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.
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.
WHAT TO FEED YOUR DOG
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.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DOG
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:
Unfortunately, there seems to be lots of conflicting advice about everything else. For example:
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.
Here is my list of advice on random things about dogs.
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.