Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Doggy DNA

Remember the Disney movie, Lady and the Tramp? Lady is a classy dame of distinguished Cocker spaniel pedigree who comes from a nice home. She meets the handsome Tramp, an independent vagabond of mixed-schnauzer-and-something-else parentage who cherishes his free-roaming lifestyle. Their differences, from appearance to background to overall life philosophy, make them the unlikeliest of couples. Still, they ultimately fall in love and live happily ever after. But not before Tramp is judged harshly by everyone - including Lady - as being no more than a trouble-making mutt.

The point of the story, of course, is to teach us humans that we should never judge a book by its cover. Sure, Tramp was scruffy and had built himself a reputation as an irresponsible drifter. But beneath his rough exterior and his colourful past, he hid a noble and pure heart. And in the love that bloomed between he and Lady, we learned that worthiness is not based on lineage or appearances, but on what lies within.

Pass the tissue, please.

When I saw Lady and the Tramp at the tender age of four or five, I didn't notice the other interesting social dynamic at play. Go back and watch it now, and I bet that you will notice it too. Lady and her friends, who all live in nice homes on nice streets with nice families, are purebred. Tramp and his street pals, on the other hand, are mutts, seemingly unsuitable as family pets. There is a clear Disney divide between "purebred" and "mixed-breed" on prominent display within the storyline.

So I guess I can blame Walt Disney himself for what I will not-so-affectionately call "Lady and the Tramp syndrome."

We all know sufferers of this affliction. Dog owners who take a my-dog-is-better-than-yours-because-he-is-purebred-and-yours-is-just-a-mutt attitude. In extreme cases, they won't even let their dogs socialize with lowly mixed-breeds, for fear that they might, oh, I don't know, catch mixed-breed cooties or something. Their precious purebred dogs are condemned to a life of limited interaction with puppy pals (unless, of course, they know other purebreds). It would, after all, be too risky to hang out in dog parks where all those irresponsible humans bring their pound rescues to run around wild and crazy. No self-respecting dog of pure lineage should have to put up with that!

Have I mentioned before that the Beast is a mutt?

So you can guess how I feel about these people. I'd like to punch them. Especially the snotty couple who live a few doors down from me.

This husband and wife moved in about two years ago, bringing with them two terribly adorable Boston terrier puppies. Being an avid fan of all dogs, I always wanted to meet this tiny pair. But every time their people brought them out for walks, they would hurry on by without so much as a nod in our direction. I figured that they were just shy, but after two years, I still haven't met one member of this reclusive foursome. 

I hoped that once we had a dog of our own, they might be more open to chatting with us. But nope, it's actually worse now. Before they would simply ignore us when they walked by, but now, whenever they see the Beast, they go out of their way to avoid him. They purposely cross the street when they see us coming towards them. They refuse to say hi when we greet them as we walk past their house. If they are in their yard with their dogs and we walk by with the Beast, they shuffle their precious babies either into the house or into the car to guard them from him. Either they are convinced that the Beast wants to devour their dogs (which is odd because aside from an occasional greeting in the form of a bark, he generally pays them little attention), or they simply do not think he is good enough to hang with their designer duo.

The episode that drove me over the proverbial edge occurred about one month ago. The Beast and I were coming back from a particularly great jog, and decided to end with a 1k walk through Chinatown, one of his favourite spots because of all the neat sights and smells. We spotted my neighbour and her pups about one block ahead of us. I thought to myself that this was my chance to wipe the slate clean, introduce myself to her and introduce the Beast to two new friends. After all, once she met the Beast, she would realize that he is actually quite handsome, charming, and downright irresistible. But just as we were about 10 steps away, she heard the rattle of his collar, turned, and spotted us. My mouth was open as I was about to say, "Hi, do you mind if we join you on the walk back to our street?" when she darted down a a deserted, garbage-ridden back alley with her dogs to get away from us.

If it wasn't so pathetic, it might actually be a little comical. I decided that there was no use worrying about it. I should just forget about this weird family of degenerate snobs.

Except, I see them every single day, snubbing me and the Beast, and it drives me crazy! And since this is my blog, I'm allowed to obsess about it as much as I want.

The simple truth is that dogs don't care whether or not they come from a long line of award winning show dogs or whether they are little "oopses" who came into this world as a result of illicit relations between doggy-neighbours who slipped through the fence when their humans weren't looking. They see and rank each other based on order in a pack, positions that they determine based on their levels of submissiveness or dominance. All the heralded parentage and breeder's papers in the world don't matter one bit.

So why the hell should we care?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a breed preference or wanting to have a purebred dog. I wanted an Aussie shepherd after all, and I am not ashamed of that. But in the end, I didn't get a pure one. While I fretted a little in the beginning because I imagined that his uber-intelligent border collie side would overwhelm me, it doesn't actually matter who his parents were or that neither one of his breeds are immediately recognizable. In fact, I think it's kind of neat that he's such a genetic enigma; it makes him mysterious. And I'm thrilled that his inter-breed background, according to the vet, makes him genetically more robust than his purebred counterparts, which increases his life expectation by more than a few years.

Yep, my Beast is far from "pure". But he has a playful soul, an inquisitive mind, and a good heart. That is how he should be judged.

As for the so-called perfect pair of purebred Boston terriers who live on my street... Well, at last sighting, they were viciously fighting with one another while Mrs. snotty-neighbour tried to walk them past the dog park. Meanwhile, the Beast and some of his gorgeous friends, mixed and purebred alike, were playing nicely with one another, having a lovely time, while their humans looked on with pride.

I'll take my "Tramp" any day.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dogs have food issues too...

Aside from dog shows, I've been known to waste countless hours in front of the television watching episode after episode of X-Weighted, The Biggest Loser, and The Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp. It's probably because I used to struggle with weight myself, so I can relate to the stories of people trying to overcome their unhealthy lifestyles.

The common thread in all of these stories is food. Sedentary lifestyle aside, food is by and large the biggest demon against which many of us who have been overweight struggle. It is an easy and undemanding partner. It doesn't judge you because you messed up at work or because your purse and your shoes clash. It cheers you up, relieves your stress, alleviates your boredom, and even celebrates your victories.

There is, after all, a reason they call it "comfort food"...

People aren't the only beings who have an unhealthy relationship with food. I know this because I have ended up with a dog who has to fight a few food demons of his own.

Before we even met him, we learned that the Beast may have certain unhealthy food tendencies. More precisely, his Humane Society record indicated that he demonstrated food aggression. Yikes!! Watch an episode of The Dog Whisperer where Cesar helps a family deal with food aggression and you will understand my concern. A food aggressive dog thinks that he is the Alpha, and wants to control food and feeding. He will do whatever he can - growling, snarling, and even biting - to protect HIS food. This is a potentially dangerous behaviour, not only because it can lead to a serious bite, but also because it will hurt your relationship with your dog, leading to a never-ending cycle of aggression, fear and mistrust.

So yes, I was more than a little intimidated to hear that the dog I was being asked to adopt had food aggression. Our relationship almost ended before we even met. But the Beast's foster mom assured me that she had never seen any signs of it. He definitely liked his food - A LOT - but had never once growled, snarled or lunged at her or her other dogs when she fed him.

Queue the big sigh of relief.

Just as a precaution, though, we visited our dog trainer before we even brought the Beast home for some preemptive advice on claiming the Beast's food and teaching him that eating was our decision, not his.

When he came home, we were ready to claim that food bowl and to show him that we were the bosses! What we did not anticipate was the crazed hurricane of excited drool that whipped through our living room the first time that we reached for his food dish. He'd never even eaten from it yet but he just seemed to know that it was for food. This is how he earned the nickname "Tasmanian Devil" - because he kept jumping around and around and around and around in the exact same spot, over and over again, panting as though he had just run a marathon, ears straight up, pupils completely dilated, and mouth wide open in a ridiculous grin. I got dizzy just watching him (and when I tried to imitate it once to show a friend what he was like, I thought I was going to throw up). He would only stop his cyclonic dance long enough to try to put his nose in the dish while it was still in my hands.

I've fed a lot of dogs in my life, but I have never seen anything like this!

Still, there was no growling, no snarling, no baring teeth. We wondered if this was just a quirky puppy behaviour that he would grow out of with time. And truthfully, it was kind of cute to watch him throw triple axel after triple axel on our living room floor. We would have probably been willing to accept it had we not had this aura of Humane Society-observed food aggression hanging over our relationship. So we had to claim that damn dog bowl, no matter how much drool would puddle on our floor and no matter how many scratch marks would be left on the laminate.

I worked out a system where I would approach the Beast with the dog dish behind my back. This way, although he still jumped like a deranged kangaroo, he couldn't put his nose in the dish and try to eat everything. Then I would stand there - with all the calm energy that I could muster - until his ass would hit the ground. It wasn't a real sit, because he was bouncing around like he was having muscle spasms throughout his entire body, but it was as calm as he was capable of being, so it would have to do for now. Then I would lower the dog dish - still behind me - and use my body to block him from trying to get around to dive right into it (which he tried to do every time). Once he would "sit" again. I would step back, with a leg on either side of the dog dish, and let him eat while I stood over him.

