Thursday, April 11, 2019

Keep on keepin' on

Two years after completely giving up on all away-from-home activities, Ida started going to rally class.  The first set of classes we took were really just to work on working in a new space where there are sometimes dogs, and helping her feel safe about being there.  I kept things easy - rotating around a pivot disk or sitting on cue were things she had down-pat at home, in the yard, and in an empty park, but could she do them after a car ride?  With another dog working at the other end of the room?

She could!

At the end of one of our classes, the instructor mentioned that Ida was doing great, that she was happy and clearly having fun.  In the car afterwards, I teared up.  I was so happy to see her happy and filled with hope and excitement for the possibilities in our future.  Maybe we'd actually be able to trial some day.

We continued going to classes, and they got easier with each week.  A couple months later, on a class day, I got home from work much later than usual.  I was in time to make it to class, but just barely, and I didn't give Ida her situational medication before leaving (they would've kicked in towards the end of class, anyway).  She'd been doing to well that I didn't think it would be a big deal.  I expected she would struggle a bit more than she had been, but I figured things would be fine if we just took it easy.

It was not fine.  Clearly stress from the car ride and the disrupted routine were too much.  She was nervous - conflicted - going into the building.  She would settle in her crate when other dogs were working, and couldn't focus. By the end of class, even an easy exercise like Choose to Heel was too much for her.  After a minute of sniffing the floor, tail down and ears back, she chose her crate over me and cookies.

I cried in the car all the way home.  I felt so defeated, so heartbroken.  It didn't matter how much work we put in it would never be enough for Ida to do the things that dreamed for her.   Some dogs finish championship titles in two years.  We couldn't even play easy games in a familiar class setting.   What was the point?  Why was I putting in so much work only for it to not make a difference?

I dreaded the next class, but I am cheap and hate missing classes that I've already paid for.  I made sure Ida got her Xanax on time, and we got to class early enough to walk around outside and sniff around inside before others arrived.  I had my happy worker back.

It was a hard lesson about my own resilience in the face of unmet expectations and a reminder that progress is not linear; a single session without the context of those before and after it, is not representative of the direction you're heading in.  Sometimes when things go bad, you really do have to just... keep on keepin' on.  Maybe you take a step back, a look at what happened before, and if those circumstances were unusual or a one-off you just try again next time.

But one bad day doesn't make failure.  It's just a bump (or sometimes a lake) in the road of progress.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

I have a confession. I buy books with no intention of reading them.

As a kid, I was a voracious reader.  I was nearly always won the "how many books can you read" competitions held in many elementary classrooms; in Grade 6 I even won a prize in a province-wide contest sponsored by the Calgary Flames.

My love of books has carried over into adulthood, and followed me into my (re)discovery of animal behaviour and love of dogs.  Instead of running to the YA section of Chapters to find the latest adventures of Ashleigh's Wonder, now I go to the used bookstore to trawl for R+ and science-based dog and animal behaviour books.

Sometimes the only dog books on the shelves are Cesar Milan or Dogs for Dummies or generic breed books, and I walk away a bit disappointed.  But sometimes... Sometimes I get lucky.  Sometimes I find a gem (or two).  I gleefully hand over my money, even knowing full well that as an adult I just haven't made the time to read like I used to as a kid - those books will come home with me and sit on my bookshelf.  Watching me walk past them every time I feed the dogs.  Feeling their little i's watch me as I pointedly avoid their gaze.  What is the point of buying books if I am not actually going to take in their knowledge? 

"Why have you forsaken us?"
For 2019 I set myself a goal to read one shelf-bound dog/behaviour book per month until I get through the collection.  Except the textbook that I bought on a whim, which I will aim instead to read one chapter of per month.  And just to really motivate me, I am going to let myself buy a new book for every 3 old ones I read.

This month I've been reading The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare, but I'll save my review for when I've finished. 

How about you?  Do you collect vessels of dog knowledge?  What are you reading right now?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Progress is not a Finish Line

Whether it's teaching a formal retrieve or to tolerating the existence of strange dogs, setting specific goals helps me think through what the desired end behaviour is and the steps I need to get there.  But to be useful, and not just a giant boulder hanging over our heads waiting to crush us, we need to set goals that are practical for both the dog and the handler.  Sometimes it's difficult to reconcile our dreams for our dogs with what is possible.  I am going to need a new car soon. No matter how much I'd like to replace my 1998 Honda Civic with a 2019 Volvo XC40, my bank account says it's just not going to happen.  Not this year. 

Some day, you'll be mine.  But not in 2019.
When setting my car-related goal last year, I feel I made one major mistake: I was focusing too much on a specific achievement - being able to ride in the car for 30 minutes - instead of the process needed to get there.  While finish line-type goals are definitely useful, for a dog like Ida, the "finish line" (her tolerance of riding in the car) is kind of intangible, pretty difficult to measure, and fluctuates constantly.  It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking of "progress" like a finish line. 

