Sunday, June 30, 2013

Hike #3: Fort Snelling State Park

I hate living in the city, but it has its perks. One of those perks is the Twin Cities Pack Walk. TCPW, to quote the website I just linked you to, is " a community of dog-lovers working together to support and encourage safe dog socialization through structured weekly pack walks." The group was founded by members of A Rotta Love Plus, and a lot of the members have reactive or recovering reactive dogs - which means if your dog has special needs, they're not going to judge you poorly for it. Dog who need space from people or other dogs are just dog who need space; they're not bad dogs. Those of you who have reactive dogs know how refreshing it is to be among people who don't think you're crazy for loving the crazy dog.

Airing out the ears at the top of the trail.
Maus isn't particularly fond of pack walks - too many dogs and people for his taste - but he puts up with them because he loves me. And also because cookies. I'll admit I don't go every week, but it's a nice way to socialize with other dog people and explore a new trail.

And what a trail it is! In spite of being at least partially flooded, Fort Snelling is still a lovely park. If I have to live in a city, at least I live in one that's invested in nature. The morning was overcast, and that somehow makes all the greens and browns stand out even brighter. The park sits at the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, and for a park nestled in between two major cities, it's awfully easy to pretend your in the middle of nowhere. That's pretty much my definition of a good park.

We haven't been on a pack walk for a while, and I think that's at least partially to blame for Maus's good mood for this hike. Usually, Maus endures pack walks, but this morning, he actually seemed to enjoyed hanging out with the group. Although maybe he was just glad he didn't accidentally fall off a cliff.

Hanging with our friend, Hazel.
Photo by Paige.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Let's Talk Paychecks

Two years ago, I was up for a promotion with a big raised attached. They way my little branch of the government works, you have to show that you are doing the level of work required for the promotion before you get the promotion. Because of this set up, I worked my tail feathers off trying to get this raise - I joined committees, took on special projects, kept every note of thanks or appreciation, meticulously recorded every time I went even a hair above my current pay grade.

So when I got the letter saying I didn't get the promotion, I totally started slacking off. My attendance at meetings was hit or miss. I stopped jumping on extra projects. My notes and records started collecting dust. I threw myself a great big pitty party, complete with chocolate and whining to anyone who would listen.

I mean, if they weren't going to pay me for the work I was doing, why do it?

Photo by Paige.

In order to get excellent work, we must have excellent rewards. I don't usually pay a great deal of attention to our environment when I'm walking Rubi - I watch her like a hawk, and she tells me what I need to know. So when her ears pulled tight and she went up on her tippy-toes on a walk last week, that's when I noticed the white dog across the street in full on pointer stare-and-stalk mode. At us.

I stopped walking. Rubi looked up at me. "Good choice!" I exclaimed and dropped half a can of cat food down her throat. Once she'd finished swallowing, I gave her our emergency retreat cue, "Run away, run away!" And we jogged away from the scary, staring dog until I knew Rubi would be well under threshold.

This was a huge reward for Rubi! She got tons of yummy food, she got to leave a tense situation, and she got to run - just for looking at me! The thing is, looking at me instead of screaming at a really intense, fairly close other dog is really hard work for Rubi. And she did it without any real cuing from me. If I want her to continue to do this in the future, I need to make sure the reward she received was not only memorable, but also more fun than the behavior she would normally do (and Rubi thinks flipping out at other dogs is just about the Most Fun Ever).

Photo by Paige.

I don't get to decide which behaviors or rewards are valuable to Rubi. My boss doesn't get to decide that I will work just as hard for a "good job" (which is what I got) over a raise (which is what I didn't get). I decide how hard I work, and my boss decides how I will be paid. In order to keep Rubi performing difficult behaviors reliably, I have to make sure that I pay her in proportion to the amount of work she's doing. If she's working really hard, I need to give her a really big reward. Otherwise, she may decide to "slack off" and do what is intrinsically rewarding for her - like screaming at other dogs.

I eventually got my act together, retried for the raise/promotion, and received it last year. I knew that if I kept working hard, eventually I would get the reward I was looking for. I don't have a way of telling Rubi that if she keeps working hard, eventually I'll get around to giving her a good paycheck. All she has to go on is what she's experienced in the past. And right now, she knows that if she works her tail feathers off for me, she'll get a great big bonus paycheck. As a result, I have faith that Rubi will continue to work as hard as she is able to for me - as long as the pay is there.

