Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Talk With My Hands

I am one of those people.


I talk with my hands and most of the time I don't knock over stuff, but sometimes I do.  But when it comes to dogs, I have always talked with my hands in a very literal sense from their  Homecoming Day and onward using hand signals.


Thank Heavens.  


This week has been very long and not fun for my furry friends.  I've been sick and mostly in bed or on the couch with tea and Kleenex and one or more types of cough syrup/decongestant/nasal spray/homeopathic remedy.  I lost my voice three days ago.  However, I am still able to tell Ollie, Marshall and Gus (and to a lesser degree, Orange Cat) that I need them to move, be quiet, sit, wait, back up, relax, come here, or snuggle.

(Orange Cat knows my hand signals for 'snuggle' and 'come here', lately it's just a matter of if he *feels* like coming or snuggling.  For this, I blame the Egyptians.  Cats were once treated as royalty and we humans will never live that down.  Ever.)


Dogs understand hand signals well before they understand the verbal command or cue.  In part, this is because their eyes are designed to detect small movement.  While most dogs don't actually 'see' very well (about a human equivalent of 20/70), their eyes are able to detect slight changes in the way we walk or move even from great distance.   Their ears are designed to hear noises from great distances with incredible directional accuracy, evaluate pitch and volume at much greater frequencies than the human ear is capable of.  Unfortunately, that does not mean they are good at differentiating human noises.  Our words become a foreign language to them.


When teaching a foreign language, one of the best techniques is Total Physical Response method which is basically immersion with overstated, exaggerated movements to show what the word or phrase means.  (Note:  It does not help to just stand there and repeat the phrase louder over and over and hope the other person understands what you are saying.)  Essentially, since we are teaching dogs human language, that is what hand signals accomplish.  Dogs will never be able to replicate our vocalizations, but may learn correct responses to 30-200 verbal commands and gestures given the right training.


As the week goes by and I have to communicate what I want or need from my dogs without any verbal commands, I'm realizing how much we look at each other to make sure the message got across.  I had forgotten sometimes to look for the body language that is asking essentially, "This is what you want, right?" and reinforce the behavior.  I am realizing how much I talk.  


And how much I don't need to.


And how much I talk with my not-furry friends.


And how much I don't need to.




I think I'm learning why monks take a vow of silence-- not so much to learn a 'new' way of communicating with the earth and the beings here.   Rather to return to a very natural and basic way of communicating.   I'm thinking that some of my frustration the last few weeks is from talking too much and not listening-- not hearing-- what other's silences are saying.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


On Sunday night, just as I was starting my bedtime routine and shutting down my computer, I heard a commotion outside.  I wasn't sure if Ollie, Marshall, and Gus were just wrestling outside in the dark, chasing fireflies, or perhaps excitedly sniffing heavy scents that concentrate at dusk.  When I heard Ollie begin to growl, I was certain this was not an innocent Backyard At Night exploration.  I ran to the back door just in time to hear what sounded like a very large man walking through a very large pile of dried leaves.

There was a yelp.

Then there was a smell.

I called the dogs to me, helpless as the freshest of fresh skunk cloud wafted toward the house.  My friend began closing windows as I grabbed Ollie by the collar and sniffed.  My immediate gag reflex told me he had indeed been skunked.  Gus ran half-circles in my periphery and Marshall darted past me and through the dog door into the house.

Into my house.

My friend caught Marshall by the collar at the top of the stairs and he flopped around like a wet noodle, not wanting to be dragged back outside.  He wanted to hide, safe and sound in his bed.  I didn't blame him.  I didn't want to be outside either and my bed was sounding pretty darn good just a few minutes ago.

Once all the dogs were in the yard and the dog door secured and locked, I began making the de-skunking formula in a metal mixing bowl.  My friend turned on all the bathroom fans and started lighting every scented candle we owned.   My husband hooked up the hose to a spigot in the garage and set up the industrial flood lights I normally use when painting a room.   Somehow, Gus had managed to avoid getting sprayed and whined from inside as his friends were stripped of their collars and hosed down.  Two hours and two very sad, lonely, wet, scared, dogs later, the immediate concern was taken care of.   It's been three days and I've gone through four air neutralizing candles and an entire spray can of Oust.   The house is...  tolerable.

When dogs get skunked, the hardest part to clean is their faces.  Unfortunately, this is the part that gets most of the spray.  Try as you can, it takes several days and several applications of baby wipes to get rid of the smell.    Every time Marshall or Ollie drink from their water bowls, the newly moistened odor molecules permeate the air.   The last thing in the world I want to do is nuzzle their muzzles or give little good night nose kisses.

