Could Isis have been a flying disc contender?

In the prologue for my book, Bark and Lunge, I describe Isis spinning and flipping while catching a soccer ball. She was partial to soccer balls, but reading Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time made me wonder if I could have transferred that drive to a Frisbee.

While I think Wallace might have the best subtitle of all time, the title doesn’t address the aspect of Wallace’s story that I most relate to. Wallace started out dog aggressive. Maybe he was just experiencing barrier frustration when he lashed out at other dogs while in the shelter, but he was in danger of being euthanized. Lucky for Wallace, Roo and Clara Yori stood up for him. Lucky for us, author Jim Gorant (who wrote about the Vick fighting dogs in The Lost Dogs) wrote their story.

By channeling Wallace’s drive into flying disc, Roo Yori effectively gave his dog a “job,” something trainers will tell you dogs need to keep them from developing bad habits and behavior problems. From that point on, Wallace seems never to have another aggressive episode.

At one point, Yori worries about throwing the disc in the direction of the grandstands. What if Wallace runs too far and wins up confused in the middle of the bleachers? As an ambassador for pit bulls, if Wallace got into any scuffles at all, it would be bad news for the breed.

From the description of the disc arenas, it sounds like other dogs were shielded from Wallace’s view while he was competing. Even so, I wouldn’t have been able to take Isis to such a public place. She would have barked and lunged at everything. Even if she never could have competed, I wish I’d figured out a way to make catching soccer balls her “job.”

Another aspect of Wallace’s story that resonated with me is that even when it seemed like the sport was rough on Wallace’s body, Yori kept playing disc with him. Yori recognized that Wallace’s love of/drive for the disc was so strong, that Wallace would play long after the lights at the park went out.

Isis was like that. Here she is with Rob, practicing weaving, hurdles, and what I call the “high jump.” You can see after she finishes, she runs right back to her ball.

And here’s a highlight reel of Isis catching the ball. Doing what came naturally to her. Just think what she could have accomplished if we’d actually trained her for this sport.

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Separate Walks

Remember how eight months ago I vowed that I was going to conquer Leo’s bicycle reactivity? Well, I’ve finally started cracking down on that.

All spring and summer, it felt like enough to let the dogs run around the backyard and take them for the occasional romp at the off-leash park. But as the weather turns, I feel guilty about how much time they spend cooped up. It’s too dark to walk them around the neighborhood after work, and even if it weren’t, we’d get derailed by a bicycle.

I took a page from the Isis playbook and started taking Leo to parking lots where we are likely to see bicycles. We can practice walking near stimuli, but at a far enough distance to keep him under threshold. I’m employing some functional rewards techniques from BAT. We’re having success, and I’ve lowered my expectations. My goal is not for Leo to be a bomb-proof dog, simply for him to stretch his legs and get a change of scenery, and if his reactivity improves, allowing us to take him to a wider variety of places, so much the better.

Mia’s recent escape attempt alerted me that my focus on Leo’s problem behavior caused me to neglect my perfect dog. Mia just wanted to get out and see the world. She’s been watching forlornly from the window as I take Leo on training excursions. Even though we’re not gone very long, she sees Leo going on an adventure while she has to stay home. Sure she’s a senior dog, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need exercise.

Quite a dilemma. I can’t walk both dogs at the same time and still focus on Leo’s training. What to do?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I chewed on this for a couple of days before I remembered that I can walk Mia around our neighborhood.

See, the old pattern was, I’d take Mia to work, so she’d get a midday walk or off-leash romp on a ball field. Leo would go to daycare or I’d walk him around the neighborhood before work, strategically timed to avoid the bike commuters. I was not in the habit of walking Mia by herself closer to home.

Once Leo became “trustworthy” enough that he didn’t need to be crated while we’re out, I stopped bringing Mia with me. Who knows what kind of trouble Leo could get into without his big sister to keep an eye on him?

What better way to find out than to leave him alone while I take Mia around the block? On Wednesday, I walked Mia before it got dark, and then took Leo for his training in a university parking lot.

Walking Mia reinforced how unsafe our street is for Leo. It also reminded me how bicycle reactive I am. Me, not Mia. As we walked, I saw a bright yellow raincoat on the horizon, whizzing toward us on two wheels. Mia has never expressed the slightest interest in a bicycle, and yet I tightened the leash, thinking, “Oh god, oh god. What if she’s learned from Leo that she’s supposed to bark at those things? Oh god, oh god.”

Of course she was perfect when the bike went by. And she was perfect when we passed a dog who strained at his leash to get to her.

