Where Have All the Pet Dogs Gone?

IMG_5421
Don’t let the bowtie fool you, this is a bird obsessed working dog. Photo courtesy of Sport Dog Photography

If you’ve been paying attention to the current affairs of dog ownership, then you are well aware that the “overpopulation” of dogs in this country is a fallacy sold to the public and one that is far from true. The fact of the matter is that there is a shortage of pet dogs out there. Sure, there are pockets in the US that have higher populations of unwanted dogs, but those are often shipped into areas where shelter numbers are low or nearly nonexistent. This has set the stage for humane relocation, not just within the US from state to state but also unregulated imports of dogs from other countries as well. However, that’s a whole different can of worms outside of what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about purpose bred PET dogs. Where have they all gone?

Dog breeders have unfortunately been given a tarnished image to the general public thanks to the animal rights movement’s manipulation of the overpopulation story and the begrudgingly genius coining of the term “puppy mills.” Dog breeders have been so vilified and pushed back by the animal rights movement that as a result, they are much more selective and protective about their breeding programs than ever before. We talk about unintended consequences all the time in regards to legislation; dog breeders, as a result of improving their breeding programs, breeding less and more selectively, and narrowly screening buyers, have created their own unintended consequence of a shortage of purebred pet dogs.

One major factor to the shortage of purebred pet dogs is less dogs being bred overall, as a result of more selectivity through breeding mainly dogs for functional purposes. Breeding dogs without any titles to their name has become taboo, and so to be considered a “good” respectable breeder only dogs with show or performance titles are used for breeding.  “Pet quality” has become a derogatory term and are the dogs that are deemed not good enough for the breeding program, sold on limited registration and spay or neuter agreements to pet homes. Breeders have done this with nothing less than good intentions of doing the right thing and bettering their breed. It’s become part of the standard to be considered a responsible breeder. What has unfortunately developed are the unintended consequences that gene pools are shrinking, frequently used sires are becoming pervasive, and there are less dogs available in general, particularly to the pet owning public. While it’s become very taboo to breed a dog without a show or performance title, breeding for temperaments just for pet homes has become virtually non-existent. I’m not saying that breeders are not breeding for temperament but often the temperament being bred for in a working dog is not suitable for a pet home. Not to mention that spay and neuter has become so overwhelmingly the norm that an intact dog in a pet home is almost unheard of. The family with the lovely, even-tempered, pet Golden Retriever who decides to have a litter with the neighbor’s pet Golden down the street doesn’t happen anymore due to spaying and neutering pet dogs, breeder screening and contracts, and limited registration. This is not a stance one way or another, just an observation of facts that is contributing to the shortage of purebred pet dogs.

IMG_5420
My lovely working line GSD Punk. Photo courtesy Sport Dog Photography

Breeders have also justifiably become very guarded about who may purchase dogs from these few selective breedings they have worked hard to achieve. When you put years into training and titlng and health testing dogs, not to mention the money that goes into all of this, to finally have a litter, you want to ensure that these dogs are going to the right homes. Depending on the breed, often these dogs are not suitable for pet homes. My breed for example: I hope to stud my young male Sue in the future, and may be part of the foundation for my own breeding program should I find the right female down the road. This dog could NOT live in a pet home. His drive and work ethic are far too much for an average pet owner. He is perfectly suited to the kind of things I ask of him: working a field searching for birds at an all-out run, doing an independent 20 minute swimming search for a downed duck, and driven to retrieve all day long. He HAS to work everyday, and by work I do not mean a leisurely walk around the block. His temperament, drive, and energy level are certainly not conducive to a pet home. When I breed him someday it will be very selective, and would be to dam owners who have the same vision as I and will sell pups to working homes, at the very least avid hunters. It would honestly be irresponsible otherwise. A dog like Sue in a pet home would very likely end up back with the breeder if the owners follow protocol (which all too often does not happen) or would end up dumped at a shelter due to behavior issues (the REAL reason for many dogs in shelters, not overbreeding as many believe).

The truth is, the average American pet dog owner doesn’t really care about show or performance titles; those letters, as much as they mean to us purebred dog people, are essentially meaningless to most pet owners. They want dogs that are easy to live with; easily trainable and easily managed. To me this translates to low drive, low energy, and high biddability. Many want little or easy grooming. Somehow all of this has given “doodles” the corner on the pet market because the public has been sold a story of easy dogs that don’t shed and are allegedly healthy because of being hybrid (all of this is untrue—being half poodle does not make them 100% non shedding and putting two breeds together with health problems does not cancel out their health problems and in fact compounds them). But these breeders have an edge on the market because these dogs are being bred and marketed SOLELY for pet purposes. Whether they are actually fulfilling that role is certainly debatable, but they are some of the few types of dogs being bred simply to be sold as pets.

