It's Been Rough...
I've had a hard time writing lately, because of course I relate everything to Kona. So, this isn't anything to do with CCS, or training, or caring for dogs; it's just about my grief.
It's coming up on the 3 month anniversary since I had to say goodbye to Kona and I'm crying like it was the first day. Everything reminds me of him, and I know that life will never be the same. I have never felt so lonely. No one will ever fill that hole in my heart and in my soul, but I can't wait for the day that I see pictures of him and I think of nothing but the great times we shared, instead of crying for a week. I can't wait to sit down to breakfast with friends and talk about this awesome dog I had, without welling up with tears and just shaking it off to move on to another topic.
I appreciate all of my friends and family for being there for me. And for still understanding the hard time I am facing. For making me laugh and for letting me cry. And especially for keeping me company, even though I am often miserable to be around :)
The Rehoming Dilemma
I was always an animal lover and I don’t think the concept of rehoming a dog, or any other companion animal (pet), ever really crossed my mind. For the last few years it has been on my mind a lot. Let me begin by saying that I am not against responsible rehoming - a decision made with the best interests of the whole family in mind, especially the animal in question, to seek out a more appropriate home, not selling or abandoning family pets. In many cases, I don’t think it means a person loves their pet any less and perhaps they love them even more by being willing to make an unselfish decision to rehome their pet so that they can have a better life. Often times, I see pets being rehomed because people are moving, don’t have time, or are experiencing behavior problems from lack of training. Pets are a commitment and it’s our responsibility, as parents and guardians, to ensure their needs are met. Sometimes that might mean giving up something in your own life, and sometimes that might mean ensuring their needs are met by someone else, in a new home. If a person isn’t willing to work to make the relationship work, I would rather they rehome their pets, than abuse or neglect them. I have seen many people that I actually wish would rehome their pets! There are quite a few dogs in my neighborhood that I would like to confiscate and rehome - dogs living in cages outside, or on tie outs in the front yard. That’s no life for a dog.
I get that sometimes people end up with a dog that is just not the right fit for their lifestyle, or maybe their situation changes and it is no longer a good match. You often don’t know a lot about a pet you are bringing into your home. Sometimes you don’t know that they aren’t the right fit until the honeymoon phase is over and you discover things like that they hate kids and you have FIVE. Often, it was the wrong choice from the beginning. That border collie/lab puppy was oh so cute you just had to have it, but you live in a studio apartment in the city and don’t have time to keep a working dog busy all day long. Maybe you just bonded with a pet that you knew might not be the right fit for your lifestyle, but you couldn’t resist. That is why it is so important to make an informed decision in the beginning about what kind of pet is right for you. It’s important to be honest with yourself about your lifestyle, your resources, why you want a pet, what you want to do together and even what your future plans are. There are millions of wonderful pets out there looking for homes so there is a right one, or two, or three, for everyone.
I’m sure all dogs have an issue or two. I have yet to meet the perfect specimen, because what is perfect for one person, won’t be perfect for the next. Some people are equipped to deal with separation anxiety, but couldn’t handle a talker. Some don’t mind people aggression, as long as the dog doesn’t jump up or pull on a leash. Maybe you’re okay with lots of kisses and a prey drive, but can’t have a dog that needs a lot of grooming. You just have to find your kind of perfect. I never would have set out to adopt an Australian shepherd. They are beautiful, wonderful dogs and I absolutely LOVE them, but I lived in a small house, on a small lot, in suburbia, and I worked outside of the home M-F 8-5. That’s not exactly the ideal setup for a herding dog. Had I applied to the organization as an outsider, I am sure they wouldn’t have adopted Kona to me. I wouldn’t have adopted him to me! Luckily they knew me though, and they knew that I wouldn’t even ask to adopt him if I didn’t feel like I could adequately provide for him. And he wasn’t your typical Aussie. He was older (5/6) and injured, so he wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams to go herd sheep all day. I admit I am a bit of a hypocrite for ending up with Kona, but that tends to happen in animal rescue, I think. Really what it all boils down to is that I just fell in love and I was ready to fight for him from the day I got him.
