Sandhill Cranes, Part 3

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m sick of winter. And while the sun is out today, it’s not exactly warm, on this, the first day of spring. So I needed a bit of a pick me up. Put on some uplifting music, made a nice, hot cup of tea, and decided to process some images. It’s kind of ironic that I took pictures of the fall Sandhill Crane migration, and here it is, spring already, and I’ve not finished going through them. The Sandhill Cranes are already returning to Minnesota. But what the heck…pretty pictures are never out of season, are they? So here you go:






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Sandhill Cranes, Part 2

Was it only a week ago I was watching cranes at sunrise? Feels longer–intense week!

Anyway, once the first edges of light crept across the lake, we could see the cranes out there:


It’s not often I look at my own pictures and feel the magic of a place, but this shoot is an exception. I look at these pictures, and am transported back to the wonder of these magnificent birds:


I suppose part of the magic was seeing the sunrise. I’ve posted before how much I love watching the light play across the land, shifting its golden glow to peak intensity before full light breaks:


Mostly, though, it was my awe at seeing scenes like this one, right here in Minnesota. It’s so easy to take your own home for granted. To only see faraway lands as exotic. But what I saw last weekend felt like I’d gone all the way to Africa. Yet here it was, in my own backyard. Our own backyards are foreign and exotic to those who don’t live in them, after all. To see where I live with fresh eyes was wonderful.


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Sandhill Cranes, Part 1

On Sunday, I got to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years–photograph the Sandhill Crane migration. Someday, I’d like to go to the Platte River in Nebraska to see the spring migration, but that’s a bigger trip than I would find easy in the spring. So I was excited to learn years ago that you can see them during the fall migration in places like Crex Meadows in Wisconsin, and Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota.

Even so, in order to see them, you need to get up early and be there at sunrise. I’m a morning person in general, but when I say that, I mean I like to wake up with the sun. Not before it. It’s enough of a downside that I’ve never quite brought myself to get up a few hours before dawn so I can see the cranes at sunrise. Until yesterday.

I set my alarm for four AM, and joined a tour at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. I’m still tired, but it was worth it. It will take a few sessions to go through all of the shots I took. I shot around 1,250 frames, and that’s a lot to sort through. So I’ll post as I process a batch. Here are the first ones of the morning.

It was beautiful out there…the sort of place I wish I lived:


Here they come:


For some reason, I was picturing the whole flock taking off around the same time. Instead, they leave in small groups:


Some of the first birds to leave came quite close. This pair circled around to fly overhead:


Things were pretty slow at first, so I amused myself with more shots of the fog:


Looks serene, doesn’t it? A peaceful morning…sort of. It was far from quiet, as there were three thousand cranes out there, and a good number of them were making noise. I’m pretty sure the biologist said that was because there was a group of us there. I’d like to go back alone sometime and keep a low profile. Just sit along the road where everyone was standing and stay still and quiet, to see what it’s like then.

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Big Bog State Recreation Area

Believe it or not, I have some new pictures to share. Between landscaping and training Cricket in the sport of agility, I just haven’t had any opportunity this year to pursue photography. But I took a couple of days this week to head up to north central Minnesota, and with the dog staying behind, I had a chance to do some shooting.

Unfortunately, the leaves haven’t really started turning up there. So I didn’t get the shots I thought I was going for. The week before I left, however, I discovered the existence of Big Bog State Recreation Area. So I decided to swing up that way, and that made the trip worth it.

There are two parts to Big Bog. The southern unit has the visitor center, and a fire tower you can climb. The tower overlooks Red Lake, but I was there to see the bog. So after buying my annual Minnesota State Park permit, I drove another 9 miles to the north unit. That’s where you’ll find the boardwalk into the bog.

To get to the boardwalk, you have to take a trail around a small lake. Here’s a view looking back at the information kiosk and dock:


Bogs are nutrient poor, so there’s not a lot of plant diversity there. I only saw a couple of these mushrooms, or I would have found one that didn’t have twigs running in front of it, but the bright red made it look kind of magical:


What drew me here, though, was the promise of seeing pitcher plants:


Pitcher plants deal with the limited availability of nutrients by preying on insects. See that dead bug floating in the water? That’s lunch. Not mine, fortunately. I packed in some trail mix to nibble on, and there was a peanut butter and honey sandwich waiting for me back at the car.


Take a close look at the inside of the plant, and you can see tiny white hairs lining the pitcher. These hairs point downward, making it easy for the insect to go in, but blocking their way if they try to climb back up.


In addition to carnivorous plants, there are a lot of tamarac and black spruce in the bog. This is a tamarac. Unlike other fir trees, tamarac needles turn yellow and drop in the fall. Kind of weird in a bog, because one of the interpretive signs mentioned that a lot of the plants there do not drop their leaves–an adaptation that preserves nutrients. But some of us dare to be different, and I guess that’s true of tamarac:


I have to give big thumbs up to this recreation area. The boardwalk is wonderful. It takes you a mile into the bog, allowing you to see a place you can’t walk into. Partly because you’d sink down into it. Partly because it would take years for your footprints to disappear, so this is one case where “leaving nothing but footprints” would ruin the experience for everyone else.

Anyway, there are ample benches along the way if you need to rest, and plenty of interpretive signs with fascinating information about the area and the plants you’re looking at.


