Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ranger Recommends Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

In my journey to understand the new creature in my life this is one of the books that really made a difference. Ranger would highly recommend this book.

Temple Grandin is a noted animal behaviorist and a person with autism. During her long professional career working with animals she's had ample opportunity to observe them. Grandin's observations lead her to the conclusion that animals process the information their senses provide much like an autistic person does. The subtitle of the book captures that thesis very well "Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior."

Most people have a verbal narrative that runs in the background of their brain providing descriptive labeling for things being experienced. "I bumped my leg on the coffee table and it hurt." Many of those with autism and, in Grandin's thesis, animals don't have a verbal narrative. Instead, for them there is a silent movie that records experiences. In my short example above where I would have the narrative Grandin would have a movie of herself bumping her leg on the specific coffee table and of herself experiencing pain as a result. She argues that the way animals experience the world has a lot in common with the way autistic people experience the world. Where my internal narrative allows me to fudge a lot of details or ignore information that doesn't fit in the narrative autistic people and animals have no such luxury, for them all details are recorded. This is why it is often so difficult for most people to figure out what is spooking an animal. The coat hung on the fence post for example isn't important in the narrative and people don't see it but to a cow or horse that coat is something new in the environment and possibly a threat. To an autistic person the coat on the fence post is an observed detail that is part of the whole picture.

For a person with autism or an animal, generalizing is very difficult. I see a brown truck of a certain shape and shade and immediately identify it as being a UPS truck no matter what angle I'm seeing it from or what it is doing. For an animal or someone with autism this generalization is absent. Because Grandin does such a great job of explaining how a mind that interprets the world through pictures rather than narrative handles information I'm a much more mindful partner for Ranger and Finna. Ranger has seen UPS trucks in our neighborhood a lot. He's viewed them from the front, from the back and both sides. He's seen them driving past him both forwards and backward and driving toward him and to me he should recognize and understand that UPS trucks are not a threat as long as we were on the side of the road. Yet early in our relationship as we were walking home there was a UPS truck backing down the street and Ranger freaked out. I'd already seen, labeled and dismissed the truck so I was very startled by his reaction. Fortunately, I'd read Grandin's book and could look at it through his eyes. He'd never seen a UPS truck behave in that fashion and it was frightening, he wasn't able to generalize the other behaviors he'd seen from UPS trucks to the current behavior. Because I knew what was going on I was able to calm him and help him through the initial fright.

It's a fascinating book. As "Entertainment Weekly" put it "At once hilarious, fascinating, and just plain weird, Animals is one of those rare books that elicit a 'wow' on almost every page." That's a pretty good summation of a book that is well worth reading. Ranger highly recommends it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

One Year Later--12 month Finnaversary

When we brought Finna home I confidently announced that if everyone would give me a year she'd be a different dog. Looking back I've both succeeded and failed at fulfilling that boast. Physically Finna is much healthier, she's eating better, she smells better, her coat feels soft and sleek. When she first came to live with us the only things she'd eat reliably were marrow bones and cat kibble. She craved protein. She still loves protein but now she gets it eating her Primal Raw nuggets. Her coat that was greasy feeling and shedding in handfuls is soft as satin and sheds surprisingly little for a short coated dog. She has very little odor now although when she came to live with us she had a very powerful doggie smell. I didn't want to traumatize her by giving her a bath immediately--there was still so much she needed to learn about living with a family--and as her health has improved her smell as dissipated and I still haven't given her a real bath.

The dog that had no idea how to play has learned to play fetch, catch, and tug. She's learned to solicit games from her humans and she's learned how to learn and that she can affect her environment in positive ways by her behavior. The dog with no idea of the kind of manners humans value in a dog now waits politely at the door to be released before going out. She now waits, most of the time, to be invited to jump into my lap. And she knows that sitting and eye contact are the best default behaviors.

We recently had to have a lot of work done in our yard dealing with plumbing related issues. Eight months ago the only way we could have done this would have been by tranquilizing Finna. Today, while I was exceedingly careful not to let her outside into the yard while the crew was working she was able to stay in the house and cope. She did bark some but it was never the frenzied, over the top, out of control barking that we used to get at anything out of the ordinary. We could easily call her away and reassure her that it was OK the crew was allowed to be there.

Finna is a different dog, a better, more relaxed, more confident, less fearful dog today than she was a year ago. She's come a long long way and overcome a lot of her bad beginnings. In the year I so casually boasted it would take to rehabilitate this dog we've made huge strides. Sadly, however, she was even more damaged than I originally estimated. For all our strides, for all the progress and improvement Finna remains a very damaged dog. She will not let anyone outside myself and my two children touch her. She still will not let my husband touch her. In some ways this is the most frustrating of her problems. She will gently take treats from "Dad," curl up against him on the couch, and rest her chin on his knee; as long as the contact is initiated by her and he is only the passive recipient all is well but if he moves his hand toward her she'll growl, bark, and even snap at him. Her relationship with "Dad" remains suspicious. He can engage in activities she considers 'normal' for him but she'll bark and growl at him for things he does that she doesn't expect. Generally once he comes home he doesn't go back to the garage until he's leaving for work the next morning. If he tries to go back to the garage Finna will bark fiercely at him. After almost 25 years of marriage I expect that his behavior will be unpredictable but Finna has a herding dog's need to anticipate movement and control it. Not being able to anticipate where he'll go is a serious problem for her and her choice to address this problem with barks, growls, and snaps is a serious problem for us.

Finna has also turned into a resource guarder although she generally only guards one resource--me. I'm told that German Shepherd bitches almost universally go through a phase of wanting to guard their person and Finna's paperwork identified her as half GSD and half Corgi. We're working on the problem but it is a real problem. It is incredibly frustrating when my husband tries to bring me something and Finna leaps between us barking at him to get back or my son comes downstairs to do schoolwork and Finna must leap on my lap to keep him from getting to me.

Going back to the car analogy that I've used in previous posts, Finna was adopted on the assumption that she was an econo-car sedan that we could put some work into and have a nice reliable family 'car.' Instead, we as we worked on getting this 'car' running again we discovered that Finna was really a high performance sports car with no brakes or steering. Our first plateau in her rehabilitation she was that high performance sports car that had brakes and steering that were only reliable below 35 mph, not a good thing in a vehicle designed to work at 120 mph. Today her brakes and steering are reliable to about 55 mph, after that they start getting dicey but expert handling can sometimes compensate up to about 70 mph. However, she remains that high performance sports car without reliable brakes or steering. Until she's safe at any speed she's not a safe dog.

Finna has come a long long way in a year. And the fact that she has made such a lot of progress gives me hope for the future. We'll continue to work with her, train her, teach her, and love her and we'll see what another year brings.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What a Difference a Good Trainer Can Make--Finnaversary month eleven

My computer has been acting up so I must apologize that the month eleven update is late.

When we adopted Ranger I knew very little about training a dog. We'd had dogs growing up and I remember them as nice dogs that came when they were called (mostly) and would sit when told (usually). We lived in the country and the dogs did what we expected them to do. They barked to let us know we had visitors and barked to scare away coyotes. They were friendly to visitors and that was about all we asked of them. I don't remember that we did much training.

I knew that living in a suburban environment my dog would need more training than our country dogs did so I started looking for a trainer and I started reading books. Having no idea what the heck I was doing I first tried the "trainer" at the local big box pet supply store. It didn't take me long to decide that I was NOT going to use her as a trainer. Without my permission she forced a capful of lemon juice on Ranger when he barked. Ranger didn't react to it with any more than surprise. As far as I could tell she could have given him a capful of water and it would have had as much effect; but her intent was to punish him for undesirable behavior. She also made me feel very incompetent.    Clearly not a good fit.

