The Darcy Chronicles 8: Hormone Avalanche and Second Thoughts

In his 14th week of life, Darcy began his transition to adolescence. By contrast with a human toddler, everything will happen at once. The next two months may be quite interesting; the next week may be determinative: he’s wearing us out.

Darcy’s a great dog with not a mean bone in his body, but he just keeps getting more and more energetic. Sometimes, after a good training session, we think we have his puppy-raising nailed; the next moment, Deborah and I are looking at each other thinking the same question: can we really handle this dog? Can we, as professional writers, give him the training and exercise he needs without losing too much precious writing time and the restorative practices that sustain us? This is especially pressing for Deborah, with four novels, two anthologies as co-editor, and more coming out this year.

It’s also pressing for Darcy. If we can’t handle him, we need to make the difficult decision to find another  home for him right away. We’re much better trainers than most of the dog-owning population, so this won’t be easy to find and could take some time. Of concern also is that if we give him back to the breeder/trainer, he’ll almost certainly go to a force-training owner, and the transition from positive training will be a difficult one for him.

I do not think “high drive” means what you think it means

I’ll freely admit that I underestimated the possible difference in drive between our former GSD, Oka, and Darcy.

Oka was an accident: his dam—not an extraordinary dog, I think (young, Schutzhund 1)—only got on the stud card of the German National Champion (later World Champion) because she came into heat before leaving Germany. The SV controls breeding very closely, and makes sure that no one dog, however good, contributes too much to the local gene pool. That wasn’t a problem here: she whelped in Santa Cruz during her mandatory quarantine period before proceeding on to Hawaii, and her pups sold for a pet-GSD price ($750 in 2000).

Darcy was not an accident. David Deliessegues aims at the best dogs he can breed based on 35 years of experience, so that his dog-club members and students can work with high-level animals. I think he succeeded, but can we?

Do you have a lie-sahnce for that drive?

The primary reason this is coming up for us now is his ongoing entry into adolescence; the result of the flood of hormones involved is pretty much the same as it is in human teenagers, only compressed into a few months rather than years.

It was a subtle conversation between Darcy and the two big Labs next door that first alerted me to his pubescence (well, that and the descent of his testes). Actually, parts of it were subtle; other parts were operatic in their intensity. After the initial racing around  of a happy dog meeting, I brought out one of Darcy’s favorite toys: a large bubble wand. Bubbles transform him into a shark with fur, lunging with all his energy concentrated in his jaws SNAP! and then the next one and the next. That got him pretty wound up.

Then I saw the well-chewed Frisbee that Lobo and Boots play keep-away with. Throwing that launched a protracted session of keep-away with all three dogs that slowly escalated into some serious resource guarding by Darcy, who, once he got the Frisbee, would hunker down over it and snarl quite convincingly at either dog that tried to initiate a playful take-away. He was so wound up that he was ignoring the obvious calming/negotiation signals of the two adult dogs: the careful oblique approach, low slowly-sweeping tail, eyes to the side, the position of their ears… and a lot more.

The tell was what happened next. After I took the Frisbee away and they calmed down, Boots, the motherly female, came over to Darcy, who was lying on his side panting, and slowly pushed her nose into a deep inguinal sniff on him. It was polite, but insistent. She kept her nose there for several seconds, then withdrew, snorted to “clear her palate,” and lay down nearby.

I could almost see the wheels turning. She knows what’s happening to him, and he’s about to lose his puppy license with her. He will lose it about the same time with Lobo, an intact male. There may be some drama, and Darcy won’t enjoy the process, but I think there will be a successful re-alignment in the next couple of weeks.

My, what busy teeth you have

That’s as it may be. Since then, I’ve been observing other signal of adolescence. Three-legged urination, increased alert barking, and, once again, talking back with his teeth. Darcy has pretty good bite inhibition, too, but it wanes as he gets worked up.

To be fair, it appears that Darcy’s temperament marries high drive to a certain sensitivity that makes him softer than he might be. We’ve realized that some of his mouthiness is simply a way of saying “I don’t want you to do that to me.” And, that a lot of his vocalizations are attempts at communication. Unfortunately, I at least can’t yet reliably hear the difference between a happy relax-groan and a grumpy go-away groan. Since he has no “mask,” his face is hard to read. We’re learning to watch his pupils: expansion often means stress.

