Bel’s Story: an Addendum

After first posting about Bel in my previous entry, I was reminded of something I should add so the context of my struggles with Bel are clear.  It’s impossible to understate how near to killing Toby she came.  My vet thought Toby would die.  She even told me that putting him down might be the thing to do, because his recovery was going to be long  and expensive and he might not pull through, the damage was so great. He had multiple wounds on his neck, head and front legs, many of which had to have drains put in them.   In one place on his rear leg, the skin was entirely gone, exposing muscle, and this place was almost the size of a dollar bill.  (I have pictures of the wounds, but they are rather gruesome, so I’ll keep them to myself).  The skin tissue turned necrotic, and couldn’t be pulled back over the damaged area–we didn’t know if it would grow back.  He had liver damage from the sheer amount of damage to his body.   He was at the vet for six weeks.  SIX WEEKS!  His wounds had to be flushed three times a day, and he had to be force fed.

Toby at home, after 6 weeks at the vet

But Toby’s tough.  He pulled through, and now you can’t even see the place where the wound was on his leg–he does have a scar, but his fur covers it.

Bel had done so much damage that my vet asked me if I wanted to put her down.  She pointed out that Bel was a risk to the other dogs.  Honestly, I thought about it.  I thought hard.  But I couldn’t bear the thought of losing both Shibas at the same time, and we weren’t sure Toby was going to make it.  And then, as now, she’d never shown any serious aggression to a dog other than Toby.  I kept her, though there were days when I couldn’t stand the sight of her as I flushed Toby’s wounds and force fed him.  For weeks–even after he came home from the vet, I still had to do this.  I spent thousands of dollars I didn’t have on his care.

But there were other days too, when seeing another, healthy Shiba was a comfort.   She slept with me, and though it wasn’t Toby, it was still a familiar, curly-tailed dog.  I kept him alive.  I kept her.

But people who multiple dogs know this:  sometimes you have a dog that people call the “heart dog,” the one that feels closest to your own heart.  Toby was that dog for me.   The thought of losing him was–is–terrible.

Behind my frustration with Bel is fear, fear of loss.

Today, Bel had her birthday.  She went to Long Leash on Life to get some dog treats.  She did not enjoy her visit; there were people there she didn’t know, and that scared her.  She did not enjoy seeing M’s dogs, though some days she does.   She went for several rides, which she did enjoy, and she had a Sonic burger which she liked, and a tiny bit of ice cream from my root beer float.  She ate a bully stick in the car on the way home.    Even though she’s still hyped up from her encounter with Toby–still stalking him, pawing at the door to his room–and even though she still has her fearfulness (there was thunder, wind, and then it got dark, all frightening things to her), I think she enjoyed at least a portion of her day.

Perhaps that all that any of us can hope for.

Bel’s Birthday: the Bitter and the Sweet

Today is Bel’s birthday.  She’s 6 years old.  Forgive me if I have a hard time mustering up some enthusiasm for this event, but I might as well admit it, as much as I love Bel, she’s often a hard dog to like.

Bel:  A Retrospective

It seems an apt time for a review of Bel’s life so far.  I got her when she was nearly four months old from a place I now recognize as a puppy mill.  I’ve talked about this in other posts, so we won’t go over her early life, but besides being not particularly well-bred, Bel was not socialized much as a pup.  I didn’t help things much when I got her:  she was fearful and I was busy, and I didn’t even take her to the puppy classes that I took the other dogs to.  I thought her being with my dogs and my friend’s dogs was enough.  It wasn’t.

Bel as a puppy

It might not have made a great deal of difference in her behavior:  she has a number of health problems and a fearful temperament.  Maybe I could have made things better with more socialization–certainly I know now it would have been worth the effort.  But I doubt it would have fixed her.

In 2008, when she was not quite three, she had a series of minor squabbles with Toby which ended in her suddenly attacking him at the door.  I couldn’t get her off him.  When I did, finally, manage to separate them, Toby was seriously injured.  He nearly died, and was at the vet for 6 weeks.  At that point, I decided to try to rehome her, and went through Shiba rescue, but honestly, who wants a dog who is that reactive, and who is also afraid of people?  A couple of people inquired about her.  Some even came to see her (she hid).   After six months of having her listed with rescue groups, I decided to just keep her, as I was used to keeping them separated by then.  That’s how it’s been ever since:  Bel and Toby are almost never together.

In the fall of 2009, she was attacked by coyotes (through the fence)  and bitten badly on the head and neck.  She had some eye damage, which healed, and who knows what else happened in her little brain.  She’s never been a particularly predictable dog, and this didn’t help.

