Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SociaBulls: "It's Like Throwing a Bag Over the Head of a Shooting Star and Holding on for the Ride"

While our SociaBulls walking group is definitely not a magic wand, there is nothing we love more than seeing committed members who have been working hard with their pups have their "aha!" moments.
One pup you may have noticed in our photos is handsome Chai: a fuzzy ball of energy working on leash reactivity and maintaing focus around other dogs. While I had always admired how dedicated Chai's person was, making sure to have "Chai time" while balancing being a new mom, I never realized how much they had really gone through together. 
Here Chai's person eloquently describes how it can feel truly defeating to feel less than confident walking your own dog, and how disheartening it can be to receive judgmental and nervous looks from others, to the realization that you are actually strolling next to another dog, and just learning to love the dog you have and not wishing for another version.
Here is their story:

I Did Not Know We Wanted a Dog
I did not know we wanted a dog. Aaron and I were engaged one year and currently six months away from our wedding date. This was stupendous enough. I was planning creatively and calmly for the Maine wedding I'd always wanted. New Year's Eve came and went with our traditional activity of listing the pros and cons of the past year and letting that list help us to form intentions for the coming year. Neither of us mentioned an intention of extending our family. Being together a few years we had fallen into a sweet pattern of me begging off to bed around 9:30 while he, the night owl, stayed awake until the wee hours, playing video games or doing his design & consulting work. I did not know that in the late hours of the day he was trolling the internet for our dog.

I knew Aaron had owned dogs. He is a hunter, Wisconsin born and raised, and dogs were great companions to their hunt and to their family. I had never owned a dog. Over coffee on a January morning, Aaron tells me, "I found our dog online".
"What dog?', I asked.
He goes on to explain that he's always wanted this one dog from Mad Max Thunderdome. It's an Australian Cattle Dog. I take another sip of coffee. My pragmatic mind starts whirling. Dogs cost money; we have little. Food. Vet. Tags. Supplies. Well...our house has been seeming kind of quiet and still for a while now. We had settled in with each other, maybe it would be a fun idea. Of course we would adopt a dog. We would never purchase one; we've been past PAWS and Anti-Cruelty downtown. There are always dogs to love. Are we ready to love the dog?

He shows me the link. Our dog is in Milwaukee at a foster home. The Petfinder website has a video of him. I don't even know what I'm looking at or looking for. What I see is a concrete playground for dogs where this tall, perky-eared reddish guy is running after other dogs, stopping on a dime, head lifted and scanning; clown-smiling mouth, he takes off again. It looks like he's playing well with the other dogs. Or at least chasing them around, begging "where's the fun at?". I watch it again and again. A dog? I could just ask and receive this dog? I began researching this type of dog, the red merle Cattle Dog we want to be our family. "You know this WIki entry says the Cattle Dog is bred to run 40km a day. You know we're not runners, right?". Further research: this is a great family dog; not a dog for small apartments; this is a very smart dog. They come in red or blue. There's a shepherd too, but that one has light eyes and long hair. I've never had a dog. I don't even know what kind of dog I would like. Is there a matchmaking quiz for that out there, I ask the internet.  Aaron believes this is his dream dog that will join him at the park for frisbee and fetch. He will be the doggie master. I will be….learning.
We do an application online. We each do a phone interview with the foster mom. Cheryl thinks it sounds like a good fit. She is willing to drive him down from Milwaukee to our home. We make an afternoon date in this cold January to meet our guy.

This Guy is Ours
I'm looking out the window at Damen Ave below. Anxiously awaiting this guy I have studied up on. I had been watching his video daily thinking, this guy is ours. I see an older Dodge caravan pull up across the street, unfamiliar to the neighborhood. I get excited. I am on tip toes to see what I can from our second story apartment. He's excited and pulling on the leash as she walks to our door. Buzzed in. I open our door to see this little bullet tear past me into the space. He returns to her, leash then removed. He tears around again. He is circling our couch with such agility. We introduce ourselves and foster mom asks to use our restroom. I sit on our low chair in the living room and the dog promptly hops front paws up on my lap. His boundless energy makes me start to shake; he is joyful, spritely and also a force of energy I have never encountered before. And these ears, they're huge! He circles the couch again, noses the door, and promptly takes a dump right on our door mat. He has christened the joint and we're sure he's staying with us. We show her the large deck we have and outdoor access. Foster Mom approves of the size of our place. She tells us about his history.

