Another love letter to my dog

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Do you ever look at your dog and wonder how anyone ever gave you responsibility over such a vibrant creature? I suppose it might be different if you have children. No doubt one’s feelings of overwhelm at the sight of offspring supersede those that bubble up upon gazing at one’s dog.

I assume.

However, among us childless souls, am I alone in my awe? How am I, an imperfect, at times bewildered and unfinished, adult trusted with the life of a breathing animal? Who decided I was capable?

Sometimes, when I look at Shiva, I can’t help but be stunned that she is still here, still thriving, that I haven’t done anything to screw her up. Well, not too much.

I soak all of her in. Her rough foot pads, her muscled shoulders, her expectant eyes, her folded ears, her sugar-dipped muzzle, and her cold nose. Her teeth are as hard as they are gentle while they brush my fingers, her soft tongue seeking the last trace of peanut butter on my thumb. Our relationship is intimate and yet, I have no idea what goes on in her mind. Why does she trust me so? Why does she tolerate my restriction of her liberty?

These dogs, they are special. They are much wiser, much more enlightened than we will ever be. How did such lowly humans ever get so lucky?

Real Life Confession #81: Some dogs make me sad

I used to work in animal welfare. I know that a large number of dogs have it much, much worse than the ones I am about to describe. To be more accurate, the above title should read some people make me sad, as it is the humans for which I feel the most sorry.

But first things first. The confession I feel I should make today is this:

I let Shiva tug on the leash.

Yep. It’s bad. For someone who has walked the amazing number of hours I have walked with my dog, you’d think I’d have the walk-nicely-by-my-side thing down. What kind of trainer do I profess myself to be? Can’t even get my dog to stop from sniffing in the bushes. Sheesh.

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This is what I imagine people are saying, anyway, when they see us stop for the 57th time while Shiva stretches to read the scent on the side of a tree. And man, is she a slow reader. Sometimes I urge her to speed it up, especially when it is freezing. Other times, she is adamant and plants her feet. She is not moving until she has investigated every last punctuation mark. I am not about to argue.

Is this bad training? According to some people, hideously so. We do have some rules while on a walk. I won’t tolerate long-term pulling, for instance. If the leash gets so taught I am almost yanked off my feet, for instance, or if she is sniffing along and then swings back around to scarf rubbish, dislocating my shoulder. These things are out of bounds. But if she is walking with a loose-ish leash five feet ahead or to the side? If she indicates with a look that she would like to check something out on the other side of the path? If she stops to breathe in the scent of a post? Well, that’s being a dog and I am on board. We are out there for her benefit. If Shiva wants to spend her time inhaling a fire hydrant, that’s a choice she can make.

And this is why I feel sad for some dogs. Dogs who are dragged away from the temptations of scent. Dogs who are told to walk on the inside of the path or the part of the sidewalk away from the delicious, earthy grass. Dogs who have learned to only walk beside their people, at the same speed of their people. Dogs for whom the daily routine is more of an obligation, or a march, than it is a time of exploration and discovery.

It makes me sad to witness this. Not just for the sake of the yearning dogs, as I say, but for the people who are missing out on a richer experience.

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The dog walk, for me, is a time of relaxation. A time when I can let go of everything and embrace the moment. I don’t always achieve this but I always feel better afterward. On our twice-daily adventures, Shiva pushes me outside myself and shows me all the little things that are far more important than work deadlines or personal slights. On a walk with my dog, I can take my time, linger over flowers, gasp at sunrises, spot constellations. While she is taking in the scent of a log, I am gazing at the simple beauty of fluttering leaves.

People who walk in straight lines with their dogs don’t appear to any of this. To them, the dog walk is a duty or a ritual, another thing on their lists they have to get done. It isn’t a source of joy. It is one more chore. Their minds are anywhere but in the moment.

This makes me sad.

So I may be a lazy handler when walking with Shiva. We would probably fail any basic obedience test. I am okay with this. Shiva gets me outside my head. It is a daily gift. We are out there for her, but I am the biggest recipient.

