Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Family: The furry, fuzzy members

Dan and I both grew up with dogs and cats (among other four-footed beasties); you could rightly call us dog people and also cat people, and I don't think either of us would have it any other way. I love my two furballs, even when they scratch up my new furniture, knock over vases full of flowers, and keep me up at night chasing each other around. I don't mind scooping their litter box (well... I tolerate it, anyway) or putting up with their yowling when we move. All of that is made up for when Dash crawls up onto my chest and starts purring madly when I pet him, or Vanyel curls up between Dan and I in the early morning looking for love. I get so much joy from them both; I couldn't imagine my life without them. And I have vivid memories of Shadow and Pippen, the two kitties I had growing up. They were a huge part of my childhood. When Shadow died the day after my 21st birthday, at the ripe old age of 15, I was utterly heartbroken; he will hold a special place in my heart that no other creature will ever touch.

So, I love cats. But I miss having a dog around. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if even one of my close friends had a dog I could love on, but the best I get is the three or four times a year I make the trek home to Durango to visit my parents. I've wanted to get a dog practically since I moved out on my own, and held off because, until recently, I haven't been in a position to be a good dog owner. Between work and school, tiny apartments I could barely afford, lack of money, and lack of time, I knew that I couldn't be fair to a dog, especially of the large variety that I tend to prefer. But now, for the first time, I have time, I have money, and I have a place, not to mention a wonderful cohort in the endeavor. I am beyond excited about this fact; to the point where doing dog-related research has been a real distraction from my schoolwork. However, getting a dog means something different to me now than I did when I first moved out. This dog will likely live to see my children born. This dog will significantly shape how they think and interact with animals for the rest of their lives. They will remember this dog forever, as I have remembered my own family pets.

I remember all of them, and clearly. Bayta was our first dog; she was a year old when I was born, and died not long after I turned thirteen. She was a german shepherd/husky mix, a big girl who loved to hike and camp with us, and didn't mind when my sister and I climbed on her, hugged her, pulled her tail, and fell asleep using her as a pillow. She was super chill, tolerant of cats and other dogs, smart and obedient, and a beloved member of our family. One of the most intense memories I have from my childhood is of the day she died; she had been in pain for some time, and that day the vet came out to our house, and the whole family gathered with her under a tree in our yard, petting to her and talking to her, and the vet gave her a shot and she went to sleep. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and my first real experience with death. Bayta formed the foundation for everything I think a dog should be, and I'm glad. She set a high standard.

We had other dogs throughout the years, all of whom left their impressions on me. By the time Bayta died, we had acquired Kenya and Dakota; they were littermates, half golden retrievers and half... something else. Chow for sure, and now that I'm a little more familiar with the breed, I think they may have had some mastiff or newfie in them as well, among other things, especially since they were big! Dakota was right around 100 lbs when he was full-grown. We lost Kenya (hit by a car :() when she was only a few years old, but Dakota was around for a long time - he had an incredibly tight bond with my mom, the kind of bond I hope to have with my own dog when the time comes. When he died, she was devastated; she kept his collar next to her bed where he used to sleep for months after.

Lacey, the only small dog we ever had as a family, and who we inherited when my Uncle Ben passed away, left her own impression. Smart, sweet, and affectionate, still, having her around confirmed for me that I will never be interested in owning a little yappy dog. "Lacey, SHUT UP!" was a common phrase in my parents' house while she was around! My mom is convinced to this day that she taught Kagan and Talya, who according to our research weren't supposed to be barkers (incorrect research by the way! The breed ARE barkers!), to bark at everything that moved. Still, she really was a sweetheart, and I will never forget the way she used to tear around the house like a crazy thing every time we gave her a bath, or the very special bond she had with my sister.

Kagan and Talya taught me about the value of really understanding a breed before you bring a dog home. My parents bought them from a ranch in the Denver area; cute, fuzzy little Anatolian Shepherd babies who my parents brought home to fill the big-dog void left after Dakota's sudden death. We did research before we got them, but not enough; having never really met an Anatolian Shepherd before, my parents were unprepared for their independent, willful, stubborn natures, as well as some pretty serious dog aggression, problems that were made more serious by their strength and size. Even with those flaws though, those two were great dogs, very affectionate, and almost too smart for their own good. After Kagan died unexpectedly and Lacey died of old age, Talya became the only dog and seems to have mellowed somewhat; I am hopeful that with time and patience, she will be persuaded to get along with my dog.

