Once hunters and protectors, today's dogs have been promoted to family members. here's how to choose, train and love a dog
Their eyes sparkle and a weary yet broad smile emerges as they tell you that, no, he isn't sleeping through the night yet, but yes, he is digesting food, finally. Then come the stories, which all seem to begin with the same excited "He did the cutest thing yesterday..." There are pictures and toys; stories of family squabbles over the name choice and whether he is going to sleep in the bed. You nod in agreement, smile at the stories, coo over the photos. After all, he really is a cute puppy.
Although the human-canine bond can be traced back to the Old Testament, the reasons for the partnership have changed dramatically over the centuries. Once bred for specific functions, such as hunting, protection or herding, today's dogs are bred for personality traits befitting a companion and family member. The family purchasing a dog today typically does not require that its new pup herd sheep or hunt vermin, but that it interact well with children and be a playful yet obedient companion.
According to a study by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, there were 57.6 million dogs in the United States in 1998. An estimated 37.8 percent of American households (38,099,000) owned dogs in 1998 (not including households that contained both dogs and cats, which is estimated at 16,020,000 homes). More than 60 percent of the American population own a pet of some kind, which is higher than the percentage of households with children.
During the 1990s, pet owners increasingly began to see their pets, and to spend on them, as if they were family members. "The overall trend is that animals are more integrated into people's lives," says Andrea Reisman, chief executive officer of Petopia.com, a Web site that offers a wide range of pet products. "Ten years ago you would have seen a lot of dogs relegated to the backyard. Now dogs have basically migrated from the backyard to the living room and are continuing to be welcomed into other parts of people's lives."
According to the 1999/2000 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 38 percent of dog owners share their bed with their dog, an increase from 29 percent in 1992. Likewise, 80 percent of owners buy their dog gifts as compared with 67 percent in 1994. Last year, Petopia.com had to restock its four lines of Halloween costumes for dogs after selling out of its original gross.
"Seventy percent of pet owners view their pet as a child," says Reisman, the owner of a soft-coated wheaten terrier named Jack who accompanies Reisman to work, where his official title is Petopian product tester. "People who have pets, especially dogs, are absolutely, in the best sense of the word, fanatic about them," continues Reisman. "The amount of premium food being sold has seen a dramatic increase. So have lifestyle products such as apparel, beds and bowls that are more like human products in terms of quality. All of these things indicate that pets are being viewed more as family."
Reisman believes the drive to own and lavish pets, dogs in particular, is attributable not only to the current economic boom but also to two trends: baby boomers experiencing empty-nest syndrome who make their pets their surrogate kids, and young couples who are waiting longer to have children.
Yet with all of the statistics pointing to a healthy, well-loved, well-cared-for dog population, 5 million dogs are abandoned each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and of those, 60 percent are euthanized. A disturbingly low 5 to 10 percent of dogs are rescued from shelters each year. According to ASPCA president and veterinarian Larry Hawk, dogs are predominantly given up for behavioral problems that could be controlled with proper training and owner knowledge. He also points out that many people buy dogs on an impulse, before taking into account that owning a dog is a long-term commitment and that a dog needs to be properly trained, walked, fed and loved every day.
Every time you walk past the dog run at your local park, you begin to feel the pangs of jealousy. You want the unconditional love and unfailing companionship of an unopinionated listener. You want a truly loyal friend. You want a dog.
What you don't want is the dog constantly begging to go for a walk or ignoring the Frisbee you throw to him. You don't want to find that what was supposed to be your loyal companion has taken over your life because he requires all of your free time. Or that the dog that was supposed to give you unconditional love and an overall sense of calm tries to bite you when you pick him up and barely tolerates being petted.
Getting a dog, like making any other major purchase, requires extensive research. Purchasing a dog that doesn't fit your lifestyle can be disastrous for both of you. Reliable information abounds in books, periodicals, on the Internet and from nonprofit groups. Dog owners, not unlike new parents, love to talk about their pets, and in most cases are very knowledgeable. Several Internet chat rooms allow you to pick the brain of owners. On some Web sites veterinary experts field questions.
In addition, many veterinarians will meet with you before you purchase a dog to educate you about responsible ownership. Dog shows are a great place to do research because you can meet the animals and get a sense of their temperament. In most cases you can speak with a breeder who will know not only the genetic traits of a line, but also whether the dogs are friendly and active or domineering and unaffectionate.
Finding the right pet is not all research, however. "There is some chemistry that happens between a person and an animal," says Hawk. "I see this a lot when people come through our shelter. They may be looking for a specific breed and they just won't bond with the dog--there is just not that click--but another person will see the dog and wham, love the dog."
