“And You Look Like a Pit Bull”

I knew when I got Herbie that owning a pit bull came with certain stigma. I was prepared for people to be afraid of her. I was prepared for people to cross the street to avoid us on walks. I was ready for the comments about how pit bulls are dangerous and can’t be trusted. I was prepared to have to work harder to find a place to live, a place to stay, a place to walk my dog.

What I wasn’t prepared for was for the dog’s feelings to get hurt about it. I figured most people who didn’t like pits would simply avoid her and that was fine by me. You don’t have to like my dog. I like her and that’s enough.

Herbie is a happy go lucky, sweet, and friendly dog. She greets everyone with enthusiasm and cheer. People are her best friends, and she will try to entice anyone to play fetch with her until she drops. To Herbie, all humans are created equal and she loves them all. Sadly for her, she is a pit bull, and the feeling is not always mutual. I go to great strides to make sure that the hatred people feel towards my dog because of her breed never affects her. We live at an apartment with a landlord who adores our dogs. All of our friends love Herbie and Julio. We go to endurance rides where many other riders have their own pits and pit mixes and spend time fawning over our dogs. I still deal with some breed hate on a regular basis, but my dogs have no idea.

There is one encounter in particular, however, that stands out in my mind. This is the tale of one woman’s ignorance and the day it left me standing at the side of the trail, wanting to wrap my dog in a protective hug, like the parent of a kid who is being bullied at school.

Herbie and her friend playing in the mud.

When Herbie was about a year old, we went hiking at a pretty popular park in north Jersey. We met a friend and her black lab there for the day, and the dogs were having a grand old time. We wound up taking one of the more crowded paths through the park, and both dogs were on leash, walking like good dogs do.

We reached the top of a hill and a woman was walking the other way. She spotted our friend’s lab and got really excited.

“Is that a lab? I love labs! My friend has a lab and I take him for walks and I love him. I wish my husband would let me have dogs. I would have all labs. Lab lab lab lab lab…”

She was fawning all over our friend’s dog, petting her, kissing her, and gushing up a storm. Meanwhile, Herbie was sitting politely on the end of her leash, ears pricked, eyes bright, tail wagging, waiting for her turn.

What happened next left me stunned.

The woman finished petting my friend’s dog, stood up, brushed off her pants, looked directly at Herbie, sitting merely two feet away, and said, “And you… look like a pit bull. And I make a point of never petting a pit bull.”

She spun on her heel and walked away. Herbie looked absolutely crushed. She hung her head, and looked forlornly over her shoulder at us, as if to ask what she had done wrong. The other dog had gotten pats and kisses. Herbie had gotten the cold shoulder.

It was a moment that broke my heart. As I stood on the trail, mouth gaping open and shut like a fish out of water, I formulated many responses, most of which are too snarky and rude to post on this blog. In the end, my overwhelming thought was, “Well, nobody asked you!”

I am a proud pit bull owner, and am lucky enough to have many people in my life who adore both of my big, bully dogs. While I have to take extra precautions about certain things (and read the fine print on “dog friendly” areas), my dogs have no idea what breed they are. They don’t know that they’re different. They don’t know that there’s a whole community of people who can’t stand them or wish them harm. But on that day, Herbie knew, and that bothered me more than all the anonymous hate combined.

That’s the thing about breed hate. Sure, it hurts the dogs in the big, obvious ways: euthanasia, overcrowded shelters, people being forced to give up beloved family pets. It also hurts in small, subtle ways, ways that you just can’t explain to the dogs in question.

Watch Out for Foxtails!

As the summer sun begins to dry the grass, watch out for foxtails!

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Mature and immature foxtail grass, www.foxtaildogprotector.com

Foxtail grasses produce the annoying “sticker” awns you get stuck in your clothing and shoes as you walk through tall grass.

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Foxtail awns stuck in running shoes, www.gundogdoc.com

Foxtail is not one kind of grass–it’s several different grass species, which include:

Of all of them, Hordeum species are considered the most hazardous to dogs.

