On Laika

Our new addition, the Afghani rescue dog, has now been with us for a full day. We settled on a name for her: Laika, after the Soviet space dog.

That’s the only thing, alas. Everything is new and strange for all three of us. She’s been uprooted twice in two weeks, and now has to adjust to being separated from her mother and sibs for the first time in her life on top of coming into a strange house with strange people and even stranger cats. Until yesterday, she had never been on a leash or encountered stairs. She’s like a puppy where training is concerned, but at least one that knows not to pee in the house, bite or jump. Her personality is laid back and gentle with a submissive streak, and she has a longer flight distance than a North American dog.

I haven’t had a dog in the better part of a decade, and my partner, who does not have benefit of prior experience, has been thrown headfirst into the deep end. Laika is a trial by fire. He’s rattled, but doing much better than he thinks he is. For my part, I’m having to un-learn all the training techniques drilled into me by a childhood spent in the canine 4-H. Thanks to her history, she’s not a dog who would respond well to that variety discipline-based training. Both of us are having to remember to focus strictly on positive reinforcement, and I’m trying to trade my choke chain instincts for those better suited to the headcollar.

To ease the transition, we’ve got her confined to the lower level of our house right now. The cats spend most of their time upstairs – this is where they eat, sleep and have their litter – so my partner and I have agreed it’s best to let them have it unmolested until Laika is better integrated. Our home is a bi-level, easy to section off thanks to the stairs in both directions right from the front door. Laika will have benefit of a limited amount of space she needs to get used to, and the cats have a large “safe zone” in which to adjust to her presence before they meet formally. She has glimpsed them a few times and, unfortunately, barked. From her body language, it’s not a fear or aggression bark; I suspect it’s a combination of “ha ha, I made you jump!” and unease with her new environs. If I’m right, we can work through this as both sides relax. If not, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

There’s only so much one can control, however. The first night was difficult. She spent the whole night howling intermittently from her kennel. Some of that may be our fault: we responded the first time she cried, thinking she needed to go outside. Nope, just lonely and anxious, and though we didn’t get up for her again, she optimistically kept up the noise. She’s gotten better about us being out of her sight over the course of today, so perhaps tonight will be more restful. If not, it shouldn’t take too many nights of getting no response for her to understand it’s not worth her time to cry.

Thankfully, Laika has a month of free training with the professional trainer who helped foster them all. Given the unique circumstances, the dogs are being trained as a group where possible. It gives them a chance to reunite, and us humans a chance to compare notes. Reassuringly, a few of Laika’s sisters took a few days to loosen bowels and bladders at their new homes – we have yet to get her comfortable enough to relieve herself. We had three hours with the trainer today, so she had a good long play on top of the training. She doubtless took the opportunity to pee at the least, so it’s not an accident waiting to happen yet.

The bad night aside, she’s beginning to figure things out. We no longer have to fight with her to get her out of the kennel, and over the course of the afternoon she’s gone from balking at the stairs to going all by herself. She’s also improved her leash manners from the first walk of the day to the second; instead of dragging her as she fights the leash and headcollar, I’m now working on personal space as we walk. It will be a while yet before she stops forging and butting into me, but as long as I’m consistent with reinforcing that she needs to be at my left and to give me my bubble, the groundwork is on its way. Between the training session, the walks and the bit of clicker work I’ve done at home, she should be too tired out to stress much tonight.

I’ll be working from home for the next three days, as I don’t need to be at the university until a few meetings scheduled for Thursday and Friday. I plan to split my time working from the basement and my usual place in my library. The idea is to give Laika a low-key time to continue checking things out, and then reassume my usual routine to reassure the cats. Throw in a couple short walks and a little bit of training, and I have the beginnings of a routine for Laika too. It’s going to be hard all around for the next while, but I remain convinced she’s worth the trouble.