Thursday, December 13, 2012

Goals for 2013

Looking back on 2012, Dog Mob and I achieved all the goals we'd set for ourselves, and then some.

Pongu didn't title in freestyle... but that was because we switched our primary sport to Rally Obedience, so he had to learn a whole new system of rules and exercises, and within a few months of picking that up, he started trialing and soon earned his RL1 title with an Award of Excellence.

Crookytail wasn't on the goal list for 2012, because he wasn't even here yet, but he joined Dog Mob and promptly turned his skills to helping 11 foster dogs learn to live safely and happily with people in the big city. He also went from zero to titled, picking up his RL1 in Rally Obedience this year.

The Temporary Dogs numbered 12 in all. Eleven of those dogs went on to wonderful, loving homes; sadly, we lost puppy Erin to parvovirus.

We're still in contact with many of the other former Temporary Dogs' families, and it is incredibly rewarding to see their happy faces and grand adventures as they go on in their new lives.

So, for next year, here are our goals:

With Pongu, I hope to earn a RL2, RL1X, and ARCH. If we're lucky and I can afford an ambitious trialing schedule, we might go as far as the RL3, which would put us in a great position to make 2014 the Year of Rally Championships. Also, I'm gunning for an Award of Excellence at both Level 2 and Level 3 -- he did it at Level 1, which was the hardest for a crazypants scaredymutt because it was his first time in the ring, so why not at the more advanced levels too?

Regardless of how far we actually get, we'll continue trialing in APDT Rally.

I'd also like to go back to WCFO musical freestyle with Pongu. We switched sports because I just didn't feel like I knew what I was doing in freestyle; now that I have more confidence and slightly more of a clue, it might be time to try it again. We'll have to rely on video competitions, which will be an adventure in itself, but I think it should be possible for us to get a beginner or novice title next year.

With Crookytail and Pongu both, I plan to take the Canine Good Citizen test early next year. For a long time, the CGC test was beyond what I believed Pongu could do; he was just too fearful to handle being approached by a stranger or left alone with me out of sight.

I think Pongu can handle it now, though, and I don't expect the CGC test to be particularly difficult for Crookytail. The test is more about the dog's stability than learned behaviors (the amount of formal training required to pass a CGC evaluation is really very little), and Crooky has never really had a problem with staying level-headed. So we'll knock that out early in the spring, whenever it's next offered around here, and let Dog Mob add a few more letters to their names.

On the foster front, the goal is to have five or six Temporary Dogs pass through here in 2013. My schedule may end up being pretty full of other things next year (particularly if I spend a lot of time trialing with Pongu), so we may have to step that back from what we did this year -- but as helping with fosters is Crookytail's primary job and I want him to have a chance to excel at his work too, we won't drop it entirely.

We may end up doing a little more or less than that, but right now one foster dog every other month seems like a manageable rate, so that's the goal I'm setting for next year. Whoooo!!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012 in Fosters - A Retrospective

As 2012 winds to a close, it's time to reflect on the foster dogs who came through this house in the past year.

Just like in 2011, all our fosters came from Southern states: Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. They were adopted out all across the country: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Alabama, Wisconsin, and Vermont are homes to our fosters now.

Here are the fosters we housed in the past twelve months.

1. Crookytail the Benevolent, RL1 (January 2012)
The One Who Stayed

Crookytail was my first pull from Robeson County, North Carolina. RCAS and neighboring Sampson County became the focus of my rescue efforts in 2012, in part because Liberty County's rescue team became so successful that their shelter's save rate went from 2% to 98%, and thus all the dogs I wanted to pull were spoken for before I got to them. Also, I'd gotten more confident about my ability to pick out good dogs instead of relying on other people to choose them for me.

Thus began the Era of Crookytail, in which he added his considerable talents to our fostering team, and everything got way better than it had ever been before. All the fosters start smiling in their pictures a lot more once Crooky joins the team.

This year, Crookytail went from a dog with absolutely no formal training to a titled Rally Obedience dog. Granted, he didn't love the sport and is retiring as a RL1, but I'm still proud of him, and in 2013 he'll be able to get back to his real job: guidance counselor to foster dogs.

2 and 3. Jackie and Erin (March 2012)
The Trailer Park Kids

After Crooky joined us as a permanent dog, I did puppies for a while because I didn't think I could handle three full-sized dogs. Little did I know that puppies are actually a WAY bigger pain in the ass. Jackie and Erin, the two on the right in that picture, were the first of our foster puppies. They were "found" in a cardboard box in a trailer park (in reality, the person who claimed to have "found" them was probably their owner who just didn't want to be held responsible for dumping a litter of puppies).

Because dogs in Robeson County frequently get no preventative care or vaccinations whatsoever, both of these puppies came down with parvo a few days after I pulled them. They had to go into the doggy ICU and get IVs for a few days. All told, their vet care cost about a thousand bucks, and Erin died anyway. Jackie survived and made it to Philly. She got adopted two days later.

4 and 5. Cerise and Razzmatazz (March - April 2012)
The Burnout Babies

I'll tell you a secret: even the best foster parents don't always love all their dogs.

These two were my least favorite fosters ever. It wasn't their fault, but I still never liked them very much. They had sarcoptic mange and were being treated with lime-sulfur dips, so they smelled terrible and I had to give them medicine four times a day and wash my hands every time I touched them and Dog Mob had to take preventative medicine too. Because they were itchy and miserable, they just wailed constantly and scratched all the time and were basically impossible to train. Because they were hound mixes, their wailings were LOUD, which did not endear them to me, as we live in a condo and our next-door neighbor was a doctor who was eight or nine months pregnant at the time and already not sleeping well.

We had these puppies for two weeks, then Cerise got adopted and Razz went to go stay with a lady who was fostering one of her other littermates.

6 and 7. Indy and Little Fox (April - May 2012)
The Melon Collies

These two little monsters were a couple of collie mixes that I pulled from North Carolina. Their mother was a collie mix; their fathers were probably two different dogs. Little Fox's father was definitely a German Shepherd (her owners were kind enough to tell the shelter staff that as they were dumping the mother), but Indy's father was most likely a yellow Lab or Lab mix.

A friend of ours decided to adopt Indy (the beige one), so I kept her a couple more weeks for basic training and put Little Fox up for adoption. Little Fox got adopted by a very nice older couple in Bucks County. Indy lives in Alabama with our friend now, where she eats his furniture and destroys his remote controls and is generally a massive troublemaker. I told him that was going to happen, but he insisted he wanted the tomboy and not the polite little lady, so that's what he gets.

After those two left, I decided I was never doing puppies again. NEVER.

8. Mab (June - July 2012)
The Smart One

That summer, some more friends decided that they wanted to adopt a dog, so they contacted us for help picking one out. I sent them a couple of possible candidates and they chose Mab, a little black border collie in RCAS. Mab got out of the shelter with about 90 minutes to spare. She turned out to be the smartest foster we've ever had -- just ridiculously quick to learn and easy to train. If she hadn't already been promised to our friends, I would have been sorely tempted to keep her, but as is I'm just delighted that she went on to such a good home. She lives in Vermont now and has a wonderful extended family of dogs.