Sometimes, of course, we can’t give him a choice, and simply have to work hard on desensitizing him for, say, nail clipping or having his ears and lips handled. (His ER visit at 9 weeks of age was a huge setback  for this.) Other times, a simple apology is appropriate. “OK, I guess you don’t like that.”

What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable

The resource guarding is of a bit more concern, although it’s only apparent so far when he’s in drive, and he shows no signs of it if we take food away from him.

For example, we were digging where the walipini greenhouse will go; or, rather, he was digging and I was occasionally helping. It turned out that he didn’t want to share his holes with Dad, at whose hand he snarled and snapped when I put it in the hole to pull bits of wood out (there’s a partially-rotted cypress stump at one end). Well, many muzzle-holdings and scoldings later, he subsided to a peevish whine and a paw swipe. Once I recognized the suspicious look on his face, I made it a little easier for him by showing him what I was taking out of the hole, even letting him sniff it, so he could be sure I wasn’t stealing anything from his  hole.

The shape of things to come

Within a week or so, Darcy will begin to lose his puppy teeth and grow his permanent set. Imagine if human teenagers had to go through teething at the same time, and you’ll have an idea of what that may be like.

Our positive trainer, Sandy Pensinger, is giving us tools to help calm him (Puppy Zen, Puppy Pushups, Touch-Targeting, etc.), and they work, but the effect is transitory. Once he’s teething, he may be less focused for a time: all the more reason to get these calming behaviors established quickly.

Which is what I’m off to do now: another brief training session, then more writing, then another 5-minute dog-brain exercise session, rinse and repeat, interspersed with digging and ball chasing. Check back next week to see if we’ve made it to his 16th week.


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 8: Hormone Avalanche and Second Thoughts — 19 Comments

  1. It reminds me of being a parent, if you have a very bright child. The harassed sense that the entire thing is going to get away from you in some horrid way. And with children there is no question of returning her to the breeder!

  2. I think we’re a couple of weeks ahead here–we haven’t started the three-legged urination yet, but the testicles are down and the teeth are coming in. We get occasional slasher episodes, but this much softer dog backs off fast. And he seems to have little or no guard-the-posessions drive. My Cardigan is much more possessive about her toys than he is about his.

    It is a difficult time in any circumstances. “Is this animal too much for me?” is familiar from the horses–it’s a clear, hard-headed, by no means easy assessment that one has to make. I hope for Darcy, it comes down to, “If we can get through the new few weeks, we’ll have a lifetime together, and it will all be worth it.”

    • I think that part of the problem is that Darcy’s 0-60 time is really, really short. It doesn’t take much time for him to get to full drive. At that point, he can’t help himself. I think our responsibility is to interrupt that process, and help him, as Brenda Aloff puts it, “stay in his forebrain” (what little there is of it).

      As for possessiveness, I’m realizing now that I’m seeing in Darcy a stronger expression of what I saw in Oka: not particularly possessive of objects per se, but really hates losing control of his job of the moment.

      • That makes sense in terms of what he’s bred for. Young Lipizzans have that dangerous edge, as well: it comes with close breeding for high performance. The trick as you say is to spot the impulse forming and stop it right there. Takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.

        I was thinking of you today while riding my stallion. I’m at about 20% with fibro and chronic fatigue, and he was at about 220% with mares and cooler weather and storm overhead. When he was younger I wouldn’t have attempted it at all. Now he’s a mature(r) horse, I can predict when he’ll erupt, and defuse it enough to make a training session work even with the disparity in our energy levels. But it’s taken years to come to this point.

        It translates surprisingly well to the dog. As easy as he is, he still has his moments, and it helps a great deal to have that habit of observing animal behavior.

        Do you get a headache at times, with Darcy? The young horses do that to me–especially the young mares. Oy, do they push. What keeps me going is the awareness that they will outgrow this, they will learn, and in the end, they’ll be amazing partners.

        • Right now it feels like all headaches. It’s proving very hard to convince him not to bite people. He generally does so gently, but Saturday night Deborah ended up with a Level 3 bite: tooth penetration on both sides of her forearm, when he told her he really, really didn’t like what she was doing (nail clipper desensitization).

