Category Archives: Layla

Happy Gotcha Day, Layla!

IMG_1041Seven years ago yesterday, I adopted Layla. Since then, she has been my friend, my muse, my inspiration, and my confidant. She has pushed me to tears and made me laugh so hard it hurt. She moved across the country and back with me. I love her so much it hurts. The light in her eyes makes me happy. The journey with her hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth the frustration and fear and expense a million times over. I’m so glad she’s my dog, and that I’m her person.

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Missing Layla: the dangers of xylitol poisoning

(Crossposted from my other blog.)

Even with Dobby and Mischief asleep next to me, my house feels empty today. It’s easy to take what you have for granted until it’s not there, and today I’m missing Layla like crazy. I’m lucky that this isn’t a permanent loss, but only a temporary one. Layla is spending the weekend at the emergency vet clinic, and the house is empty without her.

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Layla was lucky. Last night, she got into a pack of gum containing xylitol, an artificial sweetener. Had I not caught her eating the pack and recognized the danger, things may have turned out very differently. My house might have been empty forever. Just the thought of losing her feels like a physical blow.

Xylitol is an artifical sweetener frequently used in sugarfree gum, candies, and baked goods. It has some oral health benefits for people and is frequently used as a sugar substitute for people who cannot have real sugar. It’s also highly toxic to dogs.

Even a small bit of xylitol can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar. The first symptoms of xylitol poisoning are oftentimes vomiting, glazed eyes, weakness, lethargy or depression, and ataxia (balance issues). These can be followed by seizures and coma. Larger doses can lead to hypokalemia (decreased potassium) and liver failure.

As soon as I found Layla eating the gum, I gave her hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. While my other two dogs both threw up, Layla didn’t, and was rushed to the e-vet where they were finally able to get her to vomit about 45 minutes after she ate the gum. By that time she was feeling poorly enough to be cooperative with several strangers handling her, inserting a catheter and taking blood.

As of this afternoon, Layla’s prognosis is good. Her glucose and liver values are great, and she’s being kept on fluids and continually monitored. If she continues to do well, she can come home Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Layla was lucky. She was lucky that I recognized the danger soon enough to get her treated before she began showing serious symptoms. She was lucky to have a great veterinary team ready to help her. She was lucky that I have enough in savings to cover her treatment and hospitalization so that she could get the care she needs. She was lucky that she’s otherwise strong and healthy.

Not every dog is as lucky as Layla.The number of cases of xylitol toxicity continues to climb each year as this ingredient becomes more common as a sugar substitute. Many dogs don’t make it. Poisoning from other common human foods, including chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and onions are also sadly too common.

It’s empty in my house today, but it won’t be forever. Layla was lucky, and she will be coming home. Please make sure to keep toxic substances out of reach of your pets so that you, too, can continue to enjoy the company of your best friend for many years to come.

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Listening to Your Heart

I recently adopted a puppy.

I wasn’t looking for a third dog. I have my hands full with Layla and Dobby, who both have behavioral issues that require a large amount of training and management. In fact, there were a lot of really great reasons why I shouldn’t have adopted this dog, and I argued with myself about them for weeks. And yet, somehow, she ended up staying.

That’s right. Not only is this puppy nothing like my other dogs in personality or appearance, she’s also a female. Layla doesn’t have a problem with female puppies, but often dislikes adult female dogs. And yet, somehow, I kept this puppy anyway. Where many, many foster puppies have come and gone, she came and stayed.

I’m not generally an impulsive person. I have a life plan, a careful budget, and definite “rules” about when I felt I would be ready to bring a third dog home (hint: it wasn’t for another five years or so). Mischief came home and turned all of this upside-down within a few short weeks. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine life without her. She smoothed into our household as if she’d always been here.

Was keeping her the right choice? I don’t know. Only time will tell. However, I do know that I haven’t felt this depth of connection since I met Layla. I felt the same instant, inexplicable tug with baby Layla, and couldn’t imagine my life without her. Layla’s brought me on an incredible journey. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and there have been times where I’ve felt like I was in over my head. I cared for Dobby from the start, but it took nearly a year to develop that deeper connection with him that happened instantly with both girls. I can remember looking at Dobby as he snuggled in my arms one morning months after I’d adopted him and thinking, “You’re my dog now.”

