Monday, December 30, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

A few weeks ago at Marnie's physical therapy appointment, her surgeon made an off-handed comment about her next surgery, and I felt like someone had hit me in the belly with a two-by-four. My home was in the middle of full crate and rotate lock down, I missed my dogs, I was trying to figure out how to fit another hour and a half of PT into our schedules, and the reminder that we are going to do this all over again in a few months just about floored me. In addition to acknowledging that Marnie and I aren't even half way to the end, I've also be coming to terms with the idea that instead of the three to four foster dogs I usually have in a year, I will have Marnie. And then more Marnie. And then Marnie for a while longer. And it's not that I don't like her, or I'm not committed to seeing her story through, or I'm unhappy that we chose her life. I'm just . . . having trouble maintaining my spiritual equilibrium.

So I volunteered for a compassion case.

Compassion cases are animals that you take into your home knowing they are unadoptable. Maybe they are too old, or too sick, or have severe behavior problems. Maybe all three. You take them in, and you spoil the hell out of them, and then you hold them when they die. You are their last refuge. It is a hard and healing experience - for me, at least. These dogs are good for my soul. It's something I can bring out and show to myself when I'm having trouble remembering what kind of person I am. It's an experience I can point and say, "Do you see that, self? You made a difference to that one dog. You put kindness in the world that was not there before. And that kindness is a part of you now."

I'm calling her Chessa - because 32D is a bra size, not a name. Chessa means "peace." She is very old and very sick and very Real. She loves cheeseburgers and walks and car rides and butt scritches. She likes chasing cats and chewing on raw hides until her gums bleed. She is tired. She deserves peace in her final days.

It's easy to look at Chessa and get angry. How could people do this to her? What a cruel world! What a miserable, throw-away culture! But what if someone loved Chessa? What if, once upon a time, she was a little girl's best friend? What if she was stolen out of her people's car? Or slipped out the door and couldn't be found for months? Or they fell on hard times and had to give her up, and then lost track of her? What if she was someone's cherished companion?

What if she were my dog?

Then I would hope that there was someone to stand up for her. Someone to pull her out of animal control, give her a name, and provide her comfort as her days grow short and her nights grow long and cold. Someone to feed my dog cheeseburgers and kindness, no matter that her hair has been loved off, and she is loose in the joints and a little shabby. Every life deserves a little dignity, no matter how poor or weather-beaten the shell that carries it. And when the time comes, I hope there is someone to hold her gently as she makes her final journey - even if that person can't be me.

We must be the change we wish to see in the world.

So Chessa and I will go on car rides together. She will eat tastey food that is bad for her. She will have all the snuggles and butt scritches and soul rubs I have. And when the time comes, mine will be the last voice she hears. Telling her that she is a Good Dog. That she has Done Well. That she is brave and strong and beautiful. Worthy of love. And in the end, there will be peace for Chessa.

And peace for me.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On Old long syne?
        ~ Auld Lang Syne (poem), Robert Burns

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Truth About Rescue

It seems inevitable that whenever people start waxing poetic about dog rescue, that someone will come along with a romantic statement about how the "dogs just know" they've been rescued, and how grateful they are to be in their new homes. Now, I can't speak for anyone else's furry family members, but my dogs don't know jack about being rescued. And as I watch Rubi wolf down breakfast and start harassing the other dogs so she can lick out their empty bowls and then come to me begging for more, I'm pretty sure they don't really understand the concept of gratitude, either.

My dogs do not realized that I have swooped in like a modern day superheroine to save them - not even the ones I took in because their only other options came in the form of a needle and a black bag. What they do understand is dog beds. Big, fluffy dog beds strategically placed throughout the house so that they will catch as much sunshine as possible. They know that big bowls of food come twice a day, even if you sometimes have to remind the humans that dinner time is coming several hours in advance. My dogs get that we will do enjoyable things together everyday. And that while I may ask them to do stuff that does not make sense to them, I will never request anything they are not capable of giving me. My dogs know that when the shit hits the fan, I'm in their corner, and we will battle our demons together.

My dogs do not know that they are rescues. They did not hand me their loyalty and gratitude just because I signed a handful of papers. I earned my dogs' respect, attention, love, and devotion. Sometimes, because I am neither perfect nor all-powerful, I even earn their forgiveness. And I'll have to apologize if I'm not just a little bit proud of this.

And also grateful.

So. Much. Gratitude.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Carry On

Maus and I will not be reaching our goal of ten hikes by the end of 2013.

Oh, I probably could have crammed in the last three hikes in the month or so when I realized that it was getting down to crunch time. We were cruising along pretty well, and three hikes is not a lot. But then, just as we were getting close to reaching our goal, the world ran out of clomipramine.

And Maus is miserable.

Clomipramine is the chemical that holds Maus's brain together. Without it, he's started growling at people again. He hides in the other room so people (and other dogs) won't feel tempted to touch him. He doesn't want to leave the house. Watching him interact with people makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. He has happy tail. I call it "happy tail" because there's not actually a term for my-dog-is-so-neutoric-that-he-chewed-through-the-end-of-his-tail-and-now-it-won't-heal-because-I-won't-put-a-cone-on-him-because-I'm-pretty-sure-that-putting-a-cone-on-him-is-the-only-way-I-could-possibly-make-him-more-miserable-than-he-already-is. Tail.

Clomipramine is suppose to open their plant again at the end of January, and once they do, we should have a steady supply of happy pills again. In the meantime, Maus will be curled up on the couch, stuck inside his own head. He and I will not be going anywhere, let alone hiking. The point of our ten hikes goal was to do something together that we both enjoyed. It's not worth it to me to make my dog even more miserable just so we can accomplish an arbitrary, unimportant goal. Maus does not enjoy hiking anymore, so we will pick it up again when he is feeling better.

In the meantime, we will batten the hatches, close the blinds, and hide in our blanket fort until this storm passes once again.

Photo by Paige.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Not long ago (re: today), I took Pedigree's breed match test. You answer a bunch of questions like, "How lazy are you?" and "How lazy do you want your dog to be?" and it spits out a handful of breeds that the computer feels would be a good match for you. Apparently, Pedigree feels very strongly that I should own beagles. Or possibly a smooth collie. Because those breeds are so very much alike. When I finally figured out the right combination of answers to get Pedigree to tell me that I should have pit bulls, I realized that Pedigree apparently thinks pit bulls are large, guardian dogs that require more than three hours of exercise every dog. At which point I snorted water up my nose and almost died.

So I started thinking about what a person actually needs to successfully own a pit bull. The trouble is that "pit bull" is a such a big category, and it covers a huge amount of variation in size, bidability, intelligence, and energy. There is no one pit-bull-type dog. However, there are a few common characteristics that I see in people who own - and actually enjoy owning - these dogs.

