Jackson’s Awkward Snuggling
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
If you’ve read my book or followed my blogs, you know that when Jackson was just two and a half weeks old, he sustained a broken leg. It was a freak accident in which his mother must have leaned on him in just the wrong way with her elbow while Jax was nursing with his legs stretched out behind him, breaking a small bone in one of his back legs.
Because our breeder is the epitome of what a loving and responsible breeder should be, she was able to get him into the veterinarian for x-rays right away. She learned that it was a clean break, not near a growth plate, that would heal on its own without a cast and most likely never bother him again, which it has not. However, in order for this healing to occur, it meant that his three brothers would have to stay off of him, but also that special measures would have to be taken to ensure that he did not miss out on the critical social aspects of being in the whelping pen with his siblings. There are so many important developmental phases in those eight weeks that puppies and their mother spend together that there was no way he could miss out on being in the whelping pen.
In order to keep Jackson with his mother and brothers in the whelping pen but also protect his leg, she used a small puppy sized travel crate for him to sleep in at night when the humans in the house were sleeping and not able to supervise things. During the day, someone was always there to watch things, so he had plenty of time with his mother and litter mates, so he was only in there at night, and I remember her saying that she would wake in the morning to find the other three boys snuggled up against the crate door to be near him, something so sweet and endearing that I tear up thinking about their instinct to be near each other, to be touching each other. And so, by the time we picked him up at eight weeks old, he was a happy, healthy, chunky Labrador pup, normal in every way, just like his brothers, but with the added bonus of already being used to sleeping in a crate.
This made our lives much easier when he came home to us, because it was one less thing for him to get used to. He still had us up four times a night the first few weeks, he still gave a few little whimpers before settling down and going to sleep like any puppy the first few nights, but all in all he had already learned that sleep and a crate went together. This was fabulous at human bedtime but it had one negative side effect: we had a dog with zero interest in snuggling with us while he slept. None. Nada. Not happening.
No matter how tired he was, no matter how much time he had played and frolicked and run puppy zoomies with his Basset Hound sister, he would not fall asleep on us, near us, or anywhere outside of his crate. Believe me, I tried to encourage him to snuggle up in a ball of sleeping puppy on my lap. He would sit sweetly next to me, he loved to receive affection, but he would never fall asleep. When he was a very small puppy I figured out that when he went from “energetic puppy” to “maniac puppy” that I needed to go and put him in his crate, at which point he would flop down as if he was grateful for the break.
As he grew older, anytime he grew tired, he would literally walk away in the middle of what we were doing, trot over to his living room crate (we had two, one in our bedroom, one in our main living area) and plop down. Every. Single. Time. Every now and then he will still do this, so that I’m in the middle of giving him an ear scratch and he just walks away and lays down in his kennel.
I tried my hardest to show him the joy in snuggling, I encouraged him to become a giant lap dog who doesn’t know his own size like every single other Labrador I had ever had in my life. If he was drifting off to sleep in his crate I even went so far as to pick him up and put him on the sofa next to me, but he would hop right back down, and go back into his crate. I used training treats and taught him “up” and that he was not only permitted but encouraged to get on all of the furniture. He would lay on the sofa and chew on an antler or nibble on a toy, or lay next to us without touching, but still no snuggling.
Fortunately, he has become more snuggly over the years. He’s always been a sweet, loyal and loving dog, he just is a solo sleeper. It’s kind of like he’s saying, “I’ll take that tummy rub and you can scratch behind my ears…ok, that’s plenty, now I’m going to go nap over here on my own. Love you, mean it!”
Out of nowhere in the last year or so, Jackson has realized he loves to join my husband on the sofa. We have “his and her” spots on our sofa, and when my husband is in his spot, Jax jumps up, leans all of his 78 pounds of body weight on my husband’s chest in what is known among Labrador lovers as the “Labrador Lean” and then slowly slides down until his head is on the sofa cushion next to my husband’s leg and his butt and tail are up in the air up by my hubby’s armpit before sliding all the way down on his back, legs up in the air and ready for a tummy rub.
The first few times Jackson did this, my husband laughed and said, “Oh, Jackson, you are learning to snuggle but you sure are an awkward dog!”
Jax started to do this behavior more and more and my husband would tell him, “Come on up, buddy, come on and awkwardly snuggle with me.” One day I was home alone and Tinkerbell was snoozing comfortably in my spot on the sofa, so I sat in my husband’s normal spot. Jax came over to me and laid his head on the sofa and looked up at me.
“Awkward snuggle with Momma?” I asked him hopefully.
To my elated surprise, he jumped up, threw all of his weight up against my chest, and went into his usual position. “Good boy, awkward snuggle, good boy, awkward snuggle, good boy,” I told him to reinforce the language to him.
Since then Jackson has learned that Awkward Snuggle is indeed fun, he now responds to just the word “awkward” as an invitation to jump up with us, and he has extended the amount of time that he spends on the sofa with us, even napping sweetly next to us for as long as an hour.
We have learned that he will do this behavior with any human who is sitting in that spot, but will not do Awkward Snuggling on any other piece of furniture in the room or at the other end of the same sofa. It must be that exact spot. However, Awkward Snuggling has led to some other new and pleasantly surprising snuggling opportunities, like the day he napped sweetly next to me like a “normal” dog with his head on my lap, stretched out sideways on the cushion next to me.
Our big boy just turned seven yesterday, and while I kinda miss the insanity that comes along with two young Labrador Retrievers, I adore the big chilled-out, mature boy that he has become. He is nowhere close to acting like a senior dog or slowing down physically, and he definitely gets mischief in his mind from time to time, but he has a soothing, calm vibe to him. We have our unspoken language that we share, and our bond just gets better and better daily. His snuggling may be a little awkward, but his place as a special heart dog comes quite naturally.