Lessons … photo

I got ahead of myself and forgot to insert a photo of Penelope Grace, who was my first dog as an adult. She died June 3, 2004. This was taken a couple months before she died. As she aged, many of her facial spots faded.

You should have seen her in her prime. Most of those photos are on real film. Maybe some day I can scan a couple to post.

Look at the rear leg you can see. It’s turned outwards because the veterinarian who did her early surgery removed the extra foot that was to the inside. The one that remained turned out. She almost always licked at it, so that’s why she has sores.

Later they removed the extra bones between her knee and her “ankle,” and when she was 8, she had knee surgery for a torn CCL.

Lessons from my first dog

Yesterday, June 3, marked the third anniversary of my very first dog’s death. She was a Dalmatian that I got as a small pup through Colorado’s Dalmatian Rescue. She had serious medical issues. I wrote this piece about a month before she died of kidney failure at 14 1/2 years old. I delivered it as a spoken essay at an awards banquet while I was president of the Colorado Authors’ League. I’m posting it here as a tribute to the girl I still sorely mourn, all these years later. Looking back at it now, I realize the lessons and hopes apply to my ongoing work with Lilly.

This is a little story of perseverance. It’s about a little soul that makes my life complete and teaches me what it means to not give up, especially on things that make you smile:

The world’s oldest Dalmatian lives at my house. She’s 14. Her name is Penelope Grace, but we call her Nelly, Nelly Bird, Birdie, or just The Bird. Even our veterinarian shakes his head when we show up, and he realizes she’s still around. Her kidneys went bad three years ago. No one, including us, thought she’d live this long. It’s become almost epic, in a comedic kind of way. Honestly, nothing’s funnier than having a crotchety old dog as your co-worker. Even she had opinions on my writing.

Her medical challenges started in the womb. She came out with two feet on one leg. Seriously, eight toes in all. She averted euthanasia as a pup when a veterinarian offered to take a shot at surgery. We never saw her with extra parts. They were gone by the time we called the rescue. Over the years, our spotted girl survived several brushes with serious illness – each time bouncing back as if nothing had happened.

In case you didn’t know, Dalmatians smile. They’re one of the few breeds that can do so. I’ll never forget the first time we saw Penelope smile. She was in intensive care, back before Denver had 24-hour critical care hospitals. She’d spend the day with our regular veterinarian and nights at the emergency hospital.

We walked in one morning, and she smiled. Unfortunately, dehydration made it look more like a grimace because her lips got stuck, which made me cry. We call that face “psycho snoopy lips.” It’s a face only a parent could love.

These days, she lists to the right, on the days she can walk. The rest of the time we carry her or slide her from room to room in her bed. She no longer sleeps in her crate at night, and she hates to be alone. Housetraining is a thing of the past. And, thanks to her we haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since Thanksgiving. She, however, is still going strong.

So today, I leave you with the image of my ancient girl, who still smiles at me every day. She hangs in there, the same way we keep writing despite rejection and doubt. My husband and I joke that our house is constant noise, motion, and stink, which got me thinking, so here’s my wish for you: May you keep writing amidst the commotion, may you recover from rejection, may you keep trying – even when it stinks.

What’s a behaviorist?

The average dog trainer is fine for typical pet dog training. Such a trainer probably can help solve typical puppy/dog issues like jumping up, chewing, etc. When you move into the realm of performance dogs, or even dogs who will do more than hang out in the backyard, then I think it’s best to seek out top trainers in your area, who specialize in the various training you need and who really keep up on the latest animal behavior research. When a dog’s challenges cross beyond typical and into abnormal, then it’s time to consult with a behaviorist … especially if the behavior is dangerous.

Now, a lot of people call themselves behaviorists who really aren’t. True behaviorists are PhD’s who are certified applied animal behavior professionals. There are also veterinary behaviorists with extensive animal behavior credentials, in addition to their medical ones. Here’s a link to the certifying body’s website, if you need help finding a real behaviorist near you:


There is also a link the sidebar to the right, in my Blogroll, for a behaviorist blog from Animal Behavior Associates here in Colorado. I highly recommend it, if you want to learn more. They are very good at explaining complex topics to “regular” people.

They have no magic elixers, though. Hiring a behaviorist requires hard, often long-term, work. Based on my research and reading, it’s much better to call for help sooner rather than later. So, keep that in mind as you face any doggie drama in your life. Don’t assume weird or scary behaviors will go away or get better on their own. Most times, they won’t.

