Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Not So NaNoWriMo

I’m not doin’ so hot. In fact, I’m not doing much at all. The counter on my NaNoWriMo widget to the right on your screen may not say it all, but I think it does signal a departure of some kind. One week of novel writing to go, and I stopped writing almost the day I began, seven days into the month. Instead, when I attended write-ins, I wrote some memoir, did some journal writing, took notes toward a book review, and started my next major blog post draft about Argyll.

The National Novel Writing Month program, this event, continues to attract enthusiastic veteran participants: the imperative to write a novel, a story, a fictional narrative, 50,000 words of it in 30 days. Year after year, my friends dive in and sprint those fingers into victory. I, too, would run the race to the finish, understanding that everyone’s end point is as different as each story premise. But sometimes I wish we could just sit together and talk without working on a writing project. (Currently, my only nearby friends are writing friends.)

I have never finished a NaNoWriMo novel since I began participating in 2011. While that’s not unusual for participants, in October of this year, preparing for the mad dash, I told myself that this would be a good personal goal to pursue—to finish a story at last.

But maybe I’m discovering a different kind of finishing. I had almost no desire to participate this year, as much as I tried to brainstorm, read some previous years’ pep talks, and show up for our region’s kick-off and subsequent write-ins. I would say to myself and a select few others a line that was some variation of “I’m just not feelin’ it.” But I wasn’t really trying all that hard to feel it, either.

So, what’s going on? Am I bored with National Novel Writing Month? Perhaps. Was it a nice run while it lasted? I suppose. Am I just not made for novel writing? Quite possible. I do prefer writing essays and poetry most of the time. I also prefer reading novels to writing them. I finished another long book not on the classics book club reading list while also reading for the club. I thoroughly enjoyed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I also prefer facilitating, helping, and teaching others about writing over writing myself, but I haven’t been doing much more than the usual online tutoring in the way of teaching or guiding.

Some of that has to do with my wavering health this fall, some with my focus on the dog and my blog.

Health-wise, I went from limiting neck and back problems to exhausting abdominal pain from a medical procedure to annoying cold and sinus infection to worrisome gut destruction from the antibiotics. I think I might just be coming out of that now–maybe. I was able to enjoy Thanksgiving victuals but not much of the atmosphere and company that go with the food. My mother had to come over and help us clean to prepare for hosting Thanksgiving, which we do every year. With how I felt the day before the day, I was seriously considering cancelling or postponing. But in my weakened state, I had little strength to protest. We’d already bought the turkey and started thawing it. On with the show.

One thing I’ve noticed: When we think we’re getting better as an event comes into play, sometimes, we’re just rallying, rising to the occasion only to collapse all the more afterwards when our body reminds us we’re sick. That happened to my husband at the company Thanksgiving dinner the week before, and to me next.

So that’s the health side of retreat from NaNoWriMo. But what about the genuine disinterest and alternative priorities side?

Yes, those are real.

Priority: dog training. I took Thanksgiving week off from tutoring, but I threw myself off the couch and into the car for the dog’s agility class on Black Friday. I had not anticipated sleeping for so long that afternoon, having already slept in quite late to begin with. My husband was capitalizing on a Black Friday deal while I napped with the dog, and he had time only to shower upon his return. It wasn’t until 10 minutes before time to hit the road that he called to me.

The intervention was a word of awakening: Get up; it’s time to go. I looked at the clock, and it was literally the minute we should have been driving away, but I wasn’t dressed, hadn’t taken medication recently, and didn’t have a shower, and, oh my god, do I have to go? I could have slept through the evening and probably overnight.

Still, we went, and since hubby hasn’t been attending class, I was somehow able to be the handler, running Ethan through the training exercises at class. I had to break for the toilet only once and drank lots of Gatorade in between turns. My trainer reminded me to increase my probiotic intake as well, which I did. This was all happening in the transition from one antibiotic, Amoxicillin, to another, Cipro. I hoped the new one wouldn’t utterly obliterate my digestive tract, too. So far, it has been better, but stomach upset remains a risk, and I’m just feeling run down. And now we’re back to talking about sickness again.

