And Here I Go

What have I done?  Why have I changed?  Where will it end?

The last two weeks have been…I can’t say, ‘painful’, but I feel lately like I have the permanent heebie-jeebies.  I feel lonely, too.  I was pathetically excited to talk to someone recently who also has ten dogs.  The thing is, though, she’s one of the most respected dog trainers in our area, and I’m…a cellist.

I’m sure I’ll be writing much more about this.  For now, it’s enough to say that I have growing pains.  Occasionally, I almost wish I’d never started on this path.  As soon as I think that or write it, though, I realize it’s not true.  I am delighted, thrilled, extremely excited to have started down this path.  But I’m scared.  What if I can’t tell when I’m in over my head?

I’m not talking about my own dogs.  They’re fine, and we’re fine together.  I don’t know why, but I’m perfectly able to not only manage that many dogs, but to thoroughly enjoy it.  So that’s not what I mean, although, as it happens, there’s one aspect of that which has given me a little comfort this evening.

What’s been scaring me lately has to do with Sawyere.  Because of him, I’m entering a new sector of dogland, and I feel nervous, because I feel that I should be intimidated, and am not.

Because of Sawyere, I began tonight to try to learn about dog aggression.  I started with the person whom I most respect in the field of dog training (so far, anyway):  Suzanne Clothier.  I went to her website,, and read the articles on aggression.  And I was quite comforted, actually.  

The thought of a biting dog causes a fear response in people, as a general rule, I suppose.  For the past year or so, I’ve been slightly alarmed to find that I couldn’t any longer imagine myself being afraid of any dog.  This may be complete drivel.  Faced with Cujo (or Sawyere!), I might find that I turn into a different person.  Maybe I’ll find out.  Maybe soon.

What I imagine happening, though, is what always happens to me when I come across behavior in a dog which I don’t understand yet–I’m fascinated, and want to learn all about it.  And my natural way of learning, when it comes to dogs, is to try to put myself in their places.

So when the trainer who may be going to work with Sawyere (I’ll be writing much more on that, I’d guess) suggested that he may be biting when people try to put a collar and leash on him because he’s got some pain or sensitivity in his neck area, I had an aha moment.  It’s something I’ve forgotten before, and it’s the first thing you should think of, in cases like that.  As I wrote back and forth tonight with people from Sawyere’s shelter, someone suggested that he might have had an embedded collar, which is a common cause of that problem.  And that makes perfect sense!

Or, I went on to think, he might have had just a prong collar–that might be enough to cause that response.  And many people do use prong collars on their strong puller dogs, especially if they’re from the ‘bully’ breeds, which I believe Sawyere is.  I found these ideas very comforting already, and then I headed over to Clothier’s site.

Not only does she discuss the prong collar, but she’s got a long article on something called a head halter, and I don’t even know what that is.  Yet.  By tomorrow, I will–enough is enough, for tonight.  Both of these things sound terrible.  And I know Sawyere is strong, and I know that he pulls, and what more likely than that he had some kind–the specifics hardly matter, maybe–of nasty collar, which has left him with that sensitivity?

It gives me so much hope, because maybe, in that case, an Easy Walk Harness or some other such thing could be of great help to him. 

And there was even more comfort to be found on the Clothier site.  She’s listed pain as one of the first underlying causes to look for in cases of dog aggression.  After I read these articles and began mulling them over, I had another aha moment, which made me think that perhaps I’m not in as far over my head as I’ve been thinking. 

This was it:  I myself already have a biting dog, and I’m doing fine with her.  Sadie was ‘given’ to me by the rescue organization for whom I was fostering.  I was asked to ‘sign off’ on her, which meant that I was promising never to rehome her with anyone else.  She’d bitten her way out of two (or more, for all I know) foster homes in just this one organization, and euthanasia was being discussed as an option for her. 

When the head of my rescue group met me and did my home visit, she thought she’d struck foster gold, I realize now.  I didn’t ‘get it’ at first, being too worried about my mediocre housekeeping skills to think that my home might be considered a kind of paradise for dogs.  She did the home visit to consider me as Audrey’s adopter, and she accepted me.  When she asked me to take Charlotte, very soon thereafter, I was flattered.  When she asked me to take Sadie, and to sign off on her, I was still flattered, but I’d figured out, by then, the potential danger to a good foster ‘parent’ working with a rescue group.  You were gonna collect dogs, if you weren’t careful.

I thought about saying no to Sadie, but it just wasn’t possible.  The woman clearly laid out for me that Sadie’s options were, A) life with me, forever, or, B) euthanasia.  That was no choice, for somebody like me.  I admit that vanity had a small role to play in my decision.  The woman was sincerely convinced that I’d be able to offer a higher degree of safety to Sadie, and more possibilities for improvement, than she’d find anywhere else, and that made me feel special.  Mostly, though, I just didn’t want Sadie to die.  She’d already had a hard life.  I did want to keep her safe and loved, vanity aside. 

So I have Sadie, and I’ve grown to really love her.  And every day I work with her on her biting, with Burberry’s help, usually, and every day she gets a little better.  That story is for another blog, really.  The point of it now is this:

I’ve never once been afraid of Sadie, and it’s not just because she’s a Beagle mix with an underbite, and so, I think, might not be able to bite very hard, even if she’d wanted to (which doesn’t appear to be the case).  I’m not afraid of her because I feel I understand the whole emotional issue underlying her biting, and I’m much more interested in helping her with that, than I am worried about being bitten. 

I imagine that I’d have the same reaction to Sawyere, and damned if I wouldn’t like to try…

Still, I’m not an idiot.  I need to keep my hands in good working order, so I can continue working at the note factory and bringing home the chow money.

Maybe Sawyere doesn’t bite hands.  That will be a question for KC, who, I learned tonight, is the one person Sawyere doesn’t bite.  I now have her number, and you’d better believe I’ll be calling her tomorrow.

So here I go, into the deep end.  I wonder if I should be thinking of becoming a dog trainer.  Oh!  That reminds me…

Yesterday I wondered this–why are trainers not using massage, and other forms of pleasurable touch, as rewards for desired behaviors?  Is it because it would take too much time?  It’s the best way I’ve found so far to help Sadie manage her biting.  Of course, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and just happened upon it by accident.  But it works so well that I’d expect to see it in some of the literature.  If there’s time tomorrow, I’ll hunt for it. 

In the meantime, I’m going to start teaching my dogs different words for the different types of touch I’m offering.  All of them (well, maybe not Grace–I can’t tell about her yet) know the word, ‘kiss’, and all but Simo and Grace kiss me whenever I ask, and lots of times when I haven’t asked, too.  Simo kisses me when he decides to, and it’s pretty rare.  Simo’s thing is to pat me with his paw, and something is telling me I should read up on that…

Time for sleep with dogs.  May my dreams be free of them, since nothing else is.   If I’ve gotta be in over my head, at least I don’t want to burn out. 

Is it possible to be at peace with being in over your head?

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