Monday, January 30, 2012

Here's the Thing . . .

As of today, Jai's past does not matter. I can't undo what was done to him. There's no way for me to find the people in his previous life, and even if I could, there's no way for me to prove what happened. I can't prosecute on a hunch. After all, Jai could just be under socialized and genetically . . . afraid of the word "no" . . . ?

Anyway, whatever did or did not happen is over and out of my control. More importantly, it has no effect on my training plan. Jai is who he is, and it's up to me to prepare him for the rest of his life. The question isn't "What happened?" The question is "Where do we go from here?" Working with Jai is different than working with Mikey is different than working with Rubi. Each individual dog gets a unique training plan based on what issues need addressing at the moment.

Jai's training plan starts with relationship. At the risk of beating that dead horse, I'm going to say it again: relationship is important. It is the most important. All hail the power of relationship. Jai needs to be able to trust someone, and it looks like I'm it. A common mistake people make with shy or abused dogs is to spoil and coddle them. Jai doesn't need spoiling, although he will certainly get a fair amount of it. He needs structure and fairness; he needs a world that makes sense to him. This doesn't mean being allowed to do what ever he wants. It means knowing that there's a logical way to influence his environment. And that way is through me.

The next part of Jai's training plan will be confidence building. Each adult dog that comes into my house goes through a "two week shut-down." At first, he's not allowed any contact with the other dogs. This gives the people in the house a chance to start a relationship with him before he gets a chance to fall in love with Rubi. Dogs, for the most part, bond more easily with their own species than with humans. The shut-down gives us a chance to slowly introduce everyone. I've heard that my horde can be a bit over whelming (go figure). I found that by letting everyone get used to smelling, hearing, and then seeing, and then hanging out, and then playing, our lives go more smoothly in the long run. If a stranger suddenly appeared in your house and your significant other said, "hi, get over it" how well would you handle it?

Another part of confidence building will be training - a lot of it. Jai is immensely eager to do the right thing, and as a result, training has been going well. I like to use a lot of shaping with shy/nervous dogs. When Allister and I get going, we can hit forty clicks in a minute - that's forty times in one minute that I've told him that he's done something right. Jai is quite a bit slower, but he doesn't seem to have been worked with at all and is happy to offer me behaviors. So far, I've shaped "sit," "touch" (right and left hand), "jump into the tub," and we're working "mat." We're averaging about ten to twenty clicks in a minute. Can you see why this is ego boosting? When's the last time that someone told you that you'd made a good choice twenty times in one minute? If that doesn't make me a fun person for Jai to hang out with . . .

Once we've got our relationship and some training under our belts, we'll be working on socialization. I'm starting to believe that socialization is one of the trickier skills used by the general training community. Socialization has come to mean "expose your dogs to as many new things as possible." It's a big, scary world, full of confusing, scary things. Pushing the dog out into this world with the advice "deal with it" is not only a good way to screw up the relationship, it's also a good way to screw up a dog's brain. So Jai and I will be doing structured socialization. He's going to meet lots of new people - but I'm not going to force him to interact with anyone he doesn't want to. If I don't think a person can treat Jai with the gentleness and respect he deserves, then I'm not going to allow that person to interact with him. Socialization is not novelty for the sake of novelty; it is exposure with security.

Of course, mice and men both know that plans change. I have an idea of what needs to be done, but we'll be flexible as well. The important part is to prepare Jai as best as possible for his new home. We can't get hung up on the past or the details or what might happen. As Jodi Hills said:

"What if it doesn't happen?" People are so quick, almost eager, to prepare you for the worst. If I give you nothing else, I'll try to prepare you for the BEST, and maybe, just maybe you'll believe it's OK to hope for it, work for it, wait for it, and embrace it when it comes . . . I'll be the one saying to you, and myself, "The BEST could happen . . . and what if it does? WHAT IF IT DOES!"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fatty McCheesehead

Or as he is officially known, Jai (pronounced "Jay," from the Sanskrit word meaning "victory").

One of the best parts of bringing in a new foster is getting to know the dog. And there sure is a lot to figure out about Jai. All the information I had to go on when I picked him up from St Paul Animal Control was "Katie and Lara say he's a nice dog, MNPBR wants him but doesn't have an open foster." That's it. I don't even know if he was a stray or a surrender or what his background was. It's like he magically appeared in the SPAC kennel one day.

