People who have made no progress…look back and say “I’m so satisfied with that! My life was wonderful!”…I can at the very least say that even if it isn’t much, I’ve made some progress…and that’s good. Because I have regrets, I have done well. —

Atsuko Wantabe, quoted in A Different Kind of Luxury by Andy Couturier


Be the Change for Animals: Spread the Word

I thought Ian Dunbar was a weird, crazy man when I read his puppy books at the insistence of a friend. I listened to his advice, though, and took Silas to puppy class.

It might be exaggerating to say that puppy class saved his life, but it might not.

I rescued Silas at five weeks old. On our first day of puppy kindergarten, when he was ten weeks old, he was terrified of all the other puppies. On the fourth and final Saturday of puppy kindergarten, he was still not able to engage with the other puppies. So we rolled him over into their next program, a puppies-only, very closely supervised version of doggie daycare. By the end, he loved dogs.

Young puppy Silas

Poor scraggly guy.

I have no doubt that puppy kindergarten and puppy daycare are the only reason that Silas isn’t dog-reactive, and I’m not sure if the me of those days could have successfully managed a dog-reactive dog.

Our additional weekly socialization homework compelled us to do all kinds of other good things, too, like going to a variety of local parks and meeting a certain quantity of strangers. When Silas got older and became pathologically fearful of new things, that background saved us.

People are going to acquire puppies. By all means, if you know the person’s intentions in advance, do everything you can to help them make a wise decision. Once they have that dog in their home, though, it’s no longer the time to educate them about puppy mills, backyard breeders, or the wonders of rescue. The best thing you can do is help keep that puppy out of the shelter.

So, this is my mission for you: research your local training facilities. Find the class that you would take your puppy to, if you were so crazy as to get a new puppy. Use your experience of dogs and dog training to pick a good place. Then spread the word.

When you see a puppy out on a walk, or when your hair stylist tells you that she just got a new puppy, be prepared to pop out the name of that local puppy class.

I do this myself and find it to be extremely painless. People want to chat about their puppies. Then you can just slip in, “You know, the best puppy classes in town are at Fido’s Training Extravaganza.” Average Jane does not know that puppy kindergarten exists, let alone that socialization is crucially important.

Do you live somewhere with no puppy classes? Then hand out the URL for Ian Dunbar’s After You Get Your Puppy, which is online for free as a pdf.

Trained and socialized puppies very rarely wind up in shelters, so let’s help make every puppy trained and socialized.

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Things I Just Can’t Be Bothered About

I read a lot of dog media, ranging from the traditional to the way-out-hippy-dippy. It seems like everybody is always prognosticating some terrible thing that is inevitably going to happen to my dog if I make the wrong decisions.

You know what? I’ve got real problems. I don’t need to borrow trouble.

So, here’s my list of things that make me roll my eyes:

1) Dog sunburn. Silas has no hair. He is white. We live in an extremely hot, UV-heavy climate. If he wants to sunbathe on the patio at 1:30 in the afternoon, I let him. I figure he has sense enough to know when he’s getting uncomfortable. I would never compel him to stay outside in the sun longer than that, because it’s a zillion degrees out there and I don’t want him to get overheated. (Dog heat stroke being a thing I do care about.) I don’t plan long outings midday, because it’s gross out there. I have never seen a single indication that he’s gotten a sunburn.

2) Vaccine paranoia. Silas gets a full series of regular vaccines, and will continue to do so until I see the first hint that he’s reacting badly to them. (My vet does use a three-year protocol.) That’s a choice that makes me happy. Make the choice that makes you happy. Stop trying to convince me that a tiny, tiny dose of rabies vaccine every three years is poisoning my dog.

3) Excessive vigilance about dog food. Yes, I’m saying it. Silas has serious food issues, and I have had to do a lot of work with his diet. But that doesn’t mean every dog needs you to micromanage every ingredient. Micromanaging every ingredient is exactly zero fun. Pick a food you and your budget are comfortable with. Feed it to your dog. Maybe rotate through all the flavors of that food, so that your dog gets some variety. Is your dog healthy? Woohoo! You have done your job. Stop worrying.

