Dogs in the “good old days”

When I hear my parents and grandparents talk about how they lived with their dogs, I am sometimes filled with a sense of envy and even nostalgia for a lifestyle I never experienced.

Dogs back then, in the “good old days,” seemed to live in such freedom and off-leash harmony with human society.

Source: Boston Public Library.

Source: Boston Public Library.

According to all the stories and books and records I’ve heard, the common traits of dogs, back then were that:

  • Dogs never wear leashes. Unless these dogs are living in Manhattan, leashes are rarely, if ever, used. You take walks with your leashless dog at your side. (Sigh. This one makes me especially envious. Pyrrha could be such a different dog, I think, in a leashless world.)
  • Dogs usually run free throughout the neighborhoods, sometimes in friendly packs. I recall Temple Grandin describing this in her book Animals Make Us Human. Grandin recalls seeing packs of neighborhood dogs roam around daily, and she still longs for dogs to be able to live in this way.
  • Dogs often take on larger-than-life qualities, in the form of family fables, and are often very human-like in their abilities and powers of reasoning. Maybe everyone was watching too much “Lassie” or “Rin-Tin-Tin,” but we all know stories of dogs who played tricks on their humans, saved babies from drowning, rang doorbells, and begged for food at the neighborhood butcher. My dad regaled us with dozens of stories about his childhood dogs and their antics. I can’t imagine my dogs doing any of these things, and so I wonder if it’s because we don’t give them the opportunity to act in these ways, or if these dogs have acquired these mythic qualities as the stories get told and re-told, in the form of hyperbolic legend.
  • Training seemed to be more organic, rather than formal or structured. Dogs learned how to behave in households in a natural, unstructured way and often learned a repertoire of party tricks. But I get the sense that if a dog went to obedience school, it was much more rigid and discipline oriented than we are accustomed to today.
1934 - 1956: Dog drinking from water fountain

Source: Leslie Jones.

I wonder if reactivity was far less common in those days. Perhaps without much containment, dogs had less opportunity to practice reactivity. Pyrrha interacts with dogs in a totally different way when she’s off leash. One of my happiest days with her was this past Christmas, when we took her to a big farm/park. She was on a 30-ft. drag lead, and there were tons of off-leash dogs there. She was just delighted to see everyone, and all of the dogs interacted with each other in this beautiful, peaceful, harmonious way. There wasn’t a bit of anxiety or reactivity in her that day.

The downsides of the way dogs lived in the “good old days” are, of course, also rather considerable. Dogs died fairly frequently in traffic accidents or other suburban misfortunes, merely because they were rarely contained. Dogs probably rarely went to the vet and were infrequently spayed or neutered. Thus, if you had a bitch, she likely got pregnant a few times, and then you had to figure out what to do with those puppies (pawn them off on the neighbor kids). I also don’t know of any data, but I imagine that dog bites (especially to children) were much more frequent, also because dogs were not contained or monitored. Knowledge of dog behavior and canine psychology was scant, and dog behavior was often misunderstood and grossly misinterpreted (hence the old “rub their noses in their poo” strategy of house-training, among others).

Source: Boston Public Library.

Source: Boston Public Library.

I don’t think it’s possible anymore, of course, to return to this way of dog-rearing in urban or suburban America. We have leash laws, vaccination requirements, and the encouragement to spay and neuter for good reasons.

This is why I disliked Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book so much. I felt like she was forcing her dogs into a “wild” lifestyle, which was not coherent with the fact that she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The scenes of her following her off-leash husky weaving through Cambridge traffic and watching her spaniel get “raped” (her term) by a wayward dog were just awful to me. As much as I may love and yearn for the off-leash lifestyle, that is not a life I want for my dogs. I know it’s not possible (or even legal) in my town, and so the girls wear leashes and we have a sturdy fence.

Some rural dogs may still experience this “good old dog days” lifestyle, and I love that for them. For example, our former foster Laszlo has an idyllic existence; he goes to work every day with his human at a winery in the foothills and lives his whole life off-leash, running around the giant, gorgeous property.

So, here’s my question. Do you think we can incorporate the good aspects of the old way of dog-rearing into modern society? For most of us, our dogs can’t go out without leashes or travel with you by running behind your truck. But is there a way that we can reduce reactivity and promote freer, more harmonious interactions with our dogs and our communities? Is that even possible with modern legislation?

Source: Leslie Jones.

Source: Leslie Jones.

I don’t know. But it’s something I like to think about. I think about that day for Pyrrha at Fisher Farms, which might have been her happiest day ever, and I long to capture some part of that in our everyday life.

