preparing for the inevitable and diego's mid-term report card

As the days count down until we move from house to apartment, I'm having trouble shaking my sadness.

I'm very aware of the privileged position I'm in. We were able to find a really nice apartment, and although moving is expensive, we'll be able to absorb it. Right now we have a ridiculous amount of space for two people, so it's not like it will hurt us to downsize. But all that awareness takes place in my rational brain. In my heart, I am so sad, both for myself and for Tala.

We lived in apartment with dogs for almost our entire time in New York. I always said dogs could have a good life living in an apartment, as long as their people are committed to getting them enough exercise. It was true then and it's true now.

But when I see Tala relaxing in the grass, or even staring out the window at passers-by, I fear that I'm about to ruin her life.

Tala willing the hose to spray her
Diego will be happy wherever we are. He doesn't much like to stay outside without us anyway. He wants to be with his people, full stop. But Tala is an independent kind of dog. She's sweet and affectionate, but she has her own mind. Sometimes it seems like she has her own plans for the day. Let's see, today I'm going to make Mommy hold the food bowl while I eat, then get Daddy to spray me with the hose, then make Diego play with me, then spend some time outside in the shade.

I have a real fear - irrational, but very potent - that after we move, Tala will become depressed, and go into a decline from which she will never recover.

It's ridiculous. I know it's not going to happen.

I think I know it's not going to happen.

I might know that. Might not.

University of Diego

We are working hard to get Diego apartment-ready. It's still difficult to imagine him regularly passing other dogs in the lobby without melting down, or sitting calmly when an elevator door opens, but we've made real progress in the two or three weeks since we started, so... I am cautiously optimistic. Although still quite anxious about the whole thing.

...must stay... must stay... must sta
For motivation, along with heaps of praise and love, we are using this amazing stuff called Rollover. When doing serious concerted training, it's common for dogs to gain weight, and also to overdose on salty or fatty snacks, causing all kinds of problems. But Rollover is nutritionally complete dog food. However much we use for the day's lessons, we subtract a certain amount of regular kibble from their dinners.

It comes in a giant roll, like an enormous cooked sausage. We cut off a thick slice, then chop that up into bits. We keep a day's worth of treats in packages in the fridge, so we can monitor what he's getting. You can freeze it long-term, too. It's even made in Canada, from Canadian beef (or New Zealand lamb) and Canadian grains, processed in Alberta.

Rollover is what the trainers call a "high-value reward". A lot is being asked of Diego, so we have to reward him with something really special. From his reaction, I'd say this is about as special as it gets. Both dogs are absolutely wild for it. I've started to rub bits of the stuff on Tala's medications, then throw the pills in her dinner. She's eating with an almost Diego-like fervor.

And the big boy is getting lots and lots of Rollover! There's the leash training, walking-past-dogs-and-distractions training, and there's regular command ("trick") training, which our trainer says is an essential component of this whole project. Diego is not only learning new associations and new behaviours - he's also learning how to learn. Supposedly all the training works together.

Yesterday Diego heard a dog bark behind a fence, and looked at me! Today he heard the neighbour's gate - a huge trigger that usually sends him crashing down the space between houses, barking and jumping like a maniac. He took two steps towards the sound, then faced me and came running over for his reward. A+!!!

If you're curious about the process, our trainer sends us videos as background materials. Here's a quick one, counter-conditioning a Jack Russell Terrier away from aggressive behaviour. Here's a beautiful Tala-like dog learning not to bark, and doing the emergency U-turn. Here's some trick training: the paw-target touch. Diego learned this in about two seconds, thwacking his big paw down with great gusto. Whoo-hoo, hit this with my paw, get Rollover!

We have a weekly schedule, to be sure that one of us is working with Diego every day, and to build progressively more challenging scenarios. The trick is to move the training forward but not go so fast that he has setbacks. We're told that the adrenaline and cortisol rush that occurs from a negative encounter has lasting negative effects.

Buster feeling safe inside
The training has made me think of our beloved Buster, for whom walking outside was an ordeal, every single walk of every single day. He really only felt safe and secure inside. And because he could never play in a dog park, he never got enough exercise, so he had little opportunity to release his energy and tension.

Thankfully Diego will not have that problem. Living in an apartment will be great motivation to take them to the dog park more often. If we can just get him down the elevator and out of the building.


allan said...

