At the moment, Husband and I are in the market for a rescue dog. It’s a lifetime commitment (for the dog, at least) so we are pretty specific as to what we want. I’m ruminating on this subject a lot lately and after a few discussions with other dog owners have come to the conclusion that most people just do not know enough about various dog breeds before they adopt or buy (not that a known breed is essential, but there are traits that it is important to be aware of, and while the noble bitsa can be fantastic, I’m less inclined to get one myself). In order to get into some of this, we’ll start with how I’ve narrowed it down.
Here’s the list that makes it tricky. The potential dog must:
1) get along with Amos (our excitable two-year-old Rottweiler).
2) get along with, or at least not eat, the cats.
3) be okay with children as we plan to reproduce at some point (also, we like our friends to bring kids around to play with the dog. Doesn’t have to be their kids. They could just pick some up off the street. That would work).
4) be okay with being a bit of a couch-potato dog. We are happy to walk our dogs and play with them, and we try to be dedicated with training them, but Husband and I are both often sedentary during the day due to the nature of our work. We both work from home a few days a week, and in that time we let Amos in to sit with us, but the lad does get bored (under these circumstances, the treat ball is a freaking godsend). This is actually one of many reasons we want to get another dog. We’re on 2/3 of a forested acre, so it’s really not the end of the world.
5) not have a very high prey drive. We have native wildlife around here, and between echidnas, wombats and the odd wallaby, it might all be a bit too tempting for, say, a greyhound.
6) not be an escape artist. We have four foot post-and-wire fences (a combination of chicken mesh, dingo mesh and concrete reinforcing mesh – there will be no getting through it, but digging out is not impossible, and climbing – or simply leaping – for a kelpie-like sort of dog is a possibility).
In terms of personal preference, I like to add that dog must:
7) be a large breed dog (I like big dogs and I cannot lie. I’m just a big dog person)
8) be a female dog (firstly, a female is more likely to get along with Amos, but secondly, I just want a girl dog).
9) be a young dog, preferably past the toilet-training age as we want a dog that we can leave at home. I get a bit uncomfortable at the idea of leaving a six-month-old puppy at home alone for extended periods – there is just too much trouble they can get into. On the other hand, I don’t think I could handle the heartbreak of adopting a dog that is going to die in four years or less, as much as old dogs need homes and love too.
So what does this mean?
Well, first of all, our search rules out male dogs. Most of the dogs available for adoption are male; it’s a significant trend. I am not sure why this is, but could theorise that dominance and marking behaviours (not always resolved by desexing) could play a role, or possibly because people preferentially choose male dogs to start with and when they realise they have bitten off more than they can chew, the boy dogs get surrendered. It’s worth being aware that female dogs can also have issues with the hierarchy, although marking is less of a problem.
Secondly, there are some breed exclusions. For fans of particular breeds, rest assured that I really have nothing against these dogs – they can all be lovely! – but they’re not suitable for us.
No greyhounds. This is a bit sad because they tend to be very sweet and relaxed dogs for the most part, and so many retired racers need homes and patient love and care. Unfortunately: high prey drive + cats = violence and tragedy. You can also never let them off lead when you’re out and about – they hit their top speed on their third stride and you aren’t getting that dog back until it’s good and ready to head home.
No cattle dogs. The particular Australian fondness for working breeds means that rescue centres are choc-full of various mixes of blue heelers, kelpies, Australian cattle dogs, koolies and related breeds. Our neighbours have a kelpie and he is an absolute sweetheart (he has adopted us a secondary pack when his beloved people aren’t home). It is, however, impossible to keep him in. He is basically a cat. As far as Lenny is concerned, four-foot fence is for leaping (hence the frequent visits to our place). Also, these are highly intelligent breeds: they like to explore, they need to run, they easily escape and they get bored easily. While Rottweilers like Amos are also highly intelligent, they are less prone to explore and escape. Our neighbours take their dog running when they go mountain bike riding, so he gets plenty of exercise and stimulation; we couldn’t provide that outlet for a dog, so it’s not an option. Also, high prey drive. As a side note here, if you’re the sort of person who wants to get a cattle dog, and you live in the city or the suburbs, be aware that dog is going to need lots of room to run, lots of walking and a hell of a lot of stimulation.