1. How are your reflexes? Can you catch the dog before they bolt out the door? How about before they grab the Thanksgiving turkey off the counter? Are you fast enough to catch them when they see you pull the winter coat/boots/snood/assorted winter torture items out of the closet and start running the other direction? Can you split up two dogs in the millisecond between when they start giving each other the stink eye and when they actually start a fight? Pull a whole squirrel out of your foster dog's throat like the world most disgusting spaghetti noodle? On the up side, if your reflexes aren't spot on, you'll learn. Really, really quickly.

Nom. Nomnom.

2. How patient are you? Of course you need to be patient to own a dog - all dogs, not just pit bulls. I'm not talking about patience with dogs here. How patient can you be with other people? Because if I had a dollar for every time someone had crossed the street after seeing me walk my dogs toward them, or tell me about some horrible "pit bull" attack on the other side of the country as if it is somehow important to me and my dogs, or triumphantly announce, "It's all in how you raise them!," then I would be poor as hell because this stuff happens to me so often I don't even notice anymore, you guys. Patience. It's what keeps you from going on a murderous super-rampage.

3. Can you spell the word "pit bull"? I am not even kidding. It's P-I-T SPACE B-U-L-L. I'm sorry, I know it's probably unfair of me, but if you spell it wrong, I automatically assume you have no idea what you're talking about. And then I mentally deduct ten points from your IQ. I'm pretty sure there should be some sort of if-you-can't-spell-it, you-can't-own-it law. We could call it the Pittbull's Law.

4. Do you have at least the same amount of common sense as a toad? If your dog doesn't like children, can you keep her away from kids? Do you understand that nearly-nekkid dogs should not be left outside all winter? If you need help, can you ask for it? Can you keep your dog on a leash? If you are confused by these questions, let me know - I'm sure I have some rocks around here that could use a good home. I'll even paint them to look like pit bulls for you.

5. How's your sense of humor? I have yet to meet a breed of dog that has inspired so many laugh-so-you-don't-cry moments as my pit bulls. It's a survival mechanism at this point. Jai pulled all the pop cans out of the recycling again? Hilarious! Mikey jumped off the bed and ran into the wall and now there's giant hole there? Can't stop laughing - let's put the dresser in front of it! Rubi ate through that cat food container and ate so much that's she's bloated up to twice her size and needs to go to the e-vet to get her stomach pumped? Excellent! Somebody make sure there's some Ritalin and vodka for when we get back.

Remember Mikey?
We are very glad he lives with someone else now.

6. How open is your mind? I think a closed mind is the cardinal sin of pit bull ownership. Pit bulls owners have an intimate knowledge of prejudice - the kind of prejudice that steals away your family members and kills them. And yet we're often so quick to judge others. There are Responsible Pit Bull Owners (where we of course place ourselves), Bad Pit Bull Owners whose dogs make the news, and then Everyone Else. And these snap judgments do no more to help our cause than snap judgments about our dogs do. Our dogs are individuals, just like people. Is that person a Bad Pit Bull Owner, or does he simply lack the resources to get his dog spayed? Believe it or not, there was a first time Jai jumped the fence to go visit another dog. Does that make me irresponsible? I suspect it means that I am, as always, merely human. Luckily, I have some of the Best Dogs Ever to make being human a little easier.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Little Bulldog Who Could

Once upon a time, there was a little bulldog who lived in a not-very-nice place. His owner was sick and had many, many animals, and was not able to take care of all of them. The home was dirty, and there wasn't much food, and there were not enough laps to go around. This made the Littlest Bulldog sad because he loves food, and he loves to sit in laps.

Sad bulldog.

His owner knew how much happier the Littlest Bulldog would be in a clean, new home with lots of food and laps, so his owner made the difficult decision to let the Littlest Bulldog be rescued. The Littlest Bulldog was so awesome that he got snatched up right away by a Very Important Person at the shelter. They loved the Littlest Bulldog a great deal, but he broke out of his crate (twice) and ate some power cords (yum), and the Very Important People worried that they could not keep the Littlest Bulldog safe. So they made the heart breaking decision to send the Littlest Bulldog back to the shelter in the hopes that he could find someone who could handle all his crate-escaping, cord-eating, lap-loving magnificence.

The Littlest Bulldog was at the shelter for a whole six hours before a moderately crazy lady with lots of dogs and even more treats scooped him up. The Littlest Bulldog's Very Important Person told her all about the Littlest's Bulldog's crate-breaking, cord-eating ways, but the Crazy Treat Lady was a bit skeptical. After all, how could something so small be so much trouble? And wasn't his face just a little too squishy for proper destruction?

So much squishy . . .

Still, the Crazy Treat Lady didn't take any chances. She made sure that the Littlest Bulldog could not get into anything that could hurt him, especially power cords. And she taught him that Good Things happened when he went into his crate, like cookies and chewies and extra special toys. The Littlest Bulldog learned to love his crate almost as much as he loved sitting on laps. He was happy to live at the Crazy Treat Lady's house with all her dogs and yummy foods and snuggly people. He thought that this was a very good life for a very little bulldog.

One day, the Crazy Treat Lady and her Voice of Reason decided to go on vacation. As much as she wanted to, the Crazy Treat Lady knew she could not bring the Littlest Bulldog with her. So the Littlest Bulldog went to live with some Super Spectacular Friends. The Super Spectacular Friends' house was much like the Crazy Treat Lady's home: lot of treats (even a cheeseburger!), tons of snuggles, and even another squishy-faced dog to hang out with. And it wasn't long at all before the Littlest Bulldog had the Super Spectacular Friends wrapped around his stubby little paw.

The good life: synchronized squishing.

While at the Super Spectacular Friends' house, the Littlest Bulldog found the love of his life: a marvelous, extremely delicious, best-ever elk antler. The elk antler was even better than trachea chewies or raw marrow bones or even possibly cheeseburgers. The Super Spectacular Friends were a bit worried about the Littlest Bulldog's obsession, so they were careful to make sure he only got the elk antler when they were around to supervise. But one night - in a fit of cleverness - the Littlest Bulldog hid the elk antler in his crate so that the Super Spectacular Friends couldn't find it.

The next day, as he munched his antler, the Littlest Bulldog was supremely satisfied with his cleverness. How smart he was to hide the antler from the humans! How brilliant! How talented! His skills were truly to be marveled at. But as the Littlest Bulldog chewed and thought of all the ways he was amazing, the elk antler slipped through his paws and out between the bars of his crate.

The Littlest Bulldog had lost his antler!

