Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dickens The Distraught

Estimates of how long and under what circumstances Dickens will tolerate being left alone in the house are currently under review.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dickens, Daisy, And The Circle Of Life

Yesterday, as Dickens was in another part of the back yard chewing a stick, Daisy found one of “his” tennis balls––actually one of hers––and took it gently into her mouth. An instant later she was knocked off her feet by a large red projectile moving at high speed that snatched the ball from her and sped off. Daisy, her ears back and her tail dragging, came over to me and curled up at my feet, panting and trembling.

As it has been ever since the first time Dickens did this––and he’s done it many times––my initial reaction was anger. There was nothing to be done about it, of course––Dickens had no idea what he was doing was wrong––so I sat with Daisy and gave her a few treats from my pocket.

So far the toy-sharing conundrum refuses to come to an equitable resolution, but it provided some perspective this afternoon as I was getting ready to go for a motorcycle ride. As it’s been my custom to do, I loaded a Kong for Dickens to distract him as I left the house. I thought about loading one for Daisy, too, but realized Dickens would only take it away from her as he does with tennis balls.

Then I remembered why there are two Kongs in the house in the first place, and the situation came into clearer focus.

Dickens’ addition to the pack consisting of Daisy and me is a repeat of Daisy joining the previous pack of Winzer and me. In the earlier instance, Daisy trotted in and took over, neatly inserting herself in the hierarchy between me and Winzer, who suddenly found himself with two masters instead of one. She routinely hoarded all the toys, even the ones she never played with, just so Winzer couldn’t have them. If I loaded two Kongs before leaving the house, and handed one to each dog, when I returned Daisy had two Kongs, and Winzer had a wistful look.

I’ve read over and over that dogs are happiest in a pack where all the members have clearly specified rankings. If a dog comes into a pack that has no structure, the dog will impose its own, with itself as the leader. In the wild, the pack leader, or alpha dog, has certain duties and responsibilities. The alpha gets the best food, and eats first. The alpha sleeps where it wants to. The other dogs wait their turn, and get out of the alpha’s way when it approaches.

Domestic dogs are little different from their wild ancestors in this way. Dogs who are fed from the table, or sleep on the humans’ bed, are enjoying alpha privileges, and often assume they’re in charge of the pack. This leads to behavior like uncontrollable barking (it’s the alpha’s job to warn the pack of danger), charging doors to be the first in or out (the subordinate dogs defer to the alpha), and other annoying behaviors. Many dog owners don’t realize this is simply the way dogs are hard-wired, and that the things that drive them crazy about their dogs are simply the normal canine response to a power vacuum.

Which brings me back to Daisy. Dog owners anthropomorphize their pets to a high degree, and in that respect I don’t claim to be any different. But I have to admit that what I see as bullying on Dickens’ part might well be seen by Daisy as a simple re-ordering of the pack, neatly mirroring the reorganization that took place when she demoted Winzer all those years ago.

This won’t stop me from giving Daisy an extra treat when Dickens isn’t looking, or scratching her behind the ears when she asks for attention by putting her head on my leg. But it’ll make me feel less resentful toward Dickens, and that’s good, too, because a good alpha not only corrects pack members when they misbehave, he forgives them afterward.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Daisy The Life Coach

"Hey, genius, here's an idea. Stop dropping the ball down the hole!"

Dickens Dishes The Dirt

"We need to talk about Daisy. She's a real pain, you know what I mean? She loafs around all day, she steals my tennis balls, she gets in my way, she...wait. She's right behind me, isn't she?"

Dickens In Repose

For Dickens, every day is casual Friday. Especially Friday.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dickens: A Progress Report

As of today Dickens has been with us two weeks. He's just about settled in. He can be left alone in the back yard for about an hour, and in the house for at least three so far.

He's learning the hand commands for sit, stay, down, and come; he already knows the verbal commands. We're beginning "quiet" to stop his barking. Results so far are inconclusive.

He regularly plays with Daisy, who, to my surprise, seems to enjoy it. He still won't let her have the ball--any ball--unless I hold him by the collar and give her some time with it.

This morning I trimmed his claws. He's unaccustomed to having his feet handled by me, but he tolerates it in accordance with House Rule Number One, which says, "The human always wins, and life is easier for everyone once you accept that."

My vet said Dickens' tendency to eat grass and his own poop might be a condition called pica, which prompts the dog to ingest all manner of strange things to force parasites out of its system. He gave me three syringes of a worming medication, which I had to squirt down Dickens' throat. This was every bit as much fun as it sounds like for both of us.

His initial unwillingness to let me out of his sight is breaking down. He still follows me from room to room, but now and then he wanders off to another room and naps there by himself.

He continues to surprise and delight me with his goofiness. Today he found a stick in the back yard, a branch that had fallen from a fir tree in the neighbor's yard, and amused himself for a solid half-hour swinging it like a samurai sword, wrestling with it, and running around in circles with it clamped in his jaws, growling happily.

