You Are My Sunshine...

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Boys Are All Right!

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The Boys Are All Right!

Nico, Thunder, Benny...
Happy Holidays to All

Yes that was  a photo--shopped image.  Here's the original: 

I photo-shopped it to get something  a little more seasonal for our holiday greetings. The three dogs lie quite happily together in our basement without fussing. To get them to stay still long enough for a photo in the yard however so far has proven challenging. I am happy to admit that this is mostly a function of the cold and the wind and my reluctance to stand out there without gloves on trying to get a snowy picture, and not anything to do with the dogs themselves.  They are getting along, all three of them, quite famously now, Nico and Benny spending long hours in the yard together, Thunder enjoying extended time on the sofa in front of the fire as he is released from extended playground duty.

Yes, my boys are doing all right, maybe even a little better than all right!  Joy, happiness, delight to you all in 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cutting Loose

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 Cutting Loose

What happened?  I have to stretch to see over you  Benny!

Yesterday for the first time I walked away from Benny and Nico in the yard, and did not stay with them while they played. There were at it for over an hour, without incident.  As my husband Rick put it, "That's three months  of work right there."  He's right: for three months we've been working at making sure Nico understood our rules for being with Benny. Meanwhile Benny was growing  big enough to deal with Nico on his own terms.  Benny is still a puppy, but he is a big puppy, and yesterday's experience showed us that he's ready to be Nico's ongoing companion.  

This is the penultimate stage to my mind of the integration project. What remains is for us to be able to leave them together at night, knowing that they will settle down and sleep, and nothing crazy will happen in the dark.  What we saw yesterday is that when they get tired, they do indeed stop running each other and relax.  We saw that it isn't always Nico with the toy, and the Benny gives as good as he gets in the chase, in the wrestling.  But most of all, we saw that when Benny doesn't want to run or wrestle anymore he just stands still, or lies down and chews something. Nico may lean on him for a bit,  or stand there watching him, but eventually in the absence of stimulating gestures from Benny, Nico walks away.

Come on. Let's do it!

Benny's temperament has proven out: he is absolutely steady and  always good natured.  When Nico leans on him and he is tired he just does nothing.  Doesn't argue, doesn't growl or whine, doesn't lie down. He just stands there. He's bigger than Nico now, and strong as  little ox.  When he wants to play he acts like a puppy. When he doesn't want to play, he does nothing.  This is the behavior we've seen in Thunder all these years: it was from Thunder that I learned to shut down Nico's nervous agitation by simply doing nothing.  Now we see that Benny does the same; I don't think he had to learn it. From day one Benny has shown absolute command of Malamute pack sense and social intelligence that is in fact  a hallmark of the breed when the right priorities are in place in both breeding and handling.. 

Watch this!

Got it! Catch me if you can.

O.k. So you caught me. Doesn't mean I'm letting go!

If all continues as we hope, Benny's size advantage coupled with his fundamental easygoing nature will balance the competition  for status that approaches as  a puppy starts to become a dog, and the dog starts to feel the pressure.  We do our part by insisting that both dogs do as they are asked, sitting side-by-each to be hooked up, and for treats and waiting their turn to go  in and out of doors.   I told a  visitor that that sitting upon request is really important for those of us with big dogs. If, for example, your aging mother is visiting, it could be very dangerous for your big dogs to go rushing in the door ahead of everyone.  On the other hand, if you've taught the "sit" word, then you stand at the door, you say "sit", your mother sits, and the dogs go through the door without any trouble at all.

Seriously, I find "sit" a very useful tool for managing my boys when things get crowded. But the yard play is all about how they get along without me.  Nonetheless I do not doubt that insisting on good social behavior when they are under my hand carries over into the yard in terms of both dogs remembering the basic rule of any positive social interaction: restraint. Yesterday's experience is very encouraging for us, and exhilarating for the dogs.  They have shown us time and again that they want to be together. It is so very rewarding to see how they enjoy each other, and that my Nico as a mature dog, and despite  all of his uncertainties, is capable of  growing into  such companionship. 

Are you jumping on my head Nico? 
Ok. Now I get to jump on yours.

Thunder is far from on the sidelines.  We went looking for a companion for Nico because we felt that Thunder as he aged needed more house time. But Thunder and Benny are such an affectionate team we now have to work very hard at sharing Benny around. When we go down the trail together and Rick reaches the limit of the senior walk he turns for home with Thunder.  Benny is gleeful enough to continue on with me and Nico until he notices that Thunder is not with us.  He then stops in his tracks, and says, "What?"  

I have learned (for Benny is a Malamute) that it is easier to walk Thunder and Rick almost home, and then  go out again with my young boys, than to oppose Benny's will in that moment!  One must show one's Malamute's who is charge to be sure, but some battles are really more fun to lose than they are to win!

Those pictures, Thunder and Benny, coming soon!

Ok. Nico. Thunder taught me this.
Now we sit here and look forlorn,
and they come out and give us treats!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tangible Moments

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Tangible Moments

This morning on our morning walk, Nico caught a mole.  He played with it for a bit while I asked Benny to sit beside me.  Then Nico started working his way over towards us with it, and finally flipped the mole to Benny.  Benny played with it for a while, and then we all walked away, leaving the mole for the resident owl to snack on.

I told my friend Molly,  and she said, "That's pretty fantastic -- nothing says "brother" like sharing a fresh kill."  