He stared at the antler sitting outside his crate, and he knew what he needed to do. He didn't cry, or mourn his loss, or give up and find a new toy. No. He wanted his antler, and the crate was in the way, so he chewed right through that sonofabitch.*

*No little bulldogs were harmed in the making of this blog post. Only crates.
Oh, my poor crate.

So the Littlest Bulldog has a new crate now in oh baby blue (I'm not even kidding, you guys - that's what the color is called). It matches his new crate bumpers, made by his wonderfully talented Friend Crystal. The bumpers will hopefully keep all the Littlest Bulldog's yummy, yummy chewies inside his crate where they belong - including his new elk antler. Crates everywhere will be relieved to know that the Littlest Bulldog will no longer need to viciously maul them ever again. And the Littlest Bulldog lived happily ever after.

Moral of the Story: Don't judge a bulldog by his squishy, squishy face. Also, never underestimate the little ones. Because holy shit, you guys.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dogs Make You (Look) Crazy

Ever have one of those days where everything seems to be going wrong or just plain weird and then you're walking your dog and suddenly your telling how your wish his balls would grow back so you could cut them off again? And then you realize you're saying this in front of a group of elementary school kids? Me neither. Here's a list of other things I've never said while out with my dogs in public:
  • I am not your daddy.
  • Shut-up, kid, no one cares what you think. 
  • And how does the inside of my nose taste?
  • Okay, who ate the egg timer?
  • Don't lick people; you don't know where they've been.
  • Chuck Norris, come back here, your panties are falling off!
"You like? I rolled in it just for you!"
  • You know - the giant black rubber chew toy? Looks like a dildo . . . ? 
  • Money is for people who can't have dogs.
  • Who needs hand lotion when you can have hot dog scented dog slime?
  • FREE: One weasel-shaped little monster who barks at nothing, can't stop muzzle punching his owner for attention, and eats everything he finds below waist height (including, but not limited to: gardening gloves, bird seed, feet, cats, and carpet). Free to bad home. Preferably one that will beat him regularly.
  • In my next life, I hope I am as happy as Allister fetching an old sock.
  • Pit bulls, man, you just can't trust 'em. Turn your back for one minute and they're EATING THE COAT HOOKS OFF THE WALL!
  • How did you get diarrhea on your head?
  • Dude, I don't care how much you whine. I am not giving you back your testicles. 
  • Jai, it doesn't matter how many times you bow to it, the bird feeder is not going to jump down and play with you.
  • Why thank you for licking my coffee cup. I'm glad you saw that I needed more boxer spit in my day.
  • You know, you were cute before you got fat. 
  • I wonder if they could fit "lustful cockmonster" on a Fetching Tag. 
  • I have to get home and train my vicious, dog-raping pit bull now. 
"She means me."
  • *sigh* No one wants to steal weasel dogs. 
  • We're been working on not rushing/screaming the fence when dogs walk by the yard. Today, I was in the shed refilling the bird feed, and I hear Rubi "ruffSCREAM." I stick my head out and sure enough, everyone is bee-lining for the fence. I shout, "C'MERE, DOGs!" and *sprint* for the porch where I left the dog treat jar. And EVERYONE CAME. And I still have NO FREAKIN' CLUE where the bird feeder ended up. True story.
  • Don't chew on that, it cost more than you did. 
  • Yes? Did my eyeball taste good?
  • Why don't you go hump the vacuum cleaner instead? It looks lonely.
  • Riley, no! You can't eat the dinosaurs! Stop it!
But it's okay that I'm crazy because I know I'm not the only one. What kind of weird things have your dogs (*cough*never*cough*) made you say?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cannon and the Magical Treat Blanket

I love mat work. It's one of the foundation behaviors for my horde of dogs. Sit, stay, touch, come, and mat all get started as soon as I bring home any new dog. I love it because it's a very versatile exercise. I can throw a mat down, and my demo dog will stay there while I teach class. I can use it to ensure my decoy dog will hold a certain position while working with a student and their reactive dog. For shy dogs like Maus, it gives them a safe place to be. For working dogs like Rubi, it gives them something to do. I can have my dog settle on their mat while I eat - both inside and outside the house. I can use the mat as a way to cue the dog as to where I want them when I'm taking pictures. The list goes on and on!
Maus knows the mat is a safe zone.
Piper is happy to have a job to do while Friend Crystal and I eat lunch at an outdoor cafe.

The first step to teaching a good "go to mat" behavior is choosing the correct mat for your dog. Not all mats are created equal! Because I use our mat work for precise body positioning, I make sure my mats are rectangular and just a little bigger than the dog. If the mat is too big, the dog can lay all over it and still be correctly on the mat. If it's too small, it won't be as comfortable for the dog to lay on, and I won't have a easy way to tell the dog where I want him to put his hind end.

Mats should be thin enough to be easily portable but thick enough to provider some insulation and padding against the ground. You'll also want to take into account how, ahem, enthusiastic your dog is when you choose a mat. Allister, for instance, is small and precise, so a fleece blanket is fine for him. Rubi, on the other hand, is bigger and tends to throw her weight around as much as possible, so we have a sturdy, thick mat from K9 Fleece Designs for her. I've also seen bath mats, yoga mats, crate pads, and simple towels work just fine for dogs. Cannon is Allister-sized and easy going, so I'll teach him his "mat" cue with Allister's mat. Don't tell Allister.

Now that I've chosen our mat, I want to teach Cannon that his mat is the Best. Thing. Ever. I use shaping to teach matwork because I believe it creates a stronger behavior that is better understood by the dog (because he had to figure it out himself).  So I start matwork by marking and rewarding any interaction Cannon has with the mat. This means that the first time I take the mat out, I click and treat Cannon for looking at the mat. Then I hide the mat, pull it out again, and click/treat for looking at the mat. I do this a few times, and then, instead of just showing him the mat, I throw it down on the floor. Then, I click and give him a whole pile of treats on the mat when he runs over to check it out. The hardest part of shaping is keeping the sessions short and sweet so the dog doesn't get tired of thinking/bored, so here ends the first lesson.
"Standing on my mat is the Best Game Ever!"

It might take one lesson or five, but once I have a solid "go to the mat" behavior - Cannon sees the mat and immediately goes to it - I start generalizing the behavior. I don't usually wait for a full go-to-mat-and-lay-down-and-relax behavior before I start generalizing. This is because experience has taught me that if you wait for the full lay-down-and-relax behavior before you start generalizing, the dog often thinks that the game is to lay down and relax in front of you as oppose to on the mat. So once the dog is going to his mat reliably, I start changing the position of my body in relation to the mat. For example, I may back an extra step away from the mat, or put the mat next to me, or even simply sit down and ask Cannon to go to the mat. When he gets stuck, I make it easier for him, waving the blanket around a bit and mark/rewarding him for looking or touching the mat, just like we did in the beginning. It isn't long before Cannon figures out that the game is to go to the mat no matter what position I'm in.

