Is Dilly a star pupil?

The other night we introduced Dilly to good friends who just returned to San Diego after some extensive travels. They seemed impressed by Dilly’s ability to Sit and Speak and Shake and respond to other commands. When I mentioned we would be going to puppy class Monday night, one of them asked me in an email, “Is Dilly a star pupil?” she wrote. “Do you feel he is ahead of where other of your puppies have been at five months?”

I pondered that question throughout the class yesterday evening, and what came to me is: it’s too hard to compare. Only four puppies participated in our session last night. One of them, Frida, is about Dilly’s age. But she broke her leg in a freak accident several weeks ago. She’s healed now, but she missed some training when she was healing, so it’s not fair to measure her performance against Dilly’s (except to note that she seems way more obsessed with toys than he is.)

The other two classmates were little ones, Wish and Chessie, both of whom must be about two months younger than Dilly. He’s thus more accomplished than them. But I can’t conclude he’s smarter. He’s had two more months to work on everything.

He was paying attention beautifully at this particular moment.

Steve and I find from one week to another that our dogs are more or less obedient. They go through developmental phases that change with disconcerting speed. Just a day or so ago, Dilly suddenly seemed to realize that when he’s outside and we call, “Here!” he can choose NOT to streak to us (and get a treat). If he happens to have a fallen hibiscus blossom in his mouth, he can prance AWAY from us; run in the opposite direction! Try to make US run after HIM to try and pry it from his jaws! (This is such a fun game!)

How long he’ll keep this up before returning to his instantly recallable former self we have no way of knowing. Could be tomorrow. Could be in six months. When I go further to try to compare Dilly’s overall intelligence level to all the other CCI puppies we’ve raised… it makes my head spin.

What I can say is that he seems at least as smart as them. In last night’s session, he blew the Wait command on the first try, but then he did executed it nicely. If he’d ignored our orders to come Here! out in the yard, he responded to them with alacrity in class. Our instructor, Kay, has a wondrous collection of dazzling dog toys, and she used several last night to command the participants’ attention.

This duck waddles along while emitting a wacky tune. Dilly seemed to find the sight of it even more stunning than the lovely young girl dog next to him. But both he and Wish just sat and stared.

Before class, Steve and I realized this would be Dilly’s final session of “puppy kindergarten.” He’ll be six months old in just 9 more days, and then it will be time to switch to the Basic instructional group. We chatted on the way home about how that would be a nice change of pace.

But this morning I got an email from the local puppy program manager announcing that “in an abundance of caution,” CCI is suspending puppy-raising classes until concerns about the COVID-19 virus have died down. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we’ll have to work on our lessons on our own.

Puppy reproduction

Everyone’s interested in sex — even the reproductive strategies for wannabe service dogs. The potluck program featuring CCI’s breeding program drew a large crowd.

Adagio had to be neutered (last week). Brando (our third CCI puppy and the only one, so far, to graduate) also underwent castration at a tender age. That’s unlike Tucker, our first CCI puppy, whom we adopted when he was released for distractibility. (He’s now approaching his 14th birthday). Tuck wasn’t neutered until after he was in Advanced Training. Like him, none of the 5 female CCI puppies we’ve raised had to be spayed until after they left us.

Why the inconsistency? What we’ve been told over the years is that all female CCI puppies — whether they’re pure-bred labrador retrievers or golden retrievers or some cross of the two — may be chosen for CCI’s breeding program. The decision about whether birthing more CCI puppies will be their mission in life is not made until after they’ve reached the advanced phase of their training. In contrast, CCI only uses purebred labs or goldens as studs, and Tucker (100% labrador) was the only male we’ve had who met that qualification.


But why only mate purebred males with all those cross-bred females? Steve and I had never heard any explanation for that until yesterday, when we attended a presentation by Esther Molina, the director of CCI’s national breeding program, based at CCI headquarters in northern California. Since she was in town, the staff at the Southwest Regional headquarters in Oceanside invited local puppy-raisers to a potluck dinner and informational program featuring her.DSC00225.jpg

A 23-year veteran with the organization, Molina has both raised CCI puppies and served as a breeder-caretaker before taking over direction of the national breeding program. She told us that some 70-80 females are producing litters at any given time. The girls require the services of only 29-40 males.