Shortly after I'd adopted him the Kitsap Humane Society had offered a new pet owner class with some basic behaviorism. I'd learned a lot and really liked the woman offering the class. I thought she might have good insight into where to find a suitable trainer. As luck would have it she was just forming a new basic training class. We enrolled at once. She was a really good trainer. I felt competent, and I was learning a lot about how Ranger learned. We finished basic and enrolled in Beyond the Basics by the end of which Ranger had his CGC (Canine Good Citizen). Each class ran for six weeks meeting once a week  for about an hour.

Working with a good trainer Ranger went from a well-socialized unruly teenager to a confident well mannered teen in twelve weeks. And I had learned a lot about training. I continued reading a lot of books, watching videos, and generally improving my training skills. I was able to do a fair amount for Finna on my own but I was also smart enough to realize that my skills were not up to the task of completely rehabilitating such a damaged dog. As I explained to the trainer we're working with, I have a lot of knowledge and limited experience.

Finding the right trainer for Finna was crucial. I needed someone with a lot of experience working with fear aggressive dogs and one that was committed to positive reinforcement. I couldn't see any good result coming from punishing Finna for behaving badly because she was frightened. Especially not after the amount of time we'd spent teaching her that she was safe with us and we wouldn't let anything hurt her.

Two trainers in the area were highly recommended by people I trust (specifically the behaviorist we consulted when we realized how many issues Finna actually had/has and the Chinese herb veterinary that prescribes Finna's herbs.) I researched both trainers, carefully pouring over their websites and looking for reviews. In the end I chose Shade's Dog Training http://www.shadesdogtraining.net/about_us.htm the neatness with which she captured her journey as a trainer through brief bios of her dogs was the factor that put her at the top of my list. That and her honest assessment of her dog Shadow who sounded like even more of a handful than Finna. I figured a trainer who had clearly been there would be a great choice and I've been right.

Shade makes me feel competent, hopeful, and clearly understands Finna's unique needs. She can clearly see that if we'd had Finna from puppyhood she'd be an awesome dog today. With her guidance and knowledge sometimes we take Finna back to puppy training--for example, gently tugging her collar and rewarding her in the direction we tugged (tug left, treat left, tug right treat right, etc.). It's an exercise that teaches the puppy to move in the direction they feel the tug a great foundation for polite leash walking. Shade corrects my timing a lot but it never feels like I'm being told I'm wrong instead it's a partnership where she's helping me do it better. It's the same kind of feeling I want Finna to have.

With Shade's guidance we are seeing slow but steady improvement in our damaged dog. Finna still has a very long way to go but more and more I'm seeing indications the awesome dog she might become in time. I'll leave you with a video of Finna's latest learning. On Shade's advice we began teaching Finna to walk on the treadmill. We went into the process knowing that it would take as long as it took but for Finna who had no negative associations with a treadmill it took a mere five training sessions. Frankly, it's taking longer for her to accept wearing a new harness than it took to teach her to walk on a treadmill. Of course, Finna has a different notion of how to use a treadmill than I expected. Notice in the video that while I'm rewarding her for walking on the treadmill and asking for specific ways of using it she's off leash, free to leave at any time, and she's having fun.

Finna uses the treadmill

Sunday, October 14, 2012


I'm the one that first spotted our psycho bitch at the Kitsap Humane Society; an obviously overwhelmed, terrified, shivering dog with an adorable face and huge ears. I'm the one that took our son back to meet her. I'm the one that encouraged him to ask to meet her for possible adoption. I'm the one that drove him back the next day to pick him up and I'm the one that paid her adoption fee, purchased her collar and leash and planned her initial introduction to our home. My fingerprints are all over this addition to our family.

As we near the one year mark of having taken on the challenge of rehabilitating a seriously damaged dog I've been beating up on myself for my role. The costs of living with Finna go beyond food, veterinary care, and other basics--including training. There is a large emotional cost to living with this dog. Because we have Finna we do not have friends over--not that we were ever social butterflies holding parties every weekend but now no visitors. In fact when a friend does drop by we keep them outside the fence because Finna is not trustworthy. We used to take off for an occasional weekend and take vacations but that's not an option with Finna in our lives. It used to be that the whole family would go to my mother-in-law's house to lend a hand with whatever she needed. But Finna can't go with us and can't be left alone for more than seven hours so only my husband and daughter go to visit her (it's a three hour round trip). Our lives, to a large extent, revolve around Finna and her problems.

Every member of the family pays the price for life with Finna and I'm well aware of that which is why I've been to trying to take as much of the Finna care and training upon myself as possible. What I was forgetting is that we've all chosen to keep her. We've been holding regular family meetings about her fate since we first realized how damaged she was/is. Every time we've held one of these meetings about Finna's fate we've all refused to give up on her. I've been forgetting that and it's had some bad consequences.

The more I've tried to spare the rest of the family from Finna the more important I've made myself in Finna's world. In fact I'd made myself so important that I'd become Finna's chief resource to guard. It was developing into a serious problem; a problem about which I asked our trainer. Her recommendation was that I stop being the center of Finna's universe and that the rest of the family take my place. It's so obvious when you think about it but so hard to see when you're in the middle of it. We implemented the suggestion at once and it has been very good for Finna. As she realizes that others can also meet her needs the extent to which she resource guards me has diminished significantly. And with that diminishment she's also becoming more relaxed. Knowing that every member of her family is committed to her and her needs is incredibly important for Finna. She is a dog that grew up believing that human beings were untrustworthy and unreliable.

Finna remains very much that high performance car that I described in an earlier post. She has gotten better, her brakes and steering don't start getting dicey until almost 50 mph now but she's still designed to be running at 120 mph so there's a very long way to go. And it very much feels like anytime we get one thing fixed it reveals half a dozen other problems. There are many days that I despair of ever getting her to a functional state where she's reliable and there are many days that I see significant improvement and think that we really might succeed in rehabilitating this damaged dog.

Next month will mark the one year anniversary of her adoption. But I'm not looking that far ahead. I'm just waiting to see what tomorrow brings.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Even Well Trained Dogs

In a lot of ways Ranger is like another grown child in my family. He respects the rules: he isn't a teenager who wants to test them or a toddler who is figuring them out and looking for boundaries. If Ranger thinks I'm wrong he'll tell me so very clearly but he'll still defer to me if I insist. I trust Ranger to behave as an adult. I don't think twice about leaving him alone with food that he's not supposed to eat. He has adult-like self-control.

Finna is very much the toddler, into everything, figuring out where the boundaries are, testing them. I don't trust her any further than I would any toddler. With Finna I'm careful to never leave her alone with food that she shouldn't eat. If there's anything tasty left within her reach I anticipate that she will eat it. She has virtually no self-control especially around anything as valuable as food.

This has been a rather crazy week at my house. Tuesday morning my husband called moments after he left for work to say his car had died. The timing belt had broken, fortunately it's a Toyota so all that happens is that the car ceases to function; the engine remains intact. A visit with the mechanic later we learned that his elderly Celica needed parts that would have to be special ordered. We were going to be down to one car for most of the week. Wednesday I got up and took Finna out for some play time as usual but instead of being able to come inside and have a nice breakfast I brought her in and hopped in the car to drive my husband to work. By the time I'd dropped him off I was starving so pulled into a McDonald's drive through and got a sausage McMuffin and a couple of hashbrowns. I'd eaten the hashbrowns by the time I got home but hadn't eaten the sausage muffin yet. Wednesday is also the day the dairy delivers to our house. I parked the car, grabbed the rest of my breakfast and a couple half gallons of milk. I brought those in through the gate and set them on the porch and went back to get the rest of the dairy delivery. Ranger was in the yard but he doesn't go out the gate without permission and he doesn't take food he hasn't been given. Two more trips with more items from the dairy and I could close the gate and start taking things inside. I picked up milk, opened the door and Finna dashed outside immediately sticking her nose into my McDonald's bag. I growled a leave it to which she obediently abandoned the bag and followed me inside.

