Off Leash

While we were on our trip, we had a rare opportunity with Silas. My in-laws own a relatively large chunk of property. It isn’t entirely fenced, but a dog would have to have serious determination to escape to get through the tangle of honeysuckle vines and blackberry briars on the boundary lines. So we let Silas off leash there.

He was so good. Beyond their back yard is a ten acre or so field, formerly farmed but now mostly grown up in seven foot high grasses. My father-in-law keeps a ten or twelve foot wide path mowed around the outside, and there is a large, irregularly shaped clearing in the center where he’s growing some rare/native plants. The native plants are also pretty tall these days.

For the first part of the day, we walked with Silas around the outside of the field. He wanted to be first, and fairly far away–maybe 50 feet or so. He never got farther than that, and he would come reasonably close if I called him back. If I knelt down, he would run for me like a crazy, and from time to time he would wander back to check on us. For an independent dog who has almost never been off leash, I was impressed.

Later in the afternoon we figured out Silas’s new favorite game. We led Silas into the clearing, and then we took turns hiding around/behind the stands of native plants. The non-hider would say, “Silas, where is (named person)? Can you find him/her?” And he would take off, top speed, looking all over. While he was loving that person, the other person would go hide. He was having the time of his life.

At my parents’ house we stuck with the more boring, but still more fun than he has here, game of letting him drag his long line while chasing his big orange ball.

I didn’t take a single photo, so I’ll share the video of Silas running around on our June vacation. (He is on his long-line, but you can’t see it.) I make a weird noise at the 30-second mark, because we spotted a huge groundhog off to the left of the frame. You can see my husband point toward it, and then we were kind of desperate to keep Silas from noticing it. Just FYI, this is way short of top-speed for Silas.

The only downside is that now I feel more guilty about our city-dog, no-yard lifestyle than ever. I don’t trust other dog owners enough to use the dog park, and the people-parks are all on-leash.

We’re off to see the wizard (err, vet.)

Yesterday I gave up, threw in the towel, and took Silas to the vet for his current skin outbreak. I can treat the individual spots topically, but I’m just chasing them from place to place.

(A new bandana makes up for the vet.)

When I was bathing him before his appointment, because he had been rummaging in who knows what for five days on vacation (I definitely caught him rolling in bird poop), I noticed a red mark on his neck. A round red mark, and it had a little bug in the middle. After the bath I looked it over more carefully, and realized that the little bug was the world’s tiniest tick. I immediately went into Lyme disease panic, even though it’s extremely rare here and quite rare where we were vacationing. Fortunately, I’d already made the appointment. In the meantime, I noticed several other tiny ticks that I couldn’t remove solo.

I adore Silas’s vet, and, more importantly, Silas adores her. The standard of care at the office is very high, and the people are darned nice. The vet did her entire visit kneeling in the floor, even after Silas tried to pee on her leg.

The downside of an office with a high standard of care, in a well-off neighborhood, is the assumption that money is no object. Honestly, it mostly isn’t. But, oh my goodness, his vet bills are always a surprise.

For this trip we came home with:
Ear drops (he’s scratched a horrible place in his ear, which now has the same infection his skin does)
New instructions for the antihistamine/steroid I picked up but didn’t need on vacation
A tick collar

They gave him a tick bath before he came home and cultured his ear swab. The office visit price was a third higher than usual, either because they’ve raised the rates or because we had enough issues to qualify for a higher one. They also expressed his glands, cleaned his ears, and trimmed his nails, “for free.” Uncharacteristically, they did not do a skin scraping, for which my $25 and I were very grateful, or the Lyme test.

I’ll leave you to imagine the total.

While I was there, I was a little smug that we had gone the whole summer without a visit. Then I remembered that we did, in fact, go in June about the hives. Which puts us up to: March, April, May (two trips), June, and August. The thing that is starting to seem odd is that we made it from September, when he finished his vaccines, until March (so, if you’re keeping track, next month we have to go back for vaccines). I keep thinking it will get better. March and April were both food allergy related, in May he had to be neutered and one day his face swelled up (maybe a bee sting), and June was a false alarm for the hives. It seemed like with the food allergy sorted that we finally had things under control, discounting freak events. Sigh.

How often do you and yours go to the vet? Almost every month is unusual for a young dog, right?