Bel after the coyote attack

Bel after the coyote attack

After that she started to have a lot of “episodes” for lack of a better word, in which she would run and run along the fence, eyes blank, sometimes not recognizing me.  She’d done this on occasion before, but it got much more frequent after the attack.

In late 2010, she had a full on seizure.  The first I’d seen, but my vet and I suspect her “episodes” might be petit mal type seizures, which include periods when she “blanks out” in the house, for 30 seconds to a minute, and when she comes back she is fearful and confused.  Her crazed running outside seems almost like a fugue state.  Also in December of 2010, her luxating patella required surgery and she shredded her ACL, which readers of this blog know she had surgery for in March of this year.

She’s not been an easy dog.   She’s almost feral.  She is afraid of most people–sometimes even us.  She doesn’t come when called.  She runs away instead, and now can’t even be off leash in the main yard because she’ll hide out there and won’t come in, or she’ll run and run like a crazy thing til she does further damage to her legs (she’s already reinjured the leg we did surgery on, though luckily it doesn’t appear she tore the ACL again).

But before she attacked Toby?  It used to be lovely to watch them together….the way she followed him and watched his every move.  She taught him how to play–he never played before she came to live with us.  They used to run alongside one another in the yard, shoulder to shoulder, like a team, and they’d turn their heads at the same time as if they were one unit.  She was still fearful in those days, but she was funny and sweet too.  And then she wasn’t.

Toby and Bel in better days

Bel Today:

Bel can be very sweet.   She can be a charming, silly dog.  She likes to be petted, and she indicates this by standing up on her hind legs, and placing one paw gently on my arm to get my attention.  If I don’t pet her, she paws me a bit more.  She likes to have her chest rubbed, and she turns her head away as I do this, and leaves her paw resting on me to remind me that this is my duty–to pet her.  She is playful and she likes to steal things.  She taught me to always keep the bathroom door closed, because if it’s open, she’ll find the toilet paper roll, no matter where it is, and steal it and drag toilet paper banners all over the house.  She is smart, and loves clicker training, and took to it faster than any of the other dogs.

This spring, she’s been injured, so some of the things she enjoys (running, twirling, leaping, and hunting birds) haven’t been possible.  I have to keep her on the leash.  She’s been pretty mellow overall.  She was off phenobarbital for awhile (because of the liver problems she had in the spring), but she started getting fearful again.  She developed a fear of thunder last year, and now she’s added fear of wind to that.  A couple of weeks ago, she started to get fearful as it got dark.  Not full dark, but at dusk.  Every night as it gets dark, she starts to panic.  Her fearful behavior is the same for all these things:  she paces and pants.  Her tail is dropped.  She tries frantically to get outside.  Then she tries to climb up on me.  She wants to climb up on my neck like a dog scarf.

Bel doing her fox stole imitation (she wasn't in full on panic here)

After a few weeks of this, I put her back on the phenobarbital.  She wasn’t having seizures per se, but her behavior was erratic, and she was having brief “blank” periods again, so I thought it would help regulate her behavior, and it seems to have done that.  She was calmer.   So much so that I got complacent.

Bel and Toby:  A(nother)  Scary Incident

Since she has to be on the leash all the time (to keep her from further injuring the leg she had surgery on), sometimes I take her out in the yard when Toby is loose. (This gives Toby the freedom to interact with her or not as he chooses). Lately, they’ve been playing together, and even doing something they used to do when they were young and got along: they walk along shoulder to shoulder, like a little Shiba team.  She’s on the leash, and Toby comes up and initiates play, or walks closely to her.  They’ve been fine.

Sometimes I even walk them to the mailbox together, sometimes on separate leashes, and sometimes on a leash coupler.   I decided to do it on Monday.  I was overly optimistic: I thought maybe they were going to get along now that they are a bit older, calmer.  I’d heard of that happening with feuding dogs.

So I leashed them up with the coupler and walked down to the mailbox. On the way I saw someone jogging with an Anatolian shepherd and I thought, this is a bad idea. Seeing another dog may be too much for them.   By then it was too late. They saw the other dog, and both growled at it, and once Toby growled, Bel turned on him and they started fighting. Of course I could hardly separate them because of the stupid leash coupler. Bel grabbed him by the scruff and would not let go.   Then Toby slipped his collar (probably the only time this is a good thing) when she let go a bit because I pulled her by her back legs.  I usually leave their buckle collars on and put a martingale collar on to walk them, and thank god I’d done this, because I was able to grab Toby by his other collar.

