When we adopted Tajji, she was just under 10 years old. The life expectancy for her breed, German Shepherd Dog, is 9 to 12 years, although we’ve known dogs that made it to 13 or 14. Fifteen would be a far outlier. Our last GSD, Oka, made it to 12 ½, the last half year under treatment for lymphoma. We agonized over that treatment, since he was otherwise healthy and there was a good chance it would buy him another year of life. He tolerated the chemo well, as dogs often do, and until about 48 hours before he died (from leukemia, which lymphoma sometimes turns into), he was romping with his favorite blue horse ball. The thing is, we didn’t have pet insurance for him, and of course once he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma, that made it a pre-existing condition, which made it impossible. Our budget, already shaky, took a major hit.
Fast forward now to Tajji. Healthy, strongly built…but geriatric. Could we even get insurance for her and if we could, would it break the bank? After some looking we found a company* that allowed us to choose the deductible and percentage covered. I think there was an extra package that covered maintenance care, vaccinations, and the like, but what we wanted was catastrophic coverage. We’d gone the route of hoping for the best and then having to deal with a financial as well as a medical emergency. Now we made the assumption that in the few years we’d have Tajji something would go wrong.
This happened sooner than we imagined. ( Read more... )
When Tajji came to live with us, she was not accustomed to cats, although we suspect she had been exposed to them in her pre-training foster home. Our two dog-savvy cats, black male Shakir and brown-tabby-and-white Gayatri, patiently taught her “cat manners.” She in turn taught them fun games. Shakir in particular will invite play with her and the two of them romp about the house. Tajji will gently place a paw on Shakir’s back and he must not mind terribly, because he never hisses or lays his ears back. We haven’t found them curled up together yet, but they often sleep within inches of each other. On the few occasions that Gayatri has escaped the house, Tajji has happily “herded” her back. (Since our neighborhood is also home to coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion, we keep our cats indoors.)( Read more... )
One source of stress for Tajji was the entrance of human visitors into our yard. We put up a sign on the back gate, asking folks to ring the hanging bell or call us so that we could settle Tajji in her crate before letting them in. After some practice, Tajji became comfortable just being in the house. Recently, we have found her sitting inside the gate when a friend (or sometimes she’s never met) comes to call, politely waiting to be introduced. Her greeting skills have improved, too. Since she knows “touch,” we ask the visitor to hold one hand at their side, palm out. We tell Tajji, “Touch,” and the moment she does, we call her back for a treat. She now understands that it is not okay to jump on people, although if she gets excited, she will jump sideways in front of them.
By far, Tajji’s biggest challenge remains other dogs. After a break of about a month from her “reactive rover” practice sessions, we expected some backsliding when exposed to a strange dog in the class setting. Our teacher paired her with a fairly relaxed young female Golden Retriever, who had a short threshold for dog reactivity. She placed the Golden outside a round wire pen used for agility training, and Tajji outside on the opposite side. At first, they walked parallel to one another, then one would stay still while the other moved, since movement increases reactivity, and gradually the distance was lessened. Somewhat to our surprise, Tajji sailed through the session without a single bark. In fact, when it was her turn to remain still, she lay down with her back to the Golden, a sign of relaxation. Clearly, she has continued to process and integrate the training of other dogs = good things, no danger.
Tajji has had particular difficulty with small dogs. One day, while Dave was walking her, a small terrier mix got free from its yard and charged her, yapping away. Tajji went into bark/lunge arousal. Since we know she has excellent bite inhibition, he dropped the leash; dogs who are restrained — on a leash or, worse yet, tied up — are much more reactive than dogs who are free to take care of themselves. Tajji rushed up to the terrier who turned tail for home. When called, Tajji returned to Dave with a big happy doggie-grin and much less arousal. In fact, she has been less excited by small dogs ever since.
