This week, we welcomed a new foster puppy into the house. Mikey hails from North Minneapolis, where he was thrown over the fence of the neighborhood dog lover one night. It's been almost two years since we had a puppy in the herd, and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy them. Not the chewing, peeing, whining part, of course. I love how puppies are a fresh slate. I'm not spending time trying to undo someone else's training. Mikey doesn't get caught up in what he thinks he should be doing; he goes right ahead and does what works. Mikey (named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) is a pretty typical pit bull puppy. He likes to jump and chase. He chews on stuff. He plays hard and sleeps harder. At five months old, he's just hit the age where it's not cute anymore when he humps things.
Perfect! I thought. Rude dog meets rude B: a match made in heaven.
I'm kind of an idiot sometimes. Somehow, it didn't occur to me that rude dog + rude dog = badness. I've been slowly expanding Rubi's circle of doggie friends for the past few months. I'm careful to chose dogs with very clear body language and play styles similar to Rubi's. Rubi likes to play hard: lots of body slamming and paw punches. So far, these play dates have been a huge success. B's greeting behaviors have improved a great deal. Instead of running to the other dog and immediately punching them in the head in an effort to get them to play, she now takes the time to sniff – head first, then genitals – and allows herself to be sniffed back. Then she head butts them to initiate play. It's not perfect, but it's a big improvement from where she was.
The difference between Rubi's other playmates and Mikey is experience, I think. I hadn't noticed before how much the other dogs were directing the play sessions. In a healthy play session, dogs occasionally take a break, even if it's just for a few seconds. It's interesting to watch: B and the other dog will be wrestling, and the other dog will turn away as in a body slam or shoulder check. But instead of turning back to B, the other dog will hold its face in another direction for just an extra instant. And bang! They stop for a few seconds, maybe sniff the ground, eat some grass, or check in with me. Then they're off again, chasing and playing. It's so subtle that it's easy to miss, but this type of momentary de-escalation is super important.
Playing with Mikey, who doesn't quite know how or when to de-escalate, puts the pressure on B to lead the play session. B, for her part, hasn't really had to do anything but read and listen to the other dog's cues – cues that Mikey simply isn't adept at giving out yet. Watching the two of them play is like watching teenagers make out; it's all elbows and awkwardness. I have to watch them very carefully to make sure they don't get too intense. Dogs that are too intense, moving a little too fast and a little too aggressively, can easily cross the line from "play" to "fight." When I see B and Mikey start to toe this line, if neither of them can interrupt themselves, I step in and artificially de-escalate them.
One of the many reasons I waited so long to start setting up play dates with B was that I wanted her to have a super solid interruption cue. B can't afford more negative experiences with other dogs, so I need a way to make it a positive experience to stop playing with another dog. This is where it helps to have dogs who can teach each other. For example, if B and Maus are playing, I can call "Dogs! Enough," and Maus will disengage from B and trot over to me because he knows I have treats for him. At first, B would continue to maul Maus into playing with her. Then it was just a matter of distracting her with the treats. We'd do a few sits, maybe a hand touch or two, and then I'd dismiss them to go play again. Now, after a few million repetitions, when B hears "Dogs! Enough," she stops playing instantly and trots over to get her reward. She can even do this when playing with new dogs now (brag, knock on wood). It is possible to teach two dogs an interruption cue without either having one; it's just trickier to get them focused on you when they're both trying to distract each other.
With support from an observant handler and the regular use of our interruption cue, Rubi has slowly been figuring out when she needs to de-escalate her and Mikey's play sessions. I don't need to cue her to disengage nearly as often as I did when Mikey first came. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?
Speaking of tricky oldish dogs, this weekend we will also be dog-sitting George. I *heart* George. He was one of our favorite foster dogs ever, and when his owner needed to go out of town, we jumped on the opportunity to have him at our house again. George is much more like Rubi's previous playmates: easy-going, forgiving, and a total bull dozer in play style. Rubi is utterly smitten with him and has been whoring herself shamelessly to get him to play with her.
Every girl has a line that shall not be crossed, however. At my house, dogs sleep on the floor in the bedroom at night. It's not that I have anything against letting dogs sleep in the bed. I just find it hard to get any sleep with 200 pounds of farting, twitching, snoring bulldog on my chest. So the dogs get their choice of four plush dog beds sprawled across the thick carpet in the bedroom. Not bad sleeping quarters, if you're a dog.
Rubi, out of the generosity of her little pittie heart, decided that she loved her new friend George so much that she would share her bed with him. The two of them snuggled in close together as one big pit ball, but it wasn't long before George started to stretch out, slowly pushing B off the bed. With an expression of slight alarm, she stood up and pawed at him, but George was unimpressed. Rubi walked around him and sniffed his butt before moving in to start licking his - *ahem* - boy parts.
George stretch and rolled onto his back to give her better access. Rubi stopped and gave him a look that I can only describe as sheer disgust. George, still on his back, twisted around to look at her as if saying, "Whut? Why'd you stop?"
B blinked and walked away, schmoozing up to the people bed where I lay sniggering. She tried to kiss me and wiggle her way onto the bed for a snuggle. "Ew," I told her. "Go away." Hey, it wasn't not my fault she let a boy steal her bed.
Rubi surveyed the floor, the other dogs curled into their beds fast asleep. With an injured look in my direction, B slowly lowered herself onto the floor. Then she gave a deep, tortured sigh.
Really, her life is so difficult.