Monday, January 30, 2012

The Consequences of Fame

First things first: We have to send a big Thank You to Jessica Dolce and Boogie at Notes from a Dog Walker for reposting on the DINOS Facebook page the Dog People post I wrote after last week's class. People from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, Russia, Germany, Croatia, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the Philippines read about Brewster! It was a very exciting Sunday!

 Okay, it was exciting for me. Brewster spent his Sunday mostly sleeping and licking himself.

Moments after finding out he was about 7 minutes into his 15.
I was pretty excited about tonight's Reactive Dog Class, too. Brew accepted treats from the trainers right away. Although he's still not into being petted by them, one of our teachers started teaching Brewster to let him touch his collar. Turns out that this is a very important thing for all dogs to learn. When strays are brought into a shelter like the Kansas Humane Society, one of the first things the staff does to assess potential adoptability is touch the collar. A dog who shies away or snaps has an immediate black mark. The collar touch isn't the only deciding factor, of course, but it's important. A dog who accepts a collar touch has a much greater chance of staying alive long enough to be reunited with his or her owner or adopted into a new family. That's very important information to have for a dog like Brewster who has a history of being a stray. Although of course I have every intention of keeping Brewster safe, bad things happen. This is a way that I can help Brew be prepared.

Brewster also had a very good interaction, or rather noninteraction, with Gracie, our "fifth teacher." Gracie is a terrier mix a bit bigger than Brewster. She's very calm and under control so her job is to help fearful dogs accept another dog's presence, and Brewster did great! He completely ignored her and kept his focus on me, which was exactly what he was supposed to do. I mentioned to our teachers that my long-term goal is to find a sister for Brewster, and they both think he'd do just fine. I already knew that, of course. Brewster is good friends with Maddie, my mother's dog. It's just a matter of being able to introduce a new dog carefully and slowly.

We did have a bit of a problem when a big German Shepherd looked into our pod. Brew was sitting in my lap watching dogs pass by a bit of a gap, and I was really proud of him. He was keeping a watchful eye, but wasn't reacting and wasn't having any problem refocusing on me when I asked him to. But when that big Shepherd turned around and locked eyes with Brew, Brew let out a pretty serious challenge growl. I don't speak dog, but I'm guessing it was something along the lines of "Come on over here and let me rip your face off for you," and the Shepherd was none too pleased to hear it. But one of the many great things about a small dog is that it's really easy to intervene and change a situation. In this case, I just put my hand up in front of his face. As soon as the eye contact was broken, Brew relaxed again, and the Shepherd's human walked the Shepherd out of eyesight to prevent further problems. I doubt that Brewster will ever write love poems to big dogs, though.

So over the paparazzi.
We also worked a bit on "Leave It" tonight, which any dog owner can tell you is what you say to your dog when you're out on a walk and he finds some delicious poop he'd like to sample. I was a little trepidatious about trying this one indoors because Brewster's usual reaction when I won't let him eat a piece of poop is to turn around and pee on it. What would the teachers think of me if I said "Leave It!" and Brewster's response was to pee on the MilkBone he was supposed to be ignoring? We didn't have to find out since Brewster wasn't interested in any old MilkBone anyway. A nicely aged piece of poop would make a much more effective training tool. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It's Good to Have a Hobby

What do people who don't knit do when they have computer problems?

I've only been knitting seriously for about 2 years, but already my memories of the time before I became A Knitter are vague and hazy. I seem to remember that intractable computer problems eventually resulted in lots of cigarettes, and when that didn't work, it came down to tears.

But now that I am A Knitter, I don't need cigarettes, and I can't remember the last time I cried in frustration. Instead, when I'm waiting for the computer to restart for the umpteenth time and desperately hoping that this time I've eliminated whatever bizarre font is causing Word to have an identity crisis, I knit. I stitch and stitch and stitch. And then I stitch some more. And as I stitch, my mind relaxes and sooner or later the solution appears.

It is very good to have a hobby.    

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dog People

When we humans go to school, our teachers set standards and we have to meet them. We have to memorize spelling words, learn algebraic equations, and understand comma splices. When Brewster goes to school all he has to do is eat.

That's not as simple as it sounds. He is not what dog trainers call "food motivated" in the first place. If there's the least bit of stress or distraction, the treats have to be really special to even get his attention. (Think meat like chicken or hot dog. If it would make a vegetarian cringe, it will make a good Brewster treat.) And he has never, ever accepted a treat from a stranger. He had to meet Susan, his groomer, three times before he was willing to take a treat out of her hand. But tonight, a half-hour into class, he ate out of the trainer's hand, and I was so proud I almost cried. Really.

