Otago SPCA

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As I entered the grounds of SPCA Otago last week, a cacophony of deafening barks welcomed me. It was the sound of dozens of dogs competing for the attention of the potential shoppers browsing the cages.

It was Monty the Greyhound cross who earned the attention of the passing buyer – his charm was his quiet reserve compared to all the other loud barkers. As I entered the puppy section, two men and one of the vet nurses followed me in, and the vet nurse stated in a manner of fact tone:

“You can hold him while I jab him.”

Referring of course to the vaccinations Monty was to receive since he had been officially adopted.

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SPCA Otago is a strange place to visit – there is an air of sadness for sure, especially down the hills where the mature dogs are kept, but there is also a sense of overwhelming warmth. The employees dedicate their lives to caring for a myriad of animals, and their love for the job permeates throughout the whole place.

Dogs end up at the SPCA for a variety of different reasons, but what they have in common is they were all unwanted by their previous owners. They come from mutt litters that don’t sell; they are found abandoned on the streets; and from homes and families that can’t accommodate them anymore. Most of the animals in the SPCA have seen at least one family come and go, loving or not, and for many it will take time to adjust to another one, especially if they are older dogs.

Before we buy a dog, we have to be absolutely sure we can dedicate ourselves to their entire lives, and that we have absolutely everything they may need – food, shelter, exercise, and love and attention. If we can’t tick all these off, we should wait until we can. Dog adoption and abandonment is on the rise in many countries, and theorists are speculating as to whether this is correlated with the increased popularity of dog media online – breed photos, cute Youtube videos, etc. If there is truth to this, then it is more important than ever to reiterate the ‘dog is for life’ dogma (excuse the pun), especially by a resource that is technically ‘dog media’.

Perhaps it is also important to highlight that I grew up with dogs, and desperately want one of my own (when my partner and I moved overseas my mother made him promise he’d stop me from buying one) but as a student and a bit of a nomad I know it isn’t the right time. In the meantime, I find immense pleasure in visiting friends’ dogs, walking through dog parks, and writing dog blogs! If you’re looking for somewhere to satisfy your canine cravings, the SPCA is an awesome place to start – all the dogs there are in need of some serious cuddles. And if you’re ready, you’ll find some appreciative and loving purchases there too.

Gumby the Frenchie

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Name          Gumby

Breed          French Bulldog

Age               12

Location    North Dunedin

Gumby seemed insistent that I not take her photo. She twisted and turned as I pursued her, and I captured her face only by chance. Her human was no help –

“Good luck!” He said, “I have been trying to take a photo of her for 12 years and I haven’t got one yet!”

Despite this, I think she’s a pretty photogenic pupper. She’s also super sweet, polite and gentle, and for an old girl she still seems extremely alert and vivacious.

The French Bulldog is an extremely popular breed, for good reason, but it might surprise some that they have actually been all-the-rage for a very long time.

After blood-baiting ceased to be a sport in early nineteenth century England (see my Pitt Bull post for more information), English Bulldogs were out of work so to speak, and were newly employed as family companions. It was decided that they could be smaller for this purpose, so they were bred with terriers and pugs to shrink them down. Thus the Miniature Bulldog was born. Then, during the industrial revolution, a large number of factory workers moved from England to France, and with them they brought their beloved Miniature Bulldogs. The french were in love at first sight. To meet this demand, England’s dog breeders started to send the Miniature Bulldogs with the less ‘desirable’ traits to France, especially those whose ears stood up. But these traits were adored by the French, and they started to favour the individuals with these unusual traits. Over the next few decades, the demand for these dogs was so high that there were very few Miniature Bulldogs left in England, and France was creating their own version of the breed. Thus the Frenchie was born.

