My Pup’s First Halloween: training, management, and choice

I had such great plans for coordinating costumes this year. But Halloween came and went without getting that awesome family picture I envisioned. The hubs and I were both sick over the weekend, so we didn’t get to dress up as Russell and Carl from the movie Up! like I’d hoped.

I think this worked out for our dog, Hope. Originally, I wanted to paint her brown like Dug from the movie. But I settled on letting her be a barely-recognizable version of Kevin the bird. In the end, she spent two minutes in a rainbow-glitter tutu the week before Halloween while I took pics. Then on the big night, I posted this honest confession to my instagram account.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 1.40.11 PM.png

Halloween just isn’t as magical now that we’re in our thirties. I found joy the past few years by dressing up my pups in ridiculous get-ups. I even made my old dog Lucy sit outside with us as we handed out candy one year. She hated kids. Despite her wobbly knees, she’d hobble all the way up the drive way in order to get as far away as possible from the little creatures roaming our cul de sac.

After Lucy’s last – notably anxious – Halloween, I decided Hope would get to choose how she wanted to celebrate. She wasn’t a fan of that tutu, as you can see from her expression. And two seconds after I got my pics, she went right into tearing it of like a cardboard box meant for shredding.

Needless to say, I knew she had no desire to sit out front with us and hand out candy. Hope is what you would label a reactive dog. She’s not a huge fan of breaks in her routine. And her routine has never included tiny monsters running up our driveway with sticky fingers flying at her face. So, for Halloween, Hope got to Netflix-and-chill in the guest bedroom (the room furthest from the front drive) with some tasty goodies.

The hubs and I sat out front eating our to-go dinner in between tending to the kiddos. Our visitors got a chance to pet our more tolerant, kid-friendly dog “Bones.” One of the moms told me I should have fed her more.

FullSizeRender

Earlier that day, some folks asked me if I’d be seizing the opportunity to train my dog during the trick or treating shenanigans. No, thank you! Here’s why I didn’t use it as a training op: Training or teaching a dog new skills is a lot like playing a sport. You go to “practice” and learn new skills and get to try them out in scrimmages. All in preparation of the real deal on Friday night. A lot is riding on those big games.

Halloween is like the big game. It’s real life. There’s little I can control about the environment and other variables. The size, shape, sounds of the people. The distance they keep, the speed at which they move, etc. All those things impact Hope’s reactions to them. Since I haven’t spent a lot of time “practicing,” I saw no use in sending her to the big game. It was going to be too overwhelming and she’d likely end up fumbling or failing.

Funny thing is, Hope didn’t feel left out at all. When we retrieved her from the guest bedroom she was happy as a clam. She brought her Kong downstairs and proceeded to dig the end bits out while the hubs and I snuggled up for a Halloween movie. She couldn’t have been more relaxed. For the dog who barks and protests at every visitor to our door, this was a huge win!

FullSizeRender 2

So, in the case of Halloween, we didn’t train. Instead, we managed. (More in our next post about how/when we train.) What about you and your pup? How did you choose to celebrate Halloween?

Life After Death, Part 2

“How’s the puppy doing?” our friends asked eagerly. 

I felt my eyes roll in my head as I blurted out my response. “I only have lukewarm feelings about her. She’s a good puppy but she’s not amazing.”

For a moment, the table fell silent and I saw my friends jaw drop a little. “Are you serious?” She exclaimed in disbelief. 

I laughed awkwardly and glanced over at my husband, who proceeded to rescue my overshare with some normal-person commentary and promptly change the subject. But as the conversation continued, I got lost in my head for a moment. Did I really just say that out loud? What kind of a dog lover says that? I am such a terrible mother! 

