December 31, 2013

Holiday Wrap Up

watching deer at Garden of the Gods

I had last week off from work and so Ruby and I got to spend nine days together.  We settled into an easy routine, and she was usually ready for bed before me! I love those times on the sofa when she is all warm and soft and squishy, making little squeaks and grunts if she has to move.  Our time included a bit of everything: relaxing at home, traveling to friends and family, and having company. 

Monday I was up early to pack up the car with presents and prepare for a long day with many stops.  Ruby wore her ThunderShirt (appropriately festive green!) in the car and did not bark at anything, even people walking dogs! I'm not ready to deem it a miracle yet, as she was also car-sick, poor girl, but every little bit helps.  Ruby went in to the feed store with me to pick up some senior feed for my horses and some Whimzees crocodile chews, and greeted some other patrons.  We stopped at my best friend's house to exchange gifts, where Ruby and my friend's one-year-old son were very interested in one another, but since Ruby can be mouthy we didn't let them together.   Next I visited my dressage-trainer-turned-friend, who has a whole house and barn full of animals.  Ruby gets along splendidly with her black labradoodle, (the second in her life!) and seems to think they are giant living chew toys. The humans discussed dogs and writing while the dogs capered through the house.  It was a really lovely visit.  I delivered treats to the horses' caretakers and spent just a few minutes with them as it was already getting dark.  My ultimate destination was my aunt and grandmother's home in Old Colorado City - my cousin had arrived at my aunt's house and we went out for Mexican food that night, then stayed up quite late talking with 'The Lone Ranger' in the background while Ruby wore out her second labradoodle of the day. 

On Christmas Eve, after donning our matching shirts and hats and having a little photo shoot (which yielded my last post's pictures), we took the dogs to Garden of the Gods for a hike.  I was quite worried it would be crowded and too much for Ruby, but she did so well! I was really proud of her.  She didn't bark at any people - I think she feels safer with a group of dogs and people that she knows.  Luckily we only encountered one husky on the main part of the trail, and I just picked her up.  She screeched and whined but it was manageable.  On the way back to the parking lot we were basically just in a big crowd of people, strollers and dogs.  I continued to pick her up and tried to turn her or cover her eyes as we passed dogs and that was fairly effective.  Not the most "correct" solution I know, but I was really just trying to avoid any major meltdowns.  It was a gorgeous day and wonderful to be outdoors. Ruby happily wore her Santa suit on our outing and around the house, delighting my grandmother.  The rest of the day was spent eating, visiting, watching the dogs play together and opening presents.  Ruby received the driving/car version of Through A Dog's Ear, and we gave it a try on the way home.  She passed out immediately, but I think that may have had more to do with non-stop-wrestling.  She also got a new ball from my best friend - purple, spiky, and seemingly quite durable! It's become her new favorite.

My dad visited for a few days and Ruby impressed him with her latest tricks ("spin" and "gimme ten").  We've had some incredible family dogs over the years and he thinks she is the smartest he's ever met.  She really seems to like having company - more people to throw the ball!  We had some riotous games of tug and went on quite a few walks, although I was sorry to see that her increased confidence around approaching people did not carry over from our hike.  Perhaps I'll have to get another dog? I'm mostly kidding, although I do stalk Petfinder regularly...

As the year winds down I reflect on its lessons, losses and gains.  My little red-and-white honey has certainly been one of its highlights.  She makes me smile and laugh and play daily and astounds me with her intelligence. I am so glad I picked her picture from the many, that I couldn't stop thinking of those giant ears and inquisitive eyes. I miss my two girls that I said goodbye to this year.  I miss Lasya's calm constancy and Freya's exuberant affection. I look at the spots in my house where they took their last breaths, and try to get it right with Ruby in their honor.

I hope you all enjoyed some extra time with your loved ones - canine and otherwise - this season, and Ruby and I will see you in 2014!

December 25, 2013

WW 12.25.13: Our First Christmas

Ruby was just a little puppy in another state this time last year. I don't know what her life was like between then and now, but she has brought so much joy in a red and white package and we both know she is home. 

