Scrolling through Facebook, I came upon a post from a first time dog owner looking for help with her young dog. What made the post catch my eye was that she had chosen an unusual breed and now was at her wits end because the dog wasn’t what she expected. I feel like I am seeing this more and more. I wonder if it’s because the internet makes it easier to find ‘rare and exotic’ breeds? Or if it’s due to the apparent ease of sourcing dogs from abroad. The dog chosen by the FB poster was indeed sourced from abroad – the comments on her post included some asking where to get one because they couldn’t find any for sale in the UK.
This started me thinking about what information they had found. This wasn’t a common breed so the poster had to have investigated the breed in order to find one to buy. A quick glance at the first page of a Google search on the breed clearly stated that the breed was a working dog, a dog who used their voice to drive stock, originally bred from a mix of strong active breeds. And for what issues did the poster request help? Yep, dog was too active, couldn’t settle, barked a lot.
I don’t write this with any judgement. I write it as part of a long running thread of thoughts that has perplexed me for many years. The disconnect between the information and the understanding of the information. I’d love to know how to better help people understand what they could be taking on, what type of dog they might be welcoming into their family. My heart went out to the FB poster, and to the dog. The clear misunderstanding between the two was causing both distress. Part of the problem could stem from buying online. In my experience, face to face conversations allow for more information gathering. More back and forth. More natural dialogue that elicits relevant information, takes the participants down more unexpected paths and can reveal more enlightening answers.
When I worked in rescue, I spent a lot of time and effort to help potential adopters have their eyes fully opened and their expectations pitched at realistic levels. I never adopted a dog out that I didn’t think would stay in their new home, would be a good fit for the family and the family would be a good fit for the dog. To rehome a dog just for the sake of emptying a kennel and receiving an adoption fee is inexcusable.
The repercussions of this short sighted, selfish act can be long lasting and very damaging. Mis-matches between dog and adopter can result in a loss of trust in the rescue organisation. And we all know that a bad review travels faster and further than multiple good reviews. The adopter may feel guilty for returning the dog. Or if they keep her, may feel trapped and overwhelmed. The dog is stuck in the middle, being passed from pillar to post or living in a home where she is misunderstood and perhaps resented. Dogs who have multiple returns to rescue often come with more baggage than they left with. And where do you think the adopter will get their next dog, if they ever get a dog again? Not a rescue.
Now before you jump to any conclusions, I’m not anti-breeder. I’m not anti-rescue. I am pro great rescues and great breeders. In fact, half of the dogs I’ve welcomed into my family have come from rescue and half from breeders.
The FB poster sourced the dog from a breeder. A specialist in the rare breed. One question to the potential buyer should have raised a red flag. ‘Have you had a dog before?’ To sell what most experienced trainers would recognise as a high drive working type to a first time owner is akin to pushing a rescue dog into a mismatched home. Or giving a learner driver the keys to a Ferrari. I met a lovely lady last year who was awaiting the arrival of her new rare breed puppy. Again, as a first time owner she found herself overwhelmed by what must surely have been clearly signposted about the breed. She had the support of a wonderful dog training school. But she still struggled at a time when she could have been enjoying this new chapter.
Form over function
The breed doesn’t have to be rare for these issues to occur. Choosing on the basis of looks rather behaviour is always a problem. Cute dogs don’t always display cute behaviour. Terriers are great examples of this. Take Ettie – she is adorably cute, with her scruffy coat, head tilt and one ear up, one ear down pose. But make no mistake – she is terrier through and through. And I love her for it. I chose her for it. But if she lived with somebody who didn’t appreciate what terriers are, the outcome could have been very different.
I wonder if the description ‘high drive’ or ‘working dog’ or even ‘busy’ is translated by inexperienced buyers/adopters as ‘outdoorsy’? And so they appear to be the perfect choice if they like to go hiking and camping. Little do they know the amount of time, training and maintenance of desired skills that this dog will require in order for her to be a great hiking companion.
Decisions over health
The decision making process is key to how dogs end up with certain families. And this baffles me most when it comes to choosing breeds with health issues. A case in point is the number of people who choose to buy brachycephalic breeds. A person who is active in pushing for equal rights, who supports great causes and is more than a mouthpiece for diversity. Someone I perceive to be intelligent, thoughtful, empathetic, creative. And yet they buy a French Bulldog or a Pug. Or somebody who works as a vet still choosing a breed well known for having multiple health issues. The disconnect blows my mind.
I’ve witnessed it too with folks who keep getting the same breed of dog despite having problems after problem with the breed. I just can’t get my head around the thinking. And I will admit that it makes me question their other decisions. But more than that, it saddens me that their choices appear to be made despite the welfare of their chosen dog. Their desire seems to trump the facts. It’s baffling. But I continue to work on squashing my judgmental instinct and replacing it with empathy and greater understanding. I genuinely want to know how this happens? What makes smart folks make confounding choices?
