February 4, 2014

A Comfortable Routine and Vacation Care for the Reactive Dog

A few months after I adopted Ruby,  I went to a concert on Halloween night. Denver is lucky to be the hometown of the wonderful gypsy-rock ensemble, Devotchka, probably best known for the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack.  They put on a fantastic show as always, with the band members decked out like skeleton Cossacks.  Their final number was a Beatles cover...of "Ruby Tuesday!" I was delighted; feeling like it was a special little nod to my new girl.  I grinned and sang along, swaying in my scarecrow-rabbit hybrid costume, thinking to myself "of all the songs!" I decided to devote Tuesdays here to the State of the Ruby, general updates about what we've been up to and what we've got in the wings.  

Yesterday marked six months since Ruby and I drove home in a tremendous summer thunderstorm from her foster family's house.  We've settled in to a fairly comfortable routine, one I'll be outlining for my father later in the week when my boyfriend and I leave for a long weekend in southern California.  We are meeting my two best college friends and one of their husbands, staying right on the beach, and I'm looking forward to a fun and relaxing time.  It helps to know that Ruby will be in her own home with a family member she knows well.  My dad would never admit to being much of a dog person, but he was devastated by the loss of our family dog, Scout, last year, and he loves Ruby. The last time he visited he proclaimed that Ruby was the smartest dog he's ever known, "the complete package."  He's aware of her reactivity issues and I trust him to practice avoidance strategies while walking her.  I don't expect anyone else to pick up my training routine, which is one reason I decided to cease Ruby's walks with the dog walker - she just visits for a potty break and play session now.  I think every dog does better when it knows what to expect, and this is even more important for a reactive dog.  It took some time to iron out our schedule, since doggy daycare did not work out (and in fact I suspect it contributed to our problems) and walks are more challenging than I anticipated, but Ruby and I have both adjusted well.  Here's what our regular days look like:

Weekday Routine

I have every other Friday off, so I alternate between a four- and five- day work week.  We wake up around 6 a.m., and Ruby is a very reliable alarm clock.  She goes out for a potty break and eats breakfast. In the mornings she eats high-quality canned food, and gets a cookie for cleaning her plate.  The kitty eats breakfast, laced with her thyroid medication, and any leftovers are placed on the floor in the living room so she has access to it when I close the dog gate between it and the kitchen, where Ruby spends the day.  I sometimes leave Ruby's Through A Dog's Ear CD playing on repeat, and she has two comfy beds and a Kong Genius toy filled with treats.  The dog visitor comes twice a week, and I have given her a list of all of Ruby's commands that they can work on.  I go home at lunch on the other days, and take Ruby for short walk around my townhome complex.  

In the evenings Ruby and I go for another walk - they are shorter now because it's already dark by the time I get home.  Sometimes we go to the nearby light-rail station to watch the people go by and practice Calming Ovals* in the parking lot, or just a more leisurely sniffabout on rabbit trails.  It's so cold that I'm doing less formal on-leash training - it's just too hard to juggle treats, clicker, gloves, and a leash.  Ruby's getting to be a real pro at her auto-sits when I stop, but I don't expect her to plonk her bottom down on the freezing cold concrete or snowy ground, so we are keeping things pretty casual until it starts to warm up.

After our evening walk, Ruby has "interactive dinner." This can be anything from kibble in a Nina Ottosson Treat Maze, working on tricks, or doing a Relaxation Protocol session.  Dinner is followed by a game of fetch or tug, sometimes both! The rest of the night Ruby will play with toys, beg for my dinner, and maybe have a bully stick or sweet potato chew.  She knows when it is time to go to call it a night, and readily accepts her boost on to my bed (although she can jump plenty high, the bedroom floor is slippery and offers her no traction).  

Weekend Routine

Our weekend routine is not terribly different than the work days, except there are longer walks, more training, more playing, and sometimes I get to sleep in until 7:30!  Ruby likes to follow me around while I do chores (except for vacuuming, during which I put her on the patio), play fetch down the stairs, and steal socks if the opportunity arises.  She likes to recline on the back of the sofa and watch the rabbits and squirrels out the living room window.  She has gotten better about people walking by, and I try to have treats on hand to reward non-reactive people-watching. She will still get worked into a frenzy when dogs go by, and when this happens I will divert her into the kitchen and close the curtains.  I try to keep my outings relatively short, and some weekends we travel to my aunt's or friend's houses and have bigger adventures.  We both really enjoy the extra time together, and I'm always wistful when the weekend draws to a close.  

I know I'm going to miss Ruby tremendously while on vacation, but I'm confident that she's in safe hands and am really looking forward to some sun and sand - the forecast high for Denver tomorrow is only four degrees! I think extended tug-o-war sessions are going to have to make up for abbreviated walks these next few days...

* This is a technique that I learned from a private training session after we dropped out of group obedience class.  I wasn't able to track down a very good explanation online, but essentially you walk in fast ovals with the dog at your side (on the outside).  I'm finding that it helps with heeling and shifting focus. 


  1. I love this post and love reading about your love and dedication to Ruby. So many people don't give their dogs the proper attention and it shows in their dogs behavior. I'm sure you and Ruby will work through her issues - she sounds like a great pup. Good luck to your dad and have fun in SoCal...where are you going? We live north of LA.

    1. We are staying in Carlsbad at this wonderful hotel that's become a favorite and a destination in its own right. It will be my fourth time, my boyfriend's third. One college friend is coming from Florida and the other from Long Beach.

