Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Learning Styles

My obsession of late with respect to the dog training services I provide is taxing my brain. I'm always trying to figure out how best to communicate to clients, either in a private in home or group setting, the correct information about how dogs learn. Getting clients to understand is paramount.

If you don't have a solid foundation for your house, it will collapse in an earthquake; if you don't have a solid foundation in understanding how dogs really tick, your dog in particular, you're going to accept disappointment and possibly the canine equivalent of an earthquake or tsunami.

Other than using that disappointment to rake in profits by writing best sellers like MARLEY AND ME (I could neither finish the book or the movie btw, which is very uncharacteristic of me), I want people to develop increased desire in increasing accountability of their dog's behavior by taking a greater role in the process.

I think the key begins with understanding learning styles. People often know their own learning style or can tell me what their best learning style is when I tell them their choices; if I ask them what their dog's learning style is they look at me with a blank look.

Having worked with thousands of dogs, including my own pack of shifting canines since very very young, I have developed by observation and working the dog, briefly, what the dog's learning style is. And I see that regardless of age, breed, temperament, gender or any other variables, that the learning style in a dog is the learning style in a dog -- it doesn't change.

So here are the three I have discovered:

1. Learns something new very quickly but can't sustain it without lots of reinforcement, i.e., learns sit but gets right back up. (MOST COMMON IN MY EXPERIENCE).

2. Learns beginning and end of a behavior but has trouble with the middle, i.e., can sit and stay but wiggles in a sit position) (LEAST COMMON BUT NOTED FREQUENTLY ENOUGH)

3. Has a heck of a time just taking in the information to learn the very beginning of a behavior but with patience, eventually gets it (MOST CHALLENGING BUT MOST SATISFYING FROM THIS TRAINER'S PERSPECTIVE).

Once you figure out your own dog's learning style and you can commit to a positive approach to training, the unruly adolescent can be tamed into the amazing, intelligent animal you never even knew you had!

Here's a little clip of a brilliant dog, Nina, who because she was misunderstood, initially presented as a monstrously unruly, defiant, and at times, scary dog. Polishing off the rough in a single session revealed the diamond that she really is. Hopefully her people are continuing the journey. Here she demonstrates how she learned a simple command that is complicated to teach (not really, you just have to really understand clicker training and have good timing and patience) but was done in under a minute once she stopped reacting and started thinking:

Can you tell what Nina's learning style is?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trip nostalgia trip

Lily's recent death at age 10 paralleled the entire first decade of the 21st century. She came into my life on January 2, 2000 and she left it 10 days ago almost exactly ten years later on January 10, 2010. I've recently rediscovered a box of old video tapes including a lot of footage of my children when young and, of course, my dogs past and present were well represented, sometimes to the exclusion of the kids!

The process of video preservation -- transferring the tapes to the hard drive of a computer and then editing the footage into interesting little movies for both personal and professional use is an exciting but nevertheless daunting proposition.

My tech savvy teenage daughter figured out how to configure the appropriate cords to show the videotape on the living room TV and last night the girls and I (along with the dogs and cats) watched one tape dating back to Fall 2001. Much of the cassette was when my now 8 + year old Trip was a puppy -- including the day I took my girls (then ages 2 1/2, almost 5 and 8 1/2) to meet Trip and his whole litter. What I hadn't counted on was how excited Trip was to see his family on TV.

Trip has really been the only dog I've lived with who really loves TV. Especially if there is some animal related show on (I watch a lot of them). He gets really giddy when it's about dogs. I can only imagine how very giddy he was watching his very small and young former ungray self and his siblings and his birth mother.

This is just a small snippet I just had to take to show his excitement and how it transferred down to the cats (who normally take no interest in TV). Stay tuned for more!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

The cost benefit analysis of bringing animals into your life can vary for person to person.

There are of course the financial expenses -- cost of animal, medical care, food and treats, chewies, toys, equipment, grooming, boarding, training, dog walking, day care, and possibly the loss or replacement of valuables your dog destroys during phases of development. Certainly those in the animal welfare world are well aware of the current economic crisis having a very high toll on the loss of animals of their home simply because of financial issues.

