Pyrrha has a play-date of her own

One of the interesting results of having a second dog in the house is that Pyrrha’s play style has changed. Since adding Eden, she has (1) become more testy in our yard when we have dogs over, and (2) become less engaged in play, particularly if we’re not in our yard.

Pyrrha and Fiona get to play

Both of these consequences have been interesting and frustrating at times. This past week, we had to take care of Fiona for the evening, and I decided I’d just take Pyrrha with me. (Side note: Eden’s play behavior with Fiona has become increasingly untenable. Essentially, she takes advantage of Fiona’s strong submissiveness, and won’t let Fiona off the ground for the first 10–15 minutes of every play-date. This, obviously, has made Fiona rather fearful of her. We’ve been trying to work on this, by helping Eden calm down with a “pack walk” — with Fiona at a distance, and they only get to greet each other when Edie is in a calm, collected state — but it’s still a work in progress.)

Pyrrha and Fiona get to play

That said, Fi and Pyr had a lovely evening romp together. It was fun to see Pyrrha really enjoy herself with another dog (without her pesky little sister tagging along). She actually played with Fiona, something she hasn’t done since Eden joined the family. Pyrrha seemed genuinely happy to play chase and tag with Fi, and Fiona just adores Pyrrha (kind of like a little girl looking up the cool, older girl in school). It was very sweet to see them together.

Pyrrha and Fiona get to play

In short, the evening was a good reminder that it’s sometimes a good thing to break up the sisterhood and let the dogs do things on their own.

Do your dogs behave differently when they’re not with their canine siblings? Do you ever create solo outings for this reason?

“Sorry, she’s a rescue…”

Am I the only one guilty of this transgression?

Relaxing a bit
Pyrrha, circa June 2012. A few weeks after we adopted her. (Check out the pup cooler-raiding in the background.)

Scenario: Your dog has a reactive outburst. Or growls at an approaching toddler. Or does something behaviorally embarrassing to you, the owner. You see the shocked or scared faces of people around you. And so you say, “Oh, sorry about that. She’s a rescue…” by way of explanation.

Excuses, excuses! It’s terrible, I know, but I’m pretty sure this statement has spilled from my lips in a tense public moment with Pyrrha.

It feels like an easy “out,” especially with strangers. They then just seem to think, “Oh, I get it. Your dog has a lot of baggage.” And yes, it’s true: Pyrrha does have a lot of baggage.

But I’m just reinforcing negative stereotypes about rescue dogs whenever I say this. Some rescues are totally issue free. And some aren’t. But I’m adding to this public perception of rescue dogs as damaged goods whenever I say this. And I want to stop.

Better explanations I can issue to strangers, if Pyrrha has an outburst:

  • “I’m sorry about that; she has some fear issues that we are working on.”
  • “I’m sorry; we are working on training her.”
  • “Hope we didn’t scare you; we are working on polite behavior in public!”

Do you ever say this about your dog? Have you found more helpful things to say to people to explain your dog’s sometimes problematic behavior?



Counting the little victories

Around here, I like to take note of the dogs’ little victories — their (often tiny) steps toward progress or a desired behavior. It helps keep the spirits up, particularly when you’re working with a fearful, reactive dog and a psycho adolescent!

Who, me?

