Monday, May 26, 2014

Queenie the Foster Dog, NTD

Today Queenie finished the requirements to qualify for her Novice Trick Dog title: she learned 15 beginner tricks (well, 14 beginner tricks and one slightly more difficult one, since according to the Trick Dog scale, the file-your-nails scratch board trick counts as "Advanced") to a reasonable degree of proficiency. She did this in just under four weeks, start to finish, with absolutely no prior training as far as I could discern.

Here's the video I made to showcase her achievement:

I've been so busy that I haven't had time to blog about her much, but the more I see of her, the more convinced I become that Queenie is a really special little dog. Just about every one of those tricks took her five minutes or less to learn; rarely did she need more than a couple of repetitions to grasp an idea.

Queenie is the first foster dog that I've had long enough to train up to a title (and, honestly, one of the few where I genuinely wanted to put the time in, because not all foster dogs are that much fun to train). Granted, the NTD is a very easy title in the grand scheme of things: it's a beginner title in a sport that you can do at home with super flexible requirements. But the process of getting it tells you some things about your dog.

For example, the seemingly trivial "dunking for hot dogs" trick told me that Queenie has no problem dunking her face into a bucket of water to grab some weenie slices, as opposed to Pongu, for whom hot dogs were nowhere near worth the trouble, or poor Crookytail, whose completely unsuccessful strategy for getting the weenie bits was to try drinking the bucket dry. And she had no problem jumping up on a windy bench outside to do it. That's a focused, clever, highly motivated, and environmentally steady dog.

Training the Tug/Out sequence told me that she's a dog who enjoys playing tug and for whom that is a useful motivator and relationship builder, but who also has enough impulse control (today, not three weeks ago) to release the tug instantly on cue. That's another really valuable combination of traits.

She's just a fun, happy, willing little dog. I really don't have anything bad to say about her at this point. She doesn't steal my socks anymore (she knows which toys are dog-approved), she doesn't bite my kneecaps, she jumps only on cue (which we do a lot, because she likes it), her garbage-snarfling is getting much better, and all in all she's more than ready to go on to a real home.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dog Mob Goes to (Physical) Therapy

Not that they couldn't use the other kind of therapy too, given how much craziness I put my poor guys through, but yesterday's appointment was for a physical therapist.

Last week, I had both Pongu and Crookytail X-rayed for OFA evaluation. I also had Pongu examined by an orthopedic vet.

My thinking was: I don't know if my fearful dog can do competitive obedience. Ever. If he can, it's going to be a long, long haul, because he is crazy in the brainy parts and so we are looking at years of work to get into that ring. And if his body is going to break down before we get through those years of work, then I want to know that now, because I am not going to start down that road if we can't reach its end.

As for Crooky, I wanted to know how his hips were just for my own peace of mind. Several of our friends' dogs had recently been diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. One of those dogs was a former foster of ours, and I'd had no idea that she was dysplastic even though she lived here for weeks. None! And Crooky had recently been showing greater reluctance to walk up the stairs and wasn't lifting his leg as high when he peed, so I was worried that perhaps he might be dysplastic too.

So off they trundled to VSEC, where the ortho pointed out that Pongu had a wobbly left hock (a common GSD trait) and some slight gait irregularities, and both of the mutt monsters were sedated for X-rays.

$750 later, we had some spiffy pictures, some paperwork sent off to OFA, an unofficially official diagnosis that neither dog was dysplastic, and the unwelcome news that Crookytail had minor lumbar spondylosis.

Pongu's hips (I don't know what those white ticks are, although I wish I'd thought to ask):

Crookytail's hips (he's such a fatty):

Although their hips are both fine -- so Pongu's competition career is full sputtering steam ahead -- Crooky's spine is not. Spondylosis is a very common condition in older dogs, and it is frequently asymptomatic and causes the dog no pain... but Crooky is only three, and while I don't know for sure whether his spondylosis is the reason for some of the stiffness and reluctance I've been seeing lately, I figured it could not hurt and most definitely might help to embark on a PT regimen designed to build up his muscles and stave off the effects of any further degeneration.

