Friday, December 30, 2011

Compassion Junkie

Compassion: n. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

I am pleased to announce that Mikey has finally found his forever family. With the light at the end of the tunnel shining brightly, I find myself reflecting on the six months we’ve spent together. There were bad moments, sure (for example, the time he put a hole in my bedroom wall!), but with the end so close, it’s much easier to remember the good. Mikey’s not perfect - not yet, anyway – but we have compiled a long list of “At Least He Doesn’t Do That Anymore.” And once again, I find myself reflecting on that most important of questions:

“Why do you do it?”

After all, raising a puppy isn’t all sunshine and butterflies. Quite often, it’s mud and disemboweled pillows and frustration and did I mention the hole in my bedroom wall? All for what? So someone else can reap the rewards of all that hard work? For the chance to do it all over again with the next dog? Clearly, there is something wrong with my brain.

Yet I’m very definitely happy. Ever since hearing that Mikey will be finishing off the year with a family all his own, I’ve been floating around with a great big grin. Everyone I know gets to hear the story of how after ten (10!) failed applications, Mikey has found the one the one for him. I’m euphoric and not just because he’s finally out of my hair. I’m genuinely thrilled for Mikey and for his new family, and I’m excited to meet my next foster. I’m buzzed. But where does this feeling come from? It’s good, it’s great, but where is the mourning that so many other fosters seem to feel? Why am I not sad that Mikey is leaving?

Photo by Paige Reyes

It’s not because I don’t like Mikey. We’ve had our rough times, sure, but he’s really been fun to work with and raise. He’s a fantastic dog, much as I have complained about him in the past. He reminds me an awful lot of my Good Dog when she was his age, and for several weeks, I considered keeping him. But I’m not going to miss him when he’s gone. I’m too busy being happy for him, pleased with having made what seems to be a perfect good match.

And that’s it, isn't it? It feels good because I’ve done a good thing. I’ve taken a puppy with a tenuous exsistance and made him and two people very happy. In my own small but significant way, I've made the world a better place. Me! Wow! How awesome is that?! I can make a difference! It's like taking a hit of pure joy, as potent for me as any drug. I've made a career - two of them, really - out of seeing who I can help next. And as with any drug, I'm jonesing for my next hit.

I can't wait to see who the Powers That Be send my way next.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Nailed! Part Two

I wrote that other blog post so that I could write this blog post.

It’s no secret that pit bulls have a bad reputation. They’re scary, bad dogs with lock jaws that will eat you in your sleep. Or possibly while your awake. Right after they eat your cat. If it was just a bad rep, I probably wouldn’t care what other people thought. But Joe Ignorant doesn’t just think badly of my dog; he can make our lives miserable. There are areas of good ol’ USA that I can’t drive through with my dogs for fear that they will be taken from me and killed. Not to mention all the trouble frightened neighbors can cause right here in my backyard.

So it’s in my best interest to make my dogs seems as innocuous as possible. Sometimes I dress them up. I have collars with cheery designs, because it’s really hard to be intimidated by a dog wearing a Cookie Monster collar (this is why I have so many collars . . . seriously . . . stop laughing at me). It’s also difficult to be intimidated by a dog with neon green toe nails.

That's Maus, by the way. He pretty much always looks like that.

People are always impressed when they see that I’ve painted my dogs’ nails, but it’s one of the easier things I’ve taught them. After spending so much time making nail trimming a pleasant experience, nail painting is not big deal. The hardest part is desensitizing them to the smell. As strong and unpleasant as the scent of nail polish is to people, remember that a dog’s sense of smell is millions of times more sensitive.

When I first bring out a bottle of polish – or any new object, for that matter – I’ll show it to the dog and let them check it out. This alone is usually enough to send them back pedaling (although Mikey did try to eat the bottle because he’s special that way). If they have enough aversion to the smell, I’ll do a little operant conditioning and teach them to touch the bottle for a reward. The trick is to not decondition too thoroughly; you don’t want the dog tipping the bottle over when you’re trying to paint their nails.

I usually paint my dog’s nails inside. This way, they’re less likely to get dirt all over the wet paint. I cover my couch with an old sheet to protect it during the process. I like to use Sally Hansen’s Insta-Dry polish. It dries fast and hard and comes in a multitude of bright colors that don’t require a second coat. I’ve found that if you have the right color, a single swipe across the top of the nail is usually good enough to look great. Trying to color the entire nail like you would with a person tends to tickle the hair growing around the dog’s nail. Not to mention no one is going to be looking that closely at your dog’s feet to notice the extra effort. So why bother?

