The Story of Effie: Forget the Ideal
Wed, Oct 30
[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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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.
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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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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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[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!