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Completing circles: what our animals teach us

November 23, 2009 3 comments
Celtic Knot

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I’ve been slammed at work for the last couple weeks – twelve hour days do not let me be a good dog (or cat) trainer. Some days, the cuddle time I get with Casey, Madison and Churro is all the interaction we share. I feed them, they eat. We go for walks. We cuddle for a few minutes before I go off to work, and they moan (M.) or groan (Casey) or purr and head-butt (Churro) with me until it’s time for them to go back to crates to nap the day away. I come home, and we repeat the process – except that cuddle time usually melts into falling asleep together. Then Casey wakes us all up in the middle of the night. I ex them all again, and they go into crates for a couple of hours until daylight, when the alarm goes off and we do it all again.

I’ve been so slammed that for a couple days this week, I didn’t keep up with my blog reading, or my Twitter stream. And then I saw a tweet from my friend @azahar – missing her Sunny, her 16 y.o. cat who earlier in the week hadn’t been doing well and had needed a quick trip to the vet.

Sunny died while I was off trying to coax a validation test script out of some co-workers and do role reviews in my application and help plan a retirement party. And my friend, a day ahead and thousands of miles away in Spain was deep in the agony that follows when a circle closes, and the realization that our lives are longer than the pets who enrich our days hits us, hard.

I can’t make Az’s pain less. I’m not sure anything can, except time. As I shift softly here on the couch, so that I don’t wake up my own old man Casey, reading about her pain reminded me how close that minute can be for all of us with pets, but especially for those whose pets are celebrating senior birthdays.

Casey will be 15 this week. No, to those who’ve wondered, he’s not dead – just living the slightly befuddled life of a senior dog who some days doesn’t remember who he is or where he is, but is otherwise physically healthy. This weekend, I’ve been slowly working at getting him trimmed up, to take a 15th birthday photo. He can only tolerate a few minutes of grooming at a time, so routine maintenance is a process – but I should be able to give you all a picture of my old man looking his best sometime before the week is over.

I vividly remember the day I went to meet Casey. We drove 3 1/2 hours through a blizzard to come home together. He rode in the #100 crate on my front seat. We stopped twice so that he could pee. He was so small, easily the smallest non-cat creature I’d ever had in my house, and as he sat at the top of the stairs to the side door, looking down, I could hear him thinking “It’s very far, Pat.” He played ball almost from the moment I brought him home. He adored my Gordon setter Bard and my English Springer spaniel Jazz (who were 8 and 12 1/2, respectively, when I brought Casey home.) He learned everything at light-speed. He was the little red speed demon that ran the fastest course of the trial on the day that he earned his NA…and the reason that agility hot-shots like Diane Bauman lined up the next day to watch *us* run.

Casey became the head cuddler as I worked my way through first the recovery from a hemorrhagic stroke, and then five+ years of cancer treatment – if you’d like more of that story, you’ll find it at Life Out Loud. He adjusted as his show career abruptly stopped, shifted gears, restarted after the stroke, downshifted again during cancer treatments, and then took on new directions when I grew stronger. In ’96 he lost his mentor Jazz; a few years later, his friend Bard. He outlived all of his cats: Aslyn, Rocket, and Rani. He saw me re-home the upstart Gordon setter Reuben – I found for Reu the active performance home he deserved, so that he didn’t have to spend his young life as my cancer therapy dog. Casey welcomed into our home his new BFF, Princess M., and a new cat, Churro. His circle is smaller now than it used to be, and I can see that it’s nearing the point where it will close – but not just yet.

I’m dreading that day. And Az’s week has reminded me that I must not let the other things in my world interfere with enjoying the days I have with the creatures around me whose lives are too short.

Az discovered some truths about herself while she lived within Sunny’s circle, and she shared them here in this post from Casa Az: “Learning to Love.” As I read it, hugging my own creatures, I realized how much I’ve learned from all of mine – Taryn, Jazz, Nola, Muni, Bard, Reuben, Ashlyn, Silkyn, Rocket, Rani – and now the ones who draw the current circles in the knots of my time: Casey, Madison and Churro.