Indeed: I took it as a good sign. Benny is now visibly bigger than Nico, heavier, taller. While still puppy-like in his mannerisms he is fast becoming lithe, supple and strong.  The play in the yard has changed.  Benny holds his own now  no matter how hard Nico pushes, and Nico seems as a result to hold back a little.  What matters is that they do continue to enjoy each other's company.  Benny shows no sign of seriously challenging Nico; Nico seems to be stepping back from the domineering role he was beginning to demonstrate a month or so ago as Benny began to turn from a puppy into a dog.  Benny still has many stages to go through, and Nico will have to adapt to them before we can say we have arrived at the kind of ease we are hoping for.  But this morning's "gift" is certainly an encouraging sign!

I am learning so much about canine relationships on this journey.  Malamutes are pack dogs and they do speak their own language with each other.  I spend a great deal of time just watching Nico and Benny play in the yard, partly because we are not quite ready to leave them alone unsupervised, but mostly just because it is fascinating to see the give and take, the coming and going between them, and how it changes week to week, even day to day as Benny grows and matures.

There are times also when we have to intervene; much of the learning is about when to get involved, and when to leave them be.  It seemed to help for us to stop the play when Nico got into a certain zone of intensity; it certainly mattered that we separate them when Benny squealed and Nico wouldn't let him get away.  That has happened only three times, and each time we were able to see that Benny was getting tired, had slipped down in the mud, or showed some other sign of weakness.  But this has not happened lately, for Benny no longer gets tired, is more co-ordinated even when the footing is bad, and I think is well on his way to convincing Nico that weakness, his anyway, is not going to be a factor for long.

We're not sure how far Nico would have gone if we had of just left it to him to continue with Benny after each of these moments.  We do know that  my correction meant something to him. Each time  these things happened I pulled  Nico off while Rick took Benny away. I spoke to Nico in  a deep dark voice, made him lie down for me, and then turned my back and walked away.  The following couple of days he was allowed no interaction with Benny. This was hard because Benny could care less that Nico took him down. He remained and remains absolutely fearless,  always crying out in protest when he Is not taken back in the yard with Nico, even within seconds of these incidents.  

Nico on the other hand, having had another earful from me of "The Puppy is Mine", would not even look at Benny in his kennel until I gave him permission. I would do this after a day or so by calling him over to sit beside the kennel with me.  He seemed to genuinely understand that he had done something wrong. I think it took three of these incidents for him to understand what exactly it was!

Which leads me to wonder, what exactly was it?   If Benny's not scared, then is it an attack?  Where would it have gone from there if we'd just let them be?  In the past I've had Malamutes who would fight, then stop and get on with things as if nothing had happened. But it always involved grown dogs, not a puppy and an older dog.  Is Nico just putting Benny in his place?  Is intervention helpful, or a hindrance in the all-important establishment and maintenance of pack hierarchy? 

At the same time, the head of the pack has to be the people.  If a behavior is unacceptable to the people, then the dogs have to know it. Malamute rescue is largely populated by dogs whose owners  failed to stay on top in this way and then complained that their dog was unmanageable. Malamutes are independently minded creatures who sense in a flash any weakness that might allow them to take charge. It is their nature to seek status, and they are not sentimental about who they take it from when the opportunity presents itself.  So it was important to me that Nico understand, even where another dog is concerned, that certain behaviors are acceptable, and others are not, that we make the rules, not him.

On the other hand,  if the boys are going to share the yard and enjoy unstructured play together, they have to be able to establish and enforce their own boundaries with each other.  It is difficult to say in terms of that process what might be the implications of the incidents where we intervened.  What is not difficult to see is that as Benny has become taller, heavier and stronger, Nico is behaving differently.  Today Nico actually fell down under Benny, and it was not a planned fall.  Nico did not seem to mind at all. He just got up, came over and licked my face, and then went back to play.  When Nico went down, Benny immediately leaped back, made  a play bow wriggling those great big Mickey Mouse ears of his, and then ran off, his usual invitation to Nico to give chase.  These to me are all good signs.  

I have learned so much from both of these dogs watching them go through this process. They have reminded me time and again that raising your voice in times of crisis is a mistake: it only encourages and exacerbates aggression.  Even when they are chewing on each other's necks, a favourite game of theirs that always stops my heart, if I put my hand on Nico's back and start talking to him in a low voice, he listens.   Usually both dogs will stop what they are doing when I do that. Shouting on the other hand gets Nico very excited and leads to trouble.   I have learned that  if Nico thinks I am upset or threatened, he feels he has to rush in and do something. In those moments it really is about me taking charge, so he doesn't think he has to and doing it quietly, so he doesn't think I am scared. At the same time I have learned that there are times to step back, and allow both Nico and Benny  to communicate with each other about what matters to them.  This morning  I could have dragged Nico off the mole, fearing that however small, here might be a bone of contention. Instead I watched and waited, and both boys rewarded me with magic.

These dogs have very different characters; Benny is rock steady as a well-bred Malamute who has never been mistreated or known neglect can be.  Nico, whose origins are unknown to us is highly sensitive, sometimes insecure, but always mindful of where I am and what I might want of him.   His fundamental nature was probably severely compromised by his early history of abuse. But his willingness to do what he has to in order to be a contributing part of  a pack, a family, more than compensates.  That he cares  is abundantly clear every time we ask him to do it our way. A most important element of our strategy with Nico when things went bad in the play yard involved upping his house time, his time with me. If I was going to ask Nico to do it my way with regard to "My Puppy" I needed him to feel very confident that he was also, and always would be "My Dog."  

