It’s strawberry season! I don’t know if that’s true in the rest of the country (or world for that matter) but here in California the little roadside stands that have stood closed for months are now open to sell their poor-traveling wares to a grateful public. In between work and home I passed by a stand and practically caused an accident as I careened into the little dirt parking lot and skidded to a stop. A few minutes later I was walking back to my car with a half flat of these beauties.
I’d thought about building a cattery for my cat family (Mama Kali and grown babies: Ivy, Morpheus and Percheron) almost as soon as I had moved into my current house in 2001. It was always “Oh, that’d be so cool. The cats would love it so much!” what finally spurred me to action wasn’t the coolness, or the wow factor, it was more of an Ugh factor.
It wasn’t good enough. Having Hershey less scared of the broom wasn’t a victory. It didn’t purge the monster who had beaten her so memorably from her life. It was still sad to see her slink out of the room whenever I swept.
Normally, having an excuse to not have to clean is great! This was more important than my laziness though. This was about the quality of my dog’s life; this was about her not having to live in fear, and with somethings she wasn’t. Out in the yard, a stick or yard tool in my hand no longer sent her running for the far corner! Sticks or a Chuckit! at the dog park were no longer objects of terror.
So after a hiatus (six months maybe, probably more like a year) we started up again. The good news was that what we had worked on before had held! We could start off this second time around with her touching the broom right away!
To up the ante further the broom was going to touch her! Needless to say, Hershey was dubious of this plan. The pattern was the same as before: Broom, retreat, resetting (or resitting) repeat with broom, reward any sign of progress. Eventually that worked too! The broom could touch her!
Still, I couldn’t actually sweep around her. It was hard to juggle sweeping and treating at the same time. If I left treats on the ground they’d be gobbled too fast and she’d be free to flee after she’d sucked them all up! At the suggestion of a friend who’d used it training her own dogs I tried… Cheez Wiz. It can’t be gobbled up all at once, she had to stay and keep licking if she wanted it, and boy did she want it!
After that, it was like the fear was gone. I could get out the broom, and sweep and not have to worry. In a few short weeks she went from wary but laying on the couch, to dead to the world while I chased the dust bunnies to their inevitable doom. In a month or two I forgot that it was even an issue. I was sweeping, she was laying on the couch (she does actually move, I swear!) and I stopped and remembered what she’d been through to get there. I couldn’t be prouder of her.
So everything was fixed, her fears have been banished forever, never to trouble her again.
I sincerely wish.
In the last few months I’ve noticed a pattern. The fear of brooms has generalized to anything unusual, or unexpected in my (or other’s) hand: a bottle, wine glass, hose, magnifying glass, anything she hasn’t seen before (or often) evokes a response. She doesn’t flee the room like the bad old days but she is nervous and hesitant to come close when an unknown thing is in my hand.
The fear that was beaten into her at such a young age is still there. It may be withered and dry, but like any weed it is adapting to conditions and trying to resurface. How do we beat it now? Will we really be able to? Maybe some part of it will be there her whole life. But for now, I can be satisfied with the fact that she can sleep on the couch while I clean up around her.
Hershey came to me with scars; not physical scars, but mental ones. It quickly became apparent that she wasn’t that trustful of men; ironic, considering who adopted her. I quickly gained her trust, but even today there are men she is fearful around.
Her other big fear, I soon found out, was brooms, or sticks, or canes, or Harry Potter wands; anything stick-like and in someone’s hand. I found this out fairly early on when what I thought was the two of us running around the yard having fun was actually her fleeing in terror because I had a stick in my hand.
It was confirmed even more at a friend’s one evening. She went from having fun with her best buddy Rex, to running tucked tail into the next room when my friend’s grandmother stood up, cane in hand.
Everyone who saw this behavior from her came to the same conclusion: that at some point in her short life before she came into mine, someone had beaten her. Considering she was about six months old when I got her, that means that someone, probably a man, given her feelings about guys she doesn’t know, took a broom to her during the most formative months of her life.
