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Rule Breaker

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There are those that follow rules and those who break them. Malibu seems to be saying, “I’m next, Quest. Get on line behind me!”

My Normal Dog

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Malibu

One-third of my dogs are normal. No, I do not have a houseful of crazy canines, just three. Well, make that two, because I recently learned that one of them is normal. I did not know that Malibu was normal until Dr. Overall, a veterinary behaviorist, informed me of the surprising news. Not only is Malibu normal, she may be “both valuable and not as common as people think”.

After observing my Min Pins for several hours, Dr. Overall confirmed Quest’s prior diagnosis of social phobia. She also had the opportunity to witness Aspen’s aggression towards Malibu, the primary reason for our consultation. Between Quest and Aspen’s theatrics, Malibu presented herself as the most normal dog in the room. Additionally, upon witnessing Malibu’s interactions with Aspen, Dr. Overall deemed Malibu to be a “contextually appropriate dog who does a very good job of both reading signals and signaling appropriately.” Evidently, those abilities do not come naturally to all dogs.

Considering the fact that I had previously believed myself to be the pet parent of a three pack of crazy, I should have felt ecstatic. But instead of embracing this unexpected news, I focused on the reality of the situation. Malibu may appear normal in one capacity, but in many other ways she is definitely on the far side of normal. Malibu has her own issues that have plagued her from puppyhood. She can be quite reactive in certain situations and is the most timid of my three Min Pins.

In fact, if you put my dogs in a line-up, I am not so sure that impartial observers would pick Malibu as the normal dog. They would not select Quest for obvious reasons, but they may believe that Aspen is the closest to normal out of the pack. Aside from her aggression towards Malibu, Aspen is pretty close to perfect.  Sure, she has a penchant for barking sometimes, but it is usually manageable. Aspen is the most social of the three and adapts to new environments with ease.

A realist, I know that my Min Pins may never be normal dogs and that is something that I have learned to accept. That does not mean that I have given up hope of rehabilitating my crew. My goals still include reducing my Min Pins’ reactivity, alleviating Quest’s fearfulness, and curbing Aspen’s aggression towards Malibu.

Through a Dog’s Eyes

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Christmas is a magical time of the year.  The sights, sounds, and fragrances of the holiday envelop us in a warm embrace, but are probably quite confusing to our canine companions.  If my Min Pins could voice their questions, here are a few they might ask. “Why is there a tree in our house?”, “Why am I being dressed in silly costumes?”, “Why is Mom taking my picture while I wear these silly antlers on my head when it is obvious that I am fooling no one into thinking that I am a reindeer?”, “Why are sirens blaring in the neighborhood while a chubby man in a red suit waves from a fire truck?”

On a recent neighborhood walk, a strange scene appeared before two of my Min Pins and I could imagine the thoughts that must have raced through their heads as they tried to figure out a perplexing mystery.

I adore how Aspen glances back at me as if to say, “Do you see what I see?” The girls were definitely more curious than reactive while staring at the holiday figures displayed in the yard.

They may have been wondering, “Why are dogs standing motionless in a front yard and not trying to detach themselves from the sleigh to which they are harnessed?”, “Why can’t I smell those dogs?”, “Why aren’t they looking at me?”, “They certainly look like dogs, so why aren’t they acting like dogs?”

A special thanks to Malibu for sparking the desire to write this post. She was walked first and had the same reaction to the lawn ornaments, but I did not have my camera with me.  Hoping to capture a moment of wonder, I brought it with me while walking Aspen and Quest. Not only did I succeed, but for just a few seconds, I saw Christmas through a dog’s eyes.

 

Party Time

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Happy Birthday to my Min Pins!

 

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Waiting for Cake

 

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Happy 7th Birthday – Aspen, Malibu, & Quest

 

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QUEST

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ASPEN

 

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MALIBU

 

All paws up to The Barkery, in Tewksbury, MA.  According to the girls, their doggie birthday cake was delicious!

 

 

Oh What Fun

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Every December, a canine holiday photo shoot is at the top of my to-do list. The goal is always the same – to capture the perfect image for our Christmas card. My Min Pins are troopers, holding their positions while I make silly noises that encourage the trio to look directly at the camera.

Since I used individual shots of the girls for last year’s card, I wanted a group picture this year. Santa suits, reindeer antlers, and other festive apparel has been worn in past years, so this year the girls wore new pajamas from Auntie Sheila.

The shoot went well and the crew was eager to pose for pictures. It probably helped that I had yummy treats on hand to dole out as needed. A couple of minor issues cropped up, but were easily managed.

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Malibu refused to look at the camera for a few minutes because that would require getting too close for comfort to Aspen. Always ready to deflect potential aggression from her littermate, Malibu has mastered the art of using non-threatening body language to appease Aspen, thereby avoiding a confrontation. Fortunately, Aspen interpreted Malibu’s calming signals and behaved herself during the session.

