One Joyful Year!

For seventeen years after losing my beloved spaniel Alix, I didn’t believe I had enough heart left to offer another dog. Then a year ago, a volunteer sent me this photo of a dog surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office:

I took one look at that sweet—and oh, so frightened—dog, and put everything on hold to cross the prairie plains to bring her home. It was a long journey and a heart-wrenching one at that. What was I getting myself into? I knew next to nothing about her situation other than the sad details shared by the volunteer, and I knew even less about adopting a rescue dog. Was I making the right decision for her, for us? How would Buddy the Wonder Cat react to sharing his family? And what would happen to her, to us if I couldn’t make this adoption work?

If you’ve been following Sasha’s story, you know her most challenging issues included generalized anxiety, fear of strangers (and men in particular), and extreme hyper-sensitivity to noise. We still have work to do, but overall she’s made tremendous progress along the way. That progress might be best summed up using our experience with the coffee grinder.

In her early months with us, loud or unusual sounds sent Sasha scurrying for cover.  That included raised voices, applause, and the sound of clickers, which proved problematic during obedience class. She was wary of anything and everything in the kitchen that made noise, to include the coffee-bean grinder which left her trembling with fear and barking wildly. It was quickly apparent that this dog took hyper-sensitivity to sound to a whole new level. We tried showing her what it was so she wouldn’t be scared. Tried distracting her, supplied extra love and attention. Nothing worked.Fresh-roasted-coffee-beans-and-grounds

Then I got smart and turned it into Extra-Special Treat Time. Using Fromm’s big oven-baked biscuit treats  I put her in a sit-stay where she could see the grinder, praised her, and gave her a treat. Repeated the process when we measured the beans into the grinder, again when the grinder started and yet again when the grinder finished. Yup, lots of treats, with plenty of time to chew before we moved on to the next step. Since we don’t use the grinder daily it took several weeks to condition her to the sound and cutting back on treats at the same time.  And then one day she came running into the office, whined softly to get my attention, and then trotted back to the kitchen just as I heard the coffee grinder in action. The message was clear: it’s treat time! 

We successfully reduced her fear in favor of excitement. That success, however, came with an unintended consequence. She reached the point where she’d hear the kitchen drawer holding the coffee supplies slide open (and yes, she’s smart enough to differentiate between the sounds of different drawers!) and would begin barking. We’re talking the piercing, full-volume bark only a Sheltie can manage; it’s enough to hurt your ears and earn a disapproving glare from Buddy the Wonder Cat. Oh, and she added the word coffee to her vocabulary, which had reduced us to spelling the word to avoid the inevitable manic barking.

So….enter conditioning, phase two. These days, she has to work to earn that treat. At a minimum we go through the no-bark, down-stay, sit, and off-leash heel while the grinder’s being set up. Then, and only then, does she earn that treat. And since this is the only time she gets the Fromm’s treats, she’s been quick to pay attention.

I’ve used the coffee-treat time to build her interest in our indoor obedience sessions. Even though the treats are different, she knows if she works well she’s sure to enjoy some tasty tidbits. The indoor sessions are becoming a favorite activity on cold mornings. I use the same martingale collar and leash we use for our neighborhood walks, but Sasha clearly differentiates between my outside and indoor clothes and runs into the hall where we routinely start our workout.

And we have an audience for our indoor sessions, too. Buddy the Wonder Cat watches all the action from his perch and will follow us as we go through the house. We finish with a 3-minute out-of-sight down-stay. (The Supervised Separation is test item #10 for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test.) Buddy is the supervisor most of the time. Inevitably, we’ll hit the 2:30 minute mark and Buddy comes trotting to find me. I’m not sure if he’s reporting that Sasha is still holding the down-stay or if he’s asking if I forgot about her, but he follows me back as soon as the timer goes off and signals the end of our session. As that’s always followed by play time for Sasha and Greenies for Buddy, everyone’s happy!

Happy might be the best word to sum up our year together.  The scared little waif who came to me a year ago is now officially known as Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha. We’ll be back soon with more news of Sasha’s ongoing adventures. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot tour highlighting our year together. Enjoy!

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For the love of a dog

7-14-16-smiling-at-park

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha

It’s hard to believe that Sasha’s been part of the family for nearly a year. And what a year it’s been! She came to us timid, thin-coated, suffering from poor nutrition, and in dire need of love. Over the past 11 months she’s grown into a confident, sweet-tempered dog. She may never have the typical full-length Sheltie coat, but considering how much she sheds now, I’m actually okay with that! Good food and daily exercise (to include herding Buddy the Cat) combined with love and attention have her looking more beautiful by the day.

Here’s one of my favorite photos of Sasha. This one was taken in late summer at the neighborhood park and captures what I’ve come to think of as her “happy face.”