On a personal note
So far, I’ll admit, I have not gone this route with Lilly because we both adore Gigi Moss, who I call our behaviorist-type trainer (
http://www.gigimoss.com/index.htm). Gigi reads a lot, researches a lot, attends conferences to learn more from top trainers. She’s not pedaling old crappy methods or ideas. She adjusts strategies based on each dog’s needs, not on some formula that only works for “normal” dogs.

Lilly loves Gigi’s classes. She howls with joy when we turn up the street to the dog park in Boulder, where Gigi holds drop-in classes. It’s the one place Lilly has worked well or learned to recover.

Gigi hangs in there with us, even when things get tough.

Unlike many of our classmates, Lilly and I started our pet dog obedience work elsewhere, but the dogs who started with Gigi as pups are stellar. I’m not kidding. These dogs are phenomenal, and their handlers adjust as needed to help me manage Lilly’s environment so that it is not so “scary.”

These are good people with great dogs, and I’m grateful to have them in our corner as we look to expand what Lilly is capable of doing. They help us build confidence so that Lilly doesn’t feel like she needs to be on guard all the time.

At these classes, Lilly is mostly practicing behaviors she already knows. In fact, one of Gigi’s interns called Lilly “The Ringer” when we first started going because her skill level was so much higher than the pups in the class (usually 9 months to a year old).

I usually refer to it as our work-and-play class because we take play breaks so that the dogs DON’T learn that every time we call them the fun is over. Lilly doesn’t really play with the other dogs. Once in a while, she’ll take up the chase and pretend she’s herding the pack. But, mostly, it’s a victory for her to poke around on her own or stay calmly by my side, even though noisy, rambunctious dogs keep racing by.

It’s not so much a place for Lilly to
learn new behaviors in the traditional sense. It’s a place for Lilly to learn to trust. It’s a
place to practice doing simple things even though
other dogs are around.
And, for Lilly, that’s hard work.

Citizen’s arrest

The first time I heard people announce the reproductive status of their dogs, I thought, “Who cares?” It sounded to me like Gomer in that episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where he makes a citizen’s arrest. When people come in repeating, “Intact male,” all I hear is Gomer saying, “Citizen’s arrest.”

After spending a few weeks at rally obedience classes, however, I realized just what a big deal that can be. These dogs present with a certain attitide, a certain presence, a certain I don’t know what. It’s no wonder Lilly responded … in this case, negatively.

You see, most of my friends live with rescued dogs who are altered. Lilly never had a problem with them. But, we already know that she’s super sensitive, super soft, bordering on autistic when it comes to noise and motion and high-strung energy.

In early 2007, after more than a year of shutting down at agility, she began snarking at any dog in the building at rally.

Along with rally, there were CGC classes, conformation classes, and competitive obedience classes, so the whole place was brimming with intact dogs who were trained to carry themselves in a way Lilly found intimidating. She even told our animal communicator that she felt the dogs “mocked” her.

Sadly, even though I pulled her after just a few weeks, she transferred her new fear of other dogs to all other training venues — even her favorite work-and-play class with Gigi Moss (our big-picture trainer). I was crushed. It had always been the one place Lilly showed continued progress. It was the one place she seemed like her real self (the confident, smart, most excellent girl I know and love).

It’s taken me 5+ months to unravel the behavior pattern that started at rally, which we tried as a way to build ring confidence. The goal was succeed there in hopes it would carry over into agility. Instead, it added to our training challenges in a most unwelcome way.

I’m not necessarily saying there is a cause-and-effect relationship here. In my quest to solve the mysteries of Lilly, I simply spend a lot of time looking for correlations, for changes that match our timeline of behavioral reactions. And, the pattern of fear-aggression toward other dogs started at rally, where there were a whole lot of intact dogs.

Attempted fixes

As Lilly’s agility meltdown worsened, and transferred to other venues, I assembled a vast team of people and suggestions in hopes of solving the issue. Here’s a recap of what I’ve tried, with limited success and innumerable setbacks.

What I have tried:

Changing trainers and training locations

Trying socialization work to agility environments

Taking easier group classes, several clicks below Lilly’s known skill level

Allowing Lilly to interact with other dogs she really liked as lures and rewards during class

Letting Lilly just run around and relax with other dogs before and after class

Taking her for walks around the nearby ponds before and after class so that she associates more fun things with the agility location

Breaking myself of habits that Lilly perceived as corrections and using much bigger rewards (like jackpots) for breakthroughs

Incorporating more play into training (great idea, except Lilly rarely lets loose and plays anymore if other dogs are around … even when I have the best ball (or toy) that normally turns her into a wild monkey girl)

Allowing a longer time span between vaccination boosters (She had a bad reaction to vaccinations in early 2005, which preceded the early meltdown stages. I’m not saying cause and effect. I’m just pointing to a link in the timeline.)

