When Your Heart Dog Is a Senior

I adopted Boots when he was 2ish and I was 19- his adoption fee was my 20th birthday present to myself. I had grown up with dogs, but had never had one of my own. My childhood dream was always to have a little dog who was constantly by my side- a dog who would sleep in the bed with me and go with me everywhere. By the time I met Boots, that dream had long since been pushed to the back of my mind, but still, I knew he was my dog. The minute I saw him for the first time, I knew.

Since then, we have grown up together in every sense of the word. It’ll be 8 years in July and each one of them has taught us something new. I was a little bit of a wild child when I adopted Boots- I was spreading my wings for the first time as an “adult,” and I can’t say I was the most responsible in my first few leaps from the nest. Boots didn’t make me become responsible- I don’t necessarily believe anyone can make that happen. But what Boots did was love me and show me that I was valuable to him and within our bond. The bond with him changed me.

Boots is inching closer to 11 now, and I’ll be 28 this summer. In a lot of ways, we’ve both slowed down and mellowed out a bit, though in others we’re just as tightly wound as we were back in 2011. Boots’ eyes have the blue haze characteristic of a dog his age, and I’ve begun fielding questions about when Chris and I will start trying to have human babies. Things have changed in big, big ways.

And it’s hard. I can say with 100% certainty that I have never loved another being in the way that I love Boots. I don’t mean that to offend my fiancé or my family or Ranger, though I know that they all understand it. Boots isn’t my “fur baby” and he’s not just my best friend- to describe it more accurately, Boots is more like a piece of my soul who just happens to live outside my body. He’s my Heart Dog.

Last night we had a bonfire and Boots, for the first time in almost 8 years, chose to remain on his blanket inside, watching us out of the sliding glass door instead of coming and sitting outside. He gets tired at the end of walks sometimes these days, and I don’t attempt more than a 3-4 mile hike anymore. He has a dental cleaning coming up and the idea of putting him under anesthesia is terrifying to me, despite knowing it’s what’s best for his long term health. It’s both difficult to recognize and impossible to avoid the knowledge that he is getting older, but I’m trying so hard to make every step of our journey good for him, no matter what. I think that sometimes we can’t let go of not only who our dogs were when they were young, but also, who we were. Neither of us is who we were 8 years ago.

There’s no message to this blog post today- maybe it’s just me shouting into the void or trying to see that I’m not the only one who’s ever made this transition with their Heart Dog. If there is a message, maybe it’s to honor your pup’s dogginess, honor what makes them who they are for their whole lives, not just when they’re young and active. Be there for it all, as they are for us. I think that’s the best thing we can do.

What It’s Really Like to Be a Dog Person

To start off, I want to clear something up from the get go- there is a difference between “owning a dog” and being a dog person. People who own dogs (hopefully) provide all of the necessities for a dog to live- food, water, and shelter- the things that the law says must be provided, and sometimes not much more. Dog people, dog guardians, dog moms and dads, we’re different. There are varying degrees of crazy dog person- I’m well aware that I’m at the higher end of that spectrum, and I’m 100% okay with that. 

A good friend of mine pointed out that so many of us dog people post hundreds of photos of our pets on Instagram and gush about them, but we don’t illustrate the real and sometimes difficult aspects of being a good pet parent. I think that how we deal with the things that aren’t warm and fuzzy dictate the kind of dog moms and dads we are, so we should talk more about those things! 

