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Dog Behavior and temperament – Where do you draw the line?

Dog Behavior - Once you fully understand why you need a dog, and have assessed the space where your dog will be living, it’s time to consider the doggy traits and behaviors that you absolutely can’t live with. It’s important to know this before you ever get a dog. Take out a second piece of paper and write down the things that you really don’t want your new dog to do.

If you have children (or even if you don’t) a vicious dog is an obvious example. Even nippers can leave children with a life-long distaste for dogs. An overly shy dog would also be a poor choice, because fear biters can be as dangerous as an aggressive animal. Dogs have teeth, and it takes only a few seconds for a child to be scarred for life, emotionally and physically.

Other unacceptable behaviors can include excessive digging if you have a beautifully landscaped yard, chewing if you have nice furniture, yapping or barking that keeps you, and the neighbors, awake at night. It can also include dominant behaviors such as an unwillingness to follow the lead of any human in the house, or a need to dominate the children or women who live there. If the dog needs to be taken for walks, he needs to accept a leash and the direction of his owners. If he won’t, the walks will be miserable experiences for the human he drags behind him. Some dogs can’t walk on a lead because no one ever taught them how. Some refuse to learn.

If you have children you may not want your new dog to exhibit classic herding behaviors that cause some dogs to nip at the flank of the kids in their “flock.” Or you may not want a dog that is so loyal to your children that it mistakenly assumes the neighbor’s child is picking on yours – a little fun roughhousing between boys can lead to a bite on the friend’s rear end if your dog is overprotective. Australian shepherds are famous for taking their child-guarding job a bit too seriously, but they are by no means the only ones.

Many people choose an older dog because he doesn’t need to be housebroken. Unfortunately, some older dogs have never been inside a house, especially if they are retiring from a puppy mill or if they’ve been tied in someone’s back yard.
Other small dogs have been indoor pets living with people who accepted their poor bathroom habits (don’t ask me why.)Their time for easy housetraining may be long past. This is obviously rare, but it’s important to put it on the list and ask before you bring your new dog home.

Consider your own prejudices about dogs, and respect them. There may be specific traits, behaviors, or even breeds that you don’t want to live with. You may not want a dog with long hair, for instance, because the shedding and grooming don’t appeal to you. If you don’t want a long-haired dog, know that in advance – there’s no point in bringing home a Yorkie and then finding out that you can’t spend the hours it takes to keep the beautiful coat in good condition. If you think bulldogs are ugly, bring home something else. You get the point.
You may not want a specific breed because you were frightened by a dog of that breed when you were a child.

My brother and his wife have four dogs on their farm, large and small, of four different tailless breeds. They don’t want a shaggy tail dragging mud into their house, or knocking things off the coffee table.

I once met a Labrador retriever who presented me with a six-foot long 2X4 and begged me to play fetch. When I didn’t respond quickly enough, I got whanged in the shins with the Lab’s “stick.” I have held on to a prejudice against Labs ever since – it may not be reasonable, but it’s there. I can also remember Grundoon, a cocker spaniel mix that we had when I was a child. Grundoon’s favorite game was chewing on the top of my head and pulling my hair whenever I tried to lie on the grass on sunny days. As you can imagine, I have a few prejudices against cocker spaniels, too.

If you have such a prejudice, let it be – there are hundreds of other breeds out there. If you really don’t like or can’t tolerate a dog because of past experiences, there’s nothing wrong with admitting it.

Once you’ve created a list of unwanted behaviors, put a checkmark next to any behaviors that could be changed with training. And remember – we’re talking about you doing the training unless you’re willing (and can afford) a professional dog trainer who can handle problem dogs.

Try to be as realistic as possible – an older dog can be housebroken, but it isn’t easy, and it may not happen until the carpets need to be replaced. A husky that was allowed to pull his former owner across the park at breakneck speed can be taught to heal in a civilized manner by a skilled and patient trainer – but can you do it or are you willing to hire a professional?

Remember – the world is awash in dogs. There is no reason to accept behaviors or traits that you don’t like, since the perfect dog is out there, willing and desperate to share your home. You may have to do some fine-tuning with additional training, but a complete makeover shouldn’t be necessary. It may not even be possible.

If you paid attention to me while reading the last chapter, you may already have a good book on training your new dog.

The time to buy and study a book on obedience training is actually before you find your dog. Take the time to go through several books at the local bookshop, and find a training book that has a philosophy that appeals to you. One excellent book that I highly recommend is How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend: The Classic Training Manual for Dog Owners, by the Monks of New Skete. The monks raise and train German shepherds, and have become world famous for their training and breeding methods. If you have a soft heart and liked what you saw in the movie The Horse Whisperer, you may prefer the book by Jan Fennell, called The Dog Listener: Learn How to Communicate with Your Dog for Willing Cooperation.

Either of these books will give you a good understanding of what a well-trained person can do with a dog. You may find that the process of training a fine dog is as enjoyable as any other creative pursuit. You’ll certainly get a fine understanding of what is involved in the process of helping your new dog learn his new rules. These books will also give a good idea of how much is involved in re-training a dog who has learned problem behaviors, and what is involved in the process of working with an aggressive or dominant dog. Armed with this information, you’ll be better able to choose a dog that falls within your own scope of expertise.