Monday, September 19, 2011

Misc. Updates 9/19/11

Pepper's health:

- The tapeworms are gone (hallelujah!!). No sign of them since I gave her the deworming pills, and that was five days ago, so I think it's safe to say they've been vanquished. She's stopped eating grass, incidentally. I still can't say for sure that the grass-eating was driven by a desire to scrape out tapeworms, but based on my observations it is a tempting theory.

- On Saturday we took the mutt monsters out to Delaware so they could meet some new people (and so Pongu could run around in the grass). Pepper was supposed to be on exercise restriction, but I took my eye off her for a little too long and next thing I knew she was running around all over-excited with a giant crusty scab on her tummy and reddish blister juice seeping out of her spay incision. Oi.

I spent a good couple of hours feeling like the worst foster in the world and debating whether I should take her to the emergency clinic before her guts fell out (by this point it was about 11:00 pm and there was exactly one sober driver in the house), but it turned out that all the crusty blood made it look a lot grislier than it was. Once that was washed off, the damage wasn't too bad. Two of her stitches popped and one looked strained, but the remainder held up okay and Pepper didn't appear to be in any pain whatsoever (in fact she just wanted to keep playing the whole time, which did not help my sense of impending doom). Not good, but not as disastrous as I'd feared.

The incision continued to seep blister fluid until the next morning and then it was fine. I cleaned it and put some antiseptic ointment on it and made really truly COMPLETELY sure that Pepper was on exercise restrictions for the rest of the weekend, and... it looks like no permanent damage was done (fingers crossed!!). So that was terrifying and I will never ever give a post-surgery mutt any chance to jump around again, but I think we're gonna be okay.

Pepper's training at the one-week mark:

- I'm ready to consider Pepper officially "housebroken." She holds it inside and goes reliably outside. I haven't asked her to signal when she needs to go, but as long as her adopters maintain a regular schedule of walks, I think she'll be fine.

- Likewise, I'm ready to call her "leash trained." Pepper's not about to win any obedience awards for gorgeous heelwork, but she doesn't pull, she mostly paces herself to keep plenty of slack on the leash, and she is easily redirected away from greeting other dogs or investigating smelly trash. That's good enough for most people. If her adopters are willing to carry around a few treats and reward her for keeping pace at their side while walking, she can easily improve beyond that.

- She is 90% good on Sit (will do it with a verbal command and no hand gesture, sometimes lags a few seconds before responding, can focus through a low-to-medium level of distractions). I'll continue to work on speed and reliability but she pretty much has this one down.

- Goals for this week: Down, Stay, maybe a trick or basic targeting depending on how much progress we make with other stuff.

Pongu's health and training:

- Swollen, reddish toe on left front foot. I don't think a vet visit is warranted yet but I'll keep an eye on it to make sure the swelling goes down and doesn't get worse. He isn't limping at all.

- Prozac still having no discernible effect, good or bad.

- Goals for this week: backwards heel (walk backwards at my side), target touching an object at a distance. (I should have taught that one a while ago but Pongu is so neophobic and leery of new objects that I gave up on all the object-related training exercises for many months. We're getting to the point where he needs to be able to target objects to do more advanced moves, though, so it's time to take another shot.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pongu's Prozac Journal: The Xanax Episode (Day 8)

Yesterday I gave Pongu a Xanax half an hour before his obedience class, because (as noted in the previous post) this was something that another fearful dog owner (who, unlike me, is an actual certified trainer) reported doing with considerable success. So I figured, why not? The Prozac hasn't kicked in yet and the Thundershirt didn't help enough to let Pongu focus at all, so what harm could a Xanax do.

I should probably have dosed him a little earlier because, it turns out, this is how Pongu responds to 20 mg of Xanax:

0-30 minutes: no effect
30-60 minutes: whining, pacing, made a real big poop
60-90 minutes: TOTALLY HIGH. No fear of anything! Everything is fun! Let's play! Let's do obedience exercises! This is GREAT! I know all these tricks! I am so much better than any other dog in this class! Yes I LOVE jumping over stuff! I'm going to jump over everything! Five times! Oh crap my back legs are all wobbly woah what's going on *crash*
90-180 minutes: gradual comedown, legs still wobbly, really interested in sniffing every last blade of grass in the potty patch
180 minutes - rest of night: *snore*

So overall the Xanax was extremely effective in helping Pongu get past his fear and relax and even have fun in class, and I may well use it again, but I am definitely NOT using it anytime he needs to be especially well coordinated. By the end of class he was getting pretty loopy, everyone was all "why's your dog walking weird? are his legs okay?"

