DogBlog: Today I am Two

In the chaos of deadlines and New Book Planning, I’ve forgotten many things.  But this, I did not forget. Today is Max’s second birthday.

While her “present” will be a long hike this weekend, tonight a small gathering will be raising a glass (and handing out a new Hedgie) to celebrate. Over on Twitter, I asked if I should get her a pupcake, or if that was gilding the already-spoiled puppy.

The overwhelming response was “yes, get her a pupcake!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this trend, a pupcake is…exactly what it sounds like.  A dog-tummy-safe cupcake, made with things like bananas, pumpkin, and peanut butter flour. You can make them at home (there are mixes!) or you can go to a hoity-toity pet shop or specialty baker. Yes, there are actual dog-treat bakeries.

Dog people, we need a reality check.  Dogs eat dirt.  They eat raw carcasses they find by the side of the trail. They will eat shit, some of them. They are not impressed by a fancy pupcakes with dog-safe frosting and a candle.  Admit it, you’re doing it for the insta.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But this is a milestone birthday. We did it, we got through her puppyhood and her adolescence mostly intact, if a lot poorer (most recent expense: $80 for meds to get her through another bout of Giardia, ouch).  She’s reached her adult size and weight, and her personality is, if not set, then firmly established.  85% sugar, 10% vinegar, and 5% hellion.  I love her to bits, and I wouldn’t trade her for anything.  Although I might downsize her just a bit.

Are there things I’d do differently over the past two years, given the chance?  Absolutely. “No dogs on the bed” would have been a hard rule from the start, for one.  Getting her better-socialized with under-ten humans. Figured out her particular quirks and needs faster than I did.  It’s probably impossible to raise any living creature and not have regrets along the way. 

There are some things I just have to accept were always going to be, raising a pandemic puppy.  But I think we did okay. 

People tell me she will start to settle down, energy-wise, around three.  Or four.  Or maybe five.

Please god, by five.  Momma’s tired, and the cat needs a break.

And this brings us to the end of my regular dogblogging.  I hope you enjoyed growing up with us.

Then,

and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and did I get her a pupcake?  You’ll have to check my instagram to find out.

DogBlog: Terrible Idea Update

When last we left our intrepid heroine and her faithful, hopeful human, we had unboxed the FluentPet kit, and read all the instructions, ready to teach Max How To Speak – or at least, use buttons to tell me what she wanted what she really really wanted.

The first part of Operation Button Speak went according to plan. I chose two words to start with – “toy” and “out.”  Max knows both in context, so the trick would be teaching her that she could create the context (ask for the thing).  Basically, this was going to involve a lot of association, repetition, and rewarding.

It went well.

The next step was to introduce Max to the buttons.

Um.  Yeah.

Me holding the button, pressing it to hear the recording of the word, and then associating an act with the action?  No problem.  Max knew exactly what was going on.

Max pressing the button?

*record scratch*

Houston, we have a problem.  Max Does Not Like The Clicky Thing.

And I don’t mean, “she was suspicious of it” or “it scared her a little” and she’ll get over it the same way she did puppy gates and garbage trucks.  I mean, she would see it on the floor, and detour the long way around the apartment to avoid it. Immediate, unequivocal Do. Not. Like. Not with her paw, not with her nose – and this is a dog who will happily “touch” anything I point her at, while we’re on walks.  Not even her beloved trainer, S., could get her to go near the button except under mild duress. And we worked too long and hard to ease her stress reactivity, to intentionally add any to her life.

Okay, Max.  Okay.

I’m not giving up, though.  The buttons remain on the floor.  We’re ignoring them for now.  Maybe, eventually, she will decide they’re harmless.  Or maybe she will never trust them enough to use, and we’ll pass them along to someone else.  Am I disappointed?  Yeah, a little.  But the thing about dogs, as with all living things we let into our lives, is that you need to love them for who they are, not who you wanted them to be.  And Max?  Is not a button-pusher.

But she’s definitely a word-learner. She may not “say” them, but her comprehension library is growing – and she’s understanding complex commands.  I’ve already learned more about her than I knew before, how she thinks and reacts, so in that sense this was a successful experiment.  So we’re going to lean into her strengths, and see where it goes.  Updates as they happen, I guess.

Meanwhile, it was suggested that I try the buttons with Castiel. Um, er, no.  My cat already speaks his mind  He doesn’t need any help.

