Monday, December 31, 2012

Like a Normal Dog

We finally took My Bad Dog to the dog park near our house. We've taken her to the other dog park, where she always gets along famously with her brethren. That dog park is like Dog Disneyland; there are so many dogs of every breed, size, and shape. There are mutts. There is a group of owners of Rhodesian ridgebacks that travel in a pack. There is a statuesque older lady whom I've only ever seen swathed in voluminous cloaks (yes, plural) who, walking slowly with the aid of a cane, presides over a pack of rescued dogs that includes a bulldog and a Chihuahua. Once she scolded me roundly for giving the bulldog a biscuit (I misunderstood her answer when I asked permission) because he was on a raw-food diet. If you're lucky, you might see Murphy, a black mastiff universally acknowledged as the alpha of all alphas, break up a fight.

But we (our collective household, minus My Bad Dog) had a bad memory of this dog park from when we had first brought My Bad Dog home from the rescue organization whence she came. We thought we'd take her to the park to tire her out. No sooner had we closed the chain-link gate behind us than a boisterous young poodle (a giant of a standard, not a toy) loped over and exuberantly mounted Sophie, who immediately registered her disapproval. About a thousand little flopsy and mopsy dogs scampered over to see what was happening, yipping all the while. In the mayhem, I shouted at the poodle's owner to get her dog (undeterred by Sophie's protest, the poodle was still leaping and pawing at her). The owner chided me ("He's just a puppy!") before dragging the poodle away.

In retrospect, I see my mistakes (plural). Still, we'd never gone back.

This morning was beautiful, with golden light streaming across the green grass. Behind the fence, the ground was covered with orange leaves. There were only two owners and two dogs: a funny-looking grayish terrier mix belonging to a pleasant guy about my age and a gorgeous fawn and white pitbull belonging to an older woman whose manner might be described as completely neutral. The terrier was friendly, the pitbull shy. We threw a tennis ball for the dogs, and except for a brief raise of the hackles at the pitbull ("It's all right," the pleasant guy said, "they're fine"), all was harmony. On the way home, we encountered an elderly basset hound named Cecil. Cecil growled at My Bad Dog, who reacted, as she always does when small dogs growl at her, with a calm wag, which reassured Cecil, whose owner complimented us on our good, sweet dog.

Which she was, until we saw a mail carrier drive by, and she became the hound of hell, the dog people are so afraid of. In fact, so many people seem so afraid of her, even those who have never seen the hound of hell display, that whenever anybody--the pleasant guy at the dog park, Cecil's smiling owner--treats My Bad Dog like a normal dog, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude.

What's going on with the mind-regulating training? It's dogged as does it, I keep telling myself. As anyone who's ever raised a child or trained a dog knows, the effort is probably 90% training myself in order to act in such a way that encourages the desired behavior and discourages what is unwanted.

I got myself to understand that it's not possible (nor do I want to) train her out of barking completely. She is a dog; it's in her nature to bark, joyfully, playfully, in welcome or in warning. What I want to do is eliminate the crazy so that her barking might be constructive, rather than compulsive.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beginning at the Beginning

I often wish My Bad Dog had come into my life as a puppy, rather than as a six-year-old two-time loser in the adoption game, and not just because she must have been the cutest puppy in the world, kind of a cross between this and this. Of course, if she had, I may not have been forced inspired to learn how to train a dog as I was by the arrival of My Bad Dog and her attendant antics, antics sometimes perceived inaccurately as hostility and aggression (an honest mistake, being as they do indeed appear to be of that variety).

In any case, now I know how to train a dog. Let us see if I can train My Bad Dog out of her crazy. I began today.

I began by reflecting on My Bad Dog. All I know of her early life is that she roamed the streets of Oxnard and was picked up as a stray when she was little more than a year old. She was adopted and then returned to the shelter. The owners said she was aggressive (and as discussed previously, a trainer labeled her as "incorrigible"). And so My Bad Dog's crazy is a mystery to me: I don't know why My Bad Dog turns into Demon Dog in the car (once she barked so viciously at the driver next to us at a stoplight that he swore and made an obscene gesture) or at the approach of mail carriers/UPS delivery folk/FedEx drivers/unidentified friends.

Not that it would help me to know why. Dogs aren't people; it's not as if I can discuss her early traumas with her and together find a way to let go of survival strategies that no longer serve her now that she lives in a safe home. Regardless, in reflecting on My Bad Dog, I begin from the premise that she is actually My Good Dog. She wants desperately to please me. She doesn't bark herself into a frenzy out of mischief or because she has a cranky temperament. There is some trigger, and then she finds herself out of control. In her right mind, she would never snap at me.

What she needs is help regulating her mind. I find meditation and yoga of use in regulating my own mind, but, again, she is a dog. I also find the imposition of routine helpful in that regard.

And so today, every time My Bad Dog's madness came upon her, I said no. I went to her and told her to follow me into my bedroom, then I pointed at her bed and told her to lie down. Every time she did as I asked. Once the desire to bark was too much for her, but instead of barking, she whimpered.

The day of mind regulating took a lot of effort from both of us. I don't like putting my work aside and getting up and going to the dog every time she barks wildly. My Bad Dog was tired. Even though she was tired, she also seemed relieved. Maybe? I don't know.

