Saturday, October 8, 2011

Canine Social Skills

We spent time Thursday and Friday evaluating a nine month old American Pit Bull Terrier puppy http://www.petfinder.com/petdetail/21028762 for possible addition to our household. Sadly he had zero canine social skills; he didn't even understand that he could learn from another dog although he desperately wanted to be with Ranger. Ranger explained very clearly and patiently that lunging and dragging the person on the other end of the leash were not acceptable preludes to social interaction and Woodward just didn't get it. 

I first met Woodward a month ago when we visited the Kitsap Humane Society to pick out a new cat. My 12 year old, now in his third year of dog 4-H, has been hoping for a dog of his own to train, work with and love so every visit involves a quick tour through the dog kennels. My son wants a Golden Retriever but not a lot of Golden's end up at the shelter so he's prepared to consider all other breeds as long as it is the right dog. The right dog is young which I define as under 18 months, bright, eager to learn, plays well with others and is approved by Ranger. But back to meeting Woodward. His kennel is directly across from the door into the main kennel area so he is the first dog you see. As I walked through the door he scurried to the front of his kennel, grinning from ear to ear, wagging his whole body and barking for attention. I don't like being barked at and I've discovered I'm constitutionally unable to prevent myself from training any dog that interacts with me. I began making shushing sounds and rewarding any quiet with a scratch through the chain link gate. In less than 30 seconds Woodward understood that he'd only get attention if he didn't bark. I was impressed by how quickly he learned and by how much he wanted to please. Ranger has never been eager to please; Ranger learned good behavior because that got him what he wanted not because what he wanted was to make me happy. I've always understood that with Ranger making me happy was a means to an end not an end to itself; we have a deep and close bond but it is as partners not as dog and master. I rather enjoyed the attitude that making me happy made Woodward happy, it's a breed trait that Pit Bulls are highly predisposed to want to please their humans; I remember reading somewhere that as young as two months a Pit Bull puppy will prefer the company of humans to that of other dogs. It occurred to me that such a desire to please would be a very good trait in a 4-H project dog. But we were still looking for that elusive Golden Retriever and besides I'm not really that eager to add to the ongoing chaos that defines my household but getting another dog. 

Unfortunately, I couldn't get Woodward out of my head. Even just interacting through the gate I saw a lot I really liked. Lots of thought, discussions and consideration took place and lots of hoping that a knowledgeable person would see what I did and take Woodward home but he continued to languish at the shelter. Fortunately for Woodward the Kitsap Humane Society takes very good care of its animals and understands how stressful the shelter environment is for the animals in it's care http://myemail.constantcontact.com/What-if-the-tables-were-turned-.html?soid=1105542306278&aid=BEBQpbU94Bc but even the best care in the world isn't a substitute for a home. I talked it over with my son and he was willing to consider a Pit Bull. So we loaded up Ranger and went to meet Woodward. 

When we arrived shortly before closing time Woodward was curled up on his bed in the back of his Kennel and merely opened one sad eye; kennel stress in action. We snagged his paperwork and went to arrange the meet and greet. You could see him trying so hard to remember the manners he's been learning as part of his enrichment program but you could also see the excitement and pent up energy completely at war with those efforts. As Woodward jumped and licked, several times I found my hand in his mouth, mouthiness is fairly common in a dog his age, but never once did I feel any of his teeth. I was impressed. When we'd played with Woodward for awhile my son wanted to try taking him for a walk. I took one look at the flat nylon, six foot leash and sent my son to borrow Ranger's leash from the car. Ranger's leash is also six feet of flat nylon but it is designed with an extra loop near the collar, called a traffic grip, which is invaluable in controlling a dog that is lacking in leash manners. Here again it was clear Woodward was trying hard to remember the manners he's learning but that the pent up energy and excitement of a change in his routine was making it very difficult. Still, it was very clear that he wanted to please so every indication was that in a household with a consistent routine and sufficient exercise he'd learn quickly. So far it all looked good. It was time for Woodward to meet Ranger. 

