Happy 13th Birthday, Rain!

It’s Rain’s birthday today, and she’s officially a teenager!

Rain has now officially outlived her mother Skye, and unlike her Uncle Atticus she hasn’t arrived at her 13th birthday afflicted with something that will end her life. She’s still a perfectly happy and healthy doggo as far as we’re all aware!

Rain has slowed down a bit in the last few years, enough that I’d consider her energy level to now be that of a regular adult Aussie. She’s still an early bird, which means if I sleep in much she will give me a few healthy barks as I’m getting out of bed. If I’m not hanging out on the bed by about 9 PM each evening, she is not pleased, and once we are on the bed she is done with the day—with the exceptions of getting brushed or getting a late-night treat. (She’s always amenable to food!) She also has some very specific daily routines that she expects, and she makes sure to keep us on precise schedule each day.

If you haven’t read her birth story (also the very first post here on RitF), she was a bit of a surprise arrival and I was the only human present when she came into the world.

She will spend the day wearing the birthday bandana, surrounded by friends, enjoying some extra birthday goodies. There will be both human cake and pupcakes for the dogs. One of her friends crashed our birthday photo shoot demanding his own photo shoot:

Rain may not have many more birthdays so even though her life is quieter now it feels important to celebrate and give her a little extra fun. Celebrate with us, in your own way, and let us know what you did!

Herd More Than Heard

Rain Barks at Camera

Rain has matured quite a bit over the last three years. In 2018 and 2019 I noticed some small signs of aging—Rain started having limits to how long she wanted to play fetch, or sometimes she’d have a slight limp in her leg after a particularly robust agility session. Over the course of 2020 she seemed increasingly satisfied going for long morning walks, after which she’d settle down for the day until a bit before dinnertime. At this point I was home with her most or all of the time, and she seemed much happier having her person there at all times. (To be honest, I think I did better having her there next to me at all times too.)

In 2020 when everyone in the neighborhood was getting a pandemic dog and walking him past our house thrice daily, she would also frequently bark at passers by and run along our backyard fence. Sometimes she’d see or hear passers by from inside (including squirrels in the trees or on power lines) and do the same, guarding the homestead.

Since 2020 I’ve noticed certain Rain behaviors have slowed down considerably or stopped entirely, including barking at passers by while we’re inside the house, or barking at people walking by who are unaccompanied by a dog. She no longer recognizes when my mom’s car pulls into the driveway at their house next door, but because she retired last year and doesn’t keep the same predictable schedule, it also doesn’t align with the peaks of Rain’s energy levels each day.

In fall I started wondering if Rain was having hearing loss, so I mentioned that to our vet. She did a couple of quickie office tests and Rain was adequately responsive. I’ve also been trying to do some more sneaky tests of her hearing around the house, but the results seemed inconclusive. Older dogs can get what they call “selective hearing,” which is where they ignore you when you’re saying certain things, but if you say something more interesting (“Hey Rain, want a cookie?”) they’ll respond normally. Rain was not clearly hearing me when I asked if she wanted a treat, and I was starting to need to come within her visual field to tell her we were going in the backyard or something else. I was getting increasingly suspicious.

Then a couple of weeks ago, my mom came over and knocked on our front door. Rain was standing in the living room, facing the front door, perhaps six feet away. Her ears perked up in a really funny way, and she turned her head in the opposite direction as if to say “hey, is there someone at the back door? I’m not sure, so I’m not going to bark about it.”

Shortly thereafter I was at my friend Marie’s house, talking about Rain and telling her of my suspicions. She said of her dear departed dog Wiley, “we knew for sure he had lost his hearing when he suddenly wasn’t afraid of fireworks anymore.” Well—that happened about two years ago for Rain! The last two Independence Day (and for days on either side of the day itself), Rain has been largely chill or sufficiently comforted by lying on the bed next to me while it sounds like a war zone outside, whereas Roy still cowers in fear under the bed for hours until it’s all over.