When I came back out for the second load I had to laugh. Ranger was in the middle of the yard with the McDonald's bag lying abandoned beside him and the sausage muffin carefully unwrapped between his paws. Before I could even open my mouth to say anything one side of the muffin and the sausage had disappeared in a gulp. As Finna ran to see what Ranger had the other half of the muffin similarly vanished. Ranger, being a dog and not the adult child that I sometimes consider him, had fixed things so that Finna couldn't get the sausage muffin I'd forbidden her. He was very satisfied with himself and I found something else to have for the rest of my breakfast. Dogs, gotta love them.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ten Month Finnaversary: The Saga Continues

We continue to make slow step by step progress in our efforts to rehabilitate this severely damaged dog we've named Finna. Before our most recent lesson the trainer and I amused ourselves by speculating on the various high strung breeds that went into Finna's mix. Finna's paperwork says she's half GSD and half Corgi but we decided there's probably Cattle Dog, Belgian Malinois, JRT, and Border Collie in there as well. We agreed that Finna is certainly crazy enough to be all of those mixed into one high strung petite package of issues.

Everything we've been able to expose Finna to she takes in stride. Vacuuming withing a few inches of her, using power tools within feet of her, bicycle pumps, etc. are not a problem for Finna. Things about which she had formed an opinion before she came to live with us are a problem. That tells me that if we'd raised Finna from a puppy she'd be an awesome dog but being raised in an inconsistent environment by animal hoarders she's a dog with massive issues.

I learned something important at our last lesson. My previous experience in training a dog is not a good guide for training Finna. Training Ranger is a hugely different experience than training Finna. We adopted both dogs at about a year of age from the Kitsap Humane Society. They are both very smart herding breeds/mixes. But that's where the similarities end. Ranger came from a great beginning with lots of socialization and positive experiences. He learned early on that it was possible to affect his environment to create positive outcomes and that people are partners. Finna learned that what she most wanted was to keep scary people and things away from her and that that was the best outcome she could hope for in her efforts at affecting her environment.  Ranger came to us predisposed to working in partnership and relying on me to give him clues about what I wanted. Telling Ranger "no, that's not the behavior I'm looking for" was useful for Ranger. Finna has no understanding that it's possible to be partners and that my feedback has any value. Finna needs to figure out everything for herself. I can reward success but I can't offer any other feedback. If I want Finna to down from her sit and she stands up instead; telling her "no" isn't helping her. Taking a step back and starting over is the only help I can give her. Please, note when I say telling Ranger or Finna no I am not talking about screaming or shouting at them I'm talking about a conversational tone indicating that the behavior offered was not the one requested. Ranger can be coached in this way and he understands that I'm helping him decode the requested behavior. Finna needs to work it out for herself.

All dogs require patience when training them but in Finna's case it will need to be endless patience. There was a Dogster blog awhile back that summed it up especially well. The subject was why clicker training would be a ratings disaster on TV. You can find the article here. The author described in the article about helping his dog learn to focus everywhere.  They went out to a field with interesting smells and tied the dog's long line to a tree. The trainer set down and watched his dog sniff around for 8 minutes before the dog checked in. Clicked and rewarded. Dog sniffed around for another six minutes then checked in again before being clicked and rewarded. Eventually the dog was focused on the trainer and they moved to another spot in the field and started over. It isn't exciting but the dog learns to figure it out and what it is that gets rewards, in this case focused attention. This is what I need to be doing for Finna, I need to give her as much time as she needs to offer me the behavior I want. Coaxing her or otherwise trying to short cut the process isn't doing her any favors.

Another thing we need to be working on is making Finna feel completely safe in her house even when Dad is home. She feels pretty safe with me and the children but much less so when Dad is home. We don't know why she often feels unsafe with him around. It might be the way my husband moves, some studies have shown that men carry their weight forward as if they are about to suddenly lunge forward which is going to feel more threatening to dogs especially dogs like Finna. It's also possible that Finna is reacting to the extra testosterone he has compared to anyone else in the family--Finna can smell that very easily. Or it could be that her previous life taught her that men cannot be trusted, that they are unpredictable and inconsistent--imagine if you are rewarded for jumping up and solicit petting but the next time you do it you're grabbed and thrown on your back on the ground and the same person that was petting you for jumping up before is now holding you down and yelling in your face; would you know how to behave or would you start to be afraid of that person and maybe generalize it to all people of that type? I know that back in the days when I was in college and built like a barbie doll it didn't take me long to reach the point where I crossed the street to avoid walking near construction sites. In my world at that time construction workers were sources of discomfort; I didn't enjoy the catcalls, wolf whistles and multiple propositions. Having passed my half century mark and broadened into more of an Earth Mother shape I no longer cross streets to avoid construction sites; I no longer get the same reaction I did as a twenty-something babe. Maybe time will help lessen Finna's fear of men. Meanwhile, I'll be thinking about ways to help Finna feel safe when Dad is home. Feeling safe in your own house should be a fundamental expectation for everyone two footed or four footed.

I notice this blog entry has been more focused on the problems of life with Finna. It isn't all bad. In fact our last lesson with our Trainer turned out to be the best yet. Finna was able to exhibit a new behavior that we'd worked on a little bit at home a few months back and touch my hand. She was able to sit and actually offered sits and watches in an effort to get treats. And Finna was able to down even with the Trainer sitting in the room. It was really heartening; Finna was acting like a real dog and not like a Finna dog. She was focused, paying attention and giving me the behaviors I asked for. She wasn't stressed out and over threshold. Shade, our Trainer, and I were both delighted with how well Finna did! There's hope for our psycho bitch yet. Maybe someday, I'll be writing blogs about Finna our super bitch instead of calling her psycho bitch. But that day is a long ways off. In the meantime we'll celebrate our tiny victories and be proud of any advance. That's life with Finna.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My Wish for All Dogs

I hope you can read this. I had to make it small enough to fit within the text space and that made the text in the image a bit small. I found it in my Facebook newsfeed one day and I loved it. It captures exactly my wish for all dogs but especially for my fearful Finna. Here, is the place where she will be part of a family and where she will be safe and loved. We will not abandon her just because she's much more of a challenge than we anticipated. Here she will be taught patiently, kindly, and lovingly what she needs to know to be the best dog that she can be. Here she will belong and she will be home.

Friday, August 31, 2012

K9 Sign with Dad: Communicating with the Hard of Seeing

Those of you who've followed this blog know that Ranger has learned several "words" in a shared gestural language called K9 Sign. See the first post in this blog for more details. This morning while I was throwing the ball for Finna my husband was trying to "talk" to Ranger in K9 Sign. I was highly entertained how Ranger replied.

To get the full picture you need to know a few signs. "What" is the pinky on the right hand moved horizontally left to right, "Is" is formed by moving the right hand pinky vertically top to bottom and "This" is made by pointing with the right hand index finger. I make the sentence "What is this" with my elbow against my side and my hand moving maybe an inch from the line formed by my arm. My husband is learning the signs and tends to make them very broadly. "What is this," when he signs it is the whole fore arm moving along with the fingers and hand. His signs cover feet rather than barely an inch.

Ranger was being asked to identify treats that "Dad" had for him. Dad had a handful of generic treats to which Ranger would sign "Food" by lifting his left paw up and setting it down. When Ranger tells me that I have "food" for that people in the park are packing treats his sign is very subtle a quick lift and place that most people don't even notice.

Watching Dad sign "WHAT IS THIS" Ranger obviously concluded that Dad must be hard of seeing because Ranger responded with highly exaggerated gestures replying "FOOD." It really made me laugh. When Ranger answers my small quick signs you have to watch closely to catch his reply but when replying to my husband's slow exaggerated signs Ranger answered in kind.