4) Babying healthy joints. I have a friend who was horrified that I let Silas jump up and down off our bed. “He’ll ruin his knees!” I kept it to myself that Silas’s favorite game is a zoomies circuit that includes jumping off the bed, running at full speed down the stairs, skidding across the sofa, and then executing a tight turn and doing it in reverse. I’m not going to critique his every motion to prevent hypothetical damage. Life is too short. Your dog or breed has a predisposition to bad joints? Then be more careful than I am. Over here? We’re playing the zoomies game.

5) Natural heartworm prevention. Ivermectin is extremely safe. (Arguably even for breeds with Ivermectin sensitivity, although there are some good alternatives on the market now.) Heartworm is extremely dangerous and extremely prevalent in our area. I am not fooling around. Your herbs work great for your dog? Good for you! Can we change the subject now?

How about you? What boogiemen do you refuse to be afraid of?

The Best Damn Tiny World

Have I mentioned lately that I love you guys? I was really down around Silas’s birthday, and your comments were just so sweet. Blueberry’s Human from Spotty Spotty Polkadotty scolded me, justly, for the sin of comparison. Then she said this, referring to her previous, less-than-social dog:

Was her world small? Absolutely – but it was full of love and fun and at the end of the day, that’s all that really mattered to her.

I have a lot of anxiety about Silas, because his problems are not minor. The list of things that he cannot do? It has some fairly serious stuff on it, some of which I can’t even bring myself to talk about. So when Silas does something like start refusing to get in the car, I panic. I panic because I envision his 50% tolerance for people eroding as he gets less and less exposure. I panic because it took me years to build up enough confidence for him to be semi-comfortable in some select number of parks. I panic because I imagine every setback as some kind of slippery slope that ends in tragedy.

It’s partly justified, but mostly silly. We did manage to get him to the park one day last week, and he was absolutely fine. Better than fine. Maybe we’re over some kind of hump–with three years of good park experience, a few months away aren’t going to be the END of park going anymore. We met my neighbor outside one day last week, and Silas was thrilled to see her. While we were talking to her, my other neighbor walked out, and Silas really wanted to meet him, too. Obviously, our last few months of isolation hasn’t been a big deal.

So for now, I’m shifting my focus.

Who cares if Silas’s world has gotten very, very small?

We’ll have the best damn tiny world in the universe. 

Three Years Old!

Silas’s third birthday passed this weekend without a lot of fanfare. As you can probably tell by my very sporadic blogging, things have not been super-shiny-happy here lately. It’s not that things are bad. If anything, it’s something of the opposite–we’ve settled into a very pleasant, but very boring and very secluded routine. His birthday made me a little sad, because I feel some kind of finality that he’s really, truly an adult now, and I can’t expect him to just “grow out of it” anymore.

On the other hand, we finally got to take down the baby gate in our bathroom, and this week I learned that I can have throw pillows on my sofa again. As long as I’m willing to share, that is:


Silas has been happily taking his very short sidewalk walks, which you can see here if you don’t mind truly execrable video-while-walking:

His ears are mostly back, but in a fairly neutral way (the closer they are together on the back of his head, the more freaked out he is). You can tell that he’s checking over his shoulder a lot, but he’s also able to stop to sniff the bushes. I get very excited at the end of the video, because he walks past the gate to sniff the bush on the far side. That means he did not frantically dart under the gate, and he didn’t try to drag me the last few steps. This is pretty typical for these outings, plus 20 seconds or so at the beginning while I got the camera set up. When I say little walks, I mean it. On a usual day we walk around between the townhouse buildings for a few more minutes once we’re done.

That is, alas, the only way I’m able to get him out of the house. Smart Silas has progressed to the point that he will happily get in my car as long as I have absolutely no walking apparatus. No bag, no car keys, no harness. If my husband is home, the two of us can cajole him in, but I hate to undo my happy-counterconditioning by pressuring him about the car too often. We get his exercise by playing upstairs-downstairs fetch over our loft railing. He loves the park once we’re there–I just can’t get him to connect the pieces.