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Electron microscope picture of Hordeum, Wikipedia

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Anatomy of Setaria foxtail, www.mutantmillets.org

Foxtail grasses have retrorse (meaning, bent or pointing backward) barbs.  These barbs are designed to grab and hold onto whatever touches them. The barbs hold on with such tenacity that efforts to dislodge them, such as scratching and chewing, only cause the awn to dig in more deeply.  And while this is an excellent dispersal strategy for the grass, it can be deadly for the dog.  Foxtail awns will snag fur and skin alike, most commonly embedding themselves in the ears (causing rupture of the eardrum, infection, and hearing loss,)  nose (resulting in tremendous pain, uncontrolled sneezing, and breathing impairment,) and paws (causing pain and lameness).  They can also become embedded in the eyes, genitals, and even burrow their way inward into internal organs.  As the grass awns do not break down in the body, they must be manually removed, usually with invasive surgery.

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A foxtail awn stuck in a dog’s paw.  Seattle DogSpot and mypetlovesdcah.com

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Foxtail awn embedded in a dog’s eye, www.gundogdoc.com

When green, foxtail grasses look like unripe wheat and feel deceptively soft to the touch. While pretty in their immature phase, these grasses are highly invasive and can be found nearly anywhere there is a small amount of dirt and moisture.  And once established, foxtails are tremendously difficult to fully eradicate.

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Foxtail in downtown Seattle, Seattle DogSpot

Prevention, then, is the best plan for foxtails, and eradicating foxtail grasses requires a diligent approach.  Foxtails are easily out-competed by turf grass in a well tended lawn, so regular mowing helps prevent foxtails from ever showing up.  If foxtails have already sprouted, it is important to use a bag on your mower to contain the grass cuttings and help prevent unintentional disbursal of the seed awns.  Do not use a weedwhacker type machine as these only serve to spread the awns far and wide on your lawn.

Another method for foxtail containment is to use a selective herbicide, one that is harmless to turf grass but deadly to foxtails. Herbicides containing Dacthal, Balan or Pendimathaline are considered moderately effective, as they target foxtails while leaving turf grasses uninjured, but they only work as pre-emergent herbicides.  They will have little to no effect on established foxtail. For established foxtails, use a non-selective herbicide, such as glyphosate.   And always whenever you are using chemical controls, it is imperative that you ensure no runoff reaches waterways to avoid environmental damage.

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Water Hyacinth, Zak Thatcher

But what if you and your dog are enjoying the great outdoors?  How do you protect yourself from foxtails then?

1.  Be mindful of areas where foxtails like to grow.  As foxtails tend to be out-competed by grass, they thrive in areas where the turf is sparse and the terrain rugged.  Be careful of long grass areas as well, as some species of foxtails can survive well and be hidden in overgrown turf.

2.  Be careful to brush off and shake out your clothing after hiking, as foxtail awns can be hidden in fabric, pant cuffs, and shoes.

3.  Check your dog frequently during your hike for awns and grass stickers.  Groom thoroughly upon return from the hike, being sure to check paws, ears, nose, and other areas where foxtail awns can hide.

4.  Consider using a foxtail guard on your dog to help prevent the awns from embedding in the face and neck areas.

So have fun this summer and enjoy walking, hiking, and playing with your dog.  But be careful and watch out for foxtails!

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Luka says “Happy hiking!”

 

How I lost my best friend and found a new one all in one day.

If you follow us on Facebook, you might have seen that I put Luce to sleep last Friday. Luce was my first dog, my first competition dog, and my savior. She taught me so much about dogs, about training, about creativity and patience and forgiveness. And unconditional love.

She was 12 1/2 and it was showing not just in her arthritic body, but in her brain. She wasn’t my dog anymore. She was so senile that she’d bark and bark and nothing could make it better. She didn’t greet me anymore. It just wasn’t my Luce anymore when I looked into her cloudy eyes. I couldn’t watch her like that, so I scheduled her an appointment right before my therapy appointment, and I held her in my arms as she went to sleep. And then I held her in my arms some more while I sobbed in privacy over her empty body.

There will never be another dog like Luce. There will never be another dog who will be able to teach me as much as she did.

My best girl.

My best girl.

I had sworn before she died, for months and months, no new dogs. Three is plenty.
I had especially sworn no more pit bulls. They’re too much trouble. The dog/dog issues complicate things with sports. They all blow out their knees. The social stigma is wearing. The legal crap is always that threat hanging in the background.

