Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Rainbows, Butterflies, and Unicorns

Although yesterday started off fine, with a long walk during which My Good Dog was mostly perfectly behaved (except when she wasn't), she went on to have a bit of a rough day. Mondays, you know: trash day. All day long, we hear the slow rumbling of  garbage trucks. Then the yard waste trucks make their rounds. By the time the mail carrier arrives in the late afternoon, Sophie's limited store of patience has been exhausted. Still, I see progress. Even though she launched a full offensive at the mail carrier's approach, I intervened swiftly and she recovered her equanimity quickly.

This morning, we left for our walk a bit later than usual. A mail carrier truck was parked to the left of us as we neared the trailer park on Telegraph. I made sure I was breathing and walking normally. Sometimes I catch myself tightening up when I see a mail truck, or a FedEx or UPS truck: my shoulders tighten and rise, my breathing gets faster, my heart beat becomes noticeable. I react this way even if I'm out driving by myself.

So I've been learning to pay attention to that and correct my posture. This morning, I held the leash loosely in my left hand, which is in itself progress; I used to begin our walks by wrapping the end of the leash around my hand several times.

We kept walking, with Sophie trotting at a sedate heel. Then she glanced at the mail truck briefly, returned her gaze forward, and kept walking as if she had never once in her life ever even growled at a mail carrier, as if she bore no grudge against mail carriers in general, as if she'd never been the spectacle of 70 pounds of barking, whirling, ferociously lunging fury that interrupted a middle school P.E. class because all the students and the teacher ran to the chain-link fence to stare at her while she let a mail carrier know what was up.

Several blocks later, we'd turned down Ashwood toward the park, and Sophie caught sight of a large, long-haired cat of the striped variety. The cat looked at Sophie calmly, and then approached--not as a Halloween cat would do, but as if she thought she'd like to say hello. Sophie and the cat touched noses and sniffed each other thoroughly. The cat didn't run, Sophie didn't pounce at her, they just looked at each other for a moment, and then Sophie and I went on our way.

This is how it would be in my dream world every day.

Today's Report Card
# of mail trucks sighted (parked): 1
reactivity: 0

# of cats sighted (in motion): 2
reactivity: -5, 0

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Fool Me Once

Last night, Sophie woke me up in the middle of the night with whimpering and click click clicking of her little toenails on the floor. Her whimpering and anxious clicking were so persistent that yep, again I thought her anxiety was produced by urgent need, but this time, I got a tiny bit smarter and put her on a leash.

When we got to the grass, she tried to bolt. Huh. Must be a whole colony of possums out there, but last night, she didn't get to chase them.

Today's report card
# of mail trucks sighted (in motion): 2
reactivity: 4, 4
recovery: right quick

# of mail trucks sighted (parked): 1
recovery: right quick

# of FedEx trucks sighted (in motion): 1
reactivity: 0
NOTE: This latter may not count; vision isn't a dog's sharpest sense, we were on our way to My Good Dog's Favorite Place, The Park, and so it's highly likely she didn't catch sight of the FedEx truck.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Natural Born Killer

Here is Sophie, chewing on her ferret. She took a systematic approach to dismantling the ferret, first removing the paws, then then the eyes.

I'm always surprised how I feel when I look at pictures of Sophie. I find her charming: the cutest thing in the world except for my kids. Even just looking at her picture is enough to make me feel this upwelling of love and affection. I love this dog so much. Except when she kills possums.

Writing about dogs and kids is difficult. It's so easy to stumble into a thicket of sentimentalities or predictable jokes--about how lovable or aggravating or mysterious or wise or stubborn or whatever else they are. Who doesn't love his dog? Who doesn't love his kids? Who doesn't find the whole pack of all living beings belonging to oneself wonderful beyond measure? I don't want to know that person.

Sometimes I wonder if we even need to write about dogs and kids, because it seems like everyone already knows what you're going to say. 

Last week, while I was preparing to embark on a desert road trip, I went outside to clean up the backyard for the house-sitter and found a dead possum on the patio.

Possums are big, way bigger than cats. They have big sharp teeth and long rat-like tails, and their little paws look disconcertingly like little baby hands. Looking at that big dead possum with its little baby hands made me hate Sophie a little, but I took care of it. I put on leather gardening gloves and then wrapped the gloves in layers of plastic bags, and slid the possum onto a flattened cardboard box. I tried to call Animal Control Services, but couldn't reach anyone, and time was ticking, I had a lot to do that day. I don't know what you're supposed to do with dead possums. I put ours in the trash, and then for the few days while I was away, worried that it wasn't really dead-dead, it was just playing dead, and that the possum would wake up and find itself at the bottom of the trash bin, but I took comfort in considering the possum's size and in its sharp teeth, both of which I thought would go a long way in helping the possum escape the predicament I'd put him in.