Now of course he didn't just bop up to the trainer, tail in the air, and say, "Hey, dude, how 'bout hooking a puppy up with some of that chicken-flavored nom nom?" Brewster's success was entirely due to the trainers' patience, something the average person usually isn't willing to show with a dog like Brewster. Living with Brew has taught me how to recognize real dog people and how to be a real dog person myself. A real dog person isn't someone who says, "I'm great with dogs!" or "All dogs love me!" A real dog person knows that, just as not all people like all other people, not all dogs will like all people. (And dog people don't hold that against the dog.) A real dog person knows that dogs are not psychic and cannot just "sense" good intentions. And a real dog person knows that dogs cannot speak English and that Dr. Dolittle is a work of fiction.

Tonight, Brewster and I got to hang out with real dog people. Three of the four trainers who teach our class moved in and out of our "pod," talking quietly with me and never making eye contact with Brewster. None of them moved in to try to pet him or call him to them. No one insisted that Brewster interact. Instead they sat down a few feet away, and every once in a while a bit of treat got tossed in Brew's direction. Slowly Brew got closer and closer to the trainer, and in one case Brewster ate treats off the trainer's leg and then out of his hand. How I wish I'd had my camera because no parent watching a human child learning to walk could feel more pride than I did watching my little bitty dog eat a bit of treat.

We also learned a couple of new tricks to work on this week: In "Touch," the object is for the dog to touch his nose to your hand. It's a method of drawing the dog's attention away from something disruptive and back to you. We also learned "Spin," which, as far as I can tell, is just to give the human a good laugh. I may have to borrow a video camera for that one.

I don't know about Brewster, but I can't wait for next week when we get to hang out with the real dog people again.

Yes, this is the same picture from last week. The cute-factor far outweighs the repetitiveness.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Brew's New Friend (in which Brewster keeps his tail up)

At the risk of damaging Brewster's burgeoning celebrity with the overexposure of two blog posts in less than 24 hours, I want to send a public thank you to Brewster's new good friend, Susan Cascio, who runs In the Neighborhood Dog Grooming.

Brewster has been going to Rags to Ribbons in Valley Center for several months, and I thought that was about as good a grooming experience as we were likely to get for him. At least I knew that the groomers were kind, even though the environment was loud and there were other dogs around that stressed him out. But after I posted about my terrible experience at Pet Haven and happened to mention that Brewster gets his grooming at Rags to Ribbons, Susan contacted me to let me know that she might have a better situation.

And oh boy is it better!

I should stop right here and say that I have no complaints about Rags to Ribbons. As I said, the groomers are kind and they've always treated Brewster very well. But for a puppybutt like Brewster, walking into that frenetic environment of barking dogs, loud blow dryers, and ringing phones couldn't help but be terrifying. The last time we went, he refused to walk in by himself. I had to pick him up and carry him in, and he's not that frightened even at the vet.

Susan runs her shop out of the back of her home in the Riverside neighborhood. She schedules specific appointments so there's never more than one dog in the shop at a time, and she does everything she can to make the environment soothing, even down to lavender aromatherapy and quiet music that drowns out outside noises. And for all the extra care she puts into creating a quiet environment that focuses on one dog at a time, her prices are the same or lower than most other shops in the neighborhood, including Rags to Ribbons. How could I not give her shop a try?

So for the last month, Brewster has been participating in Susan's puppy training program. The program is designed to get puppies used to being groomed in the least traumatic way possible, but it's done wonders for 6-year-old Brewster, too. We started with a 15-minute appointment, followed by a second 15-minute appointment the next week. During those appointments, Susan got Brewster used to being in the shop without actually doing any grooming. He got to sniff around, check out the clippers without actually having them used on him, and even examine the bathtub with no water in it. Since the appointments were very short, he learned that even when I left, I would be right back. Today we went back for the final "training" appointment, a 30-minute appointment that included a real bath.

And, people, when Brewster walked into the shop this afternoon, his tail stayed up. He was nervous--he'll always be nervous--but he wasn't frightened. He sniffed around and happily accepted a treat from Susan as if she were an old friend. Which I guess is exactly what she is now.

So I want to publicly thank Susan, and let her know how much I appreciate the time she has spent learning how to work with nervous dogs like Brew. Now, instead of having to go to a stress-inducing grooming appointment, Brewster gets to hang out with his friend, Susan.

Thank you, Susan!

Looking fluffy after his bath.

"Hello. My Name is Brewster, and I'm Reactive."

First thing's first: I love my dog and if you talk shit on him I will send you a special care package straight from my backyard, 'kay?

