Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Terrier Genes

Watching Kirby gradually grow into his own personality has been an ongoing and amusing lesson in nature vs. nurture. Kirby is, as previously noted, of mostly unknown lineage. We know from the shelter that his mother was a medium-sized shepherd mix who looked mostly shepherd, but might have had a bit of lab or some other floppy-eared dog mixed in.

While Kirby's looking a bit less like a dachsund than he did as a younger puppy, his diminutive size (he's 5+ months old now and still barely 15 pounds) suggests that Papa was a pint-sized Romeo. Whether he was a dachsund or a schnauzer or a yorkie or some mix thereof, we're not quite sure. All I know is this little guy is a terrier through and through.

Nurture. We have a pretty calm household, and the environment isn't appreciably different from when Baxter was a puppy. If anything it's calmer. One difference is the birth order thing...Certainly Baxter's early upbringing was a bit different because he was an only puppy, thus most of his actions were focused on us. Kirby has Baxter to chew on. Still, we do our best to treat both dogs fairly, recognizing that Baxter holds a senior pack position. And it is our hope that Baxter will instill some of his calm, soulful, obedient qualities in the new puppy. I believe Baxter is having some influence on the little guy, but it's tempered by the fact that Kirby is just wired differently.

The Puppy Thing. Baxter and Kirby each have their own set of unique, endearing qualities. And I realize that some of Kirby's quirks are just puppy qualities. When I get frustrated at Kirby's relentless play-battles with Baxter, I just need to remember that wrestling was also one of Baxter's favorite puppy pastimes, he just didn't have a canine rival around 24/7 to jockey with for pack position. Once we got around other dogs, I have to admit Baxter was pretty gonzo. He could wrestle for hour on end at the dog park, if we'd let him. And another of his classic puppy behaviors was to find the oldest, grumpiest dogs at the dog park and run circles around them, play bow at them, jump up on them and try to instigate a snarl or maybe a good chase. Now the tables are turned and seven-year-old Baxter doesn't think it's so funny when Kirby tries the same thing.

Nature. Classic birth order and puppy behavior aside, there is definitely a bit of nature coming through here. Even though Baxter was a bunctious puppy, he always had a retriever-type personality: a pretty good listener, responsive to commands and focused on pleasing us (most of the time).

As we watch Kirby grow, we see a little terrier emerging from Kirby's deep gene pool. I know terriers pretty well. Growing up, my family had a Cairn Terrier, Katie, and we all fell in love with her spunky terrier personality. Kirby's personality is so much like Katie's, there is no doubt in my mind that Kirby's father was an earth-dog. Here's why...

Kirby's Top Ten Terrier Traits (not in any particular order):

1) Independent. Kirby likes to be held and petted, but it's always on his terms. He's just as happy most of the time to lay under the couch or run around and squeak his toy while we're watching television.

2) Quick. I've never seen a dog move as quickly as Kirby. Nothing passes him by. And he can go from zero to top speed in fractions of a second.

3) Going to ground. In the house, this translates into going under anything he can squeeze under, the tighter the squeeze the better. Katie came into our house as a puppy and immediately claimed the space under the sofa as her nest. Kirby did the exact same thing.

4) Smart. Just like Katie, Kirby is smart as a whip. He learns quickly and is a very good problem-solver (e.g. figuring out how to escape his pen on the first day we had him home).

5) Strong-willed. And just like Katie, he may understand a command, but whether or not he actually DOES what you ask of him is based on some internal compass, not any sort of desire to please you. That said, he has learned something -- perhaps from watching Baxter -- that we never adequately taught Katie..."Give." If Kirby has something in his mouth, even if it's something he really, really likes, he will give it up without a fight when we tell him to. "Come" is another story, however.

6) Near-sighted. It's fun to compare and contrast the eyesight of the pointer and the terrier. Baxter sees remarkably well at a distance. He can spot something small moving in the grass many yards away. Up close, however, he can't find something that sitting right in front of him unless he does it by smell. He also tends to run into furniture. Kirby is just the opposite. He barks at my husband when he's a few yards away and then looks embarassed when he approaches and realizes it's alpha guy. But Kirby can spot the tiniest insect movement in the grass or a speck of something on the floor and pounce on it. He navigates around the furniture at high rates of speed when he does his evening "Kirby Derby" and never runs into anything.

7) Talkative. Baxter didn't bark until he was well beyond Kirby's age. He whined and howled occasionally, but barking just wasn't his thing (and still isn't, except for announcing the UPS guy and the neighbor in the backyard). Kirby, on the other hand, already has quite a vocabulary of barks, which he uses quite effectively. The one I hear most often is the one that accompanies a direct stare into my eyes, and I'm pretty sure it says, "I demand your attention this very instant because I want something and you are paying attention to the computer instead of me!" I should temper this by saying that, thank goodness, Kirby doesn't bark all the time. He seems to have a pretty good sense of when a bark will help and when it will not. Baxter's influence is definitely helping this. When the neighbor's Mini-Cujo chihuahua-pom is ripping up the fence next door, Kirby now barks once or twice and stops. The first couple of weeks, he barked in unison with Mini-Cujo, ready to join in the fight. Baxter never barks at the neighbor dogs, and Kirby seems to have taken a cue from this. Kirby still has to register his disapproval, however. After all, he has some terrier dignity to uphold...

8) Driven to dig. Baxter has, on occasion, dug holes, but it's not a major pastime for him. He's far more interested in what's happening in the shrubs or up in the trees. Katie, on the other hand, was born digging, I think. She dug up all sorts of interesting things, and had a particular interest in moles and gophers. Enter Kirby. From day one, he has been nose-to-the-ground every time he goes outside. And if he hears or sees something interesting down there, his first reaction is to start digging. We're trying to nip this in the bud, but there's no denying it's his natural instinct to move earth around.

9) Intense. Baxter has always had soulful eyes. People comment that when he gazes into their eyes, it's as if he's reading their thoughts. As a pup, Baxter's eyes were golden amber, and with age they've mellowed to a light brown. But they still have that soulful, pensive expression. When you look into Kirby's eyes, you see a whole different guy. Just like Katie (whom the neighbor boy used to call "The Fire-Dog,") there's a wee bit of fire in Kirby's intense, dark eyes. It's a terrier fire. I'd know that expression anywhere.

10) Charming. No matter how many times a day I have to tell Kirby "NO!", he still charms the heck out of me. When he sits there looking up at me with that scruffy little face, I melt.

It all makes sense.
Most of these things make perfect sense as inbred qualities for a terrier dog, whose traditional job has been to hunt small, ground-dwelling vermin. If you're a terrier, you need to work independently, after all, the farmer's not going down the rodent-hole with you. You need to be able to see up-close, move quickly, jump at a moment's notice and be even more crafty and willful than the varmint you're chasing. Purebred terrier groups still hold "going to ground" competitions as a way to showcase these qualities. Had he a fancier pedigree, Kirby would be right up there with the best of them, I'm sure.

Likewise, Baxter's qualities make perfect sense for a pointer-retriever. When your target is a pheasant, you need to be able to spot it from far enough away not to scare it, pay attention to what the hunter wants you to do, approach quietly and patiently hold a point until the hunter gets within range. Then you need to remain calm as the bird bursts out of the grass and the hunter shoots his deafeningly loud gun and then tells you to go fetch the bird. That takes nerves of steel and a keen awareness of what's expected of you at any given time.

It's going to be fun to watch this combination of nature and nurture develop as Kirby grows up with Baxter's calm, patient influence. Kirby will never be a bird dog, but maybe it will bring out his inner shepherd...

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