The Social Animal

Our pup Zwei will be nine weeks old on Sunday, sometime around 10 pm. He has come far in the weeks since his ears and eyes have opened. He has met probably about 40 or 50 Total Strangers, and many dogs offering him a perspective on the differences between himself and others of his species. He has traveled to places both with his siblings and without. He has encountered many things and overcome his uncertainty. His unique personality is beginning to emerge.

Today started pretty early with an outing after breakfast in the bottom yard behind the garage. We practiced our recalls, how to sit or stand politely for attention and to follow along without interfering.

Dave Cochran’s wife Emily pulled up with her dog Dakota and the weekly doughnut tribute. She also brought a magnificent ring of bread and an assortment of olives. Zwei was overjoyed to see her get out of the car carrying his favorite treat; New York Style Bagel Chips with GARLIC! He was happy to follow her into the garage and wait patiently until the bag was opened.

Where his first encounter with non-Pointers was fraught with suspicion and a bit of fear, his excitement at seeing Dakota this morning was a pleasant surprise. From the very beginning, Zwei had already been pressed into service as a distraction for dogs-in-training and demo puppy so it was evident the experience has paid big dividends.

Dakota was pleased to lead and the pup, to follow. Zwei was thrilled with the wonderful distractions and spent himself running between Dakota, Emily and I.

Dakota led the pup to the stream and waded in. I was half suspecting that the pup would halt as soon as his feet were wet, but he followed the bigger dog all the way into the water. This time of year that water is pretty cold and runs a little high. I kept on waiting for his re-appearance at the top of the bank, glad that his first experience with water outside of a drinking bucket was a pleasant one.

Our principal concern with Zwei this first week has been to create a routine sufficient to facilitate housebreaking, establish a high Total Stranger quota, introduce him to as many new environments as possible and encourage his curiosity. We have successfully helped build his confidence and to lose inhibitions common to puppies this age.

We have begun patterning behaviors like nice, square front sits, recalls over considerable distances while under moderate to extreme distraction (for a puppy that could be a blade of grass blowing in the breeze or the sudden appearance of his favorite toy boy), a nice free heel and lured downs.

As Zweis’ character emerges, so do the behaviors that lead people to wonder why they got a puppy at all. As his confidence grows, his inhibitions diminish. Those lovely lessons endowed to him by his first family begin to fade as he practices his autonomy and discovers how to manipulate his environment.

Puppies are equipped with irresistible charm and sharp teeth. They are a dichotomy of pure innocence while expressing many behavioral artifacts of the super predator class. Their perceptions of their immediate environments are largely formed through self-guided exploration and their memories, good or bad, are created by those experiences. Their visceral reactions to new situations are framed by their instincts and control of those instincts comes through guided exposures to novel distractions and controlling outcomes.

Puppies at this age of any breed, will do one of three things when faced with new situations. They will advance to investigate, they will retreat startled or afraid, or they will freeze. Bold, curious pups will most assuredly advance to investigate. Fearful pups will retreat and the neutral, middle-of-the-road pup may simply stand there.

Our concern with these pups is not necessarily their immediate reaction, but what happens after that contact. Will the confident pup investigate and then move off? Is he making issue with the stimulus? Does he attack it? What about the pup who responded fearfully? Did he recover once he identified that the stimulus was in fact neutral and non-threatening? Did he continue to avoid the stimulus or try to escape it’s presence? What about our last pup? The neutral one. After he froze, did he recover and advance, or did he retreat?

The simple act of recovery is our principal focus. It determines the basic nature of our pup and helps select appropriate paths to facilitate more appropriate responses. Ultimately, that is what all training represents. Nurturing the things we want, while systematically extinguishing those things we don’t.

Although a lot of this should be categorized under puppy selection, it speaks volumes about how to choreograph experiences for any new puppy. It is a high-level overview into how good pups are made into great adults; assured and mannerly, without aggression or fear.

Zwei is a neutral pup. He is neither overly bold, nor is he fearful. He is a social animal, which we want to encourage and he has been imbued with a strong sense of his self-importance to help him become more confident. Not that he lacks confidence, but I would like to see enough to carry him through the heavy cover on those cold rainy days where his proclivities would have him at someone’s feet or near the nearest heater vent. He will need guts, and plenty of them.

But we have to moderate those ‘guts’ and direct them appropriately. He will be a working dog as well as a pet, so it is critical that we handle our next phase very carefully and start channeling his new-found drive and focus on directed tasks.

All puppies are quick to use their teeth and Zwei is no exception. It is how he played with his siblings, it is a means of communication that he will use throughout his life. Puppy teeth are sharp. As compensation for a pups’ small size and lack of physical prowess, puppy teeth are designed that way.

Puppy teeth can shred human skin, clothing and articles dear to owners. Puppy teeth get puppies into trouble and are the principal complaint of new puppy owners. Puppy pile-ons in the litter and an astute adult dog presence (usually the dam) help teach pups bite inhibition. Pups learn to mitigate the use of their mouths by example. When in the litter, there is a lot of rough play between litter mates. Siblings mock attack each other and it’s pretty common for every litter to engender some bully behavior.

One or maybe two pups will emerge as the tough-guys or gals who dominate play, defend food and/or toys and learn pretty early that aggression can be used successfully to control resources. The other pups learn to use avoidance or escape as a tactic to evade their bolder litter mates and if left untended, these more assertive pups will quickly become problem children in their new homes.

Zweis’ dam was an indulgent mother. She was the comfort mother in the acclaimed Harry Harlow experiment with rhesus monkeys. She doted on her pups, but left them pretty much to their own devices when it came to matters of discipline. As to be expected, there were several puppies that emerged as “bullies” and several who started out as victims. Zwei was neither; choosing instead to avoid conflict and maintain a low profile unless he found himself without options.

His early lessons taught him to avoid conflicts and it became evident when his first meetings with strange dogs-not-Pointers sent him flying for the nearest hidey hole. For their part, the dogs, Dodge and Dakota, remained neutral and didn’t force the issue. They threw occasional glances Zweis’ way and left him to puzzle the encounter on his own. As did we.

Allowing Zwei the options to either advance, escape or remain neutral taught him very quickly that although remaining watchful was prudent, he had nothing really to fear.

When Dakota returned this weekend, Zwei had a familiar framework with which to form opinions. He recognized Dakota from his previous encounter, had gleaned additional experiences watchfully “playing” in the close (but protected) proximity to other, strange and often reactive dogs, and felt more confident about his overtures towards Dakota.

Zweis’ mental framework up to this point was with litter mates who were often relatively un-inhibited in their use of teeth and his dam was non-instructive in that department, tolerating maulings herself without consequence. Dakota is a reasonable adult dog with tremendous patience and a wonderful presence. He is ‘safe’.

As Dakota initiated play, Zwei became more aroused and complicit in the games, but drew the line at chase (prey behavior, with Zwei as prey) and retreated when he felt uncomfortable. His recovery was ameliorated with each perceived offense and he learned rapidly that Dakota was in fact, pretty harmless.

Dakota modeling appropriate play behavior to the young pup is a worthwhile endeavor and it’s importance cannot be understated. It will help Zwei understand symbolic play behaviors and differentiate them from other, less altruistic behaviors. Dakotas’ physiology provides a unique, non-Pointer perspective as well, his traditional predator appearance is the Phonics primer of dog-reading skills.

It will be interesting to see what our “Social Animal” Puppy classes slated to start on April 23rd will offer!