      Thanks for your nice comment - Ruby is teaching me so much.

  2. It sounds like you have a great routine down! Isn't it so relieving to know that you can leave her in reliable hands? Up until a few months ago, we had only left Pyrrha with one of our families when we were out of town. This weekend, our good friends (and their pup, Fiona) are coming to stay at our house to watch the girls. They are great with the dogs, and our girls know & love Fiona well, so I'm hoping it won't be too insane! Hope you have a relaxing time off!

    1. I'm really lucky that I have quite a few options for Ruby. The foster family that had her prior to adoption now run a dog-sitting business out of their home, so if family or friends couldn't watch her, I'd feel comfortable with her staying there as well.

      Are you going somewhere fun?

  3. I miss dog-free vacations like you wouldn't believe. Silas won't let people in our house. He might, if he knew them really well, but none of the people he knows really well live in our state. I left him with my mom for one night back in November, but she lives twelve hours away. Plus I'm not sure she could handle him for more than a day or two. I've thought about trying to board him--he's much less reactive toward strangers when I'm not around, but I'm afraid there would be behavioral fallout. I hope you enjoy your trip!

    1. That's really tough. Ruby loves anyone that comes in the house! From the car or walking down the street - totally different story. Their idiosyncrasies can be confounding.

      I boarded my easy, well-adjusted dog once overnight at a nearby vet clinic many years ago. She came home chewing her tail, and worked the base of her tail bald for months afterward. That was the first and last time for traditional boarding for me.

      Surprisingly, I have a lot of options for Ruby. Several people have offered to take care of her, which is pretty amusing considering she's not the simplest dog. Those people have other dogs she gets along with well, though, which makes things a lot easier, and also makes me feel better about walks getting skipped.

      The people who fostered Ruby before I adopted her also run a dog-sitting business out of their home, so I would feel comfortable with her staying there if need be, also.

      Has Silas ever been to daycare? It might be worth researching some and trying it out in small doses. It didn't work out for Ruby but I also did not do enough research.

      Do you think Silas and Ruby would get along? We're states away so it's entirely hypothetical, and the real question is if he would like /me/, but he could totally stay with me :)

    2. I wanted to add (but can't seem to edit replies even though I see a little pencil icon...) that I completely understand your worries about setbacks with any major changes in routine, too. That is my biggest concern with taking in a foster dog, which I am likely doing later in the month! I think Ruby will love a playmate but hope that she won't miss it too much when it gets adopted. Our training routine will also get a lot more interesting...

    3. Drat it, google ate my reply.

      Silas is a completely different dog when I'm not around. Mom had people in her house when she kept him. Totally fine.

      You are a dog-saint to even imagine having Silas and Ruby at once. All the energies! Silas loves to play chase, but that's all he's got. If the other dog doesn't want to play chase, Silas will either get a little pushy or he'll just walk away. But we don't have a lot of recent dog-dog experience. Silas got too unpredictable with the other humans for me to take him to the dog park. (That is, I got afraid of what would happen if somebody grabbed at him.)

    4. My commenting system is very clunky. I'm going to look into improving that if possible.

      Wow - that's interesting about Silas. I have seen a lot of debunking of the "my dog is protecting me" theory but how else to explain that? Since Ruby is my second reactive dog I can't help but wonder if it's me, but the dog walker had the same experience with her.

      Ruby loves chase, too! She tries to make me chase her by stealing my socks. Unfortunately, that's what led to the end of the dog park for us, because she'd get a group of big dogs chasing her, and they would eventually catch her and surround her, which she is /not/ a fan of. So many mistakes I made in the beginning, sigh.

      Ruby is fairly good about leaving disinterested dogs alone, but she's relentless if one plays with her at all.

  4. I find that having a routine helps me too. Although I'm not a reactive dog, having routines I can count on means I don't have to think about every thing I do in the day. Some things (like feeding and walking Honey) are routine.

    So I have no doubt it helps Ruby to have such a consistent routine.

    Glad your dad is able to take care of Ruby for you. I hope you have a great time traveling and don't worry about her too much. :)

  5. I think routine is so important, and it sounds like you have a great one in place! Vulpe's routine changed dramatically last Summer when my partner of 4.5 years (and her 'Dad') ended our relationship and I had to move 3 times before we found someone permanent to live. Lots of her problems have worsened since then, which is such a shame. We continue to work on it so I hope she'll remember soon that the world is not such a scary place!

    1. Oh, goodness, I'm sure all that change was hard on both of you! Vulpe looks like such a sweetheart.

      Thanks so much for adding my blog to your links page - I've just done the same for yours on my "Ruby Reads" sidebar :)

    2. Ha, yes, she's a little angel when she's not terrorizing the neighbourhood! :)

      And thanks - I've found other reactive-dog-blogs so helpful in recent times, I wanted to share!

  6. You guys have a REALLY great routine. Ruby is one lucky pup! :) The ovals thing sounds a lot like a technique we've been using to get Lucas around a scary object/oncoming dog, which is just to walk in a big arc around the obstacle. I've found that to work really well, too.

    I'm SO glad you have your dad. Traveling and arranging care for special dogs can be so challenging, and I have a difficult time trusting anyone with my little herd. Enjoy the sun and sand!!

  7. Such a wonderful routine, Lara! Not only do you get to spend quality time with Ruby, but also ensure that she is indeed healthy. It is also important to visit trusted vets in order to eliminate the chances of Ruby being infected with diseases.

    Stacy Zimmerman


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