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Surviving a Smart Dog's Puppyhood
An Inauspicious Start to Dog Ownership
When I was 15 years old, my parents decided to give in to my siblings' pleas for a puppy. A teacher we knew had accidentally bred her dog, and one of the puppies was returned after being neglected and abused by the previous owner. Since I was a teenager, and knew everything, I had decided a dog was not right for our family. I argued against getting a dog on the drive over to the teacher's home. I sulked as we walked up the door, and I stood sulking as she opened it. I don't remember greeting the woman, but I remember seeing the little Border Collie mix for the first time. She was very small, hyper, and hated my skirt. I loved her instantly.
Erin was an incredibly bright dog who had survived parvo, abuse, and severe neglect. She needed experienced dog owners who had a grip on their personal lives and surroundings. I was none of these things, but I loved her and did the best that I could. Erin's story does not have a happy ending. As is common with improper breeding of dogs, Erin had health problems. She suffered from severe hip dysplasia, a disorder common in herding and large breed dogs. This disorder is not typically fatal, but Erin's veterinarian was. When she was 3 years old, he used ten times the sedatives her size required to sedate her so he could put her hind leg back into socket. She died, was cremated, and disposed of without even a phone call to inform us anything had gone wrong. My mother stood sobbing with Erin's leash in her hand, arguing with the receptionist to be able to check the back room for our dog.
Erin's passing was traumatizing. As I got older, I realized that her life was not as full or happy as it should have been. Her high energy demands brought about manic behavior in her, including excessive chewing, barking, and running in circles in the backyard. I went for a run with her three miles every day, but this was not nearly enough to drain her energy. She would have been happier had I known more. For a long time, this regret made me hesitant to get another dog. And then, I met Mellie.
Learning How to Live with Mellie
My boyfriend and I decided that we wanted to get an Australian Shepherd, though it was mostly my doing. I didn't think I could get another Border Collie without expecting the dog to behave or think like Erin, but I still wanted an active, intelligent, and fun breed. Mellie is certainly all of these things, but much, much smarter than I had expected. Mellie is a year old and knows all of her toys, doggy-friends, and human-friends by name. She knows that she gets in trouble for nipping hands when she is excited, and knows that my cell phone ringing at night means my boyfriend will be coming home soon, so she grabs her favorite toy, positions herself near the door, and waits in anticipation for his arrival. When he comes through the door, the toy in her mouth keeps her from nipping his hand. She started doing this when she was four months old. It is embarrassing to admit how long it took us to figure it out.
Young puppies have much higher energy levels than adult dogs. At a young age, a puppy that hurls herself at the camera whenever you try to take a picture is funny. As the dog gets older, however, this behavior becomes annoying and eventually, downright dangerous.
Cute at 10 weeks, Dangerous at 10 months
How to Survive
So, what do you do to survive a smart, hyper puppy with your sanity intact? I've compiled a brief list of things I've discovered that help.
For extremely active dogs, such as Mellie, this means romping around off leash for at least an hour a day preferably 2 hours a day. Most dogs can get by with multiple walks or a good run. Keep in mind, however, that young dogs cannot handle long runs on hard pavement. Their joints are still developing and their tendons can be quite fragile!
Intelligent, active dogs need an outlet. Imagine Einstein as a caveman. He wouldn't have been satisfied by spending his days hunting and gathering, and an intelligent dog won't be satisfied with simple obedience commands. Watch your pup and see what they enjoy doing. Does your dog have a particularly good nose? Try teaching it the name of a favorite toy, then hiding it somewhere in your home. Ask the dog to "find ___" and search it out (they need quite a bit of help at first). With consistency, the pup will get the idea and you will have a mentally and physically tiring game in your arsenal!
Mellie knows a whole series of tricks, but not from any choice of my own. We feed her dinner with kibble acting as training treats, and go through her entire set of tricks plus any new ones we come up with. She gets very excited when we try to teach her something new, and has been training us to be better puppy educators in the process.
Each dog enjoys its own type of play. Mellie likes to wrestle, which means the bigger the stuffed toy the better. As a puppy, her favorite toy was a Polar Bear stuffed animal that was nearly the same size as her. As she got older, the size ratio turned against the poor toy and she subsequently destroyed him. For a long time, we were at a complete loss. We tried frisbees, tennis balls, teething ropes, anything to keep her entertained. Intelligent dogs get grouchy when they are bored, and for heavy chewers, the first things to go are their defenseless toys. Find a puzzle toy they enjoy. Each dog is different: Mellie really enjoys the Bob-a-Lot and the Everlasting Treat Ball. Kongs are also incredible useful, though knowing what to stuff in them is key. Mellie's favorite is diced apple and salmon treats, with an ice cube pushed on top to block the large opening.
Intelligent dogs are susceptible to anxiety and fear. It is crucial to make sure your home environment is stable, loving, and safe for the dog. Do not cuddle, pet, or soothe a puppy that is scared. If they are startled or frightened by something, approach the object confidently, examine it, and praise the puppy when it joins you. Don't make eye contact before then. Dogs, especially intelligent ones, need quite a bit of reassurance that you are in charge and capable of handling all the world's dangers (even the broom).
Dogs, just as children, rely on routine. Try to establish guidelines before bringing home a puppy and then maintain boundaries consistently. For example, while friends were visiting, Mellie started whining and barking in her crate. Someone went in to reassure her. For the next two weeks, Mellie cried and barked the second she was alone until someone returned. By ignoring her, we managed to overcome this new behavior, but it took a great deal of time and patience.
6. Get Them a Job
Mellie's breed is built to herd livestock. As much as I think she is a great pet, she was not intended spend her days hanging out underneath the kitchen table while I work. Erin was a total mutt, but intimidated the children at a birthday party to stay on the grass. She wasn't actually herding, but she was working and loved every second of it. Intelligent dogs need a job! Depending on your dog's interests and abilities, there are a variety of classes and events you both can participate in. Flyball, tracking, herding, water retrieval, and agility are just a few examples of jobs your dog can try. Any nimble dog can herd, so long as it has the right temperament. We took Mellie to have her herding instincts tested. She is a bright dog and but extremely willful, so herding is not in her future until she grows up. Next we will try agility training, though it is crucial to wait until the growth plates in a puppy's hips fuse before attempting any large jumps or strenuous exercise.
Mellie is now almost four years old. We are still learning how to live with our intelligent and hyperactive dog. Though we were told Australian Shepherds reach full maturity around 2 to 3 years of age, I think we still have a long road ahead of us. If you are lucky enough to have an intelligent puppy, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and remind yourself it is only temporary. One day, it will all be over. And then your children will ask for a puppy of their own.