See this opening, with trees lined up on either side? One hundred years ago, or so, they tried to drain the bog and turn it into farmland. So they dug trenches, and this is one of them. They failed to turn the bog into tillable land, and the farmers who had been encouraged to move here to farm the land couldn’t make it and left. Nature defeated human beings, but in the process, we left scars. One hundred years and the bog hasn’t fully recovered. Yup, I stayed on the boardwalk and didn’t leave even a single footprint out there:


The black spruce smelled wonderful. I had the entire place to myself for the three hours I spent there. Very peaceful, and worth the drive.


Back at the lake, I decided to take some shots to work on my handling of clouds. The challenging thing with a shot like this is that the sky is so much brighter than the ground, so it’s not possible for one exposure to do both justice. I have a filter that is dark on one half, and that’s supposed to compensate, but it’s never enough. So I finally did what I should have done all along…started learning how to make the compensations in Photoshop.

No doubt there are far more sophisticated techniques than what I used, but this is a good start, and you can find the instructions here.


My very last shot from the trip, and this one was just perfect straight out of the camera, save for cropping it to 5×7, and then reducing the size for this blog. I had seen a flock of turkeys on my way up here, so seeing cranberries on my way out got me looking forward to Thanksgiving:


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Doggie Rehab — Part 9 — Insight

When we got home from the park, I crated Cricket and posted my angst over the whirling dervish episode on Facebook. I have awesome friends, many of whom own dogs, and received a lot of support and advice, which was exactly what I needed. The first couple of messages calmed me down enough to start thinking about why I’d ended up with a whirling dervish, and I figured it out.

Cricket was young and had lots of energy and a short attention span. She’d been cooped up in shelters for goodness knows how long, and I had to continue cooping her up. Partly because the spay required it. Partly because she had so much to learn that her life consisted of baby gates, crates, and drag lines. She was understandably itching to move. So she was fine at the park at first, because it was stimulating and new. My mistake was in sitting still once she stopped playing with the skunk. She wasn’t ready for a rest–she was bored with that spot. So me settling in with her was stepping on the brakes, while simultaneously hitting the accelerator. Confined to the spot, her energy built up and finally bubbled over into a whirling dervish.

If we’d walked to another area when she lost interest, I bet the meltdown would never have happened. But the meltdown was useful in that it gave me more insight into Cricket. Dogs, like people, are who they are. Sure, I could teach Cricket manners and boundaries and obedience. I didn’t need to accept a whirling dervish of a dog. But I did have to accept that her basic nature was one of high drive, and provide room for her to expend her energy and engage her curiosity.

This is the drawback of getting a mutt from a shelter, rather than a purebred dog from a reputable breeder. One of the big advantages of purebreds is that you pretty much know what you’re getting, if you do your homework and pick the breeder who has the sorts of dogs you want. Don’t want high intensity? Get a pug. Want an intense dog with a love of wrestling? Get an American Staffordshire Terrier. Get a Cricket and…well, what did I have, exactly? It would take time to sort that out. I knew she was high drive. I knew she adored people, and once I’d gotten past the fear of the whirling dervish, I realized there hadn’t been an ounce of aggression involved. She simply wanted to play, and her style of play was to rumble.

We had a bit of a mismatch there. I don’t like roughhousing. I’m not fragile like I was when I was very ill, but I am easily injured, and I don’t like rough and tumble activity–even though I’m active. I could see the mismatch, but sorting out what to do about it to keep both her and me happy didn’t come until much later. The solution evolved in stages.

In the meantime, I had to figure out how to teach her that mouthing me wasn’t appropriate. I also needed to get us into obedience classes–although she couldn’t start until she’d been quarantined for two weeks. We had to get past the incubation period for Bordetella. And I wanted to see about doggy daycare, to help her burn off some of that energy. Since she wanted to roughhouse, she needed some canine buddies who liked doing that. But that also had to wait for the incubation period to expire, so in the meantime, we were just going to have to cope.

Part of the solution to the mouthing and roughhousing was to give her appropriate outlets for those behaviors. I got her Nylabones, and she really went to town on them. Sometimes she craved mouthing something soft, though, and to redirect her from things like my dishtowels, I bought her stuffed toys with squeakers in them. She’s a big fan of squeaky toys, and it’s incredibly fun to watch as she zooms around with them in her mouth, squeaking away. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem prone to eviscerating these toys, although I’m sure she would if I left them in her crate for a day.

Any time she’d start to mouth or chew on something she shouldn’t, I told her “uh uh” and removed whatever shouldn’t be chewed and handed her something that could be. It’s basic training advice, but it felt like bailing out the ocean at first. She didn’t like the switch, and would ignore the offered alternative. Or she’d take it for two seconds, and then be right back at whatever she wasn’t supposed to be doing (if that something was mouthing on me) or searching out the next forbidden chew item (if I’d removed something she’d wanted). Was this dog EVER going to learn?!?