We are fortunate folks in that our dog does not have any terrible stories of abuse or neglect. There were some unfortunate missteps, meaning he came from two homes prior to meeting us. People not knowing what they could handle. And that's hard on the guy. But we are sure we got a good one. He belonged to a high school girl who taught him to run alongside a bike and be very active in the suburbs of Milwaukee. When she went to college, her parents took care of the dog, but he spent most of his time in the basement during the day. The parents told the girl they had to give the dog up. He went to the foster mom and at one point, the girl came and pleaded for him, but she had no way of taking care of the guy. He was in foster for six months when another family wanted to adopt him. They took him home to live with the couple and their two toddler girls. He did well with the kids but not so much with the aggressive neighbor dog that would fence fight with our dog. Can't have fence fighting with little kids around so he was shipped back to the foster home. He remained for one year before we sought him out.

Foster Mom told us "Chase Anthony" is a kind dog. He is dog-reactive but he had been living in foster with 12 other dogs. He just needed introductions to new dogs and he would acclimate. I had no idea what she was speaking of. His adoption pages said he knew many commands, loved to be on the couch and around family and had always been fed all natural food. We signed for him, paid the fee and gave a donation. Foster Mom wiped away a few tears as she departed; "He's a good one" she said.

A quiet fell on the room; my husband and I hugged each other. I looked to the dog, "what do we do now?". I tried taking his picture but he was really too fast and blurred every photo. He spun and darted around our place for another ten minutes then promptly passed out on our couch. Aaron agreed to walk him later that night to do his business. In the morning, I was still too nervous to try the walk so my husband, the doggie man, took our dog out for a walk. Do we call him Chase? That seems an odd name for a dog. Also, it sounds like a star basketball player from a local high school. We learn it is possible to rename a dog, best if you use the same sound. We land on "Chai". It's the era of Slumdog Millionaire. We are all now familiar with the term Chaiwalla - we can have our own! He does have a kind of masala chai speckle to him.

It's Like Throwing a Bag Over the Head of a Shooting Star and Holding on for the Ride.
I naively set out on the initial walk with my new fifty pound child. It's January; there's snow cover. He pulls me into snow banks. He charges from the end of his leash, pawing, prancing in the snow and taking me down to the ground with his spirited force. It's like throwing a bag over the head of a shooting star and holding on for the ride. I try to laugh it off. I'm shaking with fear that I will lose my dog. He leaps in the air barking at the sight of squirrels or a dog passing our frame, even a block away. Returning home we turn to the internet to study our problem. Living in Lakeview it's like Duck Hunt out there - we see dogs at every turn. Two households in our neighborhood walk their dogs off leash. We can't avoid dogs, though we do peacefully scamper off to the Costco parking lot nearby when we want to have quiet 'normal' dog walk.

He is a stellar dog indoors and my 'fear' of dogs, misunderstanding really, is sliding away. He listens to all commands. We don't have any puppy training to do about chewing or potty or awakening in the night. But I become a dog-adjacent agoraphobe. I dread going outside. He will pull; my shoulder muscles will pull back. I will fall on my knees. It's very cold out there. I will slip on the ice. I may lose this dog. I work through anger - he doesn't need anger. Resistance. Reluctance.

Walks are Unavoidable. Landing on my Knees Seems to be Too.
It's truly defeating to feel less than confident walking your own dog. It's disheartening to receive the judgmental or nervous looks from others when we are walking, ahem, I am walking and Chai is doing another Air Bud imitation, plenty of air between his paws and the sidewalk. Even now, four years into loving Chai, I offer silent compassion to all the dog walkers with eager dogs that I see and assume they are doing their best. When I am struggling in the presence of others I want to shout "I KNOW WHAT I AM DOING".

I learn about our local celebrity dog trainers and what they might be able to do for us. I'm calling stores, trainers, groups in the greater Chicago area. My husband is downloading videos of the Dogfather, Ceaser, anyone who has a clue how to address this. I nervously think, this is our rough draft for parenting: I will call and speak with human experts and Aaron will google everything. Aha, I see.