 

 

Dogblog: This Is A Terrible Idea

Back with Max was a pup, I got a doorbell (actually a strand of fabric with several bells on it) with the idea that when Max wanted to go out, she would go and ring the bell. In theory, it’s an excellent plan. And it even worked… For a while. Then Max realized that she could get my attention anytime she wanted it by ringing the bell, and did so. Repeatedly. All the time.

We got rid of the bells.

Flash forward the year, and I’ve been watching my friend Mary Robinette Kowal document how she is teaching her cat how to use “speaking” buttons to communicate. And I think to myself, that might actually be fun to try with Max. And then I remembered the bells incident, and I thought, maybe not.

But with Max’s board and train in the rearview mirror, I’m aware of the fact that S., Max’s trainer, is right: I have a very smart dog. And smart dogs need things to occupy their brains, otherwise they find things to occupy their brains. And those things are never pleasing to the human in the household. So I said the hell with it, and ordered their basic button kit. If it doesn’t work out, I figure I can hand it on to somebody else who wants to give it a try.

The kit is two buttons, which I can record a word or phrase on, and foam placemats to set the buttons in, to make them easier to use. So the first decision I had to make was, what two words were they going to use? It wasn’t a question of what I said to Max, but what I wanted her to say to me. After a few days of thinking, I settled on “toy,” and “out.” Toy, because  I will tell her to “get the toy,“ or “fetch the toy,“ and she knows what I mean. So I’m hoping that she will associate the word toy with a desire to play. “Out” is kind of self-explanatory.

The plan is to start with these two, and eventually work her (our) way up to more abstract but useful concepts like “hungry,” “sleepy,” “mad” and “scared.”  Part of me is thinking like a dog owner – being able to know more specifically what’s going on in her doggy brain will help us interact better.  But part of me is also thinking like a writer, fascinated to see how an “alien” brain learns, using human tools and concepts…

Is this gonna work? Or is Max going to decide it’s a stupid game and she doesn’t want to play? I have no idea.

I guess we’ll find out next month.

Train the Dog, but Also Train the Owner…

Last month, I discussed my mixed feelings about sending Max off to Puppy Boot Camp, also known as “board and train.” 

When the day came, I packed her into the car and drive about half an hour north, to S., the trainer’s home. S. met us outside, and we talked for a bit – and I admitted that I was about 3 seconds away from grabbing my dog and going home.  Apparently this is entirely normal drop-off emotion?  Parents of kindergartners may relate.

Eventually, when I couldn’t stall any longer,  I handed Max’s leash over to S.

Max wanted nothing to do with that, going flat on the ground like a toddler about to have a tantrum.  And I had to take a step back and let someone else – a relative stranger I’d only met once before –  handle it.

S. was calm but firm, and eventually Max went into the house with them, and I got back in the car and went home, thinking, “what the fuck have I just done?”

(written a very large check, is what I’d done.)

The first week, I was at Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and Max would have been in boarding anyway, so it wasn’t too hard.  Max was decompressing, so not much happened those first few days for her, either.

The second week, it was…kinda nice?  I missed her, but I was also remembering how much time and energy she was eating.  I was getting regular updates, meanwhile – photos of her looking energetic and pleased, and video of her working on her skills, focused and happy. So… it was okay. We were all doing okay.  The cat, in fact, was doing GREAT.  He started sleeping on my pillow again, now that he didn’t have to worry about Max trying to stick her nose in his bidness.

Oh no.  This is bad.  Am I a bad person for enjoying my dog-free life?

(Parents of summer camp-age children are laughing sympathetically right now, possibly)

The third week… was hard.  Even the cat started to look around like, “hey, wait, isn’t someone else supposed to be coming back already?”  S. and I had a Zoom meeting to go over the progress Max had made, and… Max was in the background, resting on her cot, not even lifting an ear when she heard my voice.

Shit.  My girl had transferred her loyalties.  She didn’t miss me!

Then S. pointed out that every time I spoke, Max’s tail thumped. She totally knew it was me, she was excited to hear me – but she had been told to “place” on her cot, and that’s what she was doing.

Oh.  Okay.  I guess?  But then I got handed my own homework: to think about the past two weeks, and what I’d want to do differently when Max came back, if there would be a change in the House Rules.

The main change I decided to make was that Max would sleep in her kennel all the time, not the bed.  I know a lot of people are okay with sharing bed space, but Max is ~45 pounds of long, lean canine, and also, she kicks.   Other than that… it was going to be a lot of wait-and-see.  Her behavior was hopefully going to be different, so I’d work off that.

