Tuesday, January 31, 2012

More T-Touch and Impulse Control

With our newfound commitment to an ambitious self-improvement program, Fozzie and I were ready for our second T-Touch session last week. 

We went into Pam's bathroom to start out with, so she could work with Fozzie in a small space where there was not too much for him to sniff, explore, and distract himself with. 

As before, he spent the first 10 minutes or so doing everything he could to keep busy and avoid just "Being Here Now," as us hippies would say. Sniffing the toilet, the floor, the picture frame, the window, the door, the towel rack for God's sake, then whining, pacing, circling, wagging, and looking at us entreatingly. 

After a while, he finally just lay down. Pam then started narrating all the little releases she saw. Stomach gurgle-yay! Release! Burp--Yay! Sigh, yawn, lip lick, blink, flatulence--yay!

She began doing some cranio-sacral work on him, just holding the bones of his cranium as they shifted around slightly. His lips and nose began to twitch, and Pam told me when she felt his C2 vertebra release. 

And I thought, here's a dog who was hours away from being thrown away like so much trash, and now he has a T-Touch practitioner tuning in to his C2 vertebra and helping it release. Pretty cool. I wish every impulsive shelter dog awaiting rescue could get that kind of attention.  

Pam taught me a simple impulse control exercise. Sit in a chair with the dog sitting between your legs, facing away. Hold the dog's collar and just wait. 

The dog, depending on his impulsivity, will whine, struggle, paw, chew on your hands. Ignore it. Avoid eye contact and just take away any of your body parts that is being chewed upon. Eventually, the dog will lie down. Great. Keep holding the dog until he really relaxes, so when you let go he doesn't just bounce up. When you do let go, just calmly flow into getting up and doing whatever you were doing, without making a big fuss. It works like absolute magic and is a dream for any dog that is all over the place with energy and doesn't know what to do with him or herself. I tried it on Sandy the other night when she was bouncing around like a maniac, and she fell asleep, and then stayed asleep. 

After Fozzie spent some time getting in touch with himself in the bathroom, we went outside to do some groundwork. Groundwork is as integral to TTouch as is the bodywork component; it's the part where the dog gets to practice walking through obstacles, over novel surfaces, etc. so that he learns to pay attention to his body even when in stimulating outdoor environments. 

I'd brought Fozzie with his head halter and a body harness. Pam walked Fozzie through a PVC labyrinth and over some obstacles she created with boards, and showed me how to gently lead his head with me when he stares at a squirrel, tenses at a dog he sees in the distance, or otherwise starts to react. The main force of my pull is on his body harness; there is a gentle tug, but not a yank, on the head halter to make sure we don't injure that burly-looking-but-still-vulnerable neck.

She lifted his paws and rotated his legs as he stood on the board, to get him to loosen up those tense things as he inclined toward a squirrel.

I was glad that Pam got to see how impossible it is to get his attention back once he fixates on something. She was confident, though, that with regular practice of impulse control, TTouch to get him more grounded, and gentle work with the head halter, we will be able to get his attention at some point down the line.

Fozzie loves all the sweet attention he gets with Pam and I love learning so much about progressive, even revolutionary ways to interact with my powerful, distracted, sensitive, misunderstood friend.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Lessons Learned from a Sleepover

To get some more help and perspective in resolving my two-year-long dilemma over whether to keep Fozzie or keep searching for his perfect adopter, recently I decided to let him go on a sleepover with a prospective adopter. This was our friend who had expressed an interest in adopting him, but--for good reason--hasn't been sure. We thought it would be good for both of us to see what it was like to have him with her, and away from me, for a short trial. 

It was a good exercise. As I stood on the curb watching her car pull away with Fozzie's worried face looking out the side, I felt my heart rip in pieces. I felt like a terrible parent, abandoning my baby after going through so much with him. 

That evening, with just two dogs clamoring for attention and space on the bed, the calmness that we experienced was incredible. In the morning, just having to go on one walk was a delight. Lamar was more relaxed. Everything was easier, but we still missed our Fozzie. As many of you have helpfully noted, after two years he really does feel like my dog. And much as I love the others, Fozzie has a sensitivity and a closeness to us that is unique. 

I'm glad Fozzie's back, and Florian is certainly glad. Fozzie slept deeply as soon as he got back, and has seemed even more grateful and sensitive than usual. 

