Thursday, November 18, 2010

Goodbye, Huckleberry

Yesterday was Huckleberry's first birthday, and yesterday we put him down.

Calling the decision we had to make anything less than excruciating would be an understatement. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He was a young, healthy, active dog. To look at him was painful he was so good looking. Did I mention he was also smart? He was highly train-able, got his CGC at the age of 5 months, and we had just begun our second level of nosework. And we loved him. A lot. So why in the world would we put him down?

The problem is that he had an unstable temperament. While it does not appear in the form of a physical illness, like cancer or parvo, it is just as destructive and eats away at the dog from the inside out.

From the second he came into our home, we knew he was “off” and structured our lives accordingly. The shelter told us he’d been seized as a 5 week-old pup, alone, and before he came to us he had bitten the resident vet in the face. We knew he missed some critical milestones and was already displaying inappropriate behavior, so we scrambled to make up for lost time. Everything was a training opportunity. We had behaviorists and trainers evaluate and re-evaluate him as the months went by. Everyone agreed that he had issues that would plague him his entire life, but he was just a puppy. There was something so endearing about the way he would focus so completely on you. No one was wholly convinced he would fail, so why not give him the chance to succeed?

So we did. For the past 8 months we’ve been working so hard. Combining management, training, socialization and conditioning, we worked on slowly making him into a normal dog. In some areas he made leaps and bounds. In others, not so much. Overall, despite the occasional “red flag” his progress was such that we thought the worst was behind us.

But then, almost two weeks ago, he crossed the line we hoped he’d never cross and injured a stranger in the form of a muzzle punch to the face. The good news is that the injury could have been much, much worse, but the fact that he was willing to take matters into his own hands, given his troubled history, was not a good sign. Coupled with the fact that he was just shy of a year old, gaining confidence by the day, and the fact that dogs who bite once (this was an inhibited one) usually bite again but with much more severity, we knew that he was heading in a bad direction.

Don’t be confused, it is not a breed thing, it’s a dog thing. Across the board, a certain percentage of dogs are born “wired wrong” from the get-go. They come in all shapes and sizes and the severity of the unstable temperament varies as well. A dog’s success or failure depends on a variety of factors, including genetics and the human’s willingness to adapt their life around the problem.

We took a hard look at our situation. I wrote out his entire history in search of patterns. We met with all the behaviorists and trainers (yes, plural of each) who had been watching Huckleberry as he’s grown. The prognosis was not good from any of them. None could cite a single success story from a dog matching his personality profile. In every case the dog eventually did major damage to a human being.

Armed with the knowledge about his trajectory, we weighed our options. Medication was not viable as one of the side effects is lowered inhibitions, and that is a dangerous cocktail with a dog who’s warning signs are masked by good behavior. In his case, we had done so much work and behavior modification that he was able to seem perfect and well composed even when in reality he was way over threshold.

We had already modified our lives around his needs to a large extent but in our situation, keeping him safely away from people at all times was simply not a guarantee. Even if we were to never have anyone over to our house again, we live in the city and cannot walk outside the front gate without encountering people. The liability of keeping a known dangerous dog is high, and walking around in public constantly on alert for possible triggers just creates a situation where the dog feeds off of you, a never-ending cycle for a sensitive dog like him.

Adopting him out to someone else was also not an option. Not only is it irresponsible to pass off your problem, but considering the lengths we’d already gone to, there’s not much more another person could do. Basically, if he were going to succeed in a home environment, it would have been with us.

Dropping him off at the shelter would also have been equally irresponsible. A bad shelter would have adopted him out in a heartbeat, where he would then go on to do damage in his new home. A good shelter would have done a battery of temperament tests, most of which he’d fail so he would be euthanised after spending several stressful days in captivity.

For those who believe there is a farm out there where dogs can run free for the rest of their lives, I have a bridge to sell you. But in the world where Santa exists and so does this farm, socially isolating an unstable dog like that would only heighten their confliction if and when a stranger actually showed up on the farm, making them even more dangerous. And again, it would all come down to another person’s management, and management is never fool-proof.