 Once all the nails I want to do are done, it’s just a matter of having the dog stay on the protected surface, my couch, until their nails are done. I usually use the time to practice stays, because hey, why not? The polish I use only takes a few minutes to finish dry and then voila! Off we go in stylin’ new colors!

P.S. – Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Nailed! Part One

Many, many moons ago, when I was just a young pup working in a rural Wisconsin animal shelter, part of my job was doing exams for the dogs coming into the shelter. I vaccinated them, checked them for lumps or bumps, cleaned their ears, and clipped their nails.

I have scars from clipping dogs nails.

Not only would they scratch, many would try to bite, requiring us to pin them down or muzzle them to get the job done. This added suffering to the already traumatic experience of being at the shelter. Somewhere in the struggle, I vowed that I would never allow any dog of mine to be tormented by the nail trimming process.

Fast forward a decade to the day I decided to take in a fat, homely, unruly, blonde beast of a dog (I’m an adult now, the age at which the Powers That Be like to make you eat your own words). Rubi had two serious issues when she came to my house. The reactivity you know about. The second issue was a deep, violent aversion to having her nails done. Her previous foster person told me when I picked her up, “She’s a good dog, but the only time I felt like she might bite me was when I did her nails.” I can’t say that I blame her in the slightest. If I’d spent years being pinned down and muzzled so people could take bolt cutters to the tips of my fingers, I’d probably try to bite them, too.

Unlike B’s reactivity, I tackled this problem with enthusiasm. I approached from two angles. First, I worked to desensitize her to the nail clipped, a tool that had only brought her pain in the past. I left the clipper lying around where she could see it not being used. I stopped leaving the clipper lying around after Allister decided it made an awesome chew toy. After that incident, I moved it into the treat closet. Every time I took a treat out of the closet, I’d first take out the clipper, show it to B, and then give everyone treats. I do think it helped B to see that the other dogs weren’t put off by the clipper in the slightest. I also took a more active approach to teaching her that clippers = good things. We worked the clippers as a target, teaching her to touch them with a nose or a paw, and eventually to retrieve them in exchange for a few treats. It wasn’t long before B decided that the clippers in and of themselves were awesome. She’s a fast study.

At the same time, we worked on condition B to allow her paws to be handled. The first time I reached over B to pick up on of her paws (to check for a burr), she jump up in desperation to get away so quickly that she banged the top of her head against my face hard enough to spilt my lip. There wasn’t any malice in the action – she just wanted that badly to get away. We started small. I would touch her paw, mark her with a verbal “yes,” and then give her a treat. Then we moved to letting me pick up a paw and rest it in my hand, mark, set the paw down, treat. From there we moved to picking up her paw and allowing me to hold it in my closed hand with a little bit of pressure. After that came letting me play with her toes. Eventually, she let me scrape a fingernail on the underside of her toe nail, a mellower approximate to the sensation cause by scraping the metal clippers against her nails.

If we seemed to go at a snail’s pace, this was intentional. I’ve said it before, but I’m just not strong enough to go head-to-head with B. This was also when B first came into our house, when our relationship was just beginning. I didn’t really give a damn if she liked me, but I did need her respect and trust. Hurting her or pushing her too far would’ve damaged that. Lastly, if there’s one consistent mistake I see other make when conditioning their dogs to accept handling and grooming, it’s moving too fast and making the dog uncomfortable. It may be more convenient to do all the nails at once, but it’s not always what’s best for the dog. Our sessions might have been short and simple, but we diligently practiced nearly every day.

Once B accepted both handling and playing with the clippers, we made the jump adding them together. At first, I just set the clippers next to me while handling her paws. Then I handled her paws while holding clipper. The first time she let me touch the clipper to a nail – without actually trimming the nail – she got a big cookie jackpot, and we ended the session. Once she was comfortable with having the clipper touch her nail, I taught her to accept the clipper scraping her nail as I had done in earlier training with my fingernail. The first time she let me actually trim a nail, she again got a big jackpot and we ended the session on a good note. Slowly and carefully, we kept increasing the criteria until we got to where we are today. She doesn’t love the clipper, but she accepts it without any trauma, and that’s the part that matters.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Best Laid Plans

Now that we have a defined goal, obtaining C.L.A.S.S. titles, I feel better about the training we're doing together. We have something new to achieve; now we just have to figure out how to get there. Additionally, the holidays are a tricky time for a dog who needs at least once a week exposure to other dogs to be on her best behavior. To make planning more interesting for me, B and I have dropped out of our reactive dog class (completed? it doesn't feel like we completed it, it feels like we dropped out - but in a good way).

