Friday, November 7, 2008

Choosing a dog

One of the many delights about Mr. Obama winning is the buzz about the first family getting a dog. Those of us who love dogs take this choice very seriously. And naturally we would expect the American Kennel Club to do the same. These are folks who know the importance of fitting the dog to its family situation, an importance those of us who keep dogs understand.

Over the thirty-five years, Tom and I have had dogs there have been a few difficult situations. Every one of them was due to a dog coming into our lives that we didn't decide upon ourselves. Let's begin at the beginning. Casey was chosen from a dog pound in Boston by Tom's sister. The folks said she was probably part German Shepherd and part Labrador Retriever. But, most often they don't know. A dog gets dropped off and all the people can do is make a best guess at the breed. And there lies the rub. There could be a little bit of something in a mixed breed dog that might be detrimental or even dangerous in the right (wrong) circumstances. I'm a big believer in knowing what you are getting if there are children in the house. Otherwise the consequences can be dire. So, anyway, back to Casey. Of course we all loved her, and we saw her almost as much as his sister did. Flash forward a year. Tom's sister's circumstances changed. My mother died and we moved north to live in my childhood home, in a neighborhood but with two big fields either side of the house. So of course when she asked, we said, sure we'll take her. She was a great dog for us, but there were neighborhood children and a street in front of the house which suddenly got very busy when a factory was built way down at the end. We had to keep her hitched up a lot. She was a bit aggressive when on the hitch, as many dogs are, even the sweet ones. But still, we mostly did okay. We were young and we took her everywhere with us.

Our next door neighbors at that time had a Weimaraner. That Bray was as wild as the wind, and just as sometimes a woman is drawn to a wild man, I loved this dog. When the people found he was just too much for them [they had three kids under the age of nine], well guess who took him, yup, good old Tom and Nancy. As I will say to anyone who'll listen, two dogs really are better than one. They keep one another company; they don't suffer so when the people must leave the house. And it was good, except, oh yes, I did mention he was wild. We couldn't keep him home. We'd turn our backs for a moment and the next thing you knew the dog officer was bringing him home, or someone called from a far neighborhood saying he was over there. And the nights of dread when we'd head for the highway which was across the street and up a hill, driving along fearful at what we'd find. The poor dog needed space to really run, and no walk on a leash was enough. What I haven't said yet is that, although Bray was a purebred dog, the neighbors had bought him at a pet store, and he had come from a midwestern puppy mill. This dear dog died of bloat after we'd had him a year. It broke my heart.

We got along fine for the next few years with just Casey. She was older. She stayed around better and didn't need to be hitched. I look back on that time as the calm years. Then an older woman, a real dog lover who in her late seventies had an Airedale and a Husky (big dogs for an older woman!!), called us up. Tom answered the phone, and she said, "oh, Tommy, there is a starving stray here and I can't take care of him." How do you refuse a dear woman's request? We brought him home, and had four years of stress and damage before he was hit by a car when we moved out here to the country. He was utterly uncontrollable. Tom had tried bringing Sam Swain (part of the woman's name) to obedience school and on the "long sit" he raced off and attacked another dog. It wasn't that we "let" him run the .2 mile down to the road; we couldn't stop him. If he was out for a minute, he'd be off. Oh, and even in death, he was a worry. He was hit by a motorcyclist, who was injured a bit and could have sued us, except for the fact he worked with Tom's uncle, and was kind. This dog was so bad that we had to shut him in a room to keep him away from our little one year old once she began walking. It was just after this he was killed. We may have had to bring him to a no-kill humane society otherwise. He was a mixed breed, with God knows what inside. His "eyebrows" sure looked like a Doberman's.

When Casey was twelve, and our firstborn was two, we got a Belgian Sheepdog. For the first time, we chose our dog. We did research, we talked extensively to the breeder, and knew what we were getting. We knew Lucy would be good with children, amenable to instruction, and adaptable. She was wonderful. She was utterly trustworthy with our daughter, and then our son who came along the next year. She liked anyone who walked through the door. I can't stress enough how important it is to study breeds, especially if you have little ones. As much as I believe in rescuing a dog, I think it is better if the people in the house are older, even if that dog is a purebred. You don't know what issues he has dealt with and what fears and aggressions he may have developed because of his past circumstances. You must, must know what you are getting when you have small children. You cannot take chances. There are too many horror stories out there about a dog being fine, and the next second snapping at a child's face.

