You Are My Sunshine...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

3 Dogs Full

Nico demonstrates
The Infamous Malamute
Aerial Sit

Three Dogs Full

Despite the scare our Thunder gave us last fall when his inexplicably strange behavior suggested a stroke, it is to our unmitigated delight we find we remain a three dog house.   Better yet, all three dogs get along in the house, and out of it.  As winter wears on we find that Thunder more and more likes to stay inside, while Benny and Nico enjoy the cold, and each other, outside in the play yard. And yet, all three dogs make it clear they want to spend time with each other.  It is as we hoped, and better.  We are grateful, for Thunder's continued presence in our lives, and hope that our household continues to be three dogs full for along time yet. 

Don't you just hate it when they take the pictures from on high?
Makes us look like we have no legs.

 Hey Benny, Tell you a secret....
Nico says the purple ball is really  an alien communication device.
I don't think I believe him. Do I?
Hello? Anybody listening?
Say what? Benny, Call home?

Malamutes are the original 40 below dogs.  So on a cold and wintry night where will you find them?

On the sofa, next to the fire!

Stand for Examination?

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Stand for Examination?

The "stand for examination" command is one of those obedience class exercises that seems to have little purpose unless you intend to go to trial with your dog, or  show him or her in the breed ring.  In the breed ring handlers use treats to bait the dog so he  will stand up tall and gorgeous while the judge walks around and judges his overall structure.  Then the judge runs  her  hands over the dog to see if the competitor feels sound.  In the obedience ring, the judge does similar things as I recall, to see if the dog will stand still for it.

But in any  "normal,"  non-testing context what exactly is it worth that your dog will reliably stand and stay on request? Well, grooming I suppose is one of those times when it would be nice to have a dog stand still, not that any obedience trained dogs I ever worked on, including my own, could ever be counted on to stand still without hands on support when I hit a knot.  Veterinary examination is another moment when it could help, though  most dogs stand still enough if you hold on to them for that. Nonetheless, it always helps to have a word a dog understands that means get on your feet, no tap dance please.

However there is one context where the "stand" word is absolutely essential.  I wrote last time about how Nico is seriously troubled by snowshoes. Every winter we start all over again in terms of settling him down around them.  Well, young Benny is of course completely the opposite. He loves snow shoes!  They are more fun than big fuzzy bedroom slippers.  You can grab the wood and chew: this is especially fun when the  wearer is mid stride. You can stand on the rawhide deck. This is the best if you do it right when the wearer is about to pick up their foot!  Best of all, when the wearer falls down  you lie on the shoes. Snowshoes are big enough that a young malamute can get a lot of body weight on that surface.

Being the wearer of the snowshoe when the young Malamute has decided to lie down on the shoe I can tell you that when this happens  it is impossible to stand up. Benny thinks this is hilarious. Further to his fun, he has found he is long enough in the body to lick my face while still keeping most of his body weight on at least one if not both of the snowshoes.  Meanwhile of course, Nico is trying to get away.  After all, what does a pup know?  Snowshoes are scary.

I am no gymnast.  At least, I've never been one before. But every time a young Malamute comes into my life I do find I can bend and twist and achieve leverage in ways I never thought physically possible. Come to think of it, they probably aren't possible, but necessity has a way of overriding the limitations of Newtonian physics.

Then, I had a  Eureka moment!  One day as I was lying in the snow watching the distance increase between  my hyper-extended right arm (Nico's leash)  and my twisted and bent left arm (Benny's leash), while pinioned by my snowshoes under a giggling Benny, one word came to mind: STAND.  Yes!  Stand for Examination!  We'd only just starting working on this one, Benny and me. Its a tough thing for a pup because heretofore if you're not  moving, its always "sit" or "down." If you're on your feet, its "Heel," or "Come."  Stopping means sitting. Anyway, lying there on the ground enjoying that Spa Malamute double treat, the snowbath with  face wash, I tried it.

