Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year in Review

January was a boring month. Maisy celebrated her gotcha day with a trip to the dog park and one of the best photos of all time. 

 Maisy received her first paycheck in February. And that was about it. Well, that and I learned how to knit. Which has absolutely nothing to do with this blog, but I'm pretty sure it proves that I'm a wizard, so that's cool.

In March, I registered Maisy with the AKC so she could participate in lure coursing. She hasn't had the chance to do it yet. Also, we went hiking and Maisy climbed a tree.

Maisy had her second modeling job in April, when she modeled several Halloween costumes. She didn't end up on any packaging, but it was still a fun experience. She also earned her first two QQs towards her ARCH, something we'd be trying to do for years.

May was the month of Maisy's first (and unbeknownst to me, last) backpacking trip. We spent five days in northern Minnesota hiking the Superior Hiking Trail with our friends Laura and Piper. Laura and I also attended the Midwest Animal Welfare Conference for a day of talks on behavior. We did not take the dogs. 

In June, the results of Maisy's first modeling shoot turned up in stores. She also officially graduated from being followed by the veterinary behaviorist when we agreed to cancel Maisy's appointment because I had absolutely no behavioral concerns.

July was AWESOME! Maisy earned her ARCH, a multi-level championship title in APDT/WCRL rally. I also attended a Steve White seminar (Maisy had a working spot!), and went to a Paco collar making class. Maisy is all pretty now.

August was (I think) the month Dog Sport Skills, Book 1 by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones came out. This might not seem like it has anything to do with me, but I worked as the editor on it, so this was pretty exciting! I also had the best birthday ever, and began dating my new boyfriend.

Do we have to remember September? Because this is the month that Maisy almost died. She was diagnosed with immune-mediated inflammatory disease of the spinal cord. Two weeks later, she ended up back in the ICU with a 7mm bladder stone blocking her urethra. You all rallied around me, helping me pay most of Maisy's medical bills, for which I am very thankful. I also took the CPDT-KA exam, although that was completely overshadowed by Maisy's illness.

In October, I got the news that I passed my CPDT-exam. Later in the month, I got my first foster dog. 

And a week later, in November, I officially adopted my foster dog. I also hosted Thanksgiving for the first time ever, which was both challenging and exciting. 

December marked Maisy's first recurrence of her immune-mediated inflammatory disease. Or rather, the early stages of what we assume was a recurrence. I also attended the Kim Brophey seminar, which was absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

More than Just Training: Changing Your Lifestyle to Change Your Reactive Dog

Maisy is a normal dog these days, health concerns not withstanding, of course. I take her places that I would have never dreamed possible in the old days, and I do it without even thinking about it. I put her into chaotic situations- block parties, playing with children, outdoor festivals- without worrying. I used her as a decoy dog for a BAT session with a German Shepherd, completely forgetting that that breed was once one of her biggest triggers.

And guys? It's pretty awesome.

But it took a lot of work to get to this point; our (former! Sad face!) veterinary behaviorist told me that she's only seen this level of improvement a handful of times in the past ten years. Maisy's normalcy is not, well... normal. And yet, here we are.

This progress was not the result of any one thing. Medication was a huge factor, as was some environmental management/change. And of course, I did a ton of training. But when you're working with a reactive dog, this training is not limited to attending class and doing your homework. This training needs to be happening all day long.

Back when I was in the throes of reactivity with Maisy, her days consisted of either management or training. That's it. I was either doing something to prevent her from reacting, or I was actively working on her reactivity. This required me to change my lifestyle in order to accommodate her needs.

Every single walk we took required a clicker and cookies. We played Look at That. I closely monitored her body language and used the Whiplash Turn to interrupt her when she got close to going overthreshold. Sometimes, I would turn around if there was a dog or a kid or a bike up ahead that I knew she wouldn't be able to handle. I reinforced good choices liberally. I did a ton of classical conditioning: every barking dog resulted in cookies. Every screaming child resulted in cookies. Every bike that whizzed by resulted in cookies.

At home, Maisy went in a crate when guests or workmen were expected. She did not go to many dog-friendly gatherings because I knew I would be distracted and unable to give her the undivided attention she would need. That made me sad (I love having her around), but it was the best thing for her. If I knew that something was reliably difficult for her (garbage day or the neighbor's house being re-roofed or whatever), I would put her in a quiet room with a chewy and calming music playing loudly enough to drown out the sounds. (Later, after we'd started using medication, I would also give her a short-acting, as-needed anxiety drug.)

I paid attention to the things that set her off at home, like the sound of a car door slamming outside or the mailman coming or even the cats boisterously playing together. I always had treats in a pocket, and every one of these things was followed by a cookie so I could change her association with those triggers from bad to good.

