Tuesday, April 15, 2014

She Gather Me

A month or two ago, I decided to take the Therapy Dogs International test with Piper. She's passed therapy dog tests before - once with TDI and later with Pet Partners. It wasn't really that I had a driving desire to get her recertified. TDI had recently changed their test, and I wanted to see what it was like before I sent my more novice dogs, Jai and Cannon, through it. I don't think it even occurred to me until about halfway through the test that we might not pass. Piper Ann has been my bombproof, rock solid saint for so long that I hadn't even entertained the idea that she wouldn't fly through it.

Piper passed the TDI test, of course.

Piper says hi.
I decided this year, after a three year break from competition, that I wanted to work on my ring nerves. At first, I thought I would work through my issues with Maus. After all, he's used to working with my when I'm anxious - when you have an aggressive dog, you tend to be a little worried every time you leave the house. But when it came time to actually fill out the premiums, I found that it was Piper I wanted to bring back into the ring with me. She and I started playing this game together, and it felt wrong not to have her by my side when I set to start again.

After this weekend, I feel pretty comfortable saying that even after a three year break, Piper and I have still got It. Much to my chagrin, at the tender age of nine, Piper now qualifies for the veterans' ring in World Cynosport Rally. Piper was the highest scoring veteran dog of the weekend, bringing home three blue ribbons - one for each of our three runs. Of course, it's easy to win first place when there's only one other dog in the class (or, ahem, none) - but with scores of 204, 208, and 207 out of 200, I feel like maybe we earned those blues anyway. These successful runs mean that Piper has earned her Rally Veteran title (RLV), and that we both earned an Award of Excellence (AOE) for completing her qualifying runs with scores of over 190.

Piper Ann, CGC, TDI, TT, RA, CD, MA with Honors, RLV AOE
(I'm not actually sure the AOE is part of the title, but I'm going to pretend it is because we are
Full. Of. Awesome.)

It seems that somewhere between when I picked her up at the shelter on February 24th, 2006, and today, Piper Ann and I have become a veteran team. We have each learned how to set the other up for success. I know when to reward Piper, when to ask her to work a little harder, and when to say, "We have had enough for today and will try again tomorrow." And when I fall apart, Piper has learned how to gather up the pieces and return them to me in the right order. I must have been very good indeed to have been given a friend like her.

Photo by Crystal.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Last month, I helped someone return his dog to the rescue. He'd adopted Porter, one of the Nottweilers, and they'd lived happily every after - until life happened. He fell in love, moved, took the job he could get, and ended up working twelve to fourteen hour days. We worked together to try to find a way to keep Porter happy and healthy with his daddy away from home so much, but in the end, it was in Porter's best interests to return to the rescue.

Porter's person was in tears when I went to pick up our Nottweiler. "After what I've done to Porter," he said, "I just can't imagine having another dog."

I was a little crushed. After fifteen years in rescue, I tend to take a bit of pride in  my ability to spot a good dog owner and to be able to match that owner to the right dog. At no point during our relationship, from adoption to surrender, did I feel that Porter's person was a bad dog owner. He was doing his best with a difficult situation, and in the end he made the decision he felt was in his dog's best interest. I hope that I never become the person who humiliates someone who has only tried to do what was best for their dog.

In rescue, we often see people who surrender dogs as "The Enemy." But I don't feel that giving up your dog necessarily means that you're a Bad Dog Owner. Life happens. Poor matches get made, even by experienced rescue people. Many people, myself included, are only a handful of paychecks away from making such hard decisions. Would you really be homeless - and make your dogs be homeless - instead of parting from them? Personally, winters in Minnesota are cold and summers are so hot, and if someone could give my dogs what I could not, I hope that I would be brave enough to put their needs first.

And I hope that doesn't make me The Enemy.

More than just treating others the way I wish to be treated, providing Porter's human with compassion instead of criticism speaks to the type of person I want to be when I grow up. Porter's owner already knew that returning his dog to the rescue was not the ideal situation; he knew it with every fiber of his being. If I'd made him feel worse, it would not have changed the situation. And just like the kindness I put into the world becomes a part of me, so does the cruelty. So when given the option, I will error on the side of kindness, because I would rather be a kind person than a cruel person.

And I hope someday, when he is in a better place, Porter's person will welcome another dog into his life.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Well, That Didn't Work

So, trazodone was a rather spectacular fail for the treatment of Jai's new car phobia. On the other hand, if I ever start feeling like Jai and I haven't made any progress in the entire two years we've been together, I now have a bottle full of time warp pills!