Then I had two dogs, one leash, both dogs still snarling at each other.   Each time Toby growled, Bel went berserk again; I could barely keep them apart.   I managed, somehow, to get them to our fence, tied Bel to it, and took Toby around to the gate then into the house. Luckily he’s got a ton of hair and a roll of fat on his neck, and was not badly hurt.  There was no blood, but he was so scared! He ran in the house and hid, and wouldn’t come out from under the table for almost three hours, and he was panting with stress, poor boy.   And I felt awful.

Lessons:

There are some things I learned from this:

  1. NEVER become complacent with reactive dogs, and never underestimate what they can do.  Both Shibas have a low threshold for stimulation, and the excitement of a walk together was probably enough to be dangerous, but seeing another dog sent Bel over the edge.
  2. Leash couplers are a bad idea for reactive dogs, possibly for any dogs.  They simply don’t have enough room to get away from one another, and if there is a fight, as I experienced, then it’s hard for the person handling the dogs to get them separated.
  3. Know how to separate fighting dogs.  The first things to try would simply be noise to startle them, or try to get something in between them (even the mail, as someone suggested!).  Water is another good thing to use–spray them with a hose or dump water on them if needed (this has never worked for me to get Bel off Toby, but it will work for some people).  The wheelbarrow move, which I used, is something to be tried if other things don’t work.  Grab the dog’s back legs and lift them off the ground–they lose their balance and in theory, will let go (which did work for Bel).  One person who told me about this found some information about it on the Leerburg GSD site*, and this site suggests holding the dog’s back legs and moving in a circle so the dog can’t snap back and bite you.  It’s worth a try.  Some people have said it could be bad for a dog with a luxating patella, like Bel.  I agree.  But I also knew this was a matter of life and death:  she would kill Toby if she could.  I’d rather risk the injury than lose a dog.  Don’t do what I stupidly did out of panic, which was to try to separate them by pulling on their collars.  They simply got more agitated, and I was lucky I wasn’t bitten.  (You just don’t think about these things, in the heat of the moment,  though).
  4. Bel is crazy and can’t be trusted.
  5. I did a very stupid thing, and it was a stupid thing that put Toby’s life at risk.
The Aftermath 

As I said, Toby spent the rest of the afternoon and evening really spooked and I can’t even begin to tell you how bad I feel about this.  He trusts me to keep him safe, and I failed him.  Everytime he looked at me, I felt awful.  I know this incident reinforced his reactivity:  for him other dogs are dangerous, and therefore he needs to react as if his life is threatened every time he sees another dog:  he needs to go on the offense.  Or so he thinks, and it’s not an unreasonable supposition on his part.

Bel was fine, of course, but hyped up like crazy.  I took her into the vet that afternoon for her regularly scheduled appointment, and she could not settle down (she still hasn’t.  She’s still hyperactive, and she “stalks” Toby from inside the house when she sees him outside, and she’s tried to force herself into his room.  It’s scary).

I told my vet what happened as she was examining Bel’s leg.  And my vet told me this:  they had a fox terrier who was very like Bel, and though their dogs had had several fights (none with big injuries) they still let her interact with the other dogs, because they misjudged how bad the situation was.  One day they left the terrier bitch and another male in the car briefly while they ran errands.  When they came back, she’d killed the other dog.

I was astounded, and heartbroken.  Both my vet and I were petting Bel at that time, who was sitting on the chair like a little princess, acting as sweet as can be.  My vet said “So I understand about dogs like Bel.  And I’d understand, with all her health issues and her craziness, if you decided she was too much to deal with and decided it was too much to put your other dogs at risk with having her in the house.  I’d understand, and wouldn’t blame you.”

We didn’t say anything for a moment, though of course, Bel’s life hung there, for a moment, in the balance.  I asked my vet what happened with the Fox terrier bitch.  “Oh, that was five years ago,” she said.  “She’s 9 now, and still evil as can be to other dogs.  We just keep her separated from the others, and they know not even to get near her crate.”

 We both looked at Bel.  “You’ve been managing all this time with her, and you’ve done a good job.  Be careful, and don’t beat yourself up for a mistake.”

I brought Bel home.

This is hard to say, but  it is the truth:  there days I really do think of giving up.  I think about how she’s only 6 years old–barely middle-aged for a Shiba, and I think of the mistakes and near misses that occur at least once a year, and I wonder if I’m selfishly putting Toby’s life in danger by keeping her.  I think about her seemingly endless health problems, both mental and physical.  I wonder if life is ok for her, as fearful as she is, and as limited as she in activities lately–she can’t even get out and run and play now, as it risks more damage to the leg she had surgery on.  She has LP on the other back leg too, and her constant carrying of the leg she had surgery on simply puts stress on her other back leg–eventually she may not be able to walk on either leg.