After I have good drive to the mat no matter where it is, I start asking Cannon to lay down on the mat. Since I'm shaping, I wait until he offers down-like behaviors on the mat. So I will mark/reward him if he sits on the mat, or if he drops his head to sniff the mat, or if he crouches on it. The first time he lays down on the mat, he gets a jackpot of treats. One or two jackpots later, and the behavior looks the way I want it to: Cannon runs to mat and lays down.
"Laying awkwardly on my mat is the Best Game Ever!"

Once I have the finished behavior, it's just a matter of adding duration to it. I use a random reinforcement rate to accomplish this. So I'll give Cannon a cookie for laying on the mat for two seconds, then for laying there for five, then three, then eight, and so on, gradually increasing the time between cookies until the dog will lay there for minutes at a time. Once I have a little duration, I start generalizing our mat behavior to different environments and situations - mats go everywhere with us, and I use them all the time.

I like mat work because it gives me more flexibility when working with my dogs in new situations. Cannon likes the mat because it's fun - he sits on the mat and treat magically appear. He's enjoying himself, and I don't have to worry about him wandering off and getting into trouble. It's a win/win game - exactly what I want training my dog to be.

"Magical treat blanket is the Best Game Ever!"

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hike #7: St Paul Waterfront

The drive on Warner road to Good Shepard along the St Paul waterfront is one of my trips. On one side, you have the city sky scrapers and on the other, the Mississippi River. The trail is only about ten minutes from my house, and I've been meaning to check it out for a while. So Maus, Piper, Cannon, and I loaded up a headed out.

Awkward family photo, take one.

I was a little disappointed. I typically like walking the dogs in the city, and I like walking them in the middle of no where, but this trail is pretty much neither of those. It's not impressive like walking through the city is, and it was to loud to be country. Plus, while walking instead of driving, I had plenty of time to admire how gross the river can get once it had traveled through the city for a few miles.

Littlest bulldog is unimpressed.
Although, to be fair, there's pretty much nothing nice about living in Minnesota in November. The leave are off the trees, the grass is dead, the sun is hiding, and all the critters (people included) are waiting for the snow so that we can settle in for the long, long wait for spring.

Awkward family photo, take two.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

State of the Marnie Address

On Tuesday, Marnie underwent her first femoral head ostomy (FHO) surgery on her right hip. With this surgery, the head of her right femur was removed, thereby removing the bone-on-bone action in her hip that has been causing her so much pain. The surgery went well, and I picked Marnie up from the University of Minnesota's Small Animal Clinic yesterday. I even managed to snap a quick picture of her post-operative xrays for you all.

In this xray, you can see on the left how they've take the head of her femur off. To increase her stability on this side, they also moved some of the muscles and ligaments. On the right, you can see her "good" hip. In a dog with healthy hips, there would be a clean, clear line between the ball and socket of her hip joint. In Marnie's hips, however, you can see how blurry the joint is as well as some of the spurring cause by arthritis - that is what a painful hip looks like. According to her vet at Blackberry, Marnie shouldn't be able to walk steadily at all on her hips, let alone run and play ball like she loves to do.

In two weeks, Marnie will see a rehab specialist at the U to get started on a more intensive physical therapy regimen. We're to start physical therapy until then first to give her surgical wound a chance to heal up. Second, this will let the muscles in her surgical hip scar and tighten up a bit to help support the joint (or lack thereof). Until then, we'll be doing passive range of motion three time a day on her knee and ankle to keep them from stiffening up. We'll also be icing her hip four times a day. She go on three or four short, five to ten minute walks per day to encourage her to use the surgical leg (for the next week, these walks will be with the assistance of a hindquarters sling to help her stay stable and keep her from slipping and tearing the weakened muscles on the side of her operation). Marnie is already touching the ground on her not-a-hip leg when she walks, which is a great sign. Other than this mild rehab, for the next two weeks, Marnie will be on complete crate rest - no jumping on the couch, no stairs, no hiking, no swimming, and no ball.

So how is Ms. Marnie doing? Well, she's miserable. There's not really a way to sugar coat that. She's sore, and the pain meds make her drunk, and she doesn't understand what's happened to her. It's hard, when you don't have a way to tell someone that they'll get better, that this was the right thing to do for the big picture. I wish I could have five minutes with her where we speak the same language, and I could try and justify what we've done to her.

But in spite of her pain and confusion, Marnie has never shown anything except kindness to her care takers. Through all the poking and prodding and needles and knives, she's never so much as raised a lip to anyone. In fact, she continues to greet everyone she meets as if they were her long-lost best friends. She has a good soul, this dog, and her new family is going to be incredibly lucky to have her.

Marnie made me promise not to post any picture of her gorked out on pain meds,
so here's a pre-surgery picture for your viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Long Road Up to Recovery

Okay, so I was all excited to get home and write about Julie Hecht's talks at the APDT conference. But then the day I got back, four of the seven dogs caught a stomach bug, two of my projects had reviews due (like taxes, only these don't give me money back), I got a whole pile of new data to sort through at work, Cannon had his surgery, the husband got hurt at work (not seriously, but seriously enough), I started teaching classes again, and OMG! you guys, this is why I can't write nice things.

So in the interests of writing anything at all ever again, I want to tell you about Jai's yesterday.

Yesterday, Jai facilitated his first Dog Safety Program. We, along with another Laurie and dog teammate Brock, and facilitator Jennifer, spoke to a group of fifteen special needs kids at Tartan High School. This is the first program I've ever done where I wasn't 99.9% certain how it would play out. Oh, I wasn't worried that Jai would do something horrible and we'd make the nightly new or anything. Jai has issues, but I'm not that crazy or ignorant that I'd endanger a group of kids. When I say I wasn't certain how it would go, I mean that I wasn't certain Jai would enjoy it.

Although he's come a long way, Jai is still pretty environmentally sensitive. Sudden environmental changes can still throw him for a loop as well as exacerbating other issues, like his borderline dog reactivity. And while I genuinely believe Jai likes people, he's shown me in the past that he doesn't always trust them not to hurt him.

I chose the Tartan High School kids for Jai's first program with these weaknesses in mind. I've gone out to this school several times, so I knew I wouldn't be worrying about how to get where when. The Tartan special needs kids are a smaller group, and they're always exceptionally well behaved, so I knew I wouldn't need to worry about controlling them. And the room they're in is smaller, which means that Jai would have less space to worry about if he did become anxious. The program itself is also set up nicely for dogs that need a little time to adjust to new places; before the kids are allowed to approach or interact with the dogs, everyone sits down for a while and talks about dog safety and care.