A few times a week, Jai and I have been practicing car skills. We hop in the car, he gets some cookies, I turn the car off and on a few times, he gets some super yummy cheeses, and maybe I drive up and down the driveway depending on how he's doing. And then we go for a short walk. With out meds, he might be a little hypervigilant, he might pant a little, but mostly he's pretty comfortable. We tried the trazodone several times so that I could be sure it was the medication's influence and not an off day or the phase of the moon or something, but I now feel pretty confident saying that trazodone turns Jai into a panting, shaking, drooling puddle of pit bull go. None of the times we tried the trazodone did I ever feel that Jai was relaxed enough that I should turn on the car.

Now I have pictures of Jai in the car for you. You're welcome.
(Also, why does my dog have tear stains all of a sudden? 

And more importantly, how do I make them go away?)

The trazodone also changed the way Jai behaved on his walks, and it was seriously like taking a TARDIS back to when I first got him. He was hypervigilant, cringe-y, and OMG - the freezing. Freezing used to be a huge problem for Jai, but it's been at least a year since we've had a problem with in. On the trazodone walks, though, Jai froze at least two dozen times, and it was often more than ten seconds before we could get him unstuck. Boy, do I not miss that. On the other hand, Jai did seem less reactive while he was on trazodone. Of course, Jai wasn't reactive when I got him, either. I suspect then, as now on the medication, he was too shut down to be reactive. So in this case "less reactive" is not the same as "better."

One of the concerns that people often have about trying behavior medications with their dog is that it will change their personality; people fear that they will lose what makes their dog their dog. Friend Crystal once used the analogy of behavioral medications as the dial on a radio. If the song is your dog's personality, we know that we can turn the dial on the radio and get more static. But when you turn the dial just right, everything becomes clearer. Using medications won't spontaneously turn your pit bull into a sheltie. Finding the right medication will often make your dog's personality shine through more cleanly without the "static" of excess stress and anxiety getting in the way.

So trazodone didn't work for Jai. When I turn the dial on my radio and get more static, I don't give up and turn the radio off. I turn the dial the other way. So Jai and I will try another medication, and probably another one after that if that on doesn't work. And if medications don't pan out for us, then we will keep on keepin' on, knowing that the music is out there even if it's sometimes hard to hear.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jai and the Cool Dog Club

All the cool dogs are on drugs.

One of the reasons I decided to pull Jai from the therapy dog test last week is his new riding-in-cars phobia. It started quite suddenly over Christmas. We were in the middle of a five hour long drive home from gramma's, and in the space of about ten minutes, he went from napping to crying, shaking, drooling, panting, and trying to dig through the bottom of his crate. I still have no idea what triggered this phobia.

We've been working pretty hard on this issue for the last three months. Jai is still eager to jump into the cars, so we've been working on maintain that enthusiasm, getting cookies for being in the car while it's moving, and counter-conditioning bumps in the road with extra yummy peanut butter. And we've made steady progress. Jai gone from total melt down to some shaking and light panting. But couple the stress-inducing car ride with a new building and new dogs, and I didn't feel doing the TDI test would be setting my dog up for success. And while I wish we had been able to take the test, I still think that pulling him was in his best interests.

So if we're creating improvement and making good decisions, why did I decide to put Jai on meds?

First, I felt that our counter-conditioning and desensitization training would be more effective if Jai's brain was in a better state for learning. When we are stressed, frightened, or depressed, our brains secrete a the hormone glucocorticoid. Glucocorticoid, among other things, actually kills cells in the hippocampus. One of the important roles of the hippocampus is to turn short term memories into long term memories. Basically, glucocorticoid makes it harder for our brain to turn lessons into learning. When Jai is terrified, it's hard for him to remember good things that are happening; all he remembers is being afraid. Luckily, we know that antidepressant medications can increase the number of stem cells that become nerve cells in the hippocampus, thereby improving memory. Putting Jai on medications will help promote better learning.

Second, we've come to the point where our environment is working against us: welcome to pothole season in Minnesota. If we go over enough bumps right in a row, Jai becomes so frightened that he can't eat. When this happens, I'm pretty much just holding my dog prisoner in a giant torture box. It's not always feasible to stop the car and wait until he calms down again, or to turn around and go home. By putting Jai on medications, I'm hoping to increase his thresholds so that the same amount of bouncing will have a smaller impact on him. We've done a ton of really hard work in the last three months, and I don't want to lose it because Minnesota can't keep its stupid roads in one piece. This time of year, they're only going to get worse, and I don't want Jai to regress.

Third, I want to improve his recovery time. Stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine can stay in the body for up to seventy-two hours after a stressful event, lowering thresholds, decreasing learning capacity, and just making a body miserable. While recovery can certainly occur in a shorter period of time, Jai has never been one of those dogs. He and I have both been struggling with the impact of his car anxiety on his other behavioral issues of neophobia and reactivity. By reducing the stress he experiences in the car and by balancing some of the chemicals in his brain, we'll make it harder for his car anxiety to influence his quality of life outside the car.