The truth is that Hope, like Lucy, was a dog that on some level I didn’t really want. Lucy hadn’t even been gone long before the hubs was asking for a new pup. To be exact, it had only been three weeks. I was crying a lot; my thoughts, a never-ending rollercoaster. And every day my body felt like it had been hit by a Mack truck. My schedule was pure chaos. I was working overtime in a high-stress job and enrolled in a time-consuming dog training program. The holidays were on the horizon and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was starting to succumb to compassion fatigue. The last thing I wanted in the middle of all this was the responsibility of a shiny new puppy. 

Puppies are overrated

Puppies are a lot of work. And to me, they’ve always been overrated. As a shelter worker and rescue volunteer, I’d spent a great deal of time focusing on the animals that others overlook. I prided myself on ignoring that new puppy sheen and instead setting my sights on the ugly, old and stinky variety of dogs. Besides, I have way more in common with these less-than-perfect pups.

My husband on the other hand, a man unashamed of his taste for finer things, wanted a new puppy. To be exact, he wanted a Doberman Pinscher that would one day grow up to be as big as I am. His desire for a shiny new dog went beyond looks; it was about starting fresh. There is a certain weight to rearing the young. For better or worse, you have the power to shape a mind, a life, and all things that come from it. It’s like holding the future in your hands; a challenge and responsibility that Ryan confidently welcomes with open arms. I, however, am not so enthusiastic because I know all too well what happens when rearing the young goes terribly wrong.  

Ryan's idea of a new puppy
Ryan’s idea of a dog

I don’t have fond memories of my childhood. I never enjoy looking back. All I remember about being little is feeling trapped and terrified. Every. Single. Day. I’ve come a long way from those formative years, but I still bear the scars of my past. What I’ve learned from twelve years of working with homeless animals is that people aren’t the only creatures susceptible to the scars of wrong-rearing. Having spent my adult years helping society’s throwaways, it’s hard for me to get excited about the period of life that I’ve seen go terribly wrong too many times. There’s too much at stake during those formative years, and I’d much rather adopt an older dog, scars and all. 

Pointing fingers

I was at my first Victoria Stilwell Academy (VSA) intensive when my perspective shifted drastically. Victoria was lecturing on new research in dog cognition when she started pointing her finger. Did you know that dogs are the only other species that are born knowing how to follow a pointing human finger?, she teased, her English accent adding to the suspense. She went on to explain that not even apes know how to follow a human point. Apes can be taught, but puppies are born already knowing it. 

In my mind, I traveled back to the Texas sanctuary where I’d befriended some rescued chimpanzees. Their eerily human-like mannerisms and tendencies had left quite an impression on me. Being so close to them, it was hard not to feel like they were somehow familiar. To think now that they could be so similar and yet not as close to me as a dog was unreal. Sure, I might have more in common with a chimp, but science has proven that dogs and I were meant to communicate. 

During the break after this lesson, I stumbled across the little nugget that would end up coming home with me. As I walked up to her kennel, she paused from wrestling with another puppy to look up at my face. I smiled and watched as she looked down to my feet and then to the floor; her little brow furrowed as though deep in thought. Suddenly, her bottom dropped to the floor and she lifted her gaze to meet mine again.

Clearly, this dog had been trained by someone. What intrigued me wasn’t that she chose to sit without being asked (dog trainers call that an automatic sit) but the thought that went into the decision. It was as though she was working out a puzzle of some sort. I sat down in front of her and started to point my finger in different directions. Sure enough, the nugget’s expressive gaze followed where I pointed. I. Was. Tickled. 

Raising Hope

It turns out that raising a puppy can be exactly what Ryan hoped it would be: thrilling, invigorating, a gift. It was also a welcome distraction from my grief over losing Lucy. There was no time to wallow in my guilt or give ear to the “should haves” running through my head; I had a puppy to raise.  This time around I drew on methods I was learning from VSA and the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior.

I used positive reinforcement and relied on food’s intrinsically rewarding powers to help the puppy understand the world she’d been dropped into. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, all our training sessions were turning us into partners – the kind of friends that know exactly what each other is thinking just by the way one tilts their head or raises an eyebrow. Even though I still missed Lucy deeply, and often times found myself looking for her in the next room, Hope was carving out her own place in my heart.