Then on the way home he decided that he was going to leap up an entire flight of stairs in a single bound and face-planted straight into the staircase halfway up. After that I made him go up and down the stairs on leash until the Xanax wore off.

I'm hoping the Prozac starts kicking in by next week. It would be real nice to have a dog who can relax in class and also walk a straight line at the same time.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Misc. Updates 9/15/11

Today's news from Mutt Town:

-- Health news: Pepper got spayed yesterday. Came through the surgery like a champ, was a little groggy and slow-moving when she got home that evening (to the point where two tipsy ladies having dinner outside demanded to know why I was mistreating my dog when we walked past, because clearly she was malnourished/abused to be tottering along so slowly... aaah, busybodies, always much improved by alcohol) but appears to be totally recovered energy-wise today. Having to keep her in the crate a lot to prevent her from bouncing around too much and straining her stitches.

I gave her the deworming pills this morning so hopefully we have seen the last of those gross terrible no-good tapeworms.

One thing I've noticed is that Pepper likes to eat immature grass seed heads. I wonder if they help scrape out the worms; I've definitely noticed more tapeworm segments in her poop when there's a lot of grass in the poop. It could be coincidental, though. Will be interested to see if she stops trying to eat grass as much once the worms have gone away.

-- Training progress: Pepper is no longer afraid of stairs and will take them up or down at a trot. She is still a little apprehensive about glass doors but doesn't collapse in front of them anymore; instead she's just careful to make sure that she's not walking facefirst into glass. Can't blame her for that!

Housebreaking is going very smoothly. She no longer insists on going to the Big Weedy Lot but is content to go potty anywhere she can find a reasonably sized patch of grass that other dogs are using. We aren't giving Pepper many opportunities to make mistakes in the house (go crate gooo!!), and so she hasn't made any since Day One.

Pepper now walks politely on leash 90% of the time. She prefers the right side, which I don't mind since I don't insist that the foster dogs heel, and sometimes swerves back and forth to investigate or avoid things that draw her attention. But for less than a week of not-very-intensive work, she's doing phenomenally. No pulling (except occasionally when she wants to greet another dog), very little lagging, with a little more practice she'll be a star.

I haven't done much work with commands yet but I suspect that Pepper will be a very quick study. She's already grasped that "Sit is the correct response when you don't know what to do" and could Down with a lure after one short session. My early impression is that she might just be the smartest foster dog I've ever had -- I'll know better once we can do more intense training sessions. I've been holding off on that for the first few days because she has enough to do just getting settled in, plus I've been uncertain of her potty reliability. But I think we're getting to the point where she can start some proper training.

-- Pongu's Prozac journal: no observable change after one week. Anxiety levels appear to be the same. He did try to chase after a stray cat a couple of nights ago, which was unusually brave of him (normally he's terrified of ANYTHING encountered after dark) and let me finally do a Premack principle exercise (instant off-leash recall --> hooray! we go chase the cat together!), but otherwise his general anxiety and terror of the unfamiliar seem undimmed.

I might try dosing him with a Xanax before obedience class this evening. Debbie Jacobs of Fearful Dogs has written about her use of Xanax to help her fearful dog Sunny through his obedience classes, and it seems like a thing worth trying. On the other hand, I wonder if I shouldn't try it at home first to gauge his reaction. Eh. Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Honeymoon Period

I'm starting to see some signs that Pepper's easing out of her honeymoon period after four days with us, which prompts this post.

When a dog arrives in a new environment -- especially if that dog is coming out of a chaotic, stressful place, as is the case for most shelter mutts -- it's likely to show inhibited behavior for a while. Basically, until the dog can figure out the manners and mores of this strange new land, it'll be a little more cautious and polite than usual, just as you or I would probably try to be extra-courteous when staying as the houseguest of someone we don't know well.

