Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Heartache: A Case Study

Maus is the dog that should have been perfect and wasn’t. I’ve long ago let go of any sorrow I may have felt about not getting the dog I wanted, because the dog I got was so much . . . more. Each accomplishment we’ve made is that much sweeter because of the obstacles we’ve overcome. Every failure, so poignant because of the severity of his issues.

I should have known he wasn’t right the moment he stepped in my door on Aug 23, 2008 – or didn’t step in, as the case may be. I mean, what kind of pit bull is afraid of cats? The first years were the hardest, partially because of the frequency with which he developed new phobias, and partially because of his unpredictability. Fire hydrants, garbage cans, plastic bags, the sun roof in my car, and paper towels are only a few of the fears we struggled with in the beginning.

But the worse was people. Pit bulls are suppose to be sweet, friendly, social dogs, and at best, Maus seemed to wish that everyone would just fall off the planet. At worse, he growled, cowered, and on a few occasions, snapped at people. Scariest for me was that I could not find any consistent quality that would set him off. I had no idea who he would react at and who he'd tolerate. To be honest, I hope it always scares me - I hope that I never take for granted to awesome responsibility that is owning a dog like Maus.

Maus, looking sexy and getting ready to flip out at people -
his two specialties in life. 

It was a hell of a learning curve. My previous two dogs, Piper and Riley, were “normal.” I had already started on my path as a dog nerd and knew the general ropes of training. But nothing prepares you for living with a reactive dog. Suddenly, I had to know about thresholds, counter-conditioning, bite indexes, body language, and a whole host of other factors I had never dreamed existed. The knowledge I picked up literally changed my life. I would not be the trainer or teacher that I am today if I had not been given Maus.

Pulling Maus out of himself will always be one of my life's greatest accomplishments. By the time he was two and a half, Maus had mostly stopped coming up with new phobias to work through. When he did, fifteen minutes of counter conditioning brought us back to faking normal again. A year later, I could accurately predict how Maus would behave in most situations. I don’t know that Maus has actually gotten more predictable, so much as I have finally figured out his long list of triggers. With people, it’s hats, glasses, small people, rapid movements, high-pitched speech, beards, erratic movements, and on and on. But we have also developed a relationship of trust and faith. If I told Maus that something was going to be okay, he tried very hard to believe it would be.

And it worked for us.

The summer of 2011 was our best year yet. Maus not only went out in public and met new people – he actually seemed to enjoy it! We marched in the Pride Parade. We went to disc dog comps and play dates. We played in the yard and went on walks and enjoyed every minute of that mild summer.

My all-time favorite picture of Maus, taken at June Jam disc dog competition, 2011.

In September, Maus started to fall apart. It started slowly: he seemed to enjoy touching less. He didn’t want to be approached by new people. He stopped wanting to cuddle with the other dogs. Eventually, he started growling when strangers would walk in a room. He started refusing to leave the house with me (I cried the first time he did that – when I got him, it took me nine months to convince Maus that going outdoors was fun. This was a huge step back). And he picked up a few new problems. Maus started to become noise sensitive. And perhaps worse than anything else, he began to self-mutilate, scratching holes in the skin of his head and chest.

I scoured the dog-centric universe, looking for that training tool I didn’t know about, the magic bullet that would help Maus the way counter conditioning had helped when we’d started our journey four years ago. I think I confused more than a few of my friends – after all, he still acted normally, obedient and mostly calm. But I definitely felt the burden of his slipping thresholds, and I struggled to help him succeed in situations that had seemed easy only a few short months ago.

Until it all came to a head in one spectacular watershed moment.

My poor, beautiful, broken Maus.

I couldn’t afford to watch him suffer any longer, but I hadn’t found the magic training bullet that would help him. I made the decision to start looking at behavioral medications.

I put off looking at behavioral medications for Maus for a long time, and I was able to do this because training had been working. But now that it wasn’t, I had to take a close look at why I had been so reluctant to start him on anything. I think it was in large part due to my personal experiences with these medications. You see, I have severe anxiety and depression (I’m not embarrassed and I’m not ashamed – it is simply a part of who I am, they way Maus’s fear is a part of who he is). I’ve been on many medications over the years, and I’ve yet to find the “right pill” that eased my symptoms without making me drowsy or nauseous or fat or worse - more depressed and anxious. Couple that with watching many of my friends struggling with medications for their own dogs, and I would have done practically anything to spare my boy from this path.

