08 September 2011

Raising a Puppy - Boarding School

    You can't always do things on your own. Even if you want to. Even if you think you can because you've done it before. And when it comes to raising a puppy, there is no such thing as "done it before." No puppy is alike—not even the same breed of puppy, not even the same litter of puppies. Gem is not going to be like Buddy, though he does show some Buddy-like traits. Gem is Gem, which equals quite a handful. Even after neutering, Gem continued to jump up on me, bite me hard enough to leave large bruises (he's now 50 pounds at 6-months old) and rip my clothes. I'm having some back problems that may turn out to be somewhat debilitating (I hate that word, but couldn't think of a better one). Rather than cry and be scared of my dog, I talked to my vet. The vet, Nancy Bureau, recommended Laurie Buffington of Dog Days Training Center in Berthoud, Colorado. This is a board-and-train operation—kind of like boarding school, but for dogs.

Husband Bear and I drove out there last Saturday and met with Buffington and some of the dogs "on staff" as well as a couple in training. Gemmie clearly showed his ability to get revved up and his inability to calm down. He likes to dominate other dogs and won't back down when "the play" gets too rough. Thus, the phone call yesterday: Gemmie had started to play with a [Boston] bull-terrier and when the terrier warned him off, he didn't listen—I bet he didn't even understand the cue. He jumped right back in and the terrier bit him hard, leaving puncture wounds on his front leg. The trainer moved in to stop the fight, and so Gem bit her (not on purpose, but just because he was operating blindly at that point).

Both are fine (if you discount the fact that Gemmie has to wear a "cone of shame" for a few days), and Gem seems just as happy and playful as ever.

What we are trying to do by having Gem board with an expert trainer is to have her see him for who he is ("in living color") in different circumstances so that she can develop a training program for us. Already she has told us she thinks Gem is "too much dog" for me and she's worried he needs more of a firm hand and consistent discipline than I can provide.

No more TREATS for everything [no treats as bribes]. She says (and I believe her) that Gem is such a smart guy that he has figured out how to manipulate me into giving him a reward. He's not learning to do the behavior because I want him to do the behavior; he's learning it to get what he wants (treats). Ouch. Not what I intended, but clear in retrospect.

I'm going to have to get Gem to do what I want by expecting him to do so, by setting him up to succeed in ways that don't require treating. I'm also getting rid of the play-pen (he's about out-grown it anyway, and Buffington says it gives him too much freedom) and getting him a larger crate. When he's being out of control, he goes in the crate. At night, he sleeps in the crate.

He's not a cuddle bug like Buddy was. He gets different messages from snuggling on the couch or sleeping in the bedroom than Buddy did. He learns he is "top dog"—maybe even more top dog than we humans.

When we got Blue Aroo, we knew that huskies would push boundaries and try to take over as alpha. We decided we would never allow Blue to get on the bed or the couch or to precede us through a doorway. Blue has never challenged our "alpha" roles; he has settled right in as "beta."

So, why did we not do this with Gem? Oh, because he's a golden retriever! A sweet, cuddly, dependable, gentle golden retriever!  The buzzer goes off here: WRONG answer!  Many golden retrievers these days are coming out more assertive/aggressive than in the past. People trying to breed for gentleness are ending up with  not-so-gentle alpha ["high drive"] dogs [see this "Retrieverman's Weblog" post for example]. Gem comes from a show/hunting line; I should have known he would have a strong play/work drive with dominance issues, but I let the wool get pulled over my eyes when I met his mom: so sweet and calm... I also thought since the breeder did have some therapy dogs in her lines of goldens, Gem might pick up those qualities like Buddy had. Knowing what I know now... if I had it do over again, I might have looked elsewhere for a pup. [Not that it was AT ALL the breeder's fault — but read this article by ABC Golden Retrievers on "How to Choose a Reputable Breeder."]

Where does that leave Gem? Well, still at the boarding school until next week, when we meet with Laurie Buffington and get schooled ourselves, with lots of homework. Gem will come home with us and we'll do our best to "step up" and be the dog "guardians" or owners or masters or whatever you want to call it that he needs.

And I'll keep you posted.

[[Note: Edits added in brackets and strike-throughs 9 Sept.]]