Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ranger Recommends: "If a dog's Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain from the Sky Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs" by Suzanne Clothier

Ranger Heartily Recommends "If a dog's Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs" by Suzanne Clothier. It's one of the best things I've read in a long time. Clothier has a real gift for words and for presenting her points in easily absorbed but thought provoking ways. I was laughing, crying, learning, thinking and growing on every page. She shares heartbreaking anecdotes about the price dogs pay for our inability to listen to them or to understand what they are telling us and hysterically funny stories about her own adventures with dogs.

For Clothier it's all about communication. How do we tell our dogs what we need them to do and how do we listen to what they are telling us they need. When she talks about dogs that are labeled aggressive simply for making their point in the only way they have left when all their other communications have been ignored it brought tears to my eyes. It's hard to believe that humans who truly love their dogs can be so clueless when it comes to listening to the dog. When Ranger collected a lot of burrs in his coat where he couldn't reach them he wasn't thrilled with me digging them out with my fingers. Because it was something that needed to be done I ignored his head turns, tongue flicks, and pulling away. He was patient for a long time but eventually he growled to let me know he was really tired of me pulling his hair. If I'd been as clueless as some people I would have claimed that the growl came out of nowhere and feared that Ranger was becoming aggressive. Instead, I knew he was telling me more plainly that he'd had enough because he wasn't convinced that I'd understood his earlier communication. I told him there were just a few more and when I'd finished I told him at length what a wonderful patient and beautiful dog he is.

Clothier's analogies with dancing and cooking really resonated with me. I often describe my relationship with Ranger in terms of dancing. When you're dancing as a couple only one partner gets to lead but if that partner is doing it right no one can tell that they're leading. Another explanation I use is riding a tandem bicycle. Only one rider gets to steer but they'd be a real fool not to take into account their co-rider's preference as to destination. Her cooking analogy resonated because I like to cook. I know what it is to follow a recipe precisely, what it means to use the recipe as a starting point and what it is like to create something entirely my own. When Clothier talks about going beyond the exact recipes of many training books I know what she means. This isn't a book of recipes it's a book about the art of cooking and I found it a perfect counterpart to the training books I've been reading that address specific problems with detailed descriptions of the precise steps to be taken. If all I want from my relationship with Finna is for her behavior to change I can follow those recipes exactly but as Clothier might say if I want my relationship with her to go beyond the change in her behavior to a change in our relationship I need to bring all of myself to the exercises. I once watched my grandmother make a pumpkin pie. My cousins had been raving about how marvelous her pumpkin pie tasted and I wanted to see what she did differently than what I did. Grandma took a ready made pie crust from the store, folded it into a pie pan. She opened a can of pumpkin and followed the recipe on the label. On the face of it she didn't do anything differently except for one thing Grandma kept in mind that this pie was for her loved ones and brought her whole self to the making of it. It took me a long time to figure out what Grandma did that I didn't but I suspect Clothier would have seen it immediately.

I appreciate Clothier's honesty in writing this book. It's easy to share the triumphs it's much harder to look honestly at your failures and mistakes, to acknowledge them and to accept the hard lessons they taught you. There have been times when Ranger and I have been one being it isn't a condition we inhabit all the time or all that frequently but it's a condition Clothier understand and one she makes real throughout her book. It's not something you arrive at by being perfect you get there by being willing to recognize and learn from your mistakes and to know that you'll be making plenty more. You get there by loving your dog and recognizing and appreciating them as the unique and special individual they are. You get there by bringing your whole self to your relationship, after all that's what your dog does.

I'm very glad I read this book and I'm sure Ranger and Finna would be delighted to echo this sentiment.  I'm more aware of my communications with my dogs for having read this book and more attuned to what Ranger is telling me. I still have trouble communicating with Finna. Her previous experiences have resulted in her concluding that humans only hear you if you shout and sadly the more she shouts the harder it is for me to understand what she is saying. I know one thing though, no matter how hard it is to understand what she's trying to tell me I'm not going to stop trying to hear her and trying to show her that there are better ways to communicate.