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Wanting to try something new and creative, I wrapped some holiday lights around the girls. At first, Quest wanted nothing to do with this crazy idea and removed herself from the group.  Once she realized that the lights were nothing to fear, she returned to her center position.

Almost ninety images were taken, and the very first one is the picture I selected for our 2014 holiday card!

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Happy Holidays!

Something Wicked This Way Comes

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Halloween is almost here and something wicked this way comes.  The cackling of a witch is not what I hear, but a much more menacing sound. It is the growl of a Min Pin.

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Aspen

Some may think it is cute when a tiny dog growls, but I can assure you that it is not. For it is often a precursor to more aggressive behavior.  A growl was the first sign of inter-dog aggression in our home.  I cannot remember exactly when I first heard this sound, but it was around the time of the pups’ first birthday.  Aspen would growl at Malibu for no apparent reason. Sometimes it appeared to be resource guarding of toys or preferred seating, but other times it seemed totally random.

Playful pups, or a warning of potential problems?

At three months – Playful pups, or a preview of future problems?

For the first few years, that is all it was, growling. Over time, Aspen’s growling transitioned to lunging and pouncing on Malibu. Trying to protect herself from an attack, Malibu will shake Aspen off of her back. Then the two of them will be standing on their hind legs in a face-to-face scuffle.  The entire episode, from start to finish, lasts less than ten seconds. Fortunately, this scenario is not a regular occurrence, and I am hoping that it never becomes one.

When Aspen began showing aggression towards Malibu, unsolicited advice given to me early on with the pups began creeping back into my thoughts. Seeking information about mouthy puppies, I had visited several online forums shortly after bringing the pups home. The mouthing was not addressed at all; instead I was warned about aggression among female littermates and encouraged to rehome two of the puppies. I was told that female littermates have a tendency to fight, and that those fights can be brutal, even deadly.

Physically, none of my Min Pins have been injured thus far and I would prefer to keep it that way. I admit that I should have sought help much sooner, but as we all know, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Had I known a growl would lead to more…

Desperate for advice on inter-dog aggression, I scheduled an appointment with a vet behaviorist.  I decided against returning to Tufts University, where I had taken Quest for her hyper-reactivity, when I learned that another highly-regarded behaviorist was only a couple of hours away.

In early summer of 2014, I took my entire crew to meet with veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall. My Min Pins were six years old at the time of our visit.  Prior to our consultation, I was required to complete a lengthy survey and submit videos of our home environment, daily routines, and, if possible, the problem behavior.  A clear representation of Aspen’s behavior towards Malibu was captured, providing Dr. Overall with solid evidence of the drama that unfolds inside of our home.

We spent several hours with Dr. Overall discussing Aspen’s aggression towards Malibu, Quest’s previous diagnosis of social phobia, as well as the general reactive behavior of our Min Pins. While we were with Dr. Overall, Quest had her anxiety on full-display and Aspen picked a fight with Malibu. Both events provided Dr. Overall with a front-row seat to the primary issues in which I have been struggling to find solutions. As for Aspen’s outburst, Dr. Overall stated, “Aspen is pretty serious in her threats, but is not as overly aggressive as she could be – she is so explosive that we are lucky she doesn’t bite.”

Dr. Overall relieved me when she added, “Since Aspen’s behavior has remained the same over the past few years, and not escalated to more serious aggression, it most likely will not worsen over time.”  Of course, there are no certainties, but I did feel better after hearing Dr. Overall’s view on future episodes of inter-dog aggression in our home.

I was not surprised that Dr. Overall felt that both Aspen and Quest would benefit from medication. Gabapentin was prescribed for Quest and Fluoxetine for Aspen.  Several adjustments have been made over the last couple of months. Trazodone was added for Quest and seems to be helping her. I will update Quest’s progress in a future post.

After being on the Fluoxetine for a little over two months, I weaned Aspen off when I saw no improvement in her behavior. She then began taking Trazodone which helped less, making me realize that the Fluoxetine may have been working. Aspen is now taking both Fluoxetine and Trazodone. It is too soon to know if this combination of drugs will help, but I have learned to take things one day at a time.

Shortly after our consultation, I received a detailed plan that included a diagnostic summary for each dog, medication information, highlights of our discussions, protocols for behavior modification and relaxation, and much more. This plan has become my handbook as it is now an essential component in the rehabilitation of my dogs.  Dr. Overall continues to oversee the well-being of my dogs. No drug or dosage change is made without her guidance.  Dr. Overall also views the videos that I send and responds promptly with a detailed behavioral analysis. This feedback helps keep my dogs’ progress on track and headed in the right direction.

Protocols for deference, breathing and relaxation, programs created by Dr. Overall, were included in the plan for my three dogs. The goal of these protocols is to create calmer, more relaxed dogs by teaching them that they have some control over their reactivity.  Other protocols focus on inter-dog aggression, “special-needs” pets and behavioral medication. It has not been easy fitting these programs into an already hectic schedule, but I am in it for the long haul.  These programs will be practiced with my Min Pins for years to come.

