Sunday, September 29, 2013

Firing on All Cylinders

When our behaviorist suggested that we make the switch from Clomicalm to Prozac, we had the option of doing a slow wean or a fast wean.  Not knowing what the medication was doing for Abby, we had opted for the slow wean since we felt we had time to transition her onto the Prozac.  We began on September 5th, and within a week had already noticed some slight changes in Abby's every day demeanor.  Don't get me wrong, she still is the sweetest girl in the world.  But her ability to live with change in an ever-changing world had obviously been compromised.  

About a week into the decrease my husband had worked from home and found that Abby had been nuisance barking a bit more at things every day.  I suppose on some level I wasn't surprised as we had noticed something similar when we tried to decrease the Clomicalm once before under the advice/judgment of our previous veterinarian.  The second week while working from home he noticed even more barking in combination with an inability to settle down.  My realizations that things were changing were a bit slower in coming, particularly since we had avoided most of the world during our walks. 

Then I had several walks in a row with Abby that made me realize just how much had changed for her with just a 5mg decrease twice daily.  Abby has always been one to notice other dogs, and during the worst of her fear reactivity would seem to react to most dogs.  However, she is now reacting to every dog.  And by reacting I mean that she is pulling, bouncing, barking, growling, panting, etc.  If before she could tolerate a dog from 150 yards away, she now would be panting at the same dog from 200 yards away.  And it wasn't just dogs.  She was reactive towards people walking past, joggers, people on bicycles, and inevitably even cars.  Sounds that my husband would make from the other room in the house, or me from the kitchen, immediately caused her hackles to raise and for her to bolt from her bed in a full Hound howl.  It is clear that the Clomicalm does quite a bit for Abby so that she can be calm in her world.  

So we are now in the fast wean process, and I'm noticing a bit more barking today as she is home with me.  She is able to enjoy some quiet nap time, but periodically will hear something that I don't hear and have difficulty not barking at it.  Though I queue her to "leave it" there are times where there are quieter barks here and there.  So presently we're on 5mg of Clomicalm twice daily until 10/3/13 and then we'll decrease to 5mg once daily for a week.  She'll then be off the Clomicalm for 3 days before beginning the Prozac.  

Everyone cross your fingers that the next few weeks fly by for her and that it goes relatively smoothly.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Road Less Traveled

When we first embarked on our journey with Abby a little over three years ago, I had no idea the things that I would come to learn.  First and foremost, I've learned more about trust from one little yellow dog than I ever could have learned in a lifetime.  Her ability to put total faith in us for everything amazes me.  She trusts that we will always be home, that we will always do what is in her best interest, and that we will never ask more of her than she is capable of.  The ways I've defined bravery and courage have changed in some ways.  As I watch my reactive dog try to live in a world that makes no sense, I'm often humbled by how far she has come since the early weeks of chaotic walks in which every sight and sound seemed to be overwhelming.  And most importantly I've learned about unconditional love.  My husband and I like to believe that people who say dogs don't know emotions have never had an Abby.  Every single thing she does is so fueled by love that you can truly understand why she does the things she does.  

Along the way you learn the basics that apply to most dogs.  You figure out how to potty train a dog, and the proper equipment to use when walking your furry companion.  You learn about the newest toys to stimulate your dog mentally, and exhaust them physically.  You develop a sense for what toys your dog will rip to shreds in under 5 seconds, and which ones she won't play with at all.  

But people with a reactive dog begin to learn a whole new language.  You learn to read your dog's signals.  We've all heard that dogs can communicate with their body language, and those who live in a land of reactivity will find themselves reading the subtle queues of not only their dog, but of all of the dogs you're likely to encounter in your every day activities.  You learn where to walk, what to avoid.  You learn that your dog probably hovers a bit above threshold as compared with most other dogs, and that certain things can cause a reaction where they never effectively return to a calm state but an even more elevated state than before.  And for some of us with reactive dogs, you learn that sometimes you and your dog need a little bit of help.  For most this comes in the form of finding a trainer and confidant who helps to guide you on the adventure of raising a reactive dog.  And for some of us, there is the type of help that comes in the form of a prescription.  

I've never been shy about saying that Abby is on a prescription medication for anxiety.  At first there was some shame in admitting to this, either because most people aren't aware that such a thing exists, or because I felt judged as an owner - as if I was not enough of an awesome pet parent to do things on my own.  Whatever the reason, I think sometimes people have a hard time admitting that maybe your pet needs a little bit of help to allow them to relax enough to be receptive to all of the wonderful things you want to teach them.  That certainly was the case for Abby.  Abby's trip has been a difficult one with stumbling blocks along the way.  But through it all I would not change a single thing about the road we've been on and we're at with her presently.  