I only considered rehoming Kona because I thought it might be in his best interest. We had an appointment with Dr. Pachel at The Animal Behavior Clinic in June, 2012. It was an expensive visit, but it was invaluable to our relationship and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It helped me understand Kona as an individual and it helped me determine what I should do, and what I should avoid, to make our lives better. More importantly, it reassured me that the behavioral issues I was seeing in Kona were not solely my responsibility and would likely resurface with others that he bonded to. I would recommend a veterinary behaviorist consult to anyone having challenging behavioral issues, like aggression or anxiety, with their pet. It’s an investment up front, but it saves so much time, money and heartache in the end. In the Portland area we have The Animal Behavior Clinic and Synergy Behavior Solutions that I know of off the top of my head, and I would recommend them both!
I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person, and I am well aware that many people don't have the time, money, or other resources needed to keep their pets and that just breaks my heart. I recently conducted a very unscientific research project on Craigslist, where I tracked the reasons people were parting with their pets. Of those that listed a reason for rehoming, over 50% indicated that it was lack of time or behavioral issues that led to their decision. Perhaps those were just excuses, but I think that in some cases, people really are considering their pets' needs and might not rehome them if they had more support. I wish I could wave a magic wand and ensure that no one had rehome their pets simply because they couldn't afford it, or because they didn't have the time to provide the training and exercise needed to keep their pet happy. I think pets are such an important part of our lives. In addition to unconditional love and companionship, they also improve our physical & mental health, and there should be more programs available to support families that need help caring for their pet's physical and mental needs, not just food and vet care. I wish more nonprofits could allocate resources and funding to keeping pets in their homes, like subsidizing dog walkers, training classes and doggy daycare! Perhaps one day I can start one that does just that (please let me know of any you are aware of out there!). I know it doesn’t bring in money like the sale of a puppy does, and I know that once a person drops a pet off at the shelter, or contacts a rescue for rehoming, they have pretty much made up their minds. Unfortunately, there will always be a need for shelters and rescues, but I’d like to see more of an intervention effort before it gets to the point of surrender. I wish I was rich (or even making enough to pay the bills), so that I could hook everyone up with free dog walks, enrichment and training all day long! Perhaps I will get there someday, but in the meantime, I will still do as much as I can, when I can, in a grassroots effort to help keep pets happy, healthy & in good homes!
I have to vent about the “rehoming” situations that I have not yet come to accept - the people on Craigslist and Facebook, or any other place, that are “rehoming” their young pup that they neglected to train or socialize, so now they have a full grown dog, with puppy manners, that they want $400+ to rehome. That makes me so angry! There is also no shortage of people with senior pets that they have had their whole lives and are now rehoming for one reason or another. Those just break my heart. This week, there was a lady in a Facebook group selling her Australian shepherd. To be fair, she doesn’t claim to be rehoming. It was actually posted in a buy/sell group. It makes me sick. Puppies aren’t products! He is a beautiful dog, of course – purebred with a half-moon eye. He is also 6 months old, not even house trained, has been living outside for the last month, hasn’t had his rabies vaccination, and she is asking $750. SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS. I’ve been so angry about it for days, but I know it happens all day long. If you really care about finding your dog a good home, you would not be selling it, especially considering it is essentially a full grown puppy, so the new owner gets none of the benefits of having a puppy they can socialize, but all of the downsides, like potty training and house manners!
And now there's another Aussie for $800 :/
The Uphill Battle
I had a private trainer come out and I learned so much about animal behavior and canine communication in just one session, but I also tried things that I don’t think were best for Kona. The trainer didn’t do anything wrong, but I did. When she asked if I was okay with a prong collar, I should have said no, or that I had to look into it. It seemed awful to me, but she said it was like the mom correcting her pup, so I thought that made sense, but I’m not his mom… I admittedly said I would do anything to get him to stop lunging. So, out came the prong collar and the corrections. I didn’t feel right about it, but what did I know? All I knew was that I was doing something wrong and I needed help before someone got hurt! Knowing what I know now, I never would have gone down that road. I would have listened to him and I would have trusted my instincts. Pet Parenting Fail #4.