He ran from me whenever I tried to grab one end. It was inevitable that he would flee through a gap narrower than the stick itself, and I'm not ashamed to say that when he finally did I laughed so hard I nearly choked.

In two weeks Dickens has gone from being a problematic guest to a member of the family. Even on such short acquaintance I'm convinced he is a very smart dog who wants very badly to fit in, and to please.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dickens The Landscaper

"Die, lawn, die!"
Dickens seems to have developed some sort of grudge against grass and shrubs. When he's full of energy, or anxious about something, he grabs a big mouthful of lawn, tears it up, and flings it away with a toss of his head. As someone who truly hates mowing lawns, I'm of two minds about this. I'm worried that come the winter rains the backyard will be littered with small muddy holes. At the same time I have to admire the work he's done around the edges, which are hard to get at with the string trimmer.

He's also taken a dislike to the rosemary and honeysuckle bushes along the back fence. The formerly lush growth there is slowly succumbing to repeated onslaughts similar to those inflicted on the lawn. I'm not as conflicted about this as I am about the lawn. First, I've wanted to cut this back for a while now. And second, there are far worse things in the world for a dog to smell like than fresh rosemary.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dickens The Dichotomous

The smartest dumbest dog on the block.

In Catch-22 Joseph Heller described a character who's been to the best schools, earned the highest degrees, and still does incredibly stupid stuff, as someone with "a lot of intelligence and no brains."

Rita Mae Brown once wrote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

And here we see Dickens, digging frantically for the tennis ball that just five minutes ago I pulled out from under the deck where he drops it about once every half-hour. I put a piece of firewood in front of the edge of the deck, but by now he's moved so much dirt that the ball rolls right under it. When this happens he digs and barks and dig and barks. Neither of these strategies has ever rewarded him with the ball except indirectly, when I get tired of the digging and barking and reach in there and get it. Whereupon he grabs it from me, runs around the yard joyously, and eventually goes right back to the same spot where he drops it again. And barks. And digs.

Dickens has learned so much in the short time he's been here. He sits without being told when I put his food bowl down, and when I open the door to the back yard. He heels nicely on a leash, and sits when we stop.

So why can't he learn not to drop that stupid ball down the same stupid hole every half hour?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dickens On Camera

Dickens, aka Velcro Dog, passed a big test this afternoon. I set my digital camera on video mode, put it on top of the TV, and drove to the library. Without a dog. In the following 15 minutes Dickens stared at the front door, looked out the window, whined softly a few times, did a few laps around the couch and then jumped up on it, pushed the gate aside and went into the kitchen, did some things in there that made some noises I can't identify, and came back to the front door about 10 seconds before I walked through it.

I know it's just one time so far, and doesn't mean the problem is solved, but he did not tear up, bite through, knock over, or set fire to anything in my absence. Good boy, Dickens. Good boy.

Dickens At Play

Dickens has been here a week today. This also marks a week of big change for Daisy, who hasn't had a roomie with a tail for a very long time. She might not like having a big goofy dog around the house, but she's getting used to him, as he is to her.

Dickens is getting the message, too, that Daisy has reserves she has not yet called up. Yesterday he tried to initiate play, but went a bit too far too fast, and got nipped. I think this surprised him. This morning he tried it again, and Daisy responded in the manner he'd hoped for. They romped and ran and wrestled and tumbled for several minutes, which at Daisy's age is quite an effort. They both enjoyed themselves and when it was over they flopped on the grass, panting.

Daisy asserted herself another way this morning, after Dickens appropriated her tennis ball. He dropped it to have a sniff at something and Daisy picked it up and walked away with it. Dickens noticed the ball was gone, and saw Daisy with it, and started toward her. But this time she held her ground––and her ball––and Dickens looked lost for a second. This isn't the way this is supposed to happen. They both wondered why the human was laughing.

Dickens has learned sit, stay, come, and down, the latter being the the one that came hardest, because the down is a submissive position and he doesn't know the meaning of the word. Truth be told, he doesn't always know the meaning of the words sit, stay, or come, either, or pretends not to when it suits him. But progress is being made. He now sits without being told when we go to the back door, and when I put his food bowl down, and he's just about learned not to leap out of the car when I open the door.

We still have the joined-at-the-hip problem, but he's gone as long as 20 minutes out in the back yard by himself without going nuts. I need to go to the hardware store today and I plan to leave him in the house while I'm gone. I might regret it later, but there is no progress without sacrifice.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bad To The Bone

"You're not the boss of me."
Today was a long, frustrating day.