I'm starting to stress daily about the walks. I think about the issues all day at work. Internalizing it all as if I have a child that isn't doing well at school and there isn't a clue how to help. Walks are unavoidable. Landing on my knees seems to be too. I try taking him to our dog park, three blocks away, at 11pm. I am dressed in full snow suit and desperately wanting to get this dingo the exercise he needs. It's romantic out there under the moonlight listening to the quiet of my neighborhood. In the dead of winter. With snow falling. Freezing. With my new rescue dog. Sure didn't understand that adopting a rescue dog would be such an eye opening experience.

“You Will Never Tire Him Out”
I am a yoga & meditation teacher. One of my clients had previously mentioned that her daughter is a trainer of trainers for Petsmart in the Midwest. We had failed to be compatible with our original Chicago celebrity trainer so I approached my client's daughter. She graciously comes to us from Northbrook and tries, on a sunny day in March, yes two months later, to help us understand Chai-dog. She typically brings her two dogs for introductions and interactions. It's clear upon her arrival that we (meaning me) are far from that.

She teaches us (me) how to walk with the leash. Do turns, heels, wait. Chai knows how to do these things. I do not. We spend two hours together. Aaron breezily walks along with the dog watching his every move. I have yet to understand the power of where my step lands, how to grip the leash and put muscle into my voice. She asks if I can be a bit more natural, try to relax. During our marital disagreements, I always tell Aaron "Don't tell me to relax, I'm the yoga teacher!". I ended the session in tears. I'm tired. We made enormous strides and Chai is fortunate to have Devon training us. My brain feels overworked in a way I have never accessed it before.

We settle into an excellent relationship of exchanging yoga sessions for dog training sessions. Devon/trainer, Chai/dog and I/newbie get really close. Our dog sessions have yoga stretches and yoga sessions have dogs present. The lines are beginning to blur at the dojo location we have. I am learning how to exercise Chai mentally and physically with games, jumps, waiting. I can do long introductions (takes 20-30mins) in order to make a doggie friend. I have become creative about what to do mid winter to stump-the-chump so to speak, to use some of his herding-high-energy. As Devon says, you will never tire him out.

Training Myself

Chai has taught me so much, and also mirrors my behavior whether I want that reflection or not. In the beginning, I got to return to this old yoga lesson I had learned as a beginner - being sensitive to your energy moving. With him, I was faking it - using a 'dog' voice in the beginning. I noticed I was flirting and being coy to get him to do something. Devon told me to assert my voice. The dog understands things that are very straightforward. I needed to assert myself more. If you move a muscle, this twitching dog with move with you. Every movement has purpose and meaning. Time is my friend and I needed to mature into my role. Part of how we grew together was seeing the similarities (pardon me while I get all akin to my dog). We are both early risers. Love naps and cuddling on the couch. Chai and I both can go-go-go-stop; nothing graceful about it - just hit the wall and boom asleep. Should something awaken the senses - a loud sound, the door opening - we both bolt upright. He follows me all around the house. He makes me realize when I'm not willing to sit still, moving crap around the apartment, pacing to and from, and reminds me that if I made a pile of magazines and newspapers and sat on the couch - we might both feel better. He is an intelligent dog that will conveniently "untrain" himself when wanting attention. We both need reassurance. And lots of cheese - yes we both need nibbles on cheese when the day hits a slump.

Training Tools
On a logistical note, we traipsed through all different tactics and tools for his behavior. The citronella collar helped with the barking, but we learned he responded better and quietly with high value treats alone. The collar by itself gave neither of us a good sense of direction. The Gentle Leader chaffed his face and seemed to bring out more aggressive behavior that we were already experiencing. For Chai, it seemed we needed to find a tool that was affirming, but not too restrictive, so the alpha kid could still have a sense of being in charge. The Sense-ible harness has been our best support. It gives me enough control, with his great size, in any situation. He doesn't mind too much to be strapped into it. Recently the company repaired it for free when one of the buckles broke. I can't say enough good things about it.