December 23, 2013

Pet Blogger's Gift Exchange 2013: The Gift of Gab

When I heard about the Pet Blogger's Gift Exchange hosted by Pamela of Something Wagging This Way Comes, I knew I wanted to participate.  I've only been blogging about my newly adopted dog for a few months, but have a second horse-related blog and have been involved with online journaling since 2004. One of my favorite parts about these virtual venues are the personal connections to be made across the miles.  By sharing our stories and connecting through common interests we get to form friendships we wouldn't otherwise be able to.

I was lucky enough to be matched up with Kimberly from Keep the Tail Wagging - there is no question which one of us got the lion's share of this exchange - Keep The Tail Wagging is a well-established online magazine with a large and devoted following.  I'll bet most of you reading now are already following her, but if not, be sure to peruse her wide range of helpful topics from the eponymous tail wagging to raising littermate puppies.

Kimberly also posts weekly podcasts, which open with a delightful jingle and feel like the coffee talk for dog lovers.  In fact, Kimberly and I spoke on the phone this month, and of course easily talked dogs for an hour. Although I am a somewhat quiet person, I have no problem pontificating about dogs past, present and future with a complete stranger.  Dogs are a perfect starting point, and Kimberly had some really exciting news - while we were on the phone her boyfriend was flying out to meet their new puppies, which would be their second pair of littermates.  There is no doubt that Kimberly is a devoted dog mom, and her "confessions" are entertaining and educational. I really enjoyed meeting her and hearing all about Sydney, Rodrigo, and the decision to add to her four-footed family, which she has written about in her latest post

I'm so excited to have joined this dynamic community and look forward to what the new year brings for all of us and our dogs!  I hope the holiday season brings you snowflakes sparkling on wet noses, warm fuzzy nights by the fire, and lasting evergreen memories with friends and family.

December 18, 2013

The Pen Behind The Paws

Meet the Pet Bloggers Hop

I'm enjoying the "Meet the Bloggers" Blog Hop entries so much today that I decided to also participate. I'm fairly new to the dog-blogging world but so far I've found that it's a wonderful community of friendly folks who love nothing more than to regale their four-legged companions with creative words and colorful pictures.  Today is all about discovering the people behind the dog stars! If you wish to participate, here is an explanation with instructions.

I've already included some pictures of myself with Ruby, so it's probably not any great surprise what I look like, but here is a picture taken by my boyfriend on our trip-of-a-lifetime this April in Spain:

Now on to some of the questions!

What's your favorite non-animal related book? I'm an avid reader and am incapable of choosing just one favorite book, so I'm going to list a few:  Possession, Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides, Specimen Days, The Hours, The Time Traveler's Wife, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Winter's Tale, House of Leaves
What makes you feel fabulous? Finishing a poem, having a good hair day, teaching Ruby a new trick, singing in my car, the sun on my skin, riding my horse bareback, wearing red heels

What's your favorite holiday? Halloween. I love the time of year, the crunch of leaves, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, everything pumpkin. This year was the first time I've dressed up recently, and I'd forgotten how much fun it is to create a costume.  Even more so, though not as widely known and celebrated, I love the imagery and iconography of the Mexican Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos.

What's your favorite meal? Pad Se Ewe, a Thai dish of wide rice noodles, egg, broccoli and sweet soy.  Being a child of the southwest, I also love Mexican food. My ideal combo is a cheese enchilada, a chili relleno and a guacamole tostada.

Who is your favorite actor? Jeff Bridges, particularly in Crazy Heart and The Big Lebowski.  
What do you like to do in your free time? Aside from train, play with, photograph and talk about Ruby? I love to read, write, bike, travel, cook and watch "our progams" with my boyfriend. 

What one word would people who know you use to describe you? Loyal. I am pretty reserved when it comes to forming relationships, but then I hang on tight.  It is very important to me to maintain friendships through the years and across the miles.  This may also explain my deeply passionate belief that rescue means forever. 
What is one thing you've done that you're most proud of? I trained my own horse when I was fifteen, my now-24-year-old Paso Fino gelding who I still have.  I was the first one to ride him and he taught me so much about patience and determination, as well as listening to the individual animal and training through intuition. 
How is your pet most like you? Ruby and I are both worriers and information-gatherers! We want to know what's going on all the time and are afraid we might miss something.

If you didn't have your current pets, what pets would you choose to have?  I would love to have a rabbit again if I had a dog with a lower prey-drive, and I hope to have another Norwegian Elkhound someday.   There will always be a dog in my life, that part is non-negotiable!