So far, I've learned that Jai is a great big dork. He's eighty-ish pounds and  play bows to cats. He likes kibble and Kongs and hot dogs and snow. His favorite thing in the whole wide world seems to be peeing on stuff (as a side note, can't wait to get him neutered). He's a Class A+ snuggler, which in my world means "likes to lean and be touching you but doesn't feel the need to be on top of you." He doesn't know sit, but he's a quick learner. Not as fast as Allister, but not as slow as Piper. This boy's just right.

People seem to be drawn to dramatic stories. They have a morbid passion for telling people how poor and scared and abused their dog was, when in truth, it seems more like that their dog was simply under socialized or not stupid enough to try and argue with an obviously aggressive person (Your dog hides when you yell? Shocking). I wish I had a collar for every time someone has asked me if Maus was abused. As far as I know (which is pretty well), no one has ever raised a hand to Maus. He's just a naturally skinny, twitchy dog who doesn't like strangers. It's who he is genetically.

So you can imagine that I don't say it lightly when I tell you that I think someone has beaten the shit out of Jai. He's a sweet, solid dog who jumps when you touch him and he doesn't expect it. He flinches if you move your hands too fast. He winces when he hears the word "no" in casual conversation - a word I don't use at all when training my dogs. The first time he saw my husband, he pancaked to the floor, eyes wide, ratty tail clamped to his balls. He crawled up to Zach, the tail under his belly spasming a mile a minute, lip licking, throwing out every "pleasepleasedon'thurtme" cue in the existence of dogdom. Jai is a well put together dog who loves people and is terrified that people might hurt him.

Every once in a while, someone asks me if giving up my fosters to their new families is hard for me. It's not. This is the part of rescue that kills me. Jai is a happy, friendly, teddy bear of a dog, and someone in his life went out of their way to hurt him. Every twitch, every wince, every cower makes my heart ache. How could you, humanity?

So here in writing is my oath to you, Jai: I can't guarantee that everything will be perfect for you. But from here on out, dude, it's going to get better. We got your back.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Art of Dog Training

Those of you who have worked closely with my dogs and I know what a total wreck I am about showing them. I get terrible ring nerves and loathe testing them; however, I like having titles. It’s a terrible conundrum. In an effort to soothe my anxiety, I always over prepare. In the name of over-preparing for Rubi’s BA test, I ran the BA test with Piper Ann and Maus earlier this month, and the MA test with Piper - just because we could.

Like the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test, the APDT BA test is divided into ten-ish exercises. In each level, there’s also and extra two exercises to be completed as “extra credit” as it were. Accomplishing these allows you to pass “with honors” on the BA title. For the entertainment of my blog readers, I video taped Maus’s BA test.

1. Wait at the Door: This is the only exercise I didn’t get on video. So picture this: we approach the door. Maus sat (dogs don’t have to sit, but a sit-stay is easier for Maus just a “wait”). I opened the door. Maus gave me a bored look. I released Maus to go through the door. He was happy. Ta-da! First exercise passed.

Warm-Up Time: The goal of the APDT C.L.A.S.S. program is to recreate real life skills, as opposed to the CGC which was created as a stepping stone to competitive obedience. Since this is real life and not a dog show, you’re allowed a five minute warm-up period to use to, well, warm-up. Treats are allowed during the warm-up and between exercises. Maus and I used the warm-up time to check out the building as he had never been there before.

2. Come and Leashing Up Manners: Maus is attached to a long line to prevent him from doing fun doggie stuff (ie., zoomies, eating things, running away). I walk ten feet away and call him. Maus is thrilled to run away from the stranger and come let me put his leash on. During her MA test, Piper Ann figured out that the stranger had food and was waaaaay cooler than me. Dogs are finicky creatures. She came . . . eventually.

3. Loose Leash Walking and Attention: My dogs consistently rock at loose leash walking. I seem to be able to train “heel” pretty dang well. Part of this section of the test is that your dog has to give you two seconds of eye contact somewhere in there. This was not a issue for us. After Piper’s run through this exercise, the evaluator jokingly asked if we could do it again only with the dog looking away. Alas, “looking away” is not one of our crazy awesome skillz, man.

