Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Blog Central

I have a new award on the left. It was given to me by a blogger I only became familiar with after she very kindly awarded it to me. MBNAD Woman wrote about life with her border collie. I use the past tense because by the time I visited her blog, she had decided to stop writing because her beloved border collie had died. MBNAD Woman, if you're out there, thank you so much. And please write again sometime. You are a fantastic writer. Maybe you'll get another border collie and write about that or maybe you'll write about something else.

While visiting MBNAD Woman's blog, I came across another new (to me) blog. Alright Tit writes about her experience of having breast cancer in such a funny way. I know cancer is a serious subject and we shouldn't laugh. But Alright Tit does. She's not even 30 yet and has had what must be one hell of a year. But you wouldn't know it from reading her blog. I highly recommend it. You can find it on my blogroll.

Once again, I am reminded of the diversity of the blog world and the beauty of it. It brings together so many different types of people, and so many who express themselves so well. Sometimes I think I might shut down this blog. I haven't given it and my blog buddies the care and attention they need and deserve. But I wouldn't want to miss out on the blog world. I am going to pass this award on to everyone who visits this blog. You all deserve it.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

It's Such a Pain

Have you had a Eureka! moment? The kind that comes when you're thinking about something else or looking for something else?

I had one yesterday. We took Jake to see the pain specialist, who agrees that he appears to be in some sort of chronic pain. She took the time to explain the difference between chronic and acute pain -- the different nerve fibres involved. Also, when the body is expecting pain, it usually will feel pain.

Again, it was a lot for hubby and I to take in. But my Eureka! moment wasn't about Jake. It was about me. I have found a canine equivalent of myself. I don't feel physical pain, at least not when my back is behaving. But I feel a deep, chronic emotional pain every day.

Like Jake, I didn't have the best of starts. I arrived as a surprise, and not a very welcome one. My dad accused my mother of tricking him into impregnating her, then he was disappointed I was born 8 days after the new year because he missed out on a tax deduction. My sister, 10 at the time, was not pleased to have a baby sister. Only my brother seemed at all to share my mother's joy.

Jake is an anxious guy, owing in part to his humble start in life (20th out of 21 pups born to his mother last year). His mother was a nervous wreck when I saw her. But Jake seemed happy with his barnmates. Then we took him to our home and he encountered all sorts of foreign experiences. Loud music, car rides, sleeping on his own. And of course then he started to feel exceptional pain in his hips.

I'm an anxious person. You may not know it when you look at me. Over 49 years, I've devised ways of hiding it. I used to bite my nails. I used to constantly bounce my leg up and down. I stopped those habits and tried to channel the anxiety in other ways. The only time I've not felt anxious was when I took certain illegal substances. I grew quickly, like Jake, and people often thought I was older than I was. I was put a grade ahead in school. I look back now and see that this could have been the start of my social anxiety -- the fear that my peers won't like or accept me.

Or it could have been because of my parents' tumultuous marriage. Sunday was fight day in our house. My mother was the main culprit, I decided early in life. Now, I'm not so sure. She's a high anxiety person, and her mother before her was. My dad did nothing to mollify her anxiety. If anything, he heightened it. She did crazy things like cut the crotch out of my dad's underwear in front of us or throw a can of hairspray at his car as he was backing out of the driveway. There are lots of such incidents in my memory bank. She also used to threaten to commit suicide and/or divorce my dad. And when he left, she made good on her threats, or tried to at least.

So I didn't grow up in a warm, loving atmosphere. It was war, and everyone for him/herself. When my dad married my stepmother, I thought that would be the end of the anxiety. It was only the beginning. I never thought my own dad would treat his children as if they were his stepchildren. But that's what my stepmother achieved.

I tried to make friends into quasi family. But if my family is dysfunctional, so are some of my friendships.

This is background for my Eureka! moment. The pain specialist said that chronic pain sufferers became sensitised to causes of pain, anticipating it even when it shouldn't be there.

