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Chasing the dream dog

By Sue Lefevre

When I was a child my Nan had two Dobermans, Kaiser and Monty, they were the most beautiful dogs, well they were in my eyes. Monty was my absolute favourite and I have all these wonderful memories of being round my Nan’s and playing with the dogs (this was the 1970’s so a very different era from today).

I found out not too long ago that what I had remembered wasn’t strictly true. Monty was an actual nightmare who didn’t like children. My Nan had a fair amount of land and the dogs would roam, being a child in the 70’s, when there wasnt much of a focus on animal behaviour, I did things that now make me cringe and wonder how I could have been so daft, mind you I was only 6 or 7 at the time, Monty actually scratched my face badly, totally my fault, he was trying to get away from me and I was being a brat. It’s now very clear to me that Monty wasn’t the wonderful dog I thought he was. He was struggling to cope in a place where there were a lot of children, which made him anxious, and he would try and remove himself from the situation but us kids being kids (or total nightmares) and the adults not realising there was anything wrong with this, would follow him and basically make his life hell and cause him untold stress and anxiety. Looking back at this I hate to think what we put poor Monty through, but in the back of my mind there are still those memories, those rose tinted memories that I have of him being the best dog in the world.

So why am I waffling on about my childhood memories I hear you ask? Well ever since becoming a qualified behaviourist and also working a lot in rescue, one of the reasons I often hear for people getting a dog is ‘I had a [Insert breed here] when I was a child and it was the best dog in the world’ and no other breed will do, or I have had [Insert breed here] all my life and I know all about them. So they look around the rescue centres for a certain breed or if the rescues centres dont have one, they look at getting a puppy and then they find out, that it’s nothing like the one they had as a child or how they remembered them to be. Or, even worse in my opinion, they see a film or a tv show with a certain breed of dog and the dog in the film is amazing so all dogs of that breed are amazing, lets face it we all wanted Lassie for a pet when we were kids, – unfortunately it just doesn’t work like that!

Here are a few things to remember if you are looking for a dog ‘like the one that you had as a child’ or ‘the one in the film’:-

The dog in the film will have been highly trained, hours and hours and hours of training, reinforcing, shaping behaviours will have occurred before the dog is able to perform in a film and they may have looked at 40 dogs of the same breed and only found one that had a temperament that was suitable. Do you remember Ashleigh and Pudsey from Britain’s Got Talent? After the final I remember everyone wanted a Chinese Crested Powderpuff dog so they could have a dog just like Pudsey. What they didn’t realise was the hundreds of hours that goes into creating a bond and trust between the dog and the owner, the hundreds of hours of training that goes in just so they can do a two minute performance and more importantly Pudsey is unique, as all dogs are.

Every dog is an individual, thank goodness, or it would be very boring if they were all the same. They have their own characteristics, their own personality, their own quirks. Dogs of the same breed will have breed traits, but these are different to personality. Even dogs from the same litter will be different. If we think about it in human terms, you may be similar to your siblings in your mannerisms and looks, but you will have very different personalities.

Environment: how well the dog was socialised and past experiences will also shape how a dog behaves.

So here are my top tips if you are looking to get a dog:-

  • Don't put your childhood dog, or dogs you have had in the past on a pinnacle that no other dog can reach.

  • If you are looking at getting a pup from a breeder, research the breeder. Its amazing how the first few weeks of a puppy’s life can make a huge difference to how it is as an adult dog. A good breeder will use those crucial first few weeks to get the dog used to different things it will come across in daily life, such as the hoover, children, tv, different floor surfaces, different noises and the list goes on and on. If the breeder doesn’t do this or the dogs are just left to their own devices then walk away.

  • If you are looking at getting a rescue dog then see if they have any past history for the dog. If there is no history, see if you can get an assessment of the dog from a qualified behaviourist. Most good rescue centres will have access to a qualified behaviourist either on their staff or they will have contact details.

  • Research the breed, this is so important. What was the dog bred for originally? does it have any specific breed traits that may not work with your lifestyle?

  • Finally, another thing to consider is that your memories may not be quite the same as reality, mine certainly weren’t. We tend to look back on things with a rose tinted vision and what we remember may not actually be what happened. So the dog that was the best dog in the world may have been totally shut down because they couldn’t cope, or they may have been an awesome dog but what you don’t see is all the work that went into making them that awesome dog.

  • We also have to take a moment to think about the impact our expectation of the dog will have on them. I have often heard the phrase ‘my other lab didn’t do that’, well that’s no surprise to me as this is a different lab, but the owner then starts having negative associations with the dog, ‘they aren’t as good as my last dog’ – have you ever said or heard that? Again it’s another negative association and it’s not the dog’s fault – it is the fault of the owners and their expectations.

In short, what I am asking of you is that if you are thinking of getting a dog, look at the dog in front of you, not one from a cinema screen or from your past. Spend time building up the bond and trust and you never know it may just be the best dog you have ever owned.


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