Those who had been there, done that, reassured me that even though it didn’t seem to be helping, I simply had to persist. Well, I’m sure it’s good advice, but in the beginning, it simply didn’t work. Not one bit. Nope, the “switch to an acceptable alternative” tactic didn’t help until after I figured out ways to communicate to Cricket that teeth were not always welcome, and that paying attention to what she was doing with her mouth even mattered. With zero awareness that her mouth entered into the equation of anything, how could redirection possibly mean anything to her? She just thought we frequently played this fun game where I’d come in and switch objects with her, and the object of the game was to figure out how to beat me at that goal. Wooohoooo! She loved that she had an owner spicing things up a bit.

I ended up finding many other ways to deal with the mouthiness, though, starting with hitting on a way to help her understand that her mouth and what she was doing with it was even something to consider. I’ll share all of that in the next post, however, as the journey through that problem is its own topic.

As for the roughhousing, one of the toys I bought her was basically a plush sock with a ball in one end and a squeaker in the other. My goodness, she loved that toy. Treated it like a flail and would grab the squeaker end and whip her head around to swing the ball. It was self-flagellation, with the ball whipping first into one side of her and then the other, and she loved it. So did I, as long as I stood well out of the way!

She also hit on another physically-engaging toy–my kitchen step stool. She started the game one evening when she discovered that she could slide it along the floor by hitting it with her nose. Then she figured out she could tip it over to “kill” it. Next, she discovered she could loop her drag line around one of the legs, and grab the rope with her teeth to drag the stool back to the other end of the kitchen. And at some point, she figured out the greatest fun of all: standing in the overturned stool and spinning in circles. It was a doggy Sit-and-spin:


Eventually, she learned to pick up the stool in her mouth and carry it around, waving her head to bash the stool into the kitchen cabinets. I indulged her this activity in spite of my better judgment. “Sounds dangerous,” proclaimed a vet tech. “Yes,” I said, “but she’s got to get the yayas out somehow.”

Sometimes I’m a little wistful about the indulgence, as I can no longer leave my step-stool in the kitchen and have to close it up in the closet when not in use. A bit of a PITA, but once Cricket earned the freedom of the house, the roughhousing with the step-stool turned too destructive. In the confines of the kitchen, however, where she spent most of her time those first few months, it was scratching an itch that badly needed scratching. She wasn’t hurting anything in the kitchen with it, so I chose sanity for her and for me, and let her play with it. What parent stops a kid from pulling out the pots and pans from the kitchen cabinets and bashing them together? Kids have to be kids, and that game has been around since humans cooked with pots. They aren’t hurting anything in the kitchen. Let them play.

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Doggie Rehab — Part 8 — Whirling Dervish


The next day, I took Cricket to a nearby park. The park is mostly grassy fields, so I figured that would help her anxiety, and it did. She wasn’t concerned a bit, and really enjoyed being there. I was getting a bit stressed out, though, as geese also love those grassy fields, so there was goose crap everywhere. Cricket was chowing down on it at every step, and I couldn’t possibly stop her. Great…was she going to get salmonella?

Damn geese.

Since trying to walk a dog while they are obsessively eating and scanning for goose poop isn’t any fun, I walked over to a nearby building. I figured there’d be less goose crap there, and sure enough, things were clear. There was some kind of machinery behind the building. Maybe a pump of some sort? Anyway, it was making a steady, low hum, so I decided that hanging out near that for a little while might help her get used to the sounds of the big city.

She lay down on a strip of grass next to the sidewalk, and I sat with her. Two workers left the building, on their way to lunch, and I felt a little awkward to be sitting there on the ground with my dog. It wasn’t an obvious place for someone to be hanging out…would they think I was up to something? So I proactively addressed them and said hello, and that I was working on training my dog.

“Looks like she’s doing really well!” one of them commented. At that moment, Cricket launched straight from the ground and into the air, attempting to jump on the woman. Fortunately, I’d already discovered Cricket had this problem and had a short hold on the leash. “OFF!” I said firmly, as she hit the end of the leash without reaching her target.

Yup, we were going to have to work on this little jumping problem. Cricket might be small at thirty-something pounds, but that didn’t excuse her leaping on people. She needed to be taught the boundaries, and it was a high-priority item. I was sick of being jumped on, and even though she was small, she could still shove me with a leap. And what if a small child or elderly person approached? She could easily knock them over and harm them with exuberance. I wanted a dog that anyone could come up and pet, if they wished.

The visit to that park went so well that I took her to Como Park the next day. Since it was a weekday, I knew things wouldn’t be crowded. However, I also knew that I could count on people rolling around baby strollers if I hung out near the zoo and Conservatory. I didn’t want to get too close–didn’t want any repeats of the growling incident. But that was the beauty of the park. Over near the Conservatory there are wide grassy areas in between the sidewalks. So I could be well away from people passing with small children, while still exposing her to the sights and sounds of rattling baby carriages.

I brought along her stuffed skunk, and parked a block away from the Conservatory. I hadn’t realized that every single tree on our way there would have ample mulch spread under it, and it was kicked up onto the sidewalks as well, so we had the same problem we’d had the day before with the goose crap. Cricket compulsively ate mulch, and I essentially had to drag her for most of the block. So we started out a training session with some frustration on my part, and that’s never a good thing. Next time, I’d park elsewhere. One battle at a time, right?

We reached the perfect spot to hang out while people came by. Close enough that she could observe everything. Far enough away that nobody was tempted to wander over to pet her. Things went really well at first. We played with her skunk, and she didn’t react at all as adults, toddlers, and strollers went past. There was even a group of developmentally delayed adults leaving the Conservatory, and one of them called out to me, wanting to know Cricket’s name.