Then there is the more important cost of getting emotionally involved in the animals you take on responsibility for and the knowledge that there is a very high likelihood that you will outlive an animal and the grief that follows, often misunderstood or dismissed by other people in your life.

Four weeks ago today I learned Lily had an advanced case of hemangiosarcoma. Based on her radiograph and blood tests, I was told she would not last long. Kindly I was told by my vet he would be surprised if she lived a month.

I have gone through the stages of grief during this past month of hospice culminating in Lily's death Sunday night at 9:20 pm. She was one day shy of his month prediction. I consider this last month a real gift. I had an opportunity to spend quality time with her and to savor her on those days she felt well. Just being quietly near her on the more difficult days seemed to comfort her. Her pattern seemed to be a few good days (good appetite, spring in her step, her general joie) followed by one or two not so great days (no appetite, vomiting, lethargy, trouble breathing).

Friday was a very good day. Lily had a sudden surge of energy and seemed almost puppy-like in her enthusiasm and indicated desire to go for a drive even though it was freezing cold and snowy. I was thrilled that something I had already let go of just a week or so ago could be revisited -- at least one more time.

Off we went to visit my father, her "grandpa". She was solicitous of affection and was her old, sweet, usual self. No obvious signs of distress, heavy breathing or a dulled affect. She was downright perky!
I watched in awe but had in the back of my head the end of care guide, specifically the section in which it was written:

Surge of Energy
Occasionally, when someone is close to death, he has a temporary increase in energy and alertness. He may become talkative after a period of disorientation or sleepiness. He may ask for a favorite food after having refused meals and he may ask for visitors after a period of withdrawal. Take advantage of this time; it can be one of special closeness and a chance to express your love and support.
She remained pretty chipper the rest of Friday and had a great appetite.

Saturday was not a great day, but not a horrid one. Aside from a few potty breaks in the cold and snow, Lily mostly slept. But early evening she began to get up and instead collapsed, unable to get up. I helped get her on a dog bed and dragged her into the the living room. She rested there the rest of the evening.

My daughter Callie and I made a nest of cushions and warm blankets next to Lily on her bed

and along with all the other animals -- Bean, Trip, Grace, Lola and Byrne -- spent the night with her on the floor. I knew she would never go upstairs again. I cried myself to sleep, quietly, so as not to stress out Callie who was herself already openly grieving for a dog she had known from her earliest memories.

Lily remained unable to get up in the morning, and it had been nearly 18 hours since she had last gone out for a potty break. I put a towel under her hindquarters on the bed in case she lost control of her bladder or bowels.

At noon, as I was getting ready to take one daughter to begin a bus journey for a 3 day field trip for school and pick up another who had been at a sleepover birthday party, I went in to check on Lily and she was gone! Not one of us had noticed that she had gotten up and returned to her crate next to the radiator.

I was able to roust her long enough to get her outside one last time. On wobbly legs she made a successful potty break and came back in. Back to her warm crate and rest.

Throughout the rest of the day she rested. She refused food, drank some water. Visitors to the house included grandpa again as well as my sister in law and 5 1/2 month old nephew.
Lily rested through it all.

Shortly after 9, guests long gone, I went to try to roust her for one last evening potty break. My two younger girls were nearby. I helped her up and out of the crate. Lily let out a very sharp, loud scream. It had a guttural, primal sound, and it shook me to my core. Her ears, usually flopped over softly, stood straight up in a way I had never seen before. I called Callie to grab the dog bed from the other room and together we helped get her fully back on the bed. Lily screamed another singular wail, sank into the bed and died.

The girls and I sat on the floor in the dark room surrounding her. We stroked and petted her. Bathing her in our tears we told her how much we had loved her. I thanked my sobbing girls for being such great friends to Lily. I also told them it was such a gift that she had allowed us to be with her at the end, and it was a gift for her that we could be there, stroking, loving and generally doing everything we could to help her onto her journey to the Rainbow Bridge.

