The Darcy Chronicles 4: Halfway There


Putting puppy energy to good use

Putting puppy energy to good use

This is Mr. Darcy’s 10th week of life; he’s halfway through the most critical period in a dog’s life.

Puppies, like all young predators, are wired for almost frantic, try-everything exploration of their world. (Prey animals have a similar period, but their curiosity is, I think, modulated by greater caution.)  Everyone knows the puppy mantra: What’s this? What’s this? What’s this? Gotta pee…all day long, punctuated by meals and naps. “What’s this,” for a dog, means “take it in my mouth.” That’s what almost killed Mr. Darcy two weeks ago.

I think it’s most useful to think of what’s going on in this period as a kind of undulation from neophobia to neophilia and back again. At twenty weeks, the undulation comes to rest on neophobia: for the rest of its life the dog will tend to assume the worst about new things. (It’s analogous to the language-learning period for children. You and I can learn a language, and an old dog can learn new tricks, but it’s harder.)

Add one more thing to the equation—that dogs don’t generalize anywhere near as well as a human toddler—and it’s obvious that our task, as Mr. Darcy’s parents (more on that anon), is to expose him to as many different stimuli as possible before his prime learning time is over. People, places, things (he thinks power saws are fascinating), noises, scents…I’m even thinking of asking a skating rink to let us take him on the ice just before they run the Zamboni.)

As I wrote in a previous edition of The Darcy Chronicles, in the process of encountering these wonders, Mr. Darcy will naturally offer a range of innate behaviors while we encourage the adaptive ones and discourage the non-adaptive ones. (“Adaptive,” in this Anthropocene Era meaning “capable of coexisting with humans.”)

On the Internet, Everyone Knows You’re a Dog

Mr Darcys new coat

Mr. Darcy’s new coat

At least, if you’re @MrDarcyGSD. You can follow his daily adventures on Twitter now.

This week he:

  • Tried to figure out the deformed puppies that hiss and shit candy
  • Worried about the possibility of his “gurgley drinking bowl” exploding, thus denying access to the candy left nearby by the hissy things
  • Blundered over a nest of yellow stingey-bitey things with his dad. (4-5 yellow jacket stings for each of us: for Mr. Darcy, 25 mg Benadryl every four hours as needed; he needed only one. I took three; my right arm was aching fiercely.)
  • Started to get his adult double coat along his back. In the picture you may be able to see the wavy pattern of the long guard hairs growing through and over the undercoat  that he will “blow” at least twice a year (3+ grocery bags full) for the rest of his life.
  • Checked out power tools (They’re ok when they’re off, and fascinating-from-a-distance when on.)

Dominance and Centrifugal Force

I  said above that we’re “parents” to Mr. Darcy. Just as one, I hope, does not look at child-rearing as a process of “dominating” the child, neither should one think of dog training as a process of dominating the dog. (Yes, there he goes again. You’ll be hearing a lot about this from me.)

If you remember your high school or college physics, you may remember struggling (as I did) with the statement that “there’s no such thing as centrifugal force.” True, what is actually happening is the acceleration of a body constrained to follow a non-geodesic path through space-time, but you can handle everyday “bucket on a rope” scenarios without knowing this. OTOH, if you try to construct a barrel ride while still “believing” in centrifugal force, people will probably die. So it is with “dominance” and dogs.

There's got to be a pony in here somewhere.

There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.

All of that dominance crap arose from one flawed in-captivity study  of what the researchers (at least one of whom has since recanted) called a wolf “pack”. In reality, it was a group of wolves that was not, as all natural packs are, a family, but a group of mostly unrelated animals (from families that had been destroyed by hunters) that were trying to build a peaceful society without family bonds to help. All packs are families, whether wolf or dog; a group of dogs without family bonds should be called something else.

Now, as the dreadful Cesar Milan has demonstrated, you can use “domination” to cow a dog into submission, and provide a simulation of good behavior. You can also plan a space shot using Ptolemaic astronomy, but the epicycles will chew up a lot of computing power and you’re much more likely to fail. Just as an emergency mid-course correction for your spacecraft will expose the weakness of a Ptolemaic navigation system, domination can’t be trusted to hold in emergencies. My own opinion is that far too many of the dogs killed in shelters each year are the victims of domination theory, applied by well-meaning owners who don’t understand the difference between primates and canines, resulting in a dog that they can’t handle even though it is plainly telling them what is wrong.

Instead, why not have a real relationship with your dog based on their true nature, rather than some crackpot theory? It’s going to be a lot easier, and at the end, you’ll have, not a robot with teeth, but a civilized animal whom you can trust to make its own decisions across a huge range of situations, while knowing that it, as your “child,” will always check in with you (if possible) before acting. For me, spending 20 weeks with my life on hold for a puppy (or feeling like it is) seems a little easier knowing what joy I’ll have for the next 10-12 years.


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 4: Halfway There — 8 Comments

  1. Dave,

    have you written more about this? Very interesting to me (dog person).

    • Other than the first three installments of The Darcy Chronicles, no; at least, not recently. I’ll be writing a lot more as we gain more experience. I will say, though, that this time (the 4th time I’ve raised a GSD from puppyhood) I think I’m getting it right, with Deborah’s help. Mr. Darcy is going to be an astonishing dog. (He already, more often than not, puts one toy away in his toy box before picking another to play with–and we didn’t teach him that.)

      I hope you and others will post questions, comments, and challenges. We still have a lot to learn.

  2. There’s a lot of dominance theory in horses (<shudder>Monty Roberts</shudder>) and it ignores that the horses that fit the pattern best are insecure bullies. Yes, you *do* see dominance displays, but the more obvious they are, the less healthy the interactions. And quite often ‘dominance’ theory reinforces insecurity in humans so they don’t learn when and how to react and when to ignore; they see everything as a threat to their authority and consequently act in a manner that does not inspire trust.

    a simulation of good behavior
    That seems to hit the essence of the problem: when behaviour is based on coercion, it will only hold while you can apply pressure, and when it breaks down, it breaks down badly. When the animal wants to work with you (and why not – they’re social beings, after all) they will give you slack – the ones that only obey because they’ve been coerced will not.

    • Exactly. Following Vicki Hearne, I tend to talk in terms of “moral agency.” Animals are capable of it, sometimes to an extraordinary degree, but you only get it by treating them as moral agents from the git-go. Coercion just doesn’t work; it merely sets up a vicious cycle. (Same for humans, which is one reason I am an anarchist.)

      For animal training, something a Chinese philosopher said way back comes to mind: that a command always contains within it the seeds of disobedience, but a dance has no opposite. Establish the proper ritual, and all flows naturally.

      • Definitely this is an issue with horses.

        And it seems I’ll be paying much closer attention now I’ve been ambushed by the Puppeh side of the Force. (Things I never in this life thought I’d say, volume I.)

        • Ritual is absolutely key to dog training: they love it and will establish one whenever they can, often based on something their two-leg(s) did or said without realizing it. (I remember reading about a Golden that took itself to the vet each week for wound dressing!)

          Mindfulness is all, which you certainly know better than I, having such amazing four-leg teachers.