I moved my young bird dog Jade off my half of the couch the other day, though there’s nothing terribly remarkable about that. I let the dogs lounge on the furniture, and they hog the couch when I let them.
I figure if they spoil me the three months of hunting season then they get to live the high life the rest of the year. So far, it’s been a fair bargain.
What was surprising was Jade’s reaction: a frustrated nip of my hand as I shoved her out of my spot. It wasn’t a playful nip, as sometimes happens with young dogs who haven’t quite learned where play ends and pain begins. This was an aggressive bite of frustration and annoyance. Not painful, but not appropriate either.
My reaction startled her. I raised my voice and switched to a stern, now-you’ve-done-it tone. My voice and forceful “No” communicated quickly that she’d screwed up. As punishment she received a short stint in timeout (confinement in her kennel) and lost her couch privileges for a couple days, when I tired of shooing her off.
I don’t know if my response qualified me for dog whisperer status, but it seems to have been effective. I’ve read some trainers recommend against using the kennel as punishment and I see their logic — it’s counterproductive to teach a crate-trained dog to view their kennel as punishment — but not every rule must be followed, zealously.
Sometimes with my still developing young dog, Jade is a month shy of 2 years old, the goal is to just survive the moment. She’s not a chronic biter and this annoyance nip was the first of its kind. If it happens again I might have a problem. For now, however, I’m viewing it as a young dog testing her boundaries and learning this is one she ought not cross again.
Maybe the most significant thing about Jade’s mild aggression was the reminder she’s a different dog than my old timer, Doll. I run English setters for a variety of reasons — they are heck on birds, they can be quirky divas and, mostly, because they are such gentle souls.
Doll never once nipped at me out of frustration or aggression. I don’t think she has ever so much as growled, not even when Jade or the cat nosed their way into her supper. She rarely barks; once every couple of years, at most.
She’s so laid back that if Doll were a movie character, she’d be Jeff Spicoli, though rather than buds and waves, she chases birds.
Jade is different. As far as setters go, she’s still on the mellow end of the aggression spectrum. She barks at every leashed dog that’s walked past our house and has made clear to Laney Lou that a cat has no business in her food bowl.
My first setter, Jack, was more like Jade. Jack and I hunted alone for about five years before Doll joined us. I’d read that older canines were often the best trainers for young bird dogs. The pups learn following behind the older dogs, and if a youngster puts a paw out of place, the big dog would let them know that sort of thing was unacceptable.
Despite being a bit more aggressive, Jack never paid Doll much mind when they were in the field, and Doll pretty much ignored her tutor. So, when Jack became ill and died when I anticipated he still had three or four years in him, I was left with a young setter who really didn’t know how to hunt.
It took her a couple years, but she figured it out. That was a lesson itself. It was Doll’s development that taught me there was intellect and personality behind those soft, puppy dog eyes.
They’re always thinking.
Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.
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