Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trainer, Heal Thyself

Well, it's definitely spring - Jai and I were assaulted yesterday by the first off leash dog of the season.

The medium-sized dog came flying across a busy street, snarling and snapping and got all up in Jai's face. Jai, bless him, may be a touch reactive but is also exceptionally dog tolerant. The second time the dog snapped at his face, Jai stood up on his toes, and raised his head and tail as if to say, "Really? Are you sure you want to do this?" The other dog realized that, no, he didn't actually want to throw down with a sixty-five pound pit bull, tucked tail, and ran back to his owner. (Who was too busy yelling at his dog and yanking him around to apologize for being an enormous butt-munch. I really loathe people some days).

Jai and I were both really upset by the incident. He was yanking on the end of his leash, his brain trying to fling itself around corners to see where the next zombie attack was going to come from. And I was just plain shaken up. If that had happened to Marnie or Rubi, there would have been blood. And either Cannon or Allister could have been seriously injured. Jai and I were not okay.

So I stopped us on the next block, and fed Jai peanut butter while he watched the world. Jai fell into the familiar routine of eating and watching, and I let myself be distracted by the pattern of watching my dog for rewardable moments. After just a few minutes, we were both much calmer: Jai was watching me more than the world, and I had stopped shaking. We finished our walk on a good note in spite of our incident with the other dog.

I often forget how good can be for us just to stop for a few minutes and get our bearings. I spend a great deal of time running around from one project to the next, and for the most part, I enjoy it. Much like my dogs, I like having things to do. But I think I sometime get so caught up in the rush that I forget how beneficial it is just to stop and watch the world for a few minutes.

Thanks for the reminder, Jai.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

She Gather Me

A month or two ago, I decided to take the Therapy Dogs International test with Piper. She's passed therapy dog tests before - once with TDI and later with Pet Partners. It wasn't really that I had a driving desire to get her recertified. TDI had recently changed their test, and I wanted to see what it was like before I sent my more novice dogs, Jai and Cannon, through it. I don't think it even occurred to me until about halfway through the test that we might not pass. Piper Ann has been my bombproof, rock solid saint for so long that I hadn't even entertained the idea that she wouldn't fly through it.

Piper passed the TDI test, of course.

Piper says hi.
I decided this year, after a three year break from competition, that I wanted to work on my ring nerves. At first, I thought I would work through my issues with Maus. After all, he's used to working with my when I'm anxious - when you have an aggressive dog, you tend to be a little worried every time you leave the house. But when it came time to actually fill out the premiums, I found that it was Piper I wanted to bring back into the ring with me. She and I started playing this game together, and it felt wrong not to have her by my side when I set to start again.

After this weekend, I feel pretty comfortable saying that even after a three year break, Piper and I have still got It. Much to my chagrin, at the tender age of nine, Piper now qualifies for the veterans' ring in World Cynosport Rally. Piper was the highest scoring veteran dog of the weekend, bringing home three blue ribbons - one for each of our three runs. Of course, it's easy to win first place when there's only one other dog in the class (or, ahem, none) - but with scores of 204, 208, and 207 out of 200, I feel like maybe we earned those blues anyway. These successful runs mean that Piper has earned her Rally Veteran title (RLV), and that we both earned an Award of Excellence (AOE) for completing her qualifying runs with scores of over 190.

Piper Ann, CGC, TDI, TT, RA, CD, MA with Honors, RLV AOE
(I'm not actually sure the AOE is part of the title, but I'm going to pretend it is because we are
Full. Of. Awesome.)

It seems that somewhere between when I picked her up at the shelter on February 24th, 2006, and today, Piper Ann and I have become a veteran team. We have each learned how to set the other up for success. I know when to reward Piper, when to ask her to work a little harder, and when to say, "We have had enough for today and will try again tomorrow." And when I fall apart, Piper has learned how to gather up the pieces and return them to me in the right order. I must have been very good indeed to have been given a friend like her.

Photo by Crystal.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Last month, I helped someone return his dog to the rescue. He'd adopted Porter, one of the Nottweilers, and they'd lived happily every after - until life happened. He fell in love, moved, took the job he could get, and ended up working twelve to fourteen hour days. We worked together to try to find a way to keep Porter happy and healthy with his daddy away from home so much, but in the end, it was in Porter's best interests to return to the rescue.

