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.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Cannon's Snort-ectomy

I knew when I adopted him that Cannon would likely need surgery. Like many brachycephalic squishy-faced dogs, Cannon has brachycephalic airway syndrome. Squishy faced dogs have been bred so that their facial bones, particularly their upper jaws, are shortened, creating that pushed-in look. This changes the way that the soft tissues in their airways are able to function. When their inability to breath significantly affects the dog's quality of life, that's when they have brachycephalic airway syndrome. Cannon had already had a soft palate resection when I adopted him, and since brachycephalic airway syndrome is a collection of defects, I knew there was a strong possibility that he would need further surgeries.

The soft palate resection drastically improved Cannon's ability to breath, but he still struggles. When I adopted him in July, it was warm out, and he was pretty much a wrinkly lump of bulldog due to his inability to cool himself (a side effect of not having being able to move air over his tongue - remember, dogs cool themselves by panting). Now that the weather has cooled, Cannon has really sparked to life, getting into all the trouble you would expect from an adolescent bulldog, and generally having ten kinds of fun doing it. But he still regularly struggles to breathe and do normal dog stuff, like walk or eat or sleep, at the same time.

So on November 7th, the CannonBall will be having his second brachycephalic airway syndrome surgery at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center. While he's under anesthesia, the (specialist) surgeon will look at his trachea to assess how narrow it is, as well check to see if there is tissue obstructing his windpipe. But the point of this surgery will be a stenotic nares resection.

A normal dog's nose will have two "nares," or nose holes that are well opened and easily pass air. This allows the dog to, well, breathe. Or in Rubi's case, easily gain enough air for screaming, jumping at squirrels, and general hyperactivity.

Rubi shows off her excellent nose holes.
And the bloody gash she got from running into a tree at full speed.

For Cannon and other dogs with brachycephalic airway syndrome, shortening their top jaw has narrowed their nostrils and can even cause their nostrils to collapse in when they try to inhale. This makes it almost impossible to breathe through their nose and can cause difficulties with everything from sleeping to walking around to eating. Compare Rubi's nice, open nose to Cannon's stunted schnoz:

So in November, Cannon will be having surgery to open his nasal passages, hopefully thereby removing his snort, purr, gasp, and other strangled breathing noises.

Not all brachycephalic, squishy-nosed dogs have brachycephalic airway syndrome, though. As a boxer, Piper Ann certainly qualifies as squishy-faced; however, aside from being a little more sensitive to heat (which is likely a combination of her facial structure and coat color), her altered face does not seem to really affect her quality of life.

One of the hot topics in dog culture right now is the ethics of creating dogs that require significant human intervention to do normal canine activities like breathe and breed. While I agree that brachycephalic dogs like Cannon are extreme, and I'm awfully glad I didn't give his breeder any money, I think that condemning dog breeds to extinction because of genetically selected for traits is a slippery slope. Is any amount of brachycephally acceptable? Piper Ann certainly doesn't seem to be suffering from it. And if it's a quality of life issue, what about, say, golden retrievers, with their predispositions to cancer or beagles with epilepsy? Both significantly effect the quality of life of these breeds, they just aren't genetic conditions apparent from looking at the dogs. And if we're getting rid of physically health conditions, should we look at mental health conditions that impact quality of life as well? Such as the border collie's tendency toward overstimulation or excessive guarding behaviors in Rottweilers? Should we end pure bred dogs altogether?

The thing is, I like purebred dogs. I like the temperament package that bulldogs seem to come with. And I love the overall genetic package that comes with the label "pit bull terrier." And I don't want to see them go away. The great thing about purebred dogs is that we have the ability to make them healthier instead of genetic train wrecks. There are French Bulldogs without brachycephalic airway syndrome and non-neurotic border collies. What is needed is not the elimination of purebred dogs, but more responsible breeders - breeders who are looking to the betterment of their breed both mentally and physically instead of breeding toward extreme characteristics while disregarding everything else.

Of course, it's all fine and dandy to leave all the pressure on dog breeders, but the truth of the matter is that breeders would not be creating sub-par dogs if people weren't buying them. And here lies the importance of research and education, not only of the breed in question, but also of the breeder. Poorly bred dogs like Cannon are not the end result of a handful of irresponsible people, but of a culture that promotes appearance over health and impulse over education. It is only by changing this culture that purebred dogs will be able to thrive.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Her Story

She didn't have a name when the puppy and her sister were dumped at a construction site, so the ARLP volunteer who found them in June of 2008 named her "Katie." Katie was an adorable little black puppy, and it didn't take her long at all to be adopted.

I don't know who took this picture, but it wasn't me.

Kate's new family renamed her "Lexis." Lexis grew up into a lovely dog. She was sweet with all people, but she particularly loved children. She gravitated toward the little ones like pit bulls to peanut butter. She also loved balls, and would play fetch until she fell over, preferably in some sort of water. Her new family taught her important things like sit and shake and to walk nicely on a leash.

But as she got older, Lexis became "aggressive" with other dogs. While she continued to get along well with her family's other dog, she started lunging and barking at other dogs on walks, and her family had difficulty managing her. One day while Lexis and her canine sibling were being walked by a friend of the family, the two of them lunged toward another dog at the same time and pulled their leashes out of the person's hand. The two dogs attacked the other dog, and in the process of separating them, the little boy who had been walking the other dog received two punctures - a dog bite.

