Thinking about getting a dog? read this first!

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Seems like everyone wants a dog at the moment. It’s true, dogs are brilliant companions, lots of fun, and they get you out and about. When so many of us are working from home due to Covid, it could be an ideal time to get a new puppy or dog. I’d like to think that everyone considers very carefully where their dog comes from. The truth is that a lot of people don’t think about it – and just get whatever dog they can get quickly. That never really seems to work out very well. Here’s a summary of the options. Bear with me, because this is very important for forming the perfect dog.

We all know about puppy farms don’t we – those awful places where bitches are bred from over and over again. Surely none of us would still go to a place like that to get a puppy? I would hope not anyway. If you go somewhere selling lots of different breeds and they are in sheds or garages, and you can’t see the Mum dog – walk away quickly.

What about a backyard breeder ? That’s a place where the “breeder” (in inverted commas because in my eyes a breeder is a term for someone who really cares about their breed and their dogs ) is basically breeding puppies for money, as many as possible, and doesn’t really care about their welfare. They may have more than one breeding bitch, and possibly different breeds too. The parent dogs generally won’t have had any health tests, and it’s likely they won’t come with any kind of Kennel Club registration (although that also nowadays is something that can be got around too). Temperaments won’t have been taken into consideration and maybe the parent dogs won’t really have led a normal life in terms of social interactions and experiences. They won’t follow up where the puppy goes, and there certainly won’t be any back up for life, which is what I would expect from a really good breeder.

Where else? A Kennel Club (KC) breeder is the route a lot of people choose if they want to get a pedigree puppy. The KC Accredited breeder scheme would (theoretically) be even better as they will have been visited and checked by the KC. But what if you want a non pedigree breed – a cockapoo, a labradoodle – or one of the many ‘designer crossbreeds’ – a maltipoo, cavachon, schnoodle? It starts to get more difficult again, because many of these little dogs are victims of the backyard breeder. I have only heard of a handful of these crossbreeds whose parent dogs have had health tests. NB: in every single one of these options – there are * always * exceptions. There is always the exception to the rule, the perfect dog who has miraculously somehow not been affected by their poor genetics and their poor start in life. So those are the main options for buying a puppy or a dog.

Please remember ALL of these dogs will probably have issues of some kind or other in their lives. If you don’t put the work in with a puppy, they can be nervous of people, anxious around other dogs, perhaps will have separation anxiety (especially at the moment). Puppies need guidance, find a really good puppy class run by a qualified trainer. Don’t expect a perfect puppy with zero effort, it ain’t gonna happen. When I was still working with Laura at Dog Comm, we saw as many ‘puppies from breeders’ as we did rescue dogs.

How about rescuing a dog? That makes us feel better because it’s a good thing to do, we are helping a dog who needs a home. There are lots of dog rescue organisations, big ones, small ones, good ones and bad ones. Some are registered charities, some are not. I personally have only had direct experience with three small rescues and for me it was all really good. A lot of families will be upset because the rescue won’t let them have a dog because they have a child under 8 years old. Before berating them, have a think about why. A rescue dog will usually have had a tough start in life, and they are sometimes not suited to living with small kids who can be unpredictable in behaviour / make funny noises and possibly will be left unsupervised with them. So the rescue will pre-empt these disasters by making a blanket rule. Then because they don’t fit the criteria, these families may go back to one of the routes above – because they can’t get a puppy from a rescue centre, then they will compromise and convince themselves that a backyard breeder will be ok. Or will they put themselves on a waiting list from a good breeder and wait 8 – 10 months for a well bred puppy? We live in a society where we are used to getting what we want now.

A lot of rescues will do a home visit, to check you really do live where you say you do. Some people do actually lie about that! It’s likely a requirement will be a fenced in garden, not many rescues will let a dog go to a flat – but again, some do, it depends on the individual rescue rules. Remember though, that might make life more difficult. House training a puppy or a dog who has never lived in a house, is not easy when you’ve got to race down a couple of flights of steps. Most rescues will want someone at home some of the time – which of course is more likely at the moment during Covid – but please do bear in mind, if you’re going to go back to full time work at some point, will your dog ever be used to being on their own? Of course a lot of behavioural issues can be helped, but they need time and effort to work, adjustments to your life will be necessary, there is no magic spell.