I suggested my husband go inside and bring out the video camera so I could record their conversation but he and Ranger went off to do something else.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Finnaversary Month Nine: Celebrating the Tiny Victories

Nine months into our adventures in rehabilitating our unsocialized, grew up with animal hoarders, damaged dog and I can safely say we're learning a lot! One of the things we're learning is the importance of celebrating even the tiniest victory.

Having lived with Finna there are some things that I can now say with a certain amount of confidence. Simply because of the way that she is wired Finna will always be a more high strung and intense dog. That's how she's made. However, I'm convinced that if she'd been brought up right and socialized as a puppy she'd be a confident and amazing dog rather than the highly reactive fear aggressive dog she is today. Socialization really is that important.

I found something in an article about positive dog training that really says it all. "He had already found that it was much more effective to condition an animal to see the world as an environment in which something positive could occur at any moment." the full article can be found here http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/how-technology-from-30-years-ago-is-helping-military-dogs-perform-better-no Ranger grew up in that world and that's the one he believes in. Finna grew up in a world where her environment taught her that at any moment something negative might happen. We've worked hard to change Finna's expectations but her early experiences are still dominanting her beliefs.

Living with Finna we look for any victory that we can find. Here are some of our recent victories. Finna has realized that she can look to the rest of us for threat assessments. Thunder in the distance one morning had Finna worried and looking in every direction for the threat. Then she checked our reactions and realized that no one else was worried and she relaxed. Finna was also concerned when an owl flew low along the fence line. She barked an alert and Ranger ran to see what the problem was. He reacted to the owl with indifference (you called me for that?) and my daughter and I were reacting with wonder (how cool is that, I don't think that owl is even 10' away). Finna saw those reactions and dismissed the owl as anything about which to be concerned.

The other morning while we were out playing ball the garbage truck came. This is something that used to set Finna off, all that clanking, banging, and then they take away "our stuff." Finna's ears flickered a few times but she stayed connected and focused on playing ball. Garbage truck came and went without a barking frenzy.

Finna was able, on the third session, to take treats while at the trainers. Think about how upset your stomach feels when you're nervous and stressed. Do you want to eat when you feel like that? I know I don't and from her behavior that's the way Finna was feeling. Being able to eat at the trainers was a huge leap!

Down is proving very difficult to teach Finna. Her sit is getting better and better but down remains elusive. Usually, it takes holding one hand lightly on her lower back when she's sitting to get her to down. In a training session the other day we had two unassisted downs. She was following the lure but previously we couldn't get her to down without a hand on her back even with the tastiest of lures. Ranger has a really good down from either sitting or standing so we're asking him to down as an example to Finna. The only time Finna downs consistently is on the slope when we're playing ball. We're working on naming that down trying to build the connection in her head between the word and the action. It's a slow process but we'll get there someday.

Finna has learned to put two front paws up on the balance board. We have a board set on two cinderblocks in Ranger's enclosure. We set it up when we were teaching Ranger to feel comfortable with unstable surfaces (board bounces slightly under his weight)  and never bothered to take it down. Helping Finna figure out that we wanted her to put her front paws on the board was a great training exercise. So much of what we're training her to do is critically important to our ability to keep everyone safe that an exercise that had no real point was great. There was no reason for getting frustrated because even if she never learned to put two paws on that board it wouldn't matter. In actual fact it will be a useful skill as we generalize it. At some point we'll probably teach her to use sandpaper on a board to keep her claws worn down, for example.

For months whenever Finna was inside our living room was off limits to Ranger and my husband. She'd decided this was her territory and she was very happy to defend it. I'm pleased to say that both of them are now allowed at least part way into the room quite often. There's still some territoriality but it's slowly diminishing.

It is now possible to work with both dogs together. Ranger thinks training time is a lot of fun but he wasn't enjoying it much when he'd do what we asked and Finna would shove herself in and grab his reward. Finna can now hold a sit while I give Ranger his treat and then give Finna her treat. I'm hopeful that the lightbulb will go on in Finna's head someday soon and she'll realize that she can copy Ranger to get treats. He has a wide repertoire of behaviors that I'd like to have Finna learn.

Finna remains somewhat leery of my husband and if he walks past when she's sleeping she usually jumps up to scold him. Twice one evening she simply slept through him walking past. I didn't even see her ears flicker. Finna also reacts with barking to the sound of the bedroom or bathroom door opening. Last night as my husband went to bed Finna lay quietly on the floor enjoying some petting.

The dog that didn't know there was any meaning attached to the sounds that come out of human mouths now recognizes a few nouns, a skill that goes beyond simply recognizing behavior cues such as sit. Finna knows ball and I was pleased to discover that she knows hedgehog. I often ask her to find her ball when I've lost track of it. I think she's still amazed at how I can lose the ball in the dark and not find it by smell. Finna is very good at finding the ball and showing me by pointing with her nose where it is. She was restless the other day and I didn't want to go back out in the 90 degree heat. I thought a nice game of fetch with the squeaky hedgehog would be just the thing. Making conversation I said something to Finna about I wonder where your hedgehog is. We need to find your hedgehog. Finna trotted off and returned with the hedgehog!

These are the small victories we celebrate. They are the bright spots in our life with this highly reactive and unsocialized dog. They are signs that we are getting through to her and that she is getting better even if it is very very slowly. Finding the small victories is what makes it possible for us to keep going.

I'll close with my favorite victory to celebrate. We now have a dog that smiles. She  smiles quite a bit now. My daughter snapped this photo during a recent training session. Two happy attentive dogs smiling.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dogs at Play

There is something very satisfying about watching Ranger and Finna play together. She's always been able to engage in proper play with Ranger so it isn't just a new thing but watching them together is always special. In one respect we definitely chose well when we brought Finna home. Her play style meshes very well with Ranger's; they both love to race and to wrestle.

They both play together so appropriately, there are frequent pauses, no one is being hurt so there is no yelping, since they play together a lot they only use abbreviated play bows, and all the growls and other noises are simply in play. I suppose someone who wasn't used to watching dogs play would assume they are fighting but I've watched enough dogs at play that I can usually tell when it starts going beyond play. Once early on, when Finna hadn't been here very long, I stopped their game because I saw Finna's hackles coming up. That's the only time I've ever seen things start to head toward inappropriate and after I stopped the game for a minute her hackles relaxed and Ranger went after  her again; several laps around the yard later they were tired and happy dogs lounging in the grass panting side by side. 

Ranger tends to be lazy and exert just enough effort to accomplish his goals. In general play he's fast but Finna is faster. What Finna didn't know for a long time is that Ranger has two more gears beyond where he usually plays with her. He has what we call putting it into gear where he really moves and what we refer to as going to afterburners where he flies. Finna likes it when he puts it into gear because that's a real challenge for her. The first time he went to afterburners it blew her mind because he can literally run circles around her when he does that. I suspect that if we ever get her unwound enough that she's not carrying any tension in her hips she'll be a challenge for Ranger even when he's gone to afterburners but for now there's no way she can keep up at that speed.

In my years of watching Ranger play with his pals and now watching him play with Finna I've noticed an interesting thing. Ranger often takes advantage of the tendency for dogs being chased to look back to see if the other dog is gaining on them. He used this on Finna the other day. He's chasing her and she's fleeing at top speed. Ranger peels off and angles to cut her off just as Finna looks back to see how close he's getting. Finna ploughs into his shoulder and looks astonished--he was behind her, what on earth is he doing blocking her way, how can he be in two places at once. Since Finna is really smart it didn't take her long to figure out what it is that he does and to try it herself. Except Ranger never looks back. As a result he sees what she's doing and rather than plough into her he leaps over her. He's able to physically block her in a  race game because she'll look back but she can't block him because he doesn't look back.