So I won't call it quite an epiphany, more like a few more nails in the coffin of the idea that I could let him go. What its done is made me feel a commitment to him that wasn't there before. Now, since I see how little chance there is that he'll end up with someone else, I get to make him into my little project. I get to take his sensitivity, his intelligence, his gentle mouth, his athleticism and get him to realize his potential in all those ways. This is going to be fun!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

T-Touch for Fozzie

Despite having some small successes with a few techniques, Fozzie's reactivity when he sees another dog on leash has not changed substantially from when I first got him. 

When we go on a hike where we see other people and dogs--like to Great Falls or Harper's Ferry--it is a serious pain to manage him in all his lunging, barking strength and muscularity. We generally have to find a rock to hide behind. 

This is one of my main reasons for feeling that Fozzie might be best in another home, with a person who doesn't frequent popular trails or someone who has only Fozzie and so can dedicate more attention to working with him. But since the right adopter for Fozzie may never materialize, I have been racking my brains for a trainer who might be able to address his unique issues. I already know a fair amount about the techniques that work with many reactive dogs--those that are fear-reactive and will accept treats when on walks--so I needed someone who could bring us a really new perspective. 

I've been meaning forever to have a session with my friend Pam Wanveer of Woodside TTouch, but kept forgetting or putting it off because I thought Fozzie was about to be adopted. I decided it was time! 

Note stiff front left paw
Pam is so great. It was she who taught me and Tashi about the use of an anxiety wrap, and she reminded me how helpful that could be for Fozzie. She had some great insights about how he perceives the world.

Fozzie doesn't know how to relax. His skin all over is tight, showing just how tensely he holds himself. Even when he's resting, he tries to keep some part of himself stiff--like those front paws that stretch out and push against Florian's chest when they're cuddling. 

As she touched him, he started to sniff all over the room, rub against her, and then stare at me and whine. This is his way of processing anxiety--when he doesn't know what to do with himself, he gets busy. 

I, of course, am in the habit of petting him, comforting him, talking to him when he stares at me and whines, or climbs in my lap, or humps Florian's leg (one of his nighttime activities lately). 

So there are several ways that we can help Fozzie learn new ways of dealing with his anxiety. If I can resist the urge to respond when he demands attention by climbing, whining, or humping, then he will start learning that calm, self-controlled behavior is rewarding. 

If I do lots of massage around his head and his nose and mouth, we'll release endorphins and start to help him relax and get more grounded.

If I put a calming elastic on his face, he may start to feel less nervous around his mouth, and less prone to barking and mouthing (let's whip out those calming elastics for Sandy's mouthiness, Lamar's barking, and Florian's nonstop talking while we're at it!)

If I put an anxiety wrap on him, he may start to learn that he doesn't have to hold his muscles and skin so tightly.

After the first twenty minutes with Pam, during which Fozzie whined and moaned and paced around, finally he plotzed out on the floor next to her, wrapped in his Ace bandage and his elastic band, and was down for the count. Same when we got home. Now let's see if we can manifest that same calmness on a walk!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Environmental impediments to sleep

When I tell people about my struggles with sleep, sometimes they ask me whether there's something in my environment that might be adding to the trouble. 

I've heard that it's not good to have too many plants in the bedroom, because they have a lot of life energy and that can disturb the mind's ability to shut down.

Somehow, if life energy in the bedroom is to blame, I don't think I'm going to point the finger at my houseplants.

The bed is one of Sandy and Fozzie's favorite wrestle zones, and Lamar's absolute favorite place to growl at both of them.

Aside from all that, Florian sleeps like a combination between a tornado and a burrito. By an hour or two into the night, the covers are all either wrapped tightly around him or strewn on the floor. 

While he lies diagonally across the middle of the bed. 

And Fozzie is lodged in a circle between our heads, and Sandy is stretched out against my legs. Making my prospects of negotiating a more or less comfortable position with some blanket coverage just about hopeless.

I suppose if I really thought the heaps of dogs and diagonal tornado boyfriend were affecting my sleep, I'd do something about them. 

I'd put them all on Petfinder (I hear Swiss ballet dancers get adopted really fast) and just go run off with my budgies. 