But I’m not ready to give up on her.  Giving up means one thing:  euthanasia.  She’s not a dog I could, in good conscience, rehome. Right now, I can live with her, even though, to be honest, she scares me.  I don’t know what goes through her head when she looks at Toby, but I know it’s like a switch is flipped, and she’s homicidal.  She’s never shown a bit of aggression toward a person, but she’s so unpredictable.  I’m not really afraid for that, though. I’m afraid of her unpredictability with other dogs, and though she’s only done this to Toby, how do I know she won’t turn it on Oskar someday?  Or some other dog?  I don’t.

But then there’s Bel.  Sweet little Bel, who comes to me when she’s scared.  The little girl dog who lays against me on the sofa as I read.   This silly, beautiful, fucked up little dog, who also trusts me, who is lucky to have someone like me who doesn’t give up easily.   And I know there may come a time when it is all too much, and her bad health and bad temperament overwhelms everything else.  If she every hurt another dog badly again, yes, I think it would be time.  But this is not that time, not yet.  I’ll keep going, keep the dogs separate, be more careful.    And I’ll keep enjoying the good days, and hope for more of them.

Happy birthday to Bel, my little crazy girl.  I hope there are better days ahead for us all.

Bel's a bad girl! (But this kind of bad is just cute!)

*Re: the Leerburg site.  I agree with almost none of this breeder/trainer’s philosopy, but I do think his method of separating fighting dogs is a good one, and so I mention it here.  Google the article if  interested.

He’s my Akita

Yesterday I took Oskar and Bel for a ride as I was running errands.  I was stopped not once, but three times by people wanting to comment on Oskar and inquire about his breed.  (Poor Bel!  No one even asked if she were a fox, like they usually do!  She was entirely ignored on this trip, but hey, I suspect she likes that).  I was telling M. about my day later, and she said that perhaps I should write about how Oskar has been mistaken for several things, including a medicinal plant.  So here goes!

The first confusion occurred when I took Oskar on outings as a pup.  Granted, not everyone is up-to-date on dog breed characteristics, especially in young pups, so I wasn’t really surprised when people saw this:

Oskar at 8 weeks

and then asked me if he were a husky mix or Malamute.  I think he looks like an Akita pup, but I wouldn’t blame someone who made a mistake.

But the day in question, M and I had taken Oskar to a local cafe that allowed dogs on the patio.  He was maybe 9 or 10 weeks old at the time, and everyone made much of him, and wanted to pet him, and the waitress even took a picture of him.  A couple of people came over and exclaimed over what a lovely Akita pup I had, so it wasn’t all about mislabeling.

But there were also a couple of really funny identification errors.  One was as we were leaving, when a couple stopped us and the guy said, “that’s a really cute……Ikea?”  He stopped, and said, “That doesn’t sound right…” and the person with him pointed out that Ikea was a furniture store, not a breed of dog.  At least these people recognized their mistake.  Earlier, a man had stepped up to Oskar, peered down and declared him to be an “echinacea,”  before stalking away without further explanation.   I was very puzzled.   Because does this face:

8 weeks old

at all resemble this?

Echinacea

Image by sramses177 via Flickr

Poor Oskar, so young to be so misunderstood.

Of course, now, at 11 months old, Oskar is very large–106 pounds last time we checked–and looks like nothing so much as what he is, which is a very lovely Akita boy.  Yesterday, the first people who stopped me as I was getting into the car just wanted to tell me that Oskar looked very much like their female Akita, who had died, and how happy they were to be reminded of their dog.

The next person who stopped me, by waving her arms rather frantically as I tried to exit the post office, also was reminded of a dog she had lost, and she was actually quite a sweet elderly lady, so I didn’t mind stopping to talk to her, and I was glad that Oskar made her think of her beloved dog, though honestly, I don’t think my boy looks anything like a wolf-husky cross, not with his big bear head and blunt muzzle.

What was interesting to me with this second interaction was Oskar’s response.  Oskar is a cautious dog.  He likes to size up a situation before deciding what to do.  That was clearly what he was doing while I talked to this woman.  He saw a stranger approaching the car. He dropped his head a bit, in what I think of as his “I’m an Akita, don’t mess with me” pose.  He didn’t bark or growl, and seemed content to watch, until the woman approached a little closer to the car.  This was clearly a problem for him, and he wanted to do what he does when he’s a little worried about me:  he wanted to get in between me and the stranger, but he couldn’t because he was in the back seat and I was in the front.  Instead, he shoved his big head as close as he could to my window, and I could see his gaze change from happy dog to watchful, protective dog.  Then he turned to look at me, and I thought it was clear he was trying to get cues for how to act.  I was calm; he remained calm, and we drove away.   I was glad the friendly lady hadn’t come any closer to the car, to test him, but I thought about how Oskar really is developing his sense of judgement as he gets older.