9. Eldwin/Etta (August 2012)
The Happy One

Eldwin, who was later renamed Etta, was another foster dog that I was briefly tempted to keep. She was a little shepherd mix who came out of RCAS and also proved to be super smart, as well as happy and smiley and instantly endearing. Luckily she got an adoption commitment from a dream home with a young couple in Philly within two or three days of arrival, so I could file her away mentally as "taken" and stop myself from getting too attached. She was only with us for ten days, and it's a good thing, too. Any longer and she might never have left.

10. Tulip (August 2012)
The Short-Term Pee Sprinkler

I barely got to know Tulip, a beagle mix from SCAS who was in and out of here in less than 48 hours. She was sweet, but really timid and a major submissive urinator. Crookytail helped bring her around, and she showed a good bit of improvement in the short time she was here, but we didn't really have enough time to fix that issue, because Tulip got adopted almost immediately. Hooray, less pee mopping for me.

11. April (August - September 2012)
The Good Mama

April was a soft-hearted, gentle black Lab/border collie mix from rural Tennessee, where she had been found outside a branch bank with her daughter Scarlett. The local rescue hadn't been able to get her adopted, so they sent her and a few other dogs to my rescue group. Scarlett got adopted immediately (puppies always go first), one of our friends and his wife decided to adopt April soon after she got here, and I got to deal with the toughest potty-training case I've been faced with so far.

I owe a lot to the magic powers of Crookytail on this one. With his help, April was brought out of her depression and given a crash course in remedial socialization and successfully started on potty-training. She now lives with two cats in Wisconsin and is a very lucky dog. It turns out that she loves snow, which is good, because she'll be getting a lot of it out there.

12. Shelby/Sydney (October - November 2012)
The Box Dog

Shelby, later renamed Sydney, was yet another mama dog who sat in the shelter after her puppies had been adopted (although in Sydney's case, only one of her puppies actually got adopted -- the other died, probably of hookworms, before his adopters could pick him up). Although she was smart and sweet and blessed with exotic markings, no one seemed to want her. On her last day, the shelter director sent out a plea across Facebook for someone to pull this special little dog.

She was in rough shape when I pulled her; she was severely underweight and had a massive parasite load, including heartworms. Luckily, other generous people had been touched by the director's plea and donated hundreds of dollars to cover Sydney's medical bills. Even so, she had to spend a full month on crate rest before she could go up for adoption.

But Sydney came through heartworm treatment like a champ and proved to be an adaptable, friendly, quick-learning dog who went on to a great home in upstate New York with three other dogs. She was another one that I wanted to keep, because she was smart and had great hind-end awareness and a really nice natural side pass, but alas, I can't have three dogs. And she scored an excellent home, so I'm pretty happy with that.

And that is the recap of 2012 in foster dogs. In just a few more weeks, we'll saddle up to start again in 2013. Crookytail is excited and Pongu is filled with loathing at the prospect of bringing in some new foster fuzzbutts. I'm already scouting for prospects.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pongu Off Prozac

After many months of behavioral rehabilitation, I finally took Pongu off Prozac a couple of weeks ago.

Almost 18 months ago, he started on 20 mg/day of Prozac. A few months later, after consulting with several trainers and behaviorists, we upped that dose to 30 mg/day. At the same time we embarked upon the long, slow process of teaching Pongu how to cope with everyday life and handle his anxiety in safer and more productive ways. This took many, many months of very small steps.

We had some setbacks and we had some delays (and I got to learn firsthand about how much fun it is to try regular counter-conditioning protocols with a dog too fearful to accept even the tastiest treats anywhere outside his safe zone), but eventually we reached a point where Pongu could tolerate more noise and chaos than I ever imagined possible, and could even focus well enough to do Rally practice sessions on city sidewalks.

I don't think we would have made it without the medication. I doubt Pongu could have coped with his daily anxieties without Prozac, and I doubt he'd have gotten past his terror of training facilities without Xanax. The medications not only made it possible for him to calm down enough to focus, but enabled him to have fun -- and once he learned that he could have fun while working, the work itself became fun, and that built into a spiral of positive reinforcement that eventually gave him the ability to self-control and self-calm by doing something as simple as a Heel Sit. The familiarity of the exercise, and (I believe) its strong association with feelings of pride and accomplishment, really seem to enable Pongu to mentally regroup and switch from fearful mode to thinking mode.

Once he earned his RL1 with an Award of Excellence -- a goal that I honestly was not sure this fearful little mutt would ever accomplish, since back in the early days all the trainers we'd consulted had cautioned me not to expect Pongu to ever trial in any sport (which, looking back on it with the benefit of what I know now, I believe was mostly hedging against the great uncertainty of owner compliance) -- I decided that it was time to phase out the Prozac. He was doing well enough that I didn't think we needed it anymore, and even though he'd been on it for a long time, I was and still am a little uncomfortable about using behavioral medications longer than strictly necessary.

Besides, there were some slight side effects. The biggest one was that Prozac gave Pongu a dry mouth, which in turn caused his teeth to get dirty a lot faster than Crookytail's did. I was worried that longterm use might compromise his dental health.

So I spent a month weaning him off the medication, dropping his daily dose from 30 mg to 20 mg to 10 to nothing. I noticed no behavioral changes during the period of decreased doses, but 4 or 5 days after he was totally off the medication, his behavior did start to change a little.

Pongu is now quicker to startle at unexpected noises or movements. He seems more vigilant when out on walks. He is noticeably more reactive to strange people and dogs; he'll go into barking/lunging episodes at longer threshold distances and more frequently than when he was on Prozac. It's not such a tremendous change that I feel a need to put him back on the medication, but it's a noticeable change.

He doesn't sleep through the night as soundly; he will wake up and rush to the door barking when the neighbor leaves for work around 6:30, which he didn't do before, and sometimes he wakes up and barks at strange noises outside. He seems more insistent about pushing against me for petting and cuddles (and won't go back to sleep until I pet him a little), which I interpret as linked to anxiety.

However, not all the behavioral changes are bad. Pongu used to be somewhat anorexic -- he'd regularly refuse meals if he was bored with a particular kind of food -- and his appetite seems better since he went off Prozac. His reaction times are faster and he's more responsive during practice sessions (sometimes overly responsive, in fact; I'm having to adjust my cues to compensate). He seems more athletic; he's more energetic during jumpwork sessions and while practicing on stairs. The overall effect seems to be like lifting off a layer of cotton wool that had been muffling certain aspects of his personality, for good and ill.

It seems like we've settled into the new reality, and it's not bad. Pongu can still focus in environments that would previously have overwhelmed him, and he can still trial successfully in APDT Rally. So, for the time being, the plan is to keep him drug-free and see where the new year takes us.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Crookytail Titles and Retires (Temporarily?)

Dog Mob had another Rally trial yesterday. It was just one run each: Pongu moved up to Level 1B (championship division), while Crookytail was trying to get his last leg in Level 1A (titling division) and earn his RL1.

Spoiler: They both did very well and I am so, so proud of them.

