Sunday, September 07, 2008

Trying Not to Feel Overwhelmed

During one of the walks this morning I found myself mentally paging through all I've read about dog training over the past four years, and all I've been taught in classes. Trying to find a path for myself.

What makes this feel like a crisis is the fact that my dogs are physically separated and that, as time passes, keeping them separated could reinforce their animosity. Along with this is the bigger fact that if I can't "fix" the problem I'll need to find another home for one of them.

As I write this blog day by day I hear my own repetitions; I keep circling around and through particular points. My anchor (and not in a good way) is the crisis. If I were living with just one dog who bit people or was fear-aggressive with a neighbor dog or whatever I would be disturbed (as I was when those thing arose) but it wouldn't feel like a crisis.

But I must acknowledge the problem as something else. Calling it a crisis in my own mind is not productive. And I'm not Chinese enough to really appreciate the whole crisis=danger/opportunity thing. Though I get that too.

The ticking away of time stresses me, the sense that I'm not doing enough fast enough to get the dogs together. I'm not changing myself enough or walking the dogs enough or doing enough clicker training or making the right decisions. Those thoughts can really stir up a frenzy. And of course there are other aspects of my life that need fixing. My shakey finances, my disorganization, my extra 25 pounds.

A few weeks ago I considered taking anti-anxiety meds but I haven't followed through with that. I'm trying to give myself a little more time.

So here are some things I think I should focus on:

  1. Establishing a solid, non-negotiable routine of daily walks, in the morning whenever possible (even if they aren't perfect DW ritual walks, they need to happen, and it doesn't matter whether I use gentle-leader head collars or slip collars or Illusion collars or backpacks so much as that I just get out there once a day with each dog, even if it's just around the block). And as I said earlier I've turned 180 degrees on the priority scenario and believe the walk must take precedence even over things I've been wanting to do for my own physical fitness such as bicycling. On my two intensive teaching days I give myself a "pass" to do whatever the heck fits with my day, and that includes kayaking or bicycling on the day with the heinous meetings. But the other days go to the dogs for now. And finding a way through interesting-destinations or whatever else to make the walks as peaceful and pleasant to me as possible so that I'm not judging myself at every step.

  2. Focusing my clicker-training on one specific behavior: eye contact. I've given that a lot of thought and believe that the most important thing I can train these dogs to do right now is redirect their attention to my face on command. That's the foundation of click-to-calm. And it's something I can practice with them at home and during walks without much complexity. I still don't know enough about their body language to know when they're being rude or disturbing to one another. Thank God their behavior is still in that fairly subtle stage, even with the gates. Petunia growling at Buddy is an ongoing problem, and it's one she's done for years, and it continues to be intermittent rather than daily. Teaching her a "watch" command (and Buddy also) could help me redirect that bad energy, in addition to other benefits.

  3. Maintaining the current physical structure of our homelife. Which means, for example, continuing the physical barriers around the house--not allowing them on furniture with me or without me. One addition to this is that I want to experiment with the placement of Petunia's crate. Right now it faces the door and that makes me wonder whether I'm reinforcing a "guarding" behavior with her, expressed when she growls at Buddy for walking by her crate on the way to his at bedtime. The trainers told me that not-correcting behaviors like that is nearly the same thing as reinforcing them, and reinforcing them leads to escalated behaviors. So even though P only does the crate-growling once a week or so I need to make it not happen. By physical-barrier for now and hopefully by behavior/attitude change later. I'm still not ready to remove either dog from my bedroom. But I am emotionally ready to move one into the adjacent bathroom if that might work (not sure if I can make it work, given the dimensions of the crates). And I'll continue feeding them twice a day and so forth.

  4. Being more quiet, and requesting the same from them.I've cut way back on my girlie chatter to the dogs because I've been tense but also because McConnell and others say it's a sign of weakness to dogs. Additionally, though, I need to begin correcting Petunia's barking in the house. I realize she has a lot of energy to release and I don't want either dog to trade barking for fighting. But I think I need to look into a method of bark-reduction training. Maybe with a clicker, maybe with the "watch" command for redirection, maybe with another of McConnell's redirection methods.

  5. Getting Buddy into the muzzle more often. Ultimately they can't be in the same space, even for a little occasional trial period, until Buddy is wearing a muzzle. I'm still inclined to believe it would be more fair for both dogs to wear them but Petunia seems more than resistant; she seems positively traumatized by head-and body-restrictions of any kind (it took me three years to get her to wear a bandanna without stiffening--not that I make her wear one but maybe once a year). The muzzle for P seems too extreme a step at a time when I want the dogs relaxed around one another. So for Buddy, we'll do the muzzle and I'll have to begin putting him in it for upbeat activities once a day or so for at least a week or two (I'm thinking at least two weeks, honestly) before I'll be ready to evaluate whether the dogs are ready for a little open-air time together. I've obviously been stalling about the muzzle. But I'll get back to trying it out with him today, perhaps later tonight I'll work in the garden for a little while and have him wear the muzzle for five or ten minutes. Long enough to get a little used to the idea but not so long that he really suffers.

  6. Putting Buddy in a backpack for some walks to give him more exercise especially on days when I can't give him a long walk.