The first thing to consider is: Why do you want a dog? As a companion or to guard the house? Because the kids are nagging for a pet or because, as a single person, you want a friendly face to come home to? The answers to these questions will affect your choice. Then consider your lifestyle. Is it stable? Are you home regular hours or do you travel often? Do you have a lot of time to play with and exercise a pet? Are you an active or sedentary person? Are you or anyone in your home allergic? Do you own other pets? What kind of a space do you live in? Is there a backyard or are you a city dweller? Can you afford dog food as well as regular veterinary and grooming visits?
According to the American Kennel Club, which has been registering purebred dogs since 1909, the six most popular dog breeds in 1998 were the Labrador retriever, golden retriever, German shepherd, rottweiler, dachshund and beagle. Consistently among the top 10, these breeds have enjoyed periods of popularity that reflect what is happening in popular culture.
In 1922, for instance, German shepherds became the top AKC-registered dog after Rin Tin Tin became a movie star. And, three years after Charles Schulz introduced Snoopy to the world, the beagle began a seven-year stint as the top breed. Popular culture has also influenced the popularity of other breeds over the years. In 1998, for example, the audacious Taco Bell Chihuahua inspired enough people to purchase the miniature pups that Chihuahua registrations broke the top 10 list of popular dog breeds for the first time.
Currently 147 breeds are registered with the AKC, which breaks them down into seven categories based on the function for which the dog was originally bred. The sporting group contains dogs that were designed to assist hunters, and includes pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers. The hound group includes canines that pursue and catch their quarry by sight and scent and guide the hunter's way. The working group, which comprises human-service dogs, includes guard, sledding and rescue breeds. The terrier group includes dogs that kill rodents and vermin and have the ability to dig. The toy group includes some of the more ancient breeds that function mainly as companions due to their diminutive size. The herding group consists of dogs that control the movements of other animals, such as sheep or cattle. The nonsporting group is the most diverse group because many of its breeds defy categorization.
Although some species have similar purposes, they do not always have similar personality traits; ultimately, it is a dog's demeanor that will make or break a good owner-pet relationship. For example, the rottweiler and the Saint Bernard are members of the working group; however, whereas the rottweiler is generally domineering and stubborn, the Saint Bernard is easygoing and patient.
In his 1998 book Why We Love The Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality, Stanley Coren offers an alternative seven-group classification system, based not on function but on human personality traits. He proposes that dogs fall into the following categories: friendly (affectionate and genial), protective (territorial and dominant), independent (personable and strong-willed), self-assured (spontaneous and sometimes audacious), consistent (self-contained and home-loving), steady (good-natured and tolerant) or clever (observant and trainable). According to Coren, by evaluating your own personality, you can better know if the dog that best suits you is one that will run you around the park, or curl up next to you on the couch while you watch television, or be content to sit quietly across the room while you read the paper. (See sidebar on page 107.)
You must also choose whether to buy from a breeder or to adopt from a shelter, which will offer a variety of dogs, including mixed breed, purebred and mature pets. Though purebred dogs offer behavioral predictability because genetic characteristics are consistent, dangers exist. In an effort to weed out unwanted genetic disorders such as eye disease, breeders may inbreed dogs. While this usually produces desirable outcomes, it sometimes creates negative effects.
Cocker spaniels may develop eye disorders while dogs like dalmatians and German shepherds may become aggressive. According to AKC Director of Special Services David Roberts, no particular line of dogs suffers negative effects more than another, and in general, inbreeding can be a sound practice that brings out the positive genetic traits of a line. Buying a puppy from a breeder allows you to predict the temperament of a dog because you can meet its dam (mother) and, in many cases, the father, and observe their adult behavior. You can also observe whether the pup was raised in a healthy, caring environment that won't leave lasting behavioral or health scars.
Mixed-breed dogs will usually have the disposition of the breed that is genetically predominant, and therefore be fairly predictable. According to Hawk, "There are no disadvantages to having a mixed-breed dog. It may actually give you something better."
Utmost in importance is that you buy from a reputable breeder or pet store. Check the references of the breeder or pet shop that you are considering with the local Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been made against it. Breeders do not have to be licensed, but their facilities must be inspected by a local or state agency. When buying a dog from a pet shop, you need to be especially concerned with the origin of the puppies. Many pet shops still sell dogs that come from puppy mills, where they are carelessly and quickly inbred for the purpose of sale. Puppy mill dogs often have genetic disorders, which can lead to violent behavior and an inability to be trained. Many of these animals end up being put down.
