Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Social Chrysalis

Last weekend was one of nonstop adventures for the little Cleo girl. She was Ponce de Leon, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Margaret Mead all rolled into one.

For months, a dear friend had been inviting us to join her and her dogs for a walk in the canyon that defines the edge of her property.  As enticement (as if we needed any) she had emailed me pictures and videos of a pair of hawks and their nestlings which she had taken from the deck of her house. The videos show the parents trading egg warming duties, the first hatchling reaching up on a still-wobbly neck to receive food, the two hatchlings squawking impatiently as mom tears shreds of meat from a squirrel, the fledgling babies flapping their wings to build muscle, the adolescent hawks taking that first life affirming leap into the nothingness that surrounds their pine top home.  I wanted to see the hawks, the nest, the canyon firsthand.

Besides that, I wanted Cleo to spend time with my friends’ dogs.  One of the things the therapy dog test requires is that dogs be comfortable, or at least polite, with other dogs.  Cleo does beautifully in class.  She will perform figure eights around other dogs, sit by them, even do prolonged down-stays right next to another dog.  But the minute we leave the designated class area, she is bouncing at the end of her leash, pulling and tugging to encounter other dogs.  She’s all hyperactivity and exuberance until the other dog actually turns around and makes a move to engage.  Then, Cleo shies away, tail tucked in terror.  On walks it’s worse.  She spots a dog, starts to pull toward it, the dog turns to her, she barks her fool head off.  The bark used to sound excited and playful; now it just sounds aggressive.  She isn’t aggressive by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hard to reassure the other dog’s person of that, especially with Cleo barking so loudly I can’t make myself heard.  If that happens during the therapy dog test, we’ll be disqualified immediately.  I’ve tried multiple techniques, from Cesar Milan’s to our own trainer’s, to help Cleo socialize, but so far,  nothing has taken root.

So my plan for last Friday was to introduce Cleo to two sweet and gentle dogs, one of them quite elderly, and ask them to teach her to be social.  Two hours, ninety-two foxtails, fifteen ticks, a fall into the creek and a bee sting later, Cleo had learned to walk side by side with the other dogs as long as they ignored her.  Any time one looked at her, she still shied away.  Add to the tally a $148 vet bill when, by Monday, Cleo was still intermittently worrying her bee-stung foot.  But, hey!  It was progress.

On Saturday, the big outing was a kind of diplomatic mission to establish rapprochement between Cleo and a family of dogs she will stay with for a week in July while John and I are on vacation.  Our beloved sitter with whom Cleo stayed when we went to New Orleans is getting bionic knees, so we’ve had to go with Plan B: Cleo will stay with a woman who comes highly recommended, but whom we had never met. 

When we arrived at her house, a chorus of barks sang us from street to yard.  A human emerged from the house.  We greeted each other; Cleo was enthusiastic and polite.  “Okay,” said the sitter, “I’ll let a few of them out at a time so that Cleo doesn’t feel overwhelmed.”  A few of them? 

“How many dogs do you have?” I asked her.

“Oh, just five of my own.” 

Oh, well.  That’s probably okay. 

“Plus two that I’m fostering.” 


“And one that’s boarding with me this week.”

A melee of dogs bounded into the yard.  Not one came as high as Cleo’s armpit.  Three of them swarmed around her, sniffing excitedly.  A fourth gave her a bored look and sacked out in a patch of sunshine.  Cleo looked like she was trying to stand on tiptoe to get away from them.  “Give her space,” the sitter told her brood.  The dogs scattered.  Cleo pressed her quivering side against my calf and looked at me pleadingly.  “You’ve got to toughen up,” I told her, but relented and sat down on the slightly urine-y smelling lawn.  She put her back feet in the oval made by my criss-crossed legs and observed the circuitous paths of the sniffing dogs.  Within a minute or two, she ventured away from me and sniffed where the other dogs had sniffed.  She was doing great as long as the other dogs ignored her.  Three more tumbled out of the house.  “There’s one I’m going to keep in,” the sitter told us.  “He’s one of my fosters.  He’s fine with dogs, but he bites people.  Even me.”  Really, I’m fine with him staying locked up.  Cleo was still the biggest dog in the yard. 

Things were going well enough that we all headed into the house to meet the cat.  The sitter wanted to be sure that Cleo wouldn’t chase the cat (who frankly looks like he knows what his claws are for).  He lives in a house with seven (or eight) other dogs, for crying out loud.  He is no one’s fool.  Cleo was fascinated until the cat tried to rub his head against her.  She seemed to find this a little too forward.  The dogs, meanwhile, had all sacked out on giant dog beds lined up across the living room floor.  The youngest of them all is seven, so most of them had gone to sleep, tired out from the excitement of sniffing in the yard.  Cleo stood in the middle of the room pondering it all.  I could practically hear the gears of her brain clicking away.  Every dog of the motley pack was beautifully behaved, instantly responsive to instructions from their mom/foster mom/sitter.  Having Cleo stay there will be a little like plunging her into the deep end of the pool, but I think she will learn from her week with the pack.  And I am convinced she’ll be safe and cared for.  When we got home from this outing, she curled into a ball on the chaisse and slept it off for a couple of hours.

I had high hopes for our Sunday outing.  After months of trying, I had finally been able to arrange a play date for Cleo with another Bedlington Terrier!  This dog, the beautiful Juliet, lives in LA and vacations in Carmel Valley Village, about twenty minutes from Monterey.  We arranged to meet at the Village Community Park, a wide open field ideal for running and playing. 

Juliet, Joyce & Cleo
 I guess I harbored the fantasy that Cleo would see Juliet and recognize her, or at least see their similarity.  Juliet was delighted to see Cleo, but the feeling wasn’t mutual.  Oh, once again, Cleo tolerated her.  She didn’t bark her head off, which was good, but she certainly wasn’t interested in playing.  Juliet, a mother of Bedlingtons herself, was firmly, though courteously, protective of Cleo when another dog came over to check them both out.  In fact, Juliet was everything you’d hope a Bedlington to be: sweet, affectionate, affable, funny.  I so dearly wanted the light to dawn in Cleo.  I imagined Juliet as Anne Sullivan holding Cleo’s Helen Keller paw under the water spigot, frantically signing “w-a-t-e-r” as Cleo, gasping in wonder, croaked out “wa-wa!” 

John tries to play go-between.
Well, we took some nice pictures of the dogs.  It was gloriously warm in the Valley.  John and I got to meet another Bedlington and her dad.  But the social butterfly has yet to spread her wings.  We’ll see how she does with the mini-dog cotillion.

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