The amazing part? Walking Mia calmed me. “That’s right,” I remembered. “Walking dogs is fun.”

Mia’s positive reinforcement was so powerful that on our next walk, I didn’t flinch when a bicycle rode toward us on the sidewalk. I took her on the windy wooded trail where a mountain bike came at us out of nowhere. And we passed Isis’s nemesis’s house. Not only was the golden in the front yard, but her neighbor, a black dog, was loose in his yard, and the same dog that strained at Mia the day before was headed our way. It was a collision of four dogs. Mia’s hackles went up, but she sniffed politely and we went on our way.

My next post will deal with some of the calming tools recommended to ease dog reactivity and anxiety. Can you tell Leo is wearing a Thundershirt in the top picture?

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Leo wants to do fun things, too

I have a T-shirt from Dog is Good that reads: “To my dog, this I promise you: I will love you unconditionally; for who you are, not who I’d like you to be. I will protect you and keep you safe. Always.”

I love this sentiment so much that I bought the shirt despite the who/whom error. It beautifully expresses the takeaway from my memoir about Isis.

This promise nagged at me when I couldn’t fall asleep Friday night. I was scheduled to work all day Saturday and Sunday at the NWIFC booth at the Stillaguamish Festival of the River in Arlington. The festival is awesome for a variety of reasons, not least being that dogs are allowed. Last year, they paraded past me for two days, and a couple of enormous Great Danes even stopped for a spell in the shade of my booth. Next year, I thought at the time, if it’s not too hot, I’ll bring Mia.

We planned for Rob and the doggies to drive down Saturday night and take advantage of my vendor’s perk: overnight camping. We like to sleep in a tent exactly one night a year, usually after a strenuous hike. This year’s lack of a strenuous hike was what I most looked forward to.

As I lay in bed on Friday, eyes wide open and mind racing, I worried about Leo. Barrier frustrated Leo. He gets along with everyone at the dog park, barely noticing the people. A bike can ride past and he doesn’t care. If he’s off leash. But, like Isis before him, he barks and lunges at so many things while on leash. Which causes him to turn his head and bite whatever’s closest. Usually Mia’s head or Rob’s thigh. Mia can handle these redirected bites, but human skin is more sensitive. His redirected bites have broken the skin. By accident of course. He’d never bite a person. Oh no, he’s friendly. But if I’ve learned nothing else, I recognize that Leo is not reliable in uncontrolled situations.

So what was I thinking, bringing Leo to a festival that attracts 6,000 people a day, where he would have to be on a leash around other dogs? I was thinking that he did just fine on-leash at Dog Days of Summer last year. I was thinking, worse case scenario, he sleeps in the car.

I was thinking that I wanted a dog I could take camping. It wouldn’t be fair to leave Leo at home while Mia went to the festival. I wanted Leo to be able to do fun things too.

I couldn’t sleep Friday night because of that promise I’d made Leo. I will protect you and keep you safe. Always.

Was I breaking that promise to put him in a situation where he might not feel safe? Where he might bark and lunge and scare people, or worse, hurt someone?

(I also might have been feeling some social anxiety about having to set up and staff a booth by myself for eight hours two days in a row.)

When I got to the festival Saturday morning, I found a shaded parking spot near an available tent site removed from the festival grounds. See? It’s going to be fine, I told myself. We’ll just keep Leo away from the crowds.

Unfortunately, someone else stole our tent spot during the day, so when Rob and the dogs arrived, we headed deeper into the woods, scratching our legs on nettles to get to a secluded spot for the four of us to snuggle into our three-person tent. We tethered Leo to a tree when he wasn’t inside our tent. Mia, of course, was allowed to wander free, since she never went far.

I was so proud of my boy. Sure he barked at a couple of people who passed by, but we kept him safe by setting up camp far enough away from the trail. I had my best night of sleep yet in that tent. I think Leo did too.

In the morning, we fed the dogs their breakfast beside the car. We didn’t push Leo over threshold by forcing him to encounter hundreds of people, but we did expose him to a dozen or so strangers in the parking area. He blithely ignored an Airedale tethered to an RV about a hundred feet away, and walked parallel to a couple of yippy dogs without incident.

Before Rob and Leo left for the day, we took the dogs down to a little river nook, where we let him off leash. Yes, we ran the risk that he would get the zoomies and escape from us, as Isis did once at the Port Townsend ferry terminal, but here at least Leo was far from vehicle traffic, and we assured ourselves that he’s perfectly friendly off leash. 