When Lucy was five, I felt it was time for a second dog. The kids were seven and four. I heard an ad for a Cocker Spaniel, and thought I'd get one since it was the breed of Tom's childhood. When I went to the place, I sat down and a black and white dog walked over and put his head in my lap. I was told that his mother was a purebred Springer Spaniel but there was an "incident" with a wandering fellow, most likely a Beagle, and they couldn't sell him, but I could have him for free. I was smitten, and brought Oreo home. He was the best boy, again completely trustworthy with children and strangers, but like Bray, he was as wild as could be. Thankfully, we lived out of town this time, and he could go into our woods. We would hear him howling from far away. There was no controlling his wild heart. He couldn't really even be in the house - it was too confined for his spirit.

When Lucy was getting older, and Oreo was still youngish, I read a book by Susan Conant, in which there was a Chinook. I'd never heard of the breed, but went searching to find out about it. I discovered that the Chinook is a gentle, kind, loving family dog. When I found a breeder online, and she had one available, we drove 505 miles on a Labor Day Sunday to pick her up. Little Ann, named after the dog in Where The Red Fern Grows, which Tom had read to the kids, was gentleness personified. There was never a kinder, sweeter personality.

Three years later, our beloved Lucy died. We had "just" Oreo and Annie for a few years, when I felt it was time for another dog. You'll notice a pattern here: as our dogs get a bit older, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes older, we get a pup. And another pattern: it is I, me, Nan who begins the process. I've never been the mother who has to be begged for a dog. This time we got a Collie. Again I did a lot of research. Our children were older but there was a lot of teenage commotion in the house, with people coming and going. The Collie sounded like a dog that could acclimate to any situation and stay calm, which our dear, dear MacIntosh did. If you've been a reader of my letters for a while, you know he developed epilepsy and died at only 7 years old.

So, now we have two dogs; two black dogs who are pretty famous in blogging circles, though they complain they haven't been seen for a while. They are perfect examples of what this very long blog entry has been about. Neither Ben nor Sadie was chosen by us. They are both mixed breeds. They are both wonderful, and we love them beyond words. However, they are dogs that are perfect for us, for Tom and I, at this particular time of our lives. Both are a bit protective, but Ben at least likes other people. We can't trust Sadie with anyone beyond our family, what Tom calls, "the Fantastic Four, the Fab Four, the Final Four." We never let her be around other people. I've seen her go from all mellow and loving with me in the kitchen, to completely alert, stiff in body, barking at the door where a stranger has suddenly appeared. For the most part though, we live a quiet life. If we have company, other than the kids, they go into a little room for the duration of the visit. There isn't a lot of coming and going, not much "action," so these dogs can live a very happy life.

And now, this is the where the Obamas are. They are smart people. They will figure it out. They will take their time and do their homework, and the new first dog will be a great addition to the White House. I hope the example they set will trickle down to the general public. There are just too many cute little puppies that are bought on impulse, without finding out if they are right for the life they come into. Too many don't work out and end up being put down. Choosing a dog is one of life's important decisions, one that lasts ten plus years if we are lucky, and it deserves great consideration.

And if you are wondering what we have chosen for our next dog out of the list I made after the last Westminster Dog Show, it is the Smooth Collie. We decided that we just didn't have enough time with our wonderful MacIntosh. He got the epilepsy young, and was on medication most of his life. We're getting the Smooth so we don't have to worry about all that grooming. It is the same dog, just with a different coat. Oh, and the name? I'm leaning toward Lassie. It is retro and cool, and honestly why not? It's a beautiful name for a lovely little lass. I'm not sure when we'll get her, but I've already been looking into regional breeders. Sadie is now four, and Ben probably six, and it's getting close to the time to bring a puppy into the house again. A Collie, who will be perfect for any little grandchildren who may be coming along in the future.