So I immediately booked an appointment for both mutts at the Whole Animal Gym, which happens to be very conveniently located a 20-minute walk from our condo. For Pongu, I wanted to get started on strength-building and conditioning exercises that might help ensure the length of career that I need for him to be able to take a shot at obedience; for Crooky, I just wanted to get on the prevention train early.

Upon arriving at WAG, we were met by a vet and a vet tech, both specialists in physical therapy, rehabilitation, and post-operative care. They have a number of agility and flyball dogs who are regular clients -- mostly older dogs in the 8-to-10-year range who are working to compete safely and without injury into their twilight years -- so while Pongu and I are the only Rally/obedience team in the practice, I felt confident that they were able to handle canine athletes with much more strenuous demands than ours. There's really nothing in obedience that even begins to compare to the physical challenges posed by agility or flyball.

First, we talked about my dogs' histories and my goals in putting together PT plans for both of them. Once that was set, the vet did a thorough physical examination of both dogs -- or tried to, anyway. Crooky was a good patient and let her flex his legs and go over his body with all the prodding and pushing that was necessary.

Pongu was... Pongu. He was perfectly willing to do the gaiting part of the examination, because that just meant trotting alongside me in a heeling exercise (which, as a side note, he actually did quite well on -- had we been heeling for real, we'd have gotten a pretty nice score there), but he was not okay with letting the vet give him an exploratory massage. She tried twice, and both times he squirmed away and bolted.

Still, it was enough to learn some things: both dogs are overweight (Pongu by a fairly modest 3 to 5 pounds, Crooky by a more serious 10 pounds), Pongu still has a little laxity in his left front pastern (the vet thought he could probably do agility but might want to wear an ankle brace if he ever started doing it seriously), Crooky is definitely showing some stiffness but does not appear to be in any pain from the spondylosis, so for now we are just going to do physical therapy exercises and not use any painkillers. In terms of dietary adjustments, for now we're just going to be incorporating more natural sources of glucosamine (such as chicken feet and beef tracheas) and not using formal supplements.

We also got a list of exercises to start doing at home. For the most part, they're the same ones everyone does: sit pretty, para-standing, cavaletti, etc. The one that was new to me was a pushed side pass, which is very similar to the side pass in freestyle, except that the handler actually holds onto the dog and pushes him along physically to ensure that the body maintains a straight line. Initially I was a little hesitant about that one because my ordinary inclination is to train hands-free instead of physically moving my dog around, but then I remembered that this isn't really trick training, it's physical therapy, and the priorities are different here.

Besides, trying to clicker shape Crooky into doing a perfect side pass without pushing him around would probably take the whole rest of his life. So yeah, I think I can make myself do a little more hands-on guidance in this specific instance.

Lastly, both dogs got to take a spin on the underwater treadmill.

They actually did really well with this. Both of them were much less frightened by the noise, movement, and water depth than I had feared they might be, and both took to the exercise almost immediately. The biggest problem we had was when I momentarily left the treadmill so I could grab my camera and take some pictures while Pongu was in there, and (of course) Pongu freaked out hardcore and tried to leap out of the pool to follow me. He almost made it, too.

But as soon as I got back, he was willing to do the treadmill again.

Crooky, too, did a good job on his initial run.

We started out with the treadmill going at a very gentle introductory pace of 1 mph, but toward the end of Crooky's run, the vet moved it up to 2 mph, which I could see was a good physical challenge for him at that water depth. He could do it, and it didn't seem to be too much for him, but he was clearly putting some effort in to stay on the treadmill at that pace.

I liked the treadmill so much that I immediately booked up both dogs for 5 weeks' worth of sessions. I think that it's not only great physical exercise for both of them, but a good mental challenge that will expose them to a moderately stressful experience that they can respond to by running (which definitely helps Pongu cope with stress and will probably help Crooky).

So that's our plan for now. PT exercises at home, dietary adjustments for both mutt monsters, and a standing date with the underwater treadmill for half the summer.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Two Rally Sundays (WCRL 5/11 and AKC 5/18)

After last Saturday's trial of disaster, I almost scratched from the World Cynosport trial that we had entered on May 11. It was a single set of runs, the drive was almost two hours each way, and since Pongu got his MX, I've felt little to no urgency about competing in WCRL.

