Yesterday I realized

something very important.

I didn’t know what was going on until after the fact. We woke up to the noise of an air compressor, then I could periodically hear the sound of a nail gun. I assumed my neighbor was having some work done. When I went out later, I realized that the townhouse complex was repairing some fencing.

I did know that Silas was really anxious. He barked at every sound, all day. Big barks, not just his little alarm barks. He didn’t sleep. He barely laid down. He asked to go outside, then when he got outside he barked, then I made him come inside, then five minutes later he would ask to go out again. If he wasn’t barking, he was whining. By 4:30, I was about to go crazy.

Paranoid Ears
(Listening with his paranoid ears.)

I’ve been resisting putting Silas on a daily medication because he sleeps most of the day. Somehow, to me, the level of hyper-vigilance that keeps a dog awake most of the time was the line in the sand.

Yesterday I realized that the only reason Silas sleeps during the day is because it is completely silent here. We have heavy curtains, and we live in a neighborhood where every person goes to work from 9-5. There’s some ambient traffic noise and some birds chirping. That’s it. When that changes, for whatever reason, we’re well on the other side of my own (admittedly arbitrary) criteria.

Why does “doing the best you can” have to be so hard?

Problems We Don’t Have

Saturday morning, Silas was really nervous. I don’t remember why–it happens for enough reasons that I don’t really keep up with it anymore. He needed to eat his breakfast. Breakfast is very important around here, because without it Silas throws up. When he’s anxious he doesn’t want to eat, though.

Breakfast is K’s job. (I feel pretty bad about that right now, because Silas is eating tripe for breakfast. I promise I did not plan that on purpose.)

After trying a few times to get Silas to eat, K finally sat down in the floor next to the dish. Silas immediately came over to eat.

After a few minutes of happy eating, he called out, “I think we have the only dog in the world who prefers you to hover over his food dish while he eats.”

Food resource guarding: a problem we don’t have.

N+1

My husband has a joke about how many bicycles he needs: n+1. If it’s been a while since you took algebra, “n” is a stand in for “number.” It’s the geeky math way of saying “one more than I have right now.”

Silas’s N+1 equation is blankets.

When Silas wants to snuggle, he brings a blanket with him. He doesn’t care if you already have one. I’m sitting in my chair right now with two fleece throws and a dog bed. In five minutes, when he decides to get off the couch and come sit with me, chances are that he will bring the fleece throw off the sofa.

Blanket love

You can really watch his little head spin when he realizes that the snuggle place is already full. One day, he tried to bring his crate mat up in my lap. Except he’d already brought three blankets and two fleece dog beds, and he just couldn’t figure out how to get in the chair with one more. He finally sat down and cried until I rearranged all the blankets.

I’ve finally gotten smart and started sneaking the extras back off the chair whenever he gets up.

The thing I can’t figure out is how to cut down on the number of blankets in the house. The house just seems to absorb however many things I bring in, and Silas has a place in his heart for all of them.

My Favorite Resources

As My Imperfect Dog grows, sometimes I hear of it being used as a reference-point for people with anxious dogs. To that end, I thought I’d put together a list of my best resources. Because this is a resource list, I may come back to edit it over time.

1) A really great veterinary behaviorist. Or, at least, private lessons with a really awesome positive-only dog trainer. You can learn a lot from books and videos, but having a trained professional look at your dog can be very eye opening. I would start my search with the Animal Behavior Resources Institute. Here is the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist’s list of board certified members.

2) For online classes, I have loved Susan Garrett’s Five Minute Formula for a Brilliant Recall. The class is closed now, but it usually opens in February or March. Nothing she does is fearful-dog specific, but her “play=work=play” style has really worked wonders with Silas. Also, a lot of her focus is on building a great relationship with your dog. A big part of handling your dog’s anxiety is trust. Caveat: nothing Garrett does is good for dogs who are afraid of toys or motion. If, on the other hand, you have an active dog, Garrett’s games are great.

