Sunday, July 31, 2011

The welcome wagon...

At a wedding in cottage country this week, surrounded by screaming children, I asked a friend of mine why he didn't bring his own two wee ones, who would most certainly have fit right into the kid crew. He told me that he and his wife left them at home on purpose - because every now and then, Mom and Dad need adult time...

While I would not dare to suggest - especially to those who have reproduced - that raising a dog and raising a child are the same, I admit that I understand this sentiment. Every now and then, it is nice not to have to wake up and immediately throw on clothes to take the dog out for a run. It is nice not to have to constantly repeat words like "off" or "leave it" each time you turn your back. And it's really nice not to have to hear barking whenever someone approaches the house.

Which is how it felt on Thursday night, when we dropped the Beast off at my brother's in advance of our Friday drive out to cottage country. I went to sleep that night with sweet dreams of sleeping in until... gasp... 7 a.m.!!

Not only did I get to sleep in on Friday - but I did not have to go for my regular 6k run with the Beast. Having a slow moving, exerciseless Friday morning has not been a part of my life since the Beast entered it, and I admit to soaking it all up!

But then, about an hour into my morning, I started to notice his absence. Where was the "scratch scratch" of his nails against the hardwood and ceramic tile floors. What about the soft clang of his dog tags knocking against each other as he walks throughout the house? And why wasn't I having to trip on the Beast as he lay outside of the bathroom while I get ready for work? The house just felt so empty - a sentiment shared by my husband who moped along as though someone had told him that Pearl Jam (one of his favourite bands) was cancelling their upcoming show.

So yes, I missed him within mere hours of him being gone. And while I did not feel at all guilty for leaving him for a weekend (my brother's place is probably like a puppy resort where he gets to play with other dogs and where he definitely gets more treats than he does here), I did spend almot the entire weekend imagining how much fun he would have in cottage country were he with us. In fact, I am quite sure that I repeated the statement "The Beast would love it here" about 63 times on the first day alone. "Look honey, he would love to swim in that lake," or "He would love to walk along this river path with us," or "Look at that beautiful family of loons. If the Beast were here, he would try to herd every last one of them."

I also, much to the chagrin of my brother, sent regular e-mails requesting updates. Admittedly, it was partly because I worried that he would misbehave the entire time that he was there since refining his manners is an ongoing process. It was also partly because I wondered if my brother would enforce all of the rules that we have layed down for the dog. But mostly, I just wanted to hear how he was doing because I missed him. And whether my brother was telling me the truth or not, he sent me back glowing e-mails about how well behaved the dog was being, including statements like, "He is an angel on the leash and showing all the other dogs the proper way to behave on a walk." (I still think he is making this up, but I swelled with pride anyways).

So yes, I missed him, and yes, I couldn't wait to see him. In fact, by the time we made our way to my brother's house, I was a bundle of excited energy - not the right state of mind for greeting the schizophrenic Beast that I am trying to teach to remain calm as a default mode in all circumstances. Vowing with my husband that we would live by the Cesar Millan rule of "no touch, no talk, no eye contact" until the Beast gave us the calm, submissive behaviour we wanted him to give us, I readied myself for the reunion...

As soon as my husband and I came through the door, we were surrounded by dogs. The Beast bowled over all the others to get to us first and to jump up in our faces to greet us. The whole time, his little bum was shaking furiously with utter excitement. I was so very happy that he was so excited to see us, but I stuck to the rule, and just kept walking forward and ignoring him, talking to my brother instead of to the dog the whole time. It... was... so... hard!!!!!! I just wanted to throw my arms around the dog and hug and pet him and play with him and love, love, love him! But darn it if it didn't work! Within about one minute, he was sitting down and looking up at me nicely, so seemingly calm and serene and well-behaved.

I couldn't contain it any longer, and moved toward him. My husband reminded me of our rule, and assessed that the Beast wasn't really all that calm yet - he was simply putting on a show for us to get our attention. But I made the fatal mistake that loving dog owners everywhere make! I gave in. I gave in to his excitement and I gave in to my own. And I went down on my knees and he was all over me, pawing, licking, wagging, and yes, barking.

I know it was the wrong thing to do, and I apologize to Cesar Millan fans everywhere, but darn it, it just felt GOOD!

