The Darcy Chronicles 3: Toddler with a Chainsaw

Our third week with Darcy was the week from hell. It started with a near-death experience; peaked with a brief pyroclastic flow from one of the writers in the household whose work schedule is being eaten by the dog; and ended with an upswing in worrisome discussions about talking back with one’s teeth. I’m writing this piecemeal, since Darcy’s demands also ate my blog post. But hang in there, check back this afternoon (PDT: UTC-7); it’ll be a wild ride.

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

Black German Shepherd dog at 9 weeks next to big stability ball

Sunday morning, all was well. Sunday afternoon, Darcy got the runs; this is not unusual in puppies, since their mouths are their hands, and they see no reason not to eat what they investigate. Sunday evening, Darcy was lethargic and losing fluid far faster than he can take it in. Off to the emergency clinic with a classic “parvo puppy,” presenting as victim of a relatively new (1978) and highly contagious viral disease –for which the test was negative. Didn’t matter at that point, for the treatment was the same: supportive care including intravenous electrolytes and nutrition, and prophylactic antibiotics.I left at about 1:30 AM after sitting on the floor with him for a time after the catheter installation; I won’t describe the screaming that caused. Later that morning when the shift changed, along with the attending vet, he was even worse, but the next report that afternoon was “dramatic recovery.” Five days later, the only sign of his ordeal is the shaved patch on a front leg, and almost 12 SVU of additional debt for his symbionts.

We bounced back more slowly; the psychological wear and tear on us had been considerable, not the least because Deborah remembered, while Darcy was getting sick, that she’d found him chewing on an old mushroom the day before, but hadn’t thought to tell me. Just about any encounter between a dog and a mushroom is an emergency, but Deborah has never raised a puppy before, and the subject hadn’t come up with Oka for years—he wasn’t a hoover-mouth like Darcy. So we were both feeling guilty for not communicating better.

In the end, the diagnosis was basically “we don’t know, call it gastroenteritis.” It seems quite unlikely it was the mushroom, although the mold on it was suspicious.  (Fortunately, Deborah had not thrown it away but put it in the green-cycle bin, which fills only slowly—always take the mushroom with you to the vet if you can in a suspected poisoning; there are actually people standing by on hotlines just to help identify them!). Just something he ate that he shouldn’t have: the life of a puppy. In any case, our primary vet says that she’s never seen a local case of parvo (Darcy hasn’t been anywhere but our neighborhood and the vet’s); it’s always a dog brought in from outside the San Lorenzo Valley, often from Salinas or Watsonville where the disease is rampant. The large concentration of homeless people in Santa Cruz is also a part of the problem, as they can’t afford to get their dogs vaccinated.

Low Clouds and Scattered Pyroclastic Flows

8:40 PM PDT (UTC-7) I’ve finally wrangled Darcy into his penultimate food coma for the day, and now have some time to write.

I’ve said before that Deborah didn’t know what she was signing on for. I think this is both I’ve never had a dog this intense and because I’d not remembered sufficient details from my previous GSD pups to give her any sort of realistic idea of the energy required to bring a high-drive working dog through the critical first twenty weeks of life.

Yet I carry with me muscle memories as well as narrative memories of all my dogs and all I learned from them, and in training up a new one, I midwife another canine reincarnation. That is why, for me, a puppy is an authentic form of grief for my previous dog.

Not so for Deborah, I think: her gift was to recognize my need to grieve for Oka in this way. She never raised a dog from 7 weeks or so, and there is very little of her childhood dog remaining in her compared to how much there is of Oka, whom she knew from his first home-coming. Yet she’s a very good trainer, and often elders me, as I do her, to our mutual enrichment. If we can’t reach consensus, we consult a pro.

The level of commitment a high-drive working dog requires can be overwhelming, especially the first three months with it, and both of us are struggling. But her struggle is perhaps the more urgent, as her writing career is taking off, with four books coming out this year, three of them in her own worlds (the other is a new Darkover novel). It doesn’t help that, for reasons irrelevant to dog training, her husband of almost ten years is suddenly an adolescent again; he’s finally finished his mid-life crisis and gotten it right. So she occasionally has two puppies to deal with (for some value of “occasional”).

It was too much. Deborah and I don’t really have arguments; that’s not a Quaker process. (As opposed to disagreements. The one serious argument we’ve had concerned the “location” of the color red.) But she let me know that Darcy’s impact on her writing career was unacceptable. So I’ve upped my duty hours, and am pushing my aerobic fitness (at the expense of my weight training) so I can keep up with him. (Eventually he will be able to trot faster than I can run, and I’ll be bicycle-running him to get ready for the AD, a kind of endurance test based on a run just short of a half marathon.)

The moral here is, a working dog can put as much stress on a relationship as a baby. Perhaps more: because with a dog the unthinkable is thinkable: you can find it a new home without incurring the wrath of society, if you do so responsibly. “The dog or me” is a distinct possibility if you approach the necessary balancing act carelessly. It helps me to think of Darcy-training as an annealing process for our marriage. I haven’t run that past Deborah yet, so her mileage, and yours, may vary.

Willfulness, Moral Agency, and Mitzvahs

How’s that for a dog-training subhead? Vicky Hearne, who was both a philosophy teacher and animal trainer, once observed that the best trainers nearly universally ascribe some degree of moral agency to their animals, especially dogs and horses.

