Wellness Wednesday: Know Your Breed, Find Their Bliss

When we met our rescue Lab in early 2020, a tick-borne illness had worn him down to barely 50 pounds. The folks at Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida weren’t sure how Kumba was still standing. I, too, was thin and weak, just seven months into my recovery from a near-fatal illness in 2019 that had depleted my body of the ability to move. 

Kumba and me on a long walk in 2020
Kumba and me on a walk in 2020

We became each other’s support system on the road to full recovery. Morning strolls became long walks that improved our strength and confidence with each step, and now we run two miles several times a week.

Finding what we are meant to do

Thanks to steady exercise over the past three years, I’m back to swimming, an activity that floods my brain with endorphins that float my entire day. Submerged with the bubbles of my breath as my soundtrack for thirty minutes of rhythmical movement, it’s as if I’ve found what I was meant to do.

Kumba, too, has found what he was meant to do. Those frail 50 pounds are now a robust 80 pounds of bounding joy for whom catching and retrieving has become the highlight of each day. And there’s a big lesson in this. 

Biological fulfillment

As a Labrador retriever, it’s in Kumba’s DNA to feel incomplete without holding something in his mouth. Initially, chewing was his way of releasing anxiety when we left him alone. Over time, however, Kumba’s separation anxiety lessened, and his confidence in us and in himself grew. As dog trainer Alison Chambers recently helped me to understand, a huge piece of this change is the result of my husband’s daily catch session with Kumba. 

It’s called biological fulfillment.

Dog behavior expert Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training in Boca Raton, FL

At first, Kumba would run after the ball but not bring it back. Gradually, Kumba discovered the joy in the game, and today he runs fast and far and returns the ball at Ray’s feet over and over. When he’s had enough, he holds onto the ball and turns toward home, tail high and wagging. Labs retrieve. That’s their job. 

Kumba and the ball take a break
Kumba and the ball take a break

Find your dog’s bliss

We forget that dogs used to have jobs.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Work like minding the children, herding sheep, hunting kept dogs engaged. The transition to indoor pets — what Alison calls “cuddly at-home figurines” — removed the work dogs were bred to do, leading to behavior problems.

Alison has three dogs. She treats them to different activities that make their breed happiest. Ruka, her Belgian malinois — a breed Alison describes as “a German shepherd on crack” — is a ring sport dog, bred to excel at personal protection. Sundays are “biting days” at a local training facility. Jett, Alison’s terrier, is a fearless pursuer — “He is not afraid to die,” Alison says — and has become Number Two in the nation in barn hunting, a sport that mimics rat hunting. Otto, Alison’s pit bull mix, goes along for the fun but is happiest laying in the backyard.

Jett, Otto, and Ruka
Jett, Otto, and Ruka

It’s amazing to see a dog who is genetically predisposed to do something light up when you give him the chance to do it. It’s like he’s saying, ‘Wow! How did you know?’

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

 So, folks, find a ball, go to the pool, or head out for a spring walk — find what lights you and/or your dog up, and do it!

Family Friday: Why training your dog is not about the tricks

Our rescue Lab, Kumba, can sit, lie down, stay, and come when called. He’s also a huge fan of cucumbers and will do this routine to get a piece.

I wanted some new challenges for us. So, I called dog trainer Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training for suggestions.

I was expecting Alison to give me a list of new tricks. Instead, I learned a much better lesson.

Training is about building a relationship

Training is about building a relationship with your dog, helping him to live in the world you’ve brought him into. 

Helping your dog live in your world

The goal is to make both your lives more functional for your lifestyle. If you own a boat, you want the dog to be able to jump on and off. If you take your dog to work, you want her to lie by your side. If you’re gone all day, you want your dog to be able to be alone without destroying the house.

Learning to listen to each other

You build this relationship with your dog through communication. It’s a two-way process. He needs to learn to listen to you, and you need to learn how to listen to him.

Step one: “Watch me.”

