You Are My Sunshine...

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.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Totally Malamute

Totally Malamute

Benny and Nico have moved into another phase of their relationship. Although they do not sleep together yet in the yard (maybe we're a little old fashioned about that?) Nico seems to be taking seriously his role as “big brother” to little Benny as he adjusts to life here. The other morning Benny woke up early and started to yip. This time Nico, instead of singing Benny to sleep, let out a long howl which Benny answered with one, much shorter and weaker, of his own. Now here's where it gets interesting: Before Benny was finished, Nico joined him precisely at the interval of an octave, drawing out a long low baritone note to Benny's youthful tenor. It was stunningly accurate! Then they began to sing together, Nico matching and focusing Benny's pitch like every other operatic singing teacher I've ever heard in the studio.

Totally Malamute. Totally cool.