He had no trouble with me being over him as he ate. He even ate some of his food right from my hand - supposedly a very good sign. But boy, did he ever eat FAST. You could stick a hoover hose in the dog dish and it could not have sucked up the dog food as quickly. All his ancestral and wild doggy instincts were screaming at him that it would be a long time before the next successful hunt, so he'd better EAT RIGHT NOW! I was convinced that he would choke himself the way that he was going.

Over the next few days and weeks, he and I settled into a routine. He laid down on his bed while I got his food ready. I put the food down on the ground for him so long as he was calm. Before he could eat, we would give me eye contact and then wait for my signal. As for the eating too quickly, I learned that if I walk away instead of hanging over him, he remains calm and eats at a reasonable pace. Stress-free feeding ritual! Yay! Success! I do NOT have a food aggressive dog.

Not so fast...

Kibble is one thing. Bones, on the other hand...

We thought fresh bison bones could be a nice weekly treat for the Beast, the same way that we often give ourselves food treats on the weekends. And since we had mastered the art of claiming his food, it shouldn't be so hard to master the art of claiming a bison bone.

But there is something more primal about a bone.

The Beast went through the entire feeding ritual with no problems. Lie down, stay calm, make eye contact, wait for the signal, get the bone. But this time, as soon as the bone went into his mouth, he growled at me. Then he snarled. Then he ran into his crate to protect the bone.

Well I wasn't going to put up with that, so I followed, and without thinking, down I went to pick up the bone. And what did the Beast do? He lunged at me, and came within millimeters of drawing blood. "Get away from MY bone," he said, and he meant business.

So he does have food aggression.

I'm truly not exaggerating when I say that my heart broke just a little.

The bottom line is that I do not want a dog with food aggression. I'm not experienced enough to know how to deal with it. I'm not very calm by nature, let alone when a dog is growling, snarling and biting at me. And I'm just not willing to have a dog try to position himself as kingpin in MY home. So what the f&$k was I going to do?

Well, I guess I was just going to have to get that damn bone back. So I picked up a corn broom and walked over to the corner of the back yard where the Beast had taken his prize while I recovered from my near-bite-experience. As soon as I approached, the Beast started to growl, low and guttural. I moved a little closer and he snarled, showing his long, sharp teeth. I put the corn broom down beside his snout, and he snapped at it immediately, which gave me the opportunity to cover the bone with the broom.

Frankly, I didn't know him well enough at the time to know whether he would lunge at my face next. Still, we spent the next five minutes staring each other down. He kept growling, snarling, and lunging at the broom, with every hair on his body standing on end. I stood as tall as I could under the circumstances, reminding myself to take deep breaths to calm myself down, even though I was seriously frightened.

And then, he gave it up. Just as suddenly as he had lunged at me 10 minutes earlier, he stopped growling, casually got up, and walked away from me, from the broom, and from the bone. As for me, well, I reached down, picked up the bone, threw it in the garbage, let out a huge sigh of relief, and then started to cry. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I was angry. I even cried because the thought occurred to me that we would have to give him back...

But then, as he so often does, my calm and logical husband stepped in to insert some reason into my frazzled state. He told me to stop putting so much pressure on myself to "fix this dog" right away. He told me that I couldn't be expected to know how to deal with every behaviour issue. He reminded me that I had actually just succeeded in claiming a victory over the dog and over the bone. And he reassured me that we would figure this out together.

He also told me to get rid of the bison bones.

The solution, of course, is not that simple. In the past three months, we've found at least one other food aggression trigger: his food puzzle that we use to crate him. Just this morning, the Beast tried to bite my husband when he went to take it away. We had to spend a few extra minutes with a hockey-glove covered hand (just in case) resting beside the food puzzle until the Beast backed away from it.

It still upsets me every time, although admittedly, it happens less frequently. And it hasn't eroded our trust or hurt our relationship. Partly because I am learning that there is a difference between having a food aggressive dog, and having one who just occasionally feels the need to assert his dominance in the household. The Beast is in the latter category. My job is to remind him that hubby and I are the leaders, and I can't do that if I am always freaking out about his eating habits.

I'm also learning to cut him a little bit of slack. After all, I turn to food for comfort every now and then. If I can have a few food issues, I suppose it's only fair that the Beast does too...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Socialization 101... for humans

I'm a pretty social person. I like going out with friends, I like trying new activities and new events, and I love meeting new people. Especially when I find out that they are, say, big Bruce Springsteen fans just like me.

Still, I'm not generally one of those people who stops to talk to complete strangers on the street, or who even says hello as I pass them by. In fact, I admit that I get a little embarrassed whenever my husband or my father - or anyone else that I might be with - enthusiastically greets every single person that we see in a day. I guess you could say that I am selective in my socialization. I'm more comfortable meeting strangers in controlled social settings - such as wine tastings or dinner parties - where we usually have something or someone in common.

Since adopting the Beast, however, I find myself interacting a lot more with complete strangers who I meet on the street. I get a lot more smiles, a lot more hellos, and a lot more people who stop me to engage in conversation.

More apt, I suppose, to admit that all of this attention is directed to the devilishly handsome, brown-eyed pooch by my side.

Take yesterday morning as an example. The Beast and I had just finished a 6.7k run, and decided to cool down with a stroll to the park. We passed by a man standing on his porch, having a morning cigarette, probably before going to work. He was wearing steel-toed boots, jeans, a white t-shirt, and sporting a couple of arm tattoos on either side. Probably a construction worker or a contractor, perhaps working on one of the many ripped-up-street sites in our 'hood. Not someone likely to have much in common with me, and therefore no reason for me to stop and chat.

But he smiled at us, and in between drags on his cigarette, said, "I'm glad to see he's feeling better and doesn't need that cone anymore."

I was just going to acknowledge the comment with a polite nod and walk right on by. After all, the Beast and I had to get to the park to play with the other pups before I had to run off to work. But the Beast gently pulled me toward the guy, clearly drawn to him. So we stopped.

The guy sat down on his porch steps and began asking me all about the Beast. What had happened to him that made him wear the cone? How old is he? How long have my husband and I had him? What's his name? In between questions, he would pet the Beast, tell him what a handsome dog he is, and that he is such a good boy. All the while, the Beast calmly stood between his legs, sniffing him, giving him an occasional face lick, and genuinely enjoying the attention. 

Now the Beast doesn't hate people. But he's very rarely calm in their presence, especially if they are strangers. His modus operandi is usually to excitedly wiggle his bum, throw a dominating little hip check, maybe try to jump up, maybe bark a little, and then once he is satisfied that his presence has been duly noted, he will simply ignore. People just aren't all that interesting to him for more than fifteen seconds (unless they have food). He did none of this to his new friend. So I said to the guy, "He's never like this. He must sense a real goodness about you to be spending this much time with you. You must be a dog person."

Turns out that one month ago, this guy lost his black lab to cancer, at the tender age of 10. As he described his dog to me, he was getting a little bit choked up. Frankly, so was I. He told me that sometimes, when he gets his meals ready in the kitchen, he can still see his dog's shadow lurking around the corner, waiting for food to drop on the floor. Or that the house just seems so quiet now because he no longer hears the pitter-patter of nails on hardwood. He told me stories about how his dog used to love to chase rabbits, and where his favourite park was and where his favourite walking path was. All the while, he continued to gently rub the Beast's head, transferring some of his love for his own dear pet to mine because he had to give it to someone.

I think meeting the Beast made his day.

I know that meeting him made mine. I was touched by his openness, his honesty, and his big heart. And I was struck by the fact that I never would have met this gentle and loving soul - having judged that he and I would have nothing in common to talk about - had it not been for my Beasty guiding me towards his porch. 

Having a dog is like having an immediate conversation starter or an ice-breaker to make people feel comfortable with one another. Dogs are, generally speaking, a neutral topic of conversation. Talking about our pets is not like getting engaged in a conversation about our political or our religious views, topics that set us up for disagreement, polarization, and tension. It's safe to talk about dogs. We are forced to offer very little of our personal selves when the focus is on our four-legged companions and their favourite toys, their favourite foods, or their most endearing neurotic behaviours.

Most importantly, dogs remind us that we have more in common with other people than we think. Dog lovers exist across social strata: construction workers, bureaucrats, lawyers, millionaire CEOs and even homeless people all count themselves within the community of dog owners. Some of us might prefer beer over wine, or baseball over golf, or fast food over 5-star restaurants. But we find commonality in our mutual love and affection of dogs.

I'm glad to have a Beast like mine to remind me to be more neighbourly. And I hope that he introduces me to more really great people who live just up the street. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hold that pose

I hate yoga.

That's a bold, definitive statement, I know.

I've tried - I really have - to like yoga. If ever I've met someone who needs to find an activity that elongates her tight, torn muscles, it's me. As a sufferer of insomnia induced by an overly-racing mind, the benefits of finding a way to calm the chatter in my brain are not lost on me. And I would love to find a strategy to suppress my first instinct to react like an emotional buffoon every time I am faced with a stressful situation.

So I've tried a few different types of yoga. But I kind of hate them all.

Part of it is that I can't help but look at yoga as some yuppie craze, a bandwagon activity attracting an entire generation and enticing it with lululemon fashion designs (for which far too much money is spent but which promises to make you look like a million bucks while holding Warrior Pose).

And then there's the chanting. Don't get me started on the chanting.