I don't have pictures of Jai in the car, but I do have pictures of Jai at the vet.
So Jai and I went to the vet last week, and Dr. Nicole agreed that he would be a good candidate for a short term medication. She gave us 200mg of trazodone to try before car ride. Thus far, Jai's behavior hasn't really been influenced by his medication. It hasn't made him drowsy or stoned, but neither does it seem to improve his car phobia, either - which impresses the heck out of me. I took 25mg of trazodone once and was snowed for the next twenty-four hours, and I'm a lot bigger than Jai. So while I'm not yet done testing the effectiveness of the trazodone, I suspect I'll soon be calling Dr. Nicole to ask for a new medication.

I'm not too concerned, though. There are many behavior medications out there, and it took Maus a few tries to find the right one, too. Behavioral meds can be a great asset to a behavioral rehabilitation program, but it's not our only tool, either - we'll be using them to augment our training program, not replace it, and eventually I'm confident that we'll find the right combination of tools to conquer Jai's fear. And in the meantime, we'll just keep traveling the road in front of us.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Good Choices

Jai has made a lot of progress in the past two years - so much so that I thought we might try to pass the therapy dog test tonight. But Jai has been a bit off this week. Much in the way it wouldn't be fair to ask someone to run on a broken leg or do advanced calculus with a migraine, it wouldn't be right of me to ask Jai to work hard when he's not at the top of his mental game. So I switched Jai out for Cannon at the test - and Cannon passed with flying colors!

So here's to good choices: may we make them. May we live them .

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gross Things My Bulldog Does

Item One: Most dogs encourage petting with a friendly nose bump. Cannon doesn't have a nose, so he resorts to a friendly eye nudge. "Hi! Here's some eyeball juice - pet me maybe?!?"

Item Two: Walk into a room. Passionately fart. Give owner meaningful look. Walk out of room.

Item Three: Sleeps with his face parts on your face parts. Activates face juice maker. Face juice = love.

Item Four: Experiments to see how many human fingers he can fit in his mouth at one time. Bonus point awarded for doing this while the human is trying to type. (You haven't been properly horrified until you've watched your bulldog's face wrinkles disappear because he's packed that many of your fingers into his mouth - like a carnivorous, snorty chipmunk.)

Item Five: Stand under the big bulldog when she turns her face juice maker on. Find human to gently and unsuspectingly nuzzle. More face juice = more love.

Item Six: Walk up to other dog. Sneeze in their face. Be disappointed when they don't do anything. No face juice = no love.

Item Seven: Commence pooping. Make intense and loving eye contact with owner. Wander away when done.

Item Eight: French kiss.

Item Nine: Obsessively lick pants. But only while you're wearing them, otherwise it's no fun.

Item Ten: Eat poop. Run inside, jump on bed, wipe face off on owner's pillow. Face juice equals . . . Y'know what, no it doesn't. Stop this, you horrible little animal.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding, Part Three: Rubi's Case Study

Shortly after we got him, Cannon kicked Rubi's ass. He was patiently waiting to be allowed back into his crate to retrieve a chew toy, and Rubi sauntered over. B saw the chewie, and I saw her body stiffen and heard her growl softly. Before I could intervene, Cannon whirled on her in Hulk-Smash! mode. Horrified, Rubi fled, and Cannon chased her all the way into her crate before I could tackle the little monster and save my pit bull. Poor Rubi!

When I got her, Rubi would literally try to take the face off any dog that dared to so much as walk by her when she had a prized chewie or toy. Resource guarding is a normal, natural canine behavior. After all, if you give away all your food to whoever is pushy enough to take it, pretty soon you'll starve to death. Even with the best behavior program, it's highly unlikely that all resource guarding behavior will be eliminated. On the other hand, trying to murder other dogs for walking by when you have a nylabone is not acceptable behavior in my house full of pit bulls and small dogs.

"Personal space? What's that?"

The first step in Rubi's resource guarding plan was management (Are you sensing a theme yet? management is all the important.). All the tasty nylabones and chewies and toys were put away when Rubi was around. Often, just management of valuable resources is enough, but in Rubi's case, hiding all the chew toys would have made life extremely difficult. Most of my dogs are heavy chewers, and without an appropriate outlet, they turn to chewing on, well, everything ever. So management was only a temporary solution to keep Rubi from practicing her extreme resource guarding behaviors.

With our management program in place, Rubi and I started working on our nonverbal "leave it." We started this as soon as I brought her into the house, during her Two Week Staycation. Nonverbal "leave its" are a foundation behavior for living at my house, and all the fosters that come through my house are able to do it. Not only is this activity beneficial for life with other dogs, but it's also a great impulse control activity. Over the first months that I had her, Rubi eventually progressed to the point where I could throw handfuls of treats at her chest, and she wouldn't even look at them because she was staring so hard at me. But we started with cookie-in-the-fist, just like everyone else.

