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.