The face I am greeted with at the end of a work day. Otherwise known as a beautiful reminder that he’s totally worth the hard work.
Every weekend’s end I get a bit down in the dumps. And we had quite a bit of rain down in the DC area this past weekend, so I couldn’t help but feel much of it had been squandered, especially as a good number of my friends took it upon themselves to do an Ironman race on Sunday, which includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile mike ride, and a 26.2 mile run.
Meanwhile, I slept until noon Sunday and the dogs honed in on their puzzle skills.
But, I did do one thing of worth on Saturday afternoon, when I attended a workshop hosted by Your Dog’s Friend and Lennea from Next Best Pet. YDF is a very cool non-profit in the DC area that promotes positive training methods, helps people in the area find a reward-based trainer near them, and offers free resources and workshops to the community like the one I attended.
This Saturday’s subject was on multi-pet households, and I was inspired to go out when I heard there would be some talk of dogs and cats. This, admittedly, is a topic that I need help with. With all of Balton’s other issues and training needs, we have spent the last 10 months managing safely, but not really being consistent in helping my two cats develop a peaceful coexistence with him.
Some people are surprised to learn I have cats, probably because I don’t overshare about them in the borderline unhealthy way I do my dogs. But, I actually had them before my work with dogs ever started.
Oreo, the only other lady of the household, is estimated to be about 11 years old now (because she was estimated to be about 5 when I got her). Rescued from a hoarding situation and living with about 40 other cats, she and her housemates were sort of a special project rescue from a few volunteers at Summit Animal Rescue Association in NJ in 2006. 40 cats in a repossessed home that were all going to get put down without adopters or fosters is a perfect setup for a sucker like me.
She was an incredibly grittish and skittish kittish when she first came to me, likely from some neglect in her time as a hoarded pet. She was bound and determined to hide and not be found. I had a small duplex at the time, so there wasn’t much square footage to hide out in. When under the bed and in the closet didn’t work for her in terms of feeling safe, she hid out behind the stove instead. I panicked at the notion I had lost my newly adopted family member for a good day and a half as I tried to find where she had nestled herself. She has mellowed like a fine wine in her old age and despite her quirks and a few lost teeth over the years, she remains a faithful companion who has come with me on every road traveled since graduating college.
Meeko was adopted as a kitten from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington at about 5 months old. I had just moved to DC and at his time of adoption, I had no friends, a job with longish hours, and my then-boyfriend-would-be-husband had ditched me for 3 months while he traveled for work over seas. This combination of variables led to me to think it would be a perfectly reasonable and rational decision to go and adopt a friend for Oreo (yes, I deflected my emotions to the cat and used her as a scapegoat – “ohhh, hey I’m having a quarter life crisis here, the CAT needs a friend”).
He was cute and fluffy, and reminded me of a small raccoon. And so came his name, from the raccoon in Pocahontas.
Perhaps I should have realized in giving him the namesake I would open myself up to a life of troublesome shenanigans.
Meeko is sweet, snuggly, entertaining, and exhausting. Unbeknownst to me when I signed his adoption contract, he came equipped with bonus features – terrible skin problems from a prior flea infestation, (specifically, ringworm, which he passed onto me while we were treating it), a bronchial infection (which I feel pretty certain he passed along to me…or I had just developed health problems in the months which followed from the DC area’s poor air quality), and a penchant for getting into places he shouldn’t, waking me up in the middle of the night because he had nothing else better to do, and getting up in everyone’s space. Very outgoing and playful, the more laid back Oreo was not a fan and I’m pretty sure hated me for a little while. But, they have since learned to coexist peacefully and actually behave like siblings. It does includes a good once in awhile whooping from Oreo when her adolescent counterpart steps out of line by her standards, but you’ll more often find them like this nowadays.
When Ollie came into the picture, both cats were pissed. It was a long time before they came around, but a lot of build in shelves, a finished basement, and a baby gate to the bathroom allowed for the cats to have their own space. Also, Ollie and the cats were the same size, and somehow his big dog/little body attitude quickly wore off its bluster for them. So, it took probably close to a year, but eventually they got to be able to hang out.
Course, they still have their moments, and Ollie has assumed responsibility for educating all our previous fosters on how to verbally assault the cats with lots of obnoxious barking. Our new home has less build-ins, but they retain a downstairs living space that is off limits to the dogs unless we are downstairs to supervise, as well as a baby-gated laundry room.