We did go to classes, and we did do our homework. You really have to; if your dog only practices skills in stressful situations, those skills become predictors of bad or scary things, and can actually add to your dog's stress level.

In other words, I changed the way I lived my life so I could help Maisy. Sometimes I failed. I was tired or sick or had a bad day and just couldn't deal with her. That was okay. I managed what I could and just promised myself I'd try again the next day. There were times that I put her in situations that required a judgment call- and I made the wrong one. Those, too, were okay. I would take note of the problem and work on it later. But over time, my consistent and constant work paid off with a normal dog.

My lifestyle had to change drastically in order to reach this place, but it has been worth it. Having a normal dog is freaking awesome, and I am thrilled beyond belief that I can enjoy her company in so many more situations now.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Confessions of a Ribbon Whore

I love ribbons. While many of my friends donate theirs back to the host club, I keep mine, every single one. Even the Q ribbons, boring as they are. I like the shiny satin, the golden lettering. I like that they prove yes, my dog was awesome that day. I like showing them off on the internet, to friends and family, and even by hanging them on my cubicle walls at work.

To be fair, ribbons aren't the only reason I compete. I also enjoy the process. I enjoy training and the challenge of getting a flashy ]heel. I enjoy watching my dog go from skill-less to a superstar. I enjoy going to dog events and hanging out with other people who “get it.” But I'd be lying if I didn't say that I also like the ribbons.

Still, as much as I enjoy the training and the trialing and the trophies... I would give it all up in a heartbeat. Because here's the thing: I love my dog. I love her silly mismatched ears. I love the way she teases me, snatching away the ball when I reach for it in some twisted game of canine keep-away. I love the way she snuggles with me when my alarm goes off in the morning. I love her enthusiastic greetings when I return home, even if I only took the garbage out. I love her joy and enthusiasm in everything. And I love spending time with her.

Training and trialing are fun, but only because they are something for us to do together. There are many things I like to do with Maisy, and honestly? Trialing (and even training) are probably at the bottom of that list. If I'm honest, there's nothing better than a good off-leash hike in the woods. Or endlessly throwing a ball in the backyard. Or even just sitting with her pressed up against me while I read a book.

So yeah, I love ribbons. I know which clubs have awesome ribbons and which are lacking... but I keep them all anyway. And yeah, I display them prominently and proudly, and not just because it strokes my ego to do so. Mostly, I love my ribbons for their sentimental value. Ribbons don't prove anything, but I love them as shiny reminders that my dog and I are a team, and that no matter what life throws at us, we can succeed. Together.


I wrote this entry months ago. So many months ago that I never imagined that Maisy would nearly die, that I never dreamed I'd have a second dog by the end of the year. If I were to write this post today... well, I wouldn't. Today, faced with the prospect of both endings and beginnings at once, ribbons mean much less to me than they did once.

Still, I love the sentiment behind this post. If there's anything that the past few months have taught me, it's that my ribbons mean nothing more than the fact that, as I wrote, Maisy and I are a team. Life has thrown us some nasty curveballs, and we will succeed. It's just that the idea of success... well, it doesn't mean winning anymore. It might not even mean living.

As for what it does mean... well, I don't know. I suppose it's about being brave in the face of the unknown. About being fully present in the life we do have available to us. About the fact that really, today is no different than the day before she got sick: a beautiful gift.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Evanger's Freeze-Dried Treats

This month, chewy.com gave us the opportunity to try Evanger's Freeze-Dried treats. When I got them in the mail, I noticed that the packaging said they are for dogs and cats. My dogs are greedy and will eat basically anything, but my cat is a bit pickier, so I figured he was the best test-taster this time around.

And the verdict? Kitty likes! I like that they were fairly easy to break up into smaller pieces without crumbling all over like some of the other freeze-dried treats we've tried. I also like that they are single-ingredient and from the US (ie, not China).

And of course, I have to tell you that I received this product free but was not told what to say, nor compensated in any other way.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Well, I'm Not Entirely Incompetent

The hard thing with a new dog is that you don't know when something's wrong, because you don't know what their normal looks like. When I first got Pyg, he was energetic and playful, but that slowly went away until I thought that maybe the excitement of those first few days was just some weird stress response, and that this new mellow version of Pyg was just who he is.

At the same time, his house training got more and more irregular. I figured this was because it's December in Minnesota, and therefore snowy and cold. And I'm sure that didn't help, but I potty trained Maisy in January weather (always worse than December) for goodness sake. Plus, well, I don't know how well he'd been potty trained before, so... Like I said, it's hard when you don't know a dog's normal.

