Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Absolutions

On January 10, 2012, a very dear friend of mine killed himself. The year really hasn't gotten better since then, and we're already at the end of it. People are pulling together their resolutions, picking out their flaws, and trying to figure out how to "fix" themselves for the new year. Trust me when I saw I can pick out my flaws, ruthlessly and effectively, any day of the year. I don't need the holidays to help with that - I've got all the rope I need, thanks just the same. So instead of agonizing over how to improve myself, this year I'm going to try something new.

I'm going to be not perfect, and I'm going to forgive myself for it.

I routinely fail to meet my own standards as a dog trainer. While it's easy for my to give people the benefit of the doubt, I regularly beat myself up for being too cranky, impatient, having poor timing, or pushing too hard. The love of a dog is not, in fact, unconditional - particularly the love of shy, neurotic, reactive, basket case dogs. They have standards, too. And I have met them. Not only met them, but exceeded them. My dogs adore me. They trust me when I do not trust myself. At the end of the day, their standards matter to me a whole lot more than mine do.

"The paparazzi want us to do what now?"
Photo by Paige.

I am not always a fantastic wife. I am sometimes irritable, rigid, irrational, and occasionally a flat-out bully. Worse, I know that I have sometimes left my husband bewildered and hurt from trying to navigate the black holes in my brain. It's okay. We work through it. He's not perfect either. Love is not a matter of perfection, but of finding someone whose imperfections compliment your own. Each year, our marriage grows stronger as we learn from each other - our mistakes and our successes - and grow together.

I am not a leader among people. It's okay that I do not want to be, and actively go out of my way to avoid leadership situations. It's alright that I don't want to be a leader. I am a good example. I am a force for change, a small part in a bigger ideal. I am replaceable, but that does not mean I am not important or valuable or skilled. I don't need to be flawless to be pretty damn fantastic. And I won't let "perfect" stand in the way of "pretty damn awesome."

I believe in the new year. I believe in the new month. In tomorrow and in the next hour. In the future, where no lies have been told, no cruelty committed, no friends treacherously failed. It is unspoiled. Dreams may yet come true, impossible things will be done, and I will have the courage to do that which has been too much for me in the grim battle of now. I will have the courage to be less than perfect, and to forgive myself my sins.

I believe that 2013 is going to be a great year.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sometimes Cookies Crumble

Today, Rubi and I tried for her APDT C.L.A.S.S. BA title.

We didn't get it. She broke her stays - both of them - when dogs in another room started barking. She went right back down when I asked her to, but by then it was too late.

I'm not really broken up about it.

You see, a year ago, Rubi still whined like people were shoving splinters under her nails when she smelled the presence of strange dogs.

Two years ago, the sound of dogs barking could still make her lose her damn mind.

Three years ago, I despised her. She would also start screaming if she saw - or thought she saw - dogs as far as a mile away. And I do mean that literally.

In the years before that, she was shuffled around to so many homes, I've lost count.

She started out in someone's back yard with nothing but a bag of food for company.

So you see, we might not have passed the BA test, but I'm pretty sure "failure" is not a word that applies to us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Do Good, and Disappear

“Do good, and disappear” is an old nursing proverb. Most nurses work with patients in crisis, and if all goes well, our patients are healed and move on with their lives, never needing our support again. It seems to me that “do good, and disappear” also applies to animal rescue.

Wash moves on to his forever home today. I have done everything I can to give him not a second chance, but the first chance he was born without. He’s healthy now, neutered, well socialized, and firmly started on his basic manners and training. I have chosen for him the home I feel is best suited for him, and it was a difficult decision.

I always feel anxious in the week surrounding The Big Day. Did I remember to tell his new family how much he likes to shred paper, and that if he doesn’t have any paper, he’ll steal the toilet paper roll out of the bathroom to destroy? Do they know that if they can’t find a shoe, to look for it behind the couch because that’s his favorite hiding spot? Will they remember to give him his last dose of dewormer next week? Will they have the patience to stick with him when he behaves like an ass, the desire to continue with his socialization and training, the love to cradle him in their arms years from now when he is ready to breath his last?

I think so, but I can’t see the future.

People often ask me how I can stand letting my foster dogs go. I hope they understand that for foster families such as mine, it is never, ever a matter of not loving our charges enough. We fosters simply know that sometimes the kindest thing we can do for a dog is to let them go. I know that Wash’s new family will be able to provide more attention than I can spare, more training than I have the motivation for, more time than I can squeeze out of my day, more money and resources and love than I have at my disposal. Still, to foster is to cut out a piece of your heart, hand it to strangers, and beg them to be gentle with it.

Wash will always be welcome in my home. I know there is a chance that he will be in need of a home again, and not necessarily by anyone’s fault. People lose their jobs, die, run into behavioral issues they can’t handle, and in other ways fall victim to life’s unpredictable nature. I have been Wash’s launch pad, and if need be, I will be his landing pad again.

If all goes according to plan, though, my part in Wash’s life is soon coming to an end. Updates, especially pictures, are water in the desert to foster families, and I hope that I might be allowed to see Wash turn into the dashing gentleman I know he will be. People usually pass along updates while their dog is new, but often forget as the newness slips away and they settle into the routine of life with their new dog. I hope that Wash’s family remembers me fondly in the future, if they think of me at all. I have helped Wash in his time of need, and I hope to now fade into a dream, never required to provide healing or heart to Wash again. In short, I have done good and now hope to disappear.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reasonable Expectations

Every new dog that we bring into the house has help Rubi expand her communication skills, and Wash is no exception. Rubi loves puppies - Rubi loves everyone - but her usual play style of "body slam them until they make noise" is really not suited to a dog that weighs less than a fifth of what she does. As a result, when Wash first came home, I watched him and Rubi like a hawk. Their play time was extremely limited, and I brought out my clicker to help pin down for Rubi exactly how she should be playing with the puppy.

Wash, world's cutest Notweiler. 

