Dog Days of Summer with Our Senior Dog

Mia on the day we got her: June 4, 2011.

I found a handwritten (I know, right?) journal entry from Jan. 17, 2012, about six months after we got Mia:

There’s something very special about Mia. She knows her role in my heart. She stays by my side and doesn’t cause any trouble. She’s my constant companion so I’m never alone.

But what happens when she’s gone?

She has few demands, just “don’t ever leave me.”

Her muzzle is darker than Isis’s, with a half-moon of silver frosting on her upper lip. It’s what made me think she wasn’t right for us. I almost turned her down. 

How could I love this old dog?

How could anyone give her away?

Over the last couple of years, Mia’s decided to be Rob’s constant companion. And yeah, I’m jealous. She follows him around the house and hops up on the couch beside him.

We used to have a morning ritual after he left for work where she’d get up onto Rob’s pillow and cuddle with me, but she doesn’t climb up on the bed anymore. And if I sit down next to her on the couch, or on the floor, I have to be very careful not to fawn over her too much, because she’ll get up and move.

Leo doesn’t even get up on the bed with me anymore. I understand now what parents go through when their children get too big to sit on their laps. I think they call that Baby Fever.

I like to read outside, and love it when Leo comes and lies down right next to my chair. Even that doesn’t last as long as it used to, and frequently, he’ll run back into the house, and I’m out there by myself.

So we have a new ritual. Mia can’t keep up on walks anymore, so every day when we get home from work, we put her Help ’em Up harness on her, and assist her up the hill in the backyard. I lay out a blanket and lie down with my book. Somehow, this is more inviting to Leo than when I’m sitting in the chair. Or else he thinks I’m more vulnerable and in need of protecting. Either way, it’s the only time I can get both dogs to lie down beside me.

I just wanted to post this here so I’ll remember it next summer . . .

Mia the secret destroyer

secret destroyer

We’ve had Mia since June 2011. We believe she is nine years old. For the first two years we had her, she did not do a single thing wrong. The only things she tore apart were her own toys.

She did display a few anxious tendencies:

  1. An occasional shrill whine we dubbed “squeak squeak whistle whistle.”
  2. An incessant high-pitched bark in the backyard. Kind of a playtime thing, although she refuses to share her ball, even to have it thrown for her benefit.

These were minor offenses, and honestly, I considered her a fairly mellow dog because she likes to lie on the couch all day long, and is not reactive to bicycles or joggers or any of the other things that piss Leo off.

Last summer, when we returned from Seattle to discover four door frames had been shredded to pieces, my first suspect was Leo. We revised our accusations to see Mia as the ringleader, presumably because she was made extremely anxious by the beeping of Rob’s car alarm low-battery alert.

Yes, the destruction was jaw-dropping, but I was more distraught by how anxious Mia must have felt to cause that much damage. My poor, poor girl, worked into such a destructive frenzy.

Months went by. No additional damage was incurred. For mostly unrelated reasons, we installed security cameras.

We had the doors replaced in late November. A week or so later, we were gone overnight and the doors were chewed again. We aimed the security cameras directly at the doors. At some point, I bumped the camera facing the bathroom door, redirecting its gaze to the ceiling, and that was the day the door got chewed again. It’s like Mia knew we couldn’t catch her.

I started dosing her with Rescue Remedy before leaving the house.

Finally, last Friday, I caught her in the act.

What a surprise! 

To my unprofessional eyes, she does not appear to be having a major anxiety attack. She’s trying to turn the doorknob with her mouth. Could we avert future destruction by leaving the bathroom door open?

The thing that astonishes me the most about this video is that she’s never behaved that way in front of us. I’ve never seen her paw a door or mouth anything that’s not a squeaky toy. Where did this behavior come from? Anxiety? Boredom?