And so it is with that that I tell you we are starting a new fork in the road.  Today marked our annual recheck appointment with our vet behaviorist.  It is a time where we all come together to talk about Abby and what she's been up to behaviorally within the past year.  Much like with our own physicals with our physicians, it is also a time to assess the course of treatments we have been doing to see if they're helping or not making any impact.  We have always had discussions over what the medication is doing for Abby and what relief and benefit she receives from it.  However, recent production issues with Novartis have had a direct impact on the availability of her medication, Clomicalm.  For the past year we have been utilizing a compounding service for giving her a twice daily dosage of Clomipramine.  However, even the generic has gone up to such an egregious price that it has left our behaviorist questioning the ability to receive the medication long-term.  

So what does that mean for Abby?  It means that we are slowly going to lower her dosage of the Clomipramine with the end goal that she will be weaned off of it, and then we will begin a new medication that is more widely available with a good success rate, Prozac.  It is a scary thought, the idea of your pet coming down from a medication that had such great success.  But with it comes the opportunity to truly assess your pet's behavior and discover what benefit they're truly receiving from it.  The coming weeks will probably see more blog entries as I attempt to document and assess the changes we may see in Abby's behavior as a result of this change.  But I feel confident in the work that Abby has done and our ability to know our dog and her behavior that we'll be able to monitor the changes we see and work with our behaviorist to tailor this change to her needs.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sometimes it is OK to Say No

Do you remember when you were a kid and you had that relative or friend of the family that your parents made you give a hug to?  You know the one I'm talking about.  The one who wreaked of perfume or cigars and would squeeze your cheeks.  Sometimes they'd ask you to pull their finger or make them their favorite cocktail.  I had several of these relatives that weren't my favorite, and no matter how prepared I thought I was for these interactions, there were times when nothing could have prepared me for what was about to come.  The story I'm about to share with you is absolutely mortifying, and I swear there is a point to it. 

One year my family decided to have Easter dinner out at a restaurant.  I don't remember what age I was exactly because I've tried to erase most of this day from my memory.  But I do remember that I was at that awkward stage where clothes fit differently and suddenly you have bumps and curves that you swear everyone can see.  When you're a girl who hates dresses, the idea of being in one for Easter is bad enough.  Being in one when you feel awkward about your body is even worse.  So when my father's aunt held me at an arm's length in the middle of a crowded restaurant after the obligatory kisses and hugs and announced loudly, "Oh my gosh, you're getting little bazooms!" you can imagine the horror that went through me.  In my mind everything stopped and panic set in as I waited for the reaction of strangers around me. 

Humiliation aside, almost every dog goes through a similar experience in their lifetime.  Anyone who walks a dog outside knows exactly what I'm talking about.  The moment where someone wants to greet your dog.  There are many people that have dogs who thrive on this attention.  But there are some dogs that have problems greeting others.  Maybe they lack manners and they jump on someone who is in their vicinity.  Maybe they do well once someone ignores them long enough, and settle down to give a sweet greeting.  And maybe the idea of someone staring at them and touching them freaks them out.  Think about something that makes you uncomfortable when you meet someone.  Maybe they stare at you too intently, or perhaps they step into your space too much or are too touchy-feely.  Not only do you have things that make you uncomfortable, your dogs do, too.  And while you have the ability to make excuses and leave a situation, most likely your dog doesn't.  If your dog is uncomfortable, or if a situation presents itself that you know will make your dog upset or uncomfortable, say no.  It really is OK! 

But surely everyone who asks to greet a dog should be able to, right?  Nope. 

I used to be the sort of dog owner who cared about what other people thought of me.  I was worried about the interactions that Abby had with people and how people would perceive us.  I worried that if Abby jumped and barked seeing another dog in the neighborhood that it was a reflection of me and my training.  I was worried that if Abby seemed fearful of children in the neighborhood that people would worry about her being in the neighborhood.  And I worried that if Abby didn't say hi to someone that wanted to say hi to her that it would leave them disappointed.  And inevitably I thought about these interactions and I realized that the opinions of others after these interactions didn't matter to me.  The only thing that mattered is whether or not Abby trusted me to keep her safe. 

Abby may not be able to turn to me and say in my language, "Hey, I'm uncomfortable in this situation," or "This person makes me nervous."  But with time I've come to know the things that make her nervous (children, things with wheels, more than one person wanting to greet her, more than one dog, etc.).  These are scenarios that will in most instances not be successful, and by successful I mean interactions where my dog seems relaxed and is soft in her posturing.  If I can avoid these scenarios I do.  Either we change our route or I try to give Abby enough space where she can tolerate those things.  But sometimes things happen and you're suddenly confronted by things out of your control. 