Something had to give, and on February 28th, 2012, ten days after my watershed moment, Maus and I left the vet with a brand new prescription for prozac.

Prozac was everything I feared behavioral medication could be. Maus seemed happier in general, but he also behaved ten-cups-of-coffee jittery. Some of what had been mild, borderline OCD behaviors – water chasing and licking – became almost unmanageable. If anyone touched him when he wasn’t expecting it, he’d just about jump out of his skin. And his seizures got worse. Life on prozac was not an improvement.

On the other hand, I hadn’t come up with that magic training bullet, so after our two month prozac trial, we were back at the vet having another serious discussion about where to go next. We talked about medicating Maus for his seizures to see if that took the edge off his anxiety (we’d previously come to an acceptable seizure rate via diet and supplement changes). We also discussed a referral to the University of Minnesota’s canine behavior department. But we eventually settled on a trial of clomipramine, another behavioral drug.

Clomipramine has been a godsend. In many ways, Maus is better than he’s ever been, including during the famous Summer of ’11. His OCD has slid back into the “just quirky” range. He seeks out physical contact and once again has started sleeping in the bedroom with everyone else at night. He’s not jittery anymore – or at least, not anymore than he was before prozac. He hasn’t has any seizures since starting the clomipramine (I strongly suspect that Maus’s seizures have a stress component to them). He’s not self mutilating anymore. Had he’s only been afraid of one new object in the last two months.

There have even been improvements in behaviors that I never thought were affected by Maus’s anxiety. He plays almost appropriately with other dogs now. Well, most of the time. Usually. When he feels like it. But he’s able to, which is a big deal. He also started playing with toys, which is something he’s never done in the past – he even played tug with a new dog on a play date a few weeks ago. To the best of my knowledge, Maus’s entire litter has all been skinny and difficult to keep weight on. But ever since we started the clomipramine, Maus has not only been at a good weight, he’s maintained that good weight. It never crossed my mind that my dog might be worrying himself skinny.

My reluctance to put Maus on meds was anthropomorphizing at its worse, and Maus was the one who suffered for it. But when all’s said and done, I wouldn’t change a thing about our relationship. Rubi and I are friends of the heart, but Maus and I are connected at the soul. We understand each other, our fear and our anxieties and our joys, in ways that many others would not. I can’t love this dog and not see myself in him. To work with Maus is to see my own inner demons brought out into the light, battled, and beaten.

For today, anyway.

Photo by Paige.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another for the YDS Box

It's been a big weekend for Rubi. She started her new Growl Class with Paws Abilities on Friday. I don't have any pictures of class because apparently, even I'm getting a little bored with pictures of Rubi relaxing on her mat while other dogs are around - that in itself is something I never thought would happen. I'm sure I'll write more about the class, but for now suffice to say she did not make me look stupid, for which I am always grateful. in fact, she actually looked like we've been practicing behavior around other dogs for the last two years. Amazing, I know!

Saturday was our Celebration of Dog nerdiness and Jai's Gotcha Day. We had around twenty people come and so many dogs that I lost count. There was only one good dog fight, which considering the mix of dogs we had (lots of bullies), I'm pretty okay with. Even better, Rubi wasn't one of the instigating dogs! Aside from a short time out after the fight (I will never fault any breed of terrier for joining a dog fight; if I wanted dogs that never fought, I'd get, I don't know, rocks or something), Rubi spent the entire party - around six hours - hanging out with all the new dogs and people. Even more impressive, she did this with a minimum of support from me!

Rubi and Lance, a dog she had never met before.
Lance snapped at Rubi a few times for being too pushy, after which Rubi LEFT HIM ALONE.
Big accomplishment, that.
Photo by Paige.

I wasn't around for the best compliment of the day, and I heard it secondhand, so I don't even know who to credit. While a group of friends were outside watching the dogs play, someone actually asked, "But I thought Rubi was reactive . . . ?"

That's right, my severely reactive Rubi faked normal so well that even dog people couldn't tell she was anything but a regular, happy pit bull.

Excuse me while I beam with pride for a moment.

That's Rubi's butt in the lower left corner. In this picture, there are two dogs she has never met before,
one she has never played with, one we had over for just one night to dog sit, and Piper's butt.
Rubi is off leash and has chosen to flirt with Paige.
Kind of a really big deal. 