Besides, after Saturday's trial, all I really wanted to do was stay home and feel sorry for myself and reflect on how my fearful pound dog was never going to do obedience and wasn't even all that good at Rally and what was even the point of trying when we were so clearly never ever going to get anywhere. I wanted to curl up in a pity cocoon and even drop out of our online classes because we were just taking up a slot that should probably go to a team with some prayer of not embarrassing our school someday.

But I also wanted something to take away the bitter taste of failure, and a low-stakes WCRL trial was a pretty perfect option on that front. Also, this was the one and only Rally trial that this particular club was ever going to offer -- due to a change in their lease, the club was losing their space and being forced to disband at the end of May -- so it was a golden opportunity to expose Pongu to another novel environment, this time with more support (treats and praise!), a longer exposure time, and no worries about me mucking up unfamiliar exercises.

So I packed our show bag and set my alarm and trundled out to New Jersey on a bright and sunny Mother's Day morning.

Our first run was... not good. Not awful, either, but I had Squeaky Stress Dog on the start line and he was very distracted and we had a fair number of bobbles. We were probably working on a score somewhere around the 203 to 205 mark when I got us NQ'ed by missing an entire section of the course (three signs! my personal best! truly, it was brilliant).

Oops. Anyway, the other two runs were better, as Pongu started settling in and became a little more comfortable with the environment. We pulled a 207 in Level 2 (repeat cue), finishing just out of the ribbons on time, and a 209 in Level 3 (heeling fault) for first place in that class.

More importantly, by the end of the day, we felt like a team again. I had my happy partner dog back. We were not flawless, but we were certainly better, and I felt good and happy about that.

Fast-forward a week!

Yesterday we had another AKC Rally trial, this time at the Leesport 4-H Center with the Berks County Dog Training Club. We had entered a trial on Saturday, too, but that one was outdoors so after much waffling I scratched our entry, since I had no reason to think it would be any better than our previous outdoor trial and I just wasn't up for a repeat performance of Disconnected Dog Is Disconnected.

So this trial was pretty low-stakes, overall. We had no chance of finishing our title -- at best we'd get our second leg -- and since we were the only team entered in Excellent A, we were guaranteed a spiffy blue first-place rosette as long as we qualified, regardless of score.

It was a good thing, too, because getting there was a major pile of stress. The trial was scheduled to begin at 2:30, with the walkthrough at 2:15. We left Philly at noon for what should have been an hour-and-fifteen-minute drive. On a Sunday afternoon, heading west instead of east (now that Shore traffic is beginning to pick up and making eastbound 76 a disaster on weekends), I figured that would give us plenty of time to arrive early, get Pongu acclimated to the trial site, and put in a nice run.

Only... not so much. Traffic was a disaster, the car was almost out of gas (and since the first westbound service plaza on 76 has been closed for eternity, there was nowhere to buy gas on route), we ended up making a frantic detour to a WaWa somewhere in Reading that then caused the GPS to pick an alternate back-roads route to the trial grounds, and all in all it was a spectacular ride of wonderment that resulted in us arriving midway through the walkthrough.

Upshot was that while Pongu did not exactly have to do a cold run in a new venue, it wasn't too far from that, either, and our performance was accordingly pretty wobbly (although a million times better than it would have been a year or 18 months ago, so that's nice).

Also the course setup was pretty tight and unforgiving for bigger dogs. There was maybe 12 feet after a jump to go into a 270 left turn, which is not enough space for Pongu (who is a clumsy jumper) to land, come back into Heel position, and be in a good place to do a turn. Another jump on the course had the dogs landing about 15 feet from the ring entrance and directly facing it, which was not a problem for Pongu (because the one good thing about my fearful dog is that he will not run away from me in a stressful environment, ever, no matter what), but caused about half the dogs I watched in the Excellent B class to either NQ or lose major points because they saw that ring entrance right in front of them and just kept on running to the exit until the steward blocked them in.