My pulse quickened when he raced up the steep stairs carved into the bank, but he came right back, and I was happy to give him those few minutes of freedom to romp and splash in the river. You can see on his face how much he enjoyed it.

leo splash

With Leo, I have to strike a balance. The back of my shirt says, “We will do enjoyable things together every day. I will guide you through this world. But above all, we are a team. I will do my best to be worthy of your love and trust.”

This weekend reminded me that my guidance and his trust in me are absolutely the key to doing enjoyable things together every day.

In my next post, I’ll tell you how Mia enjoyed working the booth with me all day Sunday.

Someday my pit will come

The heart wants what the heart wants.

My heart has decided it wants a blue pit bull.

When I searched Google images for a picture of a blue pit, I found one named Isis!

Isis

Courtesy of smphotographyca‘s tumblr

Pretty sure she belongs to someone.

In 2009, when our Isis was still alive, before I had any plans to write a memoir, let alone a dog memoir, I started a novel called Fight Like a Lady, intending it to be entirely unautobiographical. Therefore, the dog in the story was not a female German shepherd named Isis, it was a male pit bull named Apollo.

As I turn my attention back to this novel, which has evolved to feature several pit bull characters in addition to Apollo, my heart seems to think I cannot write another fictional scene until I get my hands on an actual pit bull.

Excepting Apollo, the pits in my novel are rescued fighting dogs. Don’t think I don’t know that I can’t very well go to a shelter and say, “Excuse me, I’d like to adopt a pit bull because I’m writing a book about dog fighting.”

Last week I saw a blue pit on Petfinder and got it into my head that she belonged with us. Perfect timing to bring home a new dog, I thought, since I plan to work from home until the Skagit River bridge is fixed.

Possibly, this was a diversion from actually writing anything… but I told myself it was just the boost I needed to get me back at the keyboard.

This pretty pitty turned out not to be the one for us, but I was torn at first. Neither Rob nor I fell in love with her right away, but I didn’t know for sure about Mia, after all, and what a mistake that would have been if we hadn’t brought her home with us.

There was less risk with this dog, though, because the rescue organization has a trial period, and she’s living in a loving foster home that already turned down some potential adopters. Not the same situation that Mia was in.

Fortunately, the decision wasn’t up to us, it was up to Leo and Mia. We let our dogs, one at a time, into the pit bull’s backyard and after a cursory sniff, they paid very little attention to each other. A few days earlier, Leo romped with a larger, darker male pit bull at the dog park. That’s really what we’re looking for: another playmate for our doggies.

We left, somewhat relieved that we hadn’t brought the wrong dog home.

Later that evening, I got a call that Bark and Lunge is a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest. Maybe that’s the boost I needed to get back behind the keyboard!

Companion piece to Bark and Lunge

Leo reads Mia a story

Leo reads Mia a story about a brave German shepherd named Maggie.

Just finished Suspect, Robert Crais’ best work!

Obviously, I’m biased, because it’s about a German shepherd.

My mom introduced me to Crais’ Elvis Cole detective novels many moons ago. I’ve read them all and the standalones as well. They’re terrific.

This one really spoke to me. Not just because it’s about a dog. I’ve read a loooot of books about dogs the past several years. I have extremely high standards for dog books.

Suspect is the yin to the yang of my memoir about Isis.

bedtime story2

Remember the other day when I said I should be reading stuff that contributes to my growth as a writer? I was all set to read Dora: A Headcase when I got a box of books from my mom in the mail.

Both my mom and my stepmom told me I’d love Suspect, because it’s about a dog, so I thought I’d just whip through it before I got back to my “serious” reading.

Remember the other day when I said that whatever I’m reading is what I’m meant to be reading?

Suspect is about a cop who lost his partner in a shootout, and a military dog who lost her handler to an explosion in Afghanistan.

Some of the chapters are written from the dog’s point of view, but not in a cutesy way. Crais nails the way German shepherds feel about their people. (I know, because Isis told me.) He also depicts so accurately what it is like to live with a German shepherd, what it’s like to drive with one sitting astride the console between the seats, scanning the view out the front windshield.

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are an extremely entertaining and compelling pair of detectives, but I can’t say that I relate to either of them. Cole is the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Detective,” after all.  He’s a trifle cocky. And as much as I love Pike, he’s kind of a sociopath. So it was refreshing to read about inexperienced K9 Officer Scott James.

I didn’t think this book would have anything to do with my work revising Bark and Lunge, but oh, how it does!