The flipside of grief is humor. We sat there for a very long time as Lily's body began to further shut down. I had been around enough dying dogs to know that she was already gone in spirit; now it was her body turning off the rest of the lights in the house.

The other two dogs and cats came by to sniff and regard the body. Each addressed her differently, and the girls asked a lot of questions about the surviving animals' take on her death. It was one of those parenting moments you dread and savor all at the same time -- an opportunity to share the experience of the death of a loved one is a bittersweet time. I told the girls I couldn't begin to know what animals think, I can only observe. To my mind, all were exhibiting more or less respectful behavior.

Finally Trip came over to sit on my lap as I sat on the floor and make what Sophie calls his Old Man noises. I began a dialogue.

Me: "Just because you are now the oldest animal does not automatically make you royalty."
Trip: "grrrr moan, moan grrr, moan moan whimper moan grrr."
Me: "I don't care how much you think the crown will look good on your head. Passing of the crown has to go to the animal amongst the remaining pack who exhibits the greatest leadership while maintaining dignity. I think we can all agree that Bean, loving as he is, does not convey the greatest attributes of royalty. And Lola and Grace just can't be bothered.

And frankly, although you are smart, funny and certainly have seniority age wise, I just don't think you have the sobriety needed to rule fairly. You're too happy happy joy joy all the time, and it doesn't help that you get too overstimulated in that terrier way."
Trip: "grrrrr...moan, grr, grr, moan, whimper, grrrrr, moooaaaannnnn."
Me: "I know, sometimes the truth hurts. But I have to know the passing of the crown goes to the one who deserves it."

The girls and I realized that of the remaining 5 animals, Byrne, although still young and very much a punk much of the time, has the greatest leadership qualities.
But until the crown can fit snugly over his adolescent ego, we shall carry on during the interregnum.

We'll all need some time to adjust. Lily's death has left a huge hole in our hearts and hearth.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

When to Euthanize

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) announced last month that January 2010 would be The First Annual National Train Your Dog Month.

You know how some people don't like to stop to ask for directions? The result can lead to taking a very long time to get to the destination, getting hopelessly lost or worse, getting into an accident. So it is with raising a dog well. Not many people realize that there are very simple things to learn and practice that will help shape a puppy from the beginning or rewire an unruly adolescent or adult dog into a well behaved and adoring companion animal. Note I said simple, not easy.

Lack of simple and consistent training ends up becoming a death sentence for many very wonderful dogs (and cats and other pets). The adorable puppy crawling out of the box on Christmas morning isn't so adorable after a few weeks or months of NORMAL DOG BEHAVIOR you decide you don't like. Pup hasn't learned where to consistently pee or poop because no one taught her. He's destroying property because no one is managing him or giving him appropriate chewies each and every time. She is jumping up on owners or guests; he is pulling on the leash and maybe even barking and lunging at strangers/other dogs/anything it sees. Perhaps the dog is running off and at risk for being hit by a car or lost or injuring someone or something.

Fed up with behaviors that aren't cute anymore or new ones that are overbearing, owners give up on the dog and, because the owner can, the dog ends up in a shelter or rescue group or almost incomprehensibly, just dumped. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: Lily was herself a rescue -- she and several litter mates were serendipitously found by a passerby who heard them whimpering -- they had been dumped in a box in the woods in late December to freeze to death. My rescue cat Grace was from a litter thrown in a dumpster in the back of a vet hospital where I used to teach -- she was the only kitten in her litter to survive. How? She managed to escape the dumpster and find me in the parking lot . From day one this feline exudes a cerebral calm and cunning that makes her such a survivor.]

