17 November 2014

BlueBelle just asked to go outside!

Three cheers for Belle's milestone moment! She just came to the door of my home office, looked around the corner at me, and whined. I asked, "Outside?" and she whimpered, looking in the direction of the back door. When I opened the door, she walked right out and peed. A celebratory shower of treats followed her return, as she bunny-hopped around the living room at the sight of the treat bag. Miss Belle rocks!

Why am I over the moon regarding a simple action that other dogs perform multiple times per day? It's not the house training. Remarkably, Belle has been house trained for months now, thanks to routine, the example set by the other dogs, routine, teaching her the "outside" cue, and routine. Treats were actually not involved, but that's another post. Cautious herding was involved early on, but that's yet another post. Belle's house training is so reliable that she is trustworthy loose in the house alone and now even during rainy days. (I think I just heard a gasp of disbelief from fellow Rat Terrier butlers.)

What is causing my elation is that semi-feral Belle has just accorded the human in the house another measure of relevance. Woo hoo, I'm finally relevant. Sort of. A little bit more. She's still too scared to come close in most situations. But in more and more tiny ways, Belle is perceiving this human as useful. We are ever so carefully building a relationship.

09 November 2014

"Some changes are cool," says BlueBelle

Belle has a veterinary behaviorist on her team, along with the rest of us at New Rattitude. UGA's Dr. Crowell-Davis and her staff have been an essential part of helping Belle adjust to the world of humans from her semi-feral starting point. The last few months have included highs of bouncy doggie happiness and lows of health and emotional challenges. She spent some time on a complicated pharmaceutical cocktail from both of her vets, but is now down to very low doses of antianxiety meds and a few supplements. Belle is currently fairly stable and doing well.

One of Belle's challenges is neophobia. She's frightened, and sometimes terrified, of anything new. Once she gets used to me wearing a certain type of shoe or pants, she will run away if I switch to clothing she hasn't seen before. Once she gets used to a routine, if one of the steps changes she will begin to pace anxiously or run away. She was afraid of even small additions or object placement shifts in her environment, but she has learned to adjust to those small changes. This is probably thanks to a low dose of fluoxetine and plenty of practice being safe in an environment that rarely changes fundamentally. Her foster mom values tranquility so Belle can take advantage of quiet time and space to acclimate to changes that are usually incremental. We're creating a history of emotional security that is also helping her to recover when changes are more abrupt.

Belle has discovered that at least one new thing can be beyond fabulous -- meat! She had a preference for poor quality puppy mill rations and it has taken months to entice her to accept better and better foods. While I track down the source of her possible allergies, she needs to be on the best food with the fewest ingredients, which, in my opinion, is raw food. I would put tiny pieces of raw meat in her bowl and leave it for her to try after feeding her kibble and canned food. Huh uh. No way. She wouldn't go near it. Enter corticosteroid treatment for her severe itching. Little Belle was so hungry from the prednisone that she ate whatever was left in her bowl, and then anything I hand fed her at mealtime, and then she started hanging around for more. She's off those drugs and still loving her new foods. Her dental misalignment prevents her from eating even the softest raw meaty bones, but she has given it a good smacking try. She enjoys scooping up ground raw foods from my hand and prompting me to hurry up with the next yummy mouthful. Fabulous!

Belle has decided that she quite likes central heat and warm comforters fresh from the dryer. This living in a house stuff is not half bad, even if it does involve humans. It is the human who serves her ground quail, after all. 

30 June 2014

BlueBelle Studies the Signals

Belle has been living with me for almost eight weeks and is getting a little more comfortable, comparatively. It helps that she has enough experience in her current environment that she can often predict what will happen next. She knows that if the human announces "It's gonna be loud" from the kitchen, a coffee bean grinder will make all kinds of racket for a bit, but nothing will happen in her area in the living room. She can stay right where she is with some sense of safety.

She knows that the beep-beep of the house alarm being set late at night means that she should get up from her resting place and be ready to go down the hall. She waits for the human to call "go to bed" and then lopes down the hall to the back bedroom. When the dogs and I are settled into the big bed, she settles into her dog bed for the night, knowing that, according to her experience so far, no one will encroach upon her space.