I’m really uncomfortable with our very small life, because I know that Silas doesn’t benefit from it in the long run, but everybody’s happy for now. When there’s no pressure from the outside world, Silas is officially the world’s sweetest, smartest dog, so we get by.

Which circles back around to my fairly radical drop in blog posts–it’s times like this that I have to dial down my over-investment in his life. If I work too hard at being the best dog-person ever, I get really frustrated when he doesn’t make more progress. If think about nothing but my dog all day, surely my dog could get his act together? Alas, that isn’t how it works. I’m trying to pop in a few times a week; I can’t promise more than that.

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.


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.

Don’t Wake Up the Dog!

I don’t know if Silas was a harder-than-average puppy to raise. I somehow doubt it. Most of his issues didn’t come up right away, although an experienced dog person would have seen warning signs.

What I do know is that I was really not prepared for having a puppy. We didn’t intend to adopt a puppy, and we certainly didn’t intend to adopt one right that minute.

I remember being deeply thankful every time he fell asleep. The catch was that if I did anything to wake him up, it was 50/50 if he would go back to sleep. Waking up the puppy became a huge no-no. Puppy is asleep on your lap and you need to use the bathroom? Hold it. If the dog is asleep on your leg, you are absolved from chores. It’s still the excuse that trumps all other excuses. I had to stop sitting in “snuggle chair,” because Silas would get in my lap and sleep from the time I sat down to drink my morning coffee until lunch time. It was just easier to sit somewhere else.

It’s silly now, because at almost three years old, Silas is a much more determined sleeper. He’s curled up against my leg right now. I know that if I get up, he’ll just scoot over into my warm spot and go back to sleep. I won’t be unleashing the puppy tornado. Still, that first six or eight months left a lasting impression, and I’m sitting here instead of making breakfast.

I wonder if that’s why I have so many pictures of Silas sleeping?

Sweet sleeping dog

That poor dog can't be comfortable.

Sweet dog swaddled in fleece blankets

What's cuter than a sleeping puppy?

Sleepy dog

Annual tradition of watching the Tour de France

Silas sleeps while I read

Warm dog sleeping in the sunshine

Baby puppy sleeping on the back of the sofa.

Sleeping puppy

Or maybe it’s just because they’re so adorable. I do know that when I left Silas with my mom over night, she sent me one text message. It was a picture of Silas sleeping.

Keep Yourself From Going Crazy, Too

Everyone’s a little out of sorts around here. I’m having the seasonal allergies of doom. (Why, yes, it is spring here, and I am NOT READY for it to be hot again.) Silas has been what feels like constantly on-edge, culminating in a long series of total meltdowns yesterday.

The HOA decided it was time for spring gutter cleaning, so Silas and I woke up yesterday morning to a man standing on my roof, clearly visible through my skylight. Then they moved over to the garage roof, clearly visible through our patio doors. You can imagine how well this went down. They were gone before 10:30, but then Silas was convinced that every sound–and I mean every sound until we went to bed–was the evil people coming back to stand on his roof again.

It was not a good day.

When Silas woke me up at 6:30 this morning barking like a crazy, I knew that I needed to regather the shreds of my very fragile zen in order to get through today. Tuesdays are always bad, since they’re our regular landscaping day. Despite counterconditioning him to the leaf blower for the better part of two years, we’ve only made so much progress. So, what do you do, when your dog that you can’t leave has driven you to the brink of insanity? When one more bark is going to reduce you to a temper-tantrum or to a sobbing mess, and there are probably 50 more barks coming?

Here’s my list:
–Watch dog training videos. This one is be a double-edged sword, because it can send you into the “my dog is defective” spiral, but it can also be good inspiration to work through challenges.

–Fantasize about getting away. Tomorrow, when everything is back to normal, I’m taking myself somewhere nice and quiet. In three weeks I get two whole days of Silas staying with my mom.

–Put more of the burden on your partner. I’m usually the one who intervenes when Silas has a fit, but sometimes I know that I’m just not in a good place to deal with it. Those days I’ll make my husband handle him.