Benny, Benny?  Benny: WATCH ME.  No Benny, I don't want you to lick my face, just pay attention. Now "Stand."  No hand signal of course. I had a leash in each hand and Nico was on the end of one of them,  already standing, watching all of this with no small concern.  I'll make a long story not too much longer by telling you that eventually Benny did stand. Of course, he stood on the snowshoes quite immovably for a while. This is because at this stage all of our go out signals involve me moving my feet.  So Benny  stood quite calmly, solidly still, and it was time  for the  Spa Malamute flexibility test. That involves rising up off the ground, going straight up without moving your feet. But evenutally we got on our way.

You can be sure that "stand" has now become a much more important word to us, and you can be sure I am also working on "go out" as a total verbal signal.  In fact Benny's got "stand" going on pretty consistently now, he just hasn't quite got  understand the next part, "Stand, but not on my snowshoes!"

One of the most delightful things about bringing Benny into our family is the way he is making Nico feel a lot more relaxed about all kinds of things, including snowshoes.  I've had the snowshoes out for about two or three weeks now, and even Nico is getting better about  staying  staying still while I put the shoes on.  But  Nico still gets scared if I fall down. His first reaction then  is to pull away.  The other day though, Benny decided to stop dead in his tracks right in front of me. His big feet were of course squarely placed on the deck  on my snowshoe. So I fell, I fell hard. My knee hit a rock the ones that grow in the snow, just out of sight.

 I did not curse.  But  I did say something and I said it loud.  It might have been, "BENNY You are ADORABLE".   

Benny thinks he's adorable too, so he licked my face.  But even before he could get started, there was Nico right by Benny's side.  He'd come, despite his fear of the snowshoes, closer to the snowshoes than ever before,  on his own volition.  His goal was to  get Benny out of there before the shoes got him.  Really.  There is no other explanation.  Benny did as he always does when Nico seems to be upset about something that makes no sense to him. He laid down and said "Lets make snow-dog-angels".  

All in all, Benny's insistence on intimate relations with my snowshoes seems to help reassure Nico, in a way that I have not been able to over the years, that  there's nothing to fear from the big shoes, at least not on my watch.  There are other ways in which Nico has shown that Benny's steadiness settles him.  Benny is the younger dog and he looks to Nico to take the lead. But his confidence that the world is essentially a benevolent place has never been shaken, and hopefully never will be. They are a pretty good team:   should Benny's easy view of the world  ever prove wrong, he's got Nico looking out for him. Meanwhile Nico jumps less at shadows, saving his nerves for when it counts, and mine! 

Rawhide is pretty tough.
Maybe these snowshoes will live to see another day!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thunder: Still in charge!

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 You boys:
I want to know what you did with that  cat
and I want to know now.

Stand by... er.. stand on me?

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Stature has nothing to do with height.
But when in doubt, take the high ground where ever you can find it! 

"Let's Go!"

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We finally have enough snow to get the skis out, barely, but just enough.  Nico enjoys the running he gets to do once we get going on the skis, but he remains nervous of the hook-up and the skis themselves.  The same is true of the snowshoes.   Nico's first winter here was a one where the snow was hip deep some places in the woods.   Initially when he was running away from me on the long lead I had to plough through that just in my boots.  Needless to say my legs got very strong!  I brought the snowshoes out, thinking it would just be a matter of him getting used to them but the moment he saw them he cowered in the dog house.  They were not new to him, they were terrifying! So I left them standing in a snowbank outside the kennel for a day thinking he just needed to see them. I was wrong:   I could not get him to come out of the kennel with them anywhere in view.   I tried lying them down in the snow, near the kennel. That helped: now he would bolt out of the kennel and run as fast as he could to get away from them.

We usually have lots of snow, this winter and last being abysmal exceptions.  Without snowshoes, walking  in the woods off the packed trails is impossible. The trails themselves are impassable until I have broken them down with the snowshoes. If we were going to walk Nico would have to learn about snowshoes.  I began by taking the snowshoes into the kennel, lying them down, and sitting on them.  I'd place treats strategically so that Nico would have to come out of the house to get the first round and come close to the shoes for the second.  Eventually I hoped he would actually step on the shoes and take treats from the rawhide lattice itself.

