The Dogged Truth


This document is intended to discuss some of the things I have learned about dogs since getting my first dog, about one year ago. It is intended to be a guide for those contemplating getting a dog.

Actually, this dog is not my first dog. My parents were big on dogs, and we had several trillion dogs in the house before my 5th birthday. They were all enormous German Shepherds, and most came from the animal shelter. At least one was quite crazy.

After my parents got divorced we moved into a series of apartments, and did not own a dog again. My grandparents kept a small mutt at all times (first "Ringo", a beagle mix, and then "Kelav", a toy poodle mix) to scare off very tiny burglars. However, none of these dogs were really mine. I mean, I did not train them, I did not feed them, and only walked them occasionally. So the dog I have now is really the first dog I ever owned. And now I have lots of advice for anyone thinking of getting a dog.


If you live in the city or the suburbs, a dog is not likely to be particularly useful, unless you make a living by, say, herding sheep on and off the subway. A good alarm system is probably better for providing safety than a dog. Most modern alarm systems do not require you to walk them outside when it is 15 degrees. Of course, a dog - especially a large dog - can provide you a measure of safety when you are walking with it outside, but you will find that most places you are going will not allow your canine bodyguard to accompany you. For most of us, the only honest reason to get a dog is because you want one. Very few dogs have rewarded their master's patience with clever purchases in the stock market.

Getting a dog as an adult makes you appreciate how NICE it is to sometimes sleep in, because once you have trained your dog that it's morning walk is at 6:30 am before you go to work, it will believe it's morning walk is at 6:30 am even on holidays and weekends. Dogs are notoriously poor readers; hanging up a calendar near its water dish doesn't help.

There are a large handful of places to get dogs. To some extent, it helps to appreciate how whacked out you are before you choose a dog. If, for example, you want to compete with your dog, you will need to know whether you want a dog to enter a beauty contest ("conformity"), or you want to show how fast it can run across teeter-tauter and ramps ("agility"), you probably want to get a purebred puppy. A dog "breed" is defined as a group of dogs who look alike because of the incestuous relationships of it's ancestors. They are genetically pretty similar, but lots of bad recessive traits can surface such as bad hips, bad eyes, bad temperament, and so on. A careful breeder can avoid these most of the time. However, purebred puppies are worth so much money that quite a few breeders just knock out as many puppies as possible: as a result, lots of these genetic shortcomings show up in their animals. Quite a few don't manifest themselves right away. Even among careful breeders some of these genetic deformities sometimes show up, but among careless breeders they show up with alarming frequency. Be careful about choosing your breeder: if you don't know the name of a reputable breeder, contact a dog school near you (make sure they don't sell puppies themselves), or a local vet, or a dog rescue organization. A decent purebred puppy sells for at least a few hundred dollars. This is not a good place to skimp. DO NOT PURCHASE YOUR DOG FROM A PET STORE!!! Most pet stores are not particularly careful about their breeders. Do not trust that an A.K.C. (American Kennel Club) registered dog is defect-free simply because it is registered.

My dog came from a rescue organization. There are rescue organizations specializing in damn near every breed under the sun - collies, german shepherds, akitas, you name it. I have a list three pages long of rescue organizations in my office, from Affenpinsher/Pug rescue to Western Irish Setter Club rescue. Local humane societies usually have plenty of mutts available. Contact a dog school or a vet in your area for help. Rescued dogs have several advantages over puppies, partly because they are older, and partly because the folks rescuing them are not motivated by money. They are generally potty trained, they are old enough so that genetic defects have already become evident. Most rescue organizations will even tell you something about the temperament of the animal (i.e. whether it barks, likes small children, and so on). They generally really want their "placements" to work, so they are not likely to lie to you to move their stock (a problem with unreputable breeders). The organizations are generally money-losing operations: those who participate do not do so for profit. That means that they care a great deal about the animals they deal with, and have a real interest in seeing to it the dogs will be happy in their new homes. Rescued animals are also generally substantially cheaper than puppies, come already neutered, dewormed, and vaccinated. And, with a bit of work (discussed below) they are at least as loyal and devoted. I have heard more than one professional trainer say that rescued animals tend to be more devoted than purchased animals, because they know how lucky they are when they get into a good home. And most rescued animals are old enough to be already house trained.

