Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Necessity of Naughty

Nice cavaletti you got there. Be a shame if somethin' were to happen to it.

I had briefly met Maryna's two Arabian geldings when Pip and I arrived to help set up the seminar at her Arizona ranch.

That night, as we took all the dogs for a walk in the desert darkness, both horses tagged along unbidden, a companionable three-species packwalk.

As I followed along in one narrow spot, I was surprised by a firm Vulcan nerve-pinch on my right shoulder.


Who me?

If Majyk could have stuck his hands in his pockets and whistled, he'd have done so.

"What did he do?"

"Grabbed my shoulder. Not hard. I bopped his nose. Punk."

"This may sound weird, but I'm glad. That's the first really extroverted thing he's done."

What I didn't know about little Majyk when he impishly mouthed me was that he was not -- yet -- a normal horse.

You've seen the cable animal pain porn shows, of course. Every other episode, you'll be treated to the sight of a dog who kept growing while his never-changed puppy collar didn't. Embedded collar -- bloody dog-girdling. How do they live when that happens?!

Now make the puppy a foal.

And make the collar a little nylon foal halter.

And turn that foal out into the open range and leave him there for a year while his skull and face grow and grow, and the halter doesn't.

When Maryna agreed to take him on as a rehab case, the bones of his head had grown around the halter. The nylon fiber had been incorporated into his skeleton.  His short life after being rescued from the range had been surgeries and wound irrigation, antibiotic lavage and manipulation. Pain beyond the telling of it.

So the woman whose dogs and horses were flawlessly well-mannered was thrilled when her young horse did something terribly naughty. He was telling us that he wasn't a victim or an object of pity; Majyk had something to say. (Also, he liked me, and soon I adored him. He wasn't quite compact enough to fit into the overhead compartment, but I was tempted.)

✦   ✦   ✦

Most of the time, my criteria for offering a foster dog for adoption is "Has this guy learned enough manners here?"

They come in with all sorts of behavior deficits and flavors of pig-ignorance, and we whip them into shape.

Failed pets who have been cooed over by indulgent, anxious doggie-mommies develop self-control, and as they do they shed insecurity-based rudeness and entitlement and become the good citizens they were meant to be.

Wild, neglected youngsters sprung from the pound learn that there are these things called rules, and that there are previously unimagined privileges that derive from mastering and following them.

There are other things that happen during their time as foster dogs, but some version of learning self-control is usually the biggest part of it.

And then there are the others, the ones who have nothing but self-control, whose approach to everything is "Why try? It could be dangerous. I could fail. I better not."

The Operation New Beginnings dogs had various behavioral needs, depending on how old they were at the time they were all seized from their abuser. In general, the older they were, the less the program was about self-control, and the more it was about self-confidence, trust, and resilience.

Foster puppy Spike came from the same shithole as his relatives, but was removed just prior to the raid and confiscation. He was spared eight months of confinement as criminal evidence, but still had a lot of deficits from his first couple months of life. His first adopters were not prepared to build him up in the no-nonsense way that he needed, and got quite overwrought at his experiments in reactive behavior. So he came to me to foster, appearing to be shy, but really a pup with some genetic boldness and drive who was in conflict with himself. One favorite way of expressing that conflict was by retreating under the table and barking maniacally at whatever person he decided was a "threat."

So Spike needed to learn self-control, but also confidence so that he didn't experience the conflict between his desire to express himself inappropriately and his conviction that doing so was maybe dangerous. Neither idea was reality-based.

On the other end of the severity spectrum in the Linda Kapsa canine shitstorm was Mr. Barry White.

Everything I did with Barry White was aimed at convincing him that the world and the humans in it were safe, and could even be pleasant.

I'd have no more told him "no" than chew off my left thumb.

Our normal rules for foster dogs include no furniture privileges. We can't know whether each dog's new owners will approve of dogs on the sofa, so why set him up for conflict when he is starting his new life? If they do approve, they get to be the heroes who invite him up for a snuggle, and he can tell the cat the heartbreaking story of the mean foster humans who made him lie on a dog bed on the floor.

But one of the first extroverted things that Barry White did once I'd convinced him that the house would not swallow him whole was hop up on the end of the couch while Perfesser Chaos was lying there watching television. He looked shocked with himself and sort of froze in place there.

One slightly disapproving grunt would have sent him skittering out to the foster kennel in horror.

So the couch became part of his rehab program. He liked it up there. It was a soft, comfortable place after a hard, spartan life. He'd hold his position even when horrified by the company of human creatures on the same cushions. Eventually, couch surfing became companionable.

Seven years later, enter Morty.

Morty came into rescue with his littermate, Rick, right around his four-month birthday.