From what Molina said, it sounds like the decisions about who to mate with whom are exceedingly complex. But the organization now has vast amounts of multi-generational data to help guide it. A top priority is doing everything possible to breed healthy dogs. Any hint of a predisposition to hip, heart, or eye problems will disqualify the animal for reproduction, and advanced genetic testing is now enabling CCI to eliminate certain CCI Advanced Genetic Testing slide-x800.jpgproblems common in labs and goldens (e.g. exercise-induced collapse and progressive retinal atrophy).

Producing dogs with the perfect personality to be service animals is even more of a challenge. To do that more consistently, Molina said CCI is now testing canine cognitive ability and assessing the results across generations. It sounds like this is very much still a work in progress.

During the Q&A session, I asked my question about why only studs have to be purebreds (and not the dams too). Molina’s basic answer was that this policy simplifies life and makes it possible to preserve the characteristics of each of the two breeds used by the organization. If CCI bred lab-golden crosses (LGXs) with other LGXs for generation after generation, the results would soon be a separate LGX breed — a breed whose characteristics were less well understood than the original two.

At least I think that’s what she was saying. Molina spoke for a disappointingly small percentage of the program time. Steve and I had the impression that the large audience of puppy-raisers happily would have peppered the breeding program director with enough questions to make for a fascinating hour beyond what she was.

DSC00224.jpgAdagio, on the other hand, found our outing a bit taxing. He maintained a Down position nicely while we ate our servings from the potluck, but during the presentations he popped to his feet far too often. He’s been suffering from some minor intestinal upset, so it may have been that which made him want to jump up and go.

Good girl, bad girl

Steve and I were shocked a few weeks ago to notice that all of Beverly’s puppy teeth appear to be gone. She HAD a mouth full of puppy teeth when we got her back in June, but now here’s what we see in her mouth:


What happened to the lethal little daggers? Did they  fall out one by one and get vacuumed up, without our noticing any of it? Did she swallow them? She’s not talking.

What we did notice is that Beverly, more than any other puppy, never gashed our hands or chomped on our other body parts while she was going through the teething process.

That’s one sign of what a good girl she has been.  Here’s another: one day recently, we found her curled up on one of our soft chairs, looking extremely comfortable.


This is NOT a good things; CCI puppies are supposed to stay off the furniture. Steve is much sterner a disciplinarian than I am, and he immediately ordered her Off! It happened a couple more times in short order, and I shrugged my shoulders. (We never succeeded in breaking Kyndall or Dionne of the habit, once they figured out how cozy they are.) But Steve persisted in making Beverly get down. And she now seems to have completely stopped doing it! Can she have learned that climbing onto the furniture is unacceptable… and be obeying us? The mind reels…

Still, it’s too early to reach any conclusions about just how good a girl she will continue to be. This morning, I unwittingly dropped a $20 bill on the floor of my office. A moment later, Beverly began leaping and rolling around ecstatically, flinging something in the air and then pouncing on it. My twenty. I leapt up to save it, but found a piece missing. Pried open her jaws. Found a big chunk of the missing piece. Searched around in her mouth again and found the last bit.


I’ve taped them together and am hoping the bank will trade me it for an unmolested one.

How smart is Beverly?

She’s certainly pretty. She’s sweet and extraordinarily calm. But how smart is Beverly?

082416 Beverly
Surely this puppy is no dummy, right?

In the course of raising the 11 dogs that Steve and I have lived with over the past 39 years, we’ve given a lot of thought to the question of canine intelligence. We’re aware that golden and labrador retrievers regularly rank high on lists (like this one) of the smartest breeds. But that’s only mildly satisfying. Among the many things we’ve learned from raising CCI puppies is how dramatically individual dogs bred systematically from just those two breeds vary in personality.