When I came back, there was no evidence of a possum resurrection. The house-sitter reported no carnage had taken place in my absence.

A few days after that, I went out in the morning to clean up the yard before taking Sophie for a walk, and then I saw the rest of the possum's family: his mate and all their children. Dead. The sight of the bodies of the mother possum and of all the babies, some still with their paws clinging to the mother, some lying a few inches away in the grass made me hate Sophie again. Baby possums are much darker than their parents. They look a bit like little rats. Some people find rats disgusting. I don't; I had a pet rat when I was in sixth grade. I'd taught my rat to play tag. But that was a pet. Not that I'd be inclined to play tag with the city vermin variety.

After I cried, I went inside. I called Animal Services this time. There are probably millions of people in the world who can cheerfully dispose of that many dead baby animals and their mother in a moment, but I'm not one of them.

The woman who answered the phone at Animal Control Services was very nice. She assured me that possums don't carry diseases, so I didn't have to worry about that, and directed  me to leave a note on my door.

When I returned home, the yard was cleared. Sophie sniffed the grass where the possums had been, and I looked at her and hated her a little more. It's not like she needed to eat the possums. Sometimes she won't eat her own food. I would say she killed the possums for sport, but she didn't; she killed them because they're prey and she's a predator, and that's just what predators do. I'm sure she had fun, but it was working kind of fun, not going to the beach kind of fun.

Before Sophie, we had Harriet, a long-haired tortoiseshell cat of distinctly foxy appearance. Harriet was a skilled hunter, and brought home all species of small animals. Sometimes they were dead and sometimes they were alive, and sometimes they were in-between. Mice, gophers, birds, a squirrel, once she carried home a bunny that was more than half her size. Then Harriet herself disappeared. We lived in the hills then, and it could have been the coyotes. Harriet's disappearance broke our hearts.

Before Harriet, we had Shaka, a glossy black short-haired manx. Shaka was such a goofball that I didn't believe he would be much of a hunter, so when dead mice started appearing on the deck, I assumed that they'd been poisoned and that somehow our deck had become the preferred final resting place for neighborhood rodents. Shaka put that belief to rest when he started bringing home live mice, too. Shaka was HBC, vetspeak for "hit by car." We'd put up fliers all over the neighborhood, so I had to endure at least a dozen calls from well-meaning folks who'd seen him before we got the fliers down. Shaka's death broke our hearts, too.

My goal is to keep Sophie alive by any means necessary, so far so good. I don't know what I can do to protect the possums. Maybe always assume Sophie is lying when she indicates she needs to go out in the middle of the night.

By now, I've forgiven her for being a dog and a predator and we're back to normal.

Today's Report Card
# of cats sighted (in motion): 1
reactivity: 1

NOTE: This is very impressive, considering the cat was the one we see on the way to the park. This cat is badder than bad. This cat comes TOWARD us when it sees Sophie. The cat puffs up and steps forward. I admire this cat so much.

Today the owner came out and I told her I'm a big fan of her cat. She looked at Sophie's perked ears and wagging tail, and then asked if Sophie likes cats. Her cat loves dogs that like cats, she said. At that moment, her cat looked like one of those cats on a Halloween card.

I told the cat's owner that Sophie would probably try to eat the cat if I let her go. The cat's owner smiled uncertainly. Sophie had issues, I said apologetically.

# of mail carriers sighted (on foot): 1
reactivity: 3
NOTE: Here I'm thinking we might need to indicate how much time it took for her to calm down, because even though there was an impressive reaction, she pulled herself together right quick.

# of FedEx trucks sighted (in motion): 1
reactivity: 2

# of UPS trucks sighted (in motion): 1
reactivity: 2

It was a busy walk.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

We're moving in the right direction.

Today's Report Card
# of meter readers sighted: 1
reactivity: 3
# of cats sighted (2):
reactivity: 1
# of mail carriers sighted (in motion, with truck): 1
reactivity: 0

I would throw a party if only there hadn't been such a hullaballoo about the meter reader.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What to Notice

A few nights ago, it was late, I was tired, and I could hear my daughters practicing their cellos (celli?) in their studio. (Studio may be a grandiose term; it's a shed, albeit with French doors and several windows, with an interior that we painted lilac, and it was designated their music room because inside our small house, two cellos/celli playing at one time is a lot.)

The background on this is that we've always had this rule, as loosely followed as it was enforced, of no practicing after 9:30, 10 at the latest, 10 being the hour specified in the city ordinance prohibiting noise. It was 11:30 and my daughters were playing their cellos/celli. Was I steamed.

I went out to the shed, offered a reprimand, and invited them to shut it down and go to bed. All the while I grumbled--about having had to rise from my warm cozy bed, about the possibility of their having disturbed the neighbors, and so on.