Silas Doesn’t Like to be Touched

(Apple Dumpling Gang reference, anyone? Sorry, I couldn’t bring myself to write the necessary “don’t.”)

We took Silas back home to see our families for five days. (And just now got back. Ignore any uncharacteristic errors here.) That visit will, I’m sure, appear here in a lot of ways over the next few days. Most interestingly, I finally put together one of the missing links in his behavior.

Silas reacts to strangers erratically, and one of my missions is to figure out what the real pattern is so that we can work on it. My family is one of my most compelling case studies. He adores my parents, and he even likes my nephew. (Okay, okay, at 14 my nephew is a head taller than me. He hardly looks or sounds like a kid anymore.) Except for my husband’s grandparents, he does not like my in-laws. While there are definitely some jokes that I could make there, my in-laws don’t really merit them.

In fact, I was a little confused. My in-laws are dog people. All of them–aunts, uncles, grandparents–have or have had dogs that they adored. My family is the opposite. My mother has never, ever admitted to liking a dog before Silas. (Even then she hasn’t admitted to it, but one day I caught her breaking off sections of her popsicle for him.)

On this trip I finally put it together. All those dog people want to love Silas. They want to pet him. They want to rub his ears and scratch his head and rub his belly. My non-dog people go about their regular lives. They ignore Silas, as much as you can ignore a dog with that much anxiety. My dad has very thin skin thanks to his medications, and he barely dares to pet my wild dog even when Silas is looking for attention. Silas adores them for it. He can ask for exactly what he wants. He’ll nudge his head under Mom’s hand for a minute, or he’ll sit next to Dad’s chair. My father-in-law desperately wants to play and roughhouse with Silas, who consequently goes into an anxious barking tizzy every time they even make eye-contact.

Silas tip #1: be cool. Don’t make the first (or second, or third) move. Above all, NO PETTING. He’ll ask when he’s ready.

Book Review: Plenty in Life is Free

Book Cover

Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace, Kathy Sdao

This isn’t the easiest book to review, because I am the choir to whom Kathy Sdao is preaching.

Plenty in Life is Free is a response to the training program commonly called “Nothing in Life is Free,” or NILIF. NILIF argues that the dog should get nothing from you–affection, attention, food, play–without it being on your terms. Dogs should ask politely for everything by performing a behavior you like, such as sitting, before you give them anything they want. Sdao argues, and I agree, that NILIF is just the positive version of dominance-based training. It trades in the active aggression of alpha-rolls for the passive-aggression of constant denial. She goes on to claim that it is both unethical and bad training to make the bare necessities of a dog’s life contingent upon a behavior plan. Every dog should get at least some affection, some food, some play, and some freedom without having to perform for it.

The problem I had with this book is that NILIF she argues against most persuasively is something of a straw man. In one of her examples, an owner tells her that “free access to water is the first step in having a dominant dog.” Many of Sdao’s arguments position themselves against that level of training. In real life, I have never heard anyone who suggested a NILIF program and really, truly, meant nothing. Instead, they’re using a handy training title to suggest things that are, in fact, reasonable lifestyle parameters. Asking your dog to sit before you put down the dinner bowl means that you don’t get knocked on your rear by an enthusiastic eater. A down before you play ball keeps the dog from jumping all over you trying to catch the ball before you throw it. And so on. These behaviors are so reasonable that Sdao herself both believes in and recommends them.

In my experience, most people who say NILIF mean something more like “I use some lifestyle opportunities to train my dog.” Not “I never pet my dog when he asks, because that’s giving in to dominance.” Maybe I just haven’t been around as many uptight dog owners as Sdao has. A more extensive refutation of the dominance-based training pattern that produces hard-line NILIF might have made more sense for me.

On the other hand, I really loved Sdao’s contention that positive training can bring with it a lot of baggage from its predecessors that trainers often don’t examine. Compulsion is compulsion, whether it comes with a cookie or a pinch, and it’s worth thinking about whether the behavior you want is worth that ethical price. (My personal take: in addition to the fact that some behaviors are worth a fairly high price, I would also suggest that some–maybe most–dogs legitimately enjoy their positive training. Silas thinks a good round of “touch your nose to my hand” is a top-5 contender for coolest game ever.)

