Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vicki the Adventure Buddy

I got a dog. It's been a long time. My heart was bruised by the loss of my sweet Rosie almost a decade ago. And my life changed not long after I lost that dear friend. Having a dog would have been incredibly impractical.

But now it's not impractical. I have the house and yard. I have a reasonably flexible lifestyle. And I miss having that kind of friend.

So I decided I'm going to get another herding dog, but this time one without so much baggage. I spent a decade with Rosie scanning the horizon for other dogs any time I was out. She might jump any dog that came up to her nose, and when it was go-time she did not hold back. I paid for many stitches during that decade, her victims' and her own. I loved her very much and she loved me, and I miss her terribly. But she was really a pain in the ass!

Rescue takes many forms. Giving a good life to a young dog who's already reasonably well-adjusted, but homeless, is rescue. Taking a dog that's been neglected and/or abused is a pretty big burden. So many good people do it out of pure love for animals, I think we forget how difficult it can be.

So this time I decided, it's all about finding one who's pretty much OK but needs a home. I started looking around, mainly for heelers (AKA Australian Cattle Dog) and heeler mixes. Using the internet I found one on the western slope who had apparently failed to cut the mustard as a working dog, but had lived on a ranch until her incompetence came to light. Perfect.

By the time I got in touch with her shelter she was gone. Of course other possible dogs had popped up on searches. I sent emails and left messages for various shelters and rescues. A woman at Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden was very prompt and helpful. I had asked her about Mara, a beautiful red heeler who looked too sweet. Being in the shelter had been stressing her so they'd found a quiet foster home. She had been picked up stray in late February. She had been with the foster family for a couple weeks, and they apparently loved her.

I made an appointment to meet her at 4:00 PM Thursday, March 20. Vernal Equinox, first day of spring.

When I met her, she was quite fearful. Shelters freak dogs out anyway, but she definitely had her radar up for danger. A couple milk bone fragments and I had her coming closer. She wasn't completely freaked out, I could touch her, but she was eyeing me warily. Also, her teats (nipples for the non-farm set) were quite large for a 1-year-old. I wondered if she'd had puppies, then realized that it was likely they had done a spay-bortion. She'd probably been found stray and pregnant.

So, she had baggage. She was also very sweet, especially to the women who had been taking care of her. I could see that she had the capacity to trust.

And she yanked on my heart. She really needed to be someplace safe.

So I guess I fucked up that "this time one without so much baggage" thing. My practical side caved to my sentimental side.

At 4 PM I met this dog, by 5 she was in the front seat of my truck watching me deal with rush hour traffic trying to get to 285 and south to Salida. She sat there confined next to me for 3 hours and was OK. But not relaxed. She did not sleep.

The picture above is from the Friday morning. I gave her some food, and then we went for our first of three walks that day.

I decided to call her Vicki. I discovered that day that Vicki had no idea what to do with a toy. She had no idea what a ball is for. She would come to me and accept affection, but she always had an eye out for her escape route. Every once in a while I would inadvertently do something that made her flinch.

Being outside together was better, but I had to keep her on the leash. She was obviously still half afraid of me, so I couldn't count on getting her to come and let me put her back on the leash if we were out in the woods. I briefly took her off the leash in the above picture as an experiment, with the treats handy. In this picture I see a dog that is not frightened, but just kind of neutral.

When we got home from that walk we went out in the truck to run some errands. One of them was Scanga (MEAT!), where I got a box of frozen beef liver. When we got home she had some raw liver, which went down pretty easy. She took a nap, and later went out into her yard. She walked the perimeter, then returned to close to the back door. She stood briefly sniffing the breeze, then dropped a shoulder and rolled onto her back and writhed around. That wallowing on their back thing is a happy dog sign.

I went out after a while and called her over. I was scratching her chin when she slowly laid over, making full eye contact the whole time, and rolled onto her back. I reached out and scratched her chest, and she closed her eyes. For the first time, she showed me her belly and enjoyed a long chest rub with her eyes closed.

Then we went back inside, she found a corner in the living room and fell asleep. Real sleep, not the one-eye-open naps I'd been seeing her take.

Pirate staking out the beest. What kind of beest? Is it dangerous? Let's just assume that it is...

Meanwhile, Vicki's new life is complicated by the fact that there are these eyes on her all the time when she's inside. She'll come around a corner, and one of these fluffy hissy things will blow up like a fur balloon spitting and hissing. Early on, they would perch up on something high and just growl at her. Now they are starting to mellow out a little. Cautious approaches, a little closer every time.

She's kind of freaked out by doorways, or closing and opening doors, so when a door opens she tends to kind of charge right through it. In the morning when we get up and leave the bedroom, inevitably there is a cat in the hallway. She bolts out, and the cat(s) freak out and run. But they've figured out that she doesn't want to chase. So now they've started experimenting with approaching her on the floor 5 feet or less away. It's clearly going to be OK.