4. Meet and Greet: Dog must stay in position while stranger comes within five feet and asks to greet your dog. One of my favorite parts of the BA level of this test is that I can say, “no, thanks, not today” – JUST LIKE IN REAL LIFE! I am sure Maus was happy that I did not make him get fondled by the stranger.

Bonus 1: Trick: The first honors exercise is a rollover, spin, shake, fetch, or speak. I chose “shake” for Maus. Then he kissed my face because we love each other (and I taught him to do that, too . . . we do not get extra honors for doing extra awesome tricks).

5. Leave it: “Student walks with their dog by three items and student diverts dog’s attention from the items.” Nailed it.

6. Wait for the Food Bowl: Maus waits for the food bowl to be set down, and to be released, before chowing down on yummy goodness (aka, Natural Balance Dog Food Rolls). We only practice this twice a day . . . for four and a half years. With raw meat in the bowl. I would have been really sad if he hadn’t passed one.

7. Stay: Dog sits or downs for one minute while handler chats with the evaluator. My favorite part of the video is watching Maus’s ears twitch during the stay. Any moment, I expect him to speak up and tell me what he really think about my collar obsession.

8. Settle: Dog settles in a down (does not have to be on a mat, but, heck, why not?) for one minute while handler sit next to dog. I screwed up, and Maus was great anyway. I should’ve sat next to him in a chair, which is my general “make yourself comfy, I’m going to be a while” cue. Instead, I sat next to him on the floor, which is my general “come sit in my lap and pretend you’re a giant, eight pound yorkie.” Maus was confused, but settled anyway. Good dog. Bad owner.

9. Give and Take: Maus gets a high-value chewie. I let him get into it, and then I trade him for a Natural Balance cookie. Maus is confused. And sad.

Bonus 2: Trick of Student’s Choice: Maus rolls over. Yay, Maus!

And that was Maus’s BA with honors title. Piper Ann also passed the MA with honors, so it was a good day’s work. Overall, The BA was a little easier than I’d anticipated. Rubi might actually be able to pass this with just a little brushing up on the basics.

If the moon isn’t full . . .

And Venus isn’t in retrograde . . .

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Beast and the Bug

Katy seems to be healing well from her surgery on Friday. Piper Ann had two knee replacements (bilateral tibial tuberosity advancements) for the same knee injury, although my parents elected to do a different surgery to fix Katy's knee(extracapsular repair), it's been interesting for me to compare the two girls healing. Katy is just starting to touch her toe to the ground while walking. In comparision, I'm pretty sure Piper Ann was ready to do cart wheels at four days post-op. On the other hand, Katy's range of motion is much better than Piper's was at this stage. Katy can fully extend her leg and almost completely fold it back in again. Katy also has less bruising and swelling.

The medical geek in me is enthralled.

Needless to say, being twelve years old, eight pounds, and gimpy, Katy can't tolerate any rough handling. Our plan was to do total crate and rotate with our dogs and Katy: no contact with the herd at all. But as it turns out, such extreme measures haven't been necessary. It helps that Katy is stone out of her gourd on happy pain pills, and therefore not prone to getting excited by the other dogs. But I've also been pleasently surprised at how well mannered the herd has been.

Including Rubi.

Believing that the dogs understand that Katy is injured and needs to be handled gently seems too altruistic an answer. Instead, it's more likely that she's just not that interesting. Katy has been a regular fixture in Piper, Maus, and Allister's lives since they were puppies. Couple that with her lack of interesting response when prodded, and those three are off to find more entertaining pursuits, like trying to figure out how to chew through aluminum cans to get to the meaty center.

Rubi has not known Katy her whole life, and of the three dogs, she's shown the most interest in the bug. Rubi has, and I say this with no little amount of pride, behaved exactly as I would expect from a normal dog. Better yet, she is behaving as I would expect from one of my dogs (because you know if you've been reading the blog that my dogs - nor I - are nowhere in the vicinity of normal). Rubi is interested: she sniffs and she nuzzles and when she gets That Look, I tell her to back off - and she does! It's not perfect. Rubi needs a fair amount of support from me to maintain her good manners, and I'm certainly not going to leave her and the bug alone together. But she's willing to leave the new dog alone at just a word from me. Awesome.

