of you wonderful people. I got $180 in donations, which is enough to get us there and get him vetted and home, and even a chunk toward his eventual neuter.

The ACO says he’s a real mystery mix, but a big chunk of terrier is obvious. He’s maybe 18 pounds, she thought. We’re very excited!

Responsible Ownership

Furbabies. Kids in hair suits. My dog is my daughter. And other pieces of total lunacy.

People, just… NO.

Your dog is not your child. Your dog doesn’t WANT to be your child; your dog is completely confused by this kind of behavior. Your dog would be horrified if he could comprehend the statement.

Dogs who are “children” are usually the most lost and badly behaved dogs there are, because the relationship is entirely for the benefit of the “parent.” What parents do for children, the way parents behave around children, are nothing that a dog needs or even likes. They end up casting here and there for any kind of stability and strength and assurance. The soft ones go neurotic; the hard ones take over. Either way you have an unhappy dog trapped and being fed upon, asked to provide something it cannot and stay sane and healthy.

I love my dogs. I think they are just marvelous. I feel privileged to know them. But they are not my husband and they are not my children. I don’t mean that they are on the same spectrum but just further down it, like I might hand my kid a twenty but I wouldn’t do that to a dog. I mean that they are on a completely different plane; they are my dogs. They don’t need to be compared to the way I feel about my children or my spouse or my neighbor or the president of France.

I have enormous numbers of pages to read tonight, in a campaign known in my own brain as Thank You God For Giving Me A Project That Will Pay For Clue’s C-Section, so I can’t go on much longer than I already have, but just one more thing:

Why are the “baby” statements ALWAYS and inevitably and heartbreakingly followed by “I need to find a new home for my baby”? I’ve seen more “babies” rehomed than I’ve ever seen working dogs rehomed, more than I’ve seen even the dogs I consider neglected (like “yard dogs” or chain dogs) rehomed. It always begins with “Timba has been my baby for seven years, but now I broke up with the boyfriend/moved to a new apartment/got a different job/she bit someone/I am getting married and she needs a new home with someone who will love her like the baby she is.”

Dude, wake up. I have babies. You could no more wrest them from my grasp than you could tear my lung out, and the birth parents who choose to give up a baby go through the rest of their lives with one lung. You don’t give up a baby because you move to Reno.

What we have with dogs that we own is something very fine, very noble, very GOOD. It makes us better people. Turning it into a child substitution wrecks it on both sides. Don’t do it.

buying a puppy, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership, Selling puppies

How much do puppies cost? How the “breeder wars” hurt our community

There are a whole bunch of good guides out there on how to price a product. They vary in terms of how much you can add on top of the basic equation – how much margin you can expect – but the initial algebra is pretty consistent.

You take your raw materials cost, add in your overhead (travel included), make sure you’re counting rent and utilities and other facilities cost, and then pay yourself a good living wage on top of that. If you’re putting in 40 hours, you might be able to pay yourself $30 an hour. If a lot of what you do is stand around and then there are bursts of activity, $150 an hour might be more reasonable. Once you’ve done all that, then you add in your profit. The whole thing is called “cost-plus,” and it’s why you pay more for a vase than you would for the clay, and more for a photograph than you would for the film.

Anyone investigating setting up a small business that is based on a unique product or service (as opposed to a commodity – in other words, you’re either making something by hand or producing something unique) is told that it hurts everyone to undersell yourself. If you price your widget at $50 when an actual cost-plus price should be $300, you hurt everybody in the widget business. People start to think that widgets should be $50, so they refuse to buy the $300 ones anymore. You enjoy a brief period of popularity but then you go out of business because even with huge volume you still lose money. Nobody wins.

If you want to succeed in your widget business and build the industry for everybody, you not only charge $300, you’re PROUD of the $300. One of the other cardinal rules of expertise-oriented small business is that discounts are death. The discount becomes the “real” worth, and the customer reacts negatively to the normal price. If your instinct is to discount, we’re told, do a freebie instead. Charge $300 for the widget and throw in a $20 credit; don’t discount to $280.

Now let’s look at dog breeding. We’re always walking a delicate line because we don’t consider ourselves businesses but we do ask money for a product, or (as I prefer to think of it) we ask money for an extended-support contract. But people ARE handing us a check.

If we followed cost-plus pricing, the way a small business is supposed to, the average puppy price for a well-bred litter should be around $20,000 each. And that’s not an exaggeration. Most of us have a litter once a year, twice at most; our expenses are astronomical. Most of our “raw materials” (show-potential puppies) end up never producing anything. Those who have more litters than that are also the ones who are paying the most; they are the ones showing every weekend and they have an RV that cost a year’s salary and their vet bills could send a kid to college.

