Oh no, it’s not Big-Bad the wolfdog. He’s standing quietly in the middle of the eager-to-eat pack of dogs, patiently waiting for the chef (that would be me—these are the only creatures on the planet who consider me an excellent cook) to dish up another delectable meal.
The ruckus is coming from Robby, another of my foster dogs. I have no idea what breeds came together to create Robby, but whatever they are, they are demanding and vocal. Frankly, though he really is a sweet boy, he can be a tad rude at times. Ninety-nine.nine percent of the time mealtimes are “those” times.
“Robby,” I say calmly, but firmly, “Go sort.”
Upon hearing the cue “sort,” Robby turns and scrambles toward the bedroom where he will wait for his breakfast quietly—blissfully quietly—in a crate. Yes, he will stand there, door wide open and wait. This is the resolution we have arrived at for his feeding time frenzies. It’s my favorite dog training rule: If your dog displays a behavior you don’t like, teach a behavior you do like that can replace it.
Robby in the dog room doing a rather impressive impression of the Looney Tunes Tazmanian Devil falls in the Don’t Like column. Robby turning and racing off on cue to wait calmly in his crate for his morning meal? Do Like column with a gold star—and most days he does it without me even asking. This also means that I have stopped cursing his name and not-so-secretly wanting to strangle him.
And this is what dog training should be. It should be creative. Every dog should be a puzzle to be solved. Problems should not be met with anger, force, punishment, or aggression; they should be met from the viewpoint of a teacher.
I wish I could tell you that I always approach every “opportunity” my dogs throw my way with such zen-like patience, but I’m human. Oh-so-human. My first reaction to Robby’s canine tirades was to scold him and try to have him stay in the dog room in a calm fashion. It was a huge fail and in trying to deal with Robby right then and there, I was frustrating the other dogs.
Ok, Nancy. Step back, look at the situation, come up with a plan that reduces stress instead of increasing it. That’s how we arrived at the “go wait in your crate” plan and it works like a charm. Robby knows his job. He knows I will arrive with his food and I will get to praise him for being such a good, good boy. A+++ for both of us.
So back to Big-Bad and the integration of the wolfdog into our home. It’s gone well. Really well, in fact. It would be easy, at this point, to be lulled into a false sense of what’s-all-the-fuss-about-wolfdogs attitude.
Big-Bad is calm and friendly. He gets along amazingly well with our dogs. His primary play-buddies of choice are Cinder and Gretel, the two German shepherd mix girls that we found and are fostering. His body language is a joy to watch as he plays with his new BFFs.
He displays clear, easy communication. His body stays loose in play, with lots of soft curves as he dances with the other dogs in the give-and-take wrestling match of good, appropriate play. His tail stays relaxed and wags lazily from side to side. He places his large mouth across their backs, their necks, or reaches up to take hold of a leg, just as they do to him, and he is always gentle, displaying perfect restraint. If one of his friends tells him to back off, he does so, immediately bouncing backwards with his head held low, tossing it from side to side in a playful, good-natured display.
In the yard, he is starting to join in their games of tag, though we have yet to see him really run. The sores on the large pads of each of his feet are healing, but they are still tender. He currently joins in these games by trotting smaller circles inside their large, looping race track around the perimeter of the yard. As they spiral inward around him he waits for his chance to jump in the action as they all fall into a jumble of panting, sparring silliness. Soon I know he will likely lead the race and Jim and I sure look forward to seeing this boy in a full gallop. It will no doubt be a thing of beauty.
For now, as his body heals and gains strength, it appears that our wolfdog is very pleased with his new lot in life. He is very content. He seems relaxed. He has a happy light in his eyes. He does not get frantic about anything. When the other dogs erupt in one of their “We are sure there is a tiger in the back pasture” rampaging sprints through the dog door, Big-Bad just watches them with an amused expression. It’s as if he has some internal sense for when a situation truly merits a reaction…and when it’s really just our donkeys trotting across the field.
