I was talking to Kate yesterday about boy dogs and how much they change. I told her that in my experience a whole bunch of what you do with male dogs is invest, invest, invest in exposing them to different situations and training them and socializing them, and you almost feel foolish doing it because boy puppies are typically SO relaxed and happy and sweet and loving. You don’t feel the urgency to make them integrate quite as much as you feel it for the young females, who seem to be born looking for opportunities to climb socially.
However, that investment of intense and deliberate socialization makes sense when the boys hit 18 months to two years old, when they suddenly realize that they’re not Gund animals and some major decisions start to be made in their brains.
I’m very willing to admit that the biggest mistake I’ve ever made with a dog was not investing in a young male who was THE SWEETEST puppy on the entire earth. We were living very rurally at the time and puppy K was over an hour away. It was one of those situations where I meant to do it, and then meant to do it a few months later, and meant to do it a while after that… you get the picture. He was so instinctively and naturally obedient, never put a foot wrong, so I never had to solve any problems and so the urgency to find a trainer was low. He grew up very happy in our house but with very little deliberate outside experience. I showed him (with a handler) but being on the show grounds is certainly not the same thing as attending playgroup every week.
When he was 18 months old, he decided that kids, especially boys, were scary, and he desired muchly to avoid them. If they came to our fence or our window he’d bark in a panicked way. I HAD kids, for heaven’s sakes, but I didn’t have boys. And I hadn’t made exposing him to many different boys a priority. He didn’t do anything that I thought was dangerous, but boys completely stressed him out.
I didn’t, at that point, have the experience with training or the experience with behaviorists that I have now. If he were my dog today, I think I could have addressed the problem. But at that time we felt that the best way for him to have a happy life was to be placed elsewhere–we did, and he had a WONDERFUL life, and he never had to deal with those scary young male humans.
As part of that experience, and in the years since, I’ve talked to many other breeders about males growing up in the group, and they said that they had noticed exactly what I did. Their first boy, or first and second boy, they had no issues with, because they were just like every other dog owner with their first dogs and they did all the puppy K and the training and brought the dog everywhere and so on just because it was so much fun to have this lovely new dog. It was when they had their second generation, or their pack was getting big enough that adding another dog was not such a novelty, so they just trained house manners themselves and raised their sweet boy within their existing pack, that they would see difficulties (or at least issues they had to address deliberately in a way that they had not had to when the dog was a baby puppy) once the dog hit somewhere between one and two years.
My Dane mentor (not that boy’s breeder) said that she thought it was something about pack structure, that the dog’s brain is primed to take on more responsibilities at that age, and so they were no longer content to just go with the flow; they wanted to control their surroundings. So my dog probably always felt a little weird around boys, but he didn’t bark at them until he turned two. Other dogs become more dog-reactive at that age. Others make more dominant moves. It’s a well-known age for the breeds with a legacy of dog-on-dog fighting to suddenly stop tolerating other dogs. And so on.
It’s something I had filed away in my brain, into the ever-increasing “So THAT’S why it’s so vital to go to puppy K and playgroup and socialize puppies, even when you’re a perfectly good trainer yourself and could teach all those skills at home” heading. The conversation I had with Kate made me curious to see if I could in fact connect that behavior change to pack dynamics, so I have been looking at wolf pack behavior and age and expectations and so on.
And WOW. I feel like a dope. We dog breeders like to throw around a lot of wolf “facts” that we think apply to dogs, but the reality is much different (and MUCH more fascinating). Forgive me if what I am typing is a “no duh; we’ve known this for years” set of facts, but it was not what I had always heard.
Wolf packs aren’t a bunch of adult wolves and one of them has puppies every year. Wolf packs are an adult pair and their SUB-mature puppies. A pack starts with a male and female, they breed, puppies are born that year. Those puppies become yearlings and more puppies are born. In the third year, the first-year puppies (who are now around two) disperse from the pack and wander until they find other-gender wanderers and begin their own pack.
The reason wolves create packs isn’t so they can bring down bigger game. In fact, the bigger the pack the less food each wolf gets. The reason wolves create packs is so that the ones who do the vast majority of the killing–the parents–can share extra calories with their kids. Packs are puppy-growing machines, not killing machines.
Wolves in the wild don’t begin to breed until they are well into their second or third year. First estrus tends to be right before age 2. Males don’t begin producing viable sperm until around the same age. So the time that they are dispersing is actually right around the time that they are becoming sexually mature.
In other words, you know how we’ve been told that all bitches cycle at once and have false pregnancies so in the pack a subordinate female can nurse the puppies? Yeah, not so much. The adult mom dog, who produces puppies each year from age two or three to age eight or so, may have a sexually mature daughter still in the pack, but that daughter is on her way out; within a few months she will leave. If prey is extremely (even unnaturally) abundant, as it was when the wolf packs were first reintroduced into Yellowstone, some packs will have sexually mature daughters raise litters (so the pack has two litters for the year). Under more normal circumstances, the daughters may have their first heat cycle while still in the pack, but they are prevented from breeding with their father or brothers and they leave very soon thereafter.
And you know how we’ve been told that the males grow up and depose their father? Very rare, and only when the dad is showing signs that he’s really ill or sexually impotent. Most of the time the 2-year-old males just leave. They may come back later, and a pack may fragment at that point because his father is getting very elderly, but nobody kills the old male wolf. He (or an elderly female who used to be the lead female) will just hang around in the pack until they die of natural (as natural as freezing in the wintertime or starving because their teeth aren’t good anymore) causes.
Reading about the wolves was an aha moment for me in a couple of ways:
One, it was VERY instructive that the wolf bitches don’t come into heat until so late. I’ve never had a bitch come in before she was 13 months, and 15 is pretty standard. I’ve often wondered if it was the raw diet that was pushing them to go later, and if wolves don’t come in for the first time until so late it’s interesting to think about what we should be defining as “normal.”
Second, no wonder dogs have such a dramatic brain shift at age 18 months to 2 years! That’s the age when they would normally leave their birth pack and go begin their own, when they would move from being subordinate in their parental pack to being dominant in their own. It’s when their brains shift from information gathering to putting that information into practice, from being controlled to controlling. And, of course, it’s when the first litter comes, which can dramatically change things in everybody’s lives.
I am not sure why I’ve seen the difference so much more dramatically in the dogs than in the bitches. It could be my particular breed at that point (Danes) and it’s not the case in all of them. It could be that the boys have an extra dose of tolerance or are extra willing to be easy-going as puppies and adolescents because that’s what helps you get along in a pack where your mom and dad tell you what to do all the time. And it’s not that I didn’t see the bitches change–it’s that with them it seemed more gradual and more a reflection of their personalities all along rather than a flip from “I’ll tolerate anything” to “Maybe I won’t anymore.”
And this is one more instance of my good friends who have been breeding forever and a day being very wise. Even though they’re in their third decade of breeding and could teach a puppy K class with their eyes shut, every keeper puppy goes to puppy K, goes to playgroup, goes to handling class, is exposed to everything they can think of. Several of them trade puppies back and forth so the puppies are exposed to new families or grow up with different breeds before coming back home to mature and be shown. They take full advantage of every opportunity to have the puppies exposed to every weird, new, different, or unusual thing, surface, noise, animal, or person.
While I’m on the topic, this breeder has an absolutely AWESOME puppy program. I don’t know her personally but I know someone who got a puppy from her and that puppy was FREAKISHLY confident. Not dominant or obnoxious, but able to handle any situation happily. You can see what she does here. The daily woods walks are especially wonderful. When and if I’m lucky enough to have a Cardi litter here, I’m going to try to implement something as close to this as I can.