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...)