It took a couple of weeks, beginning with many days of absolutely no movement from Nico.  But eventually he came out of the house with the shoes there, and in time we got to the place where if I put the snowshoes on ahead of time, Rick could hand me Nico on the long flexi.  Nico would take off as soon as I lifted a foot, and I got good at running on snowshoes.

My snowshoes are the traditional type, Ojibwa style  with long tails, not the kind that are a little larger than your boots, have little float and are meant for use on professionally groomed trails.   Needless to say I fell down a lot, which scared Nico further.  So I cultivated playing dead. When I fell down I would just lie there in the snow while Nico strained on the leash to get away from the evil ground beasts attached to my feet.  I lay perfectly still however for long periods of time. Eventually, as dogs do in the absence of stimuli, he forgot about his fear, became curious and came in for a look. When he finally got close enough to sniff my face and lick my cheeks I quietly told him he was a good dog. Moving slowly I would get up. Initially this just caused him to run away again, but in time he came to see that all that happened when I fell down, was I got up and we continued our walk.  Even better, when he came in to see if I was still alive,  he got a cookie.

Nico would never have anything to do with treats when he was in full panic.  Holding out a treat when he was like that would just send him skittering away.  The trick is always to sit very still and let the lack of movement or sound persuade him that nothing was happening.  I also never tightened up on the leash when he came in at those times. Not only did he need to see that nothing was happening, he also needed to know that he was free to get away if he choose.  That he would take a treat was a sign his panic had subsided. It was always as much of a reward for me, as it was for him.

In time of course Nico got used to the snowshoes.  I am, as we begin to collect snow in our fourth winter,  generally able to get them on and go down the trail with him without too much trouble. I had to go through the same process with the skis, Oddly enough he was not as frightened of the skis, although the flailing poles gave him pause, and he is always nervous when we start out.  He has something seriously bad in his mind about the snowshoes though. Even after all these years, the first time out each winter, he still runs away at the sight of them, and is always skittish the first few times out.

As winter progresses and the snowshoes or the skis become a daily event however, these behaviors become half hearted, habits without meaning.  Then he enjoys the freedom to go off trail the snowshoes allow us when the snow is deep, and the speeds he is allowed to run at when we ski.  I know he is enjoying it  because about two minutes into the run, the tail comes up, the ears point forward. After about ten minutes, if we stop for a breather and he lies down in the snow and wriggles like a puppy: snow bath! Then he's up again and ready to run, no signs of fear or uncertainty.

Temple Grandin, a highly respected animal behaviorist says fear is far worse for animals than pain. I read Grandin a number of years ago, and have thought about the fear versus pain equation often when working with Nico.  Nico has never been hurt since coming into Rescue.  And yet, he remains skittish, and readily reverts to fear behaviors even if just for an instance before responding more positively to the cues we have taught him.  Fear is worse than pain:  it makes sense to me. If an animal is in pain, they tend to keep quiet about it. Pain says you are already hurt therefore vulnerable.  Lie low, stay quiet, and heal.  Fear on the other hand is all about "Trouble is here. Run. If you can't run, fight."  Fight or flight is not about pain, it is about fear.

That is what we see in Nico. We don't know exactly what happened to him in his formative period that he is so fearful.  We're pretty sure he was hit and hit often because of the way he reacts to raised hands, fast motions, lifted objects.  We're pretty sure he was hurt by men because, while many dogs have a preference for men or women, Nic  run away when any  man approached, even Rick in the beginning. If he couldn't get far enough away, he would try to hide, and if he couldn't hide, the cowering and shaking was something you would not want to see.

When Nico first came to us even I could not approach him with something in my hands, not even mitts instead of gloves. And it was months before he would walk by Rick's swinging hands on the trail, and even when he would pass, he still gave those hands wide berth.  That he was hurt, and not just spooked  by certain kinds of people doing certain kinds of things, is clear from the intensity and consistency of his fear.