So yes, I hate yoga. But I no longer have a choice. I've got to take it up. My massage therapist, chiropractor, physiotherapist and sports doctor have all ganged up on me and warned me that if I don't do something soon to elongate those ropey, knotted muscles, I will be unable to run without incurring a serious injury. Which would have a severe impact on my mental health and well-being. Not to mention on the Beast's well-being. He needs his weekly runs more than I do, lest he rip through the house like a 24-hour tornado of anxiety.

Which is how I came to be in a yoga studio this past Sunday, trying yet another type of yoga - hot, this time - in an attempt to ward off further damage to my tired body.

The good news is that it was not awful. I can see myself going back. (Well, at least one more time.)

The bad news? I started crying midway through the class.

I have no idea why I was crying. But there I was, on my back, trying to cross my right leg straight down and over my left leg while keeping my right hip anchored to the ground, and a wave of emotion swept over me, leaving in its wake a gigantic lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

Maybe it was because my body was giving up on me, openly rebelling against the pose that I was trying to assume. Maybe the heat was activating my tear ducts. Or maybe there really is something to this whole yoga thing and connecting with your inner self. Whatever the reason, it passed almost as quickly as it came, and so I kind of forgot about it.

Until I got home. And the Beast kept moving as far away from me as he possibly could.

Now the Beast is not one of these overly affectionate dogs that needs to be glued to your side at all times. He never snuggles with you, even if you are lying with him on his bed. He doesn't lick your face when you come near (unless you have just finished eating something and he's hoping for a crumb). And he never tries to get up on the furniture so that he can rest his head in your lap.

But he does want to know where his people are at all times. So when we are downstairs watching t.v., he follows behind us and settles at the end of the couch. If we are getting ready for work in the morning, we practically trip over him when we open the bathroom door to come out of the shower. And when we go outside to flip the burgers on the barbecue, he stands at the French door, perks up his ears, and practically holds his breath while waiting for us to come back inside.

So it's a little odd to me that he didn't want to be in the basement with me while I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean for the fifteenth time. I mean really, what's not to like about Captain Jack Sparrow?

And then I remembered that only a few hours earlier, I'd been crying for no apparent reason in a yoga studio. And the Beast knew that something was wrong, even though neither he nor I knew what it was. And he didn't want any part of my sad-sack state.

I've read a lot about dogs being able to pick up on your emotions. If they like what they sense, they stick around, listen, obey. If they don't like it, they leave, try to control the situation, and ignore your commands. While I've never entirely known if it is true, I've taken the necessary precautions just in case. When I catch myself getting frustrated with the Beast, I stop using words and revert to hand signals so that he doesn't hear the emotion in my voice. If I have a bad day at work, I take a minute to myself before I go through the front door and try to shake it off. I remain conscious of my body posture when I am in his presence so that he senses that I am confident and in control. Just in case there is something to this energy stuff that Cesar always talks about.

Well, maybe there is.

I guess I really don't know why The Beast didn't want to hang out with me yesterday. But I've decided to look at this as his attempt to help me. He's telling me to figure out what's eating me so that I can deal with it and move on instead of suppressing it and eventually having it come out in a more public display in the yoga studio.

I guess I have to go back to yoga, and risk letting some wave of emotion lodge itself in my throat again. At least until I figure out what is bothering me.

Because after all, if I had to choose between spending time with Captain Jack or hanging out with the Beast, I'll choose the puppy's floppy ears and brown eyes any day.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ode to the cone

At the gym this morning, one of my buddies asked me how our new puppy was doing. As we were chatting, I told him about the Beast's little accident and how he is wearing the cone of shame for a couple more days at least. His golden retriever is apparently going through a similar torture, having been condemned to the Elizabethan collar as a result of a hot spot that she can't stop biting and scratching at. The difference is that she has spent the last week languishing around the house, refusing to move or to go outside where her humiliation would be on full display. Whereas the Beast has decided that he will simply live his life the same way he always has - full of wild abandon and reckless energy - just with a big silly cone on his head.

You need to see what he has done to this cone in the 10 short days that he has been forced to wear it. Although he is a very intelligent dog and clues in to things rather quickly, he has not yet figured out that he needs to give himself more space to, say, turn corners, climb stairs or get into his crate while wearing the cone. As a result, he bumps into EVERYTHING. He was already a wee bit klutzy before, but the cone has turned him into the most awkward being I've ever seen. I have to admit that it is slightly amusing. Well actually, it's downright hilarious, which makes me a bad person laughing at the expense of my cone-ridden dog. But it doesn't seem to phase him and even after some of the worse bumps so far, he just resets himself, tries the corner again, and eventually comes around the other side with a big silly smile on his face. If I didn't know any better, I'd think he was doing it on purpose to make us laugh.

Then there is watching him try to get in his crate. If he knows that we are going to put his food puzzle in there so that he can chow down, he can't wait to get in there. And inevitably, every single time, in his crazed excitement, he forgets that the cone is only slightly more narrow than the door to his crate. So he bangs into the left side of the door. Then he readjusts, misses, and bangs into the right side of the door. Readjusts, misses, bangs into the top of the door. Readjusts, misses, bangs into the top again.... Until one of us picks ourselves up off the floor and stops this Abbott and Costello routine by gently guiding him and his cone into the crate.

And of course, the cone takes a serious beating on walks. When he gets his sniff and pee breaks, he rubs that thing up against trees and posts, drags it through wet grass, dirt and rock, and sometimes just trips on it as he is trying to climb back up onto the curb.

Yes, the cone is an ugly mess of dents, dirt and grass stains that won't come out no matter how hard I've tried, and duct tape to hold bits of it that are coming apart together. It is a very white trash look for Mr. Beasty, but he is wearing it remarkably well.

The only real problem is that he can't do his favourite thing in the whole wide world as long as that cone is on. He can't run. :( Hubby and I hate it too. Because as long as he can't run, he can't fully release his energy. And if he can't fully release his energy, he resumes some of his more neurotic tendencies and habits. Like spinning around in a cyclone dance every time we go near his food dish. Or jumping up at us at the door. Or jumping on us when we're on the couch. Or chasing insects. We've tried adding extra walks into his day to help relieve some of this energy. Just yesterday, he totalled 14k over three walks. But it's not enough for him. He looks at up at us every time as if to say, "Hey you two - walking is for chumps! Let's kick this thing into high gear, and then hit the dog park on the way back! Yeah!"

Yep - all three of us can't wait for that cone to come off.

Although... there is one thing that I am really going to miss about that cone.

As a result of wearing it, the Beast is unable to use his paws to hold things to his mouth. This means that he can't hold a bone or a toy in place in order to chew on it. It didn't occur to me how frustrating this must be for him until I was in the basement doing laundry and I just kept hearing this loud clunk on the floor above me. I came up to investigate, and there was the Beast with his deer antler, engaged in the futile exercise of trying to settle down for a good chew. He would drop it on the floor, get his mouth around it, lie down, chew for a few seconds by using the cone to leverage it in his mouth, and then drop it. Whenever he'd drop it, he'd try to move it back over to his mouth with his paws, but no matter what he tried, that pesky shield of a cone stood between his mouth and his paws, and he could not get that deer antler back in. So he'd stand up again, put it in his mouth, chew for a second, drop it, try to use his paws... and over and over again.

While I admit that it was amusing to watch him try to figure this one out, it was also clearly starting to stress him out a little bit. So I put the laundry basket down, looked at him and said, "Hey buddy. Do you need some help?" I sat down on the floor beside him, got him to lie down, and held the deer antler for him for 20 minutes while he chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed some more. He was the vision of happiness: ears fully down and back (which means relaxed); pupils fully dilated so that his eyes were these two big brown pools of chocolate love; rolling his eyes toward the back of his head every so often in some kind of orgasmic expression of deer antler bliss; panting slightly as he enjoyed his prize. Ever since, I have settled in with him for a good chew at the end of every day, both of us sitting on the floor, him gnawing away while I watch TSN. Our little moment of bonding.

When the cone comes off, he'll resume the use of his paws, rediscover his independence, and enjoy his antler all on his own.

He won't need me anymore...

I guess the cone isn't all bad.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The creepy corner store guy

Just last week, I caught up with some of my girlfriends from high school who I haven't seen for nearly a decade. We spent a few minutes bringing each other up to speed on what was happening in our own lives since we last saw each other. And then we spent the next couple of hours talking about everyone else that we went to high school with. You know how it is: "Hey, remember what's-his-nuts that you used to have such a huge crush on? I hear he moved to the big city and his wife left him!" or "Whatever happened to that bitchy girl from math class? Did I hear that she moved back to town to teach? Poor kids..." or "I bumped into your ex-boyfriend in the grocery store the other day! Are you ever lucky you dropped him! He's so boring!"...

Where I come from, gossip is a national sport. Everyone does it. The farmers go to the coffee shop every morning and and talk about all the things that the other farmers are doing wrong with their crops. At recess, the teacher's lounge in the high school is full of teachers gabbing away about the class clown's latest antics. And the high school cliques stick together and talk about one another. It's a stereotypical small town.

I left this small town over 17 years ago and moved to a much bigger city, leaving much of that kind of stuff behind. Don't get me wrong; people gossip in the big city, myself included. But it's somehow different. First of all, you are far more anonymous when you are surrounded by one million people as opposed to a couple thousand, and so your best friend's mom's brother's daughter has no way of finding out about what you did last night. You are also far less interesting when there are so many other more colourful people around you. So it's been awhile since I have found myself to be the topic of local gossip... or at least so far as I am aware.