Dealing with my crew’s reactive behavior has been a walk in the park compared to handling inter-dog aggression in our home. To a degree, reactivity can be managed by avoiding certain places or situations. Further, through various channels, I have learned how to handle my reactive dogs. It continues to be challenging, but I have gotten a lot of hands-on experience over the past few years.

Inter-dog aggression is a complicated problem with no easy answers or quick fixes. I cannot explain why Aspen is aggressive towards Malibu, and will probably never know the cause of her behavior.  Dr. Overall feels that it may be genetic or due to environmental stress that was placed on the litter in their first few weeks of life.

When I look at Aspen, I don’t see a “bad” dog.  I see a sweet, affectionate dog who, for lack of a better expression, is unbalanced in some capacity through no fault of her own.  I remain hopeful that medication will help decrease, or even eliminate, Aspen’s aggression towards Malibu.  Whatever the outcome, I am dedicated to helping Aspen learn how to control her impulses and  confrontational behavior.

Almost 5 yrs. old - Not snuggling anymore, but willing to sit close together.

Almost 5 yrs. old – Not snuggling anymore, but willing to sit close together.

snuggle time

At three months – I loved how the crew would snuggle together as only puppies do.

Aspen

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Aspen in Ft. Collins

Aspen

Aspen is my most affectionate Min Pin.  She loves to cuddle and wants to befriend everyone she meets.  Aspen is an amazing athlete and truly fearless when running her backyard agility course. Always eager to play Frisbee, she performs fancy flips in the air while enjoying her favorite game.  Aspen seems too good to be true, right?  Well, truth be told, Aspen has issues.

Aspen is the noisiest of the crew, and at times, her incessant barking has me at my wit’s end! At home, she is the Min Pin who needs the most management.  During her barking frenzies, I attempt to distract her by redirecting her attention elsewhere.  Fortunately, food is a great motivator!

Aspen shows a different side of her personality when out in public.  Her leash behavior is far superior to my other Min Pins. Aspen walks politely and remains calm, even when people and/or dogs are spotted. If anything, Aspen will whine to go and greet those she sees while out and about. Usually, I cannot give in to her request because Malibu is walking with us and likes to keep distance between herself and other dogs/certain individuals.

Aspen did not always behave appropriately in public.  Years of desensitization and counter-conditioning helped Aspen overcome many of the reactive tendencies that were present when she was younger. Although behavior modification continues to be a key component of my dogs’ rehabilitation program, it is not the only method that I have used in an effort to help my dogs.

While researching different strategies for my Min Pins’ reactivity, I came across Tellington Touch. Tellington Touch, or TTouch as it is commonly referred to, is a unique, force-free approach that addresses specific physical and behavioral needs of pets through the use of  TTouches, Leading Exercises, and a Confidence Course.

In July 2010, Aspen and I went to Ft. Collins, CO to attend a TTouch workshop.  I had met the presenter, Kathy Cascade, a few months earlier while she was conducting a training seminar here in New Jersey.  I chose Aspen to accompany me since she is my Min Pin who can best handle the stress of traveling and being around other dogs.

 

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At the workshop, I learned how to apply a bodywrap to calm Aspen.

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Aspen was selected to be the demo dog for the Thundershirt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kathy Cascade, TTouch instructor (left side)

The TTouch workshop was an enriching experience that provided me with fresh ideas to use with my reactive Min Pins. Kathy is an experienced instructor whose caring nature is evident as she strives to assist her students and their pets. Kathy’s calm and patient nature provides dogs with a sense of security as she works with them on their individual needs.

While discussing Aspen’s penchant for barking, Kathy helped me see the situation from a different point-of-view.  She reminded me,  “Aspen is just barking.”   That statement may be the single most important piece of information that I took away from the workshop.  Yes, barking can be very annoying (I am hearing it now, as I type!), but there are other canine behaviors that make my situation seem like a picnic in the park. I met a fellow workshop participant who had a dog with such severe aggression that she was considering euthanasia for her pet.  Considering her story, my problems are nonexistent.

Aspen enjoyed a game of frisbee at Fossil Creek Park.

While in Ft. Collins, Aspen enjoyed a game of Frisbee at Fossil Creek Park.

In addition to over-the-top barking at home, Aspen has a conflicted relationship with Malibu that has escalated over the past couple of years. Unprovoked, Aspen will intimidate and threaten Malibu for no apparent reason.  Aspen will growl, lunge, and pounce on Malibu without warning. A visit to a veterinary behaviorist was long overdue, so an appointment was recently scheduled and off we went.  The details of our meeting will be the topic of a future post.

Aspen has a few character flaws, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. I have learned that the most productive way to deal with her barking is through management. Some dogs just like to bark more than others and Aspen is one of those dogs. As far as tension among the crew, Malibu may never be Aspen’s best bud, but if I can keep the situation down to a dull roar until a solution is found I will be satisfied. Aspen may be a handful sometimes, but at the end of the day when she snuggles next to me and lays her head on my pillow, I am very grateful to have her in my life.

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