Adventures with Kit: Chapter 2 “Don’t Touch me!”

Photo by Sherri Clendenin

“I think we have a baby raccoon!” This was something I whispered often to myself during the first few weeks.

Yes – puppies are full of energy. They run and play until they drop – kerplop – into a deep sleep.

Except for Kit! She was like a race car. She went from 0 to 60 rapidly! And continued to wind up her motor until her gaskets blew up. She just didn’t know what to do with all her energy. She is a good-natured personality, but things would get ugly and fast.

We learned to wait!

In real terms, she contended with two issues.  She was easily over-stimulated, and she was unable to self-settle. Some pups may have an innate ability to self-settle that can be reinforced with practice. That’s ideal! If they don’t have much ability to self-settle, there are methods that can help teach a dog to ‘chill’.

photo by Sherri Clendenin

With my litters, I begin immediately with cradling each pup in my hands. Very young pups are stimulated when touched. How easily and quickly a pup settles gives clues to their temperament. Patterns become evident over time. When a pup settles while cupped in your hands, it will give a big yawn or sigh and sometimes a stretch before relaxing. This process also helps them to settle – even at this young age. We all know how good it feels after a strenuous day to fall into bed and allow our bodies and minds to unwind. Settling feels good to a dog, too. It’s tough on a dog who can’t self-settle.

As a pup matures, the ability to self-settle helps them focus on their training. Since they are not overwhelmed with over-stimulation, they can think about their lessons.

There are several steps to teaching a dog to settle. We help them discover that calming feeling when their minds and muscles relax. The first approach is to have the pup or dog stand or sit next to you and place the outstretched palms of your hands gently and firmly on the sides of their shoulders. Firmly and supportively – this is not punishment or control! The moment they show a relaxing signal like yawning or licking their lips, release your touch, allowing them to soak up that nice feeling – saying nothing. Eventually, you will move your hands for a bit of a massage, still using the palms of your hands and a slow firm touch. This isn’t petting. This is closer to massaging although it isn’t quite that either. Think of ‘thunder-shirts’ that are used to settle and calm an anxious dog. The thunder-shirt exerts a firm, all-encompassing ‘cradle’ around the dog. Our hands can have a similar effect once the dog associates relaxation with our handling.

As the pup learns to accept this handling knowing that it helps them unwind, they welcome this. It may take awhile for some pups. It surely did with Kit! She was so easily over-stimulated that her mouth went into over-drive with any kind of touching. She wasn’t nasty. She quickly wound-up and grabbed onto whatever was close – very often one of our limbs!  And – it was the smallest of things that sent her into wild and crazy land. The only way that she could settle was to be crated. Initially when she was crated as a pup, she flung herself around the crate until she flopped with a great sigh and fell to sleep.  Generously sized areas only allowed her to work up a lather until she was beside herself with edginess.

I felt sorry for her. It was like she had too many cups of coffee – All. The. Time!

One often hears, “A tired dog is a good dog.”. While this is true, the more one exercises a dog, the more exercise the dog requires. Puppies also need to learn to take it easy. “A dog who is appropriately exercised and taught to settle is a good dog!”

Our play and train sessions were brief with frequent ‘Settle’ breaks. We incorporated the relaxation handling into our sessions, so she learned that touch could be calming. Each session would have focus games, an assortment of games preparing for future obedience cues and games that motivated her brain. Hiding toys and food in and outside the house was a favorite. She learned to ‘Wait’ while I hid the toys/treats. Waiting was really, really challenging for her but since she loved looking for these hidden treasures, she willingly learned this ‘impulse’ control’.  Impulse control games were never ending for Kit whether waiting for treats, meals, entering/exiting doors and crates. Almost everything in her life was based on her learning to calmly focus and pause.

Kit and I practiced ‘Place’ – when the dog learns to lie down, not in a formal obedience down position, but in a relaxed down. If they chose to chew on a chew toy, that’s great. If they wish to snooze, that is great, too. ‘Place’ became our morning, noon and nightly training along with our play games and other activities. A rug was provided for her to lie and small treats dropped between her front paws, frequently at first and then on a variable schedule. Often enough so she expected a treat but not so often that she lost interest if a treat wasn’t dropping from heaven often. 

As the weeks turned into months, she liked practicing her ‘Place’ behavior. When she began initiating ‘Place’ on her own, I knew she was learning to chose to settle. ‘Choosing to settle’! That was big!

That face! Always scheming!
(photo by Sherri Clendenin)

Adventures with Kit: Chapter 1

Kit at 8 weeks. Innocence!

A fluff ball, for sure! Kit was born August 15, 2015 and at eight weeks of age, she came home to live with us.

 For several years, I thought I was finished with breeding and training German shepherds but seeing friends having fun with their puppies whet my appetite and I couldn’t resist finding a pup to join our lives. My Framheim dogs were all but gone. A senior male, Zen was the sole Framheim dog with us. After more than thirty years with breeding shepherds, I was starting over.