I have already started to work on using more visual cues for Rain, but at times it feels very foreign and awkward. Since we haven’t been working as a team for a while she isn’t constantly watching me, and it’s challenging to get her attention if she’s faced away from me focused on something else. (I’ve been gently but firmly putting my hand on her back or rump.)

This is uncharted territory. I’ve never lived with or needed to communicate with an older dog that had noticeable hearing loss. Since Rain is largely homebound these days I don’t think it will require a huge adjustment beyond relying less on audible communication. Feeling sad that she can’t hear me tell her she’s a good girl. If you have any experience or guidance you’d like to share, I sure would like to hear it in the comments!

A Quick Note on Housekeeping (or a Lack Thereof)

Rain Shakes Out the Mud

When the world was put on pause in 2020, our agility future was already in question, then nosework went away too. Our dispatches largely disappeared. There were several reasons for that! Of course the sudden downturn in doggy training activity contributed, as did the general mental state of Rain’s press secretary and faithful scribe, yours truly.

One more mundane reason for our slowdown has to do with our WordPress site and how much space we’ve used. We’re currently at 90.6% of our 3GB limit! That’s because of all the full-size photos I’ve uploaded to the site, even though most of them haven’t been included at full size in our reports. I’ll see if I can fix that behind the scenes but moving forward, I’ll also be trying to reuse past photos when I can, embed photos from other sites, and so on.

Not a big deal for the most part, but you might see some photos you’ve seen before, more than in the past. And that is our brief announcement for the day!

Roy’s New Home

Our kitty friend Roy has been part of my daily life since before Rain lived with me. Readers who have been with us since the beginning may remember when Rain’s Uncle Atticus died, we had just gotten back from transporting his body to the vet for cremation when Roy sauntered right into my house for the first time and spent the evening hanging out with us on the couch.

In 2020 and 2021 we had more than a few neighbors move. That included Roy’s person, a woman who lived across the street. There had been some signs something might be afoot and then one day a big moving truck just showed up at her house and was gone by the end of the day. Roy was in and out of my house like normal that day and I mentally braced for him to disappear.

But he didn’t. Then I was sure she’d be back to tie up loose ends and probably fetch him then. But she wasn’t. In fact, I don’t think I saw her again at all—at that point there were random other people showing up. About a month later, a real estate sign went up and the house was on the market all of two days before it was off market again.

Animal abandonment is a certifiable offense in Oregon so I was pretty confident I’d have some kind of legal footing on claiming ownership at this point. At times I was happy because Roy was effectively my cat, at times I was angry on his behalf that his person would just leave him behind, and at times worried because I didn’t know the path forward. After all, he had a microchip that was now registered to someone who was no longer at their address.

When I took Roy to the vet a few months later I mentioned the new developments and our vet cut through months of overthinking by telling me to call the microchip company. When I did so, carefully explaining that the woman had moved away and expecting they would explain how they normally handle these types of situations, instead the fellow said “okay, a request has been submitted!” Instead of giving me advice before doing anything, apparently he had put in a request for an ownership transfer. The automated process was that the registered owner would be notified via email and sent a link to either okay the transfer or…not do that.

“But she moved away without him!” I rebutted. This guy seemed to be pretty uncommitted to being the kind of helpful I really was needing, but the damage was done. There was nothing to do but patiently wait for the next step.

A couple of days later an email arrived, declaring “the transfer process is complete.” It took a moment to sink in, but I was overjoyed. Roy had a new home—with Rain and me! Rain didn’t seem as excited about the news as I was, but she and Roy seem to be continuing their reluctant buddy relationship unabated.

Rain Lends Her Big Aussie Brain to Science

Rain had the chance to help out some scientists in 2021, and in December we discovered she ended up as a featured participant in their published work!