  7. Putting Petunia in some sort of gear, either the head collar or a back pack, for at least one walk per week. I've made this decision because I do realize that some of P's resistance is just about getting her own way all the time. She'd rather not be encumbered, and I've rarely pushed her to be so. But on some level I think it's healthy for her to learn to tolerate a little physical restriction fro me. Right now it's all about the walk. She resisted a couple of times today when I had the slip collar high on her neck. But I ignored her and she stopped fighting it and did truly seem pretty relaxed afterwards. For the next week it's probably enough for me to just continue that level of physical restraint. But in a week or so it would be good to try the backpack and/or head collar. An additional reason for the head collar is that my mother will return for a visit at some point and be happy to walk the dogs with me. It's always a gift when someone enables me to have the dogs walking in the same space together. But Mom doesn't get the slip collar. She chokes the dogs with it. She means well, and understands when I tell her how to use it, but her attention wanders during our walks and she doesn't monitor her own actions. I think the headcollar would be a good tool for preventing the dogs from straining on the leash and for preventing Mom from choking them.

  8. Continuing to bring the dogs into as many socialization situations as possible, such as bringing P to Home Depot and B to PetsMart. I think it's really good to continue exposing them to unfamiliar scenarios outside our home. So far both dogs continue to behave very well. P isn't thrilled to be wheeled around in a shopping cart at HD but she's polite to strangers and seems to benefit from receiving attention. She doesn't seem to love having strangers pet her. But she tolerates it. That's enough, perhaps. And over time if I could learn to read her body language better I could use those situations to practice more C2C. (As I type that a part of me is praying to God that we'll have a long, healthy life together that will accommodate that next level of training. A part of me feels doomed. Scared. Of what? Of a fatal fight at home, I guess. Or me dying. Mortality everywhere, frightening me.)

  9. Doing at least one down-settle with each dog every day, while I read or watch something good. This is the activity that most closely approximates sitting and reading with a dog by my side. It's not nearly as good as having a terrier's fuzzy head against my leg. But it's something.

I'd love to add more things to that list. The trainers said I should teach each dog a new trick every week to stimulate their brains; they've given me that long checklist of obedience tasks to practice every day; etc. And a few weeks ago I was checklist-happy and I'm still going to make a checklist from the items above. But this week I need to focus on the things that seem to matter most to our situation and do so without setting myself up to fail.

I've also ordered the Calming Signals booklet and DVD that were recommended by my trainers and I've begun re-reading Patricial McConnell's The Other End of the Leash because I think I'm almost ready to truly begin studying my dogs' body language towards one another. This is another vital component of the click-to-calm (C2C) process. But I've been too caught up in my own emotions, I think, to be a careful and patient observer of my dogs' body language.

Today on at least three separate occasions the dogs went nose-to-nose at the gate. Calmly so. They looked just like normal dogs meeting each other. But no play bows (unfortunately) and no snarls (thank God). Just a brief acknowledgment of one another. I wanted to click and reward them but wasn't prepared for it and also maybe I subconsciously didn't want to interrupt it.

The irony of the DW is that he (like my other trainers) say that our dogs mustn't be the center of our universe; I think even one of my dog trainers was wearing the famous t-shirt, "Dogs aren't our whole lives; they make our lives whole." Yeah. Whatever. Try believing that when you're attempting to rehabilitate and repair an unhealthy canine relationship in your home.

And No, I absolutely have not missed the fact that on some level I'm re-living my marital breakdown right now. Just like I felt secretive and sick about having a disturbing homelife with my husband--needing to hide it and put on a brave face every morning for my students--I find myself in a parallel mode now. I'm sensitive to dog jokes; I'm wanting people to stay away from my home (OK, but to make this less black-and-white I have to say I'm not really in the mood for visitors much just in general, ever), including family, and my problem is severe enough that I can no longer find much solace in exploring it in conversations with friends because my friends mostly talk about "getting rid of one of them" and that isn't something I'm ready to do. In contrast, I *was* ready to get end the marriage. Knew it was the answer. With P&B I'm not there yet. I have more hope than that still. (And because of the terms of my divorce there's another dimension to all this--the ex has claims on any dog I would propose to re-home, and he would make such a scenario very painful and very protracted. Of that I have zero doubt.) So, No, I'm not in the same situation with the dogs as with the bad marriage. But the sickness and faking it are here and I need very much to figure out a way to move those feelings out of my heart and mind.

Eckhart Tolle says that if peace is really what you want, then you will choose peace in any situation. Later in the same chapter he says, "When you realize that what you react to in others is also in you (and sometimes only in you), you begin to become aware of your own ego. At that stage you may also realize that you were doing to others what you thought others were doing to you. You cease seeing yourself as a victim." (188-9)

I realize that on a very basic level the problem in my home is that my two animals sometimes fight and injure one another.

I also realize that on a different kind of very basic level the problem in my home is that I feel like a victim. Around some people I feel like prey; around others I feel taken advantage of; around others I feel helpless and damaged. And somewhere along the line I learned to participate in these feelings of weakness, to make them feel true, even at the expense of my own peace of mind.

Part of me believes that this business with the dogs is about the Universe giving me a way to heal myself. Or to accept the healing that was there all along.

Part of me is just freaking tired.

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