Friday, November 4, 2011

Why my dog's better than yours

Just after Thanksgiving weekend, I accepted a new roommate:  a Shepherd/Lab cross, a golden-tan colour except for her muzzle and one spot on the top side of her tail, long-legged, about 60 pounds the last time she was weighed.  Her name is Dixie.

She's already survived her first life-or-death crisis.  She was on death row when I adopted her, because someone wanted to be rid of her.

Granted, I'd been a little concerned about adopting.  I asked myself all sorts of questions, like, what if she was abused, and what if she barks a lot, and what if she's too big for me to handle or what if she bites?  It was an odd circumstance, too, the way I adopted her.  I only had a photo to go from.  She was like a blind date, or a mail-order bride.  I didn't know what she wanted to eat, or what she would like in terms of treats; what might upset her stomach or give her diarrhea; I didn't know anything!  But I took a chance, and I was pleased with the results.

The hair around her lips is white - it's not foam, I promise.  I call it her milk mustache.
Dixie loves napping under my desk, preferably on her back and in uncomfortable contortions, and usually with her eyes open.  If she can make some kind of contact with me while she sleeps, she's in seventh heaven - right now, she's asleep on my foot.  And she sighs in a most eerily human fashion.  When she can't get to sleep (i.e. when the neighbours are too loud, or I'm reading in bed), she'll groan loudly and pathetically before rolling over and trying again.  Scary days (like trips to the vet) mean nightmarish naps, complete with whimpers, whines, groans, and running feet.

When I sit at my desk, she naps - which has really shown me how much time I spend at the desk.  When I get up, she gets up. When I go to the bathroom, she waits for me outside.

She's a quiet girl, normally.  She's more likely to bark when I sneeze too much than when someone knocks on the door.  She comes over and whines and wiggles and barks at me when she hears the neighbour's tiny dogs.  She really, really wants to play with them - except by "play" she usually means "I like to substitute small dogs for soccer balls and bat them around until they stop moving".

And she's sensitive - something I hadn't foreseen.  She's woken me out of at least one nightmare by jumping on my bed and batting my stomach with her paw.  Considering I'd had a week of nightmares, I'm pretty sure she was tired of me thrashing and gasping for air.

I think she knows when I'm getting a migraine, too; the times she's come over whining and pawing at me during the day are the same times as when the migraine sets in.  It could just mean that we're both suffering headaches at the same time, and she wants me to make it go away.  I dunno.  But it's something I'll continue watching.

Heh heh heh - you funny.

She's so dignified she's above embarrassment.  She has suffered a week in doggy diapers, without blushing, whining, paralysis or sabotage.  And while her flatulence is surprisingly loud, she doesn't make a big deal out of it. 

She's smart, in her own way.  Okay, granted, she hasn't figured out that if I put a treat between the folds of her dog bed, she need only move the fold of the dog bed to find it (though she has mastered the look of "Well, you put it there, you get it out!").  But she's learned tricks I didn't even know I was teaching her, like, "Stop" and "Go in" and "Turn your head slightly to the side so I can undo your face harness" - though she hasn't figured out "go lie down on your bed" yet.

And she knows who her new "parent" is - right from the very first day.  When she arrived, my mother was here.  But that first night, I put a blanket down beside my bed and pointed to it.  Dixie came over, lay down, and once the light was off, she didn't move from her bed beside me until morning.  No whining, no wandering, nothing.  When she had to go out, she looked to me - not my mother.  When she was hungry, she wouldn't eat unless I was nearby, also eating.

Before she left that weekend, my mother went to the treat closet, and I told Dixie to lie down.  She watched my mother like a hawk.  My mother rattled the treat bag, made some yummy sounds as she opened it, and then held out a treat.  Dixie didn't move.  "Come 'ere, Dixie," my mother said.  Dixie didn't move.  She whined, but she didn't move.  So then I said, "Okay Dix - " That dog leaped up and had all four paws in motion before they even hit the floor and nearly swallowed my mother's hand along with the treat.

Who's a goofy girl?  I am!  I am!
She can be pretty funny.  When she's in her goofy moods, she'll get a crazed look in her eye, and she'll loll her tongue out the side of her grinning mouth.  When she's really happy, she'll pounce like a fawn, or get up on her back legs and try to jump.  When she wants attention, she's figured out how to wedge herself between my chair and my desk; she will literally push my away from my keyboard and half out of the office, in order to get attention.  She also knows she can get a rise out of me by coming into my office, letting rip an SBD, then grinning and fanning the air with her tail.

One morning, when I steadfastedly ignored the alarm, she stood up on the side of my bed and smacked me twice in the face with her paw.  When I roared at her, she jumped back, threw her head back and grinned.  I insulted her (and her mother) and she only cavorted around the bedroom, fanning the air with her tail and making that breathy "dog laugh" sound.

