CHAPTER ONE: A MEMBER OF THE FAMILY
People used to accuse me of hiding behind my dogs. There was probably some truth in that. When I'm standing next to a harlequin or white Great Dane -- they're pretty impressive animals -- people don't notice me so much.
The first dog I remember was my grandparents' farm dog, a mutt named Curly, whom I met when I was around three years old. I would hang out with him, and even at that young age I realized I was more comfortable with Curly than with the adults. Then when I was about four or five, my family adopted Hercules, another little mutt. I felt more comfortable around him, too, because by the age of three, I was already performing onstage. In a sense, I was a trained seal having to perform, and it was nice being with someone, a quiet, friendly dog, who didn't demand that from me. My dogs have never thought of me as a performer, and I love them for that, among many other things.
Despite the fact that much of my life has been played out in the spotlight, I am by nature pretty shy. Through my work I go to a lot of social events, and I'm usually pretty nervous about them. I worry about what I'll talk about and what I'll have in common with the people there. Everyone asks what I'm up to, but I'm tired of talking about myself. I love to turn the conversation in the direction of dogs. Other people's dogs and my own. When that happens, I'm immediately more comfortable. Dogs are the perfect icebreaker, and I am most comfortable with them around -- or just talking about them.
I always refer to my dogs as "the kids." It's not unusual for people to want to talk on and on about their kids, and I'm no different with mine. The idea of dogs as surrogate kids is controversial. People will say, "Only people who don't have kids dote on their dogs so much." Well, all that counts in life is that you feel love and you give love. That's what my mom taught me, and she's proud of how I treat my kids. "When I come back in my next life," she always says, "I want to be one of Greg's dogs."
I also know what it feels like to be really proud of my "kids," and not for the reasons most people might think. When I was showing my dogs regularly, I was always so flattered when I was around the show ring and everybody would say, "Oh, your dogs are so well-behaved." As far as my dogs' conformation and my handling skills, well, they may have been saying something else about that, but it was the comments about my dogs' good manners that meant the most to me. I worked long and hard to get them into that condition. That's the highest compliment someone can give me. Compliment my dogs and you're complimenting my family.
The highest compliment my dogs can give me is to let me know that they consider me to be their family, too. Dogs know when someone in the family is hurting. I often think of when I was taking care of my dad during the last weeks of his life during his struggle with cancer. One day, I took him for a walk in his wheelchair with my Great Dane, Freeway. Freeway stayed with my dad, not at my side as he usually would. He stayed at my dad's side. When we stopped, he sat down and put his head over my father's arm, which is the dog equivalent of putting a hand on your shoulder. He knew my dad needed him. My dad reached out and petted him and said, "I wish I was more mobile so I could have a dog." I said, "Dad, we're here. He's our dog." Freeway knew we were all family. He knew he was comforting my father.
Anyone who has had a dog as a companion knows moments like that. It's all part of the human/animal bond, which is one of the most wonderful connections we can have. My bond with dogs has definitely had a therapeutic effect on me. Some of the treatments I've had to go through are pretty harsh. When I feel most scared and insecure, my dogs have been there for me. They sense this and stay closer to me. When my treatments or their side effects are most debilitating, we stay in, snuggle into bed, and watch TV, and the dogs don't leave my side. Tell me dogs aren't family.
Dogs are family to millions of people around the world, but this amazing relationship doesn't happen by magic. We have to work at it. We have to learn the canine language and develop the sensitivity to think and anticipate so that we can keep ourselves and our dogs out of trouble. We have to learn to be consistent when we communicate with our dogs, and we have to help them learn their manners. There's nothing better -- and I'm sure veterinarians appreciate this, as well -- than a well-mannered dog.
In the pages that follow, you will meet my family, the dogs I live with now, the dogs I have lived with in the past, the dogs I've met through friends, the dogs I've met during my periodic visits to the animal shelter, and the dogs I've rescued off the street. They all have a special place in my heart. They are all part of the family. Each and every one of them has helped to make me a better companion to the canine species, as well as a better person.
A BIG DECISION
A successful relationship between your dog and you begins before you purchase or adopt your new dog. You have to get educated. Read books. Talk to breeders and shelter workers and veterinarians. You have to know what you're doing when you're choosing this new member of your family. You have to prepare yourself and know what you're getting into. It's only fair to the dog, and it's the only way that you can make sure that this relationship will last.
My situation is complicated because I choose to live with several dogs at the same time and is further complicated because I am actually allergic to some dogs. Too many people learn the hard way that having several dogs is not necessarily the best option for everyone. They ignore the research and forethought and just keep adding more dogs. They end up in a house with a bunch of dogs, and it's a disaster.
