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The Story of Effie: Forget the Ideal

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Mellie Test
Our integration with Effie has gone amazingly well. Perhaps it gave me a false sense of confidence, or perhaps today was "just one of those days."

[caption id="attachment_926" align="alignright" width="150"] Ronan and Effie sharing space[/caption]

First of all, Effie and the vets have made beautiful progress. We graduated to removing the permanent leashes, allowing all three dogs to mill about the house together unsupervised, allowing all three dogs to play (or not play) together at their discretion, and introducing toys. For the first time, I took all three dogs in the car at the same time -- and was amazed that Ronan peacefully wedged himself in the front seat with (on top of) Effie, where they continued to snooze together for the duration of the drive.

[caption id="attachment_927" align="alignleft" width="150"] Stucky out of reach[/caption]

Effie and Ronan have been playing together, and while Effie and Stucky play, it's not nearly as frequently. Hence, the abundance of Ronan-and-Effie photos. Their energy levels and styles of play match well. Stucky, on the other hand, prefers to observe, and often positions himself out of reach, perching above the fray.

Perhaps I allowed myself to be lulled into the ease that seemed to surround us. As a careful and conscious pet parent, I am the first to feel guilty when something goes awry. And a close friend's screams that I was "encouraging dogfighting" when Ronan and Effie latched together this morning didn't feel supportive.

Effie and Ronan were watching the rain pelt down from underneath our tiny overhang, refusing to venture into the downpour to play. Because I've been successful thus far introducing treats (I'll have the three sit in a semicircle around me, and they wait patiently while I give each one a treat in turn), I thought nothing of handing each a crumbly treat (mistake #1) and turning my back (mistake #2).

I didn't see what actually initiated the fight; I can guess that one of the dog treats partially crumbled from mouth to ground and the dogs became possessive. I don't know who growled first or who snapped. All I know is that for the first time since day 2 of Operation Adopt Effie, the dogs were latched. Tightly.

After what seemed like an hour but was likely only 60 seconds, I was able to drag Ronan's back legs (if you haven't learned this lesson already,never reach your hands into a dogfight - I've been accidentally bitten in the past simply trying to grab for a collar), far enough to partially close the door on Effie, causing her to release her hold enough for me to close the door completely between them.

While the damage was relatively minor, Ronan received the most.

[caption id="attachment_929" align="alignright" width="150"] Waiting for the ball[/caption]

I'm hearing the voices of the naysayers already. I frequently find myself humanizing my pets, and I wonder if Ronan faults me for his scrapes. I wonder if Effie feels confused, locked in the upstairs bedroom once more. I wonder if I've completely undone the progress we've made, if I haven't been dedicated enough, if I'm lazy and careless or whether the Universe is giving me a sign.

I love these dogs. I'm committed. And I'm returning to a more cautious frame of mind. Abby warned me that I might not be able to leave the dogs alone together for months. Maybe I pushed them too far by allowing them to cohabitate sooner? Maybe I set them up? Regardless, I'll figure it out. Witnessing any dog skirmish leaves me shaken, but we're going to move forward.

 


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Mellie Test
It's both necessary and responsible to monitor dog play sessions for signs of inappropriate behavior.

Inappropriate play may include bullying by one or more of the dogs involved. Often, dogs who seem to clash at the beginning may become great playmates once they have had time to figure each other out and become comfortable; however, the key is to continue to build that comfort slowly over a period of time.

It is extremely difficult to maintain the discipline to take things slow enough. The most benefit comes from stopping any activity at a point when the entire interaction has remained completely positive for both dogs. Separating the dogs in a positive mood is essential; if you wait until a dog seems to be increasingly uncomfortable means you've waited too long!

Abby (Effie's ACCT Pen Pal) knows a dog trainer who has given us permission to post a great little video on how to redirect a dog if/when play becomes inappropriate. This video clip shows play between her tow dogs being interrupted. Kikopup is a YouTube channel dedicated to videos on training dogs with positive reinforcement. And, as Abby says, "She is fabulous!"

In the clip, the dogs seem to be playing well together. Kikopup interrupts the play once the male dog begins mounting the female (out of anxiety). The trainer has conditioned Villere and Rosa (her dogs) to respond to a kissy-noise cue, which interrupts their play when it becomes "too much." At that point, they stop playing and receive a reward.

Once your dog has a strong reward history, this same cue can be applied to interrupt any unwanted behavior.



Abby's experience with the technique:


One time I took my retriever mix to meet a friend's foster female Newfoundland who was still intact. He was humping her a lot n the beginning, and I'm not sure whether it was because she hadn't been fixed or whether he was anxious due to her size. When I said, "No! No!" he completely ignored me.


When I instead made a kissy noise (which has become one of his cues), he jumped off and came running over to me! I also use that noise to redirect him from other dogs while walking on leash.