Grief is a storm, dog is a lighthouse

Is there a right way to grieve? I don’t really know. What I do know is that Hope’s presence gave me a safe space to feel intense and uncomfortable emotions that I didn’t have the courage to face otherwise. In the time between Lucy and Hope, I sobbed a lot. I bawled when I woke up, as I brushed my teeth, and on my drive to work. After bringing Hope home, I put a stop to all that. There were things to get done and no time for tears.

Instead of feeling, I started stuffing down my emotions, until I was angry most the time. One day I came home from work and plopped on the couch exhausted. I had barely acknowledged her when Hope climbed up into my lap, claiming her napping place on my stomach. She did this so intentionally. It practically melted the tears out of me. As the floodgates opened, I realized Hope was providing a lighthouse in the storm of a grief I did not know how to bear. 

IMG_8797

Second chances

I say Hope was aptly named because well, she gave me hope. Renewed hope in something I’d lost. Something I thought I might not get back again. There were times after I first brought the nugget home that I resented her a little. She was so innocent, so full of life, so carefree. It was a reminder that not everyone is that lucky and life isn’t fair. But as her sparkle and energy rubbed off on me I realized that Hope was giving me a second chance to get it right.

With a shiny new puppy, the slate was wiped clean and I could set myself up – as any clever dog trainer would – to be the bearer of all things amazing in her world. With Lucy, my track record of leash jerks, choke chains, squirt bottles and alpha rolls (the hallmarks of my early training style) had taught her that inside of me lurked an unpredictable monster. I know now that I gave her very clear reasons to fear. But with Hope, I had a chance to change my actions and reactions so that she had more reasons to trust me than fear me. 

The thing with second chances is that I’m still human and perfection just isn’t real. Although I have put a lot of effort into remaining patient and calm when the nugget gets on my last nerve, there have been a couple of times that I slipped up and started telling her off before I realized what a complete ass I was being. As a perfectionist, these slip ups remind me that I’ll always suck at pet parenting. But as I said before, perfection isn’t real. Real life involves mistakes – big ones, little ones, stupid ones, catastrophic ones. What I’ve found in all my latest erring is that mistakes teach us about forgiveness. You can’t live a good life without learning how to forgive and be forgiven. 

Dogs may not have the same reasoning capacity as we do, but living with them involves a lot of forgiveness from both sides. The Jean Donaldson in my head tells me that it’s probably less likely that my dog is practicing forgiveness when she looks up at me eagerly after one of my mistakes, and more likely that her ability to live in the moment and bounce back from stressful situations is what makes her eager to look to me again. Either way, living with Hope is teaching me that life isn’t about getting it right all the time. It’s about trying your best, asking for forgiveness and forgiving yourself when you get it wrong, and sincerely trying to do better the next time around. 

Hope can’t bring back my dead dog and she certainly can’t replace her. What Hope has brought is a second chance. She gives me second chances all the time. When I know better but still act like a jerk, she’s still there eagerly awaiting my next move. When I think I’m communicating clearly but am actually confusing the hell out of her, she’s still there trying to connect with this silly monkey. And when I fail to set her up to succeed, she doesn’t hold it against me. Her forgiveness is beyond my comprehension, but it inspires me every day. 

As it turns out, Hope is pretty amazing. Like Lucy, she is one very good dog. And good dogs inspire us to live well and do good unto others. Even after they’re gone. 

IMG_0481

Life After Death, Part 1

Version 2

Last October, Lucy died.

To the world, Lucy was just a dog. To me, Lucy was my world. Before you go writing me off as another crazy dog lady, I can admit that Lucy wasn’t my entire world. She was, however, an important piece of the puzzle that gave my life stability and forward motion.

