Should I get rid of my terrier?

kid-friendly colour illustration of Border Terrier's head

Original artwork by Syd

Should I get rid of my terrier? That’s a question from a heavy heart.   Let me retell a story that might help with this decision.

It’s a story of two young Border Terriers whose home was at risk.  It’s not a story about Bossy and Bark, my own dogs, although it easily could have been.  It is a story of “Oscar” and “Scottish”, both aliases, relayed by their breeder, who is also a vet.  After it’s telling she said:  ‘Now put THAT on your blog”. We hope it helps.  And I hope my Breeder/Vet will forgive me any liberties I’ve taken with its retelling.

One day not so long ago, my Breeder/Vet friend answered a call from a woman to whom she’d recently sold two pups from different litters.

“We know you told us that Borders Terriers aren’t the right dog for everyone,” said the woman. “We’ve given this a lot of thought and we think you’re right. We have to get rid of these dogs. “

Their offences:

  • Both dogs pull on their leashes and bark at other dogs when they are out for a walk. They really stir it up together.  [How many terriers have you seen that also do this? Likely as not you answered: almost all of them—although almost all of them can probably learn not to act this way.]
  • Scottish ran off the family property and ‘attacked’ another dog who’d been walking by.  It was more bluster than bite. Nobody got hurt.  Except the Owners’ pride. They’d had other, easier dogs over the years and didn’t want to be a problem in the neighbourhood.  [Good goal. Dramatic situation.  But I’m pretty confident a lot of dog owners have experienced some variant of this when their dogs were  young and learning their boundaries.]
  • Scottish and another dog got into it when the dogs were out at a local park running around off leash.  One of the dogs was bitten on that occasion. That might have been ‘the last straw’. [Dare I say, this was 100% human error, not a canine error.]

After asking the Owner two questions—which I’ll later reveal—the Breeder/Vet agreed to take Scottish back and rehome him.  But she made it clear that the Owners would need to sever all ties to the dog.   The Owner would never know where Scottish had gone and there would never be a chance to visit him.  Like a Witness Protection Program, he’d disappear and get a whole new life.  Probably a new name, too.  Sometimes that’s not so bad.  The dog gets a re-boot.  But it’s still very, very sad when we give up on our dogs and our relationships with them.  While Border Terriers aren’t considered to be ‘one man’ dogs and can bond with many people, they DO miss ‘Their People’.

So it was agreed.  A date was set. Scottish would be returned a week hence.  Yet two days before the date, the Breeder/Vet’s phone rang again.

“We really thought about what you asked us,” said the Dog-Owner.  “Since we last spoke, we’ve had two training sessions with someone from our vet clinic. Things are already so much better we’ve decided to keep both dogs. And we’re not changing our minds.  Ever.” 

A happy ending.  

So what were the two, pivotal questions the Breeder/Vet asked?

1. Did the dogs have any training?                                                                                   2. Had you considered walking them one at a time?

The answers the Breeder/Vet got:

Did the dogs have any training? Answer: The owners had taken their pups to training offered through their local vet once. Oscar hid under a chair she was so overwhelmed and afraid. They never went back.  [That was a great sign that little Oscar actually needed more help rather than less.]

Had you considered walking them one at a time?  Answer: The Owner said that option never crossed her mind but wasn’t against the idea. [That signalled hope for these dogs.  An Owner who is willing to give each of their dogs the support he/she needs is on the right path.  Raising two young terriers at the same time can be a tough slog especially if terriers are a new breed to you.  Handling them one at a time can make a huge difference. Like our kids, each dog is different.  Individualized attention is necessary.

The lessons of this story are self-evident but indulge me to close with a few thoughts:

1. If you’re at your wit’s end with your dog, seek help.  Actually, seek help at the beginning of your relationship with your dog to avoid being at your wit’s end–or find yourself at the dog’s end. Which is often the fate of dogs surrendered to shelters.

2. Don’t expect your dog to figure out our rules if you don’t teach them to him.  Just like your toddler.  You wouldn’t drop your baby into the world and expect him to figure things out all by himself.  Same for your dog.  Dogs are astonishing with all they can pick up with so little direction, but we still need to help them out. Especially if there isn’t an older, well-trained dog in the house to show the pup the ropes.

Some of our terriers—or their people —might need a bit more support than other breeds.  Terriers are different.  Many terrier owners face similar issues to what the Owner described with Oscar and Scottish and we can successfully work through them with our dogs.  You can be optimistic that your effort will be rewarded with results. If people are willing to learn about themselves and be patient, their dogs can learn.  Many of my dogs’ challenges were almost immediately fixed when I changed how I was handling situations.

Many Border Terriers are exceptionally smart. They love training if it’s treated as fun and playful and offered with a light, non-confrontational way.  Obedience training can actually be a lot of fun if we approach it that way. “Obedience” is our goal but we can get there through fun.