Last month I was out for a nice walk after work with Abby.  My husband was going to be a bit late getting home, and I decided to enjoy the first bit of nice weather with a longer walk.  The after work hour can sometimes be challenging as people let their dogs out, but often times those people are letting their dogs out on quick walks and so the trails in our development are virtually empty.  We went through one trail that opened out onto a side street, and we began to walk back.  I could see a child that appeared to be about 4-5 years old, and she was out with her mother playing on their lawn.  As soon as she saw me and Abby she screamed "Puppy!  Puppy!  Puppy!"  And with that she took off at a full run towards us as the mother yelled after her to stop.  Now there are a few things I know about my dog.  She's petrified of children, and she's petrified of people of any age running *at* her.  When you combine both of these things it was not going to be a successful interaction.  I instinctively turned with Abby and started to walk away.  The mother caught up to her daughter, picked her up, and apologized.  She then asked if her daughter could greet Abby, to which I said no. 

Did I feel guilty?  Did I feel like I let this child down?  Nope.  Not even the slightest.  Chances are that at some point there will be a dog she'll get to pet and that dog will be fine with her enthusiasm.  But if I had tried to let this exuberant child greet Abby and Abby was uncomfortable, would I have felt guilty?  Absolutely.  Because not only is it unfair to put Abby in this position, each interaction I force her to have further diminishes the faith that she has in me to take care of these situations that make her uncomfortable.  By taking charge of who she greets, I take away the anxiety over what is going to happen when she sees people or dogs coming towards her.  When I take that pressure off of her, her ability to handle escalating situations is greatly improved because she's not already amped up at the idea of whether she'll have to hi to someone.  She can simply trust that I'm going to take care of whatever is coming towards us. 

And for those wondering, the mother was not upset when I wouldn't let her daughter greet Abby and completely understood my reasons for making that choice. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There may be no such thing as a stupid question...

... but there certainly is such a thing as a stupid idea, or at least one that is misinformed. 

We have been working recently on bringing our girl for random appointments where she comes in, gets treats and love from staff, and settles on her mat.  We always try to keep our visits short and light, and we always try to end on a positive note.  I cannot tell you the world of difference this has made to Abby.  She gets excited to enter the vet and see the friends she has made. 

On our last visit, we pulled in and shortly after two cars pulled in.  In one vehicle appeared an owner and her mixed breed dog.  In another vehicle was someone who advertised themselves as an animal behaviorist and described that they helped to modify and correct some canine behavior.  It was at this point that I noticed that the self-described "behaviorist" got out to greet the other woman and her dog.  I could not see what was going on from the other side of the caravan, but I did notice what sounded like multiple dogs barking from the business van the behaviorist drove.  As the women were talking, I heard the behaviorist tell her dogs to "settle" quite often, and I heard her dogs completely ignore her.  I allowed them a few minutes to get inside our veterinarian's office before I took Abby out of the car. 

We do a great deal of mat work with Abby, and this truly has been one of the keys to her success.  Abby has a safe place that she can go to and settle, and she knows that the only expectation for her when she is there is that she relax.  Certainly getting her to understand that was its own challenge, but now it is her default.  So when we came inside, I put her mat down near a half wall in the waiting area and gave her the cue to go to her mat.  Abby laid down very easily and put her chin down while we waited for them to finish at the scale.  When they were done, I brought Abby over to the scale so she could practice getting on it and then we returned to our mat.  This is when the dog who was on the other side of the wall put his paws on the half wall to peer over.  Abby took interest and popped up off her mat and tried to look around the wall.  I cued Abby back to her mat, and as she was returning the "behaviorist" said to me, "Do you think they can say hi so they both can settle?"

What?  "Do you think they can say hi so they both can settle?" 

Allow me to rephrase this in the way I heard it.  "Can my anxious dog get in the face of your reactive dog and hope that chaos doesn't ensue and they get it out of their system?" 

I do not believe in the idea that a reactive dog can go face-to-face with another dog and find anything calm in the interaction.  Many non-reactive dogs would likely feel some level of excitement after such an interaction.  For a reactive dog, they learn that they worked themselves up about this big scary thing, and thankfully this time nothing happened.  And while I am not a fan of clearly reactive dogs greeting other dogs, more importantly I am thoroughly against introducing dogs in stressful situations.  Abby is a smart girl.  As much as we have a new place, and a new MO, she knows what she's there for.  We're working on counter conditioning this experience for her.  And so while your dog is clearly amped up for this appointment, and my dog is clearly amped to be in the door, this is the time that you as a self-described professional think is a good opportunity to greet? 

My answer as as polite as I could make it.  "No, she will settle on her own because we have worked on that.  Face-to-face greetings will cause a reaction from her." 

While I can respect that she at least asked instead of allowing her dog to barrel around the wall, I was absolutely astounded by the "solution" this person came up with.  It was a day that made me truly grateful that everything aligned the way it needed to be so that Abby could find us, and we could find the trainer that we have.  She was meant to find us, and we were meant to be her voice. 