According to the Humane Society of the United States, between six and eight million dogs and cats are turned in to animal shelters each year, and about four million are euthanized for lack of good homes. These are often healthy, nice and potentially amazing pets whose only crime was owner impulsivity, ignorance and irresponsibility. Check out their video.
My own dilemma regarding euthanasia has to do with the flip side of that coin.
At what point does one make the decision for a beloved and cherished dog in their care that euthanasia is indicated? A dog you really don't want to lose but are coming to accept you will lose. Now at 3. 5 weeks post diagnosis and thus at the tail end of the time frame guesstimated on Diagnosis Day, I called in to Lily's medical doctor, Dr. James Preuter of Shaker Animal Clinic.

I've known Dr. Preuter for years but never had the need to have one of those emotional conversations revolving around the painful topic of death and dying: "When do I know when it's time and when and if that time comes, what will I do?" I was very grateful for his gentle tone and willingness to discuss options available even though I knew he was in the middle of a hectic work day.

I was most heartened that he was willing, should I need it, to provide a house call to euthanize her in her familiar environments. I also probed him in detail about what the actual cause of death might be and what it might look like if she went on her own. I was heartened that although gruesome sounding to a lay person, her probable cause would be bleeding out in whatever internal organ was "winning" the hemangiosarcoma tumor war. Since the cancer wouldn't spread to her bones, he indicated her continued deterioration shouldn't be painful. She might be walking about and just drop dead suddenly and relatively painlessly, or, in best case scenario, she would simply fall asleep and die peacefully sleeping.

Since a good 90% of Lily's time is spent resting/sleeping and I'm making an effort to minimize her excitement/arousal level since that causes breathing trauma, I'd like to think that she is savoring the end process because I have worked it out to remain near her much of the time. She seems to take great comfort in me being near her, which is really the greatest gift she could give me. Thank goodness for slow periods like endless snow of January!

Lily is proof positive that one person's trash is another's treasure. And treasure her I have. And do. And hope to for many more days to come.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

The ceaseless snow here in my neck of the woods since 2010 rang in 5 days ago is absurd. Thirteen years ago today it was very cold and snowy. Thirteen years ago yesterday, it was balmy and unseasonably warm for January in Cleveland. This is unlike yesterday's weather, in that it was snowy and cold and, did I mention snowy?
How do I know these facts? No, I'm not an idiot savant or weather freak. I just remember that it was 13 years ago today I came home from the hospital having given birth to my second daughter, Callie. The day after she was born we got to know each other a little bit but I couldn't take her outside yet even though there was a freak warm day to savor.

Nostalgia snap!!!

It's official. Now I'm living with TWO teenage daughters. TWO! Very smart ones to boot. I'm outnumbered. And Lily, my stalwart friend, their loyal queen and my right hand bitch for the entire first decade of this 21st century, is now three weeks and one day post diagnosis. She is fading slowly but surely. Hospice care continues. She is mostly resting now, inbetween going out for potty breaks, which fortunately she can still do. She continues to take the medication Theophylline which helps her breath easier and seems to calm her when she gets a gak reaction or loses balance or, as what happened a few days ago, lost control of her hind quarters for about a minute. But mostly the hospice care is just being around. Being a consistent benevolent leader and finding ways to maximize my time at home and briefly, outside with her.

Things I have let go of in the past 2 weeks:

1. Lily will not be able to go on any more walks out and about in the planet. But we had a lot of them. Mostly they were great and I just loved watching her run -- she always reminded me of a young filly when she really let it go. Now I'm just grateful she can still walk up and down the stairs to go both outside and upstairs in my house.

2. No more car rides. Something she really loved, especially the past few months, before I even knew she was ill. And I promised myself if it should come to having to euthanize her, I would figure out how to have it down in my home, not at a vet hospital. So, no more car rides. A bittersweet loss.

But there are many things she still can do and do well. She even hauls up out of her warm crate to greet the kids when they get home from school. I bet she's wishing (like they are) that we get a snow day from all this precipitation.

So my non teenager is off taking a driveway shoveling shift and Trip joins her. A reminder that death is not so much a reason to be sad, but a way to celebrate a life that was and to remember to cherish the life that remains.