So in that respect it was kind of a rough course for us, especially since we're not used to the smaller AKC ring dimensions. We also lost a bunch of points on Pongu's Moving Stand-Walkaround, because he took a couple of steps forward, ended up crooked, and I gave him a second cue to stop (possibly unnecessary, but it costs nothing for a repeat command in AKC, so whatever). I think that was just a stress issue, as we do not normally have trouble with that exercise; anyway, it cost us probably a good 3 points or so on that run.

We finished with a very fair final score of 94. It wasn't a great performance by any measure. But it was good enough for first place, because we had zero competition. WOO.

This was supposed to be an outtake but I kept it because Pongu's expression makes me laugh (and all that gray on his chin makes me sad). There were a bunch of flies coming up from a little bitty creek behind those rocks, and they kept buzzing around his head. He held his Stays but couldn't help staring at the flies.

It's probably going to be a few months before we finish Pongu's RE, since there are no good opportunities for us to trial in AKC for a while. The one trial I was considering in June is almost certainly full by now (I emailed the trial secretary to ask, but no reply yet) and we're going to be away on vacation during the July trials, so that means our next opportunity to knock off this title will be in mid-August.

Which is fine with me, really. Maybe by then we'll be in a better position to actually earn a ribbon in an AKC ring.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Queenie - Week Two

We are now through our second week with Queenie, and it is time for updates!

Last Monday we took her to the vet to get her spay stitches removed and have some skin irritation along her tummy and thighs checked out. I am happy to report that she was very well-behaved at the vet and let them do whatever they wanted to her without protest -- pulling out those sutures, giving her an injection, inserting a rectal thermometer, whatever. Queenie is exceedingly tolerant of body handling and stayed fairly relaxed the whole time.

In fact, she was so relaxed that we started working on her Down in the waiting room. Most dogs find it very difficult to do behaviors they already know in a stressful environment like the vet's office, but Queenie was so untroubled that she was actually capable of putting her full concentration toward learning a new one.

To me, that is extremely impressive and indicative of a pretty special dog -- a highly motivated, biddable, and environmentally sound dog who might have some real promise as a sport prospect.

Queenie is also a very quick learner. Here's where she was almost a week ago:

At this point she didn't have a ton of experience with any of those cues -- this is her third or fourth session with Down and second with hand targeting -- but her responses are fast and confident, and there's not a lot of confusion in her ability to respond correctly to each cue.

She also has remarkable focus, particularly considering how little work she's had to develop it. In this clip from her second visit to a dog park, she keeps trying to solicit attention/engagement from me. Rather than playing with the other dogs, she is asking to be given the opportunity to work.

That wasn't a one-off; she has done that consistently every time I've taken her to the park. While sociable and playful enough to enjoy romping with the other dogs, it appears that so far at least, Queenie would much prefer to engage with a person.

At that same visit (which was, again, her second visit to the dog park), I asked Queenie to jump on a bench just to see what she would do. Here's the result of that experiment:

One of the reasons I think Queenie could make a pretty neat little sport dog is because of the attitude exhibited on this clip. With almost no practice, she is already willing to follow my empty hand target (no food lure), jumps onto the plastic bench without hesitation, trots across it at a pretty good clip, and gets back on for a second go after slipping on her first try. A lot of dogs will slow down or be more hesitant about getting up on an obstacle after a slip like that, but not Queenie. Also, throughout this experiment, she ignores the other dogs who are crowding around the bench.

I didn't prompt the Sits at the beginning and end of this clip. Queenie just offered those because she's been learning that Sit is the correct default answer to all situations where she doesn't know what else to do. Her eagerness to offer that behavior tells me that she is a clever and biddable little dog; I take that as a good sign, too.

Finally, we have most recently started working on Queenie learning to file her nails.

That's only her second session with that particular exercise (her total time working on it is well under 10 minutes), so we're still in the shaping process, but she's catching on quickly and I don't think it will take long for this trick to come together.