Once the dog gets more comfortable, it relaxes, and its real personality starts to shine through. Exactly when this happens varies from dog to dog. Shy or skittish dogs and those who have had a lot of instability in their backgrounds tend to take longer, but my experience has been that most of the foster dogs we get start relaxing within a few days and are completely comfortable in about two to three weeks. This is when you might start seeing some naughty behavior -- suddenly that previously-polite dog is raiding the garbage can, stealing your shoes, and making all kinds of trouble. Alas, the honeymoon is over.

But while it lasts, the honeymoon period is particularly relevant to foster care for two reasons:

(1) It operates as a "reset button" that allows you to impose new house rules and manage potential unwanted behaviors from the beginning, even before they manifest. Maybe the dog pooped in the closet and stole shoes at its old house, maybe it didn't. Doesn't matter. You can teach it from Day One that in this household, poop goes outside and chewing is restricted to dog toys (of which you should have a plentiful and interesting supply). For a few days, at least, you have a clean slate to make it clear what your rules and expectations are. Here's where canine limitations on generalizing actually work in your favor: shoes in your house are not the same as shoes in the old house, so it's not hard for the dog to learn to treat them differently.

As long as you're clear from Day One, the dog should be able to relax gradually into a structured, supportive environment where its normal doggy behaviors can be channeled into acceptable outlets -- and this is a great saver of time and trouble. Ounce of prevention/pound of cure, and all that. The honeymoon period gives you a chance to slip that prevention in there right at the start.

(NB: The "reset button" effect only applies to minor mischief and bad habits. Serious behavioral issues, like severe separation anxiety and crate soiling [where the dog isn't just clueless about potty training, but is actually accustomed to living in its own filth, as some hoarder cases and puppy mill survivors are], are NOT reset and may actually get worse as a result of a change in households. You can expect your dog to not bark at the UPS guy for the first couple of days; you can't expect him to brush off the effects of poor breeding or puppyhood undersocialization.)

(2) If you're only fostering the dog for a short period, you may not have enough time to get an accurate sense of what the dog's actual personality is like. This is especially true if the dog is stressed or shut down and thus displaying an energy/noise level higher or lower than its normal state of being. In some cases, mistaking the dog's honeymoon-phase personality for its real personality (or being ignorant of bad habits that only manifested themselves later) has led rescue groups to make inaccurate assessments and thus bad matches between dogs and adopters. This risk is one of the reasons that I strongly prefer to keep my foster dogs for at least a few weeks before placing them: I want to be sure that I have enough information to give prospective adopters.

My experience has been that our dogs don't drastically change their personalities past the honeymoon period, and don't even really display any major new vices, but to some extent this is probably influenced by good luck (we haven't yet had any real tough cases come through the foster program -- fingers crossed it stays that way!) and pre-emptive management. I try to use the honeymoon period to set them up for success, and so far it's worked pretty well. Not perfectly, by any stretch, but it's definitely been a help.

It'll be interesting to see what Pepper blossoms into.

Fostering as Finishing School

There are a lot of reasons to foster dogs.

The main one, of course, is because you value dogs and want to help them go on to good, lasting homes. But even though we all work toward that ultimate goal, there are a lot of different roles that foster homes can play in getting there. Some hold animals for set periods of time so that they can meet quarantine requirements for out-of-state transport. Some take sick or very young animals out of the stressful shelter environment so that they can be nursed back to health, or reared to an adoptable age, in a supportive home.

Our role as foster parents is more like... running a finishing school, with a dash of matchmaker thrown in toward the end.

The dogs we foster are mainly adults and adolescents from the rural South. Most of them grew up as strays or "yard dogs" and have little or no experience living indoors with people. Nessie had no idea how to walk on a leash when she arrived; Pepper was terrified of stairs and glass doors. Gremlin had never had any dog toys and, once she grasped the basic concept, mistakenly eviscerated one of the dog beds thinking it was a stuffed animal. The dogs we get are good dogs -- they're friendly, people-oriented, of sound temperament -- but they aren't potty trained, they don't have any manners, and they don't know any commands. They'd be happy to do what's expected of them, they just don't know what that is.