What is the solution? Breeding for pets in many breeds and types of dogs outside of the companion breeds has become a shameful undertaking in the purebred dog world. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate and re-think purebred dog breeding.  Breeding for the pet market might be vital to keeping some of these breeds alive. If someone is breeding healthy pet dogs, just because they aren’t show champions or field trial winners does not make them wrong. People need pets! Just as importantly, we need to re-think our attitudes about commercial breeders because many are doing just that. The pet market still wants purebred dogs that we are not providing; the commercial breeders CAN and ARE. If we want a future with purebred dogs in it and as a part of the general public we might need these commercial breeders to help fulfill the pet market need.

We as purebred breeders have fallen just as victim to the fallacies sold by animal rights by vilifying commercial breeders and even referring to them by the emotionally coined term “puppy mills”, shutting them out of our elite world. It makes me cringe to see fellow breeders using that term. I think it’s time to get off that elite high horse. If we want to see a future with purebred dogs in it and defend ourselves against the bombardment of anti-breeding legislation, we need to support and EDUCATE each other. This is not to say I don’t have a problem with someone crossing basic pets and marketing them as something they are not, such as unproven GSP’s being marketed as hunting dog, because that makes me crazy. But if a breeder breeds and markets them as pets? I’m thinking we need more of this. I’d rather see two healthy well tempered Golden Retriever pet quality dogs being bred rather than someone making Goldendoodles from poorly bred Goldens and Poodles, or worse, bringing a rescue back from Mexico with who knows what diseases and parasites. So long as healthy dogs are being bred in safe, humane, clean conditions, and just as importantly, HONESTLY marketed, isn’t that preferable? To keep purebred dogs relevant and wanted and part of American culture, I think pet breeders are a necessary part of that future.

IMG_5029
My farm bred little Australian Cattle Dog Carly

E Collars, Prongs, and Clickers: OH MY!

IMG_4532
Sue showing some amazing self control at a training day at K9 Motivation

I’ve gone through many different phases and methods of dog training over the years, running the full gamut from compulsion, old school, force obedience training all the way to trying out purely positive. I’ve come out on the other end learning from all of them and finding some use or lesson from each. I consider myself to be a well-balanced trainer with a vast toolbox of various tools at my disposal to help me TRAIN THE DOG IN FRONT OF ME.

 

My first dog training experience was in 4-H and doing obedience classes with my Doberman/Rottie mix in grade school, under a compulsion trainer. What I have learned from compulsion training was primarily a lot of what not to do. I don’t believe in training a dog by pure pressure, and not necessarily because of the discomfort a dog might face, although that is a valid concern, but because I don’t think a dog learns the desired behavior as well as they do from positive reinforcement. With force based training, the dog trying to shut the pressure off, doing so hurriedly because of their discomfort and not necessarily thinking it through. I don’t think these lessons learned sink in quite so well with these methods. However, corrections are sometimes necessary once the dog understands the behavior asked of them, and compulsion trainers have taught me about timing those corrections, and to how use them judiciously.

IMG_5030
Carly back in her younger days

Later in life, I met some truly amazing disc dog trainers who introduced me to purely positive training and got me into the sport of disc with my Australian Cattle Dog Carly. I think there is a place for this, but I have never been 100% on board with this. While I went through a phase of using no “aversives,” I have never eliminated telling my dogs “no.” I have learned a TON about operant conditioning, and again, proper timing. Timing is equally important in dog training in BOTH rewarding correct behavior and in doling out corrections.  This is why training is so hard for many pet people and even many trainers: timing on both corrections and rewards are hard to perfect. I gained a lot of knowledge from working with various positive trainers and still call myself a mostly positive trainer. I use operant conditioning and a lot of clicker work in introducing behaviors and laying foundations. I firmly believe dogs learn so much better with operant conditioning, whether it be through shaping or luring. Behaviors are learned in smaller increments and chaining, and the dog thinks more, puzzles out what is being asked in order to get the thing they desire. More thinking, reasoning, and logic is involved to help truly imprint the behavior. Once those behaviors are understood and well-practiced is when I will employ corrections to ensure they continue and to further perfect the behaviors. This is where my aversives come into play.