I got my work done in the morning, and had the rest of the day to devote to dog stuff. Dickens was back to his strict-constructionist interpretation of the Dickens Doctrine, and knocked Daisy off her feet to snatch the one ball she had out of the three or four in the yard (and the two in his mouth). I gave the "Leave it" command but he blew me off. Chasing him was pointless because he loves being chased. So I sat down on the deck and tried to lure him back with a cookie, but he just kept swooping around scooping up balls while Daisy burrowed against my chest and trembled.

Later I caught him in the side yard eating rocks. This really scared me. Winzer, my old Golden, was returned to his breeder by his owners when he was two years old. They traveled a lot and boarded him while they were gone. He started eating rocks, which the breeders attributed to the stress of being away from them so often, and he eventually ate one so big he couldn't pass it. Emergency surgery saved him, but just barely, and he carried a pink, hairless scar on his abdomen for the rest of his life.

Dickens has been like a sullen teenager all day. I'm cutting him a lot of slack because he's probably still wondering when he's going back to his foster home––he's been away from it only since Saturday––and has no intention of taking orders from some stranger in the meantime. But my patience does not extend to allowing him to hurt Daisy. I could separate them during playtime, but Dickens still barks and whines if I'm not with him. Tying him off to the deck with his leash no longer works. His mere presence is enough to spook Daisy, who now spends all day out in the yard where it's easier to avoid him than it is in the house.

I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it, too. Give it time. It's not even been a week yet. Tomorrow will bring another day. One of these days tomorrow will also bring another Dickens, one who listens to me and is nice to small, frail dogs.

Until them, I am exhausted, and in awe of people who raise actual human children.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Daily Doze Of Dickens


Even an 11-month-old Golden Retriever needs to recharge the batteries now and then.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dickens By The Bay

We took a drive to the coffee shop this afternoon, then went for a walk along the bay.

"Want! Want! Please? Want now!"

"Play it cool. Maybe one will fly close by."

"Darn it! Missed it."

"Okay, I'm bored. Can we walk now?"

The Dickens Doctrine Revised

"Don't even think about it."

As such statements of purpose go, the Dickens Doctrine is breathtaking in its clarity and brevity:

Article 1: Toys

Section 1: All toys belong to Dickens.

That's it.

Today, however, there were signs that Dickens' hard-line attitude toward toys is changing. As previously mentioned, Daisy doesn't care much for toys, with the exception of her tennis ball. I've been trying to teach Dickens that he should let her have that one ball to herself. Success in this endeavor has been spotty. Often he swoops in and grabs it from her before I can stop him and then runs off until I corner him and make him give it back. The command "Leave it" hasn't yet penetrated the outer layers of his brain. But this morning was different.

The method I've come up with for playing ball with both dogs at once is to stand in the middle of the yard and throw Daisy's ball one way, and Dickens' the opposite way, timing it so one dog is always farthest away while the other is nearest to me.

While we were doing this, Daisy's ball took a bad hop off the fence right into the returning Dickens' path. Dickens arrowed toward it like a missile, but at the last second he looked at me, and as our eyes met I swear he thought, "Uh-oh," and he changed course back toward me. When he got to me I gave him all the praise I could, and I think he understood he'd done a good thing.

When something like that happens, when a dog starts to really get it, all the frustrations and annoyances and setbacks you've experienced up to that point simply vanish.

Dickens And The Health-Care System

"He had very cold hands."
Dickens had his first vet visit yesterday. Dr. Ed O'Donnell, who has taken care of all my dogs ever since I moved to Oregon, pronounced Dickens "a fine, healthy specimen." Even more encouraging was that Dickens allowed two total strangers, the doc and his assistant, to handle him without so much as a squirm. This bodes well for his future career as a pet visitor to care facilities.

It could also be that Dickens' affinity for Dr. Ed had something to do with Dr. Ed's recommendation to increase Dickens' daily food intake by a couple of cups. I'd like my doctor, too, if he told me that.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Daisy Not Yet A Member Of Team Dickens

"Kids. Hmph."
One of the reasons I wanted to add another dog to the family is because Daisy was slowing down. I don't know how old she was when I got her from the county animal shelter, but they told me six months, a figure I dismissed as unprovable and therefore irrelevant. But I got her 11 years ago last Thursday, so she's definitely a senior dog.

The first day with Dickens in the house she was shell-shocked, as if a tornado with a tail had touched down in the back yard. "What is that, when is it going away, and why does it have my ball?" She's a quiet, dainty dog, well-mannered and exceedingly polite under most circumstances. She has for the most part remained so since Dickens' arrival while staying as far away from the Red Menace as possible.

Yesterday Daisy began asserting herself, in her typically quiet way. Earlier, as I threw the ball for Dickens, she started after it. Of course Dickens beat her to it by a country mile. So I got her ball and gave it a toss. As she ran after it Dickens swooped by and scooped it up. "Well, I never!" sums up the look on her face.

"Mine! All mine! Bwahaha!"