But somehow I found myself at the shelter where I adopted Luce. I wandered through their kennels without seeing anything that I liked (lots of cute small dogs there– unusual!)

And then I drove to the shelter in my county, not expecting much. They’re small. Not much to choose from. And who knows if a shelter will even adopt to me with my intact dog and my Steve who I knew would hate any dog at a meet-and-greet and they’d just have to take my word for it that he would settle with time and I could handle it.

So with all of that in my head, I walked into the kennels, and there he was.

Luce put him there. That’s the only way.

McLovin

McLovin

45 pounds, the size a pit bull should be. Cute as a button. Young. And more interested in me than in what was going on outside his back kennel door.

So I went up front and asked. Will you adopt to someone who has an intact dog at home? She said all of our dogs and spayed or neutered before they leave, so that is not a problem. Logic! Yes!

So then the next scary question– I know one of my dogs will hate him at the meet and greet but that he will also settle down with time and space. Would you still adopt to me? She said as long as when my dog did his jerk stuff that the dog I was interested in didn’t want to eat him in return, they’d be ok with it.

I said can I meet McLovin?

So I did some paperwork and then they brought him up to one of the getting to know you rooms and this dog is freaking perfect. He’s goofy and floppy. He likes to play ball. He likes to tug. He likes me a really lot. He likes to play but he’s not bouncing off the walls.

They offer to let me take him for a walk outside, so we do that and he’s distracted by all the cool stuff going on, but a “puppy puppy puppy!” from me brings him right back to my side.

What a good dog. And he’s just nice. He’s even-keeled. He likes other dogs (and hopefully will continue to), he’s fine with cats, he loves people of all shapes and sizes.

I put him on hold for 24 hours so I could think about it, but really I didn’t need to. I had already fallen in love. This dog, he’s nothing like Luce but he immediately settled into that pit-bull-shaped hole in my stomach. He’d already taken up residency in my heart.

Saturday I loaded up my three idiots and drove them down to the shelter, where the shelter staff took them from me one at a time and introduced them to McLovin. None of them loved him immediately, but they parallel walked them for a bit and tried again once everybody had settled down. They were good at knowledgeable about what they were doing, and even Steve was tolerant and unworried by the end of his intro.

And so I own another pit bull.

In love all over again

In love all over again

His name is Trek now, and eventually I’ll register him as Siren’s Improbable Journey. I hope that he will play flyball and rally obedience. I hope that he will be a rockin’ hiking companion. He’s already a great cuddle buddy.

It’s amazing to me how he just slipped into my life like he’s always been here. It amazes me that I could fall in love again so quickly.

I never thought of myself as a “breed” person. There are tons of breeds of dogs that I like and would like to own someday. But it looks like I might always have to own a pit bull. It looks like the breed might have chosen me.

The Dog Days of Summer: Use Sunscreen!

CerberusBy my good fortune of having Scottish skin in an Australian climate, I have more than a passing familiarity with sunburns. I have had more than my fair share of epic sunburns, even though Australia is flooded with public service announcements about the importance of SLIPPING on a shirt, SLOPPING on some sunscreen, and SLAPPING on a hat! It might actually be worse now that I live in the northern US, because after the long, painful winter, all I want to do is go out and bask in the sun. This inevitably leads to another wicked burn, and then I eventually recommit – again – to sun protection. Until next summer, at least.

But I’m not the only fair-skinned member of my household. My “jackpit,” Firefly, has very thin, white hair that in some places only barely covers her pink skin. Her muzzle, head and ears are particularly exposed, and this makes me concerned that she will burn quickly in the sun. Did you know that dogs can get sunburned just like humans? Sun damage can cause skin cancer in dogs just like it does in humans, too. These cancers can be fatal, so the best course of action is to prevent them by protecting your pooch.

So, what can you do? It might sound silly, but you should put sunscreen on the parts of your dog not covered well by his fur – so, for Fly, I should put sunscreen on her head, muzzle, ears, and maybe even her naked belly. You may also need to apply sunscreen to areas where your pet has recently lost hair, e.g. any shaved areas or bald patches, like healing “hot spots”, scars, or areas of hair loss due to allergies.

