City Pup vs. Country Mutt — Do Your Homework When Choosing a Dog

As a veterinarian, I watch people struggle with problem dogs every day. Sometimes they face desperate decisions. So choose your dog wisely.

Irish Setter puppy
Me? Trouble maker? Nah...

I love this time of year in New York. Last night I drove down Fifth Avenue with the dogs surfing out the windows. It was warm for the week before Christmas. People bustling through Rock Center in sweaters and no gloves, the dogs crying at every traffic light as if they needed to jump out of the car and buy me a present at Cartier or Saks. They may be puppy mill rescues, but they can pretend to be upwardly mobile.

When I reached the West Village and got out of the Midtown traffic, there was a beautiful calm on the block and the glow of a few old-timey Christmas lights in distant windows. The dogs got out of the car and immediately put on their city vibe: snuffling for cupcake crumbs, lifting legs so high as if to say, “We’re back.”

The city is a great place for dogs, as long as your lifestyle coincides with your dog’s and you begin with the right choice of dog in the first place.

When I’m in Massachusetts at my farmhouse and veterinary practice, my dogs are my family members — but they have lots of ways to amuse themselves without my constant vigilance. They have a big house to roam around in and a lot of safe outdoor space on the property. They have safe off-leash runs in the country. In the city, they don’t have much stimulation without me. Wind, rain, sleet or snow doesn’t stop the need for a walk. You can’t open the back door and let them out (unless you are the 1% and own a townhouse).

That’s why theatrical animal trainer William Berloni was quoted in the New York Times recently as saying, “People in the suburbs have pets. People in the five boroughs have roommates.” I’ll quibble with Mr. Berloni a bit. I grew up in the five boroughs — Queens, to be exact — and we always had a backyard for our dogs. This backyard may have been adequate for the French poodles, who also got lots of walks, but it proved insufficient for the Irish Setter puppy I brought home when Pepe the poodle passed on. This was an incredibly stupid and irresponsible move on my part, being all of 17 at the time. Both the dog and my family paid the price.

The Story of Finian

Do you know the largest factor that went into my choosing my new dog for my family without consulting them? My boyfriend had an Irish Setter, so I wanted one. His dog was beautiful (a small female) and my boyfriend was Irish. I wanted a beautiful dog and I wanted to be Irish too, so I spent all the money in my car fund and bought Finian, who grew up to be one of the zaniest and largest Irish Setters in the world, loaded with medical and behavioral problems.

The things this 17-year-old did wrong: purchasing a dog in the first place (I didn’t know about rescues); not consulting with my family beforehand; not researching the general characteristics and needs of the breed. Things I did right: not much.

I did, however, buy from a private breeder and drove out to take a look at the pups and check out the situation. The mom and dad dogs were on the premises on a beautiful piece of property. The pups were clean, socialized and happy. I didn’t know any questions to ask, and the seller didn’t ask me too many questions either. This was a big mistake on both our parts. Now, with 40 more years of life experience under my belt, I realize this man clearly didn’t care where his sweet pup was ending up.

Today, many of my clients have a difficult time buying from certain breeders if they don’t meet certain criteria in terms of outdoor space, fence or no fence, children, etc. This Irish Setter puppy was sold to a 17-year-old girl with no adult present, going home to a tiny yard in Queens, replacing her grandmother’s 15-pound French poodle of 16 years. Finian’s Rainbow it would not be.

My friend and I drove back to Queens with Finian yapping all the way. No crate. No food. Clueless. I told my mother he was a Cocker Spaniel. This “white lie” lasted about two weeks, until his legs looked like stilts. (I guess I was a problem teenager.) By that time, my mom and grandmom, dog lovers all the way, were smitten. We had no idea what we were in for.

Pandemonium in Queens

I was starting college in a few months, leaving them with a 90-pound yearling mass of lovable red pandemonium in a small house with a small backyard and a rose garden. When I came home for Thanksgiving break later that year, nothing was coming up roses. Finny had killed 50 heirloom rose bushes — and that, sorry to say, was only the beginning.

I don’t remember Finian’s first vet visit. I’m sure there was one. My mom was very responsible. Today, if a client in Mom’s circumstances were to bring me an Irish Setter puppy, I would consider it my duty to suggest she rethink the choice, hoping she had been offered a 10-day return policy. Irish Setters are both beautiful and neurotic, energetic and goofy. There are always exceptions. But in this case, Finian had all the classic setter quirks. My family had no track record training difficult dogs, no room to give him exercise, not to mention no knowledge of the health problems inherent in the breed. This was a recipe for disaster.

For the next 10 years, we tried to do our best with this whimsical calamity of a dog. He was highly resistant to training, even though we hired private trainers. He was too strong for my mother and grandmother. He had no place to run wild and burn off energy. There were dog-aggressive and, later, people-aggressive issues.

Then the health problems began.

Finian developed severe gastrointestinal disease. My mom would come home from a long workday to find the kitchen covered in bloody diarrhea. This was diagnosed at the time as “stress colitis.” Of course, this made some sense. The dog was home alone and under-exercised. He was destructive. He chewed walls and furniture. He broke into kitchen cabinets and ate anything he could find.