There are several people at BVC who can speak with more authority than I on this subject; I especially recommend our own Judith Tarr’s Writing Horses for its keen insight into both “the inside of a horse” (where it is also too dark to read) and its “outside.” But what I think I’ve learned from my dogs and from the experience of better dog trainers than I, is that dogs are indeed capable of making moral choices, and the more you allow them to exercise that agency with appropriate guidance and control, the better they get at it. At the top end, you get dogs like Gus, a Doberman Pinscher who stopped his hard-cop handler from beating a young black woman who’d dissed the officer by taking away his baton. (At the bottom end you get an unpredictable robot with teeth.)

With the capacity for moral agency that working-line GSDs can exhibit comes great willfulness: what is often called a “hard” dog in the force-training world. We’re trying to stay positive, but have concluded that there are certain behaviors urgently needing modification that we’re not good enough to handle with only negative punishment (taking away something the dog wants) or positive reinforcement.

Case in point: arguing with your teeth. The deal we’re working out, with a puppy that is still incredibly mouthy and already exhibiting classic Schutzhund behaviors, is that Darcy can protest what we do to him vocally, but even a hint of teeth brings down the Five-Fingered Muzzle of Doom, sometimes accompanied by a local reversal of gravity. This is especially important if we have to pick him up (which won’t be possible much longer: he’s already at 26 pounds, nearly 30% of his expected adult weight). That puts one’s face in easy reach of the chainsaw.

He has tried to use his teeth several times. I have a Level 2 dog bite (teeth catches and tears) on my earlobe and the end of my nose; among the countless ones on my arms are several “no I won’t” bites.  Deborah is doing better because she’s far less tolerant, which is a personal decision. Darcy can make easily make the distinction between his two symbionts’ bite tolerance.

Each time he snaps (Level 1) or makes tooth contact, the person involved grabs his muzzle and holds on, being careful not to fold his gums over his teeth. The goal is the infliction not of pain but of helplessness. If he snaps when released the first time, do it again longer. With Darcy, who is not as hard as he thinks he is, that may include rolling him onto his back until he stops struggling, just like his mother used to do. He’s still puppy-clumsy enough to make that a natural move that has nothing to do with dominance, a word that can’t disappear from the dog training vocabulary too soon. (If you have any Cesar Milan books or DVDs in your home, or those of any other trainer who uses that word without scare quotes around it, please throw them away.)

I don’t know if what we’re doing is actually “positive punishment” (extinguishing a behavior by adding something the dog doesn’t like). One can argue that it’s really taking away his freedom and ability to manipulate the world: like being handcuffed, merely an appropriate means of restraint. He gets to choose when he gets released by offering the correct behavior, which can be anything from submissive body language, to a whimper, to relaxation on his back.

Anyway, it’s too soon to tell if this is working. I expect he’ll become increasingly willful as he matures, so we may have more discussions on the topic. But there’s no compromise possible. He will learn that using your teeth to argue with the gods is wrong. (The guy in the bite suit on the Schutzhund field is not a god.)

To make sure, we’re thinking of hiring a positive trainer from Living with Dogs, where he’ll do his puppy and family dog classes, to come in for a couple of hours of one-on-one training…of Darcy’s owners more than Darcy. In my opinion, positive training of high-drive dogs requires more knowledge than we have, and possibly more talent. As well, Darcy and I will be hanging out at the Schutzhund club from time to time as we wait for him to mature enough to actually start training: around 9 months or so. There he’ll encounter a world more based on force, albeit with a strong emphasis on working joyfully and force is ideally the bass drum of training: effective in inverse proportion to its frequency of employment.

But, however we accomplish it, no-teeth will be a moral axiom for him, a mitzvah, both commandment and blessing. Life with a dog that at maturity will weigh close to 90 pounds, with the strength of a man three times that size and jaws that can break your forearm, requires nothing less.


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.


The Darcy Chronicles 3: Toddler with a Chainsaw — 3 Comments

  1. Very glad he made it. And all admiration to you. My health couldn’t do this right now, much less my work reboot. I’d better stick to cats!

  2. Bite training is SUCH a good thing for dogs to get! Most of my dogs–and I’ve had GSDs, Rottweilers and Pits–have been excellently behaved about their teeth. But I’ve had ‘bitey’ horses before, something often particularly rampant in ungelded colts.

    My younger bay was particularly prone to it, more from curiosity and interest than aggression. Sometimes, jaw-holding is possible, but the way I’ve dealt with it is that any bite is met with one single, sharp smack in the jaw, and a sharp command, within the same moments as the actual bite. Done right, it is more about the noise and chaos it throws the animal into than any pain. Romeo still occasionally gets a bit rough, but has matured to the point where he’s allowed to snuggle his jaw up to my shoulder, against my neck, with no worry that I’ll lose my throat.

    The oldest horse, on the other hand, may have been gelded late, and exhibits many characteristics of a badly-handled stallion. He does not have many of the privileges the other horses do, because he WILL just randomly bite, and while he is the smallest and weakest of the horses…it’s still a powerful jaw and 1100 pounds of leverage.

    Loving the chronicles, and I think Mr. Darcy will become a most excellent gentleman and credit to his wonderful owners.