Fur Baby + Human Baby
Chai is a sharp tack. We had been a family of (2 + dog) for two years when he started following me around the house, nose behind my knee. Like..desperately. He was onto me - before I even took the pregnancy test he knew. Two years ago our son was born. The fur baby and the human baby have acclimated beautifully together. As our trainer suggested, we spent the first six months training Chai to be with baby. And the next 3.5 years will be dedicated to training our son, Aleister, to respect Chai. We've learned to defend Chai's corner in the room. If he grumbles, he's asking for space and the baby needs to back off. They play together, in a most supervised way. Aleister knows that Chai eats "nibbles" and should not eat crayons. After the birth, and when Aaron began a new & demanding job as the baby turned 2 weeks old, Chai gained weight. Less walking, and then as Aleister aged, portly Chai was my Swiffer, cleaning everything off the floor under the high chair. Doggie man gained18 pounds since I had baby. I knew I would come back to devoted time with him; he was gleeful to try all these new foods.

Finding SociaBulls
Still I thought something was missing. We now had manageable walks. I had been trained on how to pace in proximity to the dog park as a training exercise. While standing in line at Barking Lot with an enormous bag of food, I lamented to our friend there that I wished my dog could play with other dogs. The woman behind me in line spoke up, about a dog walking group in Logan Square that walks in a line, you know for dogs with issues (paraphrasing). I was intrigued. I went home to Google. And you know how Goggle works? You try, try, any combo of words, dates, locations, ideas and blam nothing. Where is this group hiding on the internet???? And sometimes it helps to give it a breather. A month later, google'ing again, I spiral onto the blog of the Pitties. I've found it! Application filled out, submitted. What this will invite into my life, I am uncertain. It's April and my husband is still toiling away at Obama Campaign headquarters. Come Election Day in November I get my husband back in normal mode and may be able to reclaim my hobbies and life. Until then, I am the woman wearing my one year old son on my back while I walk a wily dog through the abandoned Lathrop Homes complex near our house, praying no other doggie momma had the same idea, should we encounter them. I am not the mom with the dog peacefully walking loose leashed beside the stroller with the sleeping baby. I have a toppling stroller, a dog at the end of his leash and a curious child looking to see what all the fuss is about beside his push chair.

In October, after we've worked our way up the wait list, we are invited to walk with the Sociabulls. My nervous system recalls this feeling from twelve years of soccer practice, me a shy defenseman, red faced with quiet social skills, desperately wishing practice would end. But I knew my Chai. And we have been together now for almost 4 years. We both had our training wheels on and were prepared. I had prepped a bag of "trail mix" as I've come to call it, a motley combo of his favorite surprises. On my trainer's suggestion, he arrived wearing his calming cap - blinders for a dog - or as we call him when he's outfitted with this underoos-looking face mask "Captain Underpants". I had requested the lead spot. Chai has always done better ahead of the action, rather than following it. We did half of the walk with the cap on. When we were steady in front, I removed the cap and continued to feed him his trail mix. At the end of our pack walk, there's a announcement circle. We don't stay for that because Chai, though tuckered out as the pups tend to be post pack walk, would still be stimulated with that close juxtaposition with the other dogs. We walk straight to the car for our mellow drive home.

What Chai Has Learned From SociaBulls Walks
Chai has matured on the walks. The Pack is supportive in the sense that he now understands the orderliness of the activity. There are no surprises, except for those dogs or squirrels that we encounter on the route. He looks forward to the challenge, and the treats. It's a smart look he gains when I remove the calming cap as soon as we've taken off down the path at the lead spot in the pack. He's graduated to "good look" - term I've chosen for when he looks back to the dog behind him but doesn't react too overtly. We've gotten excellent remarks on his behavior but I don't take this for granted. We have slowly and steadily become more comfortable with the group. Only once when the dogs got jumbled and I was out of treats did we jog away from the group at the end (and if I'm out of treats it's been THAT kind of a walk, my litmus test). We both need to recognize when we've hit our limit.

The Dude
Yup we have a dog in the pack that emulates the main character of Big Lebowski. This dog appears to have no triggers whatsoever. His human is born and bred San Diego and they both emit this cool Cali breeze way-of-being. And we are fortunate to have them tailing us on most walks. The Dude is second in line on our pack walk and his owner gets an earful as I prattle on about this and that. When I first began the walks, I was nervous, studious and careful. Now that I’ve relaxed into it, I prattle on to the poor fellow behind me, Dude’s human, Devin. Lo-and-Behold, on late Fall walk, as I quizzed Devin all about his San Diego ways and Chicago transplantation, I found these two walking beside Chai and I. Realizing my dog was walking next to another felt like when your crush sits next to you on the bus in middle school. Laura – remain calm. Oh my god it’s happening! Laura – remain calm. We did. We were calm. We carried on. We may have even strolled. I was strolling with my dog, beside another and I was breathing. Thanks to the Dude.

