Dogs have had changing roles recently in the lives of many people, especially in this country. However, consideration of the role of a dog in the life of the owner is still a relevant factor in deciding a life-long course of preventative health care for that dog. For some of us, dogs are our running buddies, for others, our quiet reading buddies at home. Some have puppies as their trial children before the real ones come along, others have dogs as their empty-nest or retirement companions. Sometimes, people intend their dogs for one role and the dog eventually takes on a new, unforeseen one.
Knowing whether a dog is intended to fulfill the role of a costume accessory in a purse or a chick magnet at the dog park, a playmate for the kids or a hunting dog on the weekends makes a difference in anticipating and hopefully preventing certain health problems. For example, it is important to know whether a large-breed dog with a genetic tendency to have poorly formed hips or elbows is intended for running many miles every week on a hard surface or just playing fetch occasionally in the soft, grassy back yard – I would want all dogs in those high-risk breeds to be screened as puppies for hip dysplasia, but I might be somewhat more insistent about doing it for the dogs destined for an activity that might traumatize those (possibly) poorly-formed hips and, therefore, lead to arthritis. Mobility problems in large, older, dogs are often life-limiting and tragic if not anticipated and maybe avoided. One of my favorite sayings (probably to the annoyance of my clients!) is “ Forewarned is forearmed”, and that little cliché has come in handy for many dogs over the years.
Besides discerning what role a dog is intended to play in an owner’s life, I also find it important – and fun – to find out why a particular breed, or mixed-breed, was chosen. These things give me insight not only into the personality of the owner, but some prediction as to how the personality of the dog is going to fit with the owner’s personality. Certain breeds have very strong personality traits, high (or low) activity levels and certain quirky habits, and an owner does not always know these things when choosing a certain breed. For example, someone who chooses a Border Collie because the medium size fits in with the size of the urban back yard may not be prepared for that breed’s high activity level and desire to herd everything and everybody. I know a Border Collie, by the way, who gets very little exercise or stimulation from her sedentary urban lifestyle, who has found an outlet for her herding instinct by “herding” the ceiling fan around and around – and around – the owner’s dining room table! This is clearly annoying to the owner, but perfectly logical, given this active breed. When I see a new Border Collie puppy for the first time, I try to see how much the new owner knows about that breed and prepare that person for the fact that these wonderful dogs really, really, really, need a job – whether it be agility trials, Frisbee contests, sheep-herding on the weekends or lots and lots of jogging. If the owner is given this type of information early, appropriate outlets for that energy may be found early in that dog’s life. If not, that owner may ultimately decide that the bored adult Border Collie is too active, too vocal or too destructive to keep. Behavior problems, some of which are due to personality clashes with the owner, are the number one reason dogs are given up to shelters, and euthanized, so I like to do a bit of preventative behavioral health care as well as preventative physical health care during my exam time.
Why is this important? As the role of dogs has changed in the lives of owners, the role of owners has changed as well. Dogs have morphed into beloved family members for many people, and their “parents” have morphed into their pet children’s health advocates. This blog is meant to help you, the owner, know what to look for in your dog throughout life so you can be an active and proactive member of your best friend’s health care team, all through the long journey from puppyhood to the senior years.
The first step in this journey is for you to think about why you got your dog in the first place – why this breed, and why this particular dog. What is it about this individual that appealed to you then and makes that dog special to you now? It helps to think about your own personality, the activities you enjoy, the goals you have for yourself and the plans you have for your life. Think about how your dog does, or does not, fit in with these things. Your dog, if you play your cards right, will be riding shotgun with you through many years and many changes in your life, and you will be seeing your dog through many changes as well. Knowing what makes this dog special to you, and what the two of you are capable of doing together, helps you structure the lifestyle needed for you to help your dog age successfully. And, when you get to those senior years, it helps to remember what those special, unique things were so many years before, so you can keep looking for them, keep finding them, and keep fanning the flames of them even though some aging changes might be dimming their brightness.
So – think about it. What do you want out of your life with your dog? What do you want your dog to get out of life with you? What do you want to change? And what do you want NEVER to change?