My dog. That phrase holds so much wonder for me. It isn't happening until this summer; Dan and I are at our max for pets at our current place, plus my schedule is pretty packed until school is over in May. But it is happening. And when it does happen, it's going to be a mastiff.
I make this choice with the knowledge at the forefront of my mind that this dog will be a significant influence in my kids' lives, just as Bayta was for me. Thus, I am making my choice carefully; I don't plan to bring the dog home until mid-August, but I've already begun researching and planning. Learning from my parents' mistakes with the Anatolians, I joined a wonderful online forum which is specifically for mastiff owners, and I have been asking copious questions of the members, about the breed, their experiences as mastiff owners, supplies I'll need, how to introduce mastiffs to dog-nervous friends, how to deal with fearful or curious strangers, what to expect from a rescue, etc. I also plan to start volunteering with Big Dogs Huge Paws, the rescue from which I plan to adopt my dog, as soon as I finish with school. That way, I'll be able to get real exposure to the dogs, as well as learning the ins and outs of rescue, plus I'll be on the "inside" when it comes to finding my own dog. That's good, because I'm looking for a pretty specific dog - old enough to be over most puppyishness, but young enough that, barring illness or accidents, I'll still get many years with him (especially since mastiffs, like most big dogs, tend to be a fairly short-lived breed); also friendly with or at least indifferent to kitties, friendly with strangers, gentle with kids, and mellow in general. I want the "goes everywhere" dog - a dog I can take over to a friend's house (with their approval of course), or take out on errands with me, take hiking and camping and maybe even to work. Finding a dog like that, especially through a rescue, may take some time.

Why a mastiff, you may ask? For one, I've always been drawn to big dogs, and you don't get any bigger than a mastiff; some breeds are taller (great danes and anatolian shepherds, for instance), but mastiffs are by far the largest breed by weight, with males and even some females sometimes exceeding 200 lbs. In fact, according to the Guiness Book of World Records the largest dog recorded was a mastiff named Zorba, who was eight feet long from tip to tail , over three feet tall at the shoulder, and weighed over 300 lbs. I'm not really looking for a Zorba-sized dog, of course, but I am ready for a big fella. Even more than their size, though, I'm drawn to the incredibly close bond mastiffs form with their people, and the calm, gentle temperament of the breed. As a rule, mastiffs tend to be big, cuddly, lovey goofballs, called "gentle giants" for good reason. Their early ancestors were dogs of war, bred to pull cavalry soldiers from their saddles during battle, but the modern mastiff, while protective of their family in the face of a perceived threat, is far from bloodthirsty. Even in situations where another dog tries to start a fight, a well-socialized mastiff is likely to end the fight by the simple expedient of pinning a smaller dog under its weight; in fact, one of the members on the forum I joined told us that her dog often breaks up dogfights at the dog park they frequent by shouldering in and defending the weaker dog until the aggressor backs off. How cool is that?!?

I've been doing obsessive research on this dog, about the breed, the best food, supplies I'll need, rescue organizations, and training. Supplies have been an enlightening subject; I mean, there's the obvious of course: food, bowls, collar, leash. But suggestions from the forum have included baby gates as a must-have, as well as dog bed(s), a crate (XXL size, which usually means special ordering it), a doggy first aid kit, and the furminator. One member pointed me here for a pooper scooper; Dan did not find this joke nearly as funny as I did. Something else that came up was having a big enough car - thank goodness for my Subie! And on the training front, I discovered that the Boulder Valley Humane Society has a freaking awesome, very affordable, training program. By my calculations, over the course of six months and for just over $500, I can take my dog from basic obedience up through intermediate and even some advanced training, including being able to earn his Canine Good Citizen certificate. I also have about half a dozen highly recommended books on training already en route from Amazon, which I'll be reading whenever I have time until school is over, and which I expect I'll devour once I have free reading time again. Especially with a dog as big as a mastiff, having him be extremely well-trained is so important. I have friends who are nervous enough about this crazy undertaking of mine; my goal is to turn them, if not into dog lovers, at least into dog likers, which will be that much more likely of the dog is clearly under complete control. I also am also keeping kids in mind - not just in the future sense, but in the here-and-now. Dan's sister visits us with her two young boys quite frequently, and I want them to be cool with the dog; my cousin just had a baby who will before long be a toddler, and also has a really cool lab that I think my pup could be doggy friends with; and even just at parks and on trails, I don't want the kind of dog that will freak out if a little kid comes running up to pet him. I have no way to know how much training my rescue dog will have had, either, so I'm trying to prepare for the worst. And no matter how well-trained my new dog is when I get him, I plan to start the BVHS classes from the beginning, and ASAP - after all, even if my dog is already an expert, I'm still an obedience n00b, and if there's one thing most dog trainers agree on, one of the most common sources of obedience or behavioral problems tend to be problems with the people, not the dog.
This dog is going to completely change my life. I have no illusions about that. But I welcome it. And, hopefully, when it happens, I'll be ready for it!