Monday, March 30, 2009

Meetup fun

Yesterday Star and I went to a Love-A-Bull meetup downtown.

There were quite a lot of other dogs there, some friendly, some not so much. It was all good, though. One of Star's problems is that she loves to rush up to any dog that she sees. After a few encounters with less-friendly dogs, Star slowed down quite a bit.

As our group took a walk through downtown, Star pulled on the leash like crazy. All loose-leash training had evaporated. This is another thing I'm going to have to work on: loose-leash while walking with others.

This was helpful socialization and a good opportunity to train for the CGC. We're having a mock CGC next weekend and this will help me pinpoint where Star needs the most work.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting involved

I'm now the BSL person ("Director of Legislative Affairs") for the Love-A-Bull pit bull group here in Austin. Very cool. I've wanted to do something more local and hands-on for a while, and now I get the chance.

We're facing BSL in the legislature this year in Texas, so I'm getting prepared. Flyers, handouts, and possibly some presentations.

It's amazingly hard to get people to actually do stuff, even simple things like call their reps. But change only happens when you act. You can't just join a group and then brush your hands off. What's the point of that?

People always say "Well, I'm just so busy." So what? I'm busy too. We're all busy. You're telling me you can't take three minutes to dial a phone and say "Please don't support HB 925."? It takes longer to order a pizza, for crying out loud.

A while ago, I posted a notice announcing that I needed help with the daily postings for my BSL site. Seriously, it takes me several hours a day, every day of the week. Sometimes I need a break, sometimes I'm on a trip and I can't post, and sometimes I have a real job to attend to. Is it so much to ask for volunteers to assist with posting?

It wasn't too much to ask, apparently, but it was too much to expect that anyone would hang around. I got dozens of cheerful responses, offers of assistance--lots of people willing to help. But that's as far as they went. When it came down to actually doing the job, only one person lasted longer than a week. I'm on my own again.

Similarly, when I asked for help writing some static pages, which is a limited commitment to a single topic, only one person has ever come through for me. And she's done a bang-up job, but still, out of all the people who said they would happily help, she's the only one who actually did.

Why offer to help if you're not really going to? I can understand why some people might do it--to feel altruistic--but all talk and no action is really just the opposite of altruistic. It's quite selfish and obnoxious.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I cooked it, ate it, and did not die

Thinking of starting a blog section called "Things I cooked that were not toxic."

Easily half my meals are experiments.

We keep cereal and frozen waffles on hand for those evenings when things don't go as planned.

Tonight's test tube baby: salmon, rice, and peas. No big deal, you say? Well, I threw it ALL in the rice cooker to cook. Yeah, that's right, I put rice, peas, salmon, and water in the rice cooker and turned it on. Makes me nervous, considering it's a RICE cooker, not a "salmon, peas, and rice" cooker.

I'm off to go see what happened. The smoke alarm didn't go off, at least.

Update: It was edible. In fact, Byrd said it was "pretty good." Sweet!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Healthy competition

I suppose I'm just a bit slow on the uptake, but I finally figured out what motivates Star. It's not food, it's not toys... it's dogs--and specifically, it's DOZER.

Dozer is her number one best bud (he would totally disagree--he still holds her in disdain).

So, okay, it's training session time at our house. For ten minutes I am supposed to spend time teaching Star the latest commands... I'm trying my best to get Star to pay attention, and she's watching Dozer while he plays with a toy, wanders into the bedroom, gets a drink, falls asleep... She's so infatuated with him that even my beefy smushy stinky treats and highest-pitched happy voice have no effect. If I put Dozer in some other room, Star tries to find him. Screw the treats, screw me and my stupid commands.

Finally I ask Dozer over. She wants to watch him? Fine. She might as well watch him do tricks. Dozer happily does "sit," "down," "bang bang," and "shake." Treat, treat, treat, treat.

By the time we get to "shake," Star's eyes are as round as an owl's, and... could she be...? Yes, she's turning green with envy. NOW I've got her full attention. WTF, Lady, where are MY treats??? When I tell Dozer to "shake," Star's paw comes up just as fast.


Why didn't I think of this before?

So I spend fifteen minutes running an impromptu competition between the dogs. Star is watching Dozer just as much as she's watching me. The speed of her response to commands skyrockets. He wants the treats? Well so do I!! He's going to sit? Well so am I!!