One day, my mom found the kitchen floor covered in Elmer’s glue and Potato Buds. Why were those two household items housed in the same lower cabinet? I have no idea. Maybe it was a Queens thing. But even without dietary indiscretions, Finny’s symptoms escalated. I  know now that gluten enteropathy is an inherited disorder in Irish Setters. A severely limited diet may have helped him with his genetic disorder. We didn’t know any better. He just got worse.

I also believe he developed hypothyroidism and degenerative myelopathy, endocrine and neurological disorders prevalent in the Irish Setter. He exhibited a dry and flaky coat, major personality changes and, finally, debilitated hindquarters. His aggression, neuromuscular weakness and uncontrollable diarrhea led the family to humanely euthanize him at 11 years old. This was not an easy decision for anyone.

Years later, thinking back on poor Finian with intense guilt and disgust at my youthful stupidity, I realized vets didn’t routinely recommend neutering male dogs back in the day. Pepe the poodle had marked every piece of furniture in our house, and Finian was dog-aggressive beginning around 18 months. DUH! These are classic testosterone-dependent behaviors that have been well documented for a long time. Attitudes about spaying and neutering have changed a lot since then.

3 Guidelines for Choosing a Dog

The lesson to be learned from my tale of adolescent folly is simple: Choose your dog wisely. A dog can bring intense enrichment and delight to an owner and family or, honestly, stress and despair. I watch people on a daily basis struggle with problem dogs and face, sometimes, desperate decisions. Obviously, some dog owning problems cannot be foreseen, but the following guidelines can help protect you from some common pitfalls:

1. No impulse buying/adopting. “How much is that doggy in the window?” is a phrase that should never fall from your lips. And no going to your local shelter “just to take a look.” I did this once at my local shelter where I volunteer veterinary services. I had neutered a cat earlier that day and decided I wanted to adopt him. I went to the shelter after work to bring him home. “Ralph” had already been adopted. I left with a cat, her kitten and a dog. At least I wasn’t 17 anymore and knew I could give them a good home.

2. Make a researched decision and reach a consensus with family members. If your partner has been waiting for that retriever and you come home with a peek-a-poo, you might be sharing the couch with that pooch. It’s hard to go hiking with a peek, and retrievers make very heavy lap dogs.

3. Consider your environment. You know how in real estate, it’s location, location, location? Well, this is a primary concern when choosing a dog. I started out by saying dogs are great in the city, but clearly Irish Setters are happier with a lot of space. But don’t assume big breed means country, small means city. The New York Times article did a great job making some suggestions about good city dwellers. The breed temperament matters, not the size. I had a client in Old City, Philadelphia who lived in a Trinity house, three floors, one small room on each floor. Father, Son and Holy Ghost, get it? He had two great danes. Why danes in the smallest house ever built? He told me that great danes like to meander around the block and go home and sleep the rest of the day. The dogs stayed on the first floor, and he lived on the other two.

Other Considerations

On the other side of the spectrum, small doesn’t automatically mean content with a studio apartment. A terrier is not a pug. Jack Russells were bred to hunt vermin on large farms. They will go nuts in your tiny apartment, unless you have a major rodent problem.

Use breed generalizations as a guide, not as an absolute. Some Golden Retrievers really are couch potatoes, whereas others want to be NBA players. Labs are almost always great with kids, and Chesapeakes are a different sort completely. If you’re looking for a mutt, you can make some good educated guesses based on physical characteristics and temperament testing, particularly if they’re an adolescent or older. And who needs puppy training, anyway? What a hassle. I think too much is made of the bonding business, about having to buy a puppy so you can bond.  My rescues look me in the eye on an hourly basis and say, “Thank you, Dr. Deb. You are my salvation and I lick the ground you walk on.” We bonded at first whisker. It’s great to be adored. “Now get me my food, walk me in the woods, take me in the car and don’t spend time with the cats.”

Finally, in your dog quest, ask for advice from dog owners, animal specialists and veterinarians. Don’t believe everything you read on breed-related sites. They often have a strong bias. Sharpei and English Bulldog sites won’t tell you the breeds are inundated with health problems; Cocker Spaniel sites won’t tell you the dog is not great with children. Cockers are on some of the “problem dog” lists compiled by homeowners’ insurance companies. One bite and your policy can be canceled.

***

I’m getting ready to take the dogs out for their last walk of the night now. I unpack my boots from Massachusetts and put my right foot in. There’s a little sock or cotton ball in the toe. I reach in with my hand, and a country mouse runs up my arm and jumps into the apartment. I scream. A ridiculous scream. Blood curdling. Over the top.

The dogs go ape, wishing they had the prowess of that Jack Russell. How will my country mouse do as a city mouse? We can’t find him anywhere. I guess he’s already made the transition. Welcome to Magnolia Bakery, crumbs and no cats. Location, location, location. Life is good.

Photo: victorsounds/Flickr

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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