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.