The Only Edmonton Dog Park

Edmonton has a lot of dog parks. Over forty, in fact. 4-0. Yet, if anyone was to ask me for a recommendation, there is only one answer.

Terwilliegar.

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Yes, it is located near a pretentious south-end gated community. Sure, the parking lot is tiny and you can never be sure there isn’t a chihuahua about to dodge under your wheels. It is still the best place in the whole city to give your dog a taste of freedom.

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With over 5 kilometres of walking trails, both open and forested, an extensive dog beach along the river, numerous ponds perfect for cooling off, and a giant well-maintained field designed for a killer game of fetch, there is no better. Even Shubie Park in Halifax, what I used to consider the Cadillac of dog parks, can’t beat Terwillegar.

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It’s the kind of place where it doesn’t matter if the other owners are ignorant jerks. It’s just so big! No one remains in one place for long so there is no fear of too many dogs getting annoyed with each other in too small of a space. At the first sign of trouble, it is easy to just move on and get back to the fun.

Do you see how far away the other people are?

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There are many other dog parks in this city. Some of them might even be worth checking out if you are in the area. But if you are looking for something to do on a weekend afternoon? Terwillegar is a guaranteed good time.

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Caring for Critters Round Robin: Preparing for sudden injury

I am participating in the Caring For Critters Round Robin hosted by Heart Like a Dog. Think of the Round Robin like a relay race, each blogger passes the baton to a fellow blogger, who will then share his or her experience in caring for an ill or injured pet. Kol’s Notes ran ahead of me yesterday and tomorrow SlimDoggy will take the next leg!

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We have been lucky with Shiva. In the five years she has lived in our home, her physical health has never faltered. I wish I could say the same for her mental well-being. The Shiva stories are somewhat legendary among those brave enough to cross her zigzagging path. If you dig through this blog’s disorganized archives you will find tales of such bizarre canine decision-making you will wonder how this dog has all of her limbs intact. It is something we ask ourselves every day.

The first thing you need to understand is that Shivas a born without an instinct for self-preservation. Believing themselves invincible, they crash through life, leaping from one distraction to the next. If Shivas lived in a world of factions, they would only ever be members of Dauntless.

Hmm, this bush full of bees looks like the perfect place to shove my head

Hmm, this bush full of bees looks like the perfect place to shove my head

This is why our Shiva’s history is made up of tales of near disaster. From scaling cliffs, to climbing trees after porcupines, to throwing herself from walls over six feet tall, Shiva likes to make sure her people are paying attention. Her agility career was filled with episodes of this sort of madness. Why run up the teeter from the ground when it is much more fun to lunge onto the end facing the sky? Why take one jump when it is faster to take three in a single stride? Why wait for a reward when it is funnier to bound over the fence and race through the barn, stealing treats from other dogs?

Outside of the ring, her attitude was, and is, no different. There are so many stories, I have forgotten the details of most of them. Unfortunately, I’ll never forget the time she crashed a wedding. I am still not sure I am ready to share that story. For my own sanity, it is best to pretend I don’t know how many times she has run into the walls of our home, how many stairs she has slid down, how many floors she has met with her face. We have stories of infinite number involving skirmishes with other animals, domestic and wild, desperate attempts to fill her belly with food from the vehicles of strangers, and, of course, her most infamous moment of all, the incident at the drive though. At the dog park, we often joke we know where she is by the trail of screams and laughter Shiva leaves in her frenetic wake.

Sometimes we laugh too. More often, we are horrified.

Given all this, it is stunning Shiva has made it to the approximate age of six with only one trip to the emergency vet. I was so sure during her panicked fight with an agility jump standard, resulting in several long seconds of choking, that her healthy streak would end. Amazingly, the only serious misadventure we’ve experienced together was an actual fluke, one I cannot even blame on her crazy nature. We’ll never know what happened that November evening in the woods, a place Shiva has roamed many an evening before. I will also never be casual about the possibility of serious injury again.