Pongu, my little crazypants spazzlebutt, turned in his best run ever and scored 208 out of a possible 210 points. Going in, I was a little worried: this was Pongu's first trial since getting off Prozac, and while he's generally coping quite well without the medication, he's become noticeably more reactive and quick to startle. I wasn't sure how he'd do in the trial environment.

Obviously, I needn't have worried. He was confident, happy, and focused throughout, and although we did make a couple of tiny errors (partly my fault -- my handling is not as clear as it should be!), I could not be happier with Pongu's performance. This is just his fourth trial experience of any kind ever, and in my opinion he's doing brilliantly.

We are going to rock some trials next year. Pongu needs another nine Qs in Level 1B to earn his RL1X title, and 82 points plus 5 Level 1B/2B QQs at 190 or higher to earn his ARCH (which is the one I really want, because doesn't that just look impressive?). I'm hoping to get the remaining Level 2 exercises to a comfortable level of proficiency by the end of the month, so we can start competing in that level right away next year. The next trial in our area is in January, and I'm hoping to be ready by then. With luck, we may have Pongu's first championship title by August or September.

It'll just be me and Pongu, though, because Crookytail is retiring from Rally after completing his first title.

Crooky has never enjoyed competitions. This is the face he made for almost the entire time he was waiting on his turn in the ring:

Crookytail generally enjoys practice, I think, although he has always been inconsistent in his performances. One day he'll be brilliant, the next day he's completely deaf to my requests and would much rather stare at the Squirrel Tree in hopes of spotting a furry gray snackbite.

But most of the time, at home and on the street, he seems to like playing the game.

This enjoyment vanishes instantly in the trial venue. Even before we set foot in the ring, Crookytail gets anxious and stressy and starts pleading to leave. Once in the ring, he really does try hard, but he doesn't seem to like it. I never get the sense that Crookytail is having fun, as opposed to dutifully trying to make me happy.

Crookytail earned a score of 188 at yesterday's run. It was the second-lowest qualifying score of any dog in the division. Again, some of the errors were my fault for sloppy handling, but a lot of it was that Crooky just wasn't that into it. He had his moments of brilliance and stretches of good heeling, but overall it was just... adequate.

Adequate is still good enough, though. I promised Crooky that if he earned his title, I'd let him quit doing competitions (at least for a while). He did it, so he gets an honorable discharge from the ring.

I may bring him back down the road. Crookytail does show promise, and when he's on his game, he can execute the movements with great flair and precision. For him, it's just a matter of building value into the exercises, so that they become fun and rewarding in and of themselves. I don't think that this would be too difficult; I'm just not sure I should make it a priority. I don't need him to love Rally -- or any sport, for that matter. He has a job already. And when I'm actively fostering, I honestly do not have time to train Crooky to a competition level. So, at least for the time being, I'm content to let him retire.

Crookytail's career scores reflect his general inconsistency: 186, 198 (and third place!), 188.

Pongu's reflect his steady gain of confidence in the ring: 196, 198, 201, 208.

And so we close out Dog Mob's run in APDT Rally for 2012. Both dogs entered the sport for the first time this year, and both of them earned their beginner titles in short order. Not bad for a couple of muttly pound dogs. I do believe they're the only dogs in our neighborhood who have any title (other than maybe a couple of CGCs, and I'm honestly not sure we even have any of those around), and I am inordinately proud of them for that.

All hail Crookytail the Benevolent, RL1, and Pongu the Insane, RL1 (AOE).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Our dogs don't always want to do what we want them to do.

It doesn't mean they're being willful or stupid or (shudder) "dominant." It (sometimes -- more on this later) means that whatever you want them to do is not intrinsically fun for them, and whatever you're offering in exchange for the not-intrinsically-fun activity is just not good enough to be worth it. Put simply, they're not sufficiently motivated to play along.

I made this clip while practicing cavaletti with Dog Mob the other day. It's not a particularly good cavaletti clip, but it is a good illustration of a decidedly unmotivated dog.

Crookytail does not like practicing cavaletti. He doesn't especially care for most formal sports exercises, in fact. Like a lot of dogs, he just doesn't see the point. Dog sports involve a lot of really arbitrary and inefficient activities; it's not for nothing that people often say titles demonstrate that your dog loves you enough to do a bunch of really stupid stuff for your sake.

Crookytail believes, quite reasonably, that if the goal is for him to go to the mat, it is faster and more sensible to go around the cavaletti poles than high-step over them. He is a forgiving dog, and I think he feels uncomfortable expressing this too forcefully, but it's pretty clear he thinks I'm nuts for insisting that he take the annoying inefficient route of going over the poles instead of around them.

So, by the time I made this clip, he had just tuned out. The exercise appeared pointless to him and he didn't have enough motivation to do it, so he wasn't about to go through the hassle. (Pongu, on the other hand, is more willing to humor me --  but Pongu has been working with me for longer, so for him, the work itself and the reward of interacting with me is sufficient motivation to run the poles.)

Whenever a dog refuses to do an exercise, I find it helpful to rule out a few possible reasons for the refusal.

(1) Confusion -- does the dog understand the exercise? Perhaps my request is unclear, and the dog just isn't sure what he's supposed to do with all those poles.

In this case I know there's no confusion because Crookytail has been working cavaletti for weeks and knows what the goal of the exercise is. But often this is the first stumbling block, and indicates that I need to go back and break the exercise down into smaller, simpler pieces -- perhaps just one pole on the ground in front of the mat.

(2) Ability -- is the dog capable of the exercise? Perhaps I'm asking for more than the dog is physically able to give. Some dogs will actually strain to the point of injuring themselves in an effort to comply with their humans' requests, so it's vital to keep a close watch on our dogs for signs of injury or illness and never ask for more than they can do.

Here, I know that the height and spacing of the poles makes the exercise difficult but not impossible. The first pole is 8" high, the second one is 1/2" high and deliberately crooked, and the last one is 4" high. The poles are placed at intervals that discourage jumping (which would probably be more fun) and encourage careful high-stepping (much less fun). There's very little physical strain involved here, but the pole setup does require a fair amount of concentration to navigate, and that can be tedious for the dog.

(3) Stress and Distraction -- is the environment one that the dog is able to work within, or is there too much going on for the dog to focus? If the dog is too stressed or distracted, it's not a good teaching environment. It may be a good proofing environment, but if the dog isn't at that level yet or is being asked to learn a novel  behavior, practicing in a high-distraction environment is just setting your partner up for failure.

In this clip, however, we're practicing in our boring old living room where we always practice. Nothing else is competing for his attention, and it's not a new behavior anyway; Crooky is thoroughly familiar with these poles. Stress and distraction are not in play.

So after considering and ruling out those factors, it becomes clear that this is purely a question of motivation. Crookytail is just not interested in playing the game: it's boring to him, and the payoff for sludging through that boredom is not good enough to get him moving.

Fair enough. I have to do a lot of things at my job that I think are boring, and I probably wouldn't do them without a paycheck. It doesn't mean I don't love my boss or coworkers (I do; they're awesome) or that I don't find the work generally rewarding (I do; it's important!)... but I'm honestly not that stoked about filling out proofs of service or formatting cover pages, and the only reason I bother is because I'm getting paid.