One of the criticisms of positive reinforcement based training is that it takes longer than other types of training. I personally don't think this is true, but I suppose it wouldn't have taken Ceasar Millan two years to train a reactive pit bull. Or Victoria Stilwell, either, for that matter. But this is real life, not entertainment, and I'm exceptionally pleased with what our two years have accomplished. 

You see, I could have used punishment to suppress her unwanted, reactive behaviors. Or I could have managed the hell out of her, ensuring that she never got the chance to practice her reactivity (I'm not sure how I would have done that, but if I were dedicated enough, I probably could have managed it).  However, either of these training options would have meant a significant reduction in her quality of life from where she is today. 

I'm pretty sure Rubi thought she'd died and gone to heaven this weekend.
Photo by Paige.

By reinforcing the behaviors I wanted and setting up situations in which Rubi could succeed, I have not changed who she is at all. At her heart, she is the same passionate, reactive, joyful dog she was two years ago. I have not clipped her wings. I have simply given her the tools and coping mechanisms she needed to get what she wants out of life. 

And we both got something amazing in the process.

She's not drunk, just high on life.
Photo by Paige.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

God Bless the Broken Road

Leaving TCOTC was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I don’t regret it, but I remember feeling lost and bereft with out the support of the club at my back. After all, I practically lived there, spending three to five nights a week teaching and training.

In reality, leaving TCOTC was one of those “lose an opportunity, gain the world” situations. In order to keep teaching and taking classes with my dogs, I had to branch out. I got involved in activities that I simply didn’t have time for when I was so absorbed in the club. As a result, I learned a great deal more about teaching people and training dog. I currently have the best teaching gig in the world through ARLP; I teach the classes I want pretty much when I want to teach them. Not training at TCOTC meant that I had to branch out to many new places in order to get myself and my dogs the variety of classes we wanted. I was forced to grow as a trainer, a teacher, and as a person.

And I made a lot of new friends in the process.

Jai and new friend Megan.
Photo by Sarah Brueske.

I invited many of these people over to my house today to celebrate our dog nerdiness together, and it struck me how varied and unique we all are. We span several generations, grew up in several states (those of us who grew up at all, anyway), and have a wide range of experiences. There are dog trainers, sure, but most of us have other ways to support our canine addiction. There are other nurses, a lawyer, pharmacy techs, a social worker, and um, people who do stuff with paperwork . . . Anyway, all of us, no matter how different, were brought together in this moment by our common love not just for our own dogs, but our love for all dogs.

As I watch my friends enjoy themselves, I can’t help but think about the unique backgrounds that brought each of my dogs to me. Piper and Allister, the unwanted puppies. The years Rubi spent bouncing from home to home before fate twisted to land her on my doorstep. Maus, my refugee from Onscario. Jai, the dog with no history, who appeared in the St Paul Animal Control kennels one day, desperate for a hand up in life.

Jai is one of those rare fosters who has merged into my household seamlessly. The more dogs I have and the longer I foster, the more I appreciate this. It sometimes seems like one of the dogs is always getting into something – chasing the cats (Maus), picking fights (Rubi), whining about nothing (Allister), or finding new lumps to panic everyone (Piper). Jai has fit himself into this chaos seamlessly.

Photo by Paige.
When you first start fostering, you hem and you haw over fosters like this. How hard it would be to let them go! They are just too perfect! Their forever home will surely cherish them, but could anyone be good enough for this angel? Eventually, you learn to be grateful for the gift that dogs like this are.

And if you’re really smart, you don’t let them slip through your fingers at all.

So here’s the announcement you’ve all been waiting for: Happy Gotcha Day, Jai Isaiah. For here on out, we’re in this together. I got your back, Fatty. 

Photo by Paige.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Thinking, Knowing, Understanding

Remember back here when I said that this is the part that sucks? Well, here’s the part that’s fun. Jai and I finished our special needs class, and while I don’t know how much lasting behavior change we achieved, I learned a lot about what makes this dog tick. I’m better able to make judgments based on who Jai is as an individual instead on what other dogs like him need. It means better results, a better relationship, and less stress all around.

Plus, y’know, the fun.

One of the things I have noticed over the last five weeks is a gradual improvement in Jai’s work stamina. Jai does not have the temperament of a working dog. He can’t go all day and then some the way Rubi and Piper and Allister can. His play drive, treat drive, and work ethic are all aspects that I have carefully encouraged and grown over the past months, and I’m finally able to see some real, measurable results.