I also enjoyed Sdao’s proposed alternative to both NILIF and traditional request-receive-reward training. Sdao outlines a brief, but workable, practical, and interesting, system based on letting the dog choose behaviors. I loved how this dovetailed with my reading of Suzanne Clothier’s book. Clothier voices (much more expansively) a similar ethical hesitance about dog training, but left me a little frustrated because she was never willing to look closely at the “brass tacks” of her training philosophy.

I was never personally tempted by NILIF-style training, for the easy reason that it never made sense for Silas’s particular problems. I’m not sure what a pushy, bossy dog looks like, exactly, but Silas is not one. Have you all had any experiences (good or bad) with NILIF? This book is fairly new–have any of you read it?

Feeding the Dog

I’m a total geek about what people feed their dogs. Curiosity abounds, you know? So consider this my long-winded and geeky contribution, not raw-food evangelism. Although I’m happy to evangelize, too, if you’d like.

Silas has food allergies. Most relevantly here, he got increasingly less interested in eating his kibble as his allergies got worse, then once I figured out the problem I couldn’t find one that met both my nutritional criteria and his allergy-diet needs. So we switched him to Primal’s Turkey and Sardine Formula frozen raw food. Allergy symptoms: gone. Picky eating: gone.

ParkStick (Nothing’s more delicious than a stick.)

The only problem was that he was starving. For the first time, he had a real appetite, and it was insatiable. For good reason, too–at the same time that his stomach was better than ever, his weight dropped two or three pounds. Hesitant to feed him even more of a food that was already costing $50 a week, I started giving him some raw turkey parts. His first turkey was wings, and  he did well enough to send me out on a quest for some turkey necks. Turkey neck=doggie bliss, apparently.

We stuck with just the supplemental raw turkey necks for a while, but after looking around and considering the cost we eventually abandoned the Primal food. These days Silas eats a pretty good variety for a dog who can only eat one thing. (It’s really time to start branching out of his allergy diet, but his skin is still too bad from the obedience class treat incident.) Necks, wings, hearts, gizzards, liver, and tails are the staple rotation, and every now and then he gets a turkey back or some ground turkey thigh. If you’re wondering where on earth I find this stuff, I must confess that I am considerably blessed in local resources, including a raw-food specialty store. I could feed him pretty easily out of our regular grocer if he could eat chicken or beef, but turkey organs are hard to find.

He has beautiful teeth, soft fur, fresh breath, and excellent digestion. The cost of this is about $60 a month and me having to–blech–chop up raw turkey parts. I quit eating meat my own self because I didn’t like handling it, and now I do it for the dog.

You Are My Sunshine

When we finished obedience class the first time, the instructor gave each dog a little stuffed toy while the handlers filled out an evaluation form.

Silas got a stuffed sunshine. Sunshine hasn’t been his favorite toy, but with it’s perfect, chewable rays it has filled a certain niche in the toy chest. Probably because he was weaned too early, Silas chews on a blanket to put himself to sleep. (Preferably *the* blanket, which, thank goodness, started off large and sturdy and should have many years left in it.) If blanket isn’t available, he’ll settle for something else, with a strong preference for my husband’s pockets.

In times like these, we bring out the sunshine toy.

But Sunshine has been looking a little sad. After eight months or so, he is nearly bald, with only one lone ray left unchewed:

Sad Sunshine

(Note that Sunshine still has a fully functional squeaker and all the stuffing. That’s how Silas rolls. Also, every one of those chewed-off bits was left neatly to the side.)

I was thrilled to spot a New Sunshine in the store, and you’d better believe I grabbed it up. Usually the first thing Silas does to a toy is to chew off the label, so we’ve had bad luck replacing things that he has loved to death.


I have to admit, seeing the pair of them makes me pretty happy.

Product Review: Paws for Water Bottle

It it hot here. Really hot. Taking even a short walk without water seems cruel, but the options for carrying it aren’t good. For a while we used a collapsible water dish from Ruffwear, but Silas wouldn’t always drink the water. I had to stop, pour water into the bowl, and offer it to Silas. If he turned it down, I had to either pour out the water on the ground, or carry a water dish around with me. The only upside to this system is that I could share water with him, since I was pouring his water out of a bottle. The downside was that it really used a lot of water. (Note: I *adore* that Ruffwear bowl for everything else, though. Easy to pack and carry, durable, completely water tight, holds a good quantity. We still use it for everything except trips to the park.)

Then we tried a new kind of water bottle. They exists from a few companies now. Paws for Water claims to be the original, but I’m not sure. They’re definitely the first one we saw.