It felt even better when we turned the corner back to our place, and his little ears perked up and he began to whine and whimper and bark because he recognized his house and clearly wanted to be IN THERE RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!! I tried to enforce the "you-must-sit-like-a-nice-boy-before-I-let-you-out-of-the-car" rule, but only half-heartedly. It felt too good to see him so attached to us and to his new home. So I let him get away with being a big, over-excited, and loud goofball...

I know that consistency is key and there is no day off when training a dog. So I should be a little disappointed with my own lack of discipline. But I am appeased by the simple fact that within 10 minutes of entering his house, and after sniffing around in every corner of every room, the Beast calmed right down, curled up at my feet, and quietly gnawed away on his deer antler until I put him in his crate, where he immediately crashed out.

We'll get back to our more disciplined routine tomorrow, now that we got the hello's out of the way.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Spoiled rotten? Depends on your point of view...

This morning I got to sleep in. Because the Beast is spending the weekend with my brother and his herd while we take off for a long weekend in cottage country. It seems so quiet in here when he's not around. And that dog bed is a total eye sore when there isn't a big goofy looking puppy lying in in.

About that dog bed... We agreed before the Beast came into our lives that all furniture would be off limits to him. So we thought it would be nice to get him a bed to lie on while we are lounging comfortably on the couch. Obviously, we went to Costco, where we found a dog bed for something silly like 20 bucks. This is probably why it is an eye sore. But it is filled with nice-smelling cedar chips to mask eau-de-wet-chien, and the slip cover comes off easily so that we can keep it clean. And the Beast doesn't seem to mind that we got it form the King of Wholesale. Truth be told, his favourite past time with the bed is to wrestle with it, and he only lies on it when we instruct him to do so while we eat or prepare his food (future post alert). He would much rather lie on the cold, hard floor.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Montreal with friends, doing some furniture shopping along St. Laurent. We stumbled upon a store with very nice looking dog beds. So we took a look...

The Beast-size beds ranged in price from $150-$300!!! Really? Sure, they are nice-looking, but would the Beast even notice that? Aren't dogs colour blind anyway?

So this got me thinking about why people spend so much on dogs anyway. From accessories to toys to clothes to beds, dog stuff is expensive when you venture outside of Costco!

Full disclosure - with the exception of his food, hubby and I do not spend a fortune on our Beast. Sure, we could afford to, but we don't feel that we should or that we need to. He is, after all, a dog. He doesn't know the difference between his Costco-special bed and the $300 mattress that we saw in Montreal. Again, I default to lessons from Alpha Dad. I can't remember any of my dogs having toys of their own. They played with what Mother Nature gave them. My Shepherd/lab's favourite game was to steal a log off the wood pile (log, not stick) and play tug and fetch with it for hours on end. She didn't want or need anything else.

So when it came time to stock the Beast's little toy chest, we didn't go all out. We bought him toys that are functional - like a tug rope for tug-o-war and fetch; a frisbee to hone his agility skills; and a food puzzle so that he has to use his brain to get to his kibble. His crate is lined with quilts that were sewed for me by my great grandmother when I was a little girl. He eats and drinks from pretty boring stainless-steel bowls. And overall (with the exception of the dominance issues that we need to work on as per the previous post), he seems quite content in his life. I'm sure his little mind is thinking: "Put food in bowl" and "pull on this rope" - and not "Gee, couldn't you spruce it up in here a little bit you guys? Maybe get me a whole box full of plushies and change the colours in this crate. And come to think of it, I think I need to start eating off of your fine china, otherwise I'll go chew your shoes."

Which brings us full circle to the eye sore of a bed. Perhaps people spend this much money on their dogs because of their keen fashion sense. As a girl who has been known to shop at Holt Renfrew's, who owns way too many pairs of shoes, and whose make-up bag is overflowing with eye shadow, I totally get it. But the other part of me is willing to give the Beast a functional corner of his own in our put-together house. Perhaps I will just hide the dog bed in a closet when he is away.

Enjoy the long weekend!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The first letter of the Greek alphabet is...

Long before Cesar Millan burst onto the North American scene as the disciple of calm and assertive pack leadership, I was learning doggie 101 from good 'ole Dad.