 

For a while, I really wanted to prove that pointing dogs can be trained and finished without e-collars, using mostly positive methods. This came about because the pointing dog world seems to be the last to come on board with recognizing and using positive reinforcement. I got so much opposition I became stubborn about it, and lost sight of really getting things accomplished with my dogs. I still think it can be done, but takes more skill, time, and patience than I have. I have still laid much of the foundation work with Sue with positive work, more so than traditional bird dog training. But I have changed my views on e-collars and finally own one. I’ve come round to see I shouldn’t dislike the tool itself, because it’s all in how the tool is used. I personally don’t think an e-collar should be used to the point it’s causing a dog actual pain and crying out, but I see it all the time in the bird dog world. ALL. THE. TIME. It pisses me off and it is everything that gives the tool a bad rap and turned me off from using one. If a dog is blowing off a correction on an e-collar, it’s pretty likely that your training is lacking and something in the chain has been missed by the dog. Putting the dog into pain is not going to fix that miscommunication between handler and dog, but may actually damage the relationship and trust.

 

But, so too can any other tool. I’ve seen dogs hit the end of a check cord to be jerked so harshly the dog flips on its back hard enough to have the wind knocked out of it. Hell, I’ve seen a clicker used as punishment—a “trainer” paired the clicking with physical corrections! Any tool can certainly be abused, but I daresay an e-collar has the greatest potential for misuse. A trainer loses his or her temper and all they have to do is turn it up and hit a button and they can unleash as much pain as kicking or hitting the dog. An e-collar holds a lot of power and requires self-control on the part of the handler, and more trainers should be mindful of that power they hold in their hand. We ask a lot of self-control and restraint from our dogs, we owe them that same courtesy.

IMG_0511
Sue with the ultimate reward of a bird in his mouth,can’t say the live chukar feels the same way! Photo courtesy Sport Dog Photography

I’m currently using an e-collar on Sue to reinforce his retrieve, and on his flank to get him steady on birds. The level on his flank is so low that I can’t even feel it when tested on my wrist. But the pressure is there to tell him to stop; the pressure stops when he does. In both instances, I introduced and taught the behavior using positive reinforcement. I trained a retrieve using a clicker, so he’s never been what I would call “force fetched.” He has had a trained retrieve. He was taught the behavior using a clicker, and once he fully understood fetch and hold, has had pressure and corrections to reinforce those commands. Same with “whoa.” Also with heeling—that was introduced through shaping and luring; now that he understands, I use a prong collar to reinforce and also to perfect his heelwork.

 

Now is this the case for every dog? Absolutely not. A good trainer must read and train the dog in front of her. I would never put a prong or an e-collar on my Australian Cattle Dog Carly; she doesn’t need it and would probably shut down under pressure.  She’s incredibly food motivated and so eager to learn and work. At the same time, her work is very different than the primal driven work of a bird dog. Bird dogs we are asking them to work off of primal instincts hardwired and bred into them, but at the same time we ask them to show a lot of self-restraint and control to be steady. To get that control we have to override their incredibly strong motivation for prey: for the most part nothing we have is going to rank higher than wanting birds. No cookies, no toys. So, here is where pressure is needed. Not pain inducing pressure, but pressure to maintain control and assist the dog in restraint. Whoa work with Sue is a prime example. NOTHING ELSE is going to get him to restrain himself and stop when a bird flushes in front of him and is shot. He’s not going to reason that out and think, hey, if I stand still through this I will get a cookie. He doesn’t WANT a cookie. He needs that pressure to learn the lesson that bird flying = stand still. Some pressure is the only thing that will override his prey drive to chase the bird in front of him because that’s all that is in his brain at that point. No cookie or other reward can top that.

IMG_4896
Sue learning steady with a flank collar

As a trainer, I am continually learning. Any trainer who thinks they have all the answers and it’s their way or the highway is delusional and not someone I want to train with. We should all be open to learning new methods and working to find the best ways to train each dog as an individual. That is one of the key factors to remember: each dog is an individual and a good trainer not only has a vast toolbox of methods and tools available to them, but is skilled in reading dogs to tailor what will work to bring out the best in that individual dog. It’s not the tools themselves that matter so much, but the ability and talent of the trainer holding those tools.