Whole Dog Journal's Blog December 30, 2013

When Raising a Puppy, Grumpy Uncles are Good, But Not Perfect

Posted at 11:45AM - Comments: (8)

I have fostered a lot of adolescent dogs for my local shelter, dogs who are really sweet individuals who have been in the shelter for months and months without getting adopted. Usually they are the ones who have personality quirks (and sometimes, quirky looks) that make it difficult for them to get adopted. And their behavior, especially after months in the shelter, is almost always rather unacceptable – to people and to other dogs. While shelter volunteers may have been working with them to learn to offer a calm sit, the shelter has few enough experienced volunteers to also work with them on more advanced behaviors, such as leash manners. They often don’t know anything about living with humans in homes; they can’t get that from the time in the shelter kennels, and few seem to have prior experience in homes from their pre-shelter lives. And as far as their dog-dog interpersonal skills -- many shelter dogs seem to develop a sort of frantic, “close talker” personality from living in such close, loud quarters at the shelter. They often need some time – months, even -- with normal dogs, in a more normal setting, to re-learn normal canine communication protocols.

My dogs, 70-pound mixed-breed Otto and 10-pound Chihuahua-mix Tito, bear the brunt of these fostering efforts. They often function as grumpy uncles, correcting these wayward adolescent dogs at every turn: NO, you don’t run right up into my face; NO, you cannot just bash into me; NO, you are not allowed to take just any bowl or any toy, you have to ask permission. I can count on both of my dogs to make appropriate corrections without hurting the foster dogs; both have excellent bite inhibition, so even a growl and snap that looks dramatic never breaks the skin, and of course dogs have better timing than we do at meting out an appropriate correction at the exact moment of the infraction. All of this is really good training for frantic, blundering dogs who need to learn to slow down, be calm, and mind their manners.

But right now I am fostering a puppy! This pup, Cole, has been selected by my son, and he’s getting a one-month head start in training before my son takes custody and continues his education.

I almost never foster puppies. They find their way out of the shelter with nobody’s help. They are the equivalent of the new iPads – stand back and watch them fly off the shelves. (Of course, we will be seeing quite a few of them again in six or nine months, when all those people who wanted a puppy but didn’t take the time or learn anything about raising puppies correctly end up with an untrained, unsocialized adolescent. Then I see them back at the shelter.)

Cole is darling, sweet, smart – and for a puppy (he’s 4 or 5 months old), extremely well-mannered with humans and dogs alike. But my “grumpy uncles” cannot seem to get out of “here we go, training another jerk” mindset and loosen up and just play with poor Cole. The hapless puppy is trying in every conceivable way to get some games going, but they want him to just lie on his dog bed and chew his chewie. Ha! Not what puppies are all about.

I’ve been taking him out for long walks daily, and sometimes I meet one or another friend and her dogs, so he’s had 5 different canine trail-walking partners. None of them want to play, either! I don’t get it; he’s giving very respectful, very appropriate play signals. And while all of these adult dogs are nice to him, none of the adults want to play; they want to take their hike.

I appreciate my dogs giving poor Cole some manners training, but I realized how much he’s missing out on when I took him to visit some friends over the Christmas break. At one home: a one-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer; at another home, a two-year-old Chihuahua/Fox Terrier/who know-mix (one of my former fosters, actually). Both dogs wanted to play with Cole, and he played with them until he literally dropped: bite-face, wrestling, I’ll-chase-you-then-you-chase-me, tug of war, and more bite-face. He had a blast. And then came home to being a social leper again.

The experience reminded me (I haven’t had a puppy in so long!) that it’s not enough to socialize a pup to adults; it’s also important to socialize them with other pups and friendly young dogs, so they will keep honing their play skills and communication abilities with other playful dogs. If they grow up with no opportunities to play, and they meet a dog who does want to play, they may not know how to act and behave defensively. I need to get him out to play with more playful dogs and puppies. Fortunately, there is an excellent trainer nearby who has a weekly puppy social; I need to get him over there.

The experience also made me realize that Otto used to play with my foster dogs (after a few days of manners training), and for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to anymore. Is he getting too old? (Six years… that seems too young to me to not want to play.) Is he sore or hurting somewhere? (He still runs and jumps and climbs on off-leash walks; I don’t think it is a physical problem.) Or is he just tired of fostering? It’s possible, and something I’ll need to think about more.

Comments (8)

UPDATE: I just caught Otto playing with the puppy for the first time. They were in the backyard, and if you were not an experienced dog person, it might have looked and sounded like Otto was *mauling* the puppy -- Otto growls like a bear when he's playing, and the pup was rolling around on his back while Otto dodged in and out, playing bite-face. Cole (the pup) squeaked at one point, scared or maybe hurt. But both tails were wagging, Otto "listened" when cole squeaked and backed off a bit, and Otto even rolled onto the ground once himself to invite the puppy to pile onto him. I was watching through a window, and I tried to sneak out and catch some of this on video. I caught about 30 seconds, before the deck squeaked and Otto immediately quit, seemingly embarrassed to be caught PLAYING with the puppy. I'll try to find a way to load it to the WDJ Facebook page. I'm happy for this bit of progress. Less happy with how filthy they are (the yard was rototilled not long ago, and it's all loose loamy dirt).