Good girl, beast.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Bug

Katy looks like the love child of Animal the Muppet and a guinea pig. She's about as smart as the guinea pig, too, but the noises she makes aren't nearly as endearing. She's old, and she smells funny. Katy is rather like an affectionate mop.

I love the hell out of this dog.

When I was a wee thing working as kennel manager in a rural shelter, we never quite knew what would walk in the doors. One morning, I came to work to find our small front office covered in animal. Five dogs, six cats, and six large parrots, to be exact. They were part a a hoarder's collection, and since they'd been confiscated, they were under the shelter's care until the court case could be finished - a process that could take over a year. Each kennel that these animals took up took a life away from an animal that could be adopted out. So it wasn't long before these long term residents started coming home with staff in order to make room for dogs that could be saved.

There were five dogs: a blind newfie, a terrified border collie, a wild sky terrier, a cheerful pit bull, and this stupid yorkie. My mom had always wanted a yorkie, so one day I brought the bug home and told my parents to deal with it.

It hasn't always been easy living with Katy, but ten years later, she's still at my parents' house. House braking her was the big training accomplishment of Katy's life. As she has aged, she's become incontinent. She has bilateral grade IV patellar luxations. She broke her foot not long after she came to live with us. Like many old dogs, she has cataracts.

Through it all, she is one of the gentlest, sweetest, little dogs I've ever known. She loves people. She adores children. She likes other dogs (although her idea of play is to run in circles around them and bark).

Last week, Katy fell off the couch and broke her leg. My parent would've been well within reason to have her put to sleep. After all, she's twelve, and the years haven't been kind to her little body. Instead, my parents opted to do the $2000 surgery to repair her knee.

I am so proud of them.

My parents', however, have never taken care of a special needs animal. They also weren't sure how safe it would be for Katy at their house. My sister's BC mix can be a bit wild at times, and my brother and sister both have special needs themselves, so the chance for Katy to be accidentally hurt was fairly high.

So Katy is coming to stay with me for a few weeks while she recovers from her surgery. My parents are usually pretty stoic, it's-just-a-dog sort of people. They don't understand why I have four dogs of my own - let along pit bulls - or why I spend pretty much all my extra money on them. So watching them scurry around giving me instructions in Katy's care was completely worth every canine-related misunderstanding we've ever had.

"Here are her pills. You have to wrap them in chicken lunch meat because if you wrap them in ham, she eats them too fast."

"We're sending you with two of her dog beds, and here's a bunch of blankets for in her crate."

"Um, you know I have dog beds at home?"

"Yes, but you don't have little dog beds."

"Katy has three coats. This is her really warm one, but you need to put this one on under it or her tail will get cold. The third one is for when it's just a little cold out."

"Okay, but now you can never make fun of how many collars I own."

"You can't keep her, you know that, right? You have to bring her back."

"If I wanted to keep Katy, I would've stolen her a long time ago."

Eventually, Katy and I were able to make our way home with only a few tons of extra gear. Katy is sore and sleepy but still a sweet as ever. I'm very happy to spend the next few weeks spoiling my littlest sister rotten.

Monday, January 9, 2012

New Year, New Goal

My ultimate goal with Rubi has never been to achieve titles or win approval. Our biggest goal has always been to help Rubi live the fullest life she is able with her given limitations. B spent the first five years of her life limited to a house and/or a yard, and I promised when I signed her papers that this would not be the case for the next ten years. With that in mind, we've got a new goal that promises to be as challenging as any title we could hope for.

Every year or so since my early teens, my dad and I have gone wilderness camping "up north." We usually end up in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, although we prefer to go into Canada whenever possible. This isn't drive to a single camp site and roast marsh mellows with communal showers fifty feet away camping. This is canoe and portage ten miles every day, dig your own latrine, hide your food from the bears, don't shower for a week camping. Why would anyone want to do this?
Picture from our last trip into Canada.

Because it's freaking awesome, that's why. There might not be any running water (my least favorite part), but there's also no cars, no cell phones, no boss telling us what to do - nothing but peace and quiet and the beauty of nature.

My dad: he looks like he belongs in the woods, doesn't he?

This year, we've decided to do something different. Instead of canoeing, we've decided to backpack the Border Route Trail that runs between Minnesota and Canada. This means that for the first year, it's actually feasible to bring along a dog.