Photo by Paige.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hike 2: MN Valley State Rec Area

The Minnesota River Valley is covered in trails and paths, so I was pretty excited to find a trail that was reported to be "practically forgotten." As Crystal, Maisy, Piper, Maus, and I hiked it's five miles, though, it turns out that this trail was not "forgotten" so much as "taken over by bugs." Still, aside from the mad amounts of mosquitoes, it was an awfully nice day for a hike.

As the trail eased up to the Minnesota River, I decided to let Piper and Maus off leash so they could get a drink. The dogs dashed madly over the embankment, and as I followed them, I suddenly realized that what I thought was a gentle shoreline was - in fact - a ten foot drop.

And folks, my dogs are MORONS.

Neither dog was injured, and both looked immensely pleased to be splashing around in the water. They didn't even seem upset when the realized that you don't levitate up ten feet as easily as you dropped down it.

Also, this is why you never let your dogs off leash.

"Hey, look - stuff!"

I couldn't get down to the dogs because I prefer my ankles unbroken, and they couldn't get back up to me, so Crystal, Maisy, and I began coaxing Maus and Piper along the shore to an area a few hundred yards away that appeared to be a bit less cliff and more climbable. True to form, Piper Ann bounded up the incline, muddy nubbin dancing as she pranced around bragging about her grand adventure.

After a few minutes, though, it became clear that we had lost Maus.

We back tracked and found Maus clinging to the shore a hundred or so feet from Piper's escape point, unable to go either forward or back the way we had come. With a sigh, I clambered down the embankment to rescue my dog - only to find that the reason Maus was unwilling to move was because the slippery, muddy silt on the shore was about two feet deep, or just over chest height on Maus. Maus has a very big brave, but it does not extend to getting dirty. Or wet. Or uncomfortable in anyway.

Photo by Crystal. Also: ewww.

Unable to actually move through the mud, and Crystal useless by virtue of uncontrollable laughter, I slogged back up to dry land and staggered to the bank over Maus's head. He stared at me expectantly.

I stared back.

"You stop laughing and save me now, mmkay?"
Knowing that my fall would be cushioned by massive amounts of muck, I dropped down to where Maus was waiting. Maus was over joyed, wiggling and thrilled that I was with him. We may be stuck, but at least we were stuck together.

I yelled for Crystal to stop laughing and make herself useful, and folks, the sudden expression of horror on her face was absolutely priceless. Ever one to help her friends out, though, she put down the camera and came over.

"I'm going to lift him up to you," I told her. This did not seem to alleviate any of her horror, but she gamely sat down and tried to find a spot that wouldn't leave her in the same position Maus and I were in.

Then, I lifted a sixty-five pound twitchy pit bull over my head, and believe me, am I glad there was no one to take pictures of  that.

Maus safely on dry land, I looked up. Crystal, Maisy, Maus, and Piper looked down at me. Then, I climbed a ten foot cliff because I am a badass like that.

Crystal may have helped.

After which Maus and Piper Ann promptly got zoomies because OMG!! WE'RE ALIVE!!!!

We stopped for lunch and recovery at a bench by the river that actually had a shoreline instead of a cliff. Maus trotted right through the mud to get a drink.

"Mud? What mud?"

The rest of the hike passed uneventfully, if you discount the massive amounts of ticks, mosquitoes, and rain. Which is good, because I'm not sure how much more adventure I could have handled that day.

Mud: it's what all the cool dogs are wearing this season.

Monday, June 10, 2013

More Than The Sum

Okay, enough of this sappy stuff, let's talk some science.

Okay, one more picture of me in my happy place (courtesy of Crystal)
before we get back to work. 

As part of my brain sciences orientation, I'm catching up on some of the research that's already come out of the research center. I read a paper published in March of this year on the effects of the apoE gene on brain function (that's apolipoprotein E, if you're trying to impress your friends). People with apoE have been found to have an increased frequency of Alzheimer's disease. Upon further study, it was found that only a certain shape, or genotype, of the apoE gene showed an increase in Alzhemier's; this genotype has been designated apoE4. Another genotype of apoE - apoE2 - is actually thought to be protective against Alzheimer's.

Neat, huh?