With all their endearing traits, Frenchies sadly do have a smorgasbord of health problems. Like Bulldogs, Pugs and a handful of other breeds, Frenchies are brachycephalic, meaning they have been bred with shortened snouts, and as a result they often have extremely severe respiratory problems (hence the conspicuous breathing). The purpose of this snout was originally for blood sports – when English Bulldogs fought, their opponent was less able to hold on to their snouts. The wrinkly skin allowed the blood flow to be directed away from the eyes after a facial injury. But their adorable ‘squashed’ faces mean that they cannot be exercised too intensely, nor is it good for them to be overheated, because excessive panting for brachycephalic dogs can actually be lethal. Anatomically speaking, Frenchies are a bit of a disaster. They are so top-heavy that the males cannot physically mount the females, so they have to be artificially inseminated. Then, to make matters worse, their heads are so large and their hips so narrow that it is rare for a Frenchie to give birth naturally – they are almost always given a caesarian section. This flies directly in the face of evolution by natural selection.

But there is a reason why we persist to breed these naturally un-breedable doggos. They are monumentally gentle, kind, patient and fun, and they make the perfect lap dogs.

A bonus is that their low centre of gravity can be a good thing – Frenchies have such exceptional balance, they have been known to be champions at surfing and skateboarding (but if you try the surfing, don’t forget a doggie life jacket!).

(video curtesy of INSIDER)

Marley the Spoodle

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Name          Marley

Breed          Spoodle (Cocker Spaniel X Poodle)

Age               3 months

Location     St Clair Promenade

Marley was learning how to come when she was called when I introduced myself (or rather, emitted a high pitch squeal and ran over), and in all her fluffy puppy glory she was doing pretty well for 3 months… Must be the Poodle brains in her.

The Spoodle is  a curious thing. It is a so-called cross, but as Marley’s human confirmed,

“She’s purebred, from a proper breeder and everything- and was really quite expensive!”

Cross-breeds like Marley are commonly known as hybrids (although this is not technically accurate, as a biological hybrid requires that the parents be members of differing species, and that their resulting offspring are infertile). Many hybrids go on to become more a breed in their own right due to their popularity, especially if they succumb whats in vogue.

Most of us would assume that Marley’s mum was a Cocker Spaniel and her dad a Poodle (or visa versa) but actually what her human meant when he said she was ‘purebred’ was that both her parents were actually Spoodles – and probably their parents too. It is very important to draw the distinction between what we deem to be a ‘mutt’ and a purposefully mixed breed. They best way to differentiate them is to remember that most mutts are born of parents who naturally chose each other and were not forced to breed. Hybrid breeds can potentially have many of the same health problems as their purebred parents, especially a few generations on. In fact, those problems can potentially be even worse, and they may be bred in compromising environments because breeders have no obligations to fulfil if they are not breeding a recognised purebred. Purposefully mixing breeds is precisely how we have been creating new dog breeds for centuries – it is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination.

The good thing about hybrids is that you can pick two dogs breeds with features you like and combine them to make one adorable super-dog! That’s how it works, right?

Well, sometimes, yes. But contrary to popular belief we can’t actually choose which genes are going to be expressed and which aren’t. For example, if we breed a Cocker Spaniel with a Poodle, we can’t guarantee that the puppies won’t inherit the Cocker Spaniel’s lack of brain cells and the Poodle’s stubbornness (on that note, it is a myth that all Poodle hybrids don’t shed hair like their Poodle parent, so beware!). That’s why we begin to breed hybrids with other hybrids, thus beginning the new breed cycle all over again.

But genetic variation is always possible – Marley’s human says that she seems all Cocker Spaniel, even though her brothers and sisters appear to have inherited more of the Poodle traits. Lucky she obviously has the Poodle smarts!

Flygility and the Amazing Border Collie

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Remember when I wrote those posts about how amazing mutts are? I completely stick by it, and I couldn’t reiterate those points enough.

Having said that, I think most dog people have that breed. You know what I’m talking about – the one that you love above all others. It’s the breed that you will run across a busy highway to pat, and it’s probably the breed of that beloved canine you grew up with, the one that tore your world apart when it went to doggie heaven (RIP Rexy boy).

For me, that breed is indisputably the Border Collie – and I can’t be the only one.

