Opening My Heart to New Furry Possibilities

October 27, 2009

It’s been just over a year since I lost my beloved soul dog Mojo. I experienced three other losses last year as well, which sapped my motivation for getting another dog anytime soon. I’ve also had a very busy travel schedule, but my last seminar of 2009 has been presented and I’m now left with the time—and, finally, the inclination—to begin searching for another dog.

It’s a funny thing with dog trainers; many of us do well at helping other people with their dogs’ behavior issues, but when it comes to our own dogs, we have blind spots. Just ask my professional trainer friend whose pit bull/great dane knocks visitors down at the door with her unbridled enthusiasm! Maybe it’s a case of the cobbler’s children, where the last thing we want to do when we get home is train one more dog.

It seems like we who should know better have this same blind spot when it comes to choosing a dog. If I were to sit down and make a list of the characteristics I’d like, they’d include friendliness with other dogs and people, no serious fear or aggression issues, intelligence, and an energy level I can live with; in other words, there won’t be an australian shepherd or border collie gracing my home any time soon. Ironically, the types of dogs I’m attracted to—german shepherds, rottweilers, dobermans, wolf hybrids—aren’t exactly known to have the temperament of, say, a golden retriever. It makes me think back to my dating days, where my rock-star partners were certainly head-turning, but perhaps not always the smartest choices. But just as I ended up marrying a kind, intelligent, great-looking guy with a fabulous personality, I’m hoping for the same luck in the canine arena.

I’ve already warned my husband that he’d be needed in the adoption decision-making process. I may have to bring along a trainer friend as well. Goodness knows I’m completely capable of turning off the red flag processing part of my brain when confronted with a pair of heart-melting brown eyes. Or green ones, attached to a black, suspiciously wolf-like body. (I once described my wolf Phantom to a friend, saying, “He’s tall and lanky, with long black hair and intense green eyes” to which she replied, “Are you describing your wolf or your husband?”)

There’s also the matter of age. Mine, I mean. I don’t regard myself as old, but as I’m grudgingly forced to consider things like my chronic back pain (partly due to recent years of lifting the back end of 120-pound dogs), it seems that perhaps a less-than-gargantuan dog would be a wise choice.

One thing I am certain of is that I’d like to adopt from a shelter or rescue group. My husband has suggested a puppy. Of course, he’d be the one peacefully sleeping as I took the adorable fluff-ball out to potty at 3 a.m. But I’d rather have a dog who’s a few years old, one whose temperament is already obvious, where what you see is what you get. Puppies are great, but even the cutest pup can have a genetic disposition toward aggression or fear that’s not obvious at a very young age. Besides, I want to save a life, and puppies are the last to need my help.

It’s been interesting to read online descriptions of adoptable dogs. Euphemisms abound: “He’d love to be your one and only, and wants all your love for himself.” Can you say dog aggressive? “Would be wonderful for an active family” translates to an adolescent with boundless energy, and if you don’t burn it off you’ll have your very own interior redecorator. “A classy fellow. Very discriminating about who he likes, with both dogs and people.” Uh-oh. Run away! I’m not saying these dogs don’t deserve a chance, but that, as cold as it might sound, I’m just not looking for a major project. Been there, done that.

As exciting as getting a new fur-kid can be, I’m not rushing into anything. I have faith that the right dog will come along at the right time. I’ll keep you posted.


Breed Specific Prejudices—Among Trainers

October 5, 2009

I got a call the other day from a potential training client. When I asked what kind of dog she had, the woman replied, “A five month old pit bull.”

“We’re very pit-friendly!” I said immediately. Why, you might wonder, did I feel the need to share that? Because of all the calls I’ve taken from potential clients who said other trainers refused to work with their dogs based on breed. This unwillingness to work with a specific breed is not limited to pit bulls, although I’ve heard it most often in that regard. Once a caller informed me that a local trainer she’d spoken to refused to work with Siberian huskies. I have a hard time fathoming why. Of course, if a trainer has been badly bitten or otherwise traumatized by a specific type of dog, he or she might have a conditioned response and be unwilling to work with it again. And if we’re being honest, many trainers have a specific breed or two they simply dislike or are actually afraid of. But even in those cases it’s better to explain why the job is being turned down than to leave the owner feeling something is wrong with her dog.

The more common reasons a trainer might refuse to work with a particular breed are due to preconceived notions about behavior and potential danger. It’s true that pit bulls do have more potential for damage, than, say, bichons. I know a trainer whose leg was mauled pretty badly by a pit. But I also know of many pit bulls who are perfectly lovely, sweet dogs who tolerate the typical fur-pulling and pat-pat-head-smacking by kids much more graciously than the majority of pocket pets I’ve met. Sure, pit bulls can have dog-dog aggression issues, but a well-bred pit bull with a solid temperament is one of the most people-loving dogs you’ll find.

Of course, it’s not just trainers who have this prejudice. When I volunteered for the Los Angeles city shelter system in the 90s, part of my duties included assisting the public in choosing a dog. Time after time the same scenario played out: a mother and child would be playing with and cooing over an adorable pit bull in a pen. The mom would finally turn and ask the dog’s breed. I’d answer “pit bull.” Mom would immediately take a giant step back, pushing the child behind her as though the dog was about to sprout horns, pull the bars apart, proclaim, “I am pit!” and maul them both. “It’s the same dog you were petting a minute ago” didn’t seem to make much difference. Cage cards say things like “Staff X” (Staffordshire Terrier Mix) for a reason—it’s less potentially off-putting than the dreaded “pit bull” label. But the dog is what it is, and I don’t believe in trying to fool people.

The public’s perception of pit bulls and certain other breeds is understandable. After all, you don’t often hear stories on the news like “Angry Chihuahua bites toddler!” Not that it doesn’t happen—you just won’t hear about it. I’m guessing small dogs are under-represented in breed bite statistics as well, because many people find it embarrassing to even report the bite.

When trainers feed into these existing misperceptions, though, it only fuels the fire. As professionals, trainers have the right to refuse service to anyone they like. But we owe it to owners not to make them feel as though there is something wrong or lesser about their chosen breed, and therefore their particular dog, who they obviously care enough about to seek professional help. Trainers are on the front lines of education, which is why it is so important for us to be educated. We have the capacity to help or hinder, and to indirectly contribute to or fight breed specific legislation based on the public perceptions we engender. Realizing that each breed is made up of individuals is the least we can do to promote a “deed not breed” philosophy.

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