From that background, they get plunged into the heart of a major city -- a highly artificial environment filled with strange new noises, smells, and sights. The sidewalks are crowded with other dogs and people of every description: all ages and genders, all colors, many wearing unusual clothes or walking with unusual gaits, some high or drunk or mentally ill. SEPTA buses and police sirens go blaring by at all hours. There's not much grass, there's a lot of concrete, and all in all, it's an extraordinarily alien place for a dog to find itself in.

And yet adopters expect a dog to be able to handle itself calmly in this environment. They want dogs that don't bolt when a fire truck roars past, that don't growl when strange dogs rush up to greet them, that can behave politely to kids and friendly-but-clueless strangers who reach out to pat their heads without warning. They want a dog that won't make messes in their home, can Sit and Stay and Down on command, and maybe knows a couple of cute tricks to show guests on top of that.

Some of these expectations are realistic, some probably aren't. A dog who met all of them would pass its Canine Good Citizen test with flying colors -- and that's a level of training that is difficult to accomplish in the limited time we have with foster dogs. But it gives us something to aim for. At the very least, we can start them on the right path to get there, and we can give adopters some pointers to keep them on track (and, if necessary, gently adjust their expectations a little bit in the meantime). So the biggest part of our work, by far, is equipping dogs with the skills they need to navigate this strange new world.

Once the dog seems ready, we start working on the matchmaker phase. Not all dogs are suited for all people, and vice versa; the ideal home will be a match of compatible personalities, lifestyles, and activity levels. For the most part, this just involves observing the dog and making the relevant information available to prospective adopters, who can then figure out for themselves whether it seems like a good fit.

None of this is difficult, but it does take time... and time is the one thing that dogs in rescue can least afford. The flood of unwanted dogs and puppies is never-ending. Even in those lucky communities where animals do not have to be routinely euthanized for space, the sheer stress of being in the kennel environment for weeks or months on end can severely damage dogs' psyches, rendering them unadoptable. Accordingly, there is enormous pressure to place foster pups quickly so that more can be saved.

Our living situation doesn't lend itself to high volume or quick turnover, though, so instead I try to compensate by giving our foster dogs the most thorough education I can manage. One at a time is all we can do... but that one gets a lot of work. And in the end, if all goes well, that pup will be the belle of the ball.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Misc. Updates 9/12/11

Miscellaneous updates from the colony of mutt monsters:

-- Pongu's Prozac regimen continues with no apparent effect (not that I'm expecting anything so early). I thought he had a dry nose on Day 2 and some diarrhea on Day 3, but it's impossible to tell whether these issues are related to the Prozac, and in any event they both went away on their own within a day.

-- Pepper has tapeworms. She pooped on the deck again this morning, and as I was scooping it up, I made the awesome discovery of four or five sticky whitish proglottids glommed to the poop, just wiggling merrily away. GROSS.

The tapeworms are slated for destruction on Wednesday morning, when Pepper already had a vet visit scheduled for her spay surgery. I can't wait. In the meantime I have a wormy dog for two days and will accordingly be extra super vigilant in the house training because I cannot stand the idea of those icky ewie barfball worm segments wriggling around in my house.

I'm glad they're not contagious (in the absence of poop-eating fleas or mouse carcasses, anyhow) or I would have to burn my own house down as a precautionary measure. I am kind of tempted to do that anyway.

Tapeworms are the worst. The WORST.

But they will be dead soon, and that is a consoling thought. In the meantime, dogs at play:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pepper Arrives

Pepper arrived on Saturday morning.

She's an eight-month-old black Lab mix, still very much a puppy, who weighs about 30 pounds and will probably weigh around 35 when she's full grown and filled out (she's a little skinny right now). Despite her small size, Pepper is very much a Lab -- she has the slightly wavy and oily coat (but softer and less greasy than a pure Lab's), a miniature version of the rudderlike tail, the extremely friendly temperament (she seems to be one of those dogs who loves everyone on sight and has never known a stranger), and the natural inclination to carry things around in her mouth.

I named her "Pepper" because of the unique black flecks on her white chest, but really I should've named her Cuddles or Snugglebum or something sappy like that, because that is the kind of dog she is. Super sweet, gentle, and people-oriented. She needs a calm, supportive home that'll give her plenty of affection and help her build her confidence. No force-based training for this girl -- she's so soft that even addressing her with a mildly exasperated voice makes her cringe.

