The Darcy Chronicles 7: Today I Am a Dog

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.

Black German Shepherd Dog puppy barking at small gray tabby on top of his dog crate

Gayatri enjoys teasing Mr. Darcy from high (and not-so-high) places

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?

A 40-pound German Shepherd Dog puppy and a 100-pound Lab rest on a lawn after playing

Darcy (40 lbs) and Boots (100 lbs) take a break

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.


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 7: Today I Am a Dog — 20 Comments

  1. Learning the minutae of dog body language is so interesting. Remember Falstaff and the OK Corral standoff over a tennis ball, conducted merely with eye-flicks and tiny muscle contractions, to see who would “draw” (dive for the slimy, much-chewed) ball first?

    • Oh, yes. Never could beat him to the ball. And the ecstasy of tugging! I daresay he enjoyed it even more than a GSD, and that’s saying something, for their motto is: “Never let go.”

  2. I’m very sad to see that you are considering using a shock collar on your puppy. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog up to this point – but please. Please, please don’t.

    If you can’t train your dog out of chasing deer, then a shock collar is not an acceptable or, really all that effective way of stopping him (a dog with enough chase will just run right through the shock: if you can stop him with a shock collar, you don’t really NEED a shock collar, you could use other tools)

    Instead, can I recommend this excellent book? “Stop!” How to control predatory chasing in dogs by David Ryan. It really does help the pet dog owner understand and help train against this problem.

    I say this as someone who owns sighthounds, which are generally reputed to have far less learning ability than your GSD, and what’s more, they are rescue sighthounds. If I can get an ex-racing greyhound that only learned her name at the age of 5, to recall off running deer using the advice from this book – maybe you with your very well brought up GSD who is getting all the right things to give him a good start in life, can do it too? At least give it a go!

    • I will definitely check out that book, Victoria. However, I have seen my previous working-line GSD, who had far less prey drive than Mr. Darcy, up against rescue greyhounds, and even he was far more drivey than any greyhound we ever met. They could not beat him to his ball in the confines of the dog park. (The result would have been different over a longer distance, I’m sure, since the GSD is an endurance runner–they have to run the equivalent of a half-marathon to qualify for breeding.)

      BTW, the idea of the shock is to interrupt the predatory sequence at the beginning, not to stop it once the dog is in full chase; it must be used with skill to be effective and not just punishment. Also, I know what a shock collar feels like at a reasonable setting: it’s not something I’d want to experience every day, but it’s not unbearable.

      • That would be because sighthound prey drive is not usually ball-focussed – it is usually specifically directed at small furry animals, and you have to work hard to get it redirected into anything else: they are not retrieving dogs. That’s why recall problems are common in sighthounds, because carrying a rabbit in your pocket is kind of impractical.

        And prey drive is… not really the same as wanting to get a ball off another dog at the dog park? That’s about possessiveness, and guarding, and attitude to other dogs, just as much as it is prey drive (assuming that the greyhound actually recognised a ball as prey, which most of them don’t).

        If your previous GSD is the one that had defensive aggression issues that you had to work on, then I’m not surprised the greyhounds let him have the ball – it would have been way more important to him than it was to them, and sighthounds are usually pretty relaxed about letting ‘stuff-obsessive’ dogs have the stuff – whereas GSDs of course are very much ‘this is my stuff! I must protect it!’ which is one of the things they are designed for.

        You are, of course, entitled to your view on shock collars, but you know, there is a reason that they are illegal in some places, and they are SO easy to screw a dog up with. This is why, for example, the Humane Society of the USA says:
        “The least humane and most controversial use of the shock collar is as a training device. The trainer can administer a shock to a dog at a distance through a remote control. There is a greater chance for abuse (delivery of shocks as punishment) or misuse (poor timing of shocks). Your dog also may associate the painful shock with people or other experiences, leading to fearful or aggressive behavior.”

        and most of the good behaviourists and trainers don’t use them or recommend them.

        Honestly, if your timing is SO GOOD that you can be sure you will spot the deer in time (and you know, the awful thing with deer is that they have a magical ability to pop up where you are least expecting them, and have just turned around to admire the view), have the control ready in your hand, and use it while the dog is still in orient mode, before he hits the rest of the predatory sequence – eye-stalk, chase, grab bite, kill bite – then your timing is way better than 99% of dog owners. For that matter, a lot of dogs find the eye-stalk part of the process rewarding in itself – and a herding dog like a GSD is likely to be one of them. If you can tell the difference between a dog in ‘orient’ and a dog in ‘eye-stalk’ in that split second, you are a better trainer than I am!

        • Good points, all. If we can make Darcy’s recall solid without the shock collar, we certainly will, because what the Humane Society says is quite right: the shock collar requires a very high level of skill to use properly–and it’s been a long time since I needed it.

          Oddly, Oka, our previous GSD, was not at all protective of his ball at the dog park. When he was focused on it, other dogs could actually come up and hump him and he would ignore them. Same for if they chased it with him: he’d just body slam them and keep going. He once hit a little GSD bitch so hard that she must have “flown” about 10 feet; he kept going and she, not particularly upset, decided it was better to chase at a distance.

          • I really hope it works for you! That book honestly is worth a read – David Ryan is extremely well qualified and it specifically addresses the chase issue.

            You don’t think a bodyslam in that situation to be a defensive move? Moving to block access to a desired resource is something that I often see in a dog that is a little protective of something good, but not uncomfortable with the other dog, or wanting to make an issue of it?