I used my clicker to mark and reward appropriate play behaviors. When she chose to interact in a way that wasn't, say, pounding him with her ass or trying to fit his whole body in her mouth, she got a click and a cookie. I was particularly careful to mark calming and negotiation signals. Body language such as lip licks, look aways, mirroring the puppy's body language, and yawning, among other signals, cue dogs that they really are just playing, and that everything is okay. Rewarding her this way helped her to stop what she was doing and take a few seconds break, something that is very natural in canine play. It also helped reduce the amount of time that Rubi had to get aroused and excited over Wash. 

After many many many many short sessions, Rubi's play became much more gentle. She was laying down with Wash to play, instead of trying to stand over him, and she seemed to pick up on his body language much more effectively. I was able to be pickier in what I rewarded, choosing to click only the best play behaviors. Eventually, when it seemed that Wash and Rubi were finally speaking the same language, I weaned off the treats entirely, praising Rubi for appropriate behavior and checking in with me. I still keep play sessions relatively short, but I no longer have to stand over the dogs to make sure Rubi doesn't accidentally flatten Wash, or to make certain that Wash doesn't push too many of Rubi's buttons as puppies are wont to do. 

While I had a hunch that Rubi was capable of playing appropriately with a smaller dog, not every dog is a candidate for this type of canine communications training. Maus, for instance, would rather fall over dead than be forced to do something as undignified as play with a puppy. To say it another way, not every dog is dog park material. This is a hard concept for many people, and it is always hard for a trainer to have that conversation with a client where they try to explain to the client that the fantasy dog that they have imagined is simply not the dog that is at the end of their leash.

I don't expect Rubi to get along with all dogs any more than I expect myself to get along with all humans. On the other hand, I don't think it's unreasonable to be able to sit in the same room as someone you hate and be able to keep your damn mouth shut. If I can do it, so can Rubi.

A couple of weeks ago, we packed Wash off for a stay with Andy the Arm Candy while we dog sat MJ, another one of ARLP's program dogs, while her regular foster parents were on vacation. I was pretty sure that Rubi and MJ were not going to get along what with both being strong-mind, adult women, and sure enough, MJ wasted no time in letting me know that she wanted nothing to do with my dogs. As I said earlier, that's fine; I know that my house is busy and can be particularly stressful for new dogs (MJ is typically dog tolerant to social, by the way), and nobody has to like everybody. 

However, I do expect everyone to keep a civil tongue in their heads. 

MJ, owner of the World's Cutest Underbite.

I worked MJ and my horde of dogs with basic counter conditioning and desensitization. Baby gates are life savers at my house, so when I wasn't actively working with the dogs, I would cover the baby gates with a sheet so the dogs couldn't interact. For short periods, no longer than five minutes several times a day, I would uncover the baby gates and feed dogs cookies for looking at each other. When this was no longer exciting, I gave out cookies for looking away from other dogs. By the end of the week, MJ and the horde were able to have "free time" around uncovered gates for up to twenty minutes. I still watched carefully, though, and if they sniffed each other through the gate, I made sure that I was there to reward and redirect before things got, ah, interesting. 

Given enough time, I think I could have integrated MJ into the herd fairly well, but there's a difference between not swearing at each other, and living together in peace. There are definitely dogs out there that will never be comfortable living with other dogs. This is okay, too. It's up to us as their humans to provide appropriate social contact for our dogs. For some dogs, this means living with other dogs; for others, it means regular, structured play dates. And for some dogs, it means never being asked to exist closely with other dogs. Dogs, like people, are social creatures, but each dog and person is a unique individual with different needs, desires, and capabilities when it comes to coexisting with others. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Jai Goes for a Walk

Yesterday, Jai joined me and twenty three other dog handler teams for the weekly Twin Cities Pack Walk. Piper and Maus have gone on these walks several times, and it’s a great chance to get around other dogs and handlers in a safe and friendly environment. Many of the other handlers have reactive dogs, so the group takes the whole “no on leash greetings, no off leash dogs” thing pretty seriously. I've hemmed and hawed for a while about bringing Jai on a walk, and I finally just went ahead and took the plunge.
Jai's in this picture. You can tell because my lime green coat is in this picture.
Photo by Paige

Jai’s been doing well in his regular level one class, but walks in general can still be difficult for him, what with all the places there might be zombies hiding, ready to jump out and attack us. Bringing along another dog often helps Jai relax, but it also increases his arousal in general. For him, there’s a fine line between distracted enough not to obsess over the environment and too distracted to work.

The pack walk definitely pushed that line hard, and I learned an awful lot about my dog in just a couple of miles. For one, he’s a horrible, horrible puller when there’s anything interesting going on. Apparently, my leash training skills are not what they should be, but, hey – that’s why god invented Gentle Leaders, right? I found that Jai pulled less and was much more comfortable if he could be in the middle of the pack as opposed to distanced away from the other dogs. Jai also took treats the entire walk, which was awesome because he’s not a terribly food motivated dog, and he stops taking treats as soon as he starts getting over stimulated.
Don't mind us, we're just pulling along here.
Photo by Paige.

Jai did have one bad meltdown on the walk when the pack had to turn around and start back toward the parking lot. This mean that dogs were coming toward us, and it was, quite simply, too much for my Fatty McCheesehead. Once we got through the other dogs, though, I pulled over to the side, and Jai recovered remarkably fast. Jai is a good dog, but he typically takes a long time to recover from going over threshold, with stressors tending to mount until he’s too wild eyed and traumatized to continue working. Not so this time.
Jai, about fifteen seconds after him meltdown,
looking happier and more relaxed than he does on most of our regular walks.
Photo by Paige.

Perhaps most remarkable yesterday was not so much what happen, but what didn't happen. Jai didn't have his ears pinned back and his tail down as is often the case on our individual walks when we’re in a new area. While in the pack closer to the other dogs, Jai was very good about minding his manners and not getting in the other dogs’ space. I didn't really expect that, and was pleasantly surprised. He also didn't freeze even once, which is a huge deal for him.