“Cricket,” I yelled.




The person behind her helpfully said, “Cricket!”

I guess she didn’t like that name, because she started yelling “Hi Tigger! Hi Tigger! Hi Tigger!” over and over again at Cricket. Cricket held her ground. She was alert, but not freaking out, thank goodness. The whole thing amused me. Given Cricket’s bounciness, I thought the woman had come up with a great name for her.

Not long after that, Cricket started losing interest in the skunk. So I sat on the grass with her, and thought we’d simply enjoy some nice companionship. BIG mistake.

Things were ok at first, then all of a sudden, she exploded with frenetic energy. This girl wanted to RUN! Except she hit the end of the leash. And when that happened, she went even wilder with abandon. She rolled to the ground, tangling the leash around her, and then started twisting and kicking all four of her legs. That managed to take up all the slack left in the leash–it was now fully wrapped around her body.

It all happened so fast, and I was scared that I’d lose ahold of the leash and she’d run off. I’d lose my dog just as I got her, and what if I never found her again? What if she got hit by a car? So I reached for her to try to untangle the leash. And that’s when she started insanely mouthing me. Now, when I say mouthing, I mean she was biting–just not hard enough to break the skin. But it was still painful, especially as she was repeatedly piranha-chomping me and wouldn’t stop.

Cricket had turned into a whirling dervish, and every horrible thing I’d ever heard about pit bulls attacking people came to mind. Why was she biting me? Was this the start of an attack? I’d already noted she was mouthy–it was another thing we had to work on–but this was entirely out of control. And worse, we were in a public area. If I injected some discipline here, were people going to look over and assume I was abusing my dog? Suddenly, I felt bad for every parent I’d ever seen walking away from a toddler having a public meltdown.

Except ignoring her meltdown wasn’t an option, or she’d break loose and possibly run off.


But yelling just egged her on. That pit bull intensity is real, and Cricket has it in spades. Once it’s run off with her, you’ve got to work to get her channeled back into the direction you want her to go.

A physical intervention was up next, and if anyone called the cops on me, I was just gonna have to cope with that. Somehow, in spite of being repeatedly kicked and mouthed, I managed to get ahold of her collar in both hands. I pulled her upright into a sitting position and gave her collar a firm shake.


That got her attention, so I switched to a quiet, calm voice. “Just calm down, please. That’s it. Let’s just calm down.” I saw her relax and her eyes half close. Thank goodness.

My dog back under control, I untangled the leash and decided to call it a day. I was so upset at that point. I felt angry and provoked by her biting at me. Embarrassed by her public meltdown. Scared about what it might mean, and whether I could ever civilize this beast. Frustrated that this dog had problems at every turn.

Everything scared her. She had no obedience training and hauled on the leash. I couldn’t let her out of the kitchen, because she had no manners in the house. She compulsively ate mulch and everything else on the ground. She mouthed me–not just in this instance, but constantly. Every time I tried to put on her collar, or clip her lead on or off. When we were playing with her toys, she’d leap and mouth on me, trying to grab the toy out of my hand. If I tried to have a quiet moment with her we couldn’t snuggle–she’d turn it into a wrestling match, trying climb all over me while, you guessed it, constantly mouthing me.

I was at my wit’s end after less than a week with her. Although I’d managed to talk to her calmly once I had her attention, and I’d used the minimal amount of physical correction necessary to stop the whirling dervish, I felt like drop kicking her. Raw anger seethed in me as we walked back to the car, and behind that anger was fear.

This wasn’t a small puppy with these problems. Nope, she was just over a year old. Start with a puppy, and if you’re smart, you gently train these boundaries from square one so you don’t end up with these problems. The older a dog gets, the harder it is to correct things and extinguish the undesirable behaviors that have become habit. Was it too late for Cricket already? Did I have the skill to cope with all of this? She was a pit mix, after all, and I was starting to think I never should have adopted one.

Never train a dog when you’re upset, frustrated, or angry. Just don’t. It’s impossible to be fair, and you will overcorrect. And maybe I’m some horrible person that I felt such anger towards my poor little Cricket-dog, who was only acting out because she’d never learned otherwise, but anger is what I felt in that moment of fear. And I think that’s ok, because what I did with that wasn’t to abuse my dog. It was to remove her from the situation and head for home, where I intended to crate her for a while so I could cope with my emotions and think about what went wrong and what to do next.

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Doggie Rehab — Part 7 — Overcoming the Garage Monster


When I’m working with an anxious animal, there are three main tools I use to help them overcome their fear and face whatever frightens them: luring, distraction, and reassurance. After working with Ray’s severe separation anxiety, the process is fairly intuitive for me. I rarely think through what I’m doing or why, and I pay attention to how the dog responds to make adjustments on the fly, as needed. But that explanation isn’t particularly helpful if you’ve not done this before, and while the process feels intuitive to me, no doubt there are actual principals behind my decisions–I just don’t consciously consider them. But as I sit down to write this post, I’m trying to be more mindful of the process.