Town and Country

Everything looks better with a Ruby, don't you think?
Ruby in repose

December 17, 2013

Here and Now: Falling In Love With Imperfection

In four and a half months I have learned a lot about Ruby, and maybe more about myself.  I have experienced an arc of emotion and a curve of learning while the seasons changed from summer to winter.  These past few weeks have been a kind of settling in, and I find that what has happened is that Ruby has become my dog.

She is still reactive, and probably always will be.  Some situations are more challenging than others.  We are still figuring out what works.  I am still reading books, blogs and Facebook forums, still practicing the Relaxation Protocol and still actively working on improving her encounters with the outside world.  What has changed is my attitude, and my focus.  I have moved through the initial shock of the seemingly drastic change in her behavior (what I now believe to be a combination of age, breed, circumstance), the paralyzing panic of dealing with another reactive dog, the desperate need to take action, hire a trainer, read all the things, the inevitable frustration when plans go awry, the commiserating comfort of finding others experiencing similar struggles and finally, the liberating realization that Ruby is who Ruby is, and I love her for it.  

I am finding that I am starting to shy away from the reactive label - yes, she is that, but she is so many other things.  She is astute, she is affectionate, she is enthusiastic, she is endearingly optimistic (the cat is going to play with her one day!).  She is playful, she is determined, she is generous (even though I don't want to share her bully stick, thank you very much).  I have stopped obsessing over what I have to fix, and started appreciating what I have to foster and encourage.

These days I worry less about what our next walk is going to be like, and look more forward to where we'll go.  Perhaps to the nearby playground with the daredevil-high watchtower and catwalk that look like something left over from eastern Europe and the rendition of  Cinderella's pumpkin carriage that lends a piece of fairy tale to the blocky suburban architecture.  Perhaps across the vacant lot where a rogue stand of pampas grass has taken root like an urban savanna, and where we can climb a hill and watch the traffic flicker and flow on the freeway.  

When we get home we'll work on a new trick, play a game of "catch the kibble,"several rounds of tug with the current blue-and-green rope toy, both of us smiling and growling as we dance around the living room.  I'll share my dinner with her - yes, I'm that kind of dog owner - laughing as she holds her mouth open for a spaghetti noodle like a baby bird.  We'll watch TV, an episode of Nature where a pair of courting birds might capture Ruby's attention with their alien cries.  Ruby will lay on the back of the sofa, peeking out the window now and then, or curl next to me with something satisfying to chew on, a moose antler or her "cheese stick" (Himalayan chew).  Around ten o'clock her eyelids will start to get heavy and she'll rest her head on my leg and her splotchy lower lip will stick out in the way that makes my heart melt.  Soon we'll climb the stairs to bed and she will stretch out beside me until I turn the light out, at which point she will burrow under the covers and becomes the most darling snuggler a person could ever wish for.

This is life with Ruby, red and white ambassador of the here and now. This is life with my dog. 

December 13, 2013

Five Things Ruby Would Like for Christmas

Chris Moose Stocking from Acadia Antlers

Wobble Ball Puzzle Toy from Pet Play

Biscuit sampler from Wagatha's

Good Dog collar from Sundance

Help and homes for other animals like her at Colorado Animal Welfare League

December 9, 2013

Monday Musings: Crate Expectations

This post is the first in an irregular series in which I will share some of the canine conundrums I am struggling with or wondering about, and invite your responses and opinions.  Down the road, maybe readers can even submit their own questions to include in future installments!

Today's pondering revolves around Ruby's kennel.  Of course kennels themselves invite The Great Crate Debate and in my own experience I have encountered those who use them religiously and those who believe them to be horrible dog-jails, and everything in between.  I admit to being in the latter camp for some time.  We never had them growing up, and my first dogs of my own, Freya and Lasya, never spent any time in crates - I never saw the need.  Enter my first foster dog, Bjorn.  Bjorn was a very sweet, very destructive young male elkhound who I dubbed Bjorngenstern the Destroyer. During his months with me he mauled the telephone and remote, shredded throw pillows and comforters and tore curtains down with their rods.  To preserve my sanity and furnishings, I borrowed an extremely large crate from a friend, where Bjorn stayed when I wasn't home to supervise him.  I also utilized a crate for my next foster dog, a little black stray Chihuahua named Vlad, mainly to make sure that he was kept safe from my much bigger dogs.