We have kept our eyes wide open when it comes to life with cats and foster dogs since it took a long time to get to a good place with Ollie. But, given Balton’s other training issues, I admit that fostering a solid dog-cat relationship has been less of a priority. Balton, for his part, is not cat aggressive, but he does see them as play things. Or small dogs maybe? I’m not sure, but he is exuberant. He chases and scare the crap out of Meeko, and one time caught Oreo under a side table, stuck his butt in the air, and started barking at her. Now, this may sound like an aggressive encounter, but the tone of his bark and his body language was asking her to play with him as though she was a dog. Mostly, his inter-species social skills are just terrible. Nevertheless, it provides context for why the cats hate him Further, because Balton is also significantly larger than Ollie, and by default has a bigger bite should things not go all that well, we need to monitor their interactions much more closely. By and large, we’ve done really minimal exposure between the dogs and cats, and mostly just kept them separate for the last 10 months.
So, I hang my head in shame to tell you we’ve been a bit lazy in the whole peaceable animal kingdom stuff. I also regularly feel a twinge of guilt for opting to keep a dog when neither he nor the cats were 100% copacetic with each other – but my intentions have been good and I am aiming to improve things in my own little animal kingdom. Saturday’s session was a good start. I was given some encouragement when I explained my situation, what safety parameters I have put in place, how I have lots of treats and a leash with Balton when I do meetings, etc.
Lennea recommended I do more with the cats as far as their training, and build some more positive associations between them and the dog. To some, the idea of cat training may seem laughable, but I am told they can indeed be clicker trained, so anything is possible! Playtime and treats in the dog presence were a couple of other counter conditioners recommended.
Inspired to start on a new foot, some catification enhancements will also be forthcoming so that the critters have some more perch and safe hiding options that they can look down on the big dog, and be inspired to leave the laundry room when he’s down there. I also decided to bring the kitties a catnip scratch mat and string toy after the event as a “we’re all in this together” peace offering of sorts. I think it went over well.
Stay tuned for further developments as we work together to follow Tim Gunn’s sage advice.
Check it out – Balton was interviewed for the blog Peace, Love, & Whiskers! Thank you for featuring him and helping raise some awareness about pups like him who have some special training needs!
How old is Balton?
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Nina was our very first foster dog with Lucky Dog Animal Rescue. I had started handling dogs at adoption events a few weeks after going through Lucky Dog’s screening process and adopting Ollie. From there, I sort of fell into fostering. The story goes something like this:
I was hanging around at an adoption event, chatting about this old-ish Jack Russell Terrier I was handling named Rasmus. He had recently gone through Heartworm treatment, and also had bad skin, bad teeth, and no foster. I pondered out loud bringing him home, but he ended up with another foster…who ultimately later adopted him, so it worked out quite well for him. Meanwhile, I thought divine intervention had perhaps prevented me from going home with a dog that day.
Fast forward about 30 seconds to a lone dog who looked in sad shape at the foster check out table. Evidently this dog also had nowhere to go, and…well…I was there. So they asked if I would please take her. She had kennel cough, so couldn’t go to boarding, and I had effectively opened myself up to the possibility of going home with a canine friend. Saying no was going to be tough (okay, for me, it was going to be impossible), and so began my foster journey.
Following some questions about crates, food, just how contagious was Kennel Cough to my dog with his Bordatella vaccine, and some paperwork, I was putting a 36 inch crate in my car for a 12 lb dog (it was all they had), and soon after carrying a small black & white beagle with an old man whooping cough to my car (for she was too scared to walk). Her name was Nina, and she was going to be staying with us for a little while.
Scared as she was at first and on the car ride home, she came around rather quickly and she and Ollie almost immediately developed a love connection.
We only had her for about two weeks before Nina was adopted, but they were eventful. We learned that keeping her crated in the bedroom next door, our initial action plan with the foster, was not going to be a super solid one if we wanted to get any sleep at all.
The crate wasn’t the issue, she actually slept beautifully in it – the sleeping alone was. Cried, cried, cried her Beagle howl until someone came in for her. So, since I didn’t want to sleep on the floor for an undetermined amount of time, we found ourselves with two dogs in our room – suffice it to say this pattern pretty much stuck with future fosters.
We also learned how challenging and rewarding fostering can be – especially when you’re still working on things like housetraining with your own dog and a new pup comes in who needs to start from scratch. There was also an occasional dispute over a toy, and I found myself taking a crash course in doggy body language and understanding play styles. Much of the time I thought the dogs were fighting, they were actually just playing.
