Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Heading Toward the Dark Side"

This is a comment on Finna's behavior has been on my mind for awhile now. I probably don't have the exact words but the idea was clear. Because Finna deals with things that frighten her by trying to scare them away with voice and teeth she's on her way to becoming an dangerous aggressive dog. She's choosing the dark side rather than the light side of the force. By this logic a dog that has given up on affecting their environment and shuts down in the face of their fears is making a better choice.

The more I've thought about it the more I realize I don't see it that way. First, I don't think it is really a choice but rather a combination of genetics and learning. A dog that has learned that nothing they do will affect the outcome and is already genetically predisposed to timidity is going to shut down while a dog that has had some success in affecting the outcome and is genetically a more confident dog will take action. So Finna is not choosing to go to the dark side she's reacting the way her experiences and genetics incline her to react. Second, whether diving into a mental hole and pulling it in after them or putting on an aggressive front and scaring everything away the root cause is the same--fear. When Finna is confronted with something that frightens her she wants to make it go away; a genetically more timid dog will mentally shut down--that dog goes away in the only fashion available. 

Sadly, for Finna and dogs like her the way they react when frightened is a big societal no no. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely do not believe Finna's way of dealing with things is appropriate. I completely understand that if I do not succeed in giving Finna some better ways of affecting her environment she could be pushed over the edge into biting and wind up paying with her life. I also understand that she is a scared dog with very limited understanding of humans and human society and only one tool she trusts in her toolbox of responses. 

In my way of looking at things Finna has an advantage over her more timid counterparts; Finna already knows she can affect her environment. My job is to teach her other, appropriate, ways for doing this and to guide her to an understanding of how to behave in human society. I don't expect Finna to become the social butterfly that Ranger is and I don't expect her to be happy to have everyone in the world handle and touch her. I do expect that when handling and touch is necessary--at the vet's, for example--she will tolerate it. She doesn't have to run to every visitor with an eager desire to interact but she can't charge them barking and growling wildly. Finna needs to learn to accept that there will be visitors and that she needs to be polite. 

Ultimately, it boils down to helping Finna understand the "force" she has within herself and how to use the response that will maximize good things for her. And to showing her that things that are scary now can be the source of good things if she can move beyond that fear.  I want to go beyond the management techniques I have in place now in order to keep everyone safe to a place where Finna has the skills to keep herself and others safe because she has lots of good reliable tools in her toolbox. My greatest fear is that I won't be up to the task and she will be the one to pay the ultimate price.

I've never been one for passivity. I think that's part of what appeals to me about Finna's "fighting" spirit. Finna is determined to do everything she knows how to make her world one where she feels safe. Sometimes I look at her think that had she been given the socialization and skills needed to navigate human society she would be a truly awesome dog. Maybe she will be someday despite her rough beginnings.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Finna Rollercoaster

Last night was a definite low point in this wild ride that is life with Finna and then this morning a very encouraging high point. Life with Finna; you take it moment to moment and try to anticipate problems and set her up for success and sometimes you even succeed.

Last night I was standing in the hall talking to my husband. Finna was standing with us watching him closely but quiet and not in the hyper-vigilance stance we frequently see. But when he gestured slightly with his hand which was not far from her face she snapped at him. She's very controlled in her threats, she didn't come very close to connecting at all (a good four inches away) but what I want her to learn is that it's possible to walk away. I understand that she was frightened by this unexpected movement of his hands not far from her (maybe a foot away) but the appropriate response would be to back up. Sadly, Finna doesn't back down or walk away and I'm still working to figure out how to teach her that walking away, backing up, leaving the scene is an available response and one that should be the first tool out of the box when dealing with people that scare her.

But this is life with Finna so we went from that low point to a very nice high point this morning. My daughter had a friend picking her up today, a big, bearded, glasses wearing, scary male (for Finna at least) friend. With his permission we set up a training exercise. He was to remain outside the fence and when Finna came charging at him barking, growling and generally freaking out he was to yawn and turn his back, two very definite calming signals. I'd just started playing ball with her when he arrived and Finna did charge over to the fence trying to bark around the ball in her mouth. He yawned and turned his back to her and you could see her ratchet down a few notches. I immediately called her and asked for the ball. She was slightly reluctant to give it up but after a few glances at his turned back gave me the ball which I immediately scooped up and threw. He turned back to pet Ranger and talk to my daughter and Finna continued to play ball earning lots and lots of praise and my undivided attention. She looked over several times but made no further effort to scare him away. There was a stranger standing right outside her fence and she was not freaking out. I was so pleased! This is a dog I can work with and have hope for. Last night's version is a dog about whom I have serious concerns.