Curious to hear your thoughts!

That time Pyrrha met a baby and didn’t freak out

Like a cat

Basking in the sun like a cat.

I’ve been so consumed lately with Eden’s health issues that it’s been easy to neglect Pyrrha’s (behavioral and fear) issues. But I have a happy little story to tell.

Last Wednesday was beautiful, and so I took the dogs on a walk to the tiny nearby park on my lunch break. There were lots of small children milling about, so I walked the dogs in a broad loop. Little kids (especially toddlers) are one of Pyrrha’s fear triggers, so we tread with caution in child-heavy areas. I’ve been giving her lots of space around children and treating her for just observing children from a distance.

As we were leaving the park, without any incidents, I heard someone call my name. One of my friends, with her baby on her hip, came up to meet us. I kept both dogs on close leashes. Pyrrha was interested in the baby, who was a very quiet, dog-friendly baby (she has a big redbone coonhound “brother” at home), and the baby was interested in her. I was nervous and watching everything closely… but the baby just put her hand down, Pyrrha sniffed and licked her hand, and then her feet; the baby smiled; and Pyrrha turned back to watch the rest of the park activity.

I was beaming. The baby’s mom even said, “Wow, Pyrrha is so relaxed around kids.” Ha! Something that has never been said about my dog. This sounds like such a silly little story, but when you have a fearful dog, tiny moments like this feel like HUGE victories. Because they are signs of progress. Of course I don’t think this small encounter means that she is “cured” or even that she isn’t fearful anymore. Pyrrha is not going to be kid friendly in a few weeks, or maybe even in the rest of her life, but she is making progress. And I’m proud of her. (And thankful for calm, dog-savvy infants! I need to meet more of those…)

How have you seen your dog grow and change lately?

Pyrrha turns 3!

It’s hard to believe, but Pyrrha turns 3 today! 

Pyrrha

My serious 3-year-old.

Unlike many rescue dogs, we know Pyrrha’s actual birthday, because she came from her unscrupulous breeder (who was raided by the rescue, essentially) with AKC papers. On March 6, 2011, a shy puppy named “Katie” was born to a backyard breeder in rural North Carolina. We don’t know much about her life from birth until she turned a year old, but rescue reports were that she lived outside her whole life in a filthy pen with her relatives. She was neglected, painfully shy, and especially frightened of men.

We adopted her shortly after she’d turned 1, in mid-May 2012. The rescue had named her Lyndi, and she’d been recently returned to the rescue after a family with three young children learned that she wasn’t going to work out for them. (Understandable, because she is very anxious about small kids.)

Once we met her, in the parking lot of a PetCo, I was sold. In retrospect, it was a foolish decision. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, ha! Adopting my first dog, a dog with evident fear issues? Not the best decision I’ve ever made. But I don’t regret it. I was in love.

With Pyrrha at Blue Mountain Brewery

The first photo of me and Pyrrha together, May 2012.

She had a rough time at first. As I’ve recounted before, she hid from us in corners of the house. She never wanted to leave her crate. She spent every walk with her ears flat back and her tail completely tucked under her. But, gradually, she started to get comfortable, and she bonded intensely with me.

Pyrrha still has issues and always will, but she’s my special girl. (Exhibit A, below, her ambivalent ears.)

Feeling ambivalent today. #dogears #pyrrhagram

My heart thrills when I think back to those first few months with Pyrrha and then think about how she is now. Still fearful, but, wow, what a different dog!

Our adventures in fostering and now, having adopted a second dog, have worked wonders on soothing her nerves. Pyrrha is most at ease when she’s with me at home and when she’s in the presence of another dog. Having psycho Edie around has already made a tangible difference in reducing Pyrrha’s day-to-day anxiety level.

At 3, Pyrrha is a content, calm dog. Yes, she’s still leash reactive. Yes, she grumbles at Eden from time to time. Yes, Guion is still on her “don’t entirely trust” list. But the progress she’s made! It’s enough to make my eyes well up.

Happy birthday, Pyrrha Louise. You’re a good girl. And I’m glad you’re in my life.

Through the fence, view 1

Eternal winter

I know I can’t be the only one who feels like this has been the longest winter ever. Even the dogs seem tired of the snow:

Snow pups

I’m thankful that they still like to go out and romp in it, but they seem a bit bored with the white stuff and the constant bitter temperatures. I have poor circulation in my extremities, so I can’t go out much in the very cold, which makes our walks less frequent.

Eternal winter

Mercifully, Fiona is only a few blocks away, so she comes over to romp for a few hours, sun or snow.