The agility arena is a 35-minute drive eastward from our house, and class takes an hour and a half. No small investment of time, energy, and endurance of road bumps on an upset stomach. And the poor dog hasn’t had much exercise lately either. I haven’t yet gotten around to hiring a dog walker or sending him to periodic doggy day care visits. We had been going to the dog park rather frequently, but now it’s raining and still too cold for me to be willing to venture out while on the mend. That means running him inside the house or walking him around the neighborhood. With my husband back to work and night falling fast these days, it’s up to me.

I tried walking around the block yesterday with my boys, and although I made it home, the second half of the walk was rough on the tummy and a bit slower than the first. So despite feeling better today, I was reluctant to send myself into that zone again. Instead, I’m writing this, and the dog is getting into trouble, chewing on things he shouldn’t in his boredom. I’ve already run him up and down the stairs and across the 1st floor rooms for treats today and played tug of war with him a few minutes ago, but he needs an actual walk, too. He typically won’t do his solid business except on a walk, until he can’t hold it any longer and is forced to go in the yard.

Having a “soft” tempered, or sensitive, dog can be challenging. Even though he’s perfectly healthy and quite athletic otherwise, he has persnickety quirks about, among others, walking on wet ground and soiling his territory, so he doesn’t make deviations from the active routine a simple matter. Thankfully, his fearfulness has decreased dramatically over the past several months, and he’s actually comfortable receiving affection now. No small feats!

Priority: blog. But the dog takes up some time, and so does the blog. These are choices I have made, investments of time I have committed to. If I were gainfully employed part-time (tutoring is a fraction of that), my schedule could force me to make the time for things like NaNoWriMo, but my will and preferences wouldn’t stop resisting.

The truth is I’ve had misgivings about novel writing ever since I started to try it. And those misgivings feel like more than the typical doubt and fear of writer’s block or imposter syndrome. I just don’t like writing stories as much as my peers do. I prefer writing poems and essays. I often prefer reading nonfiction to reading novels. But it’s also true that novel writing is hard, and it doesn’t take much to deter non-devotees. The project is a larger undertaking with greater complexity than most poems or essays.

The spirit of NaNoWriMo is all about “writing with reckless abandon.” I’ve seen glimpses of myself doing this in previous Novembers, but I think it would take more than a month-long word sprint for me to embrace the spirit fully. And maybe I just don’t have that “more,” whatever it is. Or, maybe I’ll be more interested next year.

I hadn’t written much for a while leading up to November, and I didn’t really miss it. Writing is part of who I am, but it’s far from the whole picture, and my hesitations extend to making a career focused on writing. As frustrating as the tutoring can be at times, it’s currently one of only a few ways I can be an educator. My blog is another. What I am missing is the social interaction and speaking and energy of face-to-face teaching.

So, once healthy, my life could use further balancing out, but we all lose our balance sometimes. It may be time for a new adventure, a new chapter, a new focus, or a renewed one. I just hope my friends and I can make peace with whatever direction my relationship to NaNoWriMo ends up taking.

And to all those still working hard and happily on their novels this month, press on.

National Dog Day 2018: Reminiscing

We’re enjoying our dog Ethan, now a year and a half old, who just met my nephew’s new puppy at a family party. So you know I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to present a collection of dog-related posts on my blog from over the years, for National Dog Day.

Essays & Stories

Book Reviews

Poetry

Phrases, Links, Photos

Photos/Images

Fellow Bloggers

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 2

As I noted in Part 1 of this brief, it was in my vigilance following Ethan’s excursion under the deck that something peculiar came to light.

May 18, 2018, the following day

Ethan was lying down in the grass near the lacecap hydrangea, tether at full length, looking off to the next-door neighbor’s yard, when a small bullet of gray and brown fur shot under the deck from that direction. His eyes followed intently, head turning like a panning camera, but he made no attempt to pursue the creature. Our previous dog Elyse had had more prey drive than he, another thing to be thankful for.

