Good Dog Guide

Here’s how you can get the best from man’s best friend

The retired Burnaby, B.C., couple who purchased a Labrador retriever puppy hadn’t expected that a dog revered for its affability could bring such pain into their lives. Despite its friendly disposition, the sizable pup proved boisterous to the point of presenting a physical danger to its owners. The last straw came when the dog toppled the wife in a fit of innocent playfulness and broke her arm.

“Pet ownership comes down to choosing a breed that’s appropriate for your lifestyle,” says Dr. Barry Burtis, a veterinarian in Burlington, Ont., and former chairman of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Communications Committee. “Some dogs may require more physical activity or be larger than you can comfortably handle.” The Burnaby couple eventually found a new owner for the exuberant pooch, one who could cope with its size and zeal.

All too often, people expect a dog to conform to their ways without taking the animal’s nature into account. As a result, every year thousands of dogs are dumped by dissatisfied owners or surrendered to animal-welfare organizations. Statistics reveal that in 1998 some 84,000 dogs were admitted to humane societies across Canada, and almost a third of those had to be put down. “Close to 25 percent of dogs acquired as puppies are turned in before a year is out,” says Stanley Coren, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has authored several books on canines, including Why We Love the Dogs We Do.

Given that a dog’s average life span is about 12 years, the decision to acquire one is not to be taken lightly. Inconvenience is often the trade-off for immense pleasure. But if you fail to think through the implications of ownership, it is the dog that will eventually suffer.

Ask yourself if you can give a social animal the company it needs. Even brief separations can be stressful for some dogs, who have no way of knowing if you will return. One of Burtis’s patients was a Doberman pinscher that destroyed the interior of its owner’s Infiniti when it panicked after being confined in the sports car.

Leaving a dog alone all day can be unwise. After their first day back at work following their summer break, a couple in London, Ont., found that their eight-month-old Labrador retriever had ripped the blinds off the windows after being left alone.

One answer for owners who leave their dogs daily while they head to work may be dog sharing. Says Burtis: “A neighbour or friend may be willing to exercise the dog or do a midday check.” Other alternatives worth looking into include exercise pens, dog-walking services and dog day-care centres.

Do you really have time to devote to a pet? Can you tackle training a puppy and endure the inevitable mess it will make in the first few months? And can you commit to the chore of regular exercise? Active breeds such as setters and retrievers may need at least an hour a day.

Many people don’t realize just how big a small puppy can become. Sheri Gould, a vet in Winnipeg, tells of a woman who bought a terrier cross she thought would wind up being no bigger than a shih tzu. Instead, when the dog reached adult size, she had something the size of a Border collie. Besides her apartment being too small to comfortably house a medium-build dog, the difference in size meant a bigger food budget as well as more work, since most larger dogs require more exercise.

What about the cost of looking after your new family member? Shelagh MacDonald, program director for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, says you should allow about $150 for initial vaccinations, $50 for a yearly exam, and $10 to $15 a day for kennels when you go on holiday. Castrating a male dog can cost $100 and spaying a bitch, $225. The bill for feeding a medium-sized dog will be between $10 and $20 a week. And pet health insurance costs from $120 to $600 a year.

Which dog? Never buy on impulse. Choose the breed that’s right for you. The Canadian Kennel Club lists Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and German shepherds as the three favourite breeds in Canada. But they all have their drawbacks. Labradors constantly shed hair, have voracious appetites and can be destructive; golden retrievers need a lot of grooming and become overweight without adequate exercise; German shepherds can be dominant and can overwhelm an insufficiently assertive owner.

Avoid selecting a dog just because it’s fashionable. Demand for a certain breed leads unscrupulous breeders to exploit the situation. As they increase their output of pups, the standard of breeding declines and there is an increased risk of inherited defects.

For example, a worry has arisen with rottweilers, once a dependable, good-natured dog and now a popular breed. “Some have been bred specifically for their guarding tendencies, which brings a predisposition towards aggression,” says psychologist-author Coren. The problem is compounded when you have a novice owner trying to control 40 kilograms of ill temper at the end of a leash.

Play it safe. Eschew exotic and trendy breeds in favour of those that have long existed in large numbers and are essentially stable, like the standard poodle, Shetland sheepdog and schnauzer.

Matching your lifestyle. If your dog will have to spend most of its time in town, look for an adaptable breed. Miniature or toy poodles, and most other small to mid-sized breeds are generally good for city living, since they don’t require too much space or exercise. Among larger breeds, a good choice is the standard poodle. Intelligent, sensitive and easily trained, they relate well to people and are rarely destructive.

To keep a large breed in town without regular exercise seems cruel. Giant breeds such as St. Bernard, Great Dane, Irish Wolfhound and Great Pyrenees, for example, need lots of room.

