Country Living, A Dog’s Perspective

A long absence of personal posts = a move to the country.

Even with all kinds of ups and downs (including a chaotic renovation process) this has been wondrous time for our dogs. It’s been close to miraculous to see them to “become themselves”, to shed some bad habits, clearly gain confidence, and become very relaxed. (Note that our dogs are rescues and both Mu and T had major issues; the former with skittishness and separation anxiety, the latter with dog aggressiveness.) To our knowledge, they both have been city dogs, until this June:

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Mu and T have just arrived to the farm.

After being a tad nervous with the FedEx truck and all the renovation people around, T clearly took on the job of being the guardian of the house. But: in Brooklyn both of them used to get nervous exited with every ring of the doorbell; almost getting into a fight over who would run to the door. Here, it’s clearly T who is in charge of everyone’s safety.

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T on alert.

The countryside has also been great for T’s health. He has a broken left hip that was operated on 1.5 years ago and that will never be 100% perfect again. So T still limps, perhaps every other week, but it’s much easier to provide him with opportunities to be outdoors and to be as active as he needs to and wants to. Due to this, his hip muscles have grown back. When he’s feeling good, he can run FAST.

And, it’s clear neither of our dogs are dog-aggressive. When thinking back to the first months of T having joined us in Brooklyn, I’m not surprise T reacted anxiously, even aggressively, to other dogs. He came from the streets and his hip was broken! (It took 3 vets to diagnose that, but we also grew anxious because of T’s behaviour — and he must have reacted to that as well.) It’s amazing how well he tolerates his new pack member, the fearless bundle of energy called Indi:

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There are some problems as well. It’s not so easy to socialize the puppy when you don’t walk her in the busy city streets but in the forest. That’s why she went to the puppy class and will continue her obedience training.

Another challenge is that all three have developed an incredible prey drive (we almost lost Indi when she and T ran after a deer). No e-collar or invisible fence helped. So these three got a big dog run. It’s not the biggest hit yet (Mu hates to be apart from us), but I’m sure in time:

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This is not to say cities are not for dogs. Many dogs thrive in the active environment of a city. And in NYC, with the generous off-leash hours in Central and Prospect Park, dogs get to have an amazing time with tens and hundreds of friends. 

Still, it’s hard to imagine we’d ever bring them back to the city to live there for good. Maybe it wasn’t just the city with its sensory overload but our seemingly busy life, the continuous sense of rush (which is exciting and tiring). While country living is not perfect, for us or for the dogs, there’s now often this feeling:

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{discovery} The Double Life of Mr. T

Mr. T is going for his hip surgery tomorrow. It isn’t so bad – in other words, not a hip replacement but Femoral Head Osteotomy (FHO)

Two vets we took him to said it’s the knee (“Just give him anti-inflammatory and let him rest and it’ll be just fine.” “Typical structural issue for pitbulls, expect the other knee to go as well.” )

The expert surgeon laughed at that and noted that T has probably been hit by a car early on in his life so the hip is out of socket or otherwise injured. Most likely, FHO will do the job.

He also noted, as all the other vets that have seen Mr. T (including his trainers) that T is “a great dog”.

I’m sure most vets tell the owners exactly that. But we hear the same comment also from people with other kind of knowledge about pits.

The “great dog”, I suspect,  means a couple of things – the double life of T:

  • Apart of the hip issue, T is healthy, very strong, and energetic. He excitable but everyday less so, and is very loving and friendly towards strangers. His vets can observe that.
  • In addition, T has become skilled in teaching troubled dogs how to play (something that our trainer Ray has witnessed and the owners of T’s girl friends’ — note the plural — have shared with us). He’s also very pack-conscious. It’s endearing to witness how he constantly makes sure that Mu (who’s not so fond of the wild running of the youngsters) is still around. Quick kisses in the middle of mad play.
  • But: The “great dog” is also what the surgeon vet, with 30 years of experience, hinted at: T is most likely if not full then at least some mix including the (in)famous Colby bloodline American Pit. This is the kind of pitbull closest connected to fighting dogs, at least historically. Colbys are not cheap — so T is not a mutt stray. The surgeon speculated that T was injured a while back, but the owner had no interest in fixing his hip, so he let T go. (We also know that T wasn’t house-trained — it took him almost two months to go without accidents — so he might have lived in a shed or partly outdoors…)
  • T is also  a “great dog” according to the father-son team working for a garage close to us. They raise pits and their “cousin raises them for fights, we would never of course…” We got talking about the cost of feeding the dogs. I noted that we are slowly introducing some raw meat to Mu’s and T’s diet (that will help to re-build his muscle and keep the Grande Dame healthy in her later years). This, we learned, is a no-no, unless we want to fight the dog: Supposedly the taste of blood will make the dogs thirsty for more, and if another dog is bleeding that will make T attack automatically. These experts also checked T’s tail: “Yeah, it’s broken, you know they break the tails of the dogs they wanna teach fight…” (There was an explanation as to why, I just didn’t have it in me to listen. And there was more wisdom, about how the losing dogs are shot and so on.) It goes without saying that I disagree with all that. At the same time, I’m not trying to demonize these two men here. The duo was very nice, giving us compliments and advise, from their perspective; from the perspective of the context they know.

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The reason I’m chronicling the above examples is that, apart from the bad rap in the media, these are two very concrete and everyday discourses that we are faced with.

Two stories: a great dog, now well-adjusted and rehabilitated rescue, playing in Prospect Park after having a massive dog cookie at Choice Market while the owners drink their morning coffee. A great dog, is it a Colby, does it fight, why did you have it fixed, at the projects on Marcy. It’s easy to detest the latter discourse. But at the same time, this reflects same unfortunate divides everywhere: Class, race, gender (are there female fighting dog breeders?); defining the double life of T.

{discovery} The Power of the Pack

Mr. Tee’s story continues. Raymond (in the red fleece) socialized him for 2 months. Invited by Raymond to join a ‘playdate’ this morning we witnessed, for the first time, the great fun T and dogs like him can have together. Also, I learned a great deal about the power of the pack.

The pack at home, or, our 2 dogs are polar opposites.

I have known it in theory, but it finally hit home when I saw Tee playing rough with 4 dogs at a time — running, chasing, play-biting, performing roll-overs (to show that he’s means well and fun). This went on non-stop for an hour, and would have continued, had the off-leash hours been extended. Mu, in contrast, only plays one-on-one, 5 minutes at the time — and it took her at least a year to come to that point. He’s bold, confident, rough young rascal who wants to play with every dog; she is a gentle, dignified and even shy, well-mannered, human-focused lady. His biggest problem is over-excitement; hers was fear and separation-anxiety.

It’s been a learning curve to realize that we need 2 very different sets of skills to have a balanced pack. But it’s also clear that Mu and Tee teach one another. She has started to play much more (in the age of 10); he listens to her and gives her space.

The pack in the park, or, the healing power of those alike.

Raymond told us a few months back that there are few dogs who couldn’t be off-leash, given that their owners/handlers understand the circumstances. Today he proved it. Saturday mornings are the craziest in Prospect Park, hundreds of all kinds of dogs off-leash. However, the area is big enough for monitoring the play and retreating  from dogs that don’t seem to match one’s own.

Also, witnessing a group of 8 pits (as well as a few other very athletic, bold dogs) playing together was an eye-opener to how dogs that are alike can help one another to socialize and be nice. That just looks different than play by Yorkies.

And Raymond taught me something even more important. He noted that we all should form an informal group and meet (those who can) in the mornings for play at the same spot. He stressed that as pit owners, we have the responsibility to provide our dogs with right ‘friends’ to play with, and to advocate for the breed by keeping them from harm’s way. He rightly pointed out that dogs are animals and conflicts, even fights, will happen sometimes. But we, as a pit owner group, will learn to know the dogs in our group, so we can understand them all better, as well as in a case of an incident solve it without drama, as a learning experience.

Lucky,2014-10-18 12.13.10 lucky us for Raymond and for our new Prospect Park posse. Also, lucky me to have such a brave, fun, and active, strong dog who was able to learn and rehabilitate himself, with the help of the packs.