The idea of this post isn’t to recount the near misses of my dog’s past. Rather, it is to reiterate the fact that accidents do happen, no matter how careful we and our dogs may – or may not – be. Most are preventable but sometimes we are blindsided. The only thing we can truly control is our reactions to these often scary incidents.

I don't know what you're worried about. Life is awesome! I can't wait for my next adventure!

I don’t know what you’re worried about. Life is awesome! I can’t wait for my next adventure!

Have a plan

This might sound painfully obvious but until disaster happens, you may not think about the details. I know I didn’t.

  • Do you know the phone number and address for your closest after-hours vet clinic? Looking these things up in the midst of a crisis is no fun. Trust me.
  • Do you have money set aside so you can pay up front? Pet insurance is great for reimbursement after the fact, but it doesn’t help if you don’t have the cash or credit on hand. Most clinics won’t even look at your pet unless you prove you can pay.
  • Do you know how much you are prepared to spend or how far you will go to save your pet if the worst happens during surgery? These are tough questions but I remember being rendered speechless when the emergency vet asked if we wanted him to resuscitate our dog should she go into hear failure. I was so worried I couldn’t think of any rational response. Breaking down at the clinic did not help me or my family.

Prepare your pet

Following a bad injury and the subsequent surgery, your pet will likely be put on several weeks of crate rest. This is not easy for most dogs. We expected it to be especially hard on Shiva who is used to two long walks day plus hours of play time. Active animals can struggle just as much as humans against sudden restrictions. I know I am a terrible patient. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Shiva turned into the same. Luckily, we had a few things built in to Shiva’s lifestyle that prepared her for the temporary change.

  • Shiva has long been accustomed to the routine of a crate. It was nothing to her to sleep inside her enclosure when we had to leave her alone to go to work. She had no difficulty relaxing and giving her body a chance to heal.
  • Shiva is used to being carried. Though she is a medium-sized dog of about forty-five pounds, we have spent a lot of time getting her used to being handled. Most of it was in play and for the purpose of fooling around, but because Shiva learned to trust us when we lift her up, she didn’t struggle when we had to carry her up and down the stairs during her convalescence. She accepted that it was just something we were doing and that everything would be okay.

White Coat Syndrome

Shiva is not a fan of the vet. Is any animal? But for a dog who is fearless in the face of coyotes and ten-foot gaps, the emergency vet represents all of her worst nightmares wrapped into one terrifying individual: stranger danger, new environment, small space, and usually someone standing in a doorway. Because we have moved around a lot, Shiva has never seen the same doctor twice. This has prevented her from building a relationship with a health care provider. As we can never predict Shiva’s response to strangers, it is a tricky thing to navigate for us. However, even if your pet is somewhat bonded with a regular vet, when it comes to emergencies, it is unlikely he or she will be attending the usual clinic. It is important to recognize this experience might be even more frightening than usual.

  • In all health situations, you are your pet’s advocate. If you know something that might make it less scary for your dog, such as being examined on the ground instead of on the table, or you holding him or her during the examination, instead of an assistant, it is your job to speak up. A caring vet, as most are, will be more than happy to oblige if at all possible. They have your pet’s best interests at heart as well but they don’t know unless you tell them.

I hate to suggest it, even I have an automatically negative response to the word, but muzzles can also be a dog’s safety net during these scary times. When an animal is in pain and thrust into a new place with a stranger prodding him, it is understandable he or she might react. Even if your dog has never bitten anyone before, it is possible her inhibition might be non-existent in an emergency. Any sign of aggression is placing him or her in danger. At the very least it prevents the vet from examining him or her properly.

  • While your dog might being upset by a muzzle in an already frightening situation, if you purchase one in advance and treat the tool as something natural and rewarding, it will be much less aggravating. Muzzle training is not just for aggressive dogs. There are some great online resources that detail how to make it a calming experience for your dog.

Practice

  • It might sound a little like jinxing your pet’s health but I don’t know if it is possible to be too prepared. Your pet doesn’t speak English and has no way of knowing what is to come. If you work to create positive associations with places and smells when your pet is healthy, it will be much less stressful in the event the situation is real.