More is not necessarily merrier. It's more expensive, it's more challenging, and it can be unfair to both the new dog and to the dogs that already live with you. Someone who takes in too many dogs is called a collector, which is not a good thing to be. Many dogs out there need homes -- and many need better homes. I see homeless and lost dogs every day. I've picked up dogs running loose along Pacific Coast Highway or in the hills near my house. I've even had them show up at my doorstep. When I find lost dogs -- or they find me -- I bring them home, get them fed and cleaned up, and then either take them to the shelter or track down their owners myself.
Even though I always have several dogs living in my house at a time, a lot of thought and planning goes into choosing each one and managing the place once they're there. For the most part, it's a situation that works for me. I have the time and the resources to invest, and I know how to rely on my dogs' help and input. We all work together to figure things out.
When I was diving, I used to visualize each new dive in my mind before I'd try it. Now I do the same thing with my dogs. First I visualize what the situation will be like if this particular dog comes to live with us, how I will manage the whole thing, feeding, training, exercise, play, and all that. Then I try to see the situation through the eyes of each of my existing dogs. They're all individuals, and each one will have a different take on the situation.
Freeway, the old patriarch, would just as soon be an only dog. He'll tolerate the others, and he has for years. He'll just hang back patiently, knowing that eventually he'll get the attention. As for Ryan, he's gone now, but he was always accepting of anything and anyone so that nothing new really bothered him -- unless, of course, it was a dog with aggression on his mind. Some of my other dogs, though, haven't been so flexible. Males usually fight over food and females in heat and then get over it. But females can fight over something as simple as a toy, and it can be permanent. That's how it was for two of my female Danes, Lambchop and Leilani. They got into it over a rawhide toy and that was it. From then on they both held a grudge and I had to keep them separated.
When I first brought home my Jack Russell Terrier, Nipper, she wreaked havoc with my two older boys, my Danes Ryan and Freeway. She would jump up in their faces and bite them as an invitation to play. But the boys, so much larger and wiser, nipped Nipper's antics in the bud right away just with a grumble and a growl -- and sometimes a set of Dane jaws wrapped ever so gently around Nipper's tiny head. My dogs have always been much better trainers than I am, whether it was Ryan teaching me how to discipline puppies effectively, or Freeway getting the message through my thick skull with his hurt feelings that the traditional "jerk the chain" training method was much too harsh, and even insulting, for his very willing, cooperative nature.
EVALUATING YOUR LIFESTYLE
The first dog I had by myself was Maile, the sweet Great Dane I received as a gift when I was in college. Unfortunately, my experience with her taught me the hard lesson that college is not always the right time to get a dog. I was traveling a lot then and it just wasn't fair to her. I also didn't know as much then about canine behavior as I do now, so when I made the excuse to my college professors that the dog ate my homework, she really did eat my homework -- as well as the couch and my shoes and a few books. Let's just say I've come a long way in my canine education since then.
But people go ahead and get dogs in college all the time. They think, "Oh, I'm away by myself, I'm on my own, I can do whatever I want -- I'll get a dog." They don't think about what happens after college when they get jobs and no longer have the time to spend with the dog. They don't think about where they are going to live (wherever it is, it probably won't allow dogs). What happens to the dog then? Go visit the animal shelter in a college town. You'll see what happens.
For me, it wasn't until after I retired from diving that I got serious and decided that I now had the time and energy to take care of dogs the right way. I figured I was going through a major change in my life and I wouldn't be on the road so much. So that's when I got Freeway. He was my first great teacher. I chose him wisely and he set the stage for all the dogs that would follow.
I learned from my sad experience with Maile and my great success with Freeway that smart choices begin with the would-be owners' own soul-searching. It's important to evaluate the health and temperament of a potential pet, but it's also important to evaluate yourself and your lifestyle and what you can offer a dog in terms of exercise, attention, and health care. You have to realize that as soon as you get a dog, he will determine where and how you live from then on, for the rest of your lives together.
My dogs have even influenced what kind of cars I drive. I always want to make sure that my car or truck is big enough for all my dogs to fit into -- and easy for my older dogs to get in and out of. Living in Malibu, California, I even have a disaster plan in case of an earthquake or fire. At one time I kept a fully stocked recreational vehicle in my driveway all the time in case we ever had to evacuate. You have to think ahead. If I ever had to get out quick, I wouldn't question for a minute what I would bring: the dogs. Everything else is just things, and things can be replaced -- even my gold medals. But the dogs can't be replaced.