If you google “dog destroys door,” the Internet will diagnose the problem as separation anxiety, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what this is. She doesn’t do it every time we leave her alone. Assuming the first incident was caused by the car alarm beep, did that experience teach her that she likes chewing door frames? Why doesn’t she do it in front of us? (I keep coming back to boredom.)

I don’t think crating her is an option. Since we have never crated her before, I fear that will make her more anxious, that she will injure herself trying to escape the crate. I doubt spraying the doors with Bitter Apple (or the like) will deter her, but what the hell, I’ll try it.

Another possibility is that we should leave her outside for longer periods during the day. She does seem to like it, and she was probably more of an outdoor dog in her previous home. I just worry about her bothering neighbors with barking.

Leo, you will notice, is not at all involved. We owe him a huge apology. As destructive a puppy as he was, he has never (to our knowledge) destroyed anything while left alone in the house. He tends to tear into things right in front of us when he wants attention.

My question to readers, dog owners and behaviorists: Watching the above video, what do you see in Mia’s behavior and body language? What would you do if this were your dog?

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I choose having dogs over having nice things

While Rob and I were in Seattle on Saturday, Leo and Mia committed unprecedented destruction.

We were warned by Rob’s dad, Jerry, when I called to tell him we were on our way home. “You’ll never guess what your dogs did.”

“Did they tear up the couch?” (This would not have surprised nor particularly troubled me.)

“No. They chewed up the door between the bathroom and your bedroom, including some drywall.”

Even with that description, we were not prepared for the sight. Jerry tried to show us the dog hair all over his shirt, from where Mia tried to crawl into his lap, as though a hair-covered shirt could compete with this:

They had gnawed at the door frames of four closed doors, pulling off the trim and chunks of drywall.

I’d been gone since 6 a.m. the day before, but Rob had been gone only a few hours. Had the dogs been so distraught about my 36-hour absence that they’d started eating the house?

This was not the idle chewing of a bored dog. Not like the time Leo ate my parking brake. This destruction was the work of frantic dogs trying desperately to get through the closed doors.

Had they thought they would find me or Rob behind those doors? Had someone been trying to break into the house?

Normally we blame Leo for everything, since Mia can do no wrong. Except that one time when she was in the kitchen while Rob mowed the lawn, and she pawed the trim off the back door. Similar to Saturday’s damage. On a much smaller scale.

Had someone been mowing the lawn next door?

We conducted a little crime scene investigation. Both dogs’ teeth appeared intact. Leo had some drywall smudge on his paw pads and Rob’s mom, Alice, reported that Leo had “chalk on his nose” when she first came in. But that could have been from sniffing the mess. Mia’s claws were slightly worn with white, evidence that she’d scratched the walls.

Beep.

Rob’s car alarm keychain, low on batteries, chirped from the foyer table.

Oh god.

Mia had crawled onto Jerry’s lap. That’s what she does when she hears beeping.

Alice had said she wanted us to know about the damage before we got home, so we wouldn’t yell at the dogs. As if we ever yell at the dogs.

Neither of us is angry. I’m tormented with guilt knowing they spent hours frantically trying to get through those doors, being driven mad by a beeping keychain.

Mia’s first birthday (as far as we’re concerned)

A year ago this weekend, we met an angel whose muzzle was grayer than I expected. My first thought upon seeing her was, “This isn’t the dog for us.” But she hopped into our car so willingly that she instantly was ours.

She changed our lives. We were still pretty much in a pit of despair after losing Isis. Mia brought balance and joy, and became the big sister Leo never knew he always wanted.

Mia is nearly a perfect dog. She destroys her toys, but not the furniture. She only barks at other dogs when she is in the car. She never lunges at anything when she’s on a leash. She comes to work with me and sleeps quietly at my feet the whole day. Until 4:30, when she starts to whine: This is boring, can we go now? 

Her anxious whine sounds like, “Squeak squeak whistle whistle,” and she doesn’t like to be left alone. I never took her to daycare with Leo, because in my imagination, she would think she was being abandoned again. Of course, she’d probably get over it after the first time, but I can’t bear to put her through that. I’d rather take her with me or leave her with Grandma.