But circles close – it’s their nature. It’s our gift to learn from the pets who author our circles, and realize how much they enrich our days.

What have you learned from your pets today?

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Casey goes walkabout!

August 23, 2009 2 comments

Getting the old man outdoors first thing in the morning is a challenge. Often it’s a mad rush, hoping I’ll beat his full bladder to emptying without riling it up too much in the race to the grass just outside the back door.

Casey on the hill, 2006

Casey on the hill, 2006

I gear up, and stuff my pockets with poop baggies and treats. Then I collar Casey while he’s still crated, hold his crate door closed as I open M’s crate, and with the spotted princess on my hip I encourage the old man to race me to the back door. Nature and habit and my whistle can usually keep his eyes on the prize–as long as no detours captivate him in the 25 feet between his crate and the yard.

On days when I’ve slept in, I’ll skip his e-collar and let the dogs out of crates armed with my home-rigged Flexi(TM), the one with the climbing carabiner and slip lead attached to the handle. The rig lets me walk two dogs on one leash ‘handle.’ I scoop M. out of her upper crate, open Casey’s crate door and incite the mad dash. Outside, Casey immediately finds a spot to pee, and M. sits while I drop the slip lead over her head. Then I snap the Flexi to Casey’s collar as he’s irrigating the first post of the patio fence. Have you ever watched an old dog pee first thing in the morning? I’ve usually got plenty of time to catch up.

This morning, as I slipped the lead over M’s head (no challenge to get the princess to wait patiently when the grass is wet!), Casey followed his nose past his usual stopping point and decided to go walkabout, relieving himself along the way. He’s 14+, but he can stil move faster than I move first thing in the morning. Before I could get to him, he’d made it down the grass to the last townhouse in our row and was busy play-bowing with Wils, my neighbor’s 3 y.o. golden retriever. Dementia in dogs — every day is full of brand new friends. Casey was playing with Wils as if he’d just met his new BFF.

At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, loudly calling “CASEY!” to get his attention wasn’t an option — all of my neighbors’ windows were wide open. Besides, I have to be pretty loud and practically on top of him to make any kind of vocal impression on my hard-of-hearing viejo. At least Wils has always been a quiet dog, and he was happily occupying the old man without making a sound. With Wils to distract him and keep him close by, I was able to get close enough to Casey to remind him that we were walking TOGETHER, thank you. I clipped him to the Flexi(TM) and we continued our walk as if I was actually organizing the course.

Casey wouldn’t have gone walkabout if he’d been wearing his e-collar. Unfortunately, it was still in the car from our trip to the park the day before Even though he’s grown up on an e-collar, I can’t rely on his training to keep him under walking control now that dementia plays into our days. Our Sunday morning walk snafu reminded me how versatile a properly used e-collar can be in a dog trainer’s toolbox, and how many options it opens to a dog throughout his life.

Now and then on Twitter I have a repeat of a discussion I’ve had a thousand times since the mid-80s — the discussion I call ‘The Collar Chronicles.’ Pinch or prong collars and e-collars have always been the evil-doers in these conversations; lately, even the poor slip collar (aka, the dreaded ‘choke’ collar) is also in the evil-doer equipment classification. When I’m asked why I choose to use all three of these tools, I’m often tempted to repeat what professional trainer and kennel owner Joel Prouty once said to me about using an e-collar: I use [it] because dog training shouldn’t be so hard that no one does it.

Maybe I should just take Joel’s direct approach, because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all about saving time in dog training. Note: ‘saving time’ doesn’t and shouldn’t equal ‘cutting corners.’ You still have to cover all of the bases, and solid training over a lifetime relies on strong foundations. But the right equipment can save time by making or helping your communication with the dog more direct.

Many people still call them ‘shock collars.’ My pet peeve? It’s a remote training collar, people! Remote training collars can and do encompass several kinds of feedback, including vibration, tones, odor/sprays – and yes, an electric shock. I use Innotek FS-25A e-collars, which provide 7 stimulation levels (yes, those are the shocks) and a tone-only option.

