Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Word for Puppy is Blue Bear

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When Hope and the four Indiana Plague Puppies first arrived, Cole did not know what to do with them.

Well, Hope was no problem. They said hello, sniffed butts, and fell in companionably. You're a bitch, I'm a dog, we speak the same dogalect, okay, whatever.

But he'd had little experience with very young puppies, and wasn't sure what was the protocol. They certainly seem to be the sort of creatures with which one plays -- but how? And am I going to get in trouble for getting it wrong?*

He started, wisely enough, with keepaway. The chase me, I've got a prize game avoided the pitfalls of wrestling -- one was neither being perforated by scores of needle teeth nor risking a Momma-delivered ass-kicking for inadvertently squashing a tyke.

And he likes keepaway. He'll play it with sticks, plastic water bottles, pine cones, turkey feathers -- anything that is handy.

But not with the pups.

Before the pups arrived here, I set aside a nice pile of different types of dog toys -- rubber, fabric, rope, tennis balls, plush -- for them. I also bought three new toys for them -- a vinyl baby's tub toy, a squeaky plush bone, and a squeaky plush blue bear or man or something. Possibly Manbearpig. Let's call it a bear.

When Cole wants to play keepaway with the puppies outside, he runs back inside through the dog door, goes to the kitchen, and comes out with one of the new toys. Always. For a month he has been playing with the pups -- four, then three, now two pups -- and if the game is keepaway, it is one of these puppy-specific toys every time. Usually the blue bear.

He quickly went from being nervous about intimate contact with young puppies to quite comfortable. He's Uncle Cole now, supervising the pups whenever they are outside, ensuring that they don't get carried off by owls. The last two pups have the run of the kitchen now; the gates impede the free flow of adult dogs to the front door, so they go out the dog door in the back. When I open the front door from the kitchen to take them out, he dashes out the dog door, gallops around the house, and meets us on the porch, ready for duty. He plays lots of other games with them now, but they still play some keepaway every day.

This week PC has started letting the pups tag along for his morning chores with Sophia. It's great fun for him, and the pups discharge some of their evil and aren't rioting quite so badly in the mornings. I can indulge in luxuries like getting dressed and a few household tasks before taking them out, and the pups are content to play in the kitchen. But they aren't the only interested parties.

This morning I became absorbed reading something upstairs in the bedroom; Cole was being a bit nebby, but I didn't pay any attention to him. Which was the problem. He had something to say.

He ran downstairs and shot out the dog door, returning a few minutes later with the ice-encrusted blue bear. Sat in front of me and poked my knee with it.

I want to play with the puppies. Let them out.

I'm not sure what sense of propriety led Cole to the conviction that the blue bear, the tub toy, and the squeaky bone (which has been missing, probably in a snow drift, for some time now) are the only objects suitable for puppy keepaway. It doesn't surprise me that he put those three objects in their own category. This is the pup who found and identified a box of old dog toys in the clutter of our barn only days after arriving from a kennel life in which every object he could access was a dog toy. He didn't touch any of the tools, flowerpots, backpacking gear, gadgets and miscellaneous junk piled up there, but dove into the box of dog toys and started ransacking it until he found the best one.

One element of Cole's single-trial learning is a stubborn adherence to precedent. If something happens a certain way once, it takes considerable persuasion to convince him to do it differently going forward.

When I first brought him into the house to live, I took him into the bathroom with me when I took a shower, to keep him out of trouble. One time. A year and a half later, his nickname is still Bathmat. I'll never shower alone.

Whomever taught him the down command used a treat lure. He always got a treat, and it was always accompanied by a luring motion.

Took me six weeks to break that association and convince him that he could down without a bribe or a luring motion. But in the training session where he finally shed this acquired superstition, he learned to instantly fold onto his haunches like a penknife, at any distance from me, in about five minutes.

So I'm not really surprised that, having once decided that the toys that arrived at the same time as the pups are the obligate "playing with the puppies" toys, Cole has stuck with that association.

I got the message, and went downstairs to let the pups out, assuming that Cole was telling me that he wanted to play Blue Bear Keepaway with them.

He dashed out the back door and met us on the porch. No bear. He'd left it inside. They ran off to play some other game, maybe "Chew on Uncle's Tail" or "Dig Fruitlessly for Voles."

In the inner life of Cole, the blue bear -- his first means of interacting with the pups -- had become the symbol for playing with the puppies, or, quite possibly, the symbol for the puppies themselves.

Generous little being that he is, Cole assumed that I was clever enough to understand his symbol. Or at least, he thought it was worth a try.

Tell me again that only human animals use language.


* Nervousness and outright fear of little puppies is perfectly normal for adult and adolescent dogs. I call it "Baby bear / Momma bear" syndrome. Sure, the baby bear is cute, but touch it and its mother is going to come charging out of the shrubbery and eat you. Better to run away.


  1. Absolutely LOVE this post!!! Cole is a very wise uncle and now that he has established a meaningful means of communication/symbolism regarding the pups, I can't wait to see what he comes up with for future fosters :-) What a wonderful embassador for "normalcy"! If anyone knows what it is to come back form abnormalcy it would be Cole and his ONB alumni!!