These bottles operate like a hamster bottle, from what my dim childhood memories tell me. Under the small cap is a stainless ball bearing. As the dog licks, his tongue  pushes the ball bearing up and turns it, allowing water through. No fuss. No pouring water. Minimal water wasted. The top unscrews at the lower edge of the black segment to allow filling and washing.

It isn’t a perfect system. For some reason, it’s very easy to cross-thread the small cap. There’s a retention string that keeps you from losing the cap, and it is always in my way. The dog will still get water everywhere, both because it slings off his tongue and because water leaks out around the ball bearing as you tip the bottle up. Not a lot, but it will definitely leave a wet place on a car seat even if you have a tidy drinker.

Generally speaking, though, I love this bottle. Silas had no trouble figuring out how to use it.  We have a pretty good little routine–we’re walking along and he stops and sits, which is my cue to offer him some water. (I would never ask him to sit before I would give him a drink when he’s hot and tired; he volunteers it.) He’ll take a few licks, then go on for a few minutes before he repeats. Quick and easy. It holds 24 oz, far more than Silas needs for our regular outings, but I like erring on the side of more.

Bottom line: Nice!

A High-Maintenance Dog

I told you about Silas’s skin problems, I know. What I didn’t go into was how horrible his allergies can be.

He broke out with these hives


while he was on Benadryl. This is the body shot that goes with the face-shot I posted before.

The grass allergy came up with a terrifying rapidity. We were on a road trip back home to visit the family. In the edge of Mississippi we stopped at a strip mall to get a bagel from Panera. I told my husband to take Silas over to the grass at the end of the mall to see if he needed to potty while I grabbed the food.

Once I got back in the car, I realized that something was terribly wrong. Silas’s whole head was lumpy, covered with huge welts. We raced to the other end of the plaza and bought some Benadryl from the grocery store. And they helped, some. After a while I called the vet, who told me I could give him a higher dosage.

We spent the next day watching him break out in fresh hives every time his Benadryl started to fade. I called the vet back, and she called in some Prednisone to the local pharmacy. It made Silas as crazy as a bessy bug, but it took care of things. After we got back home he pulled his pollen-y blanket out of the laundry and broke out again. I rushed him to the vet, convinced that the hives were never going to go away. He spent the whole visit licking her face, with the hives already gone before we got there. But I showed her the pictures.

Thursday we’re going back. (So, no weekend posts this week.) I called the vet just now:
“We have to go back home, and I’m afraid of the hives. Is there some medicine we can take with us just in case?”
“For anybody else I would think this is weird, but I know how Silas is. I’ll fill you a prescription.”

How high maintenance is your dog, when even the vet thinks that he merits an exception?

Book Review: Bones Would Rain from The Sky

Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs, Suzanne Clothier.

Bones Would Rain from the Sky

Usually when I really love a book, I’m a little resentful that it took me so long to get around to it. I read a lot, and a lot of books sit around in various literal and metaphorical piles waiting their turn. In this case, I’m thrilled that I didn’t read this a year ago.

Let me back up. This is a dog book that is, more truthfully, a religious/spiritual book–a book that is about using the challenges that life hands us by recognizing the intrinsic value of that challenge and turning it toward a new growth of consciousness. While for someone like Pema Chodron those opportunities arise from meditation on our interactions with ourselves and other people, Clothier explores how those opportunities can come from our relationships with dogs.

It is a beautiful philosophy. The things Clothier says about sympathy with other beings, about mitigating and recognizing the inevitable cruelty of life, resonated intensely for me. Clothier values thinking deeply about issues and resolving them in ways that align with one’s personal beliefs and ethics. As a natural over-thinker and navel-gazer (have you seen the length of the posts here?) I’m a perfect audience.

The friction comes, as with all philosophies, at the junction with practice. Thinking, no matter how well done, doesn’t solve problems on its own. Dogs do things. They behave, for good or for ill, and thinking about those behaviors, no matter how deeply, doesn’t change them. Toward the end of the book Clothier notes the two sides of this dichotomy. First, there is the wonderful opportunity for deepening human awareness and sympathy:

“To ask ‘What can I learn from you?’ acknowledges that all of us–including animals–serve at one time or another as teachers for each other. This humble question reminds us that we are, all of us, students of life; learning and growth are not phases we pass through on our way to adulthood, but constant companions in our daily life. When we are willing to ask this most fundamental of questions, something profound shifts inside us, creating an awareness that wherever we look, there are teachers bearing truths great and small for our lives.”