That is, until yesterday.

Faithful readers will remember that the Beast is currently having to wear the cone of shame so that he does not lick at his recent bike-related wound (which, by the way, is healing quite nicely, and the Beast wants me to thank everyone for their heartfelt concern). As you can imagine, this generates some buzz when we are walking down the street together. Little kids have come running up behind me to ask, "Hey lady, why does your dog have that funny looking hat on?" Concerned dog-park neighbours who see us out walking have stopped us to ask us what has happened and to tell us that they can't wait to have us back in the park. Many people just give us a look of sympathy when we pass by. And every now and then, we even meet someone who points and laughs at him. (Fair enough - he does look kind of funny looking with that thing on, especially since he bumps into everything in sight!)

Then yesterday, as I was walking home with the Beast, I heard a gruff voice coming to me from across the street, "Oh for God sakes. What did he do to himself this time?"

I immediately recognized the voice as that belonging to - forgive me - the creepy guy who works at our neighbourhood corner store. Which under normal circumstances would cause me to pretend that I didn't hear him and just keep going. But I wasn't wearing my earphones so I couldn't get away with that trick. I was forced to acknowledge him and engage in some kind of conversation. "What?" I said. To which he responded, "Well, isn't this the dog that hurt his hip in a bike accident? What the hell did he do to himself this time?"

Why on earth did creepy corner store guy know about my dog's accident? I never talk to him because he is, well, creepy. So I just quickened my step, muttered something about the Beast being a klutz, and got out of there.

I spent the next few blocks trying to figure out how he could know so much about my dog. When I got home, I talked to my husband. Did he and the Beast, perhaps, walk past the corner store while creepy guy was working one day? Did creepy guy perhaps ask him why the Beast was wearing a cone? Did he perhaps tell creepy guy about the bike accident?

No, he assured me that he did not. Nor did he talk to anyone else at the corner store about the Beast.

"Well then, how could creepy corner store guy know what happened to the Beast if you didn't tell him?" I asked, with a slight edge of panic to my voice. I mean, the guy is creepy, so maybe he is following us around the neighbourhood and spying on us. (Of course that is the obvious conclusion that one would reach in such circumstances...)

"I don't know," said hubby. "He probably found out from one of our neighbours. What's the big deal?"

The big deal is that we are being gossiped about! By our own neighbours! And this bothers me!

I can't stop thinking about the gossip hounds and what they must be saying. In my head, it goes something like this:
The Beast and I walk down the street and the creepy corner store guy (CCSG) sees us and makes a comment about the cone to his co-worker (CW).
CCSG: "Hey, I recognize that girl from the bus. Check out her dog. What the hell is that thing on it's head?"
CW: "Humph... Will you look at that. He's got some kind of satellite receiver around his neck. Now why would they do that to him?"
A customer (Cus) is standing at the cash register buying a pack of gum. He pipes up.
Cus: "Oh, hey, I heard about that dog! My room-mate's black lab and him play in the park together sometimes. Yep, that's definitely him. My room-mate was telling me about him. Apparently, his owners ran him over with a bike or something like that."

Another customer (Cus2) walks in and overhears the conversation.
Cus2: (Incredulous) "Did I just hear you say that someone ran their dog over with a bike?"

CCSG: "Yeah, see that girl out there with the dog?"

CW: "Yeah - the dog with the funny hat on out there. She ran him over with a bike."

Cus2: "What the hell kind of people run their dog over with a bike!"

Cus: "Tell me about it! My room-mate says that the dog is a little bit sketchy. He barks a lot and jumps all over the place in the dog park. Must be bad owners."

CCSG: "Yeah well, I'm not surprised. That girl and her husband are always waiting out at the bus stop at 5:30 a.m. every day. I know cause I can see them from my apartment. Those two are definitely up to something..."


And so on, and so on, and so on. I'm imagining a similar dialogue happening in every home in our neighbourhood.

I suppose it shouldn't matter to me what other people think about us or about the Beast. We know what happened to him, and we know that we are taking super good care of him. But it does bother me. While gossip is often quite harmless, there is an element of judgement to it. I know. Because I gossip every now and then, and although I don't mean anything malicious by it, I am passing a teeny-little-bit of judgement on a person when I am, say, making a comment on what they are wearing or who they are dating. And at the base of that is an assumption that I am just a teeny-little-bit better than they are...

So I guess it bothers me that creepy corner store guy thinks that he's somehow better than us. Because he is really freaking creepy...

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Taming the screaming banshee

I'm not very superstitious, but I do think that there is something to the whole theory behind the full moon and the impact that it has on human behaviour. Certainly, some of my most memorable "bad days" have fallen on a full moon.

I've not read up on whether or not there is a marked impact on dog behaviour, but were I to judge from the way that the Beast acts during the few days surrounding the full moon, I'd say YES. DEFINITELY.

To be fair, the Beast has been with us for only two complete lunar cycles. So maybe I am jumping to conclusions. But he certainly appears to be more ornery when the moon is full. He is far more defiant. Openly so. He does things that he absolutely knows without a doubt that he is not allowed to do. Like bringing the garbage bag and its contents to his bed and shredding it all. Or jumping up onto counters to get at dishes that he can lick clean. Or jumping on us when we are sitting on the couch reading. Behaviours that he have otherwise successfully trained out of him.

Perhaps the full moon just brings out his basest, most primal alpha instincts. Perhaps he is part werewolf. Who knows...

What I do know is that his defiant attitude, whether it is caused by the full moon or not, is forcing me to come to terms with some of my own worse faults: my impatience, my temper, and my tendency to over-emote.

I come by all three of these traits very honestly, having inherited each and every one of them from my father. Great man that he is, his fuse is extremely short. And when it goes, you will know it. This isn't a blog about any dysfunctional family adventures that I may have had throughout my life, but the point is that I grew up with the understanding - whether right or wrong - that it is natural to get frustrated when things don't go your way, and that such frustrations should always be vocalized as loudly as possible.

Although I've worked very hard over the years at curbing these instincts, today served as a reminder of how much more work I need to do.

The Beast has spent the last couple of days earning his nickname (full moon being just yesterday, and all). He's essentially decided that he will not obey one single rule that we have established for him. I'm prepared to cut him a little bit of slack because he's not feeling well and is still having to wear that silly-looking cone. But the one area where I refuse to compromise is with respect to mealtime. No matter the circumstances, whenever hubby and I eat, or whenever we are preparing his food, he must lay down nicely on his bed.

Teaching the Beast this rule was not easy. In fact, it took three straight days of hour-and-a-half long mealtimes (which also caused me to be late for work three days in a row). We would say "Bed!", make him lie down on his bed, go to the dinner table, and start eating. Seconds later, he'd get up and come beg at our feet. So we'd repeat "Bed!", walk him back, make him lie down, and come back to the table. He'd whine, whimper, bark, and inevitably get up again to come over to us. Over and over and over and over again, we'd repeat the command and make him go back to his bed and lie down. We refused to give up because it is important to us that the dog not be allowed to beg at our feet when we - or any guests that we might have over - are eating.

By the fourth day, Beasty was only getting up off his bed once or twice during a meal. Within two weeks, he had the rule down cold. These days, as soon as he sees me go to the kitchen and take a dish out of the cupboard, he immediately goes to his bed without me having to tell him. And he doesn't leave until he sees me get up to put dishes away in the dishwasher or until I tell him to "Break!"

With the exception of today. He just wouldn't stay on his bed while I was trying to eat. He was uber-excited about something, and kept getting up, running around the living room, and barking. Being ravenous, I just wanted to eat, and was getting seriously impatient. Each time he'd get up, I'd say "Bed!" a little more loudly, frustration dripping from my voice. Until finally, after about the 6th time, I stood up, pointed at his bed, and from somewhere buried deep inside the most ferocious corner of myself came this very loud and very unpleasant screech. "Beast! I said get to your bed RIGHT NOW!"

Here I am... A grown woman... Intelligent... Successful... Accomplished...

...And I'm standing in the middle of my living room, losing it because my dog won't sit down on his bed.

This, my friends, is what I like to call a WTF moment. As in "What the f&$k is the matter with you?!?" or "What the f&$k happened to being the calm and assertive pack leader?!?"

Here's the bottom line. I made a conscious decision to rescue a dog and give him a good life. That means a little more than giving him shelter, food, and a few toys to play with. It means giving him rules to live by so that he can be a good doggy citizen. It means teaching him what is good behaviour and what is bad behaviour in every circumstance. It means figuring out the best way to communicate with him in a clear and concise manner so that he understands what I expect from him. It means having to earn his trust and his respect. And it means understanding that he is not going to get it all within the two and a half months that he has been with me. I owe it to him to be consistent with all aspects of his training, to understand that he will have good days and bad days, and above all, to be patient with him.

In fact, I owe it to him to be a better role model.

And I can't do that when I'm running around my own house like a screaming banshee.

I know I quote him far too often, but Cesar says that you never get the dog that you want. You get the dog that you need. The Beast is proving that statement to be true every time a full moon rises across the sky (and a few days in between). As he did today, he reminds me that frustration, impatience and anger are never an appropriate way to resolve a problem. If he and I are going to have a long and happy life together, I am just simply going to have to learn to take a deep breath and park those default emotions when things don't go my way.

