Ema Kiwa and her endearing head tilt!

I enjoy reading the ‘Brag’ section in each issue of our Ridgeback club newsletter. It is fun to see all of the accomplishments of our dogs in the variety of activities they participate in. After many years of having Ridgebacks I now have a sweet new boy, ‘Tigris African Treasure’ (Kanzu). He is still a pup but he is doing well and we are excited about his potential in many activities including conformation, lure coursing and agility. He has a few ‘wins’ that I am very excited about and enjoy bragging about.

But it is not Kanzu I want to brag about. While many of us have show dogs and lure coursers and agility dogs, many of us also have wonderful companion dogs who we love and who also have accomplishments that we may overlook or not share with others. There is a great article that appeared in The Whole Dog Journal, in January, 2007 by Caryl-Rose Pofcher titled “Perspective: Use it or Loose it ( Sometimes we forget how far our dogs have already progressed”). In her article Ms Pofcher, who is a trainer, describes how she has to work to “remind dog owners to keep perspective, the long view when training”. She discussed how owners forget the original goals they had in training and they forget their and their dog’s accomplishments. She suggests using a ‘journal’ to keep track of your goals and to “pat yourself on the back for your dog’s successes; forgive yourself for momentary lapses, and to keep it all in perspective!”

So, in reflecting on the call for brags I was struck by how narrow the focus of our brags can be. While I am very proud of Kanzu’s successes and his potential what I am most proud of these days are the seemingly simple accomplishments of my companion dog Ema Kiwa. Ema is a 4 year old rescue who came to live with me as an owner surrender when she was 1.5 years old. Ema joined my pack after 2 of my 3 older RR passed away and my 7 year old needed a companion who did not have all that puppy energy. When I met Emma (as she was called then) she had terrible bald spots all over her body from severe hypothyroidism. Her body was not only grossly overweight but she was badly misshapen. I had agreed to ‘meet’ Ema but the owner simply brought her to my home and dropped her off. She was abandoned essentially and I changed her name to Ema Kiwa (Kiwa is Swahili for abandoned). When I asked for any toys she might have the owner said in quite a shocked voice, Ema doesn’t play.

As you can imagine, in addition to her physical problems Ema had significant behavioral challenges. I could not eat a single meal without Ema howling throughout. Now, I don’t mean whining or making a few howling noises I mean howling like she was being tortured. Every night at dinner I had my own coyote howling at the moon. So needless to say mealtimes were traumatic for both of us. The howling was accompanied by barking whenever there was a doorbell. This was not limited to the actual doorbell, but also to TV doorbells. Have you ever noticed how many times in one evening there will be doorbell sounds on TV? If you haven’t, let me tell you, there are a lot and it took months before I could condition Ema to the sounds. For those first few months watching TV became a game to see how often I could anticipate the doorbell sounds and mute the TV before Ema went on alarm.

Ema enjoying a special birthday treat.

And then there was ‘walking’. I was told that Ema walked well on a lead and I even saw her do it with a private trainer who I engaged. But in real life, taking a walk in the neighborhood was traumatic for us both. I enrolled her in 3 different obedience classes and she could walk well in class especially with the trainer and lots of treats. But take Ema out on a real walk in the neighborhood and it was disaster. At that time she had what I would refer to as an “overactive prey drive” and she had some serious ‘fear aggression’. Only a year ago I came as close to giving up as I ever have with any behavioral training. On one of our attempted ‘walks’ Ema saw a cat and her prey drive took over. She dragged me several yards on my belly as if I was body surfing the neighborhood. The lead tugged at my hand and I broke a finger. Somewhere along the way I lost my house key and so I was locked out of the house and had to break in. Ema returned of course as if it was all ‘life as usual’. We continued to struggle for many months. I was incredibly discouraged and felt as if both Ema and I were complete failures. I contacted Kate Zimmer from Southern California RR Rescue and she invited Ema and me down to San Diego for a training session. She encouraged me to try a prong collar. With the prong collar and the help of Kate’s RR Kobe I was able to walk Ema and allow her to do the unthinkable, play with another adult dog she did not know. Within 30 minutes with Kobe the two were playing interactively and I saw the wonderful, gentle playful side of Ema that I enjoy with her in our human-canine relationship but this time in a dog-dog relationship.