For safety reasons the dogs are required to meet on leash so that they can be controlled although that has the potential to raise leash reactivity issues; in some ways it's a no win situation you can't risk the potential of a fight between unfamiliar dogs but you force them to interact within the length of their leashes which isn't really natural. Ranger was his usual calm and confident self but Woodward revealed a total absence of any canine social skills. He charged toward Ranger with all his pent up energy and enthusiasm and Ranger moved away. Woodward pulled so hard to get to Ranger that he was actually cutting off his own air supply (he was wearing a flat nylon martingale collar). We tried walking the dogs up and down the parking lot. I asked Ranger to pee on something so Woodward could smell it but rather than spending time learning about Ranger by sniffing his mark Woodward gave it a casual sniff and adjacent marked with his leg held practically vertical and Woodward continued his powerful pull to be with Ranger. Once when Ranger was very stressed (if you're curious about the circumstances you can read about it here http://www.dogster.com/dogs/658330/diary/Wag_more_bark_less/563629) and was asked to meet a calm, neutral dog he reacted in a similar fashion dragging me toward the other dog as if all his instincts were  to get to this member of his own species who might know what was going on. When the leash greeting wasn't working we tried allowing Woodward to be loose behind the fence so that Ranger could know he was safe from the impetuosity of this wild puppy and that did help but every time Woodward would paws up on the fence Ranger would withdraw. It was clear Ranger was saying that Woodward was being an exceptionally rude teenager and that he did not choose to tolerate that. 

It was not a successful meet and greet but something my son saw as our adoption counselor was collecting our paperwork offered me a bit of hope. Woodward was back in his familiar exercise yard and a bit more relaxed, so much so that Ranger did approach the fence and do a nose sniff with Woodward. Unfortunately, that was so exciting for Woodward that he leaped on the fence and Ranger again withdrew. Still it was a sign that Ranger was prepared to interact when Woodward demonstrated an effort at canine manners. Our counselor agreed to make sure Woodward got extra exercise the next morning so that perhaps he'd be a little calmer when we came back. During the night thinking about the visit between Woodward and Ranger I realized that we'd done Woodward no favors. When he jumped on us we immediately corrected him with a sharp "off" and rewarded him for all four paws returning to the ground. When he lunged and pulled to get to Ranger we merely managed the behavior and had made no effort to teach him how he should react; for some silly reason we were relying entirely on Ranger to show Woodward how to behave. This struck me as utterly ridiculous and very unfair. I live with Ranger who has exceptional social skills; I know what good manners look like and I know how to tell a dog what behavior I want and yet I'd done nothing to encourage good behavior from Woodward. 

We went back the next day hoping for a different outcome. Armed with two leashes with traffic grips (I donated the second one since it was clear that it could be of great use) and a bag of training treats we arranged another meet and greet for Ranger and Woodward. Again Woodward lunged and dragged and choked himself trying to get to Ranger and again Ranger withdrew. But this time when Woodward  tried to get to Ranger I pushed my knee past his face and when he was distracted told him he was good. We put Woodward in a sit and rewarded him with treats for looking at us and not at Ranger and Ranger rewarded him by coming closer but the excitement of another dog that close was too much. It was clear that Woodward just wanted to be with Ranger, I didn't see any signs of aggressive intent just a complete and utter lack of canine social skills, and no idea how to behave appropriately. He didn't even seem to understand what Ranger was trying to tell him. It was as if he had never ever learned to speak canine. In the end, much as I liked Woodward and much as I'd have liked to add him to our home I like Ranger better and it already is his home; a home to which I refuse to add a socially tone deaf dog who didn't demonstrate an ability to learn from the resident dog. In the end I was forced to acknowledge that Woodward has the potential to become an exceptional dog but that he needs to begin his new life as an only dog in the hands of someone who understand the importance of canine social skills and will be able to help him learn to behave appropriately when meeting another dog. Still, I was sufficiently impressed and attached to Woodward that I donated his adoption fee. Perhaps that will help him find the home that is right for him. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ranger Defines the New Kitten

I was highly entertained today when Ranger defined The Great Catsby, our new kitten, as Toy. I know he's been fascinated with this fearless new creature that grabs his face and chews on his ears or tries to swing from his tail but we hadn't tried to identify the kitten by a sign only by his verbal name "Catsby" which Ranger quickly learned to recognize.

Today Catsby was sitting on my lap. Ranger came up, sat politely, and signed Toy, when I asked what Toy he poked Catsby with his nose. I sat Catsby on the floor and they had a rousing game of tag.