Then there’s the question of what qualifies as canine intelligence. Stanley Coren, author of The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide to the Thoughts, Emotions, and Inner Lives of Our Canine Companions, distinguishes between adaptive, instinctive, and working intelligence. His “instinctive intelligence,” for example, refers to inherited traits such as the instinct to herd. By that standard, none of our dogs has been particularly bright; put each one in a field with a bunch of sheep and they’d all probably cause an ovine riot. A few were mad-keen ball-chasers, but none would have been able to track a criminal by scent. The puppy who seemed most mentally agile — inventive and relentlessly active — was Dionne. But she drove us to distraction with all the ways she thought of to get into trouble (and she ultimately was released from Advanced Training after her trainer judged her energy level and distractibility to be “high” and her learning rate to be only “moderate.”)

About Beverly, we’re withholding judgment. She does things that baffle me. She’ll whine around 6 a.m. — suggesting that she thinks it’s time to rise and shine. But when I stumble to her kennel and open the door, she most often will just sit inside it, rather than bounding out as most puppies would. I sit down next to it and wait. Sooner or later, she emerges.

Or she’ll come halfway down a flight of stairs (in response to a summons from one of us.) And then she’ll sit down on one of the treads. And sit. And sit — ignoring our pleas for her to descend all the way and come to us. What is she thinking? we wonder.

082416 Beverly on the steps
What is going on within that noggin?!

I recently read a post on the blog, Daily Treat, that made me think of Beverly. Discussing the question, “Do you really want a smart dog?” the author commented that “dogs who are not engaged but lazy also can make great pets, as their motivation to do nothing appeals to many people. Low activity, low engagement equals not trainable, but easy to live with.”

I’m certainly not going to declare at this point that Beverly is not trainable. She’s performing respectably in puppy class. But she’s less active (lazier?) than any other puppy we’ve ever had.

082416 Beverly napping
She can nap for hour after hour. If the sun is on her belly, that’s even better.

That HAS made her seem easier to live with. I have mixed feelings about this. Smart is good, right?  But easy to live with also feels pretty awesome.



Beverly has thrown Steve and me off balance. I’ll confess that at the start of our life together, 6 days ago, I felt almost smug. Not only were we able to pick Beverly up within 4 hours of landing at Lindbergh (after flying all night, returning home from another continent), but in short order, we also puppy-proofed the house. We rolled up most of the rugs and stashed them in the places we’ve found for them while house-training other CCI charges. We hauled out the kennels and the exercise pen, and set up the latter in my office on the indestructible tile flooring. 062116 x-pen

Downstairs, we erected a makeshift barrier to limit where Beverly can roam. It looks pretty awful, but it’s effective.


Finally, we cranked up our psychological guards, returning to that hypervigilant state in which you try to watch every second for electric cords being chewed, garbage cans raided, tiny bladders being emptied in some corner.

But this is where Beverly has discombobulated us. I think she’s smart and self-confident. In less than a week, she’s learned to climb every stair on the premises (and there are many!) I’ve seen her walk to the door, sit down, and wait expectantly; sometimes she has yelped or barked to signal her need to go outside to relieve herself. She will Sit on command, and she seems to be grasping the concept of Down. But she’s so mellow; so downright sleepy, she’s gotten into very little trouble. She’ll wake up every now and play for a few minutes. Then she finds another cozy spot and again conks out.

062116 W Mr T
What she really wants is to snuggle up against Tucker, but he hasn’t allowed much of that.
062116 snoozy
She then typically ambles over to his bed in Steve’s office and…has another nap!

It’s all so unbelievable to us we’ve been letting our guard down. A few times, she has awakened and wandered outside to chew on a few sticks and leaves. I noted this but didn’t think she was swallowing them. Yesterday, however, she developed diarrhea, and I have to blame our failure in oversight. She is, after all, still a very young puppy, if a drowsy and angelic one.

So smart. (Too smart?)

030515 out please
May I go out, please?

