Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Empathy Gap

If you are like me, you feel a lot of empathy (or at least sympathy) for your animals. Aaron and I have been near tears when our dogs have been injured or ill. We've had heavy hearts when they've looked at us with heavy heads and sad eyes as we left the house. But sometimes I have noticed gaps, areas where we seem to ignore empathy because it gets in the way of what we're doing. In most cases, the goal is something that serves the dog. We close ourselves off to what they are telling us because we know what we are doing is good for the dog in the long run.  

I have been especially guilty of this when it comes to nail trimming.  I use a rotary tool to grind my dogs' nails. It doesn't pinch the quick like a traditional guillotine-style clipper would and I can shorten the nails more precisely, but it takes more time. When I first started using the rotary tool, I was careful to desensitize my dogs to it. I'd run it nearby and give them treats for not reacting to it. I'd touch it to a nail and give them a treat. I slowly worked up to being able to groom one paw in between jackpots. I experimented with positions to find the one that was the most comfortable or tolerable for them. During all of this, I did my best not to push and to be sensitive to their needs.  

After a while, nail trims with the rotary tool became routine. There was the occasional quick-nick incident and yeasty paws sometimes made my grip uncomfortable. Somewhere along the way, I lost my patience for listening to my dog. Trimming the nails on two dogs is a tedious chore and having either (or both) dogs fight you on it does not make it any more enjoyable. When either dog would start to fight me, I would chide them or tighten my grip on their paw. If Aaron was watching, he'd inevitably comment and chide me for my grumpy reactions. I resisted listening to him (he is the resident un-trainer, afterall), but after a while I had to relent. Yes, the dogs were unhappy, they were clearly telling me so, and why wasn't I listening? Because it had to be done, they didn't have to like it, and of course, they were overreacting.

But after one particularly frustrating session with Dash, I finally relented and realized that I needed to start listening to what my equally frustrated dog was trying to tell me. I've done their nails a couple times since this and things have been better.  The sessions take a little longer because I am more deliberate and take more breaks. Sometimes the nail isn't quite as short as I want it. It is still a tedious chore, but I'm no longer overcome with dread when it is time to tackle it. 

Now I just need to remember this lesson when it is time to clean Dash's sensitive ears...
"Mr Low Ears" showing his displeasure after his right ear was cleaned.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

More Than a Goofy Face

I cringe when I see lists or rankings of canine intelligence. The first issue I have is that the lists I have encountered seem to measure biddability (willingness to work) rather than true intelligence. The second is that Boxers tend to rank low on those lists. I realize I'm biased, but it is very hard to live with a Boxer and believe they aren't keenly intelligent. Goofy as all get out, sure, but not dumb.

Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are consistently highly ranked on these lists. My experience is that most of these dogs are very compliant but don't do a lot of independent thinking. Some are labeled as "dumb" but from my perspective they are simply waiting for instructions. Many breeds that score lower on the list are breeds that were bred to work independently - dogs that aren't supposed to look for your input need to be smart enough to work on their own. 

Which brings me back to the way these lists rank Boxers. The breed standard lists among the characteristics of its temperament "guard dog" and "self-assured". Neither of those attributes lend themselves to simply waiting for direction. Most Boxers I have encountered enjoy attention and pleasing people but they are looking out for themselves at the same time. If you ask a Boxer to do something that doesn't benefit them, it is likely you aren't going to get a very willing response. If they decide not to blow you off completely then you are likely to witness (and hopefully appreciate) their intelligence.

I know I may not be the typical owner, but I appreciate a dog that can negotiate with me. One of my favorite examples comes from my first bitch, Xena. One of her many nicknames was the "comfort queen". If there was some reason she couldn't be on a couch, you'd find her curled up on a fallen pillow or wadded up blanket. If neither of those were available, she'd curl up in the crate. 
Sometimes you need a couch and a pillow to be comfy
You can imagine that she was not eager to give up her comfy seat just because we said so. We had trained a "move over" command - we weren't always interested in evicting her, but we did want our choice of seats in the house. Occasionally I'd pat a far couch cushion and tell her "move over" and she'd try to compromise. She'd look at me, shuffle over a foot or two and then look back to see if she'd moved far enough. Most times, she moved far enough so I'd sit down and let her snuggle back against me. Sometimes I'd tell her to keep on trucking and she'd typically slide off the couch, giving me a dirty look as she walked away.