The result was an escalation of his concern for what we were asking of him, rather than a retreat into loneliness, fear and possibly further aggression.  Nico's desire to get it right for us is very much a function of the relationship we have developed in the three years since he came here. There is nothing more touching than to watch the way he looks at me to make sure he is getting it right even in the unstructured context of free play with a high energy puppy.  

The cardinals are back: we have just enough snow on the ground that that bright vermilion flash in the cedars  is unmistakable against the white background of the hill behind.  The Blue Jays are congregating around the feeder, driving off the squirrels, and in between those assaults the more hesitant cardinals swoop in and steal  mouthsful of seeds.  Nature has its way of balancing energies.  I feel more and more confident that as Benny matures, he  and Nico will find their way.  It is  my task to learn when to get involved and when not. But dogs are very forgiving and smart. Even it I get it wrong, I suspect they will get it right, if we let them.   At the end of the day, if we respect them for what they are, and arrange things so they can be just that, they always reward us with their happiness, their genuine delight in just being alive, in just being dog.  Does it get any better?

Monday, December 6, 2010

New Friends

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New Friends

Today a friend of mine brought his little terrier mix, Candy, over to play with Benny.  It is the first chance we've had to see Benny with any dog other than Nico and Thunder and he had a fantastic time. Candy is about eight years old, spunky, and just a little bigger than the size of Benny's head.  After a nice walk on the trail we set them loose in the play yard.  Benny was ready to rip and tear, and wanted Candy to chase him.  With a rather sedate sigh she finally got into it, but only after Benny repeatedly offered his play bow.  

I think the problem was this: Benny's play bow still left his head higher than Candy's because,  well, she's not much bigger than his head! Nonetheless everyone knew who was the puppy and who was the grand lady!  Such a delightful character she is.  Next time I'll try for pictures!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The First Time, Revisited

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The First Time, Revisited

The first time ever I saw your face
It did not have porcupine quills in it.
I'd likely still to have fallen in love 
And pay the vet bill without complaint. 

But next time you see a prickly critter
Please decline and just get out of there,  
I know you think they might be good to eat
But you're wrong. That's all there is to it.

Alas and alack, I doubt that  you care.
Porcupine is just too tempting a fare.
I'll  always love you, of that have no doubt,
But these pesky encounters I can sure do without!

So it ain't quite poetry, just very bad verse
but give me some credit:  I didn't curse.
( Rick did...)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Benny's First Snow!

  Benny's  First Snow!

Um. Mum?  This is kinda wierd...
Did you know about this?

... but I could get into it.
Feels kinds all right!

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Small Gains, Big Returns


Small Gains, Big Returns

In my last page posting, “Overfaced” I wrote a little bit about how we worked with Nico to gain his confidence in small ways. Writing those pages takes me back in time to the first year he was here, which was of course when the most dramatic steps in his rehabilitation as a family pet were taken by him and by us. But it was by all means not over within the first year. This December he will have been with us three years, and Nico continues to evolve and change in his ways.

I have described elsewhere how Nico came to us particularly fearful of men and boys, how whatever confidence he managed to show when it was just me and my husband at home would disappear when strangers arrived. I remember when Molly Moldovan and her husband Jim Thompson came to visit and meet the new dog. Molly and Jim were among the small handful of people who founded the Alaskan Malamute Help League. For many many years the two of them did the lion's share of administrative and other work involved in realizing the League's mandate of helping Malamutes and Malamute owners in trouble. I cannot imagine how Nico would have found his way to us without the help of AMHL; indeed he probably would not have survived at all.

So it was no small irony that when they came to visit, Nico, instead of greeting his benefactors with gratitude, ran and hid in his dog house. Over the years, however, that has changed. The last time Molly and Jim came to visit, Nico came into the kitchen and was delighted to greet both of them. Jim is the kindest gentlest man when it comes to handling dogs. But he is over six feet tall, with an even bigger voice, exactly the combination that used to send Nico into a panic. Yet for the last year or so Nico has demonstrated greater and greater ease with large male visitors; this last visit Jim was able to lay hands on Nico for the first time.

This weekend however we experienced an even more significant indicator of Nico's sociability. We had friends visiting and from the moment of their arrival Nico not only did not show fear, he was positively anxious to come in the house and greet them. Then we went for a walk down the trail, into the part of our own woods where it is safe for Nico and Benny to run loose. I said to my husband Rick, I don't know if we should do this. Nico won't come in to be leashed if someone else is here, especially a man. Rick said, Well, he's pretty relaxed. I think we should try it. The worst that will happen is he will run home to the yard.

He was right about that. Nico has come to see the fenced yard as his “safe place.” When challenged, that is where he wants to be. No one makes demands on him there, and from the vantage point of a large but enclosed space with lots of hiding places, he has the freedom to make his own decisions about what he does, who he gets close to, and who gets close to him. On the rare occasions when he has gotten loose and taken off in a panic, instead of running away, he runs straight into his yard.

So we went walking and at the appropriate place, unleashed the dogs. Nico did not, as we had hoped, act like nobody was there with us. Instead he went right up to Brian, our male visitor, put his nose under his hand and demanded attention.