When I woke up in the morning, I saw that what I've often suspected is true: I am the most ridiculous person in the world. Here I have these teen-age daughters, these straight A students, these musicians who diligently practice: girls who are nice, fun to be with, and funny as all get-out, girls who never cause me a moment's worry that they might be sneaking out to gleefully roll around in all the trouble that teen-agers often do roll around in. If the worst thing they ever do is practice their cellos/celli at 11:30 at night on a school night--well! Then I will have been mightily blessed.

Late, while walking My Good Dog, I listened to the Make Dogs Your Life podcast, episode 4, the interview with Jessica Dolce, a professional walker of dogs. Ms. Dolce talked about this very topic as applied to dogs, and I realized how incredibly good My Good Dog is, let me count the ways:
1. Never chews on shoes or furniture or any other item except chew toys.
2. Is 100% house-broken.
3. Is absent any hint of food or toy aggression.
4. Is always sweet and calm to small dogs, no matter how aggressive the small dog is.
5. Is almost always sweet and calm with any dog (except, rarely, dogs that are aggressive to her--she usually doesn't react, but once in a while, she does--and, only twice, she was snappy with dogs who seemed passive and sweet).
6. Learns new tricks quickly.
7. Obeys basic commands: sit, stay, wait, down, sit up, shake.
8. Walks well on a leash.
9. Is always sweet and calm with family members.
10. Never lies on the furniture (when we're home).
11. Doesn't jump up on people who don't let her jump up on them.
12. Has learned not to lick my face.
13. Never steals food from the table or counter.
14. Never gets into the trash.
15. Is a pleasant companion.

All that having been said, if My Bad Dog's one personality flaw is her reactivity to mail carriers and all delivery personnel and strangers who come to our house unannounced, well, maybe that isn't the worst thing in the world.

Especially if that one personality flaw is seeming to (very gradually) diminish.

I decided to record the level of reactivity along with the stimulus to help me monitor improvement. Reactivity is measured on a 0 to 5 scale, 0 being obliviousness and 5 being nuclear explosion.

Today's Report Card
# of cats sighted: 2
reactivity: 1

# of FedEx trucks (in motion): 1
reactivity: 1

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Into the Fire

# of mail trucks (parked): 1
# of mail trucks (in motion): 1
# of mail carriers (on foot): 1
# of UPS trucks (parked): 1
# of UPS delivery folk (on foot): 1
Fatalities or injuries: 0



# of mail trucks (parked): 1
# of mail trucks (in motion): 2
# of mail carriers (on foot): 2
# of FedEX trucks (in motion): 1
# of UPS trucks (in motion): 1
Fatalities or injuries: 0

# of mail trucks (parked): 1
# of mail carriers (on foot): 1
# of FedEx trucks (in motion): 1
Fatalities or injuries: 0

You see I have a new grading system for our walks.

We have been walking directly into the fire. Not once have we made evasive maneuvers. If a mail carrier is walking toward us from up the block, forward we go.

On Monday, the show we put on as we passed a parked mail truck and walked toward a mail carrier (who, upon seeing us, immediately reversed direction, got out her cell phone, and made a call while walking rapidly away) was so impressive that the two teams of middle-schoolers who were playing basketball across the street stopped the game to watch. Even the P.E. teacher stopped to watch for a second before he blew his whistle and yelled at them to get back to it. The gardener who was cleaning off the sidewalk of the church actually stopped the leaf blower and stood and watched.

The great thing? The show didn't last long. The more practice we have of My Good Dog reacting to the evil presence of mail delivery personnel and vehicles and my intervening, the less dramatic it gets.

This morning, as we passed the trailer park on Telegraph, My Good Dog fixed her attention on the mail carrier truck and on the mail carrier on foot beyond the truck, and I kept walking. She reared back a bit, tried a lunge to the right, and I gave a quick snap to the leashes (to ensure the safety of mail delivery personnel, I've been using two leashes in case one breaks or somehow gets free of me), told her no, and kept walking. Although My Good Dog continued to display an unseemly interest in the mail truck until we were half a block away, she did keep walking, and we walking the rest of the way home with My Good Dog trotted sedately at my side.

We've all heard the adage to face our fears a million times. The thinking part of my brain always nods and agrees Yes! Let's face our fears! Let's be bold and brave and daring! while the part of my brain that controls my actions sticks her fingers in her ears and ducks under the covers to hide until the thinking part of my brain gets distracted and wanders away. But the stakes are too high to do that now.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Wrong Is Me

We don't have cable at our house; we don't even have a TV. Our ancient cathode ray tube set gave up the ghost before we moved last fall, and when I asked my daughters if they wanted a TV, they said no. We do watch Netflix on occasion, and recently I've been watching Cesar Millan. That show is addictive. I could watch for hours.