Luring is using something that appeals to the dog to get them to approach whatever frightens them. The lure has to be a more powerful attractant than the repulsion of the scary thing. So you start with providing the lure at whatever distance will cause the dog to approach and take it, then provide lures progressively closer to the object of fear. The lure is commonly food, but it could also be a toy, or another animal your dog trusts enough to follow. That includes you, which is why bonding with a dog and developing a rapport of trust gains you so much mileage in working with anxiety issues.

Distraction is basically giving the dog something to think about other than whatever is provoking the anxiety. The distraction could be obedience training, play, food, etc. And since the world doesn’t generally fit into neat categories, items used as lures can also work as a distraction. However, where I draw the distinction is that when I lure, I draw the animal closer to whatever it fears. Distraction, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve movement towards an object, and can be used when the anxiety is a situation the dog fears, rather than a concrete object to be approached.

Reassurance is interacting with the dog in a calming way. And this one, I think, warrants more discussion in a future post, as reassurance can either help an animal overcome its anxiety, or provoke further anxiety, depending on how you apply it. So it’s a tool that I apply carefully.

All three of these tools are, of course, applied while providing exposure to whatever is frightening. So I guess you could say exposure itself is a tool, but if the animal isn’t exposed to the thing that frightens it, then applying the other tools won’t really help, right?

Anyway, when Cricket freaked out over my open garage door, I had treats with me, as well as a plush skunk squeaky toy. It’s not stuffed…more of a soft rag made to look like a skunk, actually. And it was fairly inexpensive, so I didn’t care if it got dirty or ripped up being tossed around outside.

Given how unglued Cricket became with the garage, and given how obsessed she was with squaring off with it, I didn’t feel luring was the right tool to start with. Especially as she’d demonstrated fear of open garage doors we weren’t going to approach. I simply wanted her to learn that an open garage door wasn’t even worth noting, and therefore, distraction is what I chose to use first.

So I got out the toy skunk, and used the squeaker to get her attention, then started tossing it onto the ground at the end of the driveway to get her playing with it. Cricket has a high prey drive, so it wasn’t hard to engage her in play, even though she’d been fixated on the garage. We were far enough away that the toy provided ample distraction.

Once I had her attention, I started making some tosses with the skunk a foot or two higher up the driveway than we’d been previously. This got her moving towards the garage door, so I was essentially using the skunk as both a distraction and a lure at that point. Halfway up the drive, though, she caught on to the ruse, and started barking at the garage again. So I backed off half the distance we’d covered, and spent a little time playing without moving her closer to that horrible garage monster.

The next time we made it halfway up the drive, she was a little tense, but didn’t get obsessed and barky. And this is where it takes some time to get to know a new animal. Should I get her comfortable at that distance, then call it a day right then and there, appreciating the success we had? Or should I push for more and see if we could get all the way up to the car?

I’m always afraid of screwing up with an animal during those early days, and losing whatever trust and rapport I’ve built. At the same time, nobody is perfect, and there will be times you see in hindsight that you screwed up. That’s ok. Just make note of what was too much, and you’ll have a better sense of what does and doesn’t work. The next time you interact with the animal, you simply take things down a notch, or alter your approach, if the prior session was too much. You want to push a bit for progress without pushing too hard, but it’s only through some initial trial and error that you have an idea of what “too hard” even is for that particular animal at that particular point in their training.

If you stay in tune with the dog’s behavior and learn to read when they’re relaxed and when they’re stressed, that also helps calibrate your sense of what will push enough to make progress without overdoing it. To make progress, some stress is needed. But push too hard, and you end up with the problem I had in trying to walk Cricket around the neighborhood–her anxiety level was so high that she couldn’t possibly learn anything, and she spent the whole time trying to run.

The idea that mistakes are recoverable is so easy to type, and so hard to feel when you’re training. It’s something I need to remind myself of and hear from others quite a bit in the early days of establishing a relationship with a new animal. In this case, though, I decided to keep going and see just how far I could get with Cricket and the garage door. If it proved to be too much, I would simply back off again to where she’d been comfortable, play a little longer at that distance, and call it a day.

Although the distraction of the toy almost entirely outweighed Cricket’s fear in the lower half of the driveway, I could see she was struggling more as we drew closer. When I’d toss the skunk a little further up the drive, she’d hesitate and check things out before rushing up, grabbing it, and retreating a ways. So I slowed the pace of our approach, and when she retreated, I did the first few tosses at least that far away from the garage door. Sometimes I’d throw it a little further away, even, before throwing it as close as her last comfort distance. I was trying to mask from her a bit that she was being lured. “What? Did that skunk bring you a little closer to the garage? Huh,” was the attitude I projected.

During this entire process, I didn’t encourage her at all, or offer any reassurance. I was just playing with my dog, and since an open garage door isn’t a threat, I didn’t pay it any more attention than it deserved. And if the garage door didn’t deserve any attention, why would I draw her attention to it by making a fuss about how good she was for approaching it?

Finally, I got her to the ramp leading up to the crate in the car. She was reasonably calm, and I decided to call it quits. We’d done quite enough work for one day, and I didn’t want to start an entirely new exercise around luring her up the ramp.

Cricket had other plans. After eyeing it for a moment, she ran straight up the ramp and into the crate. No luring, no encouragement from me. She just threw herself at it for the sheer fun of running up it. Made me laugh, and she got lots of “good girls” and some love and attention from me. Now it really was time to call it a day, and end on a positive note. I gently picked her up and set her on the ground, then took her into the house. I saved closing the garage door in her presence for another day.