I'll end with this photo by my son. It's a bit symbolic; Ranger and I walking into the light together.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Progress with Finna

Sometimes you can't help but wonder if the Universe has a sense of humor. All my frustrations with Finna and all the agonizing and obsessive observations trying to figure out what the trigger is that has her reacting so badly to my husband, two calls to the behavioral helpline at Kitsap Humane Society leaving messages asking for help, trying this and that, reading everything I can get my hands on and countless hours of frustration, finally having a hypothesis and then suddenly everything starts falling into place.

First came the lovely phone consultation with the wonderful behaviorist at KHS. Not only did she remember Finna but could look up her records and give me a bit more of her back story giving me a couple more pieces of the puzzle. Knowing that Finna was surrendered from a semi-hoarding situation where she was raised from puppyhood by a pack of dogs with very little interaction with people makes it easier to understand what she's going through. I probably wouldn't fare all that well if I was suddenly dumped into an alien culture with no clue what was going on. And if I found someone that I could sort of communicate with I'd be pretty reluctant to let that person out of my sight. Not to mention how anxious I would be to control everything I could and to keep away all the confusing and scary things I could. I loved talking to the KHS behaviorist she gave us lots of reassurance that we're on the right track and some more ideas to try and a promise to be there to help and I was feeling a lot more positive about our ability to cope. Talking with her I felt competent and empowered. As a trainer that's the same feeling I want my animals to have.

After the consultation was done I hung up and relayed what I'd learned to my husband and we talked about specific ideas. You have to remember that my husband can be considered a living saint when it comes to life with Finna. It would be completely understandable if he wanted her gone now and didn't have any desire to try to rehabilitate this crazy thing. Fortunately, for her, he's made of better stuff and is committed to turning her into a civilized member of our family and society. Armed with our new ideas and a new commitment to working with her he equipped himself with treats. Some of the training techniques and philosophies I talk about have clearly rubbed off. Since one of the specific ideas we'd discussed was that Finna's behavior of running toward him barking ferociously and then sitting politely for a treat might be creating a chain in her crazy little head--run, bark, sit = get treats--we want to break that cycle. I suggested more just tossing treats in her direction before she even started to move. He took a different tack. When she comes at him barking he's turning his back and totally ignoring her, when she doesn't bark she gets hot dog jerky and training time with Dad. He has her sit and makes eye contact with her, bends over her slightly and talks to her. By the time we went to bed that night he was being shadowed all around the house as he moved about getting trash and recycling collected to go out with very few episodes of barking and no lunging or charging behavior.

The next day there was some barking and growling but again no lunging or charging. Clearly, we've had a major breakthrough. Not that there isn't still plenty of room for work and lots of issues that aren't yet resolved but my confidence and optimism is again high that given time she is going to be an awesome dog. In the struggle to figure out her issues and find her triggers it was pretty easy to lose sight of the things that attracted us to this dog in the first place. But the last few days we've been seeing those things again. Finna is bright, eager, and underneath her complete lack of socialization a confident little bitch. While deploring her way of dealing with things she doesn't like I've appreciated her willingness to face up to what frightens her and deal with it using the only tool she has. Since she's come to live with us we've been working hard to give her better tools. As the saying goes, "when all you've got is a hammer; everything looks like a nail." We want Finna to have more than just the hammer of ferocious behavior, we want her to have a whole toolbox of useful tools and a whole range of ways to approach the world safely and enjoyably. We want her to know that sitting politely without barking is a good first step when approaching someone and that when she does that good things happen for her. We're working on teaching her that if something scary occurs on a walk it's OK to whirl around and walk away very fast. And most of all we want her to know that she's not all on her own, that we're there for her.

