The Age of Objection

We are now rising 6 months and there are signs that all the carefully, thoughtfully taught behaviours are falling apart. Despite maintaining and increasing the reinforcement “mass”, the behaviours such as:

speed control: “Merrick” = run towards me and plan to stop
responding to cues: “off to bed”= in your crate
separation: “you stay there” = as I walkout through the gate

are deteriorating.

As to be expected. We are growing up. This is the onset of becoming aware of “cost” to responding.

Cues are opportunities for reinforcement. Recognition and compliance is desired, but she is now able to make a choice between compliance: which may result in a loss or a cost to her, and non-compliance. Decision making is an essential part of growing up. It is a skill that needs regular practice, lots of extensive opportunities to explore the results of her decisions.

She can run towards me and stop, she has done this 500 times. Now she runs towards me with building enthusiasm and skills for a powerful launch. The disruption and response that follows is, to her, greater than the previously established controlled affection. Yesterday when I returned from a morning in the Barn I waited 12 minutes for her greeting enthusiasm to reduce to a level that allowed me to walk towards the house I was were effectively “pinned-by-enthusiasm” to the gate. Fortunately it wasn’t raining.

Me ... digging?
Me … digging?

I notice this launch mostly happens when I am not fully prepared. I am sending out different cues to the “I am prepared for launch” when I look rather like a goalie in a hockey game. I absolutely have to have both hands free and full concentration.

When I work at the kitchen table I make habit of “sitting up” to clearly give the cues that I am busy and this is a time for you to do your own stuff. For the last 3 months when I am preparing to be busy I empty her toy box to the floor to facilitate “doing you own stuff”. The opportunity to play with Toy Box B (we have 3, each containing about 15-18 toys & Items of Interest, aka rubbish) is usually sufficient to divert her away from seeking interaction. What I now get is punch with toy “Hey …Play?”

My left thigh is covered in bruises as this is the only point of access. I have upped the do-stuff opportunities with more interactive toys.

There are several times a day where she cannot accompany me. I may be taking the collies out for a run, which is too fast and furious for young Gordon legs. I may be taking the very elderly Gordon, Tessie for an orchard potter and she does not appreciate the fly pasts from Merrick. I may be cutting grass. I may even be leaving home. In anticipation of these occasions she has been accustomed to good bones to chew, scattered food on the floor to search for or a food ball to roll around. In addition I have worked carefully on the process of going through a door-gate without doing battle around my legs. All quite successful.

The change is occurring as her needs change. As a 12 week old pup the food occasions were Seriously Important. As her priorities change, coming out with the group is rising up her list of importance. What was once an acceptable substitute is no longer sufficient. Food is gobbled in preparation of Serious Objection.

There is a fine line in the process where serious objection converts to serious distress. My plan is to shorten the periods she is left, but increase the frequency. With Flink timing her season as well, she is able to have company rather than isolation as they are both left behind. I would like to think Flink is modelling good behaviour. (Hopeful thinking?)

The strategy of diversion from the process of abandonment is running out. Abandon will have more impact on her as her need to be included in group activities increases – more than a need, her pleasure. Exclusion is as difficult for a dog as it is for a child.

The reality is that life has to continue at times without her. I would be seriously upset if separation did not bother her at all. We choose to bring dogs into our lives, not cats, because they enjoy our company and resist separation. This separation needs to be handled extremely carefully and empathically. The fallout is a lifetime of distress for the dog.

I would suggest the stronger the connection the harder the separation. When I travel I have “distractions” to bypass the feelings of separation. I would hate to be left in my home and have all the dogs go away for several hours without knowing when they would return.

Trust is part of being left – the pups must trust you to return. Even if they cannot understand it. She has learned there are different types of separation. If I go upstairs I tend to return quite quickly, there is no escape from an upstairs window. If I go out the front gate, it may sometime before I return. She is learning to discriminate between the two “left behinds”.

Separation can also be received as punitive, a rejection from the group. Second hand dogs may carry trauma from separation for the rest of their lives.