We started working hard on his anxiety and reactivity and on building positive associations with everything, and he was actually the star pupil at our next obedience class. The instructor even used him as an example of when to teach "settle" because he was just on his back with me rubbing his tummy. I got to show off how he could do all the commands and let me clip his nails, clean his ears, and brush his teeth. He paid perfect attention to me during the instructor’s distractions, while she attempted to break his sits and downs. We had been working on his reactivity during the week, but there were other factors that I think played a part in his better behavior. We didn't have to just sit in a circle forever that class, so that helped a lot I think. I had also self-medicated my anxiety and brought a friend to make me feel more comfortable. It was pretty obvious that everyone there was scared of us, so they all gave us much needed space too. There were still those times though... There were 2 guys in class that Kona went after a couple times, but he almost reacted a lot more. I think we actually tried one more class, but it was a disaster, so we dropped out. Finally, I did something right! He was way over threshold there and it was not beneficial for him. All he was learning was how to perfect his lunging skills. We soon quit going to daycare as well, partly because I was too embarrassed to go back, but also because I wondered if that had been the beginning of the end for us.
As far as training goes, I think Kona was a fascinating and complex case. I loved everything about him. I loved his demons and his angels. I was never disappointed in him. I only wanted to help him for him, not because anything that he did bothered me. I didn’t want him to ever feel like he had to protect me, or himself, or his possessions and I was terrified at the thought of him getting into a situation where he was forced to act in a way that put him in danger of euthanasia. I would have taken a bullet for him. I did still feel selfish sometimes and wondered if he would be a happy, perfect, carefree dog in another home. Many people told me that, but I just couldn’t have that guarantee. What if he wasn’t better with someone else? What if he ended up with someone who was not as devoted and careful? What if he still acted out and had his life ended prematurely? How could I live with that? At least I knew that I would do everything I was capable of to give him a great life. I certainly made many mistakes and repeatedly failed him, but I tried to work around our limitations in order to meet all his needs. We may not have been able to walk up to strangers and dogs on the street every day and play, but I brought in fosters and arranged playdates so he still got his doggy playtime. We visited with people he was comfortable with, and that were comfortable with him and he got training, play time, mental stimulation, exercise and love every day. I did make a pact with myself though, for Kona. I would have him evaluated by a veterinary behaviorist, and if his professional opinion was that Kona would be totally fine with someone else, I would have to find him a new home…
03/25/2012: Having a blast at the river with his buddy, Beau & 04/07/2012: Livin' it up with his tiny little foster sister, Polly.
I'm Sorry: A Letter to Kona
You taught me patience and confidence,
And how to stand up for you,
And for myself.
You protected me from pain, and sadness,
From loneliness and isolation.
You protected me from scary people and dogs,
And even those vicious squirrels.
But I could not protect you…
I’m sorry that I could not protect you from fear,
That I could not keep you safe.
I’m sorry that you ever had to hurt,
That you ever had to feel pain.
Everything I did, I did for you,
But I could not protect you in the end.
I’m NOT sorry that you were mine.
I’m NOT sorry for the time we spent together,
Or for anything I gave up for you.
I’m NOT sorry for the grief,
Because it means I loved.
And I’m NOT sorry for the memories,
Because you will always be a part of me.
The Downward Spiral
Kona glared at, or bit, most people who came over. I thought it was his half-moon eye, or that herding dog stare that made him look kind of, well, evil. He was beautiful, and people couldn’t help but stare at him. I didn’t protect him from that, and I even read that you shouldn’t let a dog win a staring contest! WHAT?!? I can’t believe the bad advice I read and received, especially in this day and age. The internet was still flooded with antiquated dominance theories and alpha roll bs. We might have had a completely different life together if I had started with positive reinforcement and used a little logic and common sense, if I would have noticed that he was uncomfortable and I hadn’t forced people on him so soon. I went against my instincts and I paid for it dearly. I attributed Kona’s bites to his herding instinct, with his quick snaps to the ankle or calf from behind, which of course was part of it. I was told that "herding" didn't generally result in huge, gnarly bruises though. I was also told he was just being a jerk, although I thought he might be scared. I didn’t really know what to do yet, so I did nothing. My friends and family were so sweet to put up with it. They knew I loved him. I listened to a lot of people, but I didn’t listen to myself and I didn’t listen to him. Pet Parenting Fail #1.