Boots is my soulmate and my best friend, and he also regularly wakes me up in the middle of the night to go outside. Is he going outside to pee or just to sniff? That’s really not clear to me, and thankfully I now know that if he gets a walk every single day, the odds of him sleeping through the night are much higher. I’m a super light sleeper, and it was really really hard when he was waking me up at 2:00 am every single night for months on end. When he had urine crystals, it was sometimes 2-3 times a night despite him getting aggressively treated for them immediately. I’m not someone who functions well on a funky sleep pattern and I can admit that as much as I love my dog, there are times I’ve wanted to cry because I’m so tired and he needs to go out again

Dogs also really like to eat things that aren’t food. Chris loves to garden, and he loves to add both Southwestern and Cajun elements to our garden to represent both of our heritages- one of those was a very old, sun dried steer skull that he bought from a yard sale for $5. The idea was to grow succulents out of it, but Ranger did not agree with that aesthetic choice and instead decided to eat it. I didn’t realize he’d actually consumed any of it until the middle of the night when he jumped off of the bed and started throwing up pieces of it all over the bedroom floor. I had never felt more like his mother than I did at that moment, and never been more worried about him. I stayed up watching him all night, ready to drive him to the Emergency Vet in an instant. Thankfully, he was just fine. We definitely had to pay for carpet cleaning when we moved out of our rental home because we never could get that vomit stain out of the floor, but I’d pay it a hundred times over for Ranger to be okay. 

Both of my boys are behaviorally special needs in different ways, and that’s been it’s own adventure. Boots and I hyper bonded with each other pretty much immediately when I adopted him. When I was in college we rarely had to be apart and that only contributed further to our closeness, which manifested in Boots’ screaming when he wasn’t able to get to me. When I was in the shower, he’d sit outside the door and alternate between whining and screaming, much to the displeasure of everyone I’ve ever lived with. He still whines and occasionally screams when we’re separated, and he does not like to share my attention. While I’ve accepted that that’s who he is, it has strained some of my human relationships… but that’s just life with a dog that you love. If they can’t hang with him, they’re not going to be in my life. Ranger, on the other hand, was very under-socialized when he came into the shelter. Chris has done so much to counter his early months, but that said, Boots, and Chris and I, are Ranger’s anchors. He functions like a well adjusted pup when we’re around, but he does revert back to his very fearful roots when we’re not or when any piece of the puzzle changes. He doesn’t like strangers, and he’s terrified of bearded men to this day. If anything in the house moves, he panics a little bit- moving with him was incredibly difficult for that reason. He hates cardboard boxes!! All that said, Ranger is our baby boy and we adore him. He’s such a special dog. 

Caroline Knapp’s book, Pack of Two, sums it up perfectly- “I once heard a woman who’d lost her dog say that she felt as though a color were suddenly missing from her world: the dog had introduced to her field of vision some previously unavailable hue, and without the dog, that color was gone. That seemed to capture the experience of loving a dog with eminent simplicity. I’d amend it only slightly and say that if we are open to what they have to give us, dogs can introduce us to several colors, with names like wildness and nurturance and trust and joy.” Reality with dogs is taking the good with the bad. It’s recognizing that their presence changes things, and that sometimes accommodations have to be made. Life as a dog person means that you can’t necessarily jump on a plane to another country at a moment’s notice, but you can take a walk and encounter a whole different world through their nose and eyes. It’s understanding their needs so that we can enrich their lives as much as they enrich ours, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Let’s Talk About Enrichment!

What is Mental Enrichment? To me, it’s the process of making an animal’s environment interesting and stimulating so as to decrease boredom and provide outlets for species normal behaviors. It’s letting your dog be a dog in all of his or her glory!

If you had asked me in 2011 when I adopted Boots what enrichment was, I really would have had no idea. And for college me and baby Boots, that shockingly worked out alright because he was getting TONS of environmental enrichment without me realizing it- going everywhere with me that I could possibly take him, being walked often, interacting with many people, going for rides. Now that I work a 40 hour week in a job where he and Ranger can’t come along, I prioritize getting them out for their walks and adding other mental enrichment to their lives. I realized recently that like me at 19, many people don’t know what enrichment is, or how to start in an inexpensive way, so here’s my cheap and easy introduction!

Use Puzzle Feeders instead of bowls! Your pup can solve a puzzle to get their food instead of quickly eating it out of a bowl! Not only does this provide mental stimulation, but it also slows down hasty eaters. Some great puzzle toys are Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and snuffle mats, but you can also DIY it and use a muffin tin as a puzzle bowl! My boys were shocked and dismayed when I introduced puzzle feeders for the first time because they weren’t used to having to figure something out to get their food, but they quickly got the hang of it, and yours can to! Now they’re excited when the Kongs or snake toy come out.

