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The Art of Living with Dogs

The Art of Living with Dogs

Make sure the dogs sit before they're let outside. Also, it's a good idea to make them sit when company comes.

I've been living with dogs for most of my adult life and all of my sub-adult life, and not just bird dogs, either--throw a couple German shepherds and non-hunting goldens in there, along with a Chihuahua, a springer spaniel and of course a healthy mix of Brittanys and setters, and that about covers it. Some belonged to my sisters, some to my parents, and one--the Chihuahua--belonged to a former girlfriend. I still miss her dog.

This is by way of saying that what I've learned about living with these creatures over the past half century I've come by from honest trial and error, which is another way of saying I've made the same stupid mistakes in some instances so many times that even I eventually learned from them. It is with several decades of banging my head against a wall that I humbly offer the advice that follows.

In my experience, the amount of enjoyment people get from living with their dogs is directly proportional to the amount of control they have over them, and one of the first places to exercise control is over boundaries. In my house, for instance, none of my dogs are allowed upstairs. That's ostensibly because I have occasional visitors who are allergic to pet hair, but more to the point is that I'll be damned if I'll haul my vacuum upstairs any more than I have to.

I remember being vastly impressed years ago when, upon visiting a bird-hunting buddy and his wife, I noticed their springer stopping on the precise border of the kitchen/living room floor, refusing to set foot into the living room. He'd scoot to the very edge of the linoleum, crane his neck out as if leaning over an imaginary fence, and watch guests with intense interest (you have to have lived with a spaniel to know the kind of intense interest I'm talking about), but never in all the times I visited them did I see that dog step over that boundary.

And of course, there's the furniture issue. Those who have lived with dogs all their lives are invariably more tolerant than those who through marriage or other social experiments are new to that particular arena. Dogs have hair, and it's going to get on your black dress slacks if you insist on wearing them. But enough is enough, even for me.

Keeping the dogs off the furniture has been a fairly new development at the Carty estate. But with three white-haired bird dogs under one roof, my garage sale sofa was beginning to look more like another big dog in need of a haircut and less like a functional design accoutrement. Something had to change.

Breaking my dogs of the furniture habit wasn't easy--after all, they'd spent most of their lives hopping up on the sofa at will--but after a couple months I'd got through the worst of it. Upon the advice of several friends, I bought a smooth leather sofa and recliner, which dog hair simply doesn't stick to. If I find hair on either piece of furniture, a quick sweep of my hand brushes it off. It was not an inexpensive addition, but assuming my next puppy doesn't use either piece for a chew toy, they should last for a couple decades.

Dogs at the foot of the stairs. The upstairs are off limits in the Carty house.

Although I let my dogs on the furniture for years (and still do, but only if I specifically ask them to sit on my lap), I learned long ago that it worked out far better for everyone concerned if they didn't sleep in or even under my bed. This policy was implemented in a blinding flash the minute I realized that one of my dogs had separation anxiety, and that a strong contributing factor to the condition was allowing it to sleep under my bed.

Separation anxiety, in its worst manifestations, will make you rue the day you ever considered owning a dog; will make you hunt down the sorry sucker who sold you that dog in order to pluck out his eyebrows with vice grips. As afflictions go, it's right up there with the plague. And if your dog has dodged that bullet, you don't want to load the gun for him.

Now, having said that…on road trips, when the dogs have been especially good, and they're old enough that I no longer have any worry about their going off the deep end, so to speak, I'm sometimes tempted to relax the rules a bit and let them sleep at the foot of the bed, knowing they'll be back on the furniture the minute I get home. Once in a blue moon I actually do. But then I remember:

We were in central Montana in an aging cab-over camper, early December, with a storm bearing relentlessly down. Two of us, my friend John and I, and my two dogs. At some point that evening--17 degrees and dropping--the heater blew a fuse and went belly up.

No amount of my screaming and threatening changed its mind; it wasn't going to fire. So, we did what we had to do to stay warm that long, black night: we cracked open the windows, lit both burners on the gas stove, and took the dogs into our sleeping bags with us.

John got to sleep with Poke, my brilliant if hyperkinetic springer, and I got my pint-size Brittany, Fancy. Throughout the rest of the evening, Poke farted non-stop and Fancy kicked and clawed her way through an endless loop of canine dreams. Both kept us warm, but that trailer was mighty small by the time the sun finally threw a few feeble rays through the window the following morning.

On the home front, two things are absolutely indispensible to living with dogs: an outdoor kennel and an indoor airline crate. The first because, no matter how much you love them, there will be times when the best thing for both of you is to get them out of the house and out of your sight as quickly as possible. Outdoor kennels serve double duty as places to park visiting dogs that can't get along with yours or your dogs when they can't seem to behave themselves around company.

Garbage cans and dog food containers are always strapped down or put behind childproof doors.

If the kennel includes an insulated doghouse, your dogs can spend the occasional night out, even if they're used to sleeping inside, as mine sometimes do. And an outdoor kennel is a far, far better place for a bored dog to spend the day when you're away at


Indoor airline crates serve much the same purpose for lesser infractions. As I write this, I've got one permanently stationed in my office. Dogs that don't behave get a timeout in the airline crate. And any of my dogs that can't be trusted, whether to air themselves outside or to refrain from chewing furniture, also spend their nights in the crate.

Hanna, my youngest setter, seemingly was unable to control her bowels until recently, and has spent most of her evenings for the last three and a half years in my handy airline crate. As it happens, her inability to hold it may have been due to intestinal bacteria, which extensive testing on the part of my dedicated vet finally unearthed. She's had the free run of the house the last month or so, and so far, no accidents.

Although I consider the command "sit" about last on the list of functional commands for pointers in the field, in the house it's another story. I make my dogs sit before they go outside; sit when company comes to visit (albeit with considerably less success), and sometimes, if I'm feeling particularly cruel, make them sit before they eat. Nor do I let them jump up on me or company. My way of curing that particular habit is simple and to the point: I knee them in the chest. I encourage my friends to do the same.

Finally, there are a few areas, I've learned, that aren't worth fighting with your dog about. You'll never convince any dog not to get into the garbage or an open food container, so keep your garbage and dog food in secured containers or behind closed doors.

Child-proof doors work great on dogs who, like my old spaniel, Poke, could open a door with one paw and scoop up a couple gallons of dried kibble with the dexterity of a London pickpocket with the other. And rather than spend hours trying to train your dog not to bark, do yourself a favor and buy him a bark collar. They work, they really do. And they'll save you time, energy, and frustration.

Of course, these are my parameters, not yours. I have three bird dogs in my house, which is more than enough for me, but I have friends with four and even five dogs who seem to do just fine. Some allow them on the furniture; some don't. Some sleep with their dogs with no ill effects. Their boundaries are different from mine.

There's one thing we all share, however, we who live with dogs: None of us wear black slacks anymore.

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