I think I see a small bit of Cody's paw in that Buster shot.

impudent strumpet said...

I wonder if Diego will figure out that you're cutting back his kibble and rebel

laura k said...

Heh, that's a funny thought.

He's pretty much a bottomless pit when it comes to food of any type - a ravenous appetite, all the time. It makes for easier training.

Amy said...

This sounds great in terms of Diego! As for Tala, as you know, dogs live in the moment. She may take a bit to adjust, but I bet within not too long, she will adapt and not think about the changes in her lifestyle. I expected Smokey to go into depression after Luna died and then again after Cassie died, but he is fine. He is more attached to us (not a bad thing), but I doubt he even thinks about how different his life is as an only pet.

laura k said...

We've seen a range of responses when one of our dogs is suddenly alone. Cody was similar to Smokey (but I always say Cody was really a cat dressed up like a dog). Others did get depressed, or seemed confused or "off" for a while.

Of course she'll adjust, she'll have to. But I feel like I'm ruining her life. It's not rational. It's my love for her. My love for watching her in her happy little world.

There's no remedy. I just have to wait to be (I hope) proven wrong.

johngoldfine said...

"I have a real fear - irrational, but very potent - that after we move, Tala will become depressed, and go into a decline from which she will never recover."

We've reached the point where it's statistically more and more likely that our younger dogs will outlive us. We've done our best to secure good lives for them after our deaths (not by leaving all our money to them!) but by talking to our kids (neither of them dog people) about our wishes and ideas.

But that isn't really reassuring. It's hard to imagine anyone else giving Patrick the amount of running through the woods he needs. Or anyone else understanding crazy deaf old Chloe scratching the linoleum under the rocker to make a nest for herself. Or anyone else with a lap patient enough to give Boca the 18 hours a day there she requires. Or anyone else able to interpret Timmie's penchant for moving shoes all through the house.

But it may come to that. And dogs do get depressed. They feel things. They have opinions about life and what makes the good life. You're right to be afraid.

On the other hand, they are resilient, they do their damnedest to live in the moment, and in the end, the most important thing is not the food, the exercise, the car ride, the spray hose, the back yard. Being with the Boss trumps everything. [Do you know Chekhov's story "Kashtanka"? (Go ahead, read it, break your heart! As with everything else in life and literature, Chekhov understands it all.)]

So, I don't know Tala, but, odds are, she'll probably have a faster bounceback time than you will--after all, she will have you there apparently unchanged, whereas you will always be watching her for signs of distress.

laura k said...

Thank you, John. I agree.

When we lived in NYC, we would go upstate, to the Catskills, with the dogs once every summer. At first for a long weekend, then eventually for a week, and (only once) for a month.

We enjoyed so much watching them out in "the country", lazing around in the grass, enjoying the sunshine and breezes.

On the way home, I would always feel sad that we couldn't give them that all year round, or even more often.

Hearing this, my sister once said to me, "It's not like your dogs are leafing through the pages of Better Homes & Gardens, thinking, my life would be so good if only I lived there. Your dogs want to be with you, their people. That's the most important thing to them."

This helped me every year.

This is kind of a gigantic version of that sadness. I know in my head that they'll still have good lives. But I also know, as you said, that dogs feel things, they get depressed (I've seen it), and depression can and does affect them very negatively.

However, I do also know they are resilient. Tala started life in a puppy mill in Tennessee, likely in deplorable conditions. She was moved to at least two rescue homes before finding her forever home with us. She lived in one rescue home with 35 other dogs and a crazy trainer who screamed at her. She's lost one best friend and gained a new one. She's adjusted to a serious physical condition. Through most of it she's been sweet and happy. She mourned Cody but she bounced back quickly.

I hope she'll make this big adjustment with the same resiliency.

laura k said...

I also understand about the dogs and your will. I had a living will for our Buster, asking my sister, if we died, to bring in one of his trusted dogwalkers to stay with him, and unless one of them could take him in, to have him put down. I saw that as the only loving solution for him, and I couldn't rest unless I knew someone would do that.

Kristina H said...

You are an amazing and dedicated parent. I applaud you for your diligence and celebrate with you that Diego is doing so well!

laura k said...

Aw thanks, Kristina! Many thanks.