  2. Heartwarming in a very knowing way.

    I have gotten a lot of pushback from people whom I suspect have not a lot of experience with young dogs about the older dog/puppy connection.

  3. Not sure I'm following you Rob -- what sort of pushback, about what exactly?

  4. Nice post. Strega is our hunt teacher, She will take a toy, drop it somewhere and then keep going back and forth to the puppy until he follows her and discovers the toy. She lets him have it for a few, then takes it away and does it again.


  5. I think Cole is smarter than most of the boys with whom I went to college.

  6. What I mean is the panic at seeing puppies, and the inference following that "it's not the puppy, it's the mama" drives the fear reaction. I would be curious if you know of anything -- papers, books, etc. -- backing this up, because I've discussed this elsewhere and been twitted for it.

  7. I'll have to toodle around the bookshelf and see if anyone else mentions it.

    It's not the sort of thing one could, you know, measure.

    Nor do I think that it's a cognitive process, but much more a hard-wired one. Just as puppies have developmental stages at which they are indiscriminately social, and stages at which they have some neophobia, and these windows exist because natural selection made it that way -- they have an adaptive function. The "Oh shit, I don't know this puppy!" response is not something the dog thinks out, but an adaptive behavior that is hard-wired. It is triggered at different thresholds for different individuals.

    My former neighbor's dog had none, and nearly got himself killed when he came in my back gate and walked into the family room when Rosie and Audie, et. al. were only a few days old. Fortunately Pip and Moe were elsewhere, and it was Sophia who ran him off. Either of the others would have tried to kill him, and if they had both been there, they would have likely succeeded. (Moe very much believed that his younger siblings were his.) Cocoa had lots of curiosity and apparently zero survival instinct.

    Both affective extremes are "normal," as in, non-pathological.

    I've read that all individuals in a wolf pack experience a surge of oxytocin when puppies come, triggered by the dam's birth pheromones. I think this was very true of our household when both litters of pups were born. Both times the other bitches stayed in the room with Pip. (When Rosie's litter was born I put the boys -- Moe and foster dog Teddy -- out of the room, feeling it was too much. Sophia stayed in a crate in the room, and Mel was right there.) And of course PC and I were there, me for all of it and him for part of it. I think we picked up the pheromones, too.

    For one thing, I don't feel the way about these four pups who came to me at maximum cuteness as I did about Pip's litters. I think they are great and all, and am enjoying them and really like them, but there isn't that sense of possessiveness that comes with "our" puppies. They aren't part of our pack in that way.

    Obviously we all bond with our puppies once they come into our homes as permanent members. That appears to be a different process than this primal possession. With the Plague Puppies, I've had to substitute cognitive processes for automatic, affective ones in order to "remember" to meet their developmental needs.

    A puppymiller doesn't know and doesn't care on principle, so that never happens for the pups born out in the rabbit hutches. Only their mother loves them.

  8. What a great post! Having an "aha!" moment like this Blue Bear discovery is really exciting. What a clever pup you have there...

  9. What a beautiful picture of the puppy and Cole! It's clear he wants to play and knows how. Our little rescued-Bichon didn't know how to play and we had to teach him, reinforcing my belief that he'd lived outside most of his life, possibly chained to something and used as a watchdog. How sad and painful for him! He's never quite gotten over his early trauma. Marjorie McMillin (Rob's mom)

  10. Wonderful post! Dogs are scary smart about the important things in life.

    As a side note, also love the "bathmat" reference. I bottle fed a kitten who ended up staying (can't imagine how that happened) and trained her to use the litter box by taking her to the bathroom with me. To this day she hangs in the bathroom when I'm showering and will run towards it if you call out "bathroom buddy".

  11. Slightly off topic but I am going nuts - what is the original for "The word for X is Y"!

  12. I don't know what the "original" is of this construction.

    I read an Ursula LeGuin story that I liked, some years ago, titled "The Word for World is Forest."

    That's likely where it bubbled up from when I titled this post. And maybe it is the original. LeGuin is a great one for that kind of coinage.

  13. Speaking of other dogs' behavior around the pups -- how is Evil Rosie adjusting to the puppies? She did not take too kindly to Jasmine being in town, and I don't recall you mentioning one way or another how she was dealing with this set of fosters.

  14. Oh she's fine. Fine by Rosie standards, that is. Jealous, some, and we enjoy winding her up about how much cuter and fluffier the pups are. She plays with them a little, not much, and mostly pretends they aren't there. Has "corrected" each of them maybe once, after which they don't get cheeky with her.

    Her issue with Jasmine was personal -- not about jealousy -- and not 100% Rosie-generated. There is certainly a class of bitches -- snarky bitches who might think about ever biting one of Rosie's humans -- who Rosie will decide not to tolerate. Unlike Pip, she doesn't forgive these bitches once they are reformed.

  15. Brilliant post, Heather, on several points.

  16. I have a "Bathmat" too, for the same reason. I always know when I have taken a longer than normal shower because she will pull the towel off the toilet and will curl up on it. I still use it, what's a little more dog hair?

  17. "The Word for World is Forest."

    Thanks. That's probably the echo I heard.


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