The Darcy Chronicles 5: The Puppy as Will and Idea

In which we talk about willfulness, intelligence, and covenant loyalty in dogs while Arthur Schopenhauer and Micah the Prophet glare at the impudent dog trainer who has stolen their ideas for his own purposes.

I’m firm, you’re stubborn, and he’s a puppy

black cat looking uneasily at black German Shepherd Dog puppy

An uneasy detente

Mr. Darcy is now in his 11th week of life. At about 35 pounds, he’s quite an armful to carry even when he’s willing to be picked up. Right now, since we want to minimize the amount of coercion we use, I often have to carry him out and down the front stairs because he’s a floppy puppy who doesn’t want to perform the required prophylactic eliminations upon waking, eating, and/or every hour or two. In that mode, he’d be great at a sit-in protest.

But he’s also a very willful dog: one with definite ideas of what he wants to do. This is actually a good thing, since we’re trying to bring up a dog capable of making fairly important decisions on his own, so he has to be allowed to exercise that will when doing so won’t reinforce an unwanted behavior or endanger him.

Such dogs are often called “hard,” in the Mohs Scale sense of the word. The old force-trainers used to define a hard dog as one that required fairly severe positive punishment corrections in training. This led to practices like “choking out” the dog by raising him from the ground by his choke (slip-chain) collar, or even “helicoptering” her: literally recreating the centrifugal rope-and-bucket scenario with the dog as bucket. However, to me, as a positive trainer, a hard dog is one on which coercion doesn’t work very well. The harder the dog, the worse the results.

Mr. Darcy is a hard dog, but his hardness is ameliorated by an extremely social nature: he loves being with people. Nonetheless, he goes through phases of extreme willfulness, and he’s in one now. Most of the manifestations are harmless and easily discouraged.

One, however, is definitely not: snapping and snarling at the two-leg when he or she tries to make him do something he doesn’t want to: for instance, pick him up to carry him down the stairs as described above. It’s actually a bit frightening to be halfway down the stairs and suddenly have a fairly sizable dog with very sharp teeth snarling and biting at one’s face, even if only as a bite-inhibited warning.

I won’t say the positive training goes out the window at that point, because there’s still no punishment involved, but a swift muzzle grab (try that with your hands full of dog) and even “grounding” (but NOT “rolling”).

I have found that explaining why he has to do whatever it is he doesn’t want to actually helps; I don’t know what he’s hearing or how he processes it, but I think that the thought processes involved for me, and reflected in my body, align my affect and my actions in a way that has more integrity. Since you can’t lie to a dog, that’s very powerful.

Anyway, we’re making progress, and as he “undulates” from compliance to willfulness and back again as he grows, this too shall pass.

Whose intelligence is it, anyway?

In the meantime, accompanying his willfulness is a comparable level of intelligence. Usually, when people describe a dog as “intelligent,” what they really mean is “easily trained:” the dog gets the “idea” quickly. There’s a lot more to dog intelligence than that, but trainability is certainly a foundational aspect of dog intelligence in a human world. A dog that rapidly forms associations, whose behaviors are easy to reinforce or extinguish, is a dog that will fit into a family or other human group quickly: a highly-adaptive ability.

Unfortunately, the more intelligent in that sense a dog is, the more likely it is that the associations it forms are not what the human intended. Unless you develop the ability to consistently mark the behavior very quickly—certainly less than a second—the dog is likely to decide that you are marking whatever it was doing right after the desired behavior. This makes the dog look stupid, but the fault is that of its two-leg(s).

For instance, if Mr. Darcy “locks on” to the cat—an intent, prey-drive focus of attention preliminary to play-chase—I say “Leave it!, then watch for him to look away from the cat, mark the behavior with a loud, sibilant “Yes!” and then treat. (Several seconds can elapse between the marking—by word or clicker, for instance—and the delivery of the treat; eventually, once the association between marker and reward is established, intermittent non-delivery of a treat actually reinforces the behavior better!)

However, if I am late with the marker, Mr. Darcy may have already looked back at the cat. Oops! I just reinforced the exact behavior I’m trying to modify. This phenomenon, I think, is responsible for most training failures. It is also responsible for the incredible intensity of early training for a working dog who is also intended as a house pet (as opposed to one who lives in a kennel and gets regular attention and exercise). Every moment is a teaching moment; I’m glad there are two of us two-legs to tag-team Mr. Darcy.

But, oh, what joy when he “gets” it, both for the two-legs and the puppy. One of the ancient dreams of mankind is to converse with the animals, and in training, when conducted respectfully and in integrity, one finds that experience anew each time things “click.”

And, oh, what joy in Mr. Darcy when he understands what he’s been asked to do: “I have a job!” There is a definite telos in the life of a dog, most strongly in a working dog, for he was created as partner and helpmate to humankind. The credo of dog is simple and a type of a particular spiritual orientation that Micah described 2500 years ago, here paraphrased:

“Man has shown you, O Dog, what is good.

