By Gary Wilkes
My first cattle dog was named Megan. When I met her, she was four months old and on “death row” at my shelter. She was about to be killed because of the heinous offense of chasing livestock—a task she was genetically designed for. Go figure. Eventually she worked as an animal control dog for three years, more than ten years as my wife’s hearing dog, and my demo dog at seminars.
Outside the dog fancy, this scenario is common. Many dogs are unfairly classified as behavioral misfits by people who seem clueless about their genetic gifts. Terriers that dig holes drive their owners nuts. Beagles that bay at the moon and Retrievers that kill birds are good examples of dogs that are condemned for displaying perfectly normal, but often unacceptable, behavior.
Ironically, most of these behaviors are simultaneously prized and despised by humans. It’s like the old saying about the three most important things in real estate: location, location, location. The farm terrier that kills small animals is highly valued, while a city dog that performs the same behavior may be branded “vicious.” Beagles whose baying can be heard for miles earn praise from a hunter and a criminal citation for the urban pet owner. The farmer’s dog who chases away transients is contrasted by the suburban dog who bites the letter carrier.
Though simple ignorance is often blamed for this paradox, that may be mistaken. A person who buys a Malamute pup invariably brags about the fact that they are used as sled dogs. This claim is usually left unfinished as their dog drags them briskly down the street. The same owner who revels in the fact that their Pit Bull Terrier comes from a lineage of fighting dogs is apparently mystified when Chopper kills the neighbor’s Shih Tzu. It is obvious that the owners are both proud and apologetic for the same behaviors.
The real culprit in this cross-species dilemma is probably not ignorance but fantasy. A common reason for picking a particular breed is not the reality of the animal’s behavioral traits but the image it will project to others. Books about various breeds and species of pets pander to this process. Giant breeds, such as Neopolitan Mastiffs, are often described in terms such as “powerful” and “fiercely loyal” and at the same time called “gentle giants.” Border Collies are reputed to be “intelligent” and “obedient” while herding the children dangerously around the family pool. The animal is selected because of the slogans attached to it—not because of any actual knowledge of the breed.
Most often, basing the selection of an animal based on reputation leads to problems. The regal-looking Mastiff will grow to be a 170-pound slobbering beast that may casually eat the neighbor’s cat and splatter long tendrils of drool on the walls. As groomers, this may be to your advantage. If the owner can’t handle the dog, you may be the solution to regular grooming. The Border Collie, without daily opportunities to chase sheep, may develop aberrant behaviors such as chasing shadows or nipping the heels of small children. Each animal will offer perfectly normal behavior that represents the reality behind its image. The new owner will be frustrated and disappointed that the dog does not live up to “unrealistic” expectations.
Selecting a dog based on real, rather than imagined, qualities is the first step toward building a successful relationship. As groomers, you are in a position to help inject a dose of reality into the equation before the deed is done. Here are some thoughts that may help you give wise counsel, which is unlikely to be taken. That is the genetic nature of humans.
- It helps to remember that for almost any “beneficial” trait, there is an equal and opposite drawback. Labrador Retrievers love to swim. Burt, the “incredible diving dog” is a show stopper in the summer and a muddy, cold, and wet lapful in the winter. The Whippet that can run at 35 miles an hour chasing a Frisbee can be impossible to catch if he decides to take off after a friendly female Foxhound.
- Suggest an objective examination of the pet owner’s lifestyle. If the husband works 80 hours a week, the wife is likely to be the person dealing with the dog and should have the final say in what kind she’s going to have to control. Most dogs are dynamic creatures who need mental stimulation and physical activity. If your clients really want a behaviorally robust animal, such as a Doberman or an Irish Setter, they should consider waiting until they can devote more time to a pet or getting a less reactive dog.
- Help the client research the type of dog they want in advance, and let it be known to your clients that you have that expertise. Let them know that most dog books and magazines are written by enthusiasts who voluntarily accept all of a dog’s rough edges. Help them decipher “breed bragging” by asking some basic questions. First, what was the original purpose of the breed? If a dog is designed to herd sheep by biting them, it may transfer the behavior to small children. If Iraqi Camel Dogs were originally bred to hunt dromedaries, the pet llama may become the target of the dog’s affections.
- Try to keep track of local breed clubs so you can refer prospective dog owners to knowledgeable people. Seeing a single example of a breed may cause the client to assume all of that breed are identical. A breed club can provide access to more than one or two examples.
Suggest that they foster a dog of their breed of choice. There is nothing like living with a dog for a month to tell you if you like being heeled by your heeler as you run to answer the door. Many humane organizations and rescue clubs are looking for foster homes for pets. Actually caring for an animal is the best way to know if you have made the right selection.
As groomers, you are in a unique position to be the center of a dog’s life in the eyes of their owners. When you help them pick the right dog, you may make the difference between having a life-long client or a dead-file on your computer.