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We’re still frequent visitors to the park, even though the summer grass has long since faded away and the wind whistles, clear and sharp, across the open meadow. The chilly temps discourage casual visitors, giving us plenty of space for training time and indulging in the Sheltie zoomies. For the uninitiated, picture a dog flat-out running in circles at the end of a 30-foot line. And since she’s a Sheltie, add in joyous barking with every revolution. The faster she runs, the more she barks!

If I were inclined to make New Year’s resolutions, I might be tempted to put “barking control” at the top of the list. Then again, she’s a Sheltie, and I suspect barking is hard-wired into her DNA. <grin> I can count on her to sound the alert for the UPS truck,  the coffee pot, and neighborhood boys out in the road. It’s taken months, but we’ve progressed to the point that she’ll (mostly) stop on command, although she often interprets “stop” to be an invitation to continue to vocalize; her range of mutters, grumbles, and almost-but-not-quite whines tend to be more entertaining than irritating.

As far as New Year’s lists go, I’ll stick to my own tradition of listing some of the many things I’m grateful for. To the many who have shared their experience and wisdom in All Things Sheltie, I’m thankful. To those who joined our vigil when Sasha had seizures and we feared the worst, thank you for sharing that burden as well as the joy when the tests came back clear. To all who have come into our lives because we opened our hearts and home to a Sheltie in need, I’m grateful beyond words. So I’ll close by borrowing the words of the late Roger Karas, known to millions as the voice of Westminster Kennel Club dog show:

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.

 

 

 

Spring in the Ozarks

Welcome to spring in the Ozarks! I woke up this morning to 28 degrees and a wind chill of 23. Brrrr!

That didn’t stop Sasha from rushing outside for her usual morning romp, of course. It’s a good thing her coat is starting to thicken since she didn’t wait for me to find her winter wrap I’d put away after last week’s warm temps! Here she is, celebrating the first official day of spring under a section of the forsythia we’ve nurtured for 20 years. I’d like to think we’ll have Sasha with us for almost as long.

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It didn’t take her long to realize that it really was cold and neither Buddy the Cat nor I were venturing outside. The sound of her squeaky toy lured her back inside for another round of Chase, which is fast becoming our pets’ morning ritual. After the cat declared victory we consoled Sasha with hide-and-seek and the promise of an afternoon walk. And now we’re back in the office as I work (again) on Chapter 23 and Sasha supervises. Or maybe she’s just dreaming of warmer days ahead…

Happy Spring, everyone!

Lessons Along The Journey

It’s been a month since Sasha came into our lives. What an adventure we’re having!

Who could resist that face?

Sasha Feb 2016

After so many years without a dog of my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that this adventure comes with a learning curve for all of us. For Sasha, everything’s new after losing whatever home she knew when she was surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office. (From what little I’ve learned, it wasn’t much of a home, but still…) Buddy the Cat unexpectedly gained a housemate, and we humans found ourselves in unknown territory as we integrated a rescue dog in the family mix.

Sasha came to us with various minor health issues, poor skin, and a pitiful short, thin coat—problems most likely caused by poor diet and a lack of attention. With the final round of antibiotics and other prescription meds now complete, we’re focused on improving her stamina and overall good health. I’ve spent the last month transitioning her to quality food. (If you’re new to the world of dogs, consider sampling different foods and remember to make any switch a gradual process.)

After addressing her health and dietary concerns, we started training in earnest. She came to us knowing a few of the basics and at least one new-to-me skill: she can sneeze on command. (Yes, really!) After working together every day, I’ve learned three essential lessons (so far) along this journey.

Lesson #1: Be patient.

There’s a scene in chapter 1 of Deadly Ties when veterinarian Angus Sheppard is looking over a Beagle rescued by my protagonist, Maggie Porter. Maggie’s concerned about Mr. B’s health and his transition to a new way of life. In response, Angus said, “Look at it from the dog’s point of view—he’s lost everything he’s ever known. That can haunt you for a long time.”

I wrote that scene years before Sasha came into my life. I’m reminded of those words, though, every time we hit a bump in the road. She’s over a year old, but she was as clueless as a puppy at the end of a leash. The volunteer who fostered her handed her over with a retractable leash (that didn’t retract) attached to a cheap collar. I can only guess what her life was like before coming to us, but it’s a safe bet that it was nothing like her life now. She came to us afraid of loud or unexpected noises and strange places, skittish around strangers and around men in general, leery of other dogs, and super-stressed when put in a vehicle. As Shelties tend to be VERY vocal when nervous, agitated, or excited, I confess I’ve had to refrain from shrieking myself more than once!

Every time we head out for a neighborhood walk I remind myself to be patient as Sasha encounters new sights and sounds, and to see every “moment” as a training opportunity. And after one wild experience near the pond when assorted ducks, geese, dogs, and children proved too much excitement at once, I now take greater care in planning our route!

Lesson #2: Make training a daily habit.

