The dog word I HATE: Aggression

Yeah, I get a little… um, aggressive about “aggression.” I think this word has done more to hurt our understanding of dog behavior than just about any other.

The word is perfectly normal, and accurate. It describes any action that a dog does that intentionally hurts.

The huge problem is that this word, which should be a descriptor without any values or bias attached, hasn’t stayed a scientific term.

Katz’s The New Work of Dogs is an absolute MUST READ to understand this background, but to summarize, the average dog owner no longer has any experience in watching dogs behaving normally, furthermore doesn’t WANT the dog to behave normally, and so everyone is hiring people to help them understand dog behavior, and those people are reading behavioral studies and scientific descriptions of how dogs interact.

Researching is GOOD. Reading is GOOD. The whole “machine” that unfortunately begins going at this point is sad because so few people “get” dogs anymore, and even sadder because the typical owner, family, municipality, and even many trainers don’t have any desire to have the dog behave in a normal doggy way. They try to use the research to get dogs to behave like Disney characters or like children or like punching bags, instead of trying to use what we know about dogs to make the dogs happy and meet their needs.

The behaviorists and scientists have introduced certain words that they are used to using in their research, and that they find helpful in labeling behaviors. One of those is “aggression.” It’s a useful word. Unfortunately, this word has become VERY misused and it’s gotten to the point that I now cringe every time I hear it.

Because this word has done two terrible things: It has demonized or criminalized NORMAL dog behavior, and it has become a way to switch the blame for undesired behaviors from the human or the circumstance to the dog.

Dog  behavior follows along lines that are MUCH more rational and measured than human behavior. The “worst” dog shows more restraint in his or actions than most humans could ever dream of. As I addressed in an earlier post, when a dog is in a situation that he finds unpleasant, or feels pressure or stress (and here I mean those words in the behaviorist way, as a change in the environment that requires a response–pressure or stress can be positive, even welcomed, like the introduction of a bitch in heat or the return of a beloved human; it’s not a negative word), or feels that the society he lives in has become disorganized, he has a huge repertoire of behaviors that he uses to diffuse or change or influence the situation. Typically his behavior of last resort is using his mouth.

Again, as I said earlier, the mouth is the dog’s megaphone. When a dog has run through every other way she knows of righting what she feels to be wrong, and nobody is listening to her, she will use her mouth.

This is very analogous to walking into a room and seeing your teenage son or daughter in a chair watching TV when you are carrying a heavy load of their laundry. You immediately recognize that Something Is Not Right (hey, if you’re home, and idle, why didn’t you get your laundry yourself?). You will typically run through the following series of behaviors, escalating from one step to the next when the earlier step gets no response:

1) Pause (allowing a cessation of movement to get the attention of your kid–humans always look at change, so either moving when you were still or stopping when you were moving is a potent behavioral cue)

2) Perhaps deliberately make a “random” noise, like sighing or “accidentally” knocking the laundry basket against a chair

3) Speaking, usually their name

4) Speaking louder, emphasizing their name

5) Approaching closely, speaking even more loudly

6) Putting your hand on their shoulder or head

7) Slightly shaking their body with your hand

All of these are normal behaviors; none of them indicate that you have criminal intent or in fact anything but your child’s best interests in mind. However, somewhere between “4” and “6” you moved into aggressive behavior. You spoke loudly enough to create an unpleasant sensation in your child’s experience, with the goal of making him or her want to get the unpleasant sensation to stop (by responding to you or by showing that they are paying attention).

Any time you behave in a way that is intended to create an unpleasant sensation in another creature, it’s behavioral “aggression.”

Imagine you’re the mom or dad who has just done this–are you an “aggressive” person? Does your behavior need to be modified? Is what you did an indication that you are likely to go shoot someone?

No, of course not.

But behavior EXACTLY that rational, exactly that measured, exactly that common-sense, exactly that restrained, causes dogs to be put to death every single day in this country, and causes countless more to be labeled bad, dangerous, or undesirable.

Now imagine that you are the parent of this same teenage son or daughter and this kind of situation repeats itself ten or twelve times a day (my oldest daughter just turned twelve; ask me how experienced I am at coming into a room and finding her physically present and mentally absent–and I know that in three or four years it’s going to be ten times worse). Before long, you will skip everything up to step 5. You know that steps one through four haven’t gotten her attention the last fifty times you tried them, so you now skip them altogether. Every time you come into a room and need to get her attention, you speak her name loudly or walk over and touch her.

Again, this is completely normal and expected. We’d even criticize a parent who didn’t collapse the steps. “That kid is totally blowing her off, and all she ever whispers is ‘Oh, honey, could you please…?’ He’s going to grow up into a holy terror if she doesn’t start to expect better behavior of him!”

Dogs are exactly the same. If the early steps don’t work, never work, they will begin by speaking very firmly. And for a dog this means using their mouth. They’ve been very effectively taught, usually by a human who doesn’t see or respond to any of the early steps that the dog had tried a hundred times before escalating to using their mouths, that talking softly doesn’t work with these dummies. You have to yell or nobody hears you. So they use a bite immediately.

See what I’m NOT saying about these dogs? I’m not saying they’re “aggressive.” I’m not hanging other adjectives off, like “dominance aggression” or “fear aggression” or “leash aggression.” That’s not because those phenomena don’t exist. It’s because they have been hideously misused to make the behavior the dog’s fault. The dog IS aggressive; that dog IS dominant; her dog IS fear-aggressive. These become labels that we apply to dogs as though the behaviors they display are uncalled for, irrational, evil, bad.

And once we label them, the dog just IS–“I can’t fix this; he is fear-aggressive.” Like “he’s brown.” Or “he’s schizophrenic.”

We tell ourselves–and trainers tell us, and vets tell us–hundreds of lies about aggression. We use language like “He just snapped” or “He could turn at any time” or “You did what you could; he was too aggressive for you.”

All of them demonize any behavior involving a dog’s mouth, and all of them blame the dog and not the human.

If I could, I would wipe out this word from every trainer’s mouth, every owner’s brain. No more! From now on, you have to describe the dog’s behavior using REAL emotions, REAL words.

Instead of “She’s fear-aggressive” I want to hear “She’s afraid.”

AHA! See what happened there? You stopped looking at that poor terrified dog and blaming her for her frantic and panicked behavior. She’s AFRAID, you moron! Stop scaring her!

Instead of “He’s leash-aggressive” I want to hear “He believes that when on leash he’s supposed to skip the greeting steps and go right to mouth.”

OK, that’s a genuine description of something the dog has been taught by humans. Now un-teach it. IMMEDIATELY read everything you can get your hands on about increasing drive in working dogs and then smack yourself on the forehead when you realize that you’ve been extremely effectively training him to use his mouth on other dogs.

