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.

 

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

Something New, Something…Perfect?

I am, at heart, not a particularly patient human being.  Reading romances, especially, as a teen, brought that element of my personality to the fore: “why don’t they just TALK to each other?  Why are they being so STUPID?”

As i got older, I understood that people are often broken in ways that make them stupid.  Especially when it comes to matters of the heart.  If only, I thought, there way a way to see your perfect partner, the one who actually will fit you, will love you, and you’ll love…

But even then I knew it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be that easy.

And when you bring not two but three personalities into play…

It’s going to take more than magic to make things work.  It’s going to take courage, patience… and a writer who’s got your back.  🙂

On Valentine’s Week, I offer you this new bit of feel-good (sweet-AND-spicy) fluff, SOMETHING PERFECT.

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.