When I presented recently at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference in Warwick, Rhode Island, attendees were brought in via a bit of false advertising — my “Treibball for Pot-Bellied Pigs” presentation wasn’t actually about Treibball. Due to time constraints, there was no way these pigs would have time to learn Treibball.
Instead, I tweaked the presentation, titling it “How is a Pig Like a Border Collie? The Importance of Play in Behavior Modification and Management.” As the animals that participated were rescued pot-bellied pigs who now lived as pets, I did some research on pet pigs and found out that 25 to 50 percent ended up rehomed by age one. One of the rescue representatives shook her head sadly and said, “I think the number is actually much higher.” Those numbers are startlingly similar to statistics thrown out by dog rescue organizations. Why are these animals losing their homes?
My theory is that “cuteness kills.” Virtually all of the rehoming situations I’ve encountered in dogs are related to one key aspect — people purchasing a dog based on cuteness. Baby pigs? Adorable! But eventually, that baby may grow to 200-plus pounds of animal. While the owners may have hoped for a cute pet, the pig hopes to spend the majority of her waking hours engaging in foraging behaviors with a herd of conspecifics (other pigs). These are things that pigs like to do, and when they don’t get adequate acceptable outlets for these needs, they’ll create their own, like digging up the carpet, the flower bed, or your prize-winning lawn. The pig is then deemed “bad,” when in fact she is only engaging in natural behaviors.
Similarly, Border Collies were meant to live on farms, working when they were not sleeping. A former client purchased a Border Collie at a petstore and was quickly overwhelmed by the dog’s fear issues (likely a product of her puppy mill and/or pet store heritage) and her energy level. The dog ended up spending long hours tied up in the backyard. “We needed to get her out of our hair so we could get some work done,” the client told me. The puppy, bored and alone, also decided to get some work done, and tasked herself with chewing through her tether — and was later found in the road, hit by a car.
While rescues and shelters advocate giving a dog a second chance on life, I recommend that we all consider it preferable to give dogs (and other animals) the best first chance. Buying a dog that looks cute but is totally inappropriate for your family is like buying a Mini Cooper when you have a family of five. Good-looking? Sure. Functional? Absolutely not.
With rare exceptions, the most frustrated pet owners I see have spent months or years trying to figure this out. I see elderly owners with mobility issues, who really need a couch potato dog, bringing home German Shepherd puppies and then being driven mad. I get first-time dog owners with young children who buy a Labrador or Golden Retriever — and are inevitably shocked to find out the dog may require just as much attention as their kids.
These people aren’t bad dog owners or shouldn’t have dogs, but they probably shouldn’t have these dogs. All my clients love their dogs, or they wouldn’t be seeing me for help. But love, unfortunately, isn’t enough to keep these animals in their homes.
Whenever I meet an animal, I always think, “What kind of life would this creature choose for herself if given the opportunity?” I then try to replicate, to the best of my ability, those options. For the pigs in Providence, I wanted to teach the owners how to provide acceptable outlets for natural drives. If you have a terrier who likes digging in the yard, perhaps we can establish a digging pit or find a way to get the dog enrolled in Earthdog events. For that urban Border Collie, perhaps we can get the dog engaged in agility, flyball, or Treibball. Bloodhound going bonkers? Tracking or nosework might be a great activity.
Have a dog that is constantly nosing around on counters for food? Let’s get that food in boxes and begin playing nosework! Cat climbing your furniture? Let’s introduce cat furniture and trees and provide elevated surfaces which she is not only allowed, but encouraged to explore, scratch, and climb on.
The key concept of my presentation was that “unemployment + unnatural environment = victims of the system.” What this means is that an animal taken from its natural environment without acceptable and plentiful acceptable outlets for natural drives will end up in the sheltering and rescue system. It’s a sad day when animals are considered “bad” for doing what comes naturally.
Training can do amazing things, but it can’t change who an animal is in its soul. Impulse buys never work well when animals are involved, and usually result in a lot of emotional suffering for the people and animals. This is perhaps the ultimate “culture clash,” and is a significant contributing factor to the problem of companion animal homelessness. I wish that all animals were sold with a one-to-three-month waiting period, just to weed out some of the impulse buyers. When animals are adopted out with regard to nothing except who has the money, it rarely if ever works well for the animal.
While you may certainly find all personality types within a given breed of dog, failing to pay attention to breed characteristics and assuming your dog can be trained to be the exception, rather than rule generally ends in heartache. If you take your dog to training class throughout the first year of its life, and if you pick a dog based on how it would fit your current lifestyle rather than on physical appearances or immediate availability, far fewer dogs would wind up in shelters.
Put at least as much thought into purchasing a dog as you put into purchasing a new car. Get an animal you can love for who he is, not for what you hope you can turn him into. Doing so may well mean the difference between a lifetime of happy companionship or facing the difficult decision to rehome your best friend.