Same deal for Crooky. Therefore, as a trainer, there are two things I can do to help my dog succeed: (1) break the exercise down into smaller pieces, so he doesn't have to endure quite as much boredom (make it one or two poles instead of three, and make them straighter and lower instead of presenting him with such a tanglefoot maze); and (2) improve the payoff.

Instead of using the same bland soft treats that he's been getting all day, I might switch to higher-octane stuff: tiny bits of leftover bacon or his favorite cheese. I could give him more effusive praise and neck scratches instead of a murmured "good." If Crooky were more into toys than food, I might give him a ball toss or quick game of Tag or Tug after every run. I could even ask him to do one of his favorite tricks, like Spin, which not only acts as a motivator for the cavaletti poles, but reinforces a behavior he already knows and makes that one more enjoyable too. The more motivators you have, the better and more varied your rewards can be. Getting the same thing every time quickly becomes boring and predictable; most dogs prefer a little surprise now and then.

The subject of building motivation (or "drive," as it's sometimes called) is a much bigger one than this blog post can cover. Entire books -- and very good ones! -- have been written on that topic. But it's important to be able to recognize, and respect, when that's the issue you're facing.

Crookytail's lack of motivation in this clip is not an indication that he's untrainable or doesn't love me or is in any way a Bad Dog. It's just his way of telling me that he is not into this particular game right now, and I'd better make it more fun if I want him to keep playing. And that's fine. I can respect that -- and, just as importantly, I can use it to find a reward that does work for him, and to re-configure the exercise in a way that's more enjoyable for him.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Preparing for Jump Work

Pongu has finished his RL1, so next year we'll start competing in Level 2 (and, hopefully, Level 3) Rally. This means he's going to have to do some jumps, and that in turn means I need to start laying some foundations so he can do those jumps safely.

The main reason we don't do agility -- even though it looks like a ton of fun and is by far the biggest dog sport around these parts -- is because Pongu is not physically capable of doing something that strenuous. He has lousy structure: he's bowlegged and pigeon-toed and both his left front foot and right rear foot are problematic (the former because of an old injury caused or at least exacerbated by his original owner; the latter is a mystery ailment, although these days it seems to be the one that bothers him more). After years of work, he's got reasonable coordination and hind-end awareness, but he'll never have the grace or durability needed to do agility safely.

Also, he's terrified by the obstacles. All of them.

So we do Rally, because APDT Rally is a lot more forgiving of dogs' physical limitations. And we play a little bit in freestyle, because you can tailor your routine to encompass only those moves your dog can do comfortably. (There are a couple of required elements for competition routines, but they're minimal and not particularly demanding -- just some basic heels and turns -- and, anyway, we're not currently competing in freestyle.) Up until now, we've had no need to learn jumps, because there just weren't any.

Now that Pongu's past the no-jump level in Rally, that plan has changed. APDT Rally doesn't have a lot of jump exercises (there's only one in Level 2 Rally, and I think two or three in Level 3), and they're nowhere near as frequent or difficult as the ones in agility, so I think Pongu can manage them... but to make sure he can do it safely, jump work is officially on our training to-do list.

It'll be a while before we get to the actual jumps, though. For now, we're doing some foundation exercises intended to improve his footwork and body awareness before actually starting any jumps.

The less formal of these exercises is going up the stairs backwards, which was just a little game that Pongu figured out in about three days. He grasped the basic idea almost immediately, as he already knew how to walk backwards on cue, so it was just a matter of transferring that concept to stairs. In the beginning, it was a little clumsy...

...but his skill level improved quickly.

(In this clip I have Crookytail sitting on the stairs to act as a sort of roadblock and force Pongu to target a smaller area on the stairs. Crookytail does not do the backwards stairs thing. He does, however, make a most excellent roadblock.)

We also started doing a Real Exercise, i.e., cavaletti. This concept is stolen wholesale from horse training; cavaletti are used to teach horses how to pace themselves and take jumps. They are also used to train dogs in a very similar fashion.

We started with some makeshift poles (really just our one bar jump, disassembled) lying flat on the floor. I used a sendaway-to-mat and recall to get the dogs moving, and laid out the yoga mat to guide them over the poles instead of around them.

Once they were both comfortable with skipping over the poles on the ground, I raided our recycle bin for empty Coke cans and crushed them down to hold the poles about half an inch off the floor.

I also started varying the arrangements of the poles (as best I could within the obviously small confines of our condo) so that instead of always being in a straight line, there were some curves and angles between the poles as well.

At this point both dogs started slowing up a bit and hesitating about going over the poles (mainly because those Coke cans make quite a racket when one of the dogs misses and knocks a pole), so we'll spend a couple of days drilling at this level before moving on to low jumps. Once they're comfortable and even happy about playing the cavaletti game, we'll proceed to the next step. For now, the goal is to build confidence and comfort at this level.

Tonight I'll build some low jumps using the super glamorous and high-tech combination of empty dog food cans, nails, a bag of concrete powder, and some PVC pipes. Aw yeah. It's gonna look so cool.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sydney Goes Home

Two weeks ago, Sydney went home.

I packed her tiny suitcase with some food and treats, a favorite toy (really her second-favorite, as the #1 toy was too disgusting to leave the house), her medical records, and a copy of Patricia McConnell's booklet Love Has No Age Limit.

Then I took her on one last tour of South Philly to say farewell to the city and make sure she was thoroughly exercised before her seven-hour car ride to upstate New York.

And then she met her new people, and did the happy foster dog snuggle thing, and never looked back. The last I saw of Sydney, she was trotting off happily between her new people, tail wagging in a joyous blur.

Her adopters have been keeping me updated on her progress. She settled in well, promptly made friends with all three resident dogs, and has daily adventures investigating the woods around her new home. She's a happy dog and they're a happy family, and so the story ends well.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rally Nerves and Successes

After our double-NQ disaster on October 14, I was determined that we'd do better at the next trial on October 28.

The raised signs had proved particularly troublesome for Pongu, as he'd never seen such things before and was frightened by the eye-level signs, so I made up some fake Scary Signs and drilled Dog Mob around those things until they could both comfortably ignore the signs indoors.

After a couple of days, when they could ignore the signs in their usual training area, I moved the signs outside and constructed a pop-up mini Rally course in the alley behind our condo. Bonus: a nearby restaurant had an enormous vent that sometimes blew into that alley, creating a second distraction that duplicated the noisy fan which had also thrown Pongu off at the October 14 trial.

It turned out to be an enormous hassle to get that thing set up, and even at half past midnight (the hour when I took the above picture) there were people wandering through my fake Rally course constantly, so we didn't use it that often. I think it helped, though, and it didn't take too long for Pongu to get used to the raised signs in this context as well. (Crookytail, of course, was never bothered by them at all. Not much rattles a Crookydog, other than SEPTA buses.)

In addition to prepping the dogs, I had to prepare myself. My own ring nerves were a much bigger problem than Pongu's had been -- he was willing to work through his issues, but I hadn't been willing to struggle through mine. So, in preparation for this round, I downloaded a couple of super catchy songs into my iPod and just put them on repeat, running them through my head over and over to block out all other thoughts.