So let’s say that a fair puppy price, if we were treating this like a business, would be $20,000 per. That’s the price that, if we were businesspeople, we should be PROUD to ask.

Why, then, do the ridiculously small puppy prices we DO ask engender so much embarrassment, and (even worse) so much breeder-to-breeder criticism?

I rearranged my puppy page last night, and as an experiment decided to put my puppy price there publicly. I’ve never done that before; very few breeders do. There’s a feeling, and I think it’s not a bad one, that we don’t want to make it look like anybody who can meet the price gets the puppy. The problem with this is that potential owners are kind of floundering; they don’t know how much is normal and they don’t know when to bring it up with you. I also did it because I’m a potential owner too; I feel the same tension anybody does when I am approaching a breeder. We are not, and never will be, the kind of family that can drop even three figures without thinking about it; when something could be anywhere from $1000 to $5000 – and I won’t even know until I am well into the process – it really gets stressful.

I put my price there because I want to see if a public price really does bring me a lower caliber of buyer, and (if so) if I feel I can still place puppies well using all the other things I do, like questionnaires and interviews and meetings.

I was typing along, listing the stuff that comes with a well-bred puppy, and when I typed out the price my immediate reaction was to say “OH MY GOSH I KNOW I’M SORRY I’M SORRY I PROMISE IT’S WORTH IT.” I was actually embarrassed, cringing with the thought that somebody was going to be mad at me for saying that my puppies are a certain price.

And I also know that any time a price is made public on someone’s website or somebody hears that so and so is charging this much and this other person is asking that much, it becomes a topic of gossip and criticism. “Did you know he asked THREE GRAND for that litter?” “Did you hear that she got TWO THOUSAND for that MISMARK?”

It seems, often, that breeders will take any opportunity to tear each other down – as a group we are passionately pro-dog, and I’ve never met any who were more selfless when it comes to care and welfare and devotion to doing the right thing. But we are often incredibly cruel to each other. It’s the same sad tune that mothers sing: I stayed home and you didn’t; I breastfed and you didn’t; you let your kids eat fries and I don’t. “Did you hear what she did” is the great battle cry.

In dog breeding, and I think this can be the case in many other pursuits as well, self-abnegation becomes the real pride. I lost more money than you did; I neutered more show prospects than you did; I charge $1000, well I charge $800, well I charge $600, well I give them away and also donated my kidney to a puppy buyer. I breed twice a year, I breed once a year, I breed once every five years, I’ve owned this breed for fifteen years and never once have I even LOOKED at a dog’s genitals with intent to use them.

Here’s the truth: Any show breeder charging less than $20,000 per puppy is not running a business. They’re undercharging. So even a few dollars below that amount, we’re all on a level playing field. And I don’t know anybody charging even a third of that, so WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT. Nobody gives out prizes for I-dig-a-deeper-hole-than-you.

Within our losing-money-fast boat, individual breeders make decisions based on how they feel they can best place their puppies. I’ve had breeders tell me that they charge $2000 because pet stores are asking $1800 for their breed. If they don’t go over that amount, people feel that their beautifully bred puppies are not worth as much as the pet store dogs. I’ve had other breeders tell me that they charge a very low price because then they can pick and choose from many more buyers. And I’ve had others tell me that they price at the very top of their breed’s range because that actually pulls in more buyers (the “Ivy League” effect – Yale has thousands of applicants for a few positions, while Hobtown Community College has a hundred applicants for a thousand positions).

No matter what they have decided, EVERYBODY’S LOSING MONEY. There’s no reason to attack anyone. This is especially so in the Cardigan community, by the way, where puppy prices are INCREDIBLY LOW. I sold my last litter of Danes years ago for $1500 each, and that was the very lowest end of the breed’s range. That same year a friend bought a similarly well-bred Dane puppy for $3000; the show-marked harlequins were somewhere in the $4500 range and many of them went with puppies back as well. Prices went up an average of $50-$100 per year, quite consistently. Danes are not a particularly expensive breed, either; if I were looking for a well-bred pet puppy of any breed in 2010, I’d expect to pay around $2000. When I inquired about Cardigans and was told that they were in the $900 range, I about fell over dead. It felt like shopping at the dollar store for a show puppy!