The strategies include:

  • As much as possible I arrange for alternative entertainment that is of value to her. This may be a special large bone to enjoy that I have saved for the worst occasions, when the other dogs go out for a run.
  • I try to vary the other dogs that stay with her. She finds different companionship in different dogs. But I appreciate that these adult Merrick-sitters are subject to some fairly tough treatment when they are the sole target of her “affection”. This is normally a shared activity.
  • Good stuff will happen in a moment. This is the group learning where a treat or dinner will be delivered to each dog one at a time. I use the Your Name protocol for the recipient. This teaches the other dogs, for whom it is not their name, to wait for their turn. This happens at least 5 times a day for dinner, treats, bedtime biscuits, coming through a gate, coming out of the van. It is an understanding that she is part of a group that is not centric to her. A key element to transitioning to an adult.
  • Many more short absences from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. I may need to pop upstairs to collect a pair of glasses. Carry a plant pot to the other room. Previously I would have included these activities as part of her learning curriculum to follow me, learning climbing stairs and engage in novel outings. I would have taken the time to see this as an investment in training, associating many words with the behaviours. Now her learning is about waiting quietly, I will be back shortly and learning to trust that exclusion is not personal, not a punishment, not time out, but simply a “you-will-be-OK-here” moment. I did consider beginning with this separation protocol, but I viewed the exclusion, as a 8-18 week old puppy, would have been considerably more stressful than as the adolescent puppy. As an adolescent she is very obviously choosing to spend time away from me – hanging out in the garden with the other dogs. This choice and confidence was not present until about 16 weeks.
  • Super training. This is an increase in her activity level within her developing physique. No heavy tugging, bouncing, fast running or excessive repetition. Walking along planks and having to turn around or sit, searching for treats on the staircase and in the garden, running towards a target mat and stopping with both feet on it. Outings to busy high streets negotiating many novel stimulus. Learning is very physically based, not focussed on remembering cues or puzzle solving. Her body is changing fast and activities that she handled 8 weeks ago are now not the same. Legs are longer and take more folding. Bodies take more turning around. Running through doorways has got more complicated.

I am building a relationship, not a piece of furniture. At the same time these stresses are being loaded by the kilo I increase the connection opportunities exponentially. This is often the missing component. “You are still loved, but your enthusiasm for life has to undergo changes, but you are still loved”.

No, that cannot happen: running into the house, leaping onto the sofa with a shovel full of wet mud and grass. But I still love you.

No, that cannot happen: running around hanging on the washing flapping on the rotary line. Why don’t you play with this instead.

No, that cannot happen: herding the collie that she loves so much he can hardly move with her hanging off his neck, tail, coat, ears. Being such a gentle lad with no effective way of communicating “give me a break” he needs protection. But we can play together in this game.

“When she is 3 years old you will love her again”.

I remember this advice when reading our Gordoner newsletter. I understand the changing physique and maturing brain will impact on her behaviour, her capacities and motivations.

This is the age, 6-16 months, that most people will begin to despair. The age when dogs are relinquished to shelters. The age that most people have serious doubts about their training competence, their decision to have a puppy in the first place and how they are going to survive. Despite investing 3-4 months of positive reinforcement into their puppy it can all evaporate in one teenage week.

This is the age when people need support groups, carefully structured physical activities (that do not include letting an adolescent dog run free across the landscape), determination to see puberty as “normal” and not a failure, bad dog, or loss of respect. If you work with the growing youngster during this period you will both survive with a strong relationship and the sort of connection that will last a lifetime.

Parenting this adolescent is a learning process to be regarded as a gift. It is the time you will learn more than you could imagine about rearing dogs. It is the hardest time, the testing time but a privilege to share the journey of an emerging personality.


We now have a workshop for adolescents:

Support and tea in great quantities.

14 thoughts on “The Age of Objection

  1. Your puppy leads a very full life! He has grown accustomed to very thoughtful care from you, and expects only the best. This is wonderful. I recall this time with my now twelve year old German Wiredhaired Pointer, Patty. Luckily she had a companion in her twelve year old brother – a Westie. I’ve always said Patty has a heart of gold, but it was at the age of two I say she “developed a conscience”. Before that any objections I had to over zealous puppy behavior rolled right off her back. I could only praise desired behavior and had to ignore the rest. Perhaps it was the introduction of a female Westie puppy into the pack at the two year mark which helped. Patty allowed that little girl to use her ears as chew toys until we missed the fur that used to cover them. Thanks for your thought provoking post full of great observations.