One full moon at a time, the Beast is bound to make me a better person.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dog walking 101

"Dog walking is both a pastime and a profession involving the act of a person walking with a dog, typically from the dog's residence and then returning. This constitutes part of the daily exercise regime needed to keep a dog healthy. It also provides exercise and companionship for the walker." - Wikipedia, Dog Walking
One of my favourite activities with the Beast is our afternoon walk. It is always a good segue between my work and my home life. It's my chance to wind down from the stresses of the day and get ready to relax at home with my herd. It's also just a great way to spend some quality time with the Beast.

Of course, it wasn't always so enjoyable. As a dog more prone to dominance than to submission, the Beast saw the walk as an opportunity to take control of hubby and I. As soon as we would leave the house, his ears would perk right up like two perfect little satellite dishes (always a sign of trouble to come), his nose would hit the ground, and he would take off after whatever scent trail he was on, dragging us kicking and screaming behind him. If another dog or human dared to come into his sight line, he would bark like an ambulance siren - loud, constant, and a warning to get the hell out of the way!

I was beginning to understand why some people simply give up on walking their dogs in the first place. This, of course, was not an option. No matter how long it took us to get his bad leash habits under control, hubby and I knew that this was a battle that we had to win.

The problem is that neither hubby nor I are particularly patient people. "No matter how long it takes" is an okay goal as long as that doesn't surpass, um... let's say a week. By the second week, I was going crazy. It seemed that all we ever did was walk in a big circle because I would have to redirect him so many times to try to stop him from taking the lead. And my arm hurt from all of his pulling and my poor attempts at correcting him. Worst of all, I was getting frustrated and emotional, and the Beast would take FULL ADVANTAGE of my moments of weakness by getting even more controlling, even going so far as to jump up in my face, bark at me, nip at me, and use his body to push me out of his way.

To put it frankly, walking with him SUCKED. A LOT!

Despite all of the reading and preparation that I had done before we brought the Beast home, I couldn't figure out the walk and clearly needed help. Luckily for me, one of my best friends from university married a certified dog trainer. So we called her.

Now her philosophy behind working with dogs is driven by the concept of the pack. At the helm of each pack is the leader - the Alpha, if you will. It is his job to set and enforce the rules and boundaries that govern behaviour. This includes protecting and providing for the pack members, as well as teaching and guiding them to become better doggy citizens.

And she is a TRUE Alpha. I've seen her with a pack of up to ten dogs, and there is no question that she is always in charge. Nothing phases her. She shows no fear, always appears calm and in control, and speaks clearly and concisely to all the dogs in her care. It's actually quite remarkable to see up close, particularly because they listen. Unlike mine.

Speaking of whom.... the Beast absolutely lost it when the trainer came to our house. He would not stop barking. I think he sensed right away that this was no wannabe-Alpha like hubby and me. This was a bona fide pack leader. And there was no way that she was going to be allowed to come onto his turf and take that role from him. Despite all of our repeated attempts to just shut him up so that she could come into the house without having him in her face, the Beast kept going and going and going for what seemed like an eternity. It's like we weren't even there. When the trainer sensed more than enough desperation seeping out of my pores, she just stood up straight, looked the Beast straight in the eye, and in a "you-really-don't-want-to-mess-with-me" tone of voice, said, "ENOUGH"!

The Beast stopped in mid-bark.

It was bloody impressive, is what it was.

Then she looked at me and hubby and said, "So your dog is being a bit of an asshole, huh?"

No one wants to hear that their dog is an asshole. Myself included. Except that I could hardly argue with her on this one. If I acted that way whenever someone came to the house, I'd get justifiably clocked in the face. He really was being a jerk, and I needed to hear it.

And he needed to hear it too, because the supreme Alpha was standing in our living room, ready to show us how to set him straight. After giving us a lecture on pack mentality and training methods while we dutifully scribbled down notes and asked questions, she said, "Okay, let's go for a walk."

We weren't even out of the living room when she pointed out about three things that we were doing wrong. "The walk," she explained, "is the dog's job. And his work day starts the minute that you make the decision in your mind that you are going to take him for a walk. From that point forward, you need to be in charge, and he needs to be following you and taking his cues from you. It's not okay that he is bolting to the door and jumping up and down while he waits for you to put on his leash. I know you think it's cute, and that it's a good sign that he is so excited to go for a walk. Well, it isn't. Because this isn't his playtime. So you need to get serious about this. Get him back here and let's do this right."

It took us over 20 minutes to get out of the house.

Over and over and over and over and over again, we had to move him back to the living room, where he had to wait until we called him to the front door. Then we had to claim the space around the door and make him wait outside of that zone until we opened the door, exited the house, and called him to us. Then we had to make him wait until we took the first step down and onto the driveway, and so on and so on and so on. And every time he took the lead or got overexcited at any point along this continuum, we had to start back at zero.

I was mentally exhausted and we hadn't even started to walk yet. I'm slightly ashamed to say it, but I even started to cry because the dog was so clearly kicking my ass and it was really pissing me off.

But the trainer wasn't ready to give up. Hubby wasn't ready to give up. And so I just had to suck it up. We spent another hour learning how to walk our dog properly. And do you know what? It's not as simple as the introductory Wikipedia quote would lead one to believe! There are a lot of rules involved. Like the fact that he must always, always, always be beside or behind you unless you give him permission to do otherwise. Or that as a true Alpha, you must always walk with your head held high and your shoulders back so that he does not see weakness in you. Or that you can't tense up your arms in any way because he will sense that and become tense himself.

This was going to take a lot of work.

But she gave us the tools that we needed to succeed, including proper leash correction methods, ways to recognize signs that he was about to launch into some kind of inappropriate behaviour, and tips on redirecting his attention before this could happen. She gave us good suggestions for keeping him mentally and physically challenged, like using elements of the natural environment as an obstacle course, or putting a backpack on him and making him carry his own water to reinforce the notion that walking is his job.

Armed with all of our new knowledge, and a brand new backpack for the pooch, hubby and I spent the next couple of weeks sticking pretty close to home, walking him through the quieter streets of our neighbourhood where there were fewer distractions. There was a lot of stopping, a lot of taking big, deep breaths to relax ourselves before continuing on, a lot of turning around and redirecting him whenever he tried to pull us in one particular direction, and A LOT of encouraging one another not to give up.

Then, one day, it just kind of happened. We went for an after-work walk and he just stayed beside me. No running me over to get out of the house. No pulling. No lunging at other dogs in our path. He stayed calm and polite the entire time, looked to me for direction, and took all of my cues. It was awesome. These days, when he and I go for walks, I am even able to occasionally drop the leash and have him stay right next to me or only slightly ahead of me, but always looking back to see where I want him to go.

I am so very proud of my little Beast. But I am mostly proud of hubby and I. We worked hard for this victory. Really, really hard.

Cesar Millan often says that if you can "master the walk," you will not only cement your role as pack leader, but you will also establish an unbreakable bond of trust, affection and true companionship between you and your dog. This in turn will lead to a more harmonious relationship and household.

I believe it. With the help of our trainer, we are learning to "master the walk." There are good days and bad days, but overall, the Beast is learning to trust our leadership and look to us for his cues. This is translating into our home life, where he is much more calm and respectful of our rules than he was when he first came. He is no longer the crazed Tasmanian devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoon that whipped around our living room like a whirlwind of neurotic energy.

Except when someone comes to the door.

We really need to figure that one out...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Man's best friend


It's official. Hubby is head over heels in love with the Beast.

I never doubted that my husband would eventually grow to love him. But I must admit that I did not think that it would happen this quickly. Frankly, I don't think he expected it either. After all, as an avowed cat person, he has never had a dog of his own, and has never really understood why people get so attached to them.

Even when he finally agreed to get a dog, I could sense his reticence. But knowing how excited I was to bring a dog home, and loving me enough to figure out a way to make it work, he did not give voice to the concerns that I knew were bubbling underneath the surface.

Still, those unvoiced concerns scared me a little. The day that we drove out to meet the Beast for the first time, I could barely stop myself from bouncing up and down in pure, unadulterated excitement. Hubby, on the other hand, was calm and aloof about the whole thing. While this is generally his natural state of being, a tiny little part of me feared that he was quietly rethinking our decision, and that sometime before we reached our final destination he was going to tell me that he had made a mistake and wasn't ready for this. I must have asked him sixteen times "Are you sure that you are ready for this? Because if we're not both sure, it would be a mistake for us to bring a dog home." And each time, he quietly answered me, "Yes, I'm sure."

The first hint that hubby was ready to open his heart to a dog came that very day, when he knelt down to pet the Beast, looked into his eyes, looked back at me and said, "He has kind eyes." This doesn't sound like a big deal, but this just isn't the kind of thing that my husband would say. Not because he's macho and out of touch with sentiment. But because it's a dog, and he has never felt any kind of attachment to a dog. So he was either really trying for my sake, or he genuinely felt a little tug at his heart strings when he met this dog.

In the past three months since the Beast came to live with us, there have been many more signs that hubby's heart is opening a little wider every day. He doesn't always like to admit it, but I've witnessed genuine moments of unconditional love and tenderness between the two of them - usually when he thinks that I'm not looking.