Instead of “she’s food-aggressive,” say “She thinks she must guard her food or it will be taken away.”

Well, who taught her that? Who gave her that message? It didn’t fall from the sky, people! Somebody screwed up, and now they have to fix THEIR OWN behavior; she’s just doing she thinks she has no choice but to do.

Instead of “He’s dominance-aggressive”–which is the worst of all–you need to say one of a hundred things: “She believes that her status is at risk because of his behavior.” “He does not like it when other dogs behave chaotically” (see the huge reversal on that one? Suddenly he’s the one making the right choice and the other dogs are at fault–which is the case a HUGE percentage of the time). “She doesn’t know proper calming behaviors, so she’s unable to defuse status-related conflicts.” (And who didn’t socialize her enough, so she doesn’t know how to talk “dog” well enough? Yeah, you there. Not her.)

We need to reverse the two huge lies that labeling have told us.

1) WE MUST ACCEPT BLAME ON THIS. Ninety-nine-point-eight percent of bad dog behavior is HUMAN fault. If your dog is behaving in a way that is lowering his quality of life, you need to look in the mirror long and hard. VERY VERY few dogs are genuinely mentally ill. Almost all of them have been TAUGHT, yes, by YOU, to do what they are doing.

If you want proof of this, talk to any breeder who has been around long enough to get “bad” dogs returned to her. Ask her how the owners described the dog and what she actually got back. Every single breeder has these stories. On the phone, as described, the dog is out of control, aggressive; she’s usually done damage to several animals and often bitten the owner as well. They have been told to euthanize the dog, but as per your contract they are returning her.

You gird your loins and get ready for a dog who is completely nuts. You set up the crates, divide the fenced yard, work out a schedule for who can be in or out and when. You get the behaviorist on the phone, you set up the vet. You get mentally prepared for euthanasia; you don’t sleep the night before.

In comes the dog–or you go get her, or you meet half-way. However it happens, finally the dog bounds in to your house, and usually does something like try to jump up on your dining room table. You look her in the eye and say, very calmly, with a big growly edge in your voice, “GET. OFF. RIGHT. NOW.”

And — I have had this happen twice, and I pray with every litter that it won’t happen a third time, but it’s just incredibly striking — something behind the dog’s eyes shifts. Something in their brain goes from panicchaosdisorderfear (for the “soft” ones) or gottacontroleveryoneortheworldwillend (for the harder ones) to Oh thank God someone else is in charge; I can relax.

Sometimes, what the previous owner has taught the dog is so well learned that she must be placed very, very carefully–though I still have NEVER had a dog, either my returns or my rescues, behave “as advertised.” Many times, it seems that the knots unwind almost instantly. This dog who was a “nightmare” is a sweet, goofy, relaxed and mellow dog who is a joy in your home and becomes a joy in their next home.

(As an aside, the person who returned the dog, even if they cried when they handed the dog over and talked about the mistakes they had made, always changes the story within a week or two. It always becomes “I did everything right and I ended up with nightmare aggression.” “That dog had everything, and he turned on me.” “There was no reason for it; it’s bad breeding/bad breeder.” Breeders are often tempted to respond by e-mailing a picture of the dog with its tongue lolling out as it blissfully rolls around with her other dogs in the back yard, or running through a field with its next owner, but we all shut up and nod and accept the blame. Because the most important thing is to always get the dog back. We’re willing to accept any kind of criticism or hear any crap if it means that the dog ends up safe and happy.)

Why do dogs do this huge turnaround, why so suddenly? Why can they so often be placed again and thrive? BECAUSE THERE WAS NEVER ANYTHING WRONG WITH THEM.

Which brings me to the next truth we must accept:


ANY dog who is afraid enough, and her early signals have been ignored, will use her mouth.

ANY dog who has no security about food will use his mouth.

ANY dog who knows that the sacred duty of healthy dogs is to maintain a calm pack will use his mouth to control chaos.

ANY dog who is frustrated by unpredictable behavior will use his mouth to try to stop the behavior.

ANY dog who is wound tight by lack of exercise, lack of stimulation, lack of interaction will be more likely to skip the initial steps and go right to the mouth.

Saying that no dog should ever bite is like saying that no human should ever yell. If you have a calm, mature, well-trained group of humans who have great people skills and a steady supply of good food and an in-ground pool, they will probably go years without ever having to yell. If you have a chaotic, immature, uneducated group of humans who all speak a different language and who are rude, you put them in a 10×10 room and you throw two tuna sandwiches in there once a day, you’ll hear nothing BUT yelling. The difference, of course, is that if we look at a group of humans yelling we say “Something is wrong. We need to help them understand each other. We need to give them tools. We need to communicate to them that the others mean them no harm. They’re obviously stressed because they’re hungry and they can’t move around.” The humans themselves are assumed to be basically decent people with the cards stacked against them in an impossible situation.

But if we have a bunch of dogs who fight constantly, who try to bite other dogs constantly, who bite humans, our first response is to say “Those are bad dogs. They need to be put down.” The first assumption is that the dogs are at fault, not that they’re good dogs and would not be biting if they were being understood, if their needs were being met.

Behaviors are responses to needs, desires, fears, dread, hope, etc. A creature who behaves a certain way because he IS a certain thing is called a robot. Living creatures respond to their environments.

So stop using labels; stop filing behaviors as though they define the dog. First, learn what normal, unstressed dogs do and how normal, unstressed dogs behave. Learn enough about your breed to know what additional behaviors are completely normal for your breed. You’ll probably realize that about half the stuff you were freaking out about is completely normal. For example, if your dog is defending his food bowl from other dogs and he’s a Corgi, he’s probably stressed and you need to change or teach something. If your dog is defending his food bowl from other dogs and he’s a Malamute, welcome to normal life. Don’t feed him in a room with other dogs. Bam, problem solved. If your dog is “attacking” other dogs on a regular basis in daycare or in playgroup, but none of these “attacks” leave a mark, it’s very possible that your dog is actually the best-behaved one there and is doing her job of trying to keep the pack functioning well. She doesn’t need to re-learn anything or be punished; she needs to be congratulated, then moved to a playgroup where the human in charge knows enough to keep things calm and happy.

Once you know enough to separate normal, unstressed behavior from behavior that is a sign of stress or frustration, use words that reflect behavior the way it really is. Try to begin with “She’s afraid of…” or “She wants…” or “She needs…” or “He has learned that X leads to Y.” If in doubt, blame yourself, not the dog. “By keeping the leash tight and pulling back, I have taught her that she should try to bite other dogs.”