Small gains indeed! Nico was acting like a normal, well-adjusted Malamute, “friendly upon invitation” as the breed standard describes the ideal Mal temperament. A stranger to Nico's situation would not comment. But for us, remembering always that poor scared creature of three years ago who would not come out of his crate, this was incredible. That our Nico, when given the option to run off into the woods, would choose to return to greet a stranger and allow him to handle him instead: this was indeed cause for celebration.

Three years have passed since we began with this dog, and still he grows and develops. Our friend asked us what we expected when we first got Nico. Did we think then about how long it would take to bring him around? I told him, “When I saw how scared Nico was, I found myself treating him like a wild animal. He had obviously no reason to trust anything human, and there was no guarantee he would ever get past his fear enough to find one. So I figured our job was to see he was safe, housed and fed, show him kindness in what ways he would allow. Anything from him, any signs of trust and confidence I considered a gift to be hoped for, but not sought.”

Over the years, Nico has not only given us his trust, but also returned to us his own affection. Yet he still surprises us. Just at the moment when I think, “It's been three years. He's a mature dog. This is probably as good as it's going to get,” he shows us yet another measure of confidence and ease.

I should know better though: it's always a mistake to underestimate what a Malamute might do next. I am also pretty sure that Nico's most recent gains have a lot to do with Benny's presence While Benny is still too much of a puppy to act as a “leader” to Nico in times of uncertainty, we have noticed that Nico has become more relaxed and more grown-up in so many ways since he is now “big brother”to little Benny. When we were still just thinking about bringing a puppy into our pack our vet, who is very wise in the ways of critter-life said, “I'm sure another dog will do Nico more good than any human ever could.” It would appear she was right! Our Nico continues to evolve into the dog he was meant to be, showing us  indeed, you can get along alright, but isn't it always better with a little bit of help from a friend.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Back Story: "Over-faced"

You will notice a new entry under "Back Story". "Over-faced" is about one of the ways I managed to get Nico to over come his panic at the sight of new people or new things.  New people, especially men and teenage boys, have been a challenge for Nico from the very beginning. Yet over the past few months he has become positively friendly to both boys and men, at least when we are at home or walking in the woods and fields.  "Over-faced" is about one of the things I  did when confronted with Nico's fear in the presence of new people or in circumstances he found challenging.   This writing is not meant to be taken as training advice. Nico is a very special dog with issues specific to him. It is offered solely in the spirit of sharing the insights I have gained from having the opportunity to get to know my Nico, and in celebration of the gift which is his trust.

Nico, supported by me and my niece
enjoying an extended family party away from home.
Everyone there was a relative: does it get any scarier than that?
Publish Post

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Up and Running 
I think fasting before surgery is stupid.
I'm going to need all the strength I can get before this over.

Indeed!  Benny has fully recovered from his surgery and is back to normal activities.  He was so very happy to be running again! And he is back to being our preternaturally calm Malamute puppy instead of doing all those crazy things purely for want of a good run that land Malamutes in Rescue (if they're lucky), the pound or worse if they are not.  Benny is a very easy puppy in many ways, but he is an Alaskan Malamute and that means energy! It only took about forty eight hours after the surgery for him to feel like his normal self again, but our vet counselled a much longer period of restricted activity to ensure sound healing.  So it was leash walks only, no running, no jumping, no playing, no fun!  Because the play with Nico is so rough and Benny  was so easily excited for want of real exercise, we could not allow them to even walk together.  The longing looks cast by both parties across the lawn as we put Benny in his kennel, Nico in the yard, day after day, were enough to break your heart.  Fortunately, by the end of seven long days, our vet pronounced Benny fit to resume activities, and re-integration with Nico involved nothing more than saying "Yes!" 

So here they are, being young and strong and Malamute, together. 




Did I say Malamute? 


Saturday, November 6, 2010

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face...

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the empty skies my love
To the dark and the empty skies. 

These are the lines that come to mind when I contemplate  any of the dogs who've shared their lives with me. The song written by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger goes on in a way that can only apply to a human lover, but I cannot think of any better words than these to express the feeling when I look into a dog's eyes and know he or she is coming home with me.  There are many ways to describe our response to these warm hearted creatures.  Dogs have always been important to me, perhaps because I am not very good with people. Dogs on the other hand never tell lies and their devotion has nothing to do with the lies we tell ourselves. They are completely without moral scruple, and social judgement. They just do what instinct tells them in the moment.  I find fathoming just what that might be on a day to day, moment to moment basis  eminently refreshing to my spirit and soothing to my mind. Anyone who has had and cared for a dog knows they leave behind a gift that defies definition but leaves a soft spot  in even the most flinty of hearts. 

Benny has been making his way into our hearts since the first moment I saw his face just like any other dog I've ever had. And yet no two dogs are ever the same any more than any other two individuals might be and Benny's  ways of endearing himself to us are all his own.  Here he is, doing what Benny does, over the last few weeks, as he has become an irreplaceable part of our family.

Toys! Amazing what you find you've got when you clean your room!

This is the House Manners IQ test. Notice the gloves. The clock is ticking. Will Benny choose the gloves or a toy? 

YES!  He chooses the toy! Good Benny! 

A friend told us a prince like Benny needed a four poster bed....
That was fine until Sebastian came home from university!

Hey! Look who's sleeping in my bed?  That ain't no Goldilocks!