Pyrrha’s Little Victories

  • I was walking both dogs home from a play-date with Fiona when we were suddenly approached by three strangers: a man I kind of knew (a friend’s father), who wanted to ask me about dog sitting, and then a middle-aged couple who wanted to meet the girls. I was engaged with talking to my friend’s father, so I didn’t really have time to monitor Pyrrha’s interaction with the couple. Generally, Pyrrha will back away from a strange man who tries to pet her and flatten her ears, and so I’d move her out of that situation. But when I had the chance to check on her, she was cozying up to this couple and lavishing their affections! Color me shocked. Pyrrha was better behaved than Eden with the whole interaction (Edie was kind of restless and whiny; not scared, just antsy). After my friend’s father left, we talked to the couple for a while, and they had a German shepherd who had recently passed away and were so enamored with the girls. They were calm and slow-moving, and I could tell they knew how to greet a dog, and I thanked them for that, noting that Pyrrha was normally frightened with such interactions. They beamed at the compliment, and the husband said, “Dogs just know dog people.” Yes, they do, sir!
  • Pyrrha has also been doing a marvelous job of backing down from little squabbles. Instead of picking up the challenge to growl or snap at Eden, she’s been moving away from the situation or diffusing it with her body language. She’s been a lot more relaxed with Eden lately, which has been encouraging to see. I think they’re finally getting acclimated to one another!
  • It’s always a work in progress, but Pyrrha has also been braver in her interactions with Guion. I never force her to be near Guion, because that would only backfire; instead, we let her make her own choices about whether she’d like to be close to or far away from Guion. Recently, she’s decided to stay in a room with just Guion, even after Eden and I have left. This may sound like a paltry thing, but in Pyrrha’s universe, it’s a big deal! I’ve been proud of her. I also think Eden’s gregarious presence has had a good influence on Pyrrha’s interactions with Guion. You can see her thinking about it: “Hm, this crazy puppy is wild about Scary Man. Maybe he’s not so evil after all…”
  • Never thought I’d see the day, but guess who tolerates nail clipping now?? We had to stop using Maggie’s brilliant method of the peanut butter plate, because then Pyrrha generalized and got terrified of us even opening the peanut butter jar (!). Now, I ply her with simple treats, and she just calmly stands there, munching her biscuits, and lets me clip her nails. She doesn’t enjoy it, and never will, but she tolerates the nail clipping, and that’s huge!
She’s getting so LONG!

Eden’s Little Victories

  • Eden has acquired a new habit of lying down at my feet while I get ready for work in the morning — instead of pacing and whining and clawing at the door until I attend to her. This is a very welcome development!
  • Edie has mastered quiet crate exits, which is encouraging. She is so quiet and polite in her crate now; it’s hard to believe that she’s the same wild beast who would throw herself at the door and cry pitifully. She’s 8 months old now, and I daresay she’s gaining a modicum of self-control.
  • This is not exactly something that Eden has accomplished herself, but thanks to a few months of fish oil supplements, I’m happy to report that her itchiness has gone down considerably. She still scratches herself from time to time (what dog doesn’t?), but it’s nothing like the constant scratching when she first came to us. We’ll probably always have her on the fish oil supplement, but it’s worth it to have a less itchy, more comfortable puppy!
  • Eden is our pup with some resource guarding issues, and we’re still working on that overall, but she has made progress in the toy department. She still doesn’t love it when Pyrrha approaches her while she has a toy or a bone, but she doesn’t pick a fight anymore. We have tried to manage this by limiting both girls’ access to coveted objects and always monitoring their behavior when prized possessions are in the room. She continues to show more maturity and less anxiety about “her” toys and bones, which is encouraging. Still gotta work on the food guarding, though.

Also, can I just say THANK GOD that we’re finally having some pleasant weather?? Everyone in our household is so much happier about this. The dogs want to be in the yard more; I want to take them on longer walks; we have more play-dates; Edie gets to play Frisbee or fetch… everything in life has improved, just because of the weather. Keep on coming, spring!

Happy Friday! What “little victories” has your dog accomplished this past week?

What does your dog make you thankful for?

Are you doing stuff with food that will result in me having some? #dogsconstantthought
Are you doing stuff with food that will result in me having some?

We’re with my family for this Thanksgiving holiday. While I was gearing up for this trip AND our move, I’ve been stressed, yes, and Pyrrha has also been stressed, but when I stop for a moment, I realize that we have a LOT to be thankful for.

Thinking just about Pyrrha this season, during our second Thanksgiving with her, I am thankful that:

  1. She is so easy. We never worry about her getting into stuff in the house, making messes, or causing general headaches.
  2. She is patient with us.
  3. She is healthy!
  4. She is so food-motivated. This makes training (and coercing her to love Guion) a whole lot easier.
  5. She adores other dogs.
  6. She is quiet.
  7. She’s become much more calm about visitors and house guests. Although she’d still prefer that they didn’t touch her, she warms up to them a lot faster now, particularly with men (who are never her favorites).
  8. She’s always looking out for me.