All the options kept swirling around, none looking very good. Meanwhile, Huckleberry continued to be, well, Huckleberry. It’s really easy to make a decision when you have all the facts written up on a piece of paper or summarized in an email. It’s much harder when you have this dog, this otherwise perfect dog, doing charming things all the time, being so perfect and obedient, playing well with Xdog, and laying on your lap, looking lovingly into your eyes. You remember the good times, like the road trip to Mexico where he discovered “the ball.” Or how when you hold the nail clippers he jumps on the couch, rolls on his back, and happily presents his paws. This coming from the dog who wouldn’t allow any handling when he was young.

It’s kind of like a bad relationship. When you’re caught in the midst of one you deny it to all end. I mean, how could that face you love so much be capable of doing any harm? You get caught up in your version of reality, even when you get a hint of the truth. It’s only when you step outside and look back in that you get a clear picture.

In the end, we knew that we really only had one choice. It is simply not responsible to keep a dog that is more than willing to harm a person as his first line of defense. Had he been able to give us any sort of sign or protracted warning before actually inflicting damage then we could work with that, but his inner state is so well masked.

When people say of dog attacks, “it was out of nowhere! I never saw it coming,” that’s not true. Dogs always give signs. In the moment they may not give many signs, but there are always “red flags” leading up to the event. In this case, we saw the “red flags” Huckleberry’s whole life, but then he proved he was willing to take it to the next level. The writing was on the wall and we had to decide which meant more, our love for the dog or the safety of the public.

He had a great final 24 hours. The whole week leading up to his birthday we had thrown house rules out the window. He was allowed to sleep on the bed, eat food off the counter, and completely destroy all of the supervision-only toys. We closed the store and played with him like mad. Friends stopped by to say goodbye. We ordered the “Huckle-Burrito” which consisted of every type of meat the taqueria had, nothing else (they were extremely confused by that phone order), which he ate with gusto, tortilla first.

On the morning of his birthday, we woke up early, went to Huckleberry’s favorite park, played ball until he almost dropped, and took a cool down stroll up Bernal hill to get a full view of the city. We hopped in the car and headed to the vet’s office, where he spent his final moments licking peanut butter and baby food from our hands while we cradled him on the floor.

Goodbye, buddy. We miss you more than you'll ever know.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The New Guy

I'm a little superstitious. Not to the level of the baseball player who hasn't washed his red socks in four years, sticks a plastic figure in his underwear, and spits on the plate 3.5 times before he goes to bat, but when it comes to certain things I like to play by the book. The bigger the event, the quieter I get, lest I jinx it. So goes the case with the new guy...

Meet Huckleberry Huckabee Hasselhoff Hadley, but you can just call him "Huckleberry" for short.

Around mid-February this year I started to get a weird feeling. After an intense search last spring, and a handful of hopeful meetings, we'd sort of dropped the dog search. There was so much stuff going on, Xdog's budding adolescence required so much attention, and then with the holidays it just seemed way too much to handle. But then, mid-February, that feeling started creeping in... the feeling that our dog was somewhere out there.

I'd get it driving home, so I'd swing by the shelter to take a look. Nope, not there today, but maybe we should swing by the other place since we'll be biking past anyhow? Nope, not there either.

One day a friend came in to get a collar for her dog. It happened to be a day where I was having that feeling especially intensely. As a volunteer at Oakland Animal Services, she described a dog she thought would fit our needs. A few hours later, we met her at the shelter for a behind-the-scenes tour.

The dog in question was pretty cool, but he wasn't "the one." I brought Josh Radloff along since he'd never been to an animal shelter before. As we went through the rows and rows of kennels, I started to think that maybe my gut feeling was leading me the wrong way.

On the way out we were introduced to the puppy, Lucca, being fostered in the office. As Josh stopped to coo, I offered, "You know, if you guys ever need a puppy foster I'd be down." Recent dog sitting of late had reminded me how much Xdog really needed another dog around, and puppies are adopted quickly making my total commitment a fairly minimal. I promised to check in a few weeks later after the dog-sitting gigs had ended.