Dogs ARE individuals. Some dogs come to conclusions faster; some dogs are more tolerant, some are more instinctively physical and some are less so. I am not saying that some dogs are not extremely difficult, or that some breeds are not more challenging than others, or anything of the kind. I am not a Pollyanna about dogs. I am also not saying that every dog is the right fit for every family or every individual; all you have to do is work harder at it. Sometimes it’s just impossible to work any harder than you already are. Sometimes rehoming is the best possible thing that can happen for everyone. And very often an easier dog of a different breed can tolerate that owner’s particular brand of crazy and will thrive. What I am saying, and trying to say clearly and frankly, is that the overwhelming majority of dogs are sane; there are almost no genuinely “bad” dogs. There are millions and millions of stressed, frustrated, misunderstood, disfunctionally trained dogs whose owners have – often with the encouragement of trainers – labeled “bad.” And that needs to stop.

Believe me that I don’t do everything right with my dogs. I make hundreds of mistakes every day. Every post I write I’m preaching to myself, trust me. I am nowhere near a finished product, and neither are my dogs. But it really is true that by realizing that the vast majority of the time dogs behave in ways that are completely rational, I have improved our life with our dogs by a huge amount. My dogs are not perfect but they’re pretty dang happy, and our pack is very functional. Because it works so well we’re able to be “contagious” to other dogs, and make them more functional too, which has led to some real miracles as we’ve done rescue. And, if you haven’t already realized this by reading this blog, we’re very happy with our dogs.

Puppy license and adult behavior–STOP SEPARATING PLAY.

I’ve got a bunch of posts waiting in my brain–there are some good conversations going on. Unfortunately I can’t post front pictures, since Clue is still wonky in front and my camera is not functional. I’ll probably try to revive the topic when and if I can ever get a good picture of her again–she’s got a good front that has gotten WAY better with age, and I would love to know if other people have noticed that certain Cardi fronts age well and others of them age badly. But without pics I can’t really demonstrate what I’m talking about.

So, while I’m thinking about pack behavior and what dogs do, I wanted to talk a little bit about what is normal and acceptable dog behavior and what is concerning.

My general rule when the dogs are sane is that if blood isn’t flowing, I don’t interfere. This is because of the following great truth:

When we interfere, we screw up a lot more dog interaction than we ever fix.

Humans are REALLY bad at reading what’s happening with dogs. We ignore really bad stuff and we stop, even punish, perfectly normal behavior. This is true even when you’re really experienced; I have spent thousands of hours studying this stuff and I am more convinced that I am an idiot when it comes to dog behavior than I was when I began. Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll start interfering, but right now I know perfectly well how dumb I am.

One of the reasons we screw up interactions has to do with the fact that, just like we humans do, dogs have communications that have beginnings, middles, and ends. The beginning is the series of behaviors that initiate the interaction, the middle is the interaction itself, and the end is when the dogs resolve or end the interaction and move back away from each other.

That entire cycle is VERY important. If it is not completed, the next time the dog or dogs tries to interact the “transaction” won’t go as smoothly. Some of the social lubrication will have been lost.

If interactions are routinely truncated, two bad things happen: First, the dogs involved don’t get to finish the conversation, so they get out of practice in how to finish interactions. This is a lot more dangerous than it sounds–every dog interaction is a finely honed and subtle meeting of two animals perfectly prepared to kill each other. Predator-to-predator transactions are not exactly natural, and dogs have evolved an incredibly complex series of behaviors to keep things from escalating into an attempt to physically harm. If they are bad at those behaviors–if instead of suave and smooth talkers they’ve become awkward and tend to say the wrong thing–they are in genuine danger of falling from normal transaction into a situation where one or the other of them will make a move toward a killing attempt.

The second bad thing that happens is along the same line, but it involves those two dogs in particular. If they cannot finish the conversation they began, they do not have a chance to do all the appeasement/backing up behaviors that they would normally do. The conversation is cut off just when things are getting tense. So when the dogs see each other again, they will be more heightened in their interaction than they would have been if they’d been allowed to complete the cycle. This makes them even more likely to need to have a conversation that gets tense, and when they are again separated the stakes get even higher.

The above is kind of brainy, so let me put it in terms of a typical situation with a puppy and an adult dog (this is the most common time when humans interfere; the second is when a new adult is being introduced; I’ll address that below).

New puppy arrives and is cute and wonderful. For a few days or weeks she toddles around and falls over adorably and snoozes everywhere and plays her funny little puppy games and everyone, including all the adult dogs in the house, smiles indulgently and allows her many liberties that they would never allow an adult dog.

This is normal and good; it’s how the pack bonds with and learns to protect the puppies that come into it.

But then at some point, say at twelve or sixteen weeks, even earlier for the quick maturers, the little soft fuzzy schnookums-wookums becomes a growing dog, and her little games start to involve using her teeth in a real and deliberate way. And instead of bumbling into the adult dogs’ heads and falling over, she’s lying in wait and then barreling over and jumping on their heads.

The adult dogs decide they’ve had enough, and they begin to punish her for this rude behavior. If she jumps on them they roar, they knock her with their mouths, they send her ki-yi-yi-ing into the next room. When she has play interactions with them they don’t hold back anymore; they pin her and knock her over and she yelps and rolls away.

The human says “Oh no! Poor Gladys! They’re being rough with her!” and they begin to supervise the play. Every time the adult dogs get “rough” they are stopped or disciplined. If they continue to “victimize” the puppy they are totally separated; she plays alone and they play alone.


Puppies learn from adult dogs. A vital and absolutely incontrovertible role of a healthy adult dog is to teach the puppy how to be a good and polite dog. The adult teaches–yes, by physical punishment, though that punishment is not cruel–how to interact with other dogs, how to live in a pack, how to ask permission, how to back off, etc. If you stop that from happening, not only does the puppy grow up with SERIOUS issues that will hurt her chances of being a normal dog who can get along with other dogs, you build resentment between the two dogs. If the adult dog is never allowed to complete a lesson, he will try harder and sooner the next time. If he’s stopped again and again, pretty soon he will decide that the only way to deal with this is to remove the puppy from the picture entirely.

This is why you end up with separated packs, and the owners say “From the very beginning, they just couldn’t get along.” The vast majority of the time, it was the humans who doomed the relationship because they misinterpreted a set of actions that is not only normal but ESSENTIAL, and they “broke” the ability of the dogs to interact normally.

You MUST understand this: DOGS DO NOT MISS. There’s no such thing as “If I hadn’t been fast enough, he would have hurt her.” Trust me, that dog is WAY faster than you. There’s no “Another inch and he would have hurt her eye.” If he had wanted to hurt her eye, he would have hurt her eye. You did not rescue her and you did not stop him. What he did was exactly what he intended to do, no more and no less.

