Friday, February 19, 2010

Social Skills

Let's talk dog:

Mel's comment on jealousy has me thinking about imprint period, writing the program if you will, and how plastic/flexible biology is. It is the limits of this plastisity that intrigue me.

When the first wolf that crawled into a cave motivated by hunger to snatch a morsel of food, how comfortable could that non imprinted wolf ever get? Konrad Lorenz wrote about cave children playing with wolf cubs. His writing helped me visualize the domestication process, our long journey to partnership with another species.

The level of dog training, I believe, is at an all time high. I read the entries on my friend, Mels, f.b. page. The types of exercises and games trainers are using today, awesome. We are in love with our relationship with dogs. The greatest part in all of this is that the dogs are eager participants as well. I love to watch a handler and a dog perform when they are "on". That is a transcending moment. My heart beats faster just remembering.

Research reports of the 1960's showed the imprint stage to close around four months. The question becomes how well was the program written. Can Bonita become a pet? Or will she be a ghost dog, living in the shadow hoping for a morsel but never wanting to be pet or stroked by humans.

The same research showed that puppies needed to be with canine family seven weeks to learn their own language. That's not quite the way the report put it, that's what I take it to mean. Frankly, I think that is the minimum time required for a dog to somewhat know his own language. The dysfunctional way many dogs get along on the play ground is ample evidence.

One of my developing theories is that the better a dog is at its own language; the better it will be learning what we want or our language. I applied this theory to raising a beautiful dog named Shaker last year. At eight weeks a well bred, well raised boy came into my life. He was bright, inquisitive, just bold enough; in short he was a golden retriever. Last summer we had a ball.

The rules for the experiment were easy: no training, play only. I can't have a jumping puppy so we taught sit. The only "command" was the stop what you're doing sound. Good dog was the phrase of the day; that of course is something that should never change. Shaker went through a very brief time of not caring if he pleased, that is so seductive he could not resist for long. We hung out. I loved him and I was always alpha.

Sadie our GSD was patient when he chewed on her tail or chased her ball. He was good for our old girl. She had a new zest for life. His family extended beyond his breed. His confidence grew in my yard. My cocky young upstart went to day care next door. The first day a soft coated Wheaton taught him that all dogs are not as patient as Sadie. The Wheaton flipped Shaker on his back and "raaughhed" while snapping his teeth and nipping skin. My little woo-woo boy whimpered then was oh, so submissive and respectful. It looked like Shaker getting his butt kicked. I trusted the Wheaton not to overstate his case; he didn't.

Shaker's mastery of his own language grew with his day care experience, which I controlled to maximize his development. What I wanted in Shaker was a dog so skilled in his own language that he could facilitate shy dogs becoming part of the day care group. The boy knows how to make friends; we'll see how testosterone affects that.

Over the years I've truly seen the importance of socialization during imprint, so we took him to the park to see babies and play with little kids. Rock & roll on Friday night at Starved Rock State Park was Shaker's thing all summer or was that being handled by drunks? Shaker watched fireworks. He wagged his tail through everything.

Shaker is the exact opposite of Bonita on everything except her canine language skills. She must also have a fair bit of human body language in her bank of skills. She knows our body language as non -threatening. We walk and move within inches of her. Bonita lets my husband, Kirt closer to her because I reach out and touch her when she lets her guard down.

One night a couple of males I'd never seen before were on our veranda and challenging Stormy for the territory. Tippy toes, stiff upright tail wags, circling occurred before one boy urinated on my porch. I hate pissing on the porch. I came flying out of the house to stop the challenge. As I walked past Bonita, she crouched and slinked off. I run around her, dance and do goofy things, so I have to think she could read the aggression in my body language.

Bonita presents a great learning opportunity for me. Her four siblings were three weeks old yesterday. More to come.


  1. I love the parallel between dogs understanding their own language and our body language. We touched on this the other day while talking about agility handling "systems". I have noticed these natural tendencies with puppies as young as 6 weeks (pretty much as soon as they can move there parts fairly coordinately. I have tested my theory on my own pups and on puppy class pups and very reliably there is certain body language that dogs repond to in a consistant manner. Some of this is definately leanrned and improved with learning but to some degree it must be innate. I know this is a whole different tangent but being able to communicate with a dog you don't know, and who doesn't know you is an amazing thing to me and I am in awe everytime I experience this. I remember in the days I first started going to training classes and the trainers I wanted to emulate seemed to have this "magical" way of geting the dog to understand what they want. Looking back now it wasn't magic, although I still think magical, it was a blend of luring, body language, clear consistant reward and/or correction and just plain letting the dog think sometimes. Well it's early, and I've rambled but definately another subject I can't get enough of!

  2. The coolest part of our relationship is that the dogs are just as involved as we are.
    Yesch, you bring out the trainer in me. Back at Carrvilla it's all about the relationship; its true. We train to get the relationship we want; its a good thing.
    Here the relationship is just so different. If I don't have a good relationship 1st, these guys won't do squat. Other than as providers of food, how interesting they find us is questionable. Oh, another heresy to say that dogs find something interesting or not?
    I am having a great time just taking a fresh look. Yes, it is magic.