Carrying the bowl of my mostly eaten cereal sprinkled with strawberries, I walked down the deck steps and around past the dog, still lying calmly by the lacecap. I scanned the deck base and beneath its edges for movement or sound. Unsurprisingly, I found neither. Dark shade and critter quickness had thwarted me again.

But while I stood there pondering the great unknown at my feet, I noticed a length of black corrugated pipe peeking out between the steps from under the deck. Not belonging there inherently, the pipe had once sprawled, cascading down the steps, set aside to serve as a tire for Ethan to practice jumping through for agility training. The construction project yet to begin, the pipe found its way under the deck some time last fall.

Now that agility is again in full swing after our winter break, I decided it was time at least to remove the pipe and ready it for use. Out of sight, out of mind. In sight, less out of mind. That’s my motto.

As I drew the middle of the plastic pipe between the steps, I heard minute rattling, as of dirt and debris, trickling across the ridges. As I dragged it out onto the grass, I shook it a little, producing clusters of pebbles, sunflower seed shells, and what looked like grass. I shook harder, and the rattling became knocking against the pipe. Shaking it even more, I soon became captivated by what fell out. Bones.

I had found a dead body.

Bones, sunflower seed shells, some acorn shells, apparently dead grass used for nesting, and more bones rattled their way to the thick spring grass. The largest intact bone among these was a skull.

I bent down to identify the species and determined by its size and shape that the head had once been that of a rabbit. A broad, flat crown, long sloping snout, large side eye sockets, and ear holes oriented vertically very close behind the eyes all pointed to the Eastern cottontail. Months and months ago.

The color was a ruddy brownish mottled with tanned bony surfaces that had once been whiter with life. On close inspection, the skull proved porous, especially along the crown behind the eye socket.

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After further shaking, one of the jaw bones greeted me. Alive and in one piece, the cottontail rabbit has a wedge-shaped head with an angular jaw. Just visible in the image above, to the left of the skull in profile and attached to a jaw bone off left, you can see the sharp, white tip of a lower incisor partially obscured by criss-crossing blades of grass.

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During this whole process, most parts I had successfully ejected with the first violent banging, hand to pipe, then pipe to ground. Along with a complete set of bones on a very hairy-looking foot, out flopped a posse of a hip/pelvic bone, the other jaw bone, its tiny row of teeth visible on one side, and some leg bones bound up in a conglomeration with several spider egg sacks, seed and acorn shells, and invisible webbing. All of the earliest results.

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Nothing alive. Nothing but spiders, possibly insects, bacteria, seemed to be living there now. The bunny, yes, still a young rabbit, I thought, might have become injured and crawled in there to die, or crawled in to escape the elements and died of hypothermia, or became stuck, terrified and confused, and died of fear and starvation.

I saw no great ecosystem tragedy in it. Although they have a high mortality rate, rabbits are plentiful, as the live brood of tiny, nestling bunnies in the base of our front yard’s ornamental grasses–and all the hopping, white-tailed life in this neighborhood–attest. It’s simply life and death, in the wilderness that is wildness to these animals.

But clearly, it seemed to me, something else had used the bones, and the seeds and dried nesting grass, to make itself a home. I suspected a chipmunk, perhaps more than one generation’s worth, for the bones have been picked clean and dry for a while now. Perhaps one or more creatures had eaten some of the flesh before one made a home there.

I recalled last fall, seeing a chipmunk dart out from under the deck to the bird feeder’s base, gather bulging cheekfuls of seeds and seed shells and dart back under again. I’m sure it happened much more often than I saw. Could that have been the chipmunk and this its home?

I suppose it’s possible some clever critters besides spiders had clung for dear life to the ridges of the corrugation while I gave them the ride of their lives, and perhaps slipped away once peace returned for a time, both the dog and myself in our own home again.

