Part 1 in a series about raising awesome, calm dogs.
I was walking our Berners, Tank and Nellie, one morning. Over the hill came another couple with an older Lab. Our dogs immediately went crazy. The Lab just looked at them as if they had a screw loose.
The man yelled down (in a nice, yet subtly judgmental voice) “Did your dogs flunk puppy class?”
Sigh. When I was eleven, our German Shepherd named Shawnee and I got kicked out of puppu class. The truth of the matter is that every dog I’ve had since Shawnee has struggled or failed in puppy class.
Maybe, I thought, it’s me…
“Bomb-proof: Not easily frightened, able to calmly deal with new situations and stimuli, won’t go through screen doors when the UPS guy arrives or jump up on my mom.”What, I asked myself, was the secret—that I had apparently missed—to raising bomb-proof dogs?
Time to do research! I talked to two of my favorite dog people, Joey Padilla of Santa Fe Tails and Jill Felice of Assistance Dogs of the West. They are studied and deeply experienced in the art of raising puppies to become great, bomb-proof dogs.
And I immediately discovered that the quest for this kind of dog starts long before you bring a puppy home.
“Bomb-proof” starts with breeding.
Consulting the Experts
“Genetics are more important than training,” Jill told me. “Our dogs need to be ‘no-failure’ dogs because of the people we work with. They are folks with disabilities, veterans with PTSD and people with significant anxiety. It’s like dogs in the military. To have a dog willing to jump out of an airplane at 10,000 feet with his trainer requires a no-failure dog. We work with dogs who are bred for the right temperament: calm and confident. The dogs we work with have to come on to the planet with patience.”
Joey was even more blunt. “If we want bomb-proof dogs, it starts with breeders. They need to be licensed, and breeders need to stop breeding dogs for looks and start breeding for behavior.”
Although, according to the ASPCA, the majority of dogs are acquired through friends and family, approximately thirty percent of dogs come from breeders, and another 30 percent from shelters.
I’ll cover the amazing process of choosing a shelter dog in part three of this series. But here are some things to think about if you are planning on acquiring a life-time friend through a breeder.
1. Don’t acquire a life partner animal on an impulse. Never do that! Resist! A puppy bonds with you, and if you break that bond, it can be devastating for the dog…and for you.
2. Understand that having a puppy means devoting time every day to training and nurturing it. Seriously, at least an hour a day of training and bonding, which doesn’t include you watching TV and leaving your puppy in a crate.
3. Do your research! What kind of dog or breed fits your lifestyle? Do you want a companion that will outrun you on the trail, or one that will out sleep you on a rainy Sunday while you nap on the couch (like Tank and Nellie with my wife in this photo)? Don’t get a Jack Russell and expect it to nap with you. As Jill emphasized, no amount of training will change the essential nature of a dog. Nellie and Tank will never “fetch.” In Berner mind, it’s way too much work for no food. And “fetching” is beneath them. They believe they were meant to hang out and be loved.
4. Do your research on the breeder. Are they licensed? Are they local? Joey, for example, will not fly puppies by themselves because it is too stressful. Joey and his family will drive out of state to get the right dog, because the bonding can begin immediately, and he’s able to see the breeder’s home. Also—let’s hammer home this point—getting a canine partner is a big deal! Taking a day or two to drive and bring your puppy home is a small investment for a lifetime of dog-love. Joey will also not work with a breeder who doesn’t have kids. Puppies who have early exposure to kids will not be frightened by them later on.
5. Look for temperament! If you’re like me (the snowy day on the couch guy), once you’ve determined the right breed, then look for the calmest puppy in the litter. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for the dog that will keep up with your athletic kids, get the one that climbed over the barrier to lick their faces.
In the next column I’ll write about training that puppy to be bomb-proof when you bring her home. Here’s a hint: It’s a “hands-on” job.