I Don’t Want To Pet Your Dog

Silas dislikes strangers.

I don’t know, maybe that’s phrasing it a little strongly. Silas, in fact, adores strangers, as long as they’re behaving predictably. It’s just that he adores them like he adores a fresh bush to sniff–he wants to go see them and give them a thorough examination. He continues to be baffled that this fresh two-legged thing to sniff expects to reach out and touch him as part of the sniffing ritual. Because he doesn’t handle being startled very well, you can see why a small problem might arise. Somewhere between 50% and75% of the time, the person he’s sniffing will manage to initiate contact in a way that Silas finds acceptable. The rest of the time, not so much.

Needless to say, we don’t meet a lot of strangers unless I have some pretty clear evidence that things will go well.

His little problem has also made me very sensitive, to the point of paranoia, about petting dogs I don’t know. Over time, my paranoia has crystallized into this rule:

I pet dogs who are actively, happily, and politely soliciting my attention. Otherwise, I leave them alone.

If your dog comes up to me, when I don’t have Silas, and makes a sweet “please pet me!!!!” face, I’ll probably oblige. If your dog is watching me curiously, I’ll try to have non-threatening body language, but I’m not going to solicit attention. I am not going to coax a dog over, unless we’re in some kind of lost dog emergency situation. I am not going to ask you if I can pet your dog, unless your dog asks me first.

Petting your dog is none of my business.

Petting is not an inalienable right that comes with having hands. Having soft fur does not mean that you have no say so about what happens to your own body.

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This Round Goes To Me

Silas just can’t handle seeing the things that go on in front of our house. The neighbor sitting outside with her dog. The little dachshund from across the way. Squirrels. Teenagers on the sidewalk. Cars driving by. It wasn’t always this way–I have pictures of him next to the open windows up until he was about six months old. But, now all of our front windows stay under serious cover. Our floor-to-ceiling living room windows have old-fashioned metal blinds, firmly closed. Our stair landing window has one broken blind slat, so it also has a tension-mounted curtain.

Silas, however, is a smart dog.

Above my front door there are two tiny windows. If Silas sits on exactly the right stair, he can see out these two tiny windows, down to a little sliver of the sidewalk and the back edge of a parking lot.

At the back edge of that parking lot, there is a large electrical shed. Our side of that electrical shed is, apparently, the place to hide from the high school that’s on the next block. You can imagine how well this goes over with Silas, who has been increasingly obsessed with sitting on “his” stair and staring out the little windows, waiting for someone to walk by so that he can bark.

I have struggled to find a way to cover these little windows. One problem is that there is nowhere to mount any kind of curtain-hanging hardware. The other problem is our HOA, which is run by very cranky and extremely particular retirees, who, I am sure, care deeply about my window coverings.

This weekend I took a nice walk through the townhouses, looking up at people’s above the door windows. Because we have a little roof over the door and a dimly-lit hall, the only thing you can really see in anyone’s window is a dark reflection.

I trotted back home with a little joy in my step, and taped black paper over the inside of the windows.

The view from outside? A dark reflection.

The view from inside? Nothing. I really do hate to cut Silas off from the world completely, but an obsession with barking at every person who walks past our house is the opposite of helpful.

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I miss my little bit of unfiltered natural light, but I do not miss Silas’s burgeoning OCD.

I have to confess, I giggled when he went to sit on his stair and realized that he couldn’t see out.

 

How To Build a Great Relationship With Your Dog

I’ve read a lot of books about dealing with “problem” dogs. Not all of them, but a lot. Out of all that intake, I’ve learned one thing.

The thing that you need, and the thing that your dog needs, is a connection.

We fake it with training equipment. Everything from a harness to a shock collar is intended to substitute, to some extent, for having an ideal working relationship with your dog. That Platonic ideal of dog relationships happens naturally, sometimes. I see those dogs around from time to time, so in-tune with their owners that I don’t even notice they’re breaking the leash laws.

The rest of us have to work at it. Some of us (raises hand) probably forever. But how? What does building a great relationship even look like?

I haven’t found a single resource that says it all. Suzanne Clothier’s Bones Would Rain From the Sky is close, but she’s frustratingly slim on details.

So here’s my list, cobbled together from my reading and classes we’ve taken and from my own experiences:

Be trustworthy.

Have clear expectations.

Set boundaries that your dog can understand.

Be consistent.

Play.

Be present when you interact with your dog.

Have patience for mistakes, your own and the dog’s.

Tune in to your dog’s problems and challenges.

Adjust your expectations to match the circumstances.

Help your dog to understand desirable behaviors.