Pyrrha continues to make lots of progress! It’s amazing to me to look back to last year’s Thanksgiving and realize that that was the first time she showed interest in retrieving. Crazy! Fetch is now one of her favorite games. It amazes me how much shy dogs can change, as static as they can seem sometimes. Yet another thing to be thankful for.

#gsd #germanshepherd #souschef
And again with the food-wanting face in our messy house.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you US-based readers and pups!

How does your dog inspire gratitude in your life?

An expectant look

Halloween buddies. #germanshepherd #guionlookslikeabaldwin

Although I won’t necessarily call this a “look of love,” I think the expectant way that Pyrrha is looking at Guion here is very sweet. Their relationship, as you know, is a constant work in progress. We’re always celebrating the little things she does to show that she’s not still terrified of him.

The other night, while I was working in the kitchen, Pyrrha went straight up to him with her bouncy toy and invited him to play with her. She didn’t even glance at me first. They played together for a few rounds of fetch, which is about her normal stamina for the game. This is such normal behavior for so many “normal” dogs, but in our house, it’s a cause for celebration! We enjoy the small signs of progress in this quirky family.

Meanwhile, life continues to be insane, but I hope things will settle down soon. There are promising things on the horizon! Updates to come!

Hope you and your pups had a fun and safe Halloween and a happy weekend to come!

The ambiguous one-eared German shepherd

As I mentioned in my last post, this dog likes to share her emotions through her ears. They’re very expressive.

For example, here we have the “ambiguous one-eared German shepherd”:

The ambiguous one-ear up

Here, she’s not so sure about me taking her photo and is wondering if the fact that I have my shoes on means we’re going for a W-A-L-K…

Hope you all have happy and peaceful weekends with your dogs!

September training and behavior goals

More for my own sake, I’m going to start a short, monthly series here to record my training and behavior goals for Pyrrha. At the end of the month, I’ll make a brief progress report. This is more for keeping myself in line than for anything else, because if you write it on the Internet, then you have a faceless mob to keep you accountable. Right?

Get it, P. #kisses #loveandfear
Kissing Dad!

I don’t consider myself nearly as hardcore as the majority of you, so we’re going to keep our goals simple for now.

September Training and Behavior Goals for Pyrrha

  1. Take a reactivity class at Canine Campus.
  2. Practice behavior modification techniques to reduce on-leash reactivity toward other dogs. Crossing the street, treating for just looking at dogs, and ME taking deep breaths and loosening my body language and grip.
  3. Practice off-leash recall in the front yard. (More on this soon.)
  4. Improve and sharpen the command “Stay.” Get more consistent on this. (Sometimes I use the word “wait,” which is clearly not helpful to anyone.)
  5. Keep practicing calm exits from the crate. Particularly as we are with Draco now, work to mitigate her behavior so that she doesn’t grumble at him when she moves from the crate to the door. She has a habit of basically messing with him when she exits the crate to go to the backyard: growling, jumping in his face. I don’t think it’s aggressive, because she did this with Rainer, too, and he never responded in kind; it’s more an expression of nervous energy or maybe even jealousy? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I need to start training some impulse control and get her to cut it out.
  6. Improve her relationship with Guion. Get advice from Deven (our trainer) about how to accomplish this? I am kind of at a loss. He feeds her, he slips her bacon, he tries not to engage with her at all unless she initiates it… but she is still very fearful of him. After a year. Sigh. It’s kind of disheartening sometimes.

What are some of your goals for your dog this month? And if you have any training tips for me, feel free to dish ’em out!

How to introduce unfamiliar dogs

As you know, we have learned the hard way from some dog-to-dog introductions (see Rainer attacking potential adopter’s dog) that introducing strange dogs to each other is a very important and delicate process.

Heath and Loki
Young bros Heath and Loki sizing each other up.

Most of you probably have already heard these tips before, but here are some of the things I’ve had to remind myself of, repeatedly, when introducing dogs to each other.