Even Clothier notes that “This is not a painless or certain process…exploration is at times tiring and confusing.” It is especially difficult when, as in life with dogs, the spiritual is routinely and exhaustively linked to the pragmatic, the physical, and even the disgusting. Without some kind of training, your spiritual inspiration will “rummage though your garbage, chase and perhaps even kill other animals, clean the litter box for you, [and] roll in dead things.” Clothier never closes this gap between the theoretical and the practical. Even in her example stories, the details are left hazy.

This last point is why I’m glad I didn’t read this book a year ago. Clothier is deeply invested in the relationships that people have with their dogs, and as a result is very quick to blame behavioral problems large and small on “the relationship.” Even worse for those seeking specific advice, Clothier patently resists telling you how you might improve that relationship. There are no guidelines or step-by-step instructions here. Relationships, she argues, are too case-specific and too amorphous for generalized advice. In her defense, this isn’t a dog-training book, and it never claims that it is. What’s more, I suspect that specific instructions would undermine Clothier’s entire ethical framework, based as it is on intense contemplation. Instructions are easy; relationships are hard.

Now that I’m not in the midst of house-training or a disastrous first attempt to go through obedience class, I have the mental space to think about such philosophical ramifications more intensely than the mundane ones. In the puppy days, I’m afraid that thinking deeply about my emotional/spiritual relationship with my dog would have made me feel even more inadequate than those training books with the puppies who only, desperately, wanted your approval.

Bottom line (I’ve made you wait long enough, haven’t I?): I’m glad I read it now, when I can get some use from it. I have food for thought on the level of a cruise-ship buffet. If you have no patience for spiritual hoo-ha, this is not the read for you. If your dog still has problems with basic obedience because he doesn’t know better, this book will not help you.

(And because this is my blog, and I can write 800 words if I want to: Last night I sent my husband out to open the garage door while I put Silas’s leash on. Then we played a little “Oh, look, the garage door is up. Why don’t we look around?” Which turned into even MORE sidewalk walking! I think this cautiously qualifies as a breakthrough.)

Bad Thing to Good Thing

I am interrupting your scheduled book review with a harrowing tale:

Yesterday evening we took Silas out to the park and went to drop off the recycling. When we pulled back into the garage, I casually let Silas out of the car. The garage door was still up. Instead of making a beeline directly for the house door, like he always does, he bolted for the sidewalk. No leash, because, complacently, I knew that he would go straight for the house.

My terror was not that he would run out into the road. We’re on a quiet street, and Silas is petrified by cars. No, he had bolted out the garage door because, unbeknownst to me, a lady was walking her tiny pug down the sidewalk. As I’ve mentioned, Silas’s reactions to strangers are unpredictable. If you startle him, he will bark at you. A lot. Loudly. I *knew* that he was going to bark at that tiny, immaculately coiffed, well-dressed lady with her little pug, and he was going to terrify her. Then she was going to terrify him even more by, understandably, screaming or running or something. Instantly, I had envisioned the complete scenario, all the way to the point that she called animal control on me.

What really happened was this: Silas ran toward the lady. She started getting edgy, as you do, so I called out for him, apologized, and said he was friendly but a little nervous. (Sorry, my DINOS friends, but when somebody is about to pick up their dog and run for it you have to say something. I’ll do better.) Silas slowed down when I called, giving me time to catch up. I didn’t have a leash, but I could grab him if things turned south. Then he walked up to the lady, let her pet him, let her pug put its head all up in his business, and did his whole “I am sweet! I am shy! Love me!” routine. Partway through this my husband brought the leash over, and I clipped Silas in. I apologized profusely and pointed out that Silas was terrified of the sidewalk and that I never dreamed he would go over there. (Lesson learned.) Then I thanked her for being so nice to him. I hope I adequately conveyed my intense mortification and my gratitude that she really handled it perfectly.

Well, meeting the nice lady and the pug inspired Silas with a deep curiosity about what else might be out there. So he walked half way around the block. In a regular, curious, who-else-peed-on-this-bush way. Then he came to his senses and bolted into the front entrance to our townhouses.

Moral of this story: owner bad bad bad. Silas good good good.