Jai’s freezing has been an interesting challenge. I've mentioned before, but Jai’s big problem isn't so much other dogs as it is suddenly environmental changes and unfamiliar places. Often times when there is a change in his environment – anything from, say, dogs suddenly coming toward him instead of moving with him to people stepping out of houses to a plastic bag blowing across the street half a block away – Jai will freeze mid step and need to stare at the stimulus until he decides it’s not a threat. While frozen, nothing exist for Jai other than that new stimulus: not me, not peanut butter, not the car coming straight toward us because he decided to freeze in the middle of the street.

Hangin' out, watchin' other dogs, not frozen.
Photo by Paige. 
I can pick Jai up and remove him from the situation, but it increases his stress level dramatically. I've found that the best way to handle Jai getting stuck is to be patient and wait for him to unstuck himself. The episodes usually last between ten seconds to two minutes, and as soon as he moves or looks away from the stimulus, I make sure to reward heavily. I’m not sure that I have any science behind rewarding Jai redirecting his focus after becoming frozen, but I figure dogs repeat what you reward, and maybe if I reward him for coming out of it, he’ll unfreeze faster and freeze less frequently.

I may not have any science, but anecdotally, this systems seems to be working pretty well. On our regular walks, Jai has gone from taking half an hour or more to walk a single block to freezing only three or four times a mile. He also doesn't freeze for nearly as long, and it’s been quite a while since he’s frozen for more that fifteen seconds.

And during the pack walk, he didn't freeze at all.

I’m not sure that we’ll be doing the pack walk again soon, but I’m glad we did it. I’m still on the fence about whether or not I feel it was too stressful for him. I do think that overall, Jai enjoyed himself, but I think we've more training that needs to be done before we jump into that situation again.

No matter whether we join the pack walk next week or never go again, I hope that Jai knows on some level how brave I think he is, how beautiful and smart and courageous. How delighted I am that he works so hard for me, even when things are scary. And how proud I am to walk – or wait still - next to him for however many miles we have to travel together.

My brave dog,
photo by Paige.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Little Brag

Rubi has a history of being very, ah, adverse to invasive body handling. When I picked her up from her previous foster home, he told me that the only time he felt that she might bite him was when he tried to trim her nails. Which wasn't terribly shocking since she had been returned to the rescue for biting the person who alpha rolled her. After living with Rubi for so long, I can say with absolute certainty that Rubi will only bite if she feels in fear for her life. And that being physically manipulated, given her history of traumatic handling, sometimes makes her feel that people are going to kill her.

Rubi and I have worked very hard to help her overcome her fear of handling, and it's paid off in so many ways. But you can imagine that between the other dogs and the handling issues, vet visits tend to be a bit stress inducing. Last year, Rubi handled the dogs fairly well, but being handled by strangers made her very uncomfortable. We worked on this, and if I was expecting just general restraining at this years vet visit, I wouldn't have been too concerned.

But Rubi's been gimping. One walks, when we first start and before she's gotten really warmed up, she often hop-skip a few steps. It's a movement I associate with Katy, who had  severe bilateral patellar luxation. Basically, Katy's knees weren't built right, and this cause her knee caps to pop out of place. She would then do that funny little hop-skip step to get her knee caps back into place. Unless surgically corrected, patellar luxation is degenerative and can cause a lot of pain for the dog. Needless to say, I really didn't want Rubi to have this condition.

I sure do miss this little dog.
Photo by Paige.

After a thorough exam (which Rubi handled beautifully), Dr Megan determined that Rubi's knees were most likely fine. Which was immediately followed by the bad news that it might be her hips. Rubi is an active dog, so if there's a problem with her structurally, I want to know about it so that I can do whatever necessary to keep her as active as she needs to be. This meant that Rubi needed xrays to find out exactly what was going on in her back end.

Cue dramatic music.

I am so very proud to say that Rubi handled her xrays like a pro. This involved being picked up and placed on the xray table, positioned by at least two strangers, held still while pics were taken, being repositioned and held still again, and then being picked up and set back on the ground. It doesn't get much more invasive than that.

There's no ribbon for "I Didn't Bite the Vet," but I feel like there should be. It's really the little victories that mean the most when you have dogs with special needs. Moments like this are so much bigger than any title I've ever worked toward or achieved.

And the results of the xrays? Rubi has a touch of spinal arthritis, not an uncommon finding in a seven year old dog. The prescription is take glucosamine and fish oil, stay active, and stay lean. So basically, we'll just keep doing what we've been doing. It seems to be working pretty well.

Picture of the best crazy dog ever. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tricky Dogs

A few days ago, I finished teaching a tricks class for ARLP's Rott n' Pit Ed. I only get an opportunity to teach a tricks class every few years, and I always jump on the chance. Tricks are one of the things I love teaching not only dogs, but people as well.

Tally, Jai's side action, learns to sit up and beg.
Photo by Jen.

I think part of the difference in attitude between tricks and standard obedience classes is simply the language. As humans, we place a lot of value on words, and the word “obedient” itself has connotations of strictness and even force. This could be at least part of the reason people don’t care if their dog performs shakes paws or not, but if their dog won’t sit on command, that’s personal. Neither behavior is difficult to each, but one is a “trick,” and the other is taught as obedience. (Side story: I once heard a vet tell a woman at a busy, crazy event that the woman’s dog was dominant and dangerous because the dog wouldn't sit on command. I think my ears almost started bleeding.)

I believe that one of the biggest mistakes you can make in dog training is taking yourself too seriously. Sure, there are exercises that might save your dog’s life like “come,” but even this cue is taught more solidly if your treat it like a game. Tricks are fun. They’re not work, they’re playing with your dog, and it’s a lot easier to laugh when you’re playing than when you’re working. Even for myself, I started having a lot more fun with my dogs when I stopped referring to them as “training sessions” and started saying that I was “going to go play with the dogs.”

Tricky dog line up, photo by Jen.
Rubi likes it when other dogs skip class because it means she gets to stay out and play longer.

Another perk to teaching tricks is breed related. I work primarily with Rottweilers and pit bulls, and I own mostly reactive dogs. The public is often afraid of these types of dogs. It’s hard, though, to be afraid of dogs with painted nails or pretty clothes or adorable tricks. Tricks are good publicity. For Rubi and Piper, who work with kids through ARLP’s Dog Safety Program, I often use tricks to keep the kids entertained and engaged. During Rubi’s last program, we taught each of the kids how to use a clicker to “teach” Rubi a trick, much to the kids’ delight.

