Sunday, November 7, 2010

Was Maisy's Puppyhood Wasted? Bad Beginnings and Embarrassing Confessions

I know it was wrong, but who could resist this face?

Coming from the Midwest, I am motivated by nothing if not by guilt, which means that Ian Dunbar’s message on wasted puppyhood hit me hard. I felt pretty crummy listening to him speak- I know that I did almost nothing right when I got Maisy- and I interpreted his remarks as “you screwed up your dog.”

I don’t talk much about Maisy’s origins, mostly because I’m extremely embarrassed about them. You see, Maisy was a pet store impulse buy. I didn’t even like dogs, not really, but I was out shopping with a friend who wanted to look at the puppies. I humored her, but mostly I wanted to get back to shopping. While she fawned over the puppies, I rolled my eyes. Yes, puppies are cute. Whatever. Can we go buy some shoes now?

And then I saw Maisy. You guys, she was ridiculously cute. She had these huge, mismatched ears, and she was just so energetic and outgoing, and somehow, I found myself with a puppy. I know that buying a dog at a pet store is wrong, and I feel awful that I supported the suffering of her mother. I hate that I contributed to the demand for “corgi-poos.” And I carry a lot of guilt over Maisy’s early life, because I know that it contributed to her fear, anxiety, and reactivity.

Maisy was born here, and while the facility looks nicer than your average mass-producing puppy mill, it’s hard to believe that Maisy received anything even approaching half-decent socialization. Her early life, with her “breeder,” was clearly wasted. Strike one.

She was then shipped to a pet store, where she lived for almost two months before worming her way into my heart. If Ian is right, and temperament is forged by 12 weeks, then she was doomed before I even met her. By the time I brought her home, the socialization period had closed. Not that it mattered much. As a reluctant dog owner, I’d never even heard of socialization before, much less understood the importance of it. That first month at home? Wasted. Strike two.

I did take her to puppy class, though. We went to a big box store, where everything was taught on-leash with very little play time at the end. The trainer was inexperienced, but she was supportive, and she coached me through those early days. I do wish we’d had a trainer who was more knowledgeable- looking back, Maisy’s budding issues were quite evident, and I often wonder what could have happened if she’d received early intervention. Still, I did my best, as did the trainer. Our efforts may have been inadequate, but I hesitate to call them wasted.

I also hate to say that Maisy’s puppyhood as a whole was wasted. It just sounds so… harsh. I know that her issues are, at least in part, due to the lack of socialization she received. I know that I did a lot of things wrong. But to say that her puppyhood was wasted makes me feel like her life is somehow worth less as a result. I know that’s not what Ian was trying to say- it’s my irrational Midwestern guilt creeping up again- but I’ve got tears in my eyes as I write this.

I love my dog. I love her with all my heart, and I will never regret my decision to buy her. Simply put, I believe Maisy and I were meant to find each other. I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I honestly believe that her anxiety and reactivity would have been far worse if she’d been purchased by the kind of owner that typically buys dogs at pet stores. Between that and her allergies, it’s unlikely she’d still be alive today without me. Maisy needed me.

But I needed Maisy, too. I’ve written about this before, but my life has been made so much better because of her. I have learned so much from her. About dogs, yes, of course, but also about life and friendship and love. I needed her just as much as she needed me.

So was Maisy’s puppyhood wasted? Probably. Do I wish I could go back and do things differently? Definitely. But this is the way things are. I may have failed her when she was young, and I may make mistakes again, but I think Maisy will forgive me. And in the end, the relationship that we have today is all that really matters.


Anonymous said...

Crystal--I think you're being pretty hard on yourself! Every time I read your blog I am amazed how much work and dedication you put into Maisy's well being. Every dog should be so lucky. You are an AMAAAAZING owner.

In any case, I like Ian Dunbar, but I'm kinda skeptical about this puppyhood socialization theory myself. Even he says the window closes after a very brief time period in their early puppyhood, right? There are lots of people who have dogs that they socialized TONS as a puppy, but the puppy, once it hit adolescence suddenly started reacting to things and people and dogs in a way it never did before. I hear about these cases ALL the time, enough that I tend to think a lot of reactivity and anxiety have a strong genetic component.