In an ideal world, your rescue dog will have been in a foster home, perhaps with other dogs, perhaps with cats, perhaps with kids in the foster home too. That way you would be able to gain more information about them and how they’re likely to behave in your household. Remember too, that a lot of rescue dogs in foster homes will be what we call shut down for several days if not weeks. Shut down means their behaviour isn’t at all their normal personality, they are holding in all their emotions, so you aren’t seeing their true self when you see them at the rescue kennels or in the foster homes.

Another popular option at the moment is to rescue a dog from abroad. A controversial subject indeed. The situation a lot of dogs from abroad find themselves in, is utterly abysmal, and they are desperate. Far more desperate than the dogs in rescue here, who although will maybe in a rescue centre, will be safe, fed and warm. It’s not easy is it, and we must weigh up all the pros and cons for us as individuals. Many of the foreign rescues don’t homecheck, or they do a Facetime home check. Dubious? Or maybe that’s ok at the moment with Covid? Again there’s always the exception. But the dog who has been born in a different country, has been abused by people, then kept in a shelter with many other dogs (usually this is very stressful), not fed well, poor healthcare, then chosen – usually on Facebook – by a very well meaning UK family. Some of these dogs are street dogs, some were pets and then abandoned. Some have been born feral, and have had almost zero contact with humans apart from being trapped and contained. And then they travel to the UK, via transport buses – generally a 3 – 4 day trip, which most dogs find incredibly traumatic. We’ve all heard about the dogs who escape on their first night in the UK haven’t we. When will people learn that these dogs are petrified and traumatised? If you choose this route – please please use a harness, and a slip lead, do not leave doors open even an inch, do not leave windows open and do not leave the dog unattended or off the lead in the garden, even if you do have 6ft fencing. My opinion (borne from experience of seeing many many of these types of dogs as behaviour cases) is that you have to have a very special type of home to suit a foreign rescue. Many of the feral or street dogs are not great with young kids, and most of them are scared of men until they get to know them. Most will have had parent dogs who are scared of people and the Mum was stressed during pregnancy and whelping (we know this has an effect on the pups). Most of them will have had zero healthcare as pups, and appalling nutrition – which can and does have an effect in later life. Please don’t get a feral dog and expect it to live with your young kids, go for walks in a busy park, and go to doggy daycare. That is a recipe for disaster. (again remember we all know an exception). IF you are prepared to take on a very scared anxious dog, not take her to busy places if she can’t cope, not go to pubs and friend’s houses, and you have a calm quiet household with a very well fenced in garden, then yes go for it. If you are prepared to give this dog months – sometimes years – to adjust to life in the UK, then go for it. You sound like the perfect home for this type of dog.

Finally – my very least favourite way to get a dog – free listings. Gumtree, Pets 4 Homes, Preloved. These are the ones selling on a dog that they simply don’t want any more (usually for some made up reason), and they want to get rid of them asap. They like to call it a private re home, except you have to pay for it. You probably won’t find out any genuine history. Beware! (and yes there’s always the exception of course, I know of several lovely dogs who have come via this route but it’s rare).

So, now we’ve covered all the places you can get a dog or puppy. Puppy farms, backyard breeders, good breeders, bad breeders, UK rescues, foreign rescues, free listings. Remember, at all points in this thought process – YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GET A DOG!!!

Why did you want a dog in the first place? There’s a billion answers to that one. But really think about it. A great analogy I’ve heard is that people spend hours and hours researching their new smart phone, and about ten minutes researching a dog. Hmm. A dog will live up to 15 years. They are a sentient being and need a LOT of care, if you aren’t prepared to do this properly, best not to do it at all. Your life WILL change. You can’t just add a dog to the family, expect to feed it twice a day and walk it and nothing else.