Finna is roughly half Ranger's size and she's developed one form of attack that Ranger hasn't figured out how to counter yet. Finna will lower her head, drop her shoulders a little and run underneath Ranger. She's not quite tall enough to high center him when she stands back up underneath him but she is tall enough to make him have to dance to get off of her. Sometimes she'll zoom back and forth underneath Ranger's belly and I wonder if she's enjoying the sensation of being petted with a furry blanket.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ranger is the higher status dog at our house but the confidence that makes him so high status also allows him to assume submissive postures with no loss of status. Finna is always thrilled when she manages to knock Ranger to the ground although watching what I see is Ranger letting her knock him down. She loves getting him on the ground and chewing on his ruff and on his front legs. Ranger lets her wear herself out doing this then as she gets tired he'll leap up and take off after her. When Ranger wants to take Finna somewhere he'll take the side of her face in his teeth and lead her around.

Here's a bit of video of Finna and Ranger at play. Of course I would film this on a day when all my deck furniture is in the front yard for pressure washing and the dogs would insist on wrestling in the dirt. I left the audio as recorded so you can hear the play growls.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finna Levels

Trying to describe the different levels of intensity/insanity/out-of-controlness that is Finna I came up with the description that I want to install a rheostat on her. 


noun Electricity .
an adjustable resistor so constructed that its resistance may be changed without opening the circuit in which it is connected,thereby controlling the current in the circuit.

Finna came to us with her rheostat stuck between hyper-vigilant and frenzied. There really didn't seem to be any setting lower than that for a long time. Today her settings have a range beginning with relaxed/happy and continuing all the way up to frenzied. Sadly we do still see the frenzied setting from time to time but there are quite a few more settings than just watching for things to fly into a frenzy about (hyper-vigilant) and has completely lost it and cannot think at all (frenzied). 

We don't see relaxed/happy as often as I'd like but Finna is spending more time in calm/alert than ever before. My goal is to get her rheostat stuck between those two settings. At those settings she can think and make good choices. At calm/alert she hears the scary garbage truck on the street but chooses to stay focused on playing ball. I love that she can do that sometimes. 

As she escalates past the calm/alert setting Finna goes through 
concerned where she's thinking about whether something is scary to 
worried where she thinks that it is scary but can still think about whether she needs to react to 
upset where she's reacting to the frightening thing but can often re-engage her brains and dial it back down to 
freaked out where thinking goes completely out the window and she reacts with fear and aggression to 
hyper-vigilant and then 

Actually we don't see hyper-vigilant all that much any more; she seems to blast right through from freaked out to frenzied. When she gets to frenzied we have no control at all, at that level I'm not even sure she knows us. She does seem to know us at freaked out and I can sometimes see her trying to respond to us and our efforts to help her by removing her from the problem but the pathways just aren't well enough marked in her brain for her to be able to find her way back to sense once she's freaked out. At that point all we can do is remove her and give her time to settle down. 

Still, on the upside we don't spend nearly as much time at the high end of her settings as we once did and there are additional settings so we are making progress. Just very very slow progress. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Eighth Month Finnaversary

It's hard to believe we've only been living with our psycho bitch for eight months. It feels more like a lifetime. It helps in our efforts to rehabilitate this damaged dog to reflect back each month and consider where we are and where we've been.

Lately I've been using car metaphors when talking about Finna. We went to the Kitsap Humane Society looking for an econo car that my son could put some work into and have a decent ride. Finna was supposed to be his 4-H project dog; one that he could work with and learn some training skills and end up with a nice family dog and good friend. It didn't take us long to realize that rather than a car that needed some work we had a wreck. The outside didn't look too bad but the internal workings were pretty thoroughly trashed. We started to work trying to get the engine running and everything patched up.

We began with a dog that had no trust of any human, no idea that it was possible to play with a person, one that believed she had to grab what she wanted, that peed in the house regularly and that both craved and resisted touch. Today she has a good bond with me and to a slightly lesser extent with our son and daughter. She's learned to play with me and that she can't always have what she wants. She only pees in the house when she is very very stressed and enjoys a certain amount of petting. She came to us wound so tightly that she could barely function. The slightest noise would send her barking wildly trying to scare away whatever it was. She's not nearly as tightly wound today; I was astonished the other day when Finna was able to focus on playing ball despite the fact that our noisy neighbors had decided to disassemble their old washing machine with a sledge hammer.

Now that the engine is running, albeit still pretty rough, we're discovering that what we have is not a nice econo car but a Lamborghini with unreliable brakes and steering. Sometimes I can see flashes of the awesome dog she was meant to be but right now she can be scary to live with because she's still very reactive and unreliable. Imagine trying to drive a car that it takes just the slightest touch on the gas pedal to have it go instantly from 0 to 120 mph but the brakes and steering  only work below 35 mph! That's what it is like living with Finna.

Still we've now gotten to the point where it's possible to enlist the services of a professional trainer or as my daughter calls her "the doggie therapist." That always makes me laugh since I immediately picture Finna stretched out on the psychologist's couch saying "My mother was a real bitch!" Actually, I wish it was possible to psycho-analyse Finna and find out what terrors there are in her past so that we could address them.

After our first meeting with the professional trainer it's clear that we have Ranger to make me look good and Finna to keep me humble.  Finna was so stressed by the car ride that she arrived over threshold and never really recovered. The trainer saw Finna where she was right then and noted that we have a long long way to go. I could see Finna in relation to where she was and found it encouraging. There was some aggressive barking at the trainer but no lunging and Finna was able to explore. She didn't freak out at the mirrors or her reflection and she stayed connected and responsive to me. Eight months ago none of that would have been the case. Finna was able to play ball and tug by the end of the session. My timing for mark and reward was pretty lousy but I did learn how much  it was off and have been working on improving it.

It was very useful to talk to a professional who was coming at this process with fresh eyes. For example we'd gotten so focused on protecting my husband from Finna that we were actually making him irrelevant to her. He's now the one that feeds Finna morning and night and we try to make sure that he plays ball with her every day. It's too early to be sure how much difference it's making but my sense is that it is helping.

In the last eight months I've managed to get the beginnings of a good default sit from Finna. The trainer wants a reliable default watch. We'd already begun working on that but we're now stepping up the training. Finna still isn't very comfortable watching anyone else but the amount of time it takes her to watch with me is steadily decreasing. I'm really liking the fact that the trainer we're working with is all about capturing the good behavior and not about punishing the bad our instructions are to ignore bad behavior and to do our best to not put Finna in situations where she can practice bad behavior. This isn't always possible but I was really encouraged the morning we were outside playing ball and the noisy neighbors started screaming at their dogs. Finna broke off the game to react, recovered, broke to react, recovered and asked to go play in Ranger's enclosure where the is a lot less pressure from the distressing noises. She made a really good choice to remove herself from one of her triggers.

Another nice thing about working with the professional trainer is that some of the things in the books I'm reading suddenly make sense in a new way. Lately, I've been reading "Control Unleashed" (expect a Ranger Recommends Review on it soon) where the author describes a game she calls 'Give Me a Break' that helps a dog learn to focus on the handler. The nutshell version is that you dismiss your dog to go do whatever it is that's distracting them before they wander off on their own and because you're stopping while they still want to play they soon learn to keep begging you to play (and training, done right, should be fun play for the dog). In light of what I learned from the trainer this suddenly made sense in a good way and I've been trying to incorporate it into our ball playing time. Saying to Finna "Check it Out" the instant I see her attention start to shift and removing my attention from her is making a positive difference. She's finding that she'd rather play with me than run to the fence to bark at the noisy neighbors. It's a bit like the reverse psychology parents use on kids.