After all, the Border Collie is widely recognised as the most intelligent breed in the world. The smartest Border Collies are said to have the intelligence of a two-and-a-half year-old human child and can potentially understand over a thousand words. Last year it was discovered that the Border Collie was amoung a handful of dog breeds that are able to distinguish between human facial expressions and associate them with negative or positive emotions (dogs are the only non-human animal that has been found to possess this talent – probably a result of their unique co-evolution alongside humans for so many years).

It is no wonder that when I arrived at Forrester Park for the Otago Canine Training Club’s Flygility tournament, almost all the competing canines had the distinctive, bicolour coat and the focused eyes of a Border Collie. Flygility is a sport that involves two dogs racing side-by-side along an obstacle course – usually including a series of jumps and tubes – at the end of which they have to retrieve a ball and bring it back to their owner, running through the course a second time.

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Border Collies are working dogs, and then tend to want to work all the time. This can drive some owners up the wall, because they always want you to tell them what to do next, and they find it difficult to entertain themselves. If enough time is not given to these intelligent creatures, their need for a job can lead them to destructive behaviours like digging and destroying furniture. This thirst for work makes them extremely easy to train so long as you earn their respect, especially since these quick-witted canines are not driven by food like other breeds are – simply saying ‘good dog’ to a Border Collie is enough to make their day. Training can sometimes become frustrating though. The Border Collie is so eager to please its human that it often tries to predict instructions, reading everything from body language to spoken language. This means it is extremely important to remain consistent for every instruction, otherwise they may well get confused.

The Border Collie’s hardworking drive comes from hundreds of years of herding livestock, during which the hardiest, healthiest, most agile and most attentive dogs have been selectively bred to be unbelievably successful sheepdogs. This is what they love to do most, and when Border Collies don’t have livestock to herd, you will often see them trying to round up various other moving objects like other dogs and pets, balls, people, and (in the more dangerous cases) cars. Apart from the routine running around the object in circles and barking, they will also usually deliver ‘the eye’ – a hypnotic tactic they use to startle sheep by staring at them with terrifying, unblinking eyes.

If you catch your pup doing this to you, it’s a pretty clear sign that they don’t see you as the leader of the pack, meaning you need to practice your tough voice and give them some good old fashioned discipline. The best thing to do to keep your beautiful Border Collie as happy as can be is give them a job that they can focus all their energy on, like ‘flygility’. You never know, they might earn you some ribbons!

 

 

Bear the Mutt

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Name          Bear AKA Scooby Doo

Breed          Rhodesian Ridgeback/Labrador/American Pitt Bull (mutt)

Age               18 months

Location     Pineapple Track

A second ode to Mutts! Why not? I couldn’t not put Bear in here, he’s the coolest dog I’ve come across so far! He’s excitable, energetic and inquisitive – all the traits you’d expect from a young and healthy canine – but Bear is smart too. He graduated puppy school at the top of his class, and even though he ran far ahead on the track, whenever he was called, he would wait patiently for his mum.

Bear is in every way a fit and happy form. He’s strong and loyal like a pitty; loving and gentle like a lab; and agile and affectionate like a ridgeback. That’s because he has genes from all three breeds, and probably others too. Bear made me think again about my post on mixed-breeds, and I decided to delve even further in to why they’re so wondrous.

I have already discussed some of the health issues surrounding ‘pedigree’ dogs – their favoured traits are by no means healthy, and they are often offspring of incest, further increasing their chance of severe health problems. I found an article from the New York Times (2001) discussing exactly this issue – it states that an overwhelming 25% of the purebred dogs in America in 2001 were afflicted with a serious genetic health problem. These problems included deafness, blindness, obesity, osteoarthritis, osteochondritis, dysplasia, dwarfing, heart problems, chronic skin disorders and seizures, to name a few.

The limited gene pool is the main culprit with purebred dogs. Diseases that are carried by a recessive gene are more likely to be expressed in the offspring of purebred parents – in other words, if mum and dad both have it, I will too. If only one of my parents have carries the gene, I have a very small chance of inheriting the disease. Mixed breed dogs naturally have much larger gene pools, which basically means their parents carry differing traits, and each trait is much less likely to be inherited than if both parents carried similar traits.