Chai has become an excellent teacher for us. I am fortunate to not have any preconceived notions about dog behavior, never having owned one, and it's easy to not judge. For my husband, it is about learning to love the dog that Chai is, not wishing for another version. There are no frisbee runs, but there are greetings at the door of boundless energy; there's the bait and switch goofiness that they do for a good tussle; and our dog has always been quietest when Aaron is walking, so I'd give him the Master title for sure. It's sure a lot less stressful when you relax into the idea that your fur baby is a dynamic dude, as we all are, and I don't wish for anything else. Does he have issues? Enh, I don't like to call them issues. Since we have become so acclimated to each other I just take it as it is. I'm pretty "dynamic" and I have my quirks too, so I don't judge him. I feel pretty blessed actually to have him in our pack.

Thanks to Chai and his person for sharing their story!

Plus, join our Chicago SociaBulls  Facebook page for more photos and information about group walks. And check out the Hikabulls page where we first learned about the benefits of group walking.


MM said...

This literally about brought me to tears by the end b/c it is the near exact narrative of my dog and I. Nearly four years together and we can walk most days now without barking at other dogs. We sometimes walk with dogs. We play off leash in a quiet area with no other dogs. I know our limits and do my best to adhere to them and sometimes surprises happen and we just keep moving. Thank you for sharing this story.

My Dog Barry said...

What a wonderful and uplifting post! These are all real issues that many dog owners go through - only we're not told how deep the issues can get!

In our first couple of weeks with Barry we wanted to give up and 'take him back' but we realized it was worse to do that than to just stick it out a little longer. I'm so thankful we did. He's a wonderful addition to our family and leash reactivity and all, I wouldn't change it for the world!

Thank you for this great post!

OG said...

This is a beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring touching narrative limned with love! I said a big AHA when I read the writer was a yoga teacher!
Absolutely beautiful!
Kudos to the writer, to Chai, to Two Pitties for including and to all the dogs that teach us so much!

Hannah@Eriesistibull said...

LOVE!! Especially "it is about learning to love the dog that Chai is, not wishing for another version" -- we hear you on that one! Thank you for all the hard work you did to make your relationship with Chai work and thank you for sharing your story!!

Christine said...

What a thoughtful, lovely, and touching post! Love what you said about learning to love the dog you have, and sending silent compassion to other dog walkers with "eager" dogs, and how you see Chai mirroring your behavior back. Thank you for sharing, Laura! Chai is one lucky dude. :)

Two French Bulldogs said...

What great stories
Lily & Edward

Kiira said...

what a great post and so beautifully written!

Two Pitties in the City said...

I always love hearing the backstories of the pups in our group, and I was so excited to be able to read about Chai because I know how much his person has been working with him. Such a well-written, and inspiring story...and so hilarious at times.

Courtney said...

Excellent post! Chai's story shows what is possible if you just stick things out instead of giving up.

Regina Hart said...

Wow - what an inspiring post! Chai is very lucky to have found such a patient and loving family. I can really relate to your experience as Otto is dog reactive too. It can definitely be disheartening and embarrassing, but as you said so well, we must love our little buddies just as they are and do our best to help them.

Chill Out Spartacus said...

It's great to see that kind of owner dedication. Our Spartacus is dog reactive as well, so we understand it's not easy task trying to rehabilitate a dog like that. We're so excited to try to join the Sociabulls with him when we move to Chicago this summer.

SherBear said...

What a great story!!! Nala also enjoys walking next to The Dude (now that the weather is changing we can come back to the pack!)

bigalrlz said...

Thanks so much for sharing your struggles and triumphs, I KNOW how hard it can be. LOVELOVELOVE The Green Bay Packer wear! Made me smile! GoPackGo!

caitlin said...

This was such a sweet story. I love reading these!!

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