  2. What a great idea to have a workshop dedicated to this age group. I am just about through the other end with Bosco, but i would have been on the course like a shot!

  3. Exceptional article, Kay, as usual. Few people get this.

    My daughter brought home a breeder Viszla pup in April and took it from siblings and a farm environment to an apartment complex that doesn’t permit large animals and has little lawn. She’s the manager so makes an exception. Alone all day in a small kitchen, blocked from the one window (eastern) in the living room by kitchen cabinets, maybe gets a lunch check. The dog’s humans go off playing most weekends. Long past listening to parental advice, let alone from a Trainer (me).

    Another poor pup headed for a shelter (she dumped off her young son’s cats to get the puppy).

    I’m glad your compassionate, insightful voice is there to educate people that they are “building a relationship, not a piece of furniture.” I raise rescues myself. My newest teen is finally shifting from adolescence to maturity. It’s been a joy to watch his incremental understandings. The eyes tell all.

    You’ve helped me “see” my dogs even more clearly. Really incredible beings, each one. Now we’re off for our meandering walk. Thank you.

  4. Hi I read this with interest. I have a puppy age 7 months and am interested in your October Teenager Day in October. However I can’t find out where your barn is? Please let me know Sincerely Pat Williams

  5. As a person living with a 15 month old german shepherd pup, I recognized much in this piece. made me laugh pretty hard. The “No that cannot happens ” made me roar. And groups are needed. I have the support and guidance of a dear friend who is very wise about dogs. We would not be surviving without her.
    Thanks for this …it helped a lot.

    1. For the first 10 minutes of everyday she is that loveable puppy – in other words when she is sleepy and just waking up. Cuddly, soft. As the day wears on life ramps up to crazy-Gordon evenings! Cuddling reduces my life expectancy then.

  6. LOL! “I notice this launch mostly happens when I am not prepared” Oh I know this so well! I find most dogs I meet want to jump on me and I wonder what cues I am sending them. Often the owner will say “he doesn’t do that with most people”, of course maybe he does and they are making excuses, but I do think I send some “welcome to jump” kind of body language and I don’t know what it is. Perhaps video would help me discover it.

  7. What a beautiful piece, Kay. Heartwarming and funny but also extremely informative and full of insight. Gale’s enchanting Cav King Charles spaniel Primrose is just going through this stage and because she is small, we all weather it pretty well including the old dogs; but your piece reminds me not to even think of raising another Weimaraner in my lifetime.
    Karen Pryor

    1. I have a suspicion by the time Merr reaches Christmas she may have the new name “The Last Gordon” ….
      Just remind Gale I graduated FROM Cavs to Gordons …..

  8. Kay, I have a just coming up to six month Hovawart puppy ‘Cloud’ – reading your article threw me a life-line, I was beginning to think I was getting it all wrong – we seem to forget what having a lively puppy is like, then along comes a new family member and we have to put into practice what we think is the right thing, and then question are we doing it the best way. Will be reading all of this blog from now on with relish. Sue Scully

    1. Entering the danger zone Sue, I think the key is to keep a rein on our emotional response (“But I did what I was supposed to do and it’s still going wrong”) and tie ourselves to the logical response (I know this is hormonal, skills changing, period of adjustment), and tackle the dragon side by side with the puppy we love.
      See? … everyday I still need to remind myself!
      It isn’t all that bad, since she makes me laugh several times a day. These “strong” personalities often find the transition particularly difficult – but it bodes for a Strong Character in the future.

  9. Wonderful Kay! We will be getting a new pup next year. It’s been nearly 10 years since the last one so this is a timely reminder. I took many notes from this article and look forward to the next ones.

  10. Hi, Kay! I’m Kristina (I started to blog, as you suggested!). I have a new labrador called Nina. She’s now 6 months old. Mürgel is also with us, she’s 12,5 years old now. Since March I have had time full of learning about dogs. 🙂 Your blogpost is most appreciated!
    From time to time I also have questions, such as, who wanted this pup anyway? Am I doing this right? Will she “turn out” a good companion to all of us etc.
    However we all love her very much, kids are learning loving despite of sharp teeth and nails, they have to deal with sometimes. Kids learn to control themselves when Nina is nearby.
    So – thank you again for this insightful post! Best wishes!

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