It is important to me that I set my dogs up for success as much as possible in these dog safety programs. Not only because it create a safer and better experience for the kids, but because I want to be sure that my dogs are having a good time as well. It takes more than just good behavior to create a good therapy dog. Therapy work involves just as much - if not more - teamwork, training, and uncommon sense as any other sport you and your dog can participate. And of course, in order to make a great team, you both have to enjoy what you're doing. For example, Maus has all the behaviors and training necessary to do ARLP's Dog Safety Programs - he won't be making the news, either - but he also considers them one of the lower levels of hell, so we don't do them. If he's not having fun, it's not worth it.

As for Jai?

He LOVED it. He whored himself mercilessly for anyone who so much as walked by. He didn't freeze even once, which is still kind of a big deal for a place as stimulating as a high school. He was relaxed and comfortable in the room, repeatedly rolling onto his side for belly massage and putting his head down for naps when we weren't actively working. He didn't react to Brock at all, even when Brock made funny piggy noises. Jai's tail wagged pretty much the entire time. Jai! The dog who, when I got him, I assumed just didn't wag his tail ever because maybe the muscles were broken or something. The dog who pancaked the first time my husband walked into a room with him, and who would flinch every time someone would say the word "no" in a conversation.

Nailed it.

I have so much proud, I think my chest might just pop open and spew happy out into the whole world. I love this dog, who he is and who he's trying to be and how far he's come, so very hard. Good boy, Jai. You're the best.

Photo by Paige.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

APDT 2013: Saturday

Maus almost snuggling with his temporary housemate, Maisy.
Photo by Crystal.
My friends keep me sane.

Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play
          Speaker: Nicole Wilde
Canine communication and body language is easily as intricate, contextual, and complex as any human language. I've often thought the best way to study canine language was to watch dogs interact – and even better if you can do this with someone who knows more about dogs than you do. Nicole Wilde knows a lot more about dog behavior than I do, and it was really fun to watch videos of dogs playing along with her. I was really pleased to see how much I already knew and to hear how much my idea of what signals to watch for and when to interrupt play meshed with Nicole’s. Nicole acknowledged that many dog owners are not as fluent as many dog trainers, and gave us five easier body cues which predict unsafe encounters that most people can watch for: a hard stare, stiffness in the dog’s body, motion freezes, lift a chin or paw over the other dog, and mounting. Nicole adds that mounting can be a normal part of dog play, but the key is to watch the other dog’s receptiveness to being mounted. When in doubt as to whether mounting or any other behavior is acceptable, try splitting up the dogs. If the “victim” goes back for more, it was probably okay.

“I Don’t Want a Treat!” When Negative Reinforcement Makes Sense
          Speaker: Irith Bloom
Negative reinforcement is a really nerdy term. Basically, it’s removing something from the environment to increase future behavior. I was hoping this would be case studies with creative uses of negative reinforcement, and while there were a few of these, it was mostly current techniques that employ negative reinforcement and when/where to use them. Negative reinforcement can be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement, counter conditioning, and desensitization, which I hadn’t really thought about before, but that’s pretty much what BAT, so it makes sense. It’s also a nice tool to have if you’re working in a situation where the animal won’t eat, like with feral critters.

Favorite quote: “If you care about what your neighbors think, you’re probably not a dog trainer.”

Incorporating APDT C.L.A.S.S. into Your Training Curriculum
          Speaker: Don Hanson
I recently became an APDT C.L.A.S.S. evaluator, and I really liked being able to hear from other people what had and had not worked for them as they incorporated C.L.A.S.S. into a classroom setting. C.L.A.S.S. is a nice program because it incorporates real life skills into a testing/classroom setting (as opposed to the CGC, which has fake real life skills as preparation for a competitive setting). I’m really looking forward to getting home and beginning work on my own C.L.A.S.S. program.

Shut Up Already! Dealing with Excessive Barking
          Speaker: Irith Bloom
I went to this session because of Allister. Allister is a lovely, sweet, well behaved dog (of mine) who cannot shut up for the life of him. I was hoping Irith would cover some activities to reduce barking that I hadn't tried yet, and I did find a few, so success! I plan to write a longer post when I figure out what exactly does and does not work for Allister. Irith broke down barking into four basic categories. Alert barking occurs in response to a new or sudden stimulus, like a doorbell or someone walking past your house. Demand barking is when a dog barks because he or she wants something. Anxious barking is likely emotionally motivated, difficult to treat, and may not have any obvious triggers. And lastly, there is fearful/aggressive barking like occurs with reactivity. Each type of barking is normal, but can become problematic when it disrupts the quality of life of either the owner or the dog. After Irith’s talk, I think that Allister has a combination of demand and anxious barking. I’m looking forward to having trying a more concrete plan for helping the both of us, and I’ll be sure to let you all know how it goes.

Allister in a rare moment of silence.
In other news, all the dogs are doing well in their temporary homes. Cannon got a cheeseburger to celebrate Spencer's birthday (yay, Spencer!), Allister has managed to lose both his glow-in-the-dark balls, and Rubi is unimpressed. 

Spokane is a lovely city - at least, what I've seen of it outside the convention center. There are about five Irish pubs within walking distance, plus two great Italian restaurants and a food co-op, so finding food has been entertaining and fun. I even got to watch people I knew (kind of) singing on top of the bar last night. As an added bonus, it seems I've come to Washington just as the colors were leaving Minnesota and coming to Washington, so it appears that I get to celebrate fall twice this year.


View outside our hotel.

Friday, October 25, 2013

APDT 2013: Friday

Me: I think I’m irrationally excited about training chickens tomorrow.
Sara: No, no, I’m pretty sure that’s a reasonable thing to be really excited about. But then again, I’m a dog trainer, so I’m not normal.

Poultry in Motion
          Speaker: Terry Ryan
I GOT TO CLICKER TRAIN CHICKENS: BEST. DAY. EVER. My big lesson from this workshop was a new respect for chickens. We spent the first part of the morning on our concrete marking skills, and then we moved to teaching the chickens to touch a target. I’m pretty sure the chickens picked this up much faster than more dogs I know; they’re much smarter than I’d given them credit for. Terry started by teaching us about our chickens. I learned that chickens can see color as well as people, and that the color of a chicken’s ears correlates to the color of their eggs. Also, they might try to peck out your eyes.

