Darcy’s 13th week of life saw another milestone and his first puppy class. He finished the week at 43.5 pounds, a little more than half his expected adult weight of just under 88 pounds. (That being the upper limit of the breed standard.) His two-legs have learned the Canine Theory of Value (CToV), and are a little better at understanding Dog.
Today I am a dog
Sunday we celebrated what you might call Mr. Darcy’s Un-Barred Mitzvah: we put away the puppy pen and moved his crate from our bedroom closet to the dining room. He now sleeps where he wants in the house at night, which is usually right next to or on his Kong bed. He’s had only one pee accidents since mid week (he never had a poop accident), which was just a squirt, and now gives us clear signals when he needs to go out: an insistent, high-pitched whine and eager movements to the door.
He moves more like a dog, too. I think I can see the famous GSD trot emerging, or at least its foundations. He can also run faster than I can now. I’d like to go running with him, but my physical therapist put a hold on that; I’ve got a little ways further to go before my spine is up to that, due to a major structural and postural adjustment we’re working on.
He’s also pretty clear that putting his paws up on furniture is not an approved activity. He’s only jumped on the bed with all fours once, which brought on the Deborapocalypse and that was the end of that. I’m hoping to see the Schutzhund bark and hold behavior emerge, where he jumps straight up and down and barks, but does not use his feet.
We have to remind ourselves that he’s only 3-1/2 months old and often can’t help himself, especially where the feline pack members are involved. On our bed, Gayatri (all of 8 pounds) likes to egg him on. (I think part of the game is getting him yelled at: “Off!”) Even with only one eye, she’s gotten so blase about Mr. Darcy that he can bring his front paws down next to her head on the bed, and she just waits for his next move.
Parlez vous chienese?
Overall, Mr. Darcy is making good progress with his xenolinguistic practice. There’s a sense of a much stronger trans-species bond, and he’s increasingly focused on us and actively trying to figure out what we want him to do.
We’re trying hard too. We’re getting better at communicating with him, both because he’s maturing and because we’re learning his language better. We’ve found that one of the best ways to practice Dog is to watch Mr. Darcy interact with other dogs. A lot of dog language is innate, but it has to be evoked and stabilized early on to produce a properly socialized dog.
Of course, when I say “dog language” I don’t mean vocalizations, which are a very minor part of dog communications. Every movement a dog makes, every posture, every expression, every subtle muscular tension, is a communication, sometimes voluntary, sometimes not. The same is true of humans, but the words get in the way. (When they don’t, we call it empathy.)
The fact is, as Brenda Aloff says in her wonderful book Canine Body Language, that your dog is always talking to you. Probably 80% of training is nothing more, and nothing less, than becoming “bilingual” and learning to “listen” constantly; the balance is a knowledge of the basic principles of behavioral modification along with the kind of knowledge that’s gained only by doing.
What dogs learn is often not what you teach
My own experience with Mr. Darcy is generating a growing conviction, shared by Deborah, that most people have no idea what their dog is saying, and so have no hope of really teaching the dog anything (or learning anything from it).
It’s amazing, and a tribute to the power of selective breeding, that dogs don’t turn on their owners every day in frustration at the bizarre deafness of two-legs and their fascination with useless mouth-noises!
For instance, consider a familiar sight: a dog owner jerking sharply on the collar and yelling when his dog “suddenly” lunges at another dog.
There was nothing sudden about it. The dog will have given all sorts of signals before it lunged: staring directly at the other dog, approaching it head on, head up, with its tail forced back over the body, a closed mouth… there are too many possibilities to mention. But since its owner didn’t take care of the situation (by steering his dog away, for example), the dog did, and in an entirely appropriate way—for a dog.
With the correction (the yank and yell), the owner thought he was teaching the dog not to lunge at other dogs. What the dog learned was likely very different: “When other dogs show up, bad things happen: I need to make sure they stay even farther away.” This can result in a dog that goes nuts about another dog a block away. Or, at least, a dog who’s uncertain and explosive when meeting other dogs.
The education of Mr. Darcy (and his two-legs)
Having worked with Sandy Pensinger at Living with Dogs in Capitola before (to reduce our previous GSD’s reactivity with other dogs), we signed up for her 365 Plan, which gives us as many Puppy and Family Dog courses as we like in the next year, plus Lure Coursing when available. We went to our first one Wednesday.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Darcy was the largest puppy there, although there was a little female bull mastiff who will outweigh him almost 2:1 when she grows up.
We worked on “puppy push-ups” (sit, down, sit, down) and then tried to add “stand” from a “down.” No luck there, but with practice we’ll build that in. According to Sandy, it’s important to really get the sit solid, since the dog will tend to a down instead as it grows up.
We also played the very important name game. Toss a treat on the floor away from you and the pup. When he finishes eating it, just as he raises his head, say his name and mark his head-turn, then reward. This is a critical behavior: his name should be strongly associated with good things. One way to cement this is to hand feed him all his meals for a time while playing the name game.
However, as with the bass drum in orchestration, the dog’s name should be used sparingly. Constantly yelling it during unwanted behavior merely teaches him that that particular mouth-noise is just excitement or fun-police barking.
The canine theory of value
We also reviewed a fundamental axiom of positive dog training: it’s all about value. Dogs are keen traders: you have to give them something of greater value than what they’re doing in order to change their behavior.
This is a problem when you meet a deer on the trail: there is no higher value for a high-drive dog like Darcy than chasing real prey. This is where we part company with Sandy: Darcy will someday become acquainted with the radio-controlled shock collar as the control of last resort: for his safety more than anything else. We’re probably not good enough positive trainers to do without.
On the other hand, the CToV gives you the opportunity to construct a fairly granular scale of rewards. That can be something as simple as identifying treats of varying value, or, requiring more effort, distinguishing with appropriate consistency between “yes” (followed by treat) and “good” (not followed by treat). Of course, “appropriate consistency” means mixing them up from time to time: intermittent reinforcement is very powerful!
So we and Mr. Darcy are still in the early stages of our xenolinguistic studies. Fortunately, he’s a mind-reader, too, as are all dogs practically from birth. So we have a good teacher.