Dog Training as Therapy

Dogs often find a way to change who we are. To force us to become better people.

For me, dog training has always been a bit therapeutic. A way to challenge my skills, learn new things, and connect with my dog. A way to work my brain and learn more about how brains work in general.

During this COVID craziness, in person dog training classes aren’t a thing for me. I’m not teaching nor am I taking. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to sign up for some online courses so that I can take the time to work on some of Kyu’s neglected skills while I help repair his injury and gut. It’s been nice to still have things to work on and that teacher/student connection. And sense of community. I’ve enjoyed having specific tasks to work on rather than just jumping around on various skills like I usually do.

The class I’m currently signed up for is new: Success with Sensitive Dogs. Risa was a sensitive dog but not nearly to the extreme Kyu is. I certainly feel some of his sensitivity is tied to his GI issues (which are improving) but it’s still something I wanted to work on with him.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how therapeutic the class would be for me. How cathartic it would be. I had to examine my own thoughts and psyche to dig down deep into the roots of our problem. Like, I know any training issue is always my fault. 🙂 But I really had to do some serious soul-searching to figure out why. I had to analyze myself, my thoughts, and my actions to really understand why I was doing what I was doing and how it was affecting our relationship. It was hard. I cried a few times. I was finally recognizing things about myself that had to change.

I learned a better way to cope with my thoughts (which affect my actions in dog training. . .and life). I came to understand that I needed to address aspects of myself that were only hurting our relationship (and, really, hurting myself). It wasn’t what I expected but it has been what I’ve needed. Never would have thought a dog training class would be actual therapy! But here I am learning how to be a better person all because I wanted to do better by my dog.

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New Plans

Noodle in his element.

Nothing ever goes according to plan.

Like most of the world, I’m on lockdown from the COVID-19 crisis. Dog training classes and trials are canceled. Parks are closed and or allowing limited access. We don’t know what’s coming next. There’s a lot of disappointment and stress.

Fortunately (or not), I have no FOMO (fear of missing out) right now. I am where I have been for more than a year now; trying to get Kyu to feel better. His IBD is mostly under control but he’s now nursing an iliopsoas strain. We had just returned to our agility classes and Kyu was feeling great GI-wise. He was happy and willing to work. But he couldn’t pull off any turns to the right so I pulled him. Took him to the vet for an evaluation (days before we were no longer permitted to go in with our dogs) and he was diagnosed with the iliopsoas strain. I have a feeling it’s been a chronic issue for him. Something I wish I’d realized sooner. Story of my life, I’m afraid.

While we’ve been on lockdown, my focus has been on healing his injury. No easy task since I couldn’t get him evaluated by our local PT team prior to everything closing up. I was able to take an online class through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy which has been helpful in getting him on the road to healing. But it’s a long journey. He’s not ready to resume normal life yet. Especially not trialing. Most of his training has gone out the window as well as my focus has shifted to getting him stronger and letting his injury heal. Even if things do open up again for trialing this year, it’s unlikely we’ll be doing any.

In addition to his injury, his GI problems are still a thing. He decided to go off food again. I at least think I have ascertained the reason why. He really needs probiotics to feel well. He was off of them for about 2 weeks and everything went to hell. He wasn’t eating and lost at least a pound of weight that he couldn’t afford to lose. I can’t get him to gain weight at this point so I definitely didn’t want to see him lose anything! Once I got the probiotics again and started him on it, it took almost a month for him to start eating consistently again. It’s been longer than that now and he’s still not eating as much as he should. He’s at least acting okay and put back on what he had lost. But it’s a frustrating struggle. It’s been almost a year and a half that I’ve been trying to get him stable and healthy. He’s closer now than he’s ever been but we’re not there yet. I try not to let it get to me. Stressing over his eating just turns him off of it more. But it’s hard to build muscle and strength to recover from injury when you’re not eating enough calories.

My little woodland sprite.

I had so many hopes and aspirations for him. Just like I did with Risa. Though I’m struggling, depressed, frustrated, upset, annoyed, and unhappy with how our journey has gone so far; it doesn’t mean I’m giving up. It took 4 years for me to get Risa comfortable enough to compete and the work wasn’t over then either. There is no timeline. My focus has to be on his health. We can’t even enjoy our usual day-to-day fun if he’s not healthy.