Each of my dogs also has a particular sport that he or she plays, and most of these sports are different. But one thing they all know is a variety of tricks. I use tricks as both a way to build relationships and as a method for teaching dogs problem solving skills. Many of the tricks I teach rely on some amount of shaping – that is, marking and reward smalls steps toward a bigger picture. At each step, the dog has to figure out what they’re being rewarded for. There’s no punishment for guessing wrong, so the dogs are encouraged to try different behaviors to get what they want. This is a huge skill for reactive dogs, who often get stuck repeating the same behavior over and over again (usually the behavior we don’t want). Not to mention the confidence given to shy dogs when they try something new and the world doesn't explode around their ears.
And so it is with dog training as it is with so many other real life activities: how you do it matters at least as much as what you're doing. Tricks open our minds to a place where training is fun, less like work and more like play. If teaching “roll over” can be fun, so can teaching “heel.” It’s all a matter of perspective.

Less stress, more smiles.
Photo by Paige.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hitting Our Stride

Jai came to live with me on January 25th, 2012. Give or take a few weeks, that's about nine months, and only now do I finally feel like we have a good relationship.

That's not to say that I feel like we've been muddling along accomplishing nothing for the last ten months. We've made great leaps in soothing his anxiety. It's just that a good relationship with a dog, particularly a dog with "issues," takes time.  There's no way around that. I'm just glad it didn't take eighteen months to get to like it did with Rubi.

Part of this relationship is just getting to know each other. Now, when I take Jai into new situations, I'm pretty confident about how he'll behave. This week, we had three outing that went exactly as I'd planned. The first was to my aunt's house where Jai didn't run and hide from my uncles even once (he did that on his first trip there, I was very sad for him). He was also the perfect gentleman when my aunt's little dog tried to eat his face, another non-surprise for me.

Our second field trip was out to our friend Rachel's house for a play date with her girl, Greta. Greta was more interested in my treats than in Jai, and Jai was more interested in peeing on everything in Rachel's backyard than in Jai, but nothing even mildly interesting happened. Jai didn't pace the fence or whine or get anxious at all. And I was not surprised. I knew him, and I knew what he was likely to do. It's nice to know that even if we're not always on the same page, at least we're reading the same book.

Jai and Greta.
I want to make an award for cutest couple, just so I can give it to them. 

Lastly, Jai and I crashed Sunday's Rott'n'Pit Ed. Classes were temporarily moved to a new building, and I'm still working on remedial socialization with him, so I jumped on the chance to expose him to a new place. With new dogs. Lots of new dogs, as it turned out - there were twenty or so boarding dogs there, plus the dogs going in and out for class. We planted ourselves in the entry way and practiced watching everyone come and go. I snagged a few pictures, and looking through them, the difference between who Jai was and who he is now - well, see for yourself.

In case you forgot, here's a picture of Jai at the end of his first night at his first reactive dog class:

And here he is on Sunday:

Not really relaxed, but I have to say, I like the new "working dog" look.

He wants to hang out with me when he's bored, he looks to me for instruction when he's worried, and he wants to play with me when he wants to have a good time. But relationship goes two ways, out and in. It was no surprise to anyone that I decided to keep Jai. But there's a difference between keeping a dog and being utterly smitten with him. I love Jai. I love that he's so sensitive and curious about the world around him. I love how resilient he is, how hard he struggles and how hugely he succeeds. How he still wants to be with me even when I'm cranky or miserable or doing nothing at all. How I get all giggly and giddy when I talk about him or see him first thing in the morning or after a long day at work, like a sixteen year old with a crush.

Dude! He's SO hawt!!!

Photo by Paige

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Chapter Two

The ink is drying on Miss Tulip's, a.k.a "Rubi Lite's," adoption paperwork. Working with thee past few months have been . . . exhilarating. And frustrating. And joyous. And emotionally exhausting. And totally worth it.

So pretty much just like owning a reactive dog, except that when she flipped out, someone else was holding the leash. Usually.

Which is actually a big difference, really.

Being reactive is verra serious business.
Photo by Paige

I like Tulip's new family a lot. They don't have pit bull experience, but that doesn't mean they're bad dog owners. Neither do they have reactive dog experience, but that doesn't mean they can't handle a reactive dog. (Not a surprise - most people who've had a reactive dog tend not to want another one. Don't ask me, I don't get it, but you can probably tell that from the fact that I recently adopted my third reactive dog). I've found many rescues that will turn someone down for not having breed experience or training experience for a particular problem. Heck, my own parents were turned down for an American Bulldog for not having a fenced in yard.

I don't really care about that stuff. Each family is unique, and all having individual assets and disadvantages. It may be helpful to have breed or reactive dog experience, but I know people who have had pit bulls for twenty years that I wouldn't trust to dog-sit a stuffie. What I like to see more than anything else is an open mind and determination to succeed.

Tulip is determined to succeed. She needs a family who can keep up with her. 

Tulip's new family have that in spades. They didn't flinch when I suggested that it may take up to a year before Tulip really settled into their home (that's my long term estimate for reactive dogs - most dogs don't take that long). They devoured all the education I brought them. They're ready to jump right in to class on Sunday. They're excited to go shopping for new Tulip supplies. What really great family doesn't love new dog gear?

So the prep work's been done, the papers have been signed, nothing left to do but pray, right?

Case management for the rescue is a new role for me, and as I type that, I realize that I've already been doing it for about a year. But we don't just sign the papers and say good luck. This isn't the end of Tulip and mine's relationship. I'll still be here to help trouble shoot for her new family, and to make sure that Tulip continues to get every advantage she can in life. I've gotten rather attached to Tulip this year - I mean, she's so much like Rubi, how could I not? So the rescue and I, her fosters, and all her "aunties" and "uncles" will continue to play guardian angel as long as she needs us.

Knowing Tulip, I'm sure the next chapter in her life will be interesting . . .