And then the day came… S. brought Max home.  And… she didn’t seem glad to see me?

But the thing was, I’d been used to judging her happiness by her jumping up to greet me.  She’s been told not to do that.  So I had to look closer.  She went straight to her new cot when told to, and settled down… but she was wiggling.  And whining.  She wanted so badly to get up and greet me with wild abandon, but she was being a Good Girl and staying put. 

Even when the cat came in the room.  Max perked up and watched the cat intently, but when reminded, she sank back down on her cot and did not do her usual up-in-the-cat’s-bidness greeting. 

Holy shit.  My Slightly Wild Child had embraced discipline.

And then I was introduced to the discipline I’d have to embrace, for the next few weeks. 

Max did her part.  And it’s a lot. Ten (10) pages of typewritten instruction, lot.  Most of which I already knew, but it’s laid out in black and white now: this is my job.  And I’m not saying that as a metaphor; it’s a job.

The next month or so is 100% on me, to maintain her training, to dial up the structure, and dial down the affection, be firm with the rules and consistent with both praise and rebuke, until she accepts that yes, this is how life is, even when her trainer isn’t around  It’s been 24 hours as I type this, and I’m already seeing a steady stream of micro-challenges from her as I test what she knows, and she tests what I know.  

But we’ll be fine.  We got this.  a dog and a woman sitting next to each other, holding up a graduation certificate.

 

The Lessons Wombats Teach Me

This week is far too full of crises. Every time there’s a crisis, people raise money to help everyone deal. When the Australian bushfires dominated my life (aeons ago: 2109-2020 – the fires were out just after the pandemic hit Australia) books were a good fundraiser. I often contribute to such books, because they give more than I can give, personally. The anthology I was in that helped save wildlife during that particular crisis was called Oz is Burning. It contains some remarkable stories, and I’m very pleased I could contribute and be in such company.

There was one fundraising book that stood head and shoulders above all the others. Jackie French lives in rural Australia and she’s currently dealing with floods. Her part of rural Australia was very badly hit by the fires, and she handled it in a very Jackie-ish fashion. During the crisis she reported to the rest of us what was happening in her local town. She was cut off for what felt like months (I don’t know what it felt like to her, but I was worried about her for over a year) and she compiled observations and reports and made sure the rest of the world knew what was going on.

She reported on wildlife as part of this. Also, as someone who knows wombats particularly well.

One of the wombats she helped had a particular story. She talked about this wombat on social media and we all wanted a happy outcome… but we weren’t sure that the wombat would survive.

Later in 2020, she turned the wombat’s experience into a book for children. The Fire Wombat became an instant classic (though not as classic as her earlier book, The Diary of a Wombat ) and raised money to help wombats. It talks children through the crisis and how those rare animals who survived were helped. It gave children a path to understanding the impossible and, at the same time, raised money to help wombats.

I have my copy in front of me now and have re-read it. The floods in Australia right now are hurting the same regions as the fires did just over two years ago. Jackie’s work reminds me that wombats need help, too.

When we’re both allowed to travel again, and when it’s safe (fire and pandemic and now floods) I’m going to feed her dinner and ask her to sign her book. Her work has helped me remember how to get through crises and how to look outside my small environment and see what I can do. I may not be able to do much, but if Jackie can write this amazing book when she’s confined to a very small piece of land for over two years then that opens the door for me. I just need to consider what I’m capable of. Step One is to not let the fear developed by over 30 months of sequential crises decide my actions.

PS Jackie writes about so much more than wombats. She’s one of Australia’s best writers. I wrote this piece because wombats bring me comfort.

Separation Anxiety (Human, not Dog’s)

It’s been a stressful week (month), even by the standards of the 2020’s. And in four days, I’m going to do something I swore I never would.  I am going to hand my dog over to a trainer, and walk away.  For three weeks.

Three. Weeks.

They call it “board and train.”  We’ve been referring to it as “puppy boot camp.”

I’m stressing out about it, hard.

I know that I’ve taken Max a long way in 20 months.  She’s a sweet, loving, playful girl with excellent leash manners, she knows all her commands (even if she still has trouble with her recall), she’s a great car-ride companion, and is A+ at letting me know when she has to go out (and holding it, if I can’t get to her right that second).  And she hasn’t destroyed a single thing other than her own toys since she finished teething. She’s practically perfect, and the not-perfect….well, that’s just a matter of fine-tuning.