While basic learning principles can be applied to all animals, from nematodes to grad students, each species requires a slightly different approach. Chickens are faster than dogs, and they don’t allow us to take advantage of them (ie, you can’t force them to do anything). Chickens have small stomachs and fill up fast, which forces us to use short training sessions, In addition, they have short attentions spans and therefore need a very high rate of reinforcement (10-15 rewards/minute). My partner-in-training, Catherine, and I worked with a Spitzhauben hen named Nellie. Spitzhauben are Terry’s favorite kind of chicken. It turns out that this is pretty much because they are the border collies of the poultry world: fast, smart, and flighty. (note: I am not a border collie person. I suspect I would have preferred a more stupid chicken.)

I’ll spare you the details, but we were able to get Nellie to beak-touch her targets (well, mostly), a red circle and a small toy dinosaur. My big epiphany from chicken training was that lumping is really hard. Usually when shaping a behavior, I break it down into really, really tiny steps. Lumping is grouping several of these steps together. The advantage of using lumping is that you’re looking for multiple steps, so you get a higher rate of reinforcement. The disadvantage for me was that there was just too many small behaviors for me to try to keep track of. Apparently, my brain just doesn't work that way.

Favorite quote: “Why would you waste time with something that doesn't pay when there’s a dinosaur right there that does pay?”


(2nd Also: Crystal – Sara says I get chicken game points because you read this. Ha.)

How to Use Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) in a Growly Dog Class
          Speaker: Grisha Stewart and Joey Iverson
If you don’t know what BAT is, you should go read Grisha’s book. Or this article. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
BAT is something I’ve wanted to do in my growl classes for a while, but I haven’t been comfortable enough with the technique to try. The “incorporating it into a class” portion wasn't really anything new to me, which was surprising. It was mostly general ideas that I use to keep my growly dogs safe anyway, like making sure you’re working in a secure environment and that you muzzle dogs if you’re not sure of their behavior in close contact and so on. What was useful to me was seeing BAT in action and being able to reaffirm how I thought it looked in real life. One of the concepts that was a little new to me was the importance of leash skills in BAT. Grisha really drove home that if your leash is tight, it creates imbalance and creates tension, the dog will be uncomfortable, and it will interfere with their ability to concentrate on what’s they’re doing. The leash is give us a great deal of power over our dogs, and that is a dangerous thing when taking a dog into a situation where she may be afraid.

Favorite quote: “Dogs are often reactive because we take away their choices.”

Separation Anxiety and Technology
          Speaker: Malena DeMartini-Price
Separation anxiety is a behavior problem that I see regularly, but not regularly enough that I’m really comfortable with it. I was glad I decided to go to this session because while Malena didn't spend a ton of time on technology, she did spend a lot of time on treating separation anxiety. I've always thought of separation anxiety as being relatively over diagnosed in the canine community. It turns out that this is true and false. While not all barking, home destruction, and inappropriate elimination when left alone is separation anxiety, a dog does not necessarily need to be screaming, eating through walls, or extremely panicky to have separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is not a behavior; it is a state of mind. Just because we may not see the symptoms (because, hey, we’re not at home), doesn't mean the dog isn't anxious. And as I've said before, acting okay is not the same as being okay.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

APDT 2013: Thursday

Photo by Jenny.
First, a HUGE shout out to the people who are watching my horde this week! You all have no idea how much your updates and pictures are helping MY separation anxiety. Every time I go online or check my phone, it seems like there's a new update showing how well my dogs are doing with their sitters. Y'all are my Big Damn Heroes.

Photo by Michelle.

And on to today's learning!

Creative Reinforcement from the Animal’s Perspective
               Speaker: Kimberly Wilson
Kim put together an excellent presentation on finding what I typically call “life rewards.” These are the activities you can use to reward a dog (or other animal) that aren't the usual treats and toys. Kim says that the key to finding creative reinforcers is observing the dog: How does the dog explore the environment? What does the dog seek out? How close or far away from the owner does the dog choose to be? Does he seek out toys or treats? Does he spend a lot of time sniffing? Does she seek out social interaction? Basically, what does the dog really want to do? Once you have an idea of what activities the dog enjoys, you need to find a way to put the activity to work for you. Ask for cooperation, they allow access to the reward. So, for a dog who loves to mark (pee on ALL the things!), you might ask for a second of eye contact, and then release them to mark on a particularly desirable tree. Kim suggests that when experimenting with a new reward, try using it three times. If you notice improvement in your requested behavior, then congratulations! You've found a good, new reward! If there is no improvement, then the “reward” is not actually reward, and it’s time to experiment with something else.

The Challenges of Being a Consultant: The Things They Don’t Teach You in Animal Training Class
               Speaker: Ken Ramirez
Two days with Ken Ramirez; I am so spoiled. Bob Bailey, a famous dog trainer and author, once said that “The animals are the easy part!” Most dog trainers went down this career path because they love dogs; however, it doesn't take long to figure out that love of dogs is not enough. In order to be a successful dog trainer, you have to be good with people as well. Ken’s talk revolved around the importance of people skills. Organizational skills, motivational skills, ability to teach people, and cultivating trust are just as important as concrete dog training skills. Luckily, if you don’t have people skills – there’s good news! You can learn to be better at the human communication competent. Unfortunately, that is a much better topic than can be covered in just a paragraph. (You can read my yammering about people skills over here.)

Case Study: Prey Drive
               Speaker: Ken McCort
This was a really interesting topic by a really interesting presenter, and I’m really glad that Sara is planning to go to his workshop tomorrow because I unfortunately won’t be able to attend due to chicken training. Ken discussed a case involving a wolf hybrid in a family setting. The concern was predatory behavior toward the children in the household, and while the animal was sadly euthanized, the case brought up a lot of good information about prey drive. Predation is not different aggression, the dog is not “angry” or “afraid,” she was trying to find food. Hunting is reflexive and will always be present; it is a motor pattern in the brain. It can be suppressed, but the behavior pattern will always be present. A lot of the methods Ken used to help in this case revolved around impulse control and interruption of behavior which was interesting to be because I teach a lot on the subjects in general and hadn't really thought much about their application toward predatory behavior. Predation also does not typically appear until sexual maturity, and the hunting behavior is triggered by the behavior of people or animals, not hunger or smell. Predatory behavior is always silent; the predator doesn't want to advertise its presence to the prey. I’m curious to know how Ken feels this applies to dogs, as oppose to wolf hybrids, as the predation sequence is often stunted in dogs. Hopefully, it’s something he’ll talk about and Sara will get notes on tomorrow. (For more information on predation and predatory sequences, check out Dogs by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger.)
         Favorite quote: “Cockroaches and dogs have been around forever.” 

