The reasons behind enrichment protocols

Why to use enrichment protocols for rearing puppies? Why  to “interfere” with the puppies at all?

Dogs have been a part of human life for millennia, some archeological data suggests for tens of thousands of years. Selective dog breeding for particular traits has shaped them into live instruments for specific jobs. Just consider webbed feet and waterproof coat in breeds intended for water work, harsh mud-repelling coats of going-to ground terriers and their loud voices that help hunters find them when burrows collapse, white coats of dogs used  to flush prey and not be mistaken for it when hunters are shooting their arrows and more recently guns, large foreboding size of guard dogs next to teacup size of toy dogs bred exclusively for companionship and associated portability. All one specie! You get the idea. Every single trait of any dog breed is a direct result of breeding for function.

What is happening in the last century, especially in the western world, is functions of many dog breeds becoming obsolete. Sure, we still have police dogs and army dogs, dogs leading the blind, search and rescue dogs, but majority of dog breeds are either switching their function to strictly companionship, or at least modifying it dramatically, with only occasional, recreational display of their original function.

This shift towards companionship, a family dog, has resulted in modifications to our dogs’ temperaments. Just the other day another Norwich terrier breeder was telling me how she imported a beautiful female dog, with many desirable, correct physical features but discovered her to be “difficult to live with”, “too much of a dog”, “too hyper”.  The breeder does not want to introduce those traits into her breeding program. I get it. She is right. That type of temperament was great in a terrier a century ago, whose full time job was to keep a horse barn, or a grain storage free of rodents. Now, we desire sweet and happy disposition in our terriers. We value impulse control. We value tameness and affection. We love dogs that are easy to live with. Contrast that with breeders of terriers just a hundred years ago choosing their temperaments primarily for rat dispatching skills. I have NEVER gotten a request for a Norwich puppy to be used as a rodent hunter.

In effect, we live right in the middle of that profound shift in what we desire our dogs’ temperaments to be and that is reflected in a number of ways. There is an explosion of interest in dog sports and an associated explosion in dog training and dog behaviorism studies. When centuries ago you might take your dog every day to the woods to hunt, or woke up with him on the side of a mountain to another day of sheep herding, now many dog owners attend training classes and participate in sports either artificially simulating their dog’s original function, or exclusively fun activities of dog-human partnership. There are obedience competitions, agility, herding trials, fly ball, dancing with dogs, lure coursing, earthdog, barn hunt, tracking. The list goes on and on. While I never get requests for rodent hunters, I do get inquiries all the time for puppies that would make good agility dogs, or obedience dogs, or therapy dogs and would travel well. The kind of puppies that are outgoing, free of phobias, adaptable, friendly to strangers and other pets. Dogs that would love young and old and everyone in between. Dogs that let you take chicken wings picked up at a park from their mouths. Dogs that don’t fall apart during thunder storms or in a new place.

Personally, I add to this list a couple of my own wishes for the puppies. I want them to be able to express their enthusiasm while keeping their feet on the ground. I want them to be OK with going potty on a wet grass while it is raining. I want them to be happy to take quiet time in their crates. I want them to manage their feeling of jealousy towards other canine members of the household, or other dogs approaching “their” humans while they are sitting on a lap.

Our ever increasing knowledge of canine genetics, psychology and training with literally thousands of resources make the process of breeding  and raising sweet-tempered, well adjusted dogs a reachable goal.

This is where puppy raising protocols come into play (once all the careful litter planning resulted in little bundles of joy). For the next three months I will be illustrating here the protocols I use, and hopefully as they are continued by puppies’ new owners, along with the sources and ideas behind them. You will have an ability to see the process in all its glorious imperfection, especially as  the protocols for the list of behaviors I mentioned above as my own wishes are authored by me and are a work in progress. None of the protocols are an attempt to suppress any traits that have been bred into our dogs for generations, but rather gentle guiding of puppy development while teaching patterns of behavior that would help navigate the human world and give tools for effective inter-specie communication and emotional resilience.

Not unlike the principles of Montessori schools for human children, the protocols I use respect the natural psychological and physical development of puppies. Although a puppy’s growth is a fluid process, nonetheless there are markers for various stages  of development- fear imprinting stages being most commonly known. Each stage reflects physical and mental readiness for another phase of development. Judicially augmenting puppy’s experiences and environment with stimuli aiding in learning what is appropriate for each stage, results in mental resilience and increased cognitive abilities. At least that is the idea. The actual science is compelling, however some exaggerated claims for certain protocols have been disproven. More on that in a separate post.

The main principles behind the protocols I will be utilizing are:

  • the mentioned above respect for the natural development
  • age-appropriate blocks of “work”, always followed by rest and sleep
  • increasingly individualized protocols as the puppies grow to reflect specific needs of each puppy
  • focus on emotionally charged positive association with a desired behavior
  • choice within prescribed range (management of the environment rather than coercion)

I am far from being an expert in canine behaviorism. Additionally, I strongly believe that human knowledge in any given moment in history showed us that it has an expiration date. I truly welcome feedback and criticism.

And lastly, the use of the enrichment protocols does not guarantee a perfect adult any more than a Montessori school would ensure later acceptance into an ivy league school. However, the benefits of enrichment protocols are clearly obvious to those owning a dog raised with them.

By far the best resource for enrichment protocols all in one place is a DVD series, and now a movement, called Puppy Culture, authored by Jane Lindquist

Although my previous litters have been featured in cameo appearances of Puppy Culture movie, I am very proud to present to you a Puppy Culture litter step-by-step.

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