PS: This is Mr. Tee, after a total of 2 hours of walk, and 1 hour of non-stop play.

{discovery} Introducing: Mr. T, President in Training

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I’ve written before about our challenges with Mr. T. For the 7 weeks that I spent in Finland he has stayed with Raymond W. – a trainer that boards ‘difficult’ dogs.

We met T today briefly (he’s not coming home yet as we are going on a vacation). He was happy and calm and sweet.

Raymond calls him “Mr. President”: he has grown to love all dogs and humans — and is helping Raymond now to work with difficult dogs, as he has become very savvy on how to approach other dogs, when to back off, when to play, and so on.

During the past weeks we have received videos of Tee’s rehabilitation. See for yourself from this clip: Mr. Tee.

{discovery} On the Evil E-Collar

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[The picture is by the wonderful artist-photographer Mark Blackshear — he is working on his Dog Series…]

We are training Tee with an e-collar — or, a remote trainer, or a shock collar, whatever term you prefer…

I used to see dogs in Prospect Park, wearing an extra collar around their neck, and thought it was because of extensive barking. By now, I’m very much aware of the use of e-collars in off-leash training (especially for hunting dogs) and the controversies and potential dangers of this.

As I have written here before, when adopting T we were told by the assessors at the shelter that he’s submissive (and house-trained and…). Very soon we discovered that clearly that was not the case.

We were recommended a trainer by several people — whom we knew already by his fantastic reputation. We were lucky to get him to work with us. After evaluating T he noted that much of T’s aggression is about insecurity and about not having been socialized with other dogs. Given that we live in the city with very few off-leash opportunities without other dogs, he recommended the consistent use of the e-collar when we are outdoors for the next 6 months. He trained us on how to use the collar in 2 sessions at home, and then in 8 sessions in the park.

This, however, doesn’t mean that T gets every ‘correction’ through the e-collar. This means that he wears it — and if he’s about to initiate a fight, we can be sure we can call him back before anything happens, i.e., as a preventive measure. (If there’s a confrontation already happening, using the collar might just aggravate the situation, make the dog more aggressive.) That said, using the collar to call T back has to be the last resort, after normal recall, so that T won’t become confused and fearful of all his actions.

Our morning off-leash sessions go like this:

  • 25 min. on-leash walk to the park.
  • 5-10 min. off-leash exploration.
  • 10-15 min. recall training, with treats. (T LOVES to run back and forth between us. Sometimes we ask him to go down in the middle of the run. Now that he has learned roll-over he might be asked to do a sit, down and rollover at the end of the run — and then he gets his chicken cookie.)
  • 15 min. walk around the park. We keep moving and, at this stage of the events, avoid big packs of dogs that are playing rough. T meets dogs one-on-one that he encounters while we stroll around. It’s clear to me that he’s still a bit unsure about all the dogs around, the barks, the action — he tends to follow The Mu everywhere, as in search for guidance.
  • 10-15 min. for some more recall, or sleep, or rollover, or (if there’s space) chasing the ball.
  • 5-10 min. final off-leash exploration.
  • 25 min. on-leash walk home.

Yes, it’s a long morning. But we are starting to see the results, that is, a more relaxed, happy dog — only after a few weeks of training.

photo (2)Yet, the e-collar is not THE CURE here. It’s simply the safety mechanism that allows us to slowly introduce T to existence where he doesn’t need to react to other dogs.

The blog Shiba Shake (that I love) has a series of very critical, but realistic, posts about the e-collar. I love what she writes, as this highlights the nature of the collar NOT as a daily training tool:

Shock collars are not magic and they do not deliver a touch. We may use terms like gentle training collar or gentle current but that does not change the true nature of shock collars. If we want to use a shock collar, then we should accept it for what it is.

And I love what our trainer writes in his website:

In my world, honesty is the only policy. If you want to fix a problem, you must work to a goal of 100% effectiveness. You must be consistent and patient. Everyone wants things to happen overnight but that’s never the case. You must be honest with what is working and be versatile in your approach. Recognize things as they are and not how you want them to be.

We had to recognize how T really was, and what we had to do to be able to keep him, and to keep him and other dogs safe. For now, one of the tools is the e-collar.