Case Study: Separation Anxiety
               Speaker: Malena DeMartin-Price
Malena had us follow the case of Lucy, a border collie mix with severe separation anxiety. I’m glad that I’ve already decided to go to Malena’s workshop later in the week because her case study has certain whetted my appetite for the subject. The important take aways that I got from the case study were that there is no good way to reduce the time or the amount of work involved in separation anxiety cases (and true separation anxiety takes a lot of time and energy); it’s important to have long and short term goals to help you feel like you’ve accomplished something; interactive toys are tools, and it’s important to wean off them; and much like with the Relaxation Protocol, you must rely on the dog to tell you how quickly you can progress through your separation anxiety protocol.
        Favorite quote: “We are teaching dogs to relax when left along, not to eat when left alone.”

Case Study: Aggression Towards People
               Speaker: Colleen Pelar
I don’t feel that I can give these case studies the attention it deserves in a short paragraph summary. The trouble with such an intense, volatile subject like human-directed aggression is that a little information care be as dangerous as – if not more dangerous than – no information at all. Plus there wasn't a whole lot of information here that I’m not already familiar with. One of the things I did like about this presentation was Colleen’s attention to the fact that what it attainable for dog trainers, either through training or management, may not necessary be realistic for our clients. She also had a catchy mnemonic for appropriate human body language when being approached by and aggressive dog: STOP forward motion, DROP your eyes, and ROLL your shoulders away. 
         Favorite quote: “Dog trainers, remember – you are wonderful, you are good, and you are not normal.”

And lastly, ZOMG, TRADE SHOW:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

APDT 2013: Wednesday

Stuff I Learned Today That Didn't Happen in a Workshop
  • Running on a treadmill is really boring. Boredom is an excellent motivator to run faster. Hotels in Spokane keep their exercise rooms really warm. Don't pass out.
  • Spokane really doesn't want me to be properly caffeinated. I'm hoping Seattle is better since they invented caffeine or something.
  • Sara Reuche knows everyone ever. Everyone ever thinks I look just like Sara Reuche.
We got stickers to indicate what each of us does as a dog trainer.
I apparently do a lot.

And then workshop stuff!

Tales from the Field: The Diverse Faces of a Professional Animal Trainer
                         Keynote Speaker: Ken Ramirez
I've heard Ken Ramirez speak several times, and if you ever gets the chance, you should too. Ken's background is in exotic animal care, and I always love hearing from exotic animal trainers because they have such a different perspective from people who "grew up" in the dog training profession. After all, you can't man handle a 1,200lb beluga whale very effectively. Unfortunately, because I'd already heard Ken speak, at least half of his talk was review for me. He did talk for quite a bit about the importance of having a personal philosophy. Having a personal philosophy is important because it sets a clear standard and helps focus your decision making. Ken's personal philosophy is that "The end goal of training should be animal welfare. Therefore, training decisions should be based on positive reinforcement." We train to help animals live in our care successfully. Training is an integral cornerstone of any animal care plan, along with medical care, good nutrition, and a proper environment that meets the animal's social needs. When you put the animals' needs first, they become happier and healthier, more willing to be trained, and better ambassadors for their species.

Developing Alternative Motivators: Personal Play
                        Speaker: Denise Fenzi
Denise defines relationship as what is left between you and your dog when all the cookies and toys are gone. As such, she emphasizes personal play as an important part of bonding with your dog. Unfortunately, many people don't know how to play with their dogs,or they play inappropriately. There is no "one size fits all" method of playing with your dog; different dogs will want to play in different ways. In order to understand how to play with our dogs, we should look at how our dogs play with each other. If you watch dogs play, you will see a great deal of taking turns in different positions, little frontal pressure (dogs rarely face each other directly), a lot of circling and side body contact, and the dogs taking regular breaks, often mimicking each other's behavior during the break. For a softer, shyer dog, Denise recommends rarely facing the dog while playing, including lots of verbal encouragement, adding “open” postures and backwards movement to invite dog into your space, and clapping. For a stronger, bolder dog, Denise recommends keep dog more focused on your hands to give their energy an appropriate target, more moving into the dog’s space, more pressure/thumping/pushing, and less petting. The important part, though, is that you match your dog's enthusiasm and pay attention to what they're telling you. More energy, roughness, movement, and noise is not necessarily better. In Denise's experience, the most common mistake people make is to overwhelm their dog. 

The Rex Sessions: Resources, Education, and Excellence
                        These were short, twenty minute presentations on various topics based on the famous TED Talks. First up was . . .

The Best Marketing You Never Paid For
         Speaker: Lauren Fox
Lauren spent her twenty minutes talking about how dog trainers could collaborate with local rescues and shelters. I didn't really learn anything new on this one. Lauren had a nice presentation, though, and was a good speaker. 

"I'm a puppy. This is my new human. I just adopted him from the shelter I was at.
His life is gonna be great now that I rescued him."

Be a Blabbermouth, Not a Know-It-All
         Speaker: Colleen Pelar
I am not entirely sure what the title of Collen's lecture had to do with her subject, and I sort of suspect it might have been a typo, because she was talking about bite prevention. Colleen feels that it is not enough to teach "bite prevention." An interaction between a dog and a human was not necessarily good just because no one got bitten. Instead, we should teach people how to read their dogs and to tell when the dog is uncomfortable. We need to learn to ask our dogs, "Was it good for you?"

Stimulus Control 
          Speaker: Virginia Dare
Virginia had a very interesting talk on stimulus control. A behavior is said to have stimulus control when it is preformed reliably when cued, only offered when cued, and not offered on a different cue. While she was talking,it occurred to me how great stimulus control is for impulse control! In order to get stimulus control on a cue, we must first define exactly what the behavior should look like. Once we do that, we need to put it on cue. Third, we address the errors and clean the behavior up so that when we give the cue, we get the exact behavior we are looking for. Fourth, we strength and fluency so that the dog will offer the cued behavior when the handler is in any position, when in new environments, in novel contexts, and at novel times. Next, we mix new cue in with established ones. We need to be careful not to pattern train the dog, though - we don't want the cue for the behavior to be the execution of the previous behavior. 

Stimulus control poetry. Dog nerds are my favorite.

When Grammar Attacks! 
          Speaker: Teoti Anderson
As dog trainers, we communicate for a living, and it's important for our communication to be clear, professional, and accurate. Grammar is important because it helps (or hinders) our clients' perceptions of us. We got to listen to Conjunction Junction by Schoolhouse Rock. Sara wants to be Teoti when she grows up. I would agree, but I'm pretty sure I would have to proofread my blog better, so that's just not going to happen. 

