Alvin sticks out his tongue when he is nervous

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cotton candy - it's not just for eating anymore

I still cannot get over the fact that I have to coax and bribe a dog in order to rub and scratch his back because I assure you that no one, probably not even a serial killer, would have to coax or bribe me to let him/her rub or scratch my back.  With that said, Alvin is making progress in that department.  He has started to allow me to pet him when I am standing up over him.  What has been so very helpful is that Alvin watches everything the other dogs do and he is definitely braver with them around.  When the two other dogs greet me, Alvin has started to get in on the welcome party and I can briefly pet him on his back and neck.  The top of the head is still way off limits but I can't fault him on that because if given the choice, who wants the top of their head scratched when they can get their back scratched?  Alvin probably has a whole master plan of how he is training me and yet, I'm the idiot writing the blog.
I have noticed that I have not seen Alvin groom himself at all since he came here.  He got a bit of very bright blue cotton candy on his leg (never mind how it got there) and I ended up leaving it because it was something I could see if he licked off and I knew he had no objection to eating cotton candy (again, never mind how I knew that).  I don't know if his lack of grooming is another issue with his mouth, or his developmental delays, or he is just still in survival mode and hasn't relaxed enough?  The blue cotton candy remained on his leg for several days until I wiped it off.  All of his mouth issues are still there, although he is not doing the pushing motion on me nearly as much as he used to.  He is continuing to hold his tongue out and he licks things so oddly.  I don't know exactly how he does it but it's like he doesn't have good control over his tongue and so sometimes he licks things on the way up, or sideways, or with the bottom of his tongue, although he does manage to get whatever he is licking.  I have been giving him food in small, clear containers and holding them while he licks the food out so that I can get a better look at what his tongue is doing.  Initially it just looks like oral mayhem with his tongue going every which way but then he seems to get into a rhythm of sorts and it looks normal.  It's so odd.  I have to be careful about giving him anything directly by hand because it's usually either confusing to him because he can't seem to figure out how to take the food or he nearly takes off one of my fingers because he bites into it.  This system is counter-productive to lowering his anxiety because when trying to hand him something I then anticipate him clamping down on my finger, do a little jump, drop the food, and the best Alvin can do is catch it on the down side of his circles that I induce.  I anticipate that Alvin may soon pack his bones and get the heck out of here!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My dog can burp louder than your.......trucker husband!

I have come to realize that there may be a way to earn some money towards Alvin's double knee surgery.  I am going to take this boy to every frat house party I can find and place money on who can burp louder, the frat boys or Alvin and we are going to come home with not only all the money in every one's pockets but also the next month rent money for the frat house.  I kept hearing this odd little noise coming from Alvin, especially right after meals and all I could think of was that maybe Alvin had been debarked and it was a muted bark.  I was so convinced of this that I wrote Cathy at Camp Cocker to ask her if Alvin had been debarked before he was rescued.  Cathy was kind enough not to call laughing hysterically but did kindly inform me that Alvin had not been debarked.  I started paying particular attention to him after meals and sure enough it's a burp.  An itty bitty dog that can burp like a that is pure gold!  If you come across one of our roadside stands trying to lure people into placing bets, don't blow our cover and let anyone know that Alvin is a world class burper.  The little guy is growing up!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Alvin's brush with death

Alvin almost died today and it was all so very unexpected.  If someone were to ask me what would I least expect from Alvin it would have been without a doubt what actually transpired this evening.  My mom and I were watching TV when I heard my mom say in a shocked hush, "look at Alvin."  Her tone was that mother tone I have come to know is signaling that something is very wrong.  I looked over at Alvin and he was proceeding to try to hump Timmie.  No one humps Timmie and lives to tell about it.  I was literally shocked stiff and felt as though I had lost my ability to move and I asked my mom in a breathy whisper, "why would he do that?"  I kept thinking that if I didn't move it might go away and nobody would lose a limb.  In my head I immediately started calculating how I was going to break it to Cathy (the founder of Camp Cocker) that my dog had murdered Alvin and I immediately went to trying to dodge responsibility by reminding myself that Timmie was once a Camp Cocker dog and so I would simply report to her that one of "her" Camp Cocker dogs murdered another Camp Cocker dog.  I figured I would go for broke and attempt to even sound a bit indignant in hopes that that would really throw her off.  But then a miracle occurred that rivalled the parting of the Red Sea because Timmie simply moved away and did nothing.  After being pretty sure that there had just been an incident of divine intervention in my own living room and whispering, God? while looking at the ceiling, I then began to process it all and all I could think was, what in the world was Alvin thinking?  I was thrilled that possibly he actually had a little something in him that wanted to be assertive but after pondering it more I have had to conclude that the only possible way that Alvin would do such a thing was if there was food on Timmie's back.  Alvin will risk life and limb for food but otherwise he is neither insane nor that brave. 

Speaking of brave, Alvin has started to sleep in the bedroom with all of us.  He has been too afraid to let his guard down and sleep too close to us and also I think he is comforted by being in the most open part of the house, which is near the exit to the yard.  I put a bed near my bedroom doorway hoping that would help his need for escape and it worked!  He has started to get in his little bed after everyone else goes to sleep and the lights are out.  Before that Alvin and I are doing our floor work every night and every single night there is progress.  The autistic part of him cannot associate petting with any other room in the house but for now I think we will stick with what seems to be working.  He is able to allow me to scratch more of his body and for longer periods of time.  I found the spot that he simply cannot resist and I think I have nearly scratched it raw but he hasn't complained.

We went to the vet today because Alvin's eyes have been draining and it turns out that he had a yeast infection on his face due to the moisture from his eyes.  He has the condition where his eye lashes are rubbing on his eyes and so he is going to have to have the laser surgery at an eye doctor.  I guess we can add that to his existing fundraising needs of double knee surgery that he also needs.  His knees don't seem to be a source of pain for him so that will wait until we can get the money but his eye surgery is going to have to be done sooner because it is probably irritating to him.  The vet checked out his mouth and everything seems to be in working order but he continues to have a hard time negotiating a lot of different foods and has his tongue out of his mouth a lot and so who knows?  Alvin shook like a little leaf on the examining table because it terrifies him to be up on things and to make it even worse the vet and I had our hands all over him.  While he was shaking I was thinking about how vulnerable this little guys is.  He doesn't bark, he doesn't fight, he doesn't have anything inside of him other than fear, worry, and kindness.  I have never encountered a dog that needs a protector and an advocate more than Alvin.  His vulnerability makes me teary at times because there is something so raw and pure about it.  With that said, I was hoping for a little insight by my vet as to what Alvin's deal is and my vet was fascinated and even came out into the lobby and got on the floor with Alvin.  He tried to give Alvin a little biscuit and he was able to see that Alvin could not break it apart and kept spitting it out and then trying again.  I was waiting for the big insight because I think my vet is particularly insightful about animals and all I got was, "he really is such an odd little guy," in a kind of hushed, amazed tone of voice.  So, Alvin and I decided to take our ball of oddness back home where some of it is starting to make sense to me, although it is so very clear that Alvin finds me to be a bit stupid and often incompetent.  Whatever!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Alvin's mouthing off

Alvin continues all his odd mouth behaviors but a new one has started.  At night when we are on the floor together he gets what can only be described as a mischievous look and begins to somewhat play pounce on my hands.  He then begins to put any objects that I am holding into his mouth and puts a small amount of pressure with his teeth on them.  He has started taking his paw and clamping down a bit on my hand and then he wants to put my hand in his mouth.  The interesting thing about it is that normally I would not even consider letting a dog put my hand in his mouth, particularly if he was applying any pressure with his teeth but when Alvin does it, it seems to be such babyish behavior and is like nothing I have ever witnessed.  I have been around puppies and dogs that will want to chew on a hand and although they are just playing, one can see the potential for the dog to get carried away but what Alvin does is different and I wish others could see it.  His behavior is so non-threatening that he put his teeth on my beloved Kindle and I didn't take it away because it was clear that he wasn't going to bite down.  I am thinking that his behavior of putting his paw on mine and mouthing me may be him trying to assert dominance but his body language, attention span, and focus seem that of a baby animal. Poor Alvin has a whole routine to pull off each night because besides the behavior I just described, he is still repeatedly sniffing and doing the nose/mouth press on me and every surrounding object.  He also finds cloth (a sheet, shirt, jeans, etc.) and acts as though he is going to chew on it but once he gets it into his mouth he will give it a couple very gentle bites and then release it.  He then often comes back to the cloth object over and over again.  I have been watching his chewing because he managed to chew through an electrical cord at Cathy's house when he was stressed out but the only chewing I have seen is when he is in his babyish, playing mode but there is a certain nervous, scared quality about him as well and I find it all a bit confusing.  Knowing poor Alvin's luck he is probably being the very most aggressive he can possibly be and I am responding by cooing at him like a baby.  What a disappointment I am probably turning out to be for him but a dog can't be responsible for training all human beings because there is always going to be on bad apple in the bunch.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Everything good happens on the floor

Alvin and I have started a ritual of hanging out on the floor together.  He seems more receptive to being touched if I am on the floor with him, preferably lying down.  Alvin is a mystery because normally any noise or movement by my mom or me causes him to excitedly charge towards us but then when he gets about three feet away he stops and won't come any closer.  What does that mean?  So, now I am on the floor trying to look casual and non threatening.  He has started to stand over me and if I hold my hand out to him he will take my fingers and place them in his mouth between his upper lip and his teeth and then quickly let go of them.  He is exceedingly gentle and it seems like a baby behavior.  I don't say puppy behavior because I don't know that puppies do such a thing but it seems so young and kind of primitive.  He also does his nose/upper lip pushing behavior all over me and will repeatedly push anything I hold up to him.  What has me most concerned is that it is so clear that Alvin is communicating and I just don't know what any of it means.  He is such an observer and everything about him screams out that he is trying to communicate but I am a bit lost.  I have decided that they only thing that I can do until I learn his language better is to provide an environment that is as stress-free and nurturing as possible.  The last few evenings I have been able to spend about an hour on the floor with him and he is increasingly receptive to being touched but there are clear rules and the biggest one is that reaching above him or trying to pet his head is out of the question.  He has to do a lot of approach and retreat but he seems to feel far safer if he can hover over me and yes, I look ridiculous through all of this.

Speaking of ridiculous, we have taken to only walking at night because we look so stupid walking down the street.  Alvin's looping goes into overdrive on walks and he insists on circling constantly around the rest of us.  When he really gets going he has a tendency to get my legs tied together within about 10 seconds and meanwhile I am trying to lead the blind Stevie and manage Timmie who becomes a cat chaser outside the house.  Not only do I look like an idiot but there has been falling and swearing involved.  So, we go out under the cover of darkness and I have learned that if I hold the handle of Alvin's leash above my head every time he circles then he can keep on looping and I don't get my ankles knotted together.  I want to get Alvin a miniature saddle and a little cowboy hat because when he is looping on the leash he looks just like the little ponies at children's birthday parties.  I am thinking about feeding him more than the other two dogs because with all his looping he is bound to burn off a lot of calories.

Speaking of food, Alvin continues to be nearly frantic in the presence of food.  He eats his meals at such speed that it is difficult to imagine how such a little mouth gets the job done so quickly.  When there is any food any where near him he goes into a frantic, darting, freak out mode that screams, I have food issues.  He is learning how to get treats but I only give them out of the palm of my hand because he nearly takes my finger off otherwise.  He has learned how to negotiate more foods with his mouth but things like a piece of hot dog if it is too big throws him for a loop (pardon the pun) and he can't seem to physically eat it.  He repeatedly places it in his mouth and then has to spit it back out because he doesn't seem to understand to bite down on it.  I am mystified because before I caught on he always managed to bite down on my finger really well when trying to give him treats and so I don't know what the difference is with things he is actually allowed to bite down on.  So much left to learn.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Alvin's enamoured

Alvin if fascinated with my mother.  It is difficult to know if he's in love, smitten, or just plain curious but she can't move without getting Alvin's full attention.  He has gone so far as to include her in his loop and trots around her over and over again until she starts thinking that she has vertigo.  Alvin positions himself about 10 feet away from her and mans his post while never ceasing to stare at her.  When she moves, Alvin is right there.  When she talks, here comes Alvin.  When she eats, Alvin loses his mind.  Every time he approaches her he has to do that odd sniffing, and nose pressing thing but now he has added random licks, which my mom isn't so much a fan of.  It doesn't help that when she attempts to walk, Alvin attempts a fast and tight loop continuously around her, which results in her tripping and occasionally swearing.  It probably wouldn't be an issue but my mom lives next door and is here a lot.  Luckily she has a good health care plan that covers broken hips. 

Speaking of Alvin's loops, I have discovered that he has three very distinct circles, with three distinct meanings.  There is the long loop around the living room chair and around the back of the house, which means everything has gone to hell in a hand basket.  Then there is the, something in my environment changed and now I have to loop around the chair for at least a half an hour.  And finally there is the, I'm excited, I'm hungry, I'm curious, etc. AND you happen to be walking so I'm doing a death defying loop around you while you attempt to walk. 

The great news is that Alvin finally let himself relax enough to get some really good sleep.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Is there a back scratcher in the house?

It's the second full day of Alvin being here and I had a sudden sensation of feeling like I "won" against Alvin, which is clearly silly but it feels like a battle against fear and today I had a little victory.  Alvin has come physically close when I put my hand under his chin but he runs away when I try to raise my hand above his head or near his body.  I gave him a raw hide because that seems to be a good stress reliever for him and he allows me to sit next to him while chewing it.  I have wanted to find his "sweet spot" or area that he most enjoys being pet or scratched.  I knew I only had seconds to convince him it felt good and I didn't know for sure that it was going to feel good to him.  Part of me was wondering whether Alvin would like to be touched or if he had autistic characteristics of not liking to be touched or being very sensitive to touch.  Luckily I have been told that I am a good back scratcher/massager and so I went for broke and I won!  I got him and it was a great feeling!  Alvin enjoys touch!  This makes everything more promising.  We had to start and stop a few times but the raw hide was invaluable at providing Alvin with a physical outlet for his anxiety and gave him a distraction.  I am realizing that most of our work will need to initially be on the floor and there will need to be a lot of repetition. 

I left the dogs together for 10 minutes while I went next door to my mom's house and apparently that caused a difference in the dynamic.  I came home to Alvin nearly looping a hole in the floor and Timmie deciding that today is a good time to start Hump Fest 2011 and Alvin was the target.  Timmie is a chronic humper but for the most part he has left Alvin alone until I left the house and apparently Timmie took it as a sign that the party could start.  Much to Timmie's frustration Alvin was able to get away every time and I think Timmie got tired or too dizzy following Alvin on his loop.  What was most interesting is that Alvin clearly watches the other dogs and takes their lead.  When I came home Timmie and Stevie both greeted me by jumping up and generally being very excited, which began to excite Alvin.  I pet Stevie and Timmie and Alvin stood close and let me pet him for just a moment, ran a loop, and came back.  He repeated the loopy greeting several times.  I think Stevie and Timmie will be helpful models for Alvin and hopefully Alvin won't chose to emulate Timmie's humping propensities.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

He's Already Full of Surprises

After what can only be described as a heart breaking night listening to Alvin in distress, I thought I would try using treats as a means of getting close to Alvin and helping his associate human contact with something nice.  I brought out the "treats" (his own kibble) and he went into a near frenzy.  He had already had breakfast and so I know he wasn't hungry but he became absolutely fixated on the treats and was tripping into and over things because he wouldn't take his eyes off the treat but he had the compulsion to loop and trot.  The up side was that he lost nearly all fear but his reaction seemed off, for lack of a better term.  I realized that I could get him to do just about anything because he was so distracted, but the frenzied state he was in didn't seem like something I should encourage in the long run.  Before abandoning the approach, I propped a box against the couch and put kibble on the couch and he jumped up on the box and then the couch and all was great until he was done with the kibble and looked around at where he was and then he was back on the floor looping into oblivion.  Alvin is downright pushy for treats, or any food for that matter, but it is very clear that Alvin could develop some rude behaviors and so we have to abandon the treat approach.  While he was being so fearless, yet so rude in his pursuit of treats I could envision what I could easily turn him into.  I could easily create a spoiled, pushy brat and it reminds me of over-indulgent parents of a special needs child and the child turns into a demanding, rude child.  I am so proud of Alvin when he is fearless and I see that he is developmentally and emotionally behind dogs his age but I can't turn my special needs boy into a bossy, rude dog, no matter how tempting.

Through this process I noticed that Alvin cannot take treats by hand in the way other dogs can.  He seems unable to figure out how to take it from my fingers and so I ended up placing them on a surface in front of him.  He exhibits odd mouth behavior in that he will go to everything in a room and sniff it thoroughly and then take what appears to be his upper lip and the lower part of his nose and push repeatedly on each object.  He has also done this to my legs and my mom's legs.  I don't know what the pushing is but he repeats it quite a lot.  He also often has the tip (or more) of his tongue out.  I think he should go to the vet to rule out any mouth problems but I suspect that it is a developmental issue.  We are starting with raw hides to help assess whether he has any pain in his mouth or teeth and to help him practice chewing and using his mouth in various positions.  He likes them very much but he has difficulty figuring out how to hold it and chew on it at the same time.  Luckily I have been able to use this as an opportunity to get close to him because he will let me sit on the floor with him and hold the rawhide while he chews. 

I often find myself just staring at him, or more like staring back at him because if there ever was a staring contest Alvin would win hands down.  But I find myself searching him for answers to all this odd behavior.  So often we see behavior in a dog and surmise what his/her past may have been and who knows how often we are correct but there tends to be a general idea of which behaviors are a result of particular traumas or experiences, whereas with Alvin it seems like a complete mystery.  Is he autistic?  Is he OCD?  I don't know but I do know that this poor baby is exhausted because he still hasn't slept.

The Journey Home

On September 6, 2011 I took Alvin from the home he had been in for the past 18 months and put him in my car to come to my house three-and-a-half hours away.  The idea was that Alvin had been in a home with many other dogs and there was simply no way to provide one-on-one attention to him.  Alvin traveled in the front seat with his back pressed against the passenger side door and he continually stared at me for the entire trip home.  After arriving home and introducing him to Timmie, Stevie, and the cat, Maddie I left him to do what he does when stressed out and that was to trot in circles around the living room and the back yard.  Alvin has considerable stamina and apparently a very good sense of balance because he was able to trot in circles for hours without seeming tired or dizzy.  I didn't attempt to touch him too much and there did not appear to be anything that I could do to comfort him other than to leave him alone.  We finally went to bed very late and I was awake most of the night listening to him repeatedly making a noise, which I can only compare to the noise a puppy makes when rooting around for a nipple from its momma.  It was clearly a sound of distress but I was struck at how young and primitive it sounded.  He made this noise all night while looping in his circles.  It nearly broke my heart and I came to realize that I had never encountered a dog as vulnerable as Alvin.  There is something about this boy that needs more protecting and more respect for his individual emotional healing process than anything other dog I will probably ever know.  The challenge and heartbreak is that an essential part of helping him heal is to leave him alone and not crowd him with what I want to do, i.e. pet him, hold him.  I had to watch him go through his own mourning and adjustment and all I could do was to try to speak reassuringly and to randomly belt out songs because he seems to respond to singing.  Alvin has now heard nearly ever song from the two-hour musical, Les Miserables sung horribly by a desperate woman that knew no other way to "comfort" him.  Alvin needs to "get better" fast because there is also every song from Wicked and Annie on deck if he requires more "comforting".

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

All About Alvin

I became Alvin's foster mom about three weeks ago.  I hadn't planned to take another foster dog but often life's best surprises come about when we don't make plans.  I have been a social worker for the past 13 years and have worked primarily with abused and neglected children in foster care.  When I met Alvin I could not help but be reminded of many of the kids I have worked with in the past but the difference is Alvin is a much bigger mystery because we don't know anything of his past and he cannot speak in the language that I depend upon.  So, this is the journey of me learning Alvin's language because he clearly has a lot to communicate and I can already tell that I have a lot to learn.  What I do know is that Alvin is the most nervous, fretful dog that I have ever known.  He exhibits a lot of mysterious behavior, such as repetitive circling, which is affectionately known in my house as Alvin's looping.  He does a lot of odd things with his mouth that do not appear to be due to medical issues, but rather behavioral or developmental issues.  He stares at people for hours.  He has a great deal of difficulty being touched.  He exhibits rituals with his mouth and nose that he needs to do when anything new that comes into his environment.  He does not bark but when he is terribly stressed he makes a noise that sounds very much like what a puppy sounds like when trying to nurse on its mother.  He steps on the back of my heels when I am walking and often trips me by darting in front of me or between my legs.  If I am wearing a skirt he often jumps up and grabs it with his teeth while I am walking.  He is very afraid of being up on anything like a couch or a bed.  He reacts to the smallest change by repetitive circling.  He reminds me a great deal of an autistic child and I call him my little Rain Man.

Here is what we know about Alvin.  He came in as a stray to a shelter in the Los Angeles area.  He was fearful and had difficulty letting people touch him from the beginning.  He exhibited his looping behavior right away.  He is estimated to be between 3-5 years old.  He looked relatively well groomed.  Both of his back knees were out and he later required double knee surgery.  He has now been in rescue for close to a year-and-a-half.  He was in a foster home with a lot of other dogs and although he got along with the other dogs, it was difficult to do any one-on-one work with him because he couldn't compete with the other bolder dogs.  So, he's stuck with me for the time being and I am eager to share all the mysteries and marvels that are a part of little Alvin's big life.

Cast of Characters

Alvin has involuntarily walked into quite a circus.  He has to share his new foster home with a few other animals.  Alvin first met my adopted dog, Timmie who is a five-year-old red male cocker spaniel that was rescued from Camp Cocker as well.  He came in to the Bakersfield shelter with a shattered pelvis, most probably caused by being hit by a car.  It was an old injury that was very painful and when he came in he was emaciated and had significant muscle atrophy in one of his back legs because he hadn't used it in a long while.  Camp Cocker paid for his surgery that put him all back together again and he has not had any medical complications since.  Timmie is a very jealous dog when it comes to other animals getting my attention and this is one of the reasons I agreed to foster Alvin because I knew that Alvin was not going to demand a great deal of physical affection from me.  Timmie and Alvin have gotten along very well.

Next Alvin met my other foster dog, Stevie who is a blind and nearly deaf, black female cocker spaniel.  She is probably around 12-years-old.  Stevie and Alvin get along just fine because both of them are very accepting of other dogs.

Finally Alvin met my 15-year-old cat, Maddie.  Maddie has no fear of dogs, or of anything for that matter and she has very quickly successfully trained every dog that has come into her home.  A few dogs have been baffled when they tried to chase her and instead ended up having to put on the brakes and skid into her because she refuses to run.  Most have received her warning tap, which consists of her taking her paw, with her claws in and simply tapping them on the head.  It has rarely required her to do more but for a couple that were not quick learners, she had to tap their heads more than once.  Maddie prefers not to have to tap and would like to find a dog that she can cuddle with.  She loves dogs and I think she would like to be one.  Interestingly, Alvin was the one that gave her the hardest time.  He was initially uninterested in her but then developed a curiosity, which consisted of him having virtually no physical boundaries and following her too closely.  He clearly wanted to chase her and maybe even intimidate her.  It was a bit frustrating to watch because I knew that Maddie would be Alvin's biggest ally if given the chance but the relationship was finally worked out where they leave each other alone.  At least Maddie represents one thing in this house that Alvin is not afraid of.

Alvin met my mom, who lives next door and is a frequent visitor to the house.  Alvin loves her and frustrates her to no end by tripping her because of his tendency to walk between her legs, on her heels, and running around her in his infamous circles.  Although Alvin is shy, he often gets on his back legs and puts his front paws on her.  Her every move is carefully scrutinized by Alvin and he rarely misses an opportunity to trip her, jump on her, or sniff her.

So, those are the characters in Alvin's new big life.  Let the adventures begin.