Tom + Sugi Trail

  • Lesson from Tom: Hiking dogs can have a great memory for trails.
  • Sugi says,  “I remember!”

One day we were discussing hiking trails around Hyannis Drive with our dog walker Judy Lopes. We told her that we like to go up the Baden Powell Trail, but the walk back down under the power lines was not very interesting. She told us about the route she takes with the dogs which runs parallel to the Baden Powell coming back down to the starting point.  She suggested we just ask Tom and Sugi to show us the trail the next time we’re there and they will be able to lead us. Sure enough, the next time we took the trail up, they gestured towards a steep trail heading down and they guided the way back to the starting point (around 1.5-2km). From then on, we called this trail “The Tom + Sugi Trail”.

How Sugi overcame his fear of Commercial Drive

  • Lesson from Sugi: When guiding a dog to overcome a fearful place or object, don’t use frustration, anger, force. Relax the leash! Allow the dog to come to the object or place through his choice using reward and praise.
  • Sugi says, “Just give me a minute while I make sure it’s safe…OK”

Story: One evening a few years ago, Greg took Tom and Sugi for a walk up to the grocery store on Commerical Drive. It was a regular thing we would do, blending a walk with the utility of grocery shopping. If Greg or I went on our own, we would leave the boys outside the shop while we picked up what we needed. Generally, they would wait outside patiently, sometimes shaking a bit with uncertainty.

On this particular spring evening,  it was abnormally windy. While Tom and Sugi were waiting outside the shop, the wind gave a sudden gust and knocked over the sandwich board next to them, startling Sugi. Panicked, he ran out into the middle of the road at full speed heading northbound down Commercial Drive, in the direction of home.

Noticing that the dogs were no longer standing outside, Greg hurriedly left the store. People pointed in the direction of Sugi, and he noticed that passersby ran out to help Sugi and stop traffic so that he wouldn’t be hit. (I am very grateful to the people who assisted a small frightened dog!) Greg was able to catch Sugi who finally slowed down enough to pay attention to his calls.

After that incident, Sugi refused to come within a block of Commercial. Somehow he knew all the streets surrounding Commercial we could not fool him by taking an alternate route. He would freeze and no amount of coaxing or leash pulling would help.

For weeks, I tried different tactics. Anger and frustration were the least effective. Finally, I thought about using treats. By bringing along his favorite treats I could at least get his attention and distract him from the fear. Somehow I figured out that I needed to ease up on his leash when he started to balk, I’d walk ahead of him a few feet, then squat down and call him. He would come, receive a treat and lots of praise! I would do this all the way up the block to the Drive, often taking 10-15 minutes to progress a hundred yards. Patience paid off and he managed to overcome his resistance and fear. (Cesar Millan always advocates for no tension on the leash!)

Turns out that Sugi was also scared of things along the street: sign boards, metal grates in the sidewalk, mailboxes, newspaper boxes. The incident with the sandwich board seemed to have sensitized him to unknown objects. When he stopped before an object and refused to move, I would slow down, even stop and let the leash go completely slack. Sugi would then trot along past and resume his walk. He seemed to be saying “just give me a minute while I make sure it’s safe…OK”. We would give him loads of praise!

Sugi is much more confident now. He’ll even walk over a metal grate in the sidewalk! He’s a persistent and courageous character at heart, desiring to move forward beyond fear.

Sugi – day 1

  • Lesson from Sugi: When getting a new dog, find out about the dog’s history. Sometimes bad experiences from the past will manifest in the present as fear of objects, people or other dogs. If you suspect a history of distress or trauma, he will need to receive extra understanding and patience delivered with calm leadership!
  • Sugi says, “Sometimes I’m afraid of new things, especially if they’re loud! Please stay beside me and calmly guide me.”

Story: Around Christmas Day 2005, we were walking along 4th Avenue and came across a pet shop called Urban Puppy (it’s no longer there thankfully). There were some puppies in the window. The largest puppy had red-brown fur and was beating up on his younger sister. Greg and I both exclaimed about how much he looked like Tom as a kid!

The next few days I pestered Greg with comments about the puppy and how much Tom would appreciate a friend. On the one hand I felt that it would be the right thing to do to get this puppy for Tom (and I), and on the other I felt cheated that I had been so obviously sucked-in by the puppy-in-the-window trick. These conflicting thoughts would effect me in a more profound way later on.