This collar won’t deliver continuous stimulation; it has an automatic cut-out after ten seconds, so if pressed and held, stimulation (or tone) will stop after 10 seconds. The collar is waterproof, rechargeable, and has an approximate range of 250 yards. It’s my workhorse e-collar; I’ve owned five of them since 1994. Casey has one which he’s had for 10 years. M. has one, which I purchased two years ago. Each collar has its own transmitter.

In practice, the stimulation level on an FS-25A set to 1 or 2 is the equivalent of flicking your fingernail against your palm. Yes, I’ve tried it on myself – I test every collar on every setting before I put it into service, and test it daily prior to use, on my palm, and yes, I know exactly how it feels. The collar can also be set on tone + stimulation where the tone sounds, with a few seconds delay before the stimulation. Tone, delay, vibration and stimulation options make an e-collar as versatile as my voice, allowing me to communicate with my dog at a distance, in situations where I can’t make any noise, or with a dog who, like Casey, is being slowly compromised by the issues that afflict senior dogs.

Casey’s can still reliably hear certain whistle tones, although sound at a distance is lost to him. In bright or dim light, his eyes sometimes don’t tell him everything he needs to know. Mix in the complications of dementia: disorientation and confusion. All combine to make it harder for me to keep him safe when he’s further than a couple feet from me. Still, keeping a leash on a 14+ y.0. dog who is partially sense- and sensibility-impaired but otherwise active doesn’t give him all of the physical stimulation he’s used to taking on his own. His legs and nose still work just fine – and the more regular exercise he can get, the healthier I can keep him. So as often as I can, I give him the opportunity to free-exercise off-leash in a safe environment.

I live on eight acres I share with 100 neighbors. Across a low-traffic road that borders the property is another six acres of softball fields and playground. For 11 years, Casey’s had the run of this place. I don’t want to steal that activity from him as long as he still has the physical capacity to enjoy it–but none of the property around me is fenced – so my job is to keep it safe for him to enjoy.

When Casey’s senses and sensibility first began failing, I switched him to a 10′ slip lead attached to the handle of my 16′ Flexi(TM), the same lead set-up I use to exercise a crate-rest dog. I reinforced with treats every time he responded to a whistle, or checked in with me during a walk. It was a stop-gap solution, and in regular everyday use it’s a miserable failure–on bad days Casey can’t seem to remember how to de-tangle his old legs. We both end up frustrated – him at being tangled, me at trying to keep him tangle-free. He does better on the Flexi-portion of my homemade two-dog leash, but it’s still not enough exercise on the days he’s feeling up to a run.

Enter his e-collar, set to tone. At first I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to hear the tone or that it would startle his slightly addled old-dog brains. I really didn’t need to worry; the foundation of e-collar training from the time he was an adolescent dog kicked in as soon as he understood the tone. I collared him before putting him on the 16-ft. Flexi, and again treated him every time he responded to my whistle, or checked back in with me spontaneously, or when ‘reminded’ to find me by the tone of the e-collar. I’ve set it to tone + delay on a very low stimulation level (1), so that he will feel a vibration after the tone if he doesn’t look for me right away. And at least once every week, I take him ‘back to kindergarten’ — collared and on the Flexi — so that I can ‘remind’ him how important it is for him to stay in touch and stay tuned in to me when we’re walking. Since he’s been e-collar and whistle-trained from puppyhood, I’m relying on behaviors which have been back-chained for years. Reinforcing those foundation behaviors now allows me to continue give the old man some freedom in safe situations.

It’s so much more than a ‘shock collar.’ But as a trainer, you do have to accept your own limitations before you can admit an e-collar’s possibilities for communication.

Or, you can ignore an e-collar’s communication possibilities, and find yourself trying to out-run an old dog at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, slipping in wet Crocs on wetter grass, and trying to manage a reluctant princess on the other lead as she whines about getting her feet wet. Like Joel said so long ago, dog training shouldn’t be that hard — and if the way that is also easier preserves for mi viejo some of the freedom he’s enjoyed his whole life, I’ll take that ‘easy’ route. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get Casey’s e-collar out of the car and onto the charger…

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Categories: Old dogs, Training

Personal Inconvenient Truths

April 3, 2009 Comments off

Maybe global warming is Al Gore’s inconvenient truth–but for me, inconvenient truth is much more personal and immediate. Lately, life seems to be a series of small PITs–personal inconvenient truths.

