Category Archives: Rescue

The Joy of an Uncomplicated Dog

Mischief is an amazingly uncomplicated dog. This worried me when I adopted her. Would I be bored? Would the anxiety issues of my other two dogs create issues for her? Would living with Layla be fair to her? And again, would I be bored?

Photo by Laura Caldwell

I’m very used to fixing dogs. Putting together behavior plans, working on carefully structured protocols, and keeping track of triggers and threshold distance have become second nature for me. I love special dogs. Reactive dogs, fearful dogs, anxious dogs, excitable dogs, aggressive dogs, and misunderstood dogs of all sorts have a special place in my heart. An uncomplicated dog? A just-plain-doggy dog? Now that was confusing!

And yet, I’m kind of getting used to the idea of not fixing. Of just… being. This isn’t to say that Mischief is perfect. She can be environmentally sensitive, and still struggles with mild separation and light-chasing issues. However, these aren’t issues that require more than the tiniest bit of management and awareness. Issues that a normal pet owner could readily deal with. Issues that, well, aren’t really an issue.

Mischief is uncomplicated. She’s sweet and joyful. She likes dogs and people. She likes my other dogs. She likes me. And I kind of like all of this.

I just dropped her off at daycare. She was happy to go – she enjoys hanging out with the other dogs. We walked calmly into the building. She checked in with me every few steps, just a little glance, a wiggle, and a quick wag of her stump. She kept her leash loose after one reminder, a quiet “this way” on my part. When she was let in with the other dogs, she greeted everyone calmly and sweetly with polite sniffing, then settled beside an elderly Golden Retriever. No drama, no fuss. Just… easy.

I love Layla and Dobby with all my heart. I love them for who they are, flaws and all. But I’m finding that I also love Mischief for her simpleness. Everyone needs a little lightness and joy in their life. Not worrying is liberating. An uncomplicated dog isn’t boring after all, but rather relaxing. Like a cool breeze on a muggy summer day, Mischief is just what I need.

Photo by Clara Yori

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

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

I Believe

As a professional dog behavior consultant, I often talk to people who are struggling and frustrated. They often share facts with me that make me cringe, whether it be details about the e-collar they’ve been using to shock their fearful dog every time he growls or the fact that they’ve been rubbing their anxious dog’s nose in his urine each time he marks while yelling “no” at him.

In addition to dog training, I also work closely with rescue. Dogs come into rescue who have been starved, beaten, or left on a chain. People surrender dogs for reasons that seem ridiculous to me, only to turn around and get a new puppy. Some people view their dogs as disposable.

Regardless of the details a person shares with me, I try not to judge. This is easier to say than to do some days. The 7 sentences below hang above my workspace to remind me of my principles.

I believe that there is more positive than negative in the world.

I believe that the majority of people are good and kind.

I believe that abuse, neglect, and negativity are born of fear or lack of education.

I believe that I have no right to judge others, as I don’t know what battles they may be facing.

I believe that I can help more by listening than by talking.

I believe that I can make a difference in the world, one good deed at a time.

I believe that positive energy will return to me threefold.

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Filed under Rescue, Training

Your Dog

To the person who abandoned your elderly Lab in Rochester two months ago;

I wanted to let you know what happened to your dog.

Your dog was found as a stray. I can’t imagine he ran away. His hips didn’t work so well anymore.

Your dog spent two weeks at the pound, lying in his own feces on the cold concrete. He was sad, scared, and very confused.

When it became clear that you weren’t coming for him, I took your dog home. I bathed him and took him to the vet.

I gave your dog good food, clean water, and soft beds to lie on. I gave him a new name because I didn’t know what you had called him for the last 10-15 years of his life.

I walked your dog every day. He could only go to the end of the block, but it made him so happy. He danced when he saw the leash.

When the pain meds were no longer enough, I took your dog to the vet one last time.

I held your dog on my lap, all 105 pounds of him, and stroked his head. I told him that he was a good boy. I told him that he was loved. I stayed with him as he died.

To the person who abandoned your elderly Lab 2 months ago, I wanted to let you know that your dog was a good dog. Your dog missed you. Your dog forgave you for abandoning him in his final days.

I’m not as good of a person as your dog was, but I will try to forgive you too.

I wanted to let you know that your dog had 43 days of love and compassion with me.

I wish he could have been with you during those twilight days. He had a lot of lessons to teach you still. I’m so very sorry you missed out on them.

Note: thank you to Camp Companion for covering Paddy’s vet bills and helping his final days to be spent with dignity.

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Everybody is a Genius

I hated high school. Throughout my school career, I always got excellent grades. I never caused trouble. My teachers mostly liked me. I had wonderful friends (many of whom I still keep up with today). I was miserable.

I felt bored and frustrated in class, and missed school as often as possible. I never cut school – I wasn’t going to get in trouble – but stayed home “sick” as often as I could get away with it. I was later diagnosed with a legitimate autoimmune disease, but quite honestly quite a few of my “sick days” in high school were really just “can’t stand to sit in a desk and be bored” days. I would miss whole weeks of school. I never fell behind in my schoolwork. I would spend a couple hours studying, writing papers, and filling out worksheets, then spend the rest of the day reading, surfing the internet, or playing video games. I would do anything to avoid feeling trapped in that desk, listening to the same material repeated over and over again.

