Friday, August 28, 2015

River, the Story of a Trainer's Dog who Needs to be Trained: Part 1

My friend Katy, who calls me her 'puppy pimp' since I found her the two puppies she adopted this year, told me I should write about my puppy, River.  She thinks that other people might like to learn about my experience with him, and feel better in the knowledge that even I deal with day-to-day issues with my dog.  I will be the first to admit that we have good days and bad days, and I am trying harder with him than probably any other dog I've ever had.
This story starts in September of 2014.  Along with my boyfriend, John, I decided to adopt a new puppy. My dog, Paisley, was 5 at the time, and I thought, in my infinite wisdom that it would be a good age for her to get a puppy.  She wants you to know that she highly disagrees with me.  We wanted to get either a Boxer or a Lab, and looked around at a few rescues, with Safe Harbor Lab Rescue being one of them since I adopted Paisley from them.  There was a litter of lab mix puppies that would be available at the end of October.  We met our puppy, Milo, at 4 weeks old, and brought him home at 8 weeks old.  He was the best, sweetest, calmest, most wonderful puppy and I wondered how we got so lucky!
Milo at 8 weeks
Unfortuantely, when he was 16 weeks old, Milo developed severe bi-lateral pneumonia and went in to the hospital for what was going to be a week-long stay for treatment.  At 6am the first morning, the doctor called and said Milo has gone in to cardiac arrest, probably had an embolism, and died.  She said 'We did everything we could to save him'.  I was in shock, not awake yet, and asked her "Can we come say goodbye to him?" We held him for over an hour and left without him. That was the hardest day of my life.  It was a week before Christmas and we were all devastated.
The next morning, John and I were both up before dawn, still crying and wondering what happened to our beautiful puppy.  I said 'I want to get another puppy right away' and he agreed. I searched online and found a rescue who had a little Boxer mix puppy who would be available for adoption the next day.  Under his cute little fawn and black face, it said his name was 'Milo'.  Clearly, it was meant to be, and I paid for him and filled out the paperwork on the spot.  We decided to name him 'River', which means 'renewed life, courage, and determination'.
River at 8 weeks
(John is a firefighter so we took pictures on the truck of both puppies)
In my emotional fog, what I didnt realize is that River was from a litter that was transported in from New Mexico. His mom is a pure-bred Boxer (we met her) and dad isn't saying. But he is what I call a 'reservation dog'. In my professional experience, I know that reservation dogs (dogs who come from rural areas, mostly New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Wyoming, etc), tend to have more genetic fear.  I wrote about the subject in this blog .
I was not anticipating ever adopting a puppy with major issues, but River certainly has them.  He was afraid of people, shy with dogs, skittish with sounds and objects (he was terrified of garbage cans on the road and fire hydrants, which is very ironic!), he barked at everything and nothing, submissively urinated, shook in terror, and his ears were always pinned back to his head like something bad was always going to happen. I felt so bad for him!  He lived in a constant state of panic, and I set out to help him, just like I would for any client's dog.
Stay tuned for what I did to help him!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Pekoe- A Service Dog in Trouble

In honor of International Assistance Dog Week, I want to tell you about a very special dog and his person.
Pekoe is a 6-year old black Standard Poodle with bright brown eyes and soft fur. His person, Vince, is a quadriplegic after an accident 16 years ago.  I met Vince and Pekoe a few weeks ago when Vince contacted me about some behaviors Pekoe was exhibiting.  I learned a lot about their relationshp, how it started, what Pekoe's favorite things are (food, food, and food), about Vince's accident, and also that Vince used to be an NFL and CFL football player 'back in the day'.  He played for the Packers, and I told him I was a Vikings fan - thankfully he didn't fire me!  Vince's incredible attitude and humor, despite his circumstances, inspire me, and his love for his dog is unwavering, just like anybody else who adores his dog.
It's not uncommon for service dogs to become protective of their humans.  Being responsible for someone, like Pekoe is, can be very stressful and the 'job' comes with a lot of pressure.  About 2 years ago, Pekoe started become reactive when he saw another dog.  For whatever reason, he deemed dogs a threat to himself and Vince, to the point where Vince had to stop taking him with him when he went out.  Unfortunately, not being able to take your service dog with you when you are quadriplegic can be heartbreaking.  Not to mention, Pekoe is Vince's constant companion and they are two peas in a pod!
Pekoe and Vince
When Vince first contacted me, I wasn't sure if I could take on his case. I had never worked with a service dog before and had no experience with working dogs in this situation. But Vince was very convincing and I truly wanted to help him.  So, I contacted my colleague, Jennifer Arnold, at Canine Assistants in Atlanta. She spent an hour with me on the phone explaining the nuances of dogs with wheelchairs and how service dogs handle stress. She gave me a thousand bits of advice to try, and it was all extremely helpful. After we spoke, I thought about it for a day or two, and ultimately realized that Pekoe is actually just like any other anxious dog I've worked with. He just needed to decompress and have some fun again.
I decided that we would go back to basics and let Pekoe just be a dog for a while.  While I have been trying different reward systems on Vince's chair (he can't deliver treats), I have been experimenting with Pekoe's commands, getting him to pay attention to Vince when he's distracted, and adjusting the way he works with Vince's wheelchair.  Vince can move pretty quickly in that thing!  It is very important that I use only positive reinforcement with Pekoe as he is already stressed enough.  No prong collar, leash jerks, or punishment for him- only love, praise, food, and allowing him to make choices.
Yesterday was our 6th session and already, Pekoe is less stressed and wants to work.  I introduced him to Rufus, my fake stuff Rottweiler from a far distance and he offered me lots of fun behaviors that we have been working on.  While Rufus doesn't move, seeing him was stressful, but Pekoe learned very quickly that Rufus is a predictor of really good things and this process will continue to help him learn he doesn't have to protect Vince anymore.
Soon I will introduce him to my dog, Paisley, and then go on a few field trips.  I am sincerely hoping I can get him back to the point where Pekoe can be a service dog again, as I think he truly enjoys it. I know Pekoe needs Vince, and Vince needs Pekoe-they make a great team. You know what's really cool, though?  They think I am teaching them... but in reality, they are really teaching me.
Vince, Me, and Pekoe!