Fortunately, my problem goes way deeper and the life energy in my bed doesn't seem to affect it one way or the other. As long as I have access to my full array of Non-Canine Sleep Aids, I think all of my little packets of excess life energy are going to stay. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Adventurous and Illegal

This past week offered an opportunity to go on another Swiss Mystery Hike. Florian loves to take me and all the dogs somewhere for a hike without telling us where we're going. 

Zuzi, where are you taking me? is my usual question.
Don't worry zuzu, I bring you to thees amazing place, is the only response.  

This time, I figured out pretty quickly that we were headed to Great Falls along the Potomac in MD. The first part of the hike is along a wide trail above the river.

Then you follow the C & O Canal, which parallels the river. 

Then, we took a detour off this main trail and I started to remember the particular place we were going.  

That magical place where we took Tashi a few months before she passed, where a landscape of rocks and forest opens up between the canal and the river and where the rocks tower above the river, creating a canyon almost like where Tashi and I used to visit the hot springs on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. 

Once again, Sandy channeled Tashi as she stood looking out over the river from those warm sunny rocks.  

On our way out, we found the sign for the trail we'd been on and found it was the infamous Billy Goat Trail. A trail I'd wanted to check out forever but due to the treacherousness of the rocky terrain, no dogs are allowed. 

Good thing we didn't know that before we did the trail! Leave it to that Swiss guy to push us to the limit every time. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Grooming avec Florian

Ever since I met him, I've been thinking I should find some way to use my boyfriend's fabulous name to my financial advantage. 

I think this grooming thing may be just the ticket. Just imagine the business cards:
Dog Care by Florian

Clients would be beating down the door.

Florian has been saying for years that he wants to get into "dog business" too, and as the body gets a little old for airborne leaps and lifting of all sorts of ballerinas, connecting with dogs for a living gets more and more appealing.

The other night I got a chance to try out my prospective business partner. It was time to groom Mars and Zoe again, the sweet golden doodles I've seen many times before. They came a bit late, and I always forget how long it takes me to groom doodles, so it was getting on into the evening and I was feeling ready to throw in the towel and I hadn't even started on Mars yet.

It was hard to believe the enthusiasm with which Florian took to washing and blow drying first Zoe and then Mars.

While I brushed out Mars, I could hear in the bathroom sounds of water gently flowing, sounds of cooing, of whispering. Sounds of...tongue kissing?

Zuzi, not with the client dogs!

That's so unprofessional.

Zoe and Mars did seem strangely relaxed and refreshed after their grooming, and their people seemed happy with the job. I guess no one needs to know about the...special treatment...dogs receive when they sign up for grooming chez Florian, zee amaazing Swiss groomer.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wintry Wanderings

The extra day off this week gave us the opportunity to explore the Patapsco Valley State Park, a vast land of many trails surrounding the Patapsco River near Ellicot City in Maryland. 

I love these hilly forest hikes in the winter, where you can see for miles around through the leafless tree branches. 

On a bracingly cold holiday Monday, there was barely anyone to worry about as all three dogs rans around like maniacs. 

Fozzie did take off after something at one point, and the others followed him over a hill. They came right back, though, and even the wild impulsive man was back soon enough.  

Maybe they--especially Sandy--don't want to miss an opportunity to play those wacky stick games. 
Dogs are so amazing--give them miles of wilderness to roam around in and they still seek our companionship. 

And I think there's even a good lesson here for those of us still working on teaching our friends better impulse control. It goes back to what I learned in the Control & Focus class I assisted in, which was based on Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed.  

If we make it rewarding enough for our dogs to be close to us, then the moment when we release them to wander is almost a let-down. They choose to be with us even when they have the opportunity to do otherwise. 

Easier said than done with some dogs--like Fozzie, who channels his inner Plott Hound and forgets he's supposed to be a biddable breed when presented with temptations like open space and the possibility of prey species. But its a good principle, and even with Fozzie I think there's hope!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Non-Canine Sleep Aids (NCSAs)

When I wrote my first post on sleep, I was initially surprised to find out how many of you also suffer from insomnia. It is such an isolating affliction, it always surprises me to hear from others who go through the same thing.

But of course, many people go through it. Insomnia is the most common sleep affliction and affects 35% of the adult population in any given year. 

I've had it for as long as I can remember, so I've had some time to think about and try lots of different treatments. 

In graduate school, I even did a cross-cultural comparison of sleep remedies in Traditional Chinese Medicine and in the herbal medicine practiced by the Dominican curanderos who practiced out of the botanicas near where I lived in New York City while I was at Columbia. 