Calm yourself first

Especially after the Rainer incident and seeing how badly introductions can go, I get SO nervous about new dogs meeting. Pyrrha, obviously, picks up on this, and this only ratchets up her anxiety. The big thing I’ve had to teach myself, every time, is to slow down, BREATHE, and loosen up. I close my eyes for a second, I take deep breaths, I loosen my posture and my grip on the leash (not entirely, but so that Pyrrha isn’t feeling any tension on her harness or collar). Dogs reflect our moods and study the nuances of our body language so much more than we even realize. Putting myself in a calm state is always the first thing I have to do when introducing new dogs.

Truly “neutral” ground is hard to find

All of the advice you read says to let the dogs meet on “neutral territory,” but I’ve found that this is quite difficult. Fosters are often just dropped off at our house, and even if we went to a nearby park, there’s still the possibility that Pyrrha would see that as “her” territory. Thankfully, Pyrrha has never shown signs of territorial protection/aggression (she is not very shepherd-y in that way), so our strategy has been to keep the dogs leashed and far apart in our spacious front yard, and then if that observational period/meeting goes well, we transition to the backyard and let them drag their leashes for a bit before unhooking them. Have you been able to find and utilize “neutral” ground when introducing new dogs?

Don’t try this alone

Always have another dog-savvy person help you! Particularly if you don’t know the dogs’ backgrounds (as if often the case with foster dogs who have come straight from the shelter). My husband is usually the one who helps me introduce our fosters to Pyrrha. Talk to your helper in advance about what your strategy is going to be (e.g., you walk that way, I’ll walk this way, and then we’ll see how they do, etc.).

Resist the urge to let them meet face-to-face

This is a hard one, and this is why the “walk apart from each other for a while” method is repeated. Most dogs are naturally going to pull you straight up to each other, and this is how the fights can start. I wasn’t sure how to pull off this “walking apart” business, but the best strategy I read seems to be to have one handler-dog pair walk in front of the other, kind of staggered, and then switch places, let the dogs sniff where the other dog has been, and carefully observe the next step:

Study that body language!

Brush up on the subtleties of canine body language, and watch for those calming signals (or, more importantly, the lack of calming signals). Be extremely wary of stiffened postures and hard stares. The slightest shift in a dog’s movement can signal a transition toward either play or fight mode.

Also: Don’t be afraid to tell the other handler what signals you’re noticing. I wish, wish, wish I had done this with the dog that Rainer attacked; I should have told his owner, “Your dog is giving Rainer a really hard stare. This probably isn’t a good idea.” But she couldn’t see that — and I couldn’t see what Rainer was doing. And so we ended up with a fairly serious dog fight. The dogs are already communicating with each other silently; as humans, we should remember to communicate with each other verbally about what we’re observing, otherwise we can both miss some pretty clear signals that the dogs are giving off.

Off-leash behavior vs. on-leash behavior

Once dogs have passed the on-leash greeting portion and seem to be amiable toward one another, I like to transition them into a spacious fenced area for them to be off leash together. As we know, leashes build tension, and dogs can really have the freedom to interact naturally with one another when the leashes are off. I like to let them drag the leads for just a few minutes once in the fence — in case something does escalate, we can intervene with more agency if a leash is still attached. But once things seem to be going smoothly, leashes come off, and we stand back and watch and let the dogs do their thing.

Play-date with Juniper
Juniper and Pyrrha. As you can see, this could have been tense, but Juniper is defusing Pyr by averting her gaze.

Online Resources

Break for some butt sniffing
Some good old-fashioned butt sniffing. (Pyrrha and Roland)

What have you learned from your experiences of introducing two unfamiliar dogs? Any helpful advice or wisdom you’d like to share?

Hippie dogs (and do dogs reflect our personalities?)

Last night, we took Pyrrha to a laidback outdoor concert at The Garage, a fun, creative music venue in our town. (Excuse the blurry phone photos in advance, please…)

The Garage
The Garage

As I’ve mentioned before, Pyr has been having some leash reactivity to other dogs, and I thought this might be a good socialization experience for her. The Garage is set up so that the audience sits across the street in a small city park, so you can get up and move around if need be. This gave Pyrrha some “breathing room” and allowed me to get up and walk her around when I could tell she was getting agitated/too anxious.