Tulip, like Rubi, is many things - but never boring.
Photo by Paige.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

October is "Pit Bull Awareness Month"

“This is the truth: We are a nation accustomed to being afraid. If I’m being honest, not just with you but with myself, it’s not just the nation, and it’s not just something we’ve grown used to. It’s the world, and it’s an addiction. People crave fear. Fear justifies everything. Fear makes it okay to have surrendered freedom after freedom, until our every move is tracked and recorded in a dozen databases the average man will never have access to. Fear creates, defines, and shapes our world, and without it, most of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves. Our ancestors dreamed of a world without boundaries, while we dream new boundaries to put around our homes, our children, and ourselves. We limit our potential day after day in the name of a safety that we refuse to ever achieve. We took a world that was huge with possibility, and we made it as small as we could.”
~ Mira Grant, Feed

"Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wash's Story

Patricia McConnell recently posted on her blog asking if her readers felt that dogs could tell stories. “If a story is a description of a sequence of events,” she writes, “can dogs, without the use of language, tell itself stories to help make sense of the world?” As a longtime bibliophile and story teller, I find the question fascinating. There is no doubt in my mind that dogs have stories, and one of the great skills of dog training is learning how to listen to what the dogs is telling you, but are dogs able to tell stories similar to the way people tell stories?

For example, I have a new foster puppy. 


If I had to tell his story, I would say that it started in Kentucky. He is the son of a Rottweiler and some slutty, unneutered boy dog. There were seven other puppies in his litter, and he and his siblings all ended up at a high kill shelter. Two of them were adopted. The Kentucky shelter staff reached out to A Rotta Love Plus to save as many puppies as possible.

ARLP, being made of mush-hearted volunteers, found foster homes for the puppies and agreed to take them in. October 6th, the six remaining puppies were transported north to Minnesota. I claimed “the sassy puppy with the white chest.” I named him Wash after the character from Firefly, because that is the best name for a puppy ever. If you’ve never seen Firefly, why the hell not –er, I mean, you’re just going to have to trust me on that.

Trust the puppy . . .

The puppies are sick. They have what I call “the animal shelter triumvirate.” That is, they have fleas, intestinal worms, and kennel cough, the three most common illnesses in animal shelters nation wide. We gave them flea baths, dewormer, and kept them separate from their house mates until they could start healing.

Then, we found out they had parvo.

Canine parvovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes vomiting, diarrhea, fever, weakness, dehydration, and in puppies in particular – especially puppies that are sick to begin with – it is often fatal. This last week has been a flurry of fluids and vet visits, giving distemper boosters to the adult dogs living with the puppies, begging for donations for care, and hoping against hope that the puppies pull through.

Two of them, Derby and Lucy, did not make it. The multiple blows of fleas, worms, kennel cough, and parvo were simply too much for their little bodies to bear.

The remaining four puppies, though, seem to be pulling through. Wash, Tucker, Squirrel, and Dobby Racer are all starting to act like normal puppies again – eating and running and jumping and annoying the heck out of their foster parents. Much to our delight.

If I were to tell Wash’s story, that’s how it would go.

But if Wash were to tell his own story, I think it would go something like this:

“Wow, leaves, my favorite! They fall, and they taste like paper! Paper tastes great! Hey, a stuffy! BEHOLD, I am PUPPY, DESTROYER OF STUFFIES!! Ooh, sock, I destroy those too, watch –hey, being held! Um, okay, yeah I guess I’m a little tired, but I –snore, snore, snore – OMG, a CAT! My favorite!!!”

You know what? Ignore me. Wash’s story of himself is way better than my story of him.

"My stories rock. Now pet mah bellies!"

Monday, October 8, 2012

Faking It

Rubi will always be a reactive dog. That doesn't go away. But somewhere in the past year or so, we've more or less attained my favorite stage in reactive dog ownership: faking normal. That's right, Rubi can now pass as a pretty average, happy, energetic pit bull in public.

She's not normal, but it's nice to pretend.

The end of last month brought us two events to celebrate the not-crazy. First, we did a bully breed education class for a group of kids at the local animal shelter. Rubi was, above all, herself. This in itself is pretty amazing. She wasn't the raging, screaming, uncontrollable banshee we've all come to know - and let's face it - dread and hate. She was energetic and happy and let each of the kids "clicker train" her through a trick. The program was an hour long, and she had to chill in her crate while Maus did a nosework demo. (Which, as a side note, he rocked. In a room full of kids. May the wonders never cease.)

Let's just take a moment to bask in the glow of Rubi going into a building full of noisey, strange dogs and her not going bat-apeshit crazy. Everything else was just icing.

Photo evidence by Seth.

Rubi also came back to Growl Class for the last day because of why not? Every once in a while, someone will tell me that they don't take/aren't going to take to class with the implication of why would they? They've trained dogs before, and they know all that stuff already. This always makes me a little sad. I might not have learned any new training techniques in this class, but I will never underestimate the value of having another set of educated eyes watching you and your dog train. Each class I take, I learn more about my dogs, and this helps me to refine my techniques and increase my skills. I don't know all this stuff already.

To be honest, I hope there's always more to learn.

Take this picture I took of Rubi after class on our last day of Growl Class:

Now, there are a lot of pictures of Rubi on her mat in this blog. And there are a lot of pictures of Rubi looking happy at the camera. But this one is special. I have put away my bait bag. There is no ball or toy in my hand. This is Rubi looking at me - just me. She is that excited to play and work and just be together. This picture of mediocre quality means more to me, I think, than any other picture I have ever taken of her. It is a picture of the relationship we have created between the two of us.

Isn't it incredible? I mean . . . wow. Who knew we had that?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Almost Wordless Wednesday

I'm so glad I taught Jai that camera = ears forward = cookies, because now I get pictures like this:

Just sayin'.

Monday, September 24, 2012

When Things Go Wrong

Jai's encounter with off leash dogs didn't go as well as Rubi's. In fact, we haven't had a good time outside the house in about two weeks. (Just in case anyone was wondering, it is not Off Leash Dog Month. It is just September). But even before this month happened, we had sort of plateaued anyway, so we're probably over due for a ruthless examination of our training plan.