Ignoring her fear behavior (with the idea, I now know is totally wrong, that interacting with her at all only reinforced the fear)

Climbing onto equipment myself to show it’s safe (used after we lost our dog walk due to teeter fear since they look alike on approach)

Using the bang-treat method of teeter training

Trying to desensitize her to recorded teeter noise

Regularly using many nutritional supplements, including strong multivitamin/mineral, essential fatty acids, and Chinese herbs (2 different kinds)

Using Nutracalm (a prescription-type herbal tranquilizer of sorts), both as a daily maintenance dose and/or before class

Using homeopathic solutions, including Rescue Remedy and a confab of 5 different things, both regular use and in the moment

Asking an animal communicator to ask Lilly what’s wrong, what I can do to help, etc.

Using accupressure points, used in the moment to help calm her down

Taking up an outdoor, low-key, work-and-play class (drop in) to keep her working when taking a break from agility

Taking up Rally Obedience training as a way to build ring confidence

Taking long breaks from ALL classes

Using Click-to-Calm behavior modification strategies

Using of DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) to help keep her calm during class (sprayed in her crate for the drive to class and on a bandana she wears at class)

What I have not tried (yet):

As of yet, I have NOT tried having detailed thyroid testing done because both our family veterinarian and our holistic veterinarian did not think the tests were necessary.

I also have NOT tried thulia (not sure on spelling), which I’m told is used to treat vaccinosis. Again, our holistic veterinarian did not suggest this as an option.

I’ve NOT yet caved into suggestions from our veterinarian and others that we try anti-depressants because I fear negative side-effects and the trauma of coming off them, should they not work.

Tell me your story!
I’d love to hear your story, if you have one, especially if the solution wasn’t a simple one. Sure, it’s nice to meet people who say things like, “Oh, my dog used to be shy like that, but once I did (insert painfully simple thing here), he was just fine.” But, I’d also love to know of examples, where it took years of hard work to turn a shy dog around.

I’ll chip away at the problem bit by bit, but once in a while my faith that there’s really a diamond beneath the crud needs a boost.

The expected and the unexpected

This weekend, Lilly added a new caveat to her pantheon of peccadilloes. The rule – she won’t run agility at the training field unless no one else is there – morphed into she won’t run agility unless no one is there when we arrive AND the entire time we’re there. I thought if we just waited until everyone left she would be fine. I was wrong.

She watched the final two dogs leave. I even walked her around the field on leash to prove we were alone, but it did not matter. There were dogs there when we arrived, and she refused to work.

As you can see from this photo, her body and face seem relaxed. Her ears are up. Her head is up. When I looked closely, however, I could see that she was shaking a little sometimes. Like shivering, through her smiles.

No praise for you

Being a full-time freelance writer means working from an internal stash of motivation and drive (and lots of chocolate) because there certainly isn’t anyone popping by my home office giving me pats on the back. In fact, most of the feedback I get from day to day, week to week, is about what needs improvement. That *is* editing, after all. So, it’s not like I’m the kind of gal who needs a lot of hand-holding. Yet, early in our agility career, derision felt like the norm in training. And, it wore me down.

I’ve mentioned before going months as a very green handler without ever hearing a single word of praise for my efforts. Not one.

When I accidentally did a blind cross (where you turn your back and assume your dog is coming up behind you), I got lectured on how only “show-off” handlers did blind crosses. Newbies like me were more likely to end up with a snout right in the caboose.

Let’s be clear: I didn’t even know what a blind cross was. I couldn’t feel or see the difference between what I was asked to do and what I was really doing. Turns out, I’m spatially challenged, but that’s a story for later.

When we first learned contacts, I heard all about the la-di-da  handlers who taught dogs to stop with two feet on the contact and two feet on the ground. Trust me the tone of this soliloquy was entirely negative.

(For what it’s worth, a lot of people are going away from this contact method due to shoulder injuries in dogs as a result of stopping from a full sprint down a steep slope.)

I don’t mind strong opinions, but I do mind when they are not balanced with at least a little bit of concession that others believe otherwise. Tell me opinions vary. Tell me there are debates on the topic. But don’t tell me or imply that everyone else is an idiot and you know everything.

Sorry, but the journalist, the skeptic I am, automatically thinks you are full of beans.

Happily, I got myself and Lilly out of Dodge quickly and found more supportive and constructive trainers, who can point out exactly what’s going wrong without making me feel like a chump. Even when they do laugh with me (or even at me), it’s totally fine because I’m making the kinds of mistakes that most new handlers make, and it is kind of funny.

I once tripped and landed face first, after Lilly shot out of a tunnel, and we headed for the A-frame. C’mon that’s funny. I was totally fine. It happens.