We have worked with Tajji on recall (coming when called) since we’ve had her. We did this using highest-value treats (like freeze dried liver or lamb lungs) and settings when there were no overwhelming distractions, until she was solid. By solid, I mean that within a second or two, she runs full speed back to us. Most of the time, she will come to a sit right in front of us. This training was put to a test a couple of weeks ago when we tried her out on deer. Deer are a perennial pest to all gardeners, of course, but the drought has driven them down from the hills in search of water. The mountain lions follow the deer (and one has been seen near the elementary school, so this is not a good thing). A small herd of deer hang out in the meadow adjacent to our property and they have gotten very bold. Noticing three of them, I waved my arms and yelled, “Shoo!” but they just stared at me. As an experiment, we let Tajji off leash. It took her a moment to focus on the deer as she does not have the high prey drive of most German Shepherd Dogs, high prey drive not being desirable in a guide dog. She lunged, the deer took off, and she got the idea. She chased them out of the meadow at a full-out run. Just as they were heading up the hill on the other side of the street, Dave called Tajji. She whirled around and raced back to him, tail wagging. The deer may be a good game, but making her people happy is even better.
First, the rubdown. There is no need for this from the dog’s perspective. German Shepherd Dogs have double coats: an outer coat of long hairs that form a water-repellant layer, and an inner coat of soft, fluffy fur. (When bathing the dog, it takes forever to wet the inner coat and even longer to rinse it and even longer to dry it. Fortunately, GSDs “blow their coats” – explosively shed the under layer – twice a year, so there’s no need to bathe them often.) So the dog’s skin is dry and warm while the outer coat gets covered with drops of water. Tajji sees no reason why she must be massaged with a towel, but she enjoys it anyway. Then comes the belly and inner sides of her legs, also fine. Then lower legs and paws.
( Read more... )
Our promise to her was that she would never have to work again. Guide dog work is not only stressful psychologically and physically, it amounts to sensory deprivation for the dog. A working guide dog cannot follow normal canine behavior or even respond to the richness of sensory input that a normal dog enjoys. Dogs, even “sight hounds” have keen olfactory senses, but a working dog is taught not to sniff. Imagine Tajji’s delight when we not only permitted but encouraged her to sniff while on walks! A working dog must be constantly alert (hypervigilant) for dangers to her handler, and must make rapid decisions. We let her take her time assessing a new situation, removing her as best we can when she shows signs of discomfort. (In our reactive dog class, we modify this by giving her simple, pleasurable tasks like nose targeting or eye contact to help her reduce her own anxiety level.)
Because we never ask Tajji to do seeing eye harness work (nor could we -- we do not own such a harness, and her front-clip harness of soft webbing is quite unlike the rigid one she used to work in), we do not encounter her trained behaviors very often, other than manners and basic obedience. One notable exception is that she has been taught not to move when she is lying or sitting and a person approaches. This makes sense in terms of letting the blind person know where she is (and will be in the next minute). Our other dogs have scrambled out of the way, especially at night. Tajji doesn’t budge.
One afternoon, while rushing about the house in my bare feet, I caught one of my little toes on the corner of a book case and dislocated it. (Pause of OUCHOUCHOUCH.) I realigned the toe and hopped over to grab some ice. Ice, wrapping the toe against the rest of the toes, elevation…you know the drill. I was dismayed at how painful it was to walk on. A few hours later, I encountered Tajji-on-the-floor. She stayed put, but I stumbled and jammed my toe, although against what, I’m not sure. Most likely, her body. (More OUCHOUCHOUCH.) But when I set my weight on my foot again, the pain was miraculously reduced. My guess is that the collision with Tajji had adjusted the joint back to its proper position. Now all I had to deal with was swelling and maintaining stability.
Our family joke is that Tajji deserves a chiropractic license now.
Each of the four dogs in the class (Reactive Rover, taught by Sandi Pensinger of Living With Dogs) is reactive in some way. To other dogs, to strange people, to sudden noises. Yet even dogs who are triggered by the same type of stimulus express their distress in different ways. For example, both Tajji and George are reactive to other dogs. Tajji has greatest difficulties with small dogs, while George, a solidly-built chocolate Labrador owned by an elderly woman, reacts most strongly to other large dogs. We have no history on Tajji’s problems, except for her fractured tooth, whereas George’s problems stem from a specific constellation of events – the deaths of his male owner and his female canine companion plus an attack by another large dog. Tajji has extremely good eyesight and could easily spot a small dog on the other end of the field (275 feet) while George did not appear to notice the small dog until he had advanced quite a bit closer than that.
