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.