Seeing Things: A Community Science Investigation Into Motion Illusion Susceptibility in Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) and Dogs (Canis lupis familiaris) was published in December. The authors use community science—data collected by members of the public—to see how a large sample group of domesticated animals reacted to a series of optical illusions printed out and taped on the floor. What this meant for us was that they gave us specific instructions for conducting an experiment at home, and after running the experiment we uploaded video for them to analyze and aggregate with findings from others.

The same group of scientists had taken advantage of lots of people being at home with their animal friends in 2020 to gather data for their prior paper, If I Fits I Sits: A Citizen Science Investigation Into Illusory Contour Susceptibility in Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus). In that experiment, the authors were looking at cats’ tendency to sit in boxes, asking whether the illusion of a box was enough to prompt the behavior.

One of Rain’s science-minded friends alerted us about the opportunity to participate, and I jumped at the chance. Setup didn’t sound too tough, but the devil was in the details: making sure the color printer had sufficient toner, clearing enough space in the biggest (but still modest) room in the house, uploading ten minutes of footage, and so on.

I should have expected that Rain would do the unexpected during her test. Here’s the full video (about ten minutes long):

Once we had completed the experiment and I got the video uploaded by the team’s deadline, I quickly forgot about it. At the end of the same month, we got a heat wave of all-time record-breaking temperatures, followed soon thereafter by a death in the family, a whirlwind temporary job that was pretty wild, and the rest of the year probably passed before it crossed my mind again for even a moment.

Then in mid-December (2022) I got the an email about the study being published—a year and a half after we had done the experiment. Navigating the links to see a summation of their results, I wasn’t expecting that Rain would be featured in the paper itself. Just call her Figure 3!

As a featured participant, she also ended up at the beginning of a compilation GIF:

Cool, huh? Since Rain and I aren’t burning up the agility course anymore, it feels nice to give her opportunities to do interesting things, since going out in the world is always so fraught.

Rain still continues to participate in the Dog Aging Project, so this may not be the last time she helps canine science! In fact, we’ve recently been assigned a task involving treats and boxes that looks suspiciously like a beginning nosework activity. We probably won’t see any published work with such a clear line to Rain’s participation again, but it’s nice to know she’s still contributing to doggykind and science.

Rain Can’t Retire from Being a Good Dog

If it wasn’t obvious from the lack of regular updates the last <checks calendar> two years, Rain is effectively retired.

At the end of 2019 our agility teacher moved across the country somewhat suddenly, then a few months later COVID stopped nosework from happening. When I started getting updates again about limited opportunities to return to class the locations were far from home and outdoors—and I knew I would need bathroom access in such a situation.

Our teacher was never the one providing these updates so when the emails started referring to her being in town one weekend a month I asked—and apparently she had moved to Seattle. With such a large student group and limited availability, I figured we’d have to find a new teacher once we were ready to go back. Rain would have been fine going back at that point but I was being extremely careful still about not introducing illness to the people closest to me in my life, as they were (and are) more at-risk for serious problems if they are infected. Frankly, I was also not dealing with life particularly well during this time.

Complicating things, in 2020 there was a flurry of other kinds of activity around us which impacted our daily lives. We had more than a few neighbors leave, new ones arrive, and a flurry of professional renovation workers where our neighborhood used to be largely DIY. More than those disruptions though were the pandemic walkers and their new pandemic dogs. Suddenly there were more people and dogs for Rain to react to on our morning walks, or when we went on a field trip elsewhere. We had a flurry of people walking right by our house throughout the day, every day. Rain would give every single one a stern warning for a long time. One fellow strapped his Australian cattle dog to his bike every afternoon and would go whizzing by, twice, sending Rain into fits.

Rain has had sudden behavioral changes over the last few years that seem to indicate aging. By this past summer she stopped barking at every pedestrian who went by our house that she saw, but she was still reacting to pedestrians with dogs. By the end of this summer she was barely barking at dogs. This week a loud delivery truck—her nemesis—roared past and she seemed to do the doggy equivalent of a shrug. Inside the house, she has been quietly napping next to me more and more. It’s simultaneously very worrisome and a huge relief.

