Good dog! (So far)

Possum is still a very young dog, clearly not a puppy at 18 months, but not an adult either.

Until a week ago, he was, in this house, the youngest animal, the juvenile bottom of the pack, and as anyone who’s watched a pack knows, the subordinate omega position at times enjoys the considerable advantage of a lack of the burden of responsibility.

During the first seven months of his life, he apparently experienced an almost total lack of boundaries and consistency, his previous “caretakers” being very young, self-involved, and seemingly ignorant of pretty much anything about dogs and their needs, much less the needs of his particular breed. When he came to live with me, he’d had very little experience with the word “no,” and apparently none with any other attempt to structure his behavior, other than being chained to tree in the backyard of a condominium

Even after several months, I seriously wondered whether he possessed the capacity to focus enough to learn what I expected of him. He was affectionate and clearly intelligent and enjoyed being with me but I could tell he wasn’t learning what I was trying to teach him. It’s hard to describe what I felt from him, but it seemed like he just could not get still enough, his brain couldn’t get quiet enough, to focus on even the simplest training transactions, and nothing sank in. This was new to me. I’d raised my other dogs from the age of 12 weeks and while they weren’t angels, there was a willingness and an enjoyment of shared communication on their part that made things much easier.

“No.” “Sit.” “Stay.” I was far from an extreme disciplinarian and neither was I trying to teach Possum tricks, just the basics of communication he was going to need to co-exist in the multi-species household, to go on a walk, to ride in the car, to interact with other animals and humans. He might appear to get something in the short run but it wasn’t being retained, and the next time it came up, he’d act as if our former attempts had never happened. He rushed the door every time, he pulled on the leash every time, he jumped up on me every time, he grabbed my hand with his mouth every time, he chased the cat every time. I think the only reason, or at least the main reason, he didn’t chase or threaten the parrot was because it scared and confused him. (Vigilant as I am about parrot safety vis a vis the other animals, the parrot himself outdoes me. As a prey animal, he is an expert at assessing threats, as well as throwing down some powerful, highly focused, eye-pinning mojo toward anything or anyone that he perceives is a challenge to his safety. It works — the pup has always steered clear of him.)

I got Possum at seven months, and as described above, the first six months after that were an exhausting challenge. Needless to say, I was grateful when, in the winter/early spring, he began to, very gradually, show signs of “getting it.” Whether it was enough exercise and a good diet, stability, or simply a few extra months of development, I’m not sure, but things seemed to gel and he began to calm down some and also to respond better to training. It should also be noted that I got better at picking our teachable moments.

But still, when “kitten season” came with the spring and I first thought about bringing a kitten into the mix, I quickly nixed the idea because I didn’t think the pup could be trusted. While the cat-chasing had evolved into sibling roughhousing, aided and abetted by Ira the cat himself (a very large, strong, solid, strapping coon cat), I wasn’t sure the dog would be able to restrain himself with a smaller, more defenseless, animal.

Then came my chance encounter with the kitten last weekend. The escape artist of the bunch in the box from the shelter, he dashed in front of me as I arrived at a public gathering and I was pressed into emergency rescue duty to catch him before he ran outside into a crowd. On my stomach on the floor, arm extended under a piece of furniture, blindly batting aside cobwebs, I dragged him out of hiding and the rest was history. I knew I was going home with this one. Regarding the challenges posed by the dog, I reasoned we would manage it somehow.

All that said, the point of this is that I’m impressed at how Possum has handled himself, how well he’s responded to my instructions and warning about the kitten. This is a high energy dog who’s still very oral, who loves to chew and tear things up, who is possessive of the few toys the big dog allows him, who is still very impulsive, yet he’s managed so far to not just avoid harming the kitten, but to actually be gentle and restrained. Not that it’s been effortless. There was a lot of “No!” the first couple of days, as well as liberal use of the 40 oz Hudson pumping plant sprayer (my Dirty Harry big gun, capable of shooting an accurate stream from 15 feet away). In addition though, also a lot of positive conditioning when he does it right, and it’s touching to see how much he needs that, how he looks for it, and how far it goes with him.

