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What Kind of Dog do you Drive?

Bringing a new dog into your household is a big deal. It’s a long-term commitment that may last fifteen or more years. The type of dog you choose will influence your life in a big way. So why do so many people put less thought into bringing home a dog than they do into purchasing a car?

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Recently, I invited Kim Brophey to journey to freezing Minnesota for a seminar on her DRIVE program. What if we put the same thought into bringing a dog into our lives that we do into buying a vehicle?

Obviously, dogs aren’t cars. Dogs are individual, sentient beings with unique personalities. Just as you’re not identical to your siblings, one dog from a given breed or group will not be exactly the same as the last one you knew. Asking which breed is the best for you misses the point. However, asking which type of dog would smooth most easily into your life is a very, very good idea.

So, which type of dog should you drive?

Hybrid: the mixed-breed dog is often one of the best options for those new to dog ownership or those who need an uncomplicated family companion. Dogs who are so mixed that their heritage can’t even be guessed at tend to be fairly balanced and healthy. Nature’s a great fixer, and if we give nature a few generations to smooth away the rough edges caused by the small gene pools often found in purebreds, we often end up with wonderful dogs.

Scooter: the scooters of the dog world are the toy dogs bred for companionship. These dogs smooth easily into many different lifestyles. While they tend to idle high, their upkeep is fairly simple and they can be driven by a wide variety of people. They may not be the most practical choice for country life due to the risk of predation, but are otherwise able to thrive in many different environments. It’s harder to get in serious trouble with a scooter simply because of its size.

ATV: like all-terrain vehicles, partner hunters such as the sporting breed dogs are quite easy to drive, as long as you’re willing to take them off-road regularly. As long as their exercise needs are addressed, these dogs tend to be simple for anyone to own. Bred to work closely with their human companions and to look to people for guidance, these dogs are easily trained and cared for.

Dirt Bike: Quick and flexible, able to get into tight spaces and a bit racy, small terriers are much like dirt bikes. Expect to get a bit dirty if you own one, but if you’re ready for the ride you can have a lot of fun. These dogs may require a few lessons to drive appropriately, and they’re certainly not for everyone. If you’re going to be horrified when your dog revs up and kills a small critter or digs up your yard, you may want to look into tamer scooters, which have a similar look without so much need for speed.

Train: hounds are the trains of the dog world… after all, they run on tracks! In all seriousness though, hounds tend to be simple to operate as long as their driver understands that they may take a while to stop once they get up a full head of steam. Sighthounds are the commuter trains of the dog world, while scenthounds are more like freight trains – just a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges.

Cop car: “Where have you been? Do you know how fast you were going? Show me your license!” Owners of herding-breed dogs will be familiar with these cars. Driving a cop car requires that you be able to give your deputy consistent work and instruction, but if you’re up for the task they can be wonderful partners. These dogs crave direction. They’re constantly aware of their surroundings and able to keep tabs on everything going on at all times, so if you have a laid-back personality that doesn’t enjoy that constant state of readiness, you may want to consider a different vehicle.

SWAT car: like a cop car on steroids, working dogs with a military, war, or police background take hypervigilance to a new extreme. These dogs require very consistent direction from a competent leader. Expect them to be suspicious of new people, animals, and things. These aren’t dogs who will be everyone’s friend, and expecting them to love everybody is simply unrealistic. However, if you want a loyal companion who will always have your back, and if you have the time and effort to put into training and socialization, these dogs can be amazing partners.

Tank: you wouldn’t drive a tank to work every day unless you had a very specialized job that required it, and livestock-guarding or other guard breeds are quite similar. A bit too much for a city environment without special considerations, they can be indispensable for flock or property guardianship. These dogs don’t get fired up about much, but when they do they’re ready to do what it takes to defend against the enemy. Tanks are great for experienced drivers who need that level of firepower, noise, and loyalty, but tend to be a poor choice for inexperienced drivers.

Hot rod: sexy and responsive, bully breeds are the hot rods of the dog world. They can function much like a normal car most of the time, but in the right conditions they’ll go 0-60 in mere seconds. Arousal can be a problem for these dogs, and in inexperienced hands that don’t know how to handle such a big engine they could cause accidents. Drivers should understand how to keep their dog away from the starting line and consider lessons in driving such a powerful car.

Dragon: it’s impossible to drive a dragon, and owners of primitive, Nordic, and Asian breeds understand this well. However, if you can form a bond with your dragon, you’re in for the ride of your life. These dogs are smart and capable. In fact, if people all disappeared tomorrow, these are the dogs who would not only survive, but thrive. That said, they’re not a good choice for most people. Dragons are never going to be perfectly obedient, and they don’t tolerate manhandling. They’re likely to use their amazing problem-solving abilities for their own benefit, which may often run counter to your own wishes. If you have a specific destination in mind, there are much easier vehicles available to get you there, but if you’re okay taking the scenic route you and your dragon can go on great journeys together.

