Have I Been Wrong All This Time?

I’m very rarely embarrassed by Silas anymore. I’ve sprinted through parking lots. I’ve turned tail and run from people with perfectly friendly dogs in the park. I’ve scowled at children. I’ve rejected a lot of treats. Whatever.

The only thing that still gets me is Silas’s stranger behavior. He has a routine that looks a lot like this:

1) Silas sees a person
2) Silas hauls me toward them
3) They see him and start saying how adorable he is
4) As we reach them, they reach down to pet him
5) and he starts barking at them

This barking is never as serious as when he decides to really bark at someone, but it’s still scary when he’s so close. He doesn’t do it with everyone. Some people he genuinely adores, and some people get his super-submissive “just let me cower down here and pee on your shoes” routine.

Today in the park, a woman on a bike pulled over to ask if Silas was a whippet. Nope; just a mutt. She was preparing to dismount and begin petting, so I said, “He’s a little skittish.”

At which point she looked down at Silas, who was bodily dragging me over to see her, and said “Really? He looks pretty happy to me.” Which, you know, was totally true. When I stopped short so that she couldn’t reach out for him, he started trying to climb on a picnic table to see her better. Feeling a little silly, I said, “If you tried to pet him, he would bark at you.” I could tell this for a fact. I can’t pinpoint it, but something about his body language was very telling.

After she biked away, I started thinking. I’ve always assumed that the greet-and-bark victims were somehow frightening upon closer inspection. They reached down to quickly, or smelled funny, or something. I wonder if, instead, he’s just getting too excited?

It’s one of those cases where the answer doesn’t really matter. No matter why he does it, I need to do a lot of work with people. Still, it’s a possibility that I find very comforting.

Sometimes it’s Good to Get Away

In the last month, I’ve been out of town ten days. Ten whole days, and not because there was an out of town family emergency. Aside from three sub-24 hour trips, I think these ten days are the only times I’ve ever left him for “fun” reasons.

I think it was good for both of us.

My husband, spared the day-to-day brunt of Silas’s problems, tends to be significantly less paranoid than I am about inadvertently contributing to Silas’s issues. I worry about pushing Silas’s limits, because I’m the one who cleans up the fallout when we go a step too far. I’m overly conservative, though, and it winds up holding him back.

While I was away most recently, my husband decided Silas could go for walks every day. Sometimes they went twice. I’d been sticking to my extremely cautious three times a week schedule, and there they were going twice a day. And you know what? It was fine. We’ve taken him every day but one since I got home last Friday, and he’s still fine. (Although, sigh, he’s showing some problematic stranger behavior. I’m hoping he’ll habituate to the fact that other people sometimes use the sidewalk, because he’s both a long way from being happy enough to take treats out there and very rigidly set in walking the One True Route.)

It was also good for me to get away. I came back not just with a better training plan, brainstormed in the sensory deprivation of an airport hotel with spotty WiFi, but also with a renewed sense of optimism.

I’ll leave you with a little video of Silas racing to the door, happy to go for a walk:

I never thought I’d see such a thing.

Do you enjoy time away from your dogs? Or is the mere idea horrifying?

Lifetime Goals

jakobshorn4

It’s hard to set goals when you have an anxious dog. Their progress moves in such unpredictable fits and starts, forward and backward, that setting up a timeline will make you crazy. SMART goals don’t work well for us.

Still, somedays their training feels like a hydra–what should I counter condition today? The nail clippers? The sidewalk? The car? Strangers? The doorbell? How about our other training? Silas loves learning new behaviors, but it’s easy to get stuck on just practicing the half dozen tricks he already knows. How do you organize those without the pressure of a dog sport?

Last week, in the hopes of giving myself some kind of structure, I made a list of what I’m calling our “lifetime” goals. When I sit down and make our training plans every month, these are the things that I want to be working toward.

I would like Silas to:

  • Walk happily in a variety of environments
  • Tolerate strangers, even if he doesn’t ever love them, including inside of our house
  • Get adequate physical exercise to stay healthy and prevent injuries
  • Get adequate mental exercise to stay excited and engaged
  • Have a great recall, so that I don’t live in quite so much terror of accidental equipment failure
  • Be comfortable with the amount of physical handling required to live a healthy life

In the great spirit of back-to-school time goals, I’ll pass this along to all of you as a challenge, either to blog about yourselves or just to mull over. What are your “big picture” goals?

Sometimes Being Bad is Being Good

I told this story to someone the other day, and I realized I should tell it to you.

For those of you who are newer to the blog and only used to the much-improved Silas, his car phobia used to be much, much worse. If he could see a glimpse of metal through the trees at the park, he wanted to leave immediately. Since we’re in an urban area, this was a challenge, and for a long time we had exactly one “safe” park.

Even at the “safe” park, we struggled when it was time to leave. Given the choice between staying in the forest and crossing the parking lot, Silas picked the forest. No matter how hot, tired, and ready to go home he was, he just couldn’t get across the parking lot. When he was small enough, I would carry him, but as he got older he got both less interested in being carried and much heavier. I can lift him, but carrying him over a distance wears me down pretty quickly.