And there was one morning - I was sitting here at my desk, and she was in the other room having a drink.  Suddenly, without preamble or gasp, I sneezed.  Dixie fell over and skated on the hard wood floors, trying to find some place to hide.  Then, with her head bowed low, ears flattened and tail slowly wagging, she came and looked me over as if to inspect me for missing parts.

She's a teacher.  She's already taught me the importance of putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, right away, and how important it is to shut the bathroom door before I leave her alone for a couple of hours.  And she's taught me the importance of positive reinforcement over punishment.  She responds beautifully to spontaneous, loud and physical reinforcement; she never forgets how she was rewarded for good behaviour, and always means to replicate whatever she did right.  She's taught me patience, too.

She's taught me to be an observant and adaptable dog-owner.  The first week was the worst, when it came to going for a walk.  Dixie, I swear, was bred for a champion sled team.  Unfortunately for both Dixie and I, we have neither sled nor snow at the moment.  Regardless, if I didn't wear shoes with good traction, I would go cement skiing (as one of my fellow dog-owner friends called it).  And most of my friends and family know:  I ski more on my face than on my feet. Within two days, my back and arms were exhausted from trying to reign her in; I tried rewards, chastisement, grabbing her by the harness, muzzle-swatting - everything.  Then I tried her on a Halti (a face harness - not a muzzle), and instantly, her behaviour changed.  We didn't have to fight each other.  It wasn't only up to her to change her behaviour; I changed mine first, and she changed.  It was an immediate life lesson in leadership, for me.

There's a lot she's had to teach me in the last couple of months.  It's because she's a mystery.  We don't even know how old she is - though the vet thinks she's about 3 years old (even if she still acts like a puppy first thing in the morning).

She's sweet, funny, charming, laid-back and well-behaved (unless there are squirrels, pigeons, wood-peckers or small dogs in the area), and somebody left her for dead.  They didn't want anyone to know what she was like, either.

Her previous owners dumped her off at a high-kill SPCA and didn't bother to leave any kind of medical or life history.  We don't know how many owners she's had before, or if there were children in the house, or other small dogs.  Dixie knows, but she can't tell anyone.  It's up to me to learn her language.

No one knew if she had had her shots, or if she'd been spayed, or mistreated in any way.  All because someone didn't bother to take the time to surrender the dog properly.

I don't blame the owners for having to give her up; sometimes giving up a dog is the hardest thing in the world to do - like giving up your three-year-old daughter for adoption because you know it's the only way to give her a better life.  Maybe Dixie threatened a newborn baby.  Maybe the family had to move off the continent.  Maybe they just didn't have the time or the inclination to look after a dog anymore.  I don't know, and I don't really care.  But couldn't they have taken five minutes to fill out the paperwork?

We didn't know what tricks she knew, or if she "spoke" French or English.  Nobody knows what her "language" is - what behaviour means she needs to go outside for a bio break, what behaviour tells me "Mom, I have no FOOOOOOD" or "Mom, I'm thirsty..."

Everything we know about Dixie now, I've had to learn through experimentation and observation.  When she was cranky, I learned to check food, water and environment.  When she barked outside, I learned it's because she's got lousy night vision (she only barks at people when it's dark out).  I had to learn that she gets terribly excited (read "Psycho Dog") if I take her outside between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. - because there's traffic, people, students, squirrels and other dogs, all out at the same time.  Take her out at or slightly after 9:00 a.m., and she's fine.

This first month has been a period of discovery.

My mother and I learned quickly that she had been trained before.  Dixie sat when I told her to, she lay down when I told her to, and with some extra behaviour modelling, she mastered "stay" - so long as the behaviour was rewarded with a treat.  And unless she wants the treat I'm holding (or if she wants to get her Halti off), she won't sit for nobody.  She doesn't know "shake paw" or "beg" or "roll over".  Though she did display "play dead" the one time I breathed on her, though I don't think that was on purpose.

But most interesting of all:  she's been trained in "sign language" - signs I stumbled upon when testing her repetoire of tricks.  A snap of the fingers and pointing at the floor means "Sit promptly!"; flattening my hand parallel to the floor means "lay down, promptly!" (seeing that handsign, she usually falls to her elbows like the legs have been cut out from under her); and holding my hand up in the "stop in the name of the law" fashion means "don't move!"

Dixie wasn't abused.  I know that.  She was underfed after 3 weeks in the pound, but she doesn't show any of the cowering, submissive peeing, or flinching you'd normally find in an abused dog.  I think she was well treated, despite the stay on Death Row.

Fortunately, Paws For Life did an awesome job of finding her a home.  They've got a set-up that I like:  yes, she's more expensive than buying a puppy out of a store, but the fee covers all her vaccinations and her sterilization - something that she's scheduled for later this month.

