Grit: the new arrival

I picked up my 8-week old puppy! She already  makes me so happy! The drive home, stuck in the car crate, she took turns sounding like a crying child and an angry little raptor – for 1.5 hours. The moment I took her out, she was all bouncy, happy puppy love. She curiously explored the house and yard with me, sniffed and climed on everythign she could reach, tail wagging confidently. She met all three dogs, one after the other, and curiously approached each one of them without fear or hesitation. I introduced them outside, the adult dogs on a leash. Fanta and Phoebe were good. Hadley lunged at her with a bark. She jumped back and fled a few steps, then stopped and watched him hesitantly for a brief moment before she approached again. I put Hadley away and tried again later, separated from her by a baby gate. He gave her a cold, hard stare and a growl. Again, she jumped back and fled for a few steps, then was ready to approach again, all curious and waggy. I decided to keep them separate for now and treat and praise Hadley for hanging out in the same room (but out of reach) from her in order to change his emotional response.



Later on the first day, Grit was in her ex-pen and Hadley was lying in his favorite spot under the couch. After snoozing for a bit, he opened his eyes, stared hard and growl-barked while hardly lifting his head. This time, she did not jump back, but stiffened and growled right back without so much as a flinch. I was impressed by this 8-week old puppy’s confidence. She had been happy and curious about meeting him twice. He had told her he didn’t like her, and by the third time, she seemed to have decided that in this case, she wouldn’t like him either.


Luckily, there was only one other incident so far where he growled at her (and again, she stiffened and growled right back). Otherwise, I’ve fed him lots of treats and praised him for hanging out in the same room, at a safe distance, and I’ve given him time being out in the yard without her (he wouldn’t mind staying out all day anyways). Whenever given a chance and not growled at, luckily, Grit still wants to approach happily. He has started turning his head sideways and licking his licks when she walks past him, and has also chosen to simply walk away on several occasions. Of course, I’m making sure to praise and give him attention in order to honor his good decisions. This might take some management and work, but I’ll get them to get along just fine. I’m seeing little improvements in him already.


I wonder whether the audacity to growl back at a larger and older dog is what the breeder meant when he called Grit “a dominant female”. From what I could tell, Grit and one of her brothers were his favorites in the litter. In the right hands, he said, these two would make excellent working dogs – and they were, he said, the “dominant” ones in this litter. I never really know what people mean when they say that a dog is “dominant”. Depending on who you ask, the definition of the term will be quite different. Some people will even tell you that dominance does not exist at all. After buying in the alpha theories myself when I had Snoopy, my first dog, I read Barry Eaton’s Dominance in Dogs – Fact or Fiction? and took a dog trainer course run by Anne-Lill Kvam. Both of them convinced me that dominance and social hierarchies among dogs were, in fact, pure fiction – I became one of the people who denied its existence. But in the years that followed, I learned more, read more, worked with more dogs, fostered and owned new dogs – and changed my belief again. The attitude that dominance does not exist is a reaction to the fact that the term has been misused as a justification for highly aversive training methods – it has been suggested that owners need to “dominate” their dogs in order not to be dominated by them. If you ask me today, I will tell you that yes, I believe dominance does exist, and so does social structure in communities and families – both canine and human ones. However, the fact that there is a hierarchy does not justify aggression – in fact, the entire reason for hierarchies within groups of mammals is to avoid aggression and always know where one stands rather than having to “fight it out” time and again. In The Other End of the Leash (149f), Patricia McConnell defines dominance as “a relationship among individuals, with one having more status than others in a particular context”. It is “priority access (I get it first) to preferred (I really want it), limited (there’s not enough to share) resources (the best food, the best sleeping place, the best office […])”. If we go with this definition, being a dominant dog would mean that Grit is likely to rise in the social hierarchy above other dogs once she’s older – it means she’ll be the one who gets to sleep on the couch and greet me first when I come home. Is this what my breeder meant? I don’t know – probably not. Maybe he meant that Grit doesn’t tend to back down easily? That she doesn’t give up when she wants something? That she isn’t soft and sensitive? People mean so many things when they call a dog dominant, and depending who says it, it can be a compliment or an insult. In any case, the name Grit seems to fit my puppy, because she’s quite the gritty little person already. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what she is: a gritty little person. That’s a good thing, and all I need to know for now.