Late winter in the southeast US is much like a bad boyfriend. One week, he’s so sweet and temperate, and you think everything is finally going to turn around with you two. And then the next week, he’s back to being a total jerk, ruining your life at every turn. It’s enough to give you whiplash. Saturday, for instance, we had sunshine and 60 degrees (F). It was beautiful. We played with the dogs, and Guion built our garden fence, to prepare us for spring gardening. And then… this morning… more terrible snow.

More snow

We’re hibernating, we’re enduring. How are you and  your pups making this long winter feel less long?

(And if you live in some warm place like Florida or Australia, just… hush.)

Winter forever

Update from our former foster Kira (fka Trina)

I always really appreciate it when the adopters of our former foster dogs stay in touch. Their e-mails and photos are so heartwarming!

We recently got this e-mail from the family who adopted Kira (fka Trina):

I wanted to give you guys and update on Kira. She gets more accustomed to her new home with every passing day; she is so smart. She loves the snow and is getting big. Attached are pictures of her.

Kira | Doggerel

Kira | Doggerel

Can’t believe how big she’s getting! She almost looks like a full-grown lady. And he is right: She is SO smart. One of the smartest dogs I’ve ever met. So happy that she has found her forever home. We were tempted to keep her ourselves, but I know she’s in just the right place. And that’s the best feeling of all!

Hope you all have great weekends ahead!

Happy adoption day, Eden!

Well, it’s official: this little monster is ours!

Playful puppy

The paperwork is in, and the rescue has confirmed. We foster failed, and now we’re responsible for the life of this crazy baby. After a host of foster dogs, I confess that it still feels kind of weird to think that we’re her family forever. But we’re excited about it!

Other Eden updates:

  • Her relationship with Pyrrha continues to go smoothly, although it does resemble the relationship of an older sister to a pesky younger one. Eden is learning to respect Pyrrha’s warnings, and Pyrrha is really doing an admirable job of showing tolerance and even handicapping herself in play (rolling on the ground with her belly up, something she rarely does for younger dogs).
  • My big concern, as of this morning, is that Eden threw up her last two meals. I think she’s just eating them too quickly all of the sudden, because she hasn’t done this in the three weeks that we’ve had her. And she’s only thrown up when she gets kibble in a bowl (not in the food toys). So I’m guessing there’s some correlation. Will split up her meals and/or solely feed from toys going forward, to see if that’s the issue.
  • Eden is doing amazingly well at showing self-restraint with greetings. We’ve been teaching her to sit (instead of leaping and clawing at a human’s face with overeager joy), and she’s been listening! I’m kind of amazed. Even though she can drive us crazy sometimes, she has a surprising amount of self-control for an adolescent.
  • She’s walking very nicely on the leash, and thanks to her new harness, I can now walk both girls together by myself. Post about this to come!
  • I’d like to get her out and playing with other dogs. Our yard has been so horrible with all of the rain that I feel loath to invite anyone over right now, because the visiting dogs would leave wearing lovely full-body shade of red clay.

Can’t believe we have two dogs! We’re excited.

My watchful girls

The girls.

Meet Eden! Our new dog (!!)

Yeah. Best Christmas ever: We totally got a puppy. (!!)

A week before Christmas, I got an e-mail from the rescue VP that made my heart skip a beat. She said she had the perfect puppy for us.

We had a crazy fall and early winter, and so we took a fostering hiatus. But I also wanted us to start thinking seriously about a second dog for our household, and I was really picky about this future dog’s personality. Cassie (the rescue VP) knew that I was looking for a “bombproof” young dog to balance out Pyrrha’s fear issues (see this great post by Nicole Wilde). She said that she’d only met one other puppy who was as solid as this one was, and she kept him for herself. This puppy had been surrendered by her family, who had young children and felt that they could not give her the attention she needed.

So, on a very rainy Sunday, I went to meet Cassie and pick up Eden!

Settling in nicely. #fosterpuppy #gsd

Eden!

We met at Petco, and I was instantly impressed by Eden’s confidence, friendliness, and utter lack of fear. From Pyrrha and our GSD experience so far, I’ve come to expect shyness from every German shepherd I see, and here was a little girl who didn’t have an ounce of it. She greeted everyone who walked in the door with wags and kisses.

Eden (fka Eva) was evaluated for police work when she was brought in, but failed the police test for not having high enough drive and being too friendly. Which is totally fine with me! But the evaluator did say that she thought Eden could be perfect for therapy work, owing to her strong orientation to people. I really thrilled to hear that; I’ve always dreamed of having a dog who could do therapy service, and Pyrrha certainly isn’t suited for it.

