Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On helping a newly blind, separation anxiety ridden foster dog with incontinence

You read that right.
Trying to pack himself & his rope

Rewind to before Christmas. Charlie was a happy camper who only needed to wear his cone on walks and when we weren't around. He had bonded with us and had settled into his comfortable little life.

The day before we left for the holidays, he was neutered. The poor guy returned home from the vet, crying and fragile. We showered him with love and let him sleep in our room. He was sore but still giving kisses and tag wags.

Our amazing friend Laure dog sat for us while we were in Europe for Christmas. They had a blast and I was warned I would be coming home to an even more spoiled pup than I was used to. She was able to remove the cone for good after the first week. Great news.

Unfortunately, the day before the Irishman was coming home, the rescue manager's suspicion that the initial surgery was done poorly was confirmed. Laure was shocked to see his "healed" eye...not be healed. To say the least.

The next morning, he was picked up by the rescue to have another surgery on the eye. When he was delivered to our place, he was not the pretty pup we were used to. By the time I landed in Shanghai, two days later, I had 10 missed messages from the Irishman about Charlie. He kept peeing on the floor, crying, acting weird. He was worried we wouldn't be able to handle him. My boys were having a rough go of it.

When I walked in the door, you have never seen two happier gentlemen.

Charlie was super attached to me. It was a good feeling, for a couple of days. If I left the room, he would cry. If I left him on the balcony, he would howl. When we went to bed, he was inconsolable. Before Christmas, he was very quiet, only growling a bit when playing tug of war.

He kept having accidents in the house, sometimes even after 8 walks a day. My schedule was tied to him. If he wasn't lying on the couch, he probably had to pee. We initially thought this was just separation anxiety. He would pee right after the Irishman got home. He would pee if I was in the kitchen. He would pee if he was crying because I wasn't right beside him.

Back in his space

Dealing with his separation anxiety

Within a few days, we knew we had to take this seriously and that it wasn't going away on its own. Despite me being home all day, he was stressing out. The following helped a ton with getting him re-adjusted and believing that we weren't going to abandon him any time soon:
  • Leaving him in his space. We let him stay inside a lot in the first few days we were back. He would cry if we left him outside. But then when we put him out overnight, he would pee and wail. We discovered if we left him on the balcony for the vast majority of the day, he would be much more relaxed at bed time. 
  • We stopped making a fanfare out of coming home or leaving. When we came home, we would just ignore him for about 10 minutes. For 20 minutes before leaving, we wouldn't pay attention to him. We have softened this since, but it was crucial for the first couple of weeks.
  • I tired him out. His walks doubled in length. I walked him before I left the house to do anything so he wouldn't have energy to get upset. I would walk him right after the Irishman got home from work so he couldn't spend time freaking out with excitement at him being home. By the time we got back, he forgot he'd been gone all day. After his pre-bed walk, he would be tuckered out and he would forget to cry. Eventually, he pretty much stopped crying altogether. 
  • We bought him more toys. He was better able to entertain himself while we were gone. He loves his squeaky ball so much that we can just squeak it on the balcony, he'll race over to get it, and we can exit smoothly without any drama.
  • Before bed, we would give him a bone to distract him. Sometimes he would just save it and wait til I was around to eat it the next day, but at least momentarily he would be occupied.

He can't see it. 

Figuring out he was blind

I hypothesized that boredom was part of the crying so we bought some more toys to occupy his day. If we were the only thing interesting in his life, of course he would cry if we were gone. However, buying the toys didn't just curb his boredom. It revealed to us that somewhere between us leaving and returning, he had gone completely blind. He loved his toys instantly but couldn't find them unless his paw or nose bumped into it. Even if it was directly in front of his eye, he would still walk in circles trying to find it. 

He would anticipate curbs and stairs unlike before the break. I thought it was just a new cute habit, lifting his paws a few steps before he would actually need to step up. Now, I feel like an idiot not having identified that he couldn't see the steps at all and was just going off memory.