A couple of other incidents are tied to that.  Oskar likes to sit on the landing of our second floor deck.  From there, he can watch the entire yard, the gate, and the house quite well.  He’s not much of a barker, so he is usually fairly quiet up there, just watching.  There are good and bad elements to his silence.  One day, the UPS man came while Oskar was out there.  I wouldn’t have known anyone was there if Bel had not also been out, because she started barking.  I went out to get my package, wondering where Oskar had gotten off to.  Well, I found out.  He launched himself down the stairs and at the gate when the UPS man reached over the fence to hand me the package.  No barking.  No growling.  Just a running leap, and even that leap was controlled….what he wanted to do was make sure he was in between me and this stranger leaning over the fence.   He gave the UPS guy a bit of a hard stare, but that was it, and while the sight of a big Akita hitting the fence must have been rather startling, Oskar made no move to snap or growl at the man–he just watched him, and in the end decided that if I wasn’t worried about a strange man handing a mysterious box over the fence, then he wasn’t going to be worried about it either.

Last week, I got to see him in full watch dog mode for the first time.  I was on my way to work when I realized I’d left something in the house.  Instead of going back in through the front door, I decided to go in upstairs.  So I trotted up the outside stairs and across the deck.  I wasn’t even in the house when I heard Oskar’s very deep bark.  Since he’s usually such a quiet dog, I was a bit surprised that he was barking.  And there was nothing tentative about it:  this was a full on alarm bark, and I was just stepping into the house when I heard him galloping up the stairs, right towards me.  He was impressive:  over a hundred pounds of dog charging forward,  and the look on his face was like nothing I’d seen before–he thought a stranger was entering his house and he was pissed!  Again, no snarls or growls, but he looked damn serious.

Until he saw it was me, and then he turned into wiggles and wags and the hard stare softened to his goofy puppy face.    If I’d ever had any doubts about Oskar as a watch dog, they were all gone–a pissed off charging Akita is a sight indeed!  (He was accompanied by a small, but fierce Shiba girl.  One thing I’ve noted about Bel is that she is also quite a watch dog, but she’s small and cute, so no one takes her seriously.  There is some irony to this, as for a long time, she was probably the dog that was the most likely to bite someone in these kind of situations, while my German Shepherd, who people were afraid of, would have likely welcomed burglars into the house as long as they threw the ball for him).

The other thing I’ve discovered about Oskar is that he is a mimic.  Like his tendency not to bark, this has good and bad aspects.  Good, because he’s learned things from watching the other dogs.  Bad, because he’s watching the Shibas, who are mostly doing bad things.  Sometimes it’s just funny.  Last week Bel was moth hunting outside the big living room window.  I call Bel “the little Bug Eater” sometimes after a Kitsune in Kij Johnson’s book The Fox Woman, and the little Bug Eater was in full hunter mode:  leaping and snapping at the moths with abandon.  I noticed Oskar standing near by, watching.  Then he tried it.  But he’s large and slow, and what he managed to do was to crash into the window with his mouth open.  He stopped to watch her again, and tried it again, this time managing not to hit the window, but I don’t think he really managed to catch any moths either.  It was very funny, and instructive, to see how he learns from another dog.

And I had another, less fun, example of that yesterday.  Bel, like many Shibas, is notorious for not coming when called.  She has a particularly annoying habit of coming up to door and standing just out of reach when I’m trying to get her in the house.  Nothing will lure her in if she’s not ready.  Well, yesterday, I called her and Oskar, and both ran to the door.   Oskar raced right in for his cookie, but Bel stopped just outside the door.  Oskar stopped.  He looked at me.  He looked at Bel.  Then he ran back out the door, and stood with her, and wouldn’t come in.  I called him again, and showed him the cookies, but he’d seen Bel refusing to come in, and he’d learned something.  It was as if a light went off in his head:  “oh, you mean coming when called is optional?”

This was not a discovery I wanted him to make.  Fortunately, Oskar is easily motivated:  I gave up on the cookies, but I got down his favorite squeaky toy (I like small ones for training purposes and he seems to favor them too):

Oskar's favorite squeaky toy

One squeak and he was through the door, happily, targeting my hand with his nose, as I’ve taught him to do, for his squeaky toy reward.  Bel, of course, would not come in at all; she’s not motivated by food or toys–the allure of being outside and hunting is always more exciting for her.  She does, however, like to go for rides, which is how both her and Oskar ended up in the car with me as I ran errands.