I also tried to convince myself that "it's just for fun, these scores are meaningless, it's not about the numbers" but hahaaaa like that ever works. Please. You put any possibility of an honors ranking in front of a lifelong azn overachiever, she's gonna gun for that score. Fortunately, Pongu feels the same way (or at least appears to do so enough that I can impose my interpretations on him and not feel like a liar), and as long as I've got one nerd dog who's willing to share my nerd goals, it doesn't matter if the other dog wants to take a more laid-back approach.

So off we went to our trial! Crookytail still didn't have a reliable left pivot and Pongu was-and-is generally unreliable in scary new environments populated by scary new people, but whatever, it was as good as it was gonna get in the time we had.

Both dogs were entered in two runs apiece. My goal was for Pongu to earn two Qs with 190 points or higher on each run (which would enable him to earn a Level 1 Award of Excellence) and for Crookytail to just have a good time and not get too stressed out. Crooky hates competitions anyway -- he doesn't do well under pressure and he thinks it's dumb that he can't play with all the other dogs -- so I wanted him to just hang in there and hopefully not pee on any signs.

As it turned out, this venue didn't have any raised signs -- they were resting on the floor the same way they do in our regular class -- so all that scary-signs prepwork was for nothing. Oh well. Better to be over-prepared than under.

Dog Mob did very well. I'm proud of them both.

Pongu was a little shaky and distracted by over-vigilance, as he is wont to be in new environments, so we lost some points on repeated cues (3x each run) and on the first run I also dropped a treat, which cost us another 3 points and taught me a valuable lesson about the need to have big, easily grasped treats in my pocket when I'm all fumble-fingered with nerves.

Crookytail was... Crookytail. He popped up on every one of his Sits, which cost 1 point each time and was commented upon by both judges, but was nevertheless an improvement over his dropping into constant unwanted Downs (he didn't do that once!), and he did a lot of lagging and sign-sniffing during the Heeling portions of each exercise. APDT Rally has an extremely generous definition of "Heel position," so that didn't cost us too much... but honestly, it should have. At best, what Crooky was doing might count as "loose-leash walking on the left," but I wouldn't consider it anything close to an actual Heel for about half of each run, and I feel like grading it the same as a proper Heel devalues the performances of the teams who did do close, correct Heels. So even though the lax grading benefited my dog, I would have preferred a stricter definition that put more importance on proper performance of the exercise.

I feel pretty much the same way about Crooky's crookedy Fronts and diagonal Downs. He did the exercises on the first prompts, and that's all that counts... but they were really out of position. These are just minor nitpicks, though, and it feels ungrateful to even mention them.

Because the important thing is that Dog Mob did really, really well. Pongu didn't melt down; by the end he even seemed to be having fun. He earned his RL1 title with an Award of Excellence and took second place in his final run of the day. Crookytail held up nicely in the trial environment (he did get a little stressed and dispirited that he couldn't play with the other dogs, and by the end of the day he was wilted on the ground in complete exhaustion), picked up two Qs, and even earned third place in his second run. (Technically he only tied for third place, and there should have been a runoff to determine the actual placement, but since the other team had left a little early to outrace Hurricane Sandy, Crookytail "won" by default. Hooray!)

So there we are! All our goals met or exceeded, and even a couple of placement ribbons to take home! TRIUMPH!!

Dog Mob's next trial, which will also be their last for the year, is in early December. There's only one run at this trial, so Crooky has one chance to pick up an extra Q and earn his RL1 before the year ends.

If he makes it, great. If not, no big deal. There'll be more trials next year, and we'll be going to them. Because Pongu, at least, is not stopping at his RL1.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Week Three: Shelby Becomes Sydney

It's our third week with Shelby -- whose name is now Sydney -- and she has an adopter! She will be leaving us on November 2 to live on 15 acres in upstate New York with a wonderful couple and their three other dogs (one of whom is already named Shelbee, necessitating a name change for this Shelby to Sydney). It's a lovely home and I couldn't be happier for this little mutt.

I was super picky about placing her and will freely admit that I discouraged a couple of other inquiries because, honestly, I felt like they wouldn't have given Sydney what she needed. But I'm very excited about the home where she's headed and think it's a great match. (What a relief, too! I was afraid I'd have a hard time letting Sydney go, but instead I'm just thrilled she's landed so luckily. It's going to be quite a life change for a little dog who once had to scavenge roadkill for her puppies while herself on the verge of starvation.)

Sydney continues to do well here. She has finished her heartworm-related crate rest (making her an Official Heartworm Survivor) and has gone to the dog park a couple of times, where she alternates between mugging every human in the park for attention and trying to sniff all the dogs' butts. So far she's shown exemplary social graces and has been appropriate with bigger dogs, smaller dogs, puppies and old dogs alike. She plays nicely with Dog Mob both inside and outside the house.

Training is still going slowly, which is mostly my fault since we have our next Rally trial coming up this Sunday and most of my attention has been diverted to that. (Crookytail still doesn't have a reliable left pivot. STILL. With four days left to go. AND he regularly stalls out on runs because he gets distracted by urgent imaginary squirrels and/or a need to pee on things. Sigh...)

We had a breakthrough this morning, though. Sydney finally gave me a Down on a straight verbal cue! Then she did it twice again and hit five out of five on a discrimination drill (where I say either "Sit" or "Down" and wait for her to give the correct response). Most dogs, especially when they've only just learned those two cues and haven't had a ton of practice yet, get confused and have difficulty distinguishing which is which. April would always Sit first and then slide into a Down if I didn't mark and reward the Sit -- she didn't really understand that "Sit" means Sit and "Down" means Down, so she would always respond to any verbal cue by doing the same sequence as trial and error. The majority of dogs do the same thing, and only learn to distinguish verbal cues after lots and lots of practice.

I've only done one drill with Sydney so it's hard to say whether she really understands the difference between the cues or just got lucky, but regardless, I'm excited that she's responding to straight verbals. We'd been stuck on this for quite a while, and I'm happy to see signs that we may be moving past it.

Another recent breakthrough is that Sydney has started playing with toys!

When she got here, Sydney had no idea what toys were. She didn't display any interest in balls, squeaky toys, tug toys, or stuffed animals. She did seem to recognize them as "dog items" (as distinguished from "people items" like shoes and remote controls) and she picked up on chew toys pretty quickly, but for the first few weeks, she had no apparent concept of how to play with toys at all.

In the last couple of days, that's changed. Now she will occasionally pick up the raggedy remains of a Kong gecko and use it to entice one of the other dogs to play a game of keep-away.

Sydney still isn't too adept at toy play, and toys don't seem to be a strong motivator for her in the absence of other dogs (i.e., playing with me and the toy is not of much interest to her yet), but I view that as progress too. She's learning things from Dog Mob, and I expect she'll continue to learn from the resident dogs in her new home as well.

Her heartworm cough is almost gone. I hear it very rarely these days, and only when she's gotten seriously over-excited about something. I'm hopeful it will be completely vanished by the time she goes home in a little over a week.

Her leash walking skills are slowly but steadily improving. It's a little tricky to work on leash skills with Sydney, because she is so much more interested in what's going on around her that even the tastiest treats are barely reinforcing. Freeze-dried chicken is working today, but who knows if she'll still be interested in it tomorrow. She's a dog who likes novelty, Sydney is.