I have learned a bit about Pyg's normal, though. First, no, the playfulness was not a stress response, and that his personality is to be a funny, goofy, excited little dog. And second, I'm not an entirely incompetent trainer, because Pyg has been peeing outside again!

So what happened? Well, I did that thing that trainers like me always tell clients to do: I took him to see a vet. As it turns out, there was indeed a medical cause for Pyg's subdued nature and training regression. We just don't know what it is, exactly. (Figures. How do I end up with these dogs?) Anyway, his urinalysis did not show any bacteria, crystals, or white blood cells. But it did show some old red blood cells. The vet told me this could be a ninja infection (I'm pretty sure those were her exact words), or congenital bladder stones, or a kidney problem.

We decided we liked the first option best (because ninjas) and started treating with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. And lo and behold: peeing outside! More playfulness and energy, too. Also, I'm not totally incompetent at potty training. Good news all around!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Project Gratitude: Secret Santa

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay everyone back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude. Each month, I donate my time or money to a person or organization that needs it. Please email me at reactivechampion(at)gmail(dot)com if you know someone in need.

For this month's Project Gratitude, I played Secret Santa for one of my social work clients. This means I can't share too many details, but basically, this family just tugs at my heart like no other. For financial reasons, they recently had to move from a single-family home to an apartment. They brought their pets with them, but they've had difficulty affording things like food. For everyone. And while they can use food shelves for themselves, it's much harder to obtain pet food, so I bought two large bags of pet food for their dog and their cats.

For what it's worth, their local food shelf does give out pet food, just in very small quantities. I don't think people realize that some food shelves will accept donations for household goods (including pet food). For many low-income families, food shelves can mean the difference between eating and going hungry... for both them and their pets. So although I gave directly to a family, you can help keep pets in their homes by donating to pet food to your local food shelf.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Worried and Scared: A Maisy Update

In the last week or two, I've noticed that Maisy seems... off. She's just slightly stiff. She needs to take a break halfway up the stairs. She's reluctant to jump in the car, and she's slow and sad-looking on walks. Things that would be easily attributable to aging- Maisy is seven, after all- but these are some of the same things I saw emerge over the summer. You know, before her immune-mediated crash? The one that almost killed her?

I called Maisy's neurologist, who told me to increase Maisy's prednisone from 5mg every other day to 5mg every day for 7 to 10 days. Then, we have three options: do 2.5mg daily, 7.5mg every other day, or add in cyclosporine (which tends to be quite expensive). He recommended option one, so that's what we'll do.

But then he added that it is not unusual for dogs to have a recurrence of immune-mediated inflammation after one or two months of reducing the dose. Which we did for Maisy about six weeks ago. He also added that dogs who recur at this point tend to have "less longevity" than dogs who successfully transition to no steroids at all.

It's one thing to suspect that your dog likely won't live as long, but it's quite another to be told so point-blank. I may have cried at work. I'm trying to be positive, though. Not only is Maisy very sensitive to my moods, but being sad and scared and worried won't help me enjoy whatever time I have left with Maisy.

Which I hope is a very long time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Congratulations! It's a Puppy!

Perhaps it's just the passage of time, but I do not remember Maisy being this much of a pain in the ass. Then again, I got her much younger than I got Pyg, and she came with the bonus of already being crate-trained. Also, she had her CGC by the time she was Pyg's age. Also, I think she was just too flippin' scared of the world to be naughty.

Whatever the reason, as Pyg has settled into life with us, he's become progressively naughtier. This is not a huge surprise. Not only had I suspected he would come out of his shell, but he's also an adolescent without much training. And normal adolescent dogs without much training are, well, annoying.

He's constantly getting into things. Yesterday, the treat drawer was left slightly ajar, and so he opened it and invited Maisy to his all-you-can-eat party. They went through probably a dozen bully sticks, several rawhides, a nylabone, a couple of cow hooves, and who knows what else. Today I came home to find a roll of thread (WTF?) destroyed. Last week it was a yardstick and the cat litter scooper.

And the recycling. Oh, the recycling! Pyg loves rooting around, especially in the cardboard recycling. He pulls out boxes and just shreds them. This doesn't really bother me, but it would be nice to come home to a semi-clean house.

Pyg's decided being short is stupid, and so is always jumping on everything. Counters, the chest freezer, my sewing table (from which he snitched the thread), my bed side stand (where he knocked my pill bottles down but thankfully didn't open them)...

Peeing is meant to be done anywhere, anytime, and poop is clearly meant for consuming. Dead squirrels found on walks? Tug toys. Conveniently decapitated bird heads? Bedtime snack. Your nose? A slightly-too-chewy chew toy.

