When I got my first dog, Avon, I thought I knew what I was doing. I was almost 30, an animal behaviorist, and he was a Border Collie. Sure, he was about four years old, an unneutered male, a stray-leaning feral, and so manic he could not even hold eye contact for more than a split second. But overall we seemed pretty well matched: high energy, disheveled, and slightly chaotic, but basically well meaning and, most people would assume, fairly intelligent.
As everyone says when they first meet him: “Border Collies are so smart, aren’t they?” Besides, he had been within a few days of being euthanized, so I was saving a life. That kind of situation feeds a lot of justifications.
As it happens, Avon treated housetraining, walking on a leash, and most other obedience tasks with complete incomprehension. He specialized in rolling in the mud, peeing on people and killing mice. This last he did with humane efficiency using a technique veterinarians’ call cervical dislocation, and he was very proud of it. I had trouble being suitably impressed. Even though I prefer the rural cottage I lived in without the mice, I didn’t enjoy being presented with his fresh kills.
I took Avon to a dog-training class where the instructor immediately suggested that I use a choke collar; I wrote off the expense and never went back. But without using any shortcuts, it was almost a year before Avon walked well on the leash. So that trainer would probably have a basis for suggesting his approach might have been more effective. (I tried the Gentle Leader, too, but his snout shape meant it kept pressing into his eye sockets.)
Civilizing Avon was a long process that involved a lot of persistence and a drastic lowering of my expectations in some areas. He was not a great showcase of my training skills, but he taught me a hell of a lot about patience and not letting frustration get the best of me. And it certainly helped that he is one of the most eternally happy dogs I have ever met, which turned out to be what I needed in my life more than anything else.
Avon is not, I have explained to many people, a “typical” Border Collie. Avon is just Avon. And I was about to prove that I wasn’t always the sharpest tack in the box myself.
This year when I got my second dog, Vera, I thought I knew what I was doing. I had visited her with Avon, the Greyhound rescue had checked out my apartment, and I had set up my first vet appointment. Sure Vera was about four with an immune disorder that affected her gums, recently off the track, and seemed to find everything that was happening to her confusing and worrying. But I had researched Greyhounds and they were gentle, easy-going animals, so it was going to be fine. One research paper from 2008 even showed they were the least aggressive breed of all. It was all going to be fine.
Vera was beautiful on the leash, instantly housetrained, and quickly learned to conquer stairs, get into a car, come when called, and sit on command. On the other hand, she decided she was the only dog permitted to use anything she touched, from blankets to bowls to the entire sofa. This she did with snarling and biting directed at Avon, all of which he placidly ignored. If you touched her when she was sleeping, she would erupt in a fury of fearsome barking.
Also, she chewed everything. Books were her favorite, but also tools, picture frames, tubes of paint, shoes, furniture, baskets, junk mail, boxes and my wallet (where she came dangerous close to biting the debit cards that feed her). Instead of a placid dog, I had a skinny hound of the Baskervilles! I called the woman who had provided her foster home, and she seemed just as surprised as me that any Greyhound — let alone meek little Vera — would behave in such a way.
Only after I confiscated the blankets, cornered the market on bully sticks, and let Vera settle in did she become a very agreeable dog. She still shows her wild side occasionally, such as the night when a German Shepherd broke out of his yard and ran barking towards us. Before I could even react, Vera squared up to him, snarled and backed him up into his yard, so all I had to do was close the gate. Kudos to the 50-pound Greyhound.
But after all of this I learned, belatedly, one lesson. Breed stereotyping is not just about Pit Bulls. There is nothing wrong with knowing what common breed traits are, but don’t let those general guidelines become too set in your mind. Because even when we are celebrating a breed, we can be setting up unrealistic or overly rigid expectations.
Each dog is an individual. They may be very typical of their breed, or they may not. A Border Collie can be difficult to train; a Greyhound can be a tough cookie. Any dog is going to be just what he is. You can’t just make a breed-shaped box for them to fit into. Every dog needs a place in your household (and in your life) that she can move into and make uniquely her own.
About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).