This realization was bitter sweet. It explained a lot of the crying. A lot of the strange behaviour. A lot of his stress when we weren't directly touching him. Instead of feeling like we'd ruined him by leaving him for Christmas, we knew he was adjusting to losing his vision.

Probably has to pee

Figuring out he had a UTI

A couple of weeks after we had returned from Christmas, things were starting to return to normal. Less crying, less stress...but he was still needing 8 walks a day to not have an accident. And even then, he sometimes did. We had gone from 1 or 2 accidents a day to 1 every few days. Progress, but far from ideal. Before the break, he'd had only had 2 accidents: the first day he came home and right after he'd been fixed.

Once all of the other issues had been corrected, we concluded it must be a UTI. A course of nausea-inducing antibiotics later, we finally had Charlie at a livable new normal. 

Helping him navigate his blindness

  • He has a hard time figuring out where sounds come from. If they are closer to the floor or we tap our hardwood floors, it helps him to find us. I don't call him to come from very far because he gets lost along the way, turning around if he bumps into things. 
  • I'm especially helpful when we are walking now to make sure he doesn't bump into anything.
  • We had to train him to stop mouthing/gently biting. He started using his mouth to "see", lightly biting our clothing, hands, etc. After weeks of getting frustrated by it, we used a simple [and effective] strategy to get him to stop. While he wasn't hurting us, we want to make sure he can be adopted by a family with children and not scare people meeting him for the first time.
    1. I yelped like a puppy when he would bite too hard on my hand. He would stop immediately. This only worked early on when he was biting a bit harder. This then led to him really gently putting his teeth on us.
    2. A loud "hey!" would get him to stop, stunned. But once we started petting him again, within a minute or two he would be back to mouthing.
    3. He loves having his squeaky ball in his mouth. We love petting him without dealing with his teeth. Win-win. When he would start opening his mouth as if he was looking for our hands to mouth, we would just pop the ball in his mouth and carry on. He's started to just approach us for petting with the ball already in his mouth.
    4. The most effective way we have put a stop to mouthing is by giving him timeouts. This really has sent the message home. The moment he mouths, we call him a "bad dog" and put him in his bed. We leave him there for a minute or two and then call him out and go back to playing. We went from needing to do this over and over again on the first day to by the second day only needing to do it twice over the course of the entire day.
After our weekend trip to Harbin, he regressed a bit with the mouthing, but we're back to 1 or 2 timeouts a day and he seems to be getting the message.

"Stay" face


Going blind has taken a toll. He's still loving and wiggly but more anxious than he ever was about us being gone. He sometimes whimpers for a minute or so when we go to bed and if one of us comes home after he's been put to bed, he will cry.

Overall, after a few weeks of tough love (and antibiotics!), he's become a joy to foster again. We've taught him some tricks. He hasn't quite figured out why I want him to shake a paw...We're working on it.

He'll be attending adoption days again soon and I'm going to be posting online to try to find him a home. We had lucked out before Christmas. Since then he has tested our patience, taken a lot of our time, and generally pushed our limits. Ultimately, paying attention to the signs he was giving us, pushing him to do better, and loving the crap out of him has paid off in a big way. The family that keeps him forever is very fortunate! Hopefully the next Charlie update will be his adoption story.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thoughts for people considering a move abroad

It's been one of those up and down expat weeks. My first niece is getting prepared to make her grand entrance into the world in Vancouver. I'd really like to be able to swing home for a bit to give a loved one some face-to-face cheerleading. The realization that most of the people I spend most of my time with in Shanghai are going to be leaving in just a matter of months has hit hard, too. It's been rainy, the dog regressed a bit after we were gone for the weekend, the air quality is back to dangerous, dental bills were much higher than we were quoted...just one of those weeks.