Fast forward to March 3 and I was back at OAS ready to take on a foster pup. The compassion hold I'd agreed to take was put down prematurely (she was suffering too much) so I was anxious to fill the slot I'd mentally prepared for. As usual, there were several pit bull puppies available for foster. As we walked past Lucca, still being fostered in the office, I mentioned, "You know, I could take him if you wanted."

One by one the "several" choices dwindled down. Those puppies were still in a legal battle and their custody was in limbo. Those two puppies were way too young and possibly quite sick. The choice was finally narrowed down to Lucca and two very young female siblings. I told them I'd take whoever they needed me to take more.

At the suggestion of my friend, I took the nearly 4 month old Lucca to the classroom in order to suss him out a bit while the shelter director decided which dog(s) I should take home. As I watched him in this new environment, I could tell he had issues. They were subtle, but they were there. The way he was more interested in his surroundings than me. The way he froze as I reached for the rawhide in his mouth. The way he was conditioned to solicit attention at the gate, only to move away once the person wanted to interact with him.

Word came back: They wanted me to take Lucca.


My heart sunk even more as I watched him interact with other dogs. His body language was horrible. Poor Bob the Dog looked for petrified as the little puppy hackled, growled, and jumped on him. Xdog knew how to handle it and just completely ignored him until he was good, then choose to play with him. They totally hit it off, but then he reverted into possessive-mode as his foster mom came into the room, snarling and guarding when any dog came close to her.

But I kept in mind the moment I'd had with him just minutes before: it was just the two of us and the beloved rawhide he so desperately wanted to own. Within seconds, I had him reliably giving it to me based solely on the prospect of his getting it back. We had a moment of being right there, together, and he gave me his all.

After a minor wrestling incident I like to call "Introduction to a crate," we got home and the tables turned. I slipped a lead over his head and affixed the other end to my belt before his feet even hit the floor. One impressive back-flip later and he realized he was stuck with me, like it or not.

Several weeks went by and the hard little puppy I picked up from the shelter started to become a different dog. The unhandle-able wonder got used to having his teeth checked daily and his feet inspected every time he came through the door. The serious beast became a tumbling, goofy clown, learning to roll down hills for laughs and stunt trip himself to earn the appreciation of playmates. He managed to take his incredible ability to focus on his handler and generalize it to strangers, and his extremely poor dog-dog body language loosened up a bit and he made real friends.

There have been setbacks. As with any living being, it's not always a straight path to perfection, but his little compass is pointed that direction so we've decided to give him a chance (and a new name).

Today we officially adopted him, flaws and all.

Welcome to the family, Huckleberry.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One Year Ago...

Paco died.

It doesn't feel like it's been a year, it feels like it's been 10. So much has happened in that amount of time that it literally feels like a lifetime ago. It's like life was going along with a certain trajectory, and then suddenly went way off course.

By certain measures, I'm in a much better position than I was before. My business was on the brink of failure last year and now we've grown in ways I never imagined. We have a store, a great group of people, international sales, all with no sign of slowing. My dog, relationship, house, and friends are all fantastic, but it still feels strangely empty.

I don't know why I thought I'd be over it by now, but I haven't gone a week this past year without crying and I still can't talk about it with strangers. It doesn't help that my life is constructed around him so completely.

But there has been growth. At least now the positive memories outweigh the sad ones. And now that he's not around to act like an ass and prove me wrong, he's reached a status of near saint-like proportions. I can extol his virtues for hours, tell the story of he chased the car thieves away at 2 am or how he fingered the one hoodlum who later went on to murder a homeless man (it was one of only two people in his life Paco could not settle down around), and now it's impossible for him to ruin the illusion by going into one of his crazy car ride fits (he's scream his fool head off and do handstands the closer we got to home), get amped up and embarrass me during a CGC demo, or be a jerk around another dog... now I understand how legends are made.