Be considerate of your dog’s preferences.

Keep calm.

Have fun.

Security Blanket

My pictures of Silas are littered with an assortment of largely disreputable-looking beds and blankets.

We have the grey one, which goes way back to puppy days:

Young puppy Silas

In fact, it goes way back to when I gave it to my husband, probably circa 2001. He resented the dog a little for taking it.

Later on we acquired the yellow one (foreground) and the blue one (background)

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My mother gave him the red-striped one:

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And, lest we forget, there is a lavender one, which is really just a piece of fleece fabric:

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We also have a series of crate mats and dog beds. I keep buying them, hoping to replace this horrible thing:

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We tried a really nice one from West Paw, which has somehow ended up staying in Silas’s travel crate:

Silas

And we get a lot of mileage from these fluffy ones, which Silas loves so much that we bought three:

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(They’re from the pet store in my mom’s town, and I couldn’t risk going without one if he chewed a hole in it.)

Silas prefers them in a stack:

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All the blankets

Or in your lap:

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But most especially he prefers to be sucking on one as he goes to sleep:

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Blankie

soothing

I just go with it. It makes him happy.

I have finally learned to NEVER buy another blanket, because we’re obviously living in the textile version of Hotel California. I can “replace” them however many times I want, but when he roots through the stack to get his old favorites, I just don’t have the heart to get rid of them.

Slacker

Can I just say that my dog-laziness has reached new lows?

No mojo

Silas is getting somewhat closer to going back to the park, but I don’t want to do too much too fast. So, a few times a week we walk around the block. Halfway around. More like a quarter, in fact.

In the evenings, Silas wants to play, but he generally prefers to do his pure playing with my husband, who is faster. If I throw Silas’s toy, he’ll take it back to K. So there’s that. I do some, but not that much.

What he wants to do with me is our mix of play and training. To which end  we were enrolled in three online dog training classes, two of which ended just last week. Three, by the way, is too many. Do not get grabby hands with these things or you will burn out.  I’ve, umm, downloaded all the assignments. For one class I did two out of twelve before resorting to the internet version of cramming them all in a drawer. For the second, where the exercises don’t really build on each other, I made a deliberate choice to get more proficiency per-exercise before teaching the next one, so we’re also at something like two out of ten. The third class? It’s long-term, and I haven’t even logged into the website in two weeks.

Cue me, hanging my head.

This is a problem I have a lot, in fact. I’ve even written about it here a few times. I will devote a lot–presumably too much–energy into being the “perfect” dog trainer for a few weeks, and then for the next few I just can’t be bothered. Something will happen to remind me of how really, really messed up Silas is (this time it was the car thing, followed by the exterminators, followed by my out-of-town BFF having to stay at a super-sketchy hotel near the airport because I can’t let anyone in our house), and it lets the air out of my little balloon. What difference does it make if Silas can execute a perfect foot target?

The difference, of course, is that his way-too-smart brain needs something to do with itself, and training is quite literally all we have. That’s not exactly motivating, though.

How do you get your dog mojo back, when things are a little stale?

Misperceptions

I ran across this snippet online yesterday: “I took a while, but we trained through Issue X. I’m so glad I didn’t follow my vet’s advice and try medication.”

It was a “close the computer and walk away” moment.

I don’t think psychiatric medication is the solution to every training issue. Not even every fear-based issue. I tried every positive training method and mood enhancing magic widget out there before we switched to medication; I understand why people are hesitant. But if your dog has a problem severe enough that your veterinarian is recommending medical intervention, why on earth would you persevere through training without it? If your dog is that miserable, why are you withholding help?

Let’s pretend this comment was about, say, Kennel Cough. “It took a while, but my dog finally quit coughing. I’m so glad I didn’t use medication.” Does that make sense to you?

What’s at issue here is fear and misunderstanding.

People assume that a dog on medication for a mental problem is going to be stuck taking it forever, and they assume that the dog will become a zombie robot. 

Neither of those things is true. 

According to our veterinary behaviorist, very few of her patients require medication indefinitely. Psychiatric medication in dogs is largely a training aid–the medication helps your dog have a milder reaction to X, and over time they learn not to have a bad reaction to X anymore. That learning stays in place, even when the medication is gone. It isn’t a fast process, but a year or two (the timeline the behaviorist mentioned as fairly common for her patients) is not forever.

As for the zombie-robot angle, that is also not true. If medication makes your dog act lethargic, it’s not the right medication or dosage. Dogs who are hyper-vigilant may start to sleep more when they feel less anxiety about their environment, but that’s a good adjustment to a more “normal” way of living. We do have one medication where the top-end dosage made Silas very clumsy, so we don’t give him that dose.

