The Dog I've Always Wanted

Canine Behavior, Training and Photography

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Puppy Journal 1 Early Summer

October 29th, 2009 · · Journal, Musings

167_119He’s been here for a week, a little, mostly black mutt with white brindling on his face and limbs and white paw tips. This is a confident, sometimes bold and very friendly, puppy. Fortunately for him he speaks fluent dog. His native tongue as it were. In order to be successful in his new home he must integrate into an existing pack of two dogs. She, a bossy and often cranky six year old basenji named Cleo and he, a husky mix from up north who is somewhat aloof, mainly suspicious and who can be reactive and fearful. His name is Benny and he is usually good with most other dogs especially other huskies and husky mixes who, like him, favour the wrestling and neck biting style of play. Benny is well-trained and calm in a quiet, predictable setting. Quite a sweet dog and he’s just three years old.

Both of these adult dogs have been very clear in demonstrating to the newcomer that he is #3, at least for now. The puppy has been appropriately respectful but only briefly cowering. In other words he gets the message and is respectful of his elders. He certainly has not been traumatized by the corrections Benny and Cleo have dished out to him. It isn’t strange to him. He 167_082knows it is the way of the world; he comes from a large and rowdy litter.

So how is it that this puppy and I have found ourselves together? There are many wonderful stories about how people and their dogs find each other.One can only marvel at the workings of a mystical destiny that brings together a certain canine with a specific human. Jon Katz touches on this element of the canine human connection in his wonderfully moving book, “Orson, A  Good Dog”. I realize that things had to fall out just as they did to cause the intersection of our two lives.

I had planned to spend five days at the cottage in early July but on my last day of work before the little vacation I was laid off from my job at the doggie day care for at least a month and possibly longer. Suddenly all the pieces were in the air again  and the nervousness and exhilaration of change and uncertainty was percolating in my mind. The inner turmoil was buffered by the immediate hustle and bustle of a departure for the country with 2 kids, 3 cats and of course the dogs. I came to the obvious conclusion and decided to stay in the woods by the lake as long as I was able . Who wouldn’t?

I had been thinking about finding a third dog for a while. My sweet old girl, Jessie had passed away in early April. I had been very sad and the pack felt diminished. Three was the number of dogs that felt right to me and pleased me. Three seemed a manageable number of dogs i.e. the number of dogs I could live with and still meet all of my other obligations, enough dogs to create an interesting pack dynamic, enough to be a bit of challenge on walks and dog park visits and definitely enough for my long-suffering husband. I had questioned whether or not I had the time or energy needed to raise a puppy. I was pretty sure that I ought adopt an adult dog. I had been religiously trolling the websites of various shelters and rescues in my vicinity. Just looking to feel that spark of recognition that would tell me, ‘this is your dog!’ Any dog that I adopted would need plenty of training. Jessie hadn’t but I couldn’t expect to be that lucky again. At least I could spare myself the demanding task of house training not to mention the middle of the night trips to the potty zone. That was what I was thinking.

Because I had extended my stay in the country I soon ran out of that essential staple, kitty litter. This necessitated a trip to the pet supplies and feed store in town where I saw a hand written ad that read, “Husky mix puppies. $20. Mountain Grove” . And  a phone number. I was consumed with curiosity. Husky crossed with what? Husky shepherd, I knew those guys. Was I ready for a dog like that? Or husky malamute, I’d passed on one of those last year and faintly regretted it ever since. He was an exceptional puppy, smart, tractable and sweet-tempered. I’d often wondered how he’d turned out. Pretty large, that much was a certainty.

I called that afternoon and was told by a teenaged boy that his mother was not home. He didn’t seem to know much about the puppies except that they were husky Labrador mixes and that there were twelve of them. I called again in the evening and left a message.

The next morning was a grey one and pouring with rain. The phone rang early as I was having coffee after taking the dogs on their first outing of the day. It was the woman from Mountain Grove. She told me that she had someone coming at 11 that morning to see the puppies and maybe I’d like to come around then too.  She also mentioned that she still had the whole litter. What an opportunity! I didn’t tell her that I was already intending to be there by 10:30. I wrote down the directions. I knew where it was.

As we drove along Bell Line Road in a downpour I explained a few things to my twelve year old daughter. I made it very clear that if any of these puppies looked sick we would not be taking one home. I also let her know that I, as pack leader, had the absolute final say on this whole matter. My daughter was so eager to have a puppy to cuddle and play with that she would have agreed to pretty well anything at that point. I reminded her that in the final analysis looks are not very important in a dog and in the case of mixed breeds hardly at all. They are far out weighed in significance by temperament and personality. What we were looking for was a healthy well balanced puppy who had not been traumatized and who had experienced plenty of positive interactions with people. We did not want a nervous puppy who shrank from the touch of a hand. In my mind, as the wind shield wipers worked overtime, I reviewed all the red flags that came to mind from the shy little creature with her back pressed into the corner to the bully who beats up all his litter mates.

We found the place easily and were met there by a  friendly well-spoken country woman with a tanned face. She had the look of someone who spent much of her time out of doors. Her place was small but quite beautiful with chickens, goats and horses. The countryside, hung with mist and rain, was rolling shades of green to a horizon ringed with trees. The dull skies made the colours more saturated. A lovely pastoral scene. No shadows. Unfortunately no camera either. I was far too preoccupied with trying to remember all the methods for evaluating puppies that I had ever read or heard about. I was wondering if I had actually learned anything. I so wanted to get it right. Just right.

