Wednesday, April 16, 2014

catching up

What has Maya been up to recently?

Hiking, of course.  We even found some secret places where she can run off-leash, exploring and sniffing to her heart's content.

But I'm being careful about her off-leash time, because about twenty minutes after I took the above photo, we came across a mountain lion cache -- most of a deer that had been dragged to the base of a tree and partially buried.  I don't know if the lion was nearby, but every hair on Maya's body stood up and she looked utterly terrified, so I guess there was at least quite a bit of scent around.  We left in a hurry, trying to look large and confident, just in case.  I am used to hiking in lion country, but finding a large dead animal right beside the trail is still kind of thought-provoking.

Once Maya relaxed, I relaxed too.  This may be one reason people and dogs got together in the first place -- dogs are good at detecting scary things, and thus make us feel safer.  In return, people have been known to share lunch sometimes.

This is the face of a dog who knows I always share my hiking lunches.

My summer project is to teach Maya how to swim.  She does seem to have a grasp of the basics -- find water, fall in, get really excited -- but her experience is limited.  Once the lakes in the mountains thaw out, we're going to see what can be done, but in the meantime, a little wading is a good way to get started.

After wading, she gets post-bath zoomies.

Our walks around town have been nice too, but I rarely take a camera.  When we first moved here, I was a little concerned that the extra density of people and dogs would make walks more challenging for Maya, but it turns out there are plenty of open spaces that are big enough to share.  In fact, I think I'm enjoying our walks more than ever -- they are full of things that are interesting to both human and canine, and have offered a terrific mix of relaxation and training opportunities.

Maya did have a tough time for the first couple of months after the move, with some behavioral regression (separation distress, noise sensitivity, generalized anxiety, hypervigilance...all things we've experienced in the past, but that hadn't manifested in quite a while).  I wasn't surprised by it, but I was a little concerned by how long it took her to bounce back.

She's back to normal now, but it helped motivate me to find a nice vet and get a fluoxetine (prozac) prescription, just to see if we can give Maya a better buffer against life's rough patches.  Behavioral meds are something I've wanted to try for a while, and I'm happy to finally find a cooperative vet, and one with a lot of compassion for fearful dogs.  Maya was less excited about the visit, but conducted herself well -- she ate treats throughout, and the vet wrote up a little summary of our visit that starts, "Maya was a very brave girl today!"

The very brave girl surveys her backyard.

So I guess we're settling in, hanging out, and having a good time.  And before long, it will be summer!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the recovering reactive dog

We recently moved, and while talking to someone on the phone, I mentioned that Maya hasn't been out for a walk in the past week.  The person was shocked -- dogs need walks!  And besides, they added, "haven't you trained Maya out of that?"

"That" was reactivity, or anxiety, I guess.  Which I've never claimed to have eliminated with training, but it's a common expectation.  People expect training to effect cures, otherwise what's the point?  And besides, stories of marvelous behavior reversals abound.

When you are beginning the complicated task of living with a "dog with issues," inspirational stories probably help with motivation.  Stories about dogs who had serious behavior challenges, but who were helped with training, time, treats, love, medication, and so forth, and are now normal.  It is very encouraging to think that all your hard work will pay off with a cured dog.

If I crack open the pages of any of my numerous books about reactive/fearful/aggressive dogs, or go online, I can find half a dozen similar stories at my fingertips.  The details change, of course, because these are largely true stories.  People really do adopt dogs with issues and then find ways to help the dogs function normally.  Sometimes, the dogs even go on to do therapy work, help a special child, win blue ribbons, or other heartwarming and remarkable achievements.  Their stories get told because they are inspiring, because they are often beautiful, and because we love a story with a happy ending.  

I love a happy ending too, but I have come to distrust this story.  Because if these are the only stories we tell about "dogs with issues," we are being neither fair nor truthful.  And if a total cure is the only outcome that we understand as a success, many of us are doomed to perpetual failure.  I have owned Maya for four and a half years, and spent much of that time trying hard to help her feel safer in the world, but she is far from being cured. Maya can walk down a quiet residential street and appear "normal," she cannot walk up to a stranger and sniff them while giving the same impression.

I suppose it's possible that I really have failed, and am trying to make excuses...that I am simply not the trainer Maya needs, and that with someone else she would be cured.  It has also been suggested to me that Maya is a particularly challenging dog, a suggestion with at least a sliver of truth.  Mostly, I think it's just that real life is a lot more complicated than the simple "cure" narrative: there is more than one kind of journey that we take with our "dogs with issues."

Maya will never be a therapy dog, help any children, win ribbons, or otherwise fit into an inspiring narrative.  She may not ever be comfortable greeting strangers, or making new friends, but she's still a very loved dog.  She is currently curled up in a ball with her nose pressed firmly against her anus, which I'm certain is a happy ending by any canine standard.

And, for the record, Maya will get to go out for walks soon enough.  She has a huge yard, things to chase, things to chew, and an entire new house to explore: her need for exploration, exercise, and novelty are likely being met in full, without outings.  Walks can wait until her confidence rebounds and she is ready to handle a little more.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

it's not all smiles

Maya's primary emotions: happiness, worry, curiosity, and wanting me to throw it right now.