3) Books: Everything Patricia McConnell has ever written. Nicole Wilde’s Help for Your Fearful Dog is the most exhaustive treatment of dog fears I’ve seen. She covers general psychological concepts, steps to counterconditioning a wide array of specific fears, and both alternative and conventional therapies. Suzanne Clothier’s Bones Would Rain from the Sky has nothing to do with fear, but I love that lady. Lastly, Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. It is an epic disaster of a book, organizationally speaking, but the games are spot-on. A lot of them are hard to do outside of a classroom, but others will change your life. I have not read Debbie Jacobs’s book, but her blog and website have a lot of great information.

4) Puzzle toys. Anything from a frozen Kong to the most complicated Nina Ottosson contraption. Even just a cardboard box with some treats in the bottom can help your dog to use his/her brain. They also instill confidence and can help compensate for the fact that your dog may have a pretty limited amount of access to the world.

5) The Adaptil Collar. Man, I love that thing. The collar alone, with no other interventions, cuts Silas’s barking by at least 30% and completely eliminates his trembling in the car. Depending on your house and your dog’s habits, you may like the collar or the diffusers better. Or, honestly, it may not help your dog at all. We also get some improvement with the Thundershirt, although it isn’t really designed for dogs who are just generally anxious. [Edited to add: after a few months the Adaptil collar seemed to stop helping Silas, at which point we moved to a more traditional anxiety medication. I still highly recommend the collar, and our behaviorist felt like Silas’s reaction was somewhat atypical.]

6) A sense of humor. Sometimes you just have to laugh. Which is good, because it keeps you from getting frustrated that this is a slow, slow process.

Our Favorite Games

We do a lot of playing here, since Silas only gets out a few times a week. (His choice, not mine.) I thought I’d post some of our favorites, in no particular order.

1) Tug. Silas loves to play tug. I find that the trick to tug is to tug less than ten seconds, then ask for the toy back and give an easy cue. As a reward for the easy cue, we tug again. This takes the super-rowdy edge off. If you have an active dog, too much uninterrupted tug can get them a little jumpy/mouthy. Trick for getting the toy back, if your dog doesn’t have a good “give” cue: tug with a thin rope toy. You hold both ends and give the dog the middle. As you say “give,” pull the toy right up against your leg and hold it still. As a reward for letting go, cue the dog to take back the toy immediately.

Tug!

2) Get the cookie! This one is good when I’m tired–I have Silas sit, then throw a kibble as far as I can while saying “get the cookie!” As soon as he closes his mouth on it, I call him to come back. He RUNS back and gets another cookie as a recall reward. Every now and then, just to see if he’s really listening, I cue him to do something else instead of come back.

3) Any variation of run and chase. My personal favorite is to throw something (usually a toy, but sometimes a cookie) and then sprint off in the opposite direction. Right now we’re working hard on Silas bringing the toy all the way back, so we play variations on this a lot. I always use a cue (“I’m gonna get you!”) before I chase–I don’t want him to learn that me moving toward him means it’s a great time to run.

4) Hide and seek. Silas loves this in any iteration–we do it both with people (one person hides while he finds the other) and with toys or treats (he waits while I go in a different room and hide something).

5) Fetch games of all kinds. Lazy: I sit at the top of the stairs and throw his ball down. Active: as we practice heeling, I have him sit next to my leg. I throw his toy out ahead, then send him to go get it. When he comes back we have a tugging/chasing/crazy PARTY that he didn’t break his sit. If he does break the sit and beats me to the toy, I ask for the toy back immediately and we do a few simple sits/downs before we try again.

6) Get your feet! My behaviorist would probably have a stroke if she watched us play get your feet. I’m sitting on the ground and reach over to grab Silas’s feet. He snatches his feet away, play-bites at my hands, and dances around while I try to get his feet again. (The game does stop if he actually gets me, and I promise that he really is playing.) True fact: Silas will snap from a down to a sit with military precision because I trained it while we played “get your feet!”

The real key is that nothing in our house is just a game for very long. I don’t think it’s possible to tire out a smart, active dog in a house the size of ours with purely physical exercise. Not only is there training hidden (or not so hidden) in all of these games, I also use them as rewards or breaks in our more formal training. Some of these games aren’t even suited to playing for more than just a few seconds at a time, but that’s exactly why I like them. A dog who uses his mind and his body together is a happy dog.

What is your dog’s favorite game?

Opposite Land

I spent Saturday in doggie opposite land.

