What Silas Learned At Thanksgiving

A substantial portion of Silas’s diet is raw turkey. So, obviously, this time of year I stock up. This year I was efficient, determined not to suffer from last year’s problem, where I had whole turkeys taking up my valuable freezer space all year. Plus, the ones I bought on Sunday were alarmingly defrosted already, so refreezing them seemed silly. That means I spent all afternoon yesterday jointing turkeys. Yay.

I turn the turkey bones that Silas can’t eat raw into very basic broth, which I mix with his dried food. In the past I’ve just left the little cooked meat scraps that result from this process in the broth, so he gets a bite or two per rehydrated meal. As far as I can tell, he’s never noticed them one way or the other.

Last night, I taking the broth off the stove when Silas walked by, sniffing the air. I knew he hadn’t eaten a lot yesterday, so I fished him out a little cooked bite of turkey and handed it to him.

Silas: WHY DID YOU NOT TELL ME YOU COULD COOK IT? THIS IS AMAZING.

Oops.

 

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Progress Is Not Always Obvious

Silas with his bed

Wednesday afternoon, morbid curiosity drove me back into the blog archives. It isn’t a place I go often, just in case I said something that would horrify present-day me. Instead, I was left feeling the need to give my old self a serious hug.

It’s been about two years since I started the blog. Silas turned one in May of 2012, and I started the blog in August that year. I suspect, reading my first few posts and remembering some of the things that prompted them, that I started the blog out of despair.

We went to the vet every month from March to September or October that year. One of the things that came out of that was his food allergy diagnosis, which meant that by August we were doing a tedious and emotionally draining food elimination diet. It took over a year before we were at a sustainable diet again. On our summer vacation that year, Silas erupted in hives so bad he looked like a dog-shaped cauliflower, prompting major (and thankfully unfounded) panic that he was going to have severe seasonal allergies.

At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that he was not just afraid of a few things, he was afraid of almost everything. It took me a long time to really process that, during which time his behavior continued to deteriorate in many situations.

On top of all that, he was an adolescent male dog. He’s never had significant bad behaviors at home, but dog adolescence has its problems for everybody.

I knew we were having a rough go of things, but I don’t think I was capable of processing how miserable it all was. It’s one of the more adaptive and useful traits of the human brain. However, an inability to really assess the situation right this minute means that you can’t, by definition, see if you’re making progress or not.

A lot of those issues–the stuff that used to drive every decision that I made, every day–just quietly went away with time, and we developed patterns of behavior to mute the others, further blurring the distinctions.

I adjusted to Silas’s food issues. We have four proteins he can eat now, and I buy the same five or six kinds of “safe” treats all the time. I got used to the grosser parts of preparing a raw diet. He’s still a finicky eater at meal times, and he still has serious stomach problems, but we get by.  I also know when to watch for and how to manage his seasonal allergies, which are fairly mild but do exist.

We’ve reached a middle ground with his anxiety, thanks in no small part to his medication. He’s stopped reacting badly to neighborhood sounds, which lessened my stress levels by about 99%. I’ve learned to live with every street-facing window in the house completely blocked. I know what he can handle, what he can’t handle, and what might be a good learning experience. I’ve let go of many, many expectations.

Silas also grew up. His temperament and energy levels stabilized. The last of our “regular dog” behavioral issues around the house (like chewing on the bathroom rug) went away. We did so much training to channel his energy that he’s a really good dog at home, and there’s even some residue of it finally showing up in other environments.

On Tuesday, when we went to the park and he was happy and well-behaved, I was a little stunned. Like I said, it’s hard to tell these days what’s really improving–Silas’s behavior or our ability to mold our life around his problems. And those, of course, form a fairly complex web. For example, I manage Silas’s barking out the front windows by covering them all up, but every day that he doesn’t practice that behavior is also lessening his need to do it.