I still need to take a some new photos so here's another one that I like.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Major Finna Milestone but She's Still Crazy

If you've been following this blog you know we've added a crazy dog to our household. Half German Shepherd, half Corgi and all unsocialized or trained, Finna is a significant challenge. In most areas we've been making headway but one still remains an issue for concern and a serious problem. I'm referring, of course, to her predilection for charging my husband barking, growling and even snapping at him. The frustrating part is that she doesn't do this all the time and I haven't been able to figure out why sometimes "Dad" is ok and sometimes he has to be frightened away. I can't see that he's doing anything different sometimes than he is others. Still last night after I went to bed exhausted something great happened.

I was so tired I could barely see straight so I extracted a promise from the children to protect Dad from the Finna and went to bed. Dad and daughter sat down on the couch to watch a NOVA episode. Son was playing on the computer. Finna went to the couch, climbed up, walked across Dad to the empty space between him and our daughter, curled up and let them pet her! This was the first time my husband has been able to touch her since we adopted her November 4, 2011. After a few minutes she seemed to realize he was petting her and gave him a look that he interpreted as "stop, now" so he stopped at which point she growled softly and settled back down. A bit later she was wiggling and pushing and he interpreted that as her wanting a bit more room to stretch out so he moved over and she responded with frenzied barking. Then she got down and went away.

We may finally be on to something. If my hypothesis is right then Dad in motion is very scary and needs to be kept at bay but Dad not in motion is not a problem. It's not the full picture but maybe a corner piece in this puzzle that is Finna. At least with a hypothesis in place we can start looking for evidence to support or refute it. Next time she barks at him sitting on the couch he'll be able to take note of whether he just shifted his weight or something. I'm feeling much better about our ability to cope and rehabilitate with a hypothesis in place.

Having a real idea that feels like more than just a wild guess we're putting a management and treatment plan into action. Dad will spend more time sitting still and not walking around the house and when he does move around he'll be dropping a steady stream of kibbles and training treats. When he moves another "acceptable" family member will also move with him as often as we can. And whenever practical a ball will be tossed by Dad when he's moving around. I'm hoping that in a week or two I'll be able to report progress.

Sitting with Dad and letting him pet her is a major Finna milestone and the episode gave us more information about what sets her off where he is concerned. Finna is still a crazy scaredy dog but having a plan and a hypothesis is making me feel a lot better about our ability to rehabilitate her.

And because I don't have any new Finna photos here's simply one of my photos that I like.
It's a view of the Dale Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Finna's Second Month

Finna has lived with us for two months now and it's quite the ride. Sometimes it seems like we've adopted two dogs in one body. Can dogs have split personalities? There's the Finna that lays her head in my lap next to the cat and rests it there as The Great Catsby places his paw gently between her eyes; it makes me think of him blessing her. And there's the Finna that charges out of her crate across the width of the living room and into the atrium to bark ferociously at my husband when he picks up a plate my son left on top of the computer. There's the Finna that's trying so hard to learn leash manners and how to make U-turns so that we can stay out of trouble and there's the Finna that still wants to grab me by the coat sleeve and drag me where she wants me to go. There's the Finna that curls up in my lap like an oversized cat and there's the Finna that is intent on destroying every soft toy she can find.

We're still learning who this new family member is and how to communicate to her our desires and expectations so that she can live successfully as part of our family. As I've mentioned before in this blog, Ranger is a very effective communicator. He calmly and confidently states what he has to say in such a way that even us dense humans can understand. Finna seems to have learned that the only way anyone hears what she has to say is if she screams. Communication is really what it's all about. I want her to be able to tell me what she needs to feel safe and unafraid and I want her to understand what I'm asking of her so that she can succeed in her new life.

There are times when our communications work; when Finna shows me she's unsettled by what's happening in the house and that she'd feel safer sitting on my lap. This was the case Christmas Eve when her whole family sat in one room opening presents; this was new and unfamiliar and in her mind cause for concern. She spent the time sitting with me and observing. It was new and different to her but by allowing her to be where she felt safe and protected she could relax and not feel that she had to drive the scary thing away. She told me she was worried about this new behavior and I told her I wouldn't let anything bad happen to her and things went well. Finna sat on my lap most of Christmas Day as well keeping a close eye on my mother-in-law who was unfamiliar and unpredictable. There were a couple of incidents of Finna yelling at this strange intruder but we managed pretty well all things considered.