For day two, I decided on a longer hike. All the way up Sand Dunes, and we'd see how it went from there.

Once we were clear of town and alone on the trail, I decided to try an leash-off test. I had the treats in my hand. I took her off the leash. Moments later I called her close and gave her a treat. Then I just started walking up the trail. She followed along and it was like we'd always hiked together. I made a point of calling her over often. I would kneel down and give her some lovin'. Sometimes treat, sometimes just the affection.

It wound up being a pretty long hike, three hours. At times she seemed totally fine, but there were still moments when her radar popped up for some reason. She was suspicious when I took out the camera.

But it was a good, tiring hike. When we got home I popped open a can of the special artisanal‎ organic no-grain beef (dog) stew I had picked up before we met. I dumped it into her bowl and put it in front of her. She gave me a look that was like "really, for me?"

She tucked into that food and made it go away. Then we went into the living room so I could read and she crashed. About an hour later she woke up, and I took her outside just in case she needed to take care of nature's call. The door closed behind us and she did this kind of little dance step thing, then spun around to face me with a funny look on her face, and she turned and ran a big circle out into the yard coming back for a fly-by with her tongue out and a face full of fun.

Joy! She was showing me JOY! For the first time I saw that she knows what joy is. I was afraid I was going to have to TEACH this dog joy.

She was getting it. She was starting to understand that it's all going to be OK. She's going to be safe, and life will be fun. We played a game where I pretended to be trying to catch her and she showed me that she was way too fast and way too agile ever to be caught. After a while she came over for a big chest and belly rub. I had a few tears in my eye. She looked at me with happiness and security and let me rub her chest.

Today (Sunday March 23) was her third morning waking up with me. I seem to have lucked out and caught a cold, so I feel pretty crappy. But I want her (and me) to get into the habit of having at least a short walk every morning. So I blew my nose, put on my puffy down jacket and big gloves and grabbed her leash.

When I got outside I saw my townie bike leaning against the fence. She had been really good off-leash, maybe it was time to introduce her to The Bicycle. I realized that being Sunday morning, there were virtually no vehicles on the roads. I put her leash in my pocket, got on the bike and said "c'mon". And off we went on our first bike ride together. We rode the 8 or 10 blocks through town down to the F-Street Bridge. I made her stop and come over at every intersection, but she really stayed close on her own. My concern was that something would freak her out, but it was super quiet, so I took advantage and just got her over across the river and we had a nice little short trip on the dirt. Then I took her home and blew my nose again.

After it warmed up, it was time to go have some more exercise and quality interaction time. I grabbed my singlespeed and the leash. It was mid-day. So it would be leash all the way through town to the dirt. On leash next to a bike is way harder and more volatile than running along with the bike off-leash.

I put her on the leash and walked on the left side of the bike while she was on the other side. We walked along like that for half a block or so and then I stepped onto the pedal and swung myself on and started riding. She just kept walking along next to me, the leash slack. We made it all the way downtown that way, her consistently on my right even as cars drove by and dogs barked at us.

She's a year old, and way too young for big long runs, so I just took her on a nice flat trail along the railroad tracks, less than an hour, and I kept my pace down to about a trail-runner's pace. She was amazingly good at it. She just followed right along behind my wheel.

I stopped often to call her over and give her love. I did not bring any treats on that trip.

Her body language is changing. You can see it in a couple of the pictures below. She is relaxing. Her fear is beginning to be less acute.

So yeah, I fucked up the thing about baggage. Oh well. Even with all the improvement, she is still very jumpy. I don't take her collar off because she is uncomfortable with people putting things around her neck. So she doesn't like having it put back on. She doesn't like having me put the leash on her collar either. As I move around the house, every once in a while I'll do something that makes her flinch. She's weird with doorways.

But she's going to be OK. She is very sweet. As she continues to learn to trust me I can tell that she's going to be much like Rosie was, a sweet, loyal, and loving friend. I will probably always have to help her with fear. But she's going to have as much stability and reassurance as I can give her.

I need to teach her about balls and fetching. The game we have right now with the chasing wears me out. I like more the idea of being able to sit on my ass while she brings me balls to throw. Isn't that how it's supposed to work?


Gary B. said...

There's definitely a reason the say a dog is man's best friend. Congrats!

The Padre said...

Dude, first off, I 2 have a similar "Rosie" tale 2 tell. Secondly, AWESOME!!! Why 2 go. Taking it easy w/her, feeding her well, & showing her that its her backyard. Score on the belly rubs, the training on leash on bicycle, & off leash hiking. She is way cute & you are right, you can see a little more personality in the photos you have shared. Keep Up The Good Companionship & Ride Strong. Cheers

Unknown said...

Great post, loved every word. You've both done a great thing. M