We practiced this game a lot.

Once we had a solid non verbal "leave it," we started doing group training session. Rubi was pretty good with me when working - as long as there wasn't a pile of cookies up for grabs to whoever could eat it fastest, she wasn't likely to resource guard from the other dogs, so counter conditioning her to other dogs getting food when pretty smoothly. In addition to structured group training session, we practiced "mom suddenly and randomly drops a treat, and the dog who looks at her the hardest gets the treat handed to them." We especially practiced this in the kitchen, since that's where most random, accidental food drops occur. In case you were wondering, dropping a treat and having four dogs suddenly lock on you face with lazer-like focus instead of bum-rushing each other to go grab the cookie is a bit of an ego boost. Lastly, we worked group relaxation protocol sessions to help her relax around dogs when food was present.

I was looking for a new "group RP" picture.
I couldn't find one, so you get "dogs on a bench" instead. Sorry.

My eventual goal for Rubi, though, was to be able to bring out my low value chew bones for everyone to enjoy. Before we started working on this aspect of Rubi's resource guarding, I wanted to know two things. First, I wanted to be certain that she wouldn't resource guard from me. If I'm putting myself in a tense situation where there may be a dog fight, I want to know that I won't make things worse. If Rubi did have issues resource guarding from people, I would have worked on those before tackling resource guarding toward other dogs. Luckily for me, Rubi doesn't care if I approach her or take away any resource of hers. Second, I wanted to know was what Rubi's were cues that she was uncomfortable. Typical resource guarding "go away" cues include whale eye, pinned ears, growling, showing teeth, getting stiff, and moving the resource away from the other dog - but many dogs do not display all of these behaviors. I suspect Rubi had been punished in the past for exhibiting resource guarding behaviors, because her cues were severely muted; she seemed to go from ignoring the other dog to attacking them in the space of about half a second. However, I was able to detect a very subtle body stiffening, ear tightening, and lip lift about two seconds before she would fly off the handle. I needed to know these cues before we started to work with another dog so that I could keep everyone safe.

Now that I knew Rubi's cues, I had a place to start. I gave Rubi her least valuable resource (a nylabone, I'm pretty sure), and once she had settled in for a good chew, I brought Piper into the room. At this point, I had a pretty good idea of how close Rubi would let another dog get before losing her cool. If I had any doubt, I would have worked with a barrier between the girls, or had Rubi tethered. (The care and comfort of my personal decoy dogs is always my highest priority - after all, they didn't sign on for this). Piper would wander over to Rubi to see what she had, and when I saw that tell-tale tenseness from Rubi, I would call Piper back to me. We kept the sessions short - only two or three approaches per session - to keep Rubi from getting to stressed about the situation.

Pushing Rubi's threshold like this had two benefits. First, it helped Rubi understand that if she told another dog not to come any closer, the other dog would back off without Rubi needing to start a fight. Second, it helped Piper see what Rubi's cues were when Rubi wanted to be left alone with her nylabone. Neither dog wanted to get into a fight. And as Rubi learned that she could cue Piper to leave whenever she wanted, she became more comfortable with Piper coming closer. This is the same theory that underlies BAT training - when the dog provides appropriate cues indicating discomfort, the situation is changed so that it becomes more comfortable for the dog. As the dog learns that they have control over the situation, they become more comfortable in general, and their thresholds increase. When Rubi learned that she was in control of the situation, she discovered that she did not need to bite when a simple growl would do. My goal was not to eliminate her resource guarding because resource guarding is a natural behavior. Instead, I wanted to teach Rubi how to resource guard appropriately.

Piper is still the dog I trust most with Rubi.

Once I was happy with the signals Rubi was giving Piper, we practiced this set up with the other dogs in the house. Training with each additional dog went faster than the last, and it wasn't long before I was able to bring all the nylabones out for everyone to enjoy once again. Rubi has never been prone to stealing other dog's resources, so I didn't need to worry about her trying to take a bone from one of the other dogs and starting a fight. If she had, we would have reverse our pseudo-BAT protocol and rewarded Rubi for moving away from the other dogs when they cued her that they were uncomfortable.

Today, Rubi is able to live with six other dogs and ten to fifteen low value bones in reasonable harmony. She has a long, protracted growl she uses when she wants the other dogs to go away, but it's pretty rare that we hear it. She'll let other dog walk past and even touch her while she's chewing, as long as they don't try to take her bone (except for Jai - she lets Jai get away with murder. I have no idea how this happened). In spite of Rubi's much increased bite threshold, we still do a great deal of management, though. High value resources like filled kongs or rawhides cannot be left lying around, and Rubi knows to "go to your place" when I'm doling out medications at the end of the day. But we've found a happy balance between training and management. Most of what I've written over the past few weeks has come from personal experience, and Rubi has been - once again -  one of my greatest teachers.