Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

Poco a poco!

Keep an eye on this blog for regular updates of Mary in New Hampshire working with her foster dog Aaron.

Mary’s Dogs Blog


Maybe it isn’t a surprise

People are usually surprised, if for some reason it comes up in conversation, to learn that I was a timid child, afraid to be away from my home until I was an older teenager. They’re surprised because for the past 25 years I have organized and led travel adventures for women and students. Prior to earning a living this way, I traveled by myself to places that required hours or days cooped up in planes. I wasn’t afraid anymore, but I used to be.

I have read that children who grow up with furry pets are less likely to develop allergies, however I was not one of them. The accumulated damp and mold of a newly opened summer cottage, pollen, cats, feather pillows, wool blankets, the family guinea pig, caused my eyes to itch, water and swell. I sneezed, wheezed and rubbed. People often ask me if I have a cold because I sound congested.

When weekend sleepovers with schoolmates were planned I could not bring myself to attend, what if there were feather pillows? wool blankets? I was embarrassed to bring my own, and truthfully, it wasn’t only the threat of an allergic reaction that kept me away. I was scared to be away from what was familiar to me. The odor of cooking cabbage seeping into the hallways and mixing with the smell of old carpeting in apartment buildings scared me. Chicken sandwiches with mayonnaise and glasses of milk, a combination I’d never had before, served at strange kitchen tables, made me anxious. Eat, be polite, keeping focused on the time I could leave.

As a young teenager, the summer between seventh grade and eighth, I was invited to spend a week with my aunt and uncle at their cottage on a lake near Plymouth MA. My aunt had three sons and always wanted a daughter so tried to bring her nieces into her life. When I was invited I accepted, I was old enough I thought, to spend a few nights away from home. I was wrong.

Almost as soon as I arrived I wanted to leave. I tried not to get caught crying in the bathroom, my stomach in a knot, disgusted with myself that all I wanted was to go home. Too ashamed to say it, I found another way. My aunt and uncle had a German Shepherd named Prince. This was back in the days when German Shepherds were still confident, friendly dogs without the anxious vigilance of so many of the lines today. Prince did make me a bit stuffy and I saw my exit and I ran for it. If I was sick I could go home, but I wasn’t sick, but I could pretend to be, so I began sneezing and rubbing my eyes, making myself wheeze when I breathed. My mother was called and I was taken to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with asthma and given pills and had the bottle for years and never needed them again.

I did finally learn to be able to sleep away from home. At age 15 I had a beautiful, blond boyfriend and if this was a different kind of blog I’d tell you more about that, but for now let’s just say that I had found a reward that was motivating enough to make me want to sleep away from home. And then during my first year in college in Ohio I hitchhiked with a friend to his home in upper state NY. I was given his sister’s room, and I had an epiphany. Her bed was a double, larger than the twins, or bunks I had at home or in college. And the bed, along with a thick quilt, had a top sheet.

I’d slept in hotels with top sheets when traveling with my parents but at home we had comforters that served the dual purpose of blanket and top sheet. Beds were easier to make that way and I never felt deprived. But in this bed in an unfamiliar, new house, I felt warm, safe and comfortable. I loved top sheets, the smooth cotton coolness that warmed to body temperature. I could have stayed in that bed forever. I began to look forward to staying at other people’s homes because I discovered that there are beds which are more comfortable than my own. Nowadays other beds have more room because there are fewer dogs sleeping in them, and I enjoy the opportunity to stretch out, and, I reluctantly admit all are infinitely cleaner due to the absence of those dogs.

What I believe made me as anxious and scared as I was, more than worrying about sneezing, was the sense I had that like someone arriving onto a sports field, I had shown up after the rules were explained and everyone, except for me, understood them. Maybe lots of people feel this way, unsure of what to say or how to behave as they navigate through childhood and adolescence. I still feel this way on occasion when I’m faced with a situation I’ve never experienced before, which could be the definition of life. Perhaps this is why my heart goes out to the dogs who are afraid, who don’t know the rules, are affronted by the scents and sounds of shelters, new homes, cars, playgrounds, city streets. The dogs who just want to be home and know nothing of the subterfuge of pretending to be something other than what they are. The very least it seems we can do is provide a place which is safe and comfortable, offer them a top sheet and maybe one day have to make room for them on the bed.


smiling woman lying down with white dogOn Mondays nights at 9:15 a fabulous group of dog lovers moderate an exchange of ideas on twitter using Tweetchat. Called ‘#dogtalk’ the topics vary as professionals, specialists and enthusiasts are invited to be guest tweeters. Last Monday’s was about dog rescue featuring Kyla Duffy of @happytailsbooks.

The conversation drifted to fostering a dog as people shared their experiences of caring for dogs that were destined to leave them for homes of their own. Finding good foster homes is a challenge for many rescue groups but can mean the difference between life or death for many dogs. Many of us admitted to failing at fostering, the dog that was suppose to be with us for only a short time was still snoozing on the couch, years later. It’s not always easy to give up these dogs.

Some foster care givers might worry about a dog forming too strong an attachment to them. Emotional attachments are responses to a person, place, thing or experience and usually are the result of positive associations (though not always but I’m not a psychologist so won’t comment on that phenomenon). I remember how difficult it was to get rid of my old VW Rabbit which I had driven cross-country 3 times during my years at college in California. It was just a car, one with a rusted out fuel tank at that, yet I hated to see it go. I loved that car and suspect I’d love it even more today with its diesel engine and almost 40 miles to the gallon fuel efficiency. A new pick-up truck helped get me through that loss.

I think of bonding as a skill and being given the opportunity to develop that skill is important. Attachment and bonding are about building relationships and having the neurochemistry in place to assure that it can happen. There are ways in which brains can go awry when it comes to forming attachments with things as in the case of hoarders, or perhaps when people love their cars. The consequences to humans who spend their infancy and early childhood without the benefit of developing bonds with caregivers can be tragic. And there are fearful dogs who are able to form attachments to their primary caregivers but not easily with other people.

The first time I met my (not fearful) border collie Finn I paid attention to how he responded to the people and dogs around him. He was friendly and outgoing with the strangers, polite and appropriate with the dogs but what clinched the deal for me was how he behaved with the woman who had been taking care of him. He was showering her with attention and face licks. I knew that if he was able to bond with her he’d bond with me. We are by my count his seventh home, including the three shelters he’d ended up in and unless he was born at the first, he’d lived with at least three other people or families. However disruptive that might have been for him, somewhere along the way he’d learn to form attachments with humans. When he came to live with us he was an old hand at it and I’m grateful to the people who handled him so compassionately.

So while you might want to guard your own heart when it comes to fostering a dog, help them develop the ability to connect and trust humans, it’s a skill that will serve them well when they find their forever home.

Some of the chains that bind don’t hurt

I hear them often, sad stories. Dogs that cower, shake, hide, run or attack, because they’re afraid. Owners who are not sure what to do, believe they’ve tried everything, wonder if there’s any hope for their fearful dog. I share what I can about the concepts of triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization, and how emotional responses cause behavioral responses, and if handlers address the emotion they’ll see changes in the behavior. An owner’s willingness to be patient may offer a dog the best odds for improvement.

Sometimes I can see the changes in person, often I hear about them. I received this email recently and I’m sharing it not to blow my own horn, but ok, what the heck ‘toot!’, but because it’s a tale of hope, commitment and the chain of love and compassion that dogs help us create, though they will never know it. Olive connected the lives of people living across the globe, giving each of us the opportunity to do something that moves and motivates us- helping dogs have better lives.

I am sharing this with the permission of the author Linda Green who was working with the group AWARE in Sumpango, Guatemala.

“We couldn’t have done it without your kind help and invaluable information on shy dogs. The foster person who received this puppy was planning to euthanize her……it was your help that convinced her to hold off and try a little harder to find a solution. So THANK YOU! We can’t save them all, but I am so happy for every one we do.

I just thought you might like to know that this very shy, fearful dog (Dee) that I wrote you about has finally found a wonderful home. She has been living with a trainer in San Francisco since shortly after your very helpful reply to my desperate plea for help. The trainer apparently took Dee on, pro bono. She is still shy, and probably always will be, but is fine with her family and the family’s dog. They love her and understand her and don’t press her for more than she can give. She is still young, and the family reports that she is slowly becoming more confident, and now enjoys her walks and playing in the yard. Thank you so much for your help, insight, and the resources you have provided in your book. It has helped me greatly in working with our shy dogs from the shelter here in Guatemala.

Here’s a note from Dees’s new owner:
‘Dee’s new name is now Olive. She has made such improvement, I can’t tell you. She will always be shy but she is actually a wonderful pet because she is good with cats and dogs and really only wants to dote on her family. She shows no fear aggression and walks great on leash, greeting people along the way. When people come in the house she is appropriate with them and doesn’t run away.’

Thanks so much again for your help-you kept us from giving up on her. We couldn’t have asked for a happier ending to this story.”

May they all live happily ever after.2 brindle dogs

You can’t always get what you want but…

white dog standing on hind legs looking up at a man

Direct eye contact isn't always a scary thing!

It’s assumed that dog trainers have the interest to work with their dogs. Whether or not the people we live with or come in contact with share our interest is another story. Years ago I made the decision that maintaining the relationship I had with my husband trumped attempting to turn him into a dog trainer or force him to share my enthusiasm for working with our dogs. Don’t get me wrong, he loves and enjoys our dogs but we are very different in regard to our interest in the whole ‘dog scene’.

When Sunny first came to live with us and I was struggling with how to work with him to achieve the most success in dealing with his fear issues I was at risk of becoming a nag.

“Don’t bend over him!”

“Stop staring at him!”

“Don’t pet his head!”

“Click now!”

“I don’t care if you stubbed your toe, don’t yell.”

“Hand feed him.”

“Ignore him.”

When other people have had to take care of Sunny it has helped his ability to feel more comfortable with them, but my husband is not inclined to be the dogs’ primary caregiver nor are all of our petsitters or guests willing to engage in a few rounds of treat/retreat, though I usually manage to cajole them into tossing a few frisbees.

One of the activities my husband enjoys engaging in with the dogs is frisbee tossing. During the past year my husband has been willing to play a round of 25 tosses almost daily (I give the guy a break, when he’s home after 5 or 6pm having been up since 4am is it any wonder his first choice may not be to head outside and play with dogs?). Finn catches the most but Sunny has his successes as well, leaping into the air, nabbing the frisbee and doing a half twist before landing. This usually prompts cheers and applause from anyone watching. Although John’s arrival home is tinged with apprehension and likely dread for Sunny, the duration of visible anxiety has become shorter and shorter with Sunny racing off to pick up a toy in anticipation of a game. We like this.

We hit upon another activity which has buy-in on both Sunny’s and my husband’s part-Hide & Seek. I’ve played this game with Sunny for years, hiding a toy or ball in pile of leaves, under the snow or around the yard, and sending Sunny off after it. It’s not clear if Sunny is actually tracking the toy by scent or merely checking all the locations I have stopped at to hide the toy, either way he loves the game. Even better it’s one more fun activity that my husband enjoys engaging in with Sunny, which makes all of us happy.

It’s not always easy to get everyone in a household onboard when it comes to training any dog, but if everyone involved can have some fun it sure helps.


While staying with friends in Costa Rica I had the chance to watch a family interacting with their 7 month old terrier mix pup. Duke (unfortunately pronounced ‘Dookie’ in Spanish) was everything you’d want in a dog; engaging, playful, responsive, friendly and cute to beat the band, a classic little scruffy Disney character.

My Spanish is limited and when the father of the family began to order Duke around (to show me his trick of rolling over) I realized that both Duke and I were in the same boat, neither of us understood what he was saying. I watched Duke as he tried his best, dropping to his belly, rolling onto his back, but even as the commanding voice got louder and the hand gestures accompanying it grew bigger and more expansive, Duke stayed belly up, unsure what his next move should be. Finally when the ‘roll over’ never occurred dad waved it off with a laugh and made a disparaging remark about the dog’s intelligence.

This experience highlighted for me the challenges dogs face in trying to learn what the heck we want from them. I suspect in Duke’s case he figured out what made the loud, commanding voices stop and did that. Perhaps he had done complete rollovers for his owner, but with the pressure on both dog and owner to perform, staying in a classic ‘please don’t hurt me’ position seemed the safest choice for little Duke, especially if he did not completely understand which behavior he was rewarded for (with the cessation of shouting) in the past.

The translation challenge extended to my own interpretation of Duke’s behavior. I cut up small pieces of cheese and began to teach Duke to spin. In between spins Duke sunk into a ‘down’. I thought that perhaps this was a behavior he had been reinforced for in the past and he used it as a default. I began to reinforce a ‘stand’ position, but inevitably Duke slipped into a ‘down’. I joked to his owner that he was a lazy boy and we shared a laugh about that until it occurred to me that indeed Duke was slipping down.

The floors in the house, typical to many homes in Costa Rica, has ceramic tile floors. They were so clean and shiny that on several occasions I did a double take, thinking they were wet. When I got Duke spinning again I kept an eye on his feet and could see that when he wasn’t lying down his furry paws would slide on the floor. Whether standing or sitting he constantly had to adjust his footing to keep his feet under him. When he was sitting his front paws gradually slid forward and rather than fight gravity he simply went with it and ended up in a ‘down’.

How often do we get frustrated with our dogs for not doing what we ask when they have no idea of what we want or when physical constraints prevent them from do it? I’ll guess that it’s more common than dogs not doing what we ask when they understand and are fully capable of performing a behavior, but choose to blow us off. Duke was lucky, the only punishment he received for noncompliance was some good natured name calling. And those were words I did understand in Spanish!