And she's got a good owner, I think.  At the very least, she has one who has given her word to look after this dog for as long as the dog shall live, despite the allergy fits, despite the frustrating mornings and the ongoing challenges with "walkies" vs. "jerk-and-ski", despite the shredded bathroom garbage and the SBDs in my office.  I made a commitment to care for this dog; it's a lifelong commitment, and I'm standing by it.

Dixie is not a disposable dog.  No dog is.

See, when you go to a pet store, you don't need to sign any agreements.  You don't have to prove that you know what you're doing, or that you have access to dog parks; you don't have to prove that you know the proper techniques for dealing with abused dogs; you don't need to sign any promises to take the dog back to the same adoption centre in case things do go awry in your own life.

And there's no legal obligation for pet stores in Quebec to check where the pets are coming.  That cute, squirmy little ball of fur in the pet store could be excited and desperate to go home with you because they're terrified of going back to the puppy mill.

Puppy mills would not exist if it were not for people buying animals on the cheap.  I could show you all the pictures of what it looks like, inside a puppy mill, but I think most of you know what one looks like.  If you don't, check this.

There's no reason why anyone should need to buy a puppy from a store - not when there are so many more animals in shelters that are perfectly loveable.  Yes, they may have bad behaviours, but even when they grow up, the puppies you buy end up with their own bad behaviours too.

And adopting an adult dog means you know exactly how big they're going to be, how much work, how much food and water, how much space they take up - no surprises, no underestimations, which is often the reason why people bring their "used puppies" to the pound, once they've grown up.

And for the love of mercy:  if you buy an animal, get it spayed or neutered.  If you can't afford to spay or neuter the dog, you cannot afford to buy the animal.

If you have a dog and you know you can't look after it anymore, have the human decency to see to it that he or she gets a good home - or at least goes to a good agency.

Let's not blame the SPCAs or pounds.  We can't entirely blame puppy mills either.

The problem starts with irresponsible owners.

Puppy mills wouldn't exist if people didn't want to save money buying a cheap puppy from a store or from a backyard breeder.  Accidental breeding wouldn't happen if male and female animals are sterilized.  And animal shelters wouldn't be overcrowded or underfunded if it wasn't  for irresponsible owners who treat animals as disposable toys.

And be realistic when considering whether or not to adopt.  I learned recently that a family attempted to adopt a Husky cross, with the intention of letting their four year old walk him.  A four year old cannot walk a dog.  A four year old rides a dog.  Needless to say, the adoption did not go over well.  So, the dog had to find another "forever home", meaning the adoption agency has to start all over again, expending twice the resources for one dog - all because of another irresponsible owner (and dumb parent).
The only dogs that should be left un-neutered are those intended for responsible breeding by a small, specialized breeder:  one that can afford to raise one or two litters at a time until and after the pups are weaned; one that gives the female ample time to recover between litters, and who gives her access to all the comfort, care and resources she needs; one that understands the principles of genetics and inheritance, and breeds out health-affecting traits and avoids inbreeding.

If your heart is set on a puppy, be sure you know what to look for.  This site is a good guide to what makes a good and reputable breeder.  More than looking at their "certification" papers (which can be falsified), look to their actions.

Instead of complaining about shelters or puppy mills, let's start investing time and resources in proper breeding and adoption centres.  Passing legislation against puppy mills and the sale of cats and dogs in pet stores can only drive "cheap" animal breeders underground; and the more cheap "throw-away" animals we allow them to create, the more reputable shelters are overrun.

By the way:  if you're in the Montreal area and you're looking to adopt, consider Paws for Life.  Sofia Hadjis has been fantastic - we had a lot of trouble with the adoption process (due greatly in part to the shelter where Dixie was), but Sofia pulled out all the stops to make this adoption happen, and she's been working with me post-adoption to make sure Dixie's settled in.  Sofia, you're wonderful.  Keep up the good work!

So yes, Dixie has her quirks and bad habits, yes she's big and demands attention sometimes, but I wouldn't trade her for all the cute, store-bought puppies in the world.

How much is that doggy in the window?  A couple of hundred dollars.  Rescuing a dog from the death chamber?  Priceless.


  1. What a wonderful post on your new roommate. I have heard people say that dogs who have been saved make the best pets. I am so pleased that Dixie turned out to be such a great companion. I love hearing a story like this!

  2. Trixie is the first dog to live with me since I was a kid. Every single day she teaches me how to be more human. Great article.

  3. You know about how I adopted my cat Garfield just minutes after I had Squeaky put down. I still haven't learned everything about living perfectly with his rules, but we've bonded well to each other.

    It's been more than 20 years since my family dog Winnie passed away, but I still think of her every day. Dixie looks like another special one as well.

  4. I'm so glad Dixie has such a wonderful home now, and such a committed owner. She seems just as wonderful, and committed to you. : )