So’s Mischief. She’s my dog now, and so far the four of us are getting along splendidly. Here’s hoping that my heart was as smart as my head. I’m not used to listening to it, but when it spoke up so strongly I could do nothing else.

Welcome home, puppy.

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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Dog Selection, Layla, Mischief, Rescue

Advocating for the Anxious Dog

Working on behavior cases such as aggression and anxiety can be incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing like watching the bond between a dog and owner deepen as both learn to trust one another and work cooperatively together. Seeing a fearful dog blossom or an anxious dog learn to relax always gives me goosebumps.

Both of these dogs required behavior modification to deal with fear and anxiety issues. One of them (Layla) also required anxiety medication.

Working with behavior cases can also be incredibly frustrating and devastating at times, and nowhere is that more likely than when the subject of anxiety medications comes up. This is probably the biggest area, other than the dangers of punishment, where I meet client resistance and misconceptions. Perfectly reasonable people become perfectly unreasonable when I bring up the topic of seeing a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to discuss medicating their dog. This has to stop, for the dogs’ sakes.

Imagine that your dog is diagnosed with hypothyroidism. This means that his thyroid gland is not working as well as it should, and because of this physical problem he is suffering from a range of symptoms (possibly lethargy, weight gain or loss, poor temperature regulation, and skin/coat issues, to name a few). The vet prescribes daily medication to regulate his thyroid levels. Would you refuse to give him this medication?

Now, let’s say your dog is diagnosed with diabetes. His body can no longer regulate his blood sugar levels, and due to this physical problem he’s suffering from a range of symptoms, including excessive drinking, excessive urination, increased appetite, and weight loss. The vet prescribes insulin injections to regulate his blood sugar levels. Would you refuse to give him his insulin shots?

What if your dog is diagnosed with anxiety? His brain chemistry is imbalanced due to too little serotonin. Due to this physical problem he’s suffering from a range of symptoms such as hypervigilance, trouble sleeping restfully, irritability, and reassurance-seeking behaviors. Your vet prescribes a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to increase the amount of serotonin in his brain. Would you refuse to give him this medication?

Here’s a news flash: anxiety is often a physical issue. The brain is an organ. As such, it can develop abnormally (in utero or due to early experiences), suffer from physical trauma, or malfunction. There is a delicate chemical balance that can sometimes, due to genetics or environment, get disrupted. We know that the brain of a dog who was given a supportive, enriched environment as a puppy is physically different from the brain of a dog kept in a sterile environment or exposed to traumatic or neglectful stimuli during development. We know that the brains of anxious or aggressive animals are observably different from those of normal animals. This is not news. This is a fact that has been proven time and time again through rigorous scientific study.

We treat other physical problems with a combination of lifestyle changes (management) and medication. Severe anxiety needs to be treated the same way. Not treating an anxious dog due to your personal misconceptions about anxiety medications is just as neglectful as not treating your dog’s diabetes or hypothyroidism. We may treat a severe heart arrhythmia by giving a dog beta blockers and limiting strenuous physical activity. Severe anxiety is best treated with both medications and behavior modification. One or the other given separately just doesn’t cut it in many cases.

So why are so many people resistant to using anxiety medication for their dogs?

There’s a large cultural bias against anxiety, for one. Because the symptoms are less quantifiable than, say, a kidney problem, it’s harder to definitively diagnose anxiety. There is still a large portion of the population who seem to believe that anxiety does not really exist. This is sad and harmful.

The brain has an amazing capacity to heal itself and return to homeostasis, which I think also causes some people to become resistant to the use of meds. It’s true, there are many cases where dogs really don’t need medication and just behavior modification alone will fix the problem. Through learning, new neural pathways can be created and the problem behavior may resolve. This is why I almost never recommend anxiety medications as the first step when working with behavior cases. However, I would say that overmedication is much more rare than undermedication in our society, and overmedication is often used by vets and owners looking for a “quick fix” without behavior mod – which is doomed for failure.