"And in the end, the relationship that we have today is all that really matters. "

You totally have the right idea.

-Sherry (Jojo and Penny and Charlie's human)

Crystal said...

Sherry, yes, I am very hard on myself. Probably too hard on myself, really.

Ian says the socialization window closes at 12 weeks, but I've read sources ranging up to 14 or 16 weeks, so who knows? It's probably different for all puppies, and I suspect there are breed tendencies in there too.

I personally think Maisy's anxiety and reactivity have a genetic component, but there's really know way to know.

Crystal said...

Oh, and thank you. I do my best for Maisy- I'm glad that comes through in the blog.

Raegan said...

First of all, OMG how stinkin' cute was she?!

But, while I get guilt, you did what you did - or didn't - out of ignorance. And you can't be faulted for that. You didn't /know/. The only real crime is not learning from your mistakes.

janaARIES said...

Thanks so much for writing and posting this. I couldn't have known less about dogs when Eva and I found each other-a very similar story to yours actually...I consider it nothing short of a miracle that we came to be in each others lives. At least now I know I am not the only one.

Cheers to all we've learned and where we are today being what really matters!

Raegan said...

I just visited the website. Wow, that's actually a really well done site. Much better than probably half the breeder websites I've seen. I totally judge people by their style sheets.

But add these two things to the "Is it a puppy mill?" checklist:
1. Testimonials
2. Puppies on a crushed velvet background.

I've been digging into Gatsby's background, supposedly at least one of his parents should be AKC reg'd, and if I see one more puppy crawling over a piece of crushed velvet fabric draped over the side of a photography box, I'm going to break the internet.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Yeah you screwed up, but the important thing is that you learned from it. And not only learned, but have worked twenty times harder than the average person to fix any mistakes you have made and to help the rest of the world in dealing with a reactive dog.

You can't change the past, but you can work to make the future better. Who the hell knows that even if you had done everything right (impossible!) that Maisy still wouldn't have had the same issues. I am a huge believer that genetics play a very important role. I know some pits that were socialized quite extensively, but still become dog aggressive at the age of 2-3 even though they were fine before then. Or even Vito with his sep anxiety, I refuse to blame myself for that when I did everything I knew how from 8wks of age. So put it behind you and remain committed to do everything you can to help her now.

Crystal said...

Thanks for your kind words, guys. People can be very judgmental, and I know buying a dog at a pet store is one of those huge hot button things that provokes a negative response. I hate it when people ask me where I got Maisy. I don't want to lie, but... well, the truth is embarrassing.

Raegan- Yes, Maisy was adorable. That stupid ear is why I have a dog. I love that stupid ear! :) You're right, her "breeders" have a nice website, and their facility is amazingly clean, at least in those pictures. I've looked them up on the USDA website, and they have had violations in the past, mostly for sending out puppies too young.

Jana- No, you're not alone. I've tried to be honest throughout my blog because I think there's power in people learning that others have made the same mistakes and share the same struggles.

Laura- I do think Maisy would have had issues no matter how I raised her. Certainly growing up in a kennel/puppy mill did her no favors, but even if I'd socialized the heck out of her starting from 8 weeks... I don't think she'd ever be "normal." Plus, I KNOW you're an amazing trainer, and I refuse to believe Vito's issues are yours.

Out of curiosity, did you have a strong reaction to what Ian said? I thought his discussion of separation anxiety was kind of confusing- it seemed like he was mostly saying that it's due to the owner's mistakes. But then he added that medication can be helpful, but it seemed like an afterthought. I wasn't sure how to react to it, but since I don't have any personal experience with separation anxiety, it was easy to just shrug my shoulders and move on.

Liz said...

Don't be so hard on yourself. You didnt know then, now you do. And, I bet through writing this blog, you've helped at least one person, it not many more, avoid some of your mistakes.

And next time around, you will be an even better owner/parent/guardian (insert your term of choice).

While to me ID's protocol seems very valid to follow along with, I also question his "absolute" window. I had a puppy long ago, who had an ideal early socialization period. Lots of other dog time (both adult dogs and puppies), lots of new people, new environments, sights smells and sounds for her first 4-5 months. After that, she ended up living at home with my parents and the other family dog. Socialization basically ended. While she was a total sweetheart, she ended up with SEVERE separation anxiety issues. Like eat-through-bathroom-doors-and-jumping-out-of-windows severe.