And at the end of all of this, Abby just continued to be a rock star.  She came to work, got good love from her favorite receptionist, and left on a high note.  I could not have asked for more. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

It shouldn't be this hard

It shouldn't be this hard to find a vet that meshes with our beliefs and commitment to the physical, mental, and emotional care of our dog.  Yet somehow this seems to be a challenge.  We switched practices last year and while the new veterinarians are fantastic, the staff is less than pleasant and it has become a real challenge as of late. 

More often than not our vet ran at least 20-40 minutes late for every appointment.  While I don't care about a wait if someone tells me, I also have to keep Abby's best interests in mind.  That timing of an extra 20-40 minutes waiting in the lobby is the difference between Abby being able to tolerate her appointments and the services the staff will provide, and her becoming a pacing and panting wreck who looks to bolt at every opportunity. 

Most recently we have tried to take a proactive approach to her appointments.  I came to the realization that it is my job in life to try to alleviate Abby's fears, and if I cannot do that I must do everything I can to limit her exposure to those fears and give her coping strategies that set her up for success.  We do that presently with a whole host of things.  We ask Abby to wait at a door while we open it and look outside to make sure the coast is clear and we avoid an ambush.  We limit her exposure to other dogs, and only when she expresses genuine interest and calm posturing do we briefly allow contact.  Why is the vet different?  The answer is that it shouldn't be. 

I don't know about you, but every dog I have ever owned has been afraid of the vet and displayed this in a wide variety of behaviors.  Some have paced or panted, some have whined, and some have even growled at anyone appearing in scrubs or a lab coat.  And when you really think about it, is it any wonder they're scared?  Think of how you would feel if you were brought someplace where people spoke in a language you didn't understand, and tried to touch you right away?  Maybe you liked being pet on the head, or maybe you didn't, but either way it quickly becomes a process of doing strange things to you.  Sounds terrible, right?  And then imagine how you would feel the next time you went back and it was exactly the same.  No wonder dogs are scared of the vet! 

Throughout Abby's entire GI issues of last year, I grew convinced that I needed to be an advocate in her health.  But most recently I've realized I need to be her voice in advocating for emotional and mental well being.  There are several components to that.  The first thing I tried to do was to go to the vet for things other than appointments where she would just go and get treats.  I realized the first time I went to do this that I had an uphill battle with this one.  The vet is sandwiched between landscaping and construction companies, and at any point in the day there are a wide variety of sounds that are deeply unsettling to her.  Clearly treating her even for just getting to the parking lot was going to be the way to go and it would go very slowly from there. 

The second thing comes with respect to the waiting times in the lobby.  Although we do a lot of mat work where Abby has a mat we throw down and she knows she can relax there, that only goes so far in stressful situations.  In light of the delays of our vet, I spoke with the office staff about taking a proactive approach to this wait time.  I could not rely on them to adequately communicate any delays the office experienced, and even if they had communicated those delays I had limited ways to deal with this.  I decided that if I had any hope of helping Abby not to become distressed waiting for her appointment, I needed to check in without her present.  Sometimes this is realistic if my husband comes to an appointment with us, and one person remains in the car while the other person goes in.  But sometimes he can't be at every appointment and I am by myself.  I typically try to avoid leaving my dog in the car even for something as quick as this.  So I spoke with someone in the office about being able to call from the parking lot and check in for our appointment.  If the staff had her exam room ready I would head right in.  If not they could either wave to me from the window or call me back on my cell phone when her exam room was ready and I would head right in.  I tried this approach on a couple of occasions and it worked fairly well depending on who was on staff that day.  That is until my husband tried to bring our girl for a vaccine. 

Now admittedly, Abby is sometimes vaccine reactive.  Not only is she missing fur where her Rabies vaccine was administered, but she once got violently ill after receiving her Lepto and Lyme vaccines.  Now we break these vaccines up, and we also administer a Benadryl injection before she receives these vaccines.  After massive confusion regarding checking in from the parking lot, and waiting to be seen for the injection, my poor husband and Abby had to wait a long time for the vaccine, and wait to check out.  It was that appointment that hubby said he was done with this vet. 

The more I thought about the requests we've made of our current vet, the more I realized that I wasn't asking for a lot.  I was asking for my vet to become a partner with me in making sure that my dog's anxiety over her visit was lessened.  Can you imagine if you were a parent with a child who was afraid of the dentist, and your dentist insisted on strapping down your child in a chair each time they went in?  No parent would tolerate that, and no owner should allow their veterinarian to contribute to their pet's fears. 

Your vet and their staff should be approachable.  They should not only value the relationship they have with you, but the relationship that they build with your pet.  Not only should these offices be willing to work with you on some of these requests, they should encourage you and empower you to do these things if for no other reason than selfishly wanting these appointments go smoothly and quickly for them. 

