Thinking of Gifting Someone with a Christmas Puppy?

November 23, 2009

It’s that time of year again. Kids eagerly await Santa’s visit. Parents and others scramble to buy gifts and more gifts. And dog trainers dread the advent of the Christmas Puppy.

Now, trainers are not all scrooges, and we understand why people give puppies as gifts. Who wouldn’t enjoy the sheer delight on the recipient’s face upon discovering a happily wriggling bundle of fur, and imagining the ongoing joy that tail-wags and face-licks will bring? But to gift someone with a puppy is also to thrust upon them a huge responsibility. We trainers are called in when people find that their adorable pup is urinating everywhere, nipping tender hands and feet with razor-sharp teeth, and chewing everything in sight. A puppy really is the gift that keeps giving, both in happiness and in required effort and patience.

If you’re set on a puppy as a present, consider first whether the idea is realistically appropriate. I’ve seen more than a few cases where well-meaning family members gifted grandma or grandpa with a pup, thinking it would provide companionship and good cheer. While there are certainly some seniors who can handle the level of activity of a young pup and the commitment the care entails, there are far more who would no sooner be burdened with a puppy than they would an infant. If you’re sure your beloved “golden oldie” would actually enjoy having a canine companion, consider a mature dog instead. Most senior citizens do well with smaller dogs, and due to the current economic climate, shelters are bursting with perfectly lovely ones whose only crime was that their owners could no longer afford to keep them. Gifting grandma with a carefully chosen six- to eight-year-old Maltese or Shih Tzu mix, for example, would save a life while providing calm companionship.

If the recipients of your gift are to be your kids, know going in that you are the one on whom the burden of daily care will fall. Sure, it’s nice to envision Billy learning responsibility by cleaning up after the dog each day, and Cindy taking him for walks. But you will be the one getting up with the pup in the middle of the night, and cleaning up after him. Kids will be kids, and again, you will be a dog-mom or dad to a very young creature who needs constant care and attention. If you’re up for the job, great! If not, consider adopting a dog who’s a few years old. Adolescence in dogs spans from approximately five or six months of age until around a year-and-a-half to two years, depending on breed. You might not be able to skip the dreaded teenage phase of developing selective hearing and pushing boundaries with your kids, but you can avoid it altogether with a dog by adopting one who is already two to three years or older.

Choosing the right puppy or adult dog for another person can be tricky. Breed, temperament, activity level, and sociability with other animals all play into the decision. Beyond all of that, something just has to “click” between the human and the dog. So instead of bestowing the actual dog on the festive day, here’s a much better idea that still allows for the “wow” factor: Purchase the cutest stuffed dog you can find, and tie a big red bow around its neck. Include a card explaining that the stuffed dog is a stand-in for the real thing. Once the recipient has read the card, explain where the dog will be coming from. For example, your Golden Retriever puppy will be arriving from a well-researched breeder and will arrive in approximately two weeks. Or, better yet, you will be going as a family to the local shelter or humane society to pick out a dog together. The benefits of presenting your gift in this way far outweigh the possibility of a slightly less surprised reaction than if the actual dog were present.

One last consideration: Although your generous gift might not come with “some assembly required,” it does come with some work required. Arrange for a bit of help from a professional trainer. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a great place to start your search. Services designated in your gift certificate might include the trainer’s assistance in choosing the dog, and/or a private session or two in the recipient’s home. Most trainers will be happy to accommodate this request, and getting the dog off on the right paw from the start will help to ensure that your “gift” will be cherished for a long time to come. Happy Holidays!


“Our Training Kicked In”

November 12, 2009

I just watched an interview with Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd, the civilian police sergeants who took down the crazed gunman at Fort Hood. Both parties, when asked how they were able to so quickly assess the horrific situation and respond as they did, said the same thing: “Our training kicked in.” They explained that they had been put through training exercises to the point that whether the scenario was a planned drill or an actual event, their conditioned reflexes took over. Naturally, this made me think of dogs.

I’ve often heard dog owners say, “He’ll come when I call him at home, but at the park, he ignores me!” Upon questioning, these same owners invariably reveal that any training that has taken place has been in the home environment, not at the park, and sometimes, not even outdoors. You can’t expect to go from 0 to 10 without building smaller steps in between, whether it’s an off-leash recall away from play with other dogs, or responding properly to an attacker when learning martial arts. Achieving a solid conditioned reflex requires time, patience, and repetition.

I’ve told this story before about my German Shepherd, who has since passed: My husband and I were taking Soko, then about ten months old, to the beach. We’d pulled over on to the narrow shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway, an extremely busy California freeway. My husband opened the passenger side door and bent to tie his shoelace. Quick as a flash, Soko jumped over the back seat and started to run out into traffic. I scrambled out of the car, heart in my throat. As calmly as possible, I called, “Soko, come!” and gave the hand signal as well, just as we’d practiced hundreds of times. Soko spun on a dime and came flying back to me, thankfully unharmed. I tell that story to clients who complain about using treats to train. I didn’t have any treats with me the day Soko ran into traffic, but you know what? All those repetitions we’d done using treat rewards saved her life, and trust me, I didn’t care how many treats it had taken to get her to that point. The recall had become a conditioned reflex to my cue.

You don’t need complicated protocols or special techniques to train your dog to reliability. What you do need is the patience and dedication to repeat training exercises over and over, while keeping them interesting and motivating for your dog. The exercises should be practiced in various locations, with the gradual addition of distractions. If you do those things, your dog, like the heroes at Fort Hood, will have such well conditioned reflexes that the training will kick in regardless of the circumstances. And like those heroes, you too might save a life—your dog’s.

Dogs of the Homeless

November 6, 2009

I just got back from a trip to the local market, where I stopped to chat with a homeless man. Normally I’m more likely to donate some spare change and go on my way, but I’ve chatted with this man once before—and it’s all due to his dog. Winston is a handsome rottweiler mix whose broad, sweet head just calls out to me for petting. I can’t resist saying hello whenever I see him. I found out that next week is Winston’s birthday. He’ll be 12, and according to the man (whose name I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know), Winston is in great shape.

The encounter got me to thinking about the homeless and their dogs. Winston is most likely in great shape because he gets plenty of exercise; after all, he’s doing plenty of walking every day. I think of the dogs who live in near mansions out here in southern California, whose owners are so busy with their businesses and social lives that they don’t have time to pay attention to their dogs, much less walk them. Who do you think is happier, those dogs or Winston?

Down on the Third Street Promenade, a popular shopping area in Santa Monica, there used to be a homeless man whose dog would come over and take an offered dollar bill from your hand and drop it in a hat. People were quite impressed, and I’m betting the guy took home more money each day than most. The dog was completely friendly, and I’ve noticed the same is true of the majority of dogs belonging to the homeless. After all, by default they’re extremely well socialized from a very young age. They meet all manner of people, are exposed to plenty of sights and sounds, walk on all sorts of surfaces, and I’m sure, meet plenty of other dogs.

I’m sure having a dog is a great benefit for a homeless person, as the dog can offer protection as well as being an ice-breaker that allows people to come over and chat and perhaps lend a hand. But I’m thinking that being homeless isn’t such a terrible thing for the dogs, either, as long as the person takes good care of them. A house may be defined by four walls, but home, well, that’s being with someone you love who loves you back, and taking good care of each other. I think Winston is one lucky dog.

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