Chosing a Breed of Dog: Do The Research

What Do I Do with All This Energy?

At The Doggie Den (my dog daycare business) we often talk to people with questions about their pet.  They want advice and answers, but the right solution is likely to be complex because 80% of the time it comes down to knowing their dog’s breed or mix of breeds and training the dog accordingly.
For example, Labrador Retrievers are one of the most popular breeds in the United States, whether yellow, black or chocolate-colored. Because there are lots of labs around, there are lots of lab mixes around too. They’re an excellent family dog, but inevitably owners get angry and frustrated with young labs chewing things up. Sadly lots of labs and lab mixes end up in animal shelters (at least, the lucky ones!) in search of a new owner.
Dogs are genetically programmed to do certain things, according to their breed. To stay with the labrador example, they were originally bred to hunt, not in Labrador, but in Newfoundland. Usually two or more dogs were trained to hunt together, finding, flushing out, and retrieving small prey.

Hunting dogs in cold climates need hyperactive metabolisms to stay warm while they work. A thick coat would work out fine, like the one a Newfoundland dog has. However, labs were bred to be in and out of the water constantly when the temperature is below freezing. A thick coat couldn’t breathe well enough to prevent icing and therefore hypothermia. So labs were bred selectively to produce high metabolisms, short coats and a huge amount of energy. They are extremely hardy and can hunt and retrieve birds for hours at a time without adverse health effects. In fact, they love it!

So, if you take an animal with that programming and put him alone in a house for several hours, he will get bored and restless. He will want to run and jump and use his mouth. The younger he is, the more likely he is to start in on your hand-tooled leather couch, even if he has chew toys he’s allowed to destroy. When you come home he may even proudly “retrieve” a piece of the couch and present it to you. All too often people interpret this as “he’s being spiteful because we left him alone.” Or “he was just being a brat… some nerve bringing me a piece of my expensive couch!”

None of that is true! Dogs aren’t that complicated, especially labs. He was feeling an excess of energy and wanting to do his job, which is to find, flush, retrieve and present things. Since the couch pieces wouldn’t let go of each other, he had to pull them apart in order to get individual trophies to bring you. When he slinks away he’ s not reacting in guilt, as people assume. He’s seen your body language (maybe heard your screams) and he wants to get out of town! If he could talk he’d say, “I dunno what they’re mad about, but I know I’m in trouble.”

So what does our lab guy think if you smack him upside the head and/or yell at him? He’s going to be very scared and conclude that he has a great time when you’re away, but it sure goes downhill when you get home. What to do? Well, to begin with, it’s extremely important to research a breed before you get a dog. Once you know you’re going to have a high energy hunting animal in your house, you can plan accordingly.

For example, a lab needs strenuous exercise before you leave him alone. Like fetching a ball or frizbee outside about a million times. Buy one of those gadgets that has a cup on the end of a stick so you can throw a tennis ball far away. The more he runs, the better chance your leather couch has of surviving. Also, while a lab is young, you should crate train him – put him in a crate that’s large enough for him to stand up and turn around and leave him there for progressively longer periods of time. Start with 5 minutes and don’t let him out no matter how much he cries. Go on to 10 minutes, half an hour, etc. Always put healthy chewies in the crate with him. Greenies are good; also dentabones, nylabones and other tough materials. Also make sure the crate is comfy – an old quilt or thick blanket for him to lie on.

In addition, you’re going to need to train your lab. It’s work. It’s a commitment. It has to be consistent for the whole family. Cute tricks are a whole lot less important than your being able to get and hold his attention when there are distractions. Make him sit and stay while you bounce a ball, then as a reward tell him to fetch. It takes endless repetition, but in time he will start to focus on you when your voice sounds like a command. If you don’t train your lab, he’s going to run around and jump on people, maybe injure a child or an elderly person, or cause a rotary cuff injury to someone trying to walk him.

Remember: genetically a lab has an overabundance of energy. Only with training and consistent, desirable rewards can he learn to walk next to you nicely. If everyone in the house is out during most of the day, send him to a dog playgroup or a dog day care center at least twice a week. The most common thing we hear from our customers is “It’s so wonderful that she’s exhausted when we get her home at night!”

Other breeds? Well, if you want calm and cuddly, think about a dog that’s bred to be a decoration, like a Lhasa Apso. If you live in a cold climate and want calm and cuddly, think about a large working dog like a Saint Bernard, or Bernese Mountain Dog, or a Newfoundland. These dogs have a slow metabolism and are kept warm chiefly by their coats. However, be aware that, generally speaking, large dogs live shorter lives than small dogs.

If you buy a Bichon because they’re so darn cute, be prepared to have her professionally groomed at least every six weeks, and budget for that. If you don’t, her coat will matt and she’ll have to be shaved periodically, which in either extreme heat or cold endangers her health. If you crave a Cocker Spaniel for your kids, be aware that they have been overbred in the United States, and have persistent health and temperment problems. I own and love a Cocker named Benny, but I know he’s going to cost me time and money, because I got him from Save A Dog – a wonderful volunteer dog rescue organization in Sudbury, MA. I can be pretty sure he’s not well bred and will have ear infections, skin rashes, and eye problems most of his life. You can get around that by going to a high quality professional breeder and paying a lot of money. In any case, it’s “pay now, pay later”. Benny has a nasty habit of attacking any small cute, dog that I pay attention to. Since I own a dog services business, that’s a problem because my job is to cuddle the four legged customers. So I have to crate him as soon as he looks cross-eyed at another dog.

If you’re thinking about getting a dog, go to the American Kennel Club website and research your preferred breed. If you’re getting a mixed breed, find out as much as you can about his ancestry, so you know what to expect. If you already have a dog, research him or her and ask a professional trainer how to compensate for the breed’s tendencies.

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