Oh. I guess he's alright. At least until that blonde chick comes back! (or was it a Golden? --Is it the boy or the dog talking here?)
 Hey!  That cat can sing!

Benny: "Ok. I hear a cat. But I don't see a cat. I don't even smell a cat. "
Sebastian: "This is my fiddle Benny. They don't make the strings out of cat gut anymore."
Benny: "Oh. They did that once? Seems like  a terrible waste."

Thunder and Benny: Carbon Copies

Let's Play!

Benny... Are you in there?

Friday, November 5, 2010



It's been a while since my last post but not because we haven't been having interesting developments in the Benny-Nico integration project.  I have  been doing some other writing which has taken my attention, but have managed to get the next installment of the beginning of Nico's Story ready. I've just posted it, so if you are interested in what happened after Nico came home, how we got him out of the truck and into our lives, check it out on the "Back Story" pages under the title, Nico's Story Part II: WAITING.

Apart from that though I thought I would report that Benny was neutered on Wednesday. All went very well, but a result he is on leash exercise only, no running, no jumping, no climbing, for anywhere from a week to ten days.  That adds up to no playing with Nico because what they do together is run, jump and climb all over each other!

Before surgery Benny weighed in at a little over 69 pounds. He's a very lean puppy and we have to work to keep his ribs from showing too much, so we know its all dog. He's going to be one big boy!  We could already see that he was almost as tall as Nico, and at 69 pounds now we know he's even a little bit heavier.  He's already showing his strength and because he gets lots of exercise there is no reason not to expect him to just to get stronger.  Nico remains of course faster, more co-ordinated and experienced in his movements, therefore dominant in the relationship.  We will be watching closely though to see what happens when they get back together as we could already see, before the play stopped last week, that Nico is feeling Benny's strength and size.  Also Benny will be at the stage where serious testing begins. But so far we have no reason not to expect things will go well enough.

Meanwhile, on the  entertainment front: Benny has discovered mirrors. I caught him in the bedroom the other day falling in love with his image, then running away and back again to see if that good looking dog with no scent at all was still there!  He remains a most affectionate pup, lapping up the cuddles now that go with non-stop supervision to make sure he doesn't lick his incision.  He's on a short leash all of the time right now, which means an opportunity to work on training. He's actually pretty good at a full attention heel and can do all the patterns on loose leash or without it entirely. But on the trail I let him go out front and do not correct him if he pulls forward: he is after all, a sled dog with a pulling career, however amateurish on my part, ahead of him.  He is incredibly powerful however, so I am glad that I have worked on come, finish (which gets him around to the heeling side) and then heel for when he is excited. He does it really well when its just me and him. Distractions however are something we'll start working with more seriously now that he's crossed the six month mark and more can be asked of his attention span.

So that's an update for Benny's breeder and anyone else interested in the developmental progress of this particular pup.   My next installment will likely be about what happens when we get Nico and Benny back together, and how the relationship develops.   Benny and Nico look longingly across the yard at each other,  but at least they can each still be with Thunder, separately.  When Thunder is on leash or in the house he ignores all play overtures from Benny, so they can be together despite the exercise restrictions. As for Nico, when he sees  Thunder coming his tail always does that slow heavy swing, a particular greeting reserved for the old guy who helped him find his comfort  here from the very first hour he arrived. They are still spending lots of time together in the yard. Thunder, being the consummate manager that he is, seems to have enough patience and control over his space to share part of each day and night with each dog, all the while  insisting on the rest his senior status dictates.  There is no question: my boys have formed a pack, with Benny very much included, Thunder very much in charge or at least, quite capably  taking over where we leave off, and Nico, my golden Nico happier and more relaxed than I've ever seen him be.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Its About Time: Nico's Story, First Conact

Its About Time: Nico's Story, First Contact

You will notice under "BackStory" a new entry, "Nico's Story, First Contact."  If you are interested in   what happened after Nico's crate landed at the Ottawa airport you will find it there.  It is the first installment of Nico's own story. There will be more, soon.

Meanwhile in the day-to-day context, Benny and Nico are getting along very well.  But the news today is all about Thunder.  Thunder seems to have taken Benny under his wing, quietly, and without fanfare, just as he did with Nico when he came here, albeit very differently.  For Benny is a different dog than Nico, his needs are different, and Thunder, always the prince of economy in effort, just does what has to be done.  Benny, unlike Nico is a supremely confident young pup and has never been given reason to distrust anybody. He is calm but bold, careful, yet not fearful. He is also absolutely tenacious about getting what he wants.  He is so much like Thunder in these characteristics, you'd think they were a father and son team, and not perfect strangers but a month ago.

Last night all three dogs  ended up coming in the house because it was raining.  Nico sleeps upstairs with my husband Rick. Nico  and Benny will play incessantly all night if left together, so Benny and Thunder stay downstairs with me. At five a.m Benny was a bit restless, but then came and got into bed with me. At 5:30 Thunder started pacing, and finally came in and starting pushing me with his nose. I took him and Benny outside: Benny had a big pee and a poop, Thunder nothing. I swear to the dog-gods Thunder was telling me,  Benny needs to go out and if you fall asleep before you take him you will have a mess to clean up. Get with it.

Benny for his part has been getting old Thunder to play! It's quite fun to watch: Benny runs, and Thunder runs too, cutting the pup off. Benny runs into him and falls the ground. Benny leaps up and  cuts across in front of the old man, so he can get "hit" again. Once or twice is enough for Thunder, but we've never seen him play like that before and it is absolutely delightful.  