As an added incentive, if Star screws up, no treats for her--and Dozer gets TWO treats just for being there. Now that really sets her off. You can almost see her jaw set in determination as soon as she realizes what's happening when she messes up. (Dozer, meanwhile, has question marks flying out of his head--what are all these treats for??)

After the training is over and the treats are eaten, Star is still so excited that she expends her remaining energy doing zoomies around the house.

This is a FAR cry from just a few days ago, when she spent the training session hunched over, staring into space, and generally acting like a school kid waiting for the last bell to ring. She would glance at me with despair, as if to ask "Why are you doing this to me? It's stupid and weird."

It seems that Star has moved from a reluctant trainee to a tough competitor. She's a bit sloppy, but she's enthusiastic, and that's fine with me. I'll refine the tricks later--right now I'm just happy that she's actually enjoying the training. I'm also really hoping that by seeing Dozer enjoying the tricks and treats, Star will discover that training is not some form of bizarre torture reserved just for her--it's a fun and normal thing that dogs and people do together.

Yesterday she learned "catch it" (catch the treat) and I refined the "sit" and "watch me" commands. Today I taught her "sit pretty" and "sit up" (sitting up from a down position).

Dozer actually did terribly by comparison, because his favorite trick is "bang bang," so he would collapse on his side in a death pose regardless of what I was asking. I think he realized he was just being used. :)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The trainer came...

...and she was quite helpful.

Mostly, it was nice to have an authority figure there who could talk to Byrd about what it would take to try to reduce Dozer's anxiety and ball obsession. I had already told Byrd countless times that he needed to start taking responsibility and step up to the plate, especially when it came to walks. The trainer gently reinforced that idea. :D

She also suggested making the walk less like a walk and more like a fun game of fetch. This involved a special squeaky tennis ball that Dozer latched on to instantly (of course). We walked a few steps, played fetch and administered treats, and then walked a few more steps. Dozer did very well on his walk once the squeaky tennis ball appeared. A bit nervous, but not enough for him to shut down. The ball obsession worked for us in this case.

I'm not sure he enjoyed the walk per se--he probably would have had a ton more fun if he had been playing fetch in the backyard--but at least we managed to go a short distance without a bunch of slinking and whining. If he did it out of love for the ball, okay, I'll take that. Maybe some day he will decide that the walk's not so bad by itself without the ball.

The other topic we covered was Dozer's whining and obnoxious behavior toward guests at the house. He thinks every visitor is a ball-throwing machine, and will whine and pressure people to play with him. We've been very unsuccessful getting him to stop, in part because most guests readily give in to his cute face and shrill whine (he is like a siren luring guests to their doom) and in part because we've been notoriously inconsistent in terms of getting him to stop.

So, we are going to train Dozer to "Go to your bed," so we can ask him to do this when guests come over. Ideally, this will remove Dozer from the immediate scene so he can't hypnotize people into serving him. If Dozer fails to stay in his bed, he is to be put in "time out" for five minutes or until he is quiet, whichever is longer. Then he is to go back to his bed (with ample rewards when he is in bed and quiet).

This is actually something I tried to implement several years ago, but I was never successful because Byrd was not on board with me. I would get caught up being hostess for guests and I was simply not able to attend to guests and dogs all at the same time. Meanwhile, Byrd would completely ignore whatever the dogs were doing; if they got out of their beds when I wasn't looking, he wouldn't bother putting them back. I eventually gave up the idea. Now, hearing a similar strategy from an experienced, expensive trainer rather than his nagging know-it-all wife, he seems eager to make it work.

Fine with me. I really hope he sticks with this, and does all the things he agreed to today.

On an interesting side note, I finally managed to partially pin down one of the reasons Byrd has so much trouble with communication. He has a tendency to volunteer information without any context whatsoever, thus leading his listener to wonder what they are supposed to do with that information. It's rather confusing and frustrating for both parties--obviously so for the listener, who is not sure how to respond, but for Byrd, too, because he doesn't get the response he's seeking.

