It took three years, but I think Umma has reached mature adulthood. To other people with Nihon Ken or another primitive breed this won’t be news since three seems to be a bit of a magic age, but to us the magnitude of the change in her demeanor has been quite significant.
A few different factors have contributed and it’s hard to say if any of them was more or less important than the others, or if it’s the confluence of all of them that led to this shift.
- Umma became a mother in August
- She turned three in September
- September also marked two years living with us
Motherhood had an interesting effect on Umma. In the weeks before puppies were born she was very calm, but carrying around five tiny Hokkatatoes inside you makes one lethargic. After the puppies were born all of Umma’s senses ratcheted up to 1000. She would bark at the smallest sound outside and she would correct her puppies – sometimes louder or more physically than us humans thought necessary or prudent. We’re not experts in raising puppies, but it just seemed more aggressive than necessary, out of proportion to whatever thing the pups may have done wrong.
But from the beginning Umma seemed to give Fuchi a little more latitude, not being as quick to correct or correcting as harshly. As each puppy went off to their forever home, Umma seemed to relax just a little bit more. Since it’s just been the two of them (for about two months now), Umma has shown herself to be a pretty good mother. (Aside: We told Umma she can act like a big sister now and let us be the parents. For the most part she seems completely fine to leave it up to us, though sometimes her mother side comes out still.)
She lets Fuchi run around without the need to chase her. When she does chase she handicaps, not always feeling the need to catch the puppy who is still not nearly as fast or quick. Umma will mouth Fuchi, but always lets her go after a moment. Part of it feels like a test since Fuchi is growing so much and so fast – now 22 pounds and just an inch or two shorter than her mother at 21 weeks! – just to see how her daughter responds, but a lot of it has become a quality back and forth between two dogs just having a good time. We started with short sessions of about 5-10 minutes and have worked our way up to about an hour and a half (with a puppy pee break in the middle). The latter half of that involved a lot of calm time, at least on Umma’s part. Even when she’s calm she puts up with Fuchi’s attempts at initiating play. For the most part the puppy accepts when Umma doesn’t reciprocate and grabs a toy or engages with one of us – at least for a minute or so before trying momma again.
I should note, all of these play sessions are closely supervised and involve a multitude of treats for both dogs, used to practice short bits of calm and to redirect to us if play gets a little to aggressive for our tastes. For those not as familiar with how rough Japanese dogs play (lots of teeth, growls and very physical!), please understand what we acknowledge as acceptable in play could be very different than with other breeds. It’s definitely a very different style of play than what it is normally considered acceptable at most respected puppy play groups!
Umma will probably tell you her third birthday was no fun at all. She had five puppies trying to drink from a milk bar she had just closed off with no warning and everything about them seemed to annoy her. She snapped at them for trying to drink, as if a 25-day-old puppy could quite understand why it was no longer allowed to suckle. Poor Umma was exhausted from everything and every noise instigated a shrieky bark.
But three is a magic age, the time in a Nihon Ken’s life when the mind seems to join the body in adulthood (kind of like right around 30 for most humans). They feel more self-confident, they no longer destroy things (or, more accurately, us humans TRUST that they won’t destroy things – Umma hasn’t caused any damage since before age one and a half), and they understand all the rules of our crazy human world and have come to embrace them.
We feel that this age and Umma living with us for two years are closely related. When she first came to live with us she demonstrated some separation anxiety when both of her humans left the house. At the time Misaki was used to being given the bedroom when we had to leave her behind, so Umma got a pen and crate in the living room. We could hear her howling as we got in the car and hear her barking and crashing around when we got home. We left her treats she would never eat until she saw us walk into the room, which is a separation anxiety tell. Then we bought a Nest camera (well, we actually bought it to watch puppies, but we got it way early) so we could check in on her (and Misaki, who by this time had been moved a smaller area in the dining room as she aged). Every time we checked Umma would be pacing her small pen, continually testing each corner. We could see her raise her head to howl and if we turned on the sound via our phones there was an endless stream of nervous chatter.
After Misaki passed and all the puppies except Fuchi went home, and seeing this newfound self-confidence in Umma, we decided to try something different. (Also, she escaped from her pen once and didn’t cause any damage, plus she looked more relaxed.) We still used the camera, but gave Umma full run of the living room. Now when we took Fuchi to vet visits or puppy class, things Umma had to stay home for, she could choose from two dog beds, two couches, an ottoman, or a padded bench to lay on. We bought her a new food toy, a Toppl (which we highly recommend!), and left her alone for two hours while we took Fuchi to puppy class.
The first couple times when we checked there was still some pacing and the food didn’t get completely eaten, but then it was like Umma had an epiphany. She realized we trust her and she trusted that we would always come back. The first time we checked in on her and saw her calmly working on her Toppl we were speechless. Then, later, she had curled up on the couch in a perfect little Hokkaido ball!
To say Ayako and I were ecstatic to see this is a drastic understatement. From that point on, whether Umma is home alone or if Fuchi is in a covered pen in the living room with her, Umma has been a picture of serenity. She will lay on the couch facing Fuchi’s pen and just watch her daughter do her own pacing and talking (though Fuchi has no issues eating the treats we leave for her immediately). You can almost see the thoughts in Umma’s head: “Some day, little one, you’ll understand none of that is necessary.”
At some point in the future the plan is we could leave them both out, but that’s probably a ways off, well after Fuchi’s bladder is reliable (that’s another story!) and we know she won’t destroy things.
It’s fantastic to see Umma reach this place of serenity. Whenever we talk about what a Hokkaido is like (a real deep dive on that is still another post, or maybe multiple posts!), the first thing we bring up is their exuberance for life and for spending that life with their humans, not as simply a pet but as truly a member of the family. That exuberance and need for the human connection is fantastic and we love it, but unfortunately the rest of the human world doesn’t always allow for them to be with us at all times. And since we can’t sit them down and explain to them exactly why they can’t come (although we absolutely do do this and Ayako and I both believe at least some of it is understood by the dogs, if not all of it, and yes, it’s very hard to explain that to another human, especially one unfamiliar with Nihon Ken) to grandma’s birthday or a wedding or the bank or wherever, learning how to manage and address an issue like separation anxiety in this breed is very important.
I’m just glad time, love, trust and repetition has convinced Umma it’s just not a big deal.