She’s pretty much guaranteed to steal whatever toy or bone Leo’s working on and not give it back, but that’s Leo’s fault. He should keep a closer eye on his things.

She has two potentially annoying habits.

1) She likes to sit in the backyard so much that sometimes she doesn’t come in when we call her. That’s fine, we can just leave her out there. But when we try to play with her, she stands with one foot on a ball and barks at us, refusing to give us the ball, or let us catch her, or put funny hats on her for a birthday photo.

2) She steals Rob’s spot. I actually find this hilarious. Rob less so. Whenever Rob gets up in the night, he can be sure to find Mia on his pillow when he returns. Once she was in the kitchen when Rob got up, and we heard her nails screech across the floor as she scrambled to jump up on the bed beside me. It takes both me and Rob to spin her around so there’s room for everyone, and Mia usually moans and growls dramatically at the disruption.

These are bad habits with can live with.

Mia does not approve of the party hat.

Leo has really grown as a model this past year. Here he shows Mia how to do Blue Steel.

“Leo! Take off that stupid hat!”

June 4 is the day we observe Mia’s birthday. It’s her first birthday with us, but let’s say she’s 8. Happy 8th birthday, Mia!

Who hates the snow? Honestly!

Every year, when snow is in the forecast, I hear murmurings (and read them on The Facebook and The Twitter) of “Oh, no, it’s going to snow. Oh, I hope it doesn’t snow!”

I always think, “Seriously? I loooove the snow. How can you not love snow?” Saying you hate snow is like saying you hate sunshine or rainbows. Maybe you hate driving in it, or you hate having to shovel the driveway, but those are just the effects of the snow, not the fault of those frosty diamonds from heaven. Same as, maybe I hate it when it’s really, really hot out, but I wouldn’t say, “I hate sunshine.”

Today is my fourth day at home with the doggies, with 7-plus inches of snow in places. It’s a brisk 25 degrees outside. While I’m looking forward to it warming up tomorrow, I will miss the glorious sparkling snow when it’s gone. We’ve been taking magical daily walks through the white woods. Moonlight reflecting off the snow-covered backyard makes it bright enough to play out there after dark.

On my walk today, I thought of my childhood in Los Angeles. My family had a cabin in Lake Arrowhead, and relatives in snowy places like Indiana and Michigan, so snow wasn’t a complete novelty. It was a source of entertainment we sought out deliberately. We all have fond memories of the Thanksgiving it snowed in Lake Arrowhead. What I don’t get is, when do children make the transition from “Yay! Snow! No school!” to “I hate snow”? Maybe those people grew up in places where it snowed in the late fall and the ground stayed iced-over until spring. Maybe they had parents who grumbled all the time about snow tires and chains and black ice.

I still take childlike delight in seeing those fluffy flakes fall and am thrilled when it’s cold enough for the snow to cover everything. But then, I’m lucky to be able to hunker down and wait at home until the roads defrost. I don’t have to go anywhere. Rob, on the other hand, has to work. He hasn’t been able to enjoy this snow at all during daylight hours, and I think it’s going to wash away by the weekend.

So, if you do have to drive the icy roads, or walk knee deep through the snow in frigid temperatures, and you hate snow … I am sorry. I hope you can find something to enjoy about the weather. Hot cocoa, perhaps?

Not the baby anymore

A few days before we got Leo, Isis was happy to run around in the backyard by herself. She didn’t want the door closed on her – occasionally she’d show up at the sliding glass door with her dirty ol’ soccer ball in her mouth, asking me to join her – but she was fairly happy entertaining herself out there.

She’s not doing that anymore. She needs someone out there to play with her. If I leave the door open, she comes back inside. At first, she ran right past the baby gate shielding Leo in the laundry room, but the last few days she’s taken an interest in him.