The road together will bring us many places. It’s already taken one glorious turn: into the woods. I’d always loved the forest (save for ticks and poison ivy) but never really spent much time in actual wooded areas. There were paths that were paved through the trees and other semi-natural places but nothing like actual jumping over trees and splashing in streams hiking. While Kyu and I struggled to connect (partially because he still didn’t feel great), we started taking weekly hikes into the wooded spaces around town. This was easy to do in the winter as most people don’t venture out in the cold and snow. Plus I had no concerns about ticks or poison ivy. I wasn’t sure it was something I would continue as the weather grew warmer. . .but I have. Now, more than ever, I appreciate the quiet refuge of the forest. When everything is going to hell around me, I can connect back to the Earth with my dog. I’ve had to cut back on our hikes to allow him time to heal but I couldn’t eliminate them completely for long. I needed it as much as he did.

While Risa introduced me to canine freestyle, a sport where I am most at home and comfortable, Kyu brought me home to Nature, another place where I am at ease.

It may not have been my plan. . .but I am glad he forced my hand in the same way his predecessor did. <3

Posted in Fenzi Academy, GI Issues, IBD, Physical Therapy, Thoughts, Training, Veterinarian | Leave a comment

Gut Feelings

He’s like a completely different dog now.

Kyu was diagnosed with IBD the end of July 2019. We were fortunate enough to become involved in a diet study featuring a new prescription diet not yet available in the United States. For an Rx kibble, it was actually a pretty good food. I’m admittedly a dog food snob and I felt comfortable feeding this food to him. And he liked it!

He did great through the first portion of the trial. As the 12 weeks progressed, his poops firmed up. He put on weight. And his GI blood panels reflected improvement as well. He clearly felt better but still wasn’t the dog I had prior to his GI disease. I didn’t put much thought into it, though. He was older now. Maybe he didn’t need to race around the house playfully anymore. Maybe the daily walks were enough exercise.

Halfway through the second portion of the food trial, we ran out of food. It wasn’t anyone’s fault but it set off a chain reaction. When we completely ran out, I gave him some of another hydrolyzed food (a chicken-based one compared to the fish-based one he had been eating). It was not good. I knew Kyu did not do well with chicken but thought it would be safe to give him a hydrolyzed food. The whole idea is that the food is broken down so much that the body doesn’t recognize it as an irritant. Unfortunately, Kyu’s body still reacted. He vomited and had diarrhea all over my living room. I was able to secure a temporary stash of the food he’d been eating so that I could transition him to another, less irritating food. It did not go well. His appetite practically disappeared over a 2 week stretch. Even when I was able to get the prescription food again, he didn’t want to eat it. Kyu should have been eating 2+ cups a day. He was barely eating 1/2 a cup. And, even then, I would have to entice him to eat it at all. He was also acting nauseous which was likely affecting his appetite as well. I worried that the one day of chicken had set off another bout of pancreatitis.

I tried a few things to curb his nausea all at the direction of my contact at the veterinary hospital. Pepcid made him vomit. Slippery elm offered no relief. Seacure helped for a bit but was then no more effective than doing nothing. I eventually took him into our local vet’s office to get checked out. She recommended trying Cerenia to curb the nausea in the hopes that it would make him feel like eating again.

He vomited after taking the Cerenia the first night but still ate a small amount of dinner. The vet didn’t really want to mess with his diet; dogs with GI problems can be so sensitive to change. (Don’t I know it!) However, as he was still not doing well, she allowed me to try a bland diet with him. I cooked up some beef and rice and he INHALED it. I made him enough of the bland diet to feed him for 3-4 days but I needed something to give him after that. I’d intended to switch him to a homecooked diet at some point anyway; Risa had done well on that for so long. I decided I’d see if I could wean him onto that since he’d so readily eaten real food. I started the beef/rice on a Thursday night. By Monday evening, Kyu was noticeably more energetic and was being annoying. He wanted to do stuff! 🙂 By Tuesday, he demanded that I do some training with him. Yes. My dog that didn’t want to do any training for almost 6 months was begging to work with me. All I had to do was change his diet.

It’s been almost a month now on the homecooked food. I’m slowly adding in the supplements but he’s doing amazingly. I can’t believe how much of a difference it made. He was fine on the prescription food. Every sign said so. Good poops. Put on weight. Improved bloodwork values. But he was apparently still NOT feeling good. We’re not out of the woods yet. I still have to work in the rest of the supplements to make the diet complete. And he still has occasional bouts of nausea. I also have to feed him smaller meals; if I give him too much at once, he clearly feels uncomfortable. So he’s eating 3 meals a day, continuing the Seacure, getting a folate supplement, enjoying his probiotic, and I just added L-glutamine to help heal his gut.

We’re not there yet but man oh man am I glad to have my little buddy back!

Posted in Dog Food, GI Issues, Homecooked, IBD, Training, Veterinarian | Leave a comment

Relationship

Playtime is fun time!

I often lament about my inability to create solid foundation behaviors for my dogs when it comes to dog sports. I’m constantly regretting the time I didn’t put into focus or engagement. How I jumped from step 1 to step 6 without spending any time in between. How I notice where the holes are in our competitions due to my lack of proper training.