Sweet little Edie

Eden in the kitchen.

We still have two weeks to make everything official (the rescue’s policy of having a trial period) but… all signs point to this girl being THE ONE. Guion is always more level-headed than I am with puppies, and so I think it’s good that we have this period of being able to decide about her, but I think he’s also smitten with her.

Interactions with Pyrrha

Wrestling

Eden plays with Pyrrha very nicely, and Pyrrha treats her with a mix of joviality and crankiness (which is always her way with puppies; Pyrrha, despite only being 2, has some aspects of old lady grumpiness with the whippersnappers).

Girls

Rainy walk with the new foster puppy! #probablykeepingher #gsd #puppylove

They love romping together in the yard (and sometimes in the house), and I think Pyrrha will really warm to her. Edie is also good about respecting Pyrrha’s space (and Pyrrha is good about letting her know when she’s crossed the line). As with all of the other fosters we’ve had, I have to be conscientious about helping Pyrrha with her jealousy issues regarding me and other dogs, but she’s been good about keeping them in check. Her main tendency is to be the taskmaster/bullying older sibling with young’uns, which is a behavior I myself exhibited as a child, so I’m familiar with the signs. But Eden is very happy and forgiving of Pyrrha’s occasional grumpiness, and she thinks Pyrrha is a delight.

We took them on a 2-mile walk around town on Wednesday, and they were great together. Eden’s happiness and friendliness to everyone seemed to let Pyrrha loosen up. We’re still working patiently on Pyrrha’s leash reactivity issues toward other dogs, and Eden has already shown strong signs of being a great young role model for Pyr.

Settling in nicely

A respectful puppy.

Eden’s Background

From my research and from the existence of Eden’s pink papers, I’ve been able to determine that she came from a Maryland breeder and schutzhund competitor. Eden’s parents were both imported from Germany, and both are titled in schutzhund (her father holding a Sch3 title). Their hips and elbows both passed as “normal” by the German breeding standards, which was good to know. She does have more angulation than Pyrrha, which I hate, but she moves and runs solidly.

Studying Eden's movement

Getting a purebred rescue is always a gamble, so we’re lucky to know this much about Eden. (And can you believe that a puppy of this caliber was turned into a rescue?? It happens!) German shepherds are famous for their health issues, and this is a risk we knew about when we started looking at GSD rescues. We know nothing about Pyrrha’s parents, except that they were from the (weaker, unhealthier) American show/companion lines and not bred well (an unscrupulous backyard breeder who wanted to euthanize all of his dogs because he was tired of them). Despite this, Pyrrha is healthy, and we are blessed. We know more about Eden, but we also have high hopes for her healthy future as well.

Her Personality

Sweet little Edie

She is an absolute doll.

And she’s a funny, playful, floppy bundle of energy! Whew! She wants to play ALL DAY long. I’m really grateful for Pyrrha, who can wear her out in the backyard with games of tag and wrestling matches, because I can’t keep up!

Eden is both food AND toy motivated, which is fun to see, and she’s a very quick learner. This little brown-noser has learned to sit sweetly whenever she wants anything, because it’s clearly a strategy that’s been working well for her. She LOVES toys, and especially toys that she can fetch. She has a retrieving drive like a labrador! But she makes fetching fun for us humans too, because she’s already learned to drop the ball at your feet and wait in a sit or down position for you to throw it. I’m impressed.

We were tempted to keep Trina, our last foster, as you may recall, but I can already tell that Eden has confidence and soundness in ways that exceed little Trina. Trina was awesome, and she’s so happy in her new home, but seeing Eden is also a reminder that Trina wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.

SO. Still anxious to make it official, but I think she’s IT! I can’t believe we found her. We’re SO grateful to Cassie and to Southeast German Shepherd Rescue; what awesome, thoughtful, hard-working people. We’re so thrilled!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

SIDE NOTE: DOGS PICKING UP UNWANTED BEHAVIORS?

With regard to Pyrrha’s progress, now is a good time to add another dog to the house. If we had tried to bring in a permanent new dog even six or eight months ago, I’m not sure that Pyrrha would have been ready for it. Pyrrha has gained enough confidence and made enough progress in her other fear areas (Guion, strangers, other dogs) that I think we’re at a point at which Eden can be a good influence on Pyrrha, instead of Pyrrha being a bad influence on Eden.

The main thing I don’t want Eden to pick up is Pyrrha’s leash reactivity toward other dogs. For those of you with multi-dog households that include a reactive dog, has this ever been a problem for you? (The reactive dog making the non-reactive dogs reactive.) If so, what have you done to mitigate such copying behavior?