The bottom line is this: not every case needs anxiety medication. In fact, the majority of cases don’t. However, some cases legitimately do. In these cases, refusing to consider medication is as cruel and neglectful as refusing to give pain medication to a dog with severe hip dysplasia. If your dog’s quality of life is impacted by severe anxiety or aggression, you owe it to her to help her. You owe it to her to consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist about medication.

You are her voice. Advocate for her. Do not make her suffer because of your misconceptions.

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Filed under Anxiety, Genetics, Layla, Rescue, Training

The Joy of the Adolescent Dog

Ah, adolescence. Dobby haz it, and some days I feel like it may be easier to just bang my head against the wall rather than take him out to train.

Don’t misunderstand me. Dobby is a phenomenal dog. He’s actually the perfect house pet, which is so much more important to me than any competition. My dogs are, first and foremost, companions, and Dobby excels at companionship. He’s quiet, house- and crate-trained, snuggly, and well-behaved inside. He listens when it counts (such as respecting the open doorway threshold while I’m bringing the 15-year-old Lab compassion case inside and not dashing out). He gets along with the other two dogs. He really is a very, very good dog.

Dobby's enthusiasm is great, but can be exhausting! Photo by Ryan Windfeldt.

All this perfection doesn’t do anything for his focus when we go places, though. Training Dobby is exhausting. Half an hour with him feels like a day with Layla. Trying to keep his focus can be like trying to teach a class of kindergartners who’ve been fed Mountain Dew and Pixie Sticks to sit still, and heeling with him is like heeling with a hummingbird. I love his enthusiasm, but good god! – there’s enough enthusiasm for 10 regular dogs in there. The difference in his confidence level is unbelievable, and sometimes I need to remind myself that less than a year ago he was pancaked to the floor and would pee all over himself in fear if I even looked at him. This is not the same dog, and I’m proud of his accomplishments.

So, what’s the game plan? At this point, quite honestly, it’s to wait. I know that many of Dobby’s focus problems are just normal adolescence, and I really believe that once he matures a little bit they’re not going to be an issue any more. He just needs more time to grow up. We’re not going to start on agility, or even work all that seriously on obedience, until I have more than 10% of his attention devoted to me. It’s not that he could’t do it – he could. But I have limited time and energy, and there’s no reason to work so hard at these sports now when I can do about half the work in a year for the same results. Much as I want to get in the ring with him, I know I’ll have years and years to compete once he’s no longer distracted by every falling leaf in a five-mile radius.

That doesn’t mean he’ll get a free pass while we’re waiting for his brain to come back. In the meantime, we’ll work on weight pull and keeping playing around with Level 1 rally. We’ve also got plenty of foundation skills to master, such as a reliable “out” and targeting at a distance. I’ll start a few very simple agility skills, like a 2on-2off contact at the bottom of my steps and on a ramp, and we’ll continue to work on his dog-dog skills. Dobby’s already somewhat dog selective at a little over a year of age, and he’s plenty “gamey,” so I’ve established that his job around other dogs is to focus on me and ignore the dogs. I can see him becoming somewhat dog aggressive as he matures, which isn’t unusual for a terrier, but don’t think this will be an issue since it will be quite manageable. He’s got a very, very strong desire to “be good” and is quite soft, so he’s very easy to redirect if he does something I dislike.

The difference between Dobby and Layla is fascinating, and I love watching the two of them interact. Layla still adores him, and it’s amazing how much she enjoys spending time with her dog: snuggling on the couch, walking together, even lying next to him to eat a bully stick!

Lure coursing Layla is pure predator.

Layla is the polar opposite of Dobby in many ways. Layla is NOT the perfect house pet. Much as I adore her, I understand that most people would hate living with her. Living with Layla is like living with a wild animal. She doesn’t particularly like to be touched, so petting and snuggling are things she tolerates rather than enjoys. She does like to snuggle up on occasion (about 5 minutes a day), but it needs to be on her terms and she prefers to lie on top of me without me petting her. Besides not wanting to spend close time with me, Layla is also incredibly tricky and smart. She can open the refrigerator and the gate in the backyard. She jumps baby gates and kills (and consumes) small animals on a regular basis. If she gets out of the house or yard she doesn’t come back, and instead searches for a squirrel or other little critter to kill and eat. She barks, she steals food if the opportunity presents itself, and she views house rules more as guidelines.