The other day I realized that Rain is only about six months shy of the age her mother Skye died. Rain is neither exhibiting any of the symptoms Skye did back in 2016, nor do I have any particular reason for thinking Rain may be nearing the end of her life, but we’re getting to a point where the prospect isn’t as inconceivable as it once was.

We do have some tales to share with our friends still, but our updates are unlikely to be as regular or exciting as when we were going to classes twice a week, adventuring on weekends, chasing raccoons under the deck at all hours, and so on. Rain hopes you’re still game for hearing about her retirement life!

Spunky but Sweet: Dog Joins the Dog Aging Project

One interesting development that has happened in Rain’s life as we’ve been waiting out this pandemic is that she has now officially joined the Dog Aging Project (DAP) “pack!” The Dog Aging Project is a study involving research universities in Washington State and Texas, seeking to study aging in dogs. They recruited a huge cross-section of dogs, varying in age, size, breed, geographic location, and more. After waiting through some project updates the onboarding process got rolled out last summer, and Rain officially became Pack Member 1750. Woof!

That onboarding process required answering some lengthy questionnaires to get Rain’s health history, describe her physical and behavioral characteristics, complete contact information and consent, and more. At the very end of that epic morning, just as it looked like it was done, a final assignment: requesting complete charts from our veterinarian!

Since Rain was born at home and my family had her mother as well, I thought she could be academically interesting to the researchers but I was a bit sheepish about contacting the vet for all the records. It worked out though, with some patience. A few weeks later I was able to upload Rain’s complete vet charts to their website (except now they’re technically out of date, as she has had a check-up since then). I also couldn’t help but have a peek at them myself for a little trip down memory lane.

The vet charts were fairly pedestrian, aside from noting the switch from hand-written to computerized records in 2017. One golden nugget from Rain’s early puppyhood stands out though. On Rain’s very first vet visit separate from her littermates, our vet described her thusly: “Spunky but sweet.” This is possibly the best-ever description of Rain’s personality I’ve ever read…in three short words!

Meanwhile, over at the Dog Aging Project website, I got a behavioral chart after completing the behavioral questionnaire:

That’s Rain! Of course some (many?) of the levels Rain excels or underperforms in are part of the fact that Australian shepherds are bred to be a certain way. Rain is arguably spot-on if you read the ASCA breed standard, aside from what I think would be some fault in her markings.

A few months ago the Dog Aging Project also opened the Dog Park, a forum where DAP humans can connect to ogle cute photos of participants’ dogs, console “pack” members who have had what DAP calls a life event (major illness, lost limb, death), or argue about things that dog nerds like to argue about. I logged in the first day and haven’t been back.

Will Rain ever be selected for a smaller study in this project? Will they scrutinize her records behind the scenes for their needs and we’ll be none the wiser? Only time will tell, but since we can’t volunteer for Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, and Rain’s too old to donate blood through the DoveLewis blood bank, this is what we’ll have to settle for, at least for now.

We’re Still Here!

There hasn’t been a lot going on for Rain over the last eight months, but Rain is still happy and well. Rain’s people are all healthy and well, too. Even though her life has changed a lot this year, we had some minor adventures over the summer and still get out for a long walk or park visit most days.

This morning’s walk was perfect—we encountered ankle-deep fallen leaves, the world was damp, and the temperature was warmer than it has been the last few days. Most important, things were pretty quiet out in the world, so it was about as stress-free as our outings get. Rain stopped for a moment next to a traffic-calming sign to monitor the situation (above). Fortunately for us, today on this long street the only cars that passed us were traveling at a reasonable speed. Over the summer a young child was killed in nearly the same spot.

Even though there’s little to tell, there is still some to tell. Rain hopes her human will do better in the coming weeks at sharing her tales with the adoring public on the internet!