The really cool thing about apoE is that there's not just one genotype (or expression or allele - I'm kind of over simplifying here). There's actually six different apoE genotype  apoE4/4, apoE4/3, apoE4/2, apoE3/3, apoE3/2, and apoE2/2. Our study showed that each genotype actually affects brain communication differently in mentally healthy women - not just people with Alzeheimer's disease.

So what does this have to do with dogs? Studying canine genetics is a lot easier than studying human genetics. For our apoE study, we needed to find people with healthy brains, measure their brain activity, and then study their individual genetic codes to figure out which of the apoE genotypes they had. With dogs, because of extensive breeding programs, we have a pretty good idea of which genes they have just by looking at them. People have been manipulating the genetics of dogs for centuries, and as a result, we have breeds - dogs that are genetically similar within the species. For example, I have Piper Ann, a boxer. I know by looking at her that she has the gene for squishy faces (that's brachycephaly, if you're trying to impress your friends). I know that Piper's both parents had the squishy-face gene, because the squishy-face gene is recessive - if you breed a boxer to a dog with a normal nose, the puppies are most likely going to have normal noses. And I know that if Piper weren't spayed, and I bred her with another boxer, those puppies would have squishy-faces, because that's how genetics work.

Genes rarely affect only one characteristic, though. We know that the human apoE gene is also related to heart health - a part of the body that seems practically unrelated to brain function. With dogs, we know that dogs from certain breeds (that is, with certain physical characteristics) will have certain genes for non-physical characteristics. For example, I know those squishy-faced boxers are more likely to be protective, athletic, and, um, maybe not so bright. I know that my long-back, short-legged weasel beast is likely to be talkative and intelligent just by looking at him - he's a corgi mix. Generally speaking, though, you can't tell what non-physical genes a human has just by looking at them; this is something that's pretty unique to highly domesticated animals like dogs (and chickens, horses, cows, pigs, and sometimes cats - oh, my!).

The squishy-face gene is possibly related to the rub-my-butt gene.

The research on apoE is exciting. If we know what apoE genotype a person has, we can take steps to prevent or treat mental decline before the person ever starts to show signs of Alzhemier's. (I know, there are other ethics involved in genotyping specific people - I'm looking on the bright side here). With dogs, knowing that certain physical characteristics are related to certain invisible characteristics allows us to identify problematic behaviors and act to prevent these behaviors before they appear.

Say what now?

Photo by Paige.

Okay, this is Zoe McRottenPuppy. She was a foster that I had back at the beginning of the year that I never blogged about because she just wasn't that interesting to me, and I was busy. I know by looking at her that Zoe is a Rottweiler - that is, she is black and tan, stocky, with a squarish head, and big feet. That's what Rottweiler puppies look like. I know that in addition to the gene for black and tan, Rottweilers often have a gene that allows them to display some pretty horrific resource guarding. I don't know if there is a specific gene responsible for this, or if it's a combination of genes or gene expressions (most likely), or if the resource guarding gene is anywhere near the black and tan gene - but I know it's probably there.

Knowing that Zoe likely carries the gene for resource guarding, I was able to take steps to prevent resource guarding before she ever started to display the behavior. We played trade games, food games, impulse control games, games that involved moving from one spot to another to prevent guarding of places - if it was related to resource guarding, we played it. As of today, Zoe has shown no signs of resource guarding. Whether this is because of the games we played, or because she doesn't have a strong gene for resource guarding, or because she doesn't have this gene at all, I have no idea. I will probably never know. But playing resource games certainly didn't hurt anything, and they may have prevented a serious behavior issue, so I'm calling it a win.

Human society has a love/hate relationship with genetics. On the one hand, we love the constancy of traits and characteristics that genes can give us. I adore my fat-headed, athletic, drivey dogs; I'm proud to be mostly Irish and all that entails. But at the same time, we hate the idea of being stonewalled by something that is out of our control. We cannot help the genetic card we have been handed at birth. Many people refuse to see the genetic predisposition American Pit Bull Terriers have for dog aggression, or German Shepherds toward human aggression, or terriers toward small animal aggression.

But we are more than the sum of our genes. The effects of the apoE gene can be increased or decreased depending on environmental factors like learning and mental stimulation. Environment does not rule all, either - the effectiveness of outside interventions may depend on the shape of the genes we carry. And with all the different genes and genotypes, and with all the variants in experience and environmental exposures, what it comes down to is that we are who we are - incredible individual, absolutely unique, and beautifully intricate. We are more than the sum of our genes or our experiences - and that is stuff of miracles.