Thunder refuses to accept invitations to the kind of wrestling play Nico and Benny enjoy.  Nor has he ever responded to Nico's attempts to engage him in any kind of contact.  He is old and smart, too old to win at wrestling and too smart to allow the young boys the opportunity to test him. He is indeed a grand old man, our Thunder.  I sure hope he stays with us for a few more years yet. Apart from how I feel about him as just himself, he is so good with both Nico and Benny: they rely on him, and so do I.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Phase I

Phase I

Benny and Nico are now without a doubt good friends. When they are apart they agitate for togetherness and they are now spending more time with each other both on the trail and in the yard. In the yard, they are always still supervised but I intervene less and less in their activity as they seem to have developed their own understanding of how to get along.

But before I can leave them alone in the yard I just need to see that Nico will leave Benny alone when he is tired of playing and running. Sometimes I feel we are close to that; when I sit or lie down with me between them, they readily comply, and will rest quietly for a few minutes. But Nico has yet to show me that he will stand down on his own initiative when the puppy is clearly asking for a break. Sometimes it seems to me that he just gets more intense when Benny starts slowing down. I have to tell you: Benny is one spunky puppy. He doesn't give up, and when I try to take him out of the yard because I think he needs a rest, he lately just runs right back in. Clearly he prefers being in the yard and with Nico, to any other options. But there are times when I can see that Benny has had enough, that Nico is not going to let up without my intervention, and then it is time to separate them.

Benny, for his part, is very clever: when he doesn't want to play anymore he finds a likely place and starts digging. On a good day this shifts Nico's attention; before long Nico is digging, and Benny is resting! Better yet, yesterday when Benny called, “Dig break”, Nico just stood back and watched. Then he went and got the pull toy and started chewing.

I do still have to watch and probably will continue to do so until Benny is big enough and strong enough to resist Nico physically when he's had enough. Benny will be bigger than Nico soon enough, but it will be a long time before he is as coordinated, muscled and just plain tough as Nico who was operating in full survival mode on his own before he was eight months old.

However as Benny grows Nico is also showing him all his best moves. I watch and see how Benny imitates, learns and develops the physical attributes that go with playing with a wiry, supple and extremely clever dog like Nico. Hopefully, as he grows and is able to assert himself both dogs will continue to use their strength for play, but also that Benny will be able to assert himself enough to gain Nico's respect, and a little bit of space when he needs it.

Overall though what we are seeing is that Nico is maturing into a kind of considerate gentleness that defies the violence of his formative experience and the nervousness bequeathed him by it. While Benny and Nico initially both enjoyed the pull-toy game, initially I had to hold the rope until Benny got a grip. He was very wary of grabbing the end from Nico. This was probably wise: Benny, despite being or perhaps because he is just a pup, has a pretty good reading on what he can and cannot get away with.

Then, a couple of days ago I brought home a new, longer rope, which gives them a bit more space between each other. Nico loves new toys, and so even before I could set them up for a pull, Nico had the rope and was running around the yard. But after one lap, he ran straight over to to Benny and started dragging the rope along Benny's flank, rubbing him with it. Benny turned and grabbed the rope, and the game was on!

It was the nicest thing to see coming from a dog who likes to play with toys, but does not like to share. Benny had already figured out that taking a toy from Nico was not a good idea. But here was Nico coming up with a way to allow them to engage over a toy without going face to face. Benny for his part is true stubborn Malamute – once he has a hold, he does not let go, Nico holds back on his strength and so they play!

I said before Nico has never let me down. We began this whole integration project with some uncertainty, and while I'm sure there are many things left to work through, I can see that both Nico and Benny are ready to spend the rest of their lives growing together. As Benny grows and Nico shows what he's made of, I am reminded time and again: if you believe in your Malamute, and help him through the rough spots, he will come through for you every time. 
Phase one of the integration project is coming to a close. As he approaches six months of age Benny's puppy license will run out. What comes next will be about Benny testing his strength against Nico, and Nico working hard to maintain his status as the dominant member of the team. Benny will be neutered soon however, and we hope that that will mitigate the influence of testosterone in the formula. Neutering is no guarantee of reduced aggression between same sex dogs, but it sure can help!

Nico was neutered a long time ago. His issues are not so much those of dominance as of simply not knowing when to quit, of having such an excess of nervous energy that he simply winds up instead of easing off when everyone else is worn out. We see this as a legacy of his formative experience being fraught with violence and uncertainty as much as anything, for in the absence of negative stimuli Nico does behave calmly, thoughtfully, and towards Benny, with consideration. 

Its going to be an interesting ride as Benny comes into his maturity but I learn more about each of them everyday. The more I learn, the more I am grateful to Rescue for saving Nico's life and sending him to me. He is indeed my golden Mal: he does and always will make me happy. And now, I think its about time I set to writing about his early days with us, and how he came to settle into his life here, and into my heart.  

Nico: Pure Gold

Friday, October 8, 2010

Back to Basics

Nico and Benny Running Hard

Back to Basics

It is now close to two weeks since I first reported on Benny and Nico's debut in the play yard together. Since then things have progressed in all ways: they are learning, I am learning, and no one has gotten into a big fight yet, not even me and my husband Rick!