When you have a reactive dog, or an anxious dog, it’s easy to see the setbacks. I could tell write you a list right now of behaviors that I’m working to improve, from the pragmatic to the most dog-geeky. Progress, though, is so silent and so slow that it’s easy to feel like it isn’t happening at all.

Have faith, and stop to look around once in a while.

I used our first good car trip to go to the vet

In April Silas started refusing to get in the car. All summer, my husband and I have been working with him. We went on dozens of “happy” trips as a family, because Silas was more comfortable with both of us. A few weeks ago, I took him to the park solo, and it was just a little premature. He started off happy to go, then balked at the last minute and had to be really encouraged to get on in the car. So I haven’t taken him again. Instead, we’ve done a few more happy family trips.

At the same time, Silas’s stomach has been pretty bad for the last few weeks. He has a vaguely diagnosed underlying stomach problem, separate from his food allergies. His vet thinks it’s acid reflux, and she seems confident enough in this diagnosis that we’ve never done additional tests. He wakes up and doesn’t want to eat, then he feels bad because he didn’t eat. Some days, but not often, he’ll throw up.

It comes and goes in phases. For some reason, it seems to pick up whenever we’re doing more training. I don’t know if the connection is my imagination, if having too many rich training treats upsets his stomach, or if Silas is just naturally regulating his calorie intake and upsetting his stomach in the process.

When I looked back at my records this morning, I realized that he’s eaten breakfast two times in the last two weeks. He’s also been basically sleeping 23.5 hours a day. His Whistle reported 12 minutes of activity yesterday, and 15 the day before.

I’ve been really, really hesitant to take him to the vet, because I didn’t want to “ruin” the car. But, enough was enough, and he had to go.

He leapt into that car like he’s never even thought of being terrified by it. I, on the other hand, felt like the biggest jerk in the history of jerks.


It was a good vet visit. Silas was nervous, but all things considered he’s a champ at the vet. He walked into the exam room and tried to jump up on the table. Lots of stress signals during his exam (lip licking, ears down, panting), but he was a good patient. No barking or teeth showing or anything. Then he jumped all over the vet, licked her face, and tried to make her hold him. (Seriously? He doesn’t even try to make me hold him.)

He also ate his weight in hypoallergenic veterinary diet cookies. According to the vet, no dog has ever liked those cookies, and here’s my picky eater with the nausea problem chowing down. Oh, Silas.

The verdict is that his acid reflux is, indeed, all that’s wrong. He’s not losing weight, he’s very rarely throwing up, his teeth are “amazing,” and his physical exam didn’t seem off in any way.

We’re going to try to give his Pepcid last thing at night, since he won’t take it in the morning, and see if that gets him through the morning blerghs. I’m also going to change up his training cookies to something a little easier on his stomach.

And maybe, if I’m very lucky, he’ll get in the car with me again one day.

Advocating for your dog

Silas is a deceptive little creature. He’s generally interested in other people and dogs, but his reactions tend to change quickly once things get too close.

This means that strangers think he wants to be petted. Right up until he starts barking at them, that is, and they act like my dog is a hell creature.

The problem is that this belief is so strong that I have difficulty overriding it. We get a lot of scenarios like this:

Stranger: “Can I pet your dog?”

Me: “He’s really not good with new people.”

Stranger: “Oh, but dogs love me!”

OR

Me: “He’s very shy.”

Stranger: “He doesn’t look shy to me!” (reaches down to pet Silas, gets barked at.)

It’s exhausting. Why can people not listen to me?!

Sleeping Silas

The problem with my statements in both of these cases is that the stranger thinks I’m asking for help. Their magical abilities with dogs will help Silas be less afraid of new people. Their petting will override his shyness. My dog has a behavioral problem that they think they can help me fix.

Once I realized this, I changed my tactics.

Me: “If you pet him, he will bark at you.”

Stranger: “Well, he sure is cute.” (Goes on about their business.)

It turns out, people are a lot less likely to ignore your objections when the consequences are clearly explained.

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?

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.

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.