It would be easy to assume that we won the wolfdog lottery and that our boy is just going to be easy-peazy. It would be simple to just sit back and watch this new relationship unfold. But that would also be irresponsible.
Jim and I are not rookies in the dog world and we do have some experience around wolfdogs. We also have the benefit of counsel from our friends at Freedom Song Wolf Rescue. Our chats with them combined with our own knowledge help me remember that the wolfdog we have today, may be a very different animal from the healthier, stronger, older wolfdog we will have in the days, weeks, and months to come.
So as we enjoy seeing every play bow, as we help him settle into our home and lives, it would be foolish of us to play “wait and see” with this growing boy. Now Nancy and Jim the trainers get to step forward to embrace this amazing opportunity.
I have officially started testing the waters a bit with this guy. He is, after all, only eight to 10 months old—a puppy that won’t see full maturity for another year or more. And we have to remember, there are two voices sharing the conversation inside Big-Bad’s beautiful head. One voice is that of a playful, silly adolescent dog. The other voice is his more primal side; the voice of his wolf heritage.
Right now I imagine that the voices in his head sound something like this:
Wolf: Yes, this place is great. But those friends…are they going to try to steal your food? Grrrrr.
Dog: Oh no! Those are my friends! Plus, She-human makes sure we all have food. There is more than enough.
Wolf: Really? But don’t you want a little more? That small spotted dog over there…bet you could take hers.
Dog: Well, no…I can’t. I shouldn’t. I won’t. Plus, it’s time for us all to go into the yard to play!
Wolf: Yeah, about that yard. It’s ok, but have you looked beyond the fence? There is all that open room, and all of those trees in the back. Don’t you want to go out there to explore?
Dog: Dude! There’s no couch out there. Plus it gets really dark at night…and the food and belly rubs are inside. The yard is fine. I love the yard.
Wolf: Ok. Fine. You enjoy your fancy-pants life here. We’ll talk again in a month or two.
So far dog seems to be winning over wolf, but that can change. There are reminders every day of the wolf within. First, one look at Big-Bad says wolf. Anyone can see it. And then there is his bark, or lack thereof.
Big-Bad doesn’t bark, but boy does he talk. He says arrrr, and raaah, and harrumph, all in a deep, James-Earl-Jones-esque timbre. And then, in an easy leap up the scale to a new octave, he throws his head back to let loose a joyful AR-ROOOOOOOO. Dogs and humans like try to imitate his song, but he is the master. He doesn’t sing the song, he lives it.
As we continue to get to know each other, I have starting testing Big-Bad’s limits a bit. I have examined his teeth. I have handled his feet and doctored the sore spots on each. I have trimmed his toenails. He accepted this attention better than certain dogs I know (glances accusingly at several dogs in the room…).
Jim has taken him for rides in the car. He has introduced him to new people and even kids. Beyond being a bit unnerved by some squealing kids running toward him in the park (they unnerved me too), he has been flawlessly friendly to everyone.
We have asked him to sleep in his secure run in the dog room. We have asked him to sleep in a large crate in our bedroom. We have allowed him to sleep loose in the house. He has complied with all of these arrangements…though being shut away in the dog room was initially met with some plaintiff wails…”I’m soooooo lonely back here. Hellllooooooo? I don’t want to be aloooooone.”
I hear you on that one buddy…you are a pack animal through and through. That lobo-solo crap is a bunch of bunk. In fact, the night we did ask you to sleep off in the run, I believe I awoke a few hours later to find you snuggled on the couch with the He-human. Yeah, he didn’t think you should be alone either.
So the one remaining test for me was his attitude about mealtime. Many dogs are prone to guarding high-value resources and food certainly ranks at the top of the resource list. For the first week here, I let Big-Bad eat in his run without being disturbed.
