The Marilyn Monroe Approach to Breed Selection
I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."
Was Marilyn Monroe speaking the thoughts of every dog on the planet with this sentiment? If you can't handle a dog at his worst, you don't deserve him at his best. Dog ownership is fantastic, but it is not all glitter, sunshine, rainbows, skittles, and unicorns. It's hard work. It's a commitment that lasts for years if not decades. Like with any worthwhile relationship, there are ups and downs, successes and setbacks, misunderstandings and frustrations all balanced by moments of intense joy and connection.
The misunderstandings and frustrations in this relationship can be minimized by selecting a canine companion that is right for you - one who appreciates and thrives in the type of home you are able to provide. While it is debatable whether the clich "opposites attract" holds true in human relationships, there is no debate over whether this applies to dog/human relationships - opposites do not attract. Couch potato people and hyperactive dogs do not generally mix well and this lifestyle discrepancy usually causes a lot of frustration for both canines and humans.
When someone mentions being interested in a particular breed of dog, they're usually well aware of the breed's favorable characteristics. They think the dog is "cute." They've heard dogs of this breed are very smart, good with children, appropriate for allergy sufferers, require little grooming, or tend to house train easily. They don't need me to tell them why they like the breed, that they already know. When you ask these individuals, "what do you see as the potential downfalls of this breed as it may fit into your family?" you are frequently greeted with a blank stare and an, "Ummmm....none?" response.
Sometimes we turn a blind eye to what we don't want to see. I once had a friend over who dressed quite nicely on one particular visit. She quietly sobbed, disgusted, wiping the 3.4 gallons of Saint slobber off her new outfit as she told me she hoped to one day have an English Mastiff. This girl hates slobber, HATES it. Maybe a big, jowly, slobbery dog is not the best fit for her? But they're so cute and I want a dog that is protective! Chihuahuas are protective, don't slobber, and would probably be a far better match for this particular individual. The heart wants what the brain doesn't.
Within any breed, you'll see many individuals who are very behaviorally stereotypical specimens as well as a number of anomalies. Occasionally, you'll find couch potato Jack Russels, Border Collies, or Belgian Malinois. You may find a Husky that doesn't want to run, stays in the yard without any training, and somehow missed the "pulling gene" which has been selected for over generations. You may find a sight hound with absolutely no desire to chase prey. Perhaps there are Boxers which don't try jumping up to greet people as their first, second, and third strategy for attention-getting. There are silent Shelties (or so I've heard, I'm still waiting to meet one that doesn't love the sound of her own voice!), Chows who will hang on their owner's every word, thrive in a loud, insane household with children running around and grabbing at them all the time and desperately wish to do therapy work (again, I've yet to meet such a creature but I assume they exist), Cattle Dogs who would never dream of nipping a heel to control movement, Labs who are refined, delicate creatures with tails that will never destroy delicate household treasures, terriers who would rather perform a down/stay while the family's pet rat crawls all over their back than eat said rat, Beagles and Bassets who don't spend 99.978% of their lives with their noses glued to the ground, etc.
While these individuals do exist, they are not the norm. Behavior professionals are doing dog owners a disservice if they gloss over the things that might set a potential dog/handler team up for disaster.
When a pet owner mentions a particular breed to me, I frequently point out the things about that breed that would be considered a "turn off" by most dog owners. It's the Marilyn Monroe approach - if you can't handle a dog of "x breed" at her worst, you don't deserve her at her best.
I get this all the time with both of my dogs. People see Mokie and want a Chow or Chow mix. They don't realize that she is fiercely independent and that every time she tolerates a stranger touching her, it is as a personal favor to me, a trained behavior, and that if she had her druthers, no stranger would ever be blessed with the privilege that is stroking Her Royal Chowness. She practically rolls her eyes as if to say, "I hope you appreciate this nonsense!" They don't realize that if you looked up "dog that doesn't give a crap about pleasing anyone but herself" in the dictionary, you would see her beautiful, shining face illustrating the concept. I swear this dog performs a cost-benefit analysis for every single thing you ask her to do, and exemplifies the Chow "what's in it for me and why should I?" attitude of this breed.
They see Cuba and don't realize that in a few months, I will be back to cleaning slobber off my ceilings. That he will be able to reach anything I can reach, including bread on top of the microwave six feet off the ground. That twice a year, my dogs shed the equivalent of a Sheltie at least three times a week. They see a cute, clumsy puppy and forget that he will grow into a dog that weighs more than I and could easily overpower me, a dog that requires extensive and exceptional training to be an asset, rather than a danger, to his family and community (not to mention my business).
Many of the things other dog owners would dislike about living with a Chow or a Saint are a part of what attract me to them as a pet parent. Hey, different strokes, right?
We all crave different things in a dog. While it's important to keep in mind what you do want when you are searching for the right breed, it's equally important to keep in mind what you don't want. Look beyond a cute puppy face and into your breed of choice's historical development - what is the purpose of this breed? What were they created to do? Breed history provides valuable insight into breed specific behavioral tendencies.
A breed that was meant to run 25 miles a day, herd sheep in close connection with a handler or hunt in the field for long days is not likely to be happy in a home where he is crated for eleven hours a day and gets a twenty minute walk whenever someone can pencil it in. These types of needs imbalances create behavior problems - if you can't provide him with the stimulation he needs, he'll do the job himself, usually in ways you do not approve of like eating your antique sideboard, laptop, or dissertation, herding your children, climbing on your table to consume the family dinner when you turn your back for five seconds, digging under or chewing through your fence, or barking for twenty two hours a day.
The moral of the story? Research is good, impulse is bad. Don't buy a Porsche if your family needs a minivan. Be honest with yourself when you get a dog, remember that a sentient creature's life depends on your wise decision.