The Darcy Chronicles 6: A Week of Milestones and a Family Reunion

Mr. Darcy spent his twelfth week of life demonstrating increasing maturity and assurance, which is both good news and bad news. First the good news.

His bladder is both more capacious and under better control; the frequency of accidents has decreased markedly, and they are all now training failures on the part of the two-legs, who sometimes forget that getting up from nap is followed by urination. He knows that the house, including the front porch, are part of his den, and is making a real effort to keep it clean.

A bicolor German Shepherd Dog puppy at 12 weeks old: floppy ears, big feet

Mr. Darcy at twelve weeks

Context is all

Even better, he now recognizes the cue “Do it!” out of its original context. That is the phrase we’ve used since we first got him to mark elimination. By about his 10th week it was becoming a a fairly reliable command: put him in the area of the yard devoted to peeing and pooping, say “Do it” and he did it, even if only to squeeze out a brief stream.

This poop area comprises a strip of dirt and “weeds” about 15 feet by 75 feet, right next to the side of the house where the front porch stairs are. It’s quick and easy to get to, and also right under our bedroom windows. The latter is important as it supplies a strong motive for keeping the poop cleaned up. “Tribble fungus” is sort of cute in the winter, but the smell of his poop is not, and it attracts yellow jackets at this time of year.

Because dogs are highly contextual creatures, Mr. Darcy is already exhibiting a mild preference for eliminating in his poop area rather than on his walks. If the walk is short enough, he’ll hold it until he gets back and we let him through the northwest  internal gate to his poop area. Otherwise, the phrase works on walks as well.

However, this week, Mr. Darcy demonstrated understanding of a different meaning of this command. He was in the house and looked restless. I asked him, “Do you want to DO IT?”, and he whined “yes” and moved towards the door. Different context, different response (thank FSM!), and just what we want.

Bicolor German Shepherd Dog puppy looking at a big blue ball floating in a kiddy pool

Mr. Darcy and the amphibious blue ball

Dogs and wolves are different

We reached this milestone due in part to a behavior that dogs have and wolves don’t, nor, apparently, can they develop it. Experiments on dogs and wolves hand-reared from six days old show that dogs have much more sophisticated social-cognitive capabilities, at least as regards humans. The difference exposed is simple: from an early age, dogs literally look to humans for help in solving problems; wolves do not.

This is the basis of a hugely-important behavior that emerged solidly this week: now, when a car approaches, Mr. Darcy sits and quite often looks at his handler for “instructions.” In fact, confronted by almost anything new, his default behavior is to sit and “figure it out.”

For instance, yesterday he alerted on the sound of a neighbor raking leaves. Whenever he alerts, I praise him and, if possible, take him to find out what he has noticed; this helps train me to read him better, and, over time, will give him greater confidence in my judgment about “strange” things so that when I say “Quiet!” he’ll actually obey. This is the real solution to at least one class of “barky” dogs, and it’s a lot easier to do with puppies than with older dogs. (I think that bark collars are too often either an admission of failure or an indication of laziness, but that may be too harsh a judgment.)

In any case, I walked him all the way across our property to the street, and when he saw Glenn, whom he has already met, raking leaves, he sat and watched for while, checked in with me, and then happily trotted forward to greet him.

Using the “puppy butt splat” as a training tool

Another milestone that I didn’t know about until it happened was the close of a period in Mr. Darcy’s life where it was really easy to “teach” him to sit. It takes puppies a good while to get their back legs under control, so the “puppy butt splat” happens constantly. Simply marking those involuntary sits with a “Yes!” and even treating them, firmly and easily establishes the link between the command and the behavior.

But at 12 weeks, Mr. Darcy now has much more coordinated back legs, and rarely sits involuntarily (the wood floors still challenge him at times). If we had neglected this part of his training, it would now be much harder. As it is, he obeys the sit command most of the time, especially if not distracted, and is learning that sitting opens doors.

I should also mention a training opportunity I missed. When we first got him, he was small enough to walk happily along a 2-by-6 lying on the ground. I didn’t mark, reward, and rehearse that behavior at the time, so now it will be much harder because his greater size makes plank walking more of a challenge.

This illustrates a point I’ve made before: what makes raising a puppy so challenging is the need to detect and reinforce or discourage as many spontaneous behaviors as possible, because training them later will be harder. Since advanced dog training is all about “chaining” simple behaviors into more complex activities, this is quite important.

No, I won’t!