Well, not quite anyway! Some interesting things have emerged from the work we are doing together with the boys in the yard. Ror a couple of weeks now Nico has been trying to remind me of something he taught me early on in our relationship, but that I seem to forget now and then.

A little bit of back-story is required here to make sense of this. When Nico first came here he was too scared to come in the house at all. I began by carrying him inside, and then sitting on the sofa with him in my arms. Eventually he got to thinking inside the house wasn't so scary a place after all, and was able to walk around, and lie down on the floor like any other dog. But at the least disturbance – someone else coming into the room, a noise somewhere in the house, his first impulse was to take whatever he could get a hold of – – gloves, slippers, the sofa (yes I mean – the sofa!) - and run . If you tried to shut this down by saying “No” in a loud a loud voice as you would to a puppy, or reached out to catch him, he just ran faster while swallowing whole whatever he had grabbed.

We curtailed this behavior initially by simply keeping him on a leash as you would with any puppy. This way, if he took something other than his toys, I could work my way down the leash towards him with the intention of taking the remote or whatever else he'd stolen from his mouth. Unlike a puppy however, he would growl in a way that had to be taken seriously as I approached him. So I started carrying bananas in my pockets. If he took something, instead of approaching him, I would sit down, start peeling and then eat the banana well within his view.

You can see where this is going: the first step was Nico coming close to me, the second was dropping the object so he could take a piece of banana.  I would then cover the object with my foot and evenutally retrieve it. Well, o.k. It didn't quite work like that in the beginning. For Nico the first step was trying to eat the banana with the sofa cushion still in his mouth. But we got past all of that. He is now able to wander around the house loose, without going into panic mode at every little stimulus. But on occasion when the shoplifting urge hits, he will most of the time give up what he steals if I remain calm. 

That's the key though, isn't it? Its a basic principle of training. Every manual says it: “Remain calm.” Excitement on the part of the handler just escalates the animal's excitement and leads to exaggerated behaviors, usually undesirable. The other part is to remember to whom you speak. Benny is a puppy who has never been mistreated in his life. He can handle, “No,” and “no” is a very important part of a puppy's vocabulary. Most dogs can handle a fairly serious “no” without over-reacting, and learn readily what is on and what isn't. But Nico on the other hand is and always will be a damaged dog. He pretty much behaves himself both inside and out of the house now, but when a human shows any aggressive behavior at all, he reverts to panic behaviors, even if he's not really scared..

I have schooled myself,  when Nico steals, to sit down, and say quietly “I love you Nico.” He looks up from his booty, then comes over to see if I'm willing to back that statement with a banana or some other edible sign of affection. If all is to his liking, he will give up his prize with that Malamute smile that says, “Got you!”

The reason why I am revisiting this aspect of Nico's behavioral profile is this: in the play yard, we have been stepping in when the play gets rough with big “no” and pulling Nico back. Then one day, Benny went down with Nico on top, I could not get a hold of Nico right away so started saying very big, very loud No. Then I was able to grab Nico and pull him off, at about the same time I heard growling and squealing.

I reacted immediately to the growling and squealing: I pulled on Nico's collar, and said in a loud voice, “The Puppy is Mine,” and demanded a submissive down. He did it, but I didn't feel good about the whole business.

No one was hurt, Benny was ready to go right back to play, so he wasn't scared. Nico was subdued: he takes correction from me very seriously. And I felt like I'd done something wrong. I found myself wondering if I'd caused the escalation from wrestling to growling. I started reviewing what goes on when the play gets too rough and crazy. I started to see that Nico seems to get more excited when I raised my voice and if I grabbed at him, lunged towards Benny with more intensity. I replayed the incidents in the house when Nico would steal something and all the big “No” did was make him run around in crazy circles, swallowing.

Thunder is sitting beside me as I write this, shaking his head. I'm telling him, Thunder, you have to understand, humans escalate problems between animals is because we get excited too, and anxious.

Thunder says, “Anxiety makes you stupid.” Yes Thunder. But I'm getting it now. Maybe I needed to remember “Nico I love you” in the yard play too. Instead of grabbing and shouting “No,” I ought to try, “Let's go for a walk now.” 

Correction does have its place. After I'd corrected Nico for that last incident which had led to growling and squealing, I could see he was trying not to engage in contact play. But Benny tires of running after Nico, and even more quickly when Nico chases him. Still, both dogs clearly want to play. So I tried throwing a toy into the equation. This looked a lot like throwing a basket ball into a group of young lads about to brawl for want of something to do with their energy! Nico loves to be chased when he has a toy, and once again, the play was on!

Nico doesn't share very well however, and has yet to learn that if he doesn't give up the toy now and again, he'll end up playing alone. Benny, for his part, really wants contact with Nico. Every chance he gets, Benny invites Nico to wrestle with him as no doubt he was accustomed to doing with his litter mates. So Nico found a compromise: Benny wants to wrestle, Nico wrestles, with toy in his mouth! If the puppy insists on jumping on him, Nico grabs a toy and jumps back at Benny without letting go of the toy. This is the funniest thing to see, especially if the toy is the big plastic purple ball, one of Nico's favourites, other than Benny that is! The best game so far is tug-a-war with the rope toy. This game allows Benny to get very close to Nico, while Nico's teeth are firmly fixed in the rope. I take it as a sign of Nico's desire to play that he does not work very hard to pull Benny off his feet and capture the toy. Instead he seems to give him just enough slack to allow him to hold his own, and the game goes on!
Come on Benny: Hold On!