Hurt heals. Fear stays.  Fear is a survival mechanism.  To interfere with any animal who is trying to survive is a mistake.  So when Nico is frightened, which was all the time when he first came here, I opted for stillness. From this I learned that effective communication with my dog, any dog, begins with sitting still.  In Nico's case what it means is I sit down on the ground, and pretend I'm a rock.  It is how I got him to come to me time and again when his fear had sent him running in frantic circles.  If he was on a leash I could have dragged him in. Or if loose in the kennel, I could have cornered him.  But if I'd done that, he would not only be too afraid to learn anything other than that I was scary, but also physically unable to do anything but fight. Increasing his fear was not an object. And I certainly  did not want to test his fight threshold.

Indeed,  the first few months I had to put a chain on the first two feet of the lead, for he would and did chew  soft leashes through  with one bite at the slightest hint of entrapment.  Forced restraint only makes a scared animal more frantic.  But Nico got over all that because the second part of our approach was about choice. As much as possible, I tried to always give Nico the choice. If I sat still long enough, he could choose to come in and say hello. If he didn't, I just left, sometimes after an hour, sometimes after two. If he came in, and  I didn't try to grab him, he would run away, and then come back, staying for longer and longer periods of time until I was able to put my hand on the leash and say, "Let's go." Then he would walk with me and not attack the leash.  Soon he learned that the sooner he came in, the sooner we went for a walk. Always his choice. And nothing bad happened.

When Nico was loose, the first step had to be to get the leash on him. I learned early on that he didn't like you reaching for his collar to hook up.  He would tolerate it and not bite, but if he could he would twist and pull away.  If he had any space at all, he would run.

I do not like to keep a collar on a dog all the time anyway, so we began using a leather half choke collar on him. The half choke has the advantage of a choke collar in that it can be pulled up pretty tight when you need to make sure the dog won't slip out, but unlike a fixed buckle collar it doesn't have to be that tight all the time.  "Half-choke" is a misleading term for the device I use, as there is no "choke-collar" effect involved unless the collar is set too tight.  There is a ring, called a martingale, that prevents the collar from closing up any tighter than the chosen setting.  Our collars are always set so that they only get tight enough to prevent them from slipping over the dog's head when restraint is mandatory, not tight enough to cut off their breathing as a traditional choke collar does.

With this type of collar the opening can be made very large so it can be slipped over the dog's head. Because ours are made of about 3/4 inch wide leather and not chain, the loop does not collapse when you hold it with one hand.   I learned with Nico that trying to hold his head and put the collar on just made him wrestle to get away.  So  I turned my back to him and stood very  still, holding out the collar like you would hold our  your hand for someone to take hold.  In time I would be rewarded with the feeling of him putting his own head into the circle of the collar, then coming forward. "O.k. Let's walk together, it felt like he was saying."  That instant when he, in effect puts his hand in mine,  was and remains, the most gratifying moment for me with Nico.

Now I have grown used to a dog who puts his own head in the collar. Of course, puppy Benny doesn't do this. He's too busy wriggling around, head butting or wanting tummy rubs. But with the aid of a treat positioned on the other side of the collar rather than in the hand trying to put the collar on,  Benny is beginning  to get the hang of putting his own collar on.   I  did laugh though one day: I found myself thinking, "Hm. My spooky dog will put his own head in the collar, but I can't get this collar on puppy-skirm-a-lot to save my life!"

Which underscores just one of the many differences between workign with a dog like Nico, and bringing along a puppy like Benny. What I describe here that I do with  any of my dogs, is not meant to be taken  as a universal "training solution."  Sitting down with a puppy, as I do with Nico,  is usually taken as an invitation to play.  Sitting down in the presence of a dog with dominance issues is a mistake unless you are prepared to assert yourself from that position. I've done it, but it  requires a lot of nerve and even more critter sense.  Turning your back on a dog with dominance issues is also not something to be done unless you know what you are doing,  the dog whom you are doing it with. Indeed I do not believe in any formulaic solutions when living creatures are involved, and especially damaged ones.