As with everything else, practice will eventually make perfect. She's doing really well on name recognition/response exercises on the street and isn't zigzagging in front of me quite so much, so that's good; on the flipside, she's now really interested in and anxious to interact with every other dog she sees (including the yippy-reactive ones that want nothing whatsoever to do with her), so that has become a New Thing to Work On.

And that's where we are for today. I'll try to have one more update before she goes home, but we're definitely in the winding-down phase of Sydney's story. Happily ever after is just a few days away.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Shelby: Week Two

Midway into our second week with Shelby, and she's almost through with her heartworm treatment. In just a couple more days she won't have to spend almost all her time in the box, and I'll be able to get a much better sense of how she behaves in a more normal home environment, with a greater degree of freedom... provided, that is, we still have her.

Shelby's officially available for adoption starting this weekend, and I'm torn between wanting to keep her a little longer for training and wanting to send her off to a real home as soon as possible. We're getting to that awkward middle stage where the foster dog wants to be loved like a permanent dog, and I won't/can't do that because I want the dog to bond completely with its new people and not get too attached to me, and it causes woe and sadness to us both.

This stage sucks. So, because I want Shelby to be happy, I want her to go home soon, because the sooner she finds a real home, the sooner she has that loving bond -- which is what all the foster dogs really want, and which is the one thing I can't give them.

BUT she's almost totally untrained. Ordinarily, by the end of the second week, a foster dog would know several commands and would be fairly adept at walking politely on leash. Shelby has zero behaviors on straight verbal cues (she Sits on command, but that's only because she has learned to default to Sit for everything, including prolonged eye contact; she has no idea what the word "Sit" means or how to differentiate it from any other word, whether it's "Down" or "Heel" or "Rutabaga") and is pretty bad at leash walking. She doesn't pull too much, but she does tend to zigzag in front of her person, making it very easy to trip over her if you aren't watching where both you and the dog are headed.

These deficits are entirely my fault, of course. Shelby is a little slower than average to grasp verbal cues -- she's very smart, but seems to have a particular mental block about connecting "person says word" to "I do a behavior in response." Give her a hand signal, and she's got it down at lightspeed. Spoken words take longer for her, at least right now. My expectation is that once she figures out the concept, subsequent cues will go much much faster, but that idea hasn't quite clicked into place yet.

And that's because she just hasn't had enough practice, and the reason she hasn't had enough practice is because I've been focusing most of my attention and training time on Dog Mob these past few weeks.

Normally my training priority is (1) Pongu; (2) foster dog; (3) Crookytail. Lately Crookytail has taken the #2 position, leaving the foster dog as priority #3. So Shelby's been getting shortchanged, and that's why after nearly two weeks she has no reliable verbal cues.

So to the extent that I want her to have a better headstart when she goes to her new home, I'd like to keep Shelby a little longer, because then I can make up that deficit. (Whether this is actually necessary depends on the home, of course; many adopters are happy to do the work themselves, and some don't think it's all that important for their dog to know Sit or Down anyway. But then there are homes with first-time owners who work and have kids and don't have time to read a dozen training books. If knowing a few basic cues helps a sweet-tempered adult dog get into a good but busy home, that's an option I'd like my fosters to have.)

In the end, we'll just have to see what happens: whether the right home comes along, when they feel comfortable taking her, and what degree of training they expect their new dog to have.

And the truth is, for at least another week and a half, I'm not going to be fully focused on Shelby anyway, because Dog Mob's got a competition coming up, so this might be the one time I have to suck up my pride and send a foster dog home not knowing a whole lot more than she did when she arrived.

Oh well. At least she's gotten a lot healthier. Shelby's still skinny, but it's more on the lean side of normal than "oh my god somebody get that dog a sandwich." She still coughs, but not that much and not that hard. So I've done her that much good, even if she still only knows how to Down on a hand signal.

It's something, I guess.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Agony of Defeat

Yesterday I took Pongu to his second APDT Rally Obedience trial, which was the second time he'd done a trialing event of any kind.

It did not go well.

At our first trial, at the Dog Training Club of Chester County, Pongu was entered in only one run. He was squeaky and anxious throughout, but he finished the course with a respectable final score of 196 and earned his very first Q.

That was in August. We're now in mid-October, and every day since that first trial, we've practiced at least a little bit to get better. We've worked Fronts and pivots and heeling around cones; we've hammered left turns and Stay drills and pretty swing finishes. Pongu's Rally skills are much sharper than they were at the time of his first trial. His precision and confidence have improved quite a bit, even if it doesn't always feel like that day-to-day. On good days, we move together like dance partners: I don't need to say a word, it's all communicated in posture and hand position and footwork.

I figured this next trial would be easy. He'd already done it once, he'd done it excellently, and he'd gotten better in the interim. We only needed two more Qs for Pongu to earn his first title, and I thought we'd get that for sure -- maybe even with two more high scores to earn an Award of Excellence. I entered Pongu in the morning and afternoon runs and scratched Crookytail at the last minute, forfeiting his entry fees so that I could focus all my attention on Pongu.

I was painfully, completely wrong.

The venue was smaller than our first trial or our regular training club. It was also crowded, noisy, and "informal" -- meaning that people talked loudly and let their dogs bark and moved crates and folding chairs around while teams were working in the ring. This was no big deal for the more experienced or calmer dogs in the competition, but it spelled disaster for Pongu the Insane.

Also disastrous was the fact that at this trial, the Rally signs were mounted on wire holders that raised them about two feet off the ground. Pongu had never seen such things before and immediately decided they must be some kind of terrible dog-spearing coathanger monsters. He hated them, refused to get near them, and panicked whenever we came to a point on the course where two or three signs were crowded together in such a way that they surrounded him.

And, finally, during the afternoon runs the facility began to overheat because the sun was shining brightly through the windows, so the steward turned on a large area fan to cool down the training center, and the loud noise of the fan sent Pongu into a panic as well. He'd started to recover until then, but he just couldn't cope with the fan noise.

So it was a total spectacular implosion. Pongu could not focus, and I didn't have enough faith in my dog to struggle through his problems and hope he'd get better in time to earn a qualifying score. We NQ'ed both of our runs because I pulled Pongu off the course halfway through both times. There were only two NQ's given out all day, across all of the many trials that were run, and we got both of them. Yay us.

I haven't been as miserable in a long, long time as I felt leaving the trial grounds that day. I was frustrated with my dog and frustrated with myself. It's no fun being the only team in the entire trial to NQ, especially if you do it repeatedly, especially especially if several of the other teams are limping along with comparatively sloppy performances and still earning qualifying scores. But they at least had the guts to go all the way through and finish. I didn't.

The fault is mine, not Pongu's. He did the best he could. He tried. I was the one who wanted too much and gave up too early. I was the one who decided we should quit rather than accept a substandard score. It's absolutely not fair for me to feel disappointed in Pongu for that, because they were all my decisions.