Porter's person was in tears when I went to pick up our Nottweiler. "After what I've done to Porter," he said, "I just can't imagine having another dog."

I was a little crushed. After fifteen years in rescue, I tend to take a bit of pride in  my ability to spot a good dog owner and to be able to match that owner to the right dog. At no point during our relationship, from adoption to surrender, did I feel that Porter's person was a bad dog owner. He was doing his best with a difficult situation, and in the end he made the decision he felt was in his dog's best interest. I hope that I never become the person who humiliates someone who has only tried to do what was best for their dog.

In rescue, we often see people who surrender dogs as "The Enemy." But I don't feel that giving up your dog necessarily means that you're a Bad Dog Owner. Life happens. Poor matches get made, even by experienced rescue people. Many people, myself included, are only a handful of paychecks away from making such hard decisions. Would you really be homeless - and make your dogs be homeless - instead of parting from them? Personally, winters in Minnesota are cold and summers are so hot, and if someone could give my dogs what I could not, I hope that I would be brave enough to put their needs first.

And I hope that doesn't make me The Enemy.

More than just treating others the way I wish to be treated, providing Porter's human with compassion instead of criticism speaks to the type of person I want to be when I grow up. Porter's owner already knew that returning his dog to the rescue was not the ideal situation; he knew it with every fiber of his being. If I'd made him feel worse, it would not have changed the situation. And just like the kindness I put into the world becomes a part of me, so does the cruelty. So when given the option, I will error on the side of kindness, because I would rather be a kind person than a cruel person.

And I hope someday, when he is in a better place, Porter's person will welcome another dog into his life.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Well, That Didn't Work

So, trazodone was a rather spectacular fail for the treatment of Jai's new car phobia. On the other hand, if I ever start feeling like Jai and I haven't made any progress in the entire two years we've been together, I now have a bottle full of time warp pills!

A few times a week, Jai and I have been practicing car skills. We hop in the car, he gets some cookies, I turn the car off and on a few times, he gets some super yummy cheeses, and maybe I drive up and down the driveway depending on how he's doing. And then we go for a short walk. With out meds, he might be a little hypervigilant, he might pant a little, but mostly he's pretty comfortable. We tried the trazodone several times so that I could be sure it was the medication's influence and not an off day or the phase of the moon or something, but I now feel pretty confident saying that trazodone turns Jai into a panting, shaking, drooling puddle of pit bull go. None of the times we tried the trazodone did I ever feel that Jai was relaxed enough that I should turn on the car.

Now I have pictures of Jai in the car for you. You're welcome.
(Also, why does my dog have tear stains all of a sudden? 

And more importantly, how do I make them go away?)

The trazodone also changed the way Jai behaved on his walks, and it was seriously like taking a TARDIS back to when I first got him. He was hypervigilant, cringe-y, and OMG - the freezing. Freezing used to be a huge problem for Jai, but it's been at least a year since we've had a problem with in. On the trazodone walks, though, Jai froze at least two dozen times, and it was often more than ten seconds before we could get him unstuck. Boy, do I not miss that. On the other hand, Jai did seem less reactive while he was on trazodone. Of course, Jai wasn't reactive when I got him, either. I suspect then, as now on the medication, he was too shut down to be reactive. So in this case "less reactive" is not the same as "better."

One of the concerns that people often have about trying behavior medications with their dog is that it will change their personality; people fear that they will lose what makes their dog their dog. Friend Crystal once used the analogy of behavioral medications as the dial on a radio. If the song is your dog's personality, we know that we can turn the dial on the radio and get more static. But when you turn the dial just right, everything becomes clearer. Using medications won't spontaneously turn your pit bull into a sheltie. Finding the right medication will often make your dog's personality shine through more cleanly without the "static" of excess stress and anxiety getting in the way.

So trazodone didn't work for Jai. When I turn the dial on my radio and get more static, I don't give up and turn the radio off. I turn the dial the other way. So Jai and I will try another medication, and probably another one after that if that on doesn't work. And if medications don't pan out for us, then we will keep on keepin' on, knowing that the music is out there even if it's sometimes hard to hear.