Terrible, Terrible Twos

the chaseI can’t say they didn’t warn us. They did.

“You won’t really know what you’ve got until he turns two.”

Those simple words from our wonderful friends at Freedom’s Song Wolf Rescue have stuck with me for the last 18 months. Now they’re proving a bit prophetic.

And what they meant was, with wolfdogs, you really don’t know whether they will think more like a wolf, or more like a dog until they mature. For some, I guess, the wolf side of the brain can prove to be a bit of a challenge. It’s possible we’re finding that out.

I  can’t say that I didn’t see it…and feel it…coming. Over the past several months I have seen a shift in our wolfdog Kainan’s attitude from time to time. It was subtle at first. You had to pay attention. And it was easy to write it off as just a little incident.

Since joining our family as an adolescent wolfdog in August of 2014, Kainan been remarkably easy-going. Though he dwarfs all of our other dogs – now easily outweighing the largest by about 40 pounds – he has been an affable boy, romping and playing like a gentle giant with dogs half his size or smaller. His current most devoted playmate tips the scales at a mere 38 pounds.

He also defers to our 10-year-old, “top dog” Dalmatian, Howie. He bows down to Howie on a daily basis, groveling at his feet and licking under his chin in absolute submission to the older dog. Howie is very large and in charge in Kainan’s eyes. This behavior is not because Howie is an “alpha dog” who has forcibly rolled Kainan over and asserted his dominance. That theory is tired and outdated. Kainan’s behavior toward Howie is healthy, voluntary submissive behavior and it’s a good thing.

But in recent months I have noticed it, I’ve seen a little shift. Dogs that were once included in Kainan’s merry little circle of playmates, are now excluded. If you know the subtleties of dog to dog communication, you can see the change in attitude a mile away.

Kain and Bernie

“Good play” with Bernie

I think I first noticed it with Bernie, our pit-mix boy. Bernie was one of Kainan’s initial best buddies. They would romp and play like big, goofy puppies. Until one day I saw it.

I looked outside and saw Bernie sitting in the very back corner of the yard, sideways to the house. His body was curved, his back rounded, his head dropped low, his ears pinned back in a worried expression. I could see he was licking his lips and glancing sideways toward the house and then looking quickly away. These are all signs of stress, all signals to another dog that he is no threat, that he is not challenging, and he wants no trouble.

Having never seen Bernie display this behavior, I quickly looked to see what was causing his concern. There, standing tensed and focused between Bernie and the path that leads to the dog door, was Kainan. His ears were pricked sharply forward. His head was dropped level with his back. His body was tensed and in a partial crouch as if ready to spring. His eyes held a hard focus on the worried dog across the yard.

I immediately went out into the yard and called Kainan to me. He did not respond quickly or very willingly. I had to go to him. His focus was intense, but just by breaking the moment, the spell, I was enough distraction to allow Bernie to run to me and then into the house.

What the heck had I just witnessed?

Time to pay closer attention. We had dropped our guard. We had been lulled into a false sense of security by silly, adolescent Kainan. Now mature Kainan had moved in and it was time to take notice.

Kill the wolfdog

“Kill” the wolfdog.

For a bit, I saw nothing further. He was Mr. Frolic. He had a little pack of girls comprised of three Dalmatians, one husky/malamute, and one mixed breed dog who raced and wrestled with him nonstop. Even with his huge size advantage, he was gentle with his girls. In fact, more often than not, he chose to be the prey, allowing them to chase him down, tackle him, and “go for the kill.” It was hysterically ferocious and comical.

And so my guard slipped back down.

Then it happened. Our little whippet girl, Lacy, dainty and all legs and speed, popped out of the dog door with a bunny-like hop and Kainan grabbed her. He reacted as if by instinct. Grab the prey.

Jim was just inside the house and was out the door to break things up in an instant. But it still happened. And our little Lacy got some puncture wounds in the process.

You could explain it away. Lacy moves very erratically and very quickly. If she popped out right on top of him…well…you can almost understand what happened. But still.

So we watched. We redirected Kainan when we felt his focus was inappropriate. We kept a close eye on Lacy.

And then it happened to Nora, our senior Dalmatian. We’re not sure what caused the incident, but Kainan went after her. Again, Jim was there quickly. Nora was not badly injured.

But still.

We had a problem. And it was a problem we always knew might surface. Wolfdogs are not dogs. Wolfdogs are not wolves. And there’s the tricky part.

You don’t know what you’ve got until they turn two.

I have watched the well-educated, experienced people who run Freedom’s Song. They too live with wolfdogs. I know that not all wolfdogs are social to people. We are very lucky that Kainan is. He is quite friendly and very appropriate around people.

