Last week’s blog post was about the Australian Cattle Dog-mix pup I was fostering, and the effect he’s apparently had on Otto, my usually perfectly behaved dog. Otto usually mentors and guides my foster dogs and puppies, and is generally an endless font of patience and good humor. But this puppy – and I use the term loosely, because he’s somewhere between 10 months and a year old, but still possessed of many puppy-like qualities – this puppy had seemingly inspired Otto to misbehave in all sorts of odd ways. He chewed up some shoes, repeatedly dug a trench around a favorite orange tree in my yard, kept getting caught chasing the cats – and on one notable occasion, for the first time in his life, took off after a deer when we were out on a walk in a local wildlife area and didn’t “leave it” or immediately come back when I called him. He’s scared up many a deer or jackrabbit on our hikes (as well as feral cats and one time, a skunk, on our walks along the river that runs through our town), but since his first few months with us as an adolescent youngster himself, hasn’t given chase for more than a few dozen yards before responding to my calls of “Otto,off! Otto, HERE!” Given that we live in a relatively wildlife-rich area, in those early days, we worked on that “emergency recall” several times a day for MONTHS, and I’ve always regarded it as rock-solid. It was, until Diamond the foster-pup arrived.
Right after I wrote that blog post and sent it to our publishing headquarters for the tech guys to post it, I had a cup of coffee and thought again about the whole issue of Otto’s sudden malfeasance. And it hit me like a bolt of lightning: DUH – he’s stressed! This puppy has just really pushed his stress buttons, and all these ways he’s misbehaving are a result of his increased stress levels! Poor Otto!
A number of different authors have written about stress and its effects on dogs for WDJ; I’ve counseled dozens of friends about the signs of stress their dogs exhibited; and I just didn’t recognize it in my own dog. Granted, he hasn’t been walking around yawning or panting or looking in any way different than he usually does. But I should have seen that his misbehaviors were signs of stress in themselves.
What’s so stressful? Mainly, the pup – a teenager, really – has a really annoying way of fawning all over Otto. He constantly jumps up and licks at Otto’s lips like a very young, deferent puppy, and “does the worm” alongside Otto – wriggling wildly along the ground with his tail wagging wildly. A friend of mine used to use the expression “writhing and flopping” – this describes Diamond perfectly, at least, when he’s near Otto. He more or less ignores Tito the Chihuahua.
Now that I’m looking for it, I see that the effect of this exaggerated behavior does seem to wear on Otto. He’s ordinarily very patient with puppies, if not exactly warm and fuzzy with them. But Diamond gets on his nerves, and he frequently growls and snaps at Diamond (albeit with his tail wagging and seemingly without totally losing his temper). He never hurts Diamond, but it seems like he’s saying, “Seriously, dude, get OFF of me! Leave me ALONE!”
My son watched the two dogs together for about five minutes and commented, “Diamond is aggressively submissive.” It’s an apt description. I’m going to have to consult some behaviorists. Is that a thing?
Well, tests have confirmed that the stress of this relationship was definitely responsible for Otto’s misbehaviors. Last Monday, the foster went off to a prospective home for three days. Otto was absolutely his former self. No chewing, no cat-chasing, no digging, perfect recall. I mentally chastised myself for not “getting it” sooner, and apologized to Otto for taking him and his role in my foster-dog program for granted.
Then the puppy got returned (the young, idealistic girl who fell in love with his picture realized she didn’t have as much time as she needed to work on the formerly feral puppy’s many issues). Now I’m taking care to give Otto some time apart from Diamond every day. For at least a few hours, I let him stay home with my husband while I go to the office with Diamond and Tito. I give Otto some indoor time when Diamond is outside and vice versa. And when a friend came to visit with her dog over the weekend, we took Otto and her dog for a long hike without the annoying puppy, twice. On the first walk, I carried super high-value treats and a long line, in case I needed to go back to square one with Otto’s recall. We kept the dogs very close to us on the trail with frequent recalls and bits of heeling, and rewarded them richly for “checking in” (turning around and looking at us when they got more than a few dozen yards ahead on the trail). I relaxed a bit on the second day, letting Otto get farther ahead or behind on the trail — and when he did see and start to chase a rabbit, and I called “Otto, Off! Otto, HERE!”, he *immediately* left the chase and raced back to me, tail high and eyes sparkling, his old self again.
I hope to place Diamond in a good home as soon as possible, but in the meantime, I’ll be paying more attention to Otto’s mental health, too. Sorry, Otto, and thanks again.