The weight and the noise tell me some remains, and who knows what else?, remain inside the pipe. Tomorrow, I will flush out the rest with the garden hose. I don’t anticipate any further surprises, now that I know what to expect. I’ll be sure to let you know if the unexpected awaited us.

Several days later . . .

The garden hose. Such a useful tool.

On the same side of the yard where the living rabbit had shot under the deck, I took the corrugated pipe in hand and inserted the nozzle end of the hose into one end, setting it to “jet.” A few stray bones—two leg bones joined at the knee, perhaps a lone clavicle—made their way out, along with the brown fuzz I thought was grass.

Remembering the bulk of materials must lodge somewhere off center inside the pipe, I flipped it around and ran the water through again, the other end aimed roughly toward our Pagoda dogwood flowerbed.

Success. Out clumped a huge brown mat that flattened, now laden with water, into a raft-like shape, ridged with impressions from the corrugation. A bit startled, I emitted something like “Whoa” and proceeded to blast away at the brown mass. It disintegrated easily, revealing among other pieces a most striking spinal column. This was a moment of definite awe.

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I continued flushing, spreading some of the brown stuff into a pool the flood had formed in the round flowerbed. Ribs, a rib cage, another shoulder blade, and shards of other bones all made themselves visible.

After extracting them from the mess, I carefully rinsed the bones and then returned for stragglers. Pushing at the brown stuff with my fingers, I realized it wasn’t grass or other plant material at all. It was fur. Of course. Rabbit fur. Where would it have gone? So perhaps no rodent had made a home in the lagomorph carcass, though the seed and acorn shells suggest at least temporary refuge.

After I allowed the bones from this second extraction to dry on our deck table, I inspected them again, taking some pictures, and found what I believe to be evidence of the cause of death. The spine was somewhat flexible but more flexible in the middle than across the whole. Looking closer, I saw two total breaks in a set of adjacent vertebrae—a broken back, most likely from either a car strike or animal attack. The rabbit had gone into the pipe to die, then, after all.

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After assembling the bones neatly in different arrangements on the table, I was cursing myself for not having saved the skull and other first bones discovered, so that I could try to reassemble the nearly complete skeleton.

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I made the most of the three separate spinal sections and hip and leg portions, putting the rib cage back together. The result is shown below.

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The spine measures a full nine and a half inches with all three parts, from coccyx to the top of the available rib cage. An adult rabbit, I think.

I relished the opportunity to play biologist, quickly overcoming the mild squeamishness I felt initially. It helped that there was no flesh or blood. Still, after freeing the parts from inside the pipe, rinsing them, and laying them out in the sun, an unpleasant odor became apparent.

“Easy Ethan,” as our dog trainer calls him, lounged beneath the table while I worked to examine and arrange the bones. His faint curiosity melted before his overwhelming inclination to relax. He’s a relentless sunbather. Perhaps his nonchalance also benefited from a long-time familiarity with these odors as a natural part of his backyard domain.

Either way, despite his unstoppable appetite for grass, that alarming under-deck excursion, some clumsy, mouthy playfulness, a tendency to destroy new toys, and a little minor digging, as dogs go, Ethan is truly a keeper.

Further Afield

Another animal, this time fully clothed, lay in our path on a dog walk through that channel of power lines that cuts through the middle of the neighborhood. In March, we saw a mostly intact wood duck lying dead in the clearing.

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It saddened and puzzled me in particular for two reasons: First, these distinctive, beautiful ducks seem fairly uncommon in our area—I had never seen one in the metro parks, for instance. And second, if the power lines were the culprit, it seemed odd that the bird hadn’t disintegrated more. Practically every last feather remained on board.

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I briefly considered that it could be an abandoned hunting decoy that had been used for practice in the field, but the bird was real. Just not alive. Now reduced or elevated to another artifact for my experiential collection, the body was cleared away by someone or something within days of our encounter.


For the first half of my rabbit bones discovery adventure, visit Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1.