The point of my article in the first place, was to talk about how you may have to compromise your life depending on your choice of dog. My own experiences have varied tremendously. We’ve had 9 dogs in our adult life together as a couple. Our first cocker spaniel died when she was 5 from an auto immune disease she got when she was 3 years old. I was 31 when she died. I expected her to live til at least 12, it was a massive shock to me and really was life changing. I researched the breed well, I bought her from a lovely family breeder, the Mum dog was really nice, I visited the pups every week up to 8 weeks old. I took her to great puppy classes, did a lot of training with her, we did fun agility, she was a lovely little dog. Clearly there was a genetic predisposition, the trigger was her booster jab when she was three years old, she became seriously ill shortly after that. The next two years were a rollercoaster of good times and very bad times and many hours spent at specialist referral centres, it is very distressing and sad having a very sick, young dog. It changes you forever. When Saffy died, we still had Tilly, another cocker spaniel slightly younger, she was very lonely and that was when we got our first English Setter – Lola. Again, I did so much research, I visited 2 litters of Irish setter puppies, a litter of pointer puppies, and another English setter breeder – before I settled on this litter. I visited FOUR litters of puppies before I found the ones I liked. Lola lived a very long life for a setter – 14 years and 4 months. Most of that life was plagued with health problems. I don’t want to go into huge detail but very briefly she had a lot of digestive issues, allergies and skin problems. We could never just give her a piece of chicken, a bonio, or a kindly offered biscuit from another dog walker, because she was allergic to so much and it made her ill. It’s not easy managing a dog with a ton of health issues. But when you love them, that’s what you do. Temperament wise she was amazing, I could not wish for a more lovely dog. Tilly our other cocker at the time, also had a lovely temperament, and no health problems until she was 9 years old when sadly she died from complications with pancreatitis, that was all very sudden. Next was number 4 Hattie, our first working strain dog – a working cocker, back when working cockers were not at all common, and weren’t popular, crazy agility dogs like they are now. Hattie came from a working dog breeder, she was born and raised in outdoor kennels, from a lovely working bitch who we met before the pups were born. I can honestly say that being born and raised in outdoor kennels didn’t adversely affect Hattie at all, she was a confident happy dog all of her life. Zero health problems until about 13 years old when her joints started to fail her, probably due to being a very active little dog all her life. Hattie was never ill. We could take Hattie anywhere and do anything with her, she was brilliant fun. She was well bred, bred to work, from healthy stock and good temperament parents. Possibly her first 8 weeks could have been improved but she was super confident and coming into a house was no problem at all for her. Hattie wasn’t fond of puppies in later life (probably due to her hip pain), so I kept her away from them. Hattie was euthanised when she was 14 and 4 months because her back legs could no longer support her.

Number 5 was Barley, our big lurcher lad, that we rescued from a lurcher rescue in Warrington. He had been a travellers dog. He was the most handsome of lurchers, big, blonde and shaggy and he was unbelievably obedient when we got him. Although of course that is lovely, bear in mind why he was so obedient. He would cower if you raised your arm to point at something, and he was scared of men with sticks – he’d been trained using punishment and he was very compliant because he was scared. He tragically died at 9 years old from Inflammatory Bowel Disease. When we got him at 9 months old, he had the most awful worm burden, tapeworm as well as roundworm. In terms of temperament you couldn’t wish for a nicer dog. In terms of health, he was destined for gastrointestinal problems due to his poor start in life. We could take him anywhere, he came onto many film sets with me and was the most reliable loyal dog. He should have lived longer, he was a mixed breed dog from working stock. If the people who bred him, had wormed him and fed him properly as a youngster, he probably would have lived a lot longer.

 

Which brings me onto number 6, Gracie – whippet bedlington cross. Beautiful little girl, she too lived a long life – to 14 plus – and again was never ill. However she had spinal issues and the last few years of her life were spent managing pain following two ruptured discs and surgery to correct that, which didn’t quite go to plan. She had a marvellous temperament and we could take her anywhere as long as there was a comfy bed to lay on! Gracie had a very high prey drive which got her into trouble many a time, her recall was appalling despite training, she was a very wild dog. Back then we didn’t really have freedom fields like we do now – I wish we had done, it would’ve made my life a lot easier!

Then we have number 7 Morris, who is still with us, he’s 13 years old later this week (we made up his birthday). Morris is a pointer x English setter, working bred, born and raised in Ireland. When I say raised, I mean somehow he survived not being fed and not being socialised, at all, with anything. He came to us via a one woman rescue who would rescue one dog at a time, integrate them with her own dogs, and find the right home for them. She was lovely and I am eternally grateful that she saw Morris on a website of an Irish rescue, and agreed to bring him over to England. He nearly didn’t survive the journey, and was severely dehydrated. He had malnutrition, when we got him he had bendy weak joints.