Before a walk, have your dog sit by your side, looking up at you. Periodically during the walk, ask for that focus: “Watch me.” Work toward having your dog pay attention to you the whole time, with a goal of being able to walk through a crowd undistracted.

Step two: Be more exciting than anything else.

Be fun to be around. Toys, treats, different activities, and varied commands add variety to your time with your dog. Make it easy for her to choose you instead of anything else.

Step three: Add distraction.

Other dogs, a passing car, or a favorite toy are all opportunities to practice getting and keeping your dog’s attention. Begin with distant distractions — a dog approaching from the other end of the block — and work up to closer distractions. Ask her to “watch me” instead of her favorite toy when you are holding it overhead.

Step four: Practice, practice, practice.

Look for opportunities to train your dog to pay attention to you. Instead of avoiding the neighborhood bully — I do a u-turn when I see the dog  that Kumba really dislikes — stay the course and help your dog be successful in “watch me” even when temptation is nearby. Your goal is to replace anxiety and fear with approval-seeking: “Oh, there’s that awful dog, so now I get that wonderful treat, right?!”

Alison’s suggestions have already changed my interactions with Kumba, especially during our walks through our neighborhood. Every other dog is now an opportunity to engage our dog in paying attention, for which I reward him with a special treat, this week being tiny pieces of leftover steak. And our afternoon sit, stay, come routine has become a lot more fun now that my husband has joined the game. Nice company for me, more of a workout for Kumba, and a new habit for all three of us!

Who says human’s can’t learn new tricks?

You can read more of Alison’s guidance in previous posts: How to introduce your pandemic pup to a new dog, How to help your unsocialized dog say hello and How to train your pandemic pup.

How A Dog Saved Our Life

CNN and Palm Beach County’s Big Dog Ranch Rescue rang in the New Year with a mega puppy adoption gala, wrote Wendy Rhodes in The Palm Beach Post.

Photo: Big Dog Ranch Rescue

The event was right on trend to ring out the Year of the Pandemic.

… the hottest commodity during lockdown after toilet paper and sourdough starters turned out to be rescue puppies …

Venessa Friedman, NYT Styles Section

When we adopted our lab Kumba in February, my husband and I had no idea that we’d be on the leading edge of the upwelling of community kindness and care that opened hearts and homes to rescue puppies last year. As Emma Gray Ellis wrote in Wired, the organic surge in adoptions emptied animal shelters as people confined to their homes during lockdown sought companionship.

Or maybe it was the dogs who opened our doors, and then filled our hearts.

Lab rescue saved kumba

Kumba was left at an animal shelter in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2019 by a family that was leaving the island. As a pure Labrador retriever, he was tapped by the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida (LRRoF) that fall. In November, he received the necessary rabies vaccine, and he was flown to Ft. Lauderdale in December.

But he was a very sick dog. LRRoF’s vet said he wasn’t sure how Kumba was even able to stand. He weighed just 50 pounds, was desperately anemic, and required transfusions and two rounds of antibiotics before he stabilized. He began to recover at his foster home.

Lab rescue believed in us

Meanwhile, my husband and I were realizing that we were ready for another dog. It had been two years since the death of our beloved chocolate Lab Django, and the awful black hole of absence had morphed into an empty space that begged to be filled. The story of Levi, our friends’ Golden Retriever rescued from Turkey, inspired us to seek out the equivalent rescue organization for Labs. We filled out the LRRoF application, passed our home visit, and scanned the LRRoF website for dogs ready for adoption.

Lucky us: we were the first family to meet Kumba at his foster home in January of last year when our daughter and her Lab Pancho were visiting (LRRoF requires that their rescues meet existing family dogs). We thought this Puerto Rican dog would pick us because we spoke to him in Spanish, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He was sweet and soulful and ready to be loved, Pancho didn’t care one way or the other, and Kumba’s foster mom approved. We came home and waited for Kumba to fully recover.

On February 2, we brought him home.