A word (or a few words) about mutts. They are fine animals. They can be trained just like purebreds, and if you want to compete in agility with your animals most (although not all) competitions will accept mutts. Surprisingly, they do not tend to have fewer genetic defects because of less inbreeding. This is because careful breeders will deliberately breed out genetic defects; most mutts are only one or two generations away from purebreds, and the purebreds from whence they came offer untested gene combinations not present in any single breed. While the AKC will not allow mixed breed animals into their competitions, that does not reflect the animals inherent capabilities. The AKC, as a matter of fact, only recently started allowing mutts to be awarded their good canine citizen certificate, which is a certificate awarded when a dog shows it can be well behaved. Historically, the AKC has been interested strictly in purebred dogs only.

I strongly recommend setting aside an afternoon to do research on breeds before you make a selection. Some breeds tend to be barky, some quiet, some obsessive/compulsive. A dog is not just a fur coat; there is a personality underneath, and matching that personality to your needs is essential to a happy household. For example, if you live in a tiny apartment and there is no running room outside and it is frequently quite cold, don't get a greyhound. If you can't be bothered to brush an animal daily, don't get a longhaired ("rough") collie or a sheltie. While there is variation from animal to animal, it appears that a dog's personality can, to some extent, be determined in advance by its lineage. And asking the salesman at the pet store questions about a breed does not constitute research. They will tell you what they need to tell you to sell the dog. If they don't know the answer they may make it up. Go to the library and get out a book (AKC books are fine, although there are many other books). If you are allergic to reading contact someone from a rescue organization - they are likely to be well versed in their breed, although they clearly have a preference for that breed. Humane societies may be able to help, although the knowledge of any specific person may be questionable.


Much to my surprise, dogs do not live on meat alone. I actually found a web site which claimed that dogs could survive on just vegetables, but recommended against it because unless the owner is very careful the dog could end up suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Dogs are omnivores, meaning they need vegetables, not just meat. You CAN cook food for your dog, or you can buy it already made. Of course, your dog is unlikely to be an idiot; it would prefer freshly cooked food (wouldn't you?). Personally, I don't find it worth the hassle; store bought dog food will provide what your animal needs to thrive. The question of whether or not to add supplements to your dog's diet is apparently a religious one, with various advocates earnestly evangelizing about the desirability of various additional minerals and oils, of various brands of dog food, and whether you CAN raise a healthy dog with dog food. Consumer's Union magazine seems to be a good source for advice on dog food; check their yearly index at your local library.

But remember dogs are not people and do not need the same nutrients in the same quantities. So feeding your dog lots of table scraps is not a good idea since it may not be providing it will everything it needs. Never, never, NEVER, give a dog chocolate. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, and sufficient quantity of it will kill your animal (no kidding). Lesser quantities will make your dog ill.


When I was about to get my dog I obtained several dog-training books from the local library. Once again, I discovered I was in a religious realm, with various factions advocating their particular training style as the ONLY correct way to train a dog. There do seem to be a few common suggestions I present for your edification:

    1. Do NOT hit your animal, either with your hands, rolled up newspaper, or pennies. If you need to hit something for your own emotional satisfaction, I recommend a stuffed animal.
    2. It is important to keep your animal happy around other dogs: therefore, you cannot train your animal on your own. Plan on taking your animal to a dog training class. If you do not allow your dog to interact with other dogs you may find your dog is okay around people, but not around other dogs. This makes it difficult to take him anywhere, since anywhere public you are likely to go with your dog there are likely to be other dogs about.
    3. Don't get frustrated. If your dog-training class isn't fun, find another. Owning a dog is supposed to be pleasurable; if training it is a drag for you, your dog probably doesn't like it either. Find another way to train it.
    4. Dog training takes time. EDITORIAL: If you don’t have time to train a dog, don't get a dog.