Pepper comes from a high-kill shelter in rural Georgia -- in fact, we pulled her so soon after Gremlin (despite my usual resolve to take a breather between foster mutts) because the shelter was scheduled to put down all the dogs that didn't have a commitment before Hurricane Irene struck, even though the hurricane wasn't projected to go anywhere near that area -- and it is evident that she had little or no training in her past life. She's not housebroken (AT ALL: the mess count for the last 24 hours includes three poops, one pee puddle on my rug, and one vomit in the hallway), has no idea how to walk on a leash, and was terrified of stairs when she first came to us. (The fear of stairs, at least, has rapidly receded; she goes up and down a little hesitantly, but she goes. Living in a third-floor walkup will do that for you.)

My plan is to work with Pepper to get her potty trained, accustomed to leash walking, and otherwise used to living indoors with people, so that when she goes on to her forever home she won't be starting from absolutely zero. We'll practice good house manners and, to the extent possible in the time that I have her, basic obedience commands. I don't know how much progress we can make in a month or so, but hopefully it'll get her off to a good start in becoming someone's dream dog.

Pongu's already counting down the days.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"But isn't it hard to let them go?"

Easily the #1 response when people find out I foster dogs is: "But isn't it hard to let them go?"

Yes. It is.

(Well, actually, it isn't always. If you're lucky enough to find a great adopter in the first couple of days, when the dog is still pooping everywhere and crying in its crate and hasn't yet wriggled its way into your temporarily flinty heart, then no, it is not hard at all. But that's only happened once, and since I've raised my personal goalposts for successful fostering, it's unlikely to happen ever again.)

I'll (probably) elaborate more on this later, but I think another foster blogger put it best when she said: "the amount of love it takes to do this well exceeds the amount of love it takes to get attached... so yes, it hurts to let them go." But you do it because there's always another dog who needs you, and because your foster dog deserves to be someone else's forever dog -- not just a work-in-progress or a training project, but a beloved companion.

No matter how much I like a foster dog, it can't compare to someone who loves that dog. And when you see someone really love that dog, and the dog loving them right back, all the hurt just melts into happiness. So much happiness.

Pongu's Prozac Journal, Days 1-3

On Wednesday I put Pongu on 20 mg/day of fluoxetine, better known as Prozac.

This was not a decision I reached lightly. Pongu has always been an anxious dog, but he's much better than he was. In the beginning he'd freeze and pancake on the ground and pee on himself when approached or handled; after a year's worth of structure and training and love, he can walk down a busy city sidewalk without completely losing his mind.

But there's a lot of space between not-completely-losing-your-mind and being comfortable in a situation, and while Pongu may never completely reach the latter goal (I'm not completely comfortable walking down a crowded street, and unlike the mutt monsters, I don't even have to contend with uninvited strangers trying to wave their hands in my face), I feel obligated to help him get as close to it as possible. He's my dog. I owe him the best care and comfort I can give.

And yet there is, and was, a reluctance to accept that an anti-anxiety drug might be that care and comfort. I had to overcome an unwillingness to admit that I couldn't just overcome the problem with sheer strength of will; I had to discard the belief that if only I loved him enough, or trained him better, or taught just the right confidence-building exercises, then my dog could let all his anxieties go.

It doesn't work that way. What finally brought that home to me was going to our first group obedience class and seeing all the other dogs going through the exercises with varying degrees of adeptness... and then seeing Pongu, panting and whining and frozen in fear, totally unable to participate in any of the class curriculum even though he knew all those exercises and could do them all perfectly, joyfully, at home.

It's not about the training. Training helps, but it does not overcome. It's about early socialization and early experiences (or the lack thereof) and who your dog is all the way down in his genes. And if those things afflict him with crippling fear, then in my view you are obligated to treat that as surely as you would a crippled foot*.

In Pongu's case, the problem was so obvious that practically the first thing the trainer asked me after class was "Have you ever considered a behavioral medication?"