So we can deduce that mutts are healthier than purebreds. What else is so great about them?

Well, their medical bills will be cheaper, for one, but the purchase price of the dog will be significantly less too. There is a much higher demand for purebred dogs, mostly because people do their research and know what they want – just like they would when deciding on a new camera or car. With mixed breeds, we can’t be sure which traits they will have, so we have to take a gamble.

But I reckon the gamble is totally worth it. You end up with a dog that is entirely unique in both appearance and personality -just like Bear – and you will absolutely cherish it for that.

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Larry’s Huskies

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I know, I know, I’ve already written about Samoyeds. But Huskies are different, I swear! Yes, they’re also originally from Siberia, and yes, they are also extremely loving and gentle. But, there are some serious differences, and if we don’t fully understand the nature of the Siberian Husky then it is unwise to even consider having one in the family.

Let me take a step back. Those beautiful specimens you see in the photos above are owned by competitive skijorer Larry Nichvolodov, who can be seen riding his bike around Dunedin being pulled by his pack of furry friends (a sight to behold, believe me).

“Hold up, what the hell is a professional skijorer?” You ask.

This is what I said to Larry, and he directed me to the Ski Dogs New Zealand Facebook page (I highly recommend checking it out). I found out that skijoring is the art of cross-country skiing with your dog. I was stoked – I found a sport that combines my love for snow sports with my obsession with doggos – why have I never heard of this before!?

 

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Larry competing with his girl Novoya – who can be seen in the photos above – in Switzerland, 2014 (picture from Ski Dogs NZ Facebook)

 

Huskies, like Samoyeds, are more naturally selected than other breeds, and have co-evolved with their humans since the first employment of their ancestors as sled-dogs in Mongolia about 35 000 years ago. Many scientists and historians believe that it was the use of sled-dogs that made way for humans to migrate north in to the arctic circle, as it allowed them to travel long distances quickly in order to obtain basic provisions, hunt on sea ice, and communicate with other groups. For over 30 000 years they have evolved to pull sleds, and that is precisely why Huskies are unparalleled with any other bred in their endurance, stamina and strong will. Many communities in Alaska, Canada and Greenland still use Huskies for daily life (if you’re interested, check out this amazing video from BBC’s Human Planet about subsistence hunting with Huskies in the arctic).

You only need to research for minutes to find countless stories of heroic Huskies who made unimaginable journeys against all odds, loving and caring for their humans in the process. There is of course the famous story of Balto, which was made in to an animated film in 1995 (no surprise I have already seen it about 30 times). Balto was a Siberian Husky (although in the film he was portrayed fictionally as half-wolf) who lead a team of sled-dogs on a treacherous mission transporting diphtheria antitoxins to Nome, a remote town in Alaska, that was experiencing a deadly outbreak of the disease. After the success of Balto’s mission, a statue of him was erected in his honour in Central Park, New York City, and the path he took to retrieve and deliver the medicine is now being used for an annual Alaskan sled-dog race in commemoration.

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Balto with his Norwegian sled-driver, Gunnar Kaasen, 1925. (Public Domain)

 

These days, there has been a significant amount of criticism aimed at using Huskies for snow sports, as events such as sled racing in Alaska can be particularly dangerous, answering to a significant amount of deaths and injuries amoungst the dogs (check out what PETA has to say on the matter). Although there is certainly truth to these criticisms, and any sport that uses animals should be treated with caution, it is important to point out that these dogs are born to run, to be outside, and to experience pain and hardships. Many would argue that it is crueler for a Husky to live a long life in a sterile apartment with no room for exploration or to stretch their legs than to die outside doing what they love.