She really is a fun little dog to work. I'm starting to think she could be a pretty good sport prospect, given all the qualities she has begun exhibiting in her training sessions. She'd be a great family pet too, of course, but if somebody wanted a starting competition dog to play around in various sport venues, I suspect Queenie would be a pretty ideal candidate for that.

Really, though, the main thing she needs is a good home.

Team Unruly - Champion of Terror

Although I think anyone reading this blog regularly is already familiar with Pongu's story, it went up on Team Unruly recently, and so I shall cross-post a link here for posterity.

Champion of Terror: The Tale of Pongu the Insane

Later today: more Queenie updates.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

5/10/14: AKC Rally Excellent A at Ludwig's Corner

Subtitled: Pongu's Terrible Horrible No-Good Very Bad Run of Sadness

This morning saw us up bright and early at the crack of dawn (after three hours' sleep because I am an idiot and also Queenie kept banging around in her crate super loudly all night) to head out to Chester County for an AKC Rally trial at the Ludwig's Corner fairgrounds.

The venue was really nice. I can see why people like it. The parking staff and event organizers were very professional, the fields were gorgeous green grass dappled with buttercups and dandelions, the obedience and Rally rings were set off from the conformation area so that the performance dogs didn't have to be disturbed by all that primping and preening going on elsewhere.

Unfortunately all the nice things about the day were overshadowed by how badly Pongu crashed and burned in the ring.

This is, of course, my fault. I did not adequately prepare him for outdoor trialing. (I also did not adequately prepare him for some of the AKC Excellent exercises, but none of those ones were on today's course so that ended up not mattering.)

So we got there and Pongu wanted to run around the fields and roll in the horse poop and eat the grass and otherwise act like he always acts when he has any opportunity to run wild outdoors, and he did not want to work. Still, while our warm-up period was wobbly, I got enough promising signs that I thought we might be okay in the ring.

haha no

no, not at all

We went in there and it was like I did not have a dog. Although Excellent ran first thing in the morning, and it wasn't that hot (we were in there around 9:30 a.m.), it was directly in the sun, and Pongu, being a black dog, overheated very quickly.

So he was uncomfortable and he wanted to eat the grass and the result was immense frustration and embarrassment on my end, and apparently giddy tomfoolery on his. He wasn't scared, which I guess would be a silver lining if I were inclined to look for silver linings right now, but frankly I'm still pretty annoyed with how crappy our run was and I am not the slightest bit interested in silver linings at this particular moment in time.

I will be later, I'm sure. But not right now.

We finished with a score of 83, having lost 10 points on a jump runout/retry (Pongu broke the plane of the jump running past it, which would have been an NQ in WCRL, but apparently is just 10 points off in AKC) and 7 points on crooked Sits, crappy heeling, slow/non-responses, and I don't even know what else, take your pick, if you can imagine an error we had it at some point in there. We probably should have NQ'ed; the fact that we did not is entirely attributable to the judge taking pity on a team that was indeed pitiful.

Good enough for second place, if only because there were a whole two dogs in the class. Yay.

Filed under "Good Stuff, I Guess":

-- Pongu had no trouble heeling up to the stewards' table and keeping his eyes on me; this has been an issue for us in the past
-- I got more attention heeling than I expected under the circumstances
-- at least he actually took all his jumps (albeit with a runout the first time, possibly because it was a high jump, possibly because my handling sucked, possibly because he was distracted from woohoo!, we're outside!!) and held his (brief, short-distance) Stays
-- he did not appear to be worried or anxious during this run, although we would probably have done better if he were, because then he'd have been paying attention to me instead of trying to eat grass.

It still sucked a whole bunch and I am not happy and why did I ever think I could do obedience with this dog. Or at all. Ever.

I watched some of the Utility runs (both A and B) and my dog is never going to do that. Never. Not ever. Who am I even trying to kid here.


So anyway today was terrible and it sucked and I'm going to take a nap now.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

That Magic Moment: Foster Dogs and Love at First Sight

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Many (maybe even most?) dog lovers do believe in serendipity and the magic of instant connections. I have heard countless stories of a stray dog turning up on a country porch the day after a beloved old pet was laid to rest, of eyes meeting through kennel bars in an overcrowded shelter, of seeing a picture posted on the Internet and knowing, as everyone knows in these stories, that this is the one.