A technician came to fix something at our new house on her first day. Grit greeted him happily and confidently. She has, so far, not shown real fear of anything, and bounced back quickly from any little startle. She has played with me – she takes everything she can carry into her mouth and proudly runs around with it! -, she enjoys games of tug already, and she tries to engage Phoebe in play. Phoebe is not quite sure about how to play with her yet because she’s so small, but she’s starting to respond, inhibiting her exuberant nature in order not to hurt her little sister.


We’re letting Grit sleep in our bed at night. I believe this helps build a strong relationship and makes a puppy feel safe in her new home. Plus, when she wakes up, I wake up and can take her right outside to potty. And it spares any neighbors you may have the pain of listening to your puppy cry through her first night in a crate. I crate-train puppies as well, but during the day.


Speaking of crate training: this is going to be my first challenge. Grit does not appreciate being restricted in her freedom of movement. Whenever that happens, her inner baby raptor comes out in protest. She is fine going into her open crate to eat, but if I close the door – even if I remain sitting right outside, next to the crate door – she protests and complains in her angry baby raptor voice, interspersed with fits of crying child. I’d prefer closing the crate door, waiting a few seconds, and opening it again (with the puppy remaining quiet all the time), then slowly increasing the time the door stays closed. But Grit starts complaining the instant the door is being closed – so I’m waiting her out, even if it takes half an hour or more. As soon as I can count to ten without her whining, barking or growling, I let her out. We’ll see how this goes.


I’m less worried about frustrating her a bit, for example by keeping her in the crate, than I am with most dogs or puppies. She is the most confident puppy I have had, and she is not as soft and sensitive as Phoebe and Hadley were when they were little. So I doubt that a bit of frustration will dampen her spirit – in fact, I think it may even be good for her to figure out herself that her raptor impression does not open doors – but quietly waiting will. And better teach that now than when her voice is even stronger and her stamina bigger!


I’m more than happy with my choice of breeder. Grit has no problem stepping onto new surfaces, and figuring out how to get around or over obstacles. She’s not noise sensitive – Hadley found a balloon, bit it and popped it right next to Grit. There was a loud noise – Hadley fled. Grit didn’t even flinch. She’s also not overly sensitive to touch. When she is calm and quiet, I can play with her paws and toes, touch the toe nails, look into her ears and into her mouth, and she stays relaxed throughout the process. On day one, she figured out to sit politely to ask for something. She may have learned that at the breeder’s – in any case, she already knows sitting opens doors, gets attention, rubs, and treats, and restarts a game. She’s a smart and cooperative little girl. Getting to know her makes me think there must be an even bigger genetic component than I thought to many things we value in our dogs, such as confidence, sensitivity to touch and sound, play “drive” etc. Phoebe and Hadley both may come across as rather confident dogs these days, but neither of them was born this way. Phoebe was nervous, and her confidence and ability to optimistically approach new people was something I carefully built. Hadley was afraid of everything when Tom got him: dogs, loudish noises, skateboards, children … The first few months of his life, Tom wasn’t home much, so I took over working through his issues. I set up lots and lots of situations where he could meet friendly dogs and children in a way that made him feel safe and raised his confidence. I worked on desensitizing him to noises, sudden movements, and weird objects … You wouldn’t be able to tell today, but he was a very fearful puppy. If clients approach me with puppy problems, it’s usually also because they have fear-related issues: hiding, running away, freezing, or fear-aggression. Grit is nothing like that. She’s definitely one of the most confident puppies I’ve ever worked with, and I’m really excited about this!


So far, I’ve given her time to explore the house and yard, worked with the crate a bit, and played the name game Judy Keller and Deb Jones suggest in the Focused Puppy book so both her name and the clicker get associated with good things. Apart from that, I’ve reinforced asking for attention by means of sitting, and I’ve played, played, played with her – personal play and toy play. I believe the most important foundation you can build with a dog is a good relationship. If you have that, everything else will fall into place. And playing with puppies is the most fun way to a great relationship, if you ask me! Of course, I’ve also let her fall asleep on my lap, stroked and cuddled her, which she seems to enjoy, and informally practiced handling various body parts in between these relaxing massage sessions. I’ve let Tom play with her and feed her treats for sitting politely as well, and explained to him that lifting your feet when a puppy is attached to your shoelaces communicates to her that you’re playing tug of war. And while Grit was sleeping, I’ve not only found time to get some work done, but also spent a little quality time with Tom, who just got back from a conference in Baltimore. It has been a good first few days!


I’m just starting to get to know Grit, but I’m already in love with the little one. We’ll have lots of fun, and she’ll be a most wonderful, challenging companion and training partner.

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