Being surprised by how different breeds behave isn’t limited to non-professionals. I’ve known a good number of colleagues, working in training and behaviour sectors, who have struggled with their choice of dog. Again, this is despite the briefest of online searches clearly describing the behaviour with which they are struggling. I have been able to ask some how they came to make their decision and the answer has always been the same. ‘I didn’t think it was as bad as people said.’ So they read and heard the info, but thought the behaviour had been exaggerated or even mis-described.
My observation of the impact on these professionals is twofold. Many have had their confidence knocked. The assumption that they knew better than the information provider or the belief that they would be the ones to change the ‘stereotype’ often prove to be wrong. When they discover that they cannot solve the issue that has resulted in the dog being returned to the breeder or the rescue multiple times, they start to question their ability, their skills. This quickly bleeds into their professional life and can result in them second guessing advice that is good and had been successful with many clients in the past. And if they cannot live with the dog and decide to return her, then the sense of failure is even stronger.
Then there is the shame. The shame of failure is vicious. It eats through years of successful work faster than bleach through dye. It strips away optimism, surety, knowledge. Shame can be all consuming and devastating to self-worth as well as self-employment. How could they, as a professional, have ‘failed’ the dog? How could they have misread the signs? How could they not have cured the problem? The truth is that it is likely that no-one could have cured the ‘problem’.
If they have chosen a breed with known health issues, the way to cure them (in it’s simplest form) is to stop breeding from affected dogs. If they have chosen a high drive dog, they are not going to turn her into a laid back couch potato. Dogs who have bred for specific purposes, selected for specific traits, cannot change those innate drives. Instead, if you choose those dogs, choose them because of their skill set not despite. It’s akin to falling in love with someone in the expectation of being able to change them just by the strength of your love or your desire to change them. It doesn’t work.
I said that my observation was twofold. The second part of this is learning. Almost all have gone on to advise people against following their example. They warn of the risk, the ongoing management, the effect the dog has had on their lifestyle, even their family. The have shared their experience in order to help others avoid the same pitfalls.
As I mentioned, I have worked in rescue. And there I met many people who had adopted dogs who were not comfortable around other dogs. Dog-dog aggression, for whichever of the many reasons it occurs, is challenging to live with. It affects where you can take your dog, how you exercise her, your social life with other doggy friends, which dog sports you can participate in, where you go on holiday, how you manage vet visits and trips to the groomers, the quality of life for the existing family dogs, and the choices you make about future dogs. It affects almost everything.
But on the face of it, it can look manageable. You make good choices and everything will be fine. But that’s not real life. You can’t account for when other people let their dogs run up to yours. You can’t trust anyone else to successfully manage your dog during a family crisis or when you are laid low by a medical emergency. Dog-dog aggression is a huge issue to take on. And those rescue colleagues who have done so almost always say they will never do it again.
I include myself in this category. I took on a rescue dog in the full knowledge of his behavioural issues, and there were many. But I loved him and learned lots from him. He was everything I predicted he would be. Challenging, difficult, complex, limiting, loving, playful, funny and smart. And I believe we were a good team. But would I take on another dog like him? The answer is no. But have I chosen similar dogs without the behavioural issues? Yes! I’ve lived with a wide variety of breed types, yet the only ones I have chosen more than once are Jack Russell Terriers. I chose the best parts of Archie and pro-actively selected for them in the terriers who came after him. I’m sure that’s could be a blog post of it’s own one day!
Coming back to the central conundrum, I think that research needs to be done to discover how people make their choices and what can be done to help them make great decisions that will enhance their experience of living with dogs. But just like collecting information from owners who surrender their dogs to rescue (such an interesting phrase), this research must be done without judgement. To castigate people whose choices appear misjudged or misplaced is to miss an opportunity to gain the information needed to help future dogs find their future families. Matching expectation to reality, sorting facts from opinion and being realistic in our descriptions might be just some of the ways that we can help avoid sadness and frustration for both dogs and people. I believe being open and honest goes a long way to helping make good matches.
I recall a study (apologies, I can’t find it right now) where the researchers found that prospective adopters preferred factual rather than emotive language when they were choosing a new rescue dog. Being upfront about our dogs helps people make more informed decisions. Don’t hide that a dog can’t be left home alone by describing her as ‘always wants to be with you.’ Instead say that she can’t be left home alone and promote her to people who can take their dogs to work or work from home or who may have the time and skills to help the dog cope with short periods alone.
I describe my dogs as they are, not how I want them to be seen. Descriptions are not judgements, they are observations. To say that Ettie is vocal or that Cherry lacks creativity is not to say that those are imperfections. It simply let’s me know how best to work with them, helps me understand their needs and how can work together to cope better with arousal or problem solve effectively.
Let’s be honest too about our own motivations. Let’s do the work and not get sidetracked by what we want to hear. Look beyond the surface, widen the scope. Talk to people who have the breed or type of dog you want. Be guided by trusted experts and experienced friends who have no agenda other than wanting to help you find a good match. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that everybody reading this blog knows the deep joy that comes from living with the right dog. So let’s keep looking for ways to help everyone else experience this joy. And I will continue to try to understand human behaviour, a task I find so much more challenging than understanding dogs.