Don't get me wrong, the reactive dog class was a good class. It just wasn't a good class for me and Rubi. Because of the other dog's issues, we weren't able to get close enough to do any real work on Rubi's reactivity. B still learned a lot in that class: how to back up in a straight line, how to target a vertical target, crate games, that her owner has as much trouble sitting still as she does . . . but since we can learn these things anywhere (almost), the instructor and I made a mutual decision that B and I would bow out of the class so that other dogs could benefit from the calm, quiet environment. I joked with my husband that it’d finally happened: we’ve been kicked out of a class.

In the best possible way.

Which leaves me once again with deciding where to go next. I’ve found an instructor I like who teaches a C.L.A.S.S. prep class, and I’m excited to start on that track. Those of you who’ve ever taken a sport dog class with me know that I tend toward over-preparedness. Well, I’m here to tell you that I haven’t changed yet. I’m going to take Maus through the class first and probably test both he and Piper before tackling B. I’ve found that it helps, when working toward a title, to know what will be expected of you both ahead of time.

This means, though, that B most likely won’t be joining the until spring-ish. In the meantime, starting January 8th, B will be enrolled in a new, beginner, reactive dog class.

With my husband.

We had a “come to Jesus” moment the other day wherein I realized that I had utterly failed to teach my other half the basics of canine body language and arousal. How embarrassing! Luckily, I already know that I should absolutely, 100% not teach my family members how to train dogs. I simply don’t have the patience to be a good trainer for them. So I did the next best thing for my husband: I found trainers that I trust to do right by my family, and I enrolled B and my husband into their care. And if I can’t keep my mouth shut, I’m not even going to observe their class. (Although I’m hoping to be able to go and watch B work with other people. It’ll be a rare treat to not be the one on the other end of her leash!)

 Since Rubi needs to be able to see strange dogs at least once per week in order to maintain her current behavior levels, having her get her maintenance dose of other dogs through someone else should free up my brain-space to focus on other things. Namely, her sound-sensitivity toward other dogs. I’m still not entirely sure how I’ll be tackling this issue, but at least I’ve got room and time to think. I’ve decided not to puncture her ear drums so she can’t hear other dogs ( . . . not that I seriously considered that . . . mostly . . . ). I will be planning a few field trips, and I’ll be getting a desensitization CD, but if you’ve got any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

In the meantime, Rubi and I have enrolled in another online class, and we’re having fun finding new ways to work on impulse control. Here’s a short-ish video of one of our at home training sessions:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Letting Go

One of the aspects I love about training Piper Ann and Allister is that I can use a game of tug as a reward. Working with a toy often increases arousal, drive, and speed. I don't use it for duration behaviors like mat work, for example, but using a toy with Piper's heel work bought a whole new level of awesome to the game. Tug is a handy tool to have in the box. 

Rubi likes to tug. If I accidentally leave a toy lying around the house, she often brings it to me and tries to start up a game. I frequently use it as a reward when working on behaviors in the house. The root behavior and desire is there. The trouble comes when we try to take the game on the road. Her tugging outside the house is very hit or miss. Sometimes she'll tug, sometimes she won't tug, and sometimes she tugs a bit and then completely disengages to go do something else. I feel like tug would be a really good reward for B, but the consistency I need to be able to use it as a reward just isn't there. 

I know a reasonable bit about toy drive building, but when it became obvious to me that I didn't know enough, I signed B and I up for an online bitework class. And, well, her behavior did change. 

Now she blows me off in the house, too.

On the up side, I now know what I need to do to fix the problem. The class really helped me clean up my own handling skills. I need to go back to building up drive, then add in easy work for the opportunity to play, slowly increasing the difficulty of exercises. Then I need to generalize the drive building and work to new places until I can finally use tug as a reward the way I can with Piper Ann or Allister. It's quite the project. There's just one tiny, itty bitty, huge thing standing in my way. 

I'm not having fun anymore. 

That is a big obstacle. I enjoy dog training. I even enjoy working with reactive dogs; it's my niche in the dog training world. I've always believed that if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right. So I have to ask myself: is this something Rubi needs? Or is it something I want? How important is it really?

The answer is that it's not important enough. Rubi works very well for treats or the opportunity to play with her big, red ball. Her refusal to play tug isn't hindering our training program, nor is it negatively impacting her life or behavior. There's no real reason that we need to work through this issue now. So I am setting it aside. 