No matter how noisy and scary and huge the interaction is, if the puppy is not hurt (and tiny scores or puncture wounds don’t count–both of them mean that the adult dog was holding his mouth open and not biting down) they should be allowed to finish it. The puppy can get VERY scared. The puppy can scream bloody murder and run. The puppy can get knocked completely over. No blood flowing means it was a normal conversation. If the adult dog tries to pick the puppy up, or begins to shake the puppy, that’s bad and wrong and you need to separate them and go find a behaviorist who knows what he or she is doing to supervise their interactions for a while. But that almost never happens in our breed; it’s something you need to consider in the breeds that have had some of that bite inhibition dampened through deliberate breeding (any breed that was expected to not just attack but physically damage or kill other dogs on a regular basis would qualify), and in those breeds any introduction of any new dog is something you supervise VERY carefully, but Cardigans are not one of those. In our breed adults almost never inappropriately move from normal punishment to a predation (biting down with the intent of harming) bite.

What you want to see is the interaction move to completion. The adult should be fully relaxed and the puppy should either be showing proper submissive behaviors like mouth-licking or cringing and creeping or should have left the room entirely. THEN you can move in and interact with the dogs again. But do not punish the adult and do not comfort the puppy–the puppy was being a brat and got what she deserved; she does not need your comforting and you risk reinforcing her brattiness.

One very important caveat: When this kind of thing is at its height–when the puppy is getting disciplined on a regular basis–make sure that you are not accidentally or deliberately confining the dogs together. The ability to get away is essential to completing the behavior. If the dog at fault can’t move away from the interaction, the interaction has a hard time ending, which can escalate the tension and make the mild punishment far worse. So don’t force the dogs next to each other in a hallway; if they’re standing together at the bathroom door, don’t walk into them and inadvertently herd them both into the small room. This becomes second nature quickly, but if you’re not used to thinking that way you’ll need to be very aware of how you are moving the dogs both deliberately (on leashes or while playing) and unconsciously (with your body language).

Similarly, don’t invite interactions over food. Food always escalates tension. Keep in mind that this isn’t just about the food bowl. Don’t have the puppy and the adult dogs running around the dining room when the whole family is eating. Don’t let them be unsupervised at parties or get-togethers if there’s food outside. Better to crate them and avoid a situation where a transaction needs to begin.

My advice for introducing a second adult to the family is similar, but you need to keep in mind that they both need a lot more physical space to get away from each other. The great thing about introducing adults is that if both are good at talking “dog” they don’t need to keep repeating the same conversations the way puppies and adults do. They can be secure and calm very quickly. The bad thing is that they are peers, so there won’t be an automatic “you back down; I am in charge” order. So they will have a bit more initial tension as they figure each other out.

I think Cesar Millan’s method of first going for a very long, brisk, controlled walk with both dogs (so you are walking one and the other is being walked as well, and then you meet and continue walking, with no sniffing allowed) is very, very good. It channels the tension of meeting into physical activity and means that when you do let them get together they’re both relaxed and tired. I’d add to that advice that when you feel both dogs relax enough that you would like to let them touch noses, the best place is a large fenced area that is neutral to both dogs. A fenced field or empty dog park or something similar would be ideal. If that is absolutely not an option, you can use your own fenced yard, but don’t bring the dogs inside first. No collars, no leashes, and don’t be alarmed if big noises happen, as long as the dogs are able to get away from each other. Again, no blood means it’s all OK. The keep-tension-low rules apply for several weeks–no small areas, no food, etc. In my house we also don’t let strange dogs be with the existing dogs if there are little kids playing near them, even if I’m right there. I know the existing dogs will begin to feel protective and that noise and chaos raises tension, so I put the dogs behind baby dgates.

I know this is hard, especially if you’ve never heard this before, but you really need to let puppies get spanked. And you need to let older dogs figure out what roles they will fulfil in your combined pack. Think very hard before you step in and interfere with a conversation, and consider the implications of any kind of separation.

Train until terrified

On a site in a galaxy far far away, I’m reading a thread that’s yelling “He bit me!”

It opens the way so many of them do, with “I don’t know if I can trust him” and “The trainer says he’s been showing signs of dominance for weeks” and “Thank goodness it happened to me and not to my kids.”

The response from a supposedly extremely experienced dog trainer is “Never let him get the upper hand again! Be on your guard from now on! This is the way herding dogs behave when they want to get their way! Never, never let him win!”

So what on earth happened? What Cujo is this, and what hideous act did he commit?

It’s a seven-month-old puppy. A little herding mix.

First, let me explain what had been perceived as “dominant”  behavior–the puppy jumped on its owner. When he was told not to, he’d go behind the owner and jump straight up and down, without touching the owner. To solve this, the owner was told to back the dog into an office chair.

The ultimate infraction, the bite? In a training class, the owner was instructed to make the dog lie down (no command was given and the word is not one the puppy knows) by stepping on the leash and pulling the leash up from under her foot, thus forcing the puppy to the ground. The goal of the exercise was to stand on the leash right at the clip, so the dog is snubbed completely to the floor, and then wait until the dog relaxed.

When she stepped on the lead and began to pull the leash, the dog did what she called “have a temper tantrum.” What was this tantrum? The dog screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and howled, and flipped over, scrabbled at the ground, and finally bit her in the shin.

The trainer told her to repeat the exercise. Over and over. The second time it was done, the dog screamed and bit through the leash and got away. But he was brought back, and he went through it again. And again. Until he finally lay down on the floor.

The owners took him home and, following the trainer’s directions, put the dog on the leash again, and this time she wore boots. And they did it again at home, over and over, until he would drop like a stone if anyone went near his leash. This was a huge success–as evidenced by the fact that when it was done the puppy immediately went to his bed and slept for hours.

After I read this story, I literally had to stand up and walk away from the computer; re-reading it so I could describe it properly makes me come very close to gagging. I didn’t want to ever think about it again. But this is pretty much the exact idiocy that I am supposed to be railing against, so I am going to talk about it. I can’t, unfortunately, change the day that puppy had, but I can maybe change it for some other puppy somewhere else.

This story is easily in my top ten of IDIOT TRAINER MEETS IDIOT OWNER tales. I want to go to wherever that trainer is (I honestly don’t know) and smack his face repeatedly, and then say “Do you think I’m your boss now? Huh?” and then smack him repeatedly again. Maybe knee his testicles too, because if he objects to the smacking that must mean he’s being dominant.

Anyone who has any experience with dogs, especially herding dogs, knows that what happened to that poor innocent puppy is that he is now pretty sure that his owner repeatedly threatened to kill him. And the only way he can avoid death is to lie down.

And because a thrice-accursed trainer decided that objecting to being choked down to the ground was a sign of dominance, that poor baby dog had to re-live that terror fifty or a hundred times.