Still, there’s just something lovely about starting with a dog who won’t walk on a leash and then passing the leash of a sassy little diva dog that saunters around and wins the hearts of the neighbors. Not sure if this is the case for all fosters, but as our first foster dog, Nina was definitely the one I cried most irrationally for when she left us for her family.
Nina also had a gross challenge that we thankfully haven’t had to address since her departure – she would eat, or attempt to eat, her own poop. To this day I am horrified to talk about it, and I felt like I was a terrible foster mom when I let it happen. Fortunately, most of the time she was leash walked and I would intercede as pick-up patrol before she could get to it. But man did she want to snack on it, I had to be quick.
But a couple of times, when I wasn’t paying close attention as I should’ve been, she would saunter up to me from a different room and her potty mouth breath would be a dead giveaway of what I had managed to miss while my back was turned. In fact, Nina’s potty mouth remains one of our final
less-than-sweet moments together. I was packing up her stuff and getting ready to bring her to her weekend foster, where she would be going before heading off to her adoptive home the next day.
As I was packing up a few of her favorite toys to send with her, Nina came sashaying up to me and lovingly attempted to give me a sweet puppy kiss when it became apparent that while I was upstairs packing and not paying attention, she was downstairs taking care of business and subsequently having herself a snack. Feeling disappointed in myself, and equally worried and grossed out for her, I got the doggie toothpaste and quite literally washed out her potty mouth just before her sendoff.
On out way over to the weekend foster, Nina laid in the back seat – looking a bit sad. I suspected that of course, she was as irrationally sad as I was that she would be leaving us and not coming back.
As it turns out, she was actually not sad, but somewhere between carsick and nauseated from her morning snack. Moments later, Nina hurled all over my back seat. It was the first of many foster brandings to be left on that backseat, and a hard life lesson that laying a sheet down on the spot for the dog is an excellent idea if you don’t have leather interior.
But, she did feel much better afterwards, and I heard no follow-up reports of poop eating after that event. And Nina and her adoptive family have been spotted at a few Lucky Dog events after her adoption too. So…I like to believe that maybe we helped her outgrow that phase in her life?
As it turns out, poop eating, otherwise known as coprophagia, is considered a fairly common behavior, sometimes done as the result of poor nutrition or simply because they “like the taste” (seriously). Victoria Stilwell did a short piece on it in her “It’s Me or the Dog” training tips column – which addresses some of the stuff to do about it. At the time, we were feeding a high quality diet and picking up immediately when we could – so by all accounts I can feel good about how we tried to work with the odd behavior in our limited foster newbie knowledge.
Still, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still haunt me a little today. Maybe my public soul (and Nina’s palate) cleansing can finally give me a little closure on this chapter of my life. Have you ever experienced any gross or strange habits with in your own dogs or former fosters?
For those of you who don’t already know, Balton the Brave is a name that developed during what I might identify as a turning point in our training efforts. Balton the Brave is more than a name at this point, it’s an emotion. A feeling that is in a class all its own, which identifies every singular snapshot moment where I can clearly identify how hard he is working to be good, how well he is working to manage his stress, how brave he is in that very moment.
I love Balton in so many moments – our quiet moments, our playful moments, our learning moments, and our challenging moments. But when my superhero dog shows up, I don’t think I could possibly love him more.
From Wednesday night to Saturday morning, my parents and my husband’s family were in from out of town. My parents and their dog stayed with us, and in the weeks leading up to their visit I was planning for it. We painted, we cleaned, and we made a plan for Balton.
In previous encounters with in-home visitors, my well-intentioned efforts often involved introducing him to people in an effort to “socialize” him when he quite simply wasn’t ready, or crating him in the kitchen so he could see what was going on, and guests could move about freely but he could be in his safe little den. These misguided methods inevitably led to high stress levels all around, but most especially for Balton.
One of the things I’ve learned is that common training knowledge has exceptions when you’re dealing with a dog who doesn’t generally deal all that well. As it turns out, the “safe place” of a dog crate for a fearful dog does little to help him when you have it positioned in a place where people would walk towards it to walk by it. Womp.
One of the other things I’ve learned through these encounters is that humans aren’t so great at following instructions. Or maybe I’m just not that clear in them? I don’t know – but in instances where I have advised guests not to look at the dog or talk to the dog, they do both within seconds. In instances where I say toss treats on the floor, they somehow want to try and toss them into the dog’s mouth. Which requires them to pay attention to the dog. Womp, womp.