And what does Humankind require of you?

To act justly and to love covenant-loyalty

and to walk humbly with your Human.”

Please follow @MrDarcyGSD for updates on our progress from a foot above the ground, and @davetrowbridge for the view from six feet up.


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 5: The Puppy as Will and Idea — 13 Comments

  1. My first dog is a Jack Russell terrier and due to circumstances well beyond my control (multiple family emergencies happening in rapid succession), my plans for learning how to train her “properly” went out the window. I wound up using exactly the same kind of positive discipline techniques that I’d used with my toddler, with lots of redirection, conversational chat, rewarding the behaviors I wanted to reinforce, and so on. Literally, I was parenting her like I parented my son, because that was what I knew how to do and I didn’t have time to learn the “right” way to train a dog.

    She wound up being the mellowest, most peaceful, and generally well-behaved terrier I’ve ever met. I’ve wondered whether it was the luck of the genetic draw, or whether she’s just really, really smart, or whether those parenting methods are actually pretty practical for dogs. Your description of conversation is what made me think of it, because I can remember being bemused when I found out that I should have been using short commands instead of complex sentences. She understands complex sentences perfectly well, as long as they’re the same sentences she’s heard many times before. “That is not acceptable behavior” gets the same shame-faced droop from both kid and dog.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying your posts on your puppy. I hope it continues to go well and that he gets through his willful stages quickly!

  2. Fascinating indeed. Taking notes.

    Horse training seems to translate–my horses would be “hard” in your sense, but force creates vicious or brain-fried animals. A friend with one of similar breed and lineage told me that in the old Czech Republic, trainers would hang those horses by the hind feet from I would presume very large and strong-branched trees, and forcibly shoe them while they were in this position.

    I…just can’t…

    • I’ve always been struck by the similarity, with the obvious difference being that between prey and predator.

      I suspect that hardness and intelligence tend to go together, not only for the reasons implied above, but because, for instance, hard stupid dogs get culled, and soft smart dogs become neurotic and get culled (speaking in terms of generations, of course).

  3. A puppy is like having a baby. The first years (months for dog) demand your attention almost all the time, in order for the later years to happy for both you and the dog. With full-time out-of-the-house work most of my adult life, that wasn’t possible. Thus, no dog. Alas.

    Love, C.

  4. The inadvertent training is sometimes comically useful and sometimes noisily unfortunate. I am the envy of the dog park, partly because my dog more or less levitates to catch pop flies, but largely because when the alarm on my cell phone goes off, she shrugs and ambles over to the gate to leave the park. I did not “cell phone train” her–I got in the habit of setting my alarm to make sure she got her full hour at the park, but I didn’t run too far into my writing time by overstaying. And she made the link and decided that when the alarm goes off resistance is futile.

    On the other hand, when it approaches anything like what she considers to be time to go out, if I close my laptop or put on my shoes she immediately assumes this means imminent joy for The Dog. As this is sometimes not the case, her noisy joy can be very noisy indeed. We’re working on this.

    • Smart dog!

      When a puppy, my previous GSD, Oka, made a similar correlation. I was house-training him in December and January, so he often went out at night and I would grab a big yellow flashlight to keep track of him.

      One night I got occupied on the computer and missed his signal. When I emerged from my home office, there on the mat inside the front door was a pile of dog turds…and the big yellow flashlight.

  5. One of the interesting family dynamics is that Dave is The Focus of The Universe and I am The Source of All Good Things. That was true for our last dog, and seems to be evolving in that direction. I’m “softer” with the puppy, and I think there are fewer instances of unwanted behavior.

    Today we went walking with some neighbors, two women who had each had negative experiences with dogs. We worked on walking close-to-Deborah, on sitting when a car approaches or when people or dogs approach. A bagful of tiny liver treats allows me to reinforce “Yes!” when he sits nicely — the instant his butt touches the pavement. He gets double “Yes!”es for eye contact with me when he sits. Coming along very nicely.

    In the last day, however, he’s started jumping on me. I suspect this is a sequel to a play visit with two Labradors yesterday. Eliminating the behavior has two parts. As humans, our first response is of course to say “No!” or “Off!” or to turn your back or some other maneuver that discourages the jumping. It is equally or more important to ask for and reinforce an incompatible behavior (sit, hopefully with eye contact) so that you’re not only telling the dog what not to do, you are teaching him what you want. The desired behavior has to have a higher value reward than the undesirable behavior. With jumping, it’s not too hard to set up: Jump = Mom ignores me; Sit = tasty liver treats + Mom praises me. Oh, I get it!

    With chasing a squirrel, however, it’s harder to find something of higher value…

  6. Pingback: The Darcy Chronicles 6: A Week of Milestones and a Family Reunion | Book View Cafe Blog