...Like the time he thought I was in the shower and started running around the backyard with the dog, zigging one way and zagging the other, letting the Beast chase him in the same manner that he tries to chase all of the dogs in the dog park. There was my normally reserved husband, running around our back yard with wild abandon, indulging the Beast in his favourite herding game for no reason other than a selfless desire to see the dog have fun.

...Or there are the times when the Beast is resting peacefully on the floor in front of the couch or on his bed, and out of the corner of my eye I catch my husband staring at him with his head tilted slightly to the side, affection radiating from every ounce of his being.

...Or the times that hubby looks up at me across the dinner table and says, "The Beast is lucky to have you, J. You are turning his life around and giving him a chance be the best dog that he can possibly be." Which I know really means, "We are lucky to have him, J. He is really adding something special to our lives."

...Or the day that the Beast unfortunately got into a full-on dog fight at the park and hubby reached down, without any hesitation or concern for his own well-being, and pulled the Beast away. He would later admit to me that the only thought going through his mind was to protect our dog. Thankfully, the Beast walked away without a scratch. Hubby was not so lucky, having sustained a dog bite and requiring a tetanus shot as a result of his selfless intervention.

...And then there was this morning. It is hubby who has assumed the role of primary caregiver to the Beast following his injury since I was away while it happened. This morning, he demonstrated to me how to apply the Epsom salt compress to the wound as the vet has instructed. Tenderly, he would place the compress up against the wound for the few precious seconds that the Beast would allow it. Then when the Beast would grow restless, he would patiently remove the compress, wait for the Beast to re-settle, and reapply. All the while, in a soothing and gentle voice that I'm not sure I've ever heard, he would reassure the Beast that everything would be alright. When we were done, he looked down at the Beast and said, "You are such a good patient, aren't you buddy."

I'm tearing up as I write this last bit.

I began this blog because I knew that adopting the Beast would be an adventure. More importantly, I knew that it would change all three of us, in both small and in more profound ways. Witnessing an almost-forty-year-old man form a bond with a dog for the very first time in his life is indescribably beautiful. Even more beautiful is watching this same man discover a nurturing part of himself that I'm not so sure he knew existed.

Man's best friend indeed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My little athlete

I used to be fat.

Harsh, I know. But it's true. I tipped the scales at 200 lbs. To put it into perspective, I'm 5'4". The quarterback for my favourite football team is 6' and weighs 210lbs.

I definitely used to be fat.

Over the years, I've shed 60lbs, primarily by eating better and adopting a more active lifestyle. And with this lifestyle has come a veritable bevy of injuries. Let's see... There have been 3 groin pulls, 1 from sprinting and 2 from dead-lifting (I didn't even know that girls had a groin until I pulled it and required extensive - and painful - physiotherapy to recover). There was one nasty bout of tennis elbow, even though I have never held a tennis racket in my life. I've sprained both my peroneal tendon and my Achilles tendon from running on overly tight calves. I've sprained by ankle by tripping on an ice-filled pot hole while running in the dark. And most recently, I tore my TFL muscle in my hip, an injury sustained in some mysterious fashion that neither myself nor my sports doctor can decipher.

This is what happens when you get your ass off of the couch and you get a little physical. Yep. The life of an athlete - even a not-so-great amateur one like me - is fraught with injury. (It is also an expensive lifestyle once insurance coverage for physiotherapy, massage therapy, and chiropractic run out...)

I had never really thought about the potential toll that an active lifestyle could take on a dog. That is I hadn't really thought about this until recently, when my husband called me, while I am out West visiting with my family, to tell me that he and the Beast were in a little accident and had to pay an unexpected visit to the vet.

The Beast met our vet for the first time in June, shortly after he came to live with us. Hubby and I wanted to be sure that he was in good shape from head to toe. We also wanted some of our most pressing questions answered - the ones that we couldn't figure out on Google. Questions like, "Should I be stopping him from eating sticks and leaves?" or "Is it weird that he obsessively tracks and tries to eat insects?" (Answers. Chewing on sticks is perfectly normal dog behaviour, but eating them is not such a good idea because he may lodge a twig in his throat, which would require a 600$ surgery. Tracking insects - yep, that's just weird, and likely a demonstration of some kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour that we may want to have checked with a dog behaviourist...)

Obsessive compulsive behaviours aside, the Beast passed his physical examination with flying colours. Then the vet asked us what we knew about his breed. She wanted to make sure that we understood that Aussies and border collies are not lounge-around kind of dogs, and that they will need a lot of exercise in order to be fulfilled. "Not to worry," I told her. "I'm a runner, and the Beast and I are already running together almost every day." (Although at this point he was still dragging me so we were really just running back and forth down the same street together). Then I listed off all of the other activities that we would do with him: we had plans to teach him to run alongside our bikes, AND to put him in an agility course, AND to take him to a herding farm, AND to take him hiking with us, AND to roller blade with him, AND to take him swimming, AND AND AND....

The vet looked pleased. "Your dog is an athlete," she said, "and it sounds to me like he ended up with the right people."

I swelled with pride when I heard those words "your dog is an athlete." He might be pushy, bossy, obsessive compulsive, and slightly neurotic, but he is an ATHLETE. Right then and there I swore - in the same way that soccer moms and hockey moms across this great country of ours do - that I would do everything in my power to nurture the Beast's athletic prowess so that he would be the fastest, most agile dog in the dog park. Even if he was the worst behaved...

And nurture our little athlete we do. He gets at least 2 hours of physical activity every single day. (Someone should remind me of this in the dead of winter...) Aside from our three-times-a-week runs, we've indeed taught him to run alongside our bikes, an activity that he dreaded at first but that he lives for now. We take him swimming. We play agility games with him in the dog park. And we go for nice long walks with him through our neighbourhood. He gets so much exercise that I've lost another 5lbs since adopting him (which is great because I can now justify having ice cream every single day)!

Which brings us to his recent and unexpected visit to the vet, a visit we had honestly hoped we could postpone until next year's check-up....

Being 2,500 km away at present time, I am fuzzy on the details and can only go by what my husband told me over a hurried cell phone conversation. But my understanding is this. Hubby and the Beast were off for their early morning bike ride together. They had to pull out and pass a pedestrian and his dog. This other dog, for reasons unknown, decided that he did not like the Beast, and lunged at him. The Beast leaped a few feet into the air, and rather than moving AWAY from hubby's bike, dove straight into the rear wheel where he got tangled up. Thankfully, hubby was able to maintain control of the bike, because it could have been a lot worse had he and the bike fallen on top of the Beast. He pulled over and immediately examined the panting Beast, who showed absolutely no signs of having just been run over by the rear wheel of a bike. In fact, like any self-respecting athlete, the Beast seemed impatient to keep going. In his wisdom, hubby cut the bike ride short, brought the Beast home, and conducted a second examination, which again revealed nothing. So off to work he went.

It wasn't until hubby came home from work that the true nature of the Beast's injury came to light. Having spent the day doing what animals do - that is lick, bite at, and "clean" the sore spot - hubby came home to what appeared to be a fresh and very raw wound which until that point had been camouflaged by fur. He immediately brought the Beast to the vet. No stitches required, but a round of antibiotics was administered, and the Beast was instructed not to run for 2 weeks. To make matters worse, he must wear the cone of shame for 7-10 days while his wound heals. Hubby was also warned that, because he is an athlete, the Beast may become anxious and upset if he can not run, so the vet gave him a prescription for sedatives.

(Sedatives? Really? For a dog? I'm not sure I can bring myself to dope up my dog...)

Now whenever I get injured and get told that I can't do something for an extended period of time, I throw myself a little pity party and mope around. I also eat a lot of chocolate. Then I disregard medical advice and go and do that something I'm not supposed to anyway, which usually only results in a longer recovery time and a more injured me. This, of course, only prolongs the moping, the self-pity, and the chocolate eating. But at least I don't have to wear the cone of shame.

So I'm imagining the Beast lying on his dog bed, looking up at hubby with those beautiful (and now sad) brown eyes as if to say, "Why do you hate me so much? Why won't you take me out for a bike ride? I can run! I swear I can! I'll show you if you just take me to the park to play fetch and chase other dogs! And why are you making me wear this stupid freaking cone?"

I'll find out tonight when I get home from my trip the exact extent of the Beast's disillusion. I'll lay with him on the floor and let him know that I understand what he is going through. I might even give him an extra bison bone to make him feel better.

And when the time comes to take off that cone and get back out there, I will spend an entire day doing all of his favourite athletic things with him.

Get better soon, Beasty!

Monday, August 8, 2011

A little place to call all his own...

This week, I'm spending alot of time with my 14-year-old niece. Much has changed since I was her age. The crimping iron (mercifully) has given way to the straightening iron. Long conversations on the phone with your best girlfriend have been replaced by Facebook chatting with all of your BFFs at the same time. And the never-ending antics of the lovable Keaton and Huxtable families have been shoved out of prime time by the reality-talent-show craze of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

But one thing hasn't changed. Teenage girls still spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedrooms. Whether just to hang out, to read girly magazines, or to escape annoying younger siblings, the bedroom remains a universal sanctuary in the life of every teenage girl.

Which is how hubby and I are trying to get the Beast to view his crate. As a place of refuge where he can go to chew on his deer antler and get away from it all. As a peaceful resting place that belongs only to him. As a place where he should want to just hang out.