Training terriers might take longer than other breeds. Some terrier can be quite stubborn, which is the other way to view tenacity.  But they get there and having a well-channelled, motivated and happy terrier who will work with you because you’re both invested in the relationship is one of life’s great joys.  It is worth every minute of effort.

3. If your dog is struggling in training, it means you need to keep at it.  There are many different training models out there.  Terriers are hard-wired to respond fiercely if they feel threatened.  Consider this when you select your training method. Border Terriers  are more sensitive than they look or act.  It you are too dominant and tough you’ll activate the terrier’s self-preservation instincts and make your job WAY harder than it needs to be. Finding the balance between firm and calm is the key. 

Play is a great way to build a dog’s self-confidence and get them to want to do what you’re asking of them.  A tough “command and control” style of training might work at times but I’ve found fun is a much faster way to win a dog’s heart and mind.  And remember that what gets rewarded gets repeated.

The training philosophy that seems to most closely match what I learned through painful trial and error is Kevin Behan’s Natural Dog Training.

4. Dog owners really need to respect public leash rules and not put their dogs in situations that could be beyond their skills.  If your dog isn’t trained and “proofed” for instant recall in highly stimulating environments with other dogs, resist the pull to let them go off-leash. Letting dogs go off-leash before they’re really ready will set them up to fail.

5. Buy your dog from a reputable breeder and look to them for support if you run into trouble.   If you ever think you need to surrender your dog—and I hope you never have to cross that bridge—go to your breeder or a breed-specific rescue group before you drop your dog off at a shelter.  They are better equipped and committed to finding a happy ending for your terrier. They understand and love the breed and likely have a network of allied resources to call upon.

6. Consider your vet as part of your team. While vets are not necessarily behavioural experts they know a lot about dogs. They can help you set some realistic expectations for behaviour and point you toward local support.

7. Don’t give up. On your dog or yourself.

This story has a happy ending.   A good breeder and owners who were willing to do things differently to get a better result.  The future for Oscar and Scottish looks a lot brighter this week.

If you’re thinking of getting rid of your terrier for behavioural reasons, get help first. Many dogs can turn themselves around in a matter of minutes, hours or days if their handler can approach challenging situations with a new mindset or use new skills.  What I learned: if you can change, your dog can change.

What do you think, readers, any other sage advice?

[I know. We could talk on this for DAYS!]

Is your terrier empathetic? Share a story that’s touched your heart.

We really need to come to our senses and embrace the emotional make-up of our dogs–especially terriers.  When we do, life with them just makes more sense. For everyone involved.

Bossy After The Storm

Many animals are ’empathic’.  Don’t believe me? Watch this amazing video presentation by Frans de Waal, acclaimed Dutch primatologist and ethologist, that aired originally on the TED network.  He provides evidence of empathy and compassion, reciprocity and fairness in the animal kingdom.  Turns out there’s proof empathy isn’t just for people. Now that’s an “idea worth spreading”, though good ‘dog people’ know it instinctively.

If you own any kind of terrier–a Cairn, a Border or a Pit Bull, for instance–you’ve seen empathy and plenty of it.  All dogs have it. But terriers seem to have more of it than most.  (See Terrier Logic # 12).

Terriers are emotional beings and can recognize, respond to and mirror our emotions.

When someone coughs or sneezes at my house, Bossy is right there checking on her person.  You OK?  Good. Now rub my belly.  When a golfer on TV rims a putt, both of my dogs console my husband after confirming he didn’t have a heart attack. More kisses.  And like most people, my dogs will snuggle in close when they know someone isn’t feeling well. I’m not leaving your side; I’ll stay here as long as you need me.

How does two-way empathy help us in handling our feisty terriers?  If we can change, our dogs can change.  And change usually starts in our hearts.

Is your terrier empathetic? Do you think terriers are more empathetic than other breeds you’ve lived with? Share your story about a terrier that’s touched your heart and shown you his.  Click on the comment bubble on the top right or write your story below.

Terriers will teach us that if we can change, our dogs can change

Terriers–and dogs in general–are much more “plastic” than we are.

A speaker at a semi-recent national veterinary conference reported that canine personality (and related behavioural issues) is fixed by about three years of age. The implication was: if you haven’t ‘fixed’ your dog’s issues by then, forget about it.  Time to despair?  I don’t think so.

Bossy changed a lot between three and four. So I, for one, conclude this assertion is “bunk!”, to quote my colourful first-year sociology prof, Kunkel.  Of course, if I’d stayed stuck so would have Bossy.

What’s more, if I could’ve figured out faster what I was doing–or not doing– in the situations that stressed and challenged her, I could’ve helped her find her softness and stillness sooner than she did.

Freeing ourselves with the idea that behaviour is malleable is a key to improving all our relationships. After all, isn’t change–and not stasis–the real way of life? Let’s be tenacious on that thought.

Let’s be open to having a terrier teach us.