It was easy to see how this was going to play out, so I got Dickens' leash, tied him off to the deck, and sat beside him while I played with Daisy. Every time she brought the ball back she dropped it just a little closer to Dickens, but never close enough that he could reach it.

I've been training Dickens to sit, stay, and come on command. When he's focused, he learns fast. He's equal parts food-motivated and orange-ball-motivated, with the balance swinging back and forth unpredictably. I have to keep reminding myself he's been here less than 48 hours. I also have to remember how hard it was to train Winzer, and how once the light bulb came on he simply couldn't do enough to please me.

The issue of Dickens' separation anxiety is causing me some anxiety of my own. He simply must be with me wherever I am, and will not tolerate being apart from me. If I were 10 years old, or Tom Sawyer, this might be an endearing trait in a dog. But at some point I'm going to have to leave the house and go someplace where I can't take him. Like a motorcycle ride. Although this is the perfect excuse to buy that sidecar I've been looking at.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Introducing Dickens


Big day for Dickens yesterday. For Daisy and me, too.

Dickens was driven from his foster home in Vancouver, Washington, to Eugene, Oregon. From there Daisy and I took him the rest of the way to his new home here in Myrtle Point.

Dickens is a rangy, dark red Golden Retriever with the energy of a runaway nuclear reactor and, so far, about as much self-control. Daisy and I are cutting him a lot of slack because he’s new here at what will be his third home in 11 months. But he has some issues…

Just about the first thing Dickens did when he got here was tumble a bowl of dog food off the kitchen counter and suck it up like a shop vac even as I was hauling him away from it. I’d been warned he was a counter-surfer. I supposed I imagined a wet nose snuffling comically along the edge of the counter, looking for crumbs. The reality is a dog with the reach of an orangutan and the ability to sweep a counter clean almost all the way to the wall.

My folding exercise pen is now deployed at the border between the kitchen and the living room like barbed wire at a Cold War checkpoint.

Another issue is Dickens’ insistence that all toys are his. The fact that he can fit two tennis balls and a Nylabone in his mouth at the same time means he can almost back up that claim. Daisy, who is a shy, polite lady of 11 years, has little interest in toys, but she is fond of her tennis ball, and resents Dickens seizing it in his gaping maw. But as she is less than half Dickens’ size, and nowhere near him in terms of sheer rambunctiousness, she defers to him.

Miss Daisy is not amused.

Along with Dickens’ counter-surfing prowess comes the expectation of sleeping on the human’s bed at night. This is not the policy here, nor will it ever be. End of discussion. He and I have already had a couple of meetings about this. Apparently I have not made it sufficiently clear that my position encompasses not getting on the human’s bed at all, for any reason, including irrational exuberance of the kind Alan Greenspan never imagined. It’s a fine distinction for a dog, but we’re working on clarifying it.

My old Golden, Winzer, was crate trained. A crate, or portable kennel, is a wonderful thing to many dogs, a place to sleep, or to just get away from a noisy household. Winzer’s crate was his refuge; I never bothered him when he was in it. To Dickens, the crate is pretty much Devil’s Island. I lured him into it the first time by scattering food in the back, but he never got more than two feet over the threshold. I eventually got him to go inside, but maybe he’s done time in a state pen somewhere, because the instant he heard the door shut and the latch turn, he went nuts. So we’re working our way slowly toward getting him used to being in it, but so far it’s a losing battle.

Dickens is what I've heard called a Velcro dog, in that he sticks stubbornly to me. He wants to be able so see me at all times; if he can't he barks until he can. Not unusual, I think, for a dog with probable abandonment issues, but if he’s in the back yard and I’m not, I can’t have him barking and pawing the door until I come outside or let him in. I work at home––the key word being work––and most days I can take frequent breaks. But some days I can't, and unless he’s willing to sit quietly by my side for several hours at a stretch, or go out in the back yard with Daisy, we’re going to have a problem. And the first time I need to go somewhere I can't take him...well, that'll be an interesting day.

I realize it all sounds bad so far, but the aforementioned Winzer was as wild as a dingo when I got him, and he ended up being the best canine friend I ever had. Dickens has some big paw prints to fill if he’s going to measure up to Winzer, and I have to remember all the training tricks I learned with Winzer to use with Dickens.

To that end I’ve contacted Ramona Pessa, who was a member of a group I used to train with back when I was competing with Winzer in AKC Obedience trials. She’s now the president of Furry Friends Therapy Dogs, an organization that recruits, evaluates, and trains dog and handler teams to visit caregiving facilities like hospitals and nursing homes. That’s my eventual goal for Dickens.

I might need some therapy myself by the time Dickens calms down and turns into the real dog I’m sure he’s capable of becoming. Apart from being as crazy as a box of frogs, he’s smart, affectionate, and endearingly goofy. Once we agree on what everyone’s job description is here at the house, we can start making progress.