Of all the CCI puppies we’ve raised, we can’t remember any that were as good as Kyndall about communicating when she needs to go out. It’s as if someone gave her the Manual for Well-Behaved Puppies, and she actually read it. She sits in front of the closed door, looking expectant. If we don’t pay attention, she’ll give a little whine. If we’re still being dense, she may emit a quiet bark.

The fact that she has learned to do this doubtless contributes to the extreme rarity of her toileting errors in the house. She’s only four and a half months old, so we still try to take her out every hour or two. But when we forget, it’s great that she has a way of reminding us.

Only today did we begin to wonder if perhaps she has mastered this skill a little… too well. She’s spent a lot of the day with Tucker in Steve’s office, and she has asked to go out at least a half dozen times. Steve has obliged her, and some of the times she has peed or pooped in the yard. But several outings seemed to be instead an expression of her opinion that it would be more interesting to be outside in the sunshine, instead of resting quietly in the office. It would be even better if Steve would just release her from that leash and give her some alone time to commune with nature.

She’s basically a good girl, so we doubt that this will be a big problem. But it’s coming increasingly clear that she’s also a smart girl.


Puppy mind-reading

Someone who read my last post (about Kyndall peeing in the kitchen) emailed me to offer the opinion that she was testing us; that she wanted to “see what are the consequences of doing what I kno013115 mind-readingw they don’t like.” He went on that to say if he’d been there, he might have promptly rubbed her nose “in the offense,” not in anger but to demonstrate that peeing in the kitchen resulted in having one’s nose pushed into a smelly puddle.

It was just a suggestion, and I appreciated the good will with which it was offered. Reflecting on it, I had two thoughts: 1) he was wrong about her motivation, and 2) how did I know?

Here’s what made me think so. Nothing about Kyndall’s posture or attendant behavior suggested defiance. On occasion, we’ve seen defiance, or at least contrariness in our puppies. Dionne, our last trainee, certainly became well aware we didn’t want her to jump up and snatch stones out of the fireplace. But she’d do it routinely anyway, and if we caught her at it, she’d race away, delighted by yet another opportunity to play Keep Away.

After Kyndall’s urinary lapse, I think she just would have stood there as if nothing had happened — had we not simultaneously bellowed “No!!!”, and swept her up and outside, where we tried to cajole her to “Hurry” in an appropriate spot. In the kitchen, I think she felt a sudden pressure in her bladder and… spaced out… Forgot to wait until she was outside to relieve that pressure. Although 95% of the time she urinates and defecates outdoors, and she never once has defiled her kennel, she still is barely 3 and a half months old and hasn’t quite mastered the subtler rules (patio=okay; kitchen=bad); hasn’t yet learned to communicate with us (“Uh-oh! I need to be on the patio NOW!”)

This will sort itself out soon, I know. The chore of house-training any dog interests me less than the larger challenge of trying to read its mind. If you live with dogs and pay attention, it’s obvious they have thoughts. Some are easy to decipher. On our little walk this morning, we passed a bicycle sitting next to an open garage in the alley. Kyndall’s head swiveled and she stared at it in passing. “What’s that?” we could see her thinking. “I don’t recognize it! I’d like to check it out!

Or this: I recently learned there’s another CCI puppy-raiser living just 5 minutes drive from us; a mutual friend put us in touch. So on Thursday afternoon Kyndall and I went for a short visit. Most of it went like this:

And I could easily read her mind: “I like this girl!  She’s bigger than me, but I can bite her neck and roll around with  her, and it’s SO MUCH FUN! (All that tail-wagging is a dead giveaway.)

Other thoughts (or the absence of them) are harder to decipher. Why, for example, when I took her out for a little training session a few minutes ago did she stare at me blankly when I told her, “Down!” Several dozens times I have given that command, and she’s flopped right down into the position. But this time she looked at me as if I had lost my mind: suddenly ordered her to “Smorghl!” Was she being defiant? I seriously doubt it.

But what do I know, really?