My thoughts on dog ownership, six weeks on.
Last month, I got a pet dog. His name is Jay and he’s a 17-month old border collie, born to working sheepdogs in the Brecon Beacons (Wales), and sold to a woman in Cardiff as a retirement present for her father.
Border collies are among the smartest dog species, and rank #1 in intelligence according to several surveys of varying credibility. They were bred to herd livestock and are said to have an intuition that goes well beyond basic instinct. As such, border collies need a lot of stimulation, both mental and physical.
The Cardiff family couldn’t keep up with Jay and, being compassionate people, decided to find him a new home that was better equipped to deal with his boundless energy.
It was around this time that I decided to bring a dog into my home for the first time since I was 15. My reasons were myriad, but boiled down to this: I love dogs and I’ve been wanting one for a while, but held off because I felt too transient for dog ownership. However, with “indefinite leave to remain” looming on the horizon, I’ve decided to stay put for a while here in the British countryside, a beautiful place with lots of space for a dog to run around in. Besides, I’ve always felt like my walks in the country were short a devoted dog bounding along by my side.
And so, after a harrowing trip to a dog shelter and a few frustrating calls to rescue centres, I decided to go the “free to a good home” route. Preloved.co.uk, a forum for used furniture and second hand cars, is also a stockpile of unwanted pets. This is where I found Jay, my preloved border collie. To his prior owner’s credit, they brought him to us to make sure he was going to a good home, and were super happy that his new home had so much countryside for him to play in, and work-at-home owners to give him attention all day long.
But what about me? My last dog was a basset hound, on the opposite end of the smarts spectrum to border collies, and about 5% as active. I knew border collies were smart, but the most interaction I’ve had with the breed is passing one with their owners on country walk and thinking “that looks like a good dog to take on a walk!”
Of course, what my memory failed to recall is how often those walkers were sheepherders, using their dogs for what they were bred for.
So my first week with Jay – a week of endless walking, ball throwing, nighttime barking, incessant leash pulling, and seemingly endless shedding – caught me completely off guard. I felt exhausted, sore and, most of all, guilty.
- Why did I wait until AFTER adopting a border collie to actually read about them and what they require?
- Am I really ready to devote at least two hours per day to this, the amount of time necessary according to Border Collie Rescue?
- Is two hours really enough, when Jay seems thoroughly miserable and hyper when he’s not outside chasing a ball?
- Am I just another irresponsible dog owner who adopted a dog on a whim?
- Jay was given up once, what makes me think I’m so special? What’s the difference between me and his previous owners? What’s to keep Jay from winding up back on preloved.co.uk?
Is the dog bowl half full or half empty?
The answer, of course, is neither – a dog’s food bowl should either be in the process of being emptied (into the dog’s tummy), or not around at all. Such a feeding schedule helps establish routine, prevent accidents, and establish your position as “the leader”.
The importance of routine feeding is one of the first things I learned about dog ownership, partially from this website, but also from dog trainer Rachel McHugh who came to the cottage three days after Jay arrived to show me the ropes and hopefully get Jay and I off to a good start.
The two hour session was more of a lesson for me than for Jay. Dogs are creatures of habit, and they need a leader, a so-called “alpha dog”. Without a leader, dogs don’t know who to follow, so they spend all their time jumping off the walls, trying to figure out who the pack is, and who they needs protect.
Of course, Jay doesn’t need to protect anyone – I’m the leader. The trick is teaching the dog that so he can calm down and chill the eff out. This is where my training comes in.
Leadership is earned through “confident, authoritative, consistent behavior on the part of the owner.” It begins in the home, with routine feeding and walk schedules and consistent messages about what is (and what is not) good behaviour.
Jay gets a long walk in the morning, a short play session in the afternoon, and another long walk in the evening. He gets fed after his long walks. We never feed him from the table. If he barks at us while we’re eating, he gets 20 seconds of alone time in the bathroom (he quickly unlearned this annoying habit – a relic of being fed from the table by his previous owners – within a few days). He is not allowed on furniture (fortunately, he’s never tried, and I’m not about to encourage him). He gets to play with his ball on my terms, when I want to – the rest of the time, the ball stays in the cupboard.
Like I said, first week was hard. Jay and I were both a little dumb-struck by the new routine. But after that week, we started to calm down. I realised that if I had the energy to set up the routine, hire a dog trainer, and spend endless hours reading about border collies and dog training on the internet, then my desire to own the dog was more than a whim.
