Unexpected animal friendships are some of my fave videos. Yes, I’m that person who always shares on Facebook the video of a goat and dog frolicking, or of a pig snuggling with a mini cow. And let’s not forget the ol’ cat and dog combo — because not all of them fight.
I adopted Billie Jean recently and a big factor in my decision was how well she hangs out with the cats. She generally ignores them. If she walks into the path or gets in the face of one of the cats, the cat will usually hiss, and Billie Jean usually pauses and either finds another route or scurries by. One cat is more curious, and the other just goes about his own way and ignores BJ. But my dream would be for the cats and Billie Jean to be besties.
Last week, I had the chance to meet with ” the cat whisperer” aka cat behaviourist and author Mieshelle Nagelschneider at an event held by Arm & Hammer, so I took the chance to ask how I can help the cats learn to love Billie Jean. She wasn’t concerned about the hissing given I have only had Billie Jean about a month, the hiss is just the cats giving a warning, she said, and it’s still early days. The best way to help them all get along, she said, is to create a group scent. When you have multiple cats, they create a comfortable environment by creating a group scent — this is what they’re doing when they rub up against each other, furniture and you. I can help Billie Jean get welcomed into the household by creating a group scent by putting a pair of thin socks on my hands and rubbing the face of each animal in sequence, and repeating this ritual.
The other tactic she suggested I try is a counter conditioning exercise: play with the cats in near proximity to Billie Jean, and that way with their dopamine levels going up as they happily play, they’ll associate more of those feel-good feelings with the dog’s presence.
I haven’t yet had a chance to put these tactics to use for long but I can’t wait to see if this gets them all to love one another and snuggle, which is pretty much my life goal right now.
Arm & Hammer had hosted this meeting with Mieshelle as they’re promoting their new product Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal Slide Cat Litter — and there were two soon-up-for-adoption kittens from the OSPCA at this event making it pretty much the best event ever! This litter has a new technology that allows the litter to just slide on right out of the litter box (so no more scraping or scrubbing) so the task is easy peasy — I haven’t had a chance to pick up a box of A&H Slide yet, so I can’t speak to how well it works. Mieshelle says it’s best to replace the entire litter once a month (to maintain optimal freshness and cleanliness, making it a litter box your cats want to use), so this new Slide will make that monthly task easier and faster (I’ve scrubbed the litter box in the past and it’s not a fun chore). Other litter box tips that I learned:
- The litter box should be uncovered. Cats don’t seek privacy when doing their business; an open litter box allows them to feel safer as they can more easily able to escape quickly if need be (this goes back to their cat instincts and living in the wild).
- You should have one litter box per cat, plus one more. (I get this in theory, but it won’t be happening in my downtown condo!)
- Cats need some light to see (looks like I’ll be needing to get a nightlight for them!)
- Scoop the litter box once or twice a day, or else your cats may stop covering their business in the litter box.
Stay tuned to my Instagram for updates on the progress I make with Billie Jean and the cat love!
March 27, 2017
“What have I gotten myself into???”
This is what I asked myself late the night of February 3rd. This was the night my first official Save Our Scruff foster dog, Billie Jean, was dropped off at my place by a transport volunteer (fostering means I open up my home to a rescue dog until it is adopted, and while in my care, help train it, bring it to vet visits, meet with trainers if needed and learn the dog’s personality so that the organization can find the right home for the dog).
Billie Jean had just landed from a rescue org in the Dominican Republic and she was cowering in sheer fear as far back of the crate as she could. I’d opened the crate door and was trying to convince her it was fine, and had reached in to pet her, and she had snapped at my hand. And I freaked out a little.
I left her alone for a bit, but then sat outside her crate chatting to her, thinking that’d be comforting. After awhile I went to add a blanket so she’d have something soft to sleep on, and she went to snap at me again. WTF. I went to bed and figured I’d figure out what to do in the morning.
I found out from the awesome team at Save Our Scruff that I was basically doing everything you shouldn’t do with a very terrified dog. The talking, the eye contact, the trying to pet her — this is all intimidating and scary. So I spent the day just cooking and hanging out at home, reading online about how to handle scared dogs. In the early afternoon, I saw Billie Jean had exited the crate and was sitting near it, so I sidled up to her slowly and just stood next to her and let her sniff my hand, which I just left by my side (I didn’t reach out — but had I, I would’ve done it palm up; learned this from the reading I’d done that day). She quickly returned to the crate, but a couple of hours later, she exited the crate and went straight onto my bed.
I’d have just let her hang out there alone til she felt less scared, but my cats were hiding in the closet, and I wasn’t sure what would happen if they emerged, so I thought I’d better be in the room, so I shuffled in slowly backwards and lay facing away from Billie Jean. After about 10 minutes, I reached back to let her smell my hand, and then later I pet her. She sat upright and tense, on guard, for about an hour before she felt comfortable enough to relax a little and lie down more comfortably.