The irony of those words is that Lucy was the dog I swore I would never adopt. She was a rambunctious, disobedient, house-soiling foster dog. A misfit. A problem child. But after a few months, her mischief had grown on me and I adopted her. It wasn’t that I felt a strong connection with her at the time. It was more that I felt I “knew better” and any other adopter wouldn’t be able to handle what this dog dished out.

Over the next eight years, Lucy and I connected. More than that, she became a permanent fixture in my life. So much so that when she died my mother admitted, “When I think of you, I think of Lucy, not your husband or anything else. You and Lucy, you’re a part of each other.” Indeed, Lucy had become an extension of myself. And now she was gone.

Bracing for goodbye

The last three years of Lucy’s life were spent trying to keep her walking. We tried every remedy out there as arthritis slowly wore away at her joints. Her silent killer was the plain, old generic variety of arthritis. It was happily tamed by NSAIDs, but the NSAIDs were no match for Lucy’s frail system. Instead, she was prescribed a cocktail of supplements and pain relievers to keep her comfortable, and she kept a regular schedule of walking on the water treadmill and cold laser therapy to keep her moving. But I eventually came to find that “arthritis always wins in the end.”

IMG_8944

For three years, I quietly prepared myself for the reality that this appendage I called “my dog” was one day going to die. I had come to the realization that telling myself over and over again, “I don’t know what I’ll do when she dies,” was foolish planning. And I am a planner. So, instead of setting myself up for desperation, I made an effort to shift my perspective and accept that one day Lucy wouldn’t be here anymore.

Despite all my all my efforts at mentally preparing for her death, when the time came I simply wasn’t ready to let her go. For weeks, as she declined I agonized over when “the right time” would be. Once her legs finally gave out and she could no longer lift herself into a stand, I couldn’t agonize anymore; the time was now. We arranged for our vet to meet us at our house. And as Lucy drew her final breaths, I felt the earth shift under my feet.

More than “just a dog”

When I first met Lucy I thought she was a train wreck and impossible to fall in love with. Over the years though, that’s exactly what happened. Like any relationship, our bond was made stronger through shared experiences, but also through the understanding that only time can cultivate. She spent the better part of my twenties watching me grow up. And as I got my life together, I grew to understand her better as a dog.

By the time she passed, Lucy had seen me through the worst of times. There were periods when she was the only constant thing in my life. She was the one I could count on to still be at my side after the dust settled. This crazy, neurotic dog needed me; a fact that shaped my everyday. In my darkest moments, she alone was the reason I knew I had to “hang in there.” In my brightest moments, she reminded me, like any good dog does, how to live in the moment gloriously.

Lucy Me 5 KISSBLOG

Only in her old age did I start to realize all the mistakes I had made as a dog mom. I was taking dog training seriously, reading up on current research and science-based methods for teaching dogs new tricks. What I learned contrasted sharply with the harsh methods of traditional training, which had shaped the beginnings of our relationship. The more I learned, the more I desperately wanted more time with Lucy. More time to make up for all the horrible mistakes I had made with her.

But I’m sad to say that her final moments weren’t what I wanted them to be. She was the same fearful dog I adopted, if not more fearful thanks to my early heavy-handedness. Though we made Lucy’s passing as peaceful as possible, I knew that I had failed her in so many ways.

Grieving

When Lucy died I was careful about with whom and how I shared my grief. Grief over a dog is still stigmatized. And if life only pauses when we lose close human family members, it barely blinked when I lost my dog. I put my head down and went back to my everyday. But inside I felt wrecked and lost. I didn’t have any one I could work through that with. Even my husband, for all his trying, can’t understand why Lucy’s passing took such a toll on me.

The closest I came to sharing my grief happened months later. I was driving back from a long day of learning with two classmates from the Victoria Stilwell Academy when one of them said something that shook me at my core. We were talking about why we want to be dog trainers and she said something along the lines of “all we can do is pay it forward for all they’ve given us.” She didn’t realize it at the time but that was the life raft I needed to stay afloat when the Lucy floodgates opened.