Studying pedigrees and researching breeders, the focus was finding the kind of pup I wanted and a pedigree that might be a good match for our Axel vom Steffen Haus whose frozen semen we had retained.  Axel was born in 1987 and had been an exceptional dog, competing in Germany and the US successfully. He had also produced dogs of outstanding character and health. An Axel litter would be my final chapter of a life with shepherds.

So – considering the many characteristics I hoped for, this little piece of fluff held the future I wished for.

In the coming blog posts, we will discuss Kit and our journey of relationship building from when she joined our family in 2015 to where we are today in 2019 as she celebrates her 4th birthday. It’s been an adventure!

Kit at 4 months of age.

Let’s Play – or maybe not

Puppies are magnets for learning! Everyday in every way, they are learning to be dogs in a human world. The first few months after a pup comes home with their new family are critical in building the kind of relationship you want. The foundation of the human and dog partnership is forming during this time.

I teach pups with games when they are young. We begin with toy tosses and when puppy brings the toy back towards me, I have another toy ready to toss. Wiggle the toy, when puppy drops the toy they have in their mouth, quickly, I toss the next toy. The pup learns to retrieve and is not put ‘in conflict’ of giving up their prized toy since another toy is thrown immediately. We turn this game into a ‘Recall /Come” game with treats, too, but the pup eats the treat, obviously.  It’s all Fun! Pup is learning she can trust this new human – critical for a solid partnership.

Within the first few days with Kit, I discovered she was not a puppy who followed – ever. Whereas most young puppies naturally follow people and older dogs, she didn’t. She ran off in every direction other than where we were going.

Never fear! We were armed with pockets of treats, toys and irresistible games like Hide and Seek, Run-away Recalls and Round-Robin recalls. Run-away recalls are pretty obvious: you run away, and puppy runs after you for loads of treats, toys and playtime. Round-robin recalls are with two or more people calling the pup to come for more treats, toys, play and affection.  It’s a game that puppies love. Well, most puppies!

 When I introduced these games to Kit, she scrutinized me with a calculating eye and trotted in the other direction. Time to appeal to her prey drive so toys on strings were wiggled and waggled. She scurried off grabbing sticks, stones, whole clods of dirt and grass, even grabbing mouthfuls of bark from tree trunks and proceeded to play with those. She tried to eat everything and anything! Those little black eyes gleaming at me as if telling me that I was of no consequence. She didn’t need me or my silly toys. She had a world of playthings of her choosing. She only had to grab a stone or stick and it was ‘Game on!’  I had the distinct impression; she was scoffing at my enticements to play.  For a pup so young, there was something uncanny about this pup and her dark intensely calculating eyes.

Just a few days after her home-coming, she looked peaked. One gets to recognize the serious from the not-so-serious sickly looks. This was serious. Peter had just driven away with our one and only vehicle. In retirement, we hoped we would require only one car. I called our vet and they were prepared for us. As I feverishly dialed Peter’s phone, I collected necessities to take to the veterinarian. Peter has this aggravating tendency to not answer phones or check messages. I rang repeatedly until a slightly annoyed Peter answered with, “Why are you calling me over and over? I am driving!”

When he heard our urgency, he swung the van around and was home quickly. We raced to the vets.

The veterinarian returned to our exam room with baby Kit and showed us x-rays. Her intestines were filled with pebbles and stones. The vet announced that, “This little girl has been eating inappropriate things for a very long time.” We were given a special canned diet and warned to watch her carefully for the next 10 days to two weeks to be certain she was passing the small quarry she had collected inside. If she stopped eating or had more incidents of feeling sick, they might have to surgically remove these stones.

Kit was already dragging a leash or long line everywhere because of her independent nature. Now, we had an even more urgent need for her to be supervised every minute: What she considered a funny game of playing with ‘nature’s toys’ could kill her.

She survived – with her recalcitrant demeanor intact. It was time to up the act. We instituted something similar to Nothing In Life is Free (NILF). Obedience trainers develop training methods and like to assign snappy names to them. There have been various versions of NILF. In a nutshell, the dog performs a behavior in exchange for something it wants. Going in and out of crates, kennels, doorways; waiting for meals and treats – everything was preceded by Kit being asked to give a behavior. It could be ‘come’, ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘wait’ or a trick – anything, just so she learned to comply with her human’s requests. It is all accomplished with a smile and merriment on the human’s part.  The point is to make the human relevant to the dog. “You, my dear dog, depend on me, your significant human, for everything in life. Aren’t you lucky!”

Kit loved being busy so more things to do with the NILF program was fun to her. That was exactly what I had hoped. She still gave me her evil eye and exploited every chance to follow her own wishes but we were making progress. I was also learning this was going to be a very long process. Her exceptional intelligence combined with her wily and determined nature meant that every interaction with her had to be purposeful.

Everything was a game but with very serious intent: For Kit to learn to be a partner!

Kit and I were just getting to know each other. This was going to be an adventure! Stay tuned as Kit and I travel a sometimes bumpy road together…..Well, mostly together!

photo by Sherri Clendenin