It helped that I had people around to encourage me, especially Tim and my family. Tim kindly keeps telling me what a good job I’m doing, and helps out immensely with walks and the training. My mom and sister, both animal lovers and horse owners, have encouraged me through their own stories of training their two horses. It helps knowing that my bouts of guilt are normal. My mom says
I have never had a pet that I did not feel some angst about. With the fish, the amazingly intelligent Betas, I felt guilt that their bowl was too small, their lives too lonely and boring. With cats came guilt over keeping them indoors and not being able to handle them due to allergies. With my birds, who really belong with a FLOCK in the jungle, not living abnormal lives in a cage I feel guilt…With the horses, I feel guilt over every hour they must spend in that barn, for every time they’ve run out of hay in their stalls and suffered hunger, because horses are made to graze almost constantly…
With pets it’s much like having a child… enormous rewards, incredible joy and gratification, but always that nagging realization that what I had to give would never be enough, there would always be days when I did not have enough time, or money.
It’s me or the dog? It’s me AND the dog.
Jay and I both need to change. And it’s here I get back to my original question:
Is owning a dog (or any pet) the secret to lifelong health and happiness?
I guess that depends. What are you willing to put into it? Are you ready to change your own life to provide an environment that produces a happy, well-behaved dog? Do you view those changes as things that will make you a better person in the grander scheme of things?
Because that’s what owning a dog is – completely, utterly, life-changing. Where once I was able to basically do whatever I want, with only myself to worry about, I must now:
- Establish a routine that works for me and the dog, and stick to it
- Walk the dog every day, twice a day, whether I feel like it or not
- Think about who’s going to care for the dog if I go away for the day, a weekend or longer
- Vacuum way more regularly (Lord Dyson, you are my hero)
- Handle animal faeces on a daily basis
- Spend hours and hours training the dog to be obedient
- Learn to be patient – as smart as Jay is, it will still take months and months of repetitive training to get him to learn the most basic commands
- Learn to be consistently confident and authoritative with Jay so that he learns who’s boss
- Care about someone other than myself for a change
Jay’s previous owners decided that, after 17 months, their circumstances meant they couldn’t keep Jay around. As for me, well, I want to believe that the trials of pet ownership are well worth it for the rewards to come.
But right there is MY biggest challenge, staring me right in the face:
I need to learn to love the process of owning Jay, and not only the product.
I recently bought a book called Train Your Dog Like a Pro by Jean Donaldson. I felt like the Introduction was written for me:
Some people love cooking, while others cook only insofar as they must eat and are unable to afford restaurant meals every night.
Similarly, trainers love training, they love the process, they find it fascinating. They are “process seekers”, not “product seekers”:
…product seekers, those who do not become engaged even a little with the process of any task that requires significant time investment, famously peter out unless they have unearthly and steely discipline.
How often in my life has this been true? Could training Jay teach me to be a “process seeker”? Could I learn to love training the way I already love cooking?
I don’t know, but I’m willing to try.
Small improvements = huge progress
I was commiserating with my sister last night about pet ownership and she reminded me, “you need to reward small improvements.” I sometimes forget this, expecting Jay to make huge progress in one training session, but dogs move slower than that. Jean Donaldson calls it “biological speed”.
[Dog training] forces us to slow down from techno-speed back down to bio-speed. But however good for you this is, it will absolutely prove part of the challenge.
A challenge, yes, and already I’m feeling the burn. There is no instant gratification with dog training, so I might as well enjoy the journey, right? Or at least, this is what I keep telling myself. Can a person learn to be patient just through willpower alone?
I guess I’ll find out, because ultimately, I can only see good things coming out of this, both for me AND the dog.
I will learn to be patient, optimistic, in-the-moment and confident. Jay will learn his place in the world, who’s in charge, who gives the treats and the cuddles (and who can take them away). I get to stop worrying about staying fit, because taking care of this dog is like an endless workout in itself, and usually way more rewarding than the gym. And most importantly, I’ll wind up with a smarty-pants dog who’s calm, loving, and an amazing frisbee partner.
Of course, all of these changes are slow to come. I still have my moments of angst, and Jay is still far from being the dream dog who always comes when he’s called, walks with a loose leash at the heel position, and doesn’t chase sheep or bite the postman (yes, this happened, and my stomach turns at the thought of it).
But I’m trying to stay positive and be happy with the small improvements. I’m trying to embrace training. Most of all, I’m trying to give Jay a happy home.
His previous owners said one of the things that drove them nuts is that Jay was “always around”, following them all over the house and garden. Indeed, Jay certainly lets you know when he’s getting bored. But these days, with our walk routine in place and our training sessions coming along, I usually find him like this during the day:
Passed out, at the foot of the bed. I think this is contentment. I hope so, because it certainly works for me.