It is now a year after the body surfing dog-walking incident and I have been reflecting on the accomplishments of the year. When I saw the e-mail asking for any ‘Brags’ for the newsletter I began to reflect on what there was to brag about. While I am excited about Kanzu and his wins and his potential, I realized that it is Ema who I am most proud of right now. As a rescue and with several health problems, and many psychological problems Ema has had many challenges in her short life. In spite of the quirks and the problems, she is my teddy bear. She is unwaveringly loyal to me, appropriately protective and loving. And now, after a lot of regrouping and work she has earned a title after her name that I want to brag about…Ema Kiwa, WOL (Walks on Lead). This was no small accomplishment for Ema or for me for that matter and I am incredibly proud of her for how far she has come. Like so many of our companion dogs, Ema has given me numerous gifts that often go unnoticed or unacknowledged. I think that The Whole Dog Journal article helped me to put this in perspective. It is so important for us to stop sometimes and to look at our dogs and ourselves and to reflect on our accomplishments especially for our companion dogs who make so many gains and contributions to our lives that go unnoticed and are rarely celebrated.

So, this is my brag for this edition of the newsletter. Congratulations Ema and all of the other companion dogs and especially the rescue dogs who start out life often without the same benefits or notice but who love us and enrich our lives day after day. Good job Ema! And now we are working on what seems like the most challenging of titles I hope to add behind her name sometime soon: CWC, “Comes when Called”. I will keep you posted on our progress.

The Most Recent Chapter

The latest update is that recently Ema had some very serious health problems. There was the traumatic 10 day period that we had 4 emergency visits with bloody diarrhea and vomiting blood. The costs were climbing both emotionally and monetarily. That is when a friend referred me to Cat Lane and “The Possible Canine” I was drawn to Cat’s vision on her website:

“a vision of a healthier, longer lived, fully actualized canine who not only lives up to, but transcends what we currently think of as his species limitations”.

With Cat’s help we began to alter Ema’s diet. As I have said, I am a behaviorist and I believe in both the human and the canine potential for change. But I am also a scientist and I know that some traits are just simply genetically predetermined and also that early life experiences and trauma can be limiting. Hence I had come to accept many of Ema’s quirks.

One example was that Ema could not be touched while sleeping. Should Kanzu or I get too close and accidentally touch her, she would snap and sometimes even bite. Even after a year with sweet Kanzu she would not allow him to even touch her while sleeping. So snuggling was something I never thought I would see. I reluctantly accepted this as just another of Ema’s less endearing “quirks”. So, I did absolutely nothing to try to change this.

Well, I did nothing intentional! When we changed Ema’s diet I had a very valuable lesson. As Ema began to feel better with her new diet, very strong behaviors that I had come to accept (as either “genetic” or as the result of her early trauma) began to fade or disappear.

The proof is in the pudding!

One night, to my great surprise, Ema crawled up and laid her head on Kanzu and fell asleep curled up next to him. Now, let me be honest, it was not that Ema wanted to snuggle Kanzu. Rather, she was just tired of him getting the most coveted spot on the bed next to me. So, that night she simply set her mind on having what she considered her ‘rightful spot’. She crawled up and inserted herself right next to me in a space that was clearly not large enough. But, no matter what the reason, Ema was more than touching her housemate! It was something I thought I would never witness. And I am happy to tell you that the behavior continues.

Clearly Ema is my teacher. I have learned so much from her about behavior and what is possible. I knew that love, persistence and consistency could work wonders. What I did not know was that diet could also make so much difference in a dog’s behavior. I would have never believed that Ema could make the most recent changes. So, this is a tribute to the concept of the “Possible Canine” and an insight into the thought that in many situations it may be our own beliefs and behaviors that limit our dogs’ potential for growth and change and their ability to be all that they can be.

For Stories about Ema Click Here

For more photos of Ema Click Here