Animal control was called, and Lexis's family sent her to their impound facility for quarantine. Then, they emailed ARLP to say that they were unable to handle her anymore and would the rescue please find a new home for her. ARLP doesn't typically take in middle-aged lab mixes with bite histories, but that is what Lexis grew up to be, and we take care of our own. So the Powers That Be went out to animal control to do a temperament evaluation on Lexis in order to better understand what her options would be.

Lexis breezed through her temperament eval with grace and aplomb. She seemed to be a biddable, eager-to-please, well-balanced dog, and food motivated to boot. The animal control officers that worked with her had come to like her. They hadn't had any trouble with her around the other dogs at the impound facility, and Lexis behaved like a normal, well-socialized dog around all the human staff. They felt, and the Powers That Be agreed, that Lexis deserved another chance, even if that chance was just a warm bed, a full belly, and a little love before she was euthanized as a compassion case.

Photo by Paige.

Here's where I come in, because, as Tyrion would say, I have a "tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things." And Lexis came to my house a very broken dog.

She wasn't aggressive or overly anxious or behaviorally challenged; she was lost. She would pace around the house, looking out windows, scanning rooms, looking behind furniture for something - or someone - she could not seem to find. I would call her to me, and she would cheerfully come, receive some scritches, and then trot to the door as if to say, "Okay, can I go home now?" I didn't have a way to tell her that she wouldn't be going home again, and it was one of the most heart breaking experiences I've had nearly fifteen years of rescue.

But there was more broken than just hearts. It took me about a week to realize that there was just something wrong with the way this dog moved. Her back end wasn't put together like my other dogs; she had an odd, short-strided gait in her rear. So we packed her up and went to the vet where we learned that she has severe hip dysplasia.

So now we have a five year old, large, black, mixed-breed dog with a bite history and a severe health problem. On paper, she is unadoptable. I mean, who willingly signs up for a dog like that? But her statistics do not even come close to describing the dog she is.

We renamed her Marnie, because that is what she told be her new name would be for this next chapter in her life, and I don't know how to argue with that. She has the softest mouth. She loves, loves, loves to play with balls, even though the vet said that a dog with her hips shouldn't be able to stand steadily, let along run and play - no one told Marnie that her body was broken. She can be left alone in the house and not chew stuff up. Her behavior is normal and predictable. Her whole body lights up with joy at meal times. She is more social, better on a leash, and better behaved than the majority of my own personal dogs.

And Marnie is not even a little dog aggressive. For the first few weeks at my house, Marnie completely ignored my dogs; she wouldn't even look at them. Thanks to the two week staycation, Marnie learned that she did not have to interact with the other dogs if she did not want to. You see, Marnie likes other dogs, but she is worried that they will hurt her. While she can still run and jump and play on her own, having her hips bumped and jostled by other dogs hurts her. So she became defensive toward other dogs. Once she figured out that she could interact with dogs on her own terms, both at home and on walks, Marnie began enjoying interacting with the other dogs, and even solicits play. I have yet, in the four months that Marnie has been living at my house, to see anything that could actually be considered aggression or even reactivity.

Marnie in person is a very different dog than Marnie on paper, and her case lies in the hazy grey area between "unadoptable" and "should be euthanized." Is she a good candidate for adoption? Well, no. But I have a hard time saying that she should be put to sleep for being born black and with bad hips and for behaving like a normal dog in a dog fight (that could have likely been prevented). So last week, thanks to a grant from the University of Minnesota, we made the difficult decision to go ahead with surgery on Marnie's hips in order to relieve her pain and get her ready for adoption.

I believe that compassion is not something you are - it is something you do. But I admit that I am having a hard time being impartial and compassionate toward Marnie's first family. If your dog was displaying aggressive behavior, why wouldn't you reach out for help? Any why would you let some leash-dropper walk your "aggressive" dog? I mean, I get that behavior change takes time and resources, and hey, I've heard raising kids can be hard, but I feel like these people didn't even try. Maybe it's extra hard because I know firsthand how easy Marnie's behavior was to fix: don't let her get molested by other dogs - problem solved! There's a reason that we tell people to take their dog to the vet if they notice radical behavior changes. And if I'm handing out the benefit of the doubt, maybe I can hope that Marnie's family did this - and their vet just didn't notice severe hip dysplasia in an otherwise healthy dog? I mean, someone had to graduate at the bottom of their class, right?

I think that the fastest way to earn your burnout in animal rescue is to start hating people, but I want to be angry at someone. I want Marnie's story to be someone's fault. I want to place the blame on someone so that I have something to fix. Because if I just say to myself, "This is a shitty thing, and it happened, and it couldn't have been prevented," then I don't have a way to prevent this kind of suffering in the future. It hurts. And the hurting hasn't stopped yet. Marnie still has a hard journey ahead of her, and she deserves better than the hand she's been dealt. Marnie deserves the support of a family who loves and wants her as she takes the next steps on this difficult, painful road.

Photo by Paige.