Which dog is Finna; the one that responds appropriately and ignores a possible threat or the one that  is determined to keep all possible threats at bay using aggressive behavior? The hard part is that she's both dogs in one complicated package. My job is to set her up for the kind of success she had today and to manage things so that she isn't in a position where she automatically reaches for her favorite aggressive tools. Sadly, that's often much easier to write than to do.

On her road to recovery and rehabilitation where is Finna? The truth is that she's very much the rollercoaster ride. Over all I think she is improving. Rather than always mugging The Great Catsby for some roughhousing when she starts getting wound up she's sometimes asking to go out and play ball. She's developing a more reliable response to "Come" and early this morning even aborted a run out to the edge of the fence near the street to investigate and no doubt scare away something that she saw when I asked her to come back. She's learning that "Sit" and "Watch" are the default behaviors we want. Is she a safe dog? No. What she is can best be described as a work in progress. I think there's hope that in time she can become a more reliable dog but I'm not sure she'll ever be safe, not in the way that Ranger is a safe dog.

The Great Catsby is not exactly thrilled to have Finna licking his head but he's very patient with her as is Ranger. I hope the incredible social skills exhibited by Ranger and Catsby rub off on Finna. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine for My Dogs

 I wrote one of these last year for Ranger and while I doubt it meant anything to him I really enjoyed the exercise and how much it made me think about how important he is in my life. It made sense to repeat the exercise for both dogs this year.

I love you Ranger. I love you so very much. You are the calm anchor in my day. Your patience in the face of your sister's craziness, your understanding of what she needs and your gentle disciple when she's out of hand are a constant inspiration. Watching how you interact with Finna teaches me so much about what she needs from me and how to communicate with her. You are so wonderful.  I love taking you for walks and how we can wander for hours without talking. You are such a wonderful dog and you make everyone happy just by being you. I love how good you make me look; without being slavishly attentive you still do what I ask of you. People think I'm a good trainer but I know it's really just you and how wonderful you are. I love that I can take you anywhere and be confident that you will behave with your usual great  manners. I love the feel of your fluffy coat and the smell of your fur. You are my heart.

Finna, I love you too. Despite the unsocialized start you had in life I love how you've bonded with me and members of my family. I love you for how much you are teaching me about patience and about dog behaviorism. I love celebrating your triumphs and trying to find solutions for your problems. I love the fact that because I'm trying to teach you patience I'm getting so much more yard work done. After I throw the ball I pick up the rake and clear another patch of leaves or dig up the volunteer plants and replant them by the fence. You have to wait for me to finish before I chuck the ball again. I love the fact that you do wait and don't make a pest of yourself. I love that you have learned the finished cue and accept that we are done with playing fetch or training or whatever. I love all the hats I'm making as I sit quietly in my chair so that you can relax and not worry about what I'm doing. Most of those hats will be going to St. Vincent de Paul to warm the heads of those in need. Your presence in our lives is reaching beyond our home to benefit those we've never met. That's a wonderful thing. I also love the people you're bringing into my life as we build the team that I need to help you. If I'd known exactly what we were getting into I might not have had the courage to bring you home with us but despite all your issues and all your problems and all the work that you are I'm still glad that we did. I'm looking forward to writing you and Ranger another Valentine next year and being able to see how far you've come.

Happy Valentine's Day Ranger and Finna.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ranger Recommends: Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash-Reactive Dog

Ranger and I are both tired of living with his leash-reactive fearful sister Finna. I want to be able to walk my dogs together again and to actually be able to walk Finna through the neighborhood without having to plan it like a military campaign. I want to not constantly be on the lookout for other dogs walking. I want Finna to be able to make friends with other dogs on leash as a prelude to being able to play with them off leash.

Finna is a leash reactive dog. She sees other  dogs and wants to scare them away from her vicinity. Finna has, frankly, turned into more of a challenge than we were prepared for. She's bright and eager to learn and has a lot of great potential. She's amazingly fast and loves to run. I can see her as a great agility dog but not until this "Feisty Fido" is a civilized member of society both canine and human. She needs to learn some better ways of addressing the things that frighten her.