Posted by: Nancy K | January 1, 2014 10:58 AM    Report this comment

Good article with good questions. I foster a lot and find that you have to keep watching your own dogs to keep up with where they are at. And each dog has their limitations as to what they can or will tolerate in other dogs. Since I like to foster I make it a point when I am considering adopting a dog myself to be sure that they are capable of dealing with dogs coming and going. I always want to be sure that my dogs know that they are secure and ultimately come first. I think the "grumpy uncle" tactic is great but for some dogs they have to have other outlets that meet their needs. So you have to get them out, like you are doing. You can't expect your home situation to be able to provide everything that every dog needs.
On another topic, I love the picture of your dogs. I was drawn by it because your small Chi mix looks very much like a Chi mix I rescued a number of years ago. She was 14 and crippled and had lived much of her life in a garage with 2 terriers, fighting over the garbage to eat. She wasn't housebroken and was deaf but I had 14 months of blessed company from a very special, tenacious spirit named Rosebud. Had the same face and color of your Tito. Giving seniors a home is SOOO worth it!!

Posted by: Little Dorrit | December 31, 2013 1:43 PM    Report this comment

great piece, and very true. it did make me realize even more that I do need to find somewhere to play for my small, adopted last year pincher/chi mix. he is four now, came from Spain at three to a no-dog foster and my other dog is 11. they are cute together, very relaxed with physical contact (which was an unexpected and sweet thing to watch) but they hardly play. with dogs outside he is reactive and my guess is he was a bag/balcony kinda guy (street doggie from a big city) and just never learned the social stuff.

people always seem to think it must be in their genes to know what to do but it is good to read in your article that it does take time and can get better!

and yes, I have fostered many kittens (SO cute, and an opportunity to be close to them because I would never, ever breed a litter myself) and dogs and it is just different from the start! sometimes people fear that it would be like 'giving your own dog up', but to me it doesn't feel that way at all. they come over to spend some time with me, I teach them as much as I can and then they go to a great home...and, indeed, I have room for another sweet soul - as a guest!

Posted by: Jessica J. | December 31, 2013 12:20 PM    Report this comment

I was very surprised when my 2 labs (9& 12) ignored the 9 week old puppy I brought home. It was like he was invisible. The puppy cuddled and shared a kennel with the older one but no play was involved. Through the years, I have fostered many dogs 6 months and older and my boys always played with them. After a few weeks the 9 year old would tug with the puppy and then began the wrestling, play biting when the pup was 6 months old. Makes me wonder if he waited until the puppy was big enough to handle rough play.

Posted by: addictedtolabs | December 31, 2013 11:15 AM    Report this comment

Quick response to the second poster: My answer to "How do you give them up" is probably the same as with most people who foster: If I keep them, I can help only a few animals, given that my commitment to them is for their lifetimes. If I foster and find them great homes, I can help many, many more. It's hard every time to see them leave -- except this one, because Cole will be my "granddog," I raised my son well and he's GREAT with dogs, and I'm sure as my son travels Cole will stay with me a lot in the future.

Posted by: Nancy K | December 31, 2013 10:15 AM    Report this comment

We foster dogs....all ages. We just adopted a long time foster who is shy, was very destructive and was difficult to house train BUT is fabulous with foster puppies. She is extremely tolerant of puppies who are attached to her back leg and we call her our puppy nanny. Our other resident dogs ages 9 to 13 years are variously playful with foster dogs. The resident dogs would be happy to just have the usual pack without interlopers.....but we think fostering dogs makes them better citizens of our world and makes us humans better too!!!

Posted by: Olivia | December 31, 2013 9:53 AM    Report this comment

How do you manage to give them up? Is your shelter a no-kill? I have been thinking about fostering after my upcoming move. I have been thinking about FIV+ cats, because I have an only dog and, for the first time in ~30 years, no cats, but I would be open to dogs, too. I have one dog now, an angel in fur. Any suggestions? WDJ references? books? blogs or on-line groups? Thank you so much for your work. You have been such a blessing for the dogs you have fostered.

Posted by: Barbara C | December 31, 2013 9:36 AM    Report this comment

Excellent article, and so very true. I have been fostering for 4yrs and make sure I don't get any 'high' energy dogs, my two 6yr olds just can't appreciate the level of activity. I try to get shy/fearful (my local shelter always has someone who isn't doing well in a kennel all day) and we settle into a nice quiet routine that gives them time to adjust. My female will usually play after a few weeks but the male must think he can only play with his sister because is interaction is always very limited. I do make sure they get time at our controlled dog park for some real 'play'.
I've wondered about the 'tired of fostering' too, they aren't interacting at all with my current foster, and she's their age, just little, 15lb compared to their 60.
Bless you for working with your son's dog, and a puppy at that, they are both very lucky to have your expertise near at hand.

Posted by: Linda B | December 31, 2013 9:15 AM    Report this comment

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