Monday, January 28, 2013

HELP! My Puppy Just Stole the Space Shuttle! (Or, some thoughts for first-time Border Collie owners)


Alrighty, then. I've had a request to share some points from a discussion with a very nice lady on Facebook. This very  nice lady is a first-time owner of a well-bred (working bred) border collie puppy. She's had Aussies and understands how they tick, but this little bundle of energy, instinct and intellect has been tying her in knots. I know the feeling.

I'm no expert or a professional trainer, and I don't pretend to be. I'm just a gal with working border collies who has way too much time to think, in particular, about my relationship with my dogs. How does what I'm doing, or not doing, affect the way my dog responds to me or the requests I put on him and the tasks I ask him to do?

So, what I'm going to expound on, here, is the Care and Handling of Baby Border Collies: How Not To Do It. Now, bear in mind that there are as many schools of thought about raising puppies, including border collies, as there are minds to conceive them. But when it comes to border collie puppies, my personal theory that less is more. The mistake I sometimes see first-time border collie owners make is that they fall into the trap of thinking they must constantly train, constantly engage, constantly interact with their puppy.

To you, dear frazzled BC puppy owners, I say: relax. Don't TRY so hard. That busy furball you just brought home is only a baby. He is the babiest of babies, his attention span is about 30 seconds, and he has the WHOLE WORLD to try and conquer in 60 seconds. Having a busy, bright, super active Border Collie puppy does NOT mean you have to constantly feed his brain. In fact, I think that is more apt to backfire and instead create a dog that requires (or demands) constant stimulation. 

Do Not Over-Stimulate the Border Collie. What puppies need is to learn how to relax. How to be. How to hang out. How to spend time with you but not have it always be About Something.

Now, is the little terror driving you up a wall, to the point you're continually stuffing him in his crate so you can have a little peace? Don't do that. A 9 or 10 week old border collie should not spend hours a day in a crate. They need to run. They need to explore. They need to play with other dogs. They need room and time to learn their own bodies. They need to hang out with you. And they need to learn how to just chillax near you with a good chew bone or chewie toy.

And yes, in this modern age, where not all collies can grow up on the farm, I personally believe in giving puppies toys. Not everyone does and that's fine, but I do. I don't mean toys that you have to engage with. I mean toys that they can use to entertain themselves. Kongs. Nylabones. Those chewie bones that smell like bacon or cheese or whatever. Things that work those puppy teeth.

(By the way, any time my puppy starts gnawing a chair or the carpet, he gets a little "NO" and I immediately stuff an acceptable, correct chewie in his mouth. Chewing is okay. Chewing the furniture is not.)

But my dog's toys are for their use, not mine. I don't play tug, I don't play Frisbee and I only toss the ball a few feet. I don't want to risk them tweaking their backs or damaging their legs leaping in the air after toys.

And again I will say, I don't believe border collie puppies need scads of training and tons of classes and constant Things To Do. Yes, of course they need to get out and see new things. But border collies have been around for over 200 years, and they evolved without anything magical or special done - other than nurturing the working instinct.

Personally, I won't take a puppy out in public until he's had the first 2 sets of shots. I have never done puppy classes. I haven't seen the need. I simply take my puppy out to visit friends who have other dogs, or let those dogs come visit them. I let them have freedom to play, freedom to be. And yes, I do let them play with my older dogs. How else is a puppy to learn how to be a dog? Think of all the things dogs hand down to each other, even things we may not realize: the rules of the house, how not to pester the cat, how to avoid and respect old grumpy dogs, how to read the scents on a fence post - important things for a dog.

Of course I make sure my puppy bonds with me, as I don't want him so attached to the other dogs that I don't exist. So, my puppy and I do lots of hanging out together. That's the main thing I do with a puppy. We don't train all the time, we hang. We eat/share treats together. We sit together. We go out in the yard and take walks together. We do belly rubs and I'll hold one end of a chewy while he gnaws the other. I'll watch while he beats up all his toys or chases leaves and ignores me completely. It's what puppies do. It's how they grow.

But besides the fact that I don't accept the risk of parvo, (all someone has to do is walk in with shoes they wore somewhere parvo was present) I feel that that taking them out in the Big World too soon is fraught with risk. Border collies are sensitive to noise and motion and being overwhelmed, so why would I want to risk frying his puppy brain? Why take my little guy out somewhere, only to find out he's in a fear period and now I've made him forever terrified of yellow coats or people in blue hats? Let them learn from older dogs, yours and those of your friends. Let your friends come to meet them, or take them to safe homes for play dates.

But you don't need a lot of frantic dashing about to puppy classes or obedience school or whatever. We're raising dogs, here, not Chinese musical prodigies who are destined to be groomed from birth. The smartest dog on earth does not need to be bombarded with things to make his brain more active.

I feel my pups get way more out of one-on-one time with me, than they ever would with a class full of distractions. Obedience training from me means that every day, several times a day, we take 60 seconds and practice one thing. Do two or three sits. Call him to me by name. Work on baby stays. But just one thing. And then we're done. A couple hours later, we may do it or another thing again. But I never ask for more than 2 or 3 repetitions of ANYthing. Just a few seconds and class is over.

Now, if a pup is overly independent and the recall is a continued problem,
I become a walking treat dispenser. I keep a pouch with chopped hot dogs or cubes of cheese with me all the time. The puppy is free to do what he wants, until I want him, and then I bribe his little puppy butt with food. Sometimes I may have him drag a long line, about 20 feet of light clothesline with a knot on the end, if I want to be sure I can catch him. Also, a wise friend recommends that sometimes hide from the puppy, just vanish from sight and peek to see when they notice and start to worry if they're all alone. Then we pop out and voila, we're the savior.

But I do not require all his focus on me. That's not what a border collie is bred for. They are SUPPOSED to be independent. That's how they learn to think and adapt to our training, when on sheep. I teach him to look to me, but not at me. I don't want him to fixate on me to the exclusion of other dogs or other things. 

A border collie is a partner. You are the leader, but he's beside you, not behind you. Let him have the freedom to be. Don't keep him crated. Don't keep him isolated. Don't over-train him. Don't bombard him with things to stimulate and entertain him. He doesn't need more. He just needs time to be a puppy and grow up. Make sure he has enough freedom to just "be." Well-behaved older dogs are the best tutor he'll have in how to behave in the bigger world. After all, we don't speak dog. We're just the bumbling human who's trying to shape what the border collie already is.

And that, to quote Forrest Gump, is all I'm gonna say about that. :)