Week 6 Update: Talk to Me, Puppies

This week’s theme for the puppies has been communication. Not only do we want the pups to understand what we are asking them to do, but we also want to listen to them and meet their needs. Just like with all good relationships communication is a two-way street, even more important when speaking different languages!

Puppy Culture has a concept they call the Communication Trinity. It comprises of – surprise! – three elements: clicker conditioning, manding, and what they call the box game. Manding is supposed to come after clicker conditioning, but we started the clicker a little later and inadvertently taught them manding very early.

When I say inadvertently, I mean we didn’t do it consciously. We knew the concept – waiting to reward a puppy with food or skritches until they are calm – and it seems we did that even without thinking about it. Because of that the pups learned very quickly they didn’t get what they wanted until their butts hit the floor. We’ve successfully had them mand in the house, in the sunroom, on the deck, and even out in the lawn with distractions, plus some of them will come up to us and just plop their butts down when they want attention.

Brindle boy (Orange)

Clicker training began early last week. We took one puppy at a time to a different room with a handful of treats, clicked once with a hand clicker, and made sure there was less than a second between the click and a treat in their mouth. Perhaps not surprisingly most of them picked up on the click/treat concept right away, and within a day every pup was expecting the treat as soon as they heard the click. The idea here is the human is telling the puppy they did a good job and here’s a reward. What they did isn’t relevant at this point.

After a couple days of that we moved on to box training. This is where the puppy begins to offer behaviors to the humans leading to a click and a treat. In this game we put a box lid in the middle of the floor and the idea is to click whenever the puppy interacts with the box – touch, push, even looking at the box – and reward with a treat. This one is still a work in progress. Some of the pups seem to get the interaction with the box leads to the click, but others seem too smart for it. They sit nicely and give you a look that says, “I’m being so good, why is the click and treat not coming?” So of course we reward that good behavior!

As the puppies get older it’s interesting to see how fluid schedules have to become. They are now staying awake longer and their play sessions have been extended as a result, meaning there is less and less downtime for the humans to do things that don’t directly involve puppies, things like shopping, cooking, laundry, blog posts, etc.

Red girl (Purple)

We pretty much do four cycles of the following daily: clean up after the pups, short training/play session, feed the pups, take the pups outside (this used to be 30 minutes but is now closer to an hour, sometimes longer), and then the puppies would crash for 2-3 hours. Now they play longer and crash shorter, which has made shopping a couple times a week more stressful (that’s usually about two hours to get groceries, cleaning supply refills, and hit a pet store or two), affected the kinds of food we have time to make for ourselves (one-pot meals are amazing!), and affected when we do things that are best when puppies are tired, like nail trims. Oh, and puppies are now much more wiggly and don’t believe us that nail trims are amazing fun things. Instead of being to get through all five in about 20 minutes, now we’re doing one pup a day and the pup we do may not be the one we intended because that pup is a bit too excitable and the timing is all wrong.

It’s exhausting, to be sure, but watching them grow is a never-ending source of fascination for us. I know people say to take the time to enjoy it as it’s happening and not be completely buried in the work, but just like with human kids that is far, far easier said than done. I’m the kind of person who likes to have a list of things to do and check them off, and to know that certain things need to be done by or at a certain time, so this kind of chaos is…different. It makes it hard to enjoy the small moments, but then a pup will want to sit and sleep on your lap for an hour while the others are playing and all is right.

Black and tan girl (Green)

It’s also interesting to see how Umma has changed – some good, some bad. She’s been a pretty good teacher to the little ones and she seems to relish that part of motherhood. As they reached six weeks – the normal weaning period – they seem have finally accepted the milk bar is permanently closed and instead they look to her for play. She’s taught them all about chewing on sticks and pine cones, which they’ve taken to like it was an inherited behavior. Yay?

She’s also taught them how to dig holes, which is kind of funny because she never digs holes herself. Apparently this is an essential skill she believes they need to have, even if they never use it – so it’s like any math after geometry.

One important lesson she taught them has to do with our neighbors. We have three different yards we share fences with. One of them has no dogs and if the pups go near that fence Umma shows no interesting. One yard has a larger boxer-type dog that seems friendly and she allows the pups to go near that fence with her supervision. The other yard has a couple very large bully-breed dogs who will sometimes bark at Umma in the dark when she’s trying to pee. If the pups go near that fence Umma will actively redirect them back towards the middle of the yard.

Black and tan boy (Blue)

Umma has also lost just about all of her undercoat from a combination of the pups pulling it out while nursing and it just being that time of year. She looks so naked! She still has her beautiful fluffy tail that most puppy mamas lose along with their coat, probably because she abruptly closed up shop early.

She is also playing with them more, letting them chase her around the yard and share her sticks (which she typically steals from them in the first place). Listening to her pups growl and bark at her, then hearing her respond in kind, is pretty fascinating.

It’s not all good, though. Sometimes five pups growling and tugging at her gets to be too much and she starts rolling pups, treating them like adults rather than tiny puppies. When she does this we have to give her a break, separating them for a bit. The puppies never seem scared of her, but I think that’s because they are mostly fearless.

Motherhood has also brought a new level of wariness in Umma. Neighborhood sounds that never bothered her before now bring warning barks of varying intensity. These new barks don’t seem to bother the puppies, but they’re driving the humans crazy! Thankfully they should go away after the puppies move on to their forever homes.

Brindle girl (Pink)

In addition to all of this, thanks to our neighbors doing work on their house and varying projects throughout the area the puppies have received sound exposure to the following things:

  • large trucks
  • heavy items dropped in metal trailers
  • accents
  • swearing in multiple languages (they get plenty of it in English)
  • outdoor music
  • power drills
  • leaf blowers
  • chainsaws
  • wood chippers
  • hammering
  • weird people standing on roofs
  • the sound of metal on metal shrieking
  • 250+ horsepower engines
  • yelling
  • screaming babies

None of these people have any idea how valuable their contribution has been to shaping the future of these puppies, but the fact very, very few of these things has even caused a puppy to uncurl a tail is very heartening.

Puppies are now getting exposure to different types of people as well. Given that the humans are introverts and new experiences tire out a puppy fairly quickly we’re doing our best to not expose them to too many people at one time, limiting visits to one a day for short periods. It’s amazing how quickly a social schedule can fill up when puppies are involved.

The goals for the next week are more clicker training and more exposure to different humans. We may also take pups on very short car trips (as in a couple blocks at a very slow speed) to start getting them used to the car. Wish us luck!


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