–Play a silly dog game. You’ll improve your relationship with your dog and help stop some of the stress that is accumulating for both of you.

–Use the resources you have. I have a small selection of things that actually help Silas’s anxiety, but (aside from his daily meds) I tend to save them for bigger problems. If your dog is making you crazy, that’s a bigger problem. Depending on your dog, this might be a DAP product or a special puzzle toy or a ThunderShirt.

–Change the environment. This one is, again, really dog-dependent. Know your dog and watch for stress accumulations from one situation to the next.

–Take whatever break you can. Your dog needs you, sure, but does he need you right this second? This probably makes me a terrible person, but sometimes I’ll just go sit in the bathroom with the door shut. Take a mental vacation.

How about you? What do you do when your last button has been pushed?

Nothing Easy

We want things–I want things, humans want things–to be predictable. To follow the same path every time. We have labels, some funny, some serious, for the weird outliers who don’t. Thrill-seakers. Adrenaline junkies. Rule-breakers. Problem children. Freaks.

More and more lately I realize that there is, in fact, nothing easy and predictable. From public-policy issues to dog training, everything is more complex than we would like. We look, desperately, for the one answer. We (I) want one thing to work all the time. We (I) want progress to be linear. We (I) want tomorrow to be exactly like to day, except maybe even a little better. I’m a control freak at heart, and it pains me that this isn’t really possible. It isn’t even close to possible, especially not when we’re dealing with living creatures, ourselves or our dogs.

Fortunately, in our personal lives we don’t have to make laws. We don’t have to set things in stone forever. We have a wonderful, but oh-so-hard, freedom to adapt to what every situation needs. We can look at individual need in any moment, and work to fill that need with the tools at hand. (I’ll be talking more concretely about this this week.)

This is the refrain I will always circle back to here, always trying to say it better. Especially lately, because it weighs on me: rules are easy, but compassion is not rules. Compassion is the opposite of rules, and it is a difficult practice. It’s walking on soft ground, having to evaluate every step, and getting a little muddy no matter what. Seeing the need means also seeing a hundred impatient failures a day, but that doesn’t make it a worthless goal.


Open Hearted

When Silas was a puppy, I was determined that he should be a model dog. I started teaching him “sit” and “down” when he was six weeks old. Not long after that, I printed out the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen requirements. I read all the books. I made all the spreadsheets. We went to all the classes. We were going to be a beacon of good dog-ness. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was going to be better than all those other dog owners.

It took me a long time to realize that Silas wasn’t a high-functioning, naturally social dog. It took me even longer to realize that, while we could work on his coping skills, I couldn’t really, truly change his basic personality. Not only that, but because of the particular ways and means of his dysfunction, I couldn’t even try again with another dog. Resentful brain said, “I’m stuck with this neurotic dog who can’t even go for a walk for the next fifteen years. I wanted a dog who could do things.”

What can I say? I love rules. I love following rules. I love for other people to follow the rules. Silas doesn’t work that way. Learning to accept that has been really, really hard for me. As is true for most people who love rules and have had fairly successful lives, making allowances for others, even dogs, doesn’t come easily to me.

Over time, I’ve let go of it being all about me. (Mostly.) Sometimes I look at Silas, panicking over something that doesn’t exist, and I am broken hearted for him. I’m reminded of how brave he has to be just to live his very narrow little life. The world is so hard for him.

I don’t see myself, anymore, as a vehicle for teaching him THE RULES. We aren’t paragons. I don’t get to flaunt how I’m better than other dog owners. My role in his life is to intercede between him and the world. To do what needs to be done, whether that’s giving up on walks, hiding from strangers at the park, never EVER having people over, or letting go of that Good Citizen award. He’s not a lump of clay that I can shape however I want; he is a creature who desperately needs my care. I won’t lie and say that it’s always easy, or that some days I don’t still resent it. Learning important lessons is hard and gross and progress is uneven.

I love my little broken, high-strung dog more than I ever thought possible. I don’t want to reduce him to something that he has taught me. But he is certainly teaching it.