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The shi-tzu has landed...

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01 September 2015, at 1:00am

GARETH CROSS examines some of the differences between ‘proper dogs’ and smaller breeds and re-assesses what makes a good canine pet, finding time to camp it up with his own new family member

A “PROPER dog” is a term we are all familiar with. We have a notion of what such a beast is, middle to larger size, normal conformation (i.e. still recognisable as some sort of wolf derivative), some sort of fine animal like a pointer, Labrador or such like.

As you stray away from this ideal towards the smaller and odder shaped varieties many people, and most vets, become more and more disparaging until you descend into the peculiar genetic realms of the bulldog, Chinese crested, etc.

I was always a big supporter of the proper dog notion and was brought up with the family pets being mainly cross-breed dogs and a bearded collie, but all were “proper dogs” and I have since owned a collie cross and currently a spaniel.

However, as I have seen thousands of dogs owned as pets over the years I have re-assessed this concept and asked more what do we want a dog for, and which dogs best fit that requirement.

If I wanted a dog to round up sheep I would get a collie; if I wanted a dog to flush out pheasants I would get a spaniel (I have got a spaniel and don’t especially want her to flush pheasants, but she does in sometimes the most surprising and inappropriate places, for example off the edge of a cliff when I am on the other end of the lead).

How about if I just want a pet, and for that dog to be bred for and adapted to be just that? That is actually a big ask for a descendant of a wolf. And how about if I want that dog to specifically be a pet for small children? Is a proper dog really such a proper choice?

And so it came to pass we got a shi-tzu. The shi-tzu has been bred for purpose, as a companion dog. It may have some slightly abnormal anatomy but nothing that, over the years of seeing many 15-plus-year-olds of this breed, has interfered with them generally living a long and mainly happy life.

The same can be said for many of the less extreme brachycephalic breeds and other bred-to-be-a-pet breeds. This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when we had two teenage pugs in for dentals, who otherwise had a pretty clear medical history and were in the kennels the same day as a fine specimen of a proper dog, a rather handsome and agreeable young black lab.

The black lab was in for x-rays which unfortunately turned out to confirm severe OCD as the cause of his lameness. The pugs were deformed on the outside, but the poor old lab had his deformities less on display but which will mean he is unlikely to live a long and pain-free life as his roommates.

Looks aren’t everything

Now obviously there are plenty of normal looking dogs without problems, but when you are looking for a dog that makes a great family pet and start looking for dogs on the basis of their behaviour and suitability for the lifestyle we impose on them, then it does make you think a little less about their normal or abnormal appearance.

Take for example the Siberian husky. This is as near in appearance as a wolf as you can get and generally they are pretty healthy dogs. However, we all see these dogs in inappropriate settings. They have currently become the breed du-jour of the council estates in our area.

The welfare of these dogs in that setting I suggest is going to be much more compromised than something that outwardly looks like it’s not quite a proper dog, e.g. a shi-tzu or pug. Having owned a small pet dog now for a few months has made me re-assess what makes a good (pet) dog.

Not so macho

There are downsides of owning such a breed. The first is you don’t exactly look that macho with a shi-tzu puppy on the end of the lead. And as a man, waiting outside a primary school for your kids with one definitely makes you feel a bit like there’s a touch of the Jimmy Savile about you as a horde of small children flock round you to see the puppy.

After dropping the kids off I occasionally walk back towards home with my wife’s friend who owns a fine looking large breed German shorthaired pointer. I definitely looked a bit like her camp best friend.

However, my counter to that was provided years ago by a vet I used to work with who was the tall rugbyplaying farm animal vet type. He appeared with his new dog one day, the smallest terrier you can imagine. He just said, “People have big butch dogs as a penis substitute” and left it to us to presume that he obviously had no such need of such an accessory.

I had a client in recently who was pretty rough, wore a tatty vest and had a large bulldog tattoo on his arm, complete with studded collar (the dog in the tattoo, not the client). He came in with his young daughters and was carrying an apricot toy poodle called Angel.

The current vogue for cross-breed dogs is no doubt a good thing for the genetic pool and phenotype of our smaller breeds. So widespread is this now that someone commented on what a nice dog we had and asked, “What cross is he?” To which I replied, “No, he’s just a shi-tzu.”

The other noticeable thing about owning a small people-oriented dog is that people who don’t particularly like dogs will come up to him and like him – not something that generally happens with a spaniel who is slightly loopy and often covered in mud/fox poo/ whatever swamp goo she has recently found to wallow in.

Small dogs are also all dog, and the shi-tzu will follow the spaniel as much as he can, which nearly led to his demise as the spaniel leapt from rock to rock over a Dartmoor river this summer. He has been wild camping on Dartmoor with us too.

However, as no one in the family wanted to share a tent with a partially house-trained dog I had to strap a collapsible puppy crate to my rucksack and lug it over the moor.

There is, just about, a serious point here: that we should look at the behavioural traits as much as the physical ones when it comes to judging whether a breed of dog is a healthy one.

We have all seen many cases of the wrong dog in the wrong setting experiencing significant suffering due to its behavioural and exercise needs not being met in a pet home. Within reasonable physical limits the funny little dogs who just want to be a pet probably have a better life than many of the fine specimens of “proper dogs” confined to the lifestyle of the modern family.