"Feisty Fido" by Patricia B. McConnell and Karen B. London is a wonderful resource for those of us dealing with leash reactive dogs. In this short easily read booklet there is a wealth of helpful information. I'm especially grateful for the variety of techniques they describe. We haven't figured out all of Finna's issues or what sorts of training is going to work best with her so having a variety of options described in one convenient location is a wonderful. Finna will probably respond best to learning an incompatible behavior such as Watch. But McConnell and London don't subscribe to the one size fits all school and offer other techniques as well. And best of all they describe the type of dog these techniques are most useful in treating. I'm also very grateful for their clear examples of what different levels of distraction would look like. I need that sort of information because I'm very knowledgeable but not very experienced and what I might think is a mild distraction might really be a large distraction.

Another reason to love this book is the section on getting out of trouble now, before Finna has been rehabilitated. I don't live in a perfect neighborhood where I can control the comings and goings of my neighbors and their dogs and there are several leash reactive dogs that live on my street. Having techniques that can help me get Finna out of the situation where she's suddenly confronting dogs that are barking and lunging at her is a huge relief. On our walks we are now practicing our U-Turns. I've been doing something similar to encourage her not to pull or try to drag me by her leash. When she'd start to pull I'd immediately change direction with a handful of tasty treats held conveniently for her to munch. That made a nice foundation for the U-Turn. We've used everything that happens on our walks as a chance to practice; the neighbor taking down Christmas lights as we started home, the woman scraping her car windows, the couple chatting on their porch and even the dog 10 yards away to practice making a U-Turn and moving away. Here's how it works. Walking toward the neighbor we'd stop and "About" quickly retreating back toward home. We did this half a dozen times at varying distances from the neighbor and well under Finna's threshold and then went home and played fetch for awhile. Finna seemed to consider U-Turns a fun game so you can be certain we'll be playing it a lot in all sorts of circumstances gradually increasing the proximity of her triggers. We'll also be working on her emergency Sit/Stays where Finna sits and stays behind me so that I can get between her and the frightening dog she's just spotted. These, of course, we start in the house with almost no distraction and gradually work up to major distractions over the course of months. Knowing I have those techniques for managing her are going to be a huge help in helping me to be calm and relaxed. I know that when I see another dog when I'm out walking her my tendency is to tense up so as to be prepared for her inevitable explosion. This isn't what I want to be doing because every time I do that I'm just confirming her expectations that something bad is about to happen. Knowing I have other options than to brace myself for the Finna Frenzy will help me be more confident and relaxed which should help to reassure her.

I can tell I'm going to be consulting this book again and again in the next few months and I know that I'm already very grateful to McConnell and London for this tremendous resource. Reading this book I feel like I can turn Finna's behavior around and that she can grow into a polite and reliable dog.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Finna Fun Continues in Month Three

Finna has lived with us for three months now and she has been an advanced course in dog behaviorism. There's been wonderfully encouraging progress on many fronts and many fits and starts on others. Often I wonder what on earth I've gotten myself into and if we haven't bitten off much more than we can chew.

Finna does best when things are predictable and that is not our norm. Take my poor long suffering husband for example, he comes home at a different time every night and is off all day every other Friday. Sometimes he's listening to an interesting bit on the radio when he pulls into the garage and stays to listen to the end, other times he hops out of the car and  comes right in. That's a small unpredictable piece to the day and I think she is learning to cope with it thanks to hotdog jerky and classical counter conditioning. But there are large unpredictables that we aren't in a place to be able to counter condition. One happened yesterday morning when Finna and I returned from our walk to be met at the door by my son who told me the neighbor was here with a problem. He went out to do my usual ball throwing and I went inside to be told by my over eighty year old neighbor that she was supposed to be in the hospital. When I got the whole story out of her she'd been admitted for a blackout episode and kept for tests. She remembered going to sleep in a hospital bed and was very confused to have woken up in her own bed. She had no recollection of being released or of coming home. There were a couple of days missing. While I'm dealing with calling her doctor and trying to figure out what's going on Finna manages to get the door open--it doesn't always latch securely--and be surprised and frightened by this bathrobe and boots wearing stranger. I took Finna by the collar which to Finna seemed to mean that she was very right to be frightened although I just wanted to make sure everyone stayed safe and Finna was prevented from negatively interacting with someone who was confused and uncertain (rather like Finna herself now I think about it). We got Finna back outside and the neighbor an appointment with her doctor but it started the day off on the wrong foot and Finna doesn't recover quickly from such unpredictable happenings. So she's already on edge and having a hard time regaining her equilibrium. And her day doesn't get better culminating as it did with a long car ride and a vet visit where Finna behaved badly snapping at the vet and winding up wearing a muzzle.