Both boys, and another sibling, and who knows how many others, had been born to a dog and a bitch owned by a dirtbag. I won't dignify him with the label breeder. When the dirtbag couldn't sell the last pups, he gave them to a Craigslist dog-flipper who pretends to be a "rescue." When the dog-flipper couldn't sell adopt them because no one wants to pay money for puppies who run from all humans and pile up in the back of a filthy pen shivering and cowering, she advertised them for free. A nice lady and her boyfriend took them all, and had the good judgement to get two of them to breed rescue immediately.

When I met them to take in the two boys, all three were in a shaking heap on the rear footwell of a sedan. They'd ridden a couple hours that way without moving around or making a peep.

Mull that. Three four-month-old puppies loose in a car and they never moved.

This is convenient in the moment, but Not Good.

I trundled the two I was taking into a crate in my van and drove home. Several hours, with two stops. Not a peep. They plastered against the back wall of the crate and stared out in round-eyed horror.

You've seen the awful pictures of meat dogs in some east Asian market, crammed into wire and wood crates? I'm not going to put one here; you can google it if you have a masochistic bent.

Well, those dogs look more outgoing and relaxed than these pups did.

You know the videos of puppymill raids, the rows and rows of filthy wire hutches full of little fluffy puppy factories that jump at the cage and beg for the attention and touch that they so crave?

Yeah, guess what, those dogs have actually been handled enough that that the prospect of it doesn't send them catatonic. They get picked up by a total stranger, a lot of them shower him with kisses. Years -- whole lifetimes -- of hutch-life have left them with that much dogness.

Not these guys.†

Well, catatonic puppies are easy to manage. On their first day I bathed them both, trimmed their nails, and took them to the vet*, and I may as well have been sprucing up a couple of Gund stuffies. Pancake puppies. Set them on the ground and they try to become part of it.

We had both pups for ten days, while I got an initial handle on their relative characters.

Every morsel of food they got came from my hand. They had to approach me to get it; these were pups who, gated into my office, would run away from the gate when a person entered the adjoining room. They went from crate -- later crates, when I separated them over voluble objections -- to outdoors on a leash for potty breaks, exercise, and some hand-feeding, to a period of liberty in the office, which would usually find them diving back into the refuge of a crate. After a few days we started pack walks in the south pasture, first on long lines, then dragging the lines as they modeled their movement on the other dogs.

Rick was always first. The boys came running because I hadn't tried to kill them yet, and that's the only way they got fed -- not because they were normal English shepherd pups who want to know what they can do for me today, ma'am.

A perfect illustration of the fake it 'til you make it principle. Just remember that Stockholm Syndrome is a temporary tool of desperation for a creature in dire circumstances, not a proper training regimen. Move on as soon as possible.

It's crucial that well-reared pups be separated from their littermates by about 11 weeks, if they are to develop normally and bond primarily to humans. It is mandatory that co-dependent, terrified feral puppies be pried apart. So Rick, the stronger and more resilient of the brothers, moved on to a new foster home, one with confident dogs to show him the ropes and humans who adore him and are committed to converting his "old man eyes" to the open, innocent expression that is proper to a baby.

And Morty didn't come out of the crate without physical compulsion for the next two days. He mourned the latest loss in his life, and he had no interest in the people and animals who populated this space. The fact of his depression was the strongest evidence that dependency on Rick had been holding him back.

Bringing Morty towards normalcy, sifting out insight about who Morty really is vs. the transient presentation of a puppy demonstrating the wages of neglect, is a slow and uneven process. He's young enough that we can still work on him developmentally; the window for socialization is still open a crack, and we can slide it a little further and prune his young synapses into a healthier pattern, one that doesn't rely on flight and evasion, isn't dominated by fear and suspicion. But I think his core temperament is a bit tender, prone to bruising, and requires ample time for rest and cogitation after a new achievement or any time he must stand up to an uncomfortable amount of pressure. He takes many repetitions to learn a new fragment of courage, not because he is a dumb puppy -- he's typical ES bright -- but because we are still building the frame for boldness, self-confidence, and security that a normal puppy has constructed by the time his eyes open.

One month in, Morty has the freedom of the farm while I'm out working, albeit with a trailing drag line just in case. He's got the freedom of the house and dog yard most of the time; he has housebroken himself, conquered the dog door, mastered stairs, cataloged the foibles of the other animals.  He doesn't chew or steal stuff or get into trouble.

And that's why he's not ready for adoption just yet.

Because Morty will now cuddle on the sofa and bed with me, wiggle and give puppy kisses, because we've applied Barry White Rules to furniture access, and his adopters are going to have to be down with that. He'll come roaring in with his stub-tail whirring like a rotor when he's called, even though I no longer reliably carry a pocketful of kibble. He's mostly mastered that bogey of feral dogs, the doorways into and out of the house. He walks nicely on a leash. The typical feral issue with a human approaching him "the last ten feet" is almost gone. He will sleep stretched out in the open, puppy-belly and puppy-junk exposed to the breezes, rather than always huddled in a ball.

This weekend I brought him to a class where boring humans sat at boring tables and talked and moved papers around, and sometimes had to step over him. Where boring humans ate fascinating lunches right there in range. Where nice juicy wires and computer cables were free for the nomming.

And this is what he did for the entire day, less potty breaks:

No, he's not tied to anything.

For the record, that is not okay.

Because Morty is not a precociously well-trained puppy. He's not our Lilly, presiding over sophomore tutorials at five months of age courtesy of great obedience and natural self-assurance. Morty stayed put because he could not for the life of him think of what else to do. The option of raising some hell was not on the table.

My house is not puppy-proofed. There are shoes and gloves and all manner of great stuff in puppy range everywhere. Unmolested. And he's teething now, and clearly in a lot of discomfort sometimes.

He doesn't feel safe enough to be naughty. Not even at home, where his comfort bubble is largest, though there are hopeful signs here.

Naughty means that the little critter knows what is permitted and what is forbidden.

Has figured out that what is forbidden is more fun than what is permitted.

Is aware that there are likely consequences for indulging in the forbidden.

And also knows for sure that those consequences, while possibly unpleasant, are in no way a genuine danger to him.

Foster Mommy might chase him down, grab him by the scruff, and pry what's left of her sammitch out of his mouth, but there is no prospect of her eating him instead.

The adrenaline surge when one is making off with the goods or nomming the leg of the chair or sparking the livestock is a little giddy belly thrill, rather than earnest fuel for a panic terror.

Sure, I'm locked in my crate (aka protective custody) now, but it was so worth it.

Naughty is high spirits, testing boundaries, angling for attention from a mostly innocent dependent critter who trusts his world.

Morty is occasionally testing Charlie's patience lately, and she has lightly thumped him for chomping too hard in play. He has nommed a bit too hard on my arm, as teething babies are wont to do, and responds immediately to a mild, nope, that's me. He is finally brave enough to pick up a toy and carry it around a little bit -- but fetch or tug are just out of the question so far. He's fearless with other animals, and kind of teased Jake the bloodhound about how semi-wild ES puppehs are allowed to run free with a drag line while great big hounddogs aren't. He's flirting with normalcy on a few fronts this way.

But I won't be satisfied that he's ready to go to his permanent home and grow into the dog he's meant to be until I'm chasing him around our circular floor plan while he prances off with my underwear, tiny stub wagging and a gleam in his eye. I want to see him bomb through a bunch of chickens and laugh while they scatter outwards and upwards in a flutter of indignation. He should, once in a great while, bite Charlie in the ass and run off. (This flavor of naughtiness not compatible with Rosie. Don't try this at home, kids. Some beetches will keel you.) He should sass me when his dinner is slow in coming. He should find my irritation a little bit scary, but more funny, because no one in his life is genuinely dangerous.

Come on Morty. Be a little shit.

Who, me?


† Why I don't believe all the hype around Belyaev's "domesticated" foxes. Reports allege that the fox kits will automatically approach a human and make "friendly" gestures after weaning age even if they have never been handled.


And I can show you  several score domestic dog puppies that were never touched, or never touched kindly, as babies, who ran screaming and cowered in terror when facing a human at twelve weeks to demonstrate what actually happens with that kind of neglect.

* If you have a truly feral, unsocialized animal that you've just gotten physical control of, you should do all the things to him right away -- bathe, worm, vaccinate, trim nails, pull blood, shave down, even neuter surgery if feasible. Don't dick around letting him "settle in," much less do things he's gonna hate in dribs and drabs, because all that's going to do is reverse the progress you make in gaining his trust and building him up. He's freaked-out catatonic today and it ain't gonna get worse. In fact, he may not even remember half the ordeal if it happens while he's clocked out.


  1. Brilliant, hilarious and so helpful. Thanks!

  2. I learned quite a bit and enjoyed every word of it. I will look at my fosters a little differently now.

  3. Thanks Heather for your time/work laying out another lesson in dogdom. Your posts are always my favorite screen reading.

  4. To those who may be interested in the on-going saga of Barry White, let me say this about that: Don couldn't believe that I had to beat Barry White with a branch the other day. What?!? STOP Heather, before you get in your car and race to the rescue, I'll explain. On a normal daily walk, Eva surprised a groundhog and proceeded to harry it by running in and out and barking. This is one instance where she is very hard to call off, so I grabbed a branch with lots of pliable, twiggy, leafy bits at the end and began to "beat" her with that end, which she noticed not at all. Thus occupied, I was suddenly aware of Barry White entering the fray from the other side. So, I waved the branch at him and he KEPT ON COMING! So I floofed it in his face for a minute until I was finally able to get both of the idiots to reconsider their actions. Not only did Barry White not seem the least bit impressed with that branch, he came over and trotted beside me wagging his tail and looking up at me as we resumed our walk. "Proud of me mommie?" How's that for losing fear of consequences?
    Deb Scelza

    1. Speaking for BW and Eva the Great She-Beast, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?

      They had a perfectly juicy groundhog right where they wanted him and you screwed it up.

  5. I will never look at being "naughty" the same way.

    Unfortunately, the word is bandied around so often where I work that the dogs who claim "Nobody backs baby into a corner" are often interpreted as such, instead of being the over-indulged, entitled, unsocialized and unhandled brats that they really are. However, heaven forbid one say anything about it while the owner titters on that "Oh, he's so spoilt."

    I'm afraid this will have to relegated to my own personal training adventures in order to truly apply.

  6. Dear Heather,
    Last fall a feral, starving beardog pup showed up and we took him. I'm thinking foster, Anne falls in love. After 30 years with sheepdogs, he is the first dog I've trained for manners.

    When he was confident enough he began to howl. Kind of pretty actually.

  7. i'm sooo rooting for Morty to be a little shit.

    and damn. can you write! my heart is in a puddle on the floor. <3

  8. permission to post a link on the Border Collie forum?

    1. Errr ... it's a public post.

      You don't have to ask.

      But the BC forum folks are always mannerly and are always welcomed here.

  9. Heather, Thank you so very, very much for this post. My fosters thank you too. Who am I kidding, fosters always become forever pack mates here. Please keep sharing.

  10. Well said. Very well said. I don't have much fostering experience (border collies and BC mixes through BRBCR), but did foster and approx. 2 year old female BC from a breeding operation. Yes, that kind - with 50 - 60 plus dogs. She wanted to be the invisible dog. Without knowing of a specific approach, I seem to have followed much of what you describe. The highlight of that period was when my other 2 dogs were excited about something and we're jumping around, and little Gael forgot to be afraid and she came and happily put her paws on my lap before shoving off. (at the 4 month mark). Such an accomplishment!

  11. Hi Heather, this is Rachel, the woman who brought the feral puppies to you. It is wonderful to see the puppies growing up. I feel better now because Dax(the puppy I kept) had all the same issues. He has made tons of progress, basic commands, runs around the house driving the cats crazy and he loves to play. He seems to have set backs with his fear, we are good for a week, then he reverts. Right now he is jumping on me when we go out back and I am working on that. He does fetch and he just learned drop it. I was looking for your card today to call you to see if Dax was on track with his development, considering the state they were in. He is incredibly smart but also hard headed. The first few weeks I wanted to give up, I am glad I didn't. I don't think he will ever be 100% "normal" but he is a totally different dog now. I saw the picture of Morty and knew it was one of the rescue puppies so I am very happy to have found your blog. I can't attach a photo but would love you to see my guy now. Thank you again!

  12. My Kaikiana was like that. I got him at bout 11 months old; he didn't play with toys, know how to navigate stairs, or poop unless he was hidden behind a shrub. In the 13 years he lived with me, he never did get really comfortable with a lot of things, but he did manage to have a good life with me and and his big brother ES Huki.

  13. Just about 6 years ago, I rescued a feral puppy. She would only let her original dirtbag touch her; he dropped her at the humane society to be spayed since he had already gotten puppies out of this 6-12 month old mama. When I went to get her after surgery, no one could get near her because she was plastered to the back of her cage and growling fiercely at anyone who approached. One brave soul reached in, and carried her to my car. She came home to my pack of 6 huskies. One of my dogs, PolaBear, had been having strokes; she walked with difficulty and was incontinent, but still enjoying life. I quickly realized that my new Tulip was NOT feral: she walked well on a leash, and never had an accident in the house. She had some training...then was thrown into the back yard and left there for long enough to develop a LOT of fear of humans. Clearly she had the snot beaten out of her for being a puppy; she never touched anything. After a few days, she realized that when I woke up, I went to PolaBear's cushy bed piled with towels, which were always wet and soiled by morning. Tulip looked at Pola with horror, sure she was about to be beaten for such evil acts. Tulip watched me incredulously as I stroked PolaBear and told her what a good girl she was, as I cleaned up her mess. The look on Tulip's face clearly said: "WHAT??? You're not going to punish her for this?" And I explained to Tulip that no one is ever hit for any reason in our home. She could not believe it! After a few days of this, she very carefully made sure I was watching while she peed on the floor. I just said no very sternly and cleaned up. She looked at me with heartbreaking puzzlement, not believing she was not going to be beaten. In 6 years, she has never had another "accident" in the house. After a few months, she jumped onto a dining chair to see if she could share our dinner (she could; at least a bit, which she took very gently). She has taught me so much; I am the luckiest person I know, to have her friendship.


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