  1. Oh Nan, just finished reading all of your dog information and advice.
    All of my dogs, 5 in the past came from the shelter and I had good luck. Only thing with the woods and farmland surrounding our property they liked to roam and would chase all the wildlife. Sadie I brought to the city on this little fenced lot and she was wonderful. A one woman dog but loved my children and my little granddaughters. So now with thoughts of a cottage in the country I want another dog. Just did not want to keep it on a leash.
    Visions of one sitting on my porch and coming inside at night and following me obediently through the woods as I take pictures.
    Can you make a recommendation.
    I am smiling. What am I to do?

  2. Well Nan, that was a good one!
    I too, have been thinking about the Obama family dog.
    Let's hope, as you say, that they choose well and that others watch and learn.
    So many disaters come from well meaning people choosing their dogs on impulse or without doing their homework, not to mention all the idiots who think it's macho to have one of the 'fighter' breeds, in totally unsuitable circumstances.
    When our last Flat Coated Retriever died last year, we chose to have another with our grand daughter Phoebe in mind.
    Along came dear, sweet Rowan, it was a good choice and they are growing up together.
    I will look forward to news of your next dog, a lovely breed.

  3. I enjoyed reading about your extended family[the dogs]. I currently have a poodle[rescued] and she has proved to be the best dog in the world. She has many [people] friends who return the friendship. I'd like to think that I will always have a dog in my life. They add such love and color.

  4. I haven't had that many dogs Nan but you are right on about shopping for the right dog for your situation. Our present dog is perfect for us. She was a rescue and has blended right into our lives. I hope the Obamas have good luck with their selection.

  5. I'm to the point where I would like another dog. Just waiting for husband to come to that point also.

  6. We have two Border Collies, one of which is a rescue. They both compete in agility and Skye, our rescue boy, has started sheepherding lessons.

    My husband and I were very pleased hearing the Obamas wanted a shelter dog. They are smart folks, and I have no doubt they'll go about their decision in the right way.

    Welcome to the U.S. Presidents Reading Project, too! :-)


  7. I have to say I've had better luck with mixed breeds personally. I have two Yorkies now that I love dearly. But little Abi is only two and has both respiratory and heart problems with asthma. I have to be home to give her her medication. I can't travel to see my grandson in another state as often as I'd like. And now my granddaughter enters the world next month. But I just don't think I'd like a world without dogs in it. I love them far too much.

  8. Nan--so much truth in what you've written!

    Yes, 2 dogs better than husband thought I was mad to insist on a 2nd dog when our firstborn pup was a yearling. Now he knows I'm a mad genius!

    Weimaraners are lovely but yes, can be wild. I was raised by one (my parents' firstborn dog). Greta was utterly devoted to me and I adored her but wouldn't have another.

    Belgian breeds are very Cool. Never had one, on the wish list for a purebred. (But we prefer mutts.)

    Mixed breeds are awesome. Our combo of preference is Border collie crossed with Black lab--like 4 of our 6 marital dogs. Two of them came to us via the classified ads in the newspaper, and 2 from the internet.

    Northern breeds and sled dogs (we've had 2 huskies)--love 'em!

    Smooth Collie--yay! If we were ever planning to have a purebred again (probably not) this would be in the Top 3 choices. You have really great taste in dogs!

    And yes, yes, yes, research and understanding of breeds is so very important.

    I can't wait to see what the First Family-Elect chooses. I've got a family connection with a famous White House dog. One of these days I may blog about it!

  9. Oh my gosh, Nan! You have had a lot of dogs indeed and learned so much about them. You are fabulous dog owners. I understand that one of the Obama girls has allergies so they have to get a purebred although they wanted to adopt one from the pound.

  10. What a lovely post! Since our Brittany, Molly, died almost three years ago, it's past time for another dog. When Molly started getting older, we added a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy to the household. Unfortunately, she had some health problems and died before she was a year old. We'll definitely do our research before picking a new breed, but I'm tempted to go back to the black miniature poodles I grew up with.

  11. I love it when you talk about your dogs. Ours are both rescue dogs - you call them shelter dogs, I think? - and the sweetest girls, and The Bolter has settled down a good deal now she is four and a half. Our purebred springer spaniel, though, wasn't ideal with children, he was too sure that he was alpha dog, much like my mother's Gordon Setter - lovely, but oh so bossy! I like to have two dogs at once, ours are rarely left alone, but they do appreciate each other's company.


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