But there might be a slim chance that he is maybe not the friendliest, nicest, sweetest dog to ever walk the earth. This is hard--really, really hard--for me to admit because to me he is the friendliest, nicest, sweetest, most loyal, funniest, looniest, smartest, most loving dog that I have ever met or hope to meet. But he does have this issue with strangers: No matter how kind and well-intentioned the person, Brewster is convinced that all strangers are evil, that his very life is in danger, and he responds accordingly. I don't know exactly why he thinks this, but it probably has something to do with his very earliest experiences as a puppy. (Pro Tip #1: The first three months of a puppy's life are crucial.) It probably also relates to his fearfulness resulting from having lived in a home where he was hit. (Pro Tip #2: Hitting with a rolled up newspaper or magazine is still hitting. It still hurts, and, worse, it causes absolute terror. If you doubt me, come over and watch Brewster's reaction when I wave a piece of paper anywhere in his vicinity. And if you can't be bothered to find a better way to train your dog [or your cat or your llama or your child] than to hit it, you might reconsider whether a pet is really for you.) 

Whatever the reason for Brewster's overreaction to strangers, it means that although he is the friendliest, nicest, sweetest, most loyal, funniest, looniest, smartest, and most loving dog I've ever met, he is not the happiest. He does not feel the safest. Since Brewster is my dog and I am Brewster's human, it's my responsibility to change that if I can. So tonight Brewster and I went to our first Reactive Dog Class at the Humane Society.

Can I tell you how much I love that it's called "Reactive Dog Class" instead of "Aggressive Dog Class"? A "reactive" dog is not a bad dog. He's just a dog who's reacting! Brewster isn't trying to be mean; as far as he can tell, his reactions are a perfectly reasonable response to those evil, malicious strangers who might try to hurt him. It's such a relief to be around people who understand that the best way to greet a frightened dog is to not greet him at all, that the greatest kindness they can show my dog is to ignore him.

The class is carefully controlled from the moment the students pull into the parking lot. The two instructors and two assistants are watching for us and as students arrive, we are escorted from our cars one by one so that the dogs can't interact with each other in the parking lot. In the room we are installed into our own "pods" created by makeshift walls of upended tables and towels. No dog can see any other dog. Of course they can smell and hear each other, but not being able to make eye contact helps keep aggression--sorry, reactivity--in check. Brewster spent about the first 10 minutes shaking so hard he looked like a drunk about five hours late for his next bottle, but he did settle eventually. I forgot to bring his favorite towel, so I spread my coat on the floor and targeted him to that. Having a specific place to sit always helps Brew feel better, and it's not like my coat didn't already smell like dog.     

One of the instructors brought her dog, Gracie, a terrier mix who is a bit fearful herself. Gracie showed us humans a thing or two about how to work with a reactive dog. First we learned "Turn! Turn! Turn!" to--you may have already figured this out--turn away from a stimulus that is frightening or aggravating. We also learned about how to encourage eye contact, and about "Good Look!" in which the human acknowledges that the dog has seen something that might be disturbing but has turned his attention back to the human. We also learned to play "Find It!" which even Brewster thought was pretty awesome. We'll be playing that one some more tomorrow.

All in all, it was a pretty successful class. It was well-organized and well-executed, and my fears that my dog might have a bad interaction with another dog are pretty much assuaged for the moment. I do wish they'd had a handout of all the skills we learned tonight. I could hardly take notes while managing Brewster, and I have the sneaking feeling that I've forgotten something important.

This post was supposed to end here, but unfortunately, now that we're home, our evening has not ended on a good note. While I was writing this, Brewster got sick, almost certainly the result of lots of excitement, too many treats, and too much water at once when he got home. That's fine. His tummy probably feels better now, and I am nothing if not expert at cleaning up various kinds of pet icks. (Pro Tip #3: Nature's Miracle really is a miracle.) The problem was Brewster's reaction. He tried to hide from me. When I came back into the office with the roll of paper towels in my hand, he dropped his tail and ran under the desk to get away from me, and I couldn't call him to me until I had cleaned up the mess and put the paper towels aside. That's because at one time he lived in a house where he got hit FOR GETTING SICK. He thinks that when he throws up he is going to be in trouble; that he's going to be hurt; that I, who have never shown the Little Dude anything but love and care, am going to hurt him. There's nothing I can do to make him forget that fear except get the sick cleaned up as fast as possible and put the paper towels aside and wait for him to come out from under the desk so I can love all over him and try to help him understand that I am not that kind of monster. But I don't know if he can understand that.

I am a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is that Brewster's original family will find us, that they'll see us out walking or stumble onto this blog. I worry that they'll see him and demand to have him back. But as I continue to live with Brewster, the less I worry and the more I hope that I will someday have a chance to confront the people who turned a very sweet little dog into a neurotic, fearful, reactive mess. I am glad for the chance to clean up their mess because the rewards are so great. I'd just love the chance to say a couple of things to their face.