Was that solely due to her "window period" not being correctly handled? Or was there a much longer window, and/or genetic or personality issues at work? I very much think the latter.

Regardless, I do think his is a good plan to follow along with, while also recognizing that there will always be factors out of your control and you will in all likelihood need to deal with some issues as they arise.

Maisy is a very lucky dog, regardless of what you did or did not do with her early on.

Crystal said...

Thanks, Liz, both for the kind words, and the story about your puppy. It seems that there are many dogs who had "everything done right" yet still turned up with issues. I've said it quite a few times, but I do think the interplay between environment and genetics is more complex than we understand.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Yes I did have a strong reaction when he when he was talking about SA. But then it was also so short that I couldn't really dwell and over anzlyze much about it (which of course we love to do about everything!).

Personally I believe that the majority of cases where owners think their dogs have sep anxiety are not. Just a dog being bored and frustrated. I think it would be had to create that much anxiety where the dog doesn't ever calm down even after several hours.

At work I've been dealing with some of the rescue dogs who have been really obnoxious in their crates when left alone. but by playing crate games, taking things slow, and giving them something to do in their crate it basically disappears.

So I think Ian was addressing more about preventing issues like that rather than when a dog is truely anxious. Really all of his talk on Friday was for the average dog and average pet parent, not for dogs who have real issues, whether created by the environment or genetics. I'm sure he pissed a lot of people off by oversimplifying everything; especially his comment about trainers/dog sport people creating dog-reactive dogs.

Katie, Maizey and Magnus said...

A beautiful post! My Maizey did not have the most auspicious start either, and I made many, many mistakes. I too am ashamed of contributing to a dishonest breeder. But the truth is I made the decision to compromise my standards, and I did it for Maizey. If anyone else had taken her home she may have been doomed to a life of pain and disability due to her patella's. She may have gone back to the breeder and been resold, with no prior warning given as to her condition. But she is mine, she always was mine from the first second I saw her, and I am not sorry. I think our Maisy/Maizey's are lucky to have us, and I KNOW we are lucky to have them!

The first few weeks may be vitally important, but they are but a few weeks compared to a life time of love and learning.

Just try to think of how much she has taught you! And how much you have to offer your next pup, now that you are a converted dog lady!;)

Crystal said...


My understanding is that most of separation anxiety is boredom, so I understood where he was coming from with that.

I also understand that he wanted to talk prevention, not treatment, but the oversimplification still bugged me. I've struggled with Maisy's reactivity for two years now... Either I'm a horrible trainer (don't believe that's true) or it's not as easy as he made it sound.

As for the topic of "Why do so many trainers have reactive dogs?" ...I think the reactive dogs create the trainers, and not the other way around. If Maisy had been normal, I don't think I'd be into behavior and training the way I am.

Crystal said...


The thing I keep coming back to is the mistakes I made are your basic novice-owner type of mistakes. LOTS of dogs survive those types of mistakes no worse for the wear. LOTS of dogs come from subpar breeders and/or receive little-to-no socialization. I'm always amazed by how well those dogs do. I don't think I screwed up SO bad that I wrecked my dog, therefore, I have to believe that there is something genetic at play. I imagine the same is true for you, too.

Robin Sallie said...

She was (still is) a cutey!

Yes, you are too hard on yourself, Crystal.

"It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, 'well, if I'd known better I'd have done better,' that's all." - Maya Angelou

Kristen said...

I can't believe that puppy picture. She's SO different looking as an adult!

I have a sneaking suspicion that there's at least some research about the genetic component of shyness...I can't remember citations of the top of my head. Dogs who are fearful can become more normal IF they are in an okay environment OR with good training/socialization, etc... There are just so many factors.

My dog Luna is very fearful/shy in many settings... while she had less socialization than Maisy in many ways...I do think Luna's is mostly genetic.

Due to the brain growth we can (or at least it's best understood as such for now!) make the best/biggest impressions and changes to young animals rather than as adults. YES adults can make huge changes too, but not necessarily with the speed and long-term impact the way it is for young animals.

Complicated stuff!

Catalina said...