There's still a huge long long way to go for Finna to be a good canine citizen and not an unsafe dog but sometimes I actually think we might get her there. We have gotten her to the point where she's pretty good at home in her safe environment with just her family to deal with. In fact my husband recently asked if it was his imagination or if she was starting to grin. She is smiling a lot now and even smiling at my husband. That's a wonderful bit of progress.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading to Ranger at the Library

Ranger loves being a registered therapy dog. Today he spent a couple of hours listening to kids read to him at the library. There were three teams in a big conference room. We got there first so I picked our spot in a nice corner with a nice cool brick wall to lean on. Our corner wasn't instantly obvious from the door and I was amused when Ranger moved away from the corner to lay more in the middle of the room where no one could miss him.

There were quite a few kids wanting to read to the dogs. It was nice that there were three dogs for the kids to read to so there wasn't a lot of waiting and the kids were good about taking turns. I got a bit tired of "Gilbert Goldfish Gets a Pet" and "Fancy Nancy and Pajama Day" which several of the kids picked to read to Ranger. Fortunately, for me several of the kids read very quietly so I didn't have to hear every word over and over. Ranger doesn't care what books they read to him. He's just happy to listen and get petting.

When we first registered with Therapy Dog International I made some trading cards of Ranger. I had a new batch printed and we were giving them to the kids. The other two dogs had bookmarks. the kids seemed to get a kick out of collecting all three items. On Ranger's card it lists K9 sign as one of his tricks. One boy was especially impressed by this. His cousin goes to school where they use sign language. He asked me if Ranger could sign ABCs and I talked about why Ranger couldn't make all the same gestures to sign that a person can. For example, Ranger's wrist doesn't bend the same way a human's does. When we compared the signs for water it turns out that they are very similar. The sign the boy showed me mimed drinking out of a cup or bottle. In K9 sign the gesture is brushing the left paw along the side of the mouth and cheek. It was pretty interesting.

Most of the adults were interested in the fact that Ranger knows some K9 sign. One of the librarians even came in to meet him because she heard some people talking about one of the dogs knowing K9 sign. And one of the other handlers was very interested. I hadn't brought any special treats, just whatever was in the bag in the car so I didn't have any chicken or cheese just "food." The other handler had some cheese flavored treats that she shared with me so I could demonstrate that Ranger knows the difference and uses different signs for food and cheese. 
One of the boys that came to read to Ranger had a Wimpy Kid book with lots of questions. He was having a really good time posing the questions to Ranger and I was answering them for him. One of the questions was "what practical jokes have you played on your parents?" I remember one joke that Ranger thought was very funny that I didn't think was nearly as amusing. We were at the dog park and Ranger had jumped up onto the picnic table. I told him to get off and he ignored me. When I reached for his collar to tug him off he growled and barked at me. I backed away and looked at him in surprise and disapproval. That's the point where Ranger gave me a big doggie grin and laughed before jumping off the table. He thought it was a great joke.

One of the girls that read to Ranger was a very reluctant reader. I'm not even sure she could read and she looked to be about 8 years old. It was good to watch her relax into reading the pictures as Ranger laid there listening. When she'd use words to tell the picture that were in the text I'd show her the words on the page. These are the kids that benefit the most from reading to a dog. 
Two hours was a long time. We took a break after about an hour and went out so Ranger could have a drink of water. It amuses people no end that Ranger drinks from a water bottle. I had him paws up on the edge of a flower bed so all the water that he doesn't drink goes somewhere useful. About 45 minutes into the second hour Ranger completely sacked out. He looks so sweet when he's asleep. At the end of the time we'd agreed to be there we went back outside and Ranger had another long drink of water. He was ready to go back in again but agreed to go home when I said we were done. 
If you want to read Ranger's version of reading at the library you can find it at http://www.dogster.com/dogs/658330/diary/Wag_more_bark_less/788472

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What's in a Name?

When we adopted Finna her name was Wallie and we were unanimous in our opinion that it did not suit her. Finna in all the languages I've searched is a name and meaning that suits her much better.

In slang Finna mean "going to." I like to think that she is going to a happier and more relaxed state of being.  In Swedish and Icelandic Finna means "to find, locate or discover." We sincerely hope she finds happiness and stability living with us. In Faroese Finna means "small woman" which seem appropriate for our 50lb bitch (Remember Ranger is 90 lbs so she is much smaller). Finna in Irish mean "fair" which suits her adorably cute face.

I hadn't realized when my son named her what a well chosen name it was and how well it would lend itself to other names. Around here the rule seems to be that everyone has multiple names. Finna is no exception. Her names reflect a lot about her mental stability and how we're feeling about her. The difficult to live with Finna is Fisbo (FSBO--For Sale by Owner). Stressed and unable to focus she's psycho bitch or for Ranger Psycho Sis. Other names she often hears are Fidiot, Fizzle, and FinnaDinnaDingDong. More neutral nicknames include FinnFinna Fizz and FinnaFur. The happy playful Finna is Fizzy. And more and more often she's Fizzy Lifting Drink, Fizz or Finn Dinn. Maybe someday she'll be Fincredible and Fintastic. That's our hope anyway.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Finnaversary Number Seven

It's been seven months now since we adopted our profoundly damaged dog Finna. My kids like me to quantify things in numbers. I'm not really sure how that started but the question "on a scale of one to ten, how good was I today" and similar variations have often been heard at my house. I can't remember now who first asked that I quantify Finna's mental health but I remember they knew she was so bad that we needed to use a big scale so they asked where she ranked on a scale of one to a hundred. I think I gave her a -50. Since then the question has been, "is Finna still in negative numbers." I'm pleased to say that Finna has finally left the negative numbers behind; currently I'd put her at a 2 on a scale of 1-100. Ranger, for comparison, is probably 97 out of 100 and my goal for Finna would be to be at an 80 out of 100.

Two is a pretty lousy rating until you remember just how far she's had to come to get to that two. It's difficult to notice the changes except by taking a long look back. I recently described observing Finna's progress as being akin to "watching a flower bloom in real time." The changes on a day to day level are so minute that they are pretty much invisible. It's only in hindsight that it is apparent that she is making progress. Originally we adopted her because we sensed that inside the prison of her fears there was a good dog waiting to get out. Occasionally we see that good dog now and not just the possibility that there is a good dog in there.

Over all Finna is much less tightly wound than she was in the beginning. She's always going to be more high strung and intense than Ranger but she's learning some tools to manage those traits. Finna carries her stress and tension in her hips and recently I was delighted to observe that her gait has become smoother and less stiff. She's moving more freely because there is less tension being carried in her hips and lower back.

Finna is still a dangerous dog and I was dismayed to learn in the last couple of days that her air snaps and inhibited grabs are actually considered bites albeit at the lowest level of bite intensity. I live in terror that she'll escape the fence and get herself into real trouble and wind up seriously hurting someone.
With the family she still takes issue with my husband sometimes although he's allowed to move through the house more often with no reaction from her. We've also discovered that part of her problem with him is that she's guarding me. If I'm not home she is much more inclined to ignore anything he does. It's something we continue to work on although it helps a lot to know that these days I'm the key factor.

Strangers are still a major problem although she's getting better about tolerating them outside the fence as long as they're there before she goes out. If they come up while she's out she loses it. She recovers faster these days from an emotional upset and has fewer upsets than she used to. Her self-control is a lot better. She's learned to wait at the door until she is released. We're always amused though at the fact that when she sits to get the door to open so she can go out she sits with all her might. There's plenty of drive in this dog if we can only add some brakes and steering.

Finna has been on Chinese herbs, specifically Shen Calmer, for four months now. We've been taking her off her herbs every couple months for a week so that we can see how effective behavior modification alone is. I can definitely tell a difference between Finna on her herbs and Finna off of them. It's clear she still needs the support the herbs give her but the behavior modifications are having an effect. Now when she starts getting wound up she doesn't just fly apart in all directions. Instead, Finna bugs me and bugs me until I'll go out and play endless games of fetch. She's figured out that she can work off some of the stress and anxiety she feels by chasing the ball which is encouraging.

