Pyrrha: A portrait

My imagination has constructed a vivid backstory for Pyrrha, composed of stories from the rescue workers who sprung her from that prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The images, although they are entirely created in my mind, often make me too sad. I do have some facts about her. She was called Katie then, and she lived her whole life in a small wire pen with a plastic doghouse in it, on top of which she liked to sit. A man named John kept her and her family members in similar states of neglect. He tossed kibble at them through the chain-link fences a few times a day. This was the extent of their human interaction. Katie was scheduled to become the next breeding bitch, but then John got tired of the work and upkeep and told the rescue he would kill all the dogs he had if they didn’t come get the animals in the next few days.

Her half-brothers, Archer and Ammo, were so psychologically damaged and so emotionally attached to one another that when the rescue tried to separate them to send them to separate foster homes, Archer scaled a 7-foot-tall privacy fence to get back to his brother. They did finally separate them, but Ammo died just about a year later, from a cause unknown to me. All of the shepherds sprung from that operation, Pyrrha’s family, were surprisingly gentle. They were afraid of everything, but they never lashed out at people.

We met Pyrrha in a small grassy area outside of a Petco. Her foster mom had a puppy in a tote bag and Pyrrha on a pink leash. She was being called Lyndi then. She was too afraid to greet us, to interact with us in any meaningful way, but I saw this beautiful, damaged dog and instantly made up my mind to take her. She sat on Guion’s feet in the grass, and this was enough to convince us.

With Pyrrha at Blue Mountain Brewery
Our first photo together. 18 May 2012.

We, of course, had no idea all that would go into raising an extremely fearful German shepherd. Our first dog. We renamed her Pyrrha after one of the towns in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which we had been reading together at the time. She hid from us in corners of the house for days after we adopted her. Truthfully, I am surprised that my first instinct wasn’t to return her. She was so unlike any dog I had known. I had never really been around a deeply anxious dog before. But I was instantly committed to her. Whatever it took to get her to a stable state, we were going to do it. She wasn’t going to be returned again.

Objectively, she is a very beautiful dog. I am often surprised at how sound she is, considering her background. She has had no serious health issues (knock on wood), and her build is stronger and sounder than most purebred shepherds; none of the exaggerated back end, sloped hocks, etc. People often tell me that she is the lovelier of the two dogs, the more ladylike one, the more graceful one. Her coat is a light cream in most places, and I imagine she will fade to almost pure white in her old age.

Regal
3 February 2013.

Pyrrha likes to moan and happily growl when she does her morning stretches. Or when she is receiving a particularly good petting session. Sometimes she sounds like a bear. Or a corpulent man waking up from a nap.

She is most truly happy and carefree when:

  • Someone is giving her meat.
  • She is playing with other dogs.
  • She is exploring the outdoors off leash.

Otherwise, she seems to reside in a perpetual state of unease. Or perhaps hyper-awareness?

I am thankful for her behavior with house guests, because we have a ton, and she is generally good with them all. There have been moments when she is unhappy about an unfamiliar man entering the house, especially if I am not around, but she warms up to them quickly after the initial shock. She is, however, a huge fan of women and meticulously inspects lady crotches as soon as they cross the threshold of our house.

The only man she loves is my brother-in-law Alex. She treats him with the same energy and devotion as she treats women she likes, which I hope he finds to be a compliment. My best guess is because Alex is quiet and sensitive. He always interacts with her in the way that she prefers, which is not to seek her attention, but to give attention when she asks for it. When he visits us, she will happily spend an hour at his feet, a scene which leaves me constantly marveling.

Sometimes, for reasons I cannot detect, in the safety and quiet of our home, she will come up to me with her ears pinned back to her head. There is nothing awry that I can tell; no one is acting in a threatening manner toward her; Guion is in another room. And so I pet her and speak to her soothingly, and then gently push her ears forward. I don’t know if this actually improves her mood, but I like to think it does. In the same way that pop scientists say that sitting still and forcing yourself to smile, even if you are not happy, will make you feel happier.

She adores other dogs, which is something that strangers would probably never guess, based on her on-leash reactivity toward them. On walks, she acts like she wants to murder every dog she sees. But leash-free in a wide space? She is totally thrilled by their presence.

Fostering six German shepherds with her in our tiny house was a marvelous experience. Having other dogs in the house really opened her up and created space between her and her myriad fears. She loved Brando best, of all the fosters we had, although she and Rainer got quite close as well (probably because we had him the longest). Laszlo was very annoying to her, because he was the baby, but she treated him with gentleness all the same. We never had to worry about her behavior when other dogs were afoot; she’d never start a fight or push buttons unnecessarily. She was just happy to exist in a space with more of her kind.

Pyrrha is a consummate huntress. She has a killer instinct. In another life, she could have been a homesteader’s hunting companion. She’s not a retriever; she doesn’t want to work with you to find something you killed; she wants to kill the thing herself. Early on in her life with us, she caught a live squirrel in her mouth. While on a leash. It is still one of the most impressive things she’s ever done.