None of this makes me regret coming here, of course. After spending way too much time watching "Let it Go" covers (Christina Bianco and Lexi Walker are to blame for about 2 hours of non-productivity on Wednesday...) and chatting with friends in Canada, I'm getting back into my student-dog mama-housewife groove.

But it has gotten me thinking about the choice to live away. In our case, to live 7-15 timezones away from our family and best friends and to live off one income while paying for courses for me. This isn't the first time we've chosen the expat life and it probably won't be the last.

A friend of mine in North America recently got in touch to ask for some guidance as she decides whether or not to take a contract in a rural Third World context. She had worked hard to get the job offer and it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. But when the reality of moving to the other side of the world and leaving behind urban western life hit, she started to question whether it was such a good idea.

From my own experience and seeing what expat friends have gone through, I told her to think about:

The family & friends you have

One of the major reasons friends have cut contracts short or don't accept them at all is related to family. Life doesn't pause when you go away: people get sick, people die, people are born. It's a tough call that we all have to make before going away. Are you okay with supporting your ill parent via phone/Skype? Will you never forgive yourself if your nieces and nephews grow up knowing you as a face on a computer screen? This year and next, we'll be missing some friends' weddings in Canada and Ireland because of the distance.

Our nephew did his part by being born just before we left the UK

If you're moving with family, what is the job situation for the adults? Will one partner not work? Trailing spouses (or the euphemism of the day "family relocation managers") face their own challenges, sometimes pausing their own careers and facing the stresses of maintaining an identity. 

I don't need to remind any parent that the destination has to offer an environment that they would want their children to grow up in. Some friends have decided to leave Shanghai because they have small children and the air quality has diminished since they first moved here. Education, safety, culture...these issues suddenly become way more important when impressionable young future creators are part of the package. 

A couple of years ago I was confident I was going to be offered a communications position for an NGO in Ghana. They told me I wouldn't be able to bring the Irishman with me. I withdrew. For me, I know the life I want includes living in the same place as the Irishman and I would regret separating. Even now, as I go through another round of job hunting headaches, I am so glad I followed my gut rather than fill my resume. Other married friends we know are temporarily split across continents to save money for their future. That's what they've worked out is best for their family. What's best for yours? 

The family you want

One of the big reasons that people decide to go "home", even with fulfilling jobs and in living in an environment they enjoy, is that they want to start a family. The dating scene when you're an expat can be quite dire. People are coming and going all the time. As my friend is single and wanting to look for a relationship, I reminded her that dating in a rural context can be really tough, especially when she doesn't plan to stay for more than 2 years. If she's not willing to potentially put a big pause on dating, she's likely to regret moving away.

If you have a final destination in mind where you want to settle down and want to have kids, keeping in mind that you eventually want to "get sprogged up", as one of my friends likes to say, is important when considering timelines for going abroad. If you are partnered, you may want to give birth/adopt/settle down in your home environment, closer to family and friends. Especially when hitting late 20's and onward, thinking about settling down isn't about selling out, it's about not having regrets.
I guess it worked out okay

Of course, many of us find our partners because we left. Thank you husband who once moved to Canada for a "temporary" 9 month stint! A few of my friends have met their partners (and one fiance!) in Latin America in the past year or so. It does happen, but if you're going to regret meeting only a handful of fellow singletons over the course of your stay abroad or want to start a family soon with grandparents nearby, keep this mind when looking at jobs and flights. 

Your lifestyle

Like to go clubbing? To the cinema? To bars? To a fully equipped fancy gym? To familiar restaurants? Depending on where you move, these might not be available. What will you do to fill your time?

I admit when I moved to a small community in rural Guatemala, I didn't think about this enough. Living by myself, with no internet, in a long distance relationship, lacking in friends, I was often bored. Really bored. The appeal of reading for 5+ hours a day faded quite quickly as my social butterfly persona was starved. I went from an energetic, out-going 20 year old to shy and self-conscious when faced with a massive language barrier. I needed to suck it up and work towards the lifestyle I craved, namely, a social one*. (Or, maybe, not take a job in a rural area in a language I had no experience with.)