Meanwhile Labradors, pointers, and Border collies may need much more exercise and open space than cities usually afford. Apartment dwellers would be well-advised to choose another breed. Also, Border collies need to cut loose because, says Coren, “they become neurotic if not exercised.”

How about your car? While any dog can go batty when left unattended in a parked vehicle, guard dogs such as rottweilers, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers are a particular problem. John Wade, a canine-behaviour specialist formerly with the Ontario SPCA, says, “Being in a car can stimulate the territorial drive in some breeds, especially if they are trained as guard dogs.”

An extremely loving Labrador cross from Newmarket, Ont., put on a Jekyll-and-Hyde act whenever her owner left her alone in the car. She’d bark, bare her teeth and leap at the windows each time she spotted passersby.

A baby in the house? Having a baby and a puppy can raise stress levels. Experts suggest getting a puppy either a year before or a year after a baby arrives to avoid the undue stress that can accompany caring for two newcomers at the same time. But be selective. Some breeds don’t mix well with children. Royalty might adore corgis, but they can be ankle nippers. Chihuahuas and some types of dachshund have a deserved reputation for growling and snapping. Veterinarian Burtis suggests thinking twice about a large or muscular dog. Though they may love kids, they are apt to bowl them over.

Some guard breeds such as Great Pyrenees and St. Bernard can become so protective of a child and its home that at best they can frighten young friends away, and at worst bite them.

A kindly spaniel, tolerant of kids, is always a good buy, and setters too are generally reliable. “One choice that’s not as popular as it should be is the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever,” says Burtis, “which boasts a good temperament and doesn’t require as much grooming as other long-haired dogs.”

Protecting the home. Increasingly, people buy guard breeds for protection. However, canine experts believe a dog should be a companion, not a weapon or ego enhancer.

If protection is important to you, why not compromise: Get a muscular friend rather than one with an unpredictable set of teeth. Think about choosing a macho-looking dog from a good line. For example, Dobermans have a tough appearance, but they can be real pussycats. German shepherds can deal out looks that could kill, but they have long served as guide dogs for the blind because they can be calm and compliant if properly trained. And never keep any dog chained up for too long: It will very likely become more aggressive.

Purebred or crossbred? You can pay more than $700 for a pedigreed pup, and about as much for a pet-shop purebred, or an adoption fee of $135 (including the cost of initial shots and spaying or neutering) for a purebred from an SPCA shelter. But cost is no clue to quality. Some highly bred, expensive dogs come with appalling problems.

Purebreds are more likely to have inherited physical defects. For example, says author Coren, “Chinese sharpeis have jaw and skin problems and are prone to eye infections.” However, with crossbreds you may not know what a puppy will grow into.

Pedigreed or not, littermates are very similar and very like their parents. So talk to the owners of a puppy’s mother and father and, if the dogs have mated before, to owners of their previous offspring. Always try to see the puppy with its mother and to play with her yourself so you can judge her temperament.

Male or female? The unneutered male of a species is more likely to wander and to show aggressive traits. For a first-time owner, particularly one with children, a bitch may be a safer bet.

“You should spay a bitch at about five months, just before her first cycle,” says Burtis. “Spaying should be done to prevent unwanted offspring, not to calm a dog’s temperament.”

Where to buy. “The main problem with buying a dog from a pet shop is that you don’t know the parents, so you have less to predict its behaviour at maturity,” says Burtis. “Another concern is that your puppy has already been taken from its mother, then delivered to the pet shop before finally arriving at your home — which means a lot of stress that can affect its socialization and health.”

For a purebred, look for a reputable breeder who offers health guarantees. The Canadian Kennel Club or the Dogs in Canada Annual directory can give you information about finding breeders in your area. “But be wary of ‘backyard breeders,'” says Burtis, “because they have less experience and often lack the dedication it takes to continue good traits in a line.” It’s also a good idea to buy direct from an owner rather than from a third party.

Be just as careful when adopting from an animal shelter. “While you will get some information on the dog’s background,” says Burtis, “you again have less to predict its behaviour or any health problems that might arise.

Secondly, you have to consider that it was abandoned for a reason, which could well have been behavioural problems.”

Buyer beware. The hereditary defects of many dogs are all too often the result of inappropriate breeding. Chow chows, Pekingese and rough collies can suffer from eye problems. Large breeds such as Labs and golden retrievers may develop hip dysplasia. And Dobermans often suffer from cardiomyopathy — a weakness of the heart muscle — which can lead to sudden death or heart failure.

Once you’ve decided on a breed, ask your local vet for an opinion. The vet will know about temperament or possible congenital defects and can provide prepurchase checkups. You can also run your own check on a breed by looking up the Dog Owner’s Guide at, which supplies information on training, care and potential health problems by breed. The site is a comprehensive source of information on a variety of canine topics in general.

While it’s common sense to choose with care, there’s really nothing very complicated about having a dog. Most of us derive enormous enjoyment from them and for the simplest of reasons: They’re good company.

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