I was first introduced to Puppy Culture around two years ago. I was researching breeders of Australian Shepherds at the time. One such breeder recommended that I take a look at PC. I took her advice, joined the PC Facebook group, and read what practitioners had to say about the program. In my own words, I'd describe PC as a methodology for raising mentally and emotionally enriched newborn puppies by exposing them to a variety of exercises, scenarios and situations. During the first 15-16 weeks of a pup's life, he or she is more available to train quickly and with less barriers to learning. Puppy Culture breeders take advantage of this early period in a pup's formation to give him or a her a head start on the road to an enriched, happy lifetime. Dogs trained in these methods are often termed 'operant', capable of making good choices.
I never did get a new Australian Shepherd. After reading Janet Vorwald Dohner's book titled Farm Dogs A Comprehensive Breed Guide, I determined that the English Shepherd was the right breed for me. I did however buy this Puppy Culture DVD Bundle. I remember at the time thinking it was a little expensive, but I knew I'd be getting a new English Shepherd soon. I wanted to be prepared, so I enthusiastically watched the 4 DVD set from beginning to end. I'm glad I did. Jane Killion explained the first several weeks of a pup's life in a way that I could understand. Even though the DVDs are more geared towards dog breeders, as a dog owner I was able to learn and apply a lot of the lessons to my new puppy when he arrived. In fact, more than a year later I watched the entire DVD set once more before getting my second English Shepherd pup.
I haven't heard of many English Shepherd breeders using the Puppy Culture method. Until recently, the only Puppy Culture ES Breeder that I have been aware of was Edenvillage English Shepherds of England. I'm sure there are others. Recently, Holly Nestberg's Bonnybrooke Shepherds of South Carolina had a PC litter here in the U.S. Holly's litter was whelped on May 11 from sire Michaleen of Bonnybrooke (ESC-3034) and dam Green Mountain's Bonny of Pine Forest (ESC-1842). Holly was kind enough to agree to let me interview her about her recent Puppy Culture litter.
Tony: “Hi Holly, thanks for taking time to speak with me today. You are an experienced and respected English Shepherd breeder. What led you to try Puppy Culture for this litter?”
Holly: “Honestly, it was feedback from previous litters' puppy folks. Some of them were telling me that when their English Shepherds hit the teens period, they were seeing anxiety. Not necessarily a fear period, but more like an uneasiness during normal interactions and exchanges. I think a lot of true aggression is fear-based. So, it's interesting to me how that plays out in the English Shepherd's world. With a lot of dog breeds, you might have a flight response in these scenarios. But often times English Shepherds feel that the way to feel better is to step-in and control the situation. So, I looked at Puppy Culture as a way to expose them to new things and to instill in their minds a willingness to experience the novel things. Instead of feeling like they have to go into an evaluative mindset of suspicion that is common to the herding breeds. Of course, that mindset is a valuable thing on the small farm in situations like 'oh, the pigs are out' or 'oh, there's a predator'. But, I don't necessarily think it's helpful for every new thing to get that response. You want [a dog with] a thinking brain instead of a reactive brain. So, I knew that Puppy Culture could help set that up. Getting them more operant instead of just reacting to 'new equals scary'. I want them to think new is interesting, 'what can I do with this?'. Instead of just pure alarm barking where they're not even being objective.”
Tony: “Leading into this litter, what did you do differently? How did you prepare differently?”
Holly: “I watched the [Puppy Culture] DVDs and used the binder. What I appreciated about Puppy Culture was it organized things in a way that made it simple to execute the different things that I wanted to do. When you have a litter of puppies, just getting the daily work done can be overwhelming. So using a framework like Puppy Culture alleviates a lot of the tension. I also bought a lot more toys, a lot more interactive things. I bought yoga mats for better footing. And a couple more ex-pens.”
Tony: “I'm not an experienced breeder, so I've always assumed that introducing Puppy Culture would add an additional layer of complexity to the breeding process. Something else to worry about during an already chaotic period. But if I understand correctly, you're saying the PC format and structure actually made it easier?”
Holly: “Yes, it did. She has the important stuff laid out. She tells you what to look for, and what to do when it happens. It's really helpful. You're not re-inventing the wheel. For a breeder, puppy-brain is real. You're sleeping in a recliner. You start to feel overwhelmed. It can be easy to lose track. Honestly, there were a lot of breeders using some elements of Puppy Culture before it became a cohesive plan. But it helps you to have it written there, organized in black and white.”
Tony: “Will you use Puppy Culture again for your next litter?”
Holly: “Yes if I were to have future litters, I would absolutely do Puppy Culture. But, I'm not sure I'll have another litter. My two ES girls are 6 years old now. I'm not sure, simply because of life stages. I know professional breeders that re-home, but I couldn't do that anymore than I could jump to the moon. These are dogs that bond to you. I'm bonded to them.”
Tony: “My last question is, how do you feel Puppy Culture methods affected this litter? What was different as a result of using PC?”
Holly: “I do Volhard tests because I find the results interesting. This litter was a repeat breeding between Bonny and Michaleen. For several of the test criteria, I saw what I'd call improvements. In the previous litter, I saw puppies that might not engage at all when that umbrella opened. They might even leave. None of the puppies from this litter left. They all stepped forward to see what it was. These puppies wanted to know 'what was that noise?', they wanted to find out more about it.”
I feel that Puppy Culture is a lot like sending your kid to the best preschool in town. Is it absolutely necessary? Maybe not in all cases. But more and more, our versatile farm shepherds are finding themselves in roles beyond the homestead. Why not prepare them as well as possible for what life has in store? As a breeder, you may already have your protocols similar to PC. The advantage of Puppy Culture is as a recognized, established and acclaimed program that any breeder can study, practice and leverage to produce good dogs. A standard. I think there's value in that.