Since then, I've reflected on what it is that keeps me sane on a day to day basis: feeding people, going out for drinks, visiting museums and galleries, and continually meeting new people. Because of this, I wouldn't move somewhere again where no one spoke a language I didn't have a basic grasp of (thankfully English, French, Spanish, and Mandarin are all on that list now!) and I wouldn't live in a rural area. Other, more linguistically talented, adventurous or introverted people, are better suited to quickly learn a local language, take social risks, and/or spend large amounts of time alone without sending weird, depressing postcards and letters to friends around the world (sorry about that, y'all). 

Carousels are also very important to avoid culture shock

Even if the opportunity seems wonderful, it doesn't mean that you'll regret turning it down or be able to enjoy your life while you're there. There's a difference between getting out of your comfort zone and crossing a line where your quality of life suffers unnecessarily. International adventures may look fun in photos but if you can't reconcile the sacrifices to your family and go to bed every night feeling like you're missing something, it probably isn't worth it. 

For my friend, no matter how much of an honour it would be to take that job, she can't take it lightly. Whether she takes it or not, I know that she's kept these considerations in mind and is unlikely to regret her choice.

My wonderful friend Leslie Campbell, who has lived in rural Indonesia for the past year and a half, offers a semi-counterpoint

"There is also something to be said for the often excruciating growth spurt you go through after finding yourself in a cultural/lingusitic/professional/etc context you weren't quite prepared for beforehand. Flexibility, open-mindedness and a sense of adventure go a very long way, but the stretching process can be quite a painful one.

It certainly isn't for everyone, not least the faint of heart, but in my experience the more difficult the journey the more you gain personally from making it to the other side in one piece. [as over-trodden and clichéd as it is]

I suppose that's easier to say as someone who's just finishing up and preparing to go home after a long term stint in a lifestyle context that is about as far from what I envisioned for myself in my mid-20s as it's possible to be (Full disclosure: I was singing a different tune 6 months ago). Nonetheless, I think that spending the last 18 months clubbing, going to fancy bars, gyms and new restaurants would have yielded an approximately equivalent amount of happiness but a tiny fraction of the personal and professional growth. But maybe that's just me."

*this did happen in the end but I got sick and was sent back to Canada within a month of making friendships. Shucks. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Welcoming Charlie: Bringing an injured foster dog into our home

If Charlie wasn't injured, we probably never would have met him. The lovely rescue volunteer who found him has several other dogs and, with Charlie's fresh wounds and cone of shame, he couldn't be around these other pups lest they reopen his stitches.

Bringing home any new animal is an adjustment for all involved. Nervousness, confusion, stress -it's all part of the transition. As an animal foster home, we'll have to get used to that. In Charlie's case, there were some added elements due to his recent car accident that left him missing an eye and with a cone on his head. His vision was obviously drastically restricted from what it had previously been. His stitches were itchy and he was in pain. Plus, he had to deal with a Canadian and an Irishman speaking English around him all the time, likely a new experience.

In this post, I'm just going to talk about how we initially introduced him to our home.

The first few days

Day 1!

We set up a "bed" made of a yoga towel and one of Cathal's dirty t-shirts. He figured out instantly that it was meant for him. We initially included a cushion but he used it to scratch his wound so we removed it. He eventually added one of my slippers to this set up, which I didn't have the heart to take away for a few days. He didn't chew it, just put it in his spot. The little wiggler knows how to pull the heart strings!

For the first few days, I had the luxury of being at home 24/7. I pet him, talked to him, and played with him pretty much all day. 
Answer to to the question: What do you do all day?

We bought him a rope to play tug of war which was wildly successful, especially when he would get overcome with itchiness or pain. Distracting him from trying to scratch through the cone or crying was usually just a matter of pulling out the rope. (Some people are against playing tug of war with dogs. I think it has been great for Charlie and will explain more in a post about toys for blind dogs.)

