Looking back on another year of dog blogging

Pet Blogger ChallengeThis is my first year participating in the Pet Blogger Challenge, a “blog hop” that’s hosted by Go Pet Friendly and Will My Dog Hate Me?

It’s nice to have the opportunity to reflect on why I keep a dog blog (short answer: because I’m crazy) and what I’m looking forward to in the coming year.

Without further ado, here are some answers to the challenge questions:

1. How long have you been blogging? Please tell us why you started blogging, and, for anyone stopping by for the first time, give us a quick description of what your blog is about.

I started this blog in May 2011, a year before we adopted Pyrrha, our first dog. I was driving my husband insane with my desperate need to talk about dogs all the time, and so I started a blog as an outlet for my year of concentrated canine research. This is still a blog that focuses on learning about and from dogs, specifically our two dogs, Pyrrha and Eden, who were adopted through Southeast German Shepherd Rescue.

2. Name one thing about your blog, or one blogging goal that you accomplished during 2013, that made you most proud.

I don’t know how to answer this question, honestly. I just feel grateful to have a community of readers who are always so encouraging and helpful when I have questions!

3. What about blogging has changed the most for you?

I feel more confident about expressing my opinion now than I did when I first started blogging about dogs. This clearly has to do with the fact that the more I actually live with dogs (instead of just reading about them), the more I actually learn.

4. What lessons have you learned this year — from other blogs, or through your own experience — that could help us all with our own sites?

Ask people for advice! I think I started getting a readership simply because I desperately needed help, and people are usually willing to share their experiences and offer counsel when you ask for it. I’m still really grateful for that interaction on this blog, and I’ll keep asking questions!

5. What have you found to be the best ways to bring more traffic to your blog, other than by writing great content?

Coming up with better, more searchable headlines. And using more photos! Everyone likes to look at photos, even if they’re just breezing over the text.

6. How much time to do you spend publicizing your blog, and do you think you should spend more or less in the coming year?

Not a ton. I have a Twitter account, which I’m using more regularly. I’m also on Instagram and Pinterest. I got off Facebook recently, though, and that was one of the best decisions of my young Internet life.

7. How do you gauge whether or not what you’re writing is appealing to your audience?

Comments are always a helpful gauge, along with site views. Posts that ask questions tend to get the most feedback.

8. When you’re visiting other blogs, what inspires you to comment on a post rather than just reading and moving on?

When I feel a connection with the post, or feel like I have a similar experience to share, I am more likely to leave a comment.

9. Do you do product reviews and/or giveaways?

Yes, both! I particularly enjoy reading and writing book reviews, and we’ve done a handful of product reviews (mostly food items, which the girls love). I’d love to have the chance to offer more giveaways.

10. When writer’s block strikes and you’re feeling dog-tired, how do you recharge?

Take the pups on a walk! This is not my full-time job, either, so I probably spend less time blogging than most “professional” pet bloggers. But it’s been easier to blog lately, having the craziness of adding a second dog to the household provide fodder for blog content.

11. Have you ever taken a break from your blog? How did that go?

Not yet! I’ve made this my main Internet outlet, pulling away from my personal blog some, and I’ve been happy with that decision. Dog people are so much nicer than normal people. 🙂

12. What goals do you have for your blog in 2014?

I’d love to improve my writing abilities and continue to build a community here.

SIDE NOTE: I got to see Bo again! Bo now lives in Florida with his mama, but he is the dog who taught me the most in the year that I was waiting to adopt Pyrrha. It was very special getting to see him; he is such a sweetheart. He is starting to get some white around his muzzle! Aww.

Reunited with Bo! Love that boy. #goldenretriever
Reunited with Bo!

Why do you blog about dogs? Are you participating in the challenge?

Hosting a doggy play-date

In love
Crazy eyes in love. Heath and Pyrrha.

As you probably know by now, one of Pyrrha’s favorite things is playing with other dogs. We’re really grateful for this, because it evidently brings her so much joy, and there are so many other things that make her so scared. So, we have gradually turned our backyard into an occasional dog park. Here are some of the things we’ve learned about hosting a play-date!

Play-date with Ozzie
Ozzie and Pyrrha.

BEFORE THE PLAY-DATE

Cap the number of dogs, and know their personalities

I think, due to the size of our yard, and to the various complicating factors, four to five dogs is the max number of dogs we should have in the yard at one time. It helps knowing the personalities of the dogs coming, too. For instance, when we have rowdy adolescent males come over, we probably won’t invite a new puppy or a senior dog (and vice versa). It’s helpful to have a general idea of the canine personalities that are going to be in the mix. If you don’t know, we’ve preferred to play it safe and just invite one dog over at a time.