Larry is on to something. He cannot skijor all year, and you need only to flick through the photos on the Ski Dogs NZ Facebook page to see how much his dogs adore competing (and how much they are spoilt in the process). So in summer, they pull him on his bike, and they look completely at home. Without this sort of intense physical and mental stimulation every day, Huskies can be an absolute terror. They become neurotic, start digging and destroying your garden, and will stop at nothing to free themselves from their yards – they are very well known as expert escape artists. The best thing is to do as Larry does and take up a sport with your Husky, and give it a job to do. They benefit hugely from activities like hiking, long-distance running (or bikejoring) over varied terrain, or if you don’t want to do the exercise yourself, attend agility classes. You never know, you might have a champion Flyball dog in your hands! But be warned, Siberian Huskies are extremely smart and devilishly stubborn, so as long as you are as hard-headed as them you can train them to do amazing things, and they will adore you for it.

 

Fido the Mutt

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Name          Fido

Breed          Mutt

Location     Ocean Beach

Fido is a feisty, excitable “Jack Russell-cross-everything else”, whom I spotted frolicking in the salty sunset. He greeted us enthusiastically as soon as we approached him, and tried to coax us into throwing his DIY kelp rope toy. To my delight, the energy changed as soon as I lifted my camera up to my face – he was a picture of elegance, posing patiently until I got the right shot (see above).

“He’s used to the camera”, laughed his Dad, “Fido’s mum makes him model for her all the time, he’s even got his own Instagram!” Understandable, with a face like that…

‘Mixed breed’, ‘mongrel’, ‘mutt’ – there are many words we could use to describe a dog with no defined pedigree, and unfortunately many of these names have negative connotations. Dogs like Fido should not be disrespected just because they don’t have some sort of human-constructed identity.

In fact, many (and I would include myself here) are advocates for the loveable mutt. There are so many reasons to be on the mixed-breed bandwagon. Firstly – and I really want to reiterate this point – breeding is not natural. It does not rely on the natural forces of evolution, and these days it relies on not much more than human consumer demand. Pedigree dogs do not naturally select their breeding partners and dogs with health problems are not ‘outcompeted’, which means that genetic diversity is extremely limited. Only those with the desirable traits will be bred, and sometimes desirable traits cause severe problems.

For example, dogs that are bred with particularly short legs in proportion to the rest of their bodies, such as Dachshunds, Corgis and Bassett Hounds, actually derive this trait from a genetic mutation which causes dwarfism – often the same mechanism that causes dwarfism in humans. When the dwarf mutation popped up, breeders realised it would create the perfect hunting dog for rabbits – these dwarf dogs were the exact height of a warren, so they were able to run inside the rabbit hole without bending their legs. So dogs with this mutation were selectively bred so that they would pass the mutation on to the next generation: and thus the Dachshund and Basset Hound were born. Welsh Corgis were originally bred as a particular type of herding dog known as a ‘heeler’, which involves the dog nipping at the heels of livestock to get them moving. The dwarf mutation allowed them to be heel-level so they did not need to crouch down.

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Pedigree Welsh Corgi (CC, from Wikipedia )

But because their bodies did not evolve to be that particular size and proportion, dogs with dwarfism can suffer from excruciating joint and back pain, amongst many other health problems. I grew up with a beautiful miniature Dachshund named Claudia, whom we always assumed was too stubborn to sit when she was told, but found out later that she actually had such severe back problems that she couldn’t physically sit, she could only stand up or lie down. Claudia also developed calluses on her belly when she was pregnant because it literally dragged along the floor (it didn’t help that she ate like she was about to go in to hibernation).

This is something we should never forget when we are thinking about buying a doggo of our own. Many characteristic physical traits that certain breeds have were selected for the use of humans and not for their survival in the wild. To make matters worse these defining characteristics are so important for breeders that incest is a serious problem amongst pedigree breeders, which we know at the very least limits genetic diversity, and can cause brain defects in some unlucky offspring.

Unless you’re buying a ‘designer mutt’ like a Labradoodle (Labrador X Poodle), most of the time you can only get them from shelters, and this is enough of a reason to get a mutt than any, because supporting shelter dogs and giving them a new and happy life is so fulfilling!