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.