I have also never seen him act aggressively when we see other dogs. He has been out and about with us to a few places where we have encountered other dogs on leash and he has been fine. We don’t let other dogs rush up to him, we don’t ask for trouble, but Kainan has consistently remained calm.

Now, this behavior at home, well, it actually makes sense to me. This is his space. This is his home territory. We have asked him to share it with a number of other dogs. And we have dogs come and go from time to time as foster dogs come in and eventually leave for homes of their own. It’s a busy place, and can be a stressful situation for some dogs, but we are generally good at finding balance and keeping the peace.

So now it appears that Kainan has a little circle of friends that he prefers…I call them his gang. And it also appears we have some dogs that he does not want in his circle. So who makes the rules? Wolfdog or humans?

Calm before the pounce

Still good play…I promise!

Well, it has to the be humans, but we have to have respect for Kainan’s view of the world as well. As I tell every training client who has dog to dog issues in their home, just because YOU like a dog and want to add it to the family does not mean your dog is going to like it as well. Humans don’t like every other human they meet…I don’t. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be asked to live just any other person that comes along.

But humans ask their dogs to do that all the time and then seem appalled when the dogs don’t agree with the decision.

So what to do?

Well, I jokingly say that Kainan is currently grounded. He is not allowed to play unsupervised with all of the other dogs loose as he once did. We have supervised sessions several times a day with Kainan loose with all of the dogs, and then we give Kainan his own space with his little gang.

Fortunately, our world is physically set up to handle this new routine. We have sturdy dog runs that allow access inside the house and to outdoor space. We have two dog yards. We can allow Kainan to play with his little gang, while keeping the other dogs separate and safe.

And we are dedicated to doing a lot of work with Kainan. Jim and I have worked out a plan for reminding Kainan the benefits of offering desired behavior. We are focusing on spending a lot more one-on-one time with him. We are working to teach him a strong recall – no matter what the distraction in the world around him.

We’re also giving him constant feedback when he is loose with all of the dogs. My own belief, backed by a recent online course presented by Dr. Ian Dunbar, advocates giving dogs like Kainan consistent input. If he’s playing nicely, he gets lots of praise and reinforcement. If we see that he’s starting to be a bully or he’s starting to get too rowdy, we call him, we interrupt the action. He gets told “uh-uh,” and redirected. The moment his behavior shifts back to calm and loose, he is praised.

If he crosses any tiny line, it’s game over. He is removed from play.

There is no hitting. There are no shock collars (and BOY are there a lot of people who love to go there…that’s a topic for another day). There are no harsh prong collars. There is no physical punishment beyond limiting his freedom.

There is feedback. Lots of meaningful, timely feedback. And we are patient. And we are fair. And we are learning.  All of us. Kainan is as much our teacher as he is our student.

We love Kainan and we are committed to his welfare and his well-being. That means it’s our job to understand his way of thinking. It’s our job to help this home and life work well for all of us. We don’t want to “dominate” Kainan, we want to provide leadership. If we are good and fair leaders, then everything else can fall into place.

We will make wise choices too. We may have to rethink what types of dogs and how many dogs we can foster. We can do that. Our own dogs come first.

We hope this is just a phase for Kainan. He is not one tiny bit aggressive. In fact, one stern look from me or Jim sends him sprawling to the ground in an apologetic pile. He is just mature now (and yes, neutered, but that doesn’t change who/what he is!), he has instincts, and he is testing the boundaries of  his world. We hope that with fair, positive-focused training, Kainan will be work through his terrible twos to be able to be free-roaming with the other dogs again soon.

But if he can’t…if living with a number of other dogs is just not right for him…we will deal with that too. We will make sure he has always has a great life that is fair to him, while also fair to the other dogs that share our home. We made that commitment to Kainan when we took him in and we will always stand by it.

We know he is new territory for us. We still have a lot to learn, and so does Kainan. But I know it will work out. Everyone is OK. Kainan is happy and being very compliant. Oh, and he really loves turkey hot dogs for his training treats.

This too shall pass. He is still very much our big, fuzzy, lovable guy who, 9.5 times out of 10, gets along great with our furry family.

But oh the terrible twos. I’m so ready for three.

Kainan and shadow 2

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Where Sunflowers Grow

Run in Peace Big PaulThe patch of broken, brown earth stood out in sharp contrast to the surrounding blanket of green dotted with splashes of colorful wildflowers. This was the first time I had ventured out to visit this spot in the pasture since the day it happened more than two months ago.