On January 2, 2006, we went into the store and the sales person asked if we wanted to hold him. I used some hand sanitizer they gave me, so as not to spread germs to the pups, and received him into my arms. I was struck by the way he looked directly into my eyes without turning away and seemingly without fear. He did resemble Tom but had a different energy – a kind of silent thoughtful state. We loved his red-brown hair and felt he had a kind of Zen presence. We named him Sugi (the name of a Japanese cedar).

That evening we brought him home and Tom immediately showed him who’s boss. On reflection, this introduction to a new home and a strange dog could have been handled better (see Cesar Millan‘s tips on raising a puppy). When he wanted to play, Sugi would tease Tom and then leap underneath the sofa to hide. This tormented Tom who barked and barked! For weeks, Tom generally protested Sugi’s presence.

After some time we noticed that Sugi was scared of objects, open spaces and loud sounds. We tried to make him feel more comfortable by giving him a kennel to rest in. We also noticed that, unlike Tom, he didn’t really feel comfortable cuddling with humans. He seemed to be uncertain about relationships with other beings.

The fear of objects and sounds continued for years with Sugi and we had to work with him regularly to get over many of these fears. Unlike most dogs, he also has to work harder in social situations.

Over time I learned about pet shops that sell animals, and puppy mills that use inhumane techniques to breed dogs. These are unethical industries and patronizing them only encourages these types of businesses.

We speculate that Sugi may have suffered as a small pup – probably from coming a puppy mill environment. Some puppies are removed from their mothers too early and this can cause harm in their development.

We love Sugi and continue to learn from him about respect, trust and compassion.

Tom – day 1

  • Lesson from Tom: Your new dog, especially a puppy, needs time to adjust to a completely new environment. This may be the first time the puppy is away from mom and siblings. She needs love and comfort without distress in order to make this transition easier.
  • Tom says, “Don’t leave me alone at night, I’m a pack animal and need to be near you!”

Story: In the spring of 2004 I had an urge to have a dog. I researched what kind of dog would be best suited to us. I have a mild allergy to dogs so I looked for a kind of dog that would be the least or not at all allergic. This lead me to poodle mixes which were popular at the time (and still are!). The size of the dog was important as well. We live in a smallish place that has a tiny outdoor garden, therefore a smallish dog was on the list of requirements. At that time I wasn’t very conscious of whether to look for a dog from a breeder vs. a rescue dog. So I just tried to find a schnoodle breeder close to home.

I found breeder who was a few hundred miles away, and she sent pictures of the schnoodle pups who were still being weened from their mom. Only one of the pups pictured was looking directly into the camera. Plus he had a little ‘star’ on his chest : ).

Once the pup was weened and ready to be adopted, I arranged with the breeder to meet half way, on March 17 –at the toll booth on the Coquihalla Highway– to exchange money for puppy. When I picked up the pup, he was bigger than I thought, but we agreed he was fantastic! I had brought along a kennel to put the puppy in and keep in the backseat. The breeder said that the puppy wouldn’t be happy with this and would cry. She gave me a shirt of hers to keep the pup company with a scent he was familiar with. So I drove back to Vancouver with the puppy sleeping in my lap. We stopped at the rest-stops along the way home to take a pee.

We named the new pup Tom. Kind of after our favorite author at the time, Thomas Bernhard, but also after Tom Sawyer. We were new to puppy care and had thought that Tom would happily sleep on his own when we brought him home. Greg had constructed a pen by the front door where we thought he would stay when we went to bed or when we went out. Well, we underestimated Tom’s persistence (and need for physical contact and affection). We put Tom in the pen, and he whined. After a few minutes we heard little feet running towards us. We made the fence around his pen about a foot higher, put him back in the pen and ignored his whining while we went to sleep. I felt terrible as he continued to yell for hours. I believe this first night’s experience contributed to separation anxiety that Tom experienced for years afterwards. His first night away from his mom, in a new strange place and forced to be by himself….!.

The following night, Tom managed to climb the wood fence that separated him from us. He ran to our bed and asked to join us. From that time on, he slept on top of our bed with us. We were all much happier : )

Tom has become quite articulate about voicing his needs and desires. We love Tom and continue to learn from him about creative spirit and persistence.