Unfortunately, there seems to be lots of conflicting advice about everything else. For example:

    1. The only way to properly train a dog is with a correction collar, either with or without prongs.
    2. If you use a correction collar either with or without prongs, you will cause irreparable damage both psychological and physical. (Note: Lisa McKulsky claims that a study was done at two major universities in the mid-1990s performing autopsies of numerous dogs who had been trained using a correction collar. Nearly all of them had some damage attributable to the collar. I have generally found Lisa to be well informed and to not invent things. So without regard to alleged psychological damage I would be very nervous about using correction collars).
    3. Electric devices, such as electric fences and "shock boxes" are a safe and effective way to train your animal.
    4. Electric devices, such as electric fences and "shock boxes" will make your dog neurotic and dangerous.
    5. The word you use to release a dog from a "stay" command should be something you are very comfortable with, such as "Okay".
    6. Never use "okay" as a release word.
    7. Never allow your dog to sleep in your bed, as it will confuse the dog as to who is boss.
    8. Allowing your dog to sleep in your bed is fine.

As with child rearing, it appears that if you have an opinion you can find a book written by an expert in the field who will agree with you.

I will, however, venture some advice.

    1. Plan on spending at least 10 minutes a day at least 6 days per week playing with or training your animal. The time you spend toileting your dog does not count. This should be time when you could be doing something else. This should be an average. No, your dog won't explode if you skip a day, but if you don't have at least this much time to invest in your dog, don't get the dog to begin with.
    2. A biting dog is not an acceptable dog. A dog that bites ANYONE, for ANY REASON, should be brought to obedience school IMMEDIATELY or destroyed (killed). (there is a difference between a nip and a bite: neither is acceptable, but the underlying causes are different).  If the animal cannot be taught not to bite it should be destroyed. Period. In addition to just good citizenship it may also save you from a ruinous lawsuit: you are responsible for any injuries your animal inflicts on another person. Sooner or later your animal will escape from your yard, your house, or your apartment. If it attacks someone you are liable. The good news is that most (but not all) dogs can be made into good citizens. It takes patience, a little money (for classes), and time. If you don't have the time to spend, get rid of the dog. If you can find a rescue organization, you can offer to keep the dog until a placement can be found. If not, take your animal to a shelter, and don't lie about the reason you are there. If your animal bites, tell them that. If you just don't want it any more, tell them that.
    3. Before you get a dog, discuss with your family who is going to take care of the dog. Now figure out who is really going to take care of the dog. Your kids may really really want a dog, but are they old enough to be relied upon?


Here is my list of advice on random things about dogs.