On our walks, I talked to him the whole time, getting him used to my voice and his name. He was understandably disoriented and would often stop during walks. Several times per walk he would stare into the distance or walk in circles; we would give him a gentle touch on the back to remind him what we were doing and then he would snap back into focus. Almost all of our walks took place in our apartment compound so he was consistently walking in the same place, getting used to familiar surroundings. 

Giving him his own space

For his own safety, we realized after a couple of days, Charlie could not be allowed to roam the apartment. He had discovered he could use edges of furniture to scratch his eye, causing the wound to reopen. Plus, he kept walking into things and didn't seem to be learning the layout very well. 

Lucky for us, we have a fully glass-enclosed balcony. As we're on the second floor with trees right outside our place, our view is terrible. We don't use the balcony for anything except housing our washer and dryer. The balcony retains heat really well and is often warmer than the rest of the house. Voila, Charlie had a home. 

Actually totally happy, I swear

We moved his bed and used treats and food to coax him outside. Throughout the day I would go outside to pet him and play tug of war. He got used to it very quickly and would make his way out there naturally after walks. It also gave him a view of the outside compound where he would watch people and dogs walk by all day.

Similar to crating (which wouldn't have been doable with the giant cone), this gave him his own little dog cave to call his own.

Realizing his limits

In the first couple of weeks, the rescue occasionally had to take him away to go to appointments. When he came back, he went through a bit of stress all over again. One day we took him on a walk outside of the compound right after he returned from a vet appointment. He became very distressed and vomited on the sidewalk. Lesson learned: especially on days when he had been jolted out of his comfort zone, we would keep him in his routine, on familiar ground.

His vision was obviously an issue. On walks, I tried to give him fairly free reign to sniff around wherever he saw fit. Sadly, he kept walking full speed into low lights and rubbish bins in our compound. We got into a routine of quick tugs on his leash to keep him out of harm's way or to warn him that there was curb.

Stairs were very stressful for him. To get out of our apartment, we used the ramp for weeks before we pushed him to try the stairs. Overall, I think giving him time to feel comfortable first before attempting things like stairs, taking him to new places, and teaching him tricks was key to keeping him calm and happy.

All in all, Charlie's transition into our home was not bad at all. Shoving pills down his throat and squeezing antibacterial fluid into his eye socket twice daily were not the most fun for any of us. But I think by showering him with love and creating stability, he was as comfortable and content as any one-eyed cone-laden pup could be.

Unfortunately this idyllic scenario was not to last. More on that another day!

If you have any other tips for helping an injured foster dog feel at home in your home, please comment below!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Shanghai Answers: What's Chinese New Year like in Shanghai?

When I refer to New Year in this post, it should be obvious that I am talking about Lunar New Year and not January 1. I stuck around Pudong (the quieter side of the city) for most of the break so my experience may not carry over to Puxi. 

This year, Chinese Lunar New Year/Spring Festival was on Friday, January 31. On the Tuesday before New Year, a friend and I went to a screening of Last Train Home, a documentary about migrant workers who make the annual journey to their hometown for Chinese New Year. It's an incredible film that I highly recommend. It's exhausting, depressing, and shocking. A man interviewed at one point in the film says something along the lines of if they didn't go back home for Chinese New Year, there would be no meaning to life. And when you see the thousands of people in the film trying to get home each year, despite delays, packed trains, and limited funds, you can see how many people feel this way.
This BBC article talks about this year's rush to get tickets
Chinese New Year is the world's largest migration with around 3.6 billion trips taken in China this year with hundreds of millions of travellers. (In contrast, about 3 million pilgrims per year attend the Hajj.)
Baidu, China's Google, generated a moving map of New Year trips. (Image from CNN)
Most of the traffic from the big cities is outward as people go back to their hometowns. Shanghai welcomed about 3.62 million tourists over the break, a drop in the bucket compared to how many of its 24 million inhabitants left.