That was one of our breakthrough moments in terms of our bonding, but getting her to go outside to walk was extremely draining, physically and emotionally, for both of us, I think. She’s only about 42 lbs but Billie Jean is surprisingly strong if she’s using every ounce of her being to resist me. I had to wrestle her into my arms to get her out of my door (and carrying a 42-lb dog is awkward!) and then she would burrow herself close to the wall or into the bushes. So “walks” were really just me standing there with a terrified dog that was hiding. And there was no such thing as a quick walk, since the entire ordeal would take over an hour. The trainer’s email said that me facing away from the dog with light tension on the leash would be motivation for BJ to stay with me…which I had a good laugh about at the time, because Billie Jean had zero motivation to stay with me at all. Her only goal was to not be outside at all, and hiding and not moving in any way she could was her life mission. Neighbours would walk by with their dogs and chuckle sympathetically at me with the dog refusing to budge.
I was frustrated, heartbroken for this scared dog, and simply didn’t know how long I could foster this dog for because I didn’t have time to spend four hours a day walking her. I was low on patience. But I don’t like to give up, so I vowed to commit to two weeks of fostering her and seeing whether she’d improve. But I felt that maybe I simply wasn’t cut out for the commitment fostering calls for. Perhaps I’d been lucky with the rescue dogs I’d dogsat for SOS; they’d all been relatively well-behaved and mostly trained. Billie Jean was proving to be a lot of work and caring for her was all-consuming and I had stuff I had to do on top of fostering.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, on day 5, Billie Jean decided to walk outside. Getting her out the door eventually got easier as well. And after about a week we were walking more than an hour some days. After a visit with a Save Our Scruff trainer, we started on crate training and she took to that really quickly. Now she understands that meals take place in her crate and sleep time. This also helped her to learn that the bed and sofa are off limits, unless I allow her to (she still attempts to make it happen though! She’s persistent, we share that in common!).
She also got more affectionate with me. One day I walked into the bedroom and I thought I’d scared her, but it turns out Billie Jean was wagging her tail at me. I’d never seen her do that, which is why I didn’t realize what was happening at first. Another day, she was lounging in her Casper dog bed (which Casper generously gave me for my foster dogs) and I was on the sofa and I said “Hi, Billie Jean!” and she walked over, put one paw on my shoulder and licked my face. And I thought my heart would explode.
I saw that she was great with the cats, and is very quiet (to this day, I’ve never heard her bark; I’ve only heard her growl at some dogs). And given her energy level and lean build and her breed (hound cross), I thought I’d try running with her, and she runs really well. She keeps alongside me at a good pace…but who’s kidding who, she could go much faster, she just maintains my now slow pace.
I can’t recall when I started considering adopting this cutie pie, but I knew with every day that it’d be hard to give her up. And when I got the email two weeks into fostering that it was time to fill out the Save Our Scruff paperwork so that an adoption listing could be written up, I was filled with panic that Billie Jean would no longer be in my life. I told SOS I was considering adopting her, and they gave me more time to think.
And over the next week, I talked to other dog owners about the realities of owning a dog. I tried to work out which friends would be able to take care of her when I have to travel. I thought long and hard if whether this was the right dog, and the right time of my life for a dog.
Because I’ve always wanted a dog. When I was living in Montreal, I’d often visit the SPCA there just to see the dogs. I’m always the one petting dogs on the street, even ones I probably shouldn’t be (street dogs in foreign countries, for example). I asked for a dog as a kid (denied!) and as an adult (also denied!), despite dropping hints each and every year how a dog would be the most incredible gift ever. About 10 years ago, I’d read several books about dog breeds and narrowed it down to a handful (with key factors being “good with cats” and “low energy” — this was before I became a runner!). I photocopied the chapters so that when I was ready to adopt, I’d have the info on the breeds that would work well with my lifestyle. It’s my love of dogs that lead me to volunteer with Save Our Scruff in the first place. I have the cats and have volunteered with cats, but I love dogs and cats equally (I think you can be both a cat and dog person!) so when I heard about SOS, I realized it was a way to get some time with dogs, or in the case of doing home visits initially (that is, making sure potential homes for the dogs are safe) that I’d be helping dogs in need of a loving home in my own small way.
And after more than a week of consideration, I decided Billie Jean had to be part of my family, and applied to Save Our Scruff and within a week, was told that Billie Jean would be joining my fur family. That week or so I spent debating the adoption, I truly needed that time to make sure I wasn’t making an emotional decision. But I believe the timing is right. And as much as I may have helped her, she’s also helped me. Last year was a hectic one, and 2015 was an awful one personally. In 2016, I ran around like a crazy person; I know to many people this will sound like first-world problems and that it’ll fall on deaf ears, but I simply traveled too much. I ended the year burnt out and knowing I need to travel less and have more of a routine and make more time for me. And after five straight weeks at home in 2017, four of them with Billie Jean, who forces me to have a routine (minimum of three walks daily, meals at a certain time — although she’s not that demanding of a dog, tbh), I felt so much anxiety and stress melt away (except for that first week with her — then stress was at an all-time high trying to help this terrified pup adapt to life in Canada!). I’ve already started to turn down travel opportunities (both personal and work-related) so that I can be more rooted at home, but when I do travel, I have support of friends who I know will care for and love Billie Jean as much as I do. And life, thanks to Billie Jean, is better. Happier. More focused on the things that matter.
I’m looking forward to a lifetime of adventures with this new member to my family. I wasn’t expecting to be a foster fail, but am so thrilled that I am.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to Save Our Scruff for bringing this beauty into my life and for all of your help along the way.
March 15, 2017