It is quite apparent that the current staff is not on board with some of these requests, and unfortunately our ability to be patient and work through some of these growing pains is rather limited given how much Abby's fears paralyze her when they occur.  Given some of these problems and limitations, we have chosen to seek out another veterinarian.  Although we asked for some recommendations from people, read feedback on Yelp and even emailed users privately to ask questions, inevitably we had a recommendation that we just couldn't pass up. 

One of Abby's favorite things about going to the first veterinarian was the staff.  Unfortunately during her time there the majority of them left.  However, her favorite Vet Tech is working at a hospital that is about half an hour from the house.  At first I was concerned with it being out of the way, but then I realized that closer and convenient for me doesn't always mean that it is the best choice for Abby.  I called and spoke with the Office Manager, who gave me a tour of the facility, and I was so impressed by her warmth.  She answered all of the questions I had, was excited to help us give Abby a fresh start, and truly made an effort to let me know that if we went there they would want to get to know our pet.  During the tour of the hospital I could see that the setup was great.  The exam rooms had a window on the door so you could see out before leaving to make sure the coast was clear and you wouldn't be faced with a dog immediately upon exiting.  The waiting area was huge and had a center divider that allowed for some privacy while you were waiting in case you need separation. 

We brought Abby for the first time on Saturday and she was so excited to be able to sniff the entire place, and even more excited to see her old friend.  We are really excited for this next chapter in Abby's care, and we truly feel that we have found people who not only understand our commitment to our pet, but want to work with us to make sure that we can make her appointments as stress-free as possible.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Great Expectations

Why do we get dogs?  Whether it is for companionship, to save an animal from a situation, or because we've always grown up with them and our lives feel somewhat empty without them, dogs play a major role in our lives.  Each dog leaves a paw print in our hearts, and whether intentional or not we sometimes think about things we'd do differently or change with respect to such things as socialization or training.  It isn't that your dog is bad, but your dog can make you realize strengths and weaknesses that you didn't know you had, and consequently may make you change the way you think about the role your dog will play in your life.  Maybe you realize that you're more of a couch potato and your dog requires more exercise than you first thought.  Perhaps you realize that living in an apartment isn't conducive to your dogs size or need for mental and physical stimulation. 

Lately I see a wide variety of people getting dogs to fit a lifestyle.  Some people want dogs they can show, or dogs that will do agility.  Whatever the reason, people have certain expectations of how a dog will adapt to their lifestyle.  But what if your dog doesn't, or more importantly can't, adapt? 

The idea of this hit home a few months ago when I met someone who had a beautiful Tervuren Shepherd.  The dog truly was show quality, and the owner intended to show this dog.  The dog for all its credit started off on a good path, until a rogue teeter in the agility class slammed on the ground and triggered a high level of anxiety in the dog.  The dog wanted no part of any classroom situation.  Shaking and panting were the norm, and often times the dog simply wouldn't enter a new space that was designed for her to work.  And while the owner worked on the anxiety and the things that made her nervous, she certainly lamented the fact that her dog would never be a show dog.  For as beautiful as she was, her current problems with anxiety made it impossible for her to work towards showing. 

Most recently I bumped into someone who adopted a rescue from the South a little more than a year ago.  They previously had a wonderful Golden Retriever who had gotten on in years and inevitably needed to be put down.  Their most recent dog is a rescue, and is a sweet boy.  A few weeks after they got him, they started to notice that he didn't like to walk outside.  If he was with other dogs, it was as if he had enough of a distraction where he didn't notice he was outside, and he was able to walk on sidewalks or in the neighborhood.  But he largely felt more comfortable walking in the woods, and certainly preferred a night walk.  Our neighbors tried everything to try to encourage him to walk outside.  Each time I would speak with the wife about how the dog was doing she would say how he was progressing or regressing, and inevitably in speaking about this problem say, "I got a dog so I could walk."  After nearly a year of working on this largely on their own with some direction from a trainer, they decided to consult with the behaviorist that we see.  Their dog was no longer able to be distracted by walking with other dogs.  If they stopped to speak with people, after merely a few moments the dog would take off bolting towards home.  Our behaviorist suggested a very light dosage of Prozac while giving them things to work on, with the hope that Prozac would be enough to enable the dog to relax and be receptive to the training. 

I haven't seen these people in awhile, but had an opportunity to bump into the wife who was rather upset by the events of July 4th.  The fireworks that had been set off in our neighborhood had completely negated any forward progress the dog had been making, and now he only wanted to be outside to go to the bathroom and that was it.  On several occasions she expressed that she felt so frustrated by the situation, particularly because she wasn't able to enjoy time outside with her dog as she had hoped.  She kept saying that she wanted for him to be happy outside, not realizing that he was at his happiest when he was inside. 