Even then, though, I wanted to try other alternatives before resorting to pills. I tried Comfort Zone DAP (dog appeasement pheromone), a synthetic version of the pheromone that mother dogs secrete to calm their puppies. It did nothing. I tried Rescue Remedy, a Bach flower essence that's supposed to have a soothing effect on dogs. It did nothing. I tried the Thundershirt, a snug-fitting anxiety wrap that is said to calm dogs by enveloping them in gentle, constant pressure. That one actually helped a little, but only a very little -- nowhere near what Pongu needed to get over his terror in new environments.

So it was time to bring out the big guns: anti-anxiety meds. Prozac.

My scaredy little mutt has been on it for three days. I put a pill in his dog stew every morning and he gulps it down. I'm told that there will be little or no discernible change until at least two or three weeks into the treatment, but it can be very gradual, so I'm supposed to keep a journal recording any observations in the meantime (that would be what this is).

Even though I've been told not to expect anything for a while, I still find myself monitoring Pongu with paranoid intensity. Does his nose seem a little dryer than usual? He's not making as many turkey growls to greet me when I come home from work -- does that mean his throat's dry too? Is he maybe a little lethargic, or is that just because there's no foster dog for him to jump on right now?

Hard to say. What's not hard to say is that he's still as anxious as ever, but this early in the treatment, that's to be expected. We'll see where things find us in a couple more weeks.

* -- which, of course, Pongu also had. Poor little guy was not dealt a good hand at the beginning of his life.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Give Your Dog A Bone

I like to feed my dogs bones as an occasional treat every couple of weeks. I'm not an advocate of the BARF diet (it's really just not feasible to feed enormous messy chunks of bone and gristle every day when you and your dogs are sharing a 900 sq. ft. condo with no yard), but I do think there are some nutritional and dental benefits to be gleaned from letting a dog chew on a good meaty bone every now and then. Plus, they really like it. REALLY like it. To the point where I supervise them constantly and sometimes separate them by crating one of the mutt monsters before anybody gets a bone, because otherwise I'll have a fight on my hands.

There are, however, a few commonsense precautions to be observed when giving your dog a bone. First, everyone agrees that brittle bones are a no-go. Cooked chicken and turkey bones are the best-known example -- they can splinter when broken, leading to perforated intestines and a severely, even fatally, hurt dog. It doesn't happen every time (or else every dog who got into the Thanksgiving garbage would be in trouble), but it happens often enough that it's just not worth the risk.

Dry roasted beef bones can be dangerous in a different way. These bones, which are often sold in supermarkets as pet treats, are extremely hard and can actually crack or shatter dogs' teeth while they're being chewed on.

Raw bones are generally accepted as safe (other than long beef marrow bones, which are still too hard for most dogs to eat easily even when raw -- I think it's fine to give them to dogs who like to slurp the marrow out in the same way they lick out the filling of a Kong, but if you have a dog who tries to brute-force crack them open with his teeth, it's probably best to skip these). But, and I'll readily admit this might just be my own nutty hang-up, raw bones and gristle are kind of germy and gross and honestly I don't want them being dragged all over my deck. If we had a yard I might feel differently, but we don't.

So I give my dogs lightly cooked bones. I buy beef knuckle bones and occasionally short bones from Whole Foods (and only from Whole Foods or trusted farmer's market vendors, because I've been totally paranoid about mad cow disease since the late '90s and by god I am not feeding my dogs bovine spongiform cannibal cooties), boil them in broth for about 10 to 20 minutes (shorter for marrow bones, longer for knuckle bones), and hand them off to the mutt monsters once they've cooled down. The gristlier the bone, the better; much of the benefit comes from the tough connective tissue and attached gristle, not just the actual bone itself.


Boiling them is pretty safe; if your dog can tolerate raw bones (and not all can -- some dogs are prone to impaction or constipation from eating bones), he can tolerate lightly boiled bones. The cooking method is very moist and doesn't dry the bones out, so there's no more risk of splintering than there would be with raw bones.

Leftover bones go in the freezer, because these things do not keep more than a few days in the fridge. And there usually are leftovers, both because I like to boil them in big batches and save the extras, and because I generally take the bones away after the dogs have been chewing on them for half an hour or so. Otherwise they'd try to eat the whole thing in one sitting, and then they'd probably get constipated. Half an hour's chewing at a time seems good -- long enough for them to get completely satisfied, not long enough to eat themselves sick.