Take your dog on a Sniffing Walk! Think about how much time you spend watching TV, scrolling social media, and reading books- sniffing novel things is the canine equivalent! Next time you take your dog for a walk, let them lead the way and sniff whatever they want to their hearts content. If you want to learn more about the amazing way that dogs use their noses and why sniffing is so vital for them, check out “Being a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz! I used to worry that people would think ~tHe DoG iS wAlKiNg YoU tHoUgh~ and you know what, they are! It’s THEIR walk!! Let it be!

Play hide and go seek! This can be done with people or treats and is a blast either way. If you have a helper, have them take a treat and hide in an easy location, then ask your dog to “Go find the person!” When they do find your helper, they should give them a treat and praise. You can also do this one on one using just treats- with your pup confined, hide one treat in an easy spot. Ask your dog to “Go find it!” and they’ll be rewarded by eating the treat when they do. As they get better and better at finding hidden people and/or treats, gradually increase the difficulty of the hiding spots. We don’t do this as much as we used to anymore because Boots has a hard time when it’s not his turn, but I definitely want to reintroduce this game when my fiancé and I have a less crazy schedule so he can help me!

Practice Good Manners! Running through the cues that your dog knows, like Sit, Down, Shake, etc. is not only mentally enriching for them, but also helps them to be better citizens of our human world. Using positive reinforcement like treats and affection to train is fun for both humans and dogs! You can also work on new and fun tricks with books like “101 Dog Tricks & How to Teach Them” by Kyra Sundance or by finding a force free, positive reinforcement trainer in your area to take classes with. A good way to find someone credentialed is by searching on the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers website, or on the Karen Pryor Academy website. I’ve loved being in training class with Boots, and Chris is dying to get back in another class with Ranger, but even without class, there’s so much to learn and do at home and through Youtube videos!

I hope you go down the rabbit hole into the wonderful world of Canine Enrichment! It will make you and your dog’s life so much happier, I swear!

Til next time,

Our First Rally Trial

We competed in our first Rally Novice A trial yesterday!

Life has been crazy and busy recently, what with Chris & I purchasing and moving into our first home of our own, cleaning & wrapping things up in our previous house, and getting into crunch time organizing final details for our wedding in June. Even with the craziness, Boots and I have stuck with Rally and I decided that I wanted to take the chance to put our months of hard work to the test in a trial.

I can’t stress enough how nerve wracking it was for me to walk into class with Boots those first couple of sessions, 7 months ago. As you may have read in my previous post about our training journey, Boots and I have come a long way and learned a lot in this world of animal behavior. The ladies of East Mountain Dog Training were incredibly kind and understanding from the very beginning, helping me to see that Rally is about the relationship between person and dog, not about the archaic standards of obedience that were my unfortunate introduction to the world of dog training back in college. I’m so grateful that I learned a better way and have gotten to experience the joy of working as a team built on trust and mutual understanding with my baby boy.

That said, I woke up yesterday morning SICK TO MY STOMACH with nerves. I absolutely would not have bailed on the trial, but I can’t say I didn’t want to. I’m not a stranger to competitive ventures- as a kid I played tons of sports, was an All Star cheerleader on a national championship winning team, and competed with show choir, among other things. This just felt different, somehow. Adulthood & anxiety have a way of making any kind of security in your abilities go away, and I could see that my nerves were affecting little man. His bearing was off and I know that he was cuing off of the vibes coming from me.

The trial environment was totally foreign to me- I had no idea where to get my arm band number or where we should hang out and wait our turn. Yesterday was a lot of trial and error for Boots and I, and there are definitely some things I’ll tweak for the next go round. Thankfully, Wendy and Jeannie of EMDT came to support myself & Boots and my classmates, Nancy & her adorable pup Raven. When they arrived I didn’t feel lost anymore!! Chris, my mom, and my triplet sister Nicole also came along to cheer us on and their support was invaluable. All of the above know how hard I am on myself and how badly I can get into my head. They know I’m a perfectionist in certain arenas (something I’m working on!)

When it came to the actual trial itself, I kind of blacked out. I thought there was another team ahead of us so I didn’t go when our number, 406, was called. The judge had the good taste to compliment Boots’ adorableness, which I appreciated!! We made it past the offset serpentine but when we got to the next exercise, “Halt & Down,” I didn’t have Boots’ attention so we had to repeat it. We had a right turn after that, then one of my favorite exercises, “Come Front – Finish Left.” I panicked when Boots wasn’t lined up perfectly, a rookie mistake on my part, and bobbled my feet, which cost us the entire 10 points for the exercise. Fumbling that one made me even more nervous leading into our absolute least favorite sign, “Stop & Down.” Laying down on cue has been one of the hardest behaviors for Boots to perform consistently, and I was dreading the appearance of this particular sign. We missed it on the first go- I asked for a repeat and we missed it again, so we just moved on, losing another 10 points. We performed the rest of the course with only minor deductions- a point or two here and there for “lag,” but otherwise no big mistakes. When we left the ring I felt super relieved it was over, but to be totally honest, I felt disappointed in myself. I felt like I was the half of the team that let us down when I knew I could do better. We did earn our first qualifying score towards Boots’ Rally Novice title, coming in with a total of 73/100 points, but I definitely felt like my nerves and anxieties took the joy out of Boots’ experience of us working together.

Thankfully, I had a whole team to assure me that that was not the case and to remind me that I’d shown up for my dog, to remind me that this was our first time ever competing in the trial setting in a brand new environment, with a crowd of people watching us. They reminded me that we’re new to all of this, and that doing something new is really freaking hard!! Wendy and Jeannie reminded me of the most important thing- “It’s not about the ribbons, it’s about the relationship.” I am incredibly proud of the relationship that I have with my dog. I’m so proud of what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown together, what we’ve overcome. That’s what matters.

Boots slept hard last night, first pressed against me on the couch, then in bed, curled against my chest. He didn’t stir at all except occasionally to donkey kick me in his sleep. He trusts me, and loves me, and that’s what’s important to me. I’m his girl and he’s my dog and that’s really all that matters in the end.

So we’ll take what we learned and we’ll try again! As long as we continue to enjoy playing the game together, that’s what matters.

Our First Hike Up La Luz!

Hiking the La Luz trail up to Sandia Crest is a goal I’ve decided to conquer in 2019. La Luz is a beast, and seemed like an insurmountable goal for years- especially when I was first diagnosed with asthma at 19 and was told that I only had 73% of the lung capacity that I should. I’ve come a long way since then with my health and my fitness, but I tend to get off track without a specific goal in mind. My triplet sister, an incredible endurance athlete who runs marathons, suggested a hiking goal, and I thought it was a great idea!

Chris, Ranger, Boots & I about 2.5 miles up the trail.

I was never much of a hiker until a few years ago, after going through a bad breakup and finding it to be an empowering thing to do on my own, just me and Boots. I’m drawn to basically any activity where I can bring him along, so I was sold pretty quickly and began to do easy little day hikes with him. I always brought too much supplies and over-packed, but I did and still do consider it a great responsibility to take care of us both. Chris and my first date was a hike with our pups, and I credit that date as a big part of what built a solid foundation for our relationship. There’s nothing like just walking and talking in nature with dogs by your side!

Now that Boots is getting older, I do get a little more worried about what he can and can’t do, or about whether I’m pushing him too hard. For his part, Boots has always been able to keep up pretty well, despite his small stature! It has been really hard for me as we’ve entered his senior years to realize that he may not always be able to be as active as he was when we were younger. Hiking isn’t important to me without the dogs, though. So part of my goal for La Luz is to hike with Boots as far as he can make it, then let him ride in this super sweet carrier backpack so we can get to the top together! The together part is what’s important to me.

The majestic Boots surveying his kingdom.

Ranger is an absolute pro at hiking and has great off leash skills, though it’s super important to us to respect other dogs and their families by staying on leash in leash law areas. Knowing him as a scared, flighty puppy, it’s crazy to me to see how far he’s come and how confident he is both on and off leash while hiking. Chris started with him as soon as he was old enough to physically handle it, and it definitely shows.

Ranger is a pro on the trail- he always knows when it’s time to settle & take a rest!

After spending the last two years day hiking with these boys, I feel like we’ve got a system down. Is it like having kids in that it takes us twice as long to prepare to hike and we have to carry twice as much gear and water to ensure all of our safety and success, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I’m no pro at any of this outdoorsy stuff, but if you’re going to start hiking with your dogs, here are my tips for doing so:

  1. Bring twice as much water as you believe you’ll need. Really & truly. There is nothing worse than being out on the trail and not having enough water for yourself and your dog to stay comfortable!
  2. Tell someone where you’re going, even if other people are coming with you. The Find My Friends app exists for a reason!
  3. Carry first aide for yourself and your dog- the thought of being caught in an emergency with no way to help my dog is a terrifying thought for me.
  4. Be respectful of other dogs and their people! Fearful and reactive dogs deserve to get out and explore nature without months or years of training being ruined by off leash dogs rushing at them.
  5. Hike your own hike! If you’re slow, that’s okay! If you and your dog have to stop and rest often, you’re doing right by both of you! Don’t let anyone judge your speed or ability- everyone starts somewhere.
  6. BRING TREATS! Of the human and canine variety! Hikes are more fun with snack breaks!!

The best hiking treat – a trail beer! 

Hope we see you out on the trails!

Our Training Journey

I have two very good dogs in front of me, one tiny and one huge, and a tiny and huge bowl of kibble to match. The boys know the routine and they love to play the game. Both Boots and Ranger start offering me behaviors- sits and downs and hand targets- because they know that they’ll get their dinner piece by piece as we play together. No matter how my day has gone at work, getting to spend joyful time with my dogs puts me back into the present and gets me out of my own head.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way for me. If you’re reading this, you may already know that Boots came into my life in the summer of 2011, and that Ranger came much later, with my now fiancé Chris. Because of this, each of their training backgrounds are very different. Boots and I attended a very outdated training school in our small college town- I’m not here to judge anyone’s training methods, as each of us is truly trying to do what will be best for our dogs, but I never felt fully comfortable with this trainer and her outdated and aversive methods. The dogs didn’t have the chance to make a mistake or learn to think and make decisions, but rather how to respond to a Command. Despite my discomfort with the whole situation, I never questioned anything- I didn’t have the background knowledge at the time to. Anyway, the way that the dogs were handled made it very clear to me that the only option, in class, was to do as this person told me to.

Luckily for me, I was an Animal Science major in college and got the wonderful opportunity to learn about animal behavior, learning theory, and canine cognition in the classroom. I’m a huge nerd about things that I love and dogs are no exception. I’m proud to say that I scored above a hundred percent on every single one of my Animal Behavior Exams, and with that knowledge, I understood that there was a better way for Boots and I to train… but the disconnect between book learning and action was steep, so we just… stopped. We didn’t train. Boots earned his certification to be a Therapy Dog with Alliance of Therapy Dogs using what we already knew, but that was it. I couldn’t shake the guilt that I’d done something harmful to Boots in training him the way that I previously did, so I just didn’t train with him.

Boots & I the day we graduated from NMSU with our Bachelors in Animal Science!

The heavens truly opened up for me when I found a mentor in the force free training world. Sue, you will forever be my mama bear and hero! As a newbie in animal sheltering and behavior, I needed guidance and was so grateful to find someone eager and willing to help me learn. I kept reading, I learned clicker mechanics, and Boots and I began to try to train. The only trouble was, Boots didn’t offer behaviors. I tried the 101 Things to Do With A Box game… he just sat. I realized that he didn’t know how to offer behaviors, so we enrolled in positive reinforcement classes. We started with Nosework, as I felt that would be fun for both of us and relatively low pressure. We both had a blast, and Boots began to gain back the confidence he’d lost through the previous aversive training. After that, we were rolling!

As I grew as a trainer, I learned more and more how to ask Boots to think. We learned together about targeting, shaping, and capturing behaviors. I learned the very important distinction between a cue and a command. Through all of this though, I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt about Boots’ first experience with training. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws Training Academy in Maryland in the fall of 2016 and to speak with her one on one about our shared experience as cross-over trainers. In response to a question about the immense guilt that I felt, she told me that she chose to move on by knowing that every dog in her present and future would have a better experience because of the knowledge she’d gained as a force free trainer. I still think about that advice constantly.

Here we are now, almost 8 years into me and Boots’ journey together. Boots is coming up on 11 years old, but he’s even more eager to learn and play the training game with me now than he was as a 2 year old. Last fall, we enrolled with the absolutely incredible ladies of East Mountain Dog Training for our first Rally Obedience class. I was literally almost shaking with nerves our first couple classes, and Wendy and Jeannie listened to my concerns about our background and my fears that Boots would hate training with me for a more structured sport, and gave both of us confidence. Boots is thriving in Rally, and I am loving it. It’s crazy to me that this sport we enjoy so much was out there all of this time without us discovering it! I am forever grateful for all that Wendy and Jeannie have shared with me and taught us both, and we continue to have a blast training with them. f

And then there’s Ranger, my big beautiful boy, who was found as a very fearful and under-socialized stray in a rural part of town. His background is so different from Boots’, and his training journey started with Chris, not me. Still, we’re learning to become a team as well, and seeing his eyes light up when the clicker comes out makes me certain about the way I’ve chosen to build our bond and trust. The foundation Chris created for him before we met continues to be the most wonderful, solid rock to build on and I love both human and dog so much for it!!

So every night I’ll be here, two happy, engaged dogs before me and a clicker and treats (or kibble) in hand, communicating and sharing the joy that force free, positive reinforcement training has brought us. They love the training game, and I will play it with them with a full heart for the rest of our lives together.

If you want to learn more about how to start clicker training with you dog, click here.

Peace, Love, and Dogs!

Hey there!

I’m Jessica, and I’m not totally sure what I’m doing here, but isn’t that how many great things start?!

I’m a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in New Mexico with the two most incredible dogs in the world, in my professional opinion. Boots is a 10 year old terrier mix, and Ranger is a 3 year old hound mix of some sort. I’m also lucky enough to have a pretty amazing fiancé, Chris, who loves our boys just as much as I do.

Chris, Ranger, Boots, & I, shortly after we got engaged – June 17, 2018.

I started an Instagram for Boots years ago, before Chris and Ranger were ever a part of our lives, under the handle BootsAndJess. As our pack grew to include the two of them, I felt that we needed a more inclusive Instagram name, and after weeks of searching and finding that everything I wanted was already taken, I stumbled upon the idea of TheDogMomChronicles– I mean, I already chronicle our life to a large degree on the ‘gram, so why not call it what it is? After that, the idea of a blog popped into my head, and I decided to give it a try.

So what do I hope to get and give in this space? Community!! For so long I felt like the only crazy dog lady out there and worried that I’d never find my people. I’ve been lucky enough to find many of them in real life, and would love to continue to find them on the internet. Boots is entering his senior years, and I hope I’m lucky enough to connect with other senior pup parents, as I know these years will bring both joy and challenges. We’ve also just entered the wonderful world of Rally and will be entering our first trial in March- I’d love to hear from other rescue pup parents involved in dog sports.

While I do work with dogs for a living, I want to use this space to remember the pure joy I get from my dogs and the life that we share together.

Cheers to the start of something new!

Peace, love, and dogs,