At the very least we have ideas of things we want to work on with our dogs.  It would be nice if they didn't jump on guests that came over the house, or we'd like to be able to have our dogs not counter surf.  Whatever it is, we know what we'd like to see.  Many things are attainable.  But what if you can't change or shape a fear that the dog has?  What if our desires and their abilities can't match up?  If their dog is not able to offer any progression beyond the point they're at now, would that be OK? 

I think about Abby and some of the fears and reactivity that she has.  There are times that I wish I had taped her training classes, if for no other reason than to serve as a reminder of how far she has come.  But most importantly I think it would be interesting to look at the moment when I felt like her training had progressed.  When Abby first started training classes, to say it was a disaster would be an understatement.  Abby might work on something for 5 minutes if you were lucky, and she spent the rest of the time trying to engage other dogs in play, or being completely unfocused on me.  Group classes were a blessing and a curse all at once in my mind.  It was nice to see how other people worked with their dogs and see their progress measured.  But there was a part of me that often looked at how some dogs latched onto concepts so easily and I wondered why Abby couldn't do that.  Week after week we would go to class and Abby would spend a majority of time not listening or not focusing on me.  One week I even left in tears over my inability to engage my dog.  In addition to this, her ability to truly relax while we worked on her separation and crate anxiety was rather limited.  The idea of a snail's pace comes to mind as it took weeks for her belly to full touch the ground, or her chin to drop, or her back leg to kick out.  All I could think was that surely this should go faster. 

Then I noticed something one week.  Although our girl wasn't able to offer me much in class, she would give me so much more outside of class if I did small mini sessions in the week.  We would work in small quantities on the things we learned in class from the prior week and then show up armed with her new tool set.  Now I will tell you that there wasn't an immediate change.  Certainly Abby went through the same habits of disengaging and being the puppy that looked everywhere but me.  But when I started to feel like this was OK because I knew she would work outside of class, her training took off.  When I let go of the expectations that I had about her - how she should act/react, how fast her training should go, whether she was keeping up with the other dogs in class - then and only then did she begin to excel.  What used to be 5 minutes of engaged learning grew to be 10, 15, etc.  Now our girl knows when we're proud of her work and she celebrates with giving us hugs and kisses in class.  It is completely different than the early days. 

I think about these people who I've encountered recently who set such high goals of what their dogs will give them and do for them.  So often we welcome dogs into a strange world with the idea that no matter what the expectation is, the dog will adapt.  So often we think the things that make us happy will make them happy.  After all what dog wouldn't want to go outside?  Sure there are loud scary noises and strange people walking around.  Wouldn't you just want to go outside, too? 

So when I think about the things that Abby has taught me in the brief time we've had her, it is this:  to be accepting and trust my pet to learn on her terms and at her pace.  To provide her with a safe environments where she can learn at her pace.  And no matter what, to communicate to myself and to my dog that if she will only be able to give me the behavior that she does currently because of her anxieties and fears, that I will love her and accept her for them.  But most importantly she has taught me about the true meaning of unconditional love. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Paws Walk 2012

Today we took Abby to the 2012 Paws Walk to benefit the NHSPCA in Stratham, NH.  We feel so fortunate that we were able to meet Abby at this shelter, and the least we could do this year was to raise some money for this shelter.  We also donated a box of toys and some DAP spray for the shelter on our way home.  Here are a few pictures of our girl and the event! 

It was such a warm day out in the sun.  We took advantage of the shaded areas that the park offered so that Abby could relax and lay down. 

Our smiley girl found an obstacle course that she wanted to stand near.  She would stick her head into the ring from the wooden barricade and watch as dogs went by her. 

Our girl also found a great smelling patch of grass that she rolled in. 

Our Southern Bell loves laying out in the sun. 

Abby saw a therapy pony at the Paws Walk.  As soon as the pony snorted she was afraid. 

Abby loves baseball fields.  I think she secretly wants to run the bases. 

There was a stuffed dog at one of the vendor stations.  She targeted his nose with her nose and backed off.  From that point on she wanted nothing to do with him. 

Although she wasn't sure about the pony at first, she did end up walking us back that way. 

I love her puppy smiles! 

Daddy's Girl. 

At the end of the day she took a few minutes to enjoy a frozen treat before getting back in the car and crashing on the backseat. 

When we got back home, Abby wasn't very interested in going for a walk.  She even stuck her tongue out at me to let me know she just wanted to go home. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Boy how time flies

It is crazy to think that two years ago we didn't have Abby. 

On Saturday May 29, 2010 my husband and I went to the NHSPCA in Stratham, NH in the hopes of welcoming a dog into our lives.  In many ways I feel like Abby was meant to be ours that weekend.  I've told you before that my husband knew we were coming home with a dog that weekend because of the preparations I had done for her arrival.  We had literally just moved that same week and although I had taken two days off to move and pack, I had the majority of our stuff unpacked and the house put together in the course of those two days.  This is how my husband knew we would have a dog that weekend.  However, when we walked through the NHSPCA, there were many dogs that were already adopted or had pending adoptions.  Additionally many dogs were fearful of men.  Before we made one more pass through the shelter, I had resigned myself to the fact that we had not found our dog.  And then Abby approached the door to her kennel. 