On the other hand, Layla’s a dream to train. She learns new things quickly and has amazing focus. She tries her heart out for me and being in the rally ring with her is the best high I know. She loves it, and I love that she loves it. She’s been a phenomenal teacher and I wouldn’t trade her for the world.

If I could choose the perfect dog, I would blend Dobby’s wonderful companionship with Layla’s amazing focus and trainability. Since I can’t choose though, I’m glad I have the dogs I do. Both give me so much, and I could certainly have much worse. And who knows? Maybe in a year, once Dobby’s matured, I’ll have everything I want in him. If you notice a large flat area on the top of my head in the meantime, know that it’s just from banging my head against the wall. Ah, adolescence.

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In the Jungle

Disclaimer: I’m not a neurologist or any sort of scientist, and won’t even begin to claim that I understand how the brain works. This post is a vast oversimplification based on the little bit of information I believe I might know. YMMV.

People often comment on how "happy" Layla is when she's stressed. She may look excited on the surface, but that's not the case. Check out the dilated pupils here for a better indication of her internal state.

Oftentimes in our Focus & Control or Reactive dog classes, students will complain that they are frustrated. They want their dogs to relax, and they’re annoyed that the dog can’t just settle down. I see this in private training lessons as well. “He KNOWS better,” the client says (glaring at their dog). Never mind the fact that the dog may have been practicing the previous, unwanted, behavior for months or even years and I’ve only been working with them for a few weeks. People don’t understand why their dog can’t just be better already.

I get it. I have a reactive dog, and I feel the same frustration with her. In fact, Layla and I will be going to the University of MN next month to ask Dr. Duxbury about some possible medication changes. Behavior problems are frustrating and difficult. There are no magic cures.

It’s helpful to understand a little bit about the physiology of learning when trying to understand why our dogs can take so long to “rehabilitate” in the case of a behavior problem.

Learning creates physical changes in the brain. These changes are semi-permanent, but new learning can “override” previous learning.

One good analagy is to think of the brain as a rainforest (thanks to Dr. Karen Overall for this idea). When you learn something, you are creating a path through the rainforest, beating back all the brush as you go. The more you practice the new skill or behavior you’ve learned, the more times you travel down that same path. At first, the path is very overgrown and it takes real effort to walk along it. This is the acquisition part of a new behavior. Once you’ve practiced that behavior over and over again (traveled down that path over and over again), it becomes easier. You don’t have to expend as much energy to reach your destination (perform that behavior). This is why learning new skills tires our dogs out so much. Thinking is hard work! It can be very difficult to form a new path and usually requires multiple repetitions.

Why does this matter for our dogs? Once you’ve learned a behavior, that neural pathway becomes very strong. That path is very easy to go down. In Layla’s case, she becomes very anxious in social situations and in the presence of food. These issues have been ongoing since I brought her home at 16 weeks, which means she’s had five years to travel down those pathways. While both issues have improved, neither has been solved.

A truly relaxed Layla. She's smiling, just as in the previous picture, but can you see the difference in the rest of her body?

Her anxiety in social situations manifests as silliness. She wiggles around, grins, and becomes more active (largely, I believe, because wiggling and acting silly means that strangers won’t touch her, since they can’t catch her to get a hand on her). Her pupils dilate and she height-seeks, often performing the infamous “double ovary punch” where she vaults off the stranger’s body. She’s actually quite calm and sweet when she’s comfortable, but few people have ever seen this true side of Layla.

Layla’s food issues have both improved and regressed. Initially, she was a very severe resource guarder. She would leave a food bowl or valuable chewy to bite someone from several feet away, breaking skin. I’m very proud to say that she no longer guards food from people. However, her anxiety in the presence of potential food has increased. If there’s the possibility that she may be given a treat, she obsesses over it. She offers every behavior she can think of, flipping through them as quickly as she can, but is too anxious to pay attention to what behavior she was offering when she was given the treat. This means that she can no longer play shaping games, because she’s too anxious to think clearly. Her pupils also dilate in this situation. If there is food sitting out on the counter, she will pace, whine, and tremble until I put it away or give it to her. I’ve actually increased her daily food ration and allowed her to gain a little weight just to see if this made a difference (it didn’t).