And so I have become sensitised to causes of emotional pain. I anticipate that certain people will cause me pain; then when they comply, I reassure myself that I'm right to fear the pain they cause. But they have to cause an awful lot of pain before I walk away. I've never walked away from my family so my capacity for pain must be quite high.

Anyway, Jake's pain is being treated medically for now. I no longer take certain substances so I feel all the anxiety and pain. I just need to find a way to cope with it.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Animal Behaviourist

And now a word or a thousand about Jake's appointment with the animal behaviourist.

We drove Jake to the vet school teaching hospital where the AB showed us into a room with three vet students and another woman, whose function I never determined.

I thought she'd start off asking us about our concerns and had written some notes to take with me. She didn't. She started by asking us all sorts of questions about Jake: why we wanted a dog, why we chose a Border Collie, where we got him, where he sleeps, eats, is allowed in the house, how much time he spends alone in the day, who feeds him and when he gets fed, what other animals are in the house and how old are they, how many children in the house and how old are they, how much contact he's had with other dogs and when, how he behaves toward visitors to the house. She asked if we ever used spray bottles on Jake. I said we had for a short time when he was a puppy, but abandoned the idea because it didn't seem to work. She asked if he messed in the house at all. I said he hadn't messed in the house since I got the puppy crate. She asked if he chewed furniture. I said he did for about two weeks, then stopped. All this time she took notes and observed Jake and us as well.

Jake, for his part, seemed completely at a loss as to why he was there and alternated between hubby and me, sticking his nose in our hands, jumping on hubby, barking at the door occasionally. He didn't venture far from us for a very long time. When he did, he sniffed around the AB's shoes, then peed on her. I shouted no, Jake ran back and hid behind our chairs, ears back. AB calmly got up, got some paper towels and spray and cleaned the mess. He was marking his territory, she said. She found his reaction most interesting.

She asked if loud noises bothered Jake (they do) and chastised us for having a fireworks party at our house. Her words were, "You have a dog and you had a fireworks party?" Then she got to the nitty gritty of the biting incidents, the pulling on the lead, and the aggression toward other dogs.

First of all, I hold my hand up and plead guilty to reading this dog completely wrong. He is not by nature a dominant dog and doesn't need to be treated as one who needs to know who's boss. He knows who is boss (me). He is a very anxious, insecure dog who also has had quite a bit of trauma in his short life due to the hip dysplasia and other factors. When his ears are back and he is acting attention-starved, this shows his anxiety and lack of confidence. My shouting at him when he barks at door, speaking sternly to him when he growls, very occasionally rolling up a magazine when nothing else will make him do what I want are exactly the wrong things to do. (I hasten to add I have never hit this dog with magazine or anything else.)

Two of the biting incidents -- the vet surgeon and once when he bit hubby because another dog had attacked when he was on the lead -- were due to fear. The others were anxiety-driven, she said. He is not a malicious dog. Well, I knew that. He's a sweetheart. She thinks he's still in pain, particularly on the left side. When I told her and the vet students that he had had no cartilage left on his left hip when they operated, we all nearly cried. This is a dog who has suffered and is still suffering.

Some of the aggression towards other dogs is normal dog behaviour. Most of it is because he doesn't trust other dogs. This probably started when I took him to obedience training classes before I knew about the hip dysplasia. A lab puppy did what boisterous lab puppies do and jumped on him while he was on the lead. No wonder he doesn't like lab puppies. Another border collie barked incessantly during the classes. He only liked the quiet chihuahua next to him. And he still prefers small dogs. Like other hip dysplastic dogs, he is sensitive and protective of his back area. And where do all dogs go to sniff other dogs? She said aggression toward other dogs was common in dogs with hip dysplasia.

She asked what I'd tried to stop the pulling on the lead. I reeled them off: harness, two Haltis (shredded in minutes), a whistle apparatus, turning the opposite way whenever he started pulling, and most recently treats. She said the pulling wasn't a training problem; it's a behaviour problem. I'd already suspected that.

So, the solutions. No more shouting, rolled-up newspapers, or other negative reinforcers. But also no more cuddling and kissing. Dogs don't lick to show affection. In his case, it's another manifestation of his anxiety and leads to overexcitedness, which could in extreme cases lead to more biting. She gave us a DAP diffuser, which contains pheromones that a female dog releases when she is nursing puppies. The pheromones calm the puppies so they nurse better. Jake, and we, have been calmer since we plugged it in. She gave us a clicker to use with treats as a positive reinforcer of secure, confident behaviour. Example: He keeps nudging us to pet him. We ignore him till he gives up, then we press the clicker and give him a treat. He loves this.

We are to walk him only in wide, open spaces like the beach so he doesn't feel trapped and confined if he comes across another dog. We use the clicker with treats every time he passes a dog with no incident. This way he will come to associate something good with other dogs and gain more confidence with them. We aren't to use the muzzle or keep him on the lead as these will reinforce the negative feelings. We are also to take him back for another session at the vet hospital with one of their dogs so he can gain more confidence with other dogs.

He is to be fitted with a Halti harness and we are to bring him back to the vet hospital for a session with the trainer there on how to use it.

He is to see a pain specialist at the vet hospital to assess his pain and put him on appropriate medication.

I'm also to stop watching "The Dog Whisperer."

We emerged three and a half hours later exhausted. The appointment was only supposed to last two and a half hours and any additional time was to be charged. I think she took pity on us when she found out we weren't insured when Jake had his surgeries and that the insurance probably wouldn't cover her either as I'd already consulted with the vet about the biting before we got it. I kept thinking "Kerching!" every time she mentioned another appointment.

I have some advice to anyone out there reading this who is thinking of getting a dog. Don't be cheap. And don't go to a farm in North Wales. This £30 bundle of love has turned into a very expensive dog.

But he's worth it.

I'm also thinking of getting a clicker and treats for my son. Every time he does well in school, he gets a treat. It might work.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Just One of Those People

First of all, thank you all for your support and helpful comments about Jake. We see the animal behaviourist today and I'll let you know how we got on.

But onto other matters on my mind. Last night was parents night at my son's school. It's a wonderful night when I go to my daughter's school, less so at my son's. He is not an academic high achiever or even middle achiever in some subjects. But most of his teachers seem to think he's capable of far more if he just puts in the work. I don't disagree with this.

Most of his teachers offered helpful comments on how he can improve his performance. Not so his physics teacher. Perhaps in her mind, she did. But she didn't. What she did first of all was chastise him for not turning in overdue homework. Fair enough. Then she accused him of not studying for his tests at home. When we backed him up and said he did indeed study at home, she asked how he prepared. He said he read the information, then had us quiz him on it. She said that method was useless. Then he said he copied out diagrams. She said that was worse than useless. I was beginning to think she was a bit useless so I asked her what study methods she recommended. She spouted a bunch of things, mind mapping and cartooning being the only two I remember and even recognised. I turned to my son and asked if he knew what they were. He said he did, but I don't think he does.

She said they were in the study guide book he got last year, and she should know because she wrote it. She then said a method that works for kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learners was to try to teach the information themselves. My son is 12. He doesn't know if he's a kinesthetic, auditory, or visual learner. I then said, "So if my son came to you before a test and asked which would be the best method for revising, you would be able to tell him?"

She didn't like that, and ended the appointment immediately. I was fuming. I woke up in the night still fuming. But, as we told our son, those people exist, and sometimes they become teachers. The only thing for him to do is to make sure he doesn't give her any ammunition against him, like forgetting to turn in his homework.

When we got home, my husband looked in my son's physics homework book. It was full of smiley faces and "Good work" remarks. So what happened? Son said she told him off one day for sneezing in class. Is this another unfulfilled or ill-suited person for teaching taking it out on the pupils? That's what it's looking like.

And you know what's the worst bit? She's his head of year. We have no one else to go to to complain, should we decide to do so.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Jakey, Jakey, Jakey

I haven't posted about Jake in quite a while, but that doesn't mean nothing is happening in his world. It's just not very positive.

Jake has turned into a bit of a bully. You know he bit the vet surgeon in the crotch, my daughter in the hand, and my husband (five times now). I was afraid to tell the vet about it because I didn't want him to be labeled an aggressive dog. But I don't want him to bite any more people either. So finally I did tell the vet. The vet referred Jake to an expensive animal behaviour specialist. The appointment is next Thursday, and it's not soon enough.

Jake also has turned into a bit of bully with other dogs, but not always. Sometimes he's perfectly OK, but sometimes he will growl and go after another dog. I always shout and tell him to move along, which he always does. But the other dog and its owner are quite understandably unhappy. I could keep Jake on the lead, but I'm not sure that's a good idea either because he gets really aggressive if a dog not on a lead approaches him when he is on his lead. I could muzzle him, but I'm not sure if his behaviour is bad enough to warrant that punishment. And he isn't always aggressive. I used to be able to say with some confidence that Jake loved spaniels and all small dogs. I can't now.

Today on his walk he encountered two dogs, both also Border Collies. He showed aggression towards both. I got him to leave the first dog alone very quickly. By the time he encountered the second dog, he'd tried unsuccessfully to evacuate a bit of his blankie that he'd chewed and swallowed. It was flopping around his tail and annoying him. He growled when we tried to remove it. So along comes this other Border Collie and its owner. The Border Collie tries to sniff Jake's bum. Jake is most unhappy about this and becomes aggressive toward the other dog. I try to catch up to get him to move along, but not before the other owner decides to tell Jake off herself. She pointed her finger at his nose and told him off. I suggested she might not want to do that, fearing he might bite her in his state of mind. She said, "Excuse me?" in a rather aggressive way herself. "I don't want him biting my dog." I said I didn't want him to bite her or her dog. She said he needed to be on a lead if he was that bad. I walked away and so did Jake. I was angry about the situation, but also fear the woman may have been right. I don't think I would approach an unfamiliar dog in an obviously aggressive state the way the woman did. But as Jake's owner, it's my responsibility to make sure he doesn't hurt anyone.

Jake LOVES his walks. He NEEDS his walks. He needs a lot of exercise and room to run around. I think a lot of the reason for the aggression is fear and memory of pain. But others don't know his history. We have to get this situation under control before it controls us.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Christmas as a Metaphor

Christmas lingers, or rather the memory of Christmases past. And tomorrow I celebrate (?) my last birthday in my 40s.

On Sunday I started to pack away the Christmas decorations. If I have anything I could call a collection, it would be my decorations. Never mind that most were made in China (I always wonder what Chinese people think of these odd red and green things they make to sell to westerners). The decorations, particularly for the tree, have been collected since my early 20s. I have a hot air balloon (something I wanted to go up in at one point in my life) that was attached to a long-ago present. A china bell. Various angels. And Santas. Betty Boop on a motorcycle. A pink bicycle. A red train. A blue tractor. Wooden houses bought in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I had a thing for houses when I lived in apartments. An old-fashioned telephone. A lute. A wagon. A picture of me in my 20s that was an ornament on a staff Christmas tree one year. That one gets moved around the tree every year by my children. A crystal Christmas tree. A bird. Many salt dough and felt decorations made for a PTA fund raiser. A sheep's head made by one of my children in nursery. Fragile baubles from the '50s given to me by my mother-in-law. King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. A lighthouse with a wreath on it. Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, courtesy of Disney World. Winnie the Pooh and Goofy as well.

All of these decorations have a story about where they come from. No matter their provenance, each is treated with the same care and concern. This is why I didn't moan too much when no one offered to help me put things away.

They all were there when the tree came down and the decorations came out. I always play Christmas music as we decorate the tree. Hubby and I usually argue about the Christmas lights (is there anyone out there who doesn't argue with their spouse over the Christmas lights?). This year, though, we broke with tradition and allowed the kids to put up the lights and let them have the argument. Daughter lost all interest in the tree and Christmas after a couple of hours. She barely went in the room with the tree again after we decorated it. This is a far cry from when she was little. One Christmas Eve I shook carpet freshener on the carpet from the fireplace to the tree and had my husband step in it to leave "Santa's footprints." I feigned displeasure the next morning at having to clean up after Santa. Every year we leave a carrot for the reindeer and a mince pie and glass of wine for Santa. Every year Santa thanks us for these gifts, using his best left-handed writing.

This year I felt a bit melancholy packing away Christmas. How many more years before the kids don't come home at Christmas time, before my daughter demands "her" decorations for her tree, before hubby and I decide it's too much trouble to decorate the house for Christmas? I am on the precipice of 50; my life as I know it will probably change greatly this year as we move forward in our plan to buy a business. We have to really because hubby isn't going to get a job in financial services again anytime soon.

How many more years will those decorations last before they break and crumble?

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Baking Time

I've written here before about some of the differences between the UK and the USA that I've encountered. How we celebrate Christmas is one of them.

Take baking. Christmas baking was a big deal when I was growing up. I'd bake various cookies and make fudge (because my mother may have shown me where the cookbooks were but she never was too interested in it herself) to give to others, who in turn would do their baking too. My favourite cookies still are Russian Tea Cakes, which are probably called something else in other people's cookbooks. These little balls of flour, butter, sugar and nuts rolled and re-rolled in powdered (icing) sugar send me into sugar heaven. Even when I was working I always managed to make Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies for the staff.

Then I moved to the UK and had loads of time for baking, but was frustrated by the lack of familiar ingredients. How could I make Chocolate Pecan Pie without Karo syrup? What was gingerbread without molasses? And I still can't get the butter conversion right. Also, I discovered, people in the UK do a different kind of baking. They make Christmas cake, a kind of fruit cake you souse with brandy or whiskey for a month, then cover with marzipan and royal icing (this also is known as Wedding Cake and Birthday Cake). They make Christmas pudding, a dried fruit-filled steamed pudding that traditionally is set alight (for it too is brandy-soaked). And they make Mince Pies, pastry filled with -- you got it -- dried fruit soaked in brandy.

My first Christmas here I dutifully made a Christmas cake in November, wrapped it in greaseproof paper and foil and squirted it with brandy every week. Then I wrapped it up in marzipan and royal icing. It wasn't very good, but I'm not really a fan of Christmas cake. I never attempted making Christmas Pudding, though I have bought them. I have made Mince Pies, with varying success.

I also baked peanut butter cookies and made truffles for that first Christmas, to which I'd invited the outlaws. No one else but me ate the cookies and truffles. I gained a lot of weight.

So I quit the Christmas baking. I'd make chutney some years, but that was it. Except for this year. For some reason, this year I wanted the house to be filled with the smells of baking. I made gingerbread with molasses I sourced from a health food store (though I could have used treacle). I made Chocolate Pecan Pie with golden syrup. I made apple and cherry pies, conjuring up my very own pastry. I rolled mincemeat up in puff pastry (I will always do this now -- it was delicious) and baked it. I made Mexican Wedding Cookies (similar to my beloved Russian Tea Cakes) and butter Christmas cookies (too much butter), meringues with chocolate chips inside, my own jam with blackcurrants I froze in the summer, cranberry and pear chutney. The house absolutely buzzed with the smells of Christmas baking, as I know it. I gave out jam and chutney as presents to my friends.

Perhaps all that baking took its toll on my mood on Christmas Day. Perhaps I'd had too much sugar and was coming down. But I enjoyed it. My kitchen was always warm, though the rest of the house was freezing.

I am putting away the Christmas recipes for next year, getting the house clean for 2009. But maybe I'll still do a bit of baking. After all, as the Pillsbury Dough Boy would say, "Nothin says lovin like somethin from the oven."