Set out a bowl of water

Nothing gets pups tired like wrestling and playing tag! We’ve found that, regardless of the season, the pups get thirsty very quickly.

Poop scoop

No one likes to accidentally step in a land mine.

Put away any toys

To avoid any tussles over toys, I like to clear the yard of anything that could potentially cause a possessive scuffle. (Even though dogs, like children, will usually find something to pick a fight over, such as that enticing stray stick…)

Play-date with Juniper
Juniper and Pyrrha.

DURING THE PLAY-DATE

Be vigilant and watchful during introductions…

As I’ve written about recently, we’ve become very careful and mindful during dog introductions. This is usually the most tense and delicate part of the play-date. If introductions go smoothly, usually, the rest of the play-date will too.

… but don’t zone out entirely

Keep an eye on the dogs. Watch your dog’s behavior and watch for any warning signs (such as stiff body language, hard stares, etc.). I particularly liked this post on The Unexamined Dog about watching for pauses during play. Healthy, happy play sessions should have lots of little rest periods. Be ready to break the dogs up to give them “time outs” if needed. We learned this with Roland and Pyrrha; they would occasionally play too hard and too long, and then the play would start to shift into frustration and annoyance. We’d intervene, call them apart from each other, and then in five minutes, they would be OK to play again.

Get those leashes off

If introductions have gone smoothly, dogs naturally play better untethered! (Although we may let them drag the leashes for a few minutes in the beginning, just to make sure that everyone is at ease.)

Sunday play-date with Roland
Chomp! Pyrrha takes a bite out of Roland’s leg.

AFTER THE PLAY-DATE

Take a nap!

Pyrrha finally meets Bo
Bo and Pyrrha.

Do you ever host canine friends at your place? What have you learned from your experiences?

Pyrrha finally meets Bo!

I have long waited for this day! On Monday afternoon, Pyrrha finally got to meet her brother, Bo!

Handsome boy

Bo, as you may recall, served as my surrogate dog during my long year of waiting to adopt a dog of my own. His lovely mama and my dear friend Liz moved with him shortly after we adopted Pyrrha, and the two never got to meet. But Bo and Liz were visiting town this week and we finally made that play-date happen!

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

As you can see, the two hit it off quite nicely, just as I had hoped.

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

(They also spent a lot of time mid-flight. They are both very agile and it was fun to see Pyr play with a dog that was exactly her size.)

How nice to see him again, my handsome golden boy! So happy to have him around and playing with that long-awaited dog of my own.

Pyrrha finally meets Bo

Teaching kids and dogs how to behave with one another

Click for source.

NOTE: This is a piece I wrote a while ago, and since I don’t have any good photos of Pyrrha or any good updates lately, I thought I’d post it to start a conversation. Pyrrha is pretty scared of children, especially infants and toddlers, and this is an area I really want to work on with her. I welcome your thoughts, comments, and advice! — Abby

Despite what this adorable picture suggests, in general, kids are pretty terrible with dogs.

Kids like to tease dogs. Even if they’re just babies and unaware of what they’re doing, kids like to mess with dogs. They like to stick their hands in the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. They like pulling the dog’s tail. They like riding on the dog’s back. They like squeezing dogs around the neck to express affection, even though the dog interprets this as invasive and frightening. This doesn’t mean that kids themselves are terrible. They’re often unaware of what they’re doing and how to read a dog’s body language.

Kids have a tendency to freak dogs out, for all the reasons listed above. Kids are really noisy. Their body language can be erratic and unpredictable to a dog. They like to get right up in dog’s faces, in their food, in their beds, on their backs. It’s no wonder that many dogs are afraid of children and that many, unfortunately, lash out in fear-based aggression.

But dogs, undoubtedly, bring (most) children an immense amount of glee. Even babies will light up at the sight of a dog. It always warms my heart when I see this. And there are many dogs who seem to love nothing more than children. (Bo is one of them: He drags me after strollers and runs up to every kid we see, beside himself with excitement, or with the prospect of food crumbs on grubby faces.)

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that dogs and kids were “made for each other,” but that’s not always the case, and the majority of dogs AND kids need to be taught how to behave around one another. So how do we train them to behave well with each other? It’s not something that exactly comes naturally to either species.

TRAINING KIDS

As someone who doesn’t have kids, I often worry about those parents who don’t train their kids well with regard to dogs. I have responsibility for training my future dog how to act around kids; I expect that parents have the responsibility to train their children how to act around dogs. When we’re out walking, I can’t tell you how many times parents have let their little children run up to Bo to pet, squeeze, or hug him, without so much as a glance at me or a question if my dog is even friendly toward children. Thankfully, Bo is wonderful with kids, as I mentioned before. But what if he wasn’t?