And I have seen it happen in real life, with my own foster dogs, time and again.

Gremlin actively sabotaged my attempts to get her adopted -- even going so far as to growl and snap at several prospective adopters -- until she met the person who had driven 20 hours from Minneapolis to meet her (and had me holding my breath in semi-silent prayer that she would please, please not tank this one), at which point she was immediately charmed and had no further use for me.

Others -- Mab, Foozie/Lolly, Sydney -- clicked in the same way with their adopters and trotted off just as happily at the moment of first meeting. Penny (who became Skunky) ran across a dog park and jumped into her eventual adopter's lap. They knew.

So I do believe that those instant, electric connections happen, and sometimes dogs truly do choose their owners. But I also believe that they don't always happen, that they can be intentionally manufactured, and that they can be artificially prevented, too. As a foster, you can try to use this cultural phenomenon to your advantage. As an adopter, it can help to be aware of the pitfalls that lie in spending too much time looking for sparks, rather than looking at the dog.

The practice of manufacturing these magic moments is pretty straightforward. Many adopters are primed to accept the existence of a deep-yet-instantaneous connection with very little prompting. Like lovelorn hopefuls walking into a palm-reader's parlor, they are looking for magic to happen.

Knowing this, savvy rescuers and shelter workers will, if they have the time and opportunity, try to photograph dogs making eye contact with the camera in an inviting fashion. Some shelter workers also train dogs to sit at the doors of their kennels and make eye contact with any approaching human -- a deliberately indiscriminate practice (because it has to be intentionally trained as a response to any approaching person, especially strangers and infrequent visitors, rather than the more-natural response to focus on familiar faces) that is intended to evoke a response from adopters by mimicking an individual bond.

And it works. It works very, very well, so much so that this is a standard recommended practice for those shelters and rescues fortunate enough to have the personnel and resources to do it. Adoption rates increase significantly when the dogs make calm, inviting eye contact with strangers, because the natural human response is to interpret this behavior as a sign of that magical bond... even when it's intentionally and artificially trained.

My point in noting this practice is not to criticize it (to the contrary, I think it's a brilliant idea and helps set the dogs up for post-adoptive success by reinforcing Sit-and-wait as a strong default behavior), but to encourage other rescue volunteers to do it, and also underscore that sometimes the "magical moment" is entirely one-sided, even imaginary.

It can be totally faked. And that doesn't matter. The dogs who are adopted through this minor subterfuge don't get returned. Their people love them just as deeply, and the dogs reciprocate that love just as intensely. Whether or not a bond existed in that first moment of meeting, it develops shortly afterward.

Love at first sight can be prevented, too. It may even be outright impossible for a given dog in a given circumstance.

I didn't have a magic moment with Pongu. Initially, I wasn't even sure I wanted him; I surely did not know much about dogs back then, but I still had some inkling the puppy might have problems. I went back and forth for days before I finally decided to adopt my little guy. At no point, until he actually came home, was I certain that we'd have any connection.

Today, of course, there is no question that we have an extraordinary connection, and I can't imagine life without him. Our first meetings were not predictive of whether we'd develop that depth of relationship. Everything that followed later was.

What I know now is that it would never have been possible for Pongu to give me the calm, sustained eye contact that is often interpreted as "love at first sight." He is a fearful dog, and he was much worse as a puppy. He was terrified in the noisy, unfamiliar shelter; the environment was far too overwhelming for him to accept a stranger calmly.

This, too, has implications for the placement of foster dogs.

Every time I have had a foster dog click instantaneously with adopters, the initial meeting was in a relatively quiet place where the foster dog felt comfortable. For this reason, I typically use nearby parks to introduce dogs to prospective families; the dogs are familiar with the area, there are as few distractions as possible in a city setting, the open space allows them to choose their proximity (to some extent), and it's much easier for them to focus on the new people in a welcoming, relaxed way.