I did switch Rubi out for Jai in their Growl class, and I'm really glad I did. It's been fantastic having another set of educated eyes looking at my dog. Having someone see him from another angle has been invaluable.

Because from this angle, I tend to get distracted by all the sexy.

One of the things we picked up on is that Jai's real problem isn't other dogs. Other dogs are just what tip him over the edge. Jai's major issue is actually agoraphobia - a fear of new places. It's not even neophobia (the fear of new things, like Maus has). New objects are inspected with confidence and curiosity. But any new place is subject to suspicion because zombies could jump out of anywhere and eat us. After about forty-five minutes in a new place, it's like someone flicks a switch and suddenly Jai is ready to get down to work. And he is a beautiful worker, capable of doing all the exercises he does at home with precision and accuracy. But until he decides he's safe, he needs to obsessively watch everything around him, and trying to refocus him only makes him anxious.

Jai also has a lot of trouble with sudden environmental changes. Not objects, objects are fine. But people and dogs coming into a room once he's there require careful observation for sign of zombism (spell check says that's not a word, but whatever, I can make up words if I feel like it). Jai does much better coming into a room full of dogs than he does if he's already in a room and other students come in. As an observer, this is fascinating behavior. As a trainer, it poses some unique challenges. And as an owner, it makes me hurt for my dog's brain.

I can help Jai. Exposure therapy is already working for him. Taking him to new, safe places, and letting him watch his environment until he realizes that he's safe. But I can't control other people. I hate it, but it's true, and it means that the off-leash dogs aren't going away. Still, I can't think of many other ways to help Jai's agoraphobia then to take him places. And the places I can take a great, big dog are places where other dogs are. Rock, meet hard place. Of course, I'm too Irish to give up without a fight.

I train Jai roughly every other day. What I mean by that is every other day, I sit down or go out with him and we learn stuff together.  I taught him to lay under the table. Shake and wave. Roll over. Heel. Silly things, mostly, that serve no other purpose than to reinforce our relationship and entertain each other. So instead of doing this at home, we're going to go to our park. The one I take Rubi to that's a block away from our house. We're going to do our little fifteen minute training sessions there because there are rarely off-leash dogs there, and even if there are, that's where the hockey rink is.

And God help the "owner" whose off-leash dog harrasses us in our park because after heaving that seventy pound dog into the hockey rink, because that's a lot of work, and I'm going to be hungry, and I'm going to hunt that person down and eat them for dinner. 

Jai's new zombie-hunting collar.
Poor dog doesn't know about his owner's cannibalistic tenancies. 

I've put a lot of thought into where best to take Jai for classes. I really don't feel that he needs another Growl class, but the quiet and calm of such classes suit him. I've decided that we should look into nose work classes. The sport was originally developed with reactive dogs in mind, and most classes are still organized around the idea that their student are not going to be 100% okay with other dogs. For Jai, this means a quiet, calm class that will encourage him to check the environment out - just what (I think) he needs.

And so progress is made! One baby step at a time . . .

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sometimes People Suck

I'm normally pretty easy going. I draw the line at off-leash dogs. If I'm walking the "normal" dogs, you're lucky if I ignore you and flip you the bird as I walk away. If I'm walking the reactive dogs, you'll get an earful about what a horrible, stupid, scummy person you are. I realize this probably isn't the most helpful of reactions, and since this has been a particularly rough week (we've been lucky to meet just one off-leash dog on each of our walks), here's my attempt to be constructively - instead of destructively - pissed off. So, tips for dealing with off-leash dogs:

This is a picture (by Paige!) from Jai's Gotcha Day Party.
I just felt like there should be pictures of off-leash dogs
in my blog post about off leash dogs.

Set Yourself Up For Success:

  • Scope out the route before you take your dogs out. I take my normal dogs with me when I check out a new area, but if you don't have normal dogs (god love you), go by yourself. Most off-leash dogs tend to be repeat offenders, so knowing the blocks and trails to avoid can be a big help. Off leash dogs are less likely to hand out around busier roads, or during the early morning or late night. 
  • Take your cell phone. Have animal control or the cops' number programmed into it. In my experience, most off-leash dogs have owners lurking about somewhere, but some don't, and I'd hate for someone else to walk into the same situation I just did. Not to mention, emergency numbers are important if there's ever, well, an emergency. For that matter, know the location of your closest emergency vet. 
  • Have control of your dog. Train important things like auto watches, emergency retreats, and to walk on both sides of you before you risk running into off-leash dogs. If your not 100% certain of your dog's training, make sure you have physical control over them. I use gentle leaders with my dogs because I am not a perfect trainer - but I am a scrawny white chick with a gimp arm and big, strong dogs. 
  • Carry a spray deterrent and practice using it. I like citronella sprays because they stop most stoppable dogs, but aren't horribly adversive if I accidentally spray my own dog. Or myself. Or the other "owner." Because if you spray the other owner, it's probably assault or something, and I could go to jail. Not that I've thought about it . . . 

Training Jai is fun! Except when there are off-leash dogs.
Then it sucks. Photo by Paige

Take a Deep Breath:
  • Retreat, RETREAT! It's okay to turn around and go the other way. It took me a long time to figure this out, but boy! Walking away before the other dog sees you sure does work well! Remember not to run though - most dogs instinctively notice and chase things that run.
  • If approached by an off-leash dog, try to stay calm. I'm not above yelling expletives at "owners," but I check my own dog and the other dog for signed of aggression first. If people start screaming, it can push a tense situation over the edge into violence, and ultimately, that's what I'm trying to avoid. 
  • Throw treats at the other dog. Preferably smelly, raunchy treats that will give the dog diarrhea all over their "owner's" carpet later on. Make your escape while the other dog is distracted. 
  • If you think your dog will be okay with meeting the other dog, stay calm, keep a loose leash, and let them say "hi." I tend to error on the side of caution here, particularly when it comes to my reactive dogs, but most dogs actually get along fine with most other dogs. Just, you know, not the ones I have. 
  • Use your spray deterrent. Aim for the face. Start screaming. Throw your dog over the nearest fence that doesn't have another dog in it. If I know a meeting is inevitable and not going to go well, all bets are off. And if it comes down to it, I'm going to protect my dog above all else. Not everyone is this way, so make sure you know how to break up a dog fight.  