Finna is still a pretty tightly furled bud but some color is starting to peek out around the edges and someday she'll bloom.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Life with Ranger

I often joke that my job is just to hold the leash. Ranger is special and amazing and many people treat him like another person. This is  a day of life with Ranger.

Tuesday May 8, 2012.

First thing in the morning. I let Finna outside. She chases the ball, potties and goes to Ranger's enclosure to ask for him to come out. Ranger sleeps outside on his own couch in a roughly 700 square foot partially roofed enclosure. This is by his choice. Ranger and Finna have a brief run and wrestle and then while Finna plays fetch Ranger sits by my side and enjoys petting. Finna and I go in to breakfast. Ranger, again, by his choice, stays outside.  My daughter comes out with her school backpack and loads Ranger into the car. He comes with us while I drive her to class.

After we drop her off Ranger and I head to the dog park where he greets his canine pals and soaks up attention from all the humans in the park. Ranger keeps an eye on play interactions and intervenes whenever he thinks play is getting a bit too aroused. He reads his p-mail and hangs out. If one of his particular buddies is there he'll play. After about an hour we load up and head to the Farmer's Market.

The local Farmer's Market is an outdoor affair and leashed well mannered dogs are welcome. Ranger gets suited up in his backpack and we go shopping. It's still early in the season and new vendors are coming each week. I see the homemade jam stall for the first time this year and am planning that as our first stop when Ranger spots another newly returned vendor. This vendor sells grass fed beef including dog bones and the owner loves Ranger. From across the market Ranger begins singing his greetings to his friend who is joyfully calling back, "Ranger, hey buddy, I've missed you too." Obviously, the jam will have to wait.

Ranger hurries me across the market to the beef vendor's stall. After a prolonged greeting, Ranger sits and prances in place while the vendor clears off the cooler where he keeps the bones. Ranger encourages him with the occasional bark. By now a crowd is gathering. When the cooler is cleared off Ranger and the vendor begin the negotiation about which two bones we'll be taking home. The bones are frozen solid and the vendor wields a hammer to get them apart. He selects a bone and holds it up. Ranger doesn't react so he puts that one back and holds up another one. This one is slightly larger with more meat. Ranger barks his acceptance and the crowd laughs as the vendor puts that bone in a bag. He hold up another bone similar in size and meatiness to the first and Ranger again barks his approval to the enjoyment of the crowd. That bone is bagged and I put the bones into Ranger's pack. He's now carrying close to four pounds of dog bones. I pay the vendor and as the crowd wanders on Ranger and his friend say their goodbyes. These are kept brief because there are customers waiting. Ranger's endorsement has encouraged people to stop.

Now I can do my shopping. We head back to the jam stall where Ranger is welcomed with open arms and praised to the skies. The vendors, two run this stall, feed him Ritz crackers that they've brought so people can sample the different jams. While he eats his crackers (two) they tell me about their dogs and how they wish they were as well trained as Ranger. I purchase two pints of jam and add them to Ranger's pack. He's carrying about six pounds now as we move on through the market.

A mom with a toddler in the stroller passes us and the toddler reaches out to Ranger. We stop and mother and child pet Ranger. As they walk away a vendor selling handmade soaps and body butters comes out to admire Ranger and to pet him. I find a body butter I like and that gets added to Ranger's pack. As we start on our way again Ranger suddenly drags me to a new vendor. She's offering kids a chance to make handmade cards for Mother's Day and isn't doing much business. Before I can stop him Ranger has his paws up on her table and is smiling happily at her. She seems a bit taken aback by this exuberant greeting from a rather large and unfamiliar dog. I apologize and tell Ranger to get off. He still wants to interact with her but to me she looks reluctant so we move to the next stall which will be the last place we visit in the market.

This stall sells homemade ice cream. The ice cream, named Viking Fest Ice Cream, is based on Icelandic yogurt rather than cream. Ranger loves this stall and the vendors love him. While I'm perusing the available flavors they're asking if Ranger can have a sample. When I say yes they want to know which flavor he'd like. I haven't made up my mind which flavor I want yet but I turn my attention to the question of what Ranger would like. He can't have the chocolate, he probably doesn't want key lime, does he like coconut I wonder, he had vanilla last time, I decide he wants caramel. They scoop up a generous teaspoon of caramel and hunker down to feed it to Ranger. I request a pint of caramel, one of key lime and a key lime cone for myself. I'm enjoying the cone while they scoop up my pints. Ranger is staring at me so appealingly that I scooped out a dollop of key lime and offered that to him. He samples it and decides it is acceptable. Can Ranger, have another sample, ask the vendors? Sure, I say thinking they mean the small amount that has spilled down the side of the pint they've just filled. I'm mistaken though; they grab another spoon and scoop out as much as the spoon will hold. Ranger graciously accepts this as his due while I put the ice cream into his pack. He's now carrying about eight pounds as we head out of the market. The woman Ranger greeted so enthusiatically next door has watched all this byplay with delight, several times I've heard her laugh out loud. Maybe next time she'll be ready to interact with Ranger.

As we head out a couple more people stop to admire and pet him and another vendor comes out to pet him. We make it back to the car where I remove his pack appreciating the fact that he's been carrying it not me and load him in the car. I give him the last little bite of my cone and we head home. Ranger finds a sunny place in the yard and has a nap while I put away our purchases and then play ball with Finna.

After my daughter gets home she takes Ranger for a walk and he goes for a walk again with my husband when he gets home. On both walks through the neighborhood he's greeted with joy and affection by everyone he meets. Ranger and Finna get the bones that Ranger has so carefully selected. Finna takes hers into her crate while Ranger takes his outside. Ranger comes back inside and watches TV with my husband until bedtime. Ranger bounds happily off to his enclosure for the night, gobbles down his dinner and settles in for the night. Tomorrow will be another exciting day of life with Ranger.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sixth Month Finnaversary

Time for my monthly reflection on life with Finna. We've finally figured out a few more clues in this never ending puzzle that is Finna. We've discovered that Dad by himself is not frightening. He came back unexpectedly one morning because he forgot something and she just met him at the door with no barking, or other negative reaction. Since then we've experimented a little bit to see what does set her off and what does not. Dad with no one else home is not scary; Dad home with one kid is only a little bit scary; Dad home with two kids and no Mom is somewhat scary; Dad home with Mom and both kids, well, then Dad is often but not always very scary. We're not sure what's going on in her crazy little head. When she barks at my husband when he talks to me I'm pretty sure she's reacting to the fact that his baritone voice sounds, to her ears, like he's growling at me and she's trying to protect me. When she's barking at him as he tries to go away from me up the stairs to bed the protecting Mom hypothesis doesn't make sense. It does seem, however, that taking care of me is somehow involved and that the more things that are going on the worse she reacts. Our standing joke at this point is that Finna thinks everything is Dad's fault.

Since Finna's issues with my husband seem to be related to me we've switched our training protocol. Rather than him spending time dropping treats and generally trying to make being around him a positive experience I'm using Look At That from Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed. When she looks at him I click and treat. Knowing that a treat is associated with  the click she automatically looks back to get it. We're building up a connection in her head that looking at Dad is a rewarding experience and since she's being rewarded before she comes unglued she's 1) not having opportunities to practice coming unglued at Dad and 2) learning not to come unglued. It was very encouraging the other night when she started barking at my husband and then remembered that she could be rewarded for looking at him and turned back to me for treats (I'd put the clicker away while I was eating dinner.) I think the steak scraps she got were a satisfying reward.