Your household decorating is another thing to consider -- and your landscaping. I once made the mistake of installing natural Berber-wool carpeting in my house. It was a beautiful carpet -- for about a week. If you want to live with dogs, you have to make concessions. There's no way around it. Throwing a dog out in the backyard is not the answer. Dogs want and need to be indoors with their human companions at least part of the time -- even big dogs like Great Danes. Some home furnishings and materials are more resistant to the effects of dog hair and chewing than others, so think about this before you get a dog -- and before you redecorate your house.
Dogs need to be outdoors, too, and yes, many dogs love to dig. One of my Danes, Murphy, would uproot plants just by running across the yard. Barking, too, can be a problem, and your neighbors may not be as tolerant as you are of your dog's sweet voice. But all of these natural behaviors that we call problems can be controlled. Controlling behaviors requires time, patience, and attention. We just have to be willing to deal with them in a positive way.
You also have to think about who will take care of the dog. Kids will promise forever that they will take care of the new puppy. I know how that is. I did it myself when my family adopted our little pound puppy Hercules. Even though I loved that little dog, it was my mom of course who really took care of him. A dog can be a great buddy to hang out with, but his care is a big responsibility for a little kid. My mom understood from the beginning that this was how it was going to be. And that's what parents have to do. Let the kids help out so they can learn, but remember that this is an adult responsibility.
Families with young children, military people, businesspeople who travel a lot -- all of these people may want dogs, but not all of them may be able to take care of them properly. Certain dogs fit in better with certain lifestyles. You have to be honest about evaluating that to make sure you make a successful match. It's tough to give a young puppy the attention she needs if you have a newborn baby in the house. And if you have to move every two years with the military, you should avoid the temptation to get a large dog. Something like a small Poodle-mix will be a better, more convenient choice than a Great Pyrenees or a Lab-mix.
One of my most recent additions to my canine family is a Bouvier des Flandres show puppy named Speedo. I spent a year researching her breed before I took the plunge. I was intrigued by the intelligence of the breed, which is used for police and protection work in Europe, and thought it might be a good candidate for competition obedience work. But I was worried about the grooming. A Bouv is eye-catching, but it takes a lot of work and time to keep her looking that way. I had to make sure that I would be able to keep up with the grooming. That's something else to consider for anyone who is choosing a new dog or puppy. Even short-haired dogs need regular grooming.
AVOIDING THE IMPULSE
I know how hard it is to resist a puppy, but a puppy doesn't stay a puppy forever. You have to work hard to make sure that the adult dog is healthy and well-mannered. You're not likely to be ready to do that if you purchase or adopt a dog on impulse.
When you consider getting a dog, you should expect to be together for the life of that dog. But no one is immune from the impulse. Even though I know the right way to choose a dog, I struggle with the temptation constantly. I torture myself by reading the pet classified ads every day, and I visit the animal shelter all the time, just to see who's there. I'm often so tempted to make them part of my family, and that happens with dogs I rescue, too. "Oh, she's so sweet," I say. "No one will ever adopt her. Maybe I should just take her." Then my common sense kicks in. It's hard, but you can't save the whole world. You can only give a good home to so many.
My only impulse dog was Ryan, my deaf Great Dane whom I named in honor of my dear friend Ryan White. In his case, I admit I was a sucker, feeling sorry for the poor little deaf pup, but the breeder knew we were meant to be and she knew how to push my buttons. She kept telling me to come over and see the litter. When I finally did, she picked up this little white puppy and put him in my lap. "He's deaf," she told me, "and I really don't want to put him down. I've seen you working with Freeway and I know you've done such good work. I think you'd be wonderful in taking care of this very special dog." Do I have sucker written on my forehead or what? Well, I took Ryan and devoted the next year of my life to working with him and training him and understanding his special needs, and I was never sorry about it for a moment of his long and happy life.
Ryan may have been an impulse, but he was not a mistake. He and I became soul mates. Being deaf, he gave me a new insight into canine body language and sharpened my sensitivity to all dogs. He passed on during the writing of this book after a long illness, and I miss him terribly, but I will always be grateful to him for what he taught me about dogs.
I'm not saying it's okay to choose a dog because you feel sorry for him. People do that all the time, and sometimes it can work out, but more often it doesn't. Ryan was no mistake, but he would have been for someone who was not prepared or willing to take care of him in the right way.
You also have to be careful not to jump in and get yourself a dog just because it's the hot new breed of the moment, the way Rottweilers or Dalmatians were a few years ago -- or the way my new little girl's breed, the Jack Russell Terrier, has become.
