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.