My biggest fear

I feel like I can say this here and be heard with compassion and understanding, even though I still feel afraid to say it.

I want to tell you my biggest fear, the potential moment that causes me the most dread and anticipated heartache.

So, biggest fear: I am afraid that if and when we have children, we won’t be able to keep Pyrrha.

I can barely even write about this without wanting to cry, but it’s been weighing on my mind and heart lately — even though I still think we’re a few years away from having children.

Pyrrha is extremely afraid of children, especially small ones. This has been a long-standing phobia of hers. The first family that adopted her returned her to the rescue after just a few days because of her extreme fear of their small children, which had the potential to slide into aggression. Without my intervention, I think she could have bitten several children, and she has already nipped my cousin, which I saw as a serious warning (it was not playful). She is overly interested in toddlers, and not in a sweet way, but in a way that makes me extremely nervous, so much so that she is always crated behind a closed door if there are small kids afoot. I cannot trust her in any environment in which children are loose. Kids themselves are unpredictable, but her behavior around them is not encouraging. She is able to coexist in a room with calm, quiet kids over the age of 8 or 9, so long as they don’t try to interact with her, but that seems to be her limit.

I adopted Pyrrha heart-first, not thinking very rationally that we’d probably have children one day and that her phobia of them could pose a problem. I wasn’t even thinking about the future when I saw her; all I saw was a sweet, shy, beautiful dog who needed a home, and I said YES and didn’t think anymore about it.

Regal

Practically, I am thankful that we have great resources, in our trainer and in her connections to behaviorists, who could help us navigate the perils of simultaneous child- and dog-rearing. I think Pyrrha could learn how to adapt to a home with noisy, scary little humans, but she wouldn’t be happy in such a home — and we’d have to really limit her life and interactions with the family to keep a child safe. And I don’t know if I could live with myself, seeing her so removed from our lives. Naturally, this is all very subjective and hypothetical, but I don’t think I’m overstating my fears — or hers, for that matter.

If I’m honest with myself, Pyrrha is one of the main reasons I haven’t wanted to have children. Because I know how unhappy they would make her.

The thought of having to give Pyrrha to someone else, to a stranger, KILLS me, as much as I’d feel if I had to give my own child to a stranger. Furthermore, the thought of surrendering her back to her rescue, who would slap a shock collar on her as soon as they could, makes me want to pull a Beloved. Yes, really. (English majors will get this reference? It’s too dark/sad to explain…)

Obviously, I’m not going to make any decisions about her future before we have children. Who knows? Maybe the miraculous will happen, and she’ll be able to coexist in a household with small kids. I don’t even want or expect her to like children, because I don’t think that will ever be possible; I’d just want her to feel happy and secure and have the wherewithal to remove herself from stressful situations. Naturally, we’d protect Pyrrha AND our potential child. But part of me wonders if it would be possible to do both simultaneously, as I’m not sure Pyrrha would ever be happy in a home with small children.

I don’t think I’m looking for any answers, necessarily, but I’m always happy to hear counsel. This makes me heart feel so heavy.

10 things my fearful dog isn’t afraid of

When you live with a fearful dog, I’ve found that it’s easy to get weighed down by all of their issues. The fears are often the only things you can think about when you consider your dog and watch them interact with the outside world.

Pyrrha by the back stoop
The first day we had her; this is where she hid from us for a few hours.

Pyrrha is our fearful dog, and she will always have fear issues. I’m coming to terms with this reality, but I also want to take the time to consider the ways in which she’s made progress and the things she’s overcome since coming to live with us in May 2012.

This probably seems like a silly list to someone who has a confident, stable dog — and trust me, if I had to list the things Eden wasn’t afraid of, we’d be here a while — but these things represent milestones in Pyrrha’s gradual development.

So, here are:

10 Things My Fearful Dog Isn’t Afraid of

  1. Me! (Now, she treats me like I hung the moon and the stars, but for the first few weeks in our home, she didn’t want anything to do with me. Our relationship has clearly transformed since then.)
  2. House guests. (She’s even not afraid of male house guests anymore, which is a big accomplishment for her.)
  3. Squirrels, birds, and any other small vermin. (Her wavelength: Mmm, mobile snacks!)
  4. Other dogs, when the dogs are in an off-leash context. (Despite her reactivity to other dogs on walks, she actually adores other dogs and loves playing with them.)
  5. The guitar. (Used to hide in her crate when Guion played the guitar; now sees it as a normal part of life.)
  6. Riding in the car. (She loves car rides and has always traveled like a champ.)
  7. Fireworks.
  8. Thunderstorms.
  9. The elderly.
  10. Skateboards or bicycles or other similar moving objects on the street.
The queen
Pyrrha today; a much changed dog.

