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.