 

Morris was advertised on Dogpages forum as looking for a home where he wouldn’t have to go in a car every day, and he needed to live with a group of dogs. At the time, we lived on a huge heathland and we had 5 nice dogs – he was perfect for us. Morris has always been brilliant with other dogs, he is kind, playful and tolerant. Morris to this day, is very scared of going in vehicles, he has never voluntarily got into a car. We have a ramp. Despite training and many many journeys where he has always gone to nice places, he has never changed. He is very scared of new places. He can’t go into pubs, restaurants, or friends houses. He is a drooling, quivering, hyperventilating wreck on the very rare occasion (I think twice in 13 years) we have had to carry him (30kgs) into the vets. Usually we have a home visit from the vet. Morris has never been to a training class and we have shaped our lives around what he needs and what makes him happy. Living with him has been a massive learning curve, I became a much gentler, more considerate person because of him. Health wise – he’s been amazing, he’s a big, strong, healthy dog – with sore joints now that he’s an old man. But he still goes for an hour walk in the mornings, and about 40 minutes in the evenings – he’s on two different pain meds, and many supplements, he’s not lame and he’s not stiff. He has a physio visit once a month, more if necessary.

Our lives have (willingly) been hugely compromised by living with and loving Morris. We’re lucky that we’re both self employed and have been able to work around his needs. With hindsight, I probably would have used medication to see if that would have helped with his anxiety. Back when we got him though, that wasn’t really done, and after that, it became kind of normal living with a very anxious dog. When he’s in his bubble – the world we have created for him – he’s totally fine. Otherwise, he’s not. Hardly anyone has ever seen him out of his bubble, friends are always surprised to see him drooling and shaking at the thought of getting in the car. He won’t take treats from strangers, he never has. He was bred to work, his health has been superb, his joints are knackered now – because of his poor start in life. He has the most delightful gentle kind temperament BUT he is incredibly anxious and not at all resilient. Something that would scare him, would easily be brushed off by other dogs.

Nearly there! Our other two dogs – number 8, Figgis, 12 year old cocker spaniel, very well bred, health tested parents, from a lovely KC breeder, he’s super confident, cheeky little guy. He developed heart problems about a year ago, these are managed by medication. We can take him anywhere, and he is pretty bomb proof. Figgis is still entire, it’s never been an issue – he’s never tried to shag anything or anyone, BUT I wouldn’t expect him to readily mix with entire males, I am cautious, and I don’t take his good nature for granted.

Number 9, Hobson, nearly 3 year old English setter – unusually bred for an English setter, he is part working strain, part show strain. He is bomb proof, amazing with people and other dogs, we can take him anywhere. He was born and raised in outdoor kennels, and again, as was the case with Hattie – I don’t feel this had any kind of adverse effect at all. His genetics are superb, he is resilient, if he gets spooked by anything, he recovers fast and moves on. He’s the most wonderful little brother to Morris and has brought Morris a lot of confidence.

So out of our 9 dogs, we have had 3 rescues from terrible backgrounds. 6 puppies we have bought from well researched breeders, 2 of which were born and raised in outdoor kennels, 4 of which were born and raised in a household environment.

Can you change genetics – no. In my opinion, you can’t take a badly bred, anxious dog who is genetically predisposed to certain health conditions – and make it a normal, bombproof healthy dog, regardless of what you do. I spend a lot of time (and money) on the dogs’ diets, their health is a priority for me and I believe a good diet is the cornerstone of that, it’s preventative. You can’t change genetics, you have to work with what you’re given. Please remember this when you choose which route to go down when getting a dog. I haven’t even gone into the differences between breeds – don’t get a Collie if you’re more suited to a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Don’t get a Husky if you’re better suited to a rescue Greyhound. Do you want to walk 5 miles a day? – then think carefully before you get a badly bred French Bulldog. Perhaps consider something with longer legs and better breathing. Do you want a dog that needs a lot of grooming, are you prepared to pay for professional grooming every 4 – 6 weeks (cockapoos and doodles need this). Think carefully about what the breed was originally bred for – is it a scent hound, is it sighthound, if you don’t know the difference, find out! If you’re getting a pup from a breeder, ensure the parents have been health tested and insist on seeing the results. My dogs have mostly been hunting type dogs – they like being outdoors, they like walking, running, finding smells to follow. We walk them twice a day, pretty much whatever the weather, we wash them off, dry them, twice a day, they get muddy! If you don’t meet their needs you will end up with a dog that isn’t happy.

 

A rescue dog is not a cheap option or a quick option because you don’t want to wait for a puppy. No dog is a cheap or easy option. Always be prepared to seek help from a qualified trainer or behaviourist. Most of all, be prepared for your life to change forever, because once you find the love of a dog, there is no going back!

 

Penel Malby

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