We believed in kumba

It was a rocky start. The first thing he did was pee on the antique chest of drawers my mother bought at the Rome flea market in 1961. Of course he did: he was all wound up from the car ride, and we brought him inside immediately instead of giving him a chance to pee outdoors. That never happened again. By the end of the day, we’d found our walking rhythm.

But Kumba was anxious, needy, nervous. He needed to be right next to us. This was easy to accommodate in our retired, homebody schedule, most of the time. But on the occasion when we both were out of the house, we returned to shredded newspapers and chewed up paperbacks. Voracious reader, you bet. We got better about picking up after ourselves. He got used to sleeping his swank dog bed outside our bedroom door. We got use to him lying on the couch.

Kumba was timid at first
Our rescue Lab, Kumba, was timid at first.

Then, on March 13, the country went into lockdown.

Kumba saved our lives

We were suddenly in enforced isolation, and the creature who needed us so began to give us fun and joy and variety. Kumba had increased our household numbers by fifty percent and our household energy by much, much more.

In a recent article for the Associate Press, Mary Esch wrote about how dogs are bringing comfort to isolated residents of a New York nursing home.

The love of an animal is incredible. It releases endorphins, reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety.

Catherine Farrell, director of therapeutic activities, Hebrew Home

We had no idea a year ago how much we would need this dog. We think it’s probably mutual.

Things Big and Small I Am Grateful For

Thanksgiving this year will be a quiet affair. Because of the pandemic, it will be just the two of us. It was tempting to cancel the festivities all together and to go without giving thanks for anything this terrible year, but that’s exactly why we need to be especially thoughtful on Thanksgiving Day, 2020.

I’m grateful for American democratic institutions, for family and friends that practice good pandemic safety, for neighbors I didn’t know before lockdown. For a daughter that cares enough to call so that we can go around the virtual table to say that for which we are thankful. And it’s not always the big stuff.

The things we most often ignore or overlook are the little things and the ignored people who sustain and protect and enrich our lives.

Rabbi Marc Gellman, The God Squad

Animal Rescue Volunteers

Many of you have rescue animals as pets curled up near your Thanksgiving tables and we ought to take time before we eat to thank God for the chain of love and fate that brought them into your home, awaiting any scraps that fall from your table.

Rabbi Marc Gellman, The God Squad
Kumba’s at home now

One month before the pandemic shut out the world, we adopted a rescue Lab, Kumba from the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida. We thank the chain of humans that found him at a shelter in Puerto Rico, flew him to Florida, and nursed him back to health when he arrived, rail thin and severely anemic. The other chain of humans accepted our application, and visited us in our home to evaluate what kind of dog would suit us best. Through fate, we were the first applicants to meet Kumba. When his road and ours intersected, magic happened.

Hospital Caregivers

Another chain of humans saved my life in Amsterdam last year. The ER staff at OLVG Hospital who clamped an arterial hemorrhage, the ICU staff who kept me alive, the Turkish family who carried my husband through his darkest days, physiotherapist who was sure I’d walk out of there when I could barely flex a foot — they all saw a person, not a patient, and they helped that person come back to life. All of those men and women have been doing that for.others since I flew home. They have survived one wave of COVID and are now on yet another, pulling long, stressful hours in a city shut down by the virus. Our hearts are with them all as we head into the darkest days of the year.

year-round christmas lights

I used to be a Christmas snob, but no more. Living in the Florida tropics, we enjoy our outdoor porch year-round — it’s where I do most of my writing, in fact. Lighting up the night seems just right, especially this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

How to Prepare Your Rescue Dog For Being Alone

As I wrote about earlier this year, one of the upsides of this awful pandemic has been the increase in animals being adopted from shelters across the country. Faced with being home, many families increased their number by taking in a rescue pet. We had nothing but time last spring, and a new furry creature would add to our entertainment and soften our loneliness.

We adopted Kumba, a four-year-old black Lab flown in from Puerto Rico by the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, in February. Our hearts had healed from the 2018 loss of our chocolate Lab, Django, and my body had healed from my 2019 near-death illness in Amsterdam. Bringing this sweet, unsure boy into our home was the right thing to do. As soon as he himself had healed: he arrived in Ft. Lauderdale dreadfully anemic and underweight, but the LRRoF and his wonderful foster mother, Kim, cared for him as he fought his way back to health.

Kumba at his foster home

It broke our hearts to know that his dear boy was left at a shelter by his family. His foster mom told us that he would stay by our side indoors or out, and that he did not like being left alone, much less being crated.

That all sounded fine to us. We were homebodies even before the pandemic hit. Kumba became my morning exercise companion as I continued to strengthen my legs on long walks, and he sat at my feet as I wrote until lunch. He followed my husband around the house the rest of the day, a dutiful apprentice to whatever project was underway, including watching TV. We bonded as lockdown closed off the outside world.

We knew that we would leave him at home when we needed to go out together. When my new car arrived at the dealership in mid-March, we were gone for four hours. Our neighbor mentioned that he’d barked the whole time. Kumba took his anxiety out by chewing on a paperback book. Yeah, he’s a literary critic. I agree that it’s not the best writing, but it’s a best seller.

Nearly eight months later, Kumba and all the other dogs brought into a new home have become used to their humans’ 24/7 availability. Animals brought into a home during the pandemic have not had the socialization (with other people, and, especially, with other dogs) and periods of being left alone that would have naturally occurred before lockdown. Now, as children return to school and adults resume outside activity, dogs used to the permanent company of their humans may experience separation anxiety. The stress, and the destructive behavior a dog uses to cope with that stress, can overwhelm well-meaning families, leading to surrender or abandonment

Michael W. Fox’s syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor recently listed the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommended steps to get pets ready for their humans’ return to normal life. Which, of course, we don’t really understand ourselves.

One: introduce a workday routine

The AVMA suggests setting the alarm clock and feeding and walking your dog as you would when you return to normal routine, and leaving the house on a regular schedule.For us, this meant forcing ourselves to get out of the house together without the dog. We go on walks without Kumba, although the neighbors miss seeing him. We give ourselves the treat of a couple of hours at the beach mid-week when it’s only us oldsters there.

TWo: take anxiety out of your departure

Practice short departures daily, gradually extending the time. Stay calm when leaving or returning. In our home, we slowly extended the amount of time we were out of the house.

Three: exercise your pet before leaving

Play and activity burn energy and can keep pets calm and relaxed. That’s true for people, too. Kumba and I do a couple of miles every morning, and he plays fetch very nicely, especially with his stuffed animals.

Four: keep them busy

Long lasting treats, food puzzles can entertain pets while you’re out. We have a Kong that we stuff full of good things (okay, peanut butter and carrots) that Kumba can chew on while we’re out. Initially, his anxiety was too high to allow for that until we got home, but just yesterday he cleaned out a Kong while we ran a 20 minute errand.

Five: create a safe space

Set your pet up for success by eliminating environmental temptations. Reduce the roaming area. The AVMA suggests using a crate while you are working from home.

We crated our other dogs, who came into our home as puppies, and we did consider forcing the issue when it appeared that Kumba couldn’t be trusted to be alone in the house. Instead, we limited the risk by closing off the bedroom doors and removing newspapers, socks, shoes, bills, books, and bags from harm’s way.

It’s like when we had a cleaning service during our working years — we always picked up the night before. You have to wonder if Kumba is training us.

SIX: LoOk signs of stress

Barking, whining, chewing. Poor Kumba’s first act when we brought him home was to pee on a piece of furniture. It was our fault for not letting him to relieve himself on the grass outside after the nerve-wracking car ride. It hasn’t happened again, but he did enjoy a good chunk of The Palm Beach Post while we were at the beach last week.

What we are seeing in our boy Kumba these days is a dog who is at home being home. Our daughter recently visited for the first time since January, when she met Kumba at his foster home. It’s fair to say that it’s mutual love now in our household, pandemic and all.