Thereafter, Cricket had some milder heebie jeebies when we’d go up to the garage and open the door, or return from a trip and close it as we walked away, but she got over that pretty quickly with some treats and encouragement that she was fine. And she hasn’t been afraid of open garage doors on our walks since that time. Not all fears resolve so quickly and easily, but I was glad this one had. It was a good way to start the process of getting her adjusted to her new world. I will never know why garage doors were so frightening to her, though. Did something traumatic occur involving a garage door? Or were they simply unfamiliar, and garages laden with heavy, unfamiliar smells? Given how quickly she overcame her fear, I lean towards thinking they were simply unfamiliar to her, and therefore overwhelming to this little dog who had been through so much. If only dogs could talk.

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Doggie Rehab — Part 6 — Letting Go


The next day was Sunday, and it was beautiful and sunny out. Leaving Cricket in her crate, I went out to the garage and found the ramp I’d bought for Ray when his hip dysplasia made it too hard to jump in and out of the car. Next, I secured Cricket’s car crate in the hatchback with bungee cords so it couldn’t roll around turns. With the back seat up, it was perfectly positioned to not slide either to the front or back. Hurray for smaller dogs!

I placed the ramp so it led up to the crate, and left the garage door open. In the house, I’d already gotten together a bag of treats, the ever-present roll of poop bags, and a squeaky toy I’d just bought for her that she seemed to like. My intent was to drive Cricket to the park and see if walking her there provoked less anxiety. The treats and the toy were coming along to help me train her to deal with whatever anxiety did arise. Indeed, I anticipated the ramp might worry her a bit, and I’d have to lure her up it using treats.

We didn’t make it to the park that day.

As soon as I came out the side door with Cricket, she freaked. It turns out her fear of open garage doors included mine. She squared off with the door, barking at it, then retreated towards the street while peering over her shoulder. Once she felt she was far enough away, she squared off again and kept barking.

“Silly dog,” I said. “It’s just an open garage door. You’re fine.”

I tried walking toward the garage like it was no big deal, thinking that if I projected confidence and calm, that would help. Nope. She tried to bolt. I even tried a couple of treats to get her moving. No dice.

At that point, I saw two options. One, I could return her to her crate in the house, get the car out of the garage, close the garage door, get her up the ramp into the crate, and we’d go to the park. Two, we could work on her fear of open garage doors.

If I’ve learned one thing in my many years of teaching animals and people, it’s to let go of pre-conceived notions of what I’ve planned to teach in a particular lesson. You’ve likely worked out in your mind what material you’ll cover and how you’ll teach it. But if your student isn’t grasping what you’re teaching, then your plan is meaningless, and the responsibility for fixing that does not lie with the student. You as the teacher need to figure out how to adjust things so it makes sense to them. If you pay attention to your student’s hesitation, and create an environment where they feel safe asking questions and fumbling about, you can learn what’s confusing them and address that point of confusion first. Their points of confusion and the questions they ask will guide you in how to tailor your teaching to their learning style.

The above, of course, is much harder to implement when teaching a group of students. So while I fully intended to get Cricket and myself into training classes, I knew that my work with her had to start with me. I couldn’t rely on a group class to do it all for me, and my plan for formal classes had more to do with me wanting to learn a variety of training techniques, as well as expose Cricket to other people and dogs. Rehab itself, though, is very much a one-on-one endeavor. If you find you need help with it, then adding some private instruction might be needed.

So it was just me and Cricket facing that open garage door. I had to let go of what I wanted from her, and pay attention to what she needed. What she needed in this moment wasn’t a trip to the park. It was to learn that my open garage door was not a threat to dogs. And she needed to feel safe with me in order to learn this. And this is where lots of people find it challenging to teach. It’s easy to succumb to your own (understandable) frustration that the goal you were intending to reach is suddenly a lot harder than you imagined. Especially when attaining the original goal already appeared overwhelming. And especially when the student is flipping out over something that seems like it should be no big deal.

But that’s where Cricket was at. And you can only teach the dog you have in front of you at this moment. Not the one you wish you had. So yeah, no park. Today’s training session would be desensitizing her to an open garage door. And how far we got with that depended entirely on her level of comfort, and not on my desire to take her to the park. So if it took one session or one hundred, my training goal was for her anxiety to reduce to where she could reach the ramp into the car. If we got that far, I’d save getting up the ramp and into the crate for another day, because I was sure that ramp would be its own challenge.

That’s the other thing I’ve learned as a teacher. Break training sessions into manageable pieces, and don’t spend too much time in any one session. I’d have given us twenty minutes max to work on the garage door problem, making sure I ended with success. Even if the success was only to stand calmly at the end of the driveway. By lowering the goal, you not only help the student succeed, you also reframe your expectations so you can keep your own frustration in check and feel success as a teacher.

Human students often comment on how patient I am as a teacher. I never tell them that actually, I feel enormous frustration at times. It’s just that I see that as my problem, and sharing it with them would be counter-productive. So I find ways to manage my own frustration, and project patience and calm with the student.

