Pre-Grieving Our Dogs

October 31, 2017

lying look of loveThis is a difficult blog to write, and one I hesitated to write or share. I’m not one to post my every emotion on social media or share my private life publicly. But there is a topic relating to our dogs that I have never seen addressed, and it’s something I believe a lot of us experience.

As our dogs age, especially if they’re ill or infirm, it’s difficult not to think about their eventual passing. When my dog Mojo–a 120-pound malamute/shepherd/wolf mix I’ve always referred to as my “soul dog”—became a senior, I began to watch him as he slept. He’d lie there peacefully on his side, blissfully ignorant of his owner’s anxieties. I’d watch for that beautiful rising and falling of his furry chest that told me he was still alive. Once seen, only then would my own breath return. Although it might sound strange, it became almost an obsession to watch for those breaths, to make sure my precious boy was still with us.

When Mojo passed in 2008, it was the end of a very rough year. Not only had he been ill, but I had lost my two remaining wolves (yes, wolves—go read Hit by a Flying Wolf if you really want to know about the insanity of my life with wolves and dogs), lost a close friend to cancer, and lived through a fire and other assorted traumatic experiences, all in one year. And then Mojo died. Nothing, not even the death of my brother years ago, could prepare me for the crushing grief. I barely got up off the floor for the first few weeks. I literally spent a month and a half crying from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep, to the point that I almost lost my voice. My hair began to fall out in clumps. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest times of my life. That it came on top of all the other tragedies didn’t help, but it really was due to how very much I loved Mojo, who was like a child to my husband and me.

Now, years later, we have Bodhi and Sierra. While I love Bodhi, of course, Sierra is my heart. As much as Mojo had been special and always will be, I have never been so close—so attached—to a dog in my life. It’s not just that I both love and like Sierra, or that’s she’s a wonderful, amazing dog, which she is. While I’ve always had an empathy and sort of sixth sense with animals, it’s incredibly strong with Sierra. We share some vibrational frequency; it’s a strange and beautiful connection. If I’m standing in my office, I know without a doubt when she’s standing by the bowl in the next room waiting for water. When I rub her tummy and give her cuddles, I can actually feel the love coming from her, and I know she can feel it from me, too. It’s our own little sacred circle of love. When we take our morning walks, I can feel her joy at running free and being out in nature. And she senses my moods as well. But it’s really more than just having an empathetic, psychic link with each other. To say we are connected would be an understatement.

In 2015 I had another tough year in which I lost both of my parents and a very close friend, along with experiencing other assorted tragedies and traumas. Weirdly, the same day my mother went into hospice, Sierra almost died. I came home to find Sierra standing there looking somehow not right. Although there was no vomiting or other outward signs of illness, I knew in my gut beyond a shadow of a doubt that something was very wrong. I rushed her to the emergency vet, where they ended up doing surgery to save her from a burst liver abscess. My mother and my dog had gone septic on the same day—what’s the chances? I’m pretty sure all of that loss and almost-loss has since heightened my fear and apprehension at the thought of even more loss.

We don’t know Sierra’s exact age, as she was a shelter rescue, but we estimate her to be around 10 or possibly even 11 years old. The day I did the math and realized that was a jarring one. I’m not yet quite at the point of watching for her chest to rise and fall, but I admit that I think way too much about what it will be like when she finally passes on, how the world could possibly exist without her in it. That’s a terrible thing to ponder, but I know I’m not alone. It’s very difficult, especially once your dog becomes a senior, not to think about that sort of thing. Some of us worry about it now and then, while others become obsessively worried about it. The only thing that really helps is, as with pretty much everything in life, to try to live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is. After all, we all have limited time here. What’s the point of tainting the joy of these moments with worry and fear? I try to spend as much time with Sierra as I can, and to make the most of our time together. There are times when I’m working at my computer and she gives me that look that says, “Isn’t it time for a cuddle?” Although I sometimes simply need to finish what I’m doing, there are many more times I look at her and think she’s right, that I don’t want to miss this moment, and that work will wait.