Or two.

I've decided to bring both Piper Ann and Rubi. I want to bring two dogs because we're looking to go during early May - this means it will be cold. I don't have room for an extra dog in my sleeping bag, so two dogs will hopefully be better able to conserve body heat at night than just one. Piper Ann gets to go by virtue of being the Good One. Rubi gets to go because, my god, can you imagine how much fun she'd have?

This trip promises to be as much work as any title or training adventure we've yet had. Rubi will need to learn to behave while walking with another dog, retain her house manners while outside, and how to sleep in a tent, among other things I'm sure I haven't even thought of yet. Plus, there are barriers that have nothing to do with training. There's still a slim chance that we may do a canoe trip instead of a hiking trip, which will mean that I won't be able to bring the girls. Rubi and Piper Ann will need clearance from the vet not only for hiking but also to carry packs of their own. Between Piper's knees and B's shoulders, this is a serious obstacle. And then there's the money for permits, gear, and food. Oh, and I'll have to switch their diets, because I am not backpacking raw meat into the BWCA.

Still, if we can make it work, guaranteed it will be a trip to remember.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Calm, Confident, Connected

Today, Rubi and Zach had their first class together. All I can say is that I wish I'd had someone to work with B for a few hundred hours before I had to take her to our first class.

She made him look good. Really good. I suppose I should be proud. After all, it's a testament to all the time we've put in together that she can change to an entirely different handler with different cues and a different way of reinforcing, and she can still maintain the same behaviors we've worked so hard on. They worked on the basics: counter conditioning, emergency retreats, and the relaxation protocol - exercises we've been doing in one form or another for over a year.

Rubi whined once. When she could hear another dog, but not see him. I should probably get on that. She also threw a tantrum in her crate, but since I've never really asked her to be crated in a new place for any length of time, I'm not particularly upset about it. Neither were new issues, just things I haven't gotten around to seriously working on yet. The portion of class where Zach and Rubi were working together was spot on. I took over forty pictures, and hard as I tried, there is not a single one of them where she is looking at something other than her daddy.

I would have been okay with me if she had made him work a little harder for it.

Seriously. Look at that hip bump. What a little whore.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Shift in Thinking

I think I’ve been going about the Nothing in Life is Free program the wrong way for Rubi. A cornerstone of NILIF is that it puts the power back in the owner’s hands. You decide when to play with your dog, when to go outside, when to get treats, when to go up on the couch. It’s about limiting and controlling resources. There are a lot of owners who would benefit from telling their dogs “no” more often.

I don’t think this is what I should be doing with Rubi.

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to imagine what this was like from her perspective. I’m pretty sure that if I were Rubi, I’d be thinking that my mistress is terribly finicky and inconsistent. If I’ve taught B that she needs to “ask permission” by laying down before get up on the couch, and she lays down and I don’t let her on the couch, what message am I sending her? How worth it to her to ask permission in the future? If I want Rubi to come to me to get resources in her environment, shouldn’t I give her those resources when she asks for them? If I want her to know that she can manipulate her environment by coming to me, then I had better damn well let her manipulate her environment by coming to me.

It’s more than a matter of consistency; it’s also relationship building. Think back to when you were a kid: did you have a favorite parent? Grandparent? Aunt or Uncle? How did they treat you? When you asked them to play with you, did they brush you off and say, “not now”? Probably not. More likely, they spoiled you rotten. If they didn’t want to do what you wanted, they’d try to find something else to do that you’d enjoy. I am not the same as a cookie or a toy. I’m not asking Rubi to develop a relationship with the couch. My time and attention is a resource, true, but handling them the same as I would an inanimate object doesn’t help strengthen our relationship.

So every time she comes and asks me to come up on the couch, do I let her? Well, no. Sometimes I don’t want her up on the couch with me. But I’m making a point not to tell her to go away and leave me alone. If I don’t want her up on the couch, I pause in whatever I’m doing and rub her ears for a bit. If she brings me a toy to play tug with, and I don’t feel like moving, we’ll play fetch for a bit. A year ago, Rubi couldn’t have cared less if I dropped off the planet as long as there was someone else around to feed her. Now, she wants to hang out with me. How cool is that? Why am I taking it for granted?

Photo by Paige Reyes