Do you ever read a book and think, “That character is so totally me, if I had superpowers”? Or “if I were a princess” … or “if I were a spy”?

Maggie, the German shepherd in Suspect, is so totally Isis if Isis had gone into the service. All of the things that Isis did that were scary, we see Maggie do as part of her job. I loved reading another author – a  suspense author – describe a German shepherd barking and lunging at a suspicious person, and how it feels to be on the human end of a German shepherd’s leash.

Crais also does a masterful job conveying Maggie’s body language and how she alerts to smells. Early on, I wished there were pictures. I wanted to see Maggie beyond the silhouette on the cover. Turned out, I didn’t need photos, because she is written so well. (Also, I just imagined her looking like a cross between Isis and Mia).

bedtime story3

What a tribute to German shepherds. I hope this is the first in a series of Scott and Maggie books.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Unique

At my friend Jolene’s suggestion, here’s my contribution to the Weekly Photo Challenge:

Last night I revised the prologue to my memoir to include a description of this photo of Isis.

point no point isis splash4

Point No Point Beach, July 2008

Maybe it’s not unique under the larger category of dogs running on beaches, but as I wrote about the photo, I tried to find the words to explain what it means to me, and why I chose it as the photo that decorates the wooden box where we keep her ashes.

About six months after this picture was taken, Isis bit someone, and we never felt safe taking her to public places after that, certainly no place where we let her off leash. I shot, and this is not an exaggeration, about 3,000 photos of Isis during her life. Every single one is absolutely stunning of course, but many of them look alike. Isis chasing a soccer ball, Isis smiling at me as she waits for me to throw the soccer ball, Isis with her squeaky rubber Milk Bones in her mouth. Photos documenting her everyday life.

In this photo, Isis is completely free, operating on instinct, and blissfully happy in the wild, not constrained by the limitations we impose on our domesticated dogs. This moment would never be relived, and that’s why it’s unique. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment for my once-in-a-lifetime dog.

I don’t eat Paleo, but my dogs do

Have you heard about the potentially controversial research that dogs, through evolution, can now digest carbs in a way that wolves could not?

When I heard, and decided to blog about it, I was astonished to see how little I have written about raw feeding. A mention here or there, sure, but nothing significant since I first started feeding Isis raw meat in 2009.

I’m a believer in the nutritional benefits of feeding a dog raw meat. Humans are the only creatures that cook their meat, after all. Based on the information I had at the time, I fed Isis a prey model of 80 percent muscle meat, 10 percent bone, 10 percent organs. She seemed to thrive on the diet with a glossy coat and nonstinky breath.

She died very suddenly within two years of being put on this diet, but I have no reason to believe the diet had anything to do with her death from a thymic hemorrhage. I had recently added vegetables and nuts to her diet, at the suggestion of a holistic vet. I don’t think the vegetables or nuts killed her either. She had seen both the holistic vet and our regular vet within a few months of her death, and neither found anything medically wrong with her as a result of her diet, or otherwise.

Leo has eaten raw meat since I brought him home. Because he was extremely lean at about seven months, the holistic vet suggested I supplement the meat and bones with a grain-free kibble. He has eaten a combo of raw beef, deer/bison/llama bones and Taste of the Wild Pacific Stream formula ever since.

As a puppy, Leo works on a bison neck

As a puppy, Leo works on a bison neck

Mia was a little smelly and dull-coated when we got her, but shortly after transitioning to this same diet, her coat glistened and her breath got fresher. She did gain some weight from overfeeding, but otherwise is terrifically healthy.

So I won’t change my dogs’ diets based on the news reported today in the Los Angeles Times, NPR and the BBC. (I offer you three links to give the choice of reading, listening or watching the report).

The way I understand it is that dogs are capable of digesting grains. That doesn’t make it more nutritious than their historical diet. That doesn’t mean that they will live healthier, longer lives by eating a corn-based processed kibble.

I’m amused by the paradox between this research and the Paleo Diet, which is based on the idea that humans should still be eating the things they ate before the agricultural revolution. So, dogs have evolved to eat grains, but humans haven’t gotten there yet?

I don’t dispute the health benefits of going paleo, but I digest cake, bread and french fries just fine, thank you very much. I do know that I would be better off eating more vegetables. And I believe that dogs are better off eating a diet primarily consisting of raw meat and bones.

I think I haven’t blogged much about this before because I wanted to stay out of the fray, but I’m ready to stir the pot. So let’s hear it: My fellow raw feeders, what do you make of this news? Other dog lovers, where do you stand on a high-protein versus high-carb diet for your pooches?