I can’t read her expression. She’s not outwardly aggressive. She doesn’t immediately bark and lunge at him, or even react when he cries. I can get her to lie at my feet. Sometimes, she looks comfortable, with her tongue hanging out in a smile.

I learned yesterday to be on the alert for a closed mouth and a stare. Even if she shifts her weight to her hip (usually a sign she is relaxed), if her gaze doesn’t waver from Leo, she could be getting an adrenaline rush that culminates in her getting up, lunging and barking at Leo.

She is not to hurt the baby. I am to make that clear to her. I thought bracing her against her shoulders and saying “No” firmly was a good response to that, but apparently it is better to “split” between them silently and then click and treat her as soon as she is calm. There needs to be a lot more clicking and treating around here.

Leo likes the laundry room, especially when I’m in the kitchen next to him. He does all right in the large crate in the computer room, where he is completely safe from Isis. We play a very catchy CD called Songs to Make Dogs Happy on repeat. The first three songs are the best. I know all the words to Squeaky-Deakey. If he’s not sleepy, he wails, sometimes not settling down for an hour, but he’s making progress.

The other day I introduced him to the smaller “traveling” kennel. In theory, he could rest in there while we watch TV, and maybe I could take him to work with me. So far he has settled down for short periods in there, even with Isis in the room. The first time, Isis got up at one point and growled at him in the kennel. She almost never growls. It’s actually a problem, because one low growl is a warning that I need to remove her from the situation. Her habit has been to go straight to vicious, lunging barking with very little warning.

Leo can walk on a leash and will sit on command already. (Clicker training is awesome.) But if he doesn’t learn bite inhibition soon, I will not have a single pair of untorn pants left and the gashes on Rob’s and my ankles will become permanent scars.

Mouthing is completely normal for a puppy. Within a few months, he should learn bite inhibition from us and the puppies he plays with at puppy preschool. Sadly, he might not be able to learn this from Isis, because if he nips her with those pinlike milk teeth of his, she’s liable to go overboard in putting him in his place. And nothing unpleasant can ever happen when the two dogs are together (once we finally allow the two dogs to be together).

Leo wants to put his teeth on everything, and for some reason prefers pant legs, sweatshirts, arms, ankles and hands to the chew toys we provide for this purpose. I’ve had some success replacing my ankle with a  stick when we take our 10-times-daily strolls in the backyard. If he has a stick in his mouth, he can’t bite my pant leg. If he’s sitting with his attention on me, he can’t bite my pant leg.

Speaking of chew toys, he still doesn’t continue to be interested in Kongs stuffed with food after I leave him alone. This was the point of the chew toy stuffed with food, remember? So he can occupy himself when left alone. He’ll eat the ground turkey out of a Kong if I hold it for him. Feels rather like giving a bottle to a baby. He sits across my legs and laps at the meat. If I leave him, he ignores the food until I return.

He will, however, eat chicken in my absence. Of course, I don’t want to leave him alone with a chicken wing, drumstick or bone-in breast, because I need to make sure he chews his bone before swallowing. I have been taking away the larger bones after he finishes eating all the meat. Since my vet is not exactly on board with the raw feeding, I really don’t want to have to take him in with a chicken bone stuck in his esophagus.

I like being a stay-at-home dog mom. I’m surprised how fast the past five days have gone. I let Leo out, play with him and put him in the laundry room. Sometimes I sit with him in there and read my book. Then I take Isis out. Then, I either take Leo out again, or I take a shower or fix some food. At some point, after I put Leo down for his nap, I take Isis for a walk. Or I run errands. I take Isis with me in the car for those. It’s important to have some mother-daughter time with the older child. By then, it’s after 3 pm. Once Rob gets home at 5, he shares in the rotation of playing with Isis outside or letting Leo out to pee. We practice having the dogs on either side of a baby gate, clicking and treating Isis for calm.

One more week to go, and we’ll see how much I feel like going back to being a working mom.