If you have a fearful dog, how have you seen her or him progress? What are some things your fearful dog isn’t afraid of?

How do you stay motivated to train your dog?

Confession time: I am a really lazy dog trainer. All of the rest of you put me to shame (at least, from what I can tell by reading your dog blogs).

Ready to play at sunrise. #pyrrhagramI get even lazier about training Pyrrha when we have fosters. A lot of energy is expended just teaching the fosters basic things (simple house manners, crate acclimation, walking on leash, etc.) that Pyrrha’s own training usually gets lost in the shuffle. We get a few “puppy push-ups” or exercises of pre-learned behaviors, but that’s it. I mean, how often are you guys training a day? From the sound of your blogs, it sounds like all the time, like hours and hours every day. I feel embarrassed at the tiny amounts of time that I actively “train.”

Having the treat bag has helped a lot, actually. Keeping it stocked and in an accessible place reminds me to keep training and keep Pyrrha engaged.

Waiting for someone to drop some food. #pyrrhagram

Lately, we’ve just been working on little things:

  • Leash reactivity with other dogs. This is a new-ish behavior (started exhibiting maybe in February of this year), and it’s not entirely consistent (some dogs don’t bother her; others do), and I am a little overwhelmed and unsure of how to fix it. I think I need to re-read Control Unleashed. I have also signed her up for a small, individualized reactivity class (“Feisty Fidos”) with our trainer at Canine Campus, which will start in the early fall. So I am looking forward to that as well. I am grateful to have been in touch with our trainer about this issue.
  • Baby steps toward off-leash recall. We have a long-ish driveway, and so every night now, Pyrrha comes with me to get the mail on a loose slip-lead. When we turn back toward the house, I drop the lead, and she gets to saunter or run back to the front door. She’s been doing very well at this, and if she strays too far, I call her back and she returns to my side. Baby steps toward off-leash recall! I am not eager to try anything more adventurous at this point. This is a safe space for her to learn this behavior (and the fact that she still has a lead draped around her neck means that she can’t get TOO far ahead of me).
  • Improving her relationship with Guion. For reasons that are still unclear to us, Pyrrha’s relationship with Guion has regressed since Rainer left. She seems more scared of him now than she did six months ago. I’m really not sure why this is. I think part of it, frankly, is that Guion just doesn’t engage with her even a fraction as much as I do. I feed her all of her meals, I’m the primary trainer, I groom her, I walk her… he just needs to get more involved, and I think he knows this. We were much more vigilant about it when we first got her, and we recognized that she was afraid of him (mainly because he was male), but we’ve been lazy about it, and she’s regressed, so it’s time to step up our game.

So, how do you stay motivated to keep training your dog(s)? Do you write down lists of what you want to teach them? Do you have a daily training schedule? How can I stop being so lazy about it??

As always, eager to hear and learn from each of you.

Rainer goes “on trial” with adopter on Sunday

What?
Terrible photo, but it makes me laugh. Rainer always has to know what’s happening.

The dogs were brave about the fireworks during Independence Day last night. How did everyone else’s pups fare?

Like Athena from Pitlandia, Pyrrha is scared of a lot of things, but fireworks and thunderstorms don’t bother her. Rainer, thankfully, isn’t phobic about storms, but he is considerably more anxious about them. We’ve had almost daily thunderstorms here lately, and while they are happening, Rainer tries to affix his body to mine. I can’t leave his sight without him needing to press himself up against me. It’s pretty sweet (except when you’re trying to make dinner, go to the bathroom, get dressed, etc.). The dogs were in their crates with treats while we attended a fireworks display last night overlooking the city, and we came back to happy pups and no signs of distress. So that was nice.

As I’ve mentioned, the happy news is that Rainer goes on trial with his potential adopter this Sunday. The adopter has two weeks to decide if they want to keep him before the adoption is finalized, so we are very hopeful that our sweet, shy little buddy has found his forever home! Will keep you posted.

Hope everyone has peaceful weekends ahead!

Rainer: Car training update

No photo of this, but I just had to share our exciting progress after my “car training” session with Rainer last night!

This was our first time working with our small hatchback (not the car he had the big, traumatic freakout with). I started treating him for looking at the car, moving toward it on his own volition, and he seemed pretty unconcerned. So I opened the side door.