Looking back at my high school career, a few bright spots stand out. Most notable were a small handful of teachers who made a profound difference.

Mr. Behrens, my sixth-grade teacher, listened to my ideas and assigned me different books to read when he found out that I’d already read the book the class was studying.

Mr. Snyder, my band teacher, wrote special passes to get me out of study hall so I could practice my flute in the tiny, echoey rooms behind his office (and looked the other way when my friends, who also had practice passes, would all cram into one little room together to play occasional cut-throat games of Scrabble).

Mrs. Dix, who came after him, kept up the practice passes and never flinched when I told her I wanted to play an incredibly complicated piece of music with 64th and 128th notes in it for competition.

Mrs. Gehrking, an A.P. English teacher, continued to expand my literary horizons with exciting and challenging work, keeping the class to a fast pace that encouraged me to attend class in order not to fall behind.

Most teachers, however, stuck to the established worksheets, rote learning, and tests. They expressed frustration at my poor attendance and seemed insulted that I didn’t participate more than half-heartedly in class. When I asked to earn extra credits towards graduation for very complicated work I had done (and documented) with color genetics in dwarf hamsters, I was told that such a thing probably wasn’t possible and given empty praise by a teacher who didn’t care to look further into the issue. In 7th grade, my English teacher told me that she would have cast me in the lead role of Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since my audition was one of the best, but decided against it due to my poor attendance (I was instead given the role of Philostrate, who has 2 lines in the entire play).

So, how does this relate to dog training? I believe that the same characteristics that make me remember certain teachers with fondness or frustration are the characteristics that shape our dogs’ training relationships with us.

When I look back at my school career, the teachers who became my favorites were those who both valued and challenged me. They never gave me challenges I couldn’t succeed at, but always pushed me slightly past my comfort zone. They paid attention to my interests and skills, and nurtured those abilities. They were honestly interested in me and in what I could do, and because of this I was willing to work much, much harder for them. Even when they gave me much more work than I was given in other classes, I didn’t mind because it was work I enjoyed and was excited to complete.

When I look at my students’ dogs, I notice the same trend. Those students who support their dogs, who play to their natural strengths, who listen to and adjust to their dogs’ individual personalities: these are the students who have happy, willing dogs. Students who challenge their dogs, setting them up for success in training but always pushing slightly, these are the students whose dogs are the most excited to work. By taking note of their dogs’ interests and inserting them into a training program, these people develop a true partnership with their pets that others can only grasp at.

Clicker training is a partnership. It can’t be done with an unwilling dog. Sometimes though, this is what ends up happening. By relying on formulaic training plans (“first you do X, then Y”) or pre-conceived notions (“all dogs love to work for hot dogs” or “all agility dogs must play tug”), we can forget to listen to what our dog is telling us. We can lose sight of what makes the dog in front of us special.

When we forget to look for brilliance, we see only mediocrity.

Every dog is an individual. Just because your last dog enjoyed working for food doesn’t mean that this one wouldn’t prefer to play. While the channel method may have worked brilliantly to teach your last dog to weave, this dog may do better with 2×2’s. Dobby was initially too frightened to follow a lure, but learned to sit and down within a week by capturing these behaviors. Layla enjoys heeling practice where I stride out and make her work hard to keep up; Dobby still goes over the top if I move this quickly. Dobby does better with very light, cheerful verbal corrections if he’s starting to make a mistake, while the same feedback would make Layla anxious (and thus, more likely to repeat the mistake).

Layla's high prey drive, which could be considered an inconvenience in conventional dog sports, makes her a phenomenal lure courser.

My parents and I didn’t know about other options, such as an alternative art school or Post Secondary education, when I was in high school, and the overworked guidance counselor certainly wasn’t concerned about looking too closely at a student who was passing all her classes. I sometimes wonder how I would be different had I had a more supportive environment where I was free to engage in self-paced study and explore my interests. Just because that may have been a good fit for me doesn’t mean that my old school should change their curriculum though. Every student is different, and my recipe for success could very well have been another student’s worst nightmare.

I’m reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Are you judging your dog by his ability to climb a tree when you could be focusing on how well he can swim? Time to change perspectives. Everybody is a genius. We just need to focus on their brilliance and help their light shine through.

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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Genetics, Rescue, Training

Every Life Has Worth: Why Compassion Holds are so Important

Blackie was paralyzed and began having neurological issues. He spent his last two nights with me.

I’ve written before about issues concerning animal rescue, but want to write about an issue that’s near and dear to my heart: compassion holds.

You don’t hear much about compassion holds in the rescue community, and it makes me sad. I understand that compassion holds may be a difficult topic for some people to hear about, but I also think that they’re under-utilized by many rescues. Some rescues don’t even do them. This is a shame, since they’re a very big way to make a difference for a needy animal.

So, what is a compassion hold? In the simplest sense, it’s a way to ensure that the last days of a suffering animal’s life are filled with love, safety, and dignity. It’s a humane act.