At 2:30 a.m., the current PIT is that old dogs are as much work as puppies. Maybe more.
Puppies need a strict schedule, but they can usually go 3-4 hours without interrupting my sleep.
Casey is 14 1/2, and his PIT is that he lately he can no longer sleep through the night. Heart dog of mine, he loves to share–and so I am awake, too.

2:30 a.m., when I should be storing up zzz’s to make it through tomorrow–instead, after not quite waking enough to get him outside in time, I have cleaned a crate, cleaned up an old dog, cuddled Madison and shooed her outside (as long as we’re up, we’re ALL going to be up!) Then after settling them both back down again, the PIT that I can’t go back to sleep kicks into its own gear.

I’m borderline wide awake, blogging when I should be sleeping. PIT–once awake to a certain level, my body will only fall asleep on its own time. Too many chemo infusions, too many years of speeding through the night on a mix of Decadron and 5FU (say that out loud–yeah, now you’re getting it–5FU can be some nightmare drug.) Even meditating didn’t let me relax and go back to sleep. I know I should, though–the second shift of old-dog restlessness will kick in about 4:35 a.m. And even if I’m spared more old-dog wake-up calls, the PIT of morning will be here sooner than later.

Okay. If I fold up the netbook, I think I can try to go back to sleep again. And with any luck, maybe I’ll catch a couple more hours before the next personal inconvenient truth–morning.

Originally published at “Gaelen’s Cafe: Life Out Loud” April, 2009 (c) Patricia A. Steer
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When Casey has a good day…

March 15, 2009 Comments off

Now and then I see it in your tail–
first a steady wag, and then it vibrates with purpose.
Now and then your gait is deliberate, and your eyes are bright.
Your goal is in sharp focus,
and I know that for a few minutes
you’ve found your tennis ball again.
————–

Casey had three good days in a row last week.
He took Madison’s bone to chew whenever she left it unattended, slept all night long, and tail in full wagging vibration, he brought me his tennis ball.

More important–when I tossed the ball across the living room, Casey remembered that tennis balls exist for him to chase, to bounce upon, to snatch and catch and race back to me so that I can throw the tennis ball again. And when he was chasing the tennis ball, he stayed on task all the way through, instead of losing his tennis ball and forgetting that we were playing.

I love it when his tail wags, his eyes shine, and he remembers how to play.

Originally published at “Gaelen’s Cafe: Life Out Loud” March, 2009 (c) Patricia A. Steer
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Mi Viejo

August 5, 2008 Comments off

My heart-dog puppy is stretched out sound asleep on the cool-mat bed I keep next to the love seat. Even thought it’s only 65 degrees, I know he’s hot–when he’s cold, he curls up like a sleeping sled dog or cuddles at my feet.

Casey will be 14 this Thanksgiving–plenty active but no longer the English Cocker puppy I brought home during a blizzard, a little red demon who stretched out in a 100 airline crate and chased tennis balls for hours. He’ll still ask everyone he meets to scratch his stomach and toss his tennis ball–but these days, he relaxes and lays down after 15 minutes or so.

He’s slower out the back door and sometimes tries to go his own way during our walks. It’s no longer safe for him to free-range around me on his electronic collar. When we’re separated by more than a 15 feet or so, he can’t hear me or focus his eyes far enough to see me. Losing some sight and hearing means he’s more self-absorbed and nose-focused these days — more in his own world and less in mine, as he relies on the sense(s) that work. But as he slips into his own world, being called back into mine gets him visibly disoriented. If he looks up and realizes he’s lost me, or can’t find me when the slight vibration of his e-collar reminds him to check in, his panic and confusion are obvious. The carefully-taught attention that we both rely on is slowly losing the struggle in his old-dog brain.