For more bunny blood and gore, see:

Happier rabbit- and bird-related posts:

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1

As the air warms and my dog waxes bold and curious in his wanderings on our property, he leads me to discover things I might never have imagined.

Two days ago, I went outside to check on him, tethered as usual to the deck, but I could see him nowhere, nor any trace of his tether.

As we so often do these days to prevent or get him out of trouble, I slipped on my clogs and grabbed the baggy of kibble in case I needed to coax him home. In the 10 months we’ve had him, Ethan has never run away, never broken his tether or even tried to.

Once, he managed to unlatch his collar, leaving it secured on the tether while he zoomed over to greet the neighbor’s dog. Another time, he became loose through the garage and sauntered back around to the same dog. Not to the road.

Now, though he enjoys sunbathing, Ethan seeks the cool shade as well, and has taken to digging, which I imagine feels luxuriously cool on his hot paw pads. (We’re getting his and my feet a kiddie pool for the summer.) So far, only minor patches, hardly even holes, have resulted—a couple of times in the grass and this latest in the flower bed bordering the deck.

Luckily, the effect was to loosen only a weed rather than a perennial just next to the divot. Cooling off his feet, having a fun dig, and, it would seem, creating just enough space to slip under the deck steps into the gap beside the wood lattice work.

When I found no tether and no Ethan, I called for him, thinking at first that he had rounded the corner of the house down the side yard. But the tether was still attached at the base of the deck, the rest of it tucked under toward the dog.

I crouched down to investigate and query the fur child, who promptly looked up with his dopey ears perked, though his body faced away from me. It appeared as if a little smudge of dirt, or something less benign, added to the outline of his nose. I could just see it in a shaft of light penetrating the cracks through the deck boards.

There are several spare boards lined up under the deck, and he had crossed many of them to reach this far. The tether was most of the way under and the dog most of the way to the other side, traveling the length of the shelter.

Our deck has an irregular shape, with five sides, not counting the house sides where a bay window juts out on one end and the kitchen sink area protrudes slightly less on the other.

In the bordering flower bed parallel to the back of the house, a limelight hydrangea bush decorates the right side, and a lacecap hydrangea marks the left, where the length of the deck meets a corner on each end.

A few feet farther right, down the length of the house than the limelight, I crouched by the deck steps the dog uses to do his business and get into mischief. Ethan stood almost all the way to the lacecap on the other end.

I had to reel him in by the tether, a vinyl-coated wire cable, which luckily gave way as it slid back across and around the ends of the unused boards.

Once he reached the exit, Ethan had to dip his torso down into that divot he had dug in order to squeeze out with an inch or two to spare. He’s a skinny dog, but this was still fairly impressive.

I’ve known various critters to live beneath our deck and around the yard, including chipmunks and rabbits. I’ve seen a gray vole in the front yard beds, plus a tunnel of soil something had dug in an irregular, meandering curved line through the brown.

We’ve enjoyed natural lawn aeration that we deduced either skunks or raccoons had accomplished, digging for grubs in that same area beside the bed nearest the steps.

In the open field near the neighborhood playground and jungle gym, we’ve encountered deer droppings and scattered feathers from birds striking the power lines above.

And once, while walking my former dog Elyse toward that same clearing that stretches across the street, as we approached the area, a car slowed beside us and two ladies told me there was a coyote up ahead, to be careful with the dog. That sent us in the opposite direction back home.

With these experiences, near-misses, and all the forensic evidence, we’re well aware that it’s best if the dog does not go under the deck for any reason. Plenty of claws, teeth, parasites, and diseases make suburbia a wild kingdom.

Then, of course, the nails on those deck boards pose injury risk, along with the uneven ground causing the boards to lie unevenly. It must become strictly off limits.

I figured it was certainly possible, if not probable, that Ethan had grabbed hold of some tender morsel of scat or remains or babies that maybe he shouldn’t have.

It was too dark, at mid-day, as I peered underneath, to see anything definitive without risking myself by going in or by walking around to the lacecap. There my access to the dog would be less but my view closer and clearer.