On March 8th, 2012, when Kona’s wounds had finally healed sufficiently, we went in for a doggy daycare interview. I was already concerned about how he would do with dogs, because he had fought with my parents’ dog, Ronan, the day they met. He also took off after a couple dogs playing at the park, in what looked like a less than friendly charge. He was noticeably timid around the guy who ran the daycare, but he reluctantly slunk over to him for a treat after a few minutes of us chatting. He was taken back for an assessment, which he passed, and he was able to stay there & play. The next day on our walk, a little yappy off-leash dog ran up to us on the street. Kona was doing awesome, as he always had on our walks, until the male owner came running up after the dog, screaming and yelling. That was when the devil was unleashed. I was in shock and I can still see it in slow motion. I described it in an email to my friend that day as, “Kona went psycho and it was all I could do to hold him back from the guy as he let out grizzly barks and growls the likes of which I had never heard from him.” This was the same friend that only a day or two earlier had actually said that she wished Kona was more protective of me. If you are familiar with my neighborhood, you can understand why. So, it was all downhill from there. I was traumatized, and it was like a switch had been turned on for Kona. Was he finally healed enough that the real Kona was coming out? Was he just so relaxed and confident with me now that he could be himself? Was it that he finally had me, so he didn’t need to be nice to anyone else? Did he view me as such a valuable resource that he wasn’t going to let anyone come near me? Did my reaction, or lack thereof, somehow reinforce that I wanted him to freak out on anything and everything that crossed our paths from that day forward? Did my failure to protect him from crazy man & dog lead him to think that was now his job? Was daycare somehow so traumatic that he now hated men and dogs? I didn't know what to do. Pet Parenting Fail #2.
03/08/2012: Kona's first day at daycare. I was such a proud momma ha ha.
A couple weeks into daycare, we started "obedience" class there. For some reason, I thought that would be a good idea. He already had the basics down, but I thought the class would be good for distractions and socialization. I went in confident and relaxed and let him say hello to everyone. Then we had to sit in a circle… Kona started barking and lunging at a man and his dog across from us, and that was pretty much how the next hour went. That was pretty much how the next year of our life went really. At that time, I described it as the worst night of my life and I am sure that bled on to Kona. I was terrified and paralyzed with fear, and I had no idea what to do (once again). This clearly wasn’t the place for us. Pet Parenting Fail #3! I was advised by the doggy daycare owner that it was all me. Kona and I were just not a match and I needed to rehome him. He needed to be with someone who wouldn’t cause him to react like that. I was devastated and did not want to accept it, but would it be selfish to keep him? Probably, but I wasn’t ready to give up…
Fourth of July Prep
Independence Day is less than a month away and people are already lighting off fireworks in my neighborhood, so I guess it's time to start preparing the pups. If you have pets that are reactive to fireworks, or if you don't know how they will react, there are things you can do to help lessen the stress of the holiday. Some dogs could even benefit from months of training in advance. Dogs react in different ways - some may not even notice, some may want to hide, some will seek comfort in their person or a favorite toy, others may try to run, and some may want to hunt the fireworks down and kill them. That was Kona...
I have put together some suggestions, from my experiences and research, to help make the Fourth of July an enjoyable experience for you and your pets. My services are also available if you would like help with a training program to help your dog(s) better handle fireworks (and thunderstorms). It's so worth it and you both deserve it!
Desensitize to Fireworks Sounds (START NOW)
I am sure there are many audio and video files you can use, but I've inserted one below that I use often. Start playing it well in advance of the fireworks, like today! Start at a low volume and just have it playing in the background while you go about your day. Play it while eating, doing dishes, reading my blog, watching TV - everything. Slowly increase the volume as much as your dog can handle without reacting. If nothing else, the video can be useful to help muffle the real fireworks once your pets get used to it playing at a high volume, with the bass turned way up. You can just blast it when fireworks are going crazy and it may work better than TV/radio/fan background noise. Victoria Stilwell also has a set of four desensitization CD's to help with fireworks and other noise phobias. Click here for more info. There are also many smartphone apps that play various sounds; including fireworks, thunder, doorbells, etc.
When you start to notice fireworks beginning in your neighborhood, start to carry treats around and give one to your dog whenever a firework goes off. This will help her build a positive association with the event. As the fireworks get more intense, it may be necessary to raise the value of the treats. I typically end up with steak as the 4th gets closer. As your dog learns to accept fireworks more, you can work on rewarding her for more appropriate responses, or training her to do a specific behavior when she hears a firework, like lie down and look at you whenever she hears a firework, or touch your hand, or go to her mat, or rings a bell, etc.