Um. Guess who just got into the car ON HIS OWN?? Yeah. This dude:

Rainer, post bath

I was astonished. I started throwing treats in his direction, gave him the whole “jackpot” of treats, then I stood back and just let him sniff everything. I didn’t shriek or make any big fuss (even though I wanted to); I quietly praised him and held back. I let him sniff around for as long as he wanted, and then he climbed out after perhaps a minute.

We ended that day’s car session there, because I didn’t want to push him, but I was floored.

All this calm, voluntary behavior from a dog who was in such a state of panic over getting into a car that he was ready to bite anyone who came near him.

Obviously, the difference in the car was probably huge for him. For one, this is a car that he could essentially walk into, instead of climbing up into. And this wasn’t the car that made him get muzzled and picked up and deposited in. He has fought me before on getting into this same car (he did a home visit with me two weekends ago), but there was none of the same fear.

So, we’ll still be doing daily car training, but wow. I was shocked. This little guy has a lot of potential. Like all shy dogs, he’ll still always have more reservations than “normal” dogs, but he shows tremendous potential for progress and confidence-building. Go, Rainer!

Good dog, bad dog

Over the past few days, Rainer has been the GOOD dog, and Pyrrha has been DRIVING ME CRAZY.

Still getting used to each other
Good dog, bad dog.

I don’t know what’s gotten into her lately. I’m guessing that she’s still kind of stressed out that Rainer is still around. She harasses him in the yard (to which he is marvelously and beautifully patient, and never lashes out at her, even though she deserves it); she barks at him when he gets out of his crate; she whines all the time. It’s very frustrating. Poor Rainer takes it all like a champ, too.

I’m not really sure how to manage her behavior, honestly. I let them out in the yard now at separate times, particularly in the morning, when she seems most antsy. I try to remove her from situations that make her nervous, still utilizing the baby gate and preventing her from getting accidentally cornered. (She doesn’t know how to extricate herself from situations with him. He’s not threatening at all, but his mere presence will make her get irritated. See the nose licking calming signal in the photo above.)

Pyrrha didn’t ever act this way with Brando or Laszlo (our former fosters), so I’m not sure why she’s exhibiting this behavior now. Every dog is different. Rainer, for some inexplicable reason, makes her uneasy. (Even though he strikes us as the most chill, laidback guy.) We’ve been doing our best to mitigate her anxiety, but I’m just pointedly frustrated by it. Saying she’s the “bad dog” isn’t exactly fair; she is just KILLING ME with how annoying she’s been!

Meanwhile, we have been doing “car training” with Rainer every day. I’ve been following our trainer’s method of treating him for just looking at the car, coming close to the car, any interaction whatsoever. Then I’ll toss a treat away, in the opposite direction, to keep him from feeling trapped. Tonight I hope to work up to getting him to actually sniff and put his head in the car on his own. Thanks for all of your advice and tips! You’re right about needing to make car trips FUN; all the places we’ve taken him (and will need to keep taking him!) are stressful (e.g., the vet). We need to go get him some drive-thru fried chicken…

But the really exciting news, though, is that Rainer has a family interested in him! Hoping to learn more over the coming days. Will be sure to keep you posted on this sweet dude (and Pyrrha’s never-ending neuroses).

Fearful dogs class, plus training goals for Rainer

Last night, Rainer and I went to a one-time, one-hour class at Canine Campus, called “Rescue Remedies: Fearful Dogs.”

Rainer in training class
Trying to take photos in class never works out so well. This is the best one I got! Those are his ears.

Canine Campus is where Pyrrha went for her obedience class, and I’m a big fan of the trainer, Deven. Deven has had numerous shy dogs herself, and she seems to really understand them.

While Rainer was mostly unable to calm down for the majority of the class (lots of pacing and circling), I was really thankful that we went. Deven reinforced so many concepts that are easy to forget with shy dogs. The class was also really motivating to me to stop being such a passive trainer. Now that Rainer has acclimated to our lifestyle, it’s time to start actively teaching him things. I can’t just wait around and hope that he’ll learn something.

Rainer lounging at home
Safe at home.

This lesson was really reinforced coming and going to the class. The worst part of last night was getting to and leaving class. This is the issue: Rainer has a severe fear of getting in cars. Severe to the point of nearing the biting threshold.

My husband was gone last night, and I was stuck with the Jeep, so getting Rainer into it was quite the ordeal. It took me about 15 minutes. I was plying him with tons of treats, but as soon as he’d get within a foot of the car, he would freak out: jerk back, trying to pull out of the collar, biting the leash, etc. I was finally able to get him in when I put some treats on the car seat, and he got brave enough to put his paws on the seat, and I lifted his back end into the car. Once in the car, he rides OK; he’s so scared of it that he doesn’t move much at all.