Let me put this very simply: If your dog is screaming, gasping, rolling, howling, and finally after ALL THAT he bites… he is a normal, even submissive, very sane dog who thought you were going to kill him. And even once he became convinced that you were trying to kill him, he didn’t fight back. For minutes he fought to get away from you, to get somewhere away from your rage, until he finally fell back on something he’d been trying to avoid for every moment of panic. He bit what was trying to kill him.

Here are the things that this trainer (and now, tragically, this owner, and obviously the thread-responding trainer) do not understand about dog behavior:

1) Dominance theory is real, it’s useful, and it is effective. When used properly it’s a great addition to training.  But dominance has NOTHING to do with choking a puppy into submission. That’s just cruelty and abuse.

This trainer took a legitimate exercise (one that I use with every puppy) that I’ve always called “settle,” and turned it into a horrible ordeal. The thing I call “settle” is a fun game where you introduce a micro-second of downward pressure on the leash (with your foot) and when the dog responds by quieting or paying attention to you she is rewarded by a big treat. This VERY gradually moves into a learned behavior so I can say “settle” and step on the leash and my dogs know that they need to be calm, that we’re not going anywhere for a while. It’s great for when you want the dog to be relaxed and quiet so you can listen to a trainer. There’s at least a foot of slack in the leash and the dog is allowed to take any posture she wants, as long as she’s quiet and her attention is directed at me or on relaxing–she can’t be looking outward with big intentions, or trying to interact with another dog. I do it with a mat or a dog bed, and very quickly the dogs understand that it’s a great opportunity to relax and nap.

“Settle” is a legitimate command. Settle is NOT an opportunity to physically force a dog into a position it views as extremely dangerous and vulnerable and then choke it until it stays there.

Being a pack leader, being “dominant” in the right way, is not about forcing a dog to do ANYTHING. It’s about being the kind of person, having the energy and posture, knowing how much careful pressure to apply to a dog with your body language and very little else, that a dog WANTS to obey. The proper exercise of dominant energy makes a dog sigh, relax, and become calm. Aside from a very few specific situations, it has nothing to do with physical touch and it NEVER involves panicking an animal. In other words, using leadership has everything to do with YOU, not with the dog. The dog already knows it, trust me. It’s about changing YOUR behavior and attitude and energy.

2) Dogs are not primates; close physical contact does not equal love.

An exercise that forces a dog into a small physical area, close to its owner, is an exercise designed by people thinking like people, not people thinking like dogs. Dogs have a very, very rich sense of love and affection, but their idea of physical space is MUCH more acute than ours. To be polite, to show love, to a dog, is to immediately and happily give space.

Right now Clue is lying at my feet, snoring. She chooses, as she has since she was a tiny baby, to lie about eight inches away from my foot. If I move my foot over and touch her on the back, she will immediately wake up. I just did it, and she looked up, saw me, stood up, and walked over to her bed (which is about three feet away). Humans, thinking like humans, would say “Oh, she doesn’t want to be near me anymore; there’s something wrong.” In fact, everything is exactly right. I signaled to her (by touching her back, and then looking at her eyes) that I intended to take up more space, so she gave me the space I needed.

When a dog sees that another dog is being impolite, and the infraction is not stopped by a quick glance or head posture and so the first dog has to physically touch the impolite dog, the proper response from the impolite dog is to leave. To back off and walk or run away. Dogs very, very rarely pursue in order to punish. If the impolite dog turns and leaves, the interaction is over and a success. I’ve seen older dogs do this to rude puppies a hundred times–the puppy jumps on the older dog’s head, older dog roars and knocks the puppy with an open mouth, puppy ki-yi-yis and runs, older dog has a satisfied grin on her face and lies back down to sleep. There’s no “payback” or pursuit. Simple message, looking for a specific response.

That poor baby herding dog felt “pressure” from its owner. It immediately tried to do the correct, polite thing, which is to move away. It was not allowed to do so; it was instead dragged closer and forced into greater and greater proximity. Its attempts to politely walk away became a panicked fight to RUN away, which brings us to the third behavior:

3) Dogs bite when it works to bite. It has nothing to do with submission or dominance. Mouths are how dogs communicate when body language fails. Using the mouth is the dog’s megaphone. A normal, sane dog who trusts the people and dogs around it will offer many, many behaviors and attempts to communicate before it uses its mouth. It’s a tragic thing that most of us completely ignore those communications.

When a dog feels that it has exhausted every “word” it knows, it will finally resort to using its mouth. When dogs are very afraid, they can run through a shorter set of words or more quickly resort to mouth. When a dog learns over time that its words will be ignored, it will begin to skip them and move right to mouth. That’s why when a dog perceives itself as the leader of a human group it often bites a lot–in a normal dog pack it could establish and maintain order through body language and small “words,” only very rarely resorting to mouth, but it has learned that humans are incredibly stupid and you have to bite them every single time because nothing else works.

In this case, the dog tried in a hundred ways, for minutes on end, to avoid using its mouth. He finally became so terrified that he bit. The second time he was tortured, STILL he tried to avoid biting. He bit through the leash instead, and must have felt incredible relief when he was finally able to give the human the space she was demanding so loudly. But instead of the leash cutting being read as what it was–the dog trying to obey and avoid this confusing and horrifying punishment by being a good baby and running–it was labeled disobedience and the puppy was punished further and further and with more and more intensity.

The final piece of our very, very terrible day for this poor puppy is

4) Dogs emotionally shut down by separating and sleeping.

When you get a puppy, you MUST physically exhaust that puppy every day. You want a puppy who sleeps for hours when the day is over. But what happened here is totally different.

A happily exhausted puppy toddles over to its bed, still laughing, tail wagging, and flops down in total relaxation. Happy puppies sleep happy.

This puppy was not physically exhausted. All he’d done was lie down a hundred times–that’s a tiny calorie spend. What his owner saw was him emotionally and mentally shutting down, in the same way that a dog who has been beaten will sleep or a dog who knows he is very sick will separate from the others and seek out a place to hide and sleep.

The ultimate tragedy comes at the end of the story… the “successful” conclusion. “It totally worked. When he woke up, he did not want to mess with me at ALL. But now he won’t come when he’s called, even when I have a toy or a treat in my hand. I’m so glad my trainer offers phone support because now we have to work on this new sulky attitude.”

Good Lord. This poor, poor dog. Yes, you’ve definitely succeeded–he no longer trusts you or wants to be anywhere near you. But he’ll drop like a rock when you put his leash on. Hope you got a good price for that soul of yours.

Why my puppies are free (also known as “What puppy buyers should be able to expect from breeders”)

This post is coming from the fact that I WANT A PUPPY LIKE MERDE AND WHOA AND HECK, as well as the ongoing mental discussion I’m having with myself about health issues. I have the two elements–prospective buyer and breeder–all swirling around in my head.

And this is a bit of the pattern that is getting splashed up against the wall of my brain.