07/02/2014: Listening to a barrage of fireworks in the backyard, Kona on his mat, offering a little Aloha in exchange for steak. I apologize for the poor quality photo!
You hear it all the time, but it really does play a part in many problem behaviors.. A tired dog will, at the very least, react a little less to things than one that has pent up energy to burn. Make sure to exercise early in the day, when it is still light out and before the fireworks begin. If your dog is a candidate for daycare, that would be a great option as well.
Keep Your Dogs Safe & Give Them a "Place" to Be
Too many animals end up at local shelters on the Fourth of July after getting spooked and running away. Keep your pets indoors as much as possible. When outside, keep them on a leash or in a securely fenced yard, under your supervision! Close up the house - keep windows and doors closed and windows covered to keep lights and sounds out. Provide a safe space, like a crate, or a comfy room in the middle of the house.
07/05/2012: The mere sight of a crate sent Kona cowering, so we worked on crate training enough that he would willingly go in when needed, but he never really saw the crate as his safe place. He did go in a couple times that first Fourth of July though.
Having other noises going on to help muffle the fireworks can also be helpful, as long as they aren't so loud and booming that it feels like your house is about to crumble to the ground, like it does at my place. Keep a fan going, play the radio and TV loudly and/or play the fireworks video your dog is now comfortable with. There is also a collection of CD's called Through a Dog's Ear that are designed to reduce anxiety. I have always wanted to try them, so if you do, please let me know what you think! I believe there are samples of the music on the website.
Some dogs are comforted by Thundershirts or Anxiety Wraps. Make sure you properly introduce them to your dog and use them as intended. You can also utilize Ace bandages for a TTouch wrap, or even use a T-Shirt.
07/13/2014: Kona rockin' a recycled soda bottle T-shirt through a thunderstorm. He's not super excited this very second, because it had just started, but he quickly remembered his training and relaxed.
Another thing that can help your dog build a positive association with fireworks is to play games or do something they enjoy while fireworks are going off. Don't force them to engage, but offer distractions if they are interested. Try to pick something interactive to keep them busy & focused. Fetch or other games work great to keep dogs occupied, as do puzzle toys, like Kongs. Just make sure you don't inadvertently create a negative association with the games, instead of a positive association with fireworks!
Calming Agents & Medications
There are various supplements, sprays, botanicals & medications available that can provide anxiety relief on a long-term, or as-needed basis. With all the options out there, it is important to do your research and consult with a veterinarian to find the best and safest option for your dogs. Some may be better for extended use, while others are more for situational anxieties. A few of the products to consider are: DAP, Rescue Remedy, Canine Calm, or natural supplements containing ingredients like tryptophan, casein, B vitamins and others. Zylkene is one that I was just introduced to (thanks Mom). I think it originated in the UK, but is becoming more popular in the US. There are also prescription anti-anxiety medications that should only be used under the care of a veterinarian, or veterinary behaviorist.
Get Out of Town
This is my favorite option of course. Using the techniques listed above, I was able to get great results up to a point, but the actual day of the 4th in my neighborhood is unbearable.* If you live in an area that gets a little crazy with fireworks, I would recommend getting out of town, or at least staying with friends or family in a quieter area for the night. I had reserved the same house we stayed at last year, but in light of Kona's passing, I couldn't bring myself to go. It's a great place and it's now available! Check it out: VRBO #320133
*Fireworks are only legal in the city limits of Vancouver on July 4th from 9am to midnight, but that doesn't stop people from using them for weeks. In 2017, they will be banned altogether in the city, but I have a feeling that's not going to make a difference.