This is a problem.  One of the bonding routines in our house is jokingly referred to as 'Forced Snuggling'.   There is a method to the snuggles, using touch as a bonding tool and as a preparatory set for vet checks, emergency situations,and toddler-proofing.  There is lots of petting and belly rubs with a good amount of touching the in and outside of ears, mild tugging on tails, slight pressure on the ribcage, muzzle rubs and fingers by eyes, sticking fingers and hands in the mouth and touching teeth as well as brushing their soft puppy lips.  There is paw touching and paw holding and a little bit of pressure in between toes.   There is close-face talking and nose-kisses and chin nuzzling.  I feel very bonded.  They feel very bonded.  We become a tangled pig-pile of fuzzy love on the living room floor.  

Although I am usually the one who instigates these sessions, Marshall and Ollie both have their own ways of saying they are ready for Forced Snuggling.  Marshall lays on the futon and lifts his front right paw as if he is opening up his little arms to give a hug.  Ollie comes to wherever I am sitting or standing and sits on my feet with his back to me and looks over his shoulder at me like a seal.  In the past few days, there have been lots of hug-offers and seal-smiles.  There has been a lot of attention-seeking behavior and Are-We-Still-Friends? looks.   "Of course we're still friends,"  I say in happy-happy voice.  "I just don't want to nuzzle your gross nose."

Instead of snuggle sessions, we've played a lot more ball and done some new games, played chase and hide-and-seek.   I've had to do a lot of thinking about how I show my affection to my dogs and reinforcing their want to bond and socialize in both human and dog ways like play.   And in the midst of all of this, I've been thinking about the ways I show my human friends how much I appreciate them when distance (thank goodness not smell!) makes hugs and body language obsolete.   I've noticed I have sent a lot more emails this week and left voicemails "just to say hi."   I've been glad to reconnect and catch up with a few folks I hadn't talked to in a very long time.

I guess every skunk cloud does have a silver lining.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Humble Pie for Breakfast

I was woken up by a certain very happy Silky Terrier.  For those of you who have never had the pleasure of owning a terrier, you may not be aware of how they share their happiness.  

Barking.  High pitched, two-toned, ear-piercing barking.

The behavior was a desirable trait in the past 600 years of terrier breeding.  Often used to hunt rats and other varmints living in grain silos, barns, factories, and farms, terriers were bred to have a loud bark.  Rodents move fast and the barking allowed for owners to locate the dog, even if it had followed it's prey into burrows or warrens underground.   This is one reason why Yorkies, Jack Russells, Silkies, Westies, and Schnauzers have earned the reputation of 'yippy dogs'.

Gus is no different.  

Gus has made great strides in his development since he came home in December.  He socializes well, meets new dog friends regularly,  is interested in play and people.  The first toy he played with was a tennis ball.  He would pick it up by the fuzz and toss it in the air, run, and pounce.  His aim was exacting.  Two years of being cooped in a puppy mill pen had not re-wired his prey drive.  

Over the next few weeks, Gus began to bring home more evidence of his ancestry.  The summer body count has risen to five chimpunks, eight field mice, two voles, and a cardinal.  (Though I suspect Orange Cat had some role in the bird catching itself...)  

I am rather accepting of predatory instincts, 'circle of life', animal nature stuff.  I'm not a fan of watching scenes on nature programs where animals get killed and eaten, but I understand how the animal kingdom works.  My dogs and cat, however, get fed twice a day.  They are not starving.  They are not even hungry.   They are merely acting on instinct, but that instinct could cause an infestation of parasites, fleas, and viruses.  It is not safe.

Each time I scooped up a teensy carcass, I wished peace to the little energy that once resided there.  I tried not to be angry at Gus for doing something natural for him.  I have learned the difference between 'cheerleading from the sidelines as Ollie and Marshall wrestle' barking from "YAY!  CHASE THE RODENT!  GET 'EM!" barking.  I finally broke down and got Orange Cat a quick-release collar with a bell and affixed a bell to Gus's collar as well.

I didn't realize how angry I was getting until this morning when I was jolted out of a fairly sound sleep by "Get 'em!  Get 'em!" barks.  I cussed loudly as I came down the stairs.  The thoughts that went through my head were, 

"He is so selfish!  He doesn't even eat the damn things."

"He is a serial killer.  He is cruel and unmerciful."

"The damn barking!  He's doing this on purpose!  Just to piss me off!"

I stomped through the kitchen and opened the sliding glass door with a little too much force as I yelled, "Gus, get your ass over here!"

And there he was, standing in the middle of the yard, looking at me quizzically.

