Sunday, May 11, 2014

Black & White Sunday: Benny

Benny's first sortie at the Kabouterbos (Dwarf Forest, in Dutch). He was surprisingly calm. Made me proud.

Happy Mother's Day!
Especially to the awesome mothers of kids with paws ;)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Yes, we're still alive... #WOOFSupport Report

Things were hectic during April down here. The A-to-Z Challenge, other writing projects, household stuff; my computer broke down at the end of March, which did not help. All in all, I devoted little (read: zero) time to proper training.

As with everything else Dog, it's the human that's to blame.

But I'm (slowly) learning from my four-legged teachers. No would've, could've, should've. Move forward. It's about the present; yesterday's gone, tomorrow doesn't exist yet.

I'm trying.

So. First: what are we struggling with? Besides general reactivity (which, as I've mentioned, spreads like wildfire in a pack--and I still can't figure out why it's the reactivity, and not the calm, that spreads), our neighbor at the back has two new dogs. Puppies. One around 6 months, the other about 10 or 12 weeks.

And my dogs do not like them.

Which means there's loud, incessant, and obsessive barking at the fence. It just takes one to start--one of mine, I mean--and the other six sprint like stampeding Mustangs to join in the call to defend the fortress. The neighbor's dogs think it's great fun. They're puppies; of course they think it's fun.

But it's mighty serious business for my pack.

It doesn't last very long; even without (my) interference, they're done--tired, hoarse, bored--after about seven minutes. But with nine dogs barking as loud as they can, those seven minutes feel endless.

The neighbors--the other neighbors, not the owners of the puppies--have begun to complain. We've had the police here twice, plus a "formal" protest visit to tell us to either shut the dogs up or else. (I'm paraphrasing.)

That's the latest symptom. The solution comes in short- and long-term; long-term, obviously, is what we're aiming for--I want all my dogs to be happy, able to deal calmly with the stress of encountering new things, to (dare I say it?) enjoy encountering new things. But long-term takes, well, longer. Given the neighbor issues, it's become a choice between my dogs' psychological and physical well-being (dog poisoning is disgustingly common in this island).

Short-term solution: I'm building a wooden fence at the back. (It's actually a relocation of the fence; if you're curious you can read more here.) That will prevent the dogs from having a clear view of the neighbor's yard, which will (we hope) stop, or at least diminish, the barking. That fence is going up this week if it kills me.

Then there's the long-term. The two trainers I consulted agreed that the reactivity in my pack comes from lack of exposure to new things. The three puppies (now 18 months old) were born in this house, never left, and--to top it off--when they were scheduled for puppy training, there was an outbreak of distemper in the island, which means we kept them in quarantine-like isolation: no visitors, no walks, no leaving the house at all. Whenever I went out to help with other dogs, I wore plastic bags on my shoes, changed clothes, and disinfected everything, including myself, before coming even close to the dogs back home. It was a crucial time in their development, those couple of months, and it didn't help that their mother also stayed with them for eight months. Or that they've grown up in a pack with another four dogs.

So anti-reactivity treatment in this house, besides general "obedience" (which, to me, isn't so much tricks or cute behavior but rather the establishment of a two-way language so that the dog and I may communicate effectively), includes one-on-one walks. And that's how we discovered the Kabouterbos.

The Kabouterbos--or "Dwarf Forest"
It's a mini-forest ("kabouter" means dwarf, "bos" means forest) nearby; not a park in any civilized sense of the word, just a few square kilometers of wilderness with paths created (and maintained) by the few people that go there, mostly with horses. And no, I don't go at the same time as they do; as curious as I am about what my dogs would do if they saw a horse, I think we're not ready for that particular experiment yet.

It takes me about ten minutes to walk to the Kabouterbos. Once away from the street, whoever the lucky dog of the day is (I have seven dogs, there's seven days in a week--it can't be an accident) can go off-leash.

I was surprised to see how well-behaved they become when it's just me and no other dogs. When we're all at the beach, even if it's just three or four dogs, they go much farther afield and the intervals between coming back to check on me are longer. Makes sense; they feel safer in a pack than they do alone. When there's other dogs, I'm part of the pack (pack leader or not). When it's just me, I am their pack.

This iguana, for example, barely escaped with its life.
That's not to say they hang out by my legs all the time. No, they wander--just not far. They chase lizards and iguanas, they catch interesting scents and stay back to sniff or follow them into the brush for a bit--then they realize they're all alone and dash back out to look for me.

I expected this, the bit about losing me, to send them into outright panic mode. Lo and behold--no. Even Sam, who's the most reactive of my dogs (I can't even go pee without him), exhibited no signs of hysteria when I disappeared (from his sight; I never let him out of mine). He backtracked a bit, found my scent, and trotted--trotted, not sprinted--nose-to-ground, in my direction. It took him a couple of tries, because I fought my every instinct and stayed motionless behind a tree, but even when he lost the scent and had to backtrack again, he seemed cool and collected. When he found me I was the one celebrating like crazy; he was all like, "Oh, there you are. Keep up, will you?"

Sam, startlingly calm all by his lonesome
at the Kabouterbos
So it works. Yes, I'm slightly surprised it does. Maybe because the results are so immediate. I guess I expected a lot more tension and stress, a lot more unpredictability.

Which, of course, says a lot more about me than about my pack--and explains a heck of a lot about their behavior.

~ * ~

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