She stalks small animals with serious devotion. Eden has no such honed hunting instincts, but she watches Pyrrha’s behavior, and when Pyrrha starts to get into stalking mode while on a walk, having spotted a squirrel or a bird or a cat, Eden will mimic her, even though it’s clear Eden has no idea what on earth we could be hunting.

Watchful shepherd
17 December 2013.

Her life seems to have meaning again when I am home. You haven’t been loved like this until you’ve found a dog who thinks you hung the moon and the stars. It’s intense. And as flattering as it is, I also recognize it as debilitating. Her attachment to me prevents her from happy, carefree interactions with other people. I am repeatedly told that she can’t settle down if I am gone. At my parents’ house, she runs from room to room, looking for me, if I am absent. At our home, it’s more that she sinks into a state of total detachment.

But her eyes light up when I return, and she leans against me and smiles and smiles.

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.

Working on their relationship

The progress of a fearful dog can often seem imperceptible. For me, one of the primary ways I am able to detect progress with Pyrrha’s myriad fears is by hearing guests say, “Wow, Pyrrha seems so much calmer/more interested in me/less anxious.” Without this external confirmation, I am often incapable of noticing her improvements on my own.

Guion and P

She has never been a fan of Guion. In many ways, she still doesn’t totally trust him. She brings a lot of baggage to the table, but I also think his personality is just one that she’ll never totally warm up to. He is expressive, animated, and loud, many of the traits that Pyrrha abhors in people, especially if they happen to be male. Pyrrha has warmed up to a few men in a noticeable way (my father and my brother-in-law), but their personality types are quieter and they seem to engage with her in a way that she wants.

Guion and P

However, since adding Eden to the household, we’ve both noticed a small shift in Pyrrha’s comfort level with Guion. She boldly begs from him whenever he is eating — a behavior that our trainer said to allow, because Pyrrha is expressing bravery by approaching Guion — and lately, she’s even been seeking attention from him.

Guion and P

He told me that the other day, when I wasn’t home, she came up to greet him, sniff him over, and lean on him for pets. This sounds like such a small, insignificant thing, but in the Pyrrha/Guion relationship complex, it’s huge! It’s doubly so because I wasn’t home; my presence is usually a prerequisite for any voluntary interaction between them.

Inter-species communication #germanshepherd #doglife

After two years together, they are still working on their relationship, but I am proud of them both. And always happy to observe progress, however slight.

If you have a spouse/partner, do your dogs interact differently with the two of you? In what ways?

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?

An incident: Pyrrha nips a kid

So. The worst part of our recent holiday weekend was this:

Pyrrha nipped my 10-year-old cousin, M., and it wasn’t playful.

I supervised their first introduction, and Pyrrha was actually great with her. M. is a tall girl, and I think that helped; she isn’t small and high-pitched. Pyrrha let M. pet her, drape her arm over her back, and she was very relaxed about it. I told M. that Pyrrha was fearful and not that fond of children, as a warning.

The last Fourth of July
The dogs on the zip line at my grandparents’.

Some hours later, however, M. was walking up from the lake, toward the dogs, who were on leashes on a zip line. She came straight up to Pyrrha with her arms outstretched, and Pyrrha barked and growled at her, and then grabbed the back of M.’s shirt. She scraped M.’s skin with her teeth, but there was no blood.

I quickly rushed Pyrrha inside and then went back out to check on M. She was tearful and frightened, naturally, but she was OK and rather brave about the whole encounter. But then I started to cry a bit, too, feeling really terrible about the whole incident.

I think I was so upset because it was the first time I’ve seen Pyrrha demonstrate fear aggression toward a human. And the fear aggression resulted in a warning nip to a child.

As my dad pointed out, it wasn’t a bite; if Pyrrha had really wanted to bite her, she would have. And it would have been serious. This was more like a scrape than anything else. But I knew it was not coming from a playful place, and that was what made my heart sink. And I should have prevented the whole thing from ever happening. Thankfully, my uncle and aunt were pretty relaxed about the whole incident. I felt so terrible, though.

I was honestly astonished that it happened, particularly as Pyrrha was so relaxed with M. for the first half of the day. I’m still not sure what the trigger was this time; I think it was a mix of M. coming up from the lake, Pyrrha not recognizing her, M. coming straight for Pyrrha with her arms out, and Pyrrha feeling trapped by being on the zip line. But I was surprised and saddened, because the rest of the day, she was in a very relaxed state, untroubled by people coming and going.

The incident has made me seriously renew my commitment to Pyrrha’s fear issues. I admit I have been lax about training with children, because we don’t have any children and children don’t visit our house regularly. (If they do, Pyrrha is always very closely controlled.) But we want to have kids one day, and Pyrrha’s behavior really frightens and distresses me. Is it stupid to think that, with gradual training, she would be OK with having children, our future children, in the house 24/7?

I’ve always known she isn’t comfortable around children, but this incident has made me wonder if she will ever be. It’s something I’d like to revisit with our trainer. I’ve talked with her some about it, and she recommends the classical conditioning protocol we’re following with her leash reactivity toward dogs (and applying it to children in proximity).