People want to know when we'll get another dog. The answer is, "I have no idea." We've done a great deal of dog shopping this year, have traveled long distances to see candidates, fostered one possibility, but nothing feels right. I think everyone has their own rate of recovery and we're just not there yet. I'm sure we'll know it when we see it, but that may only happen once we stop looking.

In the meantime I feel the best thing for me to do its continue building something positive in his memory.

RIP, little guy, I miss you every day.

handsome guy

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

European Vacation

For those who don't know, Aaron builds robots. Robots like this one:

the robot

The latest project necessitated an in-person delivery to Berlin. Never having been to Europe, I begged. I pleaded. I didn't care that January was the second-coldest month in Germany, I wanted to cross the pond. But what would I do while Aaron assembled the robot all day, was the concern? I'd make it a business trip myself, I argued.

Somehow it worked. Here are the pictures, in no particular order...

Proof of how cold it was in Berlin. Check out the icicles on the car,


the ice on the river,

really cold

and the boys in warm clothes.


In Europe a "double bed" means just that.

double bed... literally

We did the tourist things, like visiting the Berlin Wall (yes, mom, I'm wearing your old jacket),

taking a peice of theBerlin Wall

and KaDeWe, the largest mall in Germany.

cotton fields at KaDeWe

But we also strayed off the beaten path by playing foosball in dive bars,

foosball in Berlin

(as in, anti-establishment dive bars where you do snuff with a Polish guy covered in facial tattoos til 5 in the morning and this is the chandelier)

best chandelier ever

and hanging out with local friends.

After 5 days in Berlin, Jeff headed home and we made a b-line to Paris.

Notre Dame at night

Notre Dame at night

Cappuccino 'stache

cappucino mustache

Catching your own dinner at a sushi restaurant

catching fish

Look, a Paco Collar!

sneaky dog

Overall the trip was fantastic. The whole time it was windy, cold, snowy, or rainy but somehow that didn't matter and the whole thing just ended up... perfect.

Oh, and the post-script for those who might accuse me of just partying the whole time: I did manage to get some work done and am proud to announce that Paco Collars is now in two pet stores in Berlin and with one distributor in Paris... woohoo!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Artistic Integrity

I'm not gonna sugar coat it. I'm pretty pissed right now. Someone is copying our designs... again.

This isn't a unique situation. In fact, it's happened several times and I've even written about it before (and, I might add, both companies/individuals referenced before have had positive outcomes and we actually refer customers to them now). I'd come off sounding like a broken record if this situation wasn't quite so unique and painful.

Basically, this individual made and posted a collar design that is my current dog's collar (The Xdog) layered atop of my deceased dog's collar (Paco's Ruadh collar). If it was an accident, I could forgive it, but it's not. I won't go into the details, but it's clear that it's a calculated move.

As an artist (*shuddering at my least favorite statement ever*), I find it really offensive when other people copy work exactly.

Now, I totally understand the concept of "inspiration" and "derivative." Let's face it, pretty much all of the cool things in this world have been invented. There is only so much room within which you can maneuver unless you are willing to create something totally outside of the realm of what the mind can handle, and when that happens it doesn't always have a great outcome.

Take music, for instance. The guitar is a medium that has been played for hundreds of years, yet even with all that time for innovation, there are only so many notes in existence. Try as you might, you can't change that. You also can't change the fact that "Wild Thing" and "Louie Louie" have the exact same chord progression and nearly identical strumming. To the average listener, however, they sound like totally different songs because, well, they are.

You can have things that are similar at the core and then take off in very different directions, and that's fine. That's the basis of design, of songwriting, etc.

But when you take something that's already made and do it again without making any significant changes, well than that's just copying. It's like the imitation designers you see on "The View" the morning after the Oscars, showcasing the duplication dresses they stayed up all night making, only out of crappier material. There's no improvement, no differentiation, you're just replicating something that's already been done. Where's the art in that? Where is the dialogue, the wit, the innovation?

The fact is there isn't any of that, and that's what bothers me about copy cats. And when you drag Paco (the dog, not the company) into something, then you make it personal.