So today, the trainer was telling us about getting Dozer to go to his bed. Byrd suddenly interjected that Dozer has two beds--one in the dining room and one in the bedroom. There was a moment of silence as both the trainer and I simultaneously wondered why Byrd was providing this information. Was Byrd worried that the trainer might think we were too poor to afford more than one bed? Or was he just correcting the trainer's grammar (she should be saying beds, not bed)? Or was he going to ask some sort of question, like are the beds in the right rooms?

I finally asked Byrd, "What point are you trying to make by saying that?" Because it was not at all clear, and the trainer was struggling to find the right response. Byrd then explained that he wanted to know which bed we should teach Dozer to go to.

Byrd asked me later, "Do I say weird things or something? It seems like people have trouble understanding me."

When he has asked me this in the past, I've been able to say, yes, you are hard to follow. But I wasn't really able to figure out why.

This time I thought carefully about what had happened, and I realized that much of what Byrd says seems random because he doesn't give enough context. If I were him in the same situation as earlier, I would have asked the question first and foremost: "Which bed should I send the dog to?" and then supply any additional information as necessary: "He has two beds" (probably not necessary because this is implied by the question).

In Byrd's case, he supplies the additional information and leaves the question unspoken, expecting us to essentially read his mind and see his point / answer his question.

It leads to some very interesting and bizarre conversations, especially when Byrd draws some sort of parallel but forgets to draw the same parallel for his audience--it seems as if he's gone completely off-topic. It doesn't help that he's usually two or three sentences too late when he brings it up.

  • I ask, "Can you reach that bowl on the top shelf? I'm going to make pancakes. Do you want some?"
  • "We got a coupon for Home Depot in the mail," says Byrd as he pulls down the bowl.
  • "Er... okay," I say (no idea why he's telling me this). Byrd wanders off, and I make pancakes.
  • Later in the day, he asks me why I haven't gone to Home Depot and used the coupon to buy a kitchen stool, as he suggested this morning.
  • I have no idea what he's talking about because he never verbalized the jump from out-of-reach bowl to Home Depot kitchen stool.
I am beginning to suspect that Byrd's unspoken mental leaps are likely behind many of our spats as well. I can recall many a fight where, somewhere in the middle, I have held up a hand and said, "Wait, what on earth are you talking about? I'm totally, utterly lost. I feel like we've been living in alternate universes where completely different things happened."

Byrd also says he feels left out of conversations, and now I realize it's because when he's volunteering information, people are saying "that's nice" or "that's interesting" and moving on without realizing that he's really asking a question or making an important point somewhere in his mind.

Knowing this, I am going to make more of an effort to ask Byrd to explain his purpose whenever he issues one of his random observations.

So I guess today's conversation with the dog trainer was helpful with more than just the dog.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Can we "fix" him?

Dozer was born nuts.

Not the scary serial killer nuts a la Silence of the Lambs, but the harmless goofy nuts a la Benny and Joon.

Dozer is obsessive-compulsive and anxious. He loves his toy (usually a ball, sometimes a disc). He loves his house. When he has these things, he is the happiest dog alive.

But when he loses either of those things, he starts whining and pacing, and his brain basically shuts off. He is essentially nonresponsive to the environment. His response to training commands slows to a trickle.

It's not that he becomes out of control, because there's really nothing about him that needs controlling. He turns on a very whiny autopilot. He'll go on a walk, but he won't notice the squirrels dancing a jig in front of him or the stray cat peeing on his leg. He won't "sit" without a sharp push on the behind. He just sort of goes into a trance where I guess he might be imagining himself back at home.

This is one of the reasons why loose leash training has never been successful for him. He simply isn't "there." I use a no-pull harness to make walking easier. (I should add that I can definitely walk him on his regular collar if need be. He is so sad that even the pulling is rather wimpy.)

This has been the way of things with Dozer since his early years. He had all the advantages his "sister" Felanie did, including puppy socialization class, obedience classes, and agility classes. Both dogs lived under the same house rules and expectations. Felanie turned into a fine dog without any social anxiety or obsessive behavior.

At first, Dozer did fine, too, though there were some hints that Dozer was not quite normal, even during early years.

During his puppy socialization class, Dozer ignored the other dogs, favoring a tennis ball above all else. When the other puppies started to play-fight, Dozer stood between them (he was the biggest puppy there), chewing on his ball and whining. The instructor called Dozer "The Peacemaker" because it bothered Dozer so much to see other dogs fight, even in play; he would always try to stand in the middle in order to break it up.