I started all her daily training sessions in the house, then moved to the backyard before venturing out onto our quiet cul-de-sac and eventually the busier streets of the neighborhood. After two weeks she’d mastered the sit-stay command at a distance of 50+ feet and I was convinced training her myself would be a breeze.

Not quite.

Sure, she’s doing a great job of the basics in the house, the yard, and even the neighborhood—just as long as there are no people, dogs, moving cars, ducks, squirrels…well, you get the picture.  So off we went to basic obedience class. I cringed at the thought of managing her in a room full of strangers with all sorts of dogs, but Sasha needs both training and socialization time. And how did she handle the noise and confusion? Take a look:

 March 8th 2016

Sasha in a down-stay of her own choosing 3-8-16

Once we got past that hurdle I thought we were home free. Then came the clickers. She didn’t like the sound of one clicker when we practiced at home, and a room full of people clicking repeatedly (with their dogs happily responding, I’ll note)  proved too much for her.  I stashed the clicker and rewarded her with yummy treats as we ran through the exercises.

This week our training focus is learning how to walk on a loose leash (that’s test #4 on the Canine Good Citizen test). We fitted her with a martingale collar; that was essential, as Shelties are prone to “back out” of a regular collar. (If you’d like to learn more about this type of training collar, check out the No Dog About it blog. Great info!)

Even with the martingale training collar, teaching Sasha “no pulling” is another exercise in patience. Every time she pulls I stop walking, which brings her attention back to me. Being a Sheltie, she always has some comment to make even as she stops pulling and waits to start again! We’re still in the stop-wait-start-again phase but it’s gradually improving. She’s aced loose leash walking in the house and backyard. Beyond that, she’s only good at it once she’s worn out from running around the park. (We have a big open field and I put her on the long line and let her run circles around me.) The walk home is always good. It’s a start…

Lesson#3: Praise, laugh, and love.

Sasha is one happy dog! She pops out of bed eager for whatever the day brings, and we make sure she hears lots of praise whether we’re training or not. Every day sees her more energetic and playful, and it’s clear she feels safe in her new home. She and Buddy the Cat are often nose-to-nose and have recently begun to chase one another around the backyard and through the house. She’s learning hide-and-seek and now has a basket full of toys all her own. Add in a couple of gel memory foam beds, a collection of yummy treats, and walk-and-play time every day, and the result is a wonderful new member of the family. Here’s the latest photo; the bare patches have filled in and her skin and coat are already showing signs of loving attention!

Backyard shot 3-6-16 1 month

My Sasha, one month after joining the family

 

An Unexpected Gift

Seventeen years have passed since I lost my beloved spaniel Alix, who lives on in my heart and in my series as the inspiration for Sweet Pea. For seventeen years I didn’t believe I had enough heart left to offer another dog.  Until now.

First came this photo, taken at the time she was surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office:

Sasha Shelty

I looked at that sweet face and felt a little tingle. And I wondered…

I put everything on hold to make the trek over the hills and across the prairie plains region, where I took one look into those eyes and lost my heart all over again.  I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Sasha here at dogmysteries.com:

She’s a young Sheltie, likely less than two years old. She charmed everyone at the vet clinic and didn’t fuss at all about the exam, the blood tests, or even the inevitable medications needed to combat various minor maladies. She was a bit less sanguine about PetSmart, where I quickly realized she doesn’t like noise, probably hasn’t been socialized to men, and apparently didn’t want the bed I chose—although that might be revenge since I won’t allow her on my own bed, which is the domain of Buddy the Cat. Her coat is too thin in places and she’s in serious need of a groomer far more professional than I could ever be, but overall she’s in reasonably good health.

So far I’ve figured out that she knows sit, shake hands, speak, and has a passing familiarity with down, although that tends to have her springing straight up a few seconds later.  She can manage stay for almost a minute. Plus, she can sneeze on command.  (Really.)

She’s vocal (and then some!) when she sees another dog, which makes neighborhood walks a noisy adventure. She’s also clueless about walking on a leash,  but in our two days together she’s already realized that heel is not an invitation to gallop! This gives me hope she’ll make quick progress in obedience class, which is a “must have” for us before we can even think about the Canine Good Citizen test.

Never having had a Sheltie before, and being the total research geek that I am, I’ve ordered the breed guide and training book Shetland Sheepdog by award-winning author Sheila Webster Boneham and have turned to Sheltie owners, dog experts, and fellow dog writers for advice. I already owe special thanks to Susan Conant and Susan J. Kroupa (both award-winner authors and dog lovers) for their wonderful support and guidance.

After 17 years I feel like a novice again, and am grateful for all comments, suggestions, and recommendations.  (To share in the comments, you can either click on the word “comments” at the bottom of this post, or click on the post title and scroll down.) You’ll be seeing more of Sasha in future posts as I document our merry adventures in training. And count on seeing a Sheltie in a Waterside Kennels mystery sometime soon!