The most recent issue of The Whole Dog Journal has an article on “observation without direction” which is about watching your dog and learning what they like to do when they are on their own.  As in the article, I’ve learned that Oskar is a mimic, and learns well by watching.  This is really useful training information, as he also watches me carefully for cues to behavior.  And overall, I’ve noticed he’s a steady, watchful dog, who is developing good judgement, and a calm, but protective nature.

After all,  he’s an Akita!

Oskar with tulips

Oskar is a Teenager: Dealing with Doggie Adolescence

Where has my sweet puppy gone?  I imagine I’m not the only dog guardian to ask that question.

It’s easy to see how far Oskar has come:  my little pup who could sleep in his food dish is long gone, and now I have a nearly 8 month old Akita who is just over 100 pounds, but whose brain hasn’t caught up with his body yet.  I know that.  But still, it’s a surprise sometimes when it hits.

Earlier this week, we went for a walk. Epic walk fail.

Oskar has been in two puppy classes, and he’s always  been pretty good about walking on the leash.  He didn’t too much leash pulling.  We’d even gotten to the point that he’d heel….only for a minute or so at a time, but he’d do it.  About a month ago,  he’d started to tug on the leash a bit, but nothing I couldn’t control, and mostly, he’s just a polite and sweet dog.  I did get him a no-pull harness–we settled on The Freedom Harness after trying a few types–and he was doing ok.  (Here is the  Freedom Harness)

Not on Wednesday!  His head was whipping around like he’d never seen so much interesting stuff ever.  He pulled–hard–to get at all the other dogs in their yards, and since he’s so damn big, of course he can almost pull me off my feet. He tried to chase cars. He acted as if he had never been on a leash walk before. We got, maybe, half a block from the house, because I had to keep stopping and walking the other way to get him to walk on a loose leash, which he’d do, but for maybe 20 or 30 secs, then back to crazy pulling. He even pulled the leash out of my hands and ran off down the road, but thank god, when I called and crouched down he came running back to me in delight (thank god he’s not a Shiba–the Sheebs just run off!).

I knew he was approaching adolescence, but this is the first I’ve really seen it manifested. Now I’m noticing that if he is in the yard, and I call him, he just ignores me. (he’s still eager to learn and good in the house, but obviously, no distractions there). Also, his interest in other dogs has just tripled….and while he’s not growling or anything, he does his excited “hop” when he sees them, and then tries to pull me over to them, and of course, he’s 100 pounds. He can easily pull me.

He’s not neutered yet, and I’d prefer to wait til he was a year old, for health reasons that I will discuss in another post.  I haven’t ever had an unaltered dog of this age, so I don’t know if he’s any worse than any other dog at this age–certainly I remember my (neutered) GSD being suddenly impossible at this age. I also think Oskar may SEEM particularly bad now because he was such an easy puppy. I didn’t notice the Sheebs adolescence because they were such holy terrors as pups that really, what could be worse?  So Oskar probably just seems bad in comparison to how usually good he is.  And Oskar is not showing any of the other issues that appear sometimes in unneutered adolescent dogs:  no marking (he doesn’t even lift his leg yet!), no humping, no aggression.  Like I said, he’s a good boy overall.

My plan of action with him is to go back to basics on training.  His biggest problem is focus:  he just can’t seem to manage it.  He’s a good boy overall, and still wants to please, but he just can’t get seem to get his little overexcited brain to focus on one thing.  So we’re back to doing attention exercises in the house (Look at Me, the Name Game) and we’re practicing walking on a loose leash in the yard and the house, rather than trying it on an overly exciting walk.  He also needs more exercise:  and while we can’t go on walks, we can play in the yard.  (Oskar, unlike many Akitas, LOVES fetch, so that’s a great game to get him tired).

I found these articles on Dogster that deal with canine teenagers.   They were very useful!

Dogster on canine adolescence

And here’s a pic of the big boy (with Bel looking very small beside him):

Background on my pack (how I manage my reactive dogs)

Since I’m beginning this blog over again, it seems that it might be useful to give some background to my situation, as I’ll no doubt refer to it in future posts.