In the meantime, I take lots of photos of both Sierra and Bodhi, as photos are often the only things we have to hold on to after our loved ones are gone. I try to stay positive. But each time Facebook brings up a “memory” from a year or two ago, I wonder about the dagger I’m going to feel once my dogs are gone and Facebook brings up those photos. Speaking of Facebook, maintaining a live-in-the-moment attitude isn’t made any easier by the fact that my news feed is constantly full of posts along the lines of, “It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to…” My heart goes out to every one of those posters who have lost their beloved dogs. It hurts my heart, not just for them, but for what was and what will inevitably be again with my own dogs. I see tributes written about the lives of these dogs, about how wonderful they were. And that’s a beautiful thing. But we all need to put that much focus and energy into appreciating and enjoying life with our dogs while they’re still with us. We must accept that, as the saying goes, grief is the price of love. So for now, let’s take the time, and make the time to spend with our dogs, to make sure they’re safe, healthy and happy, and most of all, to let them know how very much they are loved. Because in the end, that’s all any of us can really ask for.

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Join me in Austin, TX Nov. 11 & 12! More seminar info here. You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more here, my artwork here, and me on Facebook and Twitter.

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Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

October 17, 2017

GrinRecently, a woman took her dog to the dog park for some fun and exercise. She envisioned him frolicking with other dogs and coming home happy and tired. Instead, the poor dog came away needing surgery to save his life, along with more than 10 puncture wounds. I saw the photos; suffice it to say they were both sickening and heart-wrenching. Just a few days later, another woman posted on Facebook about an encounter at the same dog park. Her dog had been attacked, had suffered serious damage to a limb, and needed to be rushed to the vet. The owner of the other dog refused to acknowledge that her dog had done anything wrong, and fled the scene.

Fortunately, both of these dogs will recover—physically, at least. As anyone who has ever suffered a bodily assault knows, the toll goes far beyond physical injury. The extent of emotional damage to any dog who has been attacked depends on the seriousness of the attack and on the temperament of the individual dog. For some dogs this type of encounter can, understandably, result in a fear of other dogs. And as any trainer worth her salt knows, that can translate to fear-based reactivity, which most people call aggression.

Does every encounter at a dog park result in physical or emotional damage to dogs? Of course not. But you might be surprised at how many dogs are having no fun at all, despite what their owners might think. When I was putting together my seminar Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play (click the link for the DVD), I needed lots of video of dogs playing. One of the places I spent time at was our local dog park. I filmed hours and hours of various breeds and sizes of dogs playing together. Although I was already aware that some dogs enjoyed playing more than others and that some encounters were definitely not positive, when I reviewed the footage in slow motion, I was shocked. Sure, there were examples of safe, non-threatening play. But there was also a myriad of instances in which dogs were practically traumatized as their owners stood by, totally unaware. One example comes instantly to mind: Within seconds of a man and his medium-sized mixed breed dog entering the park, the dog was rushed by other dogs who wanted to inspect him, as is typical in any canine group. But one of the greeters clearly scared the newcomer, who then lunged and snapped. The owner gave his dog a verbal warning for that defensive action and kept walking deeper into the park. Another dog approached and this time, with his tail tucked, the dog snapped and lunged more intently. The owner grabbed him by the collar and chastised him. Over the next five minutes, the dog had four more encounters that resulted in his being punished by the owner, each time more harshly. It would have been clear to anyone versed in canine body language that the dog was afraid, and was becoming more and more reactive because he was on the defense. It was difficult to stand there filming, and I considered aborting to go and speak with him. Just then, a woman who was a regular there approached and struck up a conversation with the man. Thankfully, she was able to convince him that his dog was scared and to leave the park. I’m sad to say that this was far from being the only negative encounter I filmed. More importantly, this sort of thing happens daily at dog parks across the world.

By now you’re probably thinking, Gee Nicole, how do you really feel? The thing is, I’ve seen the flip side as well. I’ve watched a group of ladies who meet at the park most mornings with their dogs. They’re savvy about canine body language, and although they enjoy socializing with each other as their dogs play, they constantly monitor the action. If play begins to become too heated, they create a time out by calling their dogs to them for a short break before releasing them to play again. In this way, they prevent arousal from escalating into aggression. The dogs all know each other and for the most part get along well. I have absolutely no problem with this type of scenario. Unfortunately, it’s far from being the norm. The typical scene at a dog park includes a random assortment of dogs whose owners range from being absolutely ignorant about dog behavior to being well informed, with most of the population falling somewhere in the middle. And why not? They’re not dog professionals, but loving owners who simply want their dogs to get some exercise and have a good time. In most cases, they’re not aware of the subtle or not-so-subtle signals that could indicate danger, or even that dangers exist. Comments like, “Ah, they’re dogs, they’ll work it out,” and “Oh, he’s fine” abound. It’s strange if you think about it: if you were the parent of a young child, would you send him in blindly to play with a group of kids that possibly included bullies and criminals? Wouldn’t you at the very least stand there and observe the play for a few minutes before allowing him to join the fray? If you did allow the child to participate, would you not keep an eye on him and leave if you felt there was a potential threat? And yet, at the dog park, the majority of owners never do those things.