If anything, what I have learned from Nico is that the key is always to watch and listen, and respect your dog's nature. Nico is, by way of whatever  bad experiences a nervous dog, and possibly just by nature, extremely sensitive.  His nervousness can be a liability, but his sensitivity, when respected, makes him a dog who is always ready to respond, and respond positively. That is, if we do our homework. There are no universals with dogs or any animals  except this: deeds not words are what matter. Dogs don't talk and they don't tell stories to remind them of what happened yesterday or to influence someone else's behavior.  With animals, what we do in this moment will determine what happens in the next. If someone asks me I say, when in doubt, do nothing. Wait for  your dog tell you where he's at, what he's thinking about, what he needs you do to in order for him to do what you want him to do.

Now I'm going skiing with Nico. He is sleeping at my feet at the moment. If I just get up, he will startle awake, and be on edge for maybe half a minute. He'll get over it because he's secure in his home here, and confident that I will always be his protector.  But if instead  of getting up, I call his name softly first, he will open and turn those golden green eyes my way. He will look at me with something akin to the sun rising out of a grey gold dawn. Then his tail will start to twitch and when I say, "Let's go!" he will leap up. It will not be to flee or to fight, but to have some fun, and together we will make joy.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Moving On, Looking Backwards

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Moving On, Looking Backwards

Folks who have  been following the story of Nico's acceptance of Benny as pack member and yard buddy have expressed real delight at the picture of my three boys together in the house.  Barring radical and unlikely changes in temperament as Benny matures I think we can say we have achieved integration!  Benny came here in September, so it took about three and half months. I underscore this because when we first talked about getting a male puppy for our pack not everyone we talked to encouraged it.  "Sending  a male Malamutes into a pet- home where there is another male Malamute is a mistake," one individual told us.  There is good reason for this.  Every now and then you see it on the Rescue lists:  Young male Malamute needs new home. Failed to get along with resident senior male."   

"You should get a female" we were told, and indeed we did look for a young female in rescue. None were to be found at that time and so we started considering other options.  Meanwhile I couldn't help but think, we have two male Malamutes already. Nico has shown that he can be domineering over females as well as males, frightening them so they dont' want to be with him.  I'm not sure gender makes the difference. 

Perhaps what has always persuaded me that Malamutes can and should be able to get along is the fact that, as sled dogs, they have to be able to run together.  I watched videos of Benny's breeder running 12  dog teams, all Malamutes.  I found myself thinking, "O.k.: one male, one female -- what sex then are the other ten that they get along so well?"  The key of course is positive leadership and respect for pack hierarchy as well for the individual value of each unique member. 

Dogs in general are pack animals, and Malamutes are supremely pack-social.  Dogs can and do get along together.  However, just as young children cannot always be expected to throw their arms around each other and embrace the possibilities of friendship, so dogs, and especially Malamutes, need time to evolve into acceptance and appreciation of a new addition.

When I compare our dogs to young children I am thinking of the age before a child has learned any of the social graces that allow them to say , "Hi, how are you," even if they are thinking, "I want you to leave because I don't want to have to share my toys."  I am also thinking of children so young that they are genuinely afraid of new things, including other children.   Possessive selfishness, territorialism and fear are all instinctive reactions to intrusion.  At the same time behaviors meant to help social creatures like humans and canines get along are also hard wired.  We saw this in Benny's behavior from the first day he came here.  The play bow, averting his eyes, rolling over and exposing the most vulnerable parts of his anatomy  to the senior dogs are things that come natural to any puppy.

As with children, its what comes next that takes a bit of training and a lot of time.  In Thunder's case we didn't have to do much. He grew up with another male Malamute, lived with him for the first four years of his life, and was trained as a sled dog to get along as a part of  multiple dog teams.  The positive handling he received from his first family  is obvious from the way he behaves with us. These learning experiences are comparable to the schooling in socialization a well-raised child receives. Thunder  has a steadiness of temperament that allows him to accept with equanimity just about anything that doesn't directly effect him, the confidence to believe he can successfully thwart anything troublesome that does, and the social skills to communicate what is and is not acceptable without  having to get serious with his teeth. If Benny bothers him, he growls. Benny, being Mal-smart, immediately backs away, lies down, does whatever is required to appease. What he does next is get up and walk around like nothing has happened, being careful to keep respectful distance. What he does not do, a did not do when he was smaller and more vulnerable, is show the weakness that can make a Malamute think a whimpering dog is prey.

