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


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.

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

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.