Let It Go:
  • Go home, give your dog a cookie, and make yourself a stiff drink. Remember, stress hormones stay with you for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. If you had a bad incident with an off-leash dog, chances are either your brain is shot or your dog's is. Go home and spoil yourselves.
  • Don't get hung up on what you could have done better. While I have hope otherwise, the truth is that off leash dogs are sort of inevitable. They're out there, and if you walk your dog, you're going to run into them. Think critically about the situation: Was there anything you could have done better? If the answer if no, think of what went well. And if you can't think of anything that went well - well, any day above ground is a good one, as we say in my profession. 
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Most "owners" of off-leash dogs are not intention assholes. They love their dogs and feel that letting them off leash is good for them. These people are just ignorant and inconsiderate, which doesn't automatically make them evil. I find I sleep better at night if I don't hate the whole human race. 
This blog post (which I am not writing while sober - weeeeee!!!!) occurred because Rubi and I had an incident tonight with an aggressive, off-leash dog with no "owner" in sight. B and I escaped to a hockey rink and were stranded there for thirty minutes until the cops were called. No one was hurt, thankfully, including the other dog. After all, it's not the other dog's fault that their owner is an inconsiderate, ignorant asshole. 

Rubi handled herself like a dream, and I know she's not so socially stupid that she doesn't recognize an aggressive dog when it tries to eat her. She followed my instructions to the letter, and once again, I am so proud of her. It might be the training we've done, and I'm sure that's partly why she behaved so well, but I also like to think that her excellent behavior was largely due to our relationship. She trusted me to keep her safe and to look out for her best interest, and I know how hard that is for her. I'm honored and awed by the responsibility she has given me. 

And well, she didn't go ape shit - I'll drink to that!

"If you're a rock star and you know it
Photo by Paige.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of Leadership and Love

I’m lucky to work in a hospital that really pushes for nursing leadership. Nurse comprise the largest portion of the medical workforce, so it makes sense to encourage nurses to have a part in the direction and managing of the system. I’m not much of a leader myself - I prefer my humble peon status – but I think the topic of leadership is fascinating. What makes a leader good? What makes a leader fantastic? How do you know if people are following you or chasing you? (Hint: are they carrying pitchforks?)

During all of the leadership trainings, a required activity seems to be the group listing of qualities a good leader possesses. Traits like kindness, fairness, patience, good communication skills, a sense of humor, compassion, humility, intelligence, and courage. I am always intrigued by this activity because “leadership” has come to mean something rather different in dog training. It seems that in the context of canines, leadership is just a more politically correct way of saying that you are dominant or alpha – two words that I have never seen come up when discussing human leadership.

The connotation of leadership in dog training implies that if your dog is not exceptionally behaved or shows any sort of personality, it reflects poorly on you as their leader. Dogs that chase squirrels? Why can’t you control them? Dogs growls at people? Why aren’t you telling him to stop? Dog won’t sit when you tell her? Why aren’t you making her sit? If you're a good enough leader, your dog won't misbehave. 

In my opinion, the leadership of canines seems to be less “fun” and more “terrible burden.”

Human leadership workshops rarely (never that I can remember, but I’m not perfect yet) talk about “making” people do anything. Humans seem to understand on at least a logical level that you can’t force anyone to do anything. If only we understood that being able to force dogs – or any other living thing – into a behavior is also just an illusion!

Further, there is an implication that if we can’t use force, then we are powerless over the behavior of others. Try to force me to do something, and you will find out how stubborn and pig headed I can be. But as a professional peon, I am not difficult to lead. The people I follow and respect the most are the ones who know me the best. Who know the situations I will flourish in and who place me in situations were my particular skill set will excel. These are the leaders I trust will not give me an objective I cannot achieve. And if I were to get in over my head, I trust that these people will listen and then do something if I were to tell them that I’m in over my head.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Leadership is not force or dominance or being alpha. It’s knowing people. It’s understanding that maybe your old dog doesn’t want to sit because her knees are bothering her – but she’d be happy to shake paws with you. It’s not putting the dog that growls at people into a crowded room because “he’s gotta learn to deal with it.” It’s trust and strength and creativity and setting the situation up so that everyone can succeed – without letting your ego get in the way.  

Sounds tricky and thankless, doesn’t it?

But leadership is balanced by friendship. Many people, including many great leaders, seem to believe that these are mutual exclusive. I am skeptical. The leaders I follow most wholeheartedly are the ones I can meet with over apple pancakes and discuss dogs and boyfriends and jobs and the nitty-gritty of making the Next Big Thing completely spectacular. The idea seems to be that you can’t reprimand or be critical of people you have an emotional attachment to. And I can see where this would be difficult from the leader’s perspective. As a lifelong follower, though, the people who’s honest criticism I internalize and value the most is that of my friends. The people who know me, and who I know have our best interests at heart.

How terrible to be your dog’s leader, but not their friend!

After all, isn’t that why we love dogs? To open ourselves to their silliness, their devotion and loyalty, their companionship in times of strife, and their joy in times of happiness. If I had to chose, I’d rather be their friend than their leader. To share the couch with them and a good book and a cup of coffee on a rainy day. In short, to do nothing with them but be happy.

In my book, being happy with my dogs is more important than any of that other stuff.

Photo by Paige.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Is It Chilly In Here?

Today, Rubi and I ran into an off-leash dog.

Who actually came when his owner called him.

The owner then proceeded to tell me what a nice job she thought I'd done handling B.

The conversation during which Rubi did not scream like a ninny.

In fact, she didn't so much as whine.

So, I have to ask . . .

Does anyone else feel like hell might have frozen over today?

"I bet you can't wait to see how I'm going to mess with her next, huh?"

