So most of you have seen pictures of Smokey and Shelby like this – cuddling, sleeping on each other, play fighting in one another’s laps. And if you read my last post, you will know why that is a huge deal in our household. When we got Dusty, she stuck to Smokey as much as she could, but she was incredibly dependent on Joe and me, because she was sick. Smokey, too, is incredibly dependent on Joe and me, because he is a rescue. Shelby, on the other hand, is neither of those things. She is happy, healthy and essentially mentally stable.
We were so excited that Smokey didn’t try to rip her face off that we didn’t stop to think about what it would mean if we didn’t limit her time with him. In the initial days, we never stopped them from play, and we took them everywhere together. They were never separated.
The effect? We have a situation where we have too much of a good thing and now we have to go back and train out a bad habit, instead of just initially developing the good one. Bad parents! Bad parents!
I first realized we had a problem when Joe and I were walking Smokey and Shelby around the neighborhood. Smokey, who is completely dependent on us, followed up front with Joe, trotting happily, unconcerned. Shelby, who was behind Joe and Smokey with me, was a nervous wreck. She pulled at the leash, jumped, whined and exhibited a strength I didn’t know she had. When I moved forward to see what she was getting at, she jumped onto Smokey’s face and started desperately licking him.
Warning bells went off in my head. “Uh oh.” I stopped. Joe turned around and looked at me, Smokey cocked his head.
“Go forward, take Smokey up some.”
Joe shrugged and complied. He moved five feet forward, and Shelby ran to the end of her leash and jumped. When she couldn’t get to Smokey, she sat down and started screaming.
“Does that look familiar?” I pointed at our puppy, and Joe nodded.
“Yeah, she looks like Smokey when we first got him.”
I nodded. She looked exactly like Smokey when we first got him. Smokey, unsure, confused and living with a huge abandonment issue, would literally have killed himself pulling at a leash to get to us if we walked further than five feet away from him. When we put him on the run line out back and moved out of his line of sight, he would scream and leap and choke himself, so I had to go running back just to make sure we didn’t have to take him to the emergency vet for a broken windpipe. When we left the house, Smokey would howl all day long, to the point where I would get phone calls at work from my neighbor asking me if she should go let him out. He destroyed a wire crate made for a Great Dane. He almost ripped down our bedroom door when we had company.
We incorrectly labeled this strange phenomenon as separation anxiety. In truth, very few dogs actually suffer from a clinical case of separation anxiety. Mostly, it is just poor training, loneliness, boredom, or, in cases like Smokey, just a general fear that his new humans aren’t going to come back. In Smokey’s case, we separated ourselves from him for small increments of time, first isolating him in a room with a Kong treat. Before he was finished eating the treat, we would reintroduce ourselves, so he recognized the formula “parents leaving = good things”. Eventually, we lengthened the increments of time. Now, we have no problems. No problems with Smokey, that is.
The great thing about puppies from good breeders, is that they are clean slates. You have all the opportunity to teach them everything right the first time. That’s what I was so excited about, not having to deal with the tedium of behavior modification, which, in our experience, is long, difficult and incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, it looks like I should have listened more carefully to Smokey’s trainer when she told me to watch out for this particular behavior. I remember when she told me too. She said, “Make sure that your puppy doesn’t bond too closely with Smokey, because then you are going to have to repeat this exercise we’ve been working on with the puppy.”
I about laughed in her face. This was at a time when we thought Smokey not snarling at every dog he saw was a huge accomplishment – did this woman actually think a puppy would be bonding that closely with Smokey? He was a grump! We were shooting for tolerating the puppy with minimal bloodshed. Best case scenario at that point was that Smokey would sometimes play with the puppy.
This is Shelby waiting at the door for Smokey to come back inside from his walk. She is whining. In a few minutes, she will get up, walk to the door and begin to obsessively scratch at the wood. When the door doesn’t open, she will pace, whine, and possibly have an accident on the floor. When the door does open, she will tackle Smokey and refuse to go outside for her own walk. When I finally coax her out the door, she will spend the entire walk whining and pulling toward the door. She won’t go to the bathroom because she is too stressed out, and when she comes back in, she will leap on Smokey, play for a little and then have an accident in the house (again).
Say it with me: There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Time to break out the Patricia McConnell. Basically, the issue here is that our puppy has bonded more closely with Smokey than with us. This is due to the fact that 1. Smokey sits with her all day (which explains why we haven’t gotten any frantic phone calls from the neighbors this time around, thank you Smokey’s muddy paw prints on my Egyptian cotton sheets for helping me figure that mystery out!) and 2. Even though we think we are, we are not spending enough individual time with Shelby.
Now, we aren’t spending enough individual time with Shelby why? Is it because we don’t have time for her? No. Is it because we work all day? No. Is it because we are too involved in our own lives to notice her? No. While these are all possible explanations and certainly do happen, they are actually not what is going on in our household. A lot of people like to jump to conclusions with this issue and assume that “Not spending enough individual time with your dog” automatically means you shouldn’t have gotten another dog or you can’t handle it or your dog is somehow neglected. Notice I said individual time. We spend LOTS of time with our dogs, plural. But we aren’t spending enough one on one time with Shelby and probably not Smokey, either, mainly because we want to treat our dogs fairly.
As Patricia McConnell tells us in her book Feeling Outnumbered? this is a very common mistake, and we are living proof of that. Life isn’t fair. You know that and your dog should know that too. So when I went to take Shelby to Petsmart without Smokey because Joe was working late, and I didn’t feel like trying to handle the two of them on my own, I really should not have caved to Smokey’s puppy dog eyes and took him anyway. And when Joe was going to take Smokey for a walk, but Shelby just sat in front of the door like a good puppy and whined when he shut the door, he shouldn’t have caved and come back in and taken her too.
They should both get their time with us, but they don’t have to get it together. It’s hard though, to leave one behind. I know. I hate it too. But for the health of your dog, get over it. Drop the guilt and take one of your dogs for a walk. Then, when you get back, take the other one. Put your dog in a crate and train your other dog, or put your dog in a crate and play with the other. They can get equal time without getting the same time. And honestly, you’ll see the results. We have been working Shelby like this for a few days now, and we have found that once she gets over her “Smokeyitis”, we actually get much better work out of her in a shorter period of time.
So in conclusion, yes, there is too much of a good thing, but not to worry, it’s not as bad as it seems and even though you may have a sad-seeming puppy at first, he or she will perk up in no time and you won’t have to waste a lot of time and energy modifying a behavior that has been allowed to fester! Good parents! Good parents!