But it's hard, trialing a seriously fearful dog. I have to remind myself that most people who post about their Rally experiences (where they always seem to do brilliantly, with very little effort) are working with temperamentally stable dogs, so of course their dogs have an easier go of it, and it's not right to compare Pongu's progress to theirs. Even the teams with dog-reactive animals are at least working with a single known disadvantage. Pongu is afraid of everything. And it doesn't matter how brilliant he is outside the ring; I cannot fairly expect him to be that precise under pressure. Not yet, maybe not ever. I have hopes we'll get there someday, but it's not reasonable to demand that of him now.

This was only Pongu's second trial. There's lots of room to improve with experience and practice. We have another trial coming up in two weeks. It's at the same venue with the same judges, and I thought about canceling for a while, but I think we'll go through with it. I want Pongu to earn a title, and he can't do it if I won't even give him a chance.

I'll be running Crookytail as well -- and I don't plan to scratch him this time. Dog Mob will be out in full force. We'll do however we do, and this time I won't hold my dogs back.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Shelby: Week One

Today we come to One Week With Shelby.

I love this little dog. She's smart, she's focused, she's polite. She's incredibly easy to train -- she had Sit in two sessions, and offers Sits regularly without my asking; if I make eye contact with her and hold it for longer than a second or so, Shelby will Sit to see if that gets her some snuggles. After just three attempts at luring a Down, Shelby started offering full Downs spontaneously. This dog is not only clever, she's super eager to please.

Her coughing has gotten much better. She still coughs some, but it's not as frequent or severe as it was just a few days ago. I feel comfortable relaxing her crate restrictions slightly (at this point, I think the benefits to be gained from socializing her to a home environment outweigh the need for strict crate rest 24/7), and in another week I'll start allowing her a little more playtime.

She had pretty bad diarrhea this morning, because she ate a big peanut butter biscuit that was given to her by the owner of a local pet supply shop (Shelby's so cute, people just can't resist giving her presents!) and apparently it disagreed with her, but she held it in for hours with so little complaint that I didn't even realize how much discomfort she was in until I finally took her out and she could let loose. Even then, Shelby didn't go until she got to her regular potty spot. That could not have been comfortable for her, but it is pretty amazing in terms of potty control.

She gets along well with Dog Mob, she doesn't hassle the guinea pigs, and she's one of the easiest fosters I've ever had.

As far as I'm concerned, Shelby is just about a perfect dog.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Getting to Know Shelby

It's been three days since Shelby came to stay with us, and I'm starting to develop a sense of who this little dog is.

Above picture notwithstanding, Shelby's an intensely serious and seriously intense dog. She rarely smiles; her default mode is to focus on doing things with total concentration, whether that's learning a new command or sniffing mysteries out from the ivy leaves on a walk. I'd describe her as confident, loyal, inquisitive, and perhaps slightly protective -- she hasn't barked or growled at anyone, but when we're out after dark and a stranger walks toward us, Shelby immediately goes on a subtle but unmistakable alert with her tail up and chest out, often putting herself between me and the approaching person. During daylight hours, however, she's much more interested in exploring her world and all its fascinating smells.

She's also affectionate and snuggly. Shelby likes to cuddle, starting by putting her head in her person's lap and then gradually crawling more and more of her body toward you until she's finally sitting on you. She actually seems to enjoy gentle hugging (most dogs don't) and will initiate her own doggy hugs by resting her chin on your shoulder and pushing into you with her forequarters.

She's intelligent and easy to train. Under normal circumstances, I suspect she's also a very athletic dog. Shelby would likely benefit from involvement in dog sports or some other ongoing challenge to stretch her mind and body. This is not a dog who would be content chasing the same ball in the same backyard for the rest of her life; to really be happy, she is going to need a home that can provide more variety and intellectual stimulation. Shelby needs a job to thrive, and I suspect she has the raw talent to excel at several of them.

 On top of the other observations, I'll add that she's a picky eater.

Shelby was severely underweight on arrival, yet right from the beginning she was very choosy about what she would and wouldn't eat. She is not interested in treats that aren't meat-based (peanut butter or sweet potato flavor? forgettaboutit), and is barely interested in the ones that are just "flavored." Freeze-dried liver and lung puffs get her attention, as does string cheese, but nothing less than the pure stuff will do.

She does not like plain kibble. I should note that Dog Mob is not eating garbage food; there's no Beneful in this house. They get good stuff: Acana, Orijen, grain-free Canidae. It doesn't matter; if it doesn't have a little bit of broth, canned food, or home-cooked dog stew mixed in (and I mean thoroughly mixed in -- if it's just spooned on top, Shelby will eat the yummy part and ignore the rest), Shelby won't touch it.

This doesn't bother me overmuch, because after years of living with Pongu the Insane, I am well accustomed to the quirks of picky eaters. Shelby's fussiness is nothing compared to Pongu's; she only needs a couple of spoonfuls of wet food or a splash of broth to make a bowl of kibble palatable. Plus, there are no health drawbacks and a couple of benefits to incorporating wet food into a dog's dry diet, so I don't mind accommodating Shelby's preferences at all. But she does like to have a tastier dinner, and her eventual owner should be prepared for that.

On the training front, all is going well. Shelby picked up Sit in just two sessions (and the first of those got cut short when Pongu decided to yell at her for invading his home and taking his person's attention, so it was really more like one and a half sessions).

I can't honestly say that she's housebroken (being on strict crate rest makes that impossible to determine), but I do think that she'll pick it up quickly and smoothly. She only needed one session of praise and treats to figure out where her potty spot was, and since then she's used it promptly and reliably.

Finally, I feel comfortable saying that she could live safely with children and other animals, provided everyone was properly socialized and respectful of one another's boundaries. Shelby is fairly tolerant of hugging and intrusive body handling, and her response if she's uncomfortable with something is to go somewhere else, rather than snarling or biting. She is appropriate with other dogs, and although she hasn't had much opportunity to play with Dog Mob, she'd clearly like to.

Shelby doesn't like to be bothered while she's eating, but as she gets all her meals in the crate, that has not been an issue here. She's curious about the guinea pigs and mesmerized by squirrels that she encounters on her walks, but her interest doesn't seem dangerous, so she would likely be fine with cats or other small animals in her adoptive home.


Shelby knows that something's wrong.

When her heart rate goes up -- when she gets excited because I've just come home, or she's finished pulling me up the last of the three flights of stairs to our condo -- she starts coughing, a horrible hacking wheeze that usually ends in a brutal, desperate attempt to spit out the obstruction in her chest. It's a frightening sound. It's the sound of the dead heartworms trying to kill her, even after they themselves have been dead for weeks.

I try to keep her calm. She isn't allowed to play; she can never be off leash, even inside the house. Most of her days are spent in the crate. Her walks are slow and dull affairs, although I've tried to enliven them a little by taking her to places where there are lots of interesting new smells. It helps, but not much. Shelby is a vibrant young dog: she's clever and curious and athletic. She wants to live, and she doesn't understand that all these restrictions are meant to help her do just that.

But even within the confines of her temporarily boring and limited life under treatment, sometimes her heart rate goes up. Then she coughs. And I get scared, and she gets scared.