I have made friends, and there are social aspects to agility. But, I realize now that dog training can be a lonely endeavor, especially if you have a dog with any issues.

It’s hard, solitary work sometimes. It’s just me and Lilly and our collective challenges. I need better body awareness because she notices everything. She needs my support to build confidence.

I often wish I had someone to follow me around and click/treat me with chocolate for my efforts. Or, at least to say, “Good try.”

Tricks – Roll It

Sure, Lilly knows all kinds of regular tricks like shake, high-five, and rollover. In addition to all the agility things she later learned, Lilly originally jumped through a hoola-hoop and snuck across the floor on her belly. But, I’m always looking for ways to up the ante. So, I got out my exercise ball last summer and came up with something new.

It’s called Roll It, where Lilly pushes the ball in front of her, while walking behind it. She can go straight for long distances. She can make turns. It’s pretty funny. We do this up and down the driveway. People stare.

Once upon a teeter

The one and only time Lilly did the competition-sized teeter I nearly cried with joy. It was a fluke that’s yet to be repeated. So, months of endless frustration followed those brief moments of happiness. Here’s how it happened …

We popped by Biscuit Eaters, the training field we use in Boulder, for a quick drop-in practice. Alone on the course, Lilly played with abandon. (Remember, she’s fine alone but slow or totally shut down if other people and dogs are around. It’s like training Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)

So, we ran a few short sequences, then played. Work, play. Work, play.

We rounded a turn, and I called “weave.” My body must have told her something different because she blew off the weave poles and ran half-way up the big teeter, which she typically gives wide berth – ever since another dog banged it in January 2005. (I’ve been screwed ever since. We hadn’t introduced it yet, and it scared her to death.)

She realized her mistake and ran back down toward me. She seemed really jazzed, though, so I thought what the heck. We circled back to pick up the weaves. She carried such speed out of the final pole that I called “Lilly, Teeter.”

And, she flew. No hesitation. No worry. No pause at the middle. Just sprint, tip, bang. Lilly even held her two-on, two-off contact.

I started praising like mad, dropped to my knees, and opened her jackpot bowl. I let her eat everything in it.

She seemed thrilled with herself for about three heartbeats. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Then, she freaked, realizing what she’d done (I guess).

She tucked tail and slunk off to hide near her toy bag along the fence. Moment over.

I cajoled her into playing some more and tried again later, but no luck. Refusal.

So, I jacked the adjustable teeter up to near-full height and tried that instead. Run, tip, bang. Perfect. Over and over. So, the day wasn’t a total loss. Then again, she’s been doing the adjustable one for more than a year.

I know a lot of other handlers wish their dogs thought more, made better decisions on course. I have the opposite problem. My sweetie girl thinks too much, worries too much.

But, for that one moment, she forgot everything and ran.

Size and sensibility

“Your dog needs to drop 3-5 pounds.” So began our first-ever
private agility lesson with a handler who has been on the AKC world team. I
thought Lilly looked great at 39 pounds, so I must have made a face because the
next thing she said, dropping her sunglasses just enough to make eye contact,
“This is agility, not conformation.”

And, she was right. Lilly looks phenomenal at 34-35 pounds.
Yes, compared to your typical pet dog, she looks skinny. Stand her next to a
bunch of agility dogs, however, and she looks just right.

The growing girth of people and of pets sets up what trend
experts call “normalization,” where the average, overweight body looks like the
norm, even though it’s not.

It’s like the time I wrote about the marriage of two
professional Ironman triathletes for The New York Times. I was one of very few
non-triathletes at the wedding, and I felt like a moose. Seriously, these
people have body fat percentages in the single digits.

It’s the same with agility dogs. Hang around them much, and
suddenly regular dogs look huge. And, honestly, many of them are.

I feel compelled to remind my veterinarian each time he sees
Lilly that she’s a performance dog. I make sure he knows that’s why I keep her
so lean. He always smiles and says Lilly looks perfect. I guess he too sees too
many fat pets, too much suffering from the long-term effects of excess weight.

My friend JoAnn (Hey, JoAnn!) runs some fast Labs – Chaos,
Hottie, and Bosco. The dogs also hunt, so they don’t look anything like the pet
Labs living in so many homes. You know the ones. They look like big brown,
black, or yellow coffee tables. A little thick and wide.

JoAnn jokingly calls these other Labs “pigadors.”

It’s not just about looks, however. There are serious physical
dangers for agility dogs to carry too much weight through all those jumps, over
all those years.

So, next time you see a dog that looks a little thin,
remember she might be deeply loved, just not with too much food.


Based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (USA), Roxanne Hawn is a veteran journalist and author.


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