Canine Behavior/Adolescent Foster Dog
QUESTION: Hi Jody,
Thanks in advance for taking the time to answer my question, which really centers around dog development and personality.
My husband and I foster dogs for a local rescue. A little over three weeks ago we welcomed Drake into our home. He was about 6-7 months old when he was found as a stray and taken to a kill shelter. His background before that is unknown. The rescue we volunteer with pulled him and he came directly to our house, so I think he is around 7-8 months now. He is the youngest dog we have ever had in the house (our own basset/lab boy came to us at 3-4 years old and our other fosters have been older). We think Drake is a shepherd mix of some sort. Maybe with some hound (photos attached).
Drake has learned the house rules quickly and is a very confident dog. He's not afraid to challenge us, which I gather is very adolescent behavior. He's also mouthy during play (we're working on it!). He likes to know where we are in the house generally, but doesn't follow us around and is content to go find a bone and chew alone. He will bring toys to us sometimes, and engages in play with us too. In the evenings after we exercise, he will lay on the opposite end of the sofa as us. He will allow us to touch him, but doesn't seek this out most of them time. He occasionally, especially in the morning, will come and sit on our feet with his back to us as if to say "attention please!" At the dog park, he keeps good track of us and remarkably comes when called often. It's like he oscillates between wanting to be part of the 'pack' and wanting to assert his independence. I suppose some of this may be that he has only been with us a few weeks.
With that background, I'm hoping for some advice about what to tell potential families about his personality or the kind of 'family' dog he will be as he matures. One potential adopter has specifically asked us if Drake is a little aloof because of his age (the adopter is looking for a people-oriented dog) and we are not sure what to him. Are all adolescent male dogs like this? Or is this just Drake's personality starting to shine through? We are just hoping to find him the best fit possible. Thank you so much for any insight - this independent teenage phase is totally unknown to us!
ANSWER: First off, thank you for participating in foster work. It takes a special person to bring in animals who are currently unwanted and love them knowing that in the end they will (hopefully) be going to another home.
Drake is adorable!!!!
I do not know what you mean when you say "He's not afraid to challenge us". What does that mean? What is the behavior he's doing that you feel is challenging you? In what circumstances is he doing it?
From what you have shared, there are a couple of things that come to mind. Please note that this reply cannot be used as a behavior assessment as I have not met nor observed him nor done any kind of temperament testing with him.
So, the first thing that jumps out at me is that he seeks you out and sits on your feet with his back to you. I usually interpret that behavior as seeking contact for the sake of comfort and reassurance. It's actually a very pro-social behavior, maybe even akin to a type of hug. That's a good thing and the response I give to dogs who do this is to just put a hand on them gently. I might engage them in a good nuzzle or play if they respond to my contact with that behavior, but often, they just want you to touch them back. So that's a good sign as to whether or not he is people oriented. That behavior is actively seeking out people for contact and comfort.
You describe him as playful and responsive to your calls even at the dog park. Given that he's been with you for less than a month and he's returning to you even in the high-distraction environment of a dog park is a very good thing and also speaks to his people-orientedness. Many, many dogs are so stimulated by all the dogs at the dog park that they can't even hear their person calling because of their own level of arousal. Or they are having so much fun that they ignore calls because they'd rather play with the dogs. So that he is returning at least long enough to check in with you before heading back out to the other dogs is a great start. Especially since we don't know if he was ever given any obedience training prior to your home.
He's also seeking out play with people by bringing toys to you and engaging in play with you - either at his request or your initiation.
That he chooses to relax on the opposite end of the couch only tells me that he doesn't want to cuddle all the time. But I don't know anyone (human or dog) who wants to cuddle *all* the time. My own two dogs are some of the most cuddliest dogs I've ever known and they frequently lay at the opposite end of the couch I'm on or the other couch in the room. Or even on the floor. That Drake is choosing to be in the room with you is in itself a pro-social behavior. he could easily choose to go lay down in another room (unless you're confining him to the room you are in). But he's choosing to be in your same space, even if he doesn't necessarily want to cuddle at that moment.
And this is all with only knowing you for 3 weeks (not even a month) and spending at least a month in the stressful environment of a shelter prior to that and who knows what his environment was before that! All in all, without having met him - based only on what you've presented, and without taking into account your definition of "challenging" you, I'd say he sounds like a pretty human-oriented and sociable dog.
Adolescent dogs are, like adolescent humans, stretching their wings of independence and I often tell obedience clients who hire me when their pups are just 10 or 15 weeks old that around the age of 6 months they'll wonder if they ever trained their dog at all. The dog will suddenly not respond as quickly as they used to. This is normal as the dogs are gaining confidence in themselves and exploring their world. It's then that we want to double down on our force-free, positive reinforcement training to remind the dog that it really does pay very well to pay attention to us and respond to our requests. But in this case, we don't know if he has had any training at all and you indicate he's being fairly responsive to you - even if it's just his recall at the park.
I look forward to hearing the specifics of what you describe as "challenging" and I reserve the right to refine my commentary based on that information. But for now, I'd say he sounds like a pretty typical, goofy, playful and people-social dog.
I hope this helps. Please use the "reply" button (I think that's what it is) to followup directly to this post so that the questions all stay together and I will address that last piece as best I can.