Now that I've seen Finna longer I've noticed that when she's calm enough to think she's making pretty good choices unfortunately she isn't always calm enough to think and when she's just reacting she uses the only  tools she's confident will work--bark and growl and snap--to keep the scary away. Sadly with the vet she skipped the bark and growl and went straight to the snap. I should back up a bit, Finna is almost always stressed to one degree or another. The less stress she's feeling the better choices she makes. I'm not convinced yet that I want to medicate her since there are several things that are potentially effective and a lot less extreme that we haven't tried. Since Finna was obviously handled very little in her formative months the wiring in her brain is messed up. She both craves and resists touch. I've been reading up on Tellington Touch and Dog Massage which The Great Catsby and Ranger are enjoying very much as I experiment on them. Finna reacts by getting over stimulated.

A year or two ago I attended a talk by a veterinarian that practices using Chinese Medicine and Chinese Herbs. At the time I stuck it in the back of my mind with a mental note that it was there if I needed it. Having noticed that Finna is calmer when fed beef, a cooling food in Chinese Medicine, it made sense to me to consult Dr. Finn  http://www.equisportmedicine.com/index.php  and see if there were Chinese herbs that might help blunt the sharp edges of  Finna's stress and help her relax enough for the new pathways we're working on building in her brain to grow and strengthen. Dr. Finn was very good about allowing Finna the opportunity to interact at her own pace and at keeping her pressure on Finna to a minimum. Unfortunately, she did need to press some since she didn't have days to spend and sadly,  Finna behaved even worse than I had feared she would. Her first snap earned her a muzzle but even with the muzzle she was lunging and snapping anytime Dr. Finn tried to touch her. I chose to subject Finna to a long car ride, knowing that car rides are stressful for her and have seldom in Finna's experience led to anything good, and to interaction with a stranger despite knowing that this would add to Finna's stress. I'm hoping that the long term good will justify the short term bad. We came home with some Shen Calming powder and some recommendations. We'll try the herbs for a week and then consult by phone. Interestingly after her dose last night today Finna has been more recovered today than I would typically expect after her very stressful yesterday. And when she climbed onto my lap for a nap I was able to practice some T-Touch without it waking her and overstimulating her. Before even if I just tried practicing the T-Touch on the upper part of the back where she's less resistant to being touched she would wake up and get over stimulated. Today while she napped I was able to work her mid-back down as far as I could reach. It's hard to reach all of her when she's on my lap. I'm choosing to consider this as encouragement that we're on the right track for being able to rehabilitate this fearful dog.

Other encouraging areas are in the generally quicker recovery when startled by something, less barking at my husband (although she still isn't comfortable with him and still barks), better responsiveness on leash when we're practicing U-Turns or as we call them "Finna About." In fact I find myself using a lot of da da da da form cues with Finna; "Finna Walk On" "Finna Leave It" "Finna Let's Run" "Finna Slow Down." It will be interesting someday when she hears the theme song to the Addams Family and recognizes the da da da da part of the music. I'm also encouraged by her recall. When standing at the fence having a Finna Fit about the nasty pack of little rat dogs from across the street who were having a brawl in the road Finna responded to her recall. She was still clearly stressed by the yapping and snarling coming from not very far away but she responded.

I keep telling myself that dogs recover at their own rate, that three months isn't that long, and that she is making noticeable progress but she remains a potentially dangerous dog. It's hard knowing  that and constantly being on guard and managing her in such a way as to keep everyone safe. In many ways it reminds me of my days as a first time parent with all the well-meaning advice and a complete lack of certainty. I remember questioning my every decision and worrying about how much I might be screwing up my child. I'm doing much the same thing with Finna; not so much wondering if I'm screwing her up since she came to me pretty screwed up but questioning my decisions and hoping I'm making the best choices for her. The adventure continues and we'll see what month four brings.