Casey’s nose has always been a direct line to his stomach. Given a chance to follow his nose, Casey will get himself into trouble every time–only a strong Come command and the e-collar reminders kept him safe and close regardless of distraction. As his ears and eyes fail him, it’s even more important for me to be able to guide him — but he’s got to look my way first. Outdoors, he’s usually back on a long line. That way I can remind him where I am, and which way is here.

To others, Casey doesn’t look like an old dog. Unlike a lot of red dogs, his version of gray is a color that could pass for blonde. Moments of sparkling mischievous puppy burst out of his old dog body when I’m least expecting them. He’s not too stiff to burst into a run, or surprise me with heel position or a flying leap through my tire or over the coffee table onto the couch — especially if he thinks that new girl, Madison, is getting his share of treats.

But at 3 a.m. today, I realized just how old my old man must feel.

I woke up, riding a new speed wave from the Decodron in Wednesday’s chemo treatment. Madison opened her eyes, nuzzled my face, stretched, and pushed closer for her morning kisses. Technically being awake at that hour is a speed bump and not a true wake-up call — but if I move, my little spotted girl is wide awake. So we cuddled a bit, until I gave in and moved off the love seat, heading toward the bathroom.

M.’s morning routine is her full-blown celebration of the new day, even at 3 a.m. She danced ahead of me, bounced off her crate door, asked out loud to be lifted up. She was clearly expecting breakfast. I tucked her in and told her ‘it’s not time yet, go back to bed, mi hija.’ Barely focused, I made my way back to the love seat to lay down again.

Casey snored on through it all. As I type this, he’s still snoring.

All of the dogs–Taryn, Jazz, Muni, Nola, Bard, Reuben, Madison, and (until today) Casey — always shadowed me around the house. When I worked at home, getting a new bottle of water or cup of coffee was a dog posse production. They’d rouse themselves and dance ahead or follow or both, bumping my legs, wondering if there was anything in it for them. I could see five dog brains sorting through the possibilities (is it time to eat? are we going out? is someone at the door?) If I moved too often, I’d get a why-are-you-moving-again look that could freeze flame. If I needed to do anything that required a lot of moving between rooms or stair-climbing (cleaning, cooking, laundry), I had to put them in crates or on long downs.

Reluctance to interrupt their own beauty rest just because I was on the move became my first clue that one of the gang was truly aging. That sleepy-headed don’t-get-up-on-my-account gaze was always followed, sooner or later, by the day when they slept on, completely oblivious to my movements, until the next stage when I had to shake them awake.

Dogs who grew old in my house before Casey have taught me that now he’ll begin to wake and sleep on his own schedule. On days when I don’t crate him together with M., Casey already protests with that I-can’t-even-hear-myself bark unique to old dogs. He can’t hear me, he’s not even trying to listen, and he’s not done making noise until HE’s done. On his own schedule, Casey settles down and is curled up asleep by the time I come downstairs from my shower.

But this morning, as I resigned myself to being wide awake at 3 a.m., Casey gave me that first clue. He slept through my early morning speed-rush, M.’s trip to her crate and my return to the love seat.

When I came back from the bathroom, I touched his side. Casey climbed up to snuggle without even opening his eyes. Now a solid 20 minutes after M. and I woke up, he’s stretched out at my side, head resting on the love seat arm that is his favorite pillow, once again fast asleep. Unless Madison hears the mourning doves and tells me she’s ready for breakfast and a walk, I’ll be able to write until Casey wakes up and he begins our day.

It’s a chemo day, so I’ll keep the routine simple: first their breakfasts, then a walk, then I’ll dry the dew off their feathers and put them in crates. Only then will I be able to take a shower and approach my own new day. My days used to be scheduled by chemo, then work, then radiation, surgery and the hospital routines. Now it’s more chemo — six bad days, eight good days, then we do it all again. But chemo good days or bad, from now on I know that Casey will rule my routines. We will only start the day as a group when he sees fit.

My heart dog puppy, my red demon, my cuddler–now truly mi viejo, my old man. Sleep tight, Casey. Breakfast and your tennis ball will be waiting whenever you wake up.

Originally published at “Gaelen’s Cafe: Life Out Loud,” August, 2008 (c) Patricia A. Steer
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