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Mellie Test
Effie is quite mouthy during play, though that could decrease as she continues to de-stress from the shelter. Since Ronan and Stucky are also fond of mouthy play, I have a feeling they've simply found their matches! Still, I need to be observant of their attitudes and postures in order to ensure our integration continues seamlessly.

According to Abby (Effie's amazing Pen Pal while she was at ACCT), pitties and pit mixes often get mouthy when stressed, so she reminded me that Effie could get overly mouthy at times. Rough and tumble play, including a lot of mouthing, is actually perfectly normal in terms of play style. It's important to watch for dogs coming away with broken skin, though, which would mean that the mouthiness isn't all "play." Instead, the dogs could be anxious or stressed, resulting in a "harder mouth" than normal play would elicit.

Abby cautions me to watch the dogs' play very closely. She advises watching for changes in body posture, such as a tail standing straight up, hackles rising (at all), or changes in growl tone (being vocal is normal; however, listen for any deviations in the sounds each dog usually makes).

Another warning sign is if one of the dogs starts to "shake off" after a bout of play. When dry dogs "shake off," it means they are trying to cope with a stressful situation. If it happens during the first two rounds of play, a shake off could simply mean the dogs are figuring each other out. In that case, it's nothing to worry about. If the dogs aren't shaking off in the beginning of the play session but later start to shake, Abby suggests stopping the play session for the day.

Are both/all dogs willing to re-engage each time? Although one dog may approach and the other dog plays, they aren't necessarily comfortable. Both dogs should be willing and happy to approach and re-engage in play. If they pause after playing and one dog begins to avoid the engagement, Abby again suggests stopping the play session for the day, even if it still looks like play.

The goal is to avoid any potentially negative experience for either dog, meaning everything stops before anyone gets upset enough to escalate. If one dog starts to avoid the other, that dog is actually just coping with the situation. Instead, we want all of the dogs to have fun and actively enjoy spending time together. To achieve that, we as pet parents need to respect when one dog is "over it" and intervene until the dogs are better able to read the other dogs' communication.

Abby also passed along a helpful post by Dr. Sophia Yin (passed along by Abby) on things to watch for in dog play.

 


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Mellie Test
[caption id="attachment_861" align="alignright" width="150"] Stucky, Ronan & Effie[/caption]

Effie has been doing wonderfully, and Ronan and Stucky seem to have accepted her into our pack. Ronan and Effie play indoors and out, taking periodic breaks between bursts of frantic fun. Stucky and Effie play more indoors than out, but I know that leaving those two out and about the house together won't jeopardize anything; Stucky is extremely submissive, and they seem to have found a rhythm.

So, where am I still being cautious?

  • That dogs are all fed separately. Stucky and Ronan outside, and Effie inside.

  • I'm still keeping toys and treats out of the mix unless I'm there to observe - and treat-filled toys are completely out.

  • I only allow all three dogs to play together very briefly, and only when closely supervised. Stucky often jumps in with too much gusto, so I often pull him back periodically to watch.

  • I'm always very careful when I'm cooking in our tiny kitchen, should the dogs catch a scent and come wandering in, only to end up violently competing for the potential of snatching a crumb.

  • I make sure that when we're sleeping (it's been insanely hot upstairs, so we've all been sleeping in the living room), my son is away from the dogs and protected, in case anything break out.

  • I'm careful any time we walk. I'm careful where we walk, where the dogs are positioned (I still keep Ronan and Effie on very short leads on opposite sides of me from each other while Stucky gets some roaming freedom), and I'm careful to notice in advance anyone and anything that may suddenly induce frenzy so that I can distract or redirect.


[caption id="attachment_862" align="alignright" width="150"] Effie gets comfortable![/caption]

I'm laughing now because while the dogs are continuing to ease into a comfortable pack, I've hit my own snag. Leave it to the Universe to complicate matters! Last week, while on my lunch break, I snapped my ankle at the rock climbing gym. Dumb, on my part, because I went for I move I wasn't confident in, especially being so high off the ground.

Just as in having to travel for work and leave the dogs in someone else's care, here comes the unknown. Our routines have been shaken once again.

My initial fears ("The dogs will be out of control without walks! I'm letting them down as their pet parent! They'll be bored! They will suffer!") have proven irrational. The dogs continue to adjust. Instead of walking 90 minutes a day, we're spending time lounging in the backyard. Effie and Ronan initiate and stop play indoors at random intervals, and I'm allowing them to barrel back and forth down "the runway" from front door to kitchen to get their energy out. Because we're not spending so much time walking, they're actually getting more individual attention, including belly and neck rubs.

I haven't let them down. Instead, we're all adapting and feeling supported in our little "unit" despite the injection of undesired circumstance.

[caption id="attachment_863" align="alignnone" width="500"] Effie and Stucky keeping watch over my busted ankle[/caption]


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Mellie Test
I finally returned from the BlogPaws Conference after nearly five days away. A friend and his roommate stayed at our Conshohocken rowhouse to care for Effie and Stucky (hoping to disrupt Effie's integration as little as possible), while another friend down in Virginia "test-drove" pet parenting by watching Ronan. I missed my babies terribly, but luckily had hundreds of pets swarming the conference for cuddling opportunities.

