Information, Please!

by Mary Jane Checchi

The picket fence was brand new, and not yet painted. It surrounded the large, wooded yard in an elegant Chevy Chase neighborhood. In one corner of the yard was a small square enclosure, about ten feet on a side, made of the same picket fencing. The sound of crying and whining came from there.

Black Lab sitting downAlthough the enclosure included a snug doghouse, Taffy would not stay inside it. She heard human voices. Her nine-week-old Labrador Retriever body was soaking wet and shivering from the ice-cold rain that had been falling all evening. Taffy alternately tried to climb up over the fence or force her chubby body between the slats.

I stood under my umbrella, leaning into the enclosure, trying to comfort the crying puppy for a few moments, and then hurried inside.

"It's raining hard, and it's really freezing out there," I announced to Beth, my hostess. She was busy in the kitchen, making dinner preparations.

"Would you like me to get the puppy?" I asked.

"Oh, no," Beth said. "She's not allowed in the house."

"Not ever?" I asked, disbelieving.

"Nope," she replied. "I'm allergic to dogs, and so are the kids. The breeder said that as long as she has a doghouse, she'll be fine outside."

I couldn't keep myself from asking, "Then why did you get a dog?"

"Because the kids wanted one. And I thought it would be a good experience for them. Our neighbors have Labs, and they really like them, so we chose one, too."

Beth - school volunteer, mother of four, lawyer (temporarily retired) - is a kind, warm, intelligent woman. Few parents are more involved with their children and community than Beth and her husband. With the best of intentions - but with little knowledge and bad advice - they had made a series of decisions about a pet that would end unhappily.

I tried to explain to Beth that dogs, like their wolf ancestors, are social animals. A human family or individual is the equivalent of a wolf pack for the domestic dog. It is the pack instinct that allows a dog to bond with people, and enables the human "leader of the pack" to train a dog. A dog that is banished to the yard, basement, or garage is deprived of the opportunity to form this important attachment - a hardship for the dog, and a loss for the humans.

Collie on lawnA dog that is isolated can become anxious, neurotic, bored, destructive. He may make a nuisance of himself to attract attention. If isolated long enough, he may become ill-behaved, antisocial, even dangerous.

Of course, dogs have physical needs as well: a healthy diet, fresh water, indoor shelter, proper grooming, and regular veterinary care, including checkups, vaccinations, and protection against fleas, worms, and other parasites. All but the tiniest, frailest, and oldest dogs need substantial outdoor exercise - a prerequisite to good health and good behavior.

But Beth's dog Taffy was not only deprived of the human companionship she desperately needed, she was not exercised the way a Labrador needs to be (which is a lot). She remained penned up, and this led to a vicious cycle. Nearly overcome with excitement when she did receive attention, Taffy hurled herself upon the children when they came to play with her. Although the children said that they loved her, they began avoiding the rambunctious dog, who grew increasingly powerful - powerful enough to knock them down. Taffy received even less of the two ingredients she needed to calm and socialize her - attention and exercise.

Finally, after a year, Beth admitted that Taffy's life in exile was not a good one, and she called the Labrador Retriever Rescue League to ask them to find a new home for the dog.

This story is sadly familiar. The details will change from family to family and from dog to dog, but the plot is simple: the unwanted dog who is given to a rescue league should never have been purchased to begin with. Many people acquire a pet - a living, breathing animal that will require years of daily care - with less information than they would demand before buying an appliance.

Without information about a dog's inherent nature, and the care, attention, and commitment he needs from his human "alpha dog," prospective owners simply don't know what they are getting into. Some are able to meet the not inconsiderable alpha dog challenge, and reap the rewards. Others discover that they don't want the work or responsibility; or raise a poorly behaved dog they then decide they don't want to keep; or can't or won't spend the money necessary to properly care for their canine companion.

One important way to end or at least slow the cycle of breed-buy-give up is to educate, educate, educate prospective owners before they choose a companion animal. Let us hope that the word will spread...via publications like the Paw Print Post, the Internet, and word-of-mouth by those who help to rescue and adopt out companion animals of all kinds - indeed by all who care about animals.