In the moment that followed, I immediately felt ashamed.  I had just broken so many of my own rules.  I called a dog to come in anger.  I had given Gus human motivations and expectations.  I had let my grief over senseless death and secret expectations of rehabilitating generations of instinct overwhelm me.

Gus trotted over to me, tipped his head to the side, then sniffed my toe.  I bent down to pick him up and he playfully hopped backward and play bowed.   Then in a fantastic burst of energy, he began running circles in giant graceful leaps, barking his happiness for the world to hear.   The bark I had assumed was foreshadowing another rodent's demise was actually a celebration of life and body and movement.

Gus was dancing in the rain.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Walking Meditation 7/22

I am not walking today.

I am sitting. 

Sitting inside and looking at the gray.  

I am sitting and thinking about a very missed friend.  Winston, my bunny, passed on his energy last October.  He was seven and a half.  

I am sitting and thinking about how when he was about five months old, I bought a harness and Flexi-leash for him and we would go out outings.  I would stop at Jimmy John's and get myself a sandwich and soda.  Winston would get my alfalfa sprouts, sometimes a cucumber.

I am sitting and thinking how I am -- finally -- not sad.   I just miss.  I miss the garden and the snuggles and the playing-in-grass.  I miss little rememberings and chin nuzzles and happy-chuck-chuck noises.  I miss time.  

I still hurt.

I am sitting and holding my hurt.  I look at it.  It is silver and gauzy.  It fits in my hands like a six pound medicine ball.  It is a weight I forget is there because it is not cold.

I am sitting and imagining our energies intertwined deep into our roots.  When I too go into the ground, our energies will be a fall breeze that brings the scent of leaves and change and apples.  

I notice small movements in my hands and think about small creatures and small breaths.   We have to be gentle with these creatures.  Secure, confident, and gentle.  A steady holding.  Be willing to make ourselves appear to be smaller to gain their confidence.  Prove through  consistency in our actions that we are to be trusted.   Learn that exploring does not have to happen quickly and with profound movement, but slowly with smell, soft whisker touch, little lips and tongues and toes.

Be gentle with all creatures.  Secure, confident, and gentle.  

A steady holding.

I am sitting inside, looking at the gray.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What is a name?

One of my favorite dog scenes from a movie is a scene in Steve Martin's "The Jerk".   Martin plays the role of simpleton Navin Johnson.  While staying at a motel, a dog starts barking at him frantically, urgently, as if trying to convey a message.  Navin is convinced the dog is trying to warn him of a fire  and runs out of his room in a bathrobe and bangs on every door to wake up the guests and evacuate the motel.  While waiting as the fire department clears the building, Navin proclaims that he is going to name the dog "Lifesaver".   When the firefighters determine there is no fire and it was a false alarm, one of the motel guests turns and informs Navin that he should call the dog Shithead... and Navin takes his advice.  As it turns out, the dog is kind of a shithead.  He isn't loyal.  He ruins stuff.  But he's cute and scruffy and knows that there is food for him in tagging along.   

I think it is interesting how much we think about names, what they mean, how they will be used.  We develop nick-names for each other to show a special bond.  A name says quite a bit about your heritage, perhaps even where you are from.  A name can make you stand out or blend in.  A change in name can change the way we view ourselves and how others view us.  Anyone who has ever changed last names or has left behind a childhood nickname for the more adult version can relate to the power and identity behind a name.

When it comes to choosing a name for a dog, cat, or other animal,  everyone has their own technique.  I think every family who had animals has had their share of names from physical characteristics.  In my family's past, Mittens, Blackie, Sandy, Rusty, Whiskers, and Boots are all fondly remembered.   

Some animals are named according to a theme. I tend to name my animals after literary characters or authors. Ollie, my ridgeback, is properly 'Oliver' the orphan from Oliver Twist.  My cats from my high school years were named Dante after writer and father of the Italian language Dante Alighieri, and Murphy after Edward Murphy the supposed originator of Murphy's Law. Some animal's names are family names or people names.   I've known animals named after favorite composers, musicians, actors--even products.  Marshall is named after the company that makes electric guitar amplifiers.  

These names are often badges of honor that rarely have to do with the attitude of the animal itself and say more about us and our interests as namers than the namees.  Where I think we run into trouble in the naming process is when some animals get their name from a predominant personality trait. 

When we name an animal after a personality trait (or a name we associate with that trait), we are doing two things that get in the way of our connection with out animals.   The first is we are highlighting a trait that may limit our understanding of our furry friend. The second risk we take in naming an animal after a personality trait is the danger in reinforcing bad behavior without realizing it. 