Adjacent to the ability to negotiate is problem-solving skills. Delta is not as interested in negotiating as Xena was, but she certainly makes life interesting with her problem-solving. Last year when she had gotten tall enough to counter surf, she stole half a bowl of thawing shrimp when my mother turned her back. She showed a great deal of interest in shrimp after the "Shrimp Bandit" incident, so we thought it would be perfect bait for our trap.  We put a bunch of pan lids treacherously piled on top of a dish drying mat on the breakfast island and set a single piece of shrimp at the back. We sat nearby feigning nonchalance and waited for her to scare herself out of her bad habit. What we got instead was a show of puppy determination and dexterity. She ran around the counter, trying to see if she could reach the shrimp from the end or back side. Then she reached out and pawed at the mat.  One lid crashed to the floor and she startled backwards. Rather than stopping her, the crash only made her work harder. After a little regrouping and testing, she began to turn the mat to bring the shrimp to the front and put the lids at the back.  (Delta is still an unrepentant counter surfer, but she is camera-wise so I do not have a charming visual to go along with this tale)

Another trait I appreciate is the ability to generalize behaviors. Dash has a very good memory and is very apt at generalizing. One behavior we taught Dash was to down on our green and white throw rug.  We started the behavior at our house in New York where the rug lay at the edge of our dining room, just past the edge of our living room carpet.  We also had a door mat on the opposite side of the dining room. Dash knew that he was fed if he was in a down on the rug, but he expanded that to being down on any rug.  If we were eating at the far end of the dining room table, he'd down on the door mat. If we put the throw rug into the wash, he'd down on the living room carpet. When we moved to Maine, he immediately started offering downs on whichever throw rug was nearest, despite the fact none of them were familiar. Also, since he was fed for being down on the rug, he'd use the behavior to tell us when he was hungry.

Dash's dramatic posture points out that dinner is overdue
So what do my explanations and stories really amount to? The Boxer is meant to be an all-around dog and that requires intelligence. I know I am not the only one who has these stories. While some people may believe those lists, myself and others know that the intelligence of Boxers can't be confined to a one-dimensional box.

Delta fits neatly in two boxes

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An Unselfish Act

You wouldn't naturally associate pet owning philosophy and an episode of Friends, but one has given me insight into the other. In a Friends episode entitled “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”, Joey insists that there is no such thing as a truly unselfish act because doing good makes you feel good. Phoebe sets out to prove him wrong, but he is able to point out the selfish benefit of each act she performs.

If you follow the philosophy set out in that Friends episode, which is originally attributed to philosopher Immanuel Kant, then pet ownership is a selfish act. When you choose to bring a pet into your home, it is because you will enjoy it. Whether it’s buying a young animal or adopting a rescue, you feel good sharing your home with a pet.

There is one act that pet owners perform which comes as close to unselfish as any act can – euthanasia for an aging or ill pet.  

When an animal is ill, there are usually a number of treatments to try. Advances in veterinary care mean more options, but also more decisions. Vets can give you percentages, side effects, and estimates, but nothing is guaranteed. Options range from radical surgery to strict diet regimes. Some offer the hope of being curative or life extending, while others merely offer comfort in the time that is left. Which treatment do you choose? Some treatments may cause your pet distress as it is healing them - how do you balance quality of life against quantity?

When an animal becomes feeble the choice seems, if possible, even harder. The body slowly betrays the spirit with the indignities of age. Whether it’s simple arthritis or a progressive disease, the condition can be managed and slowed, but not cured. How do you measure their spirit? When does the balance tip between the good and the bad?

What time is the right time to make this difficult choice? I wish there were an easy answer. The closest I’ve come to defining the time is that you look for when the bad moments outweigh the good. When that spirit that makes your pet intrinsically who they are flickers rather than shining. When that moment comes, you must take unselfish action. You must make the choice that tears away a piece of your heart while it sets them free.

Xena enjoying a romp. Fall 2008
Note: I wrote this in February 2012, two weeks before losing Xena to Hemangiosarcoma, even though we did not know she was sick.  The timing didn't feel right to post last summer when I began this blog. Friends' recent losses and the anniversaries of losses have brought the issue back to mind and I knew it was time to share it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Getting in the Reps

For 3 years of college, I was on the rowing team. Every summer we were sent home with a simplified set of workouts which I diligently completed. Every fall when I returned to school and found, despite my best efforts, I had lost weight and strength during the summer while my teammates had remained fairly stable. My coach said my metabolism caused my body to "eat" muscle if I wasn't frequently and vigorously using it. OK, you ask, and what does THAT have to do with dog training? It turns out that Dash is a dog who's brain "muscle" reabsorbs his learned behavior more than most. And whether it is strength training or dog training, you can't make progress if you don't put in the reps.  