Let's just say I've been rethinking my training priorities. I've already started with “off” and “gimme that,” and there will definitely be a viewing of Crate Games in my very near future!

Still... I don't regret adopting him. Sure, he's a pain right now, but he will be an absolutely lovely dog when he grows up. Hell, he already is a lovely dog. Besides, when he curls up on my chest and naps, the oxytocin totally gets me.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Puppies: Proving I Suck at Potty Training Since 2007

Sometimes I meet people who tell me that they can potty train any dog in a weekend. I'm never quite sure how to respond to them, but I'm pretty sure it's a mixture of wanting to yell “BULLSHIT” and “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY” because I suck at potty training dogs. I'm not sure why this is; the concept is simple enough. Take the dog out on a regular schedule, watch them like a hawk in between times, and confine them when you can't.

Either both of my dogs are difficult to potty train or I suck at this whole thing. With Maisy, born in a puppy mill and then lived in a small cage at a pet store until I found her at about 14 weeks, it made sense. She had always just squatted and gone where she was.

Pyg, though, lived in a foster home for a good six months. He likely had some potty training before I got him. Even so, I'm finding myself struggling with him, too. I know part of it is that it's December in Minnesota (read: cold), and I just don't want to bundle up and go out regularly. And I'm clearly not very good at supervising him.

"Just wait until I figure out how to open this window, Squirrel."
A big part of this is Pyg's absolute determination that he will not be confined. Perhaps I should have named him Houdini, because he is an escape artist. The first day I had him, he scaled a four-foot tall x-pen. Then, he went through three baby gates, which had been placed floor to ceiling in the kitchen doorway. I would have loved to have seen that.

Crating worked for awhile, but two weeks ago he figured out how to get out of a wire crate. I'm not entirely sure how he did it; the door was tightly latched, all the bars remained straight, and it was not otherwise destroyed or popped apart. I assume he slithered out somehow, but until I can get him reliably crate trained (a work in progress), he is now left loose in the house, complicating the potty training.

I know this too shall pass. Maisy, impossible as I found her potty training to be, now has a bladder of steel. She rarely has accidents, even when she's got a UTI. I can potty train a dog. I can. But until that happens with Pyg, I'm grateful for belly bands, maxi pads, and my steam cleaner.

Monday, December 2, 2013

In Which My Training Priorities Surprised Me

To be perfectly honest, I really haven't done much training with Pyg. But I have done quite a bit of behavior modification. Some of my friends don't think there's much of a difference between these two things, and perhaps they're right. But things are so much more fun in my head (there are narwhals, after all) that the distinction matters to me.

Maybe a better way to talk about it would be to say that I've done quite a bit of classical conditioning with Pyg, and not much operant conditioning. I've been very interested in creating good emotional associations with things, in changing the way he feels. I haven't done much in the way of changing how Pyg behaves. Of course, I do realize that changing feelings often changes behaviors, so yes. My friends are probably right. But so am I. Or at least, my point stands.

Anyway, if I had to sum up what I've done with Pyg over the past month, it would be in one word: husbandry, with a focus on handling and grooming. Maybe it was just the stress of transport, or maybe he'd had bad experiences, but when Pyg first came home, he was a bit hand shy. Oh, he was friendly enough, but if you reached towards him, he'd skitter away. It was hard to catch him long enough to put a leash on him so he could go out to potty.

I started with doing lots and lots of collar grabs with him. Reach out, touch collar, give treat. Reach out, grab collar, give treat. Reach out, tug on collar, give treat. Over and over and over again at each step, until Pyg was happy to see my hand coming towards him.

Next I worked on being about to touch him anywhere on his body. Touch his hips, give treat. Touch his thigh, give treat. Touch his back, give treat. Touch his shoulder, give treat. Touch his ears, give treat. Look in his ears, give treat. Hold head still, give treat. Over and over and over again until I could trim his nails without protest, until I could examine his teeth, until I could trim up some of the fur around his face.

Hey! Someone left their peanut butter in the tub!
Most of this- even the nail trims- went surprisingly fast. Trimming his face was a bit harder (he does not like the scissors). But hardest of all has been trying to get him in the bathtub. I have no idea why, but he is freaked out scared. This is frustrating if only because he is so greasy and smelly at this point that I have contemplated throwing caution to the wind and just getting it done.

I haven't, yet. I am patient, and he does have to eat twice a day, after all. Right now every meal is going towards the bathtub thing: being fed while held near the tub and having special treats in the bathtub. Once that's done, we need to work on taking medicine (which is going to be hard, because he does not like the dewormer I'm giving him right now), and then a bit more on medical exams.

One of these days, I'm going to have to actually train him.