You really could not imagine two completely different personalities than Dad and the Dog Whisperer if you tried. First of all, words like "calm" and "whisper" are not in my father's vocabulary. Nor is he too interested in checking his energy to see what kind of impact it is having on those around him, canine or otherwise. He's pretty much the happiest when he is working frantically and making a lot of noise.

What the two have in common though is an uncanny ability to bond with dogs. And although their approaches are, well, different, both are true pack leaders. I remember my childhood cocker spaniel/terrier cross, who used to walk behind dad - off leash - to and from work every day. She looked so happy with her wagging tongue, all her focus on the man at the helm.

So my whole life - whether from observing Dad's interactions with the family pets or from watching the entire third season of The Dog Whisperer in one weekend - I have known one thing to be absolutely true; there can only be one alpha in the house, and it ain't the dog!

Before the Beast joined our herd, I did my homework to make sure that I could immediately assert myself as the leader in this relationship. The night he came home with us, we "walked" him for two hours before going into the house (a term I use loosely because he pulled us along for two hours - back and forth, back and forth...). We made him wait until we entered the house before he came in. We led him to his crate where we had him relax and chill out. So successful was our first night together (even the pulling subsided after two hours) that I went to bed that night secure in the knowledge that I had succeeded in showing him who is boss!

Of course, nothing in life can be that easy... Almost immediately the next morning, the Beast began to exhibit behaviours that are akin to giving me the finger, making me suspect that he does not appreciate relinquishing control. For fun, and because I rely on the Internet for all of my answers to doggy questions (such as, "Is it normal that my dog eats sticks?"), I googled "dominant dog" to find out what exactly I was dealing with. I found this great list from http://joycefay.com/articles/dominantdogs.shtml to help you all figure out if you have a dominant dog. The bold and italics are those traits that belong to the Beast.

Your dog is dominant if he:

1. Pushes through doors, inside or outside, before you.
2. Jumps or reaches for food or treat before it is put down or in reach.
3. Puts his feet on you, standing on or pawing at you.
4. Barks at you when told to do something or when he wants something.
5. Tries to be physically taller than you.
6. Gets on furniture before you or before being given permission.
7. Is reluctant to move from a spot you want to sit on, walk through or put something in.
8. Is reluctant to release food or toys.
9. Stares at you for prolonged periods of time.
10. Is reluctant or refuses to obey simple, normal commands such as sit.
11. Marks (urinates or defecates) in house, marking your personal belongings or bed.
12. Runs into you or jumps on you hard during play.
13. Growls or barks at you during play.
14. Displays sexual behaviors, such as mounting, with an inappropriate partner.
15. Puts his head on or over your head or shoulders.
16. Holds chews or toys against you while chewing or playing with toy.
17. Shoves you out of the way when walking, sitting with, moving past or laying with you.
18. Mouths you at any time, whether in protest, during play or during petting.
19. Eats before you.
20. Does not accept petting or touching on top of his or her head or body.
21. Gets playful or cute instead of obeying when told to do things. The dog may obey briefly and immediately resume previous behavior.22. Guards food, toys or locations that they see as theirs.

In other words, the Beast displays 13 out of 22, which says a few things to me:
(a) the Beast probably does not know what it means to be submissive;
(b) the Beast is obviously an overachiever. It's not good enough to be "sort of" dominant;
(c) the Beast and I agree that there is only room for one alpha in the house. We just haven't figured out who it is just yet....

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I've always been a sucker for brown eyes...

Our herd was born many years ago, when I met my husband. I quickly discovered that he was a cat person when we were on a walk one day and he stopped to talk to and pet every cat on the street, making this weird hissing noise that is supposed to be soothing to cats. I would spell it out but I really don't think there is a phonetic equivalent....

Now don't get me wrong. I love cats. There are two in particular that I would love to kidnap from their rightful owner and adopt as my own (and if you are reading this blog, you know who you are and you'd better lock your doors). But I knew from very early on that I had a choice to make: single woman with her very own dog or shacked up with a guy with good hair. Since I was busy climbing my way up the career ladder anyway, I chose the good hair, sensing that I couldn't give a dog the time and attention that he would need anyway. And besides, my husband has really, really GOOD hair...