Dash's Behavior and Learning Style
As I explained previously, Dash missed all the key socialization periods as a puppy and was essentially isolated for his entire first year. I've been told by various experts that he was unlikely to fully overcome this disadvantage and I have found that to be true despite my best efforts to prove it wrong. 

In the 6 years we've owned Dash, I've described him to many people. I've frequently been told "I understand, my dog is hyper too" or similar sentiments. But when people actually meet him, they are still caught by surprise. There is an element to his behavior that is hard to capture with words. At the extreme end of the scale, he's been called hyper-adrenalized or even manic. This past year our new vet, after talking to me extensively about his health history and behavior challenges, said she had a dog like him at home. After meeting him, she modified her opinion, saying her dog was "similar, but less."  

I like to say that if Dash were a human, he'd have to take immersion courses. The only way he can consistently behave around a new person or animal is if he had consistent exposure for an extended period of time. Every time someone new goes away and reappears, they are "new" again. When he first came home, it took several weeks to for him to remain calm near Shady (our cat) while we kept the stairs gated to give Shady a "safe" area. When we moved in with my parents last spring, it took a week or so before he could hold himself together when they got home from work. When Delta came home, he nearly hyperventilated the first night but 24 hours later he was relaxed enough that Delta climbed on top of him and fell asleep. 

Dash's Training History
In the summer of 2007 when we began taking classes at my training club, he was overstimulated simply by being in the building. His hackles would rise up and the end of his nub would puff out like an oversized Q-tip. This state of arousal could last all or most of class in the beginning. 

As we went through a class session, we made small strides of progress.  His stimulation level when he entered the building would ratchet down a notch a couple weeks in. During class, we worked in a far corner outside of the group to help manage his excitement. We'd be able to join the circle towards the end of the night. His attention and response to commands would improve. But every time we missed a week or started a new class with new dogs, we would regress significantly - 2 steps forward, 1.5 steps back. He was better than his first class, but the amount of change was small in relation to the amount of effort we were putting in.  I kept him in Beginner I and Beginner II for 2 sessions each because I knew that we hadn't made enough progress the first time through. 

Dash's Beginner I graduation (second time through, late 2007/early 2008) 

In the fall of 2008, I was able to bring Dash to a Suzanne Clothier seminar to be a case study.  Suzanne's analysis of him was that he lacked self control but had a solid temperament and was "scary smart." She set me up with a greeting protocol to use so that he could learn to meet new people politely. All the work was supposed to be done by him - present him with a friendly stranger at a distance and have him "figure out" what behavior would get them to visit. The friendly stranger was instructed to approach him *only if he remained down and on his hip*. They would give him a couple pats, feed him a treat and then walk away, giving him a positive experience and limited opportunity to practice bad behavior.  

This was a great experience, but I ran into trouble when I tried to put her ideas into practice. If you watched the video, you saw there were were some rules around the interaction and people needed to be directed as to how they'd behave before they approached. I tried to find ways to organize practice for Dash - I contacted a behaviorist at Cornell who worked with a student group, I contacted a student I was referred to, I asked club members to work with him. I even got some coworkers to meet him outside the office one sunny afternoon. In each case, I got just one session before schedules or willingness got in the way. He may have gotten a couple hundred reps in that first month, but that wasn't nearly enough for us to "keep" the behavior on a permanent basis. What I got from that exercise was a dog who will sometimes lay on one hip when he wants people to greet him then leaps on them as soon as they get close. (As Suzanne said "Come into my trap...") 

In the spring of 2009, during Dash's second round of CGC class, we hit a perfect storm of circumstances and he was kicked out of club classes. First, we were several classes into the session and he'd acclimated to his classmates when a new, animated Golden Retriever joined the class. Second, he'd recently been regressing and, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was due to not-yet-diagnosed hypothyroid (his symptoms were skinny, glossy coat, hyperactive - the exact opposite of what you'd expect). Third, the trainer became distracted just as the Golden caught his eye while he doing a long recall exercise. He veered sharply toward the Golden and the trainer dropped the long line. He ran over to the Golden, it ran around its owner in a panic and they got tangled in the long line. 