And there’s no “reason” Cardis are that low; no reason besides a certain expectation of that’s what everybody’s selling them for. So there’s no pride attached to selling them even lower, or any pride attached to selling them higher either. Everybody’s shoveling money into a dog-shaped hole, so what decisions are made around that situation are your business and nobody else’s.

If I see somebody charging $3,000 for Cardigan puppies, I need to be able to distinguish between something that’s WRONG (which obviously it’s not; that person is still nowhere near making a profit or being motivated by money) and something that is not what I would have decided. I may have my own private little thoughts about it, in the same way that I would have my little thoughts about feeding (or not feeding) fries to your kids, but I need to put on my big-girl panties and not make a moral issue out of it – because we are on the same side. That’s what it really comes down to. Much more unites us than divides us, and as a community we should be loving to each other even when decisions differ.

——

If you’ve hung around long enough and are a normal person wondering how I personally put a dollar figure to puppies, here’s how I do it.

I sell my puppies oddly. I charge more at the beginning and then rebate for classes and titles. I do this on the advice of a wonderful trainer, who said that puppies should be like soda cans; you should be rewarded for doing the right things with them. So I pay for puppy K and I pay for a herding instinct test or any title (rally included). Clue’s first litter was my grand experiment in doing this and I was VERY happy with the way it went. I had a 100% puppy K attendance, which I think is the most important thing you can possibly do for the average puppy, and I gladly wrote those checks. I hope to write more as the titles are achieved.

My puppy price is $1200 (with $200 rebated, for a total of $1000 in the end) this year. I tried to be as honest with puppy people as I could be, showing them exactly how much it cost to get their puppy to eight weeks old so they would understand that I wasn’t making any money; I also used this lovely mess as a ruler. I did not want to price puppies so low that they were being bought as pit bull bait, which sounds hideous but it happens far more often than you’d ever imagine. At $1000 I am right in the middle of the bad-breeder pack, which I am not happy with as a rule but I also don’t want to keep really great owners who don’t have a lot of money to throw around away from my door.

I would love – LOVE – to someday be able to actually redefine what I do as a free puppy and a lifetime support contract. I would love for us all to do that. I think it makes more sense to a buyer when you ask them how much they’d expect to be paid to be on call for the next twelve years than to try to accurately define what a living puppy is “worth.” And I think defining the transaction as a support contract also allows them to distinguish between a good supplier and a bad one without labeling the puppy itself as good or bad.

Maybe someday that will come true, and people will figure they’re paying me a buck-ninety a week and it will seem like a bargain. Until then, I will continue to try to walk that line, failing at business but hopefully succeeding at establishing value.

And hopefully we won’t fight too too much.

buying a puppy, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

My dog is better than your dog

I discovered this delightful piece of hard-hitting journalism when I was looking for show-dog ads; every once in a while I root through Dog World online to see who’s making ripples. Dog World is a bit like Playboy – reading articles isn’t really the point.  So I’m never all that surprised when there are problems with the writing, but this one really takes the cake.

To paraphrase: Don’t adopt from a shelter, and don’t advise anyone else to adopt from a shelter; show-bred dogs are better.

The writing is absolute crap – dogs bred on street corners? Really? Is it the 1940s? – but I thought the underlying message is important to consider.

Are show-bred (or carefully bred dogs of any ilk) “better” than shelter dogs?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. The only thing well-bred dogs are is more PREDICTABLE.

This is a little bit like the elementary math problem that asks you to flip a series of coins, helping you conclude that the probability of ending up heads four times in a row is very small, BUT the probability of any one toss being heads is still 50%. Even after it’s landed heads 100 times, the probability of the 101st flip landing heads is still one in two.

Carefully breeding dogs skews the problem in the direction of falling heads more times in a row. Looking at a large group of them, there is comparatively little variation in size, shape, temperament, ability, and so on. However, when you’re comparing one individual dog to another there’s no way I’m going to tell you that the shelter dog loses.

If you want to BREED dogs, if what you’re crafting is predictable appearance, ability, and temperament, there’s only one way to go – with the well-bred dog. If you are looking to WORK dogs, if you really need the highest probability that a certain piece of instinct will be combined with a certain work ethic over multiple dogs in a row, you should be choosing a well-bred dog.

But if you are looking for one individual dog who will be all the miraculous things a dog can be in your household, the well-bred dog is NOT automatically better.

As I’ve said many times, if what you need in a dog is just a “good dog” – bonded, affectionate, cute, empathetic – go to a shelter, preferably one that really needs you. I and my puppies do NOT need you. My puppies have a built-in safety net for their entire lives and are never going to be in real danger; that cannot be said for many others. Go rescue one. You will almost certainly end up with exactly what you need in your family.