When I have foster dogs bomb out on that initial meeting, by contrast, it's usually because they are encountering strangers when they are already near or over threshold: most commonly, it's a chance encounter on a crowded street or at a noisy, chaotic, crowded adoption event. These are difficult environments for dogs and not conducive to creating good first impressions (which is one of the main reasons that I so seldom bring my foster dogs to adoption fairs).

But, of course, people who stop and ask about a dog wearing an "Adopt Me" vest on the street are very likely the exact ones hoping for some sign of serendipity -- some indication that this is a cosmic "meet cute" worthy of a canine rom-com. And they are the least likely to get it, unless they have the luck (or foresight) to stop the dog in a quiet park while she's still under threshold.

I don't have an easy solution for this. Of course I always try to explain to the adopter what is happening and why the dog doesn't seem immediately smitten with them, but that doesn't change the fact that the dog isn't smitten, and that the prospective adopter is likely to conclude that therefore the dog isn't the right match. In this scenario, the weight of cultural expectation is likely to torpedo the match no matter how good it might actually have been. That's unfortunate, but easy to understand and difficult to change.

As a foster, I think pretty much all you can do is offer those explanations, hand out a card with contact information and a blog link (where the adopter might be able to get a more accurate picture of the dog's personality), and hope that cosmic coincidence leads people to stop you in environments where the dog can show well.

The other major downside of the "love at first sight" expectation, and the last thought I want to touch on, is when people fall in love with the wrong dog.

Probably everyone who has placed a litter of puppies has had some version of the experience where a doting, dewy-eyed, slightly fluttery person has been immediately smitten by the puppy who trotted out to greet them ahead of the pack because "that's the one! he picked me!"

...when, of course, that puppy is the devil in a small fuzzy jacket, struts out with the same brazen confidence to greet all interlopers into his domain, and would undoubtedly eat this person alive within 48 hours of going home.

I think (hope?) this sort of thing is less common than it used to be, as public awareness spreads that some dogs are really just not appropriate for some homes, and probably to some extent as puppies become less common in rescue (in my experience, this is much less of an issue with adult dogs). It still does happen on occasion, however, that somebody falls in love with a completely unsuitable dog and then is extremely reluctant to be talked out of it. From the adopter's point of view, this sucks, but from the fostering side it is actually one of the easiest problems to handle. In the words of Nancy Reagan, just say no.

First impressions matter. It's as true in the world of dog adoption as any other realm of human experience. For foster homes, I think the important thing is to recognize that it's possible to encourage behaviors in the dogs that will facilitate a good first impression. Conversely, be aware when the dog is unlikely to be able to succeed in a particular environment, or when and why an adopter might be acting on an inaccurate impression, and try to avoid setting that dog up to fail.

Above all, though, I think it is useful to be aware of the power of this cultural idea, and how it can be harnessed to help our dogs find homes. Sometimes the magic happens spontaneously, but sometimes it needs a little help.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Weekend With Queenie

Queenie had a bunch of urban adventures this weekend. On Saturday she got to visit a pet supply store and see a large street fair (mostly from a distance, as the teeming crowds and noisy rock bands were over her comfort level to approach closely); on Sunday we ventured out to the opening day of the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market to see the first vendors of spring.

It went... mostly well.

Queenie snarfed a pretty big chunk of dirt-gritted fried chicken from the street fair before I could stop her (this dog has reflexes like greased lightning when it comes to spotting and gulping illicit "treats"), but luckily it doesn't seem to have given her any indigestion. That makes me happy. If she's going to eat like a furry little vulture, it's a good thing she's got the cast-iron stomach of one too.

The rest of the experience, however, was a little overwhelming for her. Sometimes I forget that she has only been in the big bad city for a week, and before that she lived in an extremely rural and quiet part of the country with very, very different surroundings. Here, everything is louder and closer and more crowded, there's more concrete than grass underfoot, and even the food and water is different.

It's a huge change and culture shock for a foster dog, and while it's easy for me to remember that with a less confident dog like Shakespeare, who announces with every pancaked step on the sidewalk that he's over threshold, Queenie has been so happy and bouncy and resilient that I find it easy to forget just how drastic the change has been for her, too.