Other times I can't understand what she's trying to tell me. Finna still reacts badly to my husband on occasion. I can't tell whether it's because he has just done something that frightened her or whether she's decided that he's the one member of the household that she can bully or some of both. We're working hard with three techniques trying to make clear that "Dad" has every right to be where ever he wants in the house or yard and that he is a source of fun and pleasure. We're using Classical Counter Conditioning (CCC) and having Dad feed her yummy treats and play endless rounds of fetch with her (Finna has become a Fetch Fanatic). She's gotten to the point where she clearly recognizes him as a source of yummy things and that she needs to demonstrate some manners to get those yummy things but sometimes her approach leaves a lot to be desired. Usually she walks or trots to where he is and sits for her treat but sometimes she goes rushing into the other room barking and when she sees him walks over and sits for her treat. I admit I do not understand what she's saying about "Dad." I know her ears are a lot better than mine and assume he's made some sound that frightens her. I take heart from the fact that once she's in the room with him she generally behaves appropriately but I'm concerned about her desire to deal with things her own way. It's pretty obvious that Finna has never learned to trust humans to protect her so it's encouraging that she considers my lap to be a safe place but it's clear there's a long way to go. I much prefer Ranger's technique of fetching a human to help him address things that have him concerned to Finna's "I'll take care of this" attitude. Ranger's ways of dealing with things are appropriate and safe, Finna's are not.

The second thing we're doing is Abandonment Training. When Finna barks or growls or resource guards I say in a shocked voice "How rude" and everyone leaves the room. I had to laugh the first time we did this. I asked my husband and son to leave with me but Ranger and The Great Catsby accompanied us down the hall to another room. Poor abandoned Finna who has some separation anxiety issues picked up the chew she'd been guarding and brought it to where everyone had gathered before laying down on the floor at my husband's feet to chew on it. I should note that Finna does not resource guard from me or the two children. Her resource guarding is confined to my husband, Ranger and sometimes The Great Catsby. Ranger's technique for dealing with this is to give her a wide berth anytime she has something she might feel compelled to defend. He's clearly saying to her that he respects her right to whatever she has and has no desire to take it.  Of course anything that she has been guarding that is left unattended is fair game and he immediately picks it up and asks to take it outside where he buries it.

The third thing we're doing is making sure that Finna knows "Dad" is valuable. I spend time every day preventing her access to him by body blocking her so that she can't approach him. I try to show her that I respect him and value him and that he's worthy of respect. If she's decided that because he is absent more than the rest of the family that makes him less valuable and an appropriate target for bullying I want to change her opinion and show her that "Dad" is worthy of respect and is important.

Finna has come a long way in some regards. She's learned to play with people and adores fetch and tug. We've purchased her a new soft crate and she's making good progress in being retrained to a crate. She still doesn't like the door zipped shut but spends a good portion of her day in her safe place voluntarily. We're working on teaching her to run to her crate when she's worried about anything. Finna's leash manners have improved and she's reacting a lot less to people in their driveways and even improving when there are other people on the street. She sits on command 75-80%, comes when called 80-85% and is starting to figure out that the fastest way to get me down the stairs in the morning is to run to the door and wait instead of grabbing my clothes and pulling. Finna is even beginning to have some faith that I'll come back when I leave. I was delighted the other day not to be met at the door by a frenzied Finna beside herself with joy at my return. Instead I was met by no one and after I was inside and divested of my coat Finna wandered down the hall and said a very calm "hi." Moments like that I'm confident Finna can be rehabilitated and become the awesome dog we think she can be and other days I'm sure I'm in way over my head. Life with Finna can be quite the wild ride.