            I find with my foster dogs that sometimes we start off with one of the residents wanting to protect a good resource, like their favorite bed. When a foster dog is new to the home, the residents sometimes do that quite blatantly with a lifted lip or a growl: no mistaking what is going on there, this is MY bed thank you so very much!

            But once everyone is settled and getting on really well, defending their stuff becomes much more subtle, and involves a lot of blocking and countermoves that you really have to watch for to spot it happening at all. For example, if one dog is on the best bed, another dog might chuck a toy about to get them to come out of it to play, because that’s very unconfrontational – then quickly scoot behind their back to claim the thing they really wanted. 😀 Another thing they do is try to get the human to come over HERE to deliver an ear rub, where they can still keep back feet in the most-desired bed, to prevent any pesky other dog nipping into it.

            Like people really – you might protect your beer from a complete stranger quite pointedly with ‘Excuse me! that’s MY beer!’, whereas if you were hoping to nab it before your spouse, you’d probably try to find a much subtler strategy 😀

            (This sounds like we don’t have enough dog beds, but really, we have absurd numbers of them, and apparently they are all numbered on a constantly-shifting scale of desirability which I can’t make head nor tail of.)

            • The body slam was definitely not defensive: it was simply extreme concentration and brute strength–he wouldn’t deviate from his path nor show any signs of awareness of the other dog. Oka showed no other signs of resource guarding, and actually would let other dogs herd his blue horse ball, his favorite toy. But a tennis ball moving at speed engaged his prey drive fully.

  3. Interestingly enough, Hugh Lofting explained more or less that same theory of canine nonverbal language in The Story of Dr. Doolittle. That and his making Polynesia an African gray have to count as hits, I think.

    I have not lived with a dog in my adult life, but we have two cats, and it’s very striking how visible their thoughts and intentions are. We can very often see when they’re thinking about doing something a minute or two before they do it.

      • The same is true for Automobile; it’s possible to see the intent of a car (well, of its driver) to stop or not, or to turn or go straight. In fact I’ve read that one concern about self-driving cars is that pedestrians will not be able to judge the intentions of the car and will thus be endangered.

        • Very interesting, and yes! I can judge intent in a car from a very great distance, even with a tinted back window. I don’t really know what the signs are, but part of me sees and interprets them readily.

  4. As a horse person (and former rabbit person), I’ve noticed that many cat and dog owners too frequently depend upon vocalizations and not body language to understand what is going on.

    Neither horses nor rabbits are major vocalizers except for specific situations (a frequently calling horse is an anxious horse or a horse with breeding in mind, generally). But if you pay attention to the non-verbals, there’s a LOT going on. My mare effectively communicates both her desire for a new treat AND shows off to her stall neighbors that she’s gotten a treat by licking her lips and smacking them quite loudly, accompanied by ears forward, a lowered and submissive head position, and an expectant, focused look.

    What is interesting is that a smart and observant horse often has figured out that, unlike a horse, humans communicate through short-range, focused, gaze. I have had several horses call my attention to something by turning their faces directly toward me and gazing at me like humans do each other (horses will do this with other horses at further distances). It’s very noticeable when they do this because this is not a typical horse gaze. It also usually signifies something of significant concern to the horse because even in close-in human interaction (such as grooming, which is when I’ve seen this gaze), horses usually don’t do that, at least the horses I’ve handled.

    Watching horse and dog interactions can be fascinating as well, whether at liberty or if horse and dog have been trained to work together.

    • Very interesting, Joyce. I wish Judith Tarr would chime in here: she recently adopted a wonderful GSD/Aussie mix, and trains Lippizaners. Her description of the first meeting between the dog and her stallion is a wonderful example of interspecies communication.

      • True, Dave.

        And then there’s rabbit communication. I’ve seen a Mini Lop buck back down both cats and small dogs. Assertive and dominant entire male rabbit with a LOT of rabbittude! Instead of running from the cats, he’d adopt the aggressive attack rabbit posture. Considering he had a classic Mini Lop bulldog head, when he put his ears flat and lowered his head, he looked a little bit like a tough linebacker. Confused and frightened the cats he encountered (none were particularly experienced hunters, though).

        Rabbits use their ears, tails, body positions and facial expressions for a lot of communication. Their personalities are somewhat like a combination of horse and cat. Living with one as a house pet can be pretty entertaining, but they do tend to twist everything around so that you’re under the influence of the Guiding Paw (generally by being rendered helpless by laughing at a rabbit commentary on some human action).

  5. Coming in late here, as Darcy’s mom-and-the-source-of-all-good-things, a few thoughts on the subject of shock collars. The major problem I see is that they are so tempting to abuse. I am not entirely convinced there is any proper use for them on a shock setting (as opposed to a vibration/buzz, which can be quite useful as a long-distance “please check in with your human”)

    For me, the best way of learning (because, let’s face it, dog training is really owner-training) is from a teacher, and I’m very pleased to be working with a highly competent trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques. We’re still at puppy-class foundations, but there is a more advanced class that addresses establishing a solid recall, even under difficult circumstances. For myself, I much prefer this method.

    The guy who runs the local Schutzhund club, who was Oka’s first trainer, uses shock collars (very sparingly). His own dogs earn Sch III titles. I think part of the problem is that if these training techniques are all you see, and you see the dogs performing at a very high level with great zest, that’s what you yourself learn. So I think it’s important that we as owners have the experience of alternate training. I’ve heard there is a Schutzhund club that uses positive techniques, a bit of a drive but within reach, and I’ll be nudging Dave to check them out.