Today’s exercise, as you can tell, involved exposure to a “decoy” – last week it was a stuffed dog, this week a well-mannered small dog. The decoy would be led out from behind a blind (a waist-high portable screen) at the far end of the field. If the student dog did not notice, its handler would take a step at a time toward the decoy, waiting after each step.( Read more... )
We felt Tajji had made progress on her walks. She’d gone from barking at pedestrians to looking at them and walking by. Although she still reacted to other dogs, even at extreme distance, we were piling up more times when she came away with us readily, sometimes with a bark or just a huff. There were even instances where she was able to look at the other dog – the old black Labrador who shuffles very slowly up and down the street and then lies down in the sun, in particular – without barking.
So when Sandi, our teacher, said to not give our dogs any opportunity to “rehearse” reactivity, we thought we were doing pretty well, anyway. The idea is that the more times the dog reacts – barking, lunging, (heaven forbid) biting, piloerection (that’s hairs standing up along the spine), etc., the more deeply that behavior gets “etched” into the dog’s brain. She compared it to a road, where each passage digs deeper and deeper ruts, ruts that become more progressively difficult to jump out of. While we are creating new, positive behaviors, we want to not give our dog the chance to “rehearse” the old ones as well.( Read more... )
We’ve been working on decreasing her reactivity and giving her alternative, highly rewarded behaviors. These have included teaching her eye contact (“Look!”), hand targeting (“Touch!”), sniffing (a self-calming activity), and puppy zen, a calming exercise. We have also been as careful as we can to remove her from any situation where she is overwhelmed.
After a time of regular practice, we noticed that when we turned and walked her briskly away from the other dog, she calmed down in a shorter period of time. We were able to turn her back around to face the other dog, rewarding her for calm behavior. One of the lessons was that we would protect her, that she could trust us to not force her into a situation she couldn’t manage. Then we started to see her attempt to calm herself, mostly by sniffing, but occasionally using the non-threatening gesture “Look Away.”
A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that Tajji’s reactivity to pedestrians was markedly reduced. Using the calming techniques that were now familiar to her, we helped her to tolerate increasingly short distances from the folks walking in our neighborhood. Eventually, she was able to do a “pass by” without becoming reactive.
But would she ever be able to do that with dogs?( Read more... )
Waiting for the ball
Our friend Mitch Wagner recently adopted a female shepherd/basenji/terrier mix that shares some of Tajji’s “issues. He writes that Minnie “lunges and goes nuts when she approaches another dog when we're walking.” One of the things we’ve learned from our trainer, Sandi Pensinger, is that this kind of excitement is not fun for dogs. Whatever their specific history, they act this way because they’re overwhelmed. They no longer can calm themselves or communicate friendly intentions to the other dog. One way to look at this is the dog attempting a “pre-emptive strike” because bad things have happened around other dogs in the past. Dogs on leashes are particularly vulnerable to feeling threatened, because their freedom to act in their own defense (or escape) is impaired. Dogs that are tied up are particularly dangerous.
Another way of thinking about this behavior is in terms of self-confidence and trust. A confident dog with good social skills with other dogs is capable of lowering the tension not only in herself but in the other dog as well. Contrary to the “alpha dog/dominance” model, dogs are highly cooperative, social animals. They communicate their feelings and intentions to one another all the time, and many of these signals are calming signals. In earlier blogs, I’ve discussed how Tajji learned to communicate her peaceful intentions to the cats once she’d found a signal they both understood – the “look-away.” Turid Rugaas’s book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals beautifully illustrates this. Here is a slide show from her book, illustrating the “look-away,” play bows, lip licking, and lying down, all powerful calming signals.
Dogs who are poorly socialized with other dogs or who have had traumatic experiences can be easily overwhelmed (“flooded” with negative stimuli), especially in situations where the other dog is approaching head-on. A direct approach is threatening, as is fixed eye contact. Our dogs need our help in reducing the degree of threat and resulting arousal. The dogs in Rugaas’s slide show aren’t “friendly” in the human sense, but they have excellent social skills and confidence in themselves.