So, what kind of dog do you currently drive? What kind of vehicle would be best for you in the future? Do you feel like these descriptions are accurate? Please share in the comments below!

Lessons From Layla

This article (reposted from the Paws Abilities website) was the winner of the 2008 Dogwise John Fisher Essay award and scholarship.

The first time Layla saw a squirrel, she screamed and leapt on top of my head. This was no small feat, since she was all of 11 pounds at the time, and I stand 5’6” tall. As she scrabbled for purchase against my shoulders and ears, screaming in frustration at the squirrel in the tree above my head, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Several tempting treats lay forgotten on the ground, snubbed by a 16-week-old baby in favor of climbing me like a ladder. What had I gotten myself into?

Unfortunately, this was not to be a freak occurrence. Over the next several weeks, the tiny puppy snapped two collars going after the local wildlife. Her eyes would glaze over in response to the smell of a rabbit or squirrel, and it wasn’t long before she caught and killed her first chipmunk. The best treats I could come up with still paled in comparison with the chance to go after some little critter. Braunschweiger, liver, salami, and fish were all offered and rejected. I bought thicker collars and kept the puppy on a leash or drag-line at all times outside. We stopped trying to train in the unfenced backyard, where Layla’s eyes would get that crazed look and her whole body would tremble with the need to run and hunt. Her heart rate would shoot up to 160 beats a minute – twice the normal rate for her – and it would take her a half hour to calm back down after going inside.

I was told by several trainers that I needed to work on our relationship. The fact that my puppy would choose killing something furry over spending time with me meant that I didn’t have a strong enough bond with her. I had already put Layla on a “nothing in life is free” program due to some concerns expressed by her previous homes upon surrendering her to the shelter. Even at sixteen weeks, she had bitten multiple times out of fear and had a history of guarding food and toys from both people and other animals. She slept in a crate and was not let out of my sight when loose in the house. She worked for her meals with several fun, fast-paced training sessions a day. My other dog, a patient Labrador mix, was thrilled to have a puppy of his own, and the two dogs wore themselves out with multiple play sessions daily. The puppy was given ample exercise, and went to sleep each night exhausted. I thought I was doing everything right. I was absolutely stumped.

It was not hard to transfer the young dog’s high prey drive to toys. Teaching her to fetch and tug was a snap, and her high motivation to play with the toys made it easy to teach her a solid ‘leave it’. Plush toys on a rope were another favorite, and I soon had a collection of fun rewards built up, which I put to use in her day-to-day training. I entered my adolescent whirlwind in agility classes, and she took to the exercises with unbounded enthusiasm – as long as there weren’t any chipmunks outside the fenced-in agility field.

We added in more and more non-food rewards to our repertoire. Layla loved running to her crate and slamming herself down inside it, so that too became a valued reward (and a good way to give her a break when she was getting too amped up). Due to her unstable upbringing as a puppy, she was fearful of children and women with grey hair. Not a problem – rather than asking her to interact with these people, brave behavior around them would earn her a click and the chance to run away from the people to the safety of her crate, or turn away from them and get a treat from me instead. Within a few months of practice with three willing neighbor kids, she was comfortable interacting with each of the children, even taking treats from their hands with a soft mouth and loose, relaxed body.

Of course, as a professional trainer I had heard of the Premack principle before and used the theory to help me put together some fun training games. The principle states that a highly preferred activity can be used effectively as a reward for a less preferred activity (i.e. eat your broccoli and you can have some cake). But it wasn’t until Layla was almost two years old that I was convinced to try the idea with her to work on her uncontrollable predatory responses. I spoke with my veterinarian before I began training, to verify that my dog’s physiological response to prey was safe – I was concerned that her heart rate jumped so high and took so long to drop after being in the backyard. After getting the go-ahead from the vet, I took a deep breath and began training.

The first several sessions in the backyard were excruciating for me. Layla was thrilled to go there, where her eyes would immediately glaze over and her body begin shaking. We coined a new term for the intense head-to-tail trembling: “Laylaquaking”. I put Layla on a body harness and a soft, strong, six-foot leash. We stood at the edge of the yard, and she sniffed the air and quaked, leaning into the leash. I just waited. After several long moments, Layla’s eyes flicked towards me. Click! We took several steps further into the yard, towards the woods. Again we waited. Layla backed up in frustration but remained focused on the woods. Finally, her eyes slid in slow motion from the line of trees to meet my gaze. Click! Another few steps. The first session lasted just a few minutes before I pried my entranced dog away from her predatory fantasies and went back inside. After about twenty minutes of calming down, the exhausted dog took a nap.