I did not want to waste time investigating. The dog had to come out now.

So then out he came, panting and pleased with himself for escaping the day’s heat, and I promptly shoved a large plant pot, filled with old, heavy soil from both winter and spring, into the corner to limit his access should he happen to try again, even while I watched. One never knows.

Then, I used a towel to scrape off the damp dirt caked to the underside of Ethan’s toenails. This took a little time; his nails had already needed trimming.

The next day, yesterday, I supervised more closely.

We clearly have training to do to keep Ethan out of the flower beds in the first place, out from under the deck, and away from chewing on my hydrangea branches, among other no-no’s.

Luckily, although he is a tough chewer and is becoming a digger, he rarely eats anything he enjoys chewing on that’s not designated edible for dogs. This sidesteps major hassles, dangers, and vet bills.

This time outside with Ethan, I was eating cereal topped with fresh-cut strawberries, a late breakfast by most standards at 11 a.m. At first seated in a deck chair, I decided to move after I noticed three yellow jackets starting to congregate in my vicinity.

What happened next led to a remarkable discovery. . . .

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Come back for Part 2 when all will be revealed, plus a little more.

Ethan Builds Frustration Tolerance

You’re only supposed to say it once, but here I go: “Ethan, come!” * smooching, thigh slapping * “Ethan! Here, bud! Come!”

Every day, several times a day, a high-pitched, friendly beckoning call issues forth from my lips. And every day, a big-eared, brown-eyed, wiry-framed, red/tan, 11-month-old, Vizsla/hound-or-something mixed breed dog stands and stares in the direction of my call. The duration of that standing and staring depends on several dog-driven factors: location within the house, outdoor circumstances, time of day, number and type of distractions, degree of hunger, sound of a rustling kibble bag, how long he’s been awake, mood or degree of playfulness or fear, amount of time I’ve been gone, and others.

My dog doesn’t come when I call him, whether indoors or out. Well, that’s not entirely true. He does maybe one-third of the time, but more often outside than in. What can one do but shake one’s head?

Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve read at least half a dozen dog training and behavior books at this point and watched videos and demonstrations. We’ve worked with a personal dog trainer and taken a group obedience class. We’ve consulted a separation anxiety expert and our veterinarian. We train and condition our dog in obedience, agility, and anxiety-reducing socialization every day. We try our best to follow the rules of training, to ensure the behaviors we intend to instill are the ones taking hold. We set boundaries, rules, and limitations, in the spirit of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan.

Although still young, Ethan’s quirks seem to make him a peculiar case, which adds an extra degree of confusion to many things we try to do with him. And we do a lot. He’s our baby, after all, so we keep trying.

I take Ethan for a walk of at least one mile, on a long lead so he can trot and run a bit, almost every day, including 24-degree Fahrenheit, 18-degree wind chill days. The three of us even took a walk on a day in 10 degrees, until Ethan’s frosty paw pads sent us back home. We exercise him indoors when it’s too cold outside. We’re working on getting him comfortable walking on a moving treadmill.

We feed him gradually and dynamically with treat- and kibble-dispensing toys and puzzles to keep his mind sharp and digestion even. I’ve taken him to half a dozen different metro parks, a few pet stores, and people’s houses, including the neighbor’s with their dog who is a vigorous playmate.

I rub under Ethan’s chin for encouragement as often as he’ll let me, praise him generously nearly every moment of correct, compliant behavior, play with him daily, let him sniff my face frequently and sometimes lick my ears, and then further intensify our bond with belly rubs and traces of human food from this plate or that bowl.

I love affectionate dogs, and I hope mine becomes more comfortable with me one day.

Ethan was introduced to us as a “shy” dog, but the label isn’t a perfect fit anymore. He’s afraid of certain things and people in certain circumstances; he’s a bit unpredictable in fear and trust. There are things and movements that make him “shy” away from us, his owners, but sometimes those things only make him stop or sit and look at us funny.