When I adopted Ruby at nine months of age, I had no idea what to expect in regard to her house-training and manners.  She came from out-of-state with no background information, and lived in a foster home for one week before I brought her home.  Although it became readily apparent that she was not house-trained at all, she picked it up remarkably quickly and began asking to go outside.  She was accident-free within one week.  I still didn't know what she may or may not get into when left to her own devices, and wanted to err on the side of caution and set her up for success by not leaving her in larger areas of the house for long periods of time unsupervised until I could work up to it gradually.  She had slept in a crate at her foster home, and I began experimenting with leaving her in it for a few hours at a time.  She immediately curled up and did not make a peep once inside, but she did not enjoy going in the crate and still does not go in of her own accord when I am home like some dogs will.  Being a bright girl she wised up to the treat-tossing method after a couple days. Because I was still getting to know her, and needed a safe place for her to be while I was at work, I skipped some steps in the process and a few times had to actually catch her and coax her in to the crate.  Loving chase as she does, she thought it was a fun game to lead me merrily around the house when she knew it was time for me to leave.  At some point, though, something clicked, and after leaving her leash on a few times after her morning walk and leading her over while saying "go to your den," then rewarding her with a hunk of bison jerky, I decided one morning to unhook her leash and say "go to your den." She happily trotted from the kitchen to the living room where her kennel is nestled between the sofa and bookcase and sat down awaiting her jerky, and continued to do so from that day forward.

Even though she adjusted well to the crate, I knew I did not want her to have to stay in it for an entire work day, even with her mid-day break with me or the dog-walker, but I needed a way to keep her away from the windows where she could practice barking at dogs and people, and also a way to insure that my elderly kitty could retain at least part of the house as her puppy-free sanctuary.  I know that Jack Russel Terriers are built on springs, so I bought an extra-tall dog gate which I installed between my living room and kitchen.  I started leaving her for incrementally longer periods in the kitchen area, where she could see out to the privacy-fenced patio and relax in her over-sized dog bed which used to belong to my elkhound, Freya.  Ruby knows when she sees me with my purse that I'll be gone for a while, but I assure her that I'll always come back.  I tell her "Bye sweetheart, I'll see you later," and leave her with stuffed Kongs and her own CD's playing.  Her weekday routine now is mornings in her crate, a walk or visit (due to her reactivity I no longer have others walk her) around lunchtime and afternoons in the kitchen.  She seems very comfortable in "her room" - I often find her curled up in her bed by the back door even when I'm home, and has started returning there in the mornings after she eats breakfast while I am getting ready for work, which brings me to the musing part of this Monday.  My question is this: do I need to continue using the crate?

The simple answer is "no."  Ruby has proven herself reliably house-trained and despite her high energy and penchant for stealing socks and turning them to Swiss cheese, she is not at all destructive when left on her own.  I've even tested her by leaving old shoes within her reach.  Nothing has ever been out of place - she prefers an audience for her antics and interpretive art.  She seems content in the kitchen and chooses to spend her time there even when I am around, something I can't say for the crate.  My main hesitation in eliminating the crate from her mornings is just that: I don't want to lose it as part of her routine.  I now know how valuable the crate can be as a tool for travel, injury, or introducing new pets.  I want her to maintain a comfort level with spending time in her kennel, but I admit to feeling guilty about confining her there when she doesn't really need to be.   I'm considering only having her "go to her den" twice a week or so, on the days that the dog visiting service comes.

What do the rest of you think? What is your routine with your dog when you are away from the house? Do you think that mixing up Ruby's routine will keep the crate in our toolbox while allowing her the freedom in the house that she's earned, or that we could skip it entirely and pack it away unless it is needed in the future?

Crashed in her big bed after a bath

December 6, 2013

Five Quirky Things About Ruby

~ Ruby is not that enthused about kibble out of her bowl, but if I toss each piece on the floor one by one it becomes the yummiest thing ever.

~ She has become much more independent and is no longer the stick-tight she was in the first few weeks, but when I'm in the shower she is invariably curled resignedly on the bathmat with a somewhat concerned expression, as if she needs to make sure I come back out.  

~ Although she is not really big on getting pets, she will lift her left hind leg for you to scratch the inside of her thigh.  To the uninitiated and those uncertain of her gender, it appears she has mistaken them for a fire hydrant. I've put it on cue and we call this "trick" 'Scratchies.'

~ I give her dehydrated sweet potato chews, and she usually gives it the side-eye, throws it around and barks at it for an average of two days before it becomes suddenly irresistible and she devours it.  

~ Poor little thing gets the hiccups frequently, although they seem to have subsided lately.  I wonder if they have to do with her anxiousness?

December 5, 2013

TbT: Snow Dogs

Lasya and Freya, my beautiful doggessses, in 2009 on my parents' mountain property.  They were made for winter - double coats and furry paws, the curled tails of Northern breeds - and there is nothing like tromping through knee-deep crunchy snow between the evergreens with your loyal pack of two.  If I sent out holiday cards, this would be mine. 

December 3, 2013

Relaxation Matters

The hip-bump...we love the hip-bump. 

Today marks four months with my Little Rubes.  I have learned so much about her personality over this third-of-a-year, but we are only just beginning our relationship! One of the things that became readily apparent as I got to know Ruby was that she had a difficult time relaxing.  Being part Border Collie, she is hyper-vigilant to her surroundings - those pretty amber-colored eyes and over-sized ears don't miss a thing.  I try to tell her it isn't her job to worry so much (I'm quite the worrier myself so it's no wonder I ended up with a dog who shares this trait), but she doesn't often believe me.  I knew that encouraging calm behavior was going to be key in making progress together and in creating a happier home for Ruby.

When I first recognized signs of Ruby's reactivity, I nearly overdosed on information.  I ordered every book I could get my hands on and started following many of your fine blogs.  I watched YouTube videos and followed positive reinforcement trainers on Facebook.  I can't remember exactly where I first read about mat work, but when I saw a little pink bath mat at the Dollar Tree, I figured we might as well get started!  I loved the idea that once the dog associates the mat as a safe and quiet place to be, it becomes a portable haven for them.  Ruby picked up "go to your mat" almost immediately, with the help of the trusty clicker and some of her favorite treats.  She was soon sitting and then laying down and remaining there quite contentedly with a steady rate of reinforcement.  I started utilizing mat-training sessions while I was preparing the cat's food, folding laundry, or working in the kitchen.  It's a wonderful way to multi-task and get your dog used to activities going on around her, with her only job being "do nothing."

Ruby can now fairly reliably stay on her mat while I unload the dishwasher,  receiving a piece of kibble currency every few plates or glasses.  A few times recently, she has even resisted the temptation of my little cat, Nina, hurrying out of the room in front of her!  She sometimes gets up to get a drink of water or sniff around, and I generally just ignore her until she returns to the mat.  She's figured out that this is where the good stuff happens, and she gets visibly excited when she sees me get her little pink rectangle out, sometimes trying to jump onto it before it's on the floor!

When my trainer suggested that we study the Relaxation Protocol, I was immediately on board. We already had a great foundation with the mat work, and I am the type of person who loves a detailed and goal-oriented assignment.  The Relaxation Protocol is a specific list of "tasks" (which are really tasks for you while your dog's job is, again, to do nothing) set up in blocks of increasing difficulty.  The idea is for the dog to practice impulse control and self-restraint in a variety of circumstances.  What I really like about the Relaxation Protocol is its flexibility - you can certainly break any challenging tasks into easier steps, and when you master everything in one room of the house, you move to another room, and eventually outside!  It is a progressive system with quantifiable results, and helps you become more in tune with your dog's subtle signals - you will perfect your timing as you discover what your dog does just before you lose their attention.

Ruby and I took about a week to successfully complete Day 1 - the counting aloud was especially difficult for her as she seemed to think that talking meant that something was expected of her.  We eventually conquered it by breaking the steps down even smaller - counting only to five and fifteen instead of ten and twenty.  Ruby aced Day 2 on the first try - I was surprised that the jogging in place didn't cause her to jump up! That is the beauty of this exercise - you gain unexpected insights into what distractions are the hardest for the dog to ignore, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when they are able to remain calm.  The dog, meanwhile, gains confidence in itself and trust in you.

Here is a great introduction to mat work from the Pawsitive Dawgs blog - it might just be the perfect new activity to engage you and your four-footed companion as we enter these cold winter months and spend more time indoors!