Once the bone's been chewed down to about the size of a hockey puck (i.e., there's some remote risk that the dog might swallow it whole), I throw it away. And that's that for bones.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Dog Stew

I cook for my dogs.

I cook for myself too, obviously, and on rare occasion I even cook for my husband, but people only seem to think you're weird if you cook for your dogs. Pssh to that, I say. Dogs like a good home-cooked meal as much as anyone else.

Of course, what counts as "good" from a dog's perspective may not line up perfectly with our ideas. Most people don't much care for pureed chicken bones in their soup, and it's generally accepted that a little spice improves people-food... but dogs have different notions. Bland and meaty works for them.

Here's the simplified version of my dog stew recipe. The full version takes two to three days to prepare (instead of about 20-30 minutes for this one) and may get you in trouble with your neighbors*, so in the interest of not coming off as completely insane, I'll just post this. I normally serve it mixed half-and-half with a good quality kibble like Acana or Orijen.


-- 1 can chicken or beef broth or stock (or consomme, or whatever you have on hand -- low sodium is preferable when available, but it's not of huge importance)
-- 3 pounds of ground meat (85% lean beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, or any mixture thereof)
-- 1 and 1/2 cups of finely diced vegetables (equal parts carrots, yellow squash or zucchini, and green beans)
-- generous handful of quick-cooking or rolled oats (probably about 1/3 cup but I've never measured)
-- 6 eggs, whisked together

Cook the meat in the broth over medium to low-medium heat until the meat is thoroughly browned, stirring occasionally to break up big chunks. You want lots of little pieces, like in chili or spaghetti sauce.

Add the rolled oats, cook on low-medium heat about 5 minutes or until the oats are done.

Add the vegetables and cook another few minutes, then add the eggs and stir a few times to break up any big chunks (ideally you want little pieces of egg throughout, kinda like egg drop soup). Remove from heat as soon as the eggs are cooked through and visibly white instead of clear. The vegetables should still be somewhat crisp.

Easy variations: replace some or all of the oats with red lentils, quinoa, or rice (be sure to increase cooking time accordingly!); replace 1/2 pound of the ground meat with an equal amount of diced organ meats (chicken and beef livers are easy to find in most supermarkets); use yellow (or purple!) beans instead of green ones; use different types of summer squash in place of the zucchini or yellow squash. I'm of the opinion that variety in a dog's diet is a good thing, both for improved nutrition and just for the sake of keeping things interesting.

If you don't give your dog bones to chew on regularly, then calcium deficiency may become an issue. You can remedy this by powdering cleaned and dried eggshells in a spice or coffee grinder (or just crushing them with a hammer or rolling pin -- the point is that they have to be reduced to powder, however you do it), then mixing them in with the oats. 3 eggshells is a good amount for one batch of dog stew using the quantities listed above. Then you get calcium and don't annoy your neighbors!

A caution: Not all dogs tolerate all foods equally well. There are dogs who are allergic to some kinds of protein and can, for example, eat chicken but not beef. Some dogs have grain allergies (although these are mostly related to corn and wheat; oats and rice tend to be pretty well tolerated). I once tried adding cottage cheese for the calcium but that didn't work out too well for Gremlin, who turned out to have problems digesting dairy.

The above recipe is pretty safely middle-of-the-road and I've never had problems with it, but that's no guarantee that your dog will automatically have the same experience. Try it with my blessing, but be sensitive to what your dog is telling you: if she doesn't want to eat it, there may be something in that particular combination that doesn't work for her.

(* -- The full dog stew recipe involves boiling down bones until they're soft enough to be pureed in a blender. This takes DAYS. It is also a very fragrant process that caused our neighbors to think that the sewage pipes were leaking inside the building, resulting in confusion and embarrassment for all. I now do my bone-boiling outdoors on the windiest days I can manage, and do not recommend it for anyone else because, while I am completely bonkers, I'd like to think you aren't.

Besides, you can always just give your dog a bone to chew separately.)

Monday, September 5, 2011


Yesterday, Gremlin finally went home.