I honestly don't know how long Nico will sustain this “hands-off” kind of play. Benny gets a little more bold with each play session, and clearly wants the contact. Any strategy that relies on distraction to deter a natural behavior eventually wears out, and contact play is very natural to dogs. A couple of times now Nico has let go of the toy, but he is also playing with a lot less force at those times. That tells me that even if the toy falls by the wayside, Nico has become a lot more conscious of the other dog as a playmate, rather simply something to overpower.

Meanwhile Benny grows bigger and stronger every day. Soon he will hold his own with Nico; by then we hope that both Benny and Nico will be so used to each other, the drive to assert status that comes with maturity will be far outweighed by habits of playfulness we are encouraging now.

Nico's hypersensitivity to correction of any sort has brought me to see how to achieve a great deal by gentle means. In the play-yard I am continually reminded of the need. How many of us have escalated dog-dog interaction into dog fights by engaging aggressively ourselves? Of course it can be hard to judge; there are times when you do have to wade in and just shut the whole thing down. If you're lucky you get there before anything bad happens. But upon reflection I have yet to see a time when yelling at a dog-fight already in progress stopped anything. I do not pretend to think that “I love you Nico” is going to stop a fight once it starts. But what Nico is clearly telling me is that if I stay in control of myself, play will likely remain play and there will be no fighting to stop.

Thunder, for his part, asked me to make a correction in this blog. The other day when I was waxing enthusiastic about Nico's excited desire to play with Benny I said Thunder told me to “Stay in control of your dog,” Thunder begs to differ: He says, “No. That's not it at all. You can't control your dog. All you can control is yourself. Think about it.”

Alright Thunder. I'm thinking.  And I'm keeping the bananas ready.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How Do I Love Thee?


How Do I Love Thee?

All day yesterday Thunder was acting very strangely . Then he didn't eat his supper, very un-Thunder, and shortly after was sick. At first we wondered if he'd had a minor stroke, later it seemed he'd being struck by some sudden infection or illness. Today, however, he seems back to his normal self.  We are investigating the source of whatever his problem was or is, but Rick and I are not the only ones relieved at his apparent recovery. Because we weren't sure what was wrong with him, and because he was acting so strangely, we kept him out of the play yard and isolated from Benny and Nico.

That meant that except when I took Benny up to play, Nico was alone in the yard. The play-yard integration program continues apace -- a discussion of our strategies and progress  there over the last week or so is forthcoming -- but the two young boys are not ready to be left alone there yet. So Nico slept alone, spent most of his yard-time alone. He doesn't protest; he has lots of space up there and is endlessly entertained by squirrels and other small creatures with a death wish who find their way near by.  He gets out for hours of  long walks with me, and shorter walks with Benny, and his house time when he lies by my side at my desk remains important to him. But this morning when Thunder came into the yard with him as usual, Nico's relief and happiness was unmistakable.

It's not that there were effusive greetings and expressions of concerns such as workplace friends exchange when someone returns from an illness. Nico just followed Thunder around the yard, very close for a few minutes, his tail drifting slowly backwards and forwards. Then they both lay down, close together, like they always do, very relaxed, the picture of mutual ease and contentment.

We are of course delighted that Thunder has bounced back from whatever it was that afflicted him yesterday. Our vet is carefully guiding us through the possible implications of the physical signs and his behavioral changes. If and when a cause is found we will treat him accordingly. However Thunder is somewhere around twelve years old. That's a pretty good age for a Malamute, and although we hope to have him in our daily lives for many more years yet, the Benny initiative is driven by the sure knowledge that the time will come, likely sooner rather than later, for him to leave us all behind.

That will be a heart breaker, not just for us, but, as this morning's happy reconciliation scene shows, also for Nico. So we continue to work at the Benny integration project. Our success there is tinged with just a undertone of regret at the necessity. But Benny is very steady, sensible puppy, and well on his way becoming a smart, well adjusted, thinking dog. Even if we were not anticipating needing another dog to become Nico's outdoor companion, he would be a fine addition to our lives. He brings us much delight and happiness. He has compelled Nico to a maturity and controlled way of being with other dogs he could not have attained any other way. All three of our boys are teaching us more about dog-dog relationships than any behavioral dissertation or training manual could ever describe.

Necessity drives change; but change is a chance to learn and to grow. As always, our dogs lead the way.  Rick and I were sitting at the table the other day and one of us said, “How do I love thee?” And we answered as one, “Let me count the dogs.” Benny could not have come too soon because he is a great dog in his own right. We hope to be counting our love by way of three dogs for many days and nights to come, but yesterday's experience affirmed for us that we should not have waited any longer before bring another dog home.  We cannot help but be grateful to the dog-gods for sending us Benny with his particular strengths of character and personality to keep our pack whole.  

As for Thunder he was, is and always will be the love of my life.  Last night he slept near me: we kept him in so I could watch for trouble. He lay quietly beside me,  his breath coming easy now, his big chest moving up and down in its normal, easy ryhthm, and I told him

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, -- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! -- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.*

These lines are Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, who also loved dogs. Even though she penned this sonnet to a man, I'm sure she knew such pure commitment of heart could only be met in kind by a dog.

Thunder in his prime. Me too, broken wrist not withstanding.

(*Sonnet, "How do I love thee," Elizabeth Barrett Browning, text in public domain.)