When we took Dozer to a very reputable professional trainer because he was so obsessed about his toy ball, the trainer suggested that we put him in a room and dump dozens of tennis balls in there. The idea was to make the balls so common that Dozer would have no reason to worry about where they all were. We tried this idea. Let's just say that that was the happiest day of Dozer's life--and he's still obsessed with toy balls.

The older Dozer got, the less he enjoyed leaving the house. He still likes car rides--as long as they're short, and he can hang his head out the window (which means only in the immediate neighborhood, since I don't allow dog heads out the window over 35 mph).

My husband has panic attacks when he goes out in public. This has only recently been controlled with medication. Byrd feels a bit guilty about Dozer as a result. "I gave him this," he says, as if social anxiety is some sort of contagious disease.

So here's where I get stuck in my thoughts. Some people, like my husband, think that Dozer needs "help." We have a trainer coming over to meet Dozer this weekend, to see what can be done. But can training really "fix" an issue that seems, to me, to be the result of faulty wiring? I'm all for training when it can alter behavior. But I also realize there are some cases where genetics has had the last laugh (this is where responsible management, rather than training, comes in).

I wonder if Dozer's problems haven't been a bit too humanized at this point. Why, exactly, does Dozer really need to learn to enjoy being out in public? People have to overcome social anxiety in order to function and live normal lives. They must be able to go to work, to the grocery store, and so forth.

Dozer is a dog. He can stay home all day and play in the yard with his ball whenever he wants. And if he's perfectly happy doing that, why do people think that he needs "help," or that his anxiety is a "problem"?

I can understand why Byrd keeps pushing for us to "help" Dozer--because he feels guilty and partially responsible for Dozer being this way, and because he can really empathize with the anxiety Dozer feels in public. He sees Dozer as a furry version of himself, and because Byrd sought help and feels better as a result, he wants Dozer to get help as well.

But I don't see it the same. I see Dozer as a senior dog who just wants to enjoy life from the comfort of his home. As long as we don't force him to go anywhere (and it's not like we really need to), he's quite happy, loving, and healthy. And no, he's not overprotective of our house. He actually loves visitors to our house, no matter who they are, especially if they play fetch with him.

So can Dozer be "helped"? Or more to the point, does he really need to be "helped"? I am tempted to choose the negative response to both questions.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Dogs dogs dogs

All the dog-related stuff swimming in my brain:

BSL everywhere. New Mexico drops their proposed pit bull ban. An Oregon senator promptly proposes a pit bull ban. Florida, Texas, and Hawaii are all still dealing with possible statewide BSL. I went away for the weekend on a relaxing trip and came back to find my inbox overflowing with necessary updates for the StopBSL website. I hate BSL. It ruins my free time and keeps me up at night, but I can't let it go, because I just can't tolerate such a massive injustice.

Star and Dozer did surprisingly well on our trip. Dozer hated it, needless to say, but he didn't destroy anything. Neither dog required crating. I actually used Star a couple of times to help catch one of the other resort visitors' little dog--it liked to run away from people but not from other dogs.

On Tuesday I'm going to go to a seminar on canine search and rescue, to find out whether Star might be at all suitable for SAR training. She loves to smell every little thing on our walks.

I just missed Intro to Agility classes at the Travis Agility Group. I will enroll Star in the next Intro class, whenever that starts up.

I got the city to agree to put up a bulletin board at the city dog park. I think it will be a good place for dog owners to share information. I especially want to put up info about free training classes, events, and legislation. I think it will be a bit easier than telling people or handing out flyers at the park, which is what I've been doing lately.

Both dogs are itching something awful. It doesn't seem to be fleas. Star has some dandruff; she might have dry skin. I have pretty dry skin too due to the dry winter, but unlike Star, I can slather lotion all over myself. I'll give Star a hydrocortisone shampoo and see if that helps her. Dozer has known seasonal allergies. Dozer will get his cortisone shot at his annual vet visit at the end of March. That should help him a lot. I would get him a shot earlier, but he isn't supposed to get the shot very frequently, and the worst time for him is usually late spring/early summer.