I looked at the packets in my hand, eight in all. There were two each of four varieties of sunflower: Mammoth, Moonshine, Autumn Beauty, and American Giant. The promise of the massive flowers seemed a fitting tribute to my big boy. Soon, I hoped to see a small forest of sunflowers covering the bare spot in the earth that marked the place where Paul, my big draft horse, was buried.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The perfect day for a walk in the pasture. Life was erupting all around me. The trees were covered with tender, brilliant green leaves unfurling to greet the changing season. The birds darted about, busily tending their nests. Insects flitted lazily about from blossom to blossom, finding nourishment as the warmth of the morning sun fueled their meandering mission.

Hi there NanYet I stood oblivious to the spring parade. I was fixated on that one patch of cracked, clumpy earth that represented the beautiful ghost still testing my heart.

I’m no stranger to loss. We live with lots of animals…all lives more temporary than our own. We’ve said our share of goodbyes and we always find a way to celebrate the beings that have shared their time here with us. Each has taught a lesson, each has been a blessing.

But, Big Paul. I just wasn’t coming to terms with his loss. The stately Belgian horse who won my heart from one photo on a Facebook page. Our story was supposed to roll gently toward a very distant sunset. It was not supposed to be a short story, over in just a couple of chapters.

So my morning visit to Paul’s piece of earth was to find resolution. It was my private ceremony. I was going to welcome closure.

gogo 2016Standing clutching the seed packets in my right hand, I heard a quiet shuffling behind me. I turned to see GoGo, our old appaloosa mare, with her nose to the ground as she followed my trail through the pasture as surely as a faithful tracking dog.

GoGo is a special girl. She is 30 years old. She has lost her vision. But she doesn’t hide in the barn, she doesn’t beg for special care. In fact, she won’t tolerate being kept in a stall or safely confined to a paddock. She is, despite the toll advancing years have exacted, strong-willed and determined to keep pace with the rest of our horses. Where one sense has failed her, others have grown stronger. She is a survivor.

I stroked the sweet mare’s neck as she sniffed the seed packets, perhaps checking to see if I might be holding a carrot or a horse cookie. I was immediately thankful GoGo decided to join my private memorial service. The mare who had graced our farm for such a long time, joining me as I paid respect to the horse who touched my life so profoundly in such a short amount of time. Perfect.

I opened the packets, one by one, and sprinkled the contents across the bare earth, watching as the small seeds bounced and tumbled into the cracks and crevices. Soon they would find purchase, sprout, and spring back up toward the sky, strong, tall, and golden. Just like Big Paul was.

Job done, GoGo and I retraced our steps and headed back to where the rest of our little herd watched in seemingly silent homage. Did they know I needed some space? My very spoiled animals are not known for restraint, especially when they see a human that normally has pockets filled with cookies. But somehow, today, they showed quiet respect.

As I moved closer to the barn, the truce was broken and my herd surrounded me, snorting and sniffing. I looked into a half dozen pairs of soft, hopeful eyes as impatient noses pushed at my hands and nudged my pockets.

In that moment, it hit me. Just as surely as the sunflower seeds would sprout roots in the fertile soil and grow to fill the cracks and gaps in the broken earth, these silly horses and donkeys, in the here and now, would help fill the cracks and gaps in the fertile ground of my heart.

I would always remember, and I would always be grateful for what was, but I could also let go. It was time to stop replaying the pain of loss and instead focus on the good times I had with Big Paul. And it was also time to simply allow myself to appreciate what was standing right in front of me.

Just like that, a spring day became a gift. The sunflowers to come became a promise. A ghost became a beautiful memory. A heart was allowed to begin healing.

Oh…and yeah…a little herd of horses, donkeys, and one fine mule got to eat cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once a Year…

MotherYou know that old saying…you don’t know until you try? Well, several years ago I wanted to do a Mother’s Day giveaway at my dog care business. I had seen a cute doggy floral arrangement online and asked a local florist if they could make one. They made one for me…and it was adorable…and it was EX PEN SIVE.
 
Hmm, I thought. I looked at the arrangement. Hmmm.
 
So the next year I dove in and decided I could make one myself. Oh, mine are not perfect, but they make people smile and I think I love creating them just as much as I love giving them away.
 
Once a year, I become a florist. Once a year, I fill a shopping cart with bundles of beautiful flowers. Once a year I pick and choose just the right bloom here, the perfect bud there.I make a terrific, colorful, aromatic mess of my kitchen. And, when I’m done, I step back and laugh.
 
Pictured are this year’s creations. The “leftover” flowers (I buy WAY too many on purpose!) will be crafted into beautiful bouquets to honor my mother, grandmother, and sister.
I’ll go sit in the peace of the cemetery and tell them all about my funny dog arrangements as I carefully place just the right bloom here, the perfect bud there, in a heartfelt attempt to make the world just a little more beautiful on a very special day.
 
Happy Mother’s Day!