The Finna in this photo is the Finna we love. This is our goal, a calm peaceful dog willingly sharing with the other family members.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ranger Recommends: The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears

Since we adopted Ranger's sister Finna I've been doing a lot of reading about techniques and methods for helping a dog overcome fears. Finna was not socialized as a puppy and she has a lot of fears that we're needing to overcome. Patricia B. McConnell's booklet "The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears" is my most recent resource. I am a devoted follower of McConnell's blog http://www.theotherendoftheleash.com/ and have found all her books to be clear, well-written and invaluable in helping me better understand how my dogs' minds work. I think what I value most about McConnell's writing is that she makes me feel like I really can do this and that if I can't do it all on my own there is no shame in getting professional help. "The Cautious Canine" does not disappoint. In this booklet McConnell describes clearly how to reprogram your fearful dogs emotions though the use of classical counter conditioning.

Classical Counter Conditioning or CCC for short is the process of changing how your dog feels about something by pairing a low level of bad with a high degree of good. For example, Finna is afraid of my husband if he gets too close or if he tries to pet her. Since we know Finna loves freeze dried bird hearts (chicken or duck) and playing fetch we're making sure that "Dad" is the one with the super yummy treats and that he plays lots of fetch with her. The more we pair the appearance of "Dad" with the good things Finna loves the happier she'll be to see him.

CCC can be used to create positive conditioned emotional responses (CER) to things that the dog fears. By starting with a low level of fear, the level at which the dog is just beginning to be anxious and slowly teaching the dog that the thing that previously produced anxiety is now a reliable predictor that something good is about to happen the dog begins to associate the previously fear producing thing with pleasure.

Full of concrete descriptions and clear progressions "The Cautious Canine" is a wonderful resource. I probably won't be able to help Finna entirely on my own but thanks to this booklet I have a better understanding of how the process works and a basis for comprehending the advice of a professional behaviorist. And thanks to this booklet I've already identified one thing I'm doing that isn't helping Finna. Knowing that she reacts badly to the appearance of other dogs on leash I've been tightening up on the leash in anticipation of her negative reaction. Of course that's just confirming her fears that the approach of other dogs on leash is going to be terrible. McConnell even shares her personal technique for making herself relax instead of tensing up; she sings Happy Birthday. Since Finna is already conditioned to look at me when I say her name and to expect something good when she looks at me in response to her name I'll probably try singing Finna Finna to whatever tune pops into my head that should help if I can be consistent and start before the other dog gets closer than her comfort level.

If you have a dog that's afraid of something, whether slippery floors or every other human being in the world this booklet is a must read.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ranger Recommends: fearfuldogs.com

Ranger came to us a confident self-assured one year old who was convinced that people always mean good things. He didn't have any manners but he did have great socialization. Finna didn't have that socialization. Sadly, her early life seems to have convinced her that while a few humans might be trustworthy humans in general are not to be trusted. Rather than believing that humans will result in something good happening for Finna she believes that humans will result in something she doesn't like. She is afraid and her fear causes her to take actions to keep the scary things away. Finna is a fearful dog and today's blog is about an incredible resource for those of us who are dealing with fearful dogs.

http://fearfuldogs.com/ is a practical resource created by Debbie Jacobs. Jacobs didn't set out to become an expert on shy, timid, anxious, overwhelmed dogs--dogs who are afraid and whose fear leads them to behave in inappropriate ways. She came to her expertise through hard won experience as she works with her own fearful dog Sunny a beautiful border collie who was rescued from an animal hoarding situation. Her quest to help him has led her to a valuable understanding of the biological nature of fear and to techniques and treatments for fearful dogs. As an incredible gift to those of us who also have fearful dogs Jacobs has shared her hard won knowledge and her ups and downs in this website and in her fascinating blog (linked from website.)

Reading through all the blog posts and examining the other resources and links on http://fearfuldogs.com/ I learned a lot about the subject of fearful dogs and lots of practical ideas for helping Finna. Jacobs has a real gift for clear and direct writing. Reading her blog I found myself looking at things in a new light and better able to understand what's going on in Finna's head. If, like me, you're dealing with a canine who is afraid you need to visit this website. Ranger, Finna and I highly recommend it.