The problem with replacing a well-established behavior with a new behavior is that you’re providing the dog with a choice of two paths. On the one hand, they can go down that familiar path that’s so easy to travel (the old behavior). On the other, they can try to whack their way through the rainforest and form a new pathway. If you were given a choice of going somewhere quickly on either the interstate or on a deer trail through the forest, which would you choose? Layla’s height-seeking and wiggly behavior in social situations is like the interstate – it’s a wide, easy to travel path that’s familiar to her.

At some point in learning, our behaviors even become somewhat automatic and are no longer under conscious control (think about the first time you learned to drive a stick shift VS doing it after you’ve driven one for years – many of those behaviors have become automatic). Layla doesn’t conciously make the decision to act silly and spastic. It’s just what she reverts to in this situation. Training has not been able to overcome this issue with her, because she’s not in a state where she can learn. She may be able to follow cues to sit and stay briefly, but at some point all of that pent up anxiety is going to explode out, and she’s probably going to height-seek and wiggle worse than ever. Trying to control a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety through training alone is like bottling up vinegar and baking soda. If it can’t fizz freely, it’s going to eventually explode.

So, how can we change behavior if the old neural pathways are so firmly established? We need to make it worth the dog’s while to invest in opening a new path, and we need to prevent the dog from going down that old path. In the case of a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety, we also need to treat the underlying cause (usually by altering the brain chemistry with medication such as SSRIs or TCAs). Just like a path through the rainforest, over time the old pathway is going to become a little overgrown and harder to travel down as the dog stops using it. At the same time, the new pathway will become easier and easier to go down until it’s become the path of choice, and the one the dog travels down automatically. That’s not to say the dog might not ever wander down the old path again – it will always be there (this is where spontaneous recovery of previous behaviors can come in to play). We just need to make it the less accessible option.

Can we fix behavior problems? Absolutely! However, how long it takes will depend largely on how good we are at preventing the dog from going down that old pathway, how well established that path was, and how attractive we’re making the new path (hint: use the dog’s top reinforcers and be incredibly generous). Behavior mod isn’t always a quick fix, but change is possible. Support your dog, and be patient as you forge that path together through the jungle. I know that Layla tries her hardest for me, and I can do no less for her, ovary bruises or no.

Now to explore some new paths together…

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Filed under Anxiety, Layla, Training

Spoiled Rotten Bratty Dogs

Layla is absolutely spoiled silly, and I’m completely unrepentant. Frankly, I adore spoiling her. I love how opinionated she is, and find it funny when her opinions don’t match up with mine. Why have a pet dog if you can’t spoil her?

That said, I think there’s a fine line that we as pet owners have to walk when we’re spoiling our dogs. I make no secret of how much I adore Layla. She pretty much gets what she wants, but there are limits, and that’s where we need to be careful with our dogs. I’ll let you in on a secret: most of the really spoiled dogs I see are not happy.

Recently, I went on a private training consult to the home of a giant working breed. The dog had been through somewhere between 5-7 homes, and a lovely, well-meaning couple saved her life. The dog had food out whenever she wanted to eat. She had toys everywhere and was given bones and treats whenever she wanted. Her owners heaped love and attention on her. She had some fear aggression issues, and when she reacted to me coming into the house by lunging and barking, her “dad” hugged her and told her it was okay. Her “mom” then allowed her to pull over to me, telling me, “It’s okay, she’ll be fine once she sniffs you.” The dog came right into my space, tense, with very stressed body language. Yikes. (I referred these clients to a veterinary behaviorist due to compliance issues and hope for the best for their dog.)

Tank the foster puppy learned right away that his crate is a great place to chill out and chew on a toy.

Dogs like this are quite common, and I see a lot of them for anxiety issues. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Frankly, I think most dogs really like clear boundaries. Dogs who are given everything they want, when they want it, are not dogs who feel secure. It’s a lot of responsibility to give a dog.

