Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Replacement Dog: how a veterinarian / dog rescuer / geneticist searched for the right puppy

The death of my fifteen year old golden retriever Jack wasn’t just about my loss. It was about finding someone else to do his job, which for the last five years had been serving as a security blanket for Jenny, my shy collie mix. Jenny depended on him to tell her when people did not intend to eat her, to run interference with well-meaning strangers, and to demonstrate calm at the veterinary clinic. We could not remain a single dog household for long.
Jack and Jenny
I adopted Jenny at age 13 months. She had never been off the farm where she was born until her surrender to a shelter, and the world proved much larger than she expected. Jenny has excellent dog skills but a crippling anxiety upon encountering new people or environments. I adopted her knowing about her idiosyncrasies because I wanted to study anxiety in dogs, and wanted to experience it first hand. And so I have; living with Jenny has informed my understanding of anxiety in a way that reading about it never could have.

In my research, studying the way genetics and environment interact to affect the risk of anxiety has brought me back time and again to the importance of early environment: in utero environment, early maternal care, and puppy socialization. How the brain changes during and after the socialization period turns out to be a huge part of my research interests, and to learn from the source as I had done with Jenny, I would need a puppy, and a very young one at that. I’ve only adopted adult dogs in the past, but now is an excellent time for me to raise a puppy, as I work from home many days.

A puppy who would grow up to fit in well with Jenny had to fit a specific mold: confident around people and other dogs, but not so pushy as to annoy her. Someone she could play with. Someone male, because I didn’t want to deal with girl dog politics for the next ten years.

Now, I have counseled others that adopting a very young mixed breed puppy from a shelter or rescue group means you really have no idea at all who you have just brought home, and that there is no shame in purchasing a dog from a responsible breeder. However, in practice, I balked at purchasing a dog. I completed an intense shelter medicine internship at the University of Florida several years ago, and I still feel part of that community. As the distance between the present day and that experience increases, I find myself holding tighter to those connections and looking for new ways to remain a part of sheltering. Purchasing a dog who was not going to be in want of a home felt a bit like eating humanely raised meat: I tell myself it’s okay for others to do it, but when I actually try to do it myself, some part of me rebels.

Yet as I looked at puppies from local rescue groups, in short order I found myself in a panic: could I really adopt a puppy whose genetics were completely unknown, whose parents I most likely couldn’t meet, and who had almost certainly had some early life trauma before ending up in foster care? Genetics and early experience are both critical in shaping the adult personality, and while I hope I could handle dealing with another shy dog, Jenny needed someone dependable, not another neurotic failing to keep it together when the mailman drove past.

When I started to seriously consider purchasing a dog, I had to decide on a breed. I love retriever-collie mixes: ideally the best of both worlds, retriever-social and collie-smart. But finding a responsible breeder of retriever-collie mixes seemed a tall order. Border collies are too intense for me. Australian shepherds have their tails docked so short. And I wanted to find a breed that is not recognized by the AKC, that is absolutely not bred for looks, that possibly even has open stud books to keep the genetics pool large and diverse.

I found the Scotch Collie and the English Shepherd. The Scotch Collie club had an open stud book policy going for it (good for them!). The English Shepherd club had a closed stud book policy (open it up, guys!) but it had been open relatively recently, the breed isn’t recognized by the AKC, and the dogs can’t be shown in conformation classes. The breed is a versatile working breed. Both breeds have lovely breed standards that accept a wide range of phenotypes (for example, 30-80 lbs in adult weight - a wide range!), which in itself tells the story of breeding for temperament and not looks.

In the end, I chose the English Shepherd based on the fact that there are more of them around, so it was easier to find a litter promptly. Waiting a few months would mean potty training a puppy in January in the Midwest, an experience I’ll leave to others.

The English Shepherd club maintained a list of breeders who had available puppies, with lots of information about the parents. It’s a well designed resource, and I link to it not to encourage others to run out and get an ES puppy (they are smart and high energy and not for everyone) but to provide an example of what kinds of information should be provided about available litters.

I screened the descriptions of parents: I discarded those who weighed more than 70 lbs, as managing Jack in his dotage had been hard on my back. I discarded those who were described as protective or taking some time to warm up to people. I checked that the parents had passed the relevant genetic tests (for this breed, tests for several eye diseases and hip dysplasia). Then I looked at the remaining breeders’ websites.

The breeders I liked talked about how they raised the puppies: giving them lots of positive experiences. They talked about what they did with the puppies’ parents - agility, nosework, herding. They often had long applications for potential owners to fill out, which asked all the questions they should: How will you exercise this dog? Do you have a fenced yard? What will you do if he is destructive?

I found a litter in Virginia with a male who sounded perfect: confident, social, and by the way athletic. My husband and I stuffed Jenny into the car and drove 9.5 hours to pick up our boy. He cost, by the way, probably more than twice what a rescue puppy would have cost, but I have paid for knowing that he is clear of some genetic diseases for which he might have been at risk, and for knowing that he was in the uterus of a calm, happy mother; raised with a litter who had plenty of high quality food and safe places; and had extensive early socialization (including the Early Neurological Stimulation and Early Scent Stimulation programs). He has proven, in his first week and a half with us, to be social and sweet, willing to settle down when asked so long as he is given plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and terrifyingly smart. He and Jenny are already wrestling for hours daily, laying the foundation for what I trust will be a long friendship.

That is the story of how we found Dashiell.