I currently live with three dogs, the two Shibas, Toby and Bel, and Oskar, the giganormous Akita pup.  Oskar and Bel live together, and Toby is totally separated from the other dogs.  I ended up living with dogs that can’t coexist with one another in this way:  First, I had Kai, my German Shepherd Dog (GSD) when I moved out to New Mexico.  Then I decided to get a Shiba, and I bought Toby from a breeder of show dogs.  He’s always had a reactive temperament: from the time he was a small puppy, he growled and snarled at other dogs.  In those days, I didn’t know enough not to believe in the alpha/dominance theories that people toss around casually, and I believed people who told me Toby was a “dominant” dog.  What Toby is, really, is a fearful dog who chooses to show “aggressive” posturing to scare away what he believes to be threats–Toby’s mindset might be described as I better get them before they get me.  The underlying issue, though, is that Toby is afraid:  afraid that something will be taken from him, that he will be attacked, etc.  I believe this to be true of many dogs that are labeled “aggressive.”

Fast forward a year.  I decided to get another Shiba.  In both cases, I had no idea how to go about picking a good breeder.  I had a vague sense that there were puppy mills and I should avoid them.  I knew I should be looking for quality dogs, but I equated a show dog with a healthy dog.  I knew very little else.  And I was impatient:  I wanted a Shiba, and couldn’t afford the price I’d paid for Toby.  So I found a breeder within driving distance who had a puppy ready to go and would sell her to me fairly cheaply.   (Word to the wise:  you never really get a deal with the “economy” pup).   The place I got Bel from was not a puppy mill, and I do believe the breeder meant well for her dogs, though I also believe she was breeding too many breeds without enough care for health lines (though her dogs were clean and well cared for).  I brought Bel home when she was 4.5 months old.

Is  this raising any alarms yet?  If you know dogs, it should.

Bel and Toby got along quite well.  Or so I thought.  I saw what I wanted to see.  I saw dogs who slept curled together, who ran shoulder to shoulder in the yard like a pair of matched horses.  I saw dogs who drank out of the same bowl at the same time.  Sure, there were squabbles–I expected that.  If Toby growled at Bel a fair amount, I thought that was what dogs did, and anyway, everyone told me to let them “sort it out themselves” even some people, like trainers and vets, who should have known better.  I should have paid more attention.  I should have noticed how my fairly exuberant GSD had become subdued around Toby, to the point where the 100 pound dog would never look Toby in the eye, or even walk into any space Toby was occupying if he could avoid it.  Or actually, I did notice that, but I’d been told that dogs were pack animals with a well defined alpha dog who dominated through sheer terror, and I thought I saw that being played out in my own pack.  So I thought it was normal.

It was not.

There was a point when things could have, perhaps, been stopped before they reached a very bloody climax, but that didn’t happen.  I started having problems with my little pack that even I had to recognize:  my GSD began biting people.  He always seemed to be happy and excited, and he never growled at people, but in play, he seemed to go crazy, and he’d bite hard enough to leave bruises, to tear clothes.  I was obviously concerned, and called in a trainer and behavioralist.  Let me remind you, again, of how clueless I was:  I didn’t even know what to ask people who worked with dogs to determine what their credentials were, or if they had a similar training philosophy to mine (training philosophy?  What’s that?)  The trainer had some good ideas, but I believe she was ill-equipped to handle the level of problems I was seeing in my dogs:  she spent more time trying to get me to teach my GSD to walk well on a leash than she did help me with his aggression issues.  The so-called behavioralist was a disaster:  she told me that I had not established myself as “pack leader” because I let my dogs on the sofa and bed, and because there was no leadership, Toby had taken over and established himself as “alpha” and I now needed to take that back from him (through alpha rolls, not letting him go out the door first, etc).  She had no advice on my biting GSD and thought I should let the squabbles among the dogs “sort themselves out” even though by that time I was concerned by the way Toby would bully the other dogs, including doing things like laying in the middle of the floor and attacking any dog that dared to walk within a few feet of him, or “guarding” me and attacking if any of the other dogs tried to approach.

I had a lot of problems with my dogs.  Bel seemed the least of them.

I began to research possible causes of aggression in GSDs, as I was beginning to feel that I couldn’t live with a dog who had repeatedly bitten people, even torn through clothes.  Luckily I came across some web pages that talked about the links between aggression and low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), and I asked my vet to test Kai’s thyroid levels.  We should have seen the other signs:  oily coat, rat tail, etc, but we didn’t.  Kai had almost no thyroid function by the time we tested him.  We started him on thyroid medication, which is very reasonably priced, and within a month, his aggression was gone, and he was back to the sweet dog I remembered.