That's not to say that I'm giving up. I want to be able to play tug with B in the house again. That was fun, and it should be easy enough to bring back. Someday, when we've got fewer big projects on our plate, I'd like to go back and fix this issue. For now, though, I think we've got enough to work on. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bitches Go Adventuring

A few times a year, I pack up a couple of dogs and head north. In a small town on the Wisconsin/Michigan border, my grandparents live on ten acres of heaven. There are no freeways, no skyscrapers, no internet, and no Caribou Coffee - things that seem hugely important in the city, but fade into the unnecessary once I cross the St Croix River. My grandparents are getting up there, so us "kids" have started planning our trips up more carefully. In addition to the usual holidays, we make sure someone is up there to help in the spring with planting, in the fall with hunting, and -yay! for me - before the holidays to help with cooking and shopping. 

So this week, a couple of dogs and I made the five hour drive to nowhere. As always, I brought Piper Ann; that's one of the perks of being "the good one." Usually, I bring Maus along with her. I have it stuck in my head that a change of environment is good for him. Plus, Maus adores my gramma. She's one of the handful of people in the world that he's taken an immediate and total love to. This is balanced by his absolute loathing of my grandpa. Four years of work and he'd still prefer the man stay out of whatever room Maus is in. Maus has worked hard for me over the summer, so I decided to spare him the upheaval and take Rubi instead. Generally, she's much easier to live with than Maus, who tends to be neurotic and phobic. I certainly don't have to worry about B biting my grandpa (not that I think he'd actually do it, but I thought it'd be nice to spare myself the need for vigilance).

Rubi was her usual, easy-going self on the car ride up there. She was even well-behaved during a potty break in Haward, WI.

She fell apart at my grandparents'.

She jumped, she counter surfed, she dug in the trash, she paced, she whined, she won't come when called. She even resourced guarded, a problem we haven't seen hide nor hair of since the first month she moved in with us. You'd think, after living in so many homes, she'd have the whole "indoor manners" thing down. There are not words for how frustrated I was. I was on vacation! Do you hear that, B?!? VACATION!!!

In retaliation, I did what I always do when I'm too frustrated to train my dogs: I put them in a crate and went away to have some "me" time and not think about them one iota.

Okay, I lied. I went to a social at my gramma's church. There was a raffle, and to be polite I bought a few tickets. I won this bag!:

People were telling me, "Ah, Laura? You know that's a diaper bag, right?"

And I was all, "Nuh-uh! That's B's new training gear bag! Boo-YAH!"

(As a side note, my mother's family has lived in this area since before Wisconsin became a state. There were no fewer than four people who came up to my gramma and told her how nice it was her daughter was in town, and two people outright mistook me for my mother. Seriously, do I look that old? I decided it was because my gramma looks that young. So there.)

On the way home, I took the time to reflex on why Rubi hadn't behaved the way I thought she would. She's always had trouble with generalization, maybe this is an extension of that. Maybe my standards are too high. he's only been with me for a little over a year. Would I expect an eighteen month old puppy to behave to the standards I had held for B? No, no I would not. When do you suppose Rubi has ever gone to a new house and not been left behind?

My younger brother and sister are both autistic. They are the most incredible, entertaining, intelligent, frustrating people I know. I wouldn't trade trade them for a "normal" sibling in a million years, and I completely blame them for teaching me patience. If I can be calm when a child is screaming unintelligibly and try to hit me, then I can be patient with Rubi as we go back to basics.


And once again, it works. We play recall games, we practice stays, we trade valuable objects, and everything else falls to management. Three days into our stay, a parade of people come into the house to work on the furnace. She jumps on one of them. Once. By day four, her pacing and whining has disappeared, and she's content to nap while we bake or play cards. At the end of the visit, I'm able to recall her from muzzle-deep in a bucket of meat scraps (fact: you don't want to know how B came to have her head in a bucket of meat scraps).

We're helping gramma make caramels. Helping. We promise.  

And there were good memories, too. My gramma somehow confused the girls names and spent the first two days of our visit referring to B as "Rubi Ann," which is a heck of a lot nicer than what I usually call Rubi for a middle name. Gramma spent the rest of the visit calling Rubi "Miss B," which I also though was really cute. B and I had time to work on "go to your mat while people are eating," an exercise we struggle with at home. I got to see my dog once again reach the inner peace that I know she is capable of. Did I mention that this place is heaven? (It's certainly too cold for the devil.)