There are two kinds of compassion hold cases: behavioral and medical. I do both.

Medical compassion holds are done in cases where an animal is not adoptable due to a severe medical problem. This could be untreatable cancer, severe wounds that the shelter or rescue deems untreatable, puppies with congenital conditions (such as severe heart murmurs or liver shunts) who will not live to adulthood, or senior dogs who don’t have long left.

Henry was fearful, reactive, and a resource guarder. He was also sweet and earnest. He had spent most of his life tied to a radiator in a NYC apartment.

Behavioral compassion holds are in some ways much harder, as these are animals who are young and healthy, but are not adoptable due to severe behavior issues (usually aggression). These animals are not at fault. They have been damaged by people, and because of the horrible things that have been done to them, they cannot safely be placed.

Whether a dog is not adoptable due to behavioral or medical issues, my stance is the same. Every life has value. No dog deserves to spend his final days afraid, alone, or in pain. This is why I do compassion holds.

When a dog comes to me for a compassion hold, they come to live with me for a period of time. For behavioral cases, this is usually one or two days. Medical cases vary, depending on how long the animal can remain happy, comfortable, and pain-free.

While in my care, the dog is given when makes him or her happy. This could be walks, massages, ball games, or just lots of quiet time to sleep and recover from a stay in a shelter. In the most heartbreaking behavioral cases, sometimes this is little to no interaction with me, as the dog may find every human frightening. Regardless, I ask the dog what he or she wants, and try to honor their individual choices. I provide a safe, supportive environment. I tell the dog over and over that he is a good dog, that I love him, and that he is safe. I talk to him quietly and touch him gently. I provide stuffed kongs, good food, and soft beds. I work with a veterinarian to provide appropriate medical care: pain meds for medical cases, anxiety meds or mild sedatives for some behavioral cases.

When the time comes for an animal to be euthanized, the veterinarian comes to my house or we meet somewhere else where the animal feels safe and comfortable. We use treats and sedatives as necessary to make the dog feel okay about the vet. I encourage the dog to climb on my lap and talk to him softly, holding him and petting him. I tell him what a good dog he is and thank him for coming to stay with me for awhile. I tell him I love him. The veterinarian is gentle as she injects the euthanasia solution, and the dog slips away peacefully. For some dogs, it is the first time I ever see their face without raw fear, without pain, without worry. I don’t believe that death is always the worst thing that can happen to a dog.

Are compassion holds difficult? Of course. People often tell me that they couldn’t stand to do what I do, that it would be too painful, and I can respect that. We all help however we can. That said, I think this misses the point. Pretending that euthanasia doesn’t happen in the rescue community isn’t going to make it true. If I can bring a dog into my home so that he doesn’t have to spend his final days in a cage, I can make an enormous difference to that dog. I can hold true to my morals and make sure his life is valued and he is treated as an individual, with love and dignity. I can be humane.

Perrin broke my heart, and would still live with me today if I could have made it work. I'm sorry the system failed you, little girl. You were so loved.

The logistics of each compassion case are different. For behavioral cases, I usually have my own dogs go elsewhere for the length of the hold, both for their safety (oftentimes the dogs I take in are dog-dog aggressive) and for the peace of the dog who I’m bringing in (my dogs aren’t exactly the easiest pack to live with). In severe cases, I may utilize a basket muzzle or leash for my own safety when the dog isn’t in an ex-pen or crate. I know that I have the knowledge to read a seriously aggressive dog well enough to keep myself safe. If I didn’t feel comfortable having such a dog in my home (and in some cases, I haven’t), I would still try to do something for that dog’s final hours – perhaps a walk with two people (with the dog double-leashed), a McDonald’s cheeseburger or full jar of peanut butter in his kennel, or a bunch of paper bags to shred apart. Behavioral compassion cases aren’t something to be attempted by the average foster home with little knowledge for dog behavior or body language, and each rescue should respect that and be sure that they are placing these cases safely. That said, these dogs deserve it. They don’t deserve to be blamed for what poor breeding, no socialization, abuse, or neglect has done to them.

Medical cases are a little easier, since these dogs often don’t have behavior issues (although sometimes they may be cranky due to pain or other physical issues). Still, a working knowledge of basic medical care is important. I’m a certified vet tech, and this background gives me the knowledge base to assess a dog’s changing condition. If I notice a dog’s vitals weakening, I can seek medical care for him quickly so he doesn’t suffer. If a dog has a seizure, gets explosive diarrhea, or suddenly starts limping, I’m not going to panic or become upset. These cases are easier for fosters new to compassion holds to begin taking, and are a great place for a rescue who hasn’t previously offered compassion holds to start.

So, have you ever heard about compassion holds, or done one yourself? Does your local rescue do this? If you feel like a compassion hold is something you may have the ability to do, I would strongly encourage you to contact your rescue and ask. Ask if they do compassion holds, and if not, ask if they would consider starting such a program. Every life has worth. Every animal deserves safety, dignity, and compassion. No animal should spend his final moments alone, afraid, or pain.

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Filed under Anxiety, Other Dogs, Rescue