One question that is always a little difficult to tapdance around, when you’re a breeder or when you’re a buyer, is the price of the puppy in question. It’s considered bad form to publicly price puppies, because that implies that this is a straightforward transaction: You give me a pile of benjamins and I hand you this puppy, end of story. We instead try to communicate that it’s hard to get a puppy from us and we want you to seek out and develop a relationship with us before we start talking business. It’s also supposed to imply that you as a buyer shouldn’t go shop around for the lowest price, because this is not a dishwasher and one does not equal another.

Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead breeders to adopt the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” scheme; this was a pretty big problem in Danes. There were some breeders who decided that their show puppies were worth $5000 plus two puppies back, even though other breeders using similar pedigrees and similar win records were pricing at a quarter of that amount. It can also lead owners into a kind of ridiculous secret-handshake routine where they are still trying to shop around but have calculated exactly how long a phone conversation they have to have with a breeder before they can delicately mention prices.

That’s problem one.

Here’s the other background problem: Every single prospective puppy buyer, without exception, is sort of pre-traumatized when they come into the relationship with you. Since the people who end up with good breeders are the ones who have taken time to research a lot about dogs, most of them already feel somewhat defensive about buying a puppy rather than adopting one. They’ve read a great deal about how the only good way to get a dog is to go to a shelter, pound, or rescue, and they intellectually disagree (or they wouldn’t be calling you) but they feel either a little or a lot guilty about it.

Compounding this problem is that, again without exception, they know someone who has been “ripped off” by a breeder or they themselves have had a bad experience with a breeder. They want a puppy, often quite desperately, but they are not quite sure whether they need to set themselves up as our friends or our adversaries.

Here’s the absolute worst thing you can do: After the long phone conversation tapdance, name the big number and then justify the price of your puppies by comparing what you have or what you’ve done to what your peer breeders (i.e., other Cardigan exhibitor/breeders) have and what they’ve done, making sure the buyers understand that your puppies are better than those breeders’ dogs and DEFINITELY better than adopted/homeless dogs because of XYZ (I’ve even heard people use specific names, or criticize specific shelters, which is really uncool). Tell them that your dogs are expensive because they’ll live longer and are healthier and better tempered, and they’re prettier too.

Why is that a terrible idea? Because there is NO WAY ON EARTH you can guarantee that. You are giving them a live animal in its infancy, and 99.5% of what is going to happen to that animal has nothing to do with the good breeding decisions you may or may not have made (and, all too often, we don’t find out until the puppies are five years old or even older that in fact it was NOT a good thing that we bred those two dogs because the now-grown puppies are metaphorically or literally dropping like flies).

DO NOT FOOL YOURSELF. Even in the best litter you’ve ever bred or will breed, there will be puppies that are less than stellar in appearance or health. I don’t care what health tests you do–you WILL make puppies that are genetic disasters and die young, sometimes horribly young and horribly traumatically. And there are WITHOUT A DOUBT going to be temperament problems in some puppies or grown dogs. Sometimes it’s because you convinced yourself that your bitch who tried to bite a judge, attacks all other dogs, and who violently shies away from anything red, round, less than two feet above the ground, or wearing a hat is that way because the neighbor from next door looked at her funny when she was three months old, instead of admitting that her loose screw is being very predictably passed along to her kids. Far more often it’s because the owner made a series of very bad decisions, as owners often do, and created a problem.

If you’ve pinned a dollar amount to health, longevity, or temperament, the new owner has every right to be furious and every right to call this a ripping off. You sold something that you did not deliver.

And these are the owners that will try to convince everyone they know that breeders are bad news, and the expensive ones are not only dishonest but greedy. No breeders can be trusted, so buying from the classified ads is just the same as buying from the breeder of the big winners and so you should just go save yourself some money.

And that’s the GOOD scenario. In the bad scenario, you get sued for breach of contract and you never breed again.

So let me suggest an approach that I did not come up with–this is what my very wise and wonderful Dane mentor told me.

BE HONEST. That’s all puppy buyers want. Aside from the very few genuinely bad ones, who are not going to be happy no matter what, buyers want to know the real situation. They want to feel respected and they want to know that you’re not going to cheat them.

And the HONEST truth is that we cannot in any way guarantee that our puppies will meet or exceed the health, personality, temperament, or behavior of any other dog. We can say that we’ve done our absolute best to weigh things in that puppy’s favor, and we can explain exactly how we’ve planned the breeding and how we’ve raised the litter and why we think those practices give this puppy a better chance than the people down the road with the “Yelo Lab Pupps: $650” sign on their tree, but this is a living organism and all we’ve done is observed it until it’s eight weeks old.

And so, again following the advice of a far wiser breeder than I, when people ask me how much my puppies are, I tell them “They’re free. Or, if it makes you feel more comfortable, they’re whatever the price of an average shelter adoption is in your neighborhood. When and if we decide that this is a good match and you decide to get a puppy from me, you’ll be writing me a check for [whatever it is], but that check is actually buying ME. You are paying for the right to call me, any time of the day or night, for the life of this dog. You’re paying for me to be your training assistant, your dedicated boarding kennel, your vet advocate, and your nutritional consultant. You are paying me a research fee for making an educated and smart decision about which dog to breed to which dog. And you’re paying me a retainer so that at any time in your dog’s life I will take back that dog, no questions asked, no matter the situation, and you’re paying me to take some very difficult decisions off your hands.”

I then advise them to consider the purchase price of ANY puppy in those terms. The only thing they can be sure of getting for their big wad of cash is a relationship with a breeder. If they are not absolutely comfortable with me, absolutely sure that they will get their money’s worth of me, they should go elsewhere even if I have a puppy available. If they are not completely sure that whatever breeder they’re talking to is a safe place to deposit that “wage,” they need to run away even if the most adorable puppy on earth is staring at them.

It took me until my third litter to have been burned enough to add this, usually during the last big interview and contract-signing before they actually take the dog home:

“Look at this puppy. What I am giving you is what I have created. Don’t take it home unless you are totally comfortable with everything you see, because once it leaves my house YOU are creating it. From here on out, you’re the one shaping temperament and behavior, and aside from wholly genetic disorders you’re on the hook for health too.

You’re paying for my advice. That means you have to come to me IMMEDIATELY if there’s a problem. You can’t see a behavior you don’t like, or a health issue you’re not sure of, and wait around for five months until it’s a real crisis and then show up and ask me to fix it. I won’t be able to. You need to come to me, even if it takes fifteen phone calls and a trip back here, when it’s still something I can solve or can advise you on how to solve. If you make that effort, I will bend over backwards and devote every bit of time and energy I have to solving your problem and getting you back on the right path to happiness with your dog. If you do not come to me–and that’s the first thing I’m going to ask you when you call: when did you first see this issue–there’s a very good chance that it will be too late. And if it is too late, I’ll still take the dog back because that’s my commitment to you and to this dog, but I’ll be sending the dog to heaven.”