How do we help a dog re-build her self-confidence? ( Read more... )
|In "the meadow"|
“Rulers should always avoid giving commands…for commands, being direct and verbal, always bring to the subject’s mind the possibility of doing the opposite. But since rituals are non-verbal, they have no contraries. They can therefore be used to produce harmony of wills and actions without provoking recalcitrance; if a man finds himself playing his appointed part in li [ritual] and thus already — as it were de facto — in harmony with others, it no more occurs to him than it occurs to a dancer to move to a different rhythm than that being played by the orchestra.”
Master Zhuang, 4th century BCE Daoist philosopher
That quotation was seminal in creating the anarcho-monarchical politics of the Panarchy, the interstellar polity that’s the setting of the space opera Exordium. The Panarchs and Kyriarchs all wielded theoretically unlimited power, but most of them died, or were killed, before they learn how to work the hyper-complex network of interlocking traditions, institutions, and governance that executes their will.
It’s also, I now find, a perfect encapsulation of the rather Daoist aspects of the positive dog training techniques that Deborah and I are using to rehabilitate Tajji, a process more like conversation than education, and certainly one in which learning flows both ways. Certainly, our work with Tajji is teaching me that much of dog training, if not all, is about the negotiation, establishment, and performance of rituals rather than the issuing of commands.
As Master Zhuang might have said, those who do not acknowledge the power of ritual will find themselves helpless against it, and it can be argued that this is a fundamental reason there are so many ill-trained dogs in the world: dogs that have established their rituals as the rule of life for a household.
( Read more... )
Oka, like all dogs, had a very firm notion of what was good, orderly behavior and what was not to be allowed. Dogs are strongly oriented to routine, which is one of the things makes them so trainable. They make very specific associations (leash = walkies; vet’s office = horrible things happening to doggies; “Sit!” spoken in front of the refrigerator = sit in front of the refrigerator and no place else). We monkeys like to interpret this as our dogs having fixed ideas about the Way Things Should Be.
Oka’s Rules (as interpreted by his resident monkeys) included:
- Cats shall not hiss at one another. Cats have razor blades on their feet and must not be closely approached.
- Deborah must be accompanied to and from the laundry area in the garage.
- The sole redeeming value of company is that the Evil Laser Bug comes out to play (therefore, Oka hung out in the living room, patiently watching the carpet for the first sign of the red dot.)
- The blue horse ball must be herded and barked at (see photo).
- Bodies of water deeper than a couple of inches are evil.
Today we embarked upon a courtship with a potential new dog. Tajji is a Seeing Eye Dog, a gorgeous sable German Shepherd Dog, who is now 10 years old. (GSDs typically live 9-12 years.) Seeing Eye work is physically as well as mentally demanding, so her owner is looking to retire her to all the delights of "just being a dog." Today we met her and her family (actually, Tajji's mommy plays in one of the bands in which Dave is also a member, which is how we heard about her).
Oh. My. What an amazing and wonderful dog. Dave and I have been looking at one another and wondering how we lucked out. She's got all the intelligence and intensity of a working-line GSD, coupled with sweetness of temper and focus on people. Compared to our old guy, Oka, who was quite aloof, she's outgoing and sociable with people she's just met.You'd never guess she was 10, she moves so freely.
So she'll come to stay with us in just a little bit while her owner travels abroad to places he isn't comfortable taking her, during which time he will make arrangements for a new dog. If all goes as planned, Tajji will just visit us forever.( Read more... )
While it’s tempting to think your dog acts like a human child would, dog behavior is better framed in an ethological context -- what it means for dogs in dog terms. ...
... Barnard College Associate Professor (and author of “Inside of a Dog”) Alexandra Horowitz, investigated the guilty look with the help of a clever experiment. Owners instructed their dog not to eat a treat, and then left the room. Dogs then either ate the treat or were prevented from doing so. When the owners returned, the researchers sometimes tricked them by telling them that the dog ate the treat when he had not.
The result? If owners scolded them, dogs looked guilty regardless of whether they ate the treat or not. The results were clear: the guilty look was not associated with what dogs did, but with what the owner did. ...