Finna has come a long way. The dog that was so conflicted both craving petting and finding it over-stimulating and too much to handle is now soliciting petting and  leaning in for more. The dog with severe separation anxiety who needed to be physically restrained if I needed to go out the door can now be told "Finna, no" and will move away from the door so I can leave without any trouble. The dog whose wild leaping, mouthing, and jumping when I came home was actually scary doesn't even greet me at the door all the time now and when she does she comes outside quietly and asks to play ball. I do still need to make sure I have a tug rope with me when I go to bed since mornings are still pretty exciting but by giving her a tug rope and playing a brief game of tug first thing she's no longer grabbing my clothes and trying to drag me down the stairs and outside. We play tug for a little bit then she wins and I ask her to take it down stairs. It gives her something to mouth, shake, and chew making it much easier to get her outside in the morning. And the dog that was regularly pottying in the house at even a raised voice--calling for a kid upstairs to come down because it was time to go--hasn't pottied inside in months. The dog that made it hard to open the door with all her jumping and leaping on it and when the door opened bolted outside now waits politely at the door. And best of all the hyper-vigilant, wildly stressed out, wound nearly to the breaking point dog is relaxed enough to give me genuine smiles.

This week, I'm pretty encouraged that Finna can recover enough to be a safe happy dog. But this is the Finna roller coaster. Last week things were sufficiently bad that we actually had a family meeting discussing whether she should be returned to the Humane Society as unmanageable or even whether she'd be better off if we had her put down. All credit to my family, they were unanimously in favor of not giving up on Finna. Their dedication is very commendable and those moments when I despair and wonder if there's any chance that this profoundly damaged dog can ever be safe and happy are getting further and further apart.

Finna still has a long way to go. I pray she doesn't get sick or hurt since taking her to the vet at this point would be a real problem. She's able to tolerate a couple of people we know in the driveway but we don't invite them inside the fence at this point. She still only goes for walks when I'm fairly sure no one else will be out. It isn't easy living with Finna and the constant vigilance we need to exercise to keep her and  everyone else safe can be very wearing. I'm learning not to look too far ahead because it can be too overwhelming. It helps to look back and see how far she's come and to celebrate the small victories savoring the moment.

One day at a time and patience, patience, patience that's life with Finna.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

It's a Matter of Control

In my view dog training and parenting have a whole lot in common. Not that I think dogs are little people in fur coats but the role I play for both my children and my dogs is to keep them safe from harm, keep them from annoying other people, and equip them to be able to function safely and well in human society. Lately this has me thinking about the issue of control. In our society young children and pets have virtually no control of their lives. The grown ups decide when they eat, what they eat, where they go, when they go, and on and on and on. My children are 18 and 12 now but I remember the wise woman who told me when they were small that the reason so many parents and toddlers develop issues around eating, sleeping, and toileting is that these are the  only three areas completely under the toddler's control; you can't make your kid eat, sleep, or potty. Light bulbs went on in my head when I heard that. What she said was so obvious and made so much sense and instantly explained to me why some parents had a pretty adversarial relationship with their children and some did not. You can't make your child eat but you can provide them with healthy, attractive, tasty food that they will want to eat. You can't make your child sleep but you can make sure they have enough mental and physical activity during the day to make them tired at night and you can create relaxing calming rituals around bedtime. You can't make your child potty, nature takes care of making them need to; your job is to make doing it in the place you want worth their while and/or create expectations that they will engage in approved toileting activities. In short you can try to control them or you can create circumstances most likely to lead to the behavior you want and let them control themselves.

I think it's true for dogs as well. Short of having her vocal cords surgically removed I can't keep Finna from barking wildly at the delivery person but I can do my best not to put her in a situation where she's frightened by the delivery person and feels it necessary to bark ferociously. Her barking is not under my control. I can only physically remove her once she's begun to bark. Yes, I know there are bark collars, and shock collars etc. but those only punish her for barking they do nothing to teach her to control herself. At best such devices will teach her to be afraid of what's going to happen if she barks. This is not what I want for her.

The question is, how do you give them opportunities to practice control without endangering them or annoying others. It begins with understanding and empathy. I understand that Finna wants to keep the scary people away from her territory and her pack. I can empathize with this desire since there are many occasions when I would dearly love to make the noisy neighbors go inside and stop making a ruckus. My desire to control my environment really isn't that different than hers. The difference is that I understand which things are under my control and which are not. I can't make the neighbors be quiet, they are simply loud by nature but I can remove myself from the noise. So what I want Finna to learn is that she can't  make everything be the way that she wants but she can make choices that can improve the situation--that's what I'm doing when I go inside because the neighbors are being too noisy.

Teaching Finna control begins with giving her choices where all the available choices are equally positive for me. When we play ball Finna tells me which type of fetch she wants to play. She can choose between playing find the ball in the bushes where I throw the ball as hard as I can into the bushes and she races after it, finds it, and brings it back; rolling the ball down the hill and having me bounce it back so she can snatch it out of the air; or catching the ball as it rolls off the roof. It doesn't really matter to me which version we are playing and there is no wrong choice so the choice is hers. She gets to control which game of fetch is played. When she goes outside she snatches a ball out of the bowl and goes to the place in the yard where we play the version she wants to play. She drops the ball and I obediently scoop it up and chuck-it where it needs to go. Of course I could insist that Finna play my choice rather than hers but that gives her one less area where she can make choices and exercise control. I believe that if I give her safe choices to control she's both less likely to fight me for control in areas where I need to be the one in charge and she is having the opportunity to learn to make choices for herself. The more she gets to control the better she will be at controlling herself and making good choices. It worked with my children and with Ranger, I'm hoping it will work with Finna as well.

Here is Finna waiting on the hill for me to throw the ball again.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Canine Social Skills Take Two

Living with Ranger and now Finna has taught me a lot about canine body language. I learned quite a bit about the subject from Ranger but Finna has been a master's class on reading canine body language. Thanks to living with them I'm much more aware when interacting with dogs how they are feeling about things and what dogs are saying to each other. At the dog park recently Ranger had had a good long romp and we were heading out to the the car to go home. Ranger, or as we've taken to calling him lately, Saint Ranger the Good, generally doesn't need to be leashed until we get to the gate when I leash him up as a safety precaution while we're walking though the parking lot to our car. About half way to the gate we met a woman bringing in a mixed breed that to my eye was overwhelmed. He was a young dog of about a year that had never been to a dog park before. Ranger and I were being accompanied to the gate by his new Lab mix pal.  This pal never had much opportunity to learn canine social skills and I'd been enjoying watching Ranger interrupt LabX's inappropriate play overtures; Ranger is firmly of the opinion that body slams and muzzle punches are only allowed between dogs who know each other extremely well and play together often. As the pal started to make a straight line toward the newcomer Ranger exerted very subtle pressure by simply leaning slightly toward his new pal and keeping that small amount of pressure on him so that the two approached in a big curve. A curving approach is a calming signal to dogs and I could see the newcomer relax slightly. Ranger then hung back and let his LabX pal greet the newcomer first so that the new dog who was still on leash wasn't overwhelmed with too many greeters at once.

That's about the time I caught up to the dogs and in a friendly manner greeted the owner and suggested that letting her dog off leash would be less stressful for him. As I like to explain it; I'd be pretty uncomfortable if I walked into a party attached to someone's arm and everyone at the party rushed me at once wanting to greet me, touch me, and generally crowd into my personal space. I'd be even more uncomfortable if the person I was attached to made me stay by their side and put up with all this. It would make me much more  comfortable and relaxed to be free to move away and create a little space for myself. Once she'd let her dog off leash Ranger and his pal escorted the new dog back to the other dogs playing and Ranger watched, running occasional interference, until the new dog's tail was no longer tucked. Once it was clear the new dog was going to be fine we left for home.

I never tire of watching Ranger interact with other dogs. He has exceptional social skills and by living with and observing him I'm constantly learning. All in all it was a good day's work at the dog park. Ranger was able to demonstrate good canine etiquette for his new pal and to ease the initial introduction to the dog park for another dog. I was able to share a bit of useful information  with a novice owner that will, I hope, make her dog's life a tiny bit better.