But she still reacts with fear-aggression under certain circumstances, and while I can handle it, that’s beyond my current paygrade to fix.

Part of me feels like I’ve failed, that I wasn’t “good enough” or attentive enough to be and do everything Max needs.  That somehow it’s my fault she has that particular quirk.

It’s not.  I’ve had trainers reassure me on that fact: dog brains are mysterious things, same as human brains, and sometimes they just… get wired a certain way.

Part of me believes if I’d put in a little more time, studied a little more, done more exercises, I could have done the rewiring myself.

And maybe I could have.  Probably I could have.  I know the basics, it would just require, well, a lot of time.  Constant, dedicated time. And I have a job (several, in fact) and a real need for sleep.

I’m reminding myself that just as writers need editors and copyeditors, sometimes puppies need a little extra help, too. Nobody’s good at everything, and we don’t have to be.

And Max isn’t going to love me any less for it.

So she will go to Puppy Boot Camp, spending three weeks with S., who will give her the 24-hour professional care and training needed to erase old habits and build new ones.  And when we are reunited, S. will teach me how to maintain and build on those.

It’s a good thing. It’s also a bloody expensive thing, but it’s a good thing.

And maybe, rather than boot camp, it will turn out to have been Officer Training School.

I’m going to miss her, a lot. But I also suspect the time will be well-spent, reconnecting with (spoiling) Castiel the Kitten of Thursday, and also writing a LOT in the time not spent exercising and training.  Which is good, because  I’m supposed to be writing the follow-up to SOMETHING PERFECT next month….

But until then, Max and I are keeping each other chill.

cream-and-red dog at oceanside during low tide

Looking Back the Length of a Leash

This past year, I’ve been dogblogging about the things I’ve learned, working with Max.  This week I took a pause and looked back over those twelve months, the process of bringing her from adorable puppy to Almost Adult despite Life During Covid, which has been just as hard on dogs as it has people (cats, mostly, haven’t given a fuck).

I’ll be honest, there were days (weeks) when I wasn’t sure either one of us were going to make it.

Max a good girl, mostly.  Sweet, affectionate. But seemingly overnight she developed a fear reaction (expressed in defensive behavior), and it hit just as she was going into the predictable stage of “I know what that command is, I just don’t think I’m going to listen to it,” around nine months.  Also seemingly overnight, she went from “I can trust her with anyone” to “I can’t trust her with anyone but me.”  And that’s not much of an exaggeration: I knew that her barking and lunging was defensive, but to non-dog-people, it looked scary as hell, and a scared person and a scared dog is a bad combination.

I was convinced I’d screwed her up, that I’d done something wrong, or not done something right,  that I’d taken a perfectly good pupper and given her anxiety.

That was… a rough few months.  Max had to be isolated from strangers, which meant her outings, already limited by Covid, were cut back even more, interfering with her socialization – the very thing she needed to get over her anxiety.  And she – who honestly loves most people – didn’t understand why she didn’t get to go to work with me any more.

We worked with a canine behaviorist, and I talked with other people who had ACD mixes. I did my homework and Max did hers.  And what I kept hearing was, “she’s a good dog. She wants to avoid trouble, not dive into it.  She loves and trusts you, you’ve given her the right training; now you need to trust her to grow into it.”

And that was the hardest part: trusting her.  Letting her stand and observe a situation rather than redirecting her immediately.  Keeping an eye on her body language, letting her decide if this was someone she was comfortable with or not, rather than removing her as a preventative measure.  It seemed entirely counter to everything I’d been taught before.

But slowly, it began to work.

It’s not perfect yet.  It never will be – Max is too smart for her own good (and certainly too smart for my own), and overthinks herself into stress. And there will always be people who frighten or trigger her. But the past twelve months, I’ve learned to accept her for the dog she is, rather than the dog I’d expected, and not let the worry override the love. And she understands now, I think, that she’s allowed to bark when she’s upset, and come to me for reassurance, rather than throw herself into a defensive frenzy.

We’re a work in progress, and she’s probably never going to be good with running kids, or sleds, or people who stick their hands in her face.  But honestly, she doesn’t have to be.

Fact is, we’re all getting out of 2021 with a touch of anxiety.