So, this time around I took the “take no chances” approach, coupled with a “the best defense is a good offense” approach. The latter approach has been implemented by Balton on a few occasions and gotten him in some trouble, so the cornerstone to success this go round was that I would be implementing it on his behalf.
Before the visit, I readied my stockpile of Kongs and Marrowbones with my housemade recipe of frozen yummables. It was sort of like a doggie stew with chicken stock, ground beef, dehydrated food, and kibble. Hardly a gourmet recipe worth reposting, but here are some good quick recipes for stuffing your own Kong at home. While the boys are fed their meals in a Kong so they have to work a little at them, the frozen and high value delicious treats I stocked up on are few and far between, so his receiving them marks a truly special and wonderful occasion.
Our trainer had taught us the importance of two forms of management when we have people over as we continue working with Balton on his training. So when we are out on walks or have people in our home, we need to have a two piece management plan in case one piece fails. We also want to make sure we’re working to keep Balton from practicing unwanted behavior, or getting stressed out, and allow him safe opportunities for positive association building with the guests in our home.
Wednesday night was the night with the most people over, as the in-laws also came by for dinner. So, Balton was given a good run at the dog park before we went home to our guests, and when we came through the front door, immediately ushered upstairs to our bedroom, given a delicious frozen yummable, and asked to “go to bed.” He settled into his crate (management 1) and was given a stress relieving activity to work at and make him feel good, then closed in the bedroom (management 2) safely behind a closed door.
After we had wrapped up dinner and the dishes were washed, and everyone sitting calmly around the table, we practiced a little counterconditioning and desensitization. I went up with my treat pouch, a leash, and a basket muzzle, and hung out with Balton at the bottom of the stairs. Again, we had two forms of management and a stress relieving activity, as well as an easy out so he didn’t feel cornered (could easily run up the steps to escape the scary monsters invading out home if needed). He is becoming an old pro at offering behaviors and paying attention to me for rewards, thanks to our work at Rowdy Rovers class and out on our walks. Our visit was brief, and he happily focused on me for a few minutes and did sits, downs, and touches before we retreated back upstairs – notably before Balton was given an opportunity to get stressed out. No reactions, no incidents, no fear.
We continued this pattern over the course of the next few days, and Balton perhaps spent more time in our room than he would have liked to. Friday after I got home from work, we allowed him to come out of the crate and stay in the kitchen, draping a sheet over his baby gate so as not to cause visual stress, and muzzling him. My parents were good at letting me play host (i.e. not going towards the kitchen) and Balton settled on his bed or the cold kitchen tiles (it was also about 100 degrees during this visit…yuck).
Super Hero Sa-nooz-in. Mom’ s got the scary monsters under control.
We even took him on a walk with my mom Friday, and again on Saturday morning. My mom handled her dog and Ollie, and I walked Balton. We walked side by side, let them walk ahead, and let them walk behind us. Balton was unfazed, which was a big, big deal for us. Balton has met my mom on a few earlier occasions, and it’s clear that he has gotten to be pretty okay with her – when she moved around at home he didn’t bark, but when my dad did he would woof about it some. This is also super encouraging behavior though, since it shows as people give him time and space, he can come around if they just take it slow.
Saturday morning the house cleared out – and while Balton’s interactions were incredibly limited with our guests (he was more around them than engaging with them) – he shined. I think he felt like we really did keep him safe this time. In turn, he was able to relax and feel good about himself when they came, they went, nothing bad happened in between, and he could return to his usual spot on the couch.
Saturday afternoon – life back to normal and a very proud pooch!
While he might not be the dog who can hang out during house parties, we have an Ollie for that who will happily oblige to seeking out attention and accepting snacks from guests. Nevertheless, knowing we can have strangers and Balton under the same roof, and even in the same room for little bits, with a little bit of advance planning and management (while we keep on truckin’ with the training), is a cause in my mind for celebration and superhero fanfare.
Because Cinderella gets some support with the chores around the house.
Here’s Ollie helping me paint the kitchen.
Here’s Balton helping me vacuum.
Truly though, in a world of dogs underfoot and scientifically afraid of vacuums, I guess I should be grateful that they just won’t move out of the way.
Nevertheless, I’m working with mice and birds on all future household endeavors.
(c) Disney – source