But I am nothing if not persistent, and for nine years, I have chipped away at my husband's kitty resolve until finally, he gave in about two years ago and said, "Okay! When you finish your Masters Degree, you will have more time and we can get a dog." (Incidentally, this statement roughly coincides with the time that I started PVR'ing dog shows...)

I also began to research breeds. I needed a dog that could run with me, because I am one of these crazy people that run outside ALL YEAR LONG. Rain, snow, heat, cold, light, dark - you name it, I run in it. And my husband doesn't share my enthusiasm for running in sub-zero temperatures in the dark. And I know it is a gendered thing to say, but I am a girl.... Who runs by herself.... In the dark. Enough said.

It is my brother who first told me about the illustrious Australian Shepherd, a good-natured, medium-energy working dog bred to be active and in need of energy-draining activity. Like running! When I test-ran his Aussie, I was in love. So in love that I tried to convince him to let me have his dog. (But I wasn't done my MA yet at the time so my husband intervened...).

And so there I was back in March of this year, two weeks away from handing in my final major research paper, when I found myself filling out an adoption form for a regional Aussie rescue organization when I should have been reading the Gomery Commission reports. I asked for a two-year old girl with medium energy, preferably more on the submissive side, and good on a leash.

I got the Beast.

The Beast - when I met him - was 10 months old (which the rescue organization rounded up to "about 1"). The Beast is a "he". The Beast is on the higher end of the energy scale. The Beast pulled me like a yo-yo on our test-walk together. And while I didn't fully appreciate it on first blush, the Beast was no beta or omega. He was a good 'ole alpha dog... Oh, and the Beast is definitely not "just an Aussie." He has a typical Aussie bum (no tail, wags the whole bum when he's happy) and he has a goofy Aussie smile. But he has the face of a border collie - one of the more intimidating breeds of working dog - known for their insane intensity.

So I kind of wanted to say, "Thanks for letting us meet him. He's really cute. But he's not for us. He's too young." And then my husband crouched down to pet him and took a real good look at his eyes and said, "He has kind eyes."

So I took a closer look. And I almost drowned in these two incredible pools of deep brown love. And that is when I knew that no matter what challenges might lie ahead, this was our dog.

Besides, I had about 25 hours worth of dog shows to watch on my PVR that would surely teach me all that I needed to know about taking care of this dog.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I don't want to end up on one of those dog shows...

I PVR dog shows. There - I said it. My favourites are The Dog Whisperer, At the End of My Leash and Puppy S.O.S. I know. It's really weird.

Obviously, I love dogs. I have loved them my whole life. From the little water spaniel that used to guard my playpen when I could barely walk to the German shepherd/lab mix that saw me graduate from high school and leave home at the tender age of 17, my life has been filled with doggie adventures. Some of my all-time favourite childood memories involve milkbones and sticks. (Oh, and the time my toy poodle got drunk when my parents spilled a glass of champagne at a New Years Eve party and she licked it all up before we could get to it. If you've never seen a dog hiccup and sway, trust me when I say that it is more than mildly amusing).*

Enter the Beast, our 13 month old Australian Shepherd/Border Collie/something else mix. Rescued from the Humane Society where he was dropped off as a nine-month old pup, he bounced into our lives 2 months ago as an over-excited and under-exercised bundle of schizophrenic and obsessive-compulsive energy, where he is doing everything in his power to take up the position of herd-master in 'our house and in our 'hood.

This blog will chronicle our quest to give the Beast the home that he deserves without ending up on one of those t.v. shows that I am known to PVR. Not only because it will surely keep me entertained years from now when I look back at the ups and downs of doggie-dom. But also because it is shaping up to be a life-changing experience for all involved: me, my husband, and the Beast himself. Oh, and probably for my poor neighbour who is currently living through the nightmare that is getting him to stop barking at every noise outside our door. Again, neighbour, I am sorry.

So for the two other people reading this blog (Hi Mom!), I hope you enjoy our adventures and laugh a little along the way.

*No animals were harmed in the making of this blog, including the toy poodle who survived her night of drunken stupor with no more than a minor hangover and a trip to doggie rehab.