The traumatic part of last night was leaving Canine Campus. After class concluded, I asked Deven and her co-trainer Mary to come out to the car with me and help me strategize. Mary started by treating him for nearing the car, and then throwing treats away from the car, giving him the freedom to back up when he wanted. This went on for 10 minutes, however, with Rainer showing little inclination to get any closer to the vehicle.

Instead of diminishing, his fear was only growing, and when we approached him, his entire body tensed up, and I could tell this was a dog who was ready to bite if we tried anything else. Deven clearly recognized this too and came back out with a sheet and a muzzle. I felt so dejected. I hated to traumatize him further, but we were never going to get him in that car.

We put a meatball in the muzzle, and I could snap it on him; this freaked him out. While he was trying to get the muzzle off, we put a sheet beneath his abdomen, and Deven lifted his back end, while I picked up his front end and put him in the car. He was fighting the whole way. The poor guy. My adrenaline was racing, and I felt so upset. And embarrassed. He was so upset.

Upon leaving, Deven reminded me that this is something we would need to work on every day. Rainer’s fear of getting into cars will not go away on its own. Seeing him in such a state of panic last night really brought that home. This is a dog who really doesn’t know anything about the world; everything is frightening and new to him. It’s our job right now to help him take those baby steps toward confidence.

Rainer lounging at home

So, that said, here are some really basic things I want to teach Rainer in the time that we have him:

  1. Car desensitization. Every day, practice working near and in the car. Treat him for approaching; treat him for just looking a it in the early stages. Move up to getting him to enter the car on his own.
  2. Name recognition. Treat him and praise him for giving us any attention when we call his name.
  3. Sitting for food. I know that this dog can sit, but we cannot get him to do it! I keep waiting for him to offer the behavior at meal time (luring him back with the bowl), but he won’t do it. I also wonder if this has something to do with his bad hips. Sitting could be painful for him, so we may need to find an alternate behavior.
  4. Grooming desensitization. Treat and praise for whenever he submits to brushing, touching paws, opening his mouth. Move up to this gradually; brushing is the easiest place to start.
  5. Leash manners. Learning how to walk politely on a leash; getting him not to freak out when we see other dogs (freaking out, for him, means frantic circling; no barking or anything like that, thankfully). Practice safe zone training (LOTS of distance between the stimulant) early on; only take short walks where I can control the environment without pushing him past threshold.

As you can see, we have a lot of work to do. But I believe in him and in his potential to overcome a lot of these fears, with our patient help.

Rainer: Resource guarding and tension at home

Early Saturday morning with dogs

Life with Rainer continued fairly smoothly over the weekend — he got more comfortable with the crate, he’s learning that paying attention to people brings rewards, and he seems to be reliably house-trained at this point.

Early Saturday morning with dogs

They got me up early on Saturday morning (6 a.m.), which I wasn’t thrilled about, but they got to spend most of the day outside, chilling in the yard, while Guion worked in the garden and on his hop plants.

Early Saturday morning with dogs

They’ll play brief games of chase, but more often than not, they’ll just choose a separate corner of the yard and doze there.

Early Saturday morning with dogs

On Saturday evening, my friend Maddy and I took them on a walk around the neighborhood, too, and they were both great. No leash reactivity issues from either of them!

Early Saturday morning with dogs

Sunday, however, we had an incident. I was practicing calligraphy in the office and the dogs were sleeping in the living room (just the next room over). A Kong had fallen out of Pyrrha’s crate, so I, unthinkingly, just threw it out into the living room. A few seconds later, I heard those horrible sounds of a dog fight. Totally my fault.

I wasn’t in there, so I didn’t see who started it, but Rainer had Pyrrha by the neck and teeth were flashing from both dogs. Pyrrha was screaming; it was terrible. I was able to pull her away from him by her back legs (which, in hindsight, could have been dangerous for me) and get her into the study and close the door. After a few minutes of cooling down, I moved Rainer into his crate and Pyrrha came and laid down at my feet.

She was very shaken by the incident and continues to be very nervous around him now. Since then, he’s challenged her over her bed (which he has apparently claimed as his own) and any stick, bone, or toy that he finds.

We’ve removed anything that he could lay claim to from the house and the yard (although it is a little hard to clear it of sticks). We now do not leave them for any extended period of time in the yard together. They are still fed in separate rooms at separate times, as we have done from the beginning.