          • Oy. Is Deborah OK?

            I have a couple of mares like that. She dislocated my shoulder once. I called in the trainer for help, to get experienced and knowledgeable input. It worked–the horse is now safe and pleasant to handle, and has a lovely attitude. But she did leave quite a few bite marks in the trainer’s arm along the way.

            How do you defuse those Defcon Ten Zillion moments in your dog? My puppy doesn’t show any sign of escalating to that level, thank god, but there are still moments when he gets excited and there are teeth.

            • Distraction is about the only way. It’s paradoxically easier with a drivey dog in one way: if you build up the emotional charge for a particular object (in our case, a rubber ball on a strap), then you can whip that out and sometimes stop things before they escalate. Good timing is required.

  3. Wow, that sounds extremely challenging, and you guys sound like wonderful parents/partners/family for dogs–responsive, sensitive, alert, wise, patient. But wow.

  4. Our cat will gently put his teeth against my skin in order to instruct me, usually for which part of his head he wants scritched now. He used to bite and scratch when playing with me, but I’ve taught him not to, so now he has soft paws and soft teeth, and the games are more fun (for me, anyway).

    I really hope the Darcy works out. I think you’ll be the best parents for him, and it would such a shame to send him to someone who will beat him.

  5. I knew that our terminology for ‘intelligence’ in dogs was by how eager they are to please us, combined with actual intelligence. I’m now seeing from your experiences that we’ve been fortunate in our choices, whether we bought dogs or after we shifted to rescues. Our boxers, labs (and mixes) and cattle dogs are all highly energetic dogs, which causes its own set of issues. But they are also real people-pleasers. I think this has especially come into play with Jake, our yellow lab who is thirteen years old but was 18 months when we rescued him from the SPCA. I’m certainly going to keep this in mind as we move forward, since I’ve already determined that a dog as large as Jake (90-100 pounds) is probably too much moving forward, and a dog that doesn’t respect enough distance around the feet (herders) brings its own set of problems as we age.

    Our Norwegian Elkhounds were the calmest, most naturally well-behaved dogs we ever had, fortunately, since our children were young when we had them and there was no time for much special attention. But they are hard to find, and I won’t buy another dog when there are so many needing rescue. Not to mention the fur in the house.

    For the record, if you have a tall enough fence and enough room for them to exercise, the boxers are fabulous dogs for small children. They were so tolerant that babies climbing on them, toddlers bouncing on them and using them as pillows at naptime was all just part of being a dog.

  6. Barking and 3 legged urination are remarkable indicators of maturity. We rescued a fixed black lab from a high blood pressure experiment at the med school when he was 3. 6 months after he came to live with us, he learned to lift his leg. But he never barked until his food was threatened by a raccoon when we took him camping about 9 months after moving in with us.

    And he always backed up into a bush to poop. Something he learned in the kennel–to keep it out of his living space.

    This dog was also a vegetarian by choice. He’d steal ripe tomatoes off the vine and beets while I was canning them. He even tried to climb into the sink for the lettuce and cabbage spines before they went down the disposal. And don’t get me started on the tales of watermelon rind.

    Tory stroked out at age 7 which means we had him for 4 years. In many ways they were the best 4 dog years we’ve ever had.

  7. Thanks for your support, everyone! I’m physically fine, but the universe has delivered a game-changing bombshell. My best friend (since 1965) has entered hospice with about a month to live and I’ll be leaving this weekend to help care for her and her family. I’m one of the few people other than her immediate family that she’s asked to be present when she dies.

    This has made us realize the impossibility of only one of us (and both of us working full time) handling the dog at such a time, so we’ve begun the search for a new home for him. It’s imperative that he go to people with knowledge and experience of high-drive working German Shepherd Dogs to get him through this challenging period and realize his amazing potential. There are 2 local Schutzhund Clubs, plus a local Search and Rescue group, and his breeder has said he’ll take him.

    Lots of change, lots of impending loss.

    • David, the breeder/trainer, also reassured us that we’ve not “set him back.” He’ll be a bit wild for a while, but certainly not broken/cowed/ruined. David is a really responsible guy (as I’ve said, he breeds not for money but to get good dogs for his club members to work with), so he will find Darcy a good home.