What I’ve Learned from Talking to Dog Trainers All Day
          Speaker: Veronica Boutelle
Veronica is the founder of dog*tec, a company that helps dog trainers market their business. Since I don't have my own business and hopefully never will, this was less applicable to me. But Veronica was an excellent speaker and I was highly entertained. She said that the most important difference between dog trainers who get to do what they love full time and those who struggle is confidence. The don't believe they're good business people, and this causes them to fail at business. Veronica said, 

     “It’s not who you think you are that holds you back, 
                                               it’s who you think you aren't.”

Thursday, October 17, 2013

When I'm Gone


So, next week I'll be at the Association of Professional Dog Trainer's annual conference in Spokane, Washington along with my friend/boss, Sara Reuche. After the conference, the Voice of Reason and I will be flying to Seattle for the first time to spend a week with friends. Well, he has friends in Seattle and will be making up for lost bro love time. I'll be hanging out with the Fremont Bridge Troll and the rest of Seattle.

I'm a little excited.

I want to share my experiences at the conferences with the rest of Bloglandia, but if there's one thing I've learned as a blogger, it's that I really suck at getting around to writing summaries of the various conferences I've attended. I do, however, write fairly reasonable notes at seminars. So what I'm going to try to do for the APDT conference is, at the end of each day, translate my notes into a paragraph or so about each of the sessions I attend. The summaries will be short and sweet, but hopefully they'll be better than what I'm currently doing, which is nothing. So, fingers crossed and stay tuned for the first day's summary on Wednesday, October 23rd!

One of the things I've already learned is that I have the Best. Friends. Ever. In the nine years of our relationship (did I mention our anniversary is October 31st?), the Voice of Reason and I have never taken a vacation together. This means that we've never had to send our dogs anywhere while we were gone because one of us was always home. With seven dogs to place, most of which have special needs, I was planning to have my work cut out for me. But lo and behold! with in a week and two full months before we planned to leave, each and every dog not only has a friend to stay with, but also a caretaker I am certain will be able to handle their unique needs. I hadn't hoped for anything this good!

So a huge shout out to Nicole and Steve (Marnie), Laural (Jai), Tom and Debbie (Piper Ann), Crystal (Maus - and a little Rubi and Allister), Michelle and Brian (Cannon), and Jenny (Allister, Rubi, and assorted little critters) - you're the bestest, and you've taken a huge weight off my mind. Thank you, thank you, thank you so very much!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hike #6: Carpenter Nature Center

Carpenter Nature Center is one of my very favorite places. I have fond memories of going here on field trips in grade school, and their orchard store has the yummiest spiced peaches and caramel apples. Plus all the good work they do with conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. Considering how close I live to Carpenter, you'd think I'd get out here more often. Luckily for our ten hike goal, though, there are still several trails I haven't gotten a chance to explore yet.

Since today is Monday and a little dreary, I figured the trails would be a little deserted, so I decided to bring Jai along. Jai doesn't go on many walks because I'm not certain he likes them. He's never shown any hesitation to go on adventures, but once we're out, he tends toward hypervigilance. And his tail stops working. I'm not even kidding. It's not clamped down or curled under like you'd expect with fear. It just stops moving. I'm not sure what to make of this, and I have five other dogs in the house that would LOVE to go for a walk, so Jai spends a lot of time at home or running errands or going places where he can just sit still and watch the world move around him. Jai has always been very environmentally sensitive, and I think that on walks, the environment just changes too quickly for him, and it stresses him out.

No matter what Jai thought, it was a lovely day for a hike! The weather was just this side of cool, and the fall colors were in full swing. The boys and I started at the Self-Guided Trail and then looped around in sort of a figure eight to take the North River Bluff Trail. Carpenter Nature Center runs right up to the St Croix River, so even when it isn't fall, it's still a beautiful place to be.

One of the thing Jai and I have struggled with it his stamina. He tends to get more stressy and disconnected the longer he's out until he's just a muddled, miserable pile of pit bull goo. Currently, he needs about forty-five minutes to adjust to a new environment, then we get about twenty minutes of golden time where he can actually work before the goo sets in.

However, on today's walk, I was pleasantly surprised when Jai seemed to get more relaxed the longer we were there instead of more gooey. He even had two bouts of relaxed tail wagging about ten seconds long without any jollying along by me - and this was after we'd already been hiking for over an hour! (He also didn't freeze and get stuck even once in the whole two and a half hours we were there, but this is something he's been getting progressively better at on the walks we do take, and therefore less exciting to me than unprompted tail wagging.)

I think part of Jai's success was that we took A LOT of breaks so that I could take pictures - because every time we turned the bend, they was something new and gorgeous to look at. This gave Jai a great deal of time to take in what was going on around us. I think that it also helped that we weren't in the city. There is, as you know, a lot more stimulation in the city,or even in a more suburban neighborhood like where we live - dogs in yards, neighbors talking, kids playing, tree rats doing whatever it is that tree rats do. While there were a lot of smells and a few small critters to check out, for the most part, Carpenter Nature Center is a much more relaxed place to hang out.

I think that it also helped to have Maus along. Jai worships Maus, for some reason I can't quite fathom. (Most dogs that come into my house do. I want to tap them on the head and point out, "You don't want to be like him, he has the crazies," but they probably wouldn't understand what I was saying anyway.) This would not be the first time that Maus has exerted a stabilizing influence on Jai. Perhaps it is because they are rather similar - both shy and a little neophobic.

Of course, helper dogs are a bit of a double edged sword. For example, I suspect that Jai would really enjoy swimming if it weren't for the fact that Maus is horrified by large bodies of water. Jai is curious about rivers - until he saw Maus being afraid of them. Now Jai thinks rivers are scary, too. One of these days, I'll have to take him out with Allister. Allister thinks swimming is the Best Thing Ever, and maybe he can persuade Jai to at least drink out of the big, pit bull-eating river. Moral of the Story: choose thy helper dog carefully.

All in all, though, I was really pleased with our hike. If Jai is up to it, I'd like to take himalong out our tentatively planned May 2014 Superior Hiking Trail trip. I've thought about bringing him before, but I've always been concerned that it would be too much for him. We'd have to leave Maus behind - he thinks nature is a nice place to visit, but he wouldn't want to live there. Piper would be a great helper dog for him, though. She doesn't have the bond with Jai that Maus does, but she also doesn't have Maus's crazies, so it would balance out.

John Muir once wrote, "In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." It always seems to fall true. I went out today thinking that I would spend a little time with my boys and got much more than I planned for: a beautiful fall day and the chance to see how far Jai can go. It pleases me so much to know that places like Carpenter exist. Small, quiet areas in the world to remind us that we do not run on deadlines and cash and four wheels, but instead on softly falling leaves, lazy rivers, and the love of good dogs.