No huskies or Alaskan malamutes. This was very upsetting for Husband, who really loves these breeds, but a four-foot fence is about as much of an obstacle to these fellows as it would be to the kelpies, and for similar reasons. These dogs are also bred to be amazingly independent, which is a virtue in their original line of work, but which leads to constant dominance struggles. If my whole life revolved around my dog, I might find that stimulating, but I do occasionally like to do things that don’t involve arguing with a canine over who, exactly, is the boss. These guys are fantastic, but have specific needs (also, generally not good with cats, as in really, really not good).
No terriers. This means no bull terriers and particularly no staffordshire terriers. Staffys have become very popular in recent years and I don’t think that most people who take them on really understand what they are getting into; at least, that’s my conclusion from the extraordinary number of staffys and staffy mixes on the rescue pages. Here’s a tip: staffys are high maintenance dogs. They are lovely, don’t get me wrong. They are affectionate, loyal, highly intelligent, energetic and fun. There’s a lot to love about them. They are also needy as hell (all dogs can be needy; they’re not cats, after all; however, there are still degrees) and, again, they get bored easily. Don’t get a staffy if you’re leaving them at home alone for an extended period. As always, hard and fast rules are a mistake, and some will be fine, but when bored, they tend to become destructo-dogs, and they can get quite neurotic. Our rottie does need to be part of the family, it’s true, but we can leave him at home alone for a day and be confident that we won’t be coming back to a disaster. Also, terriers tend to have that high prey drive.
Let me tell you: once you rule out staffys, terriers, greyhounds and male dogs, the rescue pages start to get a little thin. In fact, it thins out as soon as you rule out staffys (see previous paragraph).
What does it leave?
Well, in terms of large breeds on the rescue pages, it leaves Rottweilers and rottie mixes (not many – they get snapped up quick), German Shepherds and GSD mixes (again, they get snapped up quick), mastiff mixes, Great Dane mixes, Rhodesian Ridgeback and ridgie mixes, the occasional Labrador or lab mix, and the odd wolfhound or deer/staghound.
I love rotties, ridgies and mastiffs, and am quite fond of the Danes and the German Shepherds. The only problem I have with Great Danes is their potentially shortened lifespan, and the problem I have with German Shepherds is based on the show-breeding culture – ever notice how GSDs tend to have back legs much shorter than their front legs? That’s not healthy, but it’s a “desirable conformation”, apparently. No problems with temperament or intelligence in either breed.
We are still searching for our desired rescue/rehome dog, but here’s the thing: clearly I know enough about dog breeds to be aware of some of the pitfalls in temperament and health. What I don’t know I will research extensively.
It’s become apparent to me that not everyone does this – and that’s not a judgment on them, because apparently not everyone is aware that this is something they should do. I grew up with rotties, so I knew that if you take in a purebred puppy, it’s ideal to check out the elbow and hip scores of the parents, as well as eye examinations (they have a tendency to ectropia). Obviously, this is not something you can do for a rescue, but generally joint problems will have manifested already by that stage, so you can be aware of them.
When you pick a puppy, it is crucial to know about the breed and know what to look for, but there are also some general rules. The first eight weeks of life have a huge effect on a pup’s temperament and socialisation – have the pups been handled? Have they had a chance to explore their environment? Have they socialised with other dogs? Have they socialised with kids? Does the pup seem too shy or anxious? Does the pup seem in any way neurotic? Make absolutely certain that you can at least meet the mother, if not the father. Is she a calm and mellow dog? Is she friendly? Does she seem happy and healthy?
It is so easy to get swept away by an adorable puppy and then be trapped later on by health and behavioural problems – and by that stage they are your beloved pet and there is generally nothing you wouldn’t do to help them (including enormous amounts of stress and gigantic vet bills). It’s not that you have the power to prevent these things, but they are things you should avoid having to deal with if you can.
To be fair, I nearly didn’t pick Amos (the “snuggliest” puppy), because he seemed a little anxious. Just a little. It turned out that they’d all had their claws clipped that day and the breeder had clipped his a bit too short which for a puppy is very upsetting. All the same, he was still sociable, still friendly, still climbed all over me. It was the latter behaviour that melted me a bit.
There’s a lot I don’t know about adopting a grown dog, but a lot of their personality is formed, so that takes out some of the guesswork. There are trial periods, in case it doesn’t work out, and we can introduce Amos to them before we make any decisions. There are upsides to this aspect of things.
We’ll see how it goes.
P.S. At this point, these perceptions and opinions of various breeds are based on research and personal observation, but I would love to hear any stories that would conflict with my perceptions! A “breed” does not mean all dogs have identical behaviour – they are merely discernable tendencies, and every dog is just that little bit different (one reason why we end up adoring them so much).