Pyrrha at The Garage | DoggerelOn the whole, I was proud of how she handled the whole experience. She did especially great with people. She wasn’t afraid of men coming up to her and petting her, and she even generously (and, um, thoroughly) licked the face of a loud (maybe inebriated) woman who rushed right up to her. Overall, Pyrrha-to-people interactions were a success.

While we were there, she also had a positive interaction with this dog:

So, a horrible photo, but you can get the idea of what this dog looked like, right? A small, rangy-type street dog.

The dog was with a group of young travelers, whom I’ll call “hippies,” but not in a derogatory sense — more because of their laidback behavior, dreadlocks, and general bohemian appearance. Nothing negative about them. But this dog was meandering through the crowd, dragging her leash behind her. This initially made me nervous, and Pyrrha was up on alert as soon as the dog came close to us, but I took a deep breath and loosened my grip on the leash. They sniffed rears, wagged tails, and the blond dog peacefully went on her way. No barking, no hackles, no extreme reactions from Pyrrha. Sigh of relief!

This interaction led me to this question: Do you think our dogs mirror our temperaments?

Obviously, dogs pick up on our body language, and they can sense our moods often more accurately than we can. And there’s no clear study (that I know of) that could definitively answer this question, but here’s what I was thinking: This blond hippie dog was so CHILL. She knew exactly how to defuse Pyrrha’s anxiety. She wandered calmly through the crowd, sniffing here and there. I could almost see her saying, “Peace and love, man, peace and love.” Her human (a young woman with dreadlocks) watched the dog calmly and would call her back; she was not overly concerned with the dog’s behavior.

I, on the other hand, tend to be a fairly anxious person. And you all know that Pyrrha is a fairly (OK, very) anxious dog. I worry about her a LOT, and I imagine she worries about me, too. So, are we just feeding each other through these vicious cycles? The hippie dog stays peaceful because her people stay peaceful; Pyrrha stays anxious because I stay anxious.

Do you ever wonder this? Like, would Pyrrha be a much calmer dog if she lived with these nomadic young travelers? I don’t know. It’s kind of a depressing thought, but I think it might be true. The moral of the story for me? Peace and love, man, peace and love. And maybe that aura will influence Pyrrha too…

Resources on resource guarding in dogs

After Sunday’s scuffle* between Rainer and Pyrrha over a toy, I’ve been refreshing my memory on resource guarding and associated training tips.

BEHAVIOR UPDATE: As of today, Rainer/Pyrrha relations are going quite smoothly. An interesting observation is that they continue to get along perfectly outside in the yard; they play like they’re best friends (chase, lots of play bows, happy and goofy faces). Indoors, they are still a little nervous with each other, but I think this has to do with the tight quarters.

Gimme dat toy
Georgia and Pyrrha with some of Georgia’s toys.

For those who may find themselves in a similar position with their dog(s), here are some great web resources on this common canine behavior:

There are, of course, many other blog posts and articles written about this behavioral issue, as it is a pretty normal, natural canine quality. But it obviously gets dogs into trouble when they start lashing out at people, children, and their fellow dogs.

I think both Rainer and Pyrrha are at fault here. Rainer takes possession of too many things, but Pyrrha also doesn’t know how or when to back down. Instead of taking a hard stare from Rainer as a cue to get lost, Pyrrha sees it as a challenge. From Pat Miller’s article, this is exactly what’s been happening in our house:

Now We’re in Trouble, Part II: Dog B [Pyrrha] is socially inept – Dog A [Rainer] is chewing on (insert valuable resource). Dog B approaches. Dog A gives “the look.” Dog B is oblivious, and keeps blundering forward, until Dog A feels compelled to escalate the intensity of his message, to aggression if necessary, to get his point across.

This clearly makes for a messy domestic atmosphere! We are taking all of these tips to heart and working on this behavior every day in our house.

Have you had to deal with resource guarding among your dogs? What tips or techniques helped you?

(*Thanks to Carolyn for properly identifying the altercation as a “scuffle” instead of what I initially termed it, a dog fight.)