Take Angel for example.  As a emaciated stray, she peacefully slept and eagerly ate for almost a week in her new home.   Her docile behavior earned her the name 'angel'. Once she regained her energy (and a little body mass),  her personality became that of the energetic adolescent hound she was.   What one would normally associate with exuberance and some behaviors that need managing and training, her actions weren't exactly 'angelic'. Calling the dog 'Angel' constantly brought back to mind and expectation of the peaceful (sickly and malnourished) pup that showed up on the back stoop weeks before.   This dog needed a set of rules and consistency from her owners early on and didn't get it for months, simply because they were waiting for their 'little angel' to return. 

Pogo, a Jack Russell terrier, was named for hopping about with excitement when greeting family and strangers alike.  Smiles and petting constantly rewarded his jumping for years before the novelty wore off.  Once the family and friends weren't entertained with Pogo's behavior, the dog looked for other antics to elicit petting and attention.   Destructive chewing and incessant barking got attention at first, but then was written off along with the jumping.  The irritating combination of jumping, barking, and chewing earned the Jack Russell hours of confinement when guests were in the house.  His owners just assumed his behavior went along with the jumping and nothing could be done.

An adult black and orange cat earned the name 'Damien' after the evil child in the horror classic 'The Omen'.   The way his eyes glowed from under the bed where he hid the first three days he was home was rather evil-looking.  Cats are normally loathe to soil their sleeping space, but the cat repeatedly chose his new owner's bed to relieve himself during those first weeks.  Misunderstanding this as bad (rather than a cat's attempt to mingle scents and bond) the owner's doubt about naming the cat Damien was erased.  Although affectionate with his owner, the cat hissed, bit, and hid or raced up the curtains when strangers entered the house.  The real issue was the cat's actions signaled stress and uncertainty. The name directly resulted in the owner accepting some pretty bad behavior with the assumption that the destruction was simply a part of the cat's nature.    After years of escalating destruction, Damien's stress responses went unaswered and eventually the cat had developed neurotic and violent behavior that made him unfit to be around children or anyone other than his owner.

I'd like you to think about the names of the animals in your life.  These stories are extreme cases to highlight what can happen if we don't think about the ways our human need to 'name' interferes with inter-species communication.  Are they symbolic of a behavior or a person that you admire for a shared personality trait?  Can you think of ways that the name might be holding back your understanding and responding to animal communication?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Walking Meditation 7/16

It is another partly cloudy day.  The last one I expect to see this week.  I could base my prediction on the local weatherman's forecast of lower than normal temperatures and thunderstorms.  Instead, I look at the trees for conformation.  The breeze grows stronger throughout the day and the silver undersides of the leaves are exposed.  The silver maple sparkles for a moment.  This is how I know tomorrow will bring rain.

We are walking, Marshall and I.  He is a good walker.  His toenails tap the pavement as he bounces next to me.  I call his happy walk "tip-tip-tip".  His head is up, his whippy tail reminds me of the Wacky-Waving-Inflatable-Flailing-Arm-Tube-Man outside the local Chevy dealership.

Marshall is a happy puppy.  I'm realizing as I write this that he only has a few short months until he is no longer a puppy.  He will be two in November.      People always think he is much younger and mistake him for a sixteen-week old Rottweiler.  The truth is we don't know what he is, a Heinz 57 mutt that most closely resembles a German Pinscher, the dogs that are the ancestors of Doberman Pinschers, Schnauzers, and Affenpinschers.

His prance has been passed down from three hundred years of working dogs.  Marshall walks with pride.  He has a job and he does it well.  I am currently working with him to be a service dog.  My service dog.

I am one of the thousands of people with an invisible disability.  People with Epilepsy, Autism, Diabetes, Alzheimer's, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other serious psychiatric disorders fall into this category. Marshall is being trained in medical alert and response, certain tasks to help me in my daily life, as well as all of his public access standards.  

He is off-duty right now and enjoying the scents coming to him in the pre-rain breeze.  We stand for a moment in the shade of an oak tree, close our eyes and smell.   Someone is burning leaves and yard waste and from far away someone is grilling.  The scent of sun-ripened blackberries down the path beckons me.  I start to walk ahead, but Marshall is not moving.  He has firmly planted himself next to the tree.  

When I move closer, he nudges my knee.  It is one of his gentle alerts.  I take my pulse and realize I do, in fact, need to sit down and continue the deep breathing we were doing before.   The tightness in my chest builds then subsides and I breathe through it.  A few minutes later, I feel a tug on the leash.  Marshall is standing on the path with his happy wagging tail.  He tap-dances at me to tell me it's time to get going and I'm ok again.  It is time to finish our walk, side-by-side.

