I’m posting here to share my experiences raising a puppy in the hopes that it may be interesting and helpful to others. Perhaps other forum members will join in with their thoughts. This is lengthy but here on the West Coast we’re in lockdown so it seems a good time.
Just over two years ago I decided to get a dog. This was not an easy decision as my wife and I are in the age range of ‘Senior Citizens’. We live alone in a modest house in the country and neither of us had had a pet of any kind since childhood when we both had ‘family’ dogs. That was back in an era before pets became children so I had a lot to learn. In addition my wife has a health condition that limits her mobility. I read all the well known dog behavior/training books. The one I found most helpful was Jean Donaldson’s, THE CULTURE CLASH. I watched endless videos, scoured this forum, got advice from family and friends and then went ahead and purchased an 8 week old female blue merle Australian Shepard from an out of state cattle ranch. At this point you are probably thinking I’d lost my mind. And to make it even more challenging this was not a show Aussie but a dog from real herding stock on a working ranch. In the end she has turned into a marvelous dog who is everything I could have hoped for.
I had some advantages that many dog owners do not. I’m retired so had the time to devote to this and I can’t emphasis that enough. Never underestimate how time consuming a puppy can be. We live on 18 acres with 6 acres of orchard/garden and small vineyard fenced for deer. I had a job for a dog in keeping pests—turkeys, squirrels, rabbits and various rodents—away from the vineyard, etc. Not fully comprehending canine instincts I incorrectly assumed that this task would take some training.
I had hoped to take the two day road trip to the breeder to get the puppy but the timing didn’t work so she was shipped via Delta airlines. I agonized over that decision and despite an 9 hour flight it went well. After imagining for months what she would look like I was totally unprepared to open the crate to a tiny, vulnerable 8 lb. fluff ball. She looked tired and a bit worried but settled right down on my wife’s lap for the 2 hour drive home and the next day was jumping around with such energy that we named her Cricket.
I had dreaded house training and the books will tell you that even one pee/poop ‘accident’ will make it extremely difficult. I would like to meet the person who has raised a dog from puppyhood without a single ‘accident.’ Puppies will pee out of pure excitement as Cricket did several times when greeting visitors.
I discovered how easy house training can be with a pet door. If there is any way you can install one, do it. Cricket had been trained to use a pet door and I had installed one leading to a small fenced area in our backyard. I couldn’t let her go out alone at night as we have predators like coyotes, mountain lions and great-horned owls, so I got up every two hours, put her on a leash, made sure I had a treat or two and took her out, sometimes in the rain. She loved it but often would not pee and would want to play instead. Within three weeks I was down to taking her out just once between 9 and 6. There was only one ‘accident’ when I forgot to open the pet door in the morning. During the day she was outside with me and it wasn’t an issue. Until she was 18 weeks old she slept on the floor beside my bed in a small enclosure that I could reach into if necessary. If she had to go out she would wake me with a sound I’d never heard before—a soft, very short, growl/whine. I would hear it half awake and then again a bit louder. I once awoke to it realizing that it had been going on for a long time while she patiently waited. At that point I realized house training was over.
Socialization is heavily emphasized in the books and with good reason. The last thing I wanted was a dog that was afraid of people. In the first week I started carrying her to public places where there was a bench. Where I live dogs without their full set of vaccinations can not be safely put on the ground where other dogs might have been. I soon discovered the best spot was a picnic table outside the main entrance to the local YMCA. All walks of life passed by with plenty of children, mothers with babies, teenagers, people pushing walkers, in wheel chairs, carrying skate boards, basketballs, etc., etc. Cricket loved them all. I had read that Aussies tend to be standoffish. Cricket was anything but. I had to constantly restrain her from trying to get to people, her stub of a tail going like crazy. The older gym goers would sit down, pet Cricket, and then regale me with their dog stores. I was well entertained but after 7 or 8 sessions it finally dawned on me that Cricket was never going to be shy of anybody and we should move on.
To get used to other dogs I enrolled her in a humane society puppy play group. It was well worth the time spent. She loved it and it gave me a much better understanding of canine behavior and how to ‘read’ dog body language. She went to different groups for over a year and I probably could have stopped a lot sooner.
To develop a soft mouth I fed all her daily kibble ration by hand. It was time consuming but a wonderful experience. She quickly learned that if she lunged or a tooth touched my skin my hand closed. I did this for at least 4 weeks which was probably too long as well. I didn’t fully realize until later what a strong bonding experience that was. As for food, I found the choices at my local farm supply to be so confusing that I just stayed with the brand the breeder used with no problems.
Cricket is a confident, head strong dog and I was told that that type are the easiest to train. I don’t have the experience to know but she did quickly master, 'come', 'sit', 'down', and 'stay' and a 'distant down' is getting there. Loose leash walking was a disaster as a puppy and not much better now but that’s really my fault for not working on it. She seldom needs to be on a leash so I’ve let it slide. The word ‘turkey or ‘squirrel’ will set her in a frenzy to get outside and chase and occasionally catch one. She takes her job very seriously. Where I used to have flocks of 30-40 turkeys wandering through every day I now see a couple a month.
I’ve become aware that in this whole process Cricket has trained me a bit. We 'hunt' together, take naps together and I can’t help but admire some of her qualities and I even try to emulate them. Her intense focus, endless patience and when she relaxes she’s all out as if a switch is thrown.
In reading this over I feel I have made it sound a bit too easy. I started as a rank beginner and my success had a lot to do with the environment the breeder provided for Cricket's first 8 weeks, the amount of time I could devote to her, Cricket herself and a certain amount of luck.