“They’re in the barn,” she said, “I was going to let them out before you came but then I thought if you decided to take one… ” “They’d be wet,” I finished her sentence and we followed her into the barn. In one corner of the huge old barn was a makeshift pen. A dozen vigorous puppies tumbled and jumped and yipped in their eagerness to greet us. It was a little overwhelming. Where to start? What about the little blue-eyed blonde one? Or the reddish-brown one with very distinct husky facial markings and green eyes? And that one over there who so resembled a small bear….  It was not easy to think rationally. I am a sucker for puppies one at a time but this was intense! They were all beautiful, exuberant, and full of charm. I was not left to flounder for long. “Seven males, five females. That’s the pick of the litter.” She pointed out one of the three mostly black puppies. My daughter picked him up and began to admire him. Mean while I picked up a little blonde male and flipped him onto his back. Cradling him, I gazed into his eyes. He didn’t squirm at all. He just lay there and gazed directly back at me. Nice, I thought. With some dogs eye contact is not so easy to achieve. His looks reminded me a lot of Benny as a puppy. Maybe he’d even grow up to look like Benny’s brother….I stopped myself. It could be that this puppy was too passive. I went back out into the rain to get my dogs from the truck.  As we entered the barn Benny’s hackles rose. Th167_095e sound of all those squealing puppies made him edgy. Cleo was more interested in sniffing the amazing variety of smells in the barn than checking out the puppies. The two puppies we were considering were out of the pen in a large open area. There was basic polite sniffing and Benny’s hackles went down. Cleo was too busy running in her usual basenji circles, nose to the ground, to do more than a perfunctory check. The blonde puppy crept away, tail between his legs, his body curled in a nervous appeasing gesture. The mostly black one made eager play bows to Benny and yipped excitedly. When Benny didn’t respond in kind and ignored his advances the puppy was unfazed. He bounced over to me and stretched up and pawed my leg. I bent down and he became a wagging fool. He had selected himself for us. We handed over the token $20 and said our thank yous and goodbyes. The woman said that she would keep the puppies for a maybe a month and then take them to the Humane Society in Kingston. By then their size and agility would have robbed them of the greater part of their cuteness and some important things wouldn’t have happened for them in the realm of bonding. Poor puppies! Such is the fate of  mixed breed puppies, if they don’t get adopted very young their chances are not that great of a happy forever home.

The conversation on the way home revolved around names. His litter name had been Mickey. I had trouble with keeping that name; I knew a dog called Mickey and the name could only evoke his image in my mind. My daughter was eager to name the new puppy Zorro. “He’s mostly black,” she said. “No, not Zorro.” I said, exercising my parental power of veto. I didn’t relish shouting “Zorro come!” at the dog park. Over the next couple of days we tried out “Oscar” but that didn’t quite fit him either. My husband favoured Carlos the Jackal because the puppy was, in the first few weeks before he had learned “gentle”, quite free with his little teeth. I wrote  down lists of names of people I admire composers, photographers, writers too. Can you name a puppy J.S.Bach? Ansel ? Eventually, he became known as Arlo. The name resonates with me as Arlo Guthrie, son of the great Woody, was a seminal figure of my youth what with Alice’s Restaurant and the Pickle Song. It does suit him as he is quite a muttly looking little guy. He has the open honest face of what I like to call “a good old dog”. Just the puppy to be named after a folk music icon.

Arlo’s summer was spent largely at the water’s edge. He drank the lake; he pulled things out of the lake. He discovered insects, frogs and snails. He found out how they taste. He learned to play fetch with a ball. If he fell in,he swam efficiently to shore and clambered out. Thunder storms provoked no fear in him. He learned about riding in vehicles. He bonded with his new pack. The second two months of his life were a period of intense learning which parallelled his development. There were structured learning sessions a few times each day to practice the basic stuff, “gentle”, plenty of puppy push ups, ” leave it” along with the much more joyful ” take it” and of course the eye contact and name recognition games were played daily. By the time we got back to Ottawa he was reliably house trained and crate trained. Leash walking was not going too well. Barking was under control, mostly, and he had some familiarity with basic commands. Arlo was still the same confident little character I had chosen from his litter of a dozen but now it was pleasant to be in a room with him. He didn’t mouth hands or bite clothes. He still needed a lot of supervision and reminders about staying off the furniture and counter cruising. The seeds of self-control had been sown and were beginning to sprout.

Reading this over at a remove of nearly three months it is interesting to remark that what I saw in Arlo then and the assumptions I made about him at the time are still true. What you see is what you get. That doesn’t mean that the puppy can’t be molded by education and experience but that each individual, human, canine and others, arrives in the world with certain preset parameters. Watching Arlo adapt to his environment when we finally returned to the city at the end of summer has been very interesting. It was not a difficult transition for him. It seemed to me in those first weeks back that Arlo was relying on the fact that his pack was intact to keep himself stable. His interactions with me were constant, training sessions, play time, feeding and affection. He knew were he stood with Benny and Cleo. These relationships were fixed constellations by means of which he could navigate any new situation. None of the rules had changed; “leave it” was still “leave it” and the almighty “sit” was still “sit”.

Coming next: the puppy becomes a teenager!


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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 gpz // Jan 4, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Great article. The only thing I disagree with is this one statement, “looks are not very important in a dog”. Looks are the first thing attract me. I saw a picture of Lily online and thought she looked awesome. I then asked a friend to give me a lift an hour away so I can meet and hopefully take home this dog that I knew nothing about.

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