Much gratitude to Ruth and Paige, who kept this post from sounding purely pretentious or stupid.
Any confusing parts are all me. I promise.

Monday, June 3, 2013

I Wanna See You Be Brave

I believe that each dog comes into my life to teach me something important. Maus came into my life to teach me about courage - about how courage isn't just the big events like rushing into burning buildings or chasing down bad guys. Sometimes, courage is making little choices, baby steps that take you outside your comfort zone just a hair, until your comfort zone expands and you no longer even notice the triggers that once terrified you.

In November of 2012, I took up running. With my bum knee and asthma, I knew it would hurt. I knew it would be difficult. And I didn't know if it would be worth it. I used the Couch to 5K program to start small, and I gave myself permission to fail. It was okay if my asthma kicked up and I could only run for thirty seconds as long as I gave whatever I could on that day for that run - as long as I was honest with myself and promised not to try harder next time, but simply to try again to the best of my ability. Little baby steps until today, seven months later, when I'm running three and half miles solid three days a week and looking forward to it, of all the bizarre thoughts.

One of the intriguing aspects to running was the way my attitude about my body changed. I've never been one of those girls what hates they way they look and refuses to have her picture taken, but it wasn't hard for me to look in the mirror and see more flaws than beauty. But as my body redesigned itself for running - bigger thighs and butt, smaller chest, bits that society dictates are Of The Bad - I found that I liked what I saw. I like the way my clothes fit me now, but more than that, I like what my body can do. Me, someone who can trip over her Crocs on bare linoleum, I am athletic enough to run for miles. And I have the mental fortitude to run in rain, snow, sleet, and dark of night. I mean, dude, what can't I do? For the first time in my life, I am proud of my body and the things we can do.

Photo by Paige.

With my new confidence, I started looking at other areas in my life that I wanted to change. While I love my dog training gig with the rescue, I've been doing it for a few years now, and I've started to feel like I'm stagnating. I've gotten into a rhythm, hit my stride, but I'm also not learning anything new in my little comfort zone. So when Pawsabilities offered me a position teaching their behavior classes, I . . . well, I ran and hide under a rock for bit.

I'm told that I have a pathological amount of anxiety. I don't know, I've only lived inside my own head and therefore have nothing to compare myself to, but I know how very hard it was to me to accept the position. To drive myself to class the first night. You'd think that after seven years of teaching and five years of teaching just behavior classes, I wouldn't have been shaking like a leaf on my first day, but I was. I even begged the students to be nice to me - and I wasn't even kidding.

And now? Well, I'm doing okay. It turns out that fear-based reactivity is a whole different ballgame from the Tarzan dogs I'm used to working with, but I think I'm holding my own. I'm certainly learning a lot. It helps that I've got a really strong co-teacher and friend to lean on. It also helps that I've given myself permission to suck as long as I show up every week and give it my best effort. After all, the first step to being good at something is sucking at it, and I'm planning to be awesome.

If accepting an additional job dog training made me anxious, then changing the path of my career this month was f^&@&*% terrifying. I liked my clinic job. I was good - no, scratch that, I was awesome at my clinic job. I kicked ass at it, but I also knew that I did not want to be doing that job ten years from now. So when a position opened up in brain sciences research, I agonized over it. I panicked over each bit of the application process (and let me tell you, applying for a government job is a pain in the butt without oodles of anxiety on top of it). I staggered through the interview in awe of the whole department. I may have blacked out when they offered me the position. 

A week and a half into my new job and I'm smitten. So much new knowledge and information right at my finger tips! I get to be a big part of ridiculously important research. I get to make my own hours. And when I get giddy about the effects of ApoE on cognition or the clinical uses of fMRI, I don't get tolerant amusement or glazed expressions - I'm surrounded by people who get nerdy right along with me.

My new jobs will not change my life. Running will not change my life. Maus will not change my life. The choices I make, the person I chose to be, these are the things that will alter me and the course of my future. Sometimes, courage is choosing to be okay with failure. Sometimes, courage is choosing to work with a certain dog instead of sending him back to the rescue. Sometimes, it's showing up, being present, and putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, courage is just closing your eyes and clicking the "submit" button. Little steps, little choices, these make me who I am.

And I choose to be brave.

Photo by Sara T.