I worry about this too. I bought my puppy from a "breeder" at 14 weeks. It wasn't the best place to buy a puppy and I worry that she has missed out on a lot of socialization. Not to mention the fact that I supported a puppy mill and I have no idea where her parents came from.
It makes me feel so guilty!
It's also very hard, at least where I live, to find a puppy class where they let the puppies interact with each other.
I still love my girl.

Sam said...

Like others have said, don't be so hard on yourself. What's done is done! You didn't know any better and I wouldn't have, either, before I got in to dogs and learned. And, if temperament is at all genetic, Maisy was very lucky to wind up with you - imagine if she had been put in to a household where people weren't filling to work with her? There is a bright side to everything - and everything happens for a reason. She needed you, and you are learning a LOT from her.

Katherine said...

I think it is partially genetic and partially socialization done by the owner. I went to the same seminar and it hit me hard as a trainer being one of the ones that didn't have at least 50% puppy playtime during my classes so the dogs could socialize.

What I came to realize is he has a different market where his stores are at and has an influx of puppies so that he can have a class just for puppies under 14 weeks of age and another for puppies under 6 months of age so that you can truely let them play together. Where I worked we don't have that kind of market so we sometimes have problems even filling a class with puppies ranging from the ages of 10 weeks to 6 months. It isn't always safe to let them play together.

As far as socialization goes, you do the best you can with the tools you have at the time. You had different tools then than you do now. Now you would do it differently. Even now - regular people with regular jobs are limited to the amount of socialization they can do. I myself haven't been able to do the amount of socialization I've wanted to with Byron but I do what I can.

You learn from your mistakes just like anyone else and I think you've done an amazing job with Maisy!

Crystal said...

Kristen, do you really think she looks so different? I guess, having seen her grow up, she looks more or less the same to me, although I suppose that she's gotten a LOT more fur, and it is funny that all the black hairs fell out. So... yeah, I guess she DOES look pretty different! :)

Catalina- OMG Tibby is sooooo cute. I see you're in Minnesota- may I ask where? I live in St. Paul.

Katie- I think you make a good point about the market you have. If you have enough puppies to fill classes, that's one thing, but as you note, it may not be safe to mix 10 weekers with 6 monthers. They're just so different developmentally.

You're doing a great job with Byron. He's SOOO cute.

Anne said...

I just found your blog, as I was searching for blogs with rally interests after my first weekend competing in rally with my Anatolian Shepherd and now I'm a rally addict! Dogs live in the present much more than humans do, so forgive yourself for things you think you did wrong in Maisy's puppyhood. I live in the country and have a fulltime job, so even with puppy class and trips to town, my pups socialization isn't probably where Ian wants it. You are doing amazing with Maisy and I love your blog!!!

Crystal said...

Anne- Rally IS addicting, isn't it? I desperately miss it, but we're on a time-out right now, waiting to see if Maisy's medicine helps her so that she can go to a trial without freaking out. Right now, it's just not fair to take her to trials, and no matter how much I love it, I have to do what's best for my dog.

How was your first weekend? You obviously had fun, and that's all that matters! I hope you update your blog with the details soon.

Thank you for your kind words. Everyone's been so nice to me. I will do my best to let go of my guilt and just move forward.

Kristine said...

You can't be faulted for acting on impulse when you didn't know any different. Though I understand the guilt. When I first adopted my dog I knew nothing and used training methods I sincerely regret.

It's true our dogs are who they are because of us, but I also believe a lot of that personality is genetic. I haven't been reading your blog very long but judging by what I've read so far and all the supportive words in the comments, you have gone above and beyond the average dog owner. The fact that you sought out all of this information is proof of that.

It sounds like you and Maisy were both very lucky to have found each other.

Dawn said...

Crystal, had you done things completely different, completely "right" with Maisy I am pretty darn sure she still would have issues. Some dogs are just not wired quite right, and no training in the world will change that. Help her deal, yes and you have done a wonderful job at that. Better than most, better than me for sure. No matter what the beginnings, you have her and she has you and you are both better for it.

Crystal said...

Yeah, Dawn, me too. I really believe there's a few wires loose in her brain.

But my next dog... he or she is coming from a FABULOUS breeder.

Catalina said...

Crystal - I live in Willmar.