Being honest also means defining very simply and without ambiguity when a health or temperament problem is your fault and when it’s their fault. If you screwed up and so the dog died young, replace it. Don’t argue. If the dog has something very wrong with it and it cannot do its job, if the owners are good ones send them a new puppy. Be very clear with them BEFORE they take the dog home (and say it to their faces and make sure they’re listening–when new owners were coming to sign the contract and take the dog home I used to put the puppies in another room so I was absolutely sure they were paying attention to me and not their new puppy) exactly what you do and do not cover, what actions will render your contract with them void, and give them the chance to back out if they’re not comfortable.

And then, although this has nothing to do with your legal or ethical duty, maybe every once in a while replace a puppy that you didn’t really need to, or that wasn’t your fault, if you think the owners are worth it.

When we lost-and-then-found Clue, I called Betty Ann to let her know that Clue was lost. I was sobbing through most of the phone call, which I am sure she found at least somewhat off-putting, but she listened and gave me some good advice and then said “If she’s really gone, we’ll get something to you right away.”

It blew me away. I PHYSICALLY MISPLACED MY DOG. If there was ever a situation that was not her fault, it was this one. For her to take any responsibility for making sure I still had a dog at the end of it was rather mindboggling.

Now I’m certainly not saying that we’re like LL Bean for dogs (endless return policy, even if you lose it), but acting with that kind of commitment substantially raised the bar for me when it came to my own expectations of my relationships with puppy buyers.

“We’re responsible breeders…”

You want a very sad and ironic laugh? Google that phrase. I think, of all the responses, I found ONE website that actually looked like it was from a responsible breeder.

DO NOT BE TAKEN IN. Bad breeders are very adept at glomming on to words and phrases that will make them seem less like bad breeders. I am sure many of them actually DO believe that they are good breeders.

I’m going to single out one site that actually does exist, but the words in brackets have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent and keep me from getting sued.

This site features [Irish Setters] and is a great example of someone who knows what good breeders are supposed to look like, and is doing a lot to make you think that she’s a really good breeder.

good: the breeder says she does health testing.
bad: health testing doesn’t make sense. For example, one health page has Penn Hip results listed as “no distraction index.” That’s impossible, because Penn Hip measures a distraction index and that’s what gives you a result. The DI is how far the hip moves in the socket; every living thing has some movement in its joints. A DI of zero would be a dog in rigor mortis. So this breeder maybe is health testing, but doesn’t fully understand the testing that is being done.

good: Dogs are not just “run of the mill” Irish Setters; pedigrees have some champions.
bad: She does not show herself, has no obligation to produce dogs that can actually win, but is referring to the accomplishments of dogs and breeder/owners that came before. The problem with that is it only takes one generation for a show-quality dog to become a pet-quality dog. I’ve seen BIS-winning dogs produce some UGLY puppies. That’s why EVERY generation has to be shown, and you never slack off. So she’s not taking responsibility for breeding only the best. That’s also why there are dogs with such very different “types” on the site; she thinks that as long as there are champions in the pedigree it’s OK to call them high-quality and to breed them together. There are dogs on her site that look like [red Golden Retrievers] and others that honestly look like [red Borzoi]. There is NO WAY that breeding those together is to a standard.

good: Speaks in some quality-related words that talk about structure and so on (head type, gait, etc.)
bad: She’s using the wrong words, which shows that she doesn’t actually understand or keep in mind the true measures of quality. For example, in the bio page of her dog [Harry], you can see the dog trotting, and the words “Harry has magnificent stride and carry.” It’s plain that she’s seen show breeders’ sites that feature dogs showing off stride length. However, she’s not using the right picture or the right words. We evaluate dogs on the move using a very specific pose, this one: We would also never say “magnificent stride”–that means nothing. There’s also no such thing as “carry.” I think what she’s going for is “open sidegait” and “stable topline on the move,” but I am not really sure.

Other miscellaneous red flags: dogs’ weights listed (good breeders do not generally do this), non-standard color descriptions used (“thick coat, fox-red fur, Scarlet shimmer highlights”).

These kind of things are super obvious to show breeders, but are subtle and confusing for most pet owners. That’s why it’s so important to keep the requirements top of mind, and to not slack off. Good breeders show their dogs (in conformation, hunt, etc.). They show their CURRENT dogs, and EVERY breeding dog who possibly can be shown (it’s OK to not show a breeding dog if, say, an injury caused a tail to be docked or something, but these exceptions are few and far between). They health test their CURRENT and ALL breeding dogs, and they can tell you exactly what those tests are, why they’re doing them, and how the results help them make breeding decisions.

It’s a good idea to look at ANY website with a cautious and discriminating eye. Some of the worst breeders have the most beautiful and professionally produced websites, and some of the best breeders have sites their daughter’s boyfriend created on Geocities three years ago and never updated. Never let yourself be sold the sizzle; look for the steak.

Co-owning a registered dog

In some breeds, the only way that a good breeder will let you purchase a puppy from them is on what’s called a co-own. There are a LOT of misconceptions floating around about them, including that the AKC frowns on them, that you don’t really own the dog, that the breeder should charge you less, and so on.
The situation is this: Breeders asked for a way to control the breeding decisions that owners were making–when you sell a puppy on a full registration (a show/breeding registration) to a sole owner, that sole owner can sign every contract in the world, assure you that they’re fabulous, and then put the puppy in the back of the car and drive away to a puppy mill and put your dog in a cage. Every breeder has heard the horror story of the owner who whited-out the box that you check when you want to put the puppy on “limited” (no breeding allowed) registration. Contracts, unfortunately, are rarely enforceable. The dog you bred and cried over and bled over could be pumping out AKC registered puppies for the next ten years.

AKC instituted the co-ownership to allow breeders to require two signatures when someone tries to register a litter of puppies. That’s really all it does “legally.” So if I co-own a bitch with you, and you breed her, if I refuse to sign you cannot register the litter or the individual puppies. It says nothing about the custodial or legal ownership of the dog herself or himself; that is a simple transfer akin to a refrigerator sale. It only controls whether puppies from the bitch can be AKC registered.

In a perfect world, and I think in the majority of co-owns, it works well. There are some breeds where the culture of selling is to ALWAYS require co-owns (in Danes, for example, I know very few people who solely own a bitch that they did not breed, and in fact if you see in a show catalog that the bitch is not co-owned you kind of wonder what the breeder was thinking). I co-owned every Dane I bought and most that I bred; my original co-owner is a dear friend and I would never hesitate to recommend that co-owns be used when everyone’s expectations are clear. Other breeds rarely if ever use co-owns (both of my Cardis I own outright).