Maybe some of these ideas will be helpful to you. 
1. Valerian. Made into a strong tea--you have to simmer the root for 5 minutes or so--it smells absolutely horrific but does induce drowsiness. A couple of times, its been enough to make me sleep. You can make it taste and smell more bearable by mixing with mint, catnip, chamomile, alfalfa, or other calming herbs. 
2. St. John's Wort. You can buy the tincture or buy the bulk herb and make tea, or make your own tincture. Never has been enough to conquer my insomnia demons but does replace mild anxiety with a nice feeling of well-being.
3. Xiao Yao Wan (Free and Easy Wanderer). Chinese herbal patent formula that corrects liver imbalance. I tried this years ago, in powder form mixed with hot water. It did induce a pleasant drowsiness that led to sleep.
4. Diphenhydramine hydrochloride (Benadryl, Tylenol PM). I discovered this when I was in Guatemala and taking Dramamine for the crazy bus rides; the related compound in Dramamine made me very sleepy. Sometimes, one of these is enough by itself. 

There are many other remedies that others have apparently used to good effect, that haven't done much for me. These include Melatonin and many herbs such as chamomile, spearmint, catnip, passionflower, hops, and kava kava. 

Then there are the allopathic remedies that most doctors don't like to prescribe because they are reputed to make things worse if you ever go off them and to require higher and higher doses to be effective. I have not found this to be the case. I've been taking one prescription pharmaceutical or the other for sleep since about 2003, and have not--as many doctors have warned me I would--had to increase my dose or found that the medication no longer worked over time. 

I have realized, especially after reading the excellent book Insomniac by Gayle Greene, that most doctors don't know a darn thing about insomnia. A common allopathic pattern seems to be to refuse the few medications that actually are specific to insomnia, and instead to try to get patients on an antidepressant. This is because most doctors do not consider insomnia to be a primary ailment, but secondary to some other psychological or medical complaint.

After doing battle with countless practitioners who tried to convince me that I was depressed or had an anxiety disorder, I am happy to finally have gone to a sleep specialist who understood that I'm fine in every respect except that I just can't sleep. Even this doctor didn't talk to me much about the underlying causes of insomnia, which Greene discusses in Insomniac--the possible overproduction of cortisol, the hormonal imbalances--but, with a seeming sense of resignation that echoed my own, he did prescribe some things that have been helpful.
1. Alprazolam (Xanax). An antianxiety drug that I got over the counter when I went to Mexico in 2003 and used for most of that year and the next. A low dose made my mind just shut down, in a good way.
2. Zolpidem tartrate (Ambien). I was first prescribed Ambien in 2002, have been taking it in small doses fairly regularly since 2005 when I started graduate school. I take a lower dose than I started with and have only increased it during stressful times. Just lets things shut down. 
3. Ambien CR. This is for when Ambien gets you to sleep, but doesn't keep you asleep. Didn't make a huge difference for me.
4. Gabapentin. Tashi took this for her arthritis so I was surprised when the sleep specialist prescribed it for me. It's also used to control seizures in epileptics. Sometimes it gets me to sleep by itself, other times I have to take a bit of Ambien too. When it works, I wake up so rested and pain-free I think at first that I slept on a different mattress. When I slept without any prescription for a few weeks recently, it was after taking Gabapentin and no Ambien for a night. I felt so relaxed the next evening that I decided to try sleeping without a pill, and succeeded, and kept on succeeding until I got a cold and lost that sleep mojo.

It feels strange to divulge the full extent of my sleep problem, and especially to discuss at length the prescription meds I take to manage it. I sound like a wacko and a druggie.

But the stigma and the misconceptions about insomnia are the reason I'm writing this. The perception that it isn't a real ailment, is only secondary to some sort of other disorder and that if I would only stop drinking coffee (which I don't drink) or alcohol (which I drink only occasionally) or get more exercise (I ride my bicycle about 40 miles a week and walk the dogs easily 10 miles a week) or treated my anxiety and depression (I'm generally pretty happy and only a little anxious) or ate meat (don't even start), I'd sleep.  