So, how do I balance this with my own dogs? I love to give my dogs food, treats, toys, and affection. I love playing with them, exercising them, and training them. I melt when a dog falls asleep snuggled up against me. I prefer to have them in bed with me, and Layla even sleeps under the covers. But things don’t start off that way.

When a dog first comes into my home, that dog doesn’t have any privileges. He sleeps in his crate and there are no toys available other than nylon chew bones in the crate. When he’s not in his crate, he’s on a leash or tethered to me. His meals are fed to him by hand, earned through training sessions, or given in puzzle toys in his crate. Praise and petting are doled out for good behavior, and snuggling sessions are kept short. He’s not allowed on the furniture, and play sessions with my dogs are limited to a few short times a day.

Isn’t this hard to do? Of course! I often foster dogs from very bad situations, and my first inclination with these dogs is to show them just how great life with a person can be. Just like my clients with the giant breed dog, I want to spoil them rotten. I want to stuff them with treats, help them discover the joy of dog toys, and let them run and play with my dogs. I also know that doing all of these things would be incredibly selfish. It would make me feel great, but what would I be teaching that dog? Would I be best preparing the dog for life with his adoptive home?

Life as a foster starts in the crate!

By starting off with nothing, I am teaching the new dog some very important life lessons. First of all, I’m teaching him to look to me for guidance. Many dogs from bad situations don’t know how to do this. They need to learn that I will protect, provide for, and guide them. I’m also preventing them from making mistakes. Which is more fair: preventing the dog from chewing up my sofa by keeping him on a leash, or getting mad and yelling at him when I left him unattended with the couch and he chewed the arm off? Which do most pet owners do?

As the dog learns to look to me for guidance and learns all of the silly rules we humans expect (don’t pee in the house, don’t chew up the leather shoes that smell so delicious, the dog bed is okay to lie on but the couch is not, the food on the counter is off-limits, humping is verboten), I start to give him privileges. I usually start by providing the dog with more toys, if he likes to play with dog toys (not every dog knows how, especially if he hasn’t ever had toys before or has been punished for chewing on things in the past). I’ll start to allow the dog to mix with my own dogs more, and will allow more play time. Maybe he’ll start to be allowed off-leash in one room of the house at a time (when I’m in the room with him). Some of his food might come from a dog bowl, although I will still hand feed and use some food in training. He’ll be in his crate less, and will get petted and snuggled with more.

The more cooperative and easy-going the dog is, the faster he earns privileges. If he becomes pushy or stops looking to me for guidance, I’ll revoke some of his newfound privileges. This is not a punishment, but is simply fairness. He’s shown me that he’s not yet ready for that level of responsibility, and it’s not fair of me to expect him to follow the rules if he’s just not mature or knowledgeable enough to do so. It would be incredibly unfair of me to get annoyed with him for breaking the rules – if he’s breaking rules, it’s because I’m not explaining things to him or managing him well enough. When a dog breaks our human rules (which must seem incredibly silly to them), it’s a human failing. It is not the dog’s fault.

Layla and Dobby sleep together in my bed.

So where does that leave Layla? Well, Layla’s earned her privileges. She, too, started off with nothing. Is she naughty? Absolutely! However, she’s naughty in a way that I find endearing and don’t mind. She may drive someone else crazy, but the behaviors I don’t like have been eliminated through training and management. What are left are “naughty” behaviors that I find funny or endearing. I love that she’s “trained” me to give her treats for misbehaving – how clever is that?! I don’t care that she steals dryer sheets – it’s adorable when she rolls on them as if they’re the best smell she’s ever sniffed. I don’t care that she demands to come up on my lap while I’m working – I figure I need the break, and enjoy snuggling with her for 15 minutes. I don’t care that she jumps on guests – if the guest is someone who doesn’t like dogs, I put her away before the guest arrives or keep her on a leash. I think it’s funny when she “shows off” for visitors by destroying a cardboard box, whipping her toys around, or playing crazily with Dobby or a foster dog. I like to see her happy, and I like her pushy, clever, manipulative naughtiness. It’s who she is, and she’s perfect. Spoiled rotten brat and all.

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