Nipper was not an impulse buy. She came to me after months and months of research, which is now being followed by months and months of training. People come up to me to say, "Oh, she's so sweet," and, "I want a dog like that, too." "No, you don't," I tell them. "No, you don't. You have no idea what you'd be getting yourself into."
When I used to go to dog shows with my Danes, people wouldn't automatically want one of their own, even though my dogs were well-behaved and wonderful, their sheer size is a limitation. But when people see a well-behaved smaller dog whose breed they see starring in Frasier, The Mask, and Wishbone, they don't see the limitations. They don't know that Nipper almost ended up going back to her breeder, which often happens with these tenacious little dogs. They don't know how hard I worked to prevent that, how seriously I took her training. They don't see how difficult it is to get a Jack Russell to the "well-behaved" point. Most people aren't willing or able to do what it takes.
The popularity of a breed can also lead to overbreeding, which can lead to health and temperament problems. Rottweilers are one example. These were meant to be wonderful, even-tempered, stable, family-oriented dogs. I've met plenty of Rotties like that. But many inexperienced backyard breeders are breeding Rottweilers because they're popular, and I often find myself asking, "If that's a Rottweiler, why does it look like a Doberman?" You don't want to deal with the temperaments of poorly bred dogs. That's a problem with any popular breed -- just ask some Dalmatian people. Now that we're seeing so many Jack Russells, I'm worried about them, too. JRTs aren't the easiest things to live with, and chances are, most of them will end up outsmarting their owners. When that happens, it's the dogs who end up the losers.
So be realistic in what you expect from a particular breed or dog. Be careful in your choice, and don't take on more than you can handle. Too many people are clueless, such as one guy with a Mastiff in one of my conformation handling classes. The dog decided to attack Freeway. My adrenaline started pumping -- I would have done anything to protect my dog -- and I lifted Freeway up and blocked the giant animal that was coming after him. The Mastiff clipped me in the leg instead. The dog's owner had no idea what he was doing, he had no control of the dog, and he had no business having a big, bull-headed Mastiff in the first place.
When you live with dogs, you learn quickly that the biggest danger comes from other people, people who don't pay enough attention to training and manners. My friends have pointed out that I can be pretty rude to oblivious dog owners. Call it rudeness if you want, but I have little patience for inconsiderate, insensitive humans.
WHEN YOU CAN'T HAVE A DOG
Some people just love dogs but are wise enough to know that because of their circumstances, they can't have one at present. I admire people like that, who can wait to satisfy that desire until they are better able to take care of a dog with the necessary emotion, time, and money. There are many ways you can still spend time with dogs -- to get your puppy fix, as I call it.
Sometimes when I'm on the road away from my dogs, I stop in pet shops to see the puppies. This is an activity safest to do when I'm out of town, when I know I can't bring a puppy home. The pet-shop puppy fix can also be depressing. Some shops carry too many puppies, and you can't help but wonder about their fate. It's sad to see them marked down because they're getting too big and not selling.
Volunteering can also satisfy the need for a puppy fix. I became a volunteer for an organization called Pets are Wonderful Support (PAWS), which helps people with HIV care for their pets. Volunteering for an organization like PAWS -- or one that helps older people with their pets, an animal shelter, or any group that helps animals and their people -- is a great way to get a puppy fix in a positive way.
With a lot of these organizations, you have to be serious about your intentions to help. When I first contacted PAWS, I said, "Okay! Put me to work!" But I had to prove myself. Being a dog walker, for example, required being available every day, which was more of a time commitment than I could handle, so I decided to do grooming. I loved being a mobile grooming unit. I would show up with my brushes, my combs, my shampoos, and my nail trimmers. Usually the only problems I had were with dogs who didn't care to have their nails trimmed.
I liked going into the people's houses to do the grooming because I could make sure the places were clean and the people were able to keep up and take care of themselves and their dogs. At the volunteer orientation, they pointed out how important it was to take a look at the person's environment -- not just for the dog's well-being, but for the person's, too. It wasn't unusual to see situations where the dog was fine, but the owner needed some help. That was always how I imagined myself. It would be easier for me to ask for help for my dogs than for myself.
Another option is to get a job as a pet-sitter or even at a veterinarian's office. I had one sitter who was working toward becoming a veterinarian. Even though she wanted a dog, she knew that with all her hard work, it wasn't the right time for her to have one, so my dogs provided her puppy fix. They loved her and she loved them. Also, lots of kids want a dog but their moms and dads say no. These kids can get a great puppy fix by volunteering, maybe as dog walkers or bathers at the local shelter or animal hospital -- or even in their own neighborhoods. It becomes a win-win situation all around.
Copyright © 1999 by Greg Louganis