Monday, February 20, 2017

Choosing The Right Dog For You (Part 2: Breeds and Keeping the Odds in Your Favor)

I will start this post with a disclaimer- it is chock full of stereotypes and generalizations. I'm not typically a fan of stereotyping, but when considering a new pet, I think it's best to put the odds in your favor. Knowing what different breeds generally are and how they typically behave will help you to choose a new family member who will be a good fit. So many people love the idea of getting a border collie or cattle dog because they are very smart breeds; people see them do tricks, agility courses, jump to catch a frisbee, or are fascinated by their ability to move a herd of animals. Unless you have a herd of sheep, cattle, or literally hours to devote to teaching and training new behaviors, tricks, and exercises, you do not want one. Trust me. Those are two of my favorite breeds, but they require a very specific type of life and a very specific pet parent. Odds are, you are not that type. I'm sorry, I wish you were. I wish I were, but I know that I'm not at a place right now where we can be a good home to a high maintenance dog like that. We have two small children and both my husband and I work full time. We have just enough time to play tug or fetch and go for walks with our 8 year old pit mix. She is low-key and easy to please, and fits perfectly in our life now.

I am a proponent of adopting from rescues and shelters, though if you are certain you want a specific breed and you are sure you want a puppy, I think a reputable breeder is a also good direction to go. I really prefer you not buy from a pet store or from someone selling a dog online via Facebook or Craigslist, as you may be supporting irresponsible breeding or a puppy mill. It's easy to rationalize it as the puppy getting a better home with you but you are still financially supporting that industry so it's a double-edged sword.
Anyway, you have decided you want a dog, you can worry about where he/she comes from later.

First, you need to figure out what type of dog will fit in your life well. These are the same questions I ask when someone wants me to help them pick out a new puppy. Let me tell you right now, hearing my response when I look at client's answers to these questions seldom makes them happy. They are often disappointed because they had already decided on a specific breed. Sometimes, people get angry. I don't blame them. I dislike being told what I can and cannot have- after all I am an adult! Once they get past the disappointment/anger/sadness/confusion, I explain that if they are really set on a breed, they should contact a few (reputable) breeders and explain all the same information to them. The breeder may echo my advice or may say that they have the perfect pup. If the breeder has a litter where one pup is not the norm and may fit in that home, it can work perfectly. I also tell them that if they are fully committed to any dog, they will have years of happiness.
Things you need to ask yourself and answer honestly:

How many hours a day do you have to spend with a dog? 
     -You will need to commit significantly more time to a puppy than an adult dog, no matter the breed. Getting a puppy is a lot like having a newborn; the exceptions are that puppies have more hair and legally, you can lock up a puppy in a crate for a few hours at a time (doing that with your kids is frowned upon).
     -Any working breed including herding and scent/sight hounds, will need adequate mental and physical exercise to stay happy and out of trouble. A smart dog needs a job and needs to solve problems; if you don't provide that job or problem to solve, these dogs will find something to do, like how to get into the trash, the bathroom, how to open the door to the playroom and chew up all the legos, etc.
     -This is also true of any dog bred for field work- a labrador who comes from hunting lines who is not worked in some way will have trouble doing well in a house where his day is divided between looking out the window and going for two short walks a day.
     -This time does not necessarily need to be consecutive hours, but you need to have time to devote to a dog, period.
        -Even if you get an adult dog and not a puppy, you need to be prepared to sacrifice free time to be with your dog! Getting an adult dog can be like adopting a toddler or elementary-school aged child. They need a schedule, fair rules, and consistency to thrive.

How many hours a week do you work?
     -This is an extension of the first question, but time you are spending at work is generally time away from your dog. If you work 16 hour shifts, seven days a week, that only leaves eight hours when you are not working. You may need to sleep on occasion and though my dog has tried, it's hard to play fetch or tug while sleeping.
Are you physically active? Can this activity involve your dog?
     -If you are a runner, this can be wonderful physical exercise for an adult dog, as well as added security if running at dawn or dusk.
     -If you tend to bicycle, this may not be the best activity for your dog to partake in with you, are you willing to take some time away from this to be with your dog?
     -If you like to stay at home and do yoga, you can probably involve your dog from time to time, though a puppy will get bored with this quickly at first.
     -If you are physically active and strong you may be able to get a bigger dog and not get pulled down. I would not recommend a 130 pound mastiff to an 80 year old, for what should be obvious reasons.

Do you have a yard? Is it fenced?
     -You do not necessarily need a fence to have a dog, and many times people think that having a fence means they can let that dog out in the yard to play and that counts as exercise, which is wrong. Having a fence makes it easier to play outdoors without worry, though.
     -You should have space for a dog. If you do not have a yard, is there someplace you can take tour dog for walks, exercise, long-leash or off-leash play? Dogs (generally) like the outdoors- it's full of sights and sounds that change day-to-day, even by the hour, and getting out there together is really fun for your dog!

Do you live in a house, apartment, or condo/townhouse?

     - Is that apartment/townhouse pet friendly?
     -Are there breed restrictions or size restrictions?
     -If you are renting a house, are there pet restrictions?
   (you would not believe how many people do not look into this before getting a dog)
     -Is there actually room for that dog in your small apartment?

Do you have children? How old are they? 
     -A good dog and good kids can live together, with responsible parents
     -If you expect your 7-year old to be responsible for all the care of a 50 pound dog, you need to reconsider your connection with reality.
     -If you have small children, a small dog may not be the best, as they can be too in-your-face. Also, a herding breed can have trouble with small children who move quickly, unpredictably, and make squeaky noises.
     -Any training you do should involve your children, and kids should at least help with the daily routine. My kids (age 4 and 19 months) argue over who gets to feed the dog each meal and who gets to snuggle with her.