... And misattributing guilt to dogs could be damaging. Wrongly saying Moose’s “feeling guilty” could obscure a deeper truth: Moose doesn’t understand the rules you think you’ve put in place -- and by incorrectly believing you have a bad dog that's willfully disobedient, you’re not doing your relationship, or shoe collection, any favors. While domestication primes dogs for living with us, along with it doesn’t (unfortunately) come some genetic moral code that eating new shoes is wrong but that other good smelling thing you brought home -- a dog toy -- can be torn to pieces.
Another problem with attributing guilt is that it obscures real issues behind “bad” dog behavior. Why did your dog tear up all the toilet paper rolls? Why is that pillow now exposing its 700+ pieces of fluff? When you get angry or forgive your “guilty” dog for demolishing your house, you ignore deeper concerns that, if addressed, could reduce or eliminate those behavior problems. Was the dog bored? Scared? Anxious? Did something change in your routine that confused them? Sadly, scolding dogs after the fact most often doesn’t decrease future detrimental behavior. If anything, the “guilty look” could just become more exaggerated over time as your confused companion develops an anxious cycle of destruction and appeasement.
Maybe it is easier for people to see guilt than it is for them to come to grips with other motivators of behavior like boredom, fear, anxiety, or a dog who just doesn’t get it. The story of the guilty look might be a more comfortable narrative to tell ourselves, but often, our narratives are myths.
Think Your Dog Has A "Guilty" Look? Think Again
|Darcy at 16 weeks|
On Book View Cafe blog, my husband has been blogging about our life and adventures with Darcy, which are now coming to a close. Darcy will be returning to his breeder, who will find him an owner capable of training him to his full potential.
Despite all our care and knowledge about dogs, our age (both of us in our mid-60s) and other competing demands on our energy made it increasingly difficult to give Darcy the training and attention that an smart, intense, high-drive dog needs. This was especially true since at 4 months, Darcy is entering adolescence and testosterone is upping the intensity. Even so, we have given him a foundation of house manners, basic commands (sit/down/come/leave-it/loose-leash walking) and excellent socialization with other dogs. He plays happily with the neighbor's two Labradors, who are big enough to enjoy the kind of rough and tumble that so often characterizes German Shepherd Dogs. At his breeder's, he'll have a chance to play with his sister until he goes to a new home. He's a confident, outgoing dog.
What brings our "temporary parenthood" to a close is a larger, human drama. Today I will be leaving for another state to help care for my dear friend and her family in the final weeks or months of her life. I posted pictures of us a few days back. She's asked me to be present when she dies. I feel honored and humbled by the request. One of the hard realities is that Dave, my husband, cannot manage Darcy alone. So life changes act like dominoes, one cascading into another. Life gets shaken up, fractured into pieces we sometimes don't even recognize. The shapes and colors are foreign, and yet as they settle into their new configuration, they find a harmony there as well. We know, intuitively if not in so many words, that change has brought us everything we love, but that all those things are ours "on loan." We are stewards, not owners. Of land, of animals, of the hearts of those we love and who love us. When these things pass from us, we honor them with our grief.
Darcy goes to the prospect of a full and happy life, doing work he and his ancestors were bred for. I go to offer myself to help ease my friend's passage, to fill her days with the joys of a long friendship, to care for her family. Dave has farewells and awakenings of his own. Our journeys are not identical, nor should they be. He will hold the space for me to return, my anchor, just as I do for him.
Lesson for today: Don't wait to tell the people you love how you feel.
Initially, I thought it would be cool to name him for one of the minor elvish characters from The Lord of the Rings, but found none that began with D that were at all possible. (Denethor? I would not inflict that on a dog!) So we got out ye olde baby names booke, and there was Darcy. He'll be tall, dark, and handsome, with a bit of white lace at his throat and gold dust on his paws.
Jane Austen triumphs over J. R. R. Tolkien!
For a bit, we were quite happy with the two names, and then Rose and Marcie came over with their two godchildren (to play with the puppy, of course!) And Marcie went, "Oh, Lord Darcy!"
That clinched it. Jane Austen and Randall Garrett!
And of course he's young enough -- just 9 weeks -- so he hasn't even figured out that he has a name. We still slip and an occasional "Casey" slips out (just like we sometimes find ourselves saying "Oka" when we mean "the dog") but we will slowly train ourselves.