And I’ve got nothing particularly profound to end on, after that, except….

to be continued.

a cream and red dog, in a field of snow

What I’ve Learned From Crows

crows Shortly after dawn most mornings, a crow calls loudly, “Caw, caw, caw, caw.” It seems to be speaking to the whole neighborhood of crows, though I’m not sure how large an area this announcement covers. I refer to this as the “Call to Prayer,” because it reminds me of the calls used by mosques, but I don’t know its true purpose.

Shortly after the call, crows come by our window box, collect the cat kibble we put out the night before, and have a drink in the pan we’ve put out for that purpose. The actual time this happens varies depending on what time the sun comes up. It can be a bit later on days when the marine layer is strong, but the crows will be out and about even on overcast days.

Except when they’re sitting on eggs and raising fledglings, the crows don’t sleep in our neighborhood. Every evening, not long before sunset, they start flying to their roost. I am told by others that one big roosting place is along the Berkeley shoreline. I suspect there are a number; there are a lot of crows in the East Bay.

They do build nests in our neighborhood, but we have never been sure exactly where their nests are. They are very good at concealing them in the larger trees somewhere.

Crows are obviously quite social. They hang out in family groups, some of them clearly the young from earlier in the year or a year or two before. However, each small family group has territory within the neighborhood, and they seem to be careful not to invade each other’s areas.

They can tell people apart, which puts them one up on us, because we cannot tell crows apart by appearance. We know one group because of where we see them regularly and because they have almost no fear of us. When we toss kibble for them, they will fly right down. Others, who also live nearby, wait until we’ve moved on to collect the goodies. Continue reading “What I’ve Learned From Crows”

Outside of a Book….

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx

Wiseassery aside, it’s long been accepted that a dog is indeed humanity’s best friend.  The reasons for that are many and symbiotic.  However, after many months of serious study on the question, I will posit to you that a dog is not the WRITER’S best friend.

Look, I love my dog.  You all know I love my dog.  But she does not understand that she is not the center of my world ALL the time, the way I am (mostly) hers.  She especially does not understand the appeal of the small box on my desk (or lap) that neither sounds nor smells particularly interesting.  And so, she will sprawl at my feet and sigh soulfully, or wag her tail piteously, or – if neither of those attempts work – will bring me a toy (repeatedly) and drop it on my feet.  And if none of that works, she will reach up and – gently – take my wrist in her mouth, as though to say, “mother, please stop typing and PLAY with me, please.”

Rinse and repeat, repeatedly.

It’s not her fault.  She can’t read, after all.  She has no idea what I’m doing, or that it’s being done to continue to afford her (obscenely expensive) food and dental treats and vet visits, etc etc.  She doesn’t understand that when I’m snarling at the page, or swearing at the balky plot, I’m…well, mostly having a good time.  Or maybe she does understand, and is offended she’s not included.

I should get up and play with her.  Or take her for a walk.  Or rub her belly.

And all those things are good things, and remind me to take a break and stretch.  But only occasionally, dog.  Momma’s got a deadline to hit.  Curl up where it’s warm and take a nap, please. Convince me to stay put, as though my moving from this seat would be Worst Thing Ever.

 

… so yeah, when inside of a book, a writer’s best friend is a CAT.

Hope all USAians reading this had a lovely Thanksgiving!

Writing. Process.

Emily on the day of her adoption. A little anxious, but eager to be loved.

This weekend our lovely, ridiculous Elder Statesdog, Emily Apocalypta Robins, died. She’d been declining over the past year, but in the last week the progression had gone from a gentle slope to a sharp dive. She died in our arms, surrounded by love, and with assistance from a very gentle, thoughtful, kind vet who came to our home, listened to our Emily stories, explained the process, and shared a little of his own life-with-dogs experience. Afterward, while my husband and my daughter alternated between laughter and tears (you cannot discuss Emily without laughter coming in to it) I scurried around doing things, because that’s one of the ways I process and deal with strong emotions. The other way is… well, what I’m doing now. Writing.

Emily came to us from the SPCA when she was 3 months old–she had been rescued from a girl on a street corner in Bayview who was trying to sell her to get money for a prom dress (and apparently had not been patient with the puppy in the box, which was what drew attention to her). From that inauspicious beginning came the dog who was perfect for our family. She lived with us for 15 years, saw my kids grow up and go out into the world, and on the way, Emily generated many many stories. Continue reading “Writing. Process.”