Yes, we have decided to leave our dog in a crate while we are not in the house. At least until he learns the rules of life chez casa-me-and-hubby - and on the advice of our trainer, this could be a full six months to a year. So he might as well learn to like it in there.

In our naive, first-time-dog-owner minds, this could not be such a difficult feat to accomplish. After all, doggy ancestors sought out shelter, warmth and comfort within the cavernous walls of small, dark dens. That's just like a crate, right? The Beast should feel comfortable in a cozy little corner, right? He should instinctively and naturally take to his crate, right?

Not right. In fact, we are convinced that, like many humans of Australian background, our canine Aussie is descended from those banished to the dog version of the penal colonies. As such, "Beast, crate" translates to him as "Beast, you are going to jail." I have visions of him rattling his deer antler against the bars, whipping out a harmonica, and singing Fulsom Prison Blues when we aren't looking.

Add crate-training to our long list of issues to address with the Beast. For those who have been through the process, I'm sure you can agree with me that it is, well, hellish. Especially if you are having to crate train an older puppy who has never been properly introduced to a crate.

The good news is that getting the Beast into his crate is not the problem. Nor does he have any trouble spending the night in there. No, the trouble begins as soon as he senses that we are leaving for the day and that we have the nerve to leave him behind to rot in that miniature prison cell. (Cue the bluesy harmonica).

Now I have never tortured another living being, but I am pretty sure that the sounds emanating from the Beast when we leave are enough to make any good person consider calling the Humane Society and reporting a case of animal abuse. So loud is his whimpering and barking that he can be heard from outside. What's more, his bark is the exact same pitch as that of glass shattering, which means that he sets off our house alarm. Try explaining that to the alarm company call centre that reaches me on my cell to report a disturbance in the house:

Alarm company (AC): "Ma'am, are you aware that your alarm went off? It is reporting glass shatter in the living room. Is everything alright?"

Me: "Oh. Well, I don't know, actually. I'm on the bus on the way to work. Which window did you say is shattered?"

AC: "The living room window, ma'am."

Me: "Oh, that's gotta be my dog. You see, he hates being left in his crate. I'm sure it's his bark that is setting off the alarm. No need to send the police."

AC: "Ma'am, are you sure about that?"

Me: "Um... no... not 100% sure... But I'm pretty sure. Why? Do you recommend that we dispatch police?"

AC: "We leave it up to you ma'am. If we dispatch the police though, and it turns out to be your, um, dog did you say? Well, then we would charge you for a false alarm. But of course, your safety is the most important thing."

Me: "Yes. I see that. Um, thanks... I think. No police. I'll go home and check."

AC: "Okay ma'am. Just dial 911 if anything looks suspicious as you approach the house."

I've had this conversation three times now.

So how do you crate train a year-old puppy who displays intense separation anxiety whenever you leave the house? Of course, you turn to google, where there is a mountain of information about crate training. The key, many say, is to make sure that he views the crate as a place of tranquility, his own special spot where he can escape from the stresses of the doggy world whenever he needs time to himself. His own special place of sanctuary!

Consequently, we have done everything we can think of to jazz up the crate and make it positively irresistible. It's roomy. It occupies prime real estate right beside our fireplace and under the living room window so that he can get all the natural sunlight that he needs. We leave his all-time favourite tug rope inside of it for him. And it is furnished with hand-made patchwork quilts, sewn for me by my great-grandmother when I was no more than two-feet tall. At the very least, the Beast MUST appreciate the sentimental value of his crate's furnishings, and take great comfort in great-grandmotherly love.

We've also had extensive rounds of practicing relaxation in the crate. The game is that he gets let out once he lies down and relaxes. The goal is to get him to understand that (a) the crate is a place to chill out and (b) he will eventually be let out. And he is actually very good at this game, as long as we don't physically leave the house. It's the moment that we leave the house that all bets are off and he falls into a fit of whiny bark-ridden hysterics.

So in desperation, we turned to bribery. Bribery in the form of food.

I must admit that I am not crazy about using food to train the Beast. For one thing, he is completely and utterly food obsessed (yet another area for us to work on). I kind of feel like getting him to do something for a food reward is like giving a syringe and a belt to a junkie. But I'm really tired of having the above-conversation with my alarm company. And I'm tired of living in fear of my neighbour reporting us to the local SPCA...

So we gave in. We bought him a food puzzle in which we place bits of his kibble, and he has to figure out how to get the kibble out so that he can have a snack. It keeps him busy. Busy enough that we can sneak out without him noticing. By the time he's figured out how to get every last bit of kibble out of that puzzle, he probably doesn't care that we're gone. I can only guess that he settles down and goes to sleep - an assumption based entirely on the fact that I don't get a call from the alarm company.

I'm a little worried that the moral of this story is that the Beast loves food more than he loves hubby and I, since it seems to be the only thing to cure him of his crate-induced separation anxiety. But I'm sure there is a deeper lesson buried within our adventures in crate-training. I'm sure that it has something to do with teaching us that we should not assume that any aspect of dog training will be easy, or that we should be more flexible about some of our rules (such as the no-food-training).

Whatever the lesson, we will keep on working with the Beast to make him feel like the crate is always his special retreat and never a prison cell. In the meantime, I am just relieved that we have found a way to keep the Beast at peace when we leave the house. For the sake of the alarm company, for the sake of the neighbours, but mostly for his own sake.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Beast teaches me my first important life lesson

I just got back from a magnificent run. Sun rising slowly over the horizon through a cloud of moisture hanging in the air, casting its pink glow through the clouds and over the prairie. Isolated town streets all to myself. Slight breeze cooling the sweat from my brow as each foot pounded the pavement. It was a great run. I even posted my all time best time, keeping a pace of 5 minutes and 4 seconds for 5 km.

This time, the Beast wasn't with me. I always post a better time when I run without the Beast. But I have a lot less fun.

I began to run a little over three years ago. For one thing, I had to fit my thirty-something frame into the wedding dress that my mother wore when she was the tender age of eighteen. But mostly, I felt like I needed a new way to challenge myself physically. Having mastered the fine art of weight-lifting, and having plateaued at a squat of 175lbs for 6 reps, it was time to try something completely outside of my comfort zone. Enter running, a sport that I previously derided as one in which I would only partake if I were being chased. But I began to enjoy running. While I am far from very good at it, I could see marked improvement on each and every run, and each day out became a game for me to go a little farther or to go a little faster. Soon I was downloading coaching apps onto my IPhone that would track my progress and berate me when I was missing my target pace. This constant need to push myself morphed into year-round running, and I spent a small fortune on winter gear.

Occasionally, I would ask my husband to come with me. He used to run, but does so rarely these days. On those mornings, I would feel this massive anxiety building up inside me as we ran together because my IPhone kept reminding me that we were well below my target pace. I would politely nag my husband about going just a bit faster. And once or twice, when that didn't work, I simply ran out ahead of him. It was clear that neither one of us enjoyed spending time together in this manner, and so I gave up on asking him to join me and he gave up on offering to keep me company.

Which is why I figured I needed a dog as a run partner. A dog would serve as protection for a girl out there on her own in the dark cold streets. A dog wouldn't want to talk to me about anything. And the right dog would push me to be better because he would be able to go faster. It was the perfect solution to my running isolation.

Now I am not stupid, and so I didn't figure that the Beast and I would gel instantaneously into some fantastic duo. I figured it would take some work. He did after all have to learn how to walk nicely on a leash. So the very morning after he came to live with us, I armed myself with a water bottle full of patience, clipped the Beast to my waist, and took off.

Almost immediately, the Beast resumed his hysteria of pulling me around like a rag doll, as he had done the night before when we took him for our first official walk. "No problem," I thought to myself. "I will just change direction quickly every time he pulls ahead." The end result was 30 minutes of me and the Beast running back and forth across one city block. Because. he. would. not. stop. pulling! He also would not stop barking, because he did not take kindly to this constant change of direction. Not to mention that the back and forth completely screwed up my IPhone app, which just shut itself down rather than try to determine speed or direction for me. So I am guessing that we exerted ourselves over 3km, but physically were working over no more than a 300m stretch.

"Oh well! At least we both got some exercise!" I thought to myself cheerfully.

The next morning, I decided to really throw the Beast for a loop by sprinting with him. 30 seconds of all out sprint, and one minute of fast walk. Again clipping him to my waist, we made our way to an isolated trail where there was no one around. I set off for my first sprint, and he just took off, fast overtaking me and excited by the opportunity to turn on the jets. Now for those of you who have sprinted, you know that it is impossible to just stop on a dime and turn into another direction when you are going as fast as you possibly can. So my strategy of the day before would not work here. I decided to forgive him his rudeness during the sprints, and use the 1 minute walks as training time for changing direction quickly. The end result was that after five sprints, with five more to go, I thought I was going to throw up. My body could not withstand the all-out pace, followed by yo-yo movement back and forth across the field in between. So we had to call it a day.

By this point, I was starting to lose my patience (just a little). Aside from having a bossy dog that clearly wanted to set the tone and the direction for each and every run, I was not getting the exercise that I wanted to be getting. So I had to remind myself that this wasn't actually all about me. And it wasn't even really all about running. Fundamentally, it was about establishing myself as the dog's leader, establishing some ground rules for him to live by, and more importantly, establishing our life-long bond not only as running mates, but as companions.