I hope my experiences have provided some helpful tools. With such an adventure-seeking dog on my hands, I know it is possible another injury is in our future. Maybe next time we will all be more prepared. If there are any suggestions or resources you can add, I would be extremely grateful.

Thank you to Heart Like a Dog for running such a useful blogging event and inviting me to contribute. Don’t forget to check in with SlimDoggy tomorrow to learn more about dealing with Spondylosis deformans (fused spine).

The first stage of grief

I tried to embrace it. I really did. Even if this morning’s snowfall was a temporary mishap, I know winter is peeking over the horizon. Complaining isn’t going to prevent it from coming. Better to find the joy in the approaching weather than to let it get me down.

Yet, when I opened the door this morning and paused in the threshold, even Shiva looked wary. The wind was bitter. The flakes that wafted into the mudroom were depressing.

Regardless, we grit our teeth and moved into the cold, leaving our furnace and blankets behind. My breath wafted out in front of me. I tucked my head into my coat and contemplated going back for a scarf and mittens. At least I had thought to wear boots. My toes wriggled in thanks to my foresight.
After a moment or two Shiva lost her trepidation. Dogs are experts at rolling with the punches. Accepting the sudden drop in temperature as just the way things were, she bounded down the sidewalk with her usual verve.

I trailed behind as quickly as I could. The faster I walked, I told myself, the sooner we could go home. My nose was already numb. My fingers throbbed and tightened around the leash.

I really am going to have to find those mittens.

Edmontonians are tough creatures. Expecting to see no one brave enough to face this unaccountably early snowfall I was surprised by how many cyclists and joggers we ran into as we wandered through the ravine. These Northern people don’t let a little thing like freezing to death stop them from their exercise routines. I wish I could say I was as stubborn. If it wasn’t for Shiva, I would have still been in bed.

I know I need to get over it. Soon it will be much colder than it was today. If I am to survive I will have to find the beauty in an endless winter.

But not today. Today I am allowed to whine and vent and tantrum as much as I please. Today I let myself hibernate  and brood. Tomorrow I will get up in the morning and force a smile on my face. Today, however, today I will continue to pout.

Summer is gone. I am allowed some time to grieve.

Dog Poetry Sunday – An Agility Blessing

It could be nostalgia or it could be jealousy. When I found this poem on Agility Nut I knew it would be perfect for my Sunday series. I have spent a greater part of the weekend watching the videos of my Haligonian friends as they go on to earn title after title in one of the greatest sports in the world. I knew these people and these dogs back when they were just starting out, when one was too scared to zip through a curved tunnel and when another quivered at the sight of a tire jump. It is heart-warming to see how our former teammates have grown and it is bittersweet to watch from afar as they succeed beyond their early expectations.

I miss the sport of dog agility a lot. It was a significant part of our lives for almost four years. It was where we found each other. The few moments Shiva and I had together, when everything just connected, were a wicked experiences. Our last class together in July 2013, before we moved to Edmonton, was one of those times. It is a memory I will always treasure. If only we had it on video. If only those moments had been more frequent. If only things had aligned a little better for us.

This isn’t to say we’ll never get back into the ring. One never knows what awaits. But it isn’t going to be any time soon.

Here is a blessing to all dogs and humans participating in agility, this weekend and next, and all the days to come, whether your are just beginning or whether you are a seasoned professional. May your frustrations be minor and your joys of working together outweigh them all.

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An Agility Blessing, by P.J. Hughes

May the tunnels not have too much suction,
May the course be fun and fast.
May your dog not stop to say “hello”
to the photographers they pass!

May the table not be too slippery,
May the chute house no scary beasts,
May all the yellow parts be touched
with one little toe, at least.

May the wind be always at your back,
May no bars fall on the ground.
May the A-frame have no stop sign on the top,
May the judge’s whistle never sound.

May your dog obey all correct commands
And ignore the ones that are wrong.
May your heart be light, your feet be sure
and the bond with your dog grow strong.

At the finish line, may great joy abound,
regardless of your score,
You have your dog, your dog has you,,
and who could ask for more?