(Don’t worry…there will be future posts about the times I came really dang close to drop kicking the dog, and the times I did lose my cool with her.)

What I try to remember in situations like this is that I wasn’t just teaching Cricket that open garage doors were not a threat. I was establishing our relationship with one another, and I was making a choice here. I could either teach her that I was reliable and safe, or I could teach her that I was scary and difficult and prone to forcing her to do things that already scared her. Which is more effective in the long run?

Set yourself up right at the start as the patient teacher the student can trust, and I guarantee that you will soon find that an anxious student lets go of their anxiety about future boogey men a thousand times faster than the first few boogey men you encounter.

In the next post, I’ll talk about how I helped Cricket overcome her fear of the garage door.

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Doggie Rehab — Part 5 — Country Dog, City Dog

I tried walking Cricket around the block again the next day. I’d spoken to Alicia to get her thoughts, and the main bit of wisdom to add to my own assessment was to cross the street if Cricket was afraid of something like the stroller. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time. Partly because there is no sidewalk on the other side of that particular street, and partly because it felt like retreating was teaching Cricket to run away from things that scared her. But Alicia explained that, as with horses, you bring them to the distance where they feel comfortable with whatever scares them. When they can handle that distance, then you start bringing them closer.

Her advice was on target, but it didn’t help. Cricket was so overwhelmingly afraid of everything. Crossing the street might take her away from something that terrified her enough that she wanted to bolt, but she was still a very tense, frightened dog. Her tail was still plastered under her belly, and she just didn’t want to be out there at all.

If there’s one thing I learned from Ray, it’s that a dog overwhelmed by anxiety first needs to learn how to calm down. And to help them do that, you need to figure out a situation where the anxiety is at a manageable level. I realize that seems circular, but who can learn when they’re terrified? Cricket’s anxiety was simply too high for a walk around the block to be productive. She was too trapped in fear to notice that nothing was harming her, and I had a feeling that from her perspective, she was spending the entire walk running away until she could get home. So we were right back to why I didn’t think to retreat from the stroller–I didn’t want to teach her that running was the solution.

I began considering that lack of socialization wasn’t her only problem. Had this dog been stray for an extended period of time? It was sure starting to seem like it. I’ve seen loose dogs before, crouching to make themselves smaller, scurrying around aimlessly while peering in all directions as if something might attack at any moment. And when Cricket wasn’t running, she was snatching up and eating every stick and bit of mulch in sight. We couldn’t go more than a couple of steps without her chowing down on something. That seemed like a dog who’d faced starvation.

Half way around the block, I stopped and crouched down so Cricket could rear up and rest her upper body on my leg. She needed a breather, and a chance to stop racing with fear. She calmed while she was plastered against me, but once we got walking again, she immediately resumed the stray dog scurry. Dang, I wish I knew something about her past. It would be so much easier to help her if I understood what she’d experienced in life. That something really seemed like being stray, but I longed for confirmation and not guesses.

Another conversation with Alicia, who had a flash of insight. Cricket had been a country dog, not a city dog. Alicia’s Doberman is a country dog. Get her into the city, and she’s a bit paranoid too, with the relative chaos. What I think of as a nice “quiet suburban neighborhood” is actually quite busy compared to the country. That alone could overwhelm Cricket.

OK, so the thing to do was to take Cricket to a park and see how things went there. A suburban park would still be different than a rural area, but I knew one where there wouldn’t be a lot of people, and that was large and open enough to be less stimulating, perhaps. First, though, I needed a safe way to get Cricket there. We’d made it home from the shelter with her loose in the back of the car, but we just barely made it. She didn’t like being back there, and only stern “uh uhs” every few minutes kept her back there. Talk about distracted driving. I needed a crate small enough for the car.

So I headed out for one of my soon-to-be eighteen million runs to Target, Petco, and PetSmart. In addition to a crate for the car, I picked up baby gates, toys, food, dishes, and Nylabones. It’s a good thing I’d waited until I paid off my car before getting a dog, because getting set up for dog ownership again cost me about a year’s worth of car payments, if you count the adoption fees.

By the time I got home with my purchases, I was worn out. So no more excursions off the property with Cricket that day. I just walked her on leash in my backyard when she needed to relieve herself. I couldn’t let her run around and play for seven days, anyway, because of the spay. And I couldn’t let her run loose in the house, even when I was there, as the house wasn’t dog proof, and she clearly had no socialization or training regarding houses, either, save for housebreaking.

Someone had done a beautiful job of housebreaking Cricket, though. She only went in her crate once or twice during those early days, but that’s to be expected after living in shelters. She quickly learned that I’d take her out on a schedule, and she much preferred that over soiling the crate, even though she had plenty of room in which to make a mess without being forced to lie in it. But that only added to my confusion about Cricket’s past. How did she come to be housebroken, and with absolutely no hangups around that, when she clearly hadn’t been trained to anything else? People who can’t bother to train even the most basic of commands generally are not good at housebreaking, and you end up with a dog who has all kinds of issues resulting from heavy-handed training methods and punishments.

Other problems were beginning to emerge, but I’ll save those for future posts. And lest I make it sound like this dog was nothing but trouble, I should mention that I was still utterly head-over-heels in love with her. Whatever she’d been through, I’d help her heal. And most of the problems were because nobody had ever taught her boundaries and good doggie behavior. She would learn–it would just take time and effort.