As I discussed last week. as Mr. Darcy matures, he’s becoming increasingly independent, will well-formed ideas about what he wants to do, or not do. A few nights ago I forgot that snarling and snapping are merely an attempt to communicate “No!; he has very few ways to do this, especially with impatient two-legs that haven’t tried to read his face and body, which are (as far as he’s concerned, making it very clear that a flopped-out puppy has no interest in going outside for one last pee before bed.

That oversight led to a contest of will that only ended when I lost my patience and hit him. Not hard, but a failure in terms of positive training, since I used positive punishment (PP). I did it “in the moment,” which is the only time PP is effective, but I still wish I’d simply tried putting a leash on him and dragging him across the floor a short distance to wake him up more, and then distracting him with a toy. Next time.

His increasing independence is also a blessing, since now he can go outside and hang out on the porch or the portion of the yard open to him. This is about one-tenth-acre of shade and sun, with places to dig and do other doggy things.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to continue training him for garden patrol—walking only on the paths, which he was picking up well—because of the ongoing, overwhelming squashapocalypse (curcurbinado): a dozen summer squash plants and close to 20 winter squash. Also, the electric fence for the vineyard (actually, grape-juice yard) has to go up soon: the grapes are already in veraison, and it’s a very heavy crop. So garden training has to wait.

Squashapocalypse curcurbinado

Squashapocalypse curcurbinado

Learning to talk to the cats

Like all dogs, Mr. Darcy was born “bilingual,” with an innate understanding of the fundamentals of both dog and human communicative behavior. Research has shown that puppies as young as six weeks exhibit an understanding of human facial expressions, even if they’ve not been exposed to humans. (I can’t find the link to this, perhaps someone with more Google-fu than I can?)

He’s getting lots of practice in both languages, and already has very good puppy manners. We’re certainly working on the human side of things, and trying to become more bilingual ourselves.

In the meantime, Mr. Darcy is on his way to being trilingual: he’s learning Cat (and they’re learning Dog, although they would never admit it). This is going well, but sometimes they get their wires crossed. Thursday night Mr. Darcy was sacked out on the living room floor, quite relaxed, when Shakir, the big black cat that always runs from him walked very slowly and warily around him while staring at the dog fixedly.

This was quite confusing to Mr. Darcy. Moving slowly at an angle to another dog is a calming or negotiation behavior, but staring fixedly at another dog is pushy or aggressive. In any case, he watched the cat quietly for a time until it was too much for him and I had to restrain him. He’s doing better with Gayatri: she’s a better linguist.

A family reunion, and a telos revealed

Finally, last night we took him to the Schutzhund field for the first time. I’ll talk about Schutzhund at more length later; for now, know that it is the sport by which GSDs are selected for breeding, and comprises three phases: obedience (OB), scent tracking, and protection, a kind of martial art for dogs with a human opponent. The Germans have been breeding dogs to this standard for over a century, which is why the GSD is such a versatile dog.

Mr Darcy watching protection work

Mr Darcy watching protection work

There Mr. Darcy enjoyed an on-leash reunion with two of his siblings, but unfortunately there’s no enclosed place for puppies to romp off-leash, and some of the bigger dogs were too nervy to trust to “puppy immunity.” (Mostly the Doberman Pinschers.) The pups had a great time anyway, and Mr. Darcy was able to greet some of the more solid dogs, too.

That was cute, but Mr. Darcy’s reaction when the protection work started was the real payoff of the night. He zeroed in on the action and sat watching in fascination. It was as though he was thinking “This is what I was made for.” (What joy to have such a clear telos!)

Further confirmation of his solid breeding came a little later, when Deborah was handling him a little distance from where most of the dogs and people were. He started lunging and barking in that direction, and Deborah thought he was reacting to one of the dogs. She walked closer to find out which dog he was interested in, and, lo and behold, it wasn’t another dog but the bite sleeves arrayed on a picnic table. Aha! That’s a concrete telos he recognized immediately. Mr. Darcy is going to be a great Schutzhund dog, as long as his two-legs keep up with him. What a challenge, and what a joy!


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 6: A Week of Milestones and a Family Reunion — 4 Comments

    • Yes; he jumps in and out pretty freely, and is OK with being sprayed on his lower body. We’re taking it slowly. I have a video of him pushing the blue ball around and around the pool from the outside; I’d like to try to make an animated GIF out of it.

    • I do too. They remind me of The Little Rascals. But enjoy them while you can. In a couple of months they’ll be standing straight and tall, giving additional clarity to Mr. Darcy’s communications.