Silas still wants to play from 5:00 until bedtime. He still has enough energy that he’s hard to entertain in a townhouse with no yard. Last night, he ran around upstairs with my husband, then we played upstairs/downstairs fetch, then I did a training session that included running to get treats, then I took him in the garage and did some car training, and THEN he was still so energetic that he and my husband had to chase each other around and around the garage at top speed. We don’t do that much every night, but it’s within the normal range.

People also believe that using medication means you are a failure as a trainer. 

That isn’t true, either.

Dogs who need medical help overcoming a problem often react so strongly that there’s simply nothing you can train. This is what finally pushed me over the edge with Silas. I read 8000 books and articles saying “start in a place where your dog can see what he’s afraid of, but doesn’t react to it.” Without medication, that place does not exist for Silas. He could see a glint of metal through the trees at the park, and we had to leave. Just being outside was so hard for him that he literally could not eat a cookie or play with a toy, even in familiar places. His medication gives me enough room to do real training. Which brings me to my last point:

Medication is not magic.

The other misperception is that the right pill will “fix” a problem dog immediately. Silas did not start walking on the sidewalk as soon as I handed him the first pill. What the medication let me do was start training him. We could go to a park with cars on the horizon, and we’ve meandered up from that over the last seven or eight months. Yesterday, he stopped to sniff a bush while we were next to the street, and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down in glee. His “walks” on the sidewalk are literally in the one minute range. But he’s out there. It’s possible that if I had stacked just the right combination of non-medical remedies we might have eventually made similar progress, but I don’t see the point in dragging out his misery just to avoid a well-established medical protocol.

Canine Muscle Development

What follows is my attempt to hash through my research about muscle development and maintenance. Please note that I am not an expert–click through my sources for more authoritative information.

Their are two topics that really dominate dog-fitness discussions outside of the dog-sports community.

First, it’s well documented that the average American dog is overweight. There’s a great overview of obesity here at Dog Aware, which is a licensed reprinting of an article originally from the Whole Dog Journal. While it’s important for an overweight dog to get some exercise as part of his or her recovery, exercise alone is not enough.

The other driving topic in these discussions is the fact that elderly dogs lose muscle as they age, especially in their rear ends. This aggravates other elderly dog problems, like arthritis, and contributes to the difficulty elder dogs have in situations like climbing stairs getting up from the floor. (Although, as this article points out, regular “old dog” symptoms can also be other medical conditions.)

Where does that leave young, not-overweight dogs? How much muscle development does a non-sporting dog need to be healthy? My research has not turned up a definitive answer there. Most resources on dog fitness programs are written for competition dogs, who have very specialized needs. It’s logical to say that a certain level of muscle development is a vital to aging well, since muscle weakness contributes to mobility problems. It’s also logical to say that your dog needs to be able to do the things he loves–an ability that, for most dogs, will naturally come from simply doing that thing.

There are some really fascinating tidbits out there, though. For instance, a dog who “is not fatigued . . . will have good control of his core muscles and his back will not sway appreciably [as he walks]. As he tires,  these muscles fatigue and back movement becomes loose” (Sarah Foster, Canine Cross Training). Which means, a stronger core will help your dog go on longer walks. Dogs who have better baseline fitness and strength are also better able to twist, turn, run, and to recover from doing those things, which is obviously useful both on a sporting course and in everyday life. According to Dr. Carol Helfer, “A few simple exercises can dramatically change a dog’s quality of life. In athletic dogs, the proof is in their continued good health, enhanced performance, and absence of injuries. Elderly and sedentary dogs benefit, too, and they quickly show increased range of motion and a renewed enthusiasm for activities” (The Whole Dog Journal November 2007). 

It’s somewhat easier to find advice about what kinds of exercises to do. The article I linked in the previous paragraph has a great list, but I suspect it’s behind the WDJ paywall. If you are very serious and have the room for fitness equipment, Sarah Foster’s Canine Cross Training is worth a look. SlimDoggy has some great resources–my favorites are here and here. I also love this visual representation from So Fly. While fetch can be great exercise, do make sure that you aren’t causing potential injury, especially for a dog who isn’t already well-conditioned. I think Susan Garrett’s warning in this blog post is crucial.

I’ll be posting some followups to this conversation over the next few weeks. My main interest is to keep Silas in shape, even though our ability to go for walks is at an all-time low right now. The specifics of that process will be the focus of future installments. If you find canine fitness to be generally interesting, I’m pinning my findings to this Pinterest board.