    1. Have your pet neutered by a vet at about 6 months of age. The only legitimate exception is if you have a purebred animal that you want to breed. However, if you are reading this document for information then you probably don't have enough experience to be able to intelligently decide that you want to do that. There are too damn many fine animals being destroyed every year because no one wants them. And, by the way, neutered animals are easier to train.
    2. Try and find someone willing to sit for your dog so you can go out of town. If you can't find someone, you will have to use a kennel, not the ideal solution. Kennels leave the dog in his crate (cage) for more than 20 hours per day. Typically, the only time they are out of their crates is when they are toileting. Finding someone to look after your animal can be VERY difficult: you should start looking as soon as you know you are going out of town. Remember, a dog (unlike, say, a cat or a goldfish) cannot look after itself for more than several hours at a time. Most dogs really crave human attention.
    3. There will be pet mess to clean up from time to time, be prepared for it. Nature's Miracle seems to be a pretty good product for getting rid of most pet stains and odors.
    4. Puppies chew. Put great-great-grandmother's handmade Oriental rug in storage until you are confident in your animal. And remember that, to a dog, those shoes that Elvis Presley gave you look remarkably like those old slippers you let him play with (chew). Choose chew toys carefully.
    5. Get a decent leather leash. Nylon leashes are cheaper, but can give your hands rope burn.
    6. Don't leave your animal's crap lying on the ground. You can get a pooper scooper for a few bucks, or even use a free plastic grocery bag to pick it up. In addition to being really disgusting, poop left out could cause serious disease in a young child (no kidding).
    7. Your animal is susceptible to a host of diseases such as heartworm, fleas, ticks, kennel cough. A lot of these can be EASILY prevented through administration of shots or pills. Cures are a LOT more expensive and risky. Find a vet and use them: this is also not a good place to skimp even though expenses can be substantial. If you can't afford an occasional vet bill or medication, you probably should not be getting a dog. That doesn't mean you have to be prepared to pay for open-heart surgery or kidney dialysis for your animal. It does mean you should be prepared to pay for heartworm pills, anti-flea medication, and an occasional sick visit. Call a vet in your area and ask how much would be reasonable to budget yearly for a dog. Dogs are more expensive to keep than you'd expect. Most vets really love animals, and appreciate someone trying to make a responsible decision as to whether to get an animal. If a vet won't give you some ballpark figures find another vet. But remember that these figures are averages; they can vary a LOT from what you end up paying for your animal, so don't flame your vet if your animal ends up costing more than they predicted.
    8. There are lots of people who make money off their dogs. Dogs can make money by appearing in commercials, print advertisements, or by breeding (male and female make money for this). If you are planning on making money off your dog find a bridge for sale and invest in it instead. Owning a dog is inherently a money-losing proposition. Dogs who make money via the mass media (print or movies) require zillions of hours of training, and owners extremely good at hustling. As far as making money by breeding, it is a lot of work for the humans involved. Forget it. Buy a lottery ticket instead.
    9. (I added this after 5+ years of ownership) There are a LOT of dog books out there, and I have read a small mountain of them. Considering how many dogs are out there (a lot) there is a remarkable dearth of scientific studies on the effects of the various training methods. Use of punishment (P+) is advocated by some, abhorred by others. Reward only (R+ and P-) training does work (it’s pretty much what I use) even for competitive dogs; however, so do techniques using liberal amounts of punishment. In the years since I first wrote this I think most of the advice in it is still valid. I’ve since taken on a second rescued collie (Mandy), and when she died a third rescued collie (Harley). I think Cosmo is much happier having another dog in the house. My three dogs have had very different personalities, despite all being collies.
    10.  (After almost 9 years of dogs) My newest addition arrived only days after Harley died, an extremely athletic dog named "Suki". Her breeder is a friend of mine, the person responsible for my introduction to Cosmo & collies. I would encourage anyone considering an athletic dog (sometimes called a performance dog) to anticipate getting involved with a sport. Suki does not love me more than my previous dogs, but she certainly has more energy and requires more training. If you want a more laid back animal do not get a performance dog.

Copyright Notice and Thanks

The above was written by Gary Hughes-Fenchel. Feel free to copy it or distribute it freely, as long as you include the entire unaltered text, including this section. Any comments you wish to make should be included either before the text or after the text: I want to be sure I am not mistakenly assigned words someone else wrote.

I would like to thank the folks at Narnia obedience school who have helped me train Cosmo and provided some of the above information, especially Lisa McKulsky. Also, Tree Kravitz who has generally been a font of information. The late much-missed Carol Marks for convincing me that a trained dog could still be fun to play with. The folks at Collie Rescue for giving me Cosmo, especially Dee Olsen (who's rescued Collie is one of the top competitors in agility) and most especially Sharon Baubles, who has provided me with a place for Cosmo when I have gone out of town.

I would also like to thank Cosmo's previous owners for giving him up. I don't really know if he was given up because of a life change, or if they were simply unable to appreciate him. In either case, they did the right thing.