This entry has been a long time coming since I routinely have this
discussion with my clients. Sometimes when your dog is being bad (aka
displaying a behavior that you find intolerable) it’s because they’ve been
hardwired for it through selective breeding or natural evolution. When adding a
dog to your family you need to consider what dog was meant to do because it
will have a great impact on whether this is the right dog for you.
I’m going to use two examples of very different dogs to illustrate why
background is important and what impact it will have on your life with your
The first breed I want to talk about is the Australian Shepherd. I
picked them for a few reasons including that I own an Aussie with some less
than desirable characteristics and in recent months I’ve had a number of
clients have similar issues with their Aussies who are from different breeders.
I’m going to be honest I love Aussies and always have. I think they are
gorgeous, smart and athletic. I’ve owned two of them and enjoyed them both.
Marco still lives with me and he’s been one of the best dogs I’ve ever had the
chance to share my life with. But there have been LOTS of challenges even
though Aussies are known as highly trainable.
Common problems in Australian Shepherds are related to a very high
herding instinct as well as being weary or nervous of strangers, sounds and
other animals. This isn’t to say that all Aussies have these issues (even Marco
doesn’t have all of these issues) but they are common and this is why.
I went to the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) for a breed
description and background. In my opinion is the most reliable source
of information on this breed which is why I’m referencing them and not one of
the kennel clubs. ASCA states that:
The Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of
strong herding and guardian instincts. He is an exceptional companion. He is
versatile and easily trained, performing his assigned tasks with great style
and enthusiasm. He is reserved with strangers but does not exhibit shyness.
Although an aggressive, authoritative worker, viciousness toward people or
animals is intolerable (ASCA Link).
What does this mean when considering whether you should own this
dog? Well in plain terms it means that your dog is going to be fairly high
energy, he will like to round things up using his bark and mouth as well as
protect people, other pets and his home from intruders. This can translate to
disaster for some families. It also means that you can train this dog to do
lots of different jobs and in fact you should engage his brain as he is a worker
not a couch potato.
Now there are exceptions to any rule and like I said before your
dog might not demonstrate all of these characteristics. But you need to know
that breeders are working very hard to maintain this standard and they should.
Australian Shepherds are highly challenging in an urban
environment. I think most do best when given lots of room to run and less
traffic (which in their mind triggers a need to guard).
Some examples of why these things are hard to live with:
Marco and many other Aussies will bark or begin to guard when people, cars or animals walk by your home. If you live on a busy street this can drive you crazy as the bark is fairly loud and startles people. Solution in my home: close the blinds during high traffic periods. In the country you just wouldn’t have to deal with this or you would have limited traffic and you’d like to be alerted. Your dog is hardwired for this behavior.
- Marco likes to round up dogs he doesn’t know and sometimes grab them. He never hurts them or causes injury. If one of my other dogs is nervous than he is more likely to do this behavior as it changes from herding to guarding. Solution: strong obedience and limited interaction with strange dogs at park. Marco gets along great with dogs he’s introduced to.
- Marco’s play styles have always been rough and tumble. He plays great with other Aussies and many other dogs. However when playing chase he likes to tackle (most Aussies do). This isn’t acceptable with all other dogs as they might be small, in danger of being injured or intolerant of aggressive play. Solution: select Marco’s friends carefully and interrupt him when he goes into overdrive so to speak.
I’m pointing these things out since Marco (just like
my other dogs) is awesome but not everyone is aware that all dogs have certain
behaviours that are undesirable. Understanding the why is important to choosing
a solution that will help solve the issues. Clearly I can’t let Marco run wild,
barking hysterically and tackling other dogs. But I do understand that this
happens because he was breed to be a working Aussie.
My second example is Reserve Dogs or Semi-Feral Dogs.
Many rescues in Calgary are committed to helping these dogs and I support their
efforts. Many of these dogs come into rescue injured and sick. They need our
help. However they are not great pets for every family and come with some
challenges based on their background. While not a breed they are in fact
survivors and different from most family pets.
Adoption has become a very popular way to acquire a
dog in recent years. I support adoption and have had many dogs through that
channel. But when you’re choosing to bring home a dog from a reserve or another
country like Mexico where they run free you need to be aware of what type of
dog you are getting. This will alleviate disappointment and help you train your
Dogs who have had to survive with limited human
assistance are great scavengers. This makes sense as in order to breed they
have to eat and no one is feeding them. This can be a serious challenge in a
family home. You need to keep your counters free and clear as well as
potentially lock cupboards that contain food including your garbage. These dogs
are tenacious as they are used to needing to search for food in order to live. This
behavior tends to continue even if you’re feeding your dog the most awesome
food and making sure he/she has a full belly. This behavior can also make walks
a challenge as your dog will search for garbage and food. Many owners find this
very frustrating and it is in fact something you will need to spend a great
deal of time training away. Even puppies who did not survive on their own will
have a strong instinct for this.
Another concern has been a lack of affiliation with
the people they live with. While many of these dogs really enjoy their new life
they can have bonding concerns. This is problematic as it makes recall or
walking your dog off leash difficult as well as training in general. Bonding
with a dog that lived most of his life as a stray takes great time, patience
and reinforcement. It’s a wonderful experience if you have the time to do so.
If you have small children this can be extraordinarily difficult.
Sometimes bonding with the family comes easily to
these dogs but a strong fear of strangers is prevalent. This can result in
bites, excessive barking or simply being terrified and hiding. Once again it’s
something many dogs can overcome but you need to commit a great deal of time to
working on this concern. Many of my clients spend a year working on introducing
their dog to new people. Fearful dogs need lots of time, space and slow
training to gain confidence. This is a natural behavior that would have
protected your dog in his previous home.
Semi-Feral or Reserve dogs can have very different
relationships with other dogs. Some of these guys prefer dogs to humans and are
happiest when in a pack. This translates relatively well to most pet homes. On
the other side many of them have awful dog skills. This is a serious concern
that most often results in these dogs being given away repeatedly. Even if you
do not own another dog you will run into other dogs on walks (either off leash
or on leash or off leash when they should be on leash). If your dog has dog
aggression then you’ll be spending a great deal of time working on obedience,
will most likely need a muzzle and will quite possibly never be able to walk
your dog off leash. This behavior is a direct result of what worked best for
your dog or your dog’s parents when they were living on their own.
While these behavior problems are not confined to
semi-feral or reserve dogs they are highly prevalent. It’s important to ask
yourself if you can take on this challenge. It’s very unfair to a dog who’s had
hard beginning to be rehomed.
So those are my two examples and I could do more. Each
breed of dog (and mixes of breeds) have certain characteristics that make them
challenging. There isn’t truly a breed of dog that is more difficult than
another despite what people say. All dogs require training, time and
understanding. It’s very important for owners to understanding what they are
When considering your next dog please ask yourself the
Where does my dog come from and how will that impact his behavior?
What was my dog breed or evolved to do and how will that impact his behavior?
What’s my dog’s personality and how will that impact his behavior?
What’s my dog’s own history (if known) and how will that impact his behavior?
Do you see what I’m getting at? You need to consider
what type of dog you are bringing into your home. And remember just because your
first dog was a super awesome Aussie doesn’t mean your second Aussie will be
the same. Just like people all dogs have individual personalities but their
history can help you predict certain behaviors and train preventatively.