Once he had a chance to settle in, I decided it was time to test the waters a bit. We had already been asking him to sit for food treats, as well as prior to having his food bowl placed on the floor. Two days ago, I did that routine at feeding time, but then took it a step further and stayed with him, reaching out to lightly stroke his back while he ate.
Ah-hah! First challenge revealed. As I ran my hand along the soft fur of his back, Big-Bad froze. His body became rigid. He kept his head low, over his bowl, but stopped eating. His ears pinned back. His eyes took on a glassy look as he rolled them to look up at me, exposing little moons of white on the sides.
There it is. I found my first “opportunity” with my wolfdog. It wasn’t extreme, he did not growl, or try to snap at me, but I also did not press him. I gave him one more pat and then calmly left the run to let him eat in peace. Though he has gained 12 pounds in his first 10 days in our care, he is still quite emaciated and each meal is a big deal. I didn’t want to confront him, or exacerbate things by snatching his food away. I wanted to develop a training plan.
He displays no ill temper during food prep time. He does not get grumpy with the other dogs; he waits patiently for me to dish meals up. He has already learned to run into his dog run where he sits before I will serve him. Now he will find a few new steps added into his mealtime routine. I will work with him gradually, while keeping things fair and easy as we learn to trust each other. He will learn to trust that I won’t steal his food, and I, through training, will learn to trust that he won’t react badly to my presence during mealtimes.
My first step in the teaching process has been to simply stroke the length of his back two or three times right after I let him have his meal. It’s very casual, it’s as I turn to leave the run. I pet him a few times with my back to his head and bowl, I praise, I walk out. He has accepted this attention beautifully, with no stiffening, no adverse reaction.
Next, I am going to introduce him to clicker training (Today! We will start today!). I’m very excited to start this method with him because I know he’s going to respond so well.
If you are not familiar with clicker training, here is a really, really condensed explanation of the theory behind it. Basically, the animal learns that the click sound is a bridge between the display of a specific, desired behavior, and a reward to come. So, for example, if a dog who has been properly introduced to the clicker comes and sits in front of a person instead of jumping up in greeting, he would get a click and a reward (generally a food treat in the training process, but it can be anything that the dog finds rewarding). The trainer is capturing and marking the desired behavior at the precise moment it is offered and rewarding it, thereby increasing the likelihood that the dog will offer the behavior again.
With Big-Bad, I plan to introduce the clicker and then use it at mealtime. I will have him sit, I will click, and I will give him his food bowl. We will do that a few times. Then I will stay while he eats and I will pet him lightly. Each time he displays relaxed behavior when I pet him, I will click and then drop a higher value food treat into his bowl. He will find that my attention is not only non-threatening, but that it also earns him something even yummier.
The next step will involve a wonderful tool called the Assess-A-Hand, developed by renowned trainer Sue Sternberg. This is a great tool that is used by shelters and trainers across the nation. Basically, it is a fake hand that allows you to test and train with a dog that has resource guarding issues without putting any of your own digits at risk. I am a big fan. BIG.
In a few days, a bit further down the training trail, I will have Assess-A-Hand touch Big-Bad lightly on the face while he is eating. Brave little Assess-A-Hand will also reach into the bowl, perhaps even sliding it a bit away. Each time Big-Bad accepts this attention appropriately, I will click and add a higher value food treat into his bowl. I won’t push him too hard, I will teach him gradually. I’m so excited to start this process.
The important thing here is that we are not going to wait for him to possibly develop serious resource guarding issues; we are going to preemptively teach him that such behaviors are not necessary. There is no need for him to act out aggressively, and there is certainly no need for me to respond in kind. It’s a line of thinking and methodology I have learned from amazing mentors in my never-ending, always-evolving journey as a certified professional dog trainer and it works.
I think I’ll also get some M&Ms so I can click and treat myself too. Fair is fair, after all.
Oh, and his name! I bet you’re dying to find out what we finally decided for his real name…yeah, us too. Sigh.