As one might expect, she has learned a suite of predictive cues related to meal times and her anticipation begins growing earlier in the process. The evening meal time is less predictable than the morning meal time, but Belle knows the very beginning of the process. As soon as Foodnutty Dog #1 is told to "kennel up," Belle's ears perk and her eyes turn toward the kitchen, where the amazing food action will soon take place. As Foodnutty Dog #2 will attest, my food preparation pace is glacial and I occasionally get sidetracked by text messaging. As if food weren't exciting enough, this bit of uncertainty increases the anticipation. And this is when Belle dances her bunny hop.

Video will be captured as soon as Belle allows it, but I will try to do it justice. She bounces on her back legs with her body slightly forward in the air and her front legs tucked close to her body. Side to side she bounces on two legs, her mouth cutely framed by her jutting lower canines. Around the coffee table she bounces mostly on four legs. She bows and bounces and the tiny stub tail wags. Sometimes she lets out the softest grunts of excitement as she rears and bounces. Not much is more thrilling to me than watching a dog who experiences so much fear have so much fun.

When it's finally her turn to eat, I stand in the middle of the living room while she bounces around me and then I sing "Be-elle." She gets into her start line crouch. I say, "Let's eat!" and she races around the coffee table once before loping down the hall to the back bedroom where she'll be hand fed. She peers around the bedroom door to make sure I'm on my way.

Belle is now accepting handfuls of food with my body in a sitting position facing her and my wrist resting on my knee. Her underbite acts like a shovel that will knock some wet kibble onto the floor. She's comfortable now reaching for the kibble on the floor underneath my hand and is even okay with her ear brushing my hand. I still avoid direct eye contact.

Belle has learned far more environmental cues than I could even guess. Hundreds, no doubt. I’m sure she's learned more about my body language than I have hers. It's important that she have some sense of control over her environment and her own body so she can feel safer. Compared to her extreme hyper-vigilance when she was new to the environment, she has at least calmed enough that she must feel safer.

02 June 2014

New Girl: BlueBelle

blue rat terrier
BlueBelle spent the first few years of her life as a breeding dog in a puppy mill. She was taken in by a kind New Rattitude foster home and was helped to heal physically and begin to learn what it's like to live in a home. She came to my home about four weeks ago.

Miss Belle is currently semi-feral, but is developing at her own pace with a little help. She spent the first week exhausting herself with panicked flights. I slowed down every household routine, stayed far away from her, and did not look her in the face. I did have to herd her from the yard into the house in the beginning. It is true that I could have cornered her and restrained her as she shut down and I could have penned her in a small area as I've been advised by several trainers. For this specific dog and for my specific personal aversions, I instead gave Belle the most and the safest choices I could give her. That is working for us.

At first, I fed her outside while the rest of the dogs ate inside. When the back door closes with me inside, Belle knows she can count on a respite from humans. I would talk to her without looking at her as I set her bowl down, and then I'd go inside. If she skittered away before eating all of the food, I would go outside and drop something new and yummy in the bowl while talking to her, and then return to the house. I transitioned her feeding place to my bedroom and by the end of the first week, she had learned the meal time routine and had associated my presence during this time with yummy food.

At the start of the second week, she was anxious but not panicked as I followed her into my bedroom with her bowl. I lay quietly on my back on the floor and stretched my right arm out behind my head with a handful of her favorite Wellness Core kibble mixed with 95% meat canned food. For twenty minutes, Belle didn't move from her crouch in the corner behind me. I got up and took the bowl out of the room with me. A few seconds later, I returned and resumed my position. Ten minutes later, I suppressed a happy giggle as I felt the first brush of whiskers on my hand. She slowly ate her dinner, one carefully extended handful at a time.

It is almost three weeks since I began the hand feeding and we have progressed, as of this morning, to her taking food from my hand while I am sitting on the floor. Each tiny change that's made has to be made one at a time and she needs enough repetitions of the "new look" to be satisfied that nothing bad will happen to her. This sitting change is very big. So the hand is still on the floor, it's still behind me (good for the upper abs), and I'm absolutely not looking at her right now.

Beautiful Belle continues to make progress in adjusting to life in a home with a human. I will post updates on her progress as I can.