"Baby," as the NHSPCA referred to her, had been outside on a walk when we had made a few passes through so we had missed her.  But she came right over to us and was so sweet and adorable that my heart just melted.  I mean, look at this face?  How can you not fall in love with her? 

We were in love.  In spite of reservations my husband had about bringing a puppy home, he fell in love that day, too.  It really is easy to see why.  But for all of the preparations I had done inside of the house, we were completely unprepared with things that Abby would need (food bowls, toys, food, etc.)  So our girlie rode in the back of my Corolla with my husband while we made the trek home and stopped at Petco to get things for her.  Petco was a blur of people wanting to say hi to her, us not knowing what the heck to get her, and Abby being in overload.  It was not at all surprising that she threw up in my car on the way home two miles from the house. 

Abby checked out her new surroundings, and we did our best to try to make her comfortable. 

Abby slept the majority of the afternoon with us.  What a tired girl!  And for the most part that day some part of her was touching us - her paw, her tail, etc. 

Abby quickly fell into routines, and inevitably became such an integral part of our lives.  I cannot imagine a time when we didn't have her.  I love this sweet girl so much, and as we approach the anniversary of her Gotcha Day I am so proud of the girlie that she is. 

She really does have the most beautiful smile.  Pictures like the one above and the ones below here remind me that there was a time in her life where these smiles weren't possible, and I always feel so lucky that we were able to give her reasons to smile. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

There's a reason I train my dog

People are often surprised to hear that we still work regularly on training with Abby.  While I typically refer to the weekly class we take Abby to as puppy school, we regularly work with her on a wide variety of concepts aimed to shape various behaviors with her.  Most people will typically joke that at this rate Abby should have a PhD. 
But there's a reason I train my dog:  I don't want to be that person

You know the person I'm talking about.  The person that in any situation shows complete disregard for either their dog, those around them, or both.  They are the person who often utters such phrases as "Don't worry, they're friendly," or "They're a good dog but they don't listen," or they simply don't say anything at all while their dog is the poster child for continued education.  I'll give you an example. 

Today I needed to bring Abby to the vet.  A few months ago she had a problem with an interdigital cyst between the toes on her back paw, and sure enough one flared up between the toes on her front paw.  I am trying to take a proactive approach to Abby's vet appointments because I know that she gets nervous about them.  Let's face it - Abby has had a series of not so fun appointments that have included UTI's, anal abscesses, and a tooth extraction.  If this were me I'd need copious amounts of alcohol to face the exam room.  On top of these appointments, our girlie has often had instances where over the top dogs have been right in her face.  If vet visits are not well thought out they can be a recipe for disaster. 

Since the TACT Seminar, I have decided that I need to take a proactive approach to the vet.  With the first vet Abby would visit, we lucked out in one regard.  Because Abby went there for routine checkups, daycare, grooming and training she truly never knew what was going to happen.  I realized that I needed to take a similar approach with this vet because her generalization wasn't transferring in light of the more scary visits.  First, I need to take her to the vet for all sorts of random things.  Perhaps one day we will go there and Abby will just walk through, get a treat, and leave.  Another day we will drive into the parking lot and Abby will be treated for walking around.  Another day we may go in, get on the scale, and leave with treats.  It's important that I mix these things up.  Additionally, in the event that Abby does need to be seen I need to work with our vet to make these appointments less scary.  Sometimes our vet runs late.  Rather than subject Abby to being in a waiting area building her anxiety, I will go and check us in and she can wait in the car.  When her exam room is ready they will wave to me and call us in. 

This is what I did with Abby today and it worked out really well.  Abby was very patient with the vet while he checked her toes and expressed her anal glands.  At the end of the appointment Abby sat by the door waiting for it to open.  I asked her to wait while I opened the door and I checked to be sure no dogs would bombard us as we left and Abby waited patiently until I gave the OK.  She then was praised by the staff at the reception desk.  However, there was a slight timing issue and her invoice was not ready when we approached the desk.  I laid Abby's mat down while she waited so she could relax.  It was at this point that I heard the lobby door open.  I figured the best course of action was to move Abby from where she was and walk to the opposite side of the waiting area because inevitably this person might seek to leave via the same area we were standing in. 

