A Tale of Two Dogs

I owe the germ of this post to Queen of Spain. She posted the other day on Twitter about going to get a dog and she received a large amount of advice about where she should get the dog. As I read it, I realized that most of us speak with passion about where to get animals, but most of us don’t give the reasons why (hard to do in 140 characters), so Queen of Spain here is the tale of two dogs (or why you want to be careful where you get your dog).

P and I had been married for four years when he seemed to appear open to the idea of getting a dog. I don’t know what opened his mind that particular weekend (Mother’s day weekend, 1998), but open it did and I jumped at the chance. Now, understand that P is about as far from anti-dog as you can get, but he was recovering from the loss of his beloved Trigger (went to the bridge in November 1993) and simply could not contemplate being disloyal to her by getting another dog.

In any event, he finally FINALLY agreed that we could get a dog. People who know P know that he changes his mind, so I knew I would need to move VERY quickly if I wanted a dog (which, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure I did, but he hated cats so much I knew that would NEVER happen). I waited eagerly for the Sunday paper to come and when it did, we looked through the ads for a lab puppy. We had decided that we wanted a lab. P is, um, prejudiced against small dogs (who he typically refers to as dust mops) and we knew we needed something with short hair to try to contain my allergic tendencies. Lab seemed to fit what we were looking for. I really wanted a black one. Like any good English major my wardrobe tended to be black on black, so a black dog would not show up on my clothes. Yeah, these are the considerations I was making and no, I’m not proud of them, but as I’ve reminded our vet since, before getting this dog my only pet had been a goldfish. It’s not as if I had a lot of experience :). P was adamant that the dog had to be female. He had had both and really felt females were better.

We made probably three phone calls and found someone with a black female puppy for sale. We found a cardboard box, got in my Toyota Tercel and drove over to see the puppies. There were two we could choose from. One was adventurous. She was into everything. She ran around a lot and made me tired just watching her. The other one laid down and went to sleep while we were visiting. She checked us out, but then just snuggled down for a nap. I took this as a good sign, thought it meant she was somewhat lower energy, and picked her. We paid for her, put her in the box in the back seat and drove her home. We have some pictures of her from that first day. She was small, shy, and clearly terrified.

Once we had her home, P ran out, got her a crate, bowls, some food, a few toys, and so forth. I thought it was the first day of heaven. Little did I know that it would be almost nine years of hell.

I’ve written about Sam before. But most of that is about her as her present day self, which is why it’s only nine years of hell instead of all eleven and three quarters. Sam today is vastly different dog than she was at nine. Just before Sam turned nine she missed being put to sleep by the most narrow of whiskers. She had bitten, again, and this time she bit P and not me. It was a line she had never crossed before and I was certain it was a harbinger of worse things to come. I need to back up a little, though. When she was a puppy Sam bit to a degree that I’ve never seen in a puppy before or since (granted, I didn’t know a lot about puppies, but I had nip marks up and down my arms — I looked like a serious heroin user). Sam would have these moments where she would completely wig out and not know who anyone was. She was aggressive, she was difficult, she had bizarre fears (she was afraid of a broom for heaven’s sake, now my son doesn’t know what one looks like because we can’t have one in the house). She has severe allergies. And by severe I mean, if she eats the things she’s allergic to or is exposed long term to something she’s allergic to it could kill her. She has always had a very fragile constitution. She gets deathly ill at the drop of a hat and requires enormous reserves to make her better (both financial and emotional — we joke that if our vet ever expands his office he’ll need to name it the Sam memorial wing because we will have financed it). She has good hips, but that’s a freak of nature miracle.

What I know now, that I didn’t know before, is that not meeting Sam’s parents (at least her mother) was a huge mistake. Being told that the mother was aggressive toward people taking her puppies? A clear warning sign that something was very wrong with that dog. But I didn’t know. And this was before Twitter, before blogs, and I wasn’t even really aware of list-servs (I was educated shortly there after and have been active in Labrador retriever communities for the last eleven years). I didn’t know that a dog who exhibits the kinds of bizarre fears that Sam does has something wrong mentally. I spent a very long time shouldering a huge load of guilt thinking that I had “done something” to Sam to make her the way she is because I didn’t know what I was doing. Sam doesn’t socialize well, never did. She flunked out of two different obedience schools before I gave up. I seriously wanted to send her back to her breeder at one point, but P talked me out of it.

