"Role Models"

by Roger Powell

Eight seven week-old puppies followed their mother into the lake and started swimming. When the puppies' cork-like bodies lifted their paws from the lake bottom, they started paddling. Consie and I had taken Kaloosit and her first litter of pups on an outing to Marion Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As soon as we arrived at the lake, Kaloosit trotted into the water. Her pups, without a moment of hesitation, followed her into the water with complete devotion and trust. Then, like ducklings, they followed their mother as she swam. Those puppies loved water the rest of their lives. 


Young dogs learn from older dogs. One way a young dog learns is through mimicking the behavior of an old dog. 

Canoni came to us when she was not quite eight-weeksold. She endured a long flight from Denmark to New York City, a long wait to clear air freight and U.s. Customs, and then a long drive to North Carolina. When she finally arrived at our home, she met Kati, who loved puppies and who was experiencing a false pregnancy. Though Kati had only a little milk, Canoni nursed from her. From then on, Canoni adored and emulated Kati. Canoni watched Kati drink from the lixit on our outside water faucet-once. Canoni then knew how to drink. She needed to stand on a cement block to reach the lixit, but she knew where to go and how to get water. Canoni followed Kati to the back door and watched her sit before entering-once. Canoni then knew to sit before coming inside. 

Kwasind learned to be calm around wild animals from his mother, Kaloosit, our first Newf. Kaloosit began accompanying me in the woods when she was only three months old. I studied fishers in the Upper Peninsula, and I wanted Kaloosit to grow up to haul research gear for me and to haul fishers in live-traps out of the woods. Kaloosit began meeting fishers, snowshoe hares, squirrels, porcupines, and even skunks as a pup, and learned to be calm and to leave these animals alone. When Kwasind was five months old, he met his first fisher in a live-trap. His mother sat calmly close by, and watched me move the trap. Kwasind was oh-so excited, but he sat and watched, emulating his mother. 

We always put young dogs in harness next to old dogs. Kaloosit was the only Newf we harness trained without a role model. Kwasind hauled research gear into the woods, hauled fishers out of the woods, hauled the Christmas tree home, and hauled garbage to the dump. He did it all, from the start, next to his mother. Kati hauled with Kaloosit. Canoni hauled with Kati, and then so did Milakokia. Then Ishkoodah hauled with Canoni and Milakokia. This past winter, Nokomis was in harness for the first time. She learned her job quickly next to Ishkoodah, hauling the Christmas tree and then firewood. 

Young dogs do not learn only from emulating older dogs. Sometimes older dogs tell younger dogs, unequivocally, what they should or should not do. Nokomis came to live with us at just shy of 12 weeks old, when Canoni was 12 years old. Nokomis lived with Canoni for just one month before Canoni died, but during that month she interacted with Canoni a lot. Nokomis learned quickly that Canoni was still the alpha female in our pack, despite Canoni's generally undemonstrative style. Just a small command from Canoni told Nokomis what she needed to know. Nokomis and Canoni played together, head wrestling in the living room. Just one old-girl roar from Canoni told Nokomis that she had pushed too far. Nokomis would stop whatever she had been doing and become submissive. After Canoni died, Milakokia became the alpha girl in our pack. Now Milakokia is gone and Ishkoodah, Nokomis's old buddy, is the alpha girl. Nokomis still plays hard with Ishkoodah and gives Ishkoodah no end of grief, but Ishkoodah will now roar at Nokomis when Nokomis has pulled her ear too hard, put a paw in her face one too many times, or stood erect over her in an unearned alpha stance. Nokomis knows what Ishkoodah means. 

Have I proven, with these examples, that young dogs learn from older dogs? Not on your life. Each of the younger dogs I have mentioned might have noticed subtle signals from me or Consie and responded to those. Or each might have been uncommonly smart from the start, and able to figure out what to do nearly on her or his own. 

Nonetheless, something deep down inside me is convinced that young dogs learn much from old dogs. When Milakokia was seven weeks old, the time came for her to leave her litter mates, with whom she had slept every night of her life, and to begin sleeping in our bedroom, where she would sleep the rest of her life. When we went to bed, Milakokia went into a puppy crate next to our bed and Canoni curled up on the bedside rug. Lights went out and the bedroom became dark and quiet. We could hear Milakokia breathing restless puppy breaths in the crate. Then she let loose with a truly mournful, puppy howl. How we were mistreating her! Before either Consie or I could reprimand, Canoni roared a single, no-nonsense command. Milakokia never made another peep in the bedroom at night, ever. 

Next time your dog learns something new, from a dog buddy, from you, or on his own, give him a hug from me. 


reprinted from NewfTide 1998