Lucy’s death left me feeling angry and ashamed for all I didn’t know when I first adopted her; for the ways I had failed to build her confidence, even though I thought I was “curing” her disobedience. After all, caring for Lucy had become an intricate part of my purpose in life. As ridiculous as that may sound to some, it was the thing that lifted me out of dark holes and turned me back onto right paths. So, realizing in the end that I had failed was devastating. And with her gone there was no way of undoing what I had done wrong.

But Anne’s words gave me a spark of hope that had been clouded by my grief. All I can do is pay it forward. Lucy is gone and I can never repay her. But I can pay forward everything she did for me. Pay it forward. Everything dogs have done for me. I don’t think you have to be a dog person to understand what I’m saying here. If a dog has ever warmed your heart, made you laugh or licked tears off your face, you know what I’m talking about.

Life goes on

The hope of paying it forward wasn’t given to me until several months after Lucy left. What did come quickly was the addition of a puppy to my life. Aptly named, Hope was a dog I didn’t really want. When Lucy died I told my husband we would not be adopting a dog for at least six months. I don’t know where I came up with that arbitrary timeline but I do know why I didn’t want a dog. Another dog would be overshadowed by the loss I felt. Another dog would never be as good as Lucy. And I could never love another dog as much as I loved Lucy.

But three weeks after Lucy died my husband admitted to me that he was eager to adopt a puppy. Maybe I wasn’t as good at hiding my grief as I thought. Our home and our lives were too sad and boring, he said. He thought a puppy would liven things up. [Now, I can already hear the activists clamoring about “wrong reasons” to adopt a dog. But let’s lay our judgments aside for the sake of a story here.] I couldn’t disagree; a puppy would indeed liven things up. A puppy would also keep me busy. And if I kept busy, then the Lucy floodgates stayed closed.

That’s when I stumbled across a little black and tan nugget sitting in a kennel at the Georgia SPCA. I was at my first Victoria Stilwell Academy intensive learning more about dog cognition and positive training methods. My brain was lighting up in all sorts of exciting ways, and I’m willing to bet this was part of the reason I opened up to the idea of a puppy. At the end of each day of training, I visited the puppy. I played games with her, snuggled her, facetimed my husband with her. After much mulling, we decided to adopt the little nugget.

IMG_7801

As I loaded her up in my truck for the drive home, I remember thinking “here goes nothing.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m too much of a planner to just wing anything. I had already planned our schedules, instructed the hubs on how to set up the house, and gone on a supply shopping spree. But in my mind, I was still a little unsure about the timing of this puppy. I still missed my dog so much. The kind of longing that makes your chest throb. And I just wasn’t sure there was room in my heart for a shiny new puppy.

After all, this puppy was nothing like Lucy. I met Lucy after her formative years and although I wasn’t sure what had happened to her, there were hints that she had been through some rough times. Add in my early heavy-handed, alpha-dog “training” style and this dog undoubtedly experienced trauma. That was something Lucy and I had in common, we were both survivors of trauma. Surely, this shiny new puppy knew nothing of the dread, pain and desperation that Lucy and I had been subjected to. Shiny new puppies are innocent, fearless and stinkin’ adorable. Shiny new puppies and I have nothing in common.

But if nothing else, I had a new mission. Never repeat any of the mistakes I made with Lucy. Looking back, I suppose it was more of an un-mission. It took time for that un-mission to morph into something greater. In the meantime, I filled shiny new puppy’s life with all the things Lucy deserved but didn’t get enough of: a predictable schedule, positive reinforcement, puppy play dates, and a house full of enrichment. In all I was trying to give her, little did I realize what the shiny new puppy was giving me back in return.

To be continued…Don’t miss our next post where we share how things turned out with the shiny new puppy! Here’s a hint: Lucy’s legacy lives on.