The AKC offers it for a good reason and I think breeders would be very mad if it were no longer available. But the AKC basically says “You wanted this; don’t come to us if you can’t get along with your co-owner. We told you it was going to be problematic.” They absolutely refuse to arbitrate disputes and your co-owner can REALLY screw you if he or she desires. For example, a co-owner can suddenly decide that the stud dog you two had agreed on was not the right one, and refuse to let you register the puppies. Or a co-owner can fall off the face of the earth, leave no forwarding address, and now you’ve got a dog who can’t be bred.

So–again–co-own means that two signatures are required when the dog is bred. If the breeder mentions ANY OTHER TERMS, she is talking about a sale-with-strings, or a breeders-terms sale, sort of a custody arrangement rather than an outright purchase. Part of that arrangement will be the AKC co-own, but most of it will be a private agreement between the two of you. That’s why it’s SO important to have every item spelled out.  Where the vast majority of co-owns-with-strings go wrong, in my experience, is when both parties have the same goal for the dog (that it finish its championship, that it be bred wisely, with the idea that it will contribute to BOTH breeding programs). That’s when you get raging fights over whether the dog should be sent off with a handler (one says yes, the other says no, the one that says yes insists that the other party should pay half, etc.) or who gets the ONE show-quality puppy in the litter, or whether the bitch should be spayed after a difficult whelping, or whatever.

All those inbred purebreds have bad hips, so I’m going to buy a Aussie-Doodle-Pom

I don’t want to go on for days and days about hip dysplasia, although I could, but no, there’s no real data that would indicate that it’s less common in mixed breeds. It tends to follow a trend line of heavier bodies, regardless of size. So Pugs have an extraordinarily high rate of dysplasia, as do the heavy medium-sized dogs (Bassets, Bulldogs), the heavy large dogs (Clumbers, Labs) and the heavy giant dogs (mastiffs, bloodhounds). The lighter, “racier” dogs have a much lower rate. Greyhounds have virtually none at all, no matter how randomly they’re bred.

What this means in terms of mixed breeds is that if you’ve got a big heavy mix, it’s got a very good chance of having iffy hips, because it’s big and heavy AND because it doesn’t have any health testing behind it. There’s no reason to think that a Lab/Bloodhound/St. Bernard mix is going to have any better hips than Labs, Bloodhounds, or Saints. Ditto a Lhasa/Basset/Cocker, or even a Pekingese/pug.

The best way to protect yourself against hip diseases, if you want one of the larger or heavier dogs, is actually to buy from an excellent purebred breeder who has generations of hip testing behind the dogs (so has managed to buck the trend and produce good hips on his or her dogs) and offers some kind of health warranty so you get a replacement puppy if yours turns out crippled.

Many people would rather adopt, which is wonderful. In that case, when you are looking at rescuing a large-breed puppy, you need to feed super carefully (Never Puppy Food!), keep the dog very slim when he or she is growing, and encourage lots and lots of free exercise (long walks, hikes, playing, etc.).

If you really want a dysplastic dog, go buy a large-breed purebred or first-generation mix (“designer dog”) from a careless breeder with no health testing, make sure you feed puppy food and maintain a nice rolly-polly puppy, and keep the dog crated a lot.

Oh, and you can do Penn Hip on puppies as young as 16 weeks. It’s a lot of money to throw at a problem that may or may not exist, but if you need the information it’s certainly possible to get a decent hip picture that early. I would discourage you from doing any other method at that age, though–some vets say they can diagnose via palpation; others will look at traditional OFA-style films. Neither is anywhere close to accurate at that age. Penn Hip when young, OFA is fine for 18 months and above.

Designer dogs–so when are we going to see the “Halston”?

For a longer discussion on this and on choosing a breed for your family, my long article is here.

The invented mixes–the puggle, bugg, labradoodle, etc.–are extremely popular right now. I would caution you to look at them with the same jaundiced eye that you should be applying to every litter of puppies for sale, purebred or not. DO NOT SUPPORT a breeder who does not pass the following tests:

– Has shown whatever dogs are being bred, to their championships or close to it, in either conformation or another recognized peer-reviewed activity (field trials, earthdog, go to ground, etc.). If you’re talking purebreds, both parents should be shown. If you’re talking mixes, both parents should be champions or close to it of their respective breeds. This is because only the very best should ever be deliberately bred–we have plenty of generic dogs in this country; adopt one if you want one.

– Doesn’t just pair the dogs on his or her property. Very few good kennels are large enough to breed only within the kennel; you want to see the breeder going to outside stud dogs. If the kennel has bitches A, B, C, D, and dogs E, F, it’s a BAD SIGN if all the litters are A+E, B+E, D+F, D+E, B+F, etc. There is no way that those two males are the only right stud dogs for those females.

– Has performed health tests for every genetic disorder in each of the breeds, and is only breeding the healthiest to the healthiest. So for Labs this would be OFA hips, heart, elbows, probably thyroid; for Poodles this would be OFA hips, heart, SA (skin disease), CERF eyes, and a history/pedigree clear of Addisons, epilepsy, etc. For pugs this would be OFA hips, heart, history of palate disorders; beagles CERF eyes and OFA hips. And the list goes on.

– Interviews you and makes sure that you are a good match with their dogs. You should feel that it is difficult to get a puppy from them, NEVER that they want to make a sale. You should definitely get the impression that they reject a proportion of applications.

– Requires you to sign a written contract regarding the care and outcome of the dog; the contract should include a puppy-back clause that specifies that the dog come back to them if you cannot keep it at any point in its life. You should not be allowed to re-home the dog yourself without the input of the breeder.

– Doesn’t make money. This is not because money is evil, it’s because, unless you sell each puppy for five or ten grand, you just simply can’t make money on puppies if you do it right, if you show and health test and always take dogs back and so on. Feel free to test this out–after you’ve had a pleasant conversation with the breeder, say “So is it possible to make money from breeding?” You should hear incredulous laughter and a HUGE no; they’ll usually tell you how many tens of thousands they spent that year on the dogs and how this is a drop in the bucket.

If you can find a mixed-breed breeder that passes these VERY basic tests–and they are basic; they are only the beginning of what a good breeder considers to be her responsibility–you have the encouragement of the dog world to go for it. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not snobs. There are some breeders–for example, the border-staffie breeders who specialize in flyball–who are doing mixed breeding that pass all those tests, and they get big kudos as far as I’m concerned.

Unfortunately, I have NEVER seen a single person breeding for the companion “market” (for example, labradoodles or puggles) that passes these tests. Never. If you DO find one, please let me know (and I really do mean this; I am always willing to change my mind if presented with evidence) so I can revise my thinking.