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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Nature, Nurture & the Pursuit of the Perfect Puppy

Four years ago, Mack was perfect. A puppy. A "blank slate." Born to a social mother and socialized with people, other dogs and his littermates for 11+ weeks. Breed mix? Challenging. Adoption age? A little on the older side. Outlook? Incredibly positive. His mama just happens to be a professional dog trainer...
First day home, August 2015.
Raising a dog-social dog was top on my list of priorities. I knew I was on borrowed time with his age (adopted at 12 weeks) and faced a challenging breed mix (all working dog, including 50% livestock guardian), but I was on a mission to avoid reactivity and create the perfect neutral dog for training demos and other situations. 
We sought out other puppies for play dates. We enrolled in multiple puppy classes. Mack participated in play times in the weekly puppy classes I was teaching. This boy went to puppy school every day and his play was carefully monitored. 

Play date with BFF for life, Koda Bear. 
Young "cousin" dogs, Mack & Ollie, just chillin'.

Play date with adult Pyrenees mix friend, Teague. 
Mack was a super star, mastering social interactions with other puppies and with people and graduating from all of his puppy classes. He was good with big dogs, small dogs, old dogs, young dogs. You name it, his dog/dog social skills were phenomenal. We were regulars at the neighborhood dog park and it was such a wonderful way to exercise him and keep his socialization going. 

One of many diplomas. 
Dog park awesomeness. 
And then - yup - there's a "but" on the horizon and here it is: ADOLESCENCE!

Not a puppy, not an adult: budding adolescence at its finest. 
I still remember the first time Mack reacted negatively to another dog. It was PAWS Walk 2016 and he was 16 months old.* He touched noses with a large dog and then "snarked." I mindlessly yanked him back and said, "I'm so sorry! He's never done that before!" The second time was another on-leash greeting with a large dog. About the same time, he pinned a submissive adolescent, intact Golden Retriever in puppy class. It was a class I was teaching, so I removed him. Then he did something similar at the dog park. Noisy pinning, but no contact with teeth or injury. But he's huge. And I got yelled at. Shamed, really. (*Fun fact: The vast majority of dogs in my Reactive Rover classes are between 8 months and 2 years of age.)

From that point on, Mack was on leash around other dogs with me doing my whole "Reactive Rover" protocol. 
He luckily had dog friends he could play with, so he still got good social time and exercise. But I was pretty bummed. I spent a lot of time lamenting the loss of my "perfect puppy" and asking what the heck happened. I mean, what's the point of doing everything right if it still turns out wrong?! WHYYYYYYY?!?! did this happen? Why?! 

Besties for resties, Floyd (25 lbs) and Mack (85 lbs)!
Ian Dunbar offers the following explanation, "Dog-dog reactivity appears out of the blue very early in adolescence.  After just a couple of scary scraps in the park, big dogs and little dogs especially are kept on-leash, which severely exacerbates reactivity. Walks decrease in frequency and dog-dog socialization zeroes out. Dogs fight because: 1. They are dogs, 2. Classical conditioning is non-existent after three or four months of age and 3. Socialization stops dead after a couple of scraps." 

When I stepped away from my pity party, I was able to see that Mack has turned out exceptionally well on so many levels. He’s a Canine Good Citizen, a therapy dog and excels at agility and parkour. He loves children and accompanies me to humane education events. He’s a dream for grooming and nail trims. And he does not display many of the breed traits that could have surfaced (and that have surfaced with the littermates I am in touch with). Genetics: it's a thing! Descriptions of the Anatolian Shepherd are sobering at best. 
Another factor? My dog is huge. And he looks like a muppet. Or Alf. And sometimes Tom Selleck. But I digresss... 
Many times in his young age (and still), dogs saw/see him and have a negative response ranging from charging, snarling and barking in his face to screaming and cowering. I took it for granted that he was such a "good dog" and so "tolerant." The "Gentle Giant" narrative was deeply embedded in my psyche. But I should have been counter conditioning. I repeat, I should have been counter conditioning!! 
Again, Dr. Dunbar sums it up well, "Perhaps the surest bet in dog behavior is that adolescent dogs, especially males, will get into scraps. Prediction approximates a 100% certainty and prevention requires non-stop classical conditioning from puppyhood, throughout adolescence until the dog’s sunset years. Of course a three-month-old puppy is a party animal. The goal is for your dog to remain sociable throughout adolescence and well into adulthood. Never take a puppy’s or young adolescent’s friendly greetings for granted. Every time your three-month-old, four-month-old, five-month-old, six-month-old puppy, or adolescent or adult dog greets or acknowledges another dog, say, 'Good Dog', smile and after the other dog passes by, give your dog a friendly pat or a piece of kibble."
Okay, so I gave verbal praise. But I should have jackpotted him with the tastiest of treats anytime he got “yelled at” by a dog. I mean, it was like this:
  • Mack: "Hi, I'm Mack! What's your name?"
Over and over and over again. Who can blame him for becoming a jerk to new dogs?!
And, adolescent male dogs are 100% likely to fight?! Can we normalize this to help clients?! I probably could have convinced people to let me work through it with a Chihuahua, but an Anatolian Shepherd mix? Forget it. 

Luckily, Mack still has his OG besties to play with -- Koda, Floyd, Penny, Ollie and the three dogs he lives with (except Poe, who hates him). 

Playing with Sister (Wren) at home. 
The magic that is Mack & girlfriend P. 

He can even meet new friends if introduced correctly. A parallel walk on a wide trail usually does the trick. But I had no luck finding play groups for "remedial socialization." IMHO, this is an area that is sadly lacking in the dog training world. It's just too hard to find dogs to use, and to subject those dogs to rude behavior repeatedly.

New Aussie friend, Truth!
New Border Collie friends, Youke and Brady!

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Over the past few weeks, Mack has met new dogs on trails (despite my best efforts to avoid this) and he has been appropriate! No bullying, no snarking, just a friendly "hello" and even a little play. I was shocked in the best way. I jolly-talked the heck out of that sh*t and we had a major treat party after we passed the dogs. I may have even cried some happy tears...

Is my perfect puppy still in there? And/or is all of the training I've done for the past three-and-a-half years starting to pay off? Let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic. (BTW, I'm not crying...YOU'RE crying!)

If you're wondering why I care...I have four dogs who need exercise. My Rat Terrier runs off after bunnies, so he's on leash. The other two have perfect recalls. Mack is only about 80% when called from another dog, so he is also leashed. It's a pain. I want him to be able to go with us on hikes and I need him to either be friendly with other dogs and/or have a reliable recall. Otherwise, it's just not responsible of me to have him off leash. I'd even like him to go to the dog park again because his play skills are lovely and he likes interacting with other dogs once he meets them properly.  

As a professional, I struggle to explain to clients what happens to dogs in adolescence.  How do I convince them that early training and socialization programs are vitally important, despite the fact that the results will likely wane or even disappear for a period of time?!

I'd love feedback from dog guardians and trainers on this topic!