Quick recap: Gremlin, formerly known as Annie, was a foster dog who came to us from North Carolina, where she had been found as a stray, taken to the local shelter, and eventually ran out of time because her eccentric appearance didn't immediately endear her to potential adopters. Essentially, she was about to be put down because she wasn't cute enough.

We agreed to foster her. She turned out to be a feisty, funny, bold little dog, although not without a few minor issues -- mild separation anxiety in the beginning, then a later episode of on-leash reactivity toward strangers that occurred (I'm pretty sure) as a result of a tense encounter we had with a stranger at the park. But we worked past these problems and taught her how to live in a house and obey a few basic commands, and in the meantime we tried and tried to find the right person to adopt a Gremlin.

Finally, that home appeared... in Minneapolis, a solid 20 road-hours away. But the (awesome) adopters were undeterred by this, and so over Labor Day weekend we coordinated an epic Gremlin Launch.

We drove from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to shave a few hours off the adopter's driving time.

Pongu came along for the ride too, of course. We could hardly leave the needy little nerdpuppy at home.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, we met Jeff (the adopter) at the Station Square Sheraton, which (hooray!) allows dogs. Gremlin liked him immediately, which was a huge relief. She doesn't like everyone she meets (in fact, Gremlin torpedoed two prospective adoptions back in July when she made it very clear that she did not care for those people), and it would have been disastrous if she'd reacted badly to Jeff after all the trouble that everyone took to make this happen.

Luckily, it was love at first sight... possibly encouraged by my suggestion that Jeff greet her with a generous pocketful of treats, but even so, Gremlin seemed to take to him with an unusual quickness. Maybe she sensed that this was, at long last, Her Person.

Two weddings and a large family reunion were going on at the hotel on the same day we were there, so there were a LOT of people (who were drunk, rowdy people by the end of the night) wandering around in big cheerful herds, creating a little bit of a trial-by-fire for Gremlin with her new owner. Fortunately, she maintained good manners throughout, and didn't get overly stressed or reactive.

That night also turned into a trial because the room next to ours was occupied by a group of very loud, very drunk girls who partied noisily until 2 am, causing the dogs to alarm-bark every once in a while. But, despite a somewhat less-than-perfect trial night, Gremlin's adopter decided to keep her. Hooray!

They went home the next morning... and I have every confidence that this will (apart from the usual bumps and lumps of dog ownership!) be a happily ever after.

It's always a little bittersweet to give up a foster dog, especially one you've had for a while. Gremlin was with us for two and a half months -- more than enough time to move past the "omg you little monster you are destroying my house" stage and get attached. But seeing how happy she was with Jeff, even after just one day, takes a lot of that sting away.

Would that every dog could be lucky enough to have a home like this.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rainy Day Games: The Paper Ball Game

The Paper Ball Game was originally invented for our hamsters, many many years before we ever thought of getting dogs. It was pretty simple in that incarnation: put Yogie in brown paper bag, crumple bag into a ball, drop bag in hamster cage.

The dog version is basically the same, except that there are a bunch of paper balls and they are piled up together in a container. This allows you to sneak in a little variation, if you're so inclined: put low-value treats in one kind of paper bag and high-value treats in another kind of paper bag, and watch how quickly your dog differentiates between the two when deciding which paper ball he's going to grab first.

Here, the white paper balls contain Wellness Pure Beef jerky treats (each one cut in half so there are actually two smaller treats inside each paper ball, which gives the dogs about 0.05 seconds more entertainment as they sniff out both halves), and the brown paper balls contain scraps of roast chicken from yesterday's dinner.

The dogs wait for the signal to start playing (they're not on a firm "Stay" here, they're just not allowed to take any balls until they get permission):

...and, once released to do so, both immediately go for the brown paper balls. (Then they scurry off with their treasures to opposite ends of the house, which is fine because it prevents them from squabbling.)

Pongu used to be terrified of even approaching the cardboard box, let alone touching a paper ball and risking its terrifying crinkle noise, but he got over that pretty quickly after watching the foster monsters take all his treats the first time. Jealousy's a powerful motivator. Now he loves the game.

Mostly the dogs are pretty polite about unwrapping their treats instead of ripping the bags to shreds, so often you can get multiple uses out of each wrapping. I also use packing paper if it's clean and not too flimsy.