Sometimes when I first meet with a client and their dog, I am struck by how mismatched they are. I see small, easy going, space avoidant people with giant, pushy, intense dogs who jump all over them, or families with young children and intense predatory dogs. I see outdoors people who partner themselves with thin coated dogs and people who prefer to stay in when it is cold with dogs who have an abundance of coat. I see a lot of mis matches in the work that I do.
I usually ask my clients why they chose the dog they have and I get a variety of answers. He needed a home. I was lonely and he was at the shelter. He would have DIED. I have always wanted a (insert breed). My husband wanted an X and I wanted a Y, so we compromised and got an X/Y cross. Perhaps the most common answer to “Why did you get this breed of dog?” is “What do you mean?” as though the question doesn’t make any sense to the listener. Sometimes they still don’t get it when I rephrase it in different terms such as “Well, what attracts you about the Scottish Gutterhound?”
When this happens, a little vignette plays through my mind. In my mind’s eye I see a pretty young girl, say about sixteen, running into her mother’s kitchen, breathless and excited. “Mom, mom,” she cries, obviously excited, “Mom, LOOK what I found!” and following her, somewhat reluctantly is a man about thirty years older then her. He is a bit dishevelled, and a cigarette is hanging unlit from his mouth. He is looking sort of bashful and out of sorts in the “how did I get here” sort of way that I see on the faces of many of the dogs I meet. “Mom, this is Ralph, and I found him at the bus stop”, (at this point, Ralph looks up and says something truly profound like “how d’y’do” and looks away again), “and I am going to MARRY him.”
In my little fantasy, Mom plays several roles depending on how I am feeling. In some cases, Mom is surprised and delighted; “Oh, Honey, you always wanted to get married!” and the two of them go off to plan the wonderful day. Sometimes she is outraged. “You get that man out of here! You are NOT getting married young lady.” Sometimes she is curious and asks Ralph what he does for a living.
Ralph doesn’t have a job. Ralph worked at a gas station and has two kids from a previous relationship, he smokes, he drinks heavily and he mostly likes to sit on the couch and burp. He currently lives with his mother’s basement, “until things get better”. Our heroine is young, attractive and interested in doing things. She likes dancing and meeting new people and her hobbies include needlework, and downhill skiing.
“Why Ralph?” asks her mother. And here is where we can insert almost any of the responses I get from dog owners. “I always wanted a husband.” “He is tall. I like tall men.” “If I didn’t marry him, then no one would marry him, and then he would DIE.” “THEY were going to kill him.” “My friend brought him home, but her mom won’t let HER marry him, so now I have him.” “I only meant to keep him for a couple of weeks until my brother got out of jail (yes, I have had a client tell me that!)” “He just has such sad, sad eyes.” “I was lonely.” “When we first met, he paid a LOT of attention to me.”
How many people think that Ralph is going to be a good mate for this young girl? Will they grow old together, cherishing one another’s company? Are they likely to have similar values and dreams? Are they compatible? Who knows. They might be. They might not be too. And the sad thing is that this is almost exactly the way that many folks choose a dog.
When I ask someone why they chose the dog they want, I find that many people haven’t thought about the whole picture of the dog that they want. They haven’t thought about the ins and outs of their breed choice. They haven’t considered things like the compatibility of the dog to their lives. I work with a lot of wonderful people who rise to occasion, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy for the dogs either. Choosing a dog to share ten or more years of your life with is as significant as choosing a life partner, and yet people often do this with about as little forethought as the girl I describe above.
So what should you look at when choosing a dog? Knowing that it is a long commitment is a good starting point but not the whole story. How much or little and what type of exercise is another important part of the story. Grooming is an important consideration and not only for the coated breeds. We boarded a dalmation in our home almost ten months ago. We still find tiny slivers of Dalmatian hair in crevices of the couch, in blankets and on dog beds that have been laundered many, many times. How brainy the dog is should be considered too; I often tell people that what they want is a willing dog, not a smart dog. Smart dogs know how to figure out the dog proof garbage system. Willing dogs are willing to leave the garbage alone. More than anything though, I think it is important to know yourself before you find a dog to suit you. If you know who you are and what you like to do, on a deep level, then finding a dog who will match is going to be a lot easier. It is very important that you choose based on personality traits and not on looks, because although form does follow function, preference for looks does not always follow any such logical pattern.
Once you have settled on an overall type of dog who will fit into your life, then you need to set out to find a source for that dog. If you are looking for a purebred, you can easily find pools of breeders of your type of dog at conformation dog shows. If you are looking for a mixed breed dog it is much harder, but not impossible. The key is to get connected with people who have dogs that are similar to those you like and find out where they got their dogs.
Many people feel strongly that they want to rescue a dog as their contribution to canine society. If this is the route you feel you want to go, then it is essential that you have a solid knowledge of dog behaviour and an understanding not only of what you want but also of what the kennel cards at the rescue mean. Just like the real estate term “a handy man’s dream” might mean that it comes with a fully integrated workshop, but it more likely means that the home is condemned and needs a lot of work, the kennel cards can be telling. What does “Must go to a home with children over the age of 7” really mean? Does it mean that the dog is highly active and too rowdy for youngsters in pre-school? Or does it mean that in his home of origin, the dog bit a child? How about “Needs to be a single dog”? It could mean that the dog just doesn’t bother with other dogs and won’t enjoy another dog in his life, but it could also mean that the dog is likely to attack another dog. Like Ralph, the dogs in the shelter come with a back story, and the kennel cards are only rough clues of what you are looking at. And like the mother of the bride at the bus stop, I really hope you will find out as much as you can about the dog who is going to be a part of your life for the next ten to fifteen years BEFORE that dog comes home.