Some friends of ours bought a house, and threw a big housewarming party. They have two rescued lab mixes. “Bring your dogs! Bring your kids!” said the party invite. I laughed.

When we got there, the total was four dogs. Two resident, two guest. The two guests were an Australian Shepherd and a pitbull/beagle mix. The beagle mix was an interesting little dog–she was very sweet, but a little nervous about the party. Her owners left as it started to get crowded, after one of the guests who also had dogs picked her up off the ground even though she was obviously terrified of him. Luckily for him she just squirmed her way back down. People like that kill me.

It was an interesting trip into “how the other half lives.” The two labs mingled through the party like pros. From time to time they hung out under the dining room table, but it was mostly because they wanted someone to drop them a cheese cube. It didn’t look obviously like they were getting overwhelmed. They barked when the doorbell rang, but it was a quick two-barks-and-done, not a howling saga like we have.

Those labs were opposites across the board, not just in their party manners. Their people can’t buy dog toys, because they destroy them. One of them chewed apart a Kong. The house had a few tug ropes and a couple of nylabones, and that was it. No jumping up, but one of the labs stuck her head up my skirt. (Do you know, Silas has never sniffed a crotch in his life. Is that a big dog thing?)

Aside from my own dog I have very little experience with them. It’s always interesting to get out and see what “regular” dogs look like, especially this kind of Ideal American Dog. Ideal American Dog, by the way, is nice enough, but a little boring.

Skills

When I posted yesterday about my plan for “Competitive Sidewalk Walking,” it seems like y’all thought I was joking. I prefer to think of it as thinking positively about our problems. A little bit of a joke, but with a lot of seriousness behind it.

You see, Silas is terrified of the sidewalk. His fear of cars is the reason that he takes his “as needed” psychiatric medication. I’ve had to abort walks because he sees a car moving through the trees, or because he knows that we’re walking toward a place where there might be a car. He was a year old, I think, before I could get him to walk through a parking lot to get to the trail, and even now (at almost two and a half) we are just starting to work on not bolting through like a maniac.

Our Competitive Sidewalking training plan is in two phases that will run simultaneously. First, I need to keep doing the things I’m doing to counter-condition the evil cars. (Familiarization with the venue, you know.) This will get easier now that the weather is finally breaking–we’ve only got one day this week that will be 90. Now we can go back to three outings a week, with probably one of them in a “challenging” place. These outings will involve practicing walking skills that have been proofed at home. We’re at that phase now with emergency turns and heeling–we practice heeling work a few steps at a time in the two parks where Silas is the most comfortable.

Secondly, we also need something to occupy our training time, which is where the sport part of this “dog sport” comes in. There are two things feeding into this list. First, Silas really loved learning to heel (ironic, given the state of his leash manners at large), and he needs training time every day. This kind of training with movement is really his forte, so why not excel at it? Also, as confirmed by his behaviorist, anxious dogs really benefit from a consistent set of rules and structure. Part of his success is going to depend on always knowing what is expected. That’s why the “skills” list for our “sport” sounds very strict for just toodling around the neighborhood.

Remember that all training here at My Imperfect Dog is FUN. If it isn’t FUN we don’t do it, and I have very realistic expectations for what Silas is actually capable of in any given environment. I’m not saying that every dog everywhere needs to know all this stuff, or even that I have any intention of using all of it on every walk. Even competitive obedience dogs get to relax. It may very well be years before we actually put paw to concrete, though, and, like a puppy too young for agility jumps, we have a lot of time to build base skills.

Skills list:
Top priority:
A great working relationship

The rest, in no particular order:
Heeling, with automatic sit when I stop walking
Directional cues for left, right, and forward
Emergency U-turns to get away from bad situations
Walking calmly past other dogs and pedestrians unless cued to greet
Polite greetings when permitted
Attention to me in distracting environments
Cues for moving ahead or behind
Maintaining loose leash while walking ahead
Ability to drop back into heel position from walking ahead
Solid recall in all situations, in case of equipment failure
Cues to go sniff/wander around and to resume walking

Some of these are big behaviors that will need to be broken down more. I still need to think through all of that, plus coming up with a logical training order and ways to actually train some of these. What do you think? Anything I should add?