Come to me, or come to another good breeder, only if you need predictability beyond the natural goodness of all dogs. If you need to work a dog, show a dog, or breed a dog; if you need the kind of intense support that a good breeder can provide, THEN buy one. But do it for the right reasons, and never do it if rescuing a dog is an option. I NEVER want to take a place that you would have been just as happy to fill with a rescue dog.

(By the way, the very worst of all? The poorly bred purebred or designer dog. Not only do you not get any predictability or support, you increase the homeless dog population either directly – when your dog isn’t fitting well but the breeder won’t take her back – or indirectly because the siblings, parents, and offspring of your dog fall through the cracks.)

Thankfully, the views in the Dog World article are very rare, at least in my experience in show dogs, and the few people that hold them are not the ones you want to know. Most show breeders are pro-dog as a whole; we’re just as happy to see a homeless dog get back on his feet as we are to see one of our dogs take a Best of Breed, if not more so. And we get incredibly mad at bad breeders not because they are our competition but because we see dogs suffering because of them.

Personally, nothing would make me happier than one of you telling me that your rescue dog is better than any other dog on earth, including my show dogs. Bronte just got up on the chair and ate all my popcorn, so it’s probably true!

dog diets, Dog Health, raising your puppy

When should I switch my dog off puppy food to adult food?

Answer: He never should have been on it in the first place.

This question is one of those “If I had a nickel” ones. It comes up pretty much daily on general-interest dog boards and breed discussion lists.

The problem is this: the whole idea of “puppy food,” which is just a higher-calorie (often vastly higher-calorie) formulation of kibble, is based on two flawed assumptions and one major marketing truth. Assumptions first:

1) Puppies need to be “supported” in rapid growth; just keep them from getting fat.

2) Rapid growth is better than slow growth.

And the marketing truth:

People love to feel that they are doing something special for their new baby. I’ve seen discussions on pet-food marketing boards about this, because numbers one and two up there are well known in the industry. They know perfectly well that there’s no reason to feed puppy food.

But people WANT it. They clamor for it. When it comes to a puppy, even those who are going to feed Ol’ Roy or Pedigree (the sales of which, by the way, so completely dwarf all other brands that it’s staggering) will pay the extra two bucks a bag to get Pedigree Puppy and Ol’ Roy Puppy.

Up at the higher end of the scale, you have companies whose main product is the typical chicken-based food in a carefully low-key high-end bag suddenly breaking their two-color-press rules to feature pictures of tiny puppies  so you’ll know they’re the right choice; even hipsters go mushy for baby dogs.

Even companies who will TELL you you don’t need a puppy food (like Innova) still make one. They lose huge wads of people who go buy a competitor’s product because it has the picture of the Golden puppy on the front if they don’t.

Here’s the truth:

After puppies are fully weaned, they need to grow as SLOWLY as possible. Slow growth is strong growth.

Slow-growing dogs have a dramatically lower rate of joint issues, including hip and elbow dysplasia, OCD, and so on. Part of this is because the growth of the bone doesn’t outstrip the growth of its tendons and muscles, and some of it is because slow-growing dogs are lighter dogs and don’t put as much strain on developing joints. Both are good reasons to keep a puppy growing for a long time rather than a short one.

Puppies will use every bit of food they’re given to grow. Puppies don’t get fat unless they have so many calories dumped on them that even their incredible metabolism is overwhelmed. You can’t judge whether a puppy is getting too much food by whether he or she is fat.

Puppies are not cows. You’re not finishing them for market before they’re a year old. They should not look adult or have anything close to an adult weight until they really ARE adults. If your puppy has 95% of his adult height and weight at six months – and many people consider this to be normal and expected – you’re following the principle of fattening a lamb for slaughter, not growing a dog.

In a wolf pack, which is how your dog’s body evolved and how its metabolism still works, when puppies are eating EVERYBODY’S on a low-calorie diet and the puppies are on the lowest of all. The size of the pack is indirectly related to the number of calories consumed; when there’s a litter growing up (and in wolves this is until about 18 months old, when they leave to form their own groups) everybody’s skinny. After the regurgitation phase is over, puppies are not given anything close to the choicest bits. They’re supposed to survive on what they can get their heads in and grab. That’s a very good rule of thumb for growing dogs as well; 18 months is when you should see full growth and (close to) full weight. Males in particular will often put on a little bit more later, but you should be able to visibly tell between a 12-month-old and an 18-month-old.