What people tell you about Chinese New Year in Shanghai

  • The city is ghost town
  • Fireworks will be going 24/7 for weeks
  • Stock up on essentials beforehand because so many things are closed
  • It is impossible to get a taxi
  • Lots of conflicting things about what nights are the most popular and whether public displays will be held. 

My experience

It's a lot like Christmas. About 2 months beforehand, stores had already started stocking up on decorations, hongbao (red envelopes you give to people with money inside), gift boxes, and red underwear (worn to prevent bad luck if your zodiac sign isn't compatible with the new year's sign). Before Christmas, the lines were already pretty nuts with people stocking up on niánhuò (New Year's stuff).

In the weeks before the holiday, pop up shops selling fireworks appeared. Because everyone goes home, fewer and fewer people were around as January wore on. Rolling suitcases abounded. Taxis became harder to get as bicycle parking spaces opened up.

The city was generally delightful. The Metro was still running but with far fewer people than normal. Walking Charlie in the compound, instead of the dozen or more dogs we typically see in a day, I might see one or two.

The fireworks situation is not what I expected. The name of the game here is SOUND. (How else would we chase off the evil spirits? Duh.) Epic, beautiful shows are not particularly common Individuals in the street or the middle of apartment compounds light firecrackers or boxes of fireworks that display for only a couple of minutes. The smog was so bad on New Year's Eve that people who shelled out to get good views of the Bund area were, reportedly, disappointed. Over the course of the week, I did see some really pretty fireworks from various friends' apartments; I doubt any of these colourful displays lasted even 10 minutes.

Also, people greatly exaggerated the frequency with which they would be going off. It's not a constant stream and only lasted about 11-12 days. Maybe 20 times per day I would have heard something going off, more on New Year's (starting at midnight) and the Fifth Day (God of Wealth's birthday. Gotta get his attention so you can get cash this year!). I sort of expected a constant din that I would get used to. Instead, I woke with a start several times per night almost every night. Next year, I think we'll try to go away for the break so we can actually get some rest!

Tips if you are going to be in Shanghai over Lunar New Year

  • If you have a housekeeper/ayi, it is expected that you will give 1 month's salary in a hongbao. She will also get a week or two off, still paid her regular salary for that time. If you have a contract, that may even be written into it. I presume this is the same for those of you with a driver, but I don't have experience with that. You can prorate this to the amount of time the person has worked for you if it hasn't been for the full year. *Remember to not give an odd # amount or any number related to 4 as those are bad luck.
  • Ear plugs. They weren't enough for me to sleep through the night but I have to believe they were better than nothing. You can get them at Decathlon in a pinch. 
  • Be especially careful when you go to markets. For some reason, the Irishman and other friends had issues with being lied to/ripped off more than normal around the holiday time. The Irishman was buying several tops to give as gifts and was told they were the size he asked for. When he got home and took a closer look...not so much. 
  • On another negative note, I have heard that theft increases before the holiday, so watch your stuff. 

Birth Control for the Revolution at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre
  • Explore the city over the holiday! The Metro is open and less crowded than normal. Take advantage! I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Note: even if the attraction publicizes that it's open on public holidays, it might not be. The Museum of Contemporary Art had that plastered all over its website but was still closed on New Year's Day. 
  • Be aware that your shopping options will be a bit more limited. The supermarket was open the whole time so we didn't have to stock up on any necessities. If you're picky, though, be warned that products won't get restocked with their normal frequency. Smaller stalls and shops ranged from being open the whole time to being closed for 3 weeks. 
  • Most expat bars and restaurants stay open but are not busy. I went with a group from Reddit to Abbey Road, a popular Puxi spot. It was half empty and we called ahead to negotiate free fries and shots! If you're taking a large group (we were 30-ish) somewhere, call ahead and see if you can get perks for coming during an off-peak time of year.

Am I missing anything? Comment below!