Whether you choose a mixed or purebred dog, many authorities suggest adoption. "What we have to do as a society and as a community is to think in terms, not unlike we did with aluminum cans, of recycling our pets and think the shelter first," says Hawk. "It is kind of a cold word--recycle--but it is the concept. If you can't find what you are looking for, OK, but at least try."
Shelter adoption does not remove the possibility of acquiring a purebred animal. "Each of the clubs that is a member of the AKC has a rescue association and we do recommend rescue. Rescue is a great way to get a purebred dog," Roberts says. An estimated 25 percent of dogs in shelters are AKC-registered purebreds. Many people are put off by animal rescue because shelter adoption can be time-consuming and for some, depressing. "A shelter is not always the most enjoyable place to go and a lot of people can't emotionally handle it," Hawk says.
The ASPCA began an affiliation last year with Petfinder.org, an Internet pet shelter site that went national in 1998. With sponsorship from Petopia's Million Pet Mission and hundreds of animal shelters across the country, www.petfinder.org has become the Internet's largest searchable directory for homeless pets. By this May, Petfinder is expected to have more than 1,000 shelters nationwide online.
"What makes the Internet such an attractive thing," Hawk says, "is that it gets the two main objections that I think people have to visiting shelters over with. They can visit with no emotional, heart-wrenching walk through the shelter and seeing all these sad faces looking at them. Most people know what they are looking for and Petfinder will do it for them, so it is convenient. You search from your home, it is fast, it is easy, and you don't have to drive all over the city."
To search Petfinder's site, you input a dog breed (or mixed breed); the desired age, size and sex; your location; and the maximum distance you would like to travel to obtain the dog. Within seconds Petfinder pulls up all of the dogs that match your criteria. You can then see a picture, read a brief description, and find out the dog's name without leaving your home. Hawk hopes that Petfinder will make a huge difference in the lives of shelter animals and move the United States towards becoming a no-kill nation, where no adoptable pet is put down because of overcrowding or feeding costs.
The woodwork in your house is completely ruined and there are gnaw marks all over your furniture. You don't want to give up your dog, but it is costing you a fortune in home repairs. To make matters worse, your neighbor has threatened to call animal control if your pooch doesn't stop barking every time he goes to the car. It wasn't supposed to be this hard.
Dog trainer Bash Dibra, author of Dog Speak: How to Learn It, Speak It and Use It to Have a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Dog, teaches his clients (which include celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Scorsese and Mariah Carey) that if you understand the basics of dog behavior, you can train a dog to be the perfect companion, at any age. As a child, Dibra befriended vicious dogs that guarded the Yugoslavian prison camp he lived in with his family after they escaped from Albania. His innate ability to be in tune with a dog led to his development of "dog speak," a kind of language by which dogs communicate with each other and humans using territorial behavior, aggression, vocalization and chemical smells.
"The first thing in training a dog is to educate and train the owner to have the ability to communicate with a dog and then, at the same time, create leadership. Dogs like to follow a leader," Dibra explains. Dogs are descendants of wolves; the tenants of pack behavior are scripted into their DNA. Dogs look for an alpha, or leader; they like the comfort of a "den"; they chew and sniff in a constant search for calcium; and they may perceive certain benign human actions and sounds as threatening and instinctively respond. If you understand and anticipate your dog's behavior and body language, you can stop aggressive or destructive behavior before it starts.
Understanding a dog's body language is key. Dogs communicate through their ears and tail as much as through vocalization. If a dog approaches with his body stiff and his tail and ears up, he is exhibiting a signal of dominance and you should approach with caution. If you approach a dog whose ears and tails are down, he is afraid, and you should approach him in a way that makes him feel safe, or he might snap at you.
"All of these signals are important ways that dogs talk to each other. We always want a dog to listen to us," says Dibra. "Why can't we listen to what they say to us? When training a dog, you have to think like a dog."
The biggest mistake people make when training their dog is to give it mixed messages. Owners have to set limits, but they are often afraid to because they don't want to be cruel. Some of the training techniques that humans perceive as cruel, such as crating, are actually comforts to a dog. "The crate is like a den, so it is part of the innate genetic makeup of the dog," Dibra explains. "That should be used as a tool to help housebreaking and to also overcome destructive behavior when they go through the teething stages.
"A lot of people don't understand the collar principle. The best equipment is a chain collar that you can put through a loop, like a slip collar. If you do the collar the right way, in the shape of the letter P, when you pull or release the chain it doesn't hurt. It also has a click sound which lets you know if something is out of synch." When executing this technique the wrong way, it is possible to give the dog trachea stress. Some smaller dogs are predisposed to this problem, so a nylon buckle or soft leather collar can be used. Dibra suggests using a harness only when it is medically necessary. "The harness is cute, but you can never train the dog because he has control."
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