Thankfully we were able to untangle them and no one was injured. Dash had no malicious intent, but the situation could have easily turned out much worse. Nearly 5 years later, it is hard for me to write about. The way the club handled it left a lot to be desired and, while I understand why he couldn't be in their classes, part of me still argues that the whole thing wouldn't have happened if the trainer had held on to that long line.

Shady shows Dash is still a good boy (Spring 2009)
Being unable to participate in club classes significantly reduced our opportunities to exercise Dash's behavior. Just as with the Clothier greeting protocol, I had work I could do with him, but not enough of the right "human resources" to get in the necessary practice. There were many public places we could go, but working with the general public does not allow for the same sort of practice as working with dog-savvy people. Often times, the general public was likely to set him back in behavior as they chattered high-speed, high-pitched baby talk at him or said "it is OK if he jumps, I like dogs!"

From 2009 to 2012, between our limited options and my focus on Xena's competition training, Dash didn't get a lot of repetitions. We doodled around the house and I took him for walks on local "Dash-friendly" paths, but we didn't make any significant progress on his behavior.

This past January, I was able to put Dash into a class based on Control Unleashed.  Suzanne Clothier's suggestions had included teaching him a default down on a rug/blanket which we had used frequently at home, so we had a head start.  It only took a little work to have Dash generalize and expand on CU's "mat" behavior.  
Dash practicing his "go rug" at class
He learned to play the "look at that game" from his mat, but his progress on the moving exercises was limited. Once again, we also faced the challenge of getting in the practice.  Winter in Maine does not offer a lot of options when your dog isn't an appropriate visitor to dog-friendly businesses. So we worked in different areas and surfaces around the house and even on the porch or driveway during dry sunny days, but there were no "novel" distractions. When the weather warmed up a bit, I started bringing him to strategic locations outside of local businesses. Since March (when I lost my job) I've been able to take him on longer and more frequent visits to exercise the behaviors. We've done well with our practice and most people understand to keep their distance. 

The Future
When I'm feeling optimistic, I daydream that I submit Dash for his PAL (his registered name would be Wynkyn's Dashing Young Man) and we earn a title. Nothing fancy, maybe Rally Novice or Beginner Novice. Maybe just his CGC. It would take a lot of work and some creativity, but if the stars align, it might just happen. 

When I'm feeling realistic, I imagine him living life just as he does now - and that's not so bad.  
Life is good... until you get pawed in the face.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Introducing Dash

I had the idea for a blog post about training Dash when I realized, with a twinge of chagrin, that I've never formally introduced him. While I try to avoid anthropomorphizing my animals, Dash is our "problem child" and typically gets less air-time when I talk about training. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he is the dog closest to my heart.  I apologize ahead of time for the long post, but it is difficult to summarize the journey I've taken with this crazy lug nut of mine.

On Groundhogs Day 2007, Aaron and I took a slushy drive from Ithaca to Interlaken to meet a puppy named Esh. Aaron spotted the ad in the local paper which described a 7 month old Boxer boy as "free to good home, needs room to run." The woman told me that their son had purchased the pup from an Amish man down the road and given it to them as a birthday present. The couple was sweet, but clearly overwhelmed. Esh had taken a wild leap at the end of his leash and he fractured his rear leg at 5 months old. He was put on crate rest for 2 months and, as soon as he'd been given the medical all-clear, the couple had put the ad in the paper. 

To say that he was wild when we met him is an understatement. We met his paws first and his mouth second. He jumped and nipped and panted while the elderly couple tried desperately to reel him in. They told us that he hadn't been allowed to play with other dogs because all their friends had little dogs. They had been running him in the basement until he got tall enough to leap up and pull their laundry off an indoor clothesline. The wife couldn't take him for walks for fear he'd yank her off her feet. He didn't appear to know his name or any commands and his self control was limited to not bursting out of his skin with excitement. I'd been reading Suzanne Clothier and Patricia McConnell, and I was training Xena to compete in Rally and Obedience. I thought I was prepared for the challenge of training this sweet but crazy young boy. In fact, I thought he'd make a good agility dog. 
Dash's first night home
We changed his name to Dash and began acclimating him to his new life. Things started out well enough - he learned his name quickly, was mostly housetrained and learned "wait" and "sit" effortlessly. Xena had to spend the week telling him off for rude puppy behavior but they were making progress. 

Then he started to get calmer and quieter and we thought he might be settling in.

Then he stopped wanting to move at all. Our appointment to get his rabies shot became an urgent care visit. 

Over the course of a week, the diagnosis went from suspected panosteitis to confirmed immune-mediated meningitis.  