And so I picked up that leash and every single morning, the Beast and I ran back and forth across that same 300m of city block until one morning, about a week and a half in, he jut got it. He looked up at me, and his little brown eyes seemed to say, "If I stay beside you the whole time, will you show me more than just this one little street? Because I know there's more out there, lady. I can smell it!"

And so we turned the corner instead of heading back the way we came. And on our first "real" run together, we ran 4k. The slowest 4k I had ever run, but at least we moved forward on that day. And we've not stopped running forward since.

Except that when the Beast and I run, I am no longer able to post my best time. There are many reasons for this. If we run along the river, he goes into herding mode at the sight of Canada geese or ducks and I lose precious seconds by keeping him under control. Sometimes he tries to herd me into the direction that HE wants to go by jumping up into my face and nipping at me. And sometimes, he has to use the bathroom 2k into our run.

But when we are in synch, we really are beautiful together. I have my shoulders back and my head up. He has his ears back and his nose up to greet the smells around him. Every now and then he looks up at me as if to thank me for allowing him to let loose his energy. And so I reward him with games during the runs like using trees, benches and street lamps as obstacles and running through, around and over them. Or letting him stop to talk to a new dog friend. Or simply letting him stop to sniff the ground for a few minutes.

I'm no longer breaking my own records. But the Beast has taught me the importance of having fun when I am out on a run. The world is a beautiful place to see if you just open your eyes and ears and nose to it and take it all in. Something you can't do when your IPhone coach is yelling at you because you are being too slow.

So I've turned the IPhone coach off. And I've even resumed the occasional run with my husband. Just last weekend, he and I went out for our first run together in over a year. We ran a leisurely 5k along the river, talking the whole way. I felt absolutely no anxiety about the fact that we were most definitely below my target pace. Instead, I enjoyed every second of our time together.

I have the Beast to thank. Who knew that the little bugger would be training me too.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The first of many letters of apology....

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dear Local Cab Company;

Thank you for dispatching a taxi to my residence so quickly this morning. I truly appreciate how you go above and beyond in your efforts to get a girl to the airport at 5:45 a.m.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for the conduct of my dog this morning. I'm really not sure what got into him. One minute, he was lying on the floor nicely, letting me snuggle with him before leaving for a week. Even when my husband opened the door at the sound of the cab pulling up, he displayed only minor curiousity but no restlessness.

I regret to say that he tricked us - yet again - with his morning calm demeanor. I do believe that he does this so that we won't restrain him when the door opens, and so that he has the opportunity to sneak out of the house when I am struggling with a suitcase. You see, he loves being outside. He thinks that every single time the front door opens that he is obviously going for a bike ride or a jog.

As your driver will attest, that is exactly what happened this morning. He snuck out of the house as I was carrying a suitcase, and made a bee-line for the bikes. Unfortunately, as soon as the driver got out of the car, his insane barking began. I'm afraid this gave your driver quite a fright, as he jumped about 4 feet into the air and almost fell right back into the cab.

Please be assured that the Beast sounds like he is ready to take a chunk out of your leg, but he is just trying to sound really tough. You see, he is a herding dog, and so he believes that his job is to alert my husband and I, in as high a pitch as he can, to the presence of new herd members. Someone forgot to tell him that he doesn't start work until at least 7:00 a.m.

So I sincrely hope that you will not put our address on your blacklist and refuse to send cabs to us. To make up for the Beast's indiscretion, I can assure you that I spent the entire cab ride apologizing profusely for this display of unruly behaviour. The cab driver assured me with a smile and a laugh that he was fine and that there was no need to apologize further, but I gave him an insanely high tip anyway.

I also fully intend to continue to enlist the help and services of our dog trainer, and I will personally request that we bypass all other lessons and go straight to front door etiquette. You have my commitment to work very diligently with the Beast so that the next time a cab arrives, he will not give your driver a heart attack.


The Beast's slightly embarassed owner

P.S. Each and every one of my neighbours will receive a similar letter. Please do not black-list their properties due to the close proximity to the Beast.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"I don't like dogs. Could you get him away from me?"

Everywhere we go with the Beast, people of all ages can not help but turn their heads to look at him. Many times, we get a "Ooooohhh, he is such a handsome boy," or a "Do you mind if I pet him?" and of course, the ever popular, "What kind of dog is he?" Sometimes, we get no more than a simple smile, which I am pretty sure means "My, what a well-behaved and perfect pet you have there." Either way, we are chuffed with pride whenever it happens.

Yet every now and then, we meet people who do not share our enthusiasm or admiration for the Beast. The first time this happened, we were at the dog park. The Beast was running around and herding all of the dogs in the park, and for the most part, they were all listening - staying all together in a close-knit circle around him. Except for one dog, who was sitting under a plastic white patio chair in which her owner had parked himself to enjoy a glass of wine. At the dog park.

Now the Beast, as we have already discussed, is one dominant little bugger. When said doggy wasn't listening to his clear and concise instruction to rejoin the herd, he began circling her like a crazed Tasmanian devil, barking like a maniac. At this point, I abandoned my conversation with another dog owner and came in to intervene and to teach Beasty that not everyone has to want to play with him.

Unfortunately for me, the Beast did not yet have great recall, as we were a mere two or three weeks into our lives together. (Truth be told, his recall still sucks, but that is the subject for another post). So of course, he would not respond to my instruction to cease and desist. As a result, I was forced - embarrassingly - to chase him in a big round circle, looking like that jerk of a dog owner that has absolutely no control over her dog. When I finally caught up to him, he had that crazed look of focus and determination in his eyes, and snapping him out of it was no easy feat. So I put him back on his leash and removed him from the situation, but not before I apologized to the victim of the Beast's tirade and his owner.

As I turned to walk away, head bowed low in shame because I knew my dog trainer would be disappointed in me, I heard said dog owner mutter under his breath, "Your dog is an asshole." I immediately straightened up, turned around, and said, "Excuse me?" to which he replied again, "I said your dog is an asshole."

Now I am trained in conflict resolution, and so I know that conflict usually emerges from an unmet or misunderstood need. Perhaps this individual really, really, really needed to have a quiet moment with his dog while sipping on a glass of wine (in a dog park) and my dog ruined that for him. Or perhaps he sensed that his dog was becoming anxious and wanted to protect her while he was sipping on a glass of wine (in a dog park).

Or maybe sometimes, conflict just simply emerges because people are assholes. Which is the obvious conclusion that I have drawn from this encounter with a man who came to sit in a corner by himself and drink wine at a dog park while his dog sat under his chair.

Nonetheless, I drew on my conflict resolution training, calmed myself down, and diplomatically said, "I apologize for ruining your evening. He is still in training," and turned around to walk away. And then, something more primal kicked in - perhaps some deep-rooted protective lioness instinct - and I turned back to him and said, "Besides, this is a f$!#ing dog park, not a bar. Dogs BARK!"

In my head, I heard other responsible and conscientious dog owners everywhere clapping and screaming my name as I walked away. In reality, that was not the case. But I felt much better.

The second episode was just today. After a weekend without the pooch, hubby and I vowed to give him a crate free day, and so we took him out with us on a three hour stroll, including a stop at a local celebration of an historical day in our city's heritage. The Beast was the model of a perfect dog citizen. For most of the walk to the park, I let the leash drag on the ground and he never once bolted ahead without permission. He let kids and adults come up to him and pet him. He did not bark once. When the parade came by, led by bagpipes (which made his little ears perk right up), he sat quietly and watched. And when the costumed 18th century British militia men fired their muskets, he was happily lying down beside me in the shade chewing a stick.

Which is why I was surprised when, after he got up to stretch his legs a little and wandered behind me (while still on leash hooked around my waist), I heard a lady behind me say in a very gruff voice, "I don't like dogs. Get him away from me."

Might I point out that at the time that she said this, the Beast was not even looking at her and was not making his way toward her. In fact, he was a good meter and a half away from her. So I wanted to say something to the effect of, "my dog doesn't like old ladies so perhaps YOU should move away from HIM." But my parents raised me to be far more polite than that. Instead, I redirected the Beast and brought him back towards me, where he happily resumed chewing on his stick. I am quite sure that she expected me to move to a whole new spot so that she could resume her dog free afternoon. But I did not. Because the Beast was being well-behaved, was on-leash, and frankly has as much right to be there as she does. She kept a nasty eye on him for the rest of the event, and I on her.

I'm okay with people disliking dogs in general. I'm even okay with people disliking my dog in particular, because let's face it, he can be a handful. But I am not okay with people who think that they are allowed to be jerks to me and the Beast because he is "just a dog." I mean, he is just a dog, but he is MY dog.

Could you imagine if it was okay to say these things about children? It's no secret that I have got the motherly instinct of, well, something that has absolutely no motherly instinct (I need to watch more of the National Geographic channel to finish that thought, I think...) And there are some children who, admittedly, I find unbearable. But I have never once said, "Your kid is being an asshole" while, for example, drinking a glass of wine in a day care centre. Nor have I said, "I hate kids. Get your screaming baby away from me."

Okay, perhaps I have wanted to say both. But I haven't. Because clearly, I'm far more civilized than the two anonymous individuals who inspired this post...

And worry not, dear readers. The Beast has recovered from all insults against his canine-ness, and is happily sucking every last bit of meat and marrow out of a bison bone on the back deck.