Why? It's the old, old story: all about faith and hope and love and redemption.

I've been sorely in need of the faith and hope. In spite of that one moment, and subsequent minor victories (The mail carrier came to our door and My Bad Dog slept through it! We walked past a mail carrier who was only 15 feet away from us, and My Bad Dog didn't react at all! A FedEx truck passed us and she didn't lunge and bark!), I was feeling discouraged that the hard daily work of consistent discipline on walks and correcting her when she registered loud disapproval of landscape workers across the street, a real estate agent down the block, the Seventh Day Adventists who like to check in to see if we've changed our minds (we haven't) wasn't yielding consistent results.

She seemed better, then she seemed worse. She didn't bark, then she tried to eat the mail carrier/FedEx guy/school bus driver/elderly man with those enormous black sunglasses and the rather aggressive posture who doesn't like to share the sidewalk. 

In watching Dog Whisperer episodes this time, though, I found hope once again fluttering in my breast. I always say I'm a repeat learner, and the repeated lesson here is that it's me, not My Bad Dog. I had thought and thought and thought and thought about why she was the way she was, and kept blaming her sad, sad past of having been a street dog, having been abandoned not once but twice. The conclusion I always came to was that she was the way she was because of her past. Then sometimes I would sort of get it that all right, so I was inadvertently allowing some dominant behaviors and failing to be a confident pack leader, and so My Bad Dog then tried to take that role.

I got it, but I didn't get it. I probably just didn't want to believe it was me. On Cesar's show, it's always obvious to the viewer that it's the owner's problem that fuels the dog's problem.

Maybe the reason for the inconsistent results was that even though I had some of the behaviors in place (for myself, I'm not talking about My Bad Dog, I mean that I learned not to let her walk ahead of me and not to let her put her paw on me, for example), I hadn't done the necessary emotional excavation that you see with the owners who become successful in rehabilitating their dogs. Also, I was still making some behavioral mistakes (e.g., letting her sniff and track while we walked instead of requiring her to walk directly forward with me).

We none of us humans enjoy admitting we're wrong. It took me a while, but now I'm at this place of being thrilled to admit that I am wrong, wrong, wrong if that will solve the problem. 

My Mistake:
I had dreaded meetings with mail carriers/FedEd guys/teens in hoodies/elderly men with aggressive postures. Perhaps My Bad Dog sensed this dread and assumed that she needed to protect me from those dangers. My solution had been to avoid them, but that didn't work. It just made encounters worse when we had them.

What I'm Doing Instead:
I noticed that when Cesar worked with reactive dogs, he welcomed opportunities for the dogs to react in their typical manner because those were learning opportunities. Instead of avoiding such encounters, I needed to welcome them. This requires a certain amount of internal fortitude, but the great thing is that the more you do it, the easier it is.

Now we've have a few days of my embracing the outside world in its entirety, mail carriers and all. It gets dramatic and people do love to stare when they see me administering correction when My Bad Dog is leaping and lunging and barking.

The Result:
Today we were at what I used to think of as the Infernal Intersection because it had been the scene of many overreactions on the part of My Bad Dog. A big school bus rolled up from behind us, and My Bad Dog went crazy.

I gave her a firm "No!" (as opposed to a pleading or doubtful "No?") and each time she lunged, I gave a swift backward pull on the leash and the claw hand to the loose ruff around her neck--"claw hand" makes it sound meaner than it is, but there's no violence in it, nothing that causes her pain, and the reasons I know it doesn't cause her pain are that I'm not applying enough pressure to hurt her and that I know what she looks like when she is in pain, and that is not it. It does get her attention. She is used to my correcting her with ineffective words, and those are very easy for her to ignore. This she couldn't ignore. It was as if I had gone from saying "Blah blah blah blah, Sophie" to "Attention, soldier!" She calmed down and sat next to me at the intersection, EVEN THOUGH THE BUS WAS STILL THERE. Fantastic.

Then, because God likes a joke, I think, a little school bus pulled up in front of us on the cross street to turn right. My Bad Dog went crazy, and we went through the same routine, and she calmed down and sat down until our light changed, and then she walked sedately by my side while we crossed the street.

I'm so proud of My Good Dog.

And one of the best things about all of this is that it drives home for me what Cesar keeps saying about how dogs live in the moment, they don't live in the past. Sophie doesn't sigh for her lost puppyhood. She doesn't weep in remembrance of the wrongs done her. She reacts in the moment. Therein lie the hope, right? Every moment gives us a chance to react differently.

We met a school bus, My Good Dog reacted and got corrected, and then we went home, and the whole way, My Good Dog trotted happily and confidently at my side.