So... on Saturday I saw some reminders of that. She did not like the noise of the street fair. She did not care for the crowds. We met a few people who were tentatively interested in inquiring about her, but she ducked away from their introductory efforts and mostly hid behind me instead. (This prompts another line of thought that I'll explore in a blog post later this week, if I have time -- namely, whether or not those "instant connections" at the moment of meeting are really predictive of a dog's future life with a person.)

Sunday was a less drastic version of the same.

We went to the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market toward the tail end of the afternoon, when the crowds had thinned out and some of the vendors were beginning to pack up for the day. I figured it would be slightly less crowded and thus a better environment for Queenie's first visit.

She handled herself well. She navigated the crowds without panicking, stayed as responsive and connected to me as I could reasonably expect given our short time together, and explored the tables without inappropriately trying to mug any of the vendors or counter-surf their tables for food (I was watching carefully for any signs of this, since Queenie can be such a vacuum-on-legs and this farmers' market has a lot of vendors selling tempting meats, fresh fish, charcuterie, sausages, and poultry). No reaction to the dogs she encountered in the market, either, other than some moderately curious sniffing.

On the way home, we finally hit Queenie's threshold and she started pulling to get back inside, but I was impressed that she kept a level head through everything prior. Again, she did tend to shy away from people who tried to pet her (and it seems that she may be particularly sensitive to strangers passing their hands directly over her head, which is not at all uncommon), so there is some uncertainty toward strangers there, but under the circumstances I don't view this as surprising or terribly worrisome. Overall I think she's got a good level of environmental soundness. Maybe not completely bombproof and fearless (which can sometimes signal a dog that's more than the average pet owner can handle anyway), but well within what I would hope to see for a stable, well-adjusted family pet.

One thing Queenie does not like is being left alone on the street. On Saturday, and again on Sunday, I tied her to poles on the street while I popped inside a couple of different bakeries for a few minutes. Both times, I could hear her whining and barking outside. It wasn't full-on panic, but she was clearly stressed about being stuck outside by herself.

This wasn't altogether surprising to me, since she didn't much like being left alone in her crate either the first couple of times I did that, but she got over that with repeated exposures and is now fine with being alone in her crate while I take the other dogs out. My guess is that she will eventually come to understand that being tied to a pole while I run errands does not mean that she's going to stay tied to that pole forever, and she'll calm down when she realizes that it is not, in fact, the end of the world.

But as of right now it is not a thing she enjoys.

Potty training is going well (still zero accidents in the house!), leash walking is probably about 80% there (very little pulling except toward food or when Queenie gets overwhelmed; default Sit at halts is almost perfect; I still get a fair amount of leash wrapping, but I have never cared enough about that to spend much time fixing it), Sit on a verbal cue or almost no cue at all is just about 100% consistent.

Time to start working on some new things.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Queenie at Work and Play

Quick video update.

Here's Queenie with Dog Mob shortly after arrival. At this point she was fairly tentative around them and was just beginning to engage with Crookytail. Pongu was, of course, Pongu... and, as he usually does, provided a good illustration of how Queenie backs down from confrontation with a pushy jerkface dog. Even at this early stage, it was clear that she was socially adept, perfectly willing to share toys, and not aggressive even when mildly provoked.

She quickly became more comfortable with Dog Mob and was willing to play more actively with Crookytail. This video is from a day later.

Work-wise, she's rapidly learning Sit. As of this morning we pretty much have it on a pure verbal cue, but her ability to discriminate cues is nil -- as far as Queenie is concerned, the correct answer to any prompt is always "Sit," because that's the only formal response she knows right now.

This is a totally normal learning stage and I'm not the least bit concerned about it, particularly since it's really never wrong for a pet dog to have a strong default Sit behavior. I may or may not get around to teaching any of the other standards, depending on how much time we have together. Mostly I'm just happy she's got the basic cue down so quickly (and that she has such a nice, snappy Sit!); our next step will be reinforcing and generalizing her response.

She also has a pretty good backwards leap, as evidenced at the end there.