Trust is first, they say, which means that after seven months together, we still can’t take him anywhere off leash, including our unfenced yard, because he can’t be counted on to obey us more than he obeys his fear. Sure, he’s got a collar with tags, an embedded ID chip, and up-to-date shots. But when your dog doesn’t fully trust you and is easily scared by unanticipated stimuli, he’s easily put in danger.

When I take Ethan for a walk and let him wander ahead a bit on the longer leash, sometimes he responds to his name by turning around, at which point I praise him enthusiastically and reach in my pocket for the kibble reward. He trots slowly back to me, sits readily (he sat well from day one) without being asked, and gobbles up the treat. I release him with an “okay” to continue walking, and we’re back in the groove. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.

We spent a lot of time teaching him to bound back to us at the sound of his name, excited for the goodies at the end. But if he’s too busy sniffing, which he often is, or he’s found something on the ground more exciting to nibble on, also not infrequent, or, he’s too wary of us to return, then he will not respond to his name or the “come” command, either by returning or even looking up.

His mind is intelligent and stubborn. However ill-founded, when dogs learn them young, preconceived notions of danger and survival die very, very hard, if at all. Whatever happened to him, he’s having trouble “forgetting” what it taught him. Or, and this is also likely a factor, fear is in his genes.

Even the walk itself is not a foregone conclusion. Before we can get him out the door, we have to corral him. We’ve had Ethan since mid-July 2017, but a few months ago, into his adolescence, when new behaviors sometimes form, he developed a mistrust of the harness, the leash, and us with either tool in our hands. You’d think a dog so eager and apparently happy during the walk would be rushing to go out the door rather than bolting to hide from us in the other room. Not so with this one.

As far as we know, we created no negative association with the harness or the leash. It’s possible he could dislike the feel of the harness or being led as a condition of being allowed to walk, being pulled on, etc. It seems more likely, though, that he just doesn’t like being reached for with a tool he knows will control him in some way, or just being reached for, full stop. He’s up and down on that one, too.

Many hours have passed—days, at this point—hours of coaxing, treat luring, patient waiting, sitting in a chair, standing, sitting on the floor, following slowly, approaching laterally, backpedaling encouragingly, exiting the doorway to the deck, corralling him in the bedroom, switching leashes, collar grab desensitization practice (incomplete, I admit), trapping, cornering, tricking, switching directly from tie-out to leash, and rearranging our order of steps so we get dressed last of all before the walk.

We’ve eliminated sudden movement and surprise grabbing from behind. It’s all slow and steady now. After a few tries of our offering food, letting him have some, using yummier food, and trying to reach for him, he decides he prefers not to eat after all. And this is one extremely food-driven dog; we use his kibble as his most common treat. He knows us, he knows we won’t harm him (I hope), and he’s been on dozens upon dozens of walks with us before. Still, and more than before, Ethan’s intractable mind dislikes something about getting ready for a walk.

His extreme skittishness can be quite maddening. He’ll dodge the leash very skillfully for half an hour, and avoid crossing certain thresholds because he knows I can corner him there. I’ll stop trying and ignore him, and then, not five minutes later, he’ll hit the chimes to go outside. Other times, the leash or harness avoidance episode will last so long, and so mentally tax us both, that he’ll take a nap afterwards. Sometimes I join him. That’s one confused puppy—and owner.

To desensitize him to the fear and counter-condition him with a happier response, it’s our job to pinpoint the exact what, how, where, when, with whom, and why of his fear. We must identify the trigger, every trigger, of his anxiety, eliminate it, and replace it with bliss and passionate joy.

We’ve found sample procedures to follow, broken out step by step into daily and weekly schedules. We just have to choose, commit and see it through. Some anxieties will take weeks to treat; others, we hope, will go more quickly. I’m not looking forward to this work, which we’ve already started doing informally, and which is looking more and more compulsory the more I read about it and study my dog.

That crazy feeling increases with his next moves before an attempted excursion–whether a walk or a car ