Many years ago, I received some odd (and lousy) advice from a dog owner that, due to its oddness and badness, has stuck in my brain all these years. It didn’t make the cut, so it isn’t a chapter in Asking A Lot. But I do find myself circling back to it from time to time when out on the morning walk, marveling at how different my life with my pack would be had I heeded this particular advice.
“Don’t ever let your dog grow up” was his edict. “Keep them puppies for their whole life.” Since that’s physiologically impossible, what does it mean? In what way would it be possible to prevent a dog from maturing, and how on earth could an owner freeze a dog in puppyhood for eternity? Before I explore the how, I want to consider the why.
What are the differences between a puppy and an adult dog? Well, let’s pretend the above imperative to prevent maturity has been heeded. According to my source, the best kind of adult pet dog is simply a larger and physically fully developed being that maintains a puppy demeanor. Adult body but puppy heart, soul, and brain. Puppyish devotion and dependence for life. And a pet – owner relationship with all the hallmarks of puppy ownership, forever.
Why manage a dog with this as your goal? Deep down, I believe the answer is fear-based. This is the same guy who said “never have more than two dogs. They develop pack mentality and will kill you.” Mmm hmmm. The theory is that dogs are wolves with a thin veil of domestication. The fear is that without constant effort and micromanagement, a fully realized adult dog would kill and eat its owner – literally and/or metaphorically. The need to keep the dog a puppy is about the illusion of maintaining total control. A competent, mature adult dog is a dangerous and unwanted being, not a good pet, in this way of thinking.
Puppies are dependent upon human owners for providing structure and safety, and running interference with the giant and overwhelming outside world. Human owners have a specific role to play in raising a puppy and it’s quite “hands on.” Housebreaking, feeding, training … we constantly manage our puppies’ urges and teach them how to live in harmony with us. Life with puppies, adorable as it is, is a constant managing of normal dog instincts: don’t bite me, don’t eat that, don’t pee there. Chew this, not that. Play with this, not that. Bite this, not me or the cat. We manage the snot out of puppies, because they require that level of management in order to become pleasant companions and safe, sane housemates.
I have five dogs at the moment and since we got home from the morning walk a few hours ago, I haven’t managed anything. I haven’t given a single command, nor removed any contraband from anyone’s mouth. I haven’t even had to say “go lie down, kid, you’re bugging me” to the puppy. And that’s totally normal in my house. None of my dogs need micromanagement. They all know how to live in peace with me and Tom and each other (ok, Peeka and Brody really struggle with this, but they try and I can claim steady, if microscopic, improvement).
But are they adults? Have I allowed them to grow up?
I have very limited experience with puppies. As cute as babies of any species may be, I am not a fan. Too much work. I did not love being the mom of a human infant, but from her second birthday on, I have enjoyed my daughter more every single day. She’s the coolest adult I know. I did my best with her, understanding that caring for her as an infant was critically important. But my goal was always to back off and give her as much space to be herself as possible (and reasonably safe, although her father and I often disagreed about what constituted safe… there was a serious mentos and diet coke phase). Same with Bindi, the most recent puppy to grace my home. She arrived here as a six month old pup and honestly her foster mom had done all the heavy lifting. All I needed to do was not screw up the excellent foundation Mama Jan created.
So I did my best. Frequent potty breaks. Loads of praise for success. Loads of toys, bones, and stuffed kongs to help with any interest in chewing the wrong items. Loads of supervision. I might have severely limited her freedom using crates and baby gates, but Bindi hurled herself into gen pop quite literally, vaulting over the baby gate. She then behaved so beautifully, I let her have freedom. Had she struggled more with that much freedom it would have been curtailed. But my goal was always to do less — to help Bindi reach a point where she needed less direction from me and could interact with the pack and the world without me shepherding her every move.
In my pack, the morning walks are the training ground where the dogs grow from puppyhood to adulthood. This is where they have to deal with freedom and respond to me in a smart, sensible, grown-ass way. This is where they have to take all the support they’ve had to date and put it into practice. And this is what Asking A Lot is all about, a compendium of everything that can and does go wrong and how I circle back to the fundamentals in order to (hopefully) minimize risks and maximize joy.
We do this incrementally. No one is tossed into the deep end on the first outing. Leashes, long lines, and loads of short practice walks around the property all constitute increments of exploring safely. Sometimes I stop and take photos, do some weeding, or just watch the birds, allowing a lot of wandering. I issue no recalls despite the time or distance. The dogs have to decide when to return to me. How far is too far? How long is long enough? I want the dog to feel what it feels like to be a dog without a helicoptering human right there. I want the dog to experience the freedom of making choices and decisions that aren’t mitigated or brokered by me. And I make damn sure that every reunion with me is joyously well-rewarded.
It’s a fine line. They also have to have recall, and we need to have a trusting relationship – a deep bond. That doesn’t happen overnight. They need to make decisions like they did this week – to walk away from a bear and return to me to continue our hike. The bear was sexier than I could ever hope to be, all 500 pounds of him ambling along without a care in the world. One swipe of his paw could have ended any one of my dogs. He could have made mincemeat out of me. While bears are not typically aggressive, I couldn’t safely approach and take over. The dogs had to choose to leave the bear and return to me… and they did.
The perennial puppy is the result of micromanagement. That’s my interpretation of the original comment: you, human pet owner, must control everything, and keep the dog in a dependent state for all his or her days. Supervision of and control over every choice presented to the dog, with total dependence upon the human for everything – food, fun, safety – that might sound like responsible dog ownership. To me, it’s just too much. Not only is it impossible with five dogs, but to me it isn’t desirable.
As fun as children or puppies might be, I want adult companionship, human or canine. I want to be around fully realized beings – again, human or canine. I want my pets to be whole, deep, complex, and rich beings, who have love for me and respect for me (not slavish devotion to me) because they have chosen it. That choice has to come from a place of knowledge, experience, and freedom. I want them to respect me and choose to bond with me, and thus obey me when the chips are down and the quills are up… not because I have bribed, trained, or tricked them into it. Not because I have followed a series of instructions – a recipe for “leadership.” Not because they are helpless and hapless puppies that need me to navigate the world for them. Because we are partners. Equals even. And because we work together as partners to enjoy a life that is fulfilling for adult dogs.
But it can be even simpler than that. Think about the type of relationships you can have with children. Now think about the kind of relationships you can have with adults. Both are good, right? Kid are awesome, but they have their limits. Same for me with dogs. Puppies are awesome but they have their limits. They can never bond the way an adult bonds. They can never step up to the partnership plate the way an adult can. I’m willing to experience the puppy joy, but for me, that depth and intensity of bond that can only come from an adult is where it’s at.
I know it all sounds a little crazy when we’re talking about pets. No matter how much I romanticize the collegial nature of our relationship, I admit that there is a clear hierarchy. But I don’t want a dog that respects me by rote or requirement. I want a dog to choose to respect me, after having thoroughly considered the alternatives. Imagine what it might be like if an adult wolf or coyote chose to partner with you. You’d be wowed. You’d be floored. You’d be honored. Because that animal … well, it doesn’t have to partner up with you. It could just as likely have chosen to kill you or die trying.
I don’t fear competent and confident dogs. I am drawn to them. Keeping them puppies forever is fine if that’s what turns you on. But I feel a little sorry for those folks. I think they’re missing out on a lot.
There’s more to say on this topic. What if your dog grows up to be a real asshole of an adult dog? What if the adult dog doesn’t respect you and doesn’t choose to bond with you? If you are somehow not available or not deemed competent by a dog that is smarter or stronger than you… then a fully realized adult dog IS a problem. But that’s for another post. Let’s leave this here for now and chew on it together for a while.