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Chosing a Breed of Dog: Do the Research
In my dog day care business, we often talk to people with problems and questions about their pet. They want advice and answers, but the right solution is likely to be complex because eighty percent of the time it comes down to knowing their dog’s breed or mix of breeds and training the dog accordingly.
For example, Labrador Retrievers are one of the most popular breeds in the United States, whether yellow, black, or chocolate. Because there are a lot of labs around, there are also a lot of lab mixes around. They make a great family dog, but inevitably owners get angry and frustrated with new labs that chew things up. Sadly many labs and lab mixes end up in animal shelters (at least, the lucky ones!) where they languish in hope of a new owner.
Dogs are genetically programmed to do certain things, according to their breed. To stay with the Labrador example, they were originally bred to hunt, not in Labrador, but in Newfoundland. Usually two or more dogs were trained to hunt together, finding, retrieving and retrieving small game.
In cold climates, hunting dogs need hyperactive metabolisms to stay warm while working. A thick coat works well, like what a Newfoundland has. However, Labs were bred to be constantly in and out of water when the temperature is below freezing. A thick layer could not breathe well enough to prevent freezing and therefore hypothermia. So Labs were selectively bred to produce high metabolisms, short coats, and a large amount of energy. They are extremely hardy and can hunt and lure birds for hours at a time with no ill effects. In fact, they love it!
So if you take an animal with that programming and put it alone in a house for a few hours, it will become bored and anxious. He will want to run, jump and use his mouth. The younger he is, the more likely he is to start on your hand-tooled leather couch, even if there are chew toys he’s allowed to destroy. When you get home, he may even proudly “take” a piece of the couch and present it to you. Too often people interpret this as “he’s being mean because we left him alone”. Or “he was just an idiot… some nerve bringing me a piece of my expensive couch!”
None of this is true! Dogs aren’t that complicated, especially labs. He was feeling an excess of energy and wanted to do his job, which is to find, extract and present things. Since the pieces of the sofa didn’t release each other, he had to separate them in order to get individual trophies to bring you. When he leaves, he doesn’t react with guilt, as people assume. He’s seen your body language (maybe heard your screams) and wants to get out of town! If he could talk, he would say, “I don’t know what they’re mad about, but I know I’m in trouble.”
So what does our lab guy think if you headbutt and/or yell at him? He will be very scared and will conclude that he is having a great time when you are away, but will surely go downhill when you come home. What should be done? Well, to begin with, it is extremely important to research a breed before getting a dog. Once you know you will have a high-energy hunting animal in your home, you can plan accordingly.
For example, a Lab needs vigorous exercise before you can leave it alone. Like getting a ball or frizzbee over and over. Buy one of those devices that has a cup on the end of a stick so you can throw a tennis ball away. The more it runs, the better chance your leather sofa has of surviving. Also, while the lab is new, you should crate train him – put him in a crate that’s big enough for him to stand up and turn around, and leave him there for longer and longer periods of time. Start with 5 minutes and don’t leave him out no matter how much he cries. Continue with 10 minutes, half an hour, etc. Always put healthy chews in the crate with him. Greens are good; also dentabons, nylons and other hard materials. Also make sure the crate is comfortable – an old quilt or thick blanket for him to lie on.
In addition, you will need to train your lab. It’s work. It is a commitment. It should be sustainable for the whole family. Cute tricks are far less important than your ability to get and hold his attention when there are distractions. Have him sit and stand while you bounce a ball, then as a reward tell him to fetch. It takes endless repetitions, but over time he will begin to focus on you when your voice sounds like a command. If you don’t train your Lab, he will run around and jump on people, possibly injure a child or an elderly person, or cause a rotator cuff injury to someone who tries to walk him.
Remember: genetically a lab has an excess of energy. Only with training and consistent, desirable rewards can he learn to walk nicely next to you. If everyone in the house is outside most of the day, take him to a doggy playgroup or doggy daycare at least twice a week. The most common thing we hear from our clients is “It’s so great she’s exhausted when we get her home at night!”
Other races? Well, if you want calmness and pampering, consider a dog that was bred to be a decoration, like a Lhasa Apso. If you live in a cold climate and want peace and cuddles, consider a large working dog like a Saint Bernard, or Bernese Mountain Dog or Newfoundland. These dogs have a slow metabolism and are kept warm mainly by their coats. However, be aware that, in general, large dogs live less than small dogs.
If you buy a Bichon because they are so cute, be prepared to have it professionally groomed at least every six weeks and budget for it. If you don’t, her coat will mat and she will need to be shaved periodically, which in extreme heat or cold puts her health at risk. If you want a Cocker Spaniel for your children, be aware that they are raised in the United States and have ongoing health and temperament issues.
I own and love a Cocker named Benny, but I know he will cost me time and money because I got him from Save A Dog – a wonderful volunteer dog rescue organization in Sudbury, MA. I can be pretty sure he is not well mannered. He has ongoing behavioral problems that probably cost him his first home; and will have ear infections, skin rashes, and eye problems throughout his life.
You can overcome such issues by going to a high quality professional breeder and paying a lot of money for a new animal. In any case, it will be a “pay now, pay later” situation. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on Ben and he still has a bad habit of attacking any dog I give too much attention to. Since I own a dog service business, this is a problem because my job is to hug four-legged clients. So I have to crate him as soon as he looks cross-eyed at another dog.
If you are considering getting a dog, go to the American Kennel Club website and research your favorite breed. If you’re getting a mixed breed, find out as much as you can about his ancestry so you know what to expect. If you already have a dog, research him or her and ask a professional trainer how to compensate for breed tendencies.
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