What I do know is that it is frightening to feel out of control. When a baby is crying uncontrollably, you can sense the baby spiralling into anxiety. If you know how to calm the baby, you have the experience of sensing the baby's relaxation when she realizes that someone is in charge and that everything is going to be okay.

NOTE: I wrote this a couple of days ago but just got to posting it now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Bad Dog

A few months ago, I was walking My Bad Dog in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She was masquerading as a good dog. She does that a lot. In fact, she does it so frequently and so convincingly that I often forget she is My Bad Dog and think of her as My Good Dog.

Here she is, pretending to be My Good Dog:

Here she is, reminding me that she is My Bad Dog:

On the occasion of that particular walk, she trotted calmly by my side, pausing now and again to sniff sedately at a tree trunk. She has not always been one to trot calmly by my side. The evening we returned home from our first walk together, my shirt was damp with sweat from the exertion of restraining a 70-pound beast from following her own barbaric inclinations.

After that first walk, I read all the Cesar Millan books. Feeling unequal to the challenge of remaining calm-assertive with My Bad Dog (or even remaining calm-assertive in general), I also called a trainer, with whom we had two private sessions and one group class. (More on this later.)The results were impressive: My Bad Dog now has a repertoire of tricks and is usually a good walker under ideal circumstances.

These were ideal circumstances, if by "ideal" we mean "absent of cats, bunnies, squirrels, mail carriers, UPS delivery folk, or FedEx drivers," and so My Bad Dog was on her best behavior. Across the street we saw a woman being pulled hither and yon by her high-spirited black lab. The lab leapt and gamboled, rearing up on its hind legs and pawing at the air, then dashing forward to sniff at a tree before zigzagging back to sniff at a fence. The woman called to me, asking how I got my dog to walk so well on a leash.

"I train her," I said.

"This one is beyond training," she called, and then was yanked onward.

How little faith you have in your dog, I thought at the time.
But who am I to talk?

I am sort of kidding when I say that Sophie is My Bad Dog. She is so good, such a loyal and loving dog. She is the best watch dog ever. She sleeps at the foot of my bed until I'm asleep, then she sleeps in the living room, always returning to her post before I wake. She hates to wake me up when I'm sleeping; if she has to go out in the middle of the night, she wakes one of my daughters. She runs through her commands diligently even when she is tired. She waits patiently while I prepare her food, and only eats when I tell her she may. She won't eat if I'm not home. She looks at me as if to ask permission when my daughters take her for a walk. She has excellent manners; whether by nature or by training that occurred before our acquaintance, she is free from objectionable behaviors such as chewing on shoes or furniture, snatching food from tables, face-licking, and jumping up (that is, she never jumps up at me; she will jump up at new people, but she'll stop if you tell her to). She doesn't scratch at doors, whine, or beg.

What leads me to call her My Bad Dog seems to be temporary (though extreme) madness mostly brought on by mail carriers, UPS delivery folk, and FedEx drivers. And small, furry creatures in motion. She's not fond of police officers, either. Basically, she's leery of uniforms. And--though this applies only to how she feels at home and in the car, because she's generally friendly on walks, unless you are a mail carrier--strangers. Nor does she like it when friends arrive unannounced. She expresses her dislike of this practice vigorously and with a great show of teeth.

I have friends who are afraid of My Bad Dog and friends who are not. Of course she seems just a bit more crazy and a bit more bad around the ones who are. Because she once bit an innocent passer-by (we were waiting at a stoplight and all was well with the world until a man passed behind us and My Bad Dog lunged after him, biting him twice before I could get her under control; I still don't know what about that kindly middle-aged man in glasses, a baseball cap, and pleated-front khakis unleashed her fury--maybe he was an off-duty mail carrier), I use a training collar on walks. It's the only way to be sure I can control her, if by "control her" we mean "keep her from biting an innocent passer-by for no reason or from chasing the mail carrier back to his truck and then circling it like a lion preying on a gazelle." (She actually did that. Of all the many blessings I have received in my life, one of the greatest is that the mail carrier got the door shut before My Bad Dog reached him.) The training collar is metal, with prongs. Sometimes people see the collar and give us a wide berth, even when Sophie is masquerading as My Good Dog. If all I ever saw of My Bad Dog was My Bad Dog, I would give us a wide berth, too.

Today we were walking in that neighborhood that is by now familiar. We had an unpleasant moment when a FedEx truck idled at a stop sign in front of us; more unpleasantness ensued when we spied a mail carrier on her route. If we calculated the proportion of pleasantness to unpleasantness on the walk, pleasantness would win in a landslide; we had friendly encounters with an older guy and his yellow lab and with a young guy on a skateboard and his German shepherd. We greeted a basset hound mix and had a nice moment with a small silky dog of indeterminate breed. At the park, we practiced our repertoire of tricks. And yet, the unpleasant moments were so dramatically unpleasant. During the worst of it, she turned back and snapped at me. She didn't hurt me; I had heavy sweatpants on. Still, it was shocking.

I hadn't admitted to myself that I'd given up on My Bad Dog. Not entirely--we do a training session every day, sometimes more than once a day, and sometimes we show off for little kids, because little kids love to see dogs do tricks. But I had accepted that in the matter of her mail-carrier madness, My Bad Dog was incorrigible.

Is she really? There is strong evidence that she is, evidence in the form of a letter written by a previous owner in which the owner reports that My Bad Dog was deemed incorrigible by an experienced trainer. There is also my own experience.

Then again, maybe everyone--including me--just gave up too soon.