In other news, Piper and I took Jai hiking for the first time. Jai would like everyone to know that golden rod flowers don't taste good. Not even a little.

Fo' reals.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Week Staycation: In the Beginning . . .

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a work conference in Phoenix. I’ve never been to Phoenix before, and in fact, secretly suspect that it may be a foreign country. Or possible another planet (I mean, really, it can’t be normal for cactuses to just grow up out of the ground like that!). I was also the only one from my five state area going to this conference. To top it off, it would be my first time flying by myself.

To say I was a little panicked would be an understatement.

And I’m a fairly well-adjusted human being. I speak the language: my english is passable most days, and I still remember how to say important things in Spanish. I know that if I have five dollars in my pocket, I’m probably not going to miss a meal. I knew where the hotel was, and I have a pretty good idea of how to check into one. I most likely would not spend any time sleeping on the streets. I also knew that Phoenix has tequila.

A dog coming into a new home has none of these advantages. She has been uprooted from her familiar environment to a place where she doesn’t know who to trust, where it’s okay to pee, or if she’ll ever see another meal. Even if her previous home was less than savory, chances are she at least understood what to expect. And people, god love and help us, want to take our new dog everywhere, show them the world, all the wonderful people, great toys, and amazing delicacies in their new lives. For even the most balanced of dogs, this can be hugely overwhelming. But just a little extra work now can help smooth everyone's transition, promote bonding, and prevent behavior problems in the future.

For the first week after you bring your new dog home . . .
-          Don't take your dog away from your home. There will be plenty of time in the future for walks, car rides, trips to the pet store, training classes, and play dates with friends. Trips off your property can be over-stimulating, over-exciting, and stressful. For now, we want to focus on teaching your dog to trust you, learning your routine, and learning the routine of her new house.
-          On the same note, don't allow visitors or introduce new animals – even the dogs already living in your house! Dogs bond much more easily to other dogs than to people, and this first week is for you to build a relationship with your new dog. The first week will also allow your new dog to get used to the smells and sounds of your other animals, which will make for much smoother introductions in just a few days' time. Don't let them meet – don't even let them see each other! - for this first week. 
-          Leash the dog to you when you are together. This prevents your dog from wandering off and getting in to trouble. It also allows the dog to get comfortable with your routine. Plus, it allows you to observe your dog for good behaviors and reward those behaviors with praise or a cookie.
-          Crate or tether your new dog when you can't supervise her. This will keep the dog out of trouble when you’re not there to work with her. Don't be tempted to take your dog everywhere with you. Undoubtedly in the future, there will be times when you need to go to work, go to the grocery store, or use the bathroom alone. Set up the expectation early that you will not always be present, and give your dog a comfortable place to relax with a Kong or toy while you are gone. Make sure to ignore any barking or whining; we don't want your new dog to think that being noisy makes you appear!

For the second week . . .
-          Let your dog earn the privilege of freedom. Does she behave well when leashed to your side? Then start letting her free in the room you are in. Keep a close eye on your new friend: don't let her find trouble, and don't let trouble find your dog! You don't want bad behavior now after you've put so much hard work into a great start.
-          Start letting your new dog and your resident dog(s) see each other. Quick glimpses through baby gates are great for this: let them sniff for a second or two, then go with your new dog to another room to get a cookie for good behavior. If this goes well, start giving the dogs more exposure together. Crate them side by side, let your new dog sleep in a crate in your bedroom while your resident dog(s) sleep where they want, and let them see each other while moving from room to room. After a day or two of this - provided everything is going well - start allowing short play dates between the dogs. Don't leave them together all the time yet, though! Make introductions a gradual, relaxed process, and both your resident and new dogs will thank you for it. You risk a lifetime of hatred by rushing things; you risk nothing by going slowly.
-          Start introducing the outside world. Go for short walks around the neighborhood. Have a friend over for a quiet dinner. Let the dog ride along with you for a trip to the bank. Short, calm activities will keep your new dog from getting overwhelmed and help build the trust that you will keep her safe. Don't force your new dog into situations where he or she feels uncomfortable, especially this early in your relationship.

I’ve been using this system to introduce new dogs to my house for years now, and it is by far the smoothest way to introduce new roommates into my horde. The process seems like a great deal of work, but it’s a lot less work – and a lot less scary – than breaking up multiple dog fights, or trying to work with a dog who doesn’t trust you.

The two weeks, by the way, are just a guideline. I’ve never shortened the process to less than a week – that first week is the most important – but some dogs move through the second week much more quickly. Jai, for instance, took ten days before he was fully integrated. Rubi, on the other hand, took three weeks before she figured everything out. I make sure to let the dog tell me when they’re ready to move on to the next level, and I try not to let my own bias on how I feel like they should be progressing interfere with the process. Remember – train the dog in front of you, not the one you wish you had.

There are a few types of dogs that I don’t use this process for. Puppies under fourteen weeks are in an important socialization period, and I try to expose them to many new people, places, objects, and other dogs in an effort to create an adult dog that is as balanced as possible. Shorting a dog on new experiences during this socialization period can predispose them to shyness and reactivity.

The other category I don’t bother with the two week staycation process for is compassion cases. Compassion cases are that special category of dog that a foster takes into their home knowing that, due to severe behavioral or medical conditions, this dog will die in their arms. These dogs get richly spoiled at my house. Their time is short, so they get to do whatever they want, as long as it is safe to do.

As with any training program, these first two weeks are flexible and should be tailored to meet the needs of the dog. The idea is to create a foundation of trust and open communication between you and your new dog. If your dog knows that you will take care of her, will meet her needs and keep her safe, it will pave the road for a lifetime of happiness.

Rubi on day 13 of her three-week Staycation. Note the death-hate-look. 

Four months later. Note happy smile and relaxed face.
Not quite forward ear indicated that she is likely partially focused on something else,
or mildly uncomfortable with the situation. She is also not looking directly at me/the camera.
Looking back, there are very few pictures from the first six months she spend with me in which she is
looking directly at me. 

Almost one year ago: relaxed body, soft eyes, happy mouth, good eye contact.
Rubi and I are finally a team.
Photo by Paige.