Americans love their pets. We spent an estimated $60 billion on them last year alone.
So why, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, do 3.9 million dogs end up in American shelters each year?
Part of the problem is that the large, high-energy working dogs we immortalize in slow-motion dog food commercials and heartwarming kids’ movies are becoming more popular, even as our own lifestyles are becoming less suited to caring for them.
One recent kid’s movie, “Max,” had a lot of dog trainers bracing themselves for a flood of Belgian Malinois – which is similar to a German Shepherd and famous for its natural talent for military and personal protection work.
Choosing a dog that fits your lifestyle can save you a lot of trouble down the road. Here are some questions that should factor into your decision.
Why do you want a dog?
What would you like your dog to do?
Do you have or plan to have children?
How much time can you devote to a dog?
Highly active people who run and hike may find that Labradors and Goldens are a great fit. Apartment dwellers might find Boston Terriers and Dachshunds more manageable but still happy to go on a good walk.
Keep in mind what your dog was bred for – Aussie Shepherds are cute, but they’re built for hard work in the great outdoors, and are highly energetic and intelligent, neither of which pair well with boredom.
If your dog’s boredom is causing him to be destructive or restless, addressing the cause is key. If you’ve got a few extra minutes in your day, try teaching your dog some tricks from a book or YouTube video, or get him a rugged, interactive dog toy. With a little practice, you can even turn some of those unwanted behaviors into tricks that your dog only performs on command.
When behavior problems surface, hiring a professional dog trainer might be your best bet. Thanks to growth in the industry, it’s also more affordable than you may think. Some behavior issues can be fixed in one or two sessions, and many dog trainers offer free evaluations to give you an idea of what you can expect in terms of cost and results.
Sometimes a dog’s behavior problems seem so hopeless, and the solutions so time consuming, that an owner might consider giving away or surrendering his or her dog to a shelter. Many problem dogs, even those with destructive or aggressive tendencies, may have a wealth of hidden potential just waiting to be tapped into by the right person.
The school I attended issued us shelter dogs to work with through the program. Benson, as my instructor explained with an almost apologetic look, was chosen for me specifically because I had prior experience as a trainer.
Benson, as it turned out, was a Pit bull mix with a bite history, and was vaguely aware of some guy at the other end of his leash as he dragged me across campus. It also turned out that Benson’s bite history wasn’t quite history – I’ve got a couple scars to prove it.
Benson and I learned a lot from each other, though. He learned how to heel without a leash, run an agility course, even push a wheelchair. I learned that Benson, with his powerful jaws, insatiable appetite and rough style of playing, was also sensitive, intelligent, cuddly and loyal.
I also learned that Benson had lived in a shelter for 13 months – over half of his life.
I couldn’t imagine sending him back to the shelter, so after convincing my wife that it was “just for a little while,” I adopted Benson and brought him home when I graduated. We took our time driving back to Tucson from Austin — camping, eating greasy road food, and snuggling up on the cold nights. These days, he loves our long walks through the desert, running the agility course and doing his tricks.
If you think your dog’s behavior has become a threat to you or others in your household, local animal shelters are equipped to care for your dog and keep them out of situations where someone could get hurt.
No-kill shelters are becoming more and more popular, and in some places, they’re the law, so you don’t have to worry about your dog being put down. There are also thousands of rescue groups dedicated to safe transitional living spaces for dogs, some of whom can even send a volunteer to your home for the dog.
Benson got a second chance at a normal life because he was delivered into safe, loving arms. Every dog deserves that chance.
Joe Reaves grew up in Lewiston and Auburn and now runs Cerberus Canine Behavior Specialists in Tucson, Arizona. He is a certified canine training specialist from Starmark Academy in Austin, Texas. He is currently training Benson how to fetch a beer from the fridge.