I don't think she's picking it up from me. I think Shelby knows, in some wordless doggy fashion, that something is very seriously wrong in her body. And she comes to me, and buries her head in my lap and curls her chest around my legs, expecting that I will somehow make it okay.

And I stroke her neck and scratch her where she likes it, under her ears on the corners of her chin, and tell her that she's a good dog and I know she's scared but it's all right, it really is, everything will be okay. She wags her tail, listening. Eventually she relaxes. The coughing stops.

And I think: the vet told me there was a 95% chance Shelby would pull through treatment. She has a 95% chance of living a full, healthy, normal life once this month of confinement is over.

Those are good odds. They're very good odds.

But sometimes I think, while telling this dog she doesn't need to be afraid, that everything will be fine and the choking feeling in her chest will soon melt away: there's a 5% chance that I'm lying.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Shelby Arrives

A few minutes before midnight last night, we drove to the Crowne Plaza in Delaware (same place as the infamous Car Blur on Fire trip) and picked up foster dog #15, an 18-month-old Catahoula/Aussie mix named Shelby.

Shelby hails from Sampson County, North Carolina, where she was picked up by animal control while scavenging along the side of the road. She might have been looking for roadkill to feed herself or her puppies; when she was caught, it was obvious that she was still nursing, and the next day two of her puppies were found in the same location.

One of those puppies was adopted locally, but the other died in the shelter. The whole family arrived in rough shape: Shelby had a nasty case of coccidia and a heavy load of parasites, including heartworms. Additionally, she was (and remains) severely underweight. Her healthy weight is probably around 40 pounds, but she was barely 30 pounds on arrival at the shelter. Her puppies were badly undernourished too, and while the cause of death for the pup who didn't make it was never officially determined, I wouldn't be surprised if he died of hookworm infestation.

Shelby was lucky to land in a place where she could finally get enough to eat, but for a while it looked like her luck was going to stop there. Despite her unusual markings and uncommon breed mix, and an outgoing personality that made her one of the shelter director's favorites, nobody showed any interest in adopting Shelby. She sat in a kennel for almost a month. On her last day, I pulled her.

When she arrived at the vet, we learned that Shelby was heartworm positive.

Heartworms, a parasite common to the South, infest the dog's heart and surrounding arteries. Not only are they deadly in themselves, but the treatment process requires the dog to be kept calm and on crate rest for about a month afterward. If the dog gets too excited or physically active, raising its heart rate, the dead heartworms can become dislodged too quickly and kill the dog. Because of this risk, many rescues prefer to keep the dog in boarding or foster care until the treatment is complete -- but that entails a commitment of several weeks, and involves a certain amount of oversight to ensure the dog doesn't raise its heart rate or develop bad habits owing to excessive crate confinement.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, heartworm treatment ain't cheap. Shelby's treatment, even with a rescue discount, came to about $350. That's about the minimum that HW treatment ever costs, and it's a lot of money for perpetually cash-strapped rescues. Fortunately, some generous donors stepped forward to cover Shelby's heartworm costs, so I only had to pay the usual vetting and boarding fees.

After receiving HW injections, deworming, coccidia treatments, and another round of vaccinations, Shelby got a health certificate and, after a week's delay owing to some paperwork mistakes, caught a bus up to Philadelphia.

So that's where we are today. The plan is for me to foster and train Shelby until at least October 21, after which she will have completed her HW treatment and should be fully healthy and ready to go on to a forever home.

She's only been here a little over 12 hours and it's woefully premature to make any concrete statements about her personality or habits, but so far Shelby has been a near-ideal houseguest. She slept through the night quietly, doesn't make a peep inside her crate (even though she's having to spend almost all her time in there), and doesn't seem too fussed about the transition from rural North Carolina to a big city in the Northeast. She appears to be a confident, curious, quick-learning dog. I wouldn't be surprised if she turns out to be fairly energetic and playful when she feels better, although right now she's more subdued.

Her interactions with Dog Mob have been very limited thus far, but they've all been quite appropriate. Shelby is not too playful just yet, although it's hard to say whether that's because she's new here, because she isn't feeling completely healthy at the moment, or because she genuinely is not that into goofing around with Crookytail. She does seem interested in the other dogs, but not exuberantly so.

And that's that for now. We'll see what the next days bring.

Friday, October 5, 2012

April Goes Home

This is another belated post, since April went home almost exactly two weeks ago, but better late than never?

We had about three weeks with April. A little more than half that time was just spent helping her get comfortable and fixing issues that were created, or at least passively allowed to worsen, by her previous placement. April had never spent any time apart from her daughter Scarlett, so when they were finally separated, she went into a serious depression. It would have been better for both dogs if they'd been separated for short periods of time so that each could get used to being without the other -- but they weren't, and so the separation ended up being a lot more traumatic than it needed to be.

She also was not housebroken, crate trained, or accustomed to walking on leash (contrary to the representations that her previous placement had made on Petfinder, but that's a rant for another day. Suffice to say that I feel very strongly that making inaccurate representations about a dog's training is a disservice to both the dog and her eventual adopters. Most people are willing to do the work, if they're prepared for it -- and the ones who aren't need to know that the dog they're considering might be above their pay grade work-wise).

The potty training was the worst of these; April was the most difficult housebreaking case I've dealt with so far. She could (and did!) spend hours outside, refusing to let out a drop, but as soon as she went back into the house, she'd pee everywhere. No matter what I tried, she would not pee outside, only indoors, giving me no opportunity to praise her for making a correct choice. I was seriously at my wits' end... until Crookytail worked his magic and coaxed her to follow his good example. I took them out together, and when Crookytail peed, April did too. When he pooped, she did too. It turned out that all she needed was a role model to show her the right answer.

Once Crooky got April to finally potty outside, I could reinforce her for doing the right thing, and after a couple of days of Prizes for Potties, things got a lot easier. And by the end of the second week, we were just about done with Potty Hell. It was smooth sailing from there on out. Thanks, Crookydog!

Despite her initial adjustment issues, April was, and is, a good dog: sweet, gentle, people-oriented and dog-social. She doesn't bark much, she's not destructive, and her exercise needs are quite moderate, particularly for a lab/border collie mix. She has everything it takes to be an ideal family pet. And so it's not surprising that she was spoken for within two hours of coming to our house, although she didn't actually go home until a few weeks later.

April's forever family lives in Wisconsin, so it took a little while to set up the relay of friends and family who drove her halfway across the country. In the meantime, April quickly picked up the rest of the basic skills that would get her off to a good start in her new home. By the time she left, she had a decent Sit, an okayish Down, was very polite on leash, and had begun learning a baby recall and a baby Stay. We didn't get quite as far as I would have liked on those things, but it was enough of a foundation to build on.

And then she went home.

We dropped her off in Fannettsburg, a little speck of a town midway between Philly and Pittsburgh. Our friend Andrew kindly took over from there and drove April the rest of the way to Pittsburgh, where she was passed off to the next person in line.

Some 16 hours later, April made it all the way home. She settled in nicely, did not eat her new family's cats, and is now living happily with a new toy giraffe and the raggedy remains of the green squeaky snake she stole from Crookytail.

And that is the end of our story with April. The next dog arrives late tonight.