Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: Big Poppa

It’s a whole new world outside the puppy mill.

Sky the 5-year-old Weimaraner is a momma's boy. — Maureen Kelly

Dear Dogcharmer,

We recently brought home a 5-year-old male Weimaraner who has spent his whole life as “Big Poppa,” living in a cage in a puppy mill. He’s got a great disposition, and is a really sweet, sweet boy, but is totally overwhelmed and overstimulated with his new world. We’ve had him a week, and the housebreaking is going well; I take him to the beach or the park every morning to make sure he gets plenty of exercise, which he loves; he’s great off-leash and comes back when I call him. The problem is he has bonded only with me; he’s skittish around my husband, and actually walked up to my son and nipped him on the head, totally unprovoked, without growling or exhibiting any aggression. We can’t make any sense of it, and really want to find a way to make it work for all of us. Would love to know your thoughts.

Thanks in anticipation.

Mo Kelly

Dear Mo,

First let me say, without exaggeration, that your letter really touched me. When it comes to the humane treatment of animals, to say that you and your family are among the “good guys” is a gross understatement. Big Poppa spent close to half his life in a cage, occasionally let out to mate with a female in heat, period. The closest analogy for a human I can think of is the movie “Nell,” where Jodie Foster was a “wild child” surviving in the woods after her mother died, never having any contact with a human being or civilization. Big Poppa’s association with humans, most likely men, was probably about as warm and much fun as a canker sore. A dog like this is likely to be suspicious of treats and toys. Never saw them before. Forget about all the things we dog owners take for granted! Open spaces, crowds, stores, cars, and all the noises and smells that come with our community living. Skittish around your husband: no surprise there.

As for your son, I’m guessing Big Poppa just wanted to check him out; he never saw a child before, and not having hands, like most dogs he used his mouth. If there are no signs of aggression, give Big Poppa the benefit of the doubt in this case. He didn’t know how to explore properly.

To help create more positive associations with your husband and son, place a sock or T shirt (that needs to be laundered) from both of them under Big Poppa’s food bowl and bed. This might help create positive associations with the boys! The reason he comes back to you off-leash at the park is insecurity. Take advantage of it, and condition him. Believe me, as he gets more confident he will feel more independent and be less reliable at coming off-leash.

If you’ve reached that point where he’ll take treats, off-leash recalls outside should be the only time he gets people food. He should be fed twice a day, once by your husband, the other by your son.

Mo, I’d suggest you do not smother him with love and cuddling. Give him time to come to your husband and son for treats and petting. Make sure he loves his crate, with one of his meals being fed in it, and lots of treats tossed in. Let him drag a piece of leash around when he’s out, and please don’t let him on the furniture. If he gets on a couch or bed, tell him “Off” as you give a gentle tug on the leash, and “Good boy” the moment he’s back on the floor. When he’s a gentleman and you want to allow couch privileges, fine, but not now. It’s much easier to grant privilege than to take it away, if necessary.

It’s going to take awhile until he leaves the shell of his previous existence and his real personality presents itself. With time and patience you’ll see the up tail, happy eyes, open mouth, and smiling face more and more. That’s when any idiosyncratic or silly behaviors may surface, and when he’s likely to start testing his boundaries. Consistency is important for him at this “born again” juncture. I’d also suggest consulting a professional to help with his acclimatization to his new world.

Thank you for being you — best of luck!

The Dogcharmer

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