Touche, Mom!

When Cuba was a very small puppy (well, as small as he's been since I've known him - 16.5 lbs even at 8 weeks!) I...


Crazy teenage goofballery reduction.  Slobbered, not stirred.

When Cuba was a very small puppy (well, as small as he’s been since I’ve known him – 16.5 lbs even at 8 weeks!) I went into socialization overdrive. I tried to live up to the expectations I have of my clients and be very creative in finding new socialization opportunities where he could be exposed to many friendly dogs and people (and one particularly unfriendly lady at an area nursing home, but we won’t talk about her). He played with other dogs a lot. He went to many classes with me, and because I offer a module format class, there were different dog/handler team combos in the classroom each evening. He would lie politely waiting for a shy dogs to come greet him, large or small. He was able to readily adjust to a variety of play styles – chasing, wrestling, bitey face, tugging with other dogs, “keep away” games being both the “chasee” and the chaser.” He met big dogs, little dogs, barky dogs, shy dogs, fluffy dogs, black dogs, female dogs, male dogs, puppies, adolescents, adults and seniors. It was a lot of work, but we also had a lot of fun.

At class, when I was unable to work with him, he would happily lie quietly in his crate and nap while I worked with the other dog/handler teams. In fact, he would enter his crate and pretty much immediately fall asleep. I would use him for demonstrations and he would work happily and well.

Then one day, while I was asleep, someone snuck into my house and stole my puppy! Little did I know, when I woke up the next morning, that a dog looking suspiciously like my puppy Cuba had been left in his place. This dog was no longer a puppy content to relax in his crate while momma gratuitously handed out clicks and treats to his classmates. This was a dog that began barking when new dogs entered the classroom. No longer a 16.5 lb ball of fluff, I was left with a large, powerful adolescent. Now, he’s 100+ lbs of fur, slobber, and testosterone.

Because I have plans to show Cuba, he will remain intact. (Even if we weren’t showing him in conformation, I would probably keep him intact until physical maturity anyway.) When we first decided to bring home a show prospect, I thought, “how hard could it be? The dog just has to run around in a circle, stop and stand there for someone to touch him. Big deal, right?”

Actually, now that I’m getting into things, I’m realizing it’s a bigger challenge than I’d anticipated. There’s a lot of grooming that needs to be done – weird stuff like having the hair between his paw pads trimmed, his whiskers trimmed, using a stripping knife to remove the hair from his ears, being blown dry with a blow dryer that may have been manufactured by NASA with gale-force winds approximating that of a tornado or hurricane. He needs to learn to stand perfectly still while a stranger comes up and touches him pretty much everywhere, including his “manly bits.” He needs to be able to be crated in a room where hundreds of dogs are crated, perhaps separated from his nearest neighbors by a matter of inches.

I did a lot of work teaching him to play appropriately with other dogs when he was a puppy. An insidious side effect, that I’m realizing now, is that I didn’t do enough work prepping him to ignore other dogs when necessary in puppyhood. He came to see other dogs as a predictor of RFS (really fun stuff) and the presence of another dog became a predictor of a play opportunity. That has created some barrier frustration when he’s leashed – he bounces on his front paws, barking as if to say, “HEY! Hey, it’s me Cuba! Hey! HEY! Let’s PLAY NOW!” He’s got a big voice and a big body, which can intimidate other dogs and other dog handlers. There are two problematic elements here:

a) when it is time to play, opportunities should be earned through polite behavior, not pushy, demanding temper tantrum behaviors. Sometimes the dogs that love playing with other dogs have as much difficulty controlling themselves on leash as those dogs who are legitimately aggressive or reactive to other dogs – the arousal is coming from a different place (distance decreasing vs. distance increasing signals), but it all manifests as overarousal and a dog that needs to be taught to calm himself.

b) when we are at a dog show, there may well be 500-1,000+ dogs and he won’t get to play with any of them! That’s right, he needs to learn to ignore other dogs when appropriate and play when appropriate. This is a lot to ask of a teenager (adolescents, regardless of the numbers of legs they have, have a tendency toward impulsivity). Especially when, at a dog show, many of the dogs attending may well be females in heat. Yeah, it’s like trying to get a high school sophomore to sit in the locker room and concentrate on algebraic formulae while scantily clad, skilled and beautiful exotic dancers parade around him, displaying their “womanly bits” provocatively. He can’t look at, talk to, touch, or pay any attention to them. Ummm…maybe this won’t be as easy as I’d predicted.

We have lots of things to practice: ignoring other dogs even in tight spaces, even if they are the most beautiful, fragrant, in-season bitch at the dog show. Even if they’re the rude male dog that won’t stop staring. We have to practice: gaiting, hand stacking, free stacking, teaching him to offer eye contact when the judge approaches, teaching him to hold his head up and stand still when a stranger wants to run his/her hands over him, crating in distracting environments, getting him comfortable on the new grooming table, with our crazy powerful new dryer, etc. Then there’s maintenance work – continue working on focus, building targeting skills, maintain comfort in the bath tub and with bathing and grooming procedures.

As I work through all of this, I sometimes feel the same frustrations that my clients parenting adolescent dogs feel – what the #*@& happened to all my diligent puppy raising work? It’s still there. Cuba has nice foundation skills and I know that we need to continue working on them and that all of our hard work will pay off. I call my colleagues and ask for advice and they laugh at me, “Casey, if you saw this in a client’s dog, what would you say?” I respond, “I’d laugh and say it’s normal teenage behavior.” It took the common sense advice of someone I really admire a lot, trainer Jennifer White of Rivendale Learning Center to gently remind me that, “no matter how good a trainer you are, you can’t train an adolescent not to be an adolescent.”

Last week, I brushed my ego aside and decided to get back to basics. It’s exactly what I’d tell my students to do if their dogs began back-sliding in terms of progress. Yet for some reason, it was hard for me to do this myself – probably some latent crossover tendencies but also, I know my clients expect my dogs to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time, even in the midst of the least reliable stage of development in terms of behavior.

I like to tell people he’s a perfect dog, 99.9997% of the time. The other .0003% of the time, he’s half Saint Bernard, half unrestrained frat boy. My mom told me if I must be doing something right – apparently I was not a perfect teenager 99.9997% of the time, and she is and was a fantastic mom! Luckily, after some turbulent waters, I turned out to be a fairly decent, “well socialized” adult. Touche, mom. Thanks for putting it into perspective, you’re good at that!

(Big thanks to Greta Kaplan, Jen White, Kim Pike, Laura Monaco-Torelli, Abbie Tamber, and Laurie Williams for your advice and support. Even trainers need advice from trainers, and I appreciate your guidance, support, and suggestions. What wonderful professionals, friends, and advocates for dogs you are!)

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