Mama busted me out of the slammer when I was just a young chap — so young that I don’t even remember what my life was like before that. She had never had a dog before and didn’t know much about dog behavior or care. So she did what any enthusiastic, 24-year-old new dog owner with a flexible schedule would do — she brought me with her everywhere. It was heavenly. Back then we worked at Casa Marianella, an emergency shelter for newly-arrived immigrants. When she went on shift, I went on shift. We would do the laundry, cook dinner, intake new residents, help out with immigration forms and
vet doctor’s visits. Once or twice a week mama would stay the night, and I would stay with her. When we weren’t working, we were having fun. We went on lots of walks together, visited friends’ houses, and even went to outdoor restaurants and bars. I almost never had to be alone, and it was wonderful.
Eventually mama and dad finished grad school and got jobs, and I started to spend a whole lot more time alone. That’s when I decided to teach myself how to bake. Only I don’t know how to operate an oven (mama says “thank goodness!”), so I would just grab the dish towels off their hanging places and put them on the ground, pull the aluminium foil off the shelf and unroll it, and then I’d take the bag of flour off the baker’s rack (sometimes the sugar too) and I’d open it up and start baking. And by baking, I mean running wildly around the house with the flour bag, letting it fly all over the place. Sometimes I would stop and make a little drool puddle, dip my paws into it, and then knead the flour that I had sprinkled around, trying to make dumplings.
I loved trying, but I never became a very good baker.
It was about that time that mama called dog trainer Lee Mannix. It turned out that all that fun we’d had — being together 24/7 for our first couple of years — wasn’t really all that good for me. Lee said I never learned to be alone. I never learned how to just settle down. He said it was a confidence issue. He told mama that in my little brain, her leaving was the end of the world because all of the fun went away, and her returning was a great big party. I guess she was right. When she left, I would worry and fret and find activities to keep myself busy, but it was really hard for me to just chill out and sleep. When she would get back, I would get super-duper excited and so would she, and we’d have ourselves a little party. Every time she came and went, the cycle reinforced itself. I would get more worried when she left and more excited when she got back.
According to Lee, there were a few mistakes that mama made in our first few glory years:
- Not crate training me. It seems that dogs like me do well with crate training because a crate can feel like a safe little den that both keeps a dog out of trouble and reduces anxiety. Most dogs can stop using their crate over time, but a crate is a great transitional tool for many dogs who just don’t know what to do with themselves when their people are gone and get that overwhelming urge to bake.
- Not teaching me to be alone from the start. By taking me everywhere, mama wasn’t setting me up for success for the day that she had to go and get the kind of job where I couldn’t come with her. She should have practiced leaving me alone from the very first day she brought me home, for varying lengths of time.
- Making a big deal about comings and goings. Mama and dad would fuss over me before they would leave, which is how I learned that them leaving was a Really Big Deal. They’d also get super excited when they came home, so that became an RBD too.
- Letting me rule the roost. I still think Lee was wrong on this one, but apparently letting me sleep wherever I want, eat whenever I feel like it, and climb all over everybody all the time was only contributing to my anxiety, rather than helping it. And we all thought that they were just being nice to me.
Before we sought help, my worrying just got worse and worse. Mama says her “favorite” baking project I ever did while she wasn’t home was when I decided to try baking with the dirt from the tomato plant pots. Mama and dad planted a container garden one spring, and when it got too cold outside they would bring the containers inside. Well wouldn’t you know, the dirt in those pots, mixed with compost and some fish emulsion, was JUST what my baking recipes had been needing. So I helped myself to some of that dirt, don’t mind if I do. Here is a picture that dad took when he got home, because mama was away on a busy-ness trip and he wanted to make sure she saw how embarrassed I was. Thanks a lot, dad.
So we started training. We went to a lesson once every two weeks, and practiced every day for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. We did lots of drills where I just had to sit and be good and mama would feed me hot dogs. At least, it seemed that way. Mama says we were doing exercises to slowly get me used to her leaving and coming back, but it was so easy that it didn’t even feel like exercise. It just felt like she was feeding me hot dogs. Lee said that was how we knew we were going slow enough, whatever that means.
Over time, I got better. Here are a few of the general things that we did (in addition to desensitization) to help me be a cool
- I started staying in a dog-proofed room while my people were away. I don’t chew on furniture or pillows or anything, so for me that just meant a room with no trash cans, baking supplies, smelly socks, or anything else that I could occupy myself with.
- I started eating all of my food out of kongs, gatorade bottles, and other food-dispensing devices. This meant no more bowls, ever. Instead of having two meals at regular mealtimes, I would get little snacks throughout the day. Lee said that this would help me exercise my brain so that it would be too tired for baking experiments while mama and dad were away.
- I started always getting an activity to do when they left. Usually, mama would fix a big batch of frozen kongs stuffed with dry food, wet food, peanut butter, yogurt, bananas, and chopped up veggies at the beginning of the week. Those were my favorite snacks, and I would get one every morning when the people would leave. I didn’t think this would happen, but it turned going-to-work time into an “oh goodie!” time instead of an “oh no!” time.
- They stopped loving me when they came home. When they got home, I would get super wound up and bounce around, jump, sniff, wiggle, and act as cute as I could, but they just plain stopped loving me. Once I calmed down and went back to my dog bed, they would come over and love me like they always had. I didn’t like this whole idea one bit, but I guess it did teach me that their coming home was No Big Deal.
- Exercise, exercise, exercise. We went on at least two 30 minute walks per day, and at least one or two shorter ones. Going out in the yard and very short walks was not enough to keep me tired and relaxed, so we started going on adventures. At least once a week, we had to go to a new place. We learned that new places were more exciting and more exhausting, and helped me be more flexible. I have always had a good downward dog, so I think they must mean emotionally flexible, not physically flexible.
Now don’t get me wrong — I am still a very sensitive boy and I get nervous quite easily. Whenever something out of the ordinary is happening, I get a furrowed brow and a very concerned look on my face. Mama seems to think it’s cute, and always complements me on how expressive I am. But mama and dad have learned how to manage my anxiety, and I have learned how to cope pretty well. Now when it’s time for them to go to work, I eagerly wait for my yummy treat and trot happily into my room to eat it before having a nice long nap. If you ever come over to the house I will still squeal with excitement and jump and bounce like a tightly wound spring, but I will settle down much faster.
And I let mama and dad do all the baking. The fosters and I just help.