Eventually, Silas learned that he could get through the parking lot on his own, if he bolted. This was sheer, blind panic. I went along with it because it was better than the alternative, and in a perverse way it was actually progress. We would step to the edge of the parking lot, I would get a good grip on his leash and check for traffic, and then we would run flat-out, directly to the car.

One day he balked on me and I couldn’t get him back to the trail entrance closest to the car. Instead of our sprint being 30 feet, it was a hundred yards.

As we approached the car, we bolted past a lady with a beautifully well-behaved border collie. She had a waist bag of treats and the general attitude of effective training. There is Silas, pulling like mad at the end of his leash because I can’t keep up with him, and me, running well over my fastest natural pace and one false move from being on my face. No treat bag–I kept them in my backpack just in case, but he wouldn’t ever eat them–no attempt to rein him in.

Border Collie lady passed our car as I was putting Silas in, and gave me a withering look of superiority. How dare my “bad” dog and I exist? Didn’t I know anything about dog training? For a few minutes I felt really bad. It had taken me almost a year to get this “terrible” behavior.

Then I realized that she was a miserable human being who had no authority to judge me or my dog. “Minding” and “behaving” are not the only goal, and sometimes “being bad” is still progress.

My Dog is a Sloth

Sleepy dog

I bought Silas one of those Whistle dog activity trackers. If you haven’t heard of these, they’re like a dog Fit Bit. They use an accelerometer mounted on your dog’s collar to tell you how much time per day your dog spends moving. (I paid for this myself. Why does nobody ever ask me to review things I actually want?) I think this makes me the biggest yuppie in the history of the world, but whatever.

Any day now, I’m expecting the founders to e-mail me and say “Umm, did you really install that correctly?”

Because Silas doesn’t go on walks of any duration (his grand sidewalk excursions, of which we are mega-proud, last about two minutes, and we’re just now making real headway on the car thing), I set his goal at thirty minutes a day.

In almost a week, he’s hit this goal one time, although in my defense he’s gotten close on a few other days. The app suggested that most dogs his size get at least an hour.

I have a few theories kicking around about what’s going on:

1) Because we’ve been virtually housebound for months now, Silas is out of shape and lazy (like me). Or, he’s just adapted to our easy-does-it lifestyle.

2) When I trained him not to pester me with a toy all the time, I did it too thoroughly. Because he’s not pestering us, we assume he doesn’t want to play. Evidence for this one: he’s quite happy to engage if I get up and grab a toy.

3) Age and wisdom. I think three is a little young to slow down quite this much.

4) Boredom.

5) Summer is brutal.

6) Over-medication. I’m hesitant to blame his medication, not only because he’s been at this dose for a while but also because he is quite perky when he’s not asleep.

7) Last week was atypical. Which it was–I trimmed his nails twice and he went on two car rides, both of which are the kind of mental stress that disproportionately wears him down.

8) Our indoor play is a lot more vigorous than a leisurely trot around the neighborhood. Since, unlike the people trackers, the dog tracker only measures moving time, short bursts of intense exercise aren’t rewarded. I’m not sure what the appropriate conversion metric would be.

I’m going to keep an eye on him for a little longer before I start to get really worried. In the meantime, how active is your dog?

I go out of town for five days, and this is what I get

Every year in August I go back home to take my nephew out for a fun day before school starts. This year I went slightly early, and I didn’t take Silas.

The whole thing was a little last minute, for complicated but very mundane reasons.

Silas was, ostensibly, fine. Separation anxiety is not one of his many problems, for which I am deeply thankful. He greeted my husband happily every evening, they played, the usual stuff.

Nothing seemed the least bit off when I got home on Friday. Then, Silas was outside alone when my neighbor came home on Monday night. He barked a few times. He almost always barks a few times at this. Our last neighbors left the house vacant for a few months, and he’s never forgiven the new neighbor for moving in. I went out an collected him, as I always do, because I don’t want to be “those people.”

That’s when I noticed that something was different. Silas has always settled right back down after these sessions. Unless there’s a cat or a squirrel, as soon we we’re back indoors he’s normal again. This time he paced, and whined, and barked. He would calm down for a minute, and then he would gradually work himself back up to full-on barking. I would move him away from the door, he would seem okay, and then he would start barking again. In desperation, after ten minutes of this, I put him in his crate, where he finally settled down. This whole thing had me deeply confused. He hadn’t even been really upset outside; just garden-variety alert barking.

What's going on?

Then the same thing happened Tuesday morning, except Silas wasn’t outside. He saw something, probably a bird, started to bark at it, and then he barked off and on for at least twenty minutes. Even when he was finished barking, he wanted to lie down facing the patio door, where he could see out.

Finally, I realized what had happened. My other neighbor has a huge Crepe Myrtle tree that’s right against our fence. (I am not complaining. Without her tree, our patio would be like the surface of the sun.) Every year, she has to have it trimmed back, because the branches rest on our garage roof. I let Silas out, happened to look up, and realized that all the low-hanging branches were gone. We have a perfect view of these branches. If the picture above were from Silas’s perspective, that’s what you would see.

Less than one week, people. I leave town for less than one week, and my neighbor has her trees trimmed and now we have a new phobia. I can only hope that this is one of those fixations that will fade in a few days; you never can tell with Silas.