At that point we had an unvaccinated, unsocialized, intact adolescent who was on so much predisone that he couldn't go 15 minutes without peeing. We fashioned a holding pen out of our apartment's teeny kitchen and eagerly awaited every step down in his dosage. I worked with him and Xena continued to teach him, but his exposure to anything beyond our little family was extremely (and necessarily) limited.  Five months later, we had moved into our house and Dash was once again given a medical all-clear that signaled a shift in his life. Just after his 1st birthday I enrolled him in classes at our local club, desperate to make up for lost time.

While Dash had a solid temperament, it quickly became clear that he was socially stunted and overly aroused by new environments. My then-40 pound boy had the mentality and self-control of an 8 week pup and, since he had missed the crucial windows for socialization, progress was going to be difficult. We dutifully attended classes for two years, slowly working our way up to Canine Good Citizen class, until he was banned from the club (more on that in the upcoming training post).  His people and dog manners are still far behind the curve, but his "house manners" are good and we enjoy sharing our day-to-day life with him.

Our happy boy
He's incredibly intelligent and eager to work, so we doodle around the house to keep his mind occupied. Since last summer, he's been learning the tricks I've been teaching Delta. A lot of them focus on body awareness and, as many of you know, changing muscle memory with an older dog is a lot slower than with a pup. Even so, when I'm consistent about practice, he's been steadily improving. The most recent exercise to 'click' was sitting pretty and he can now hold his position for a couple of beats.  I'll be working on duration for a while longer and then will begin to work on distance from the food lure. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Getting Over the Hump

Listening to the radio a few nights ago,  I heard a story about a man who had brought his dog to be euthanized because he believed the dog was gay. He'd caught his male dog humping another male dog and couldn't stand the thought of owning a gay dog, so he surrendered the dog to a rabies control shelter. Thankfully, social media stepped in and started a campaign to save the dog, which was reportedly adopted and is now known as Elton.

Putting aside the rampant homophobia (which is appalling), this story was ignorant beyond belief. What is a bit scary, though, is that a lot of pet owners I have encountered don't know that humping is normal, frequently non-sexual canine behavior. On the Boxer forum that I've co-administrated for the better part of a decade, I've seen numerous new dog owners bashfully mention their puppy's embarrassing behavior. Some are confused, others are concerned and most of them attribute it to sexual drive.  

Humping, from everything I've read and seen, is a normal dog behavior typically linked to play or dominance. Most of the humping I hear about seems to be the milder play form, which I suspect was the case with "Elton".  

In my experience with my own dogs, humping has been play or excitement motivated rather than an act of dominance. First Xena, then Dash, and now Delta have all humped during play. As you might imagine, my first [female] dog being a humper was pretty embarrassing. I was one of those new owners posting on the forum, wondering what was going on. Once I became accustomed to the idea, I started to notice that Xena was doing it when she wanted to play and felt the other dog was ignoring her. Dash did it when he got over-stimulated during particularly vigorous play sessions. And Delta, much like Xena, has been humping Dash when she wants to play and feel ignored.

So is humping something to get worked up over? No. Depending on the source of the humping, you may need to do something to correct it or you may just let the other dog decide how much they are going to take. But being over-excited about a dog's natural behavior doesn't serve either of you. Get over it.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Spin in the Grief Cycle

They say it takes a full year to process a life change - you have to go through all the seasons, the holidays, the yearly landmarks before you adapt to your new normal.  Xena died on February 16th, 2012.  The one year mark is coming up quickly and my grief has been like a raw edge, poking out and rubbing against my life. Tonight, as I drove home from training class, I burst into tears.  A long day with not enough time or energy was wearing on me and I realized the winter storm "felt" just like the storm on the day of her death. The back of my mind had been repeating that day while my conscious brain was navigating the slick pavement. 

So many things have been calling my mind back to last February...

This year's version of the last trial that Xena and I entered in... she was pulled for what I now know was a symptom of hemangiosarcoma.

The jar candle that a dear friend bought for me to burn in mourning, which always seems to let out a faint scent when I'm thinking of Xena... or perhaps, when she's thinking of me. 

Delta's first class wearing Xena's leather collar and leash... on the smallest hole and still a little bit loose.

A visit from a friend who never had a chance to meet my sweet beaner baby...

It is hard, but I am trying to let that raw edge hurt as much as it needs to, to allow myself miss her as much as I have to, and to give myself room to honor the pain at the same time as I let it go.

I miss you, my Xena bean.