So I'm writing this for any of you bloggers who look at your blissfully snoring canines with envy, and feel like a bit of a freak that you can't just join them wherever they go when they snooze off. If you had diabetes or high cholesterol or any number of other chronic conditions, you'd take your meds in order to function and not beat yourself up about it. I do believe that insomnia is a primary physical ailment resulting from some sort of chemical thing going on in the brain and nervous system--too much of something that makes us alert or too little of something that makes us able to shut down--and that some of us need outside help in getting those things to balance.

I'd certainly prefer not to patronize the drug companies that profit from my imbalance, and to find a way to sleep that is more in keeping with my "natural" groovy crunchy way of life. But sleeping sure does make life easier, and for those nights when a tiny snoring foster piglet is not enough, I'm glad there are other options.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Harper's Ferry and Another Harrowing Hike

Rounding out this past glorious weekend was a Sunday hike to the trails surrounding Harper's Ferry, WV.

This area has always been one of our favorites, but we hadn't been there in a while. I have many warm memories of walking with my parents, or with Florian and his son Quentin, in the picturesque town by the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

Or of walking across one of the rivers--I think it must have been the Shenandoah --in the summer with Tashi, Lamar, and one of our foster dogs, and washing them because one of them--probably Tashi--had rolled in something horrifying. 

This time, we wanted to climb the trail that ascends the rocky cliff across the rivers from the town. 

We had all three dogs so knew our hike would be a lot more pleasant if we found a trail that wasn't covered with other hikers and their dogs. 

After walking along the river and the railroad tracks for a bit, we went back up to the road and found a steep trail that went directly up the side of the cliffs. 

When we got to the top, there were some incredible flat rocks that offered a view of the town right below and the rivers stretching off to the horizon. Florian has a healthy fear of heights, so didn't stay there too long. 

The dogs don't seem to have that much good sense. They prefer, when presented with a steep rocky precipice, to go to the edge of it and look over. 

On our way back to the car, we took the main trail down the mountain and so I had to detour off into the woods several times to avoid having our lunging madman go head-to-head with another dog. 

Another absolutely otherworldly hike accessed about an hour from our humble happy hippie home. And we even got some peace on the return trip home.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Blast from Foster Dogs Past

This past weekend I had news from two of my most beloved past foster dogs.

One of my favorite end-of-the-year rituals is sending a nice donation to my friends who run Animal AWARE, a no-kill sanctuary in Guatemala. I've always thought of it as a child support payment, as the sanctuary has provided a good home to my God-dog Zula, who I rescued when I was in Guatemala the summer of 2005, all these years. 

Zula is the Antigua street dog who one morning came up to me and lay on my backpack; I kept her with me a few days, got her vaccinated and spayed, and convinced my friend Xenii and her indulgent husband Martin to take her. 

All along I've agonized over whether I should send for her, but while my heart longed for her, my head said that there was no way to justify the expense and difficulty of taking in a dog who was happily situated in Guatemala, when so many dogs languish on death row right here in DC. And with my friend Xenii's donation thank-you note this year came an unexpected deliverance from my agony--the news that Zula's been adopted! By two people who love her and take her for walks around Antigua, so she gets to cruise around and see all her old haunts from the perspective of a loved, well-fed family dog and no longer that of a hungry, homeless stray. 

Somehow I never expected to hear this news, and I didn't anticipate how liberated I would feel when I heard it. There's one less dog in the world whose happiness is my responsibility. I can devote my full attention to the dogs right in front of me. Think globally, act locally.

And in another wonderful instance of connecting with a past foster dog, this weekend I also got the chance to groom PJ! PJ was only the second foster dog I had after I moved to this area. A fellow volunteer with the rescue group I was with sent out an email with his picture asking if anyone would take him, as he was running out of time at a high-kill shelter. 

He'd gotten into trouble for sending emails like that because the group had its own list of high-priority dogs who needed to be pulled first (this sort of politics is precisely why I am reluctant to get deeply involved with a rescue group again), but when PJ came off the transport I think everyone knew that the right thing had been done. 

PJ gave me a big happy wag and sniff and pulled to greet me and come in the house. Even though its been 3 years, he sure seemed to remember me and to have good associations with living here. 
PJ and Zula remind me that parting from a foster dog is not a final farewell, but an opportunity to keep alive a connection with a dog while making room in my own life to save more. An important lesson that will help me as I try to separate my sometimes overpowering emotions and love for these things, from my determination to set Fozzie and Sandy up for the best possible success in this lifetime.