While you can't really go backwards from a Q, title or ribbon - they are yours forever - "progress" changes from day to day, car ride to car ride.  Just because Ida could tolerate 20 minutes in the car today doesn't mean she will be able to handle it tomorrow.  There may (hopefully!) come a time when she can handle 20 minutes in the car without batting an eye day after day, but I know that for us, focusing on a specific target like that will put me off track the next time she can't handle 20 minutes in the car.

Seemed relevant, questionable attributions aside.

So, instead of setting a finish line for Ida's goals this year, I am setting them based on taking specific, measurable actions.  I want to outline the things that I will be doing, rather than the places I want to be going.  That way I will feel like less like failure if things don't go as expected.  With that in mind, here is my biggest goal for Ida for 2019:

We are going to take one car ride per week of any duration to do a fun thing - Nosework or rally class, squirrel watching - and at least one car ride per month that goes on the highway.  We will aim to increase highway rides by a few minutes at a time, or until she starts to either pant or refuse food, at which point we'll stop as soon as it is safe to do so.

And so far, week into the new year, we are on track - 2 car-rides down, only 50 more to go.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Hi!  If this is your first time here, welcome.  If you've been following Ida's story from the beginning, thank you and welcome back!

When I adopted Ida from the local shelter 3 years ago, I had no idea that our journey would be so twisty-turny.  At the time, I was at the top of Mount Stupid; having successfully rehabilitated a leash-reactive dog, I thought I could tackle any behaviour problem.  In hindsight, that was incredibly naive.  (I also am not sure I was wrong, but that could fill its own post).

All stories have their ups and downs, but sometimes the extent of our downs were, well... extreme.  When I met the cute, playful puppy in the shelter, all I saw was the classes we'd take, the agility courses we'd run, and some of the ribbons we might take home.  That she might not be able to do those things never even crossed my mind.

When I first noticed she was so anxious in the car, wide-eyed and shaking just sitting in the parked garage, I struggled with what to do.  I really wanted to keep playing agility, but every drive felt like I was torturing her to do an activity that was really for me.  I didn't know how to handle the baggage that came with it.  I felt guilt constantly.  And I felt like a failure because I wasn't able to train my dog to be comfortable in the car, which millions of dogs can do without any special training at all.  So more than 2 years ago, I started this blog to externalize the struggles that I was having with a young dog who stole my heart while also breaking it.

Well, Ida and I have come a long, long way since then.

Some of our accomplishments have been documented here.  And they are accomplishments, even though many dogs can do with ease the things that we've worked towards for years.  But since I started this blog, I found my tribe - a group of dog people with a shared philosophy, and I have been celebrating with them more, and posting here less.

Ida's journey: from rolling to rally.

But the more time I spent with "dog people", the more I see people going through what we are.  I think back to how I have felt - and still sometimes feel - on this journey with Ida: it can be incredibly isolating to be a "dog person" with a dog who can't do "dog things", even with an accepting, supportive tribe.

So, I am reviving this blog.  I want better document our journey and what it's like to live with and love an anxious dog.  I want to write about our failures and our successes, but also about my thoughts and self-discoveries made a long the way. 

Maybe other dog handlers who are also struggling with their difficult dogs will find it; and maybe it well help you feel not quite so alone.

Even when you think you're finished - it's not over yet.

Monday, April 9, 2018

A side-trip to impostor syndrome

There seems to be a disconnect between human and veterinary medicine, at least in public discourse.  For sure, human and veterinary medicine are not identical, if only because every species has anatomy and physiology that makes them their own species.  And it irks me when, for example, physicians for humans make informal recommendations in public dog-discourse based on what they know about drug action/affects in humans.

As an epidemiologist, I have been trained to evaluate reports of health/medical studies for biases that may hide the true relationship between a disease and an exposure.  I am perfect at it, but I have more training in evaluating sound medical science than the average person.  And I have always felt that this training carried over into veterinary medicine.  The features of a high quality study remain the same whether the subjects are human or canine!  If anything, there are a lot of parallels between canine epidemiology and pediatric epidemiology (especially in babies/toddlers): both dogs and toddlers rely entirely on their caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs, to teach them how the world works, and make appropriate health decisions with their best interests at heart.  In addition to all of the biases that normally come along with observational studies, both pediatric and veterinary health studies are prone to placebo-effect affecting the caregiver.

There are very few reasons why my training in evaluating human literature should not apply to veterinary literature as well.  I am not an expert in human physiology or anatomy either; lack of expertise in veterinary physiology/anatomy is not the difference here.  In fact, I have more training in animal physiology/anatomy than the human equivalents.

Despite my internal inadequacies, it was really nice to get some validation in this area.  It came in the form of summary notes from a workshop put on by one of the biggest names in veterinary behaviour (that I wish I had attended, but that's another story).  It was nice to see that we had the same conclusions in a lot of behavioural treatments, based on the evidence in the literature.  And it was a good reminder to myself that hey, even if I don't feel like I know what I'm doing, and even if random internet people who don't know my qualifications tell me I'm not qualified because I'm not a vet*, it doesn't matter.  I'm not out to lunch on this stuff - the training holds true.