Thing is, though, I do put in some pretty solid foundations. Just not the ones we typically think of. Yes, training heel position is important if you actually want to use it. If you don’t put in the work, it’s going to fall apart in the ring. You can’t just rely on “my dog likes to be near me and follow me around” to get heeling in the ring. So training proper foundations for the required behaviors IS important. But there is a building block that is even more critical: Relationship.

Regardless of whether you’ve actively trained one, you do have a relationship with your dog. It might be good, bad, or neutral but it’s there. Risa and I had a pretty good relationship. It wasn’t perfect and we definitely had some bumps in the road on our journey together. Certainly didn’t help that, in my ignorance, I destroyed her trust in me right off the bat. I spent a long time rebuilding it after that unfortunate error. Competing with her was a challenge but our strong relationship made it possible. Even if she wasn’t quite as well-prepared, I had that trust and connection to fall back on. Even when I messed things up and put her in over her head, she was still able to work because of the bond between us. (I still tried my best to not put her in those types of situations, though!)

My relationship with Kyu is very different than my one with Risa yet no less strong. I’m a very different person (and dog trainer) now than I was when I adopted Risa. And Kyu came with very little baggage since he was only 10 weeks old when he joined my family and had a far better upbringing than Miss Ri did. I knew from the start I wanted to develop a strong, play-based relationship with him. It’s so easy to play with puppies; it was not hard to create. I’ve also been able to maintain it. He absolutely loves to play with me. The strong relationship I have with him has come in handy when, again, I have put my dog in a situation he’s not quite able to handle. (I’m still learning what he needs though, thankfully, my “can’t do this” moments with him have not been as catastrophic as the ones with Risa. It helps to have a stable, confident dog!) Our trialing successes this year were built on the relationship we have together getting us through it. Not proper training!

While I think about what we need to work on once our training hiatus ends, I still have to remember that I’m not starting from scratch. That I have a solid foundation to build those skills upon. I guess I haven’t completely messed up our foundation training after all. 🙂

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Defining Moments

My apt little pupil.

As a child, I always wanted to be a dog trainer. It was a silly dream for someone who had never owned a dog but it did eventually come to fruition. I started off as a hobby trainer and helped out others on occasion. I then taught classes as a volunteer and, finally, I became a professional dog trainer (even if only part time).

If we don’t count professionally, I have been a dog trainer for the better part of 13 years. That’s a long time. Even when I’m not teaching others, I’m training my own dogs (either at home or in classes). Or pursuing continuing education to hone my training skills. Most, if not all, of my social engagements involve dogs in some way. And there is usually training involved even if not directly. Almost all of my friends I have met through my dogs and/or dog training.

For a long time, I have defined myself as a dog trainer and now I find myself not. Due to Kyu’s illness and year-long struggle with training, we’re taking a break from it. He has some baggage about training from inadvertent pressure and generally feeling “icky” while doing anything together. So I’m not training my own dog. I’ve stopped teaching classes at the local obedience training club because I rarely actually get to teach. My classes are consistently canceled due to low enrollment. It hasn’t been worth the effort for me and, to be honest, it’s been depressing more than it’s been invigorating. This Monday will be my last class I’m teaching professionally for the time being. The program through which I teach classes is undergoing some restructuring and rethinking. It’s possible it is not a permanent break. . .but it also could be.

So I find myself no longer a dog trainer.

I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this. Kyu definitely needed the break and I am glad I was finally able to “let it go” for the time being and give him the time he needs to decompress. I’ve really been enjoying teaching my pet dog classes; far more than I ever thought I would coming from a sports background (which is still my preference). It’s been a lot of fun to come up with curricula for various classes focusing on areas where the general dog owning public struggles. I’ve been very fortunate the group I worked with was so willing to give me free reign to design classes. It didn’t hurt that most of my ideas were incredibly well-received. 😉

However, I’ve also felt a little disenchanted with training this year. I don’t know if it was the loss of Risa or Kyu’s illness. Or getting my health issues under control. I went to a lot of great seminars (Fenzi Camp, Julie Flanery, Monique Plinck to name a few) where I learned a TON that I still have yet to implement. I took some really great online classes, too, and have been making progress in our in person agility classes. But I’ve pulled back from it a lot, too. I’ve been less involved with the obedience club in general. My freestyle trial went well this year but I felt like I was going through the motions with it more than actually enjoying the process. This stuff hasn’t been energizing me the way it used to be overall.

So maybe this unwanted break is exactly what I need. Maybe, like Kyu, I need to step back and take a break from it for a while. It will still be there when I get back. And maybe both of us will find that passion and joy again.

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