As many of you know, I am an experienced dog person. I am not a professional trainer, but by fostering and rehabilitating over 200 dogs, I have learned a lot about the human/dog relationship. Most of my learning has come through trial and error, but sometimes I get help along the way.
My first rescue was a 2-year-old, 70-pound, black German Shepherd named Abby. The rescue organization told me that she was a product of a divorce, meaning that she had no issues; but merely was in the wrong family at the wrong time. Over the next several years, my husband and I became convinced that she was the cause of the divorce.
Abby was a sweet, but difficult dog. She was anxious, paced constantly, barked, and whined incessantly. When I was away, she would bark nonstop, even though my daughter and her nanny were home. Most nights, she woke us up over the slightest sound, often her stress would result in stomach issues and she was a frequent visitor to the vet.
Each time the vet asked me how she was, I would smile and say what a great dog she was…but on her 5th birthday, I broke down and cried. I confessed about our struggles with her. I had convinced myself that I was too busy to make this dog happy; I was a working mom, with a big job, a husband, a large house, and volunteer activities.
The vet smiled.
“I think that I know what the problem is. Your dog is frustrated because she can’t do what she was bred to do,” she went on. “Your German Shepherd was bred to protect and herd, and she has nothing to do.”
“Many of the behavior problems that I see are due to a frustrated dog not doing what it was bred to do,” she continued. “Never get a dog with a purpose.”
Then she suggested that I get another dog.
I looked at her as if she were wearing a spacesuit. “Are you kidding, I am struggling with Abby, why would I get another dog?”
“She needs something to do, she needs someone to care for, to herd, to protect.”
In desperation, I took her advice and bought a sweet little cockapoo puppy named Sophie that even looked like a miniature sheep (since then I only rescue, but I was desperate). Everything changed.
Abby spent her days herding little Sophie, gently correcting, and protecting her. Abby would subtly lie between a visitor and Sophie. Once I understood Abby’s language, I would tell Abby that it was okay, and she would allow people to pet Sophie. Abby became relaxed, happy, confident.
It worked so well, that I rescued another cockapoo. Abby spent her days using her herding instincts, cutting them (a herder’s term for separating them), grouping them, leading them. The puppies loved it…they had a big sister that they could jump and play on; and Abby could finally fulfill her purpose.
Since then, I adopt dogs that have no purpose. The Cockapoos, Maltese’s, poodle mixes, Schnoodles, Shih Tzus that I have adopted had only one purpose. To love and be loved…that is something that I can do.
For potential dog owners, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get a specific breed. But think about the original purpose of that breed and make sure that you can fulfill it. A border collie needs to run and herd. Smarter species (e.g., poodles, Havanese) need to exercise their brains (e.g., learning tricks). Retrievers need to retrieve, but it can be a tennis ball. If you are adopting a mixed breed, research all its likely breed instincts. And if you have a dog that is struggling, see if it is able to fulfill its purpose.
Dogs are lucky, they have one purpose their lives. But with us humans, it is a different story.
Our purposes change with circumstances and age. Since my unexpected retirement I have struggled finding my purpose. Before retirement, I had built-in purposes: get an education, work hard, raise my family, work on our marriage, etc. But now, it is more complicated. Some retirees have this figured out: some have hobbies that they deferred, some have looked into spirituality, others learn and do new things, others give back.
Dogs are lucky, their purpose is bred into them.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.