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

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!

Risk Assessment and Puppy Love

I love my dog, and would probably take her with me everywhere.  But. Not everyone is comfortable around dogs.  Dogs are not comfortable around all people (even if they’re perfectly nice people).  It’s often less “personal” and more gut-instinctive, even if both dog and humans are otherwise great to be around. And even when there’s a good fit, it’s not a one-and-done: managing relationships between people and dogs can be complicated, and requires both awareness and honesty on the part of the humans involved.  This lesson, unfortunately, came at personal expense, and I’m hoping that telling it will help others NOT have to spend the same emotional coin.

Recently I was traveling with several companions, and my year-old ACD-mix, Maxi. Max had met my companions before, and gotten along with them.What I didn’t know, however, was that one of my companions was uneasy around dogs, due to a negative childhood experience. This led to complications, as my friend did some thing they shouldn’t have done – and wouldn’t have done if they knew dogs better – and Max reacted badly but within natural dog parameters, barking and snapping in defensive mode.

This,  of course, upset my friend greatly.  Totally understandable – it dragged up past emotional trauma and put them in the wrong headspace to enjoy our travel.  And it upset Max greatly, as her boundaries had been violated by someone she had previously trusted.

Fortunately, we were in a position where I could keep Max separate from my friend for the rest of the trip, but it definitely caused some complications, and, unfortunately, tensions.

The worst thing about this was that the situation could have been avoided if my friend had let me know earlier about their long-standing unease around dogs. Ideally, from the first time they were introduced.  No dog owner worth their kibble would’ve mocked, or thought less of them for it; in most cases it’s an irrational fear you can’t just wish away.

But what we can do something about is limiting exposure, and clarifying boundaries. In this case, I would’ve kept more distance between human and dog from the beginning, while teaching my friend positive dog management (and in doing so, ideally prevent the negative situation from occurring in the first place.)

But we can’t bloody well do any of that if we don’t know there’s a problem.

Please. If you have a fear of dogs, or simply don’t like them, don’t be afraid to tell your friends with dogs about it. And if you have a dog, make sure to check in with your friends, and make sure they’re comfortable with the dog being around.  Literally, an ounce of prevention can solve a pound of problems before they even happen.

(And you/your friend may discover that a little learning can go a long way toward reducing that unease. Which, when you think about it, is a life lesson that doesn’t just apply here.)

a red-and-cream dog, seated, looking up at the camera

It’s Not Cute, Damn it.

Yep, it’s another month, another installment of “Better Humaning Through Dogs.”

Generally, I try to write about the positive elements of dog companionship – or at least, the interesting ones. And generally, people who love or work with dogs understand the psychology of these animals, or are willing to learn.

But sometimes, I swear to dog, er, god, media makes education difficult, and I just have to scream.

Recently I saw a People magazine article, one of those clickbait headlines squibs, about a puppy so protective of a new family member, it wouldn’t even let the baby‘s mama touch baby. And it was, as these things always are reported, done up in a sweetly twee, isn’t it cute! tone.  Isn’t that a good dog?

No, it’s not cute. At that level, it’s called resource guarding, and it’s not something you should be encouraging in your dogs, OK? (Or your cats, for that matter.)  Yes, dogs are excellent guardians, and are often very careful and watchful around the younger members of their pack, four or two-legged.

But when the family dog gets upset when anyone else comes near the baby, to the point of growling or showing teeth, Rover or Fluffy isn’t being protective over your offspring. Rover or Fluffy is claiming them as their property, their territory.  That’s a version of resource guarding, and it’s not a healthy situation, much less “cute.”

Resource guarding, within context, isn’t a bad thing.  Between dogs, it’s annoyingly common – I’ve seen this play out more times than I like, working with shelter dogs, with friend’s dogs, with my own dog. Between dogs, its a way of laying down boundaries: this is mine and I will share it, this is mine and I will not. Most dogs will recognize and accept those boundaries, and back down (when they don’t, that’s when you get dog fights).

But humans, for the most part, are clueless about the warning signs, and very bad about backing off.  And no, you can’t count on your dog recognizing you, and knowing that you are to be trusted.  Not in the instant of reaction, anyway.  To the resource guarding dog’s mind, everything is a potential threat to their possession of the beloved object.  Even another pack member, maybe even alpha pack members.  And they’re not going to sit back and rationally think it out; they’re going to respond the way they’re designed to, quickly, efficiently, and potentially bloodily.