I always walk Pyrrha very carefully around playgrounds and around people with young children. Thankfully, we haven’t had any parents let their tots run up to us (and I think this has a lot to do with breed; Pyrrha looks “scarier” than Bo, the golden retriever, does) and if a kid wants to pet her, they usually ask first. But this certainly wasn’t always the case with Bo. Parents would let their little children run right up to him without asking me.

But: Have you ever had to intervene in a situation between children and your dog? What would you tell the parents, perhaps by way of educating their kids?

Karen London posted a great short list of things she tells children about dogs, covered by the funny but true heading: “Don’t lick the dog,” from Wendy Wahman’s picture book for kids. That book sounds like a great resource for any parent of young children. I feel like I should buy a bunch of copies to hand out to parents on the downtown pedestrian mall here…

The Lab babysitter. Click for source.

TRAINING DOGS

One of Pyrrha’s last remaining big fear thresholds is little children. We seem to have ameliorated her previous big fear, which was greeting other dogs, and she hasn’t snarled or raised her hackles at a dog in two months. I consider this a huge victory! But the kid thing is another issue entirely.

Pyrrha is OK with kids who are calm and move slowly. This, unfortunately, is not many children. She’s submitted to attention from older children, perhaps 5-7 years of age, and she doesn’t seem bothered by pre-teens or teenagers.

It’s the babies and toddlers who really make her anxious. This is, obviously, a really difficult thing to work on. I wouldn’t let my infant around a German shepherd who was scared of babies, and I always keep Pyrrha removed and completely controlled when she’s in the presence of small children. So what do we do? How do I work on exposing her and acclimating her to this fear? It’s not like you can ask an infant to work with you, to make all of its movements calm and controlled, to stop squealing erratically.

She once growled at a toddler who tried to come near her. I removed Pyrrha from the situation and put her inside. It was a scary and disheartening moment. I want a dog who’s OK with little children. But how do we get there?

For those of you who adopted an adult dog, how did you expose your dog to kids? How can we help Pyrrha overcome her fear of small children, without endangering babies or eclipsing Pyrrha’s fear threshold?

As always, I’m very open to your suggestions!

Play-date with Ozzie

Ozzie relaxes

When we decided that we wanted a German shepherd, I sought out everyone I knew who had one. Marcy was one of those people. She is responsible for bringing young Bo to his lady, Liz, and so she’s a familiar feature in my community dog constellation.

Marcy has had German shepherds for years, and she is currently living with 3-year-old Ozzie, who is just as sweet and majestic as he can be. Many months ago, before I even knew about Pyrrha’s existence, I went to visit Marcy, meet Ozzie, and talk to them about the trials, tribulations, and joys of German shepherd ownership. They were both a great help to me in our journey toward rescuing Pyrrha. (And Ozzie officially solidified my desire for a long-coat GSD…)

On Tuesday night, we thought it might be nice for Pyrrha to finally meet dear Ozzie. Ozzie is one of those rare, lucky dogs who gets to go into the office with his human, and so Marcy brought him by after work.

Play-date with Ozzie

I won’t lie: They had a rough initial greeting. Ozzie was already unleashed in our backyard when I went to let Pyrrha out. He came rushing into the sunroom to see her and she flipped out—hackles, snarling, lunging at him. I was a little concerned, but after we pushed them both into the yard, and Pyrrha got over her initial displays of fear, they were best buds.

Play-date with Ozzie

What I’ve learned from this: Pyrrha does much better meeting a dog in a neutral space, with a very loose leash. She met Zoe in our front yard and there were no fear displays at all, and the pair transitioned very smoothly into the backyard. To date, our most frightening initial encounters have been when Pyrrha was in the backyard and another big dog came in (see: Silas). I will be sure to follow this protocol for all future play-dates at our house.

Sitting for Marcy

It was great to keep the company of another GSD person, however. Marcy is so experienced with the breed that she wasn’t disturbed at all by Pyrrha’s initial “greeting” of Ozzie. She could tell that Pyrrha would be fine in a minute, and she was. Marcy also wasn’t frightened by the way that Pyrrha plays, which is with a lot of flashing teeth, paw smacking, and play growls. “This is just the German shepherd way,” she said, while watching them rough-house. Watching two GSDs play could be a terrifying thing to witness for someone who had only been around gentle hounds, but Marcy thankfully knew what was up. Again, I’m so grateful for other dog people who know how to read Pyrrha and wait her out.

Play-date with Ozzie

These two are such a good example of the big difference between a black-and-tan and a black-and-red GSD. Pyrrha’s coat looks almost white next to Ozzie’s deep tones!