That love is what pulled me through all the problems, and kept me committed to working with her. In fact, I heard Sara Bareilles’ “I Choose You” on one of my many runs to the pet store, and adopted it as my theme song for Cricket. It fit us perfectly. OK, so the song is about a couple getting engaged, and not about building a bond with your dog. But it still works, because “then [she] found me, and everything changed. And I believe[d] in something again.”

Cricket and I had chosen each other. And what I wanted most in the whole world was “I will become yours and you will become mine” to happen for us. I still cry when I hear this song, thinking of how much I love my little Cricket-dog:

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Doggie Rehab — Part 4 — Fear

Cricket’s first night here was fairly uneventful. When I got home I stuck her in the bathroom and set up the massive wire crate, big enough for a small pony, that I’d gotten for Ray. By the time the crate was assembled, it was dark, and I was worn out.

Using the collar and leash I’d just bought at the Animal Humane Society, I took her for a quick walk up the block. It turned out to be rather stressful. First, she pooped. But when I shone the flashlight I’d brought on the pile so I could see to pick it up, she rushed to check out the light and stepped in the pile. Fortunately, in the chaos of attempting to keep her from doing so, I’d dropped the bag over the pile, so she didn’t get crap all over her paw.

We got through that bit of discombobulation and continued up the block. I was a bit scared, though, as it was pitch black, and my street has neither sidewalks nor street lights. I was wearing a black coat and walking a black dog. What could possibly go wrong? Cricket seemed scared too, though, and pulled for home, where I happily took her.

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Turns out that was a sneak preview for our daylight walk the next day. Since she’d been rather freaked out the night before, I decided to start out with a simple, low-key walk around the block. That’s when I discovered Cricket was afraid of everything. And I mean everything. Paper bags lying on the ground, open garage doors, people in driveways, dogs in windows of houses, houses with music coming from them. Buses and cars going by. Everything.

Three-fourths of the way through a very tense walk with a terrified dog, we ended up near the park. A woman was leaving the park, pushing a stroller that rattled on the sidewalk. Cricket came unglued. She tried to run, and when she hit the end of the leash, tried to slip the collar over her head. Unsure of what to do, I stepped off the sidewalk a few feet into someone’s front yard, and held her close. When the stroller and woman came by us, Cricket growled.

I was mortified. I absolutely did not want a dog that was aggressive to people or other dogs, and I was embarrassed that my dog had growled at someone. I apologized to the woman and said I’d just gotten Cricket, and she wasn’t mean–she was scared. The woman said no problem–that Cricket was adorable.

See? That’s how cute Cricket is. She growls, and people still think she’s awesome. But I didn’t think it was awesome, and it scared me. Then again, I reminded myself, Cricket’s first response was to flee. She only growled because I’d left her feeling cornered when I prevented her from retreating.

But still. Aggression is the one thing I feel completely unequipped to deal with, and I wasn’t sure what the whole thing meant. Nobody had any history on this dog. And we all know the horror stories that go around about Pit Bulls and Pit Bull Mixes. And while I don’t believe the hype, and I also know that individuals of any breed can have problems, I didn’t want to become known as “that woman who owns the mean Pit Bull.”

Cricket stopped growling once the stroller passed, but now she was really edgy and paranoid on the final stretch for home. About halfway down the block, a neighbor called out and wanted to meet her. A male neighbor.

“Um, sure,” I said. “But I just got her, and I don’t know how she feels about men. And she just growled at a stroller.”

This didn’t deter him–he’s a dog person. And Cricket wasn’t afraid of him. In fact, she did with him what she’d done with me when she was scared: tried to crawl up his body to wrap herself around his head and cling for protection. “Your dog’s tail is plastered all the way under her belly,” he said in surprise.

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s completely freaked out.” And I told him about everything that happened on the walk, including the encounter with the stroller. I expressed my fear that I’d ended up with a dog with an aggression problem, and he said he didn’t think that was the case. That she just needed to adjust, and that I would provide the leadership she needed, and things would be fine.

It felt really good to hear someone say that. He suggested I take her to the park. Lots of kids there, he said. It will help socialize her. “Umm, I think she’s going to need a LOT more training before I want her around kids,” I replied.

A lot more training.

My work was cut out for me, and even though I was scared, I kept reminding myself that it was a good six months with Ray before I didn’t think I’d made a huge mistake adopting him. And while Cricket was only my third dog, I’ve spent a lifetime working with animals. Most importantly, I know how to forge a bond with them–even with animals that are frightened. In fact, there were plenty of times when animals that had a hard time trusting people had accepted me.

I did know enough about dogs and dog behavior to realize that Cricket’s main problem was that she’d never been well socialized. She was afraid, because everything was new to her. It mystified me how a dog that was a year old could be so overwhelmed by a fairly quiet neighborhood, but that’s what her behavior told me.

If I was going to help her with this problem, it was extremely important that I forge a bond of trust with her, and that she saw me as safety. With me as her anchor, I could gradually expose her to all of the things that scared her so that she would learn they were safe for dogs. I was thankful I happened to have an entire week off of work. I’d been planning to do my fall cleanup chores around the house with that week, but they would have to wait. Doggie rehab had begun.

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