Roy the Mighty Hunter

Roy Yawning

CW: Murderous cat—includes graphic imagery.

It has been a pretty long four months mostly cooped up at home with Rain and Roy. We’ve been coping in different ways. One of Roy’s coping mechanisms has been pretty unique to him: going on a killing spree.

Once the weather warmed this spring Roy started hotfooting it outside again after breakfast. On several mornings the next time I’d see him he’d have a bird in his mouth. He’d want to come inside the house, possibly to deliver it to me or to eat his bird in a safe spot. I would shut the door before he made it inside.

Roy with Scrub Jay

Highly recommended comic: How Much Do Cats Actually Kill? by The Oatmeal

Roy Bats at Dead Bird in Kitchen

In prior years Roy has killed far more rodents than birds. My theory about why this shift happened has to do with the poultry enthusiasts who used to live across the street. Chickens tend to attract rodents, so when the neighbors and their flock moved back in March, it’s possible the rodents moved on to new food sources in other yards. Or Roy might have lost a territorial disagreement with the younger feral kittens that live next door to the ex-chicken house.

Roy with Dead Bird on Back Slab

Either way, for a few weeks there Roy was regularly coming home with birds. One morning, he showed up with two different birds over a couple hours! And these weren’t all invasive species or small birds, sometimes these were scrub jays, juncos, and towees. The second bird he ever brought in the house, a few years back, was a hummer.

Roy Relaxes with Dead Junco

People cheer a lot less for a cat killing songbirds compared with a cat that kills rodents. When Roy was having his spring killing spree, we looked into the BirdsBeSafe collar, scientifically proven to thwart cat predation of birds.

While I was mired in indecision about which pattern to get, the dead bird parade just stopped.

Roy with Dead Bird in Mouth on Front Porch

After Roy stopped killing birds, things were completely quiet for over a month. Then we got a couple summer days with warm enough weather that I left my front door open at night. I was up late when I heard an urgent-but-muffled meow in tandem with a soft thud coming from the front room. It was about midnight, and Roy had a tiny little mouse that he released in the kitchen but wasn’t quite dead. He soon fixed that situation and had himself a midnight snack.

After a big breakfast the next morning, he came in with a northern flicker—his biggest bird yet. He brought it into the kitchen and released it from his jaw. After the bird took two seconds to regain cognition, it started flapping, flying from the kitchen around the living room a bit before landing on the floor. Roy was on it, and captured the bird again. I shooed him out and closed the doors.

After properly killing the flicker he took it to the back door, where eventually he had a nibble and just abandoned the prey after. It wasn’t too long before flies and yellowjackets discovered the bird, and I decided to move it to a place where scavengers could enjoy the bird. It shouldn’t have died in vain, right?

Roy with Dead Flicker

Rain and I were watching a movie around 11 PM that evening when I barely noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I discovered Roy had once again delivered the bird carcass to the living room! It was returned to its prior resting place before we went to sleep, and after witnessing a bit of crow interest a day later, the carcass seemed to disappear.

Roy is starting to show some age. Just when I think he’s becoming a mature old cat who is more interested in hanging out with Rain and I than prowling all night, he’ll prove me wrong by bringing me a cavalcade of prey. He’s a mighty hunter, I always tell the vet when I take him in, but I feel like they don’t understand just how much. Usually it sinks in when I tell them that he has brought squirrels into the house a couple of times.

Audubon and other bird organizations say that educating cat owners about their cat’s damage doesn’t do any good. Why don’t I do much in this situation, as a bird enthusiast? Roy came to us unintentionally—his house was originally across the street. I’ve been very careful to not be too possessive of him, or at least in a way that’s visually obvious. Putting a bright clown collar on him might spur a neighbor confrontation I don’t really want. If the cavalcade of dead birds picks up again though I might be forced to take riskier measures.