And a dog’s idea of defensive behavior?  Involves teeth.

That means anyone attempting to reach for the child, in the case of this article, or a person in need of medical care, or even a partner attempting to show affection, risks getting bitten.  Maybe badly.

So yeah, articles like the one I saw are the worst kind of narrative, assigning emotions and motives inaccurately, and making it seem like a good thing. A trained guard dog does not behave that way. An untrained guarding dog is a danger to everybody. Including that dog. Because you know what too-often happens to dogs that bite. Even if they’re not at fault.

So yeah, please, please.  If you have a dog that is showing signs of resource guarding against humans, particularly if they’re resource guarding another human, get them (and you) professional help to stop it.

The life you save may be theirs.

for more information, I’d suggest starting here.

I Can Stop Any Time… I just Don’t Want To. Mostly.

My last post, I talked about fostering a puppy (who has since gone on to his furever home, huzzah!).  And I thought, “okay, I’m going to take a break from all that, for a while.”

And then an email landed from the other shelter I volunteer with, and without hesitation I said, “I can take Bella.”

Bella is a six-year-old Pomeranian mix, a delicate little lady with the spine of a dragon (when a friend’s Great Dane pup got too close, she opened her little mouth and showed her little teeth, and told him to get fucked.  He backed down.).  We call her the cat-dog, because all she really wants is to cuddle, ideally and preferably in my lap, but she is perfectly happy to trot alongside Max for nearly an hour on our walks.

(and then she demands to be carried, like the princess she is).

It hasn’t been all snuggles and walks, though.  Her first few days, her tummy was stress-upset, and I spent a lot of time washing shit out of her fur.  Her housebreaking broke (also due to stress) and I spent a lot of time cleaning carpets. And recleaning carpets.  And throwing out soiled pee pads (and keeping Max from eating the fresh ones).  Sweet Bella is demanding of my time, to the point where Max started to get cranky about it.  And god help you when you tried to crate her at night!  Her place was on the bed with you, thank you very much.

(Once she regained her house training, she got to sleep on the bed, yes).

And then she had to have dental surgery, and I spent four days trying to convince her that yes, she did need to take all her meds….  Trying to get a tiny dog to swallow a pill is not like pilling a larger dog.  Their mouths are so tiny and you feel guilty AF for even trying.

But she’s still the sweetest bundle of fierce fluff, and I love her dearly.

I said that in conversation recently, and  got another round of the usual, “I don’t know how you can bear to foster, and then let them go.  I’d end up adopting all of them.”

As I said to that friend: no, you really wouldn’t.  And no, we’re not saints for doing this.  I joke that having a third animal in the house for a short period of time is how I remind myself that one dog and one cat is the perfect balance for this household.  More than that, and chaos is set loose.  Chaos, and exhaustion.  But more than that, the truth is that with animals, as with people, loving someone doesn’t always mean you want to keep them. 

As you read this, I’m bringing her back to the shelter to meet with prospective adopters.  I have all my fingers and toes crossed that they will be a perfect match, and Bella will be going to her furever home, to spend the rest of her life loved and comforted and allowed to sleep on the bed.

And then I’m going to take a break from fostering for a while.

And this time I mean it!

EtA: Bella did in fact charm her potential humans, and their resident dog, and went home with them this evening. <3.

Who Am I and What Have I Done with Me?

Close readers may have noted that I missed last month’s slot.  Close readers may also remember that the month before that, I had just taken in a foster puppy.

Yes, those two things are related.  And I am here to tell you that writing a book, maintaining a Patreon, holding down a part-time office gig, dealing with a pandemic, fighting for democracy AND housebreaking a puppy is exhausting.

But – as everyone expected – I foster-failed, and now the household of two has officially and legally become a household of three. The puppy is four months old and (mostly) housebroken, and Castiel the Cat has learned that if he hisses and swats at her nose, she will stop trying to Make Him Love Her.  So all is well, and I can get back to writing and righting all the wrongs, right?

hey, whatcha doing?

*insert hollow laughter here*
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