Monday, January 3, 2011

Dog Adoption - A few points to consider...

In October of 1991 I decided that my new home needed a dog. I ventured out from Brooklyn N.Y. to the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, Long Island. The NSAL is a “no-kill” animal shelter. I made about five trips out over a few weeks looking for just the right dog. On my last trip I found a 1.5 year old English Pointer / German Shorthair mix. 

He was skinny, underfed, and had been abused by his previous owner. He was barking at everyone that passed his kennel and jumping around excitedly. I knelt in front of his kennel, told him shush, and he did, told him to sit, and he did. He became very calm as I sat in front of him and quietly looked me in the eye as if to say, "take me out of here and I will be your friend forever." I didn’t realize it at the time, but rather than me choosing him, he chose me. Dutch came home with me that afternoon.

His abuse had some profound effects on him. He wouldn't let me touch him for at least a week, and it was over three months before I could touch his head. It took nearly a year before anyone but me could touch his head. He was afraid of grass. Apparently his previous owners lived in an apartment or kept him in a paved run. But he never once made a mess in the house, or chewed any sort of furniture or shoes. He always sat when told to, never barked excessively.

When I brought him home he had a small open sore on the tip of his whip-like tail. It was caused by banging it on the sides of his kennel while he was at the shelter. It would never quite heal. When I would come home from work, he would sprint through the house wagging his tail and whack it on something, re-opening the sore. Eventually, we had to have about 6" of his tail bobbed because the tip was getting infected. This made his coffee table clearing whip-like tail into a billy-club. He would walk up behind me while I was cooking or doing dishes and hit me with it behind the knees and buckle me. Often amusing, but it resulted in the breakage of a lot of dishware.

He had some strange eating habits though... I made a few mistakes and left things within his reach that I should not have. Various defrosting dinner items such as an entire chicken, a package of pork ribs, styrofoam, saran-wrap and all. He once at 5 dozen hazelnut-snowball Christmas cookies. He ate a pound of See's Chocolates that was wrapped under the Christmas tree. He ate an entire bottle of Zantac (he didn't eat anything for about 5 days after that). But he taught me the dog-owner lessons I needed and eventually these things stopped happening.

He liked to run. A lot. Somewhere in the back of his walnut sized brain was something that told him, "You are a pointer. You are a vastly superior animal. You must remain 50yds in front of humans to show the dummies where the birds are." which often made it difficult to rein him in if he got off the leash. Additionally, something in his brain told him, "You are a pointer. You are a vastly superior animal. You are not required to "fetch", leave that to those slobbering Labradors. Besides, if that human dummy really wanted that ball he shouldn't have thrown it all the way across the field."

I used to be required to spend one out of four nights at work and periodically had to go on deployments for up to four months. When my then wife would get home he would jump around excitedly and when he realized that I wasn't with her he would sit at the front door to the house and wait for me to come home…every night for four months, until I did finally come home.

He was with me for just about everything. I took him with me when I moved from N.Y. to Hawaii, and he came with me when I moved from Hawaii to San Jose. He accompanied me on camping trips, he rode shotgun while four-wheeling, he went fishing, he would come along on simple errands, and he often came with me when I would go to visit my Mom in Auburn, my Dad in Tracy, or my Grandparents in Santa Clara.

He knew when I was sad. When an accident happened at work that killed two friends - when I was going through my divorce - when my father was in the hospital - when I lost my job. His demeanor would change. He would quietly follow me around the house and whenever I stood still or sat he would rest his head against my leg and quietly look at me with his brown eyes and make good on his promise to be my friend forever.

On April 12, 2003 I quietly followed him into an exam room at the Vet's rested my hand on his head and returned the favor of friendship as he slipped away.

 I have chosen to relate this story as a result of several people I know stating that they are interested in acquiring a dog in the coming year. If this is your plan as well I’d ask you…no implore you to make this a very slow and deliberate process. Our animal shelters are filled with millions of dogs. In most cases the dog was given up because he/she was not a good fit for the family. In many of those cases there is a specific breed trait that was not considered prior to the adoption that became the problem. Not the dogs fault, but the humans for not doing their homework.

Before you even begin looking at different breeders or shelter dogs PLEASE take a brutally honest, long hard look at your lifestyle, how much time members of your family are home and the amount of energy you have. Then gain an understanding of what various breeds were designed to do and how that fits in with your life. It may sound harsh, but the simple reality is that dogs are tools bred to accomplish specific tasks. That requires certain behavioral traits to be bred into the dog. Look closely at the various breeds and how they are designed and how those behavioral traits will be manifested in your daily life.

A few generalizations regarding breed traits:

Herding breeds need something to do all the time or they get bored. Like a bored child they tend to get into mischief or can be destructive. They can be prone to separation anxiety.

Breeds that are designed to "work with a human" such as retrievers, and some guard breeds tend to be more interactive and affectionate. They want to be with you as much as they can.

Breeds that are designed to work independently such as a pointer can sometimes be rather aloof toward people.

Some hounds (beagles and other game chasers) will run after anything. Not good if you don't have a fenced yard and not appropriate if you are looking for a dog to join you - unleashed - for bike rides or jogging. Be aware of "prey-drive" in these breeds in particular. But in all dogs as well if you have other small fuzzy critters (cats) that you'd like to retain.

Sight hounds and many of the mastiff breeds can be VERY low maintenance. They usually need a short period of intense activity and then they go into couch potato mode.

Traits regarding dominance vary from breed to breed. In Mastiff breeds the females can be VERY dominant. If the breed you are looking at has similar issues you should be prepared to attain training specific to that trait early in the dogs life and be prepared to reinforce that training often.

If there isn't a specific breed that you fancy, then by all means go with the shelter-dog adoption route. There are millions of great dogs available right now. I know very few people who have adopted a shelter-dog that haven’t been overjoyed with it. I honestly think the dogs realize they’ve received a second chance at life and are eternally grateful. That said, you should still remain mindful of what the dog is made of (breed-wise) and how that will impact their behavior and how they interact with you and your family.

I went this route with my first dog, Dutch. I had him for 14 years (he was 1yr old) when I got him. He outlived my first marriage and was far more loyal than my first wife. Great dog, but by virtue of his breed mix he was a bit aloof and never really connected with anyone but me and my grandfather.

If there is a specific breed that you feel really suits you I would encourage you to seek out your local (maybe on the state level) breed club. Most of them have rescue programs to find homes for pure-breed dogs that for one reason or another (most often divorces) have had to be returned to the breeder. Please consider this method of adoption before a new purebred puppy. These are often great dogs that need forever homes that through no fault of their own have been abandoned. Such is the case with my current dog, Roxy.

 Roxy is a pure-breed Bullmastiff who I picked up from the California Bullmastiff Club. She was abandoned after a divorce. Awesome dog. She is very healthy, except for some awful breath and at 115lbs is the biggest, sweetest marshmallow of a beast you'd ever want to meet. She looks scary as hell to some people, but she is a big sissy and a complete couch potato. As a result of what she is bred for, to accompany a night watchman on his rounds, she requires about 30-40min of exercise a day and then is more than happy to lounge around and just be cute. 

If done carefully and thoughtfully, bringing home a dog to it's "forever home" can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. If you are considering adding a fuzzy buddy to your life please do so carefully. The dogs in our shelters need homes, not kennel mates.

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