You can use fragrance-free human sunscreens (stick to the more gentle and non-toxic infant formulas), but just be careful your dog doesn’t lick a lot of the sunscreen off. If you’re worried that your dog will lick the sunscreen, you could invest in a pet-safe formula like Epi-Pet Sun Protector. Don’t skimp on your application – you need to use plenty of sunscreen and re-apply it every few hours, especially if your pet is getting wet! Re-apply after swimming and every four hours during the most dangerous time of day, 10AM – 3PM. Remember that you and your pet can STILL GET BURNED even when it is overcast, so apply sunscreen whenever you plan to be outside.

Just For Fun

d jump 2About a year ago, I attended a talk about planning for a brilliant career in agility. I always enjoy hearing people talk about the sport and seeing what sorts of things I can take home to my work with Dahlia. Going to these sorts of talks has often solidified things in my mind and even made me realize things I wasn’t aware of before. The first one I went to made me realize that by talking down my dog’s performance, I was creating a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and making the whole thing very much not fun for myself. It changed the way I related to my dog and it changed the way I looked at the game we played.

This time was no different.

The instructor got on the topic of how agility should be fun. And one woman, almost annoyed at this idea, asked the all-important question: “Ok fun is fine and all that, but who is really doing this for something other than that Q?”

I raised my hand without thinking and said “Well, me.”

And that’s when it hit me.

I wasn’t just taking a break from trials. I was done trialing.

In January 2013, Dahlia and I had a disastrous trial. She was so stressed out that she simply didn’t move off the start line. I had to hook her up and take her out on leash. It happened twice at the same trial and so I scratched her from the rest of it and went home.

It turned out to not be a one-time thing.

We went to other trials with similar results. She would be fine in class, happy even, but then we’d go to a trial and she’d shut down completely. I got the questions, of course. Why is your dog like that? What’s wrong with her? I imagined the looks, the heads shaking, the Is that dog even trained? What did she do to cause that to happen?

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This is a real t-shirt I wear.

I’m sure no one was thinking anything of the sort, but the thoughts were in my mind regardless. Which made me more stressed. Which made my dog more stressed. Which led to a complete break-down in communication.

The trial stress started to invade classes. By the time July of that year rolled around, Dahlia was having the same issues at class as she had been having at trials. We struggled to get her to pay attention to me, struggled to do even the simplest of things. Two jumps in a row? She couldn’t handle it.

I almost threw in the towel, but instead my instructor suggested taking a break from trials to focus on Dahlia’s stress-related issues. So we did that, taking one jump out to a quiet place in the park and rebuilding her confidence in a low-stress environment.

By the time October rolled around, I had a completely different dog. Her speed was increasing, her focus had increased, she was excited and happy and moving. We were doing Excellent and Masters levels courses in class and while we weren’t the best dogs in class (not by far!) we were holding our own.

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I vowed to take her back to a trial in April..

And then didn’t.

I vowed to take her back that following October.

And then didn’t.

The following April rolled around and still I didn’t take her to a trial.

And that’s when I finally realized it. We weren’t taking classes to prep for our next trial. We were just doing it because it was fun.

When you’re involved in dog sports, you hear from a lot of people that it’s supposed to be fun. That if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong. That it has to be fun for the dog. The reality is that going to trials was not fun for Dahlia and I. She was unreliable at trials, sometimes moving with great speed and excitement but often shutting down completely. I got stressed at trials, which contributed to the problem. I would wake the morning of a trial with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach and I dreaded walking to that line when I was there. What should have been a fun hobby was very much not fun for me or for Dahlia.

Could I have forced the issue? Taken her to trial after trial to try to get her used to the atmosphere, paid money to do a jump or two and throw a party? Certainly. But why?

We were having fun without the trials and Q’s and ribbons.

d jump 3And that’s not something a lot of people are taught when they step into agility classes. You can do agility just for fun. You can do it because it increases your dog’s confidence. You can do it because it strengthens your bond with your dog. You can do it because it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun.

That’s become my measure for a good class: Did my dog have fun? If not, assess what went wrong and try to get back to its being fun. If she did, then carry on. We go each and every week and we work our tails off and we come out smiling.

For me, that’s a greater reward than any Q or ribbon ever could be.