I gathered Abby's mat and focused her attention on me.  It was at this point that the little dog that had come in had rounded the corner and went right up to Abby in a very forward way.  I still had Abby's attention so she didn't notice at first that the other dog was coming.  It was at this point that I literally stuck my leg in front of the incoming dog to block her.  You could tell the other dog didn't expect it because she ran into my leg trying to get to Abby.  The owner said at this point, "Oh, sorry, she's friendly."  I replied, "She's not."  With that Abby and I turned and walked to the other side of the room.  Abby had her eyes on me the whole time and she sat proudly on the scale and worked on targeting my hand.  Another stressed dog entered the waiting area and huffed and puffed while trying to pull towards Abby.  My girl sat on the scale and looked from that dog to me as if to say, "Do you see that dog?" 

This is why I train my dog. 

Abby is sometimes friendly towards other dogs, but often hates when dogs are over the top in their greetings.  She doesn't like aggressive face to face contact at first and sometimes prefers manners in approaching her.  Now Abby did not show any signs of aggression or distress in the first dog ambushing her to say hi, but that doesn't matter.  You should have eyes on your dog.  You should know where they go and what they're doing.  And you should ask me if your dog can greet mine and not be surprised or hurt when I say no.  Because I have to be honest when I tell you that if your dog wants to greet mine in a vet's office it isn't going to happen.  I have no idea if you are picking up food, seeking treatment for conjunctivitis, or are there for any myriad of reasons in which I would not want your dog to greet mine.  It's a veterinarian's office, and in most instances you are not there just to say hi. 

This is why I train my dog.  So that she can go out into the world without being a menace,  and in the face of uncomfortable situations look to me to fix them.  So that she is not that dog who rounds the corner and ambushes other dogs or people who are reactive or fearful of her.  So that I am not that person who shows no respect for others and causes panic to owners of reactive dogs.  So that I am not that person who risks my dog's safety because she misreads a cue from another dog and is bitten. 

Today was a day where I took great pride in the work we have done with her. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What do you mean you need to learn about tact?

There were a few people who first misunderstood when I told them I was going to a class on TACT.  They took it to mean tact.  And for better or worse there were people who weren't surprised when they thought that I was going to learn about the latter.  Boy will they be disappointed! 

Touch Associated Clicker Training (TACT) is a new protocol from Julie Robitaille that helps rehabilitate reactive, shy, and aggressive dogs using clicker training, learning theory and massage therapy.  I first learned about the program when reading the Facebook page for Dogs In Need Of Space (DINOS).  DINOS is a wonderful community I discovered a few months ago that allows people with reactive dogs to share stories, ask questions, and offer support to owners of reactive dogs.  As soon as I saw that TACT was created by Emma Parson's teaching assistant, Julie, I was on board. 

Admittedly I was nervous about going because I am not a professional dog trainer.  And if I'm to be totally honest I didn't previously think of myself as a trainer either.  Sure, I train Abby.  But I had previously classified myself as her owner and did not necessarily think of myself as her trainer.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that although there were professional trainers and recent Karen Pryor graduates, there were also fellow owners, vet technicians, and animal massage therapists to name a few.  The idea behind TACT came from Julie's work in massaging canines.  She had clients who would want her to work on their dogs but they were worried.  Given the dog's reactivity the owner did not feel as if this was possible.  What began as Julie asking them to still come to her booth so she could click and treat dogs for entering, looking at her, walking towards her, etc. transcended into protocols aimed at giving repetition and structure to the interaction reactive dogs had with strangers. 

So much of this program seemed similar to the Protocols for Relaxation that Abby and I have used previously in the sense that you start with very small steps and build from there, increasing the difficulty as the dog is comfortable with it.  Additionally the Relaxation Protocol has a very ritualized series of movements that you do while the dog is in a default down or default sit.  TACT is very similar in how it builds the predictability of this protocol and later adds distance or challenges.  But additionally what I liked about TACT was that it builds the idea of generalization and applying this to other environments and other strangers.   

The seminar showed actual footage from private lessons between Julie and one particular dog, Finch.  There were points of Finch's story that reminded me so much of Abby - the alarm barking at strangers and other dogs, hackles raised.  There have been plenty of times where Abby has done this, even with people she sees regularly in our condo development.  But then there are other times where Abby bounds happily over to people to greet them and give them hugs and kisses.  Although Abby's reactivity seems relatively low these days which I credit in part to her not doing daycare anymore, it is something I am always mindful of.  The seminar was great at explaining Displacement Behaviors and how to identify them and has given me some criteria for identifying when Abby is at or beyond threshold.  Beyond that it has given me a series of protocols that we can work on, as well as some Foundation and Emergency Behaviors that we can use for situations where we see things that could trigger Abby to move past her threshold.  It also left me feeling empowered and believing that Abby and I have a relationship where I am also her trainer and handler. 

For those who are interested in checking out TACT but don't have the ability to attend a seminar, Julie has a comprehensive 5-disc set available for purchase on Clean Run.  The DVDs are 5.5 hours long and walk you through an introduction to clicker training, the TACT protocol, and massage therapy techniques.  I highly recommend them!