It was only hard the first few days though. Possum has, for him, very quickly gotten it, made the change. It is not easy, I can tell. He’s sighing a lot, as the kitten becomes bolder with him, climbing all over him, biting his tail, batting at his nose. He’s displacing a lot of his pent up energy on his toys and roughhousing outside with the big dog. I’m not saying I trust him unconditionally, will leave him alone with the kitten for an extended period of time, assume he might not lose it and do something impulsive at any moment, and most importantly, assume that as the kitten gets bigger and even more rambunctious than he is now, it won’t present more challenges.

I’m just saying that today, for now, Possum is being a good dog, and that I’m grateful for that, and proud of him.


She so totally should have named you Jandek.


Things I didn’t blog about this week

My parrot bit the crap out of me on Wednesday.

On my face. He was pissed off because I was interrupting him playing in a favorite basket. I was in a hurry on my way to work, late again, and I didn’t have time to let him finish his play. He’s out for a few hours in the morning, then when I leave, he goes back in his cage by the back door. He has a perch in the bathroom to hang out on when I shower or bathe, and when I’m getting dressed, I let him play on the upper shelf of my walk in closet, which has been turned into a parrot playground- boxes, ladders, plastic chains, etc. This always ends with him climbing down a favorite space between some clothing baskets on a lower shelf. We have a ritual, I pretend to be surprised, he postures a bit , then he climbs on my hand and I put him in his cage and leave. Well, this morning, I was cutting that short and he was not happy. Plus I had been out late to a class the night before, further disrupting his routine. I’m not justifying his behavior at my own expense, but as anyone with pets and/or small children knows, routine is important.

Reading his body language, I wrapped a t shirt around my hand, signal for “Sorry but you have to come anyway.” He got on my hand, then lunged up at me and got me above my lip, hanging on until I reached up and brushed him off with my arm.

He’s done this three times in his life with me the past five years. Not a hormonal bite, not an “oops I thought you were letting me fall bite,” not a ritualized warning “get out my cage/box/hideyhole/territory” bite, but an attack. In retrospect, I think hormones may have been involved, it’s the right time of year, but still, it resembled the original instance. He was quickly furious, and he bit, then sat back and pinned his eyes at me in a way I’ve only seen the other two times.

To a lesser exent, I also think I wasn’t calm enough. So much of handling animals and living in an interspecies household is keying into the moment, be it excited, happy chaos/drama or stillness, quietness and receptivity.

After it was over, I kept moving, trying to maintain dominance, and put him back in his cage. That broke the spell and he began to quietly chirp and chatter, then start the call and response to the familiar routine of door squeaks, dog barks, tv, and jangling keys.

I can’t speak for other parrot wounds, but his worst seldom break the skin initially. They are instances of pinch/crush. It hurts like hell, it bruises, and sometimes the tissue under the skin doesnt recover and I’m left with a small divot/scar. This one isn’t as bad as I first thought.  I put ice on it for a while right after it happened and I think that helped.

So why didn’t I blog about it before? Because it’s upsetting on several levels. Because my experience of deciding to get a bird, and life with him since then has been complex and brought up a lot of issues about human control of animals, about living with an species that is not domesticated, not a cat or a dog. About being confident both that I am right and equally confident on other days that I am wrong. Gray areas abound and it’s easy to get lost in an ethical maze. Other people have strong feelings, not always in alignment with mine, about such things.

Also because it’s probably boring to those who don’t live with animals.

And/or just indulgent/freaky.

Also because, at the bottom of it, it’s upsetting to get bitten by anything, to be wounded by another living thing, especially one you know and care for.

Friday welcome kitten blogging: Ripley.

Four Legs Good has a big heart.

Here’s to Maddie, Willie B. and Ripley, and the lazy hazy days of summer.


Just playing with the new slideshow thingie, cheating with even more Friday pets:

Friday Grommitblogging

Deep thoughts, by Grommit.

“My foot itches.”

“Mmmm, there’s still time for another nap.”

Weed blogging

Ira and Possum getting high together: snorting the spicy, aromatic pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum). Typically, Possum jams his whole head in the plant and roots around, while Ira delicately sniffs and nibbles the edges. Many birds and bees also love this plant, so in planning what to keep and what to get rid of, I’ll probably be lenient with this. It also reminds me of my childhood- we used to chew on the seeds. Some people use them in salads but I haven’t tried that.irpos