How much money do you have? 
     -I don't phrase it like this when I talk with clients, but you need to be sure you can actually afford a dog. I'm not trying to be a scrooge, but if you can't afford your current bills, you should not get a dog and add to it. If you want a companion, volunteer at your local shelter, pet-sit for friends; don't go buy a dog because you are lonely. That is selfish and only serves you; a dog is a living being whose well-being need to be considered.
     -A good 'doggie savings' plan is to put away some money each month or each paycheck- put it in a savings account in the bank and see how much you have after at leads 6 months (a year is better). Dogs are not cheap. Puppies are even less cheap, they need booster vaccines evert 3-4 weeks from the time you bring them home (depending on what the breeder did), until they are about 17 weeks of age. Plan to spend at least $100 on annual vet visits, more for heartworm prevention and flea/tick prevention. Oh yeah, then there's things like emergency visits, or at least unexpected visits between those bi-annual ones. Pet insurance can help, just buy before you have a problem or it won't be covered. Keep in mind that pet insurance is reimbursement- it's not like your own health insurance where you see the bill saying how much the company covered- you pay the vet, submit your request and get refunded by the insurance company for a portion of the bill.
     -Food- your dog needs to eat and there are enough options out there to make you dizzy. For a good food (research and ask your vet), you should plan to pay at least $45 per 40 pound bag. For a medium sized dog who eats a couple cups a day, it's not terribly expensive, but if you have a large breed like a Great Dane or Mastiff, you will go through that bag of food in just a matter of weeks.

Now that I have said all that, keep in mind that even with the stereotypical cattle dog who needs to run and play and work lots, a committed and imaginative pet owner can have a great pet (and lots of fun).

The key is to pick a dog who will fit with your family- energy level, time, and your general lifestyle, then fully commit to the dog. Keep up with medical needs, buy good food, have a good selection of toys (and play with the toys with your dog), and please teach your dog some basics like sit, down, stay, impulse control, and come. I'd prefer you use a force-free trainer, of course! 

If you still have questions about getting a new pup, feel free to contact me and I can do my best to help you out.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why We (Usually) Can't Use Sex To Motivate Dogs

I really just used that title because it made me giggle, though it is true. I could tell you a story about working on a pig farm and a discussion on power tools and breeding pigs, but I'll leave it to your imagination (nobody was hurt).
I'm going to let you in on yet another dog trainer secret. I keep doing this because I really want what's best for your dog; you being educated is really great for your dog. Us dog trainers have a pretty good handle on motivators and how to use them to teach dogs. Really good dog trainers even know what motivates their human clients!

First, some basics about motivators. Every living thing has motivators- things that provide a reason or stimulus to do something. There are three basic elements of life that are important to all animals (even people): food, sex, and fear. There are pros and cons to each one:

Food: fast, fun, easy, allows quick learning in different situations, BUT you do have to learn how to fade out the food rewards and still have a strong behavior.
Sex: very motivating, fun, BUT it is not ideal for achieving quick learning, quick repetitions AND it requires another animal.
Fear: Changes behavior quickly, BUT the animal tends to over-generalize and have trouble learning distinctions when in a fearful state. Studies have also shown lingering effects of punishment based techniques (see resources).

It should come to no surprise to you to hear that I prefer to use food as a primary motivator and reinforcer in training, at least initially. I always teach my clients about fading food rewards, which you can read about in another post coming soon. To train your own dog, you have to understand what motivates him. Food is a solid motivator for all animals since they need it to survive. The only times a dog doesn't want food are when he is already full or is over-threshold and is going into fight/flight mode. When initially training a new behavior or cue, food is a wonderful way to keep your dog engaged, get quick repetitions (as long as you keep treats small), and keep the training enjoyable for you both.
Some dogs are differently motivated from the start; my buddy Darwin loves nothing in life more than his frisbee:
Catching a frisbee: 

Holding a frisbee: 

 Even when the snow is up to his belly: 

I have known dogs who like attention more than food, or the reward of running with another dog more than food. Motivators will not only vary by dog, but by situation. When a dog is in high-energy exercise like running an agility course, he may not want to stop to eat a treat (it's physiological), but will gladly play tug or fetch with his handler for a minute. It keeps him excited for the agility course and is a reward- perfect motivation! When a dog is in his home with minimal distractions, his own dry food or petting and attention from his humans may be sufficient to drive him. In class, with other dogs, smells and sounds, his humans will likely need a more tasty treat to keep their dog engaged and motivated while learning. When a dog is overstimulated and stressed, food will not be high on their priority list. If they are fight/flight mode, digestion is shut down and they will not stop if you toss a steak in front of them. Humans are the same way- if you are trying to escape a burning building, you probably will not stop to grab a slice of pizza from the fridge because food is literally the last thing on your mind. A good trainer will know this and actually wants to keep a dog from feeling this stressed while training, and in every day life. I'm not saying dogs have to have perfect lives where everything is handed to them, but the things that really upset them and make them freeze, growl, bark, bite- those should really be removed and reintroduced properly (read: gradually with the help of a certified trainer). A dog who is scared is not going to learn anything good; I know I keep saying this but only because it's so true. We want the best schools for our kids because it's the best environment, right? Free of undue stress, filled with teachers who want them to succeed, even if they learn differently than other students, right? Why not get the best for your dog? If you are enlisting the help of a trainer who lets your dog get into that stressful state time and time again, especially if they are adding in any coercive method, they are not really helping your dog. They are scaring or hurting your dog, no matter how it is sugar-coated or how many different ways they come up with to describe a shock, choke, or prong collar, it's still something that is meant to be uncomfortable to dogs. For more on reinforcers check out my post from a little while back.

Want to know more about motivators and why they make a difference to dogs? Check out the resources I read for this article!


Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them, By Pamela Reid