Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sign Language

Dogs don't have a spoken language. Sure, there's the various growls, barks and whines but it's not a language, per se. They use body language - bared teeth, exposed stomach - when they really want to get a message across.

In training, every command Nala learned was accompanied by a hand signal. Sit, down, stay, shake all had their own distinct signals. Because this is closer to natural dog communication than English is, she (like other dogs) picked up the signals much quicker than the words. Even now, months after graduation, she responds quicker to a visual cue than a verbal one.

For a while, we had a hard time with Nala jumping on us as we got home. Not only is she huge now - her paws come almost to my neck when she stands - but she sheds ridiculously. (That's one drawback to the Lab side of her.) We tried using the command "off" that our trainer used as we pushed her paws off, to no avail. So we tried building off of what she already knows.

First, we added in "sit" with the hand signal to "off." It got her in the habit of sitting once we got in, but not until after she had already jumped on us. Not quite effective, but better than multiple jumps.

Then I decided to try adding a hand signal to "off." I held up my elbow, hand reaching towards my other arm, with my forearm a few inches from my torso. This physically blocked her from jumping on me plus bought me a few seconds to give the command for "sit."


Not right away, of course, but within a few weeks! She has stopped jumping on us as we walk in the door (her muted little hops are adorable) and with just a hand signal, sits down to wait for a greeting. No more dog hair on work clothes! Ok, not none, but less is good too.

We've also added in another expectation: she does not get a full greeting until we call her. This gives us a chance to change into casual clothes before the full-on hugs and bellyrub. So now when we walk in, she runs up, hops, sits down, gets a short pet, runs ahead... and waits. Then it's playtime.

Pretty impressive, if I may say so myself!

Photo credit "T" altered art

Monday, March 23, 2009


When Nala was a pup, she had a little dog bed with a removable pillow. As she outgrew the bed, the pillow became a toy. I figured it couldn't hurt to let her play with it, ignoring the little voice in my head that remembered previous puppies and their "can't hurt to chew on that" toys. (One puppy chewed a hose; once it was ruined, we figured he could have it since we couldn't use it anyway. Guess how many more hoses we went through in the next several months?) Bad idea.

A few months ago, Nala had torn apart the pillow, leaving stuffing all over the living room. I was torn on whether or not to replace it, thinking that giving her one could give her a soft toy that was all hers, but at the same time could make her think that all soft things are chews. We stuck with hard toys and bones.

Then my boyfriend stayed home sick one day, and out of guilt for not being able to take her out, gave her an old stuffed animal he was going to throw out.

She was happy.

Then came the next time I took her home to my parents' place. The next morning, by the time I got downstairs to take a shower before work, I was met with a similar scene. This time, the victim was what my mom calls her $100 bear (a thank-you token from a charity event).

Mom was not happy.

Then it was the extra thick, super soft, padded tongue on my hiking boots.

Now I'm not happy, and I have no one to blame but myself.

She was allowed to chew on a stuffed pillow as a pup; she was allowed to chew on the stuffed animal that was headed for the trash anyway. Understandably, she thought soft things like my mom's charity souvenir and my boots were ok for chewing. What would make her think they were off-limits? Certainly we didn't teach that...

Consistency is key. I should have listened to that little voice the first time she chewed on the bed, the one that remembered the ghost of puppies past. We're still having a hard time with it, but we're sticking to it. She'll get it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How Nala learned to be a dog

We all know that when a dog rolls over to show you its stomach, that means it's acknowledging you as the dominant one. You know this, I know this. Nala did not know this.

There are a lot of reasons why I think Nala was taken away from her litter at a very young age, and this complete ignorance of basic dog body language is one reason why. She's the kind of dog that is very social, but at the beginning, it appeared to be just with people. (The first time we took her to the dog park, she jumped on us every time a dog came near. Or she ran to the closest human sitting along the fence. Like my boyfriend said at the time: "Looks like we have a wallflower.")

We worked very hard at helping her past this, and today she's just fine with other dogs. How did we do this?
  • We took her to the dog park - regularly. The one by our house has two parks, labeled for passive or active dogs rather than large or small. We started out at the one for passive dogs until she got bored with the lower energy level. We started adding in a little bit of time at the active dog side, and as she got used to it, switched entirely to the active dog side. (Warning: this should not be done with older dogs or those that have been attacked or abused in any way. If your dog does not adjust or is truly fearful, do not do this!)
  • We let her mingle with other dogs as we walked. This was fantastic for a couple reasons. One, it was a lot easier for her to deal with one dog sniffing her butt than a whole pack. Two, both Nala and the other dog were on leashes, giving both owners more control (safety first, people). We did this for a few months prior to introducing her to the dog park, a big reason why she was able to acclimate there.
  • We took her to the dog park with another dog she knew and trusted. Dogs are pack animals. When we took Nala with the neighbor's dog Darley, Nala had a sort of small pack she belonged to. Whenever a group of dogs ran to her, all she had to do was run to Darley to feel secure.
  • We started when she was very young. My older dog (10 years) is TERRIFIED of other dogs and taking her to the dog park is just cruel. She really believes she's going to be attacked and it's neither kind nor effective to force her into this. Nala, however, was less than 6 months when we started doing this and now she loves it.
There's still work to do though. She chases dogs, but only a certain distance. Then she loses interest and runs back to us. She also gets jealous when another dog tries to get attention from us - even, or especially, if it's Topi. And she introduces herself to other dogs by snarling and snapping, then licking their faces. (Don't ask; I don't get it either.)