If I knew then what I know now, Sam would not have come home with us. While yes, I would miss her terribly and I will cry like a baby when she passes to the bridge (probably for hours), I recognize that we spent years living with a time bomb and that had the veterinary advances not happened when they did, Sam would likely not have made it to her twelfth birthday; she wouldn’t have made it to her tenth. I have three scars from very nasty bites that I received from “the bitey end” of Sam. All three were to, some degree, my fault because I didn’t understand how to handle her. There are really no books or trainers who are prepared to handle a truly fear aggressive dog, which is what Sam is.

My point here, which may get lost in the clear conflictedness of my feelings is that the more you know about the background of your dog the better off you are. If you’re getting a dog from a pet store, you will know nothing. If you get a dog from a shelter, you’ll likely know very little. It is possible to get good shelter dogs, but you have to really do your homework and understand that shelters are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you just never know what you’re going to get.

On the other end of the experience spectrum, we have Peyton. When we decided to add Peyton to our family, we knew just about everything you could possibly know about her mother. Her breeder has been a friend of mine for over a decade. I know how the puppies were raised. I know what sorts of experiences they had. Heck, in this case, the breeder had a live feed to the puppy play room where you could see EXACTLY what the puppies were doing all the time. When we went into this with the breeder we were pretty clear we don’t care about color (which wasn’t relevant since we knew the puppies were likely to be all black) and we didn’t care about a gender. What we cared about was personality and fit with our family.

If you’re going with a rescue or a shelter, try to find one that really talks to you about things like activity level in the family, other pets, lifestyle, and so forth, and then will work with you to find the best fit for your family.

This is what Peyton’s breeder did. The key concern was Sam. In all honesty, Sam (at the time Peyton came home) could have easily killed an eight week old puppy she took a dislike to. She wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. At the time Peyton came home, Ben was four months old. Did I mention that I might be slightly insane? Many breeders wouldn’t sell to someone with such a young child, but she was willing and it worked out for us. She evaluated us and had the puppies evaluated by a professional puppy evaluator (now that? is a cool job). Ultimately, it was decided that Peyton (then known as Hunter or Miss Orange Collar) would be the best fit for us. If you’re dealing with a good breeder, you’re going to give up some control. You aren’t going to be choosing the puppy.

I’ve written about Peyton before, too. But I want to make sure I give a clear picture and a fair one. A dog from a breeder is no more guaranteed to be healthy and free from issues than is a dog from a shelter or a rescue or even a newspaper. Good breeders are up front about the potential issues in their lines and will tell you what sorts of risks the dog faces. And even then, there are the things you can’t predict: cancer, accidents, and so on.

Peyton has a two congenital health issues that could, possibly, cause her serious trouble as she gets older. There is no guarantee that either will be a problem, but there is also no guarantee that she either won’t have a shortened lifespan or a serious operation that may or may not repair her. We have made some adjustments to her life to attempt to guard against the latter situation; she no longer does agility or anything that requires her to jump. P lifts her in and out of vehicles so she doesn’t jump balance all her weight on her front paws. We have a ramp for her to use, but she, like the princess she is, prefers to be lifted, thank you. People who own dogs probably have a good idea of what Peyton’s problem is. Those who don’t, wouldn’t understand the implications of it anyway.

For the other, it’s a condition noted by her vet and that we keep track of in terms of the kinds of medications he can prescribe for her. For a dog of her size, her liver is abnormally small. This is not necessarily a problem, and it may just be that her liver is supposed to be this size, but it does mean that we have to be very careful about medications that are metabolized through the liver or that have an effect on the liver. Dosing her by her size would be a significant mistake. Fortunately, her vet is awesome and knows this.

Ultimately, my point is get a dog, but do your homework first. You wouldn’t buy the first car you see while walking down the street; don’t buy the first dog you see either. Take your time. Think. And then be prepared to have your world turned upside down because that’s what every good dog does :).