Can I Still Own This Type of Dog? (Working Title: Personal Honesty)

This viral video, staged, shows what happens when we get a dog that is too much for us to handle in a “humorous” light.

All too often, trainers have clients who acquired dogs they honestly should not own.  Many ignore personal abilities (due to age or medical issue) and feel (even demand) that dogs become what the humans want.  I have had clients who did this.  They remembered their youth and chose to ignore physical changes in their own bodies.  They all still had a lot to offer a dog – just not the type they chose.  Then I was given the hard task of bringing reality.  NOW I am not saying these placements cannot work, however the owners need to be able to get the services the dog needs for support.  This can mean added expense.  When an owner is on a fixed income, this can be difficult.

Maggie had grown up with a large, often active breed of dog.   Now, Maggie was no longer in her youth and it had been years since she owned any dog.   When Maggie learned a local rescue had a litter of purebred puppies just like she had as a child, she convinced the director she was able to handle such a dog.  Maggie had arthritis and had mobility issues.  The rescue director was well-known to me.  I had even offered to help with this litter before adoption but the director said she would just send adopters to me instead.  The breed needs serious work and careful socializing starting YOUNG.

The director ignored the fact that Maggie could not walk well, she was stiffer and physically frailer.  The director ignored that this dog would be 80+ pounds in a very short time.  Maggie’s denial of her abilities and the director’s refusal to say “Not this dog but I have a better match” put the community at risk.  Yes, the rescue had far better matches for Maggie.  Instead the rescue let Maggie take a pup with a promise she would call me immediately for classes.  I had classes starting at that time luckily!

Maggie did not enroll Emmet in puppy socializing classes as instructed.  By the time I saw them, Emmet was almost a year old and still maturing.  He was a behavioral mess.   He posed a risk in group work  I had two other dogs of his breed in class, both with very experienced owners and from exceptional breeders.  Maggie was furious Emmet was not behaving like them.

I tried to help Maggie find a dog walker to help meet Emmet’s needs.  I explained enrichment and activities they could do that would be easy for Maggie.  No, no one but her would ever walk this dog.  Emmet had to learn to be settled as she was an old lady (who bragged about being able to handle such a grand beast).   For safety, after multiple attempts to show Maggie what to do and how to keep Emmet and the rest of the class safer, I had to remove her from group work.   I offered the balance of the sessions at her home, no extra cost, I would take the financial loss.  I gently explained why she was being removed.  Maggie was not happy.  I had other students to think of but I wanted to keep working with them.    Later Maggie called to yell at me and try to get back in class.  No, it was a liability for me and her.   She called the rescue to intervene on her behalf.  The rescue director called to yell at me for throwing Maggie and Emmet out of class when I promised I would help.

After I told the director what happened: Maggie enrolled in classes months plus after she was directed to.  She called several times and promised she would, I held spots her (meaning I lost students) but she never enrolled until Emmet was older.  I explained everything I had tried to do and suggested.  Maggie refused to do anything.  The director was upset at Maggie and herself.

I explained to her that even as a puppy this breed just was not suited for Maggie.  The foster home never contacted me to work with the litter for socializing work before they were old enough to place.  Maggie was in denial. She kept talking about wonderful memories of this breed when she was a child and young lady.  It was just a recipe for disaster.   The rescue had to consider the physical abilities of potential adopters.  In four years, Emmet would be huge and Maggie would be pushing 80.  Maggie’s physical condition would not improve and Emmet would be in his prime.

The director did call Maggie and tried to get Emmet returned and a safer dog placed with her.  No.  Maggie loved Emmet.

Seven or so years later, Maggie was referred back to me for Emmet’s dangerous behaviors.  Her new vet called to see if she had ever checked in, nope and I explained why she never would.  The situation was far worse and Emmet was a dangerous dog.  Maggie was being pulled down frequently, he was mouthy, jumping and injuring Maggie.  He was also a biter.

Charles was a former long distance runner.  He had always owned a higher energy sporting breeds as running partners.  Yet an accident left him wheelchair bound.  Charles decided he was ready to own a dog again.  When he could not find a breeder or a rescue that would place his breed of choice in his home because he was unable to meet the breed’s physical needs, Charles imported a dog from Europe.  Not only did he import a dog but he went through a kennel breeding for serious working ability.  When he called me and asked what he could do to make the dog lower energy, there was nothing I could say.  I could not make this dog be happy with just a short romp and a stroll around the block.  Charles needed to hire someone to help him with Levi.  Charles admitted to fully ignoring the fact that unless he was willing to seek outside help, a dog like he used to run with was not a good choice.  He assumed because he knew the breed well, even in his current state, he could own one.  Now he said he realized why no one he contacted in the US would place a dog of this breed with him.  He never told the European breeder his situation.  He said he was looking for a good dog from better lines he had worked with in the US.  Levi was miserable.  Charles still refused to hire help and insisted he could do it himself.  We never got past a consult.

What can happen when we admit to our limitations, choose carefully and are willing/able to do what is needed?  Great things!

The Smiths knew their physical limitations.  After careful research, they chose a breed better suited for their abilities.  When they got Rollo, they immediately enrolled him in puppy classes.  As Rollo matured, it became apparent that although the Smiths carefully chose their dog, Rollo was higher energy than average for his breed.  At my suggestion, the Smiths enrolled Rollo in an agility class where I was taking my dog. Rollo thrived but the Smiths could not keep his pace for long!  They just were not physically capable.

They teamed up with an agility club member who took over the dog’s more advanced training and began competing with him.  The dog’s physical and mental needs were being met.   Last I ran into the Smiths at a dog event, Rollo was thriving.  He is a senior dog now but that partnership and the ability to get the support needed (and the willingness to accept help) helped create a wonderful companion.   The Smiths have since gone on to acquire other dogs of the same breed.  Some they were able to train themselves and others they worked with club members to meet the dogs’ needs.

Here is an inspiring news story about what can happen if the needs of the dog can be met and the differently abled person can do what is needed.

I have seen handlers with wheelchairs showing dogs in conformation at local indoor shows.  I have watched blind handlers compete in Agility.  I know people well into their years who have done herding trials.  However, they know their abilities.  The know their dogs and they know what to do and accept help.

Age and medical conditions all impact the ability we have to own a dog.  Just because we want a type of dog does not mean we need that dog – or that dog needs us.   Part of responsible dog ownership is being honest with our physical abilities.  Active dogs of any size may be too much for some of us to manage. When we try to force a dog to be something he is not, bad things can happen.  When we forget about what is best for the dog and compare needs with our own abilities, we set the stage for problems.

I cannot demand a dog that often needs several hours of human lead activity a day be a low energy dog.  I cannot make a Border Collie be a Basset Hound just because you cannot keep up.    It is not fair, no matter how much you love a type of dog, to get that dog because you want it.  What you want may not be what the dog needs.

Honesty with ourselves is not easy but it is something dogs need from us.

Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County,, the founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project,, author, wife, mother and manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.

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