The idea that someone had beaten my sweet girl (never mind the fact she hadn’t been mine at the time) filled me with rage, as well as a desire to do something about it. While ideas about finding this ‘man’ and making him as afraid of brooms as she was were lovely revenge fantasies, they didn’t end the heartbreaking scene of my otherwise trusting and fearless dog bolting from the room whenever I needed to sweep. So not being able (in a practical, moral, or legal sense) to beat the ‘man,’ I decided we’d beat the behavior.
We started small. We worked in short sessions a few days a week, and I tried hard to pay attention to when she was at her limits. First, I asked her to sit and stay on the couch at one end of the room while I brought the broom out at the other end. Any hint of a lack of fear was generously treated. Over the days and weeks the broom got closer and closer to her.
Sitting still on the couch was too much for her, but letting the broom get closer while keeping the table between herself and the broom was tolerable. It got to where she could stand to be with me standing close to her with the broom while treating, and treating, and treating. So far, so good. Now to up our game.
The first time I lifted the broom off the floor while standing close to her she bolted, and the second time, and the third. After a number of sessions she was able to stay, behind the table while the broom came toward her.
We got to where she would touch the broom! She would raise a paw and touch it! I could have cried, I probably did, a little.
And after that, I slacked off. She wasn’t as afraid of the broom as she had been before. She simply left the room instead of bolting when I swept. It was good enough, right?
It was good enough.
The problem with having a small, observant dog in a houseful of cats is that their behaviors sometimes rub off on him. For example, the cats are alone most of the day with the run of the house, so it’s hard to keep them from being places I don’t want them. Which is probably why I came out one morning to find this:
Anyone with cross-species behavioral quirks to share? I’d love to hear them!
Given the rumored El Niño that’s supposed to wash California into the sea (still waiting, Kiddo!) and the satanically hot summers the San Joaquin Valley endures (I’ve witnessed many a squirrel burst into flames*) I thought it would be a good idea to install a dog door to the back yard.
The installation early last year went off fairly well (I still have all my thumbs), and the dogs learned to use it in short order.
The complication has been with the cats.
I can’t leave it open all the time as the solely indoor cats, who in truth are more like furry filter feeders than mighty, wild hunters, will slip outside and make themselves confused and panicked indoor cats. They have their own access to the outside anyway in the form of the cattery I spent way too much time and money building for them. So the dog door spends most of its time closed and is only open when I’m away and the weather is inclement. It that case the cats get about a third of the house (my bedroom, the work/cat/junk room, and the cattery while the dogs get the rest of the house and the back yard. That is, if Eris cooperates.
She is a Former Feral (or at least semi-feral) and is highly disinterested in being picked by stinky humans with their spindly, bone paws (and honestly, what would you do if you saw THIS coming at you?!) If she deigns to grace your lap with her presence be honored, but Do. Not. Pick. Up.
So the strategies I have used to get her where I want have been the following:
- Wait until she goes there. This is the least traumatic for all involved, but involves waiting for her to go eat in the cattery or lounge on the bed. This often isn’t an option with my complicated “having to be at work on time,” problems.
- Coaxing her. This has never worked.
- Picking her up suddenly before she knows I’m coming for her and hoping she doesn’t send me to the emergency room. This has never worked. She ALWAYS knows I’m coming for her.
- Chasing her around the house until I have her cornered, pick her up, and hope she doesn’t send me to the emergency room. This works occasionally, but is time consuming, and nerve wracking for all involved.
- Chase and barricade. This is relatively new, has worked a few times, and is relatively untraumatic. I pursue her into the kitchen, block off the door to the rest of the house and pick up or herd her into the cat room. I’m thinking it will be viable until she realizes that she shouldn’t run into the kitchen. Then I’ll be back to options 1 and 4.
As is often the case, I have what seems like a great idea, spend a good deal of time, effort and dinero on it, only to have the actual operation of said great idea made more complicated by cats.
*This statement is what the French would call “merde du boeuf.”**
**So is this. They’d actually say “C’est des conneries!”
Before Hershey I’d never uttered the phrase: “stop licking the sofa.”