This was not, unfortunately, the end of my story.   I did notice that Toby was continuing his bullying of the other dogs, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  He’d even been in some fights by that time, with my best friend’s GSD (you can read more about them in the archives of this blog).  Then in the spring of 2008, there were two incidents between Bel and Toby.  She attacked him rather fiercely at the door, once, at my friend’s house.  She had already jumped into the fight between Toby and Gideon (the GSD), and she had bit Toby.  Then in March, she attacked Toby and nearly killed him.  I still don’t know what set it off:  one moment they seemed fine, and I opened the door to let them out.  There was the usual jockeying for position on who would go out the door first.  Then Bel was biting Toby, hard.  He didn’t fight back at first–he just seemed stunned, but she kept biting–hard and fast, and then he had to try to protect himself.  I was trying to separate them, but even throwing water on them didn’t work.  Eventually, I just pulled them apart, but by then Toby was bleeding heavily.  He’d been bit in the neck and in both front and back legs.  There was blood everywhere.

Toby was at the vet for 6 weeks.  He came very, very close to dying; because there was so much tissue damage, his liver began to shut down.  His rear leg was a mass of exposed muscle.  He had at least five drains in.  We thought we’d lose him, but he pulled through, though the cost, both emotionally and financially was high indeed.

I had to decide what to do with Bel after that fight.  Honestly, I thought seriously of euthanizing her.  The fight was too bad, too vicious.  But at that point, I thought I was going to lose Toby, too, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing them both, so I kept her, though I tried to find her a new home through Shiba rescue, and even talked to her breeder about returning her (and to her credit, the breeder said she would be happy to take Bel back, though she had no idea what was wrong with her).  But who would really want a reactive Shiba who was also very timid and afraid of people?  A few people expressed interest in her, and some even came to see her, but in the end, no one else wanted her.  And after a few months of keeping Toby and Bel separate, I realized it was not really that hard to do.  And I decided to keep my little crazy girl, and in spite of our continued difficulties, I don’t regret that decision.

I also had them both tested, and both were low thyroid.  Both are now treated.

We have a system for managing our dogs.  When we had Kai, who got along with both Shibas, it was probably easier:  Kai could be with either Shiba, but we made sure never to let one Shiba in with the other.  One was always crated, or upstairs, or in another room (separated by baby gates) or outside.  It became routine.  The system is not so different now that Kai is gone and we have an Akita puppy, except that Toby has never been allowed to be with Oskar, so it is now Oskar and Bel who are together, and Toby who is separate.  He doesn’t seem to mind–I don’t think Toby has ever much enjoyed the company of other dogs.  He spends a lot of time in the sunroom, which has become “his” room, and while I do feel bad, sometimes, that he’s gotten less attention since a puppy demands so much, I also am aware that Toby has always been a low maintenance dog, who is mostly interested in food and a soft place to sleep.

I could say things have settled down for us.  And they have, to a degree.  We have a routine, and it’s not a problem to manage the separation of the dogs.  But I had hoped that one day Bel and Toby would be able to be together again.  I’d even begun to work, cautiously, towards that, with positive training and the help of a very good behavioralist.  There had been uneventful walks with both Shibas, and even a couple of times when they were in the house together for a few minutes–they ignored one another.  Unfortunately, we’ve had a recent set back.  One of the problems with managing problems like these (rather than solving the problem through training or conditioning) is that management tends to fail at some point.   Just a few weeks ago, Toby bolted into the house from the sunroom when Bel was in the living room.  She attacked him.  We were able to separate them without injury, but Toby is back to being very afraid of Bel, and afraid to come into the house.  It was a big setback.

Bel has problems that go beyond the behavioral, as I’ll talk about when I begin to discuss some of the health issues I’ve faced with my dogs.  She’s likely epileptic (she’s had at least one seizure, probably many more).  She has luxating patellas.  She exhibits confusion on occasion, and doesn’t recognize people.  She also has many days when she is a sweet and affectionate dog who loves “her” puppy, Oskar.   I think her behavior towards Toby is a symptom of a larger problem, though I also think that the first attack on Toby could have been prevented if I had been more aware of Toby’s bullying of the other dogs and had intervened sooner.

What are the lessons I’ve learned?  Probably the most important one is that I must be an educated advocate for my dogs, and be aware of what health and behavioral issues they face, and learn how to do that on my own, and to educate my vet when necessary.  I’ve also learned that part of my job as advocate means I must also be very careful about who I hire to help me work with my dogs:  a bad trainer or behavioralist can be a dangerous set back, while good ones are invaluable.  I’ve learned an awful lot about hypothyroidism in dogs, something which I’ll address in another entry.  I’ve learned that the idea that dogs will “sort out” squabbles is something that can very easily lead to a dead dog.  I’ve learned about choosing breeders and what to look for in terms of health and temperament (another thing I’ll write about eventually).  There’s more, and I expect to discuss these issues and more in the coming entries.

I hope this will give a little context to future posts, though, especially if you’re wondering why I keep my dogs separated.