But she's making huge strides. She played with a puppy; she shares her toys with her neighbor Darley; she even lets the big dog in training - that started as the target of her wrath - wrestle and bite her.

Yep. My girl has an obedience-school boyfriend.


Am I good or what

I'm not the only one with routines.

I called my boyfriend on my way home from work yesterday...
Me: "How was Nala today?"
Him: "She's been lazy all day. She slept on her bed the whole time."
Me: "Great. So then she'll be hyper for her class tonight, then she'll quit after 45 minutes. Then we'll get to my parents' place, she'll flip out at seeing them and Topi, then go running outside and catch up with the neighbor dogs, then come tearing back inside the house and not sleep."
Him: "Probably."

Not only did she do all of that, but she did it in that order.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Think you have the cutest pet? Prove it!

The Humane Society is doing an pet photo contest in conjunction with Spay Day 2009. There are two contests: one is a judge's choice contest, the other is by popular vote. Votes cost $1 each, minimum $5 contribution.

Get your pet's pic up, tell your friends, and have them vote with their wallets. Contributions go to a good cause.

Just imagine the bragging rights if you win!! I'll be getting Nala's pics up, just you wait.

Friday, February 20, 2009


I'm emptying out Nala's food and water bowls. She starts getting excited. The bowls go in her travel bag; the toys go in next. Pretty soon, Nala is laying on the floor by the hook where her leash hangs. She's facing me, ready to get her leash clipped as soon as I get close enough.

We're going to Daddy's house!

Nala's a smart dog and knows my routines by now. She knows when it's time for training, or to head to my boyfriend's for the weekend, or when I'm headed for work.

The problem is when these routines lead to separation anxiety. When I leave for work, she knows it's time to go to her den, where she stays during the day. For a while I was letting her roam the house while I was at work, but then she started chewing - tables, bannisters, the things I can't simply put out of her reach.

I was really frustrated by this. She never chewed when I was home, why when I'm gone? She gets exercise, though more is always in order; she has plenty of toys that are ideal for strong chewers. So why the chewing?

After doing some research, it turns out that this is a strong sign of separation anxiety. Short of a doggie psychologist (which I won't go to, I don't live in Hollywood), how can we stop this?

By breaking the routine.

I've got her bag packed for the weekend, but I'm typing this instead of loading her into the car. She's no longer waiting by her leash (though she is keeping an eye on me). I don't gush goodbye or fall over with greetings when leaving or coming home. I'm trying to lessen the significance of those events.

It seems to be helping. While I haven't left her out during a workday since the last episode of mass destruction, I have been leaving her out for longer periods, like when I'm running errands or going out with friends. There haven't been any more incidents, but it's only been a few weeks. Still, with patience (and some Bitter Apple) I'm sure we can trust this dog again.

Plus, she's still just 9 months old (barely). Need to keep my expectations realistic and understand that she's still solidly a puppy, and puppies chew. Which is why I've suggested nicely to my boyfriend that maybe our next dog should be a little older when we adopt it...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Mother's Instincts

My guess is that Nala was taken from her litter very young. When I first got her, she had no understanding of dog signals: she was confused by the dog at the dog park showing its stomach, she did not take Topi's bared teeth for agression, and she did not know that sniffing butts is not rude.

Yet in the last six months, something has changed. Dramatically. This weekend we took her to a pet store and inside there was a litter up for adoption. The pups looked exactly like Nala did when I got her; they too had been abandoned and were just seven weeks old. Nala looked through the little fence as one puppy ran straight towards her. Nala leaned in, sniffing through the fence as the puppy jumped to lick her face. We took the puppy out and they instantly started nosing each other. Maybe this is normal for most dogs, but there was a time when Nala would have growled or snapped at the puppy before engaging in this sort of behavior.

After a few minutes of playing we continued with shopping. Before heading to the checkout we returned to the puppies. This time, we took Nala's little friend out and they curled up on the floor together. The puppy tried climbing on her face and batting at her, getting gentle Nala kisses all the while. Something about Nala triggered the memory of mom for this puppy; it wasn't long before puppy went from batting Nala's face to trying to nurse. At that point the rescue volunteer picked up the puppy, worried that puppy teeth on an unsuspecting Nala would get teeth in return.

All of a sudden, Nala's mothering instincts appeared. This was now her puppy. Nala jumped on the volunteer - not to get attention for herself, but to nose the puppy. Make sure it was ok. Keep a close eye on it... and the stranger that took the puppy from her.

The volunteer put the puppy down, and the two dogs resumed their affection. Again, the puppy tried to nurse from Nala (a sight that broke my heart) and again the volunteer picked the puppy up. And again, Nala jumped to protect the little one. At this point, we had to leave - both because we had a schedule and because spending much longer there might have resulted in a puppy adoption we weren't prepared for. Another shopper watching the experience asked us in disbelief, "You're just leaving the puppy? You won't take it home for her?"

I was very proud of Nala's interaction with the puppy. It took a lot of effort and intention on our part to get her to the point where she can enjoy being with other dogs. But what amazed me was the part that wasn't from our training.

For a thousand years, humans have worked at domesticating dogs, breeding them into various shapes, sizes and skills as we deemed fit. Teaching them to listen to us and ignore their instincts. And yet, I watched Nala, a dog who spent so little time with her mother that she didn't know that stomach meant submission... I watched Nala become a mom right before my eyes.