If you tuned into the Westminster Dog Show you were likely completely enamored with the show's top selections. Out of the seven group finalists this year, the American Kennel Club (AKC), offered two champions. The reserve spot was awarded to Swagger, a bodacious, bobtailed Old English Sheepdog who looked a little more panda bear than canine. This year's Best in Show came from the toy group: an eight pound, 10" Affennpinscher named Banana Joe.
From the moment the dogs took center stage, it was hard for anyone to look away; upon hearing the accolades of their owners and handlers, it was even harder to imagine a more ideal pet. Swagger offered large breed aficionados an alluring option. Banana Joe -- so compact and clever -- understands four different languages! I could imagine many uneducated dog owners watching the show and thinking, Now there's a dog for me.
I'm here to offer a reality check. While any dog can thrive in the right home -- mixed breed or pure bred -- the question becomes not what type of dog you should get, but what kind of home do you live in? I have yet to meet a dog I didn't like, or a person I haven't enjoyed helping, but I have seen far too many dogs and people who have been mismatched. High-energy dogs in relaxed households often feel trapped, restless and develop displacement behaviors including chewing, jumping and rough play. Many athletic breeds develop assertive habits if not given effective outlets for their natural desire. Dogs of territorial breeds often prefer the familiarity of their home turf. When forced to socialize outside the home, they may become snappish with other dogs or reactive to strangers. Often these types of dogs prefer activities with their own family. And don't get me started on the topic of small dogs: Unaware of their physical limitation -- many tiny breeds are bred down from larger cousins -- they have missed the memo that they're a fraction of the size. Unless routinely socialized and trained to respect their owner's direction, many of them suffer Small Dog Syndrome -- doted on like stuffed animals, they confuse unconditional love with emotional discard and often go to extremes to seek attention and notoriety.
Let's take a look at our champions: Which home would be ideal for either breed? In German, the Affenpinscher translates to monkey-faced dog; in France, the breed is called Diablotin Moustachu or mustached little devil. While an obvious extreme, the Affenpinscher comes from a long line of terrier breeds whose sole purpose is to alert to, hunt and kill mice and rats. Busy and noise sensitive, this dog will not willow and wane just because you have a monthly exterminator. No mice under your floorboards? Other noise will get their attention -- from a neighbor's footfall to other dog barks. No terra firma to dig through? A houseplant or garden bed can substitute in a pinch. For many of these dogs, pure silence offers the only respite from their inbred tendency to interpret and investigate all sounds and stimulations.
On the bright side, Affenpinschers are lively, affectionate, and fun-loving companions. If socialized and trained early, they'll be conditioned to tolerate other dogs and people -- and be up for any adventure that might come their way.
A note to families: All terrier breeds -- Affenpinscher not withstanding -- can be overly protective of their resources, i.e. food, toys, and sleeping quarters. They need to be encouraged to share with positive reinforcement. Though pocket-sized, the Affenpinscher have tremendous courage and thus, may not respond well to the incessant, intrusive and overly physical handling of small children. This breed thrives with predictable interactions, consistent direction and calm handling.
And what about Swagger? The crowd's favorite?
Each year, I watch Westminster with a child's eye. I gather my family together -- we make boatloads of popcorn and pick our favorites as the final contestants parade in front of the judge. My daughter zeroed in on Banana Joe early on, while my son chose the cotton ball, the Bischon Frise. My husband's a hound man -- who knew? -- and as for me, it was Swagger who stole my heart from the moment I saw him take the herding group. What a backside! Watch out, J-Lo, Kate Hudson, Beyoncé, you've got competition!
But what of the Old English Sheepdog -- what makes the best home for this breed? Hair tolerance and a passion for routine grooming are obvious hallmarks; however, there are other instinctual passions that must be recognized and compensated when considering this breed. Originally bred to guide herds over long distances, these dogs still maintain the impulse to herd. No sheep? The neighbor kids will do, as will other pets. This breed can weigh up to 100 pounds, stand two feet tall and require daily exercise and companionship to limit boredom and destructive habits.Historically, they lived a farm life and thrive outdoors, but they can also adapt to more restrictive homes if their needs are provided for.
As I look at my week's roster, which includes two phone consultations advising people on what breed best suits their lifestyle, I'm reminded of the inevitable questions that will arise in the wake of the Westminster Dog Show. Coiffed to perfection, it is easy to select a favorite breed based on their appearance. But no one should get a dog to match his or her couch cushions or new Prada bag. Each breed has a personality and temperament that makes it unique and beautiful. A beauty that needs to withstand the realities of day-to-day living: muddied walks, inconsistent schedules, and the comings and goings of everyday live. So, is an Affenpinscher or Old English Sheepdog for everyone? I think not, but for some -- oh what a joy!