In my experience this also translates to a much later maturity in other ways; I don’t get first heats in the girls until they’re well over a year old. Calories are given first to maintenance (living), then to growth, then to reproduction. If the calories are low enough to limit growth, they don’t get put into reproduction until growth slows. This follows the wolf rule as well, and protects everybody. Bodies shouldn’t be reproducing until the structure can support them, and a first heat at 15 months is a breedable heat and the bitch will be fine. (I haven’t even bred on a first heat, before anybody freaks out, but at that age I would not hesitate to do so from a health standpoint; she’d probably have an easier time of it than most!)

So what should you do?

In all breeds but the toys, if you’re not feeding raw you can wean right to an adult food and keep them on an adult food their whole lives. And there’s no magic in a single brand, either; go ahead and mix six of ’em if you want to.

The toy breeds, which are prone to hypoglycemic crises, sometimes need a more nutrient-dense food for a few more weeks so that every bite has enough calories to keep their blood sugar from dipping too low. But even the toys can go on adult food as soon as that danger period is over.

Whatever you feed, if you have a normal healthy puppy who eats eagerly, you should NOT be feeding to satiety. The puppy should not be walking away from food. A good healthy puppy should be lovingly licking the bowl or the floor for a few minutes after he or she is done, wishing for more. If your puppy is not a good eager eater, you may need to coddle them a bit more, but don’t fall into the trap of feeding too much just because the puppy only takes a few mouthfuls at a time.

Your puppy should be smaller than the other puppies his age at the dog park or training class. Since most people ARE going to be feeding way too much, your puppy is going to look small and wiry and they’re going to look big and sleek and beautiful. Don’t feel bad! Your puppy is going to be much better off in the long run.

What’s thin-but-not-too-thin?

One of the most often misunderstood directions for dog weight is “can you see a waist from the top.” You can ALWAYS see a waist from the top. Very few dogs, even the tremendously obese ones, have no indentation where the waist is. Heck, I have a waist and I’m (mumble mumble bad number). What you want to see is that there is a clear sinking in behind the bulk of the BONES OF THE ribcage (the top arrow up there on Juno, who conveniently stretched out so I could show you) and then a clear widening where the BONES OF THE pelvis and femur come out (the bottom arrow). Not “the big mounds of fat vaguely associated with the bones of the ribs and pelvis.” A proper “waist” is relatively long and rather square.

Juno was 19.8 lb yesterday; she’s almost 7 months. If I was letting her grow as fast as she wanted this would be a DISASTER, because it would mean she was going to top out at 22 lb or something. But since I know she’s going to grow for a long time I’m not at all concerned. Juno’s never going to be big, which is exactly what I wanted, but she’ll make her mom’s size (typically 26-27 lb) just fine.

A small, hard, wiry puppy? Great. A skinny puppy? No. If you’re looking at a puppy you should not be able to see the bones of the individual ribs or put your fingers between them. You should not be able to see the bones of the hips or put your fingers between them. The femur should be surrounded by good strong muscle, and you shouldn’t be able to grab any bone ends. When the puppy breathes or runs, you should see the trailing edge of the ribcage and (on short-haired dogs) count the last two or three ribs. You shouldn’t be able to count all the ribs unless the puppy is a sighthound.

On the typical 9-point scale, which is commonly used by vets to characterize body condition, I like to see a puppy at about a 4 and that’s where I keep my adult dogs too. I’ll bring them up to a 5 to show in order to smooth out the topline a little, but that’s about it.

Clue says: I can hardly wait until my puppies are eating; that is my favoritest time ever. Also, I am NOT at a 4 right now. (Sigh; true! I am anticipating that she’ll get really sick again this time so I’ve brought her up to about a 6, the heaviest I’ve ever let her get. She’s about 29 lb now and she looks weird and bad to me.)

News on the home front: Clue is taking her sweet time. She’s beginning to get super affectionate and mushy with the other dogs, and spends long minutes carefully grooming Friday and Juno. She’s not very enthused about Bramble yet; she is flagging but I have learned to completely ignore that as a signal for her, the hussy. She still barely looks in heat, so I am guessing she won’t really do much until next week. Last time we bred her days 16, 17, 19, 20 and the 19 was the magic one. If that holds true this time I will ONCE MORE be shipping semen over a weekend. Geez. If you want convenience, don’t breed dogs!

buying a puppy, Dog Behavior and Training, Responsible Ownership

Dogs who fail

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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.)