More play photos:

Play-date with Ozzie

Play-date with Ozzie

Play-date with Ozzie

Play-date with Ozzie
And now we’re in love.

Hope we’ll get to do this again soon!

(*Also: Thanks for all of your great advice about how to get Pyrrha more comfortable going outside with Guion. We are going to try some of the things you recommended and I will be sure to keep you posted!)

Dogs with bad manners

Dogs in flight. Click for source.

(So, I couldn’t find a photo illustrating dogs with bad manners. These two are just REALLY excited to go outside…)

On Tuesday, I read the article “He Just Wants to Say ‘Hi’!” by Suzanne Clothier, who wrote one of my favorite books about human-dog relationships. Clothier’s basic premise is that we, as dog guardians, often misinterpret canine behavior and are frequently slow to recognize dogs with bad manners–especially if it’s our dog who is the rude one.

As Clothier says:

It never fails to amaze me how willing humans are to excuse and rationalize a dog’s rude behavior instead of teaching them good manners. Part of developing appropriate social behavior is learning that no matter how excited you may be, there are other folks in the world and certain basic rules of politeness still apply no matter how excited you may be.

I realized I had totally seen this in action when I was walking Bo at the park some months ago–and I was definitely the one at fault. While we were walking in the park, we passed a big cluster of dogs on leashes with their people. Bo happily bounded up to the group and was wagging all over the place. A woman with a pair of greyhounds walked over to let her dogs join the circle. Bo went over to greet the pair, and the senior male greyhound growled and snapped at him. His woman instantly jerked the dog’s collar and reprimanded him, saying to me, apologetically, “Sorry, he’s just a grumpy old man.”

But after reading Clothier’s article, I realized that I was the one who should have been apologizing. The old grey was just trying to teach the over-exuberant Bo some manners. Instead, we humans interpreted the greyhound as reacting “aggressively,” where it was Bo who was at fault. Bo listened closely to the greyhound’s reprimand, however, and immediately backed off. It was just us humans who didn’t understand what was going on. I wish I could see that woman again and tell her that her genteel old boy wasn’t the one to be scolded.

Clothier suggests that we need to pay more careful attention to the ways that our dogs interact with other dogs. We should be able to recognize when our own dogs are being rude AND when other dogs are approaching our own with impoliteness. While we can’t control other people’s dogs, we can be advocates for our own–and that sometimes involves physical action. Clothier writes:

I encourage handlers to be quite active in protecting their dog – whether that means quietly walking away to a safer area, or, when that’s not possible, literally stepping in physically to present the first line of defense. Stepping in between two dogs is a classic act of leadership. Dogs do it with other dogs all the time, so this same gesture coming from a human leader is understood and appreciated.

This simple act of stepping between an approaching rude dog can do a lot to defuse the situation, if you know your dog isn’t one to tolerate impoliteness. Finally, as she says, we have to remember that we are responsible for our dogs and we cannot expect perfection:

We cannot expect our dogs to be saints – at least not until we can rise to that level of tolerance ourselves. And that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. We can expect our dogs to be tolerant to the degree that we educate them, socialize them and protect them – with respect to their individual needs and boundaries.

I’m glad I read Clothier’s article and glad to have had my eyes opened to a particular aspect of canine behavior that I had previously misinterpreted.

How about you? How does your dog handle rudeness? Do you feel like you’re able to detect when your dog is being the impolite one? How do you defuse building tension between dogs?

Pup links!

A woman feeds a circle of harlequin Great Danes. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives.

Dog-related links from around the Web this past week:

The Lifetime Costs of Pets. Here’s a sobering infographic about how much, on average, your pet will cost you over the course of its life. Dogs? Get ready to shell out an estimated $25,620! This is a great thing to show people, perhaps, who underestimate the financial commitment of bringing a dog home. Is it too scary, though? What do you think? (Mint Life Blog)

Enrichment. Simple, powerful ways to enrich your dog’s daily life. Great, practical tips! (Raising K9)

Do You Have a “Heart” Breed of Dog? Even though we’re gunning for a German shepherd, I think my “heart” breed of dog will always be the Australian shepherd. How about you? (That Mutt)

Dog Haul. Vanessa shares some great, mini-reviews on some recent products she found and loves for Rufus. (The Rufus Way)

Canine Diabetes: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Diet. A very thorough article about canine diabetes. Good to be in the know about this disease. (The Whole Dog Journal)

Know Your Bo. We’re so used to seeing “Bo” in the headlines and thinking about the Obama’s Portuguese water dog that it’s been jarring, perhaps, to see his name in the headlines as a disgraced Chinese official. Just a funny little news bit. (Daily Intel, NY Mag)