In the best of all worlds, there would be mandatory education for dog park attendees as well as a knowledgeable staff member or volunteer at every park to monitor the action and to stop dogs who are known to be aggressive from entering in the first place. Perhaps a membership model would make this possible. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. And so, it falls to we owners to be advocates and protectors for our dogs. That means if you absolutely insist on taking your dog to a dog park, that you scan the environment before entering, that you monitor your dog’s play even while chatting with other owners, and that you intervene even to the point of leaving if necessary when you feel something is not right, even if that means facing social ostracism. Personally, I prefer play dates with known quantities rather than a park full of potential aggressors who might do serious physical or emotional damage to my dogs. If I do take mine into the dog park to run around, it’s during off hours when the park is empty. You might find this over the top or even paranoid. That’s okay. If you heard all of the stories I’ve heard over the years and seen all of the damage I’ve seen, you might think twice about whether dog parks are worth the risk.
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Join me in Austin Nov. 11 & 12 for seminars on Helping Fearful Dogs, Separation Anxiety & Dog-Dog play! You can find my books, seminar DVDs & more here and my artwork here.


The Waiting is the Hardest Part

October 12, 2017

dog dish istockphoto cropIt’s true! Whether in dog training or in life, as stated so eloquently by the late, oh-so-great Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part. I’ve seen it time after time with my clients and their dogs, and have experienced it first-hand with my own dogs.

Nowhere is the human tendency toward impatience more obvious than when we teach our dogs to stay. Dogs are normally active little beings, and sitting still can be as difficult for some as it is for a 3-year-old child. Then here we come, asking them to either sit or lay down, and then to do nothing. Huh? Imagine that from the dog’s point of view. Not only is the dog expected to not move—a difficult feat in and of itself—but there is no alternate physical activity to replace it. We’re not asking the dog to sit instead of jumping up on us, or to target our hand instead of lunging at another dog. We’re asking him, in effect, to do nothing until told otherwise. And so, our amazing dogs, who often demonstrate more patience than we do, learn and comply. But once the dog gets the idea, the next step is literally that—taking steps away. Or, perhaps building the time we expect the dog to remain in the stay. Trainers have their preferences. But either way, the theory is the same. The skill must be built up in small increments so the dog succeeds. And here is where we often fail our dogs. We practically expect them to go from a five-second stay to a minute-long stay to staying while we go out for coffee! If the dog fails, some owners are apt use punishment, while in reality the fault was their own for pushing the dog too far too fast.

Behavior modification is another area where our patience often becomes worn thin. If a dog has what I would consider nuisance behaviors, such as chewing on the wrong things, jumping on visitors, or grabbing things off countertops, owners often resort to punishment rather than taking the time to teach the dog that those things are not acceptable. And I can see why it would be tempting, because punishment does often stop the behavior immediately. The problem with punishment in general is that while it does put the kibosh on what’s currently happening, it really doesn’t address the underlying issue, and it can cause more stress, potentially making problems worse. Take the case of dogs who are fighting in the home. I had a client once whose previous trainer had told him that those ridiculous behavior programs the owner had heard about were a waste of time, and had the man put shock collars on both of his dogs instead. When the one dog hard stared the other, the man was to press the remote and deliver a shock. One day the dog looked at the other one, the man pressed the button, the dog yelped and simultaneously looked at the man…and began attacking the man. We then had a bigger problem to solve.

Whether sticking with a behavior modification program, waiting for behavioral meds to reach full efficacy, or taking gradual, incremental steps to set our dogs up to succeed, patience is a key ingredient for success. Yes, the waiting is often the hardest part; but when we’re making an effort and hanging in there because we love and care about our dogs, patience pays off.
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Hey, Texans! I’ll be teaching a seminar in Austin Nov. 11 & 12.
Click here for more info.
You can find my books and seminar DVDs here and my artwork here.

 


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