Fourth of July with Kona
My first Fourth of July in this house, and with Kona, was pretty traumatic. Kona had been with me for almost 6 months and I knew he was reactive, but for some reason I didn't consider how bad the holiday might be. By the time the fireworks started, it was too late to work with him much. I closed up the house, made him a den, turned everything on that made noise and tried to distract him, but all to no avail. I was cowering on the couch, with him on top of me, barking violently, inches from my face. He didn't act afraid of them, really, but he certainly acted like he wanted to find them and rip them apart. Since he couldn't find them, I think I felt like I might be his alternative. He had a muzzle on a few nights that week. We were under the care of a veterinary behaviorist at the time and decided to try meds, because I didn't know what else to do at that point. We tried Trazadone, but I felt like it made him feel scared, or confused and I didn't like that for him, so I didn't use it again. On the 4th I seriously felt like my house might crumble to the ground. We spent that evening in my car, in a detached garage, with the music blaring. This kept him safely confined, helped drown out a lot of the sound, and perhaps the tires even helped insulate us from the booms. Needless to say, I started working on fireworks desensitization as soon as we recovered from that night! After all, I only had a few months to prepare for New Year's ;). We used treats, training and the fireworks video A LOT. I started to look forward to fireworks and thunderstorms because I got to experience Proud Momma Momments, Those moments when you get to see the results of all the time and energy you invested in training, when your dog actually does in real life, what they have been trained to do! He would hear the sounds and lie on his mat, looking at me expectantly, awaiting a yummy piece of steak and I was gleaming, He got to where he could handle the gunshots, thunderstorms and most firework days with only an occasional bark, but the actual evening of the 4th was too much. I wouldn't expect any animal to deal with that! The next year we rented a cabin on Mt. Hood and that became our tradition. We had enough exposure to fireworks there to work on training, but not so much that we were both over threshold and unable to cope.
How do you get through the fireworks with your pets? Share your tips and personal stories in the comments section below. If you'd like help getting your pets through the holiday, contact me today for personalized training assistance!
I hadn't planned on getting a dog. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love dogs! I always have & I always will, but perhaps I loved them too much to feel like I could provide a good enough home. I was at work all day and didn't exactly have money busting out of my wallet. What kind of life could I provide for a dog? I knew I wanted dogs in my life though. My purpose for buying a house was to have a place to bring dogs home to. I thought that fostering would be a good alternative. I would be able to help so many more dogs find good homes, better homes than I could provide, and I would always have a dog in my life.
On Jan 17, 2012 I received a text with a picture of my 2nd foster dog. An employee from the local shelter had made a desperate call to Must Love Dogs NW to save this sweet dog from euthanasia.* He was hit by a car and brought in. No family came to claim him, so he came to me. I was nearly brought to tears when this shy and confused 50 lb fluffball limped into my home, with open wounds that couldn't be sutured, dreadlocks and scuffs from nose to tail, and a 3-4 heart murmur soon diagnosed as mitral and tricuspid valve endocardiosis. His teeth were in bad shape, chunks of his tongue were missing, his back legs didn’t work well and he had nerve damage and sensitivity to touch on his back and hind end, but he had the biggest smile on his face as he curled right into bed for some obviously much-needed rest. We took him to the vet to evaluate the extent of his injuries and for guidance on how to care for him. He was always very gentle with me and for some reason I expected him to be fine with them as well. I was dumb. He tried to bite the vet and I don't blame him at all! That still should have been my first clue as to what was to come. I bonded hard with that shy Aussie and, despite my fears of not being able to provide a good enough home, it was immediately clear that we would not have to look far for his forever home, because he had chosen mine and he would soon become my Kona.
I could never have imagined the additional challenges that we would face together, both physically and mentally. The first few months were full of visits to the vet, bloodwork, neuter surgery, dental work, daily wound cleaning and redressing, slowly clipping dreads and nails and brushing and scaling teeth, and the comfy cone of shame. As he was healing physically, I discovered what “shy” meant. It became clear that Kona was not socialized and probably had never been part of a family. His herding instinct was off the charts and he was clearly uncomfortable with touch, strangers, loud noises, etc. I had no experience with such a challenging dog, but I certainly didn’t back down. I committed my life to learning everything I could to better understand him and to make him happy and comfortable, physically & emotionally. And so our journey began...
*I was recently able to retrieve Kona's records from the shelter and his name was Alastor. I don’t know if they gave him that name, or if he came in with it. Since he was on a 5-day hold, I am thinking he had tags and that was his name. It kind of fits - The Avenger.
It was my intention to write a Kona Chronicles blog for CCS, following our daily journeys in behavior and training. Unfortunately, Kona passed away just days after I launched the business and will no longer be by my side as I share what he has taught me about the complex world of animal behavior. I feel like our story could really hit home with a lot of pet parents though & if this blog can help just one human/animal relationship in any way, it will have been worth it :)