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. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Just Another Day In Paradise

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog (I usually try for once a week), but what can I say? Rubi and I have been busy!

Rubi and I started our new growl class a couple weeks ago. My goal for this class was primarily to smooth out the unpredictability she’s had since The Incident. If you remember, I avoiding working on this for several months as we were busy preparing for our fantastic BWCA adventure. After watching Rubi in class, and then more in the last several weeks, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that Rubi is back to her old self. She’s still over enthusiastic and high on life, but she’s not really unpredictable anymore. I love it when I ignore a problem and it goes away.


Class resembles real life: on a field trip to Culvers, Rubi asks,
"See how hard I am not stare at your tuna sandwich?
Isn't that worth, like, half a tuna sandwich right there?"

 I did have a minor shift in philosophy while taking B to growl class this time around. We spent a large amount of time during class focusing on encouraging our dogs to relax. I have come to the conclusion that this is an unrealistic expectation for Rubi. While “calmer” is a reasonable goal, she is never going to be really relaxed around other dogs. Among other things, it’s simply not who she is. Maybe if she were younger (she’s seven now), and we had more years to work on it. But then, maybe if someone hadn’t left her tied up in their back yard for the formative years of her life, maybe she wouldn’t be reactive at all. If only wishes were cookies. I’m okay with the idea that Rubi may never have an “off” switch; I think I’ll be pretty happy with a “keep a lid on it” switch.

I’ve decided to switch Rubi out of Growl Class and run Jai instead as I think he needs the exposure more than she does. I am horribly lazy about training on my own time, but signing up for classes is a great way to get me out and working with my dog. The Growl Class is very easy going and will put a lot less pressure on Jai that his previous class. I’d like to see how much of our previous class stuck.

In other news, Rubi had her first Dog Safety Program with another dog, Andy the Arm Candy, a few weeks ago, and it went swimmingly. But then, I knew it would. I don’t say that to brag; I say that because I don’t do programs with dogs unless I am 99.9% certain that they will go well. I over prepare because there is no room for error when working with little kids, particularly when you have pit bulls and Rottweilers. As a side note, Andy did spectacularly on his first Dog Safety Program. Pretty soon I’m going to have to change his name to Andy the Bombproof. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. 

"Hold a stay while you're on the other side of the room and an unanticipated kid comes in?
Why yes, I can do that.
But I'm not going to look as happy as Andy about it."

This session of Rott n’ Pit Ed, I took a break from my beloved reactive dogs to teach a CGC prep class (and can I just say how nice it is to teach a class where all the dog can look at each other? Not that I don’t love my crazies, but it’s nice to mix it up every once in a while). In honor of over training for the test, I brought Rubi to class to play decoy dog. The class is seven really, really well behaved dogs and their handlers – only one of which Rubi has ever met before. I’ll be honest, I pushed the hell out of her doing this. It was certainly more pressure than I would ever consider putting on Jai or Maus.

And she loved every minute of it.

My students are welcome put their thoughts in the comments – heaven knows you have a different perspective holding the leash than watching the leash being held, but Rubi acted like a pretty typical untamed pit bull. Which is fine with me, considering how far it shows we’ve come that Rubi can fake normal on any level. She screamed a few times, but her vocalizations were directed at me, not the other dogs. She required fairly frequent reminders to keep her on task. I thought a few times that she was going to wag her tail right off her body, and she was utterly smitten with the black’n’tans, but at no point was she out of control. Rubi was even able to do the formalized neutral dog greeting that the CGC requires.

Six of seven new dogs in a new environment, and Rubi didn’t have a single meltdown. Have I mentioned lately how when I got her, Rubi couldn’t see another dog three quarters of a mile away without loosing her mind? How if she heard another dog, all bets were off until she could find that dog to scream at? How she couldn’t smell a strange dog without whining? (Took me a while to figure out that was what was going on there – I thought my dog was just schizophrenic.)

Speaking of which, the CGC dogs took their test this weekend and every single one of them passed. That’s seven more rescue dogs – four pit bulls, two rottweilers, and one pit bull mix - added to the professional ambassadog world. Included in the count is Tally, a fighting bust dog from Florida, and Mercury, who came up with Andy as part of the Texas 200. And Izzy, Shelby, Penny, Mardi, and Suzy Q (who Rubi wants to become one with). I am so proud of them all. 

Photo courtesy of Jen. I think.  
Including Maus, who played the part of neutral dog for the test. As usual, he made me look good. It was a particular accomplishment for Maus as I brought him on the pack walk earlier that morning. Usually, Maus starts to show signs of stress if we leave the house for more than an hour. The pack walk went well, even when another handler took him for a bit so I could work with Rookie, an ARLP adoptable, for a bit. I made sure to within arm’s reach of Maus, and I know he took note that I wasn’t holding his leash because he refused to take treats from his new handler. But he took treats from me and otherwise seemed his usual self. He was also fine for the CGC test later, although he did pass out once we got home that afternoon. Faking normal is emotionally exhausting. 
Maus multitasks: making me look good while discussing the restorative properties of dark roast.
Photo by Paige. 

Rookie says, "Adopt me!"
Maus says, "For the love of god, please!"
Photo by Paige
For my next circus act, I’ll be giving a one hour lecture on living with multiple dogs for Rott n’ Pit Ed (wish me luck – or at least, less swearing than usual!). I’m hoping to use Rubi, along with Maus and Piper, as demo dogs, which should be entertaining if nothing else. Luckily, I’ll be amongst friends, so if I need to hand off a dog for being an unruly bitch *cough*Rubi*cough*, I’m sure I’ll have a few trust-worthy volunteers. Although some days, the idea of handing her off someone untrustworthy and then never seeing her again certainly does have it’s appeal . . . 

And just in case you thought I’ve been slacking for the last month, last week was this summer’s third Get Your Fix! Fair, and I again spent the day getting puppy kisses –er, I mean, giving distemper shots. Seriously though: almost thirty puppies under twelve weeks (many of whom were also getting spayed or neutered, so you can go ahead and feel good about this, rescue people). I damn near had a puppy-breath induced joy coma. 

Typical boxer puppy. Piper was like this once. Sometimes I miss it.
Photo taken by Sara.

My favorite bracelet, a quote from Game of Thrones. In case you can't read it:
"And I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things . . . "
Story of my life. Photo by Sara.

My favorite puppy, probably because she reminded me of my first dog, Riley.
Go rest high on that mountain, big guy.

The great thing about puppies is that they still love you even after you've given them shots.


One of my favorite dogs, Chance. 

Sweet, shy, handsome dog, sexy, devoted owner -
really, what more could a girl ask for?

My favorite adult dog, Playboy. Came right over and sat his big, hairy balls right in my lap.
Then decided he didn't like me behind him for some reason . . .