Sunday, October 28, 2007

Picking out Puppy

All my life, my mom has owned power breeds. I grew up with a collie/shepherd mix named Dolce. Okay, so she wasn't quite a power breed, but she did have a little bit of an attitude as a puppy. Grew into a wonderful dog.

After Dolce passed on, my mom got a purebred German Shepherd Dog that she named Cinder. She was a little problematic, but mom persevered, taking her to obedience classes and doing an all-around pretty-good job of raising her right.

Cinder passed away at a ripe old age, and my mom was dogless when I got divorced about 13 years ago. I was moving across the country into a situation in which I'd be traveling a lot, so I offered her my Rascal who was then a year old. It was a tough transition for him (and for mom), but once again she persevered and Rascal turned out to be just what the doctor ordered, especially as she lost her hearing. He has not only learned to alert, but he used to fetch my dad if she had a period of dizziness or somesuch. What an intelligent dog!

Now, however, his hearing is failing and it's obvious he won't be with us much longer. I was hoping to have a dog trained and ready to go when my mom needs him, which probably won't be long off in the future. That meant I had to find a puppy very soon, as I want at least 12 weeks for basic training and starting on alerting.

As my mom is now nearing 80 (hard to believe), I thought she might benefit from a dog which is not so intense and agenda-driven as cowdogs can be. I started investigating Labrador breeders for a prospect, and found a lovely one not too far from home. One litter has just hit the ground, another is due this week. But you know what? My mom just isn't a Lab person. She loves cowdogs - a formidable breed for those who are not prepared.

Turns out that on a recent trip to the vet with one of my seniors, I mentioned to the vet tech that I was looking for a puppy for mom, that I had found a lab breeder, but mom wants a cattle dog. "Oh, one of our clients has a really nice ACD puppy for sale," she said. I scoffed. "Yes, but has all the necessary genetic testing been done? Were the parents OFAed and do they test for PRA?"

"I think so..."

Hmmm... all the earmarks of a responsible breeder, I thought. Then the gal showed me the flyer in the foyer. I saw that the puppy and parents had all the necessary genetic testing and screening. I was surprised to find an apparently top-quality breeder so close to home, but still I was skeptical.

I came home and Googled the sire, the dam and the kennel names and darned if his daddy isn't one of the superstars of his breed, having earned two Awards of Merit in the US and is now being campaigned successfully in Oz. In short, he's bred up one side and down the other!

I called the breeder, and darned if she isn't exactly what I feel a responsible breeder should be - first and foremost being selective about what kind of homes her pups are going to have. Long story short - she was thrilled that someone was looking for a dog not just to be a companion or (ugh!) a "watchdog," but one to do a specific job. Cowdogs, like most working breeds, need jobs. If you don't give them one, they'll make one up - and it usually won't be something you'd choose yourself. Most often their jobs of choice include ridding the neighborhood of pesky moving things like bikes, skateboards and even cars and trucks, and keeping strangers just where they feel they belong - well away from the house! Redecorating, including un-upholstering furniture and de-plastering walls, are among their specialties. Baby cowdogs are often something like baby landsharks on speed. But I digress - you get the picture.

But in selecting a dog for a job like this, there's more to be considered than just good looks and even sound breeding. The puppy must have a sound mind, and must also be reactive to sound. They must be agreeable toward strangers if the owner plans to take him out in public and his manners must be impeccable. I would have initially preferred a much younger puppy, as this guy is already 17 weeks old, but it sounded like the breeder had taken great care to start the puppy off right and do all the required socialization. Still, I had to see how reactive this little guy was to sound and get an idea of how quickly he learns. We set an appointment last weekend.

Testing... One, two three ...

I picked up a couple of things - a beeping timer, a wind-up toy, and packed some things like a large towel and a fistful of tasty treats, fetched my mom and went to meet the puppy. I can't believe how well this little guy did. Testing puppies is one of those things that most trainers and some breeders do, but the jury is still out regarding how well the results indicate how the dog will turn out in the long run. Puppies go through a lot of changes, most of them in adolescence. But you gotta start somewhere.

The most important thing to me was sound reactivity, and darned if this little guy didn't make a very impressive showing. What I was looking for was just a reaction - any reaction is okay, but a tendency to investigate is exceptional. I set the timer for about 30 seconds and hid it on the floor behind my purse while the breeder distracted him. When the timer went off, he not only noticed the sound, but went over to my purse, rifled through it, then found the timer behind it, PICKED IT UP and carried it to his crate! He showed good, stable responses to dropping a pot lid and other noises, investigated everything, and while he was judiciously cautious, he showed no excessive nervousness or fear and was quick to recover when startled.

It took literally a few seconds and a few treats to teach him to touch my hand on command (important, because this will be his means of alerting mom to sounds - barking is not appropriate in public, and when mom isn't wearing her processor, she wouldn't hear it anyway). One interesting thing - when he became confused, he backed up and gave me a bit of a woof. I take this to mean, "Hey! You ain't speakin' my language!" I like that in a puppy.

I let my mom make up her own mind about the dog. There was no question in my mind that he could do the job, but did she like the puppy? After a couple of days to think about it (during which we got the final diagnosis on Rascal), she said yes.

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