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?

Busy life, busy pups


Life has been so busy around here (lots of travel, house guests, events, etc., just beyond our normal work/life madness) that I haven’t had much time for blogging. I hope to write some more thoughtful posts soon, but in the meantime, I’m afraid all I have are some cute pictures and mini-anecdotes.

Recent dog/life lessons:

Cherries Are Toxic to Dogs

Our neighbor has two mature cherry trees that branch into our yard, and so we had this abundant harvest of red cherries for about a month. Guion made wonderful cherry cobblers, and we were thrilled with this unexpected boon. The dogs, unfortunately, were also thrilled, and loved to go harvesting for fallen cherries themselves. Cherries, as with most stone fruits, are toxic to dogs (the pits contain cyanide!). Eden was gobbling them up before we could stop her, so we had to erect a temporary fence situation in the yard. (She was experiencing lots of diarrhea and some mild vomiting. Lots of pits found in her crate…) Now, she’s fine, and we’re all relieved. But I can see she’s still scheming how to get in there and get her forbidden fruits.

If you’re curious if you have any toxic plants in your yard, the ASPCA has a wonderful and very comprehensive resource on this: Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants.

Walks Are Therapeutic for Dogs and Humans

I’ve been away from home for some time, for family travel and business, and coming back to see the girls is especially sweet. Pyrrha, in particular, acts like I’ve been resurrected from the dead after I return from a few days’ absence. Such unbridled joy! Such wonderment! Such mauling of the legs and face! We take walks as often as we can now, to release my stress and to channel their energies. Nothing I enjoy so much as walking the dogs — even if the walks are short (to avoid other dogs), even if the weather is bad, even if they have to stop every second to smell every sixth leaf. The walks are always good.

Pyrrha Is Better with New People, According to New People

It’s hard to observe behavioral progress sometimes, which is why house guests can be such helpful barometers. We’ve recently had a lot of guests, and almost all of them have said one thing: “Wow, Pyrrha is so much calmer and happier — and less scared of me. What’s changed?” And I’m still surprised to hear them say it, because many days, I just see a dog who is ruled by her fears. But she IS doing so much better, and it’s so heartening to hear this confirmation from external sources.

I think Eden — wild, demon-possessed Eden — deserves the credit here. Her love of Guion, her exuberance toward strangers, and her overall playful attitude have influenced Pyrrha in a seriously positive way. No, Pyr will never love Guion like she loves me, or think that strange men are super-duper fun, but she may continue moving in a positive, confident direction. And that thrills me to think about. Maybe we’ll keep Eden after all… 😉

As summer marches on, what’s new in your lives?

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

Like a cat
Basking in the sun like a cat.

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

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

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

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

How have you seen your dog grow and change lately?

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?

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!

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!

Happy “gotcha” day, Pyrrha! First anniversary

A year ago today, we brought this scared little pup into our house:

Pyrrha, the day she was pulled from the breeder.
Pyrrha, the day she was pulled from the breeder. Late April 2012.

She was so scared of us that she couldn’t even make eye contact with us. She sulked around the backyard, avoiding contact with us at all costs. When in the house, she would hide in whatever rooms we weren’t occupying. I was starting to think we’d made a terrible mistake, that this dog was too withdrawn to ever be happy and stable…

Pyrrha in the back yard
Second day with us; too scared to interact. 19 May 2012.

But gradually, little by little, she started to bloom…

Happy puppy
1 June 2012.

… into this super-weird, goofy dog that we know and love today.

1 November 2012.

Yeah, she still has her issues, and we still work on them every day, but we love this crazy dog, neuroses and all.

At ease
30 April 2013.

Happy first anniversary of your life in our family, Pyrrha Louise! Here’s to many more years together.

Getting to know Rainer better

This soulful-eyed boy survived his first grooming experience on Tuesday. It didn’t go so well, but we didn’t have to suffer with him.

Rainer, post bath

We took him to a local groomer (who also has self-serve grooming stations), a local saint, really. He apparently fought her with everything: brushing, shampooing, rinsing, nail clipping, etc. After an hour, she was worn out and he was only about half-bathed. She said she didn’t think this dog had ever been brushed or bathed in his entire life. I believe it!

But he looked SO much better afterward! See:

Rainer, post bath

He smells like a rose blossom now.

Rainer, post bath

Relations with Pyrrha are improving, although they can still be a bit dicey. I’m realizing Pyrrha is also at fault here: She is a HUGE diva!

Calming signals

Yesterday, I turned my back on them for a second in the sunroom, and Pyrrha started screaming. I jumped out of my skin! But I turn and look, and Rainer is not even touching her. Who knows what happened? Maybe he shot her a dirty look, and she freaked out? Ugh. What a queenie.

How do you teach a dog not to overreact to other dogs? Or, more accurately, how do you teach a dog not to be such a drama queen??

Rainer on guard

It’s really heartwarming to note how much his acclimating to us and to our lifestyle. The first few days, he wouldn’t come inside at all; we’d have to go out, catch him, and lasso him indoors. Now? I open the back door and call for him, and guess who comes running?

Stepping pretty

This guy!

Fostering shy dogs is an extra challenge, but I also think it’s more palpably rewarding than fostering “normal,” well-adapted dogs. Shy dogs make so much progress! Yes, it is often small, subtle progress, but it is still so cheering to observe it, to see formerly terrified dogs become able to let their tongue hang out with glee, to approach people for affection, to come running when called. Nothing quite like that feeling.

We are enjoying our time with this gentle boy. Tomorrow night, I’m taking him to a training class called “Fearful Dogs: Rescue Remedies,” a short, one-time session just for shy rescues. We’ll see how he does!

If you are interested in adopting Rainer, fill out an application at Southeast German Shepherd Rescue!