Six months ago, Jai could only manage a five minute training session before he lost focus and would wander away. When we started this class, he lasted about forty-five minutes before his brain would fry and he couldn’t focus. Now, he can manage an hour and a bit not only with brain intact, but still capable of some pretty in-depth thinking. For example, at the end of our last class, Jai and I were working on micro-shaping “ears forward” (because I think it looks nicer in pictures). This requires a lot of thought on Jai’s part – really, how often do you stop to consider your ears? – but he handled it beautifully, without anxiety and without getting distracted.

Ears up!

Now that this class is over, I’ve been working on getting us into a regular class, but it looks like we’re going to have a few weeks off. In an effort to keep up on Jai’s remedial socialization while we wait for another class to be scheduled, I’ve been working on setting up play dates in new places. We had our first date yesterday, and what a date it was!

Jai and his new friend, Trout.
Trout desperately wanted to make babies with Jai.
Photo by Sara Brueske.

Jai and I went over to our friend’s house for a Fourth of July party, along with about twenty other people and probably a dozen dogs. We went over early because I wanted to give him a chance to check out the new environment before everyone showed up. It turns out, I need not have worried. Jai was comfortable and relaxed with the people – no cringing or flinching at all. And there wasn’t a single episode of neophobia in this brand new environment. Jai behaved just like a well-socialized, well-rounded pit bull. Albeit one not owned by me (I’d like to say that’s because my dogs listen better than he did yesterday, but really, my pit bulls are just crazier than he acted).

Jai knows that pit bulls should always be the center of attention.
Even while sleeping. 

Working with Jai this year has been a real pleasure because he wants so much to be a “normal” dog (whatever that is). Unlike Jai, Rubi behaves because it gets her what she wants; Maus listens because he wants to please me. Neither of them has any integral drive to change their behavior. In contrast, Jai really wants to believe that people are good and the world is a safe place. He tries so hard to be brave; he longs to make new friends. Helping him to conquer his past has been on of my true joys in this year.

Jai was hot stuff at the party.
Photo by Sara Brueske.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Philosphohy and Reality

"Having a personal philosophy is like  having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there maybe situations when it will not come in handy at all."
                                                                                             ~Lemony Snicket

"Be happy."

That's great.

Now what?

After our trip to the BWCA, I had a vague idea that I would do more hiking with Rubi. She seems to enjoy it just a little bit more than my other dogs, and I love hiking, so it seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, my right knee still hasn't recovered from our trip, and I've been given strict doctor's orders not to - well, basically not to do anything I enjoy. Or stairs (because who really enjoys stairs?).  So I'm hesitant to make any goals that revolve around being more physically active.

That's not to say we won't be doing anything at all. I believe that trained dogs are happier dogs. They have opportunities that poorly behaved dogs just don't get. Rubi loves the work we do with the dog safety program, so I've signed her up for one at the end of the month. It will be her first program with another dog (Andy the Arm Candy, who she lived with, so I'm hoping will be no big deal), and it will her first time doing more than one program in a single day.

Typically, ARLP's Dog Safety programs run about 20-30 minutes each, and I know Rubi can handle that. The day I've signed us up for will be three programs, so Rubi will be working pretty solidly for a whole hour and a half. This might seem like a big jump, but in February we did a presentation at a high school on impulse control that was an hour long, and it wasn't a disaster. So the program at the end of the month with Andy seems like a reasonable challenge.

Rubi rockin' the impulse control.
Dog Safety programs that are appropriate for Rubi only come along every few months, though. Which means we need something else to occupy our time. I have a few other vague ideas for activities that don't involve a lot of moving on my part, but all of them involve being around other dogs.

Houston, we have a problem.

Every our meltdown with the GSD back in March (and I do mean "our meltdown" - I handled that incident about as well as B did), Rubi's been inconsistent in her reactions to other dogs. Sometimes she's her old self; sometimes, she's her really old, banshee screamin' self. She's gotten a bit unpredictable, too, which never used to be a problem. I can't always pick out which dogs she'll pitch a fit over, and which ones she'll be okay with. It doesn't help that I avoided the issue in favor of working on behaviors for the camping trip, but it's something we're going to have to work on in order to move on with our lives.

So we've once again resumed the search for a Rubi-appropriate class. I've had a few promising leads, and it looks like it'll come down to what's available when my next paycheck comes in. One thing's for sure -

There's happy times ahead!

Rubi loves herself some school learnin'.