About two months ago Max and I adopted a 10-month-old rottweiler-sheltie mix from the LA Animal Services’ South Central shelter. We’d been thinking about adopting a dog for many months (really we’d been independently brooding about it for years) and our situation was finally just right: we knew we’d be in LA at the TTT for at least a few weeks (turned out to be months) and we had wanted to adopt from a high-kill urban shelter, we had a steady supply of unseasoned dumpstered meat coming in, we were staying with people who loved animals, and we had lots of TIME.
You may have noticed that we’ve been visiting a lot of animal shelters on our travels, “just for fun.” In reality it wasn’t just for fun; we’ve been perfecting and re-perfecting our criteria for adoption and discussing the details of bus-dwelling/traveling dog ownership. We eventually decided on exactly what type of dog we were looking for: medium size (I personally would love a very large dog, but we do live on a short bus!); a mutt (to avoid inbreeding-related health issues); older puppy/young adult (to avoid potty training and teething issues, esp. since we don’t have room for a crate); totally non-aggressive and preferably friendly (though we realized that the shelter environment leads to a lot of confusion if not downright depression in some dogs); no known medical issues; friendly with other dogs; etc. We’d met with several dogs at several shelters, but none fit all our requirements until we got here and started haunting the LA South Central shelter (which happens to be less than four miles away from the TTT). On our first visit we met with a German shepherd who was wonderful but too large. We also noticed a smaller, incredibly adorable puppy who was housed with a couple other dogs and who was still on hold; she was already microchipped and the shelter was trying to contact the owner. She would become available the following day.
We returned the next day to visit her, and ended up spending nearly an hour playing with her in the play yard (I felt bad for the volunteer who had to monitor us; I’m sure he had other things he needed to be doing!) It was impossible to say good-bye; this dog fit all our criteria and reminded us of ones we hadn’t listed (like being super cute!). Thus began the long process of adoption, standing in lots of long lines, waiting for this or that employee or vet tech or volunteer, waiting to get her spayed, waiting to get her microchip updated, our stomachs fluttering in nervous excitement all the while!
It was a bit difficult to admit to ourselves that we were finally doing it. Despite the months of talk and planning, we still felt like inexperienced parents, totally unsure of ourselves, totally dedicated to getting everything 100% right. We went to the Central Library and checked out a million books on clicker training, nutrition and natural diets, cooking for your dog, canine health, and agility training, which I would love to get her involved in just for fun and exercise (she has a lot of herding dog in her and has both a lot of energy and an intense love of learning new cues and tricks).
We spent an entire week trying to decide on a name. We read through huge online lists of native West Coast plants, nature-related names, dog names, hippie names, “unusual girls’ names.” We developed a list of name criteria almost as long as our list of criteria for the dog! We finally narrowed our list down to two: Ivy and Zora. We both loved Zora, but felt awkward about it because we know a young couple in Portland who recently had a baby person and named her Zora. We’re fairly certain that we’ll spend time with them again, and couldn’t bring ourselves to name our dog after their baby. So we settled on Ivy, and despite the many negative associations folks have with ivy (poison ivy and invasive English ivy being the main two), the word “ivy” really fits with this puppy. It’s short and easy to say and I feel it’s appropriate for an Angelino dog, given that English ivy is often the greenest thing around here, and thus makes people (myself included) quite happy. [I also associate ivy with the post-apocalyptic undoing of civilization, but that's another story.]
Ivy is incredibly smart, meaning that she learns cues very quickly. Having done some research on clicker training and operant conditioning, however, I have to mention that my definition of a “smart” dog is changing. Any dog can learn cues, if you know what to use as a reward and are consistent. My concept of dog training has changed a lot, too, from one based on being a “pack leader” to one based on using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors. And there are many ways to get rid of unwanted behaviors that don’t involve any punishment (which includes yelling “No!”). I could go on (I gave a mini-workshop on operant conditioning to a group of friends recently), but there’s a lot of wonderful books and information out there. Out of the stacks of books we found in the library, here are the ones we chose to purchase for our bookshelf:
How Dogs Learn by Mary R. Burch and Jon S. Bailey
The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet by Jolanta Benal
Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn DVM and Susan H. Pitcairn
And our beloved Youtube trainers, without whom we’d still be lost:
Tab & Solea