Benny is like a young child who has never known mistreatment, spending his early formative period  with others like him, both children and grown-ups. He has no reason to fear, and knows by example and practice what to expect, how to behave.  Thunder, similarly is like any other grown up whose childhood  was spent in the security of a loving family, whose social judgement  suffers from  no lack of self confidence, and therefore can afford to exercise the restraint necessary to getting along with others.

Nico on the other hand had a rough start that has left him with a nervous temperament and a lack of confidence.  The signs of this remain in evidence even now when he is stressed by change and new things.  Benny's arrival set off Nico's intruder alert mechanisms.  The new puppy's entry into our home confused  him.   further.  We can only speculate on what goes on in any animal's  mind, but we could see by his agitation and regression to nervous behaviors that he was uncertain about what he was supposed to do now.  These behaviors for the most part had to do with excessive and more aggressive mouthing, stealing and running away with things, chewing on  his leash, being skittish and difficult when it came time to put on leashes for walks.

For me the learning here is all about time: Nico has taught me so much about taking time to watch and wait and listen and learn from our dogs.  He's been doing this now for three years.  Many times when I have been exasperated by his nervous refusal to come in when loose, or watching him run in crazy circles in the house chewing a new glove and  swallowing at the slightest sign of interference, and, these last few months, having to take Benny out of the yard because he was running him just too hard and too fast with no regard for the puppy's need to stop.  In moments of frustration, I  confess to thinking it may not be  too much for him, but maybe its all too much for me.  And yet, every single time, when I finally figure it out he and he gives up the glove, comes close  and of his own volition puts his head into the collar for a leash walk, and finally, lately, takes a couple of steps back from Benny and then lies down beside him in companionable peace and quiet,  my heart soars.  It is as though the whole discordant orchestra suddenly gets it all in tune at once, and plays the final resolving chord with one great contented sigh that makes everything that came before make sense.  

Nico came to us scared and lonely.  He made up to Thunder right away.  Being with that grand old man he found the certain companionship of a dog who knew how to be himself an ease that in time he was able to transfer to himself, and then to his being with us.  As fear receded he showed himself as a playful dog who liked to run and romp and enjoyed the energy of other dogs. His excitement however remained driven by a kind of nervousness that annoyed and then frightened the other dogs who came to play. Playtime with visitors ended, and soon Nico had only us and Thunder, none of whom could keep up with him, much less outrun him in play.  Nothing makes me happier then, to see Nico and Benny ripping around the yard, chasing toys and each other, and then watching them wrestle in that heart stopping way that ends when I call out and Benny stands up as if to say, "Hey Nico: let's get some cookies!"  

I don't know why it matters so much to me to see Nico lead a complete "dog-life," but it does.  He has a gentle sweet nature that manifests itself when he is relaxed and secure.  He likes to lie by my side when I write. If I am agitated he comes a presses his head against my hands telling me "I'm here. Nothing else matters."  On the nights when its his turn to sleep inside he gets up on the bed in the morning and pushes against my legs as if to say "I'm here. I don't want a hug, but I want to be closer to you."  He relies on us to keep human danger at bay while proving absolutely fearless in the woods when the chance to chase a bear presents itself. He has done heroic things for me, dragging me home on the skis choosing the easiest route when I'd gotten a stick in my eye and could not see for the pain and the brightness of the sun-ridden snow, being among the more dramatic.  He rescues me every day  from indolence by insisting on long walks despite hours of  exuberant play in the yard with Benny.   He is my golden Mal, my sunshine dog. He makes me happy. He and Benny make each other happy, and that becomes an exponential escalation.

Beethoven had this habit in his symphonies of ending movements with repeated chords, the same chord, over and over.  I understand why he did that. Malamutes, and artists like Beethoven, live every day with an intensity that others might find exhausting.  When resolution finally arrives, once is not enough. Reiteration   relaxes and then generates a renewal of rhythmic energy that resonates long after the final chord finally dies away and probably launches the next musical idea for yet another day's symphonic outpouring.

That to me is Malamute, that to me is the constant renewal of joy that comes from taking the time for a dog like Nico.