Early Saturday morning with dogs

I need to brush up on my reading about resource guarding and how to manage it among dogs. This behavior from Rainer surprised me, because he showed no signs of it the first three days he was here. I guess he’s just getting more comfortable here and feeling like this is HIS place?

Meanwhile, Pyrrha remains quite frightened of him. She’s always followed me around the house, but now she can’t let me out of her sight. She squeezed herself into our tiny, tiny bathroom this morning while I was getting ready for work, something she’s never done before. It makes me sad.

Early Saturday morning with dogs

Have you ever had to deal with resource guarding issues between your dogs or fosters? What techniques worked for you?

A positive experience with a toddler!

Queen of all she surveys
In the yard, before L. came over.

Last night, I briefly watched our friends’ sweet two-year-old daughter, L.

As you may recall, Pyrrha has always been somewhat nervous around children, especially the younger ones (babies, toddlers). We don’t have kids, and while we have many friends with children, she is not very exposed to them. She tolerates older kids fine (quiet ones aged 7 and up), but the little ones frighten her. She once growled at an approaching four-year-old, and I removed her from the situation. I was so discouraged by that, because a.) we want to have kids one day ourselves, and b.) training out of fear with children is a very difficult thing. It’s not like you can walk up to the parent of a toddler and say, “Hey, my German shepherd is scared of kids! Can I let her sniff your baby?”

Anyway. L. came over and I had her in my arms, on my hip. Pyr got very excited and barked at L. With that, Pyr got relegated to the backyard while L. and I stayed inside. Pyrrha was naturally upset about this, but after about 15 minutes, I could hear that she stopped whining and fidgeting.

L. was sitting with me on the couch, and so I decided to carefully introduce Pyrrha back into the house. I put Pyr on a drag lead and brought her inside. L. sat on my lap and I let Pyrrha approach L. Pyrrha approached her cautiously, but then sniffed her hands and started licking them enthusiastically, which made L. giggle.

L. was eating some pretzel snacks and asked me (I think! Toddler-speak is hard for me to decipher!) if she could feed them to Pyrrha. I showed L. how to feed them to Pyrrha with a flat palm, and Pyrrha enthusiastically took all the snacks from L. without the slightest amount of fear.

I was very heartened. Food works wonders with our shy girl! L. was great with her, too; she let Pyrrha sniff and lick her and didn’t squeal or move in quick, sudden ways. It was a brief interaction — L.’s dad soon came back to pick her up — but a positive one.

How is your dog with small children? Do you have any training tips to accommodate a shy dog around kids?

Advice needed: Aggressive behavior from Pyrrha on walks

So, since we’ve been fostering, Pyrrha has displayed a totally new behavior on walks with our fosters. She has never done this with us before, not even a shade of it.

Pen Park with Laszlo
Pyr walking trails with my sister and brother-in-law.

Here’s the scenario:

We are walking with Pyrrha and the foster (whether it was Brando or Laszlo) in the neighborhood. Another leashed dog and its human start approaching us. When the dog gets close enough to pass by us, Pyrrha FREAKS out. She lunges at the dog, barking ferociously, hackles up. I pull her back with all my might, utterly stunned and shaken. (And embarrassed!)

I am pretty sure that this new behavior is not a fear display. In the early days, her fear exhibited in her hackles up, tail curled under, ears back, lips curled up, slinking away, quiet growling; THIS is lunging forward, vicious-sounding barking, full body thrown at the other dog. Although it may still have its roots in fear, it does not look like a fearful display; it just looks outright aggressive.

I don’t know what this means. Someone suggested that she’s protective of the foster. I guess this could be, but I’m unsure. I need to walk her on her own, without another dog, and see how she does. Again, I have never, never seen this before and I don’t know how to handle it. She has now reacted this way to passing dogs on walks with both Brando and Laszlo. (As a side note, she hasn’t flipped out with every single dog we see; it’s only certain dogs. Last night, she freaked only after Laszlo had barked at the other dogs.) It’s only with dogs, too. We passed some unusual-looking people, children, kids on scooters — nothing.

I started to question my posture and energy, but I don’t feel like I was tensing up, because normally, when other dogs would pass us, she was SO happy! I wasn’t nervous when other dogs passed us. She’d pull me to them and start play-bowing. I just had no idea this behavior even existed inside her.

Any advice?

What do you think could be causing this behavior? Ever seen this in your own dog (a totally surprising reaction in a familiar environment with familiar stimuli)?