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
MAPP 2016 candidate
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Hi Jody,
Thanks so much for your detailed and insightful advice! What I meant by "challenging" us, is just that Drake is confident enough to push boundaries and challenge rules. For instance, we have told him to stay off the bed by saying no and removing him and he will often listen, but occasionally will jump up just to see if we still mean it! Similarly, when he play bites and we yelp or say no, he doesn't stop right away all the time. We are trying to give him something to do (like sit or take a toy in his mouth instead), but he pushes this at times. This is very adolescent from what I have read, I just wanted to let you know this so you wouldn't think he was frightened or nervous in our home.
I appreciate your thoughts that he is a social dog, and will certainly communicate this to prospective adopters. I think we are just accustomed to "Velcro" dogs and dogs that solicit attention more often or directly. Drake for the most part doesn't force attention. He will at times flop over on us for pets, but it is pretty inconsistent. He will "fly by" for attention, but moves on quickly. And while he checks in at the dog park, he is too busy for us there! I think he just may be more independent than many of the fosters we have had. Unless he is really tired, he doesn't want to cuddle. And from what I have read, some dogs just don't. He will look at us and what we are doing, he just doesn't directly insert himself, of that makes sense. Not sure if any of this changes your initial opinion. Thanks so much for the prompt response and kind advice! Fostering and finding the best family for the pups we help brings my husband and me a lot of joy. And you're right, Drake is a cutie!
Thank you for the followup with more details about some of Drake's behavior.
Regarding the getting on the bed issue. My guess is that it's not a challenge so much as just an incomplete understanding of the rules. Or, it's part of a game he's created and finds the interaction to be fun. In obedience training, the general rule is that unless you've proofed a behavior to a skill of successful performance at 95% of the time, the greater likelihood of a failure at any given trial is poor communication on our part or incomplete understanding for the dog. In other words, we humans are masters of mixed or confusing signals. So when our dog's don't do as we request, the first thing we need to do is examine our own body language and determine if we are communicating what we think we're communicating.
A great example is the Come or even the "Off" for getting off the furniture. If you watch the body language of the human in both of those cases, they are almost always bending toward or even physically moving toward the dog. That body language is actually a distance-INcreasing behavior and communicates to the dog they should create more distance (move away). The better body language in both cases is to open up and lean slightly or move a bit away from the dog while calling them to you. By moving away (or leaning slightly back) while opening our arms and inviting the dog to us, we are giving distance-DEcreasing behaviors - so long as our tone of voice is inviting our body is soft and not stiff/angry.
With the bed, instead of telling him "no" I'd tell him "Off" and then lure him off the bed with a treat or toy or promise of outside. Follow through on whatever you offer. After a dozen or two dozen repetitions, you should be able to tell him "Off" and give the hand signal (same movement, but nothing in your hand) and after he complies, you can offer praise or a tidbit or a special toy or an outing as reward - mixing it up and only rewarding every 3rd or 5th time. First we teach the dog what we expect by helping him (lure), and then when he's demonstrating consistent appropriate response, we switch to requesting and if he complies, he gets a reward periodically (to maintain the behavior), but not every time. And the reward is not present until after he does the behavior.
It's important to remember, that just like humans, dogs don't do things unless they are sufficiently motivated to do it. The bed is comfy. The bed is where a game is happening. So you need to provide sufficient motivation for him to choose to comply.
Play biting can be tricky. I've never found yelping to be helpful. In fact, I find it usually riles the dog up more. I tend to hold perfectly still (if I'm moving, then my hand is a tug toy). And I say quietly something like, 'Ouch. I don't like that." When he let's go, I take my hand back, pause for just a few seconds and then present a toy as alternative.
If I can take my hand away without causing damage to me (the bite is light enough), then I'll take it away immediately on tooth contact, saying the same thing. This time I'll pause for a good 10 seconds before restarting the game with a toy. Your description of Drake's behavior just sounds like he didn't learn his bite inhibition completely and so he may always have a slightly hard mouth in play as that skill is usually fully developed by 4-5 months of age, though there is refinement over the entire first year - so he may get better with practice.
Ahhh, yes. The fly-by cuddle. My soul dog was an Akita/Chow mix. She was most definitely aloof. And I had gone looking for a cuddle-bug to adopt. But she chose me and we had an amazing 14+ years together. She was never a cuddler. She did not want to sleep on the bed with me ever. She was not interested in belly rubs, except on her own terms and only for about 30 seconds at a go. She was not interested in cuddling on the couch. But she would come up, rub against my legs and engage with me for a minute with the biggest, happiest expression on her face and then go lay across the room from me. That was her way. Initially I was a little disappointed, but came to understand that this was the nature of both Akitas and Chows and I embraced that her behaviors were indeed her version of cuddling. She also liked to rub against my freshly washed hair while it was still wet (she got regular baths to accommodate this...) and she would engage in allo-grooming (mutual grooming as part of bonding behaviors) - which often looks like she's trying to bite little fleas, but on me. She'd start on her own front leg with little front-teeth-only nibbles and work her way down her leg and onto my arm if my arm was near her. These small things were her way of cuddling and showing affection.
So, it may just be Drake's nature that he loves from a little distance. It does not mean he can't or won't bond deeply with a forever person as my girl did with me. I was her entire world and she showed me in every way that she was comfortable - just not snuggling on the couch or spooning at night. ;-)
Enjoy Drake while you've got him. I wish him a forever home soon!
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
MAPP 2016 candidate
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine