Thursday, February 19, 2009

Nema's First Aquatic Adventure

On Valentine's Day weekend, B & I drove up to Austin and spent Saturday and Sunday with friends. Both days, we took their dog, Sam, and Nema to a trail near their apartment that led to a creek where Austinites let their dogs play off leash. It was Nema's first time to go swimming, and I didn't know how she'd like it.

Well, it turns out that Nema took to the creek like a Labrador to water -- oh wait, she is part Lab, and the creek is water. :-)

First of all, she did great walking along with us on the trail off leash. She and Sam raced in front and around us but never strayed too far. Once we got to the creek she had a blast running around in the water, and chasing tennis balls and other dogs. At one point she submerged her entire head in the creek to retrieve a tennis ball.

We'll definitely be taking Nema swimming again -- and as often as possible -- since she had so much fun.

Good News From the Vet

As I mentioned in my Feb. 1 blog entry, Nema had the growth removed from under her right front leg last Wednesday, Feb. 11. I took her into the vet's office that morning and made sure they were going to use local anethestic. Bernard picked her up that afternoon, and when I got home from work she had several sutures closing up the skin, and it was a little swollen, but she seemed fine.

Over Valentine's Day weekend Nema was fine, although the swelling remained. We were staying in Austin with some friends for the weekend, and they also have a dog, an Australian shepherd named Sam. We tried to keep Nema as quiet as possible, but anyone who knows Nema knows she is one active pup -- especially when other dogs are around. So we ended up giving up and taking her and Sam for an off-leash walk both Saturday and Sunday to drain her energy -- more about that in a subsequent blog entry.

On Monday, Feb. 16, I was back in Houston but had to stay home sick from work. I wanted the vet to check on the sutures as they were a little red and swollen. So Bernard took Nema to the vet, where they said she looked fine and removed the sutures. After that the swelling and redness subsided and now, three days later, the most obvious sign of the surgery is the shaved area around where the sutures were.

That wasn't the only good news from the vet though. The best news is that the test results on the growth showed it was a benign lesion. So, not cancer. I don't know why she got the lesion but I am grateful it was not malignant.

I feel bad that little Nema has had to go through these two medical issues in her short life so far. First the horrible spaying experience, and then this minor surgery on the growth. But I am happy that so far she has come through them both OK.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Animal Odd Couple: Tara the Elephant and Bella the Dog

A friend of mine sent me the link below in an e-mail forward, and while I don't like most forwards, this one was amazing enough that I sent it on to several friends and family members.

Not only does the elephant featured in the video share my name, Tara, it also features an incredible sight: an elephant gently petting a dog on her stomach -- with her giant foot!

This is a couple of minutes long but it really is worth watching to the very end. Take a look: Animal Odd Couple video on YouTube.

Run Free, Puppy!

Yesterday we let Nema run around unleashed in an unfenced open field with plenty of other people and distractions nearby -- a group of adults playing football, bicyclists, walkers, other dogs walking on leash with their owners, and a forest on one side of the field into which she easily could have disappeared.

Nema behaved perfectly. We were with our neighbors and their two dogs, and the three dogs chased each other, chased a tennis ball and chased frisbees. They had so much fun. Even though she initially looked tempted to barge into the football game taking place at the other end of the large field and go after their football, she was satisfied with our tennis ball and frisbees. Even when the other two dogs vanished for a while into the forest to explore, Nema stayed by us, preferring to run after the tennis ball. Even when one of the other dogs barked a couple of times at passing dogs on leashes, Nema ignored all that and just wanted to play ball. Even when we humans stopped throwing the ball and were standing around talking, Nema just wandered around in our vicinity and then lay on the grass to rest.

This was a big step for me because I am admittedly overprotective of my pup and for a long time the thought of letting her run free terrified me. She could get hit by a car, I thought. (This field was not near any roads, which is why I felt it was safe enough to let her off leash in it.) She could run away. (But, she has never given any indication that she would ever stray too far from us. She doesn't like being separated from us.) She could playfully jump on a small kid and knock him over, bringing on a lawsuit from his parents. (This could still happen, I suppose, even though Nema would not intentionally hurt anyone.)

Once, when she was just a few months old, B & I were taking her for a walk around our neighborhood. We were on a street that is separated from a major highway by only a field -- theoretically, a dog could run right onto the freeway. As we were walking, Nema slipped her head out of her collar. She was "naked" in dog terms -- no collar, and therefore no ID should she get lost. I felt my whole body seize up in panic. However, she scampered straight toward me, not away from me and toward the freeway as I feared. Despite the fact that she demonstrated she would run to me and not away from me, I scooped her up and carried her the rest of the way home, while B entreated me to relax and put her back down so she could walk. I just couldn't -- I was so shaken by just the possibility of what could have happened if she had run across the field and onto the highway.

But since then I have realized that I need to relax and trust my dog. We have developed a bond and she is not likely to just take off running into the horizon if I unclip her leash from her collar. So lately I have been experimenting with taking her outside to the sidewalk off leash to go to the bathroom. She has been pretty good during those experiments, except that once she ran into the middle of the street (I had already checked to make sure there were no cars coming before I took off her leash) and then would not come to me when I called her. She just stood there in the street sniffing at something on the ground. So I walked over to her and put her leash back on. But the other times she didn't run into the street -- she stayed on the sidewalk and ran right back to the gate of our drive after she was done going to the bathroom and waited for me to catch up to her and let her in.

So yesterday in the open field was another breakthrough for me. I don't think I'm ready to take her for walks off leash by any means. But at least I can feel secure that I can take her to exercise in the park without worrying too much. I'll still worry a little bit, though :-)

And best of all, I could tell that Nema was having a great time out there in the field. She was exhausted after being out there for over an hour, running and playing. It made me happy to see her having so much fun.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dog Park + Toys + Fetch = Happy Pup

Today B took Nema to the little fenced dog park near our house. I think the above photo speaks for itself.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Nema's Vet Visit

Yesterday I took Nema to the vet because a "mole" or growth of some sort had been getting bigger and also is changing color. It's near her right armpit. (Or do they call them leg pits on dogs?)

Going to the vet is a very anxious event for me, although Nema seems to be OK with it. That's because she had a very bad experience there last year. We took her in to be spayed. Directly after the surgery she seemed to be fine. The vet tech called me and said she was doing well and had been walked outside to use the restroom. They keep all the animals overnight so she told me I could pick her up in the morning.

That night we went out to a concert with a couple of friends. After the concert, around 10:30 p.m., I checked my cell phone and noticed I had missed a phone call from the vet at 9:30. I immediately knew something was wrong -- why would the vet call so late at night. I called and called and called the vet, with rising panic as they did not answer. Finally the vet tech answered and put the vet on the phone. He told me that when he checked on the animals around 8:30 he found Nema in critical condition, bleeding internally. He called two of his staff members to come from home to help him give her a blood transfusion. When I talked to him on the phone he said she was now in fair condition and that I could come see her.

About 11 p.m. B and I arrived at the vet's office. When I walked in a saw her it broke my heart. She stood up when she saw us, even though she had a catheter in her leg from the ongoing transfusion, and even through she was so weak she could only stand for a few moments. Her gums and inner eyelids were white from blood loss. I had never seen an animal in that condition before, and seeing my precious dog like that was nearly unbearable. Even writing this now, months later, I can't help but cry.

One of the vet techs stayed all night with Nema to monitor her and called us at home once an hour every hour until 8 a.m. to tell us how she was doing. Nema had to stay at the vet's office for several more days, and when we finally brought her home she had to be kept very still for several more days. She had a compression bandage around her belly and was still healing. A couple of weeks later Nema developed a fluid sac under the incision, which caused a large bulge under her belly. The vet drained that a couple of times and finally it went away.

I took Nema to a second vet for a second opinion about everything, but ultimately decided to stay with the original vet.

That was in October; now, three months later, she seems to be completely healed and has no negative reaction when we go to the same vet's office. But I felt bad because yesterday when we went back to the vet to get the growth checked out, they had to shave the fur around the growth to get a better look at it and we had to hold her down on the table. I hate having to do that. But once we let her down she seemed to hold no grudges.

The vet said we need to get the growth surgically removed and tested. He said they will use a local anesthetic this time, because even though she was OK with the anesthetic during the spay, it is better to be safe than sorry with Nema due to what happened last time. We scheduled the surgery for Feb. 11. I am trying not to dwell on the worst-case scenario, that it could be cancer. I am hopeful it is benign, or some other harmless growth.

The Human-Dog Bond

I think it may be difficult for some people to understand how humans can become so attached to dogs. For me, it's about several things.

First, when I brought Nema home I made a commitment to be responsible for her well-being, so that's why I do my best to make sure she has plenty of love, the best food, a warm and comfy place to sleep, interaction with lots of other dogs and people, exercise, and training.

Second, people who get a dog and keep it chained up in the backyard or in a cage never get to experience how intelligent most dogs are. It's fun to watch them learn. It not only expands their world -- it also is fun for the human teacher.

Third, even if a dog is not particularly smart, almost all dogs (unless their behavior has been ruined by humans) will give you so much love and affection -- and isn't that what most people secretly want? They really can be a companion who can do what no human friend can do -- be there for you all the time, 24 hours a day, willing to spend all their time with you, no matter what. They'll walk with you, watch TV with you, go out anywhere with you, sleep on the couch or in the bed with you, and always love you.

Fourth, for me and Nema specifically, one reason I am so attached to her is because I held her in my arms when she was a little 6-pound puppy and have seen her grow up into an intelligent, active, sweet, and funny dog. I am always going to do my best to keep her safe and happy.

Nema's Night of Badness

So last night we had a guest over for dinner, and Nema put her paws up on our guest's leg, and proceeded to take a big chomp out of the mound of tabouli on her plate. OMG!!! I was so embarrassed. Luckily our guest was our neighbor who is a dog lover -- she has a little dachshund of her own -- so she didn't run screaming from the table, and I think she might actually come over again one day :-)

I put Nema in a "time out" immediately. Nema doesn't like being separated from humans so time outs seem to be a good way to reprimand her. So hopefully this time she connected her behavior with the consequence.

But in case she didn't, we are introducing a new rule: No more hanging out near or under the table while we are eating. To help us enforce this, we working on a new command we learned in training class yesterday afternoon. You pick a mat or blanket that will always be your dog's spot. Then, you use treats and positive reinforcement (by using a clicker or marking word, such as "yes!") to teach the dog to go to that mat when you say "Go to your spot." Nema has a soft L.L. Bean doggy blanket that we are going use as her spot. One important thing is that it should not be used as a punishment spot. It should be used as a place to put your dog before she has a chance to commit the bad behavior. So the spot should always be viewed as a positive, relaxing place.

We practiced the spot command this morning while Bernard was cooking breakfast, because we're also no longer allowing Nema to be in the kitchen. Her countersurfing has gotten really bad and yesterday she got some cheese we had set out for our get together with our very understanding neighbor.

Tonight we are going to try getting her to stay on the spot while we eat and then her reward will be getting her own dinner. Of course she will get her dinner no matter what, so I will find a way for her to be successful in the command, even if we have her stay on the spot for short intervals at first while she is learning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fetching the Newspaper

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, Nema has taught me a lot of things, or at least caused me to learn a lot of things. I got a refresher course on one of them this morning -- patience.

For the past three days I have been teaching Nema how to fetch the paper. In the morning, before breakfast, I take her clicker and some treats, and open the front door. Then I say "Get the paper!" and she runs down the enclosed drive, grabs the paper between her teeth, and brings it back to me in exchange for a treat. Yesterday she did it perfectly.

Well, after only three days of practice, this morning I thought I could get her to fetch the paper again -- but this time less formally, with no clicker and no treats. Nope. As soon as I opened the door, she saw the paper, grabbed it, and ran around in large circles around me on the drive whipping the paper around in its plastic bag and shredding the bag. Then, when I called her to come to me, she did exactly the opposite and ran away from me holding the paper in her mouth. I felt irritation rising up -- I was already running late for work, now my paper was half destroyed, my neighbors were probably getting a good laugh through their windows, and she wasn't listening to me at all.

So I walked back in the house, leaving the front door open behind me. I waited in the hallway, and after a few seconds she looked into the house wondering where I went. I decided to try again. I went back outside, but she was still more interested in using the newspaper as a toy than in bringing it to me. Finally she dropped it, and I picked it up and told her to get in the house, which she did. I then tried three times to place the paper outside and have her fetch it, but each time she did the same thing. Finally I gave up. I still felt pretty irritated.

Then I realized that I had been too impatient. At 14 months she's just barely out of puppyhood. She's still a teenager in dog terms. So after just three days of practice I expect her to forget her natural play instinct and fetch something for me? It was unfair of me to get irritated with her.

I will need to continue working with her using the clicker and treats, and eventually no treats, until she completely associates the newspaper with fetching and not shredding. Maybe it will never happen, and that's OK. I don't really care about the newspaper. I just want to continue teaching her new tasks and tricks. I think it is fun for both of us.

It just takes patience. Thanks for the reminder, Nema.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nema's first agility class!

I have been researching dog agility classes in my area, and on Saturday Jan. 24 B & I took Nema to try out a Pre-Agility course. It took her a few tries to walk across the whole beam rather than jumping off after a few steps, but once she caught on she was extremely enthusiastic. The teacher said she was learning quickly so she recommended we move her to the Agility 1 class. I was so proud of her. :-)

Nema had a great time jumping over tunnels, running through tunnels, running over beams, weaving through poles, and teetering on a see-saw. It was great physical exercise, of course, (for both of us, actually) but also it was challenging her mentally to learn new things. And it helps reinforce her obedience training.

The below photos show us starting up the beam, Nema running across it, and then down the other side.

Nema also learned to weave between poles, as shown below.

Although she was initially a little unsure of what to do when going through the tunnel (at first she just kept jumping over the tunnel) once she figured it out she loved running through it!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


When my puppy, Nema, came to live with me on Saturday, December 22, 2007, I knew I was bringing home the cutest bundle of black and white fur that I'd ever seen. But as she's grown up, she has taught me some interesting lessons about myself and about how life works.

First, some background: My boyfriend (now my fiance) and I had been pining after a dog for quite a while, but we lived in an apartment for three and a half years and since I wanted a big dog, I felt it wasn't fair to get one until we bought a house. He wanted a small dog, but I really wanted a bigger dog I could run and walk and roughhouse with. If my apartment complex had an area for the dog to play outside it wouldn't have been a problem, but there were no parks nearby. So, we waited.

In November 2007 we bought a townhome with a small yard in a neighborhood just minutes away from one of the largest parks in Houston. I wasted no time -- as soon as we moved in I started scouring the city's shelter websites for available dogs. I wanted an older dog so that I could start walking and jogging with him/her right away, and so the dog would already be housetrained. B wanted a puppy to bond with. We debated back and forth and I emailed him lots of pictures of available dogs at the area shelters.

One day at work, I happened to mention in the lunch room that for Christmas, B and I were considering getting a dog as our gift to each other. The very next day, my manager forwarded me an e-mail she received that morning from a co-worker in another building whose son's dog had given birth to puppies. She was trying to find homes for them. I called the lady that day to ask about the situation. She said her son's dog was about 8 years old and had never been spayed, and this was her first litter. She was keeping the puppies and mother dog, Honey, at her house and caring for the pups there -- I think because she had more room at her place than her son did at his house. I asked if I could come and meet the puppies, and she said please do. We arranged to come by that weekend.

Before we visited the puppies, we visited two local shelters to see if we could find a dog there that we felt would be a good match for us. We spent hours at both places, and at one we finally found a puppy that I just couldn't bear to leave behind -- but when we brought her to the staff to say we wanted to adopt her, they apologetically informed me they had made a mistake by letting us visit with her as she had already been adopted that morning. Oops. I was sad, but happy she (the puppy's name was Denise) had found a home.

So then we headed over to my co-worker's house, where the 5-week old puppies had just eaten and were lazily lying around on the newspaper-covered floor. I knew I wanted a girl dog, and there were two female puppies still up for adoption. One was medium brown with a dark brown stripe down the nose, and the other was black with a white blaze down her chest and a white stripe down her nose. The brown one was more playful and the black one was very quiet. I cuddled both of them and played with them a little and tried to suss out their personalities a little, although they are so young at that age it's hard to tell. The lady said they had just eaten and so were not as active as usual. She emphasized that they were usually much more energetic.

(I didn't really pay attention to that at the time, but she was right! Once we got Nema home, she had buckets of energy and still does! But she still likes to nap after she eats.)

I couldn't decide between the brown and black pups, and when I asked B he said it was my decision (although I learned later he was leaning toward the brown one). I remembered reading somewhere that black dogs sometimes have a harder time getting adopted because some people think they are more aggressive. So I decided to take the black one.

That was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Nema has turned out to be an amazing dog, not because she obeys every command (which she doesn't), not because she never chews up anything in our house (which she does) -- but because she is an incredibly interesting animal.

We couldn't take her home right away of course, as she was only 5 weeks old. The lady said we could come back in a week. Since then, I've read that 6 weeks is still too early to take a pup from its mother, and I regret that I did not leave Nema there for several more weeks. But at the time, I didn't know, and of course I was anxious to bring her home.

We immediately went to the pet store and bought all the supplies to prepare for her arrival. My favorite was a tiny red collar and leash. I slept with the collar and leash on my nightstand for a whole week, so excited to finally be adding a dog to our two-person family.

When the day finally came, December 22, we drove that morning to pick her up, and I sat in the back seat and held her all the way home as B drove. She slept most of that first day, and most of the second, but by the third day (which happened to be Christmas Eve) her energy revealed itself and it began to dawn on us what we had gotten ourselves into! A six-pound puppy can still wreak havoc in your house, believe me.

She slept in a little crate with bedding right next to our bed in our room. But she woke up every couple of hours and either had to go to the bathroom or wanted to play. I also had to go to work each day. So by the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I was like a sickly zombie nauseated from two nights with no sleep.

Now that she's over a year old and housetrained (and 60 pounds -- big enough that I won't roll over on her accidentally hurt her) she sleeps in our bed with us. So no more crate in the bedroom and no more waking up all night long.

So, that's the story of how Nema came to live with us and be part of our lives.

I suppose I should mention that she is a mixed breed dog, we guess black labrador from her father's side, with boxer and beagle from her mother's side. She's a beautiful dog. Big brown eyes, white socks on her hind toes and an expressive face framed by velvety ears.

In my subsequent blog entries I'll talk about how Nema's taught me about imperfection, persistence and relinquishing control. Right now, however, I'm going to wake up my snoozing dog from the couch, tear my fiance away from his X-Box and maneuver them both to our bed for a good night's sleep.