A thorough answer to this question is too complicated for any one article, but it’s a common and important one. Actually, the question I am usually asked is this: “What breed of dog should we get?” The quick answer is simple: “It’s not about the breed.”
Well, but, of course it is in some ways. A working-line Border Collie in a small apartment with three children under the age of 7? Perhaps not. (Of course, one needs to say in this case “Let’s talk about why you want a dog in the first place, at least right now.”) Perhaps a Labrador/Mastiff cross for your 90-year old grandfather? Maybe not. So yes, breed, in terms of size and activity level, among a few other things, is relevant.
But as important is the deeper question, which is: Who do you want your dog to be? What made your last dog the best dog you’ve ever had? (Or vice versa.) It wasn’t necessarily because it was a Sheltie or a Boxer or a Dachshund. It was because he was the happiest dog you’ve ever met. Or because she was the sweetest one, who loved everyone of every species. Or was a clown who was often disobedient but funnier than hell and got you laughing and what could be more important than that?
So that’s the first question I think needs to be asked. Who do you want your dog to be? A super cuddly dog? A silly, trickster of a dog who steals the dirty laundry but makes you laugh every day? An active dog that loves to learn new things? Dig deep: What made you happy about your last dog, and what do you need to do to try to find that again?
As an example, here was my criteria when we were looking for a dog after Willie died: I wanted a happy, expressive dog, because happy, expressive dogs make me happy. I wanted a dog that Maggie liked and could play with, because it’s great exercise for her and watching dogs play makes me happy. I wanted a dog who had experience working sheep so I wasn’t starting from the ground up, and I wanted a dog who wasn’t thunder phobic, because we live in thunder alley. When Skip’s previous owner said, during our first phone conversation about him, “He’s the happiest dog I’ve ever known,” I hung up and booked flights to go meet him. And because I knew what mattered most to me, we kept Skip even though he has a malformed heart, is cat obsessed and not as far along in his sheepdog training as expected. And I simply don’t care. Neither of those problems were enough to out weigh the fact that he is indeed the Mr. Rogers of dogs, loves to play with Maggie and work sheep, and is easily conditioned to ignore thunder. (Maggie and Skip adore each other, but see last week’s post about the saga of getting Maggie and Skip to play well together, some things do take time.)
The questions that follow, in my experience, need to be specific. Very specific. There’s little information in the answer to “Is he friendly?” He could be uber friendly to his family, and truly dangerous to visitors. Rather than asking a general question, the question needs to be precise, as in: “What would he do if an unfamiliar man wearing a coat and hat walked into the house unannounced?” “Is he good with kids” needs to be drilled down to “If he had a bone and a 2-year old child tried to take it away, what do you think he’d do?” Granted, many owners, rescues, or foster homes aren’t going to be able to answer that question, so if they say “I honestly don’t know,” give them points for honesty. If they say, “Oh, I’m sure he’d be fine because he always lets my husband take his toys away,” they are telling you that they don’t know.
Because every home is different, it’s hard to create a generic list for everyone, but there are some basics things to ask about that relate to common, potential problems. Do we know if the dog is relaxed when left alone? (And does the place he is living now know the answer to that if they have other dogs in the house and the dog is never really alone?) Is the dog’s body loose and mouth relaxed when you reach for a toy or piece of food? If a large male dog ran up to yours on the sidewalk, what would the dog in question do? Can you predict something that would make your dog growl?
In other words, think through your life, and sort out the difference between what would be nice versus the deal breakers, and go from there. Think through what common behavior problems you’re fine handling, and which ones you are not. Ask yourself what you easily forgave a former dog for, and what you never want to deal with again. (That said, pretty much every one who has had multiple dogs will tell you about the one dog who was exactly who they didn’t want that they ended up falling in love with . . . But still, even those stories have lots of information in them, right?)
I could write forever on this topic, but today has turned into one of those days, and I’m simply out of time. But I’m confident that you’ll add to this with your own thoughts and experiences. If you are presently looking to adopt a dog who has had a previous home, be sure to read the comments as the days go on; there will be a wealth of information in them. You might also want to check out the book that Karen London and I wrote, Love Has No Age Limit, about bringing an adopted dog into your home.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Snow. Cold. More snow. Colder cold. Snow. Colder than colder cold. Not that it’s starting to drive me crazy or anything. Thirteen below Farenheit this morning, high about 3. It’s been well over two weeks since it’s been way too cold, so much so that my poor dogs have signs of frostbite on their paws. (Look for areas on the pads that are lighter in color, even white or yellowish, assuming they are normally black.) I feel truly awful that I didn’t check their paws sooner. The few times the dogs raised their paws, as dogs do when it’s very cold and their paws start to burn, I took them in right away. And they only did it once or twice. But while working on their nail trimming (going great! videos to come next week), I noticed pale patches on their pads, sure signs of frost bite. Skip’s are worse than Maggie’s, but either way, given today’s high of 3 or 4, I’m using Musher’s Secret, just delivered, before they go outside (very briefly, just to potty) and Udder Balm also twice a day cuz it’s great for dry, chapped areas. I am on the hunt for booties (out just about everywhere I look but, hey, what else am I going to do given the weather?) and working on forgiving myself for letting this happen. I have a way to go on that front.
Waaaay too cold to take photos outside, so here’s a little cheer from the farm house:
My amaryllis continue to make me happy, with a second set of buds from the same plant.
Jim gets a million points for bringing me gorgeous flowers for Valentine’s Day. He knows how to get to my heart!
Ah, but I know how to get to his, right through his stomach. I made a different kind of no-knead bread yesterday, and it’s pretty damn good if I do say so myself. (Recipe from Cooks Illustrated, “Almost No Knead Bread.”)
Last, just for a laugh, I spent some time yesterday, during our “lock down within the lock down,” going through old photo albums. Thought you might get a laugh out of a photo page from my first wedding album. That tan guy beside me, (I’m the ridiculously young blond girl-woman), is my former husband, Doug McConnell, a well-known environmental journalist in the Bay area. He and his wife, Kathy, came to visit in the Before Times, and all four of us had a fantastic time. (Yeah, that’s where the name “McConnell” came from.) The man with glasses is the middle is my Daddy, George Clarke Bean. Miss him bunches.
I’m off to try to create home-made booties for Skip, who has no idea what all this fuss is about and why I keep massaging his paws.
I hope you are managing throughout this current weather drama without too much trouble yourself. Do please add your experience and wisdom to the question of “what to ask” before adopting a dog. People will read your comments for many years to come, and be grateful for them. As will I.