*Vets are really great professionals and I have a lot of respect for them, but - like human physicians - the focus of their training is on diagnosing and treating disease, not designing studies or evaluating study methodologies.  But that is a rant for another time.

Monday, March 12, 2018


If you're already at a destination, one that you go to routinely, it's easy to not think about how you got there. Think about your commute to work this morning. Chances are this is the first time since arriving at work that you've thought about how you got there. And probably, unless something unusual during your drive - a crash or stall that caused you to change your route, for example - you didn't even really think about your commute to work while you were commuting... and even then, since you've travelled the route so much, chances are that any detours are easy, short affairs because you still know exactly where you're going.

On the other hand, if you're taking a trip somewhere you've never been before, if you're like me, you spend every few seconds checking for markers that provide assurance that you're on the right route to get where you're trying to go. An unexpected detour may, or may not be stressful - depending on whether you already know a clear path how to get from the detour back to your original route or not.

And I think the same thing can happen on our journeys with our dogs. Whether it's a sport-specific problem - like bar-knocking in agility or dumb-bell chomping in obedience - or deficiencies in regular life-skills like leash pulling or fearfulness, it can be really easy to fall into the trap of thinking of your dog mainly in terms of those problems. If you're actively working through those kinds of problems, then that's what your brain is putting its cognitive abilities towards when you think about the dog. You don't think about the things that aren't a problem because... that's just not what you've been working on.

Sometimes its okay to take a step back, soften your focus, and appreciate the good things about your dog. Whether that's how pretty she is, or how good she is at playing fetch, or how fast she can run. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it is something that you love about your dog.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

It has been really hard for me to work on Ida's car anxiety this year. It's been over a year since I first identified that it was becoming a problem, 10 months since she started on medications and stopped going for unnecessary car rides, 6 months since I sat down and wrote a clear and specific training plan, and four months since I put a system in place.

And I needed every single one of those to be in place before we could make progress: so that I had a step-by-step plan, so that I knew what I was looking for, so that I could put my own anxieties about the process aside, and so that I could keep myself accountable.

Over the fall, we worked on rolling down the driveway with the car engine on before I bit the bullet and decided to try moving powered by the engine.  We went slow, only a little bit at a time, she was relaxed, ears up, tail up, happy the whole time.  We're not finished yet (she is not happy always), but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I'm pretty sure it's not a train.

Although it was a super long, drawn-out process, I really wanted to make note of the key points that I think have helped us be successful this far, so that when something else catastrophic blows up in my dog training, I can come back to this post and remind myself that I can in fact fix it, and here's how I did it last time.

Identify the problem
Remove the trigger
Develop a plan
Hold yourself accountable

This time, the first two were hardest for me.  I tried to hard to identify the specific thing about driving that was bothering her, and it turns out that it's all of it, which resulted in trigger stacking.  But the hardest thing of all was pulling her out of classes and not driving anywhere we didn't have to.  I know now that my difficulties didn't really have much to do with Ida, but training classes are a safe space for me to geek out as much about dog training as I want without worrying about people thinking I'm strange for being so enthusiastic about dogs and training, and it turns out that's a really important thing for me to have in my life.

After I stopped all car rides, I played around with behaviour modification for the problem.  It got a little bit better, but without having a plan and system in place, I frequently made mistakes that set us back.  It wasn't until I sat down and wrote out a plan that we finally made consistent progress.  I started by identifying the specific senses that were involved in a car ride - from putting on her harness in the house to the actual driving - and then the individual stimuli that affected each of those senses (e.g., the sound of the radio, the feel of the vibrations of the car, the smell of gasoline burning, etc.).  Once I had a list of what to work on, I also planned out how I was going to work on it.  I needed to structure my training plan in a way that would set both of us up for success: removing barriers that prevented me from working on the problem, and ensuring that we could progress steadily without falling into the "one more rep" trap that frequently catches me.  I would aim to do at least one session every day, and that sessions would only be 10 dried anchovies long.  Limiting the session length was really important so that "Finding time" didn't become a barrier preventing me from working on it.

Even having a concrete play laid out, I still didn't do as much as I felt I should.  I was doing about one or two sessions a week, and things felt tedious because we were not making very much progress.  I also happened to be learning about human behaviour change techniques as part of a project at work, and decided to set up a visual cue and system of accountability.  It is not very complex - I printed off monthly calendars and bought some stickers, and voila.  When I work on a thing, I get to place a sticker.  It's not a perfect system, but it's definitely helping to keep me motivated, or at least prompting me to work on it!

Keep on keepin' on

Two years after completely giving up on all away-from-home activities, Ida started going to rally class.  The first set of classes we took w...