I am reminded at this point of a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh's "Faith as a Living Thing".  

Faith is nourished by understanding.  The practice of looking deeply helps you understand better.  As you understand better, your faith grows.  

My faith has been fed today.   And I think Marshall's has, too.

Oooh. Scary.

Next week I'm working with a client whose dog has some fear/angry/scary issues.  The owner isn't quite sure what happened or why it started.  She left for a week and returned to her house-sitter telling her that her dog was a monster and nearly attacked another dog while they walked through the park.

Before she called me, she was told to use a choke chain (ew!), prong collar (ew! ew!), not to take the dog for a walk until the "problem was fixed"  (what?), and she may have no choice but to put the dog down (omg!)

We'll meet next week to assess what is really going on, but from all accounts, I'm expecting this to be a case of fear-aggression, so I have been thinking about fear from a dog's point of view.

Most dog trainers constantly reiterate that it is important not to ascribe human ways of understanding fear to dogs.  They don't develop fear and learned responses the same way we do.  Their body language that shows fear to their own species is often causes fear in humans.   And when it comes to uncovering what is wrong, we can't ask probing questions and get insightful responses in the way we are accustomed to doing with our friends.  Dogs don't get to sit around and talk and decompress with their friends by shopping.  Or over a couple of beers and a game of pool.  Or coffee.  Or shopping.  (Did I say that already?)


According to most dog behavioralist texts, there are three reasons a dog responds out of fear.

-- Improper socialization as a pup.  Mainly that the pup did not get enough experience with different types of people, dogs, sounds, touch, and movement in its formative 5-14 week stage and so did not learn self-soothing techniques or how to react.

-- Trauma.  Sudden, abrupt, scary-as-all-get-out event that challenged the dogs way of understanding his world.

-- Genetic tendencies bred into the dog for a purpose or by shoddy and irresponsible breeders.  


Fear can come from one or more of these categories, plus another factor that can compound the fear:  progressive de-socialization.


Progressive de-socialization (or a similar term) is mentioned in a lot of dog training books as a cause of fear in dogs.  An example is usually giving with an aggressive dog escalating behavior until his family decides no one can come over anymore or if they do the dog has to be locked in a kennel.  Another anecdote is usually given with a dog that is displaying dog-aggressive behaviors on walks.  Eventually, the owners stop the walks and the dog is confined to the yard, never to socialize with others of his kind.

Whenever de-socialization is listed as a cause of fear in an article or book, I usually have an internal debate that sounds like this:

Research-Reading Me:  No.  It is not a cause.  It aids in conditioning a fear-full response.  Less experiences means less opportunity to learn the right response.  It is imposed by owners.   Separation is the trauma.  De-socialization should be a sub-category of trauma.   


Holistic-Spiritual-We-Are-One Me:  Without any trauma, adult dogs that were separated from social situations develop antisocial behaviors and fear-response aggression.  Without regular access to new stimuli and energies, dogs develop patterns to cope with stress that may not be socially appropriate in our world or theirs.  They have no release for their energy and no new way to channel their anxiety about a situation.  Yes!  Of course de-socialization is a cause of fear.


So, of course that debate got in the way of me writing this post last night because while I debated with myself, the afternoon sped away and it was time to meet a friend for dinner.

It was about ten o'clock when I came back to my house to see Ollie, Gus, and Marshall wrestling in the living room.  My two severely developmentally challenged dogs and my "normal" pup were all enjoying each other's company and interacting.  A dog that had improper socialization as a puppy (Gus), a dog with abuse trauma (Ollie), and a dog whose ancestors were all bred to protect and guard (Marshall).


That's when I decided it was too easy to intellectualize and cite references rather than see the answer that was right before me.


The root of the fear may not be as important as what we do with the fear itself.   It makes sense to recharge and maybe remove ourselves from the environment or fear-inducing situation for a moment, but not permanently.  When our fear impacts our ability to interact with others,  hiding away and watch the outside world go by from behind our windows and fences isn't really all that acceptable.  We stop learning.  We stop growing.  We stop being able to contribute.  And our bond to each other, our ability to be caring and present is slowly eroded until we are so unsure of ourselves that everything is... scary.

Instead of removing ourselves or our dogs from fearful situations permanently, we need to focus on gradually learning how to confront our fears in controlled situations.  This works best when supported by friends and family (and sometimes professionals).  It works best with opportunities to practice, and do-overs, and consistency.  Developing the appropriate response to address our fear makes for happy learning and productive engagement with everything that makes us whole.


And makes for happy dogs of all sizes and backgrounds wrestling on my futon.