So. There’s that. I didn’t really want to write about this, because it makes me sad.

What do you think? Do you have a dog who is fearful of children? How have you handled it?

Pyrrha’s best Christmas ever (Part II)

The second part of our Christmas holiday was spent with my family.

On Christmas day, Pyrrha got to meet and play with her “second cousin,” the handsome chocolate lab Marley.

Christmas in Norwood
Marley and his dad.

They had too much crazy energy for me to get many great shots of them together, but they had a wonderful time romping in the basement.

Christmas in Norwood

Christmas in Norwood

Marley became rather obsessed with Pyr (he’s intact), so we had to keep him at bay from time to time. But they were great pals and got along swimmingly, as I expected they would.

Christmas in Norwood

Apart from that, Pyrrha had a great time begging in the kitchen:

Pyrrha helping Guion and Ma-Maw in the kitchen. #christmas

Watching squirrels:

#christmas #latergram #gsd

And hanging out with my cool kid sister:

Christmas in Norwood

Christmas pals. #hotties #latergram

This holiday vacation made me thankful for Pyrrha in a way that I haven’t been before. As those of you with anxious dogs know, you spend a lot of your mental energy and emotional bandwidth worrying about your dog — especially when the environment changes, when you’re around new people and animals, etc. I felt like this was one of the first trips with her in which I was able to really be calm and appreciate her for who she is.

My heart was warmed by two things: (1) She seemed to be really enjoying herself, and, (2) other people seemed to notice this as well.

1: She got lots of exercise and canine play-time over the holiday, which always makes her incandescently happy. I was around her all day long; she rarely if ever had to languish alone. And when she wasn’t napping or playing with dogs, she was getting slipped decadent holiday food from my generous relatives. (I caught my sweet grandmother giving her a big hunk of the expensive, prized beef tenderloin before we humans sat down to eat it. Needless to say, Pyrrha was her shadow for the rest of the evening.)

2: Many members of our immediate families kept telling me, “She is really doing so well,” or, “She’s like a different dog from when she was last here.” Hearing this meant so much to me. It’s hard to recognize those subtle improvements when you’re working and living with your fearful dog day in and day out. But hearing them say such things helped me to recognize her progress too. She really has come a long way from that crawling, terrified dog who hid from me in corners of the house. And she keeps making those subtle steps toward confidence and balance.

Hope you were also able to acknowledge your dog’s progress in 2013 — subtle or not — over this season of rest and reflection.

More to come about our adventures in Pyrrha’s off-leash training over our holiday!

When is your anxious dog calm?

On our last night of our reactivity class, our trainer Deven asked me: “Is Pyrrha able to be calm and relaxed?”

I said that she was, but as I was thinking about it, I sadly realized that her ability to be truly happy and calm is limited to very specific environments. Deven was asking to determine if Pyrrha may need more serious behavioral intervention (such as medication). I’m not sure we’re at that place yet, but the conversation did make me think about the particular spaces and times in which Pyrrha seems to let her guard down and let that worried face and anxious body fall away.

Portrait of a lady. #pyrrhagram
Portrait of a (shy) lady.

Pyrrha is calm and happy when:

  • I’m at home with her.
  • she’s playing with another dog.
  • she’s on a walk (with no other dogs in sight).
  • she’s riding in the car.
  • she’s in her crate.
  • we’re eating or cooking at home.

I say “calm” even though many people wouldn’t look at Pyrrha and see an anxious dog. Her fearfulness rarely displays itself in any kind of frenzied energy or reactivity (with the exception of seeing other dogs on leash). But over the year and a half since we’ve had her, I’ve become a mini-expert in her moods (as many of you are with your own dogs, I imagine). It’s helpful that her big shepherd ears are like signals for how she’s feeling. “Oh, she’s got her ‘scared ears’ on,” my husband will say, once Pyrrha spots a trigger. I, of course, want to do everything in my power to have her wearing her “happy ears” as much as possible.

Food is a HUGE help for us in this. We’re lucky that we have a dog who is such a deep, committed beggar that she will lovingly place her head in the lap of “scary” people (e.g., men) just for a crumb. Food, somewhat amazingly, seems to overshadow many of her triggers, so this has been a great advantage to us in training. Deven said that she’s OK with begging if Pyrrha is begging from her fear trigger (e.g., my husband). Reinforce bravery and confidence when you can, even if it’s not exactly “polite.”

Now that we’re in a foster-less phase for the next few months, until we get our housing situation settled, I have time to really focus on Pyrrha. And I am realizing that she does continue to need our help and guidance. We have days of frustration and backsliding (forgetting to reinforce her for seeing dogs on walks, neglecting her mental state), and we have days of progress and encouragement (like last night, when she got on the couch next to Guion and put her head in his lap without any bribery). One step forward, one step back.

If you have a fearful dog, when or where is (s)he truly happy and calm? What do you do to maximize these moments?