I needed a lot of reassurance from other professionals in the field during those first few sessions. It seemed so counterintuitive to me to let this voracious dog practice the stalking part of a predatory sequence. After all, doesn’t practice make perfect? Layla clearly didn’t need any more practice to become a skilled hunter – she already had a long history of killing (and often eating) furry prey. The very low rate of reinforcement – as long as two minutes between clicks – also seemed backwards and ineffective. But at this point, I was willing to try anything. I took another look at my training plan. It was impossible to split my criteria any further. Layla was able to work happily to the front and sides of the house, and there was no gradual progression towards her extreme response. If she could see the woods, she was unreachable. If she couldn’t see the woods, she was fine. Ping-ponging between the sides and back of the house just frustrated her and sent her more over-threshold, resulting in monkey screams that brought the neighbors to their windows. And that brief second of eye contact seemed to be smallest bit of attention that she offered – her ears always remained pricked towards the woods, so I wasn’t even able to capture an ear flicking towards me.

After just two weeks of daily practice, Layla was able to back away from the woods and sit by my side, holding eye contact for five seconds. After three weeks, we were able to progress all the way to the edge of the woods in just 15 minutes, where the excited dog would follow scent trails towards a cluster of rabbit holes. Two months into it, Layla was able to tug in the backyard, and a few weeks later she swallowed her first treat within sight of the woods. I began to work her on a long line, asking for simple heeling or brief stays before releasing her to run along the edge of the woods and take in the smells.

A fascinating new book, Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, helped to reassure me that I was on the right path. Rather than being in conflict with a dog over something the dog wanted or needed to do, McDevitt recommended presenting access to these distractions in a structured way to further a dog’s training program. Dogs who were concerned about the proximity of other dogs were taught to glance at those nearby canines who concerned them from a distance and on cue, as part of a game structure called “Look at That.” Dogs who would become stressed during agility training and respond by disconnecting and sniffing the ground were asked to do one or two simple behaviors, then released to go sniff. Soon the dogs stopped worrying about the nearby dogs and started refusing to go take “sniff breaks,” choosing instead to stay connected with the handler and continue training. I was intrigued.

Suddenly, I started to see opportunities for rewards everywhere. My students were first suspicious, then delighted to find that releasing their dogs to “misbehave” actually helped the dogs become more attentive. A goofy adolescent Labrador puppy in one class was struggling with relaxation and stay exercises outside. She would hold still for several seconds, taking treats from her owner with a wildly rotating tail, then explode upwards and bound in circles around the hapless lady. Releasing the dog to zoom around on-leash after a successful stay gave the puppy the activity she needed, and allowed the owner to regain control of the situation and feel less frustrated. A young Beagle in the same class was fascinated by the myriad smells in the grass, and would disconnect from his owner to take in the fascinating scents while heeling. Not a problem! Releasing the dog to go sniff after several steps of heeling soon resulted in an attentive, connected dog. Within a couple minutes, the Beagle’s owner was able to drop the leash and was amazed to find her dog happily working alongside her, ignoring the fascinating scents on the ground and the other dogs working nearby.

Anybody who lives or works with dogs on a daily basis understands the amazing complexity of these sentient beings. We will never know exactly how dogs experience emotions or whether their experiences are comparable to ours, but it is clear that dogs have distinct personalities, just as we do. Each dog is an individual, and the more we can work with our dogs rather than against them, the more we find out about their motivations and values. Just like people, some dogs are more fearful and tentative, some more curious and outgoing. Some dogs are mild-mannered while others are impulsive. Patient training can influence a dog’s ability to control their emotions, just as practice can help a person learn to be less spontaneous.

Looking at the curriculum for many of the pet dog classes I teach, I can see that I need to learn to be more fluid. Fitting each dog into a cookie-cutter mold is harmful to the dog-human bond. Even using gentle methods based on positive reinforcement, if I ask a dog-handler team to do an exercise that one of the team members is not capable of, I am responsible for harming that team’s relationship. My students depend on me to help them learn how to communicate with an entirely different species. That is no small task! In no other profession is someone asked to teach a brand new skill to two naïve members of two entirely different species at the same time. If a student leaves my class knowing nothing more than how to truly watch their canine companion and listen to what she is saying, I will consider their graduation a success. Obedience will come in time. Understanding and empathy cannot be taught, only encouraged.

As for Layla and I? The other night as we were walking, we came across a rabbit crouched under a bush just a few feet away. The rabbit froze, as did my dog and I. Layla backed up a few steps and looked at me steadily, her body tense in anticipation. Smiling, I quietly released her, and together we chased the rabbit several feet down the street before I gently pulled up on her leash. Then we resumed our walk together, content to spend time with one another and happy with the close bond that true understanding brings.