[caption id="attachment_810" align="alignright" width="150"] An exhausted Ronan[/caption]

Last night, my son and I finally returned with Ronan in tow. The second we entered the door, Effie and Ronan became tense and I preemptively took Ronan into the backyard while we made some food. Honestly, he seemed the most shaken up of the three. Perhaps because Effie and Stucky had had each other as well as familiarity with their own home. Ronan, on the other hand, experienced a complete (and most likely rather jarring) shift into a foreign environment instead of being comforted by a kid, by me, by his dog siblings, and by his home. He seemed bewildered and oddly uneasy, clinging to my side when I brought him back in the house. He passed out on the sofa, exhausted, quickly after coming indoors.

I'll admit I was afraid it was a sign of a major setback, but since this morning, things seem to be on an upswing. Of course other "setbacks" have shown up, as Effie began urinating and defecating in the house more frequently during our absence. I attribute that to the shift in routine, as she wasn't being taken for walks, or kept upstairs for regular intervals during the day. I'm looking at the PSPCA low-cost veterinary clinic in case she seems to be developing a UTI, but for now, I believe she's just trying to adjust to some semblance of schedule.

[caption id="attachment_811" align="alignright" width="150"] Effie and Ronan playing INdoors[/caption]

In terms of "setbacks," I also noticed that Effie's returned to jumpiness during our walks (we've had two walks with all three dogs already today). She's barking and lunging toward any people and pets in sight. Of course, I'm not blaming her. She's dealt amazingly well already. It's officially been three weeks since we found her, and for a third of her adopted time she's had to adapt to an entirely new set of caretakers as well as timing. She deserves some credit!

To combat that, we're still walking only on streets with low foot, bike and car traffic. The bike path, as we established early on, is not an option. Taking precautions instead of throwing her into stressful situations will allow the integration to remain smooth.

Despite feeling the need to reset and "start from scratch," we've actually retained and even continued progress in terms of two-dog integration. Effie ans Stucky cohabitated without a hitch during our absence, and this morning, Ronan and Effie were playing nicely INdoors. Meaning the small size of our living room and narrowness of our rowhouse halls was no longer causing them anxiety. I kept watch, and noticed that they cycled in and out of wrestling and racing sessions, culminating in a nearly side-by-side nap.

Forward momentum renewed!




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Mellie Test
We've experienced an amazing amount of progress over the last week. Per Abby's suggested "schedule," I began allowing Ronan and Effie to have more time together playing in the yard. I'm still keeping them separate while milling around the house (as I've mentioned, our tiny rowhouse is incredibly narrow), because I know that anxiety can be heightened when crowded into a small space without room to escape).

Ways life has become easier as the dogs become more comfortable:

  • I am now walking Ronan, Stucky and Effie all at once. I'm still careful to avoid busy streets and times when there's already a lot of foot or street traffic, but being able to take everyone on a longer walk helps with their energy levels.

  • I allow Ronan and Stucky to have extended periods of play/rest in the yard. When things get too excited, I break them up, but instead of taking Effie back inside, I allow them to re-engage if they like. I'm finding they will play and rest in spurts. See the short Vine video I took on Tuesday. I don't allow all three dogs to play together yet because the energy amplifies too quickly, but being able to mix pairs has been much less stressful.

  • Effie and Stucky are able to roam freely in the house together with much less supervision. This has reduced stress because dividing up my attention took careful compartmentalization. Giving Stucky, Effie, Ronan AND my son (who has been wonderfully patient during this whole transition) equal, individual attention meant much less time to potentially relax (which is not in abundance anyway)!

  • I've been able to end the complicated routine of rotating and alternating dogs to allow yard or potty time.


The real/ideal discussion arises because this week, I'm working at the BlogPaws Conference three hours from home. Effie's only been with us for two weeks, her cortisol levels haven't yet had time to return to some sort of "normal" post-shelter-stress. I now have three dogs, can't afford pet sitting, and didn't feel comfortable giving an already generous friend the added responsibility of negotiating the current three dog dynamic.

I spoke with Abby after we adopted Effie, asking her opinion. She agreed that moving Effie to someone else's home would be added stress, and that keeping her in her new environment would be the best option. Luckily, I have a generous friend who also moved from Colorado to work with Pet360, and he agreed to stay at my house with her for the week while I found other options to care for Ronan and Stucky. To my delight, Stucky and Effie have been integrating well enough that both I and my friend felt comfortable keeping them both at home (although still separate when no one's at home)!

I found another generous friend down near the conference location who agreed to watch Ronan for the week. He created a special sign to alert his roommates to Ronan's presence:

While it may not be ideal to disrupt the progress we've already made, the realities of work, finances and responsibility (to the creatures I love) require that we all adapt. Adaptation requires flexibility and resourcefulness, and also results in deep gratitude for any help that is granted.


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