Wednesday, April 17, 2013

History and purpose are essential to understanding your dog

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 dog.

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 dog.

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 getting into.

When considering your next dog please ask yourself the following:
  • 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.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Changing Spaces

Moving to a new home is stressful for everyone. There’s so much to do and really sometimes our pets don’t get the attention they need to transition smoothly. I recently moved our crew to a new home so I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

All dogs will handle moves differently. Some are laidback and after the first 10 minutes are settled right in. Other dogs can take months to get use to all the changes. If possible take your dog to the new home or neighbourhood before the move to go for a walk and get use to the smells.

Also consider whether you are changing out rules for your dog. For example our new home has a dog run so we’ve gone from allowing the pups to use the yard for their business to asking them to walk across the yard to designated doggy area. This adds to anxiety and stress but can be managed depending on your dog. If your dog has a hard time with change then don't try to do everything all at once.

In addition to rule changes and a complete environment change we also threw out some old furniture and bought a new couch. This does affect the dogs as well so we tried to minimize it by throwing out the old furniture a week before the actual move.

Some things to keep in mind:
  • Continue to exercise your dog and if possible increase your exercise regime
  • Consider using a crate for your dog beforehand and after the move. This gives your dog a space that is his/hers and it doesn’t change. Their dog bed should not be washed right before or after a move. The smells are important to your best friend.
  • Use bones and stuffed kongs to give your dog an activity that helps relieve stress.
  • Monitor your dog for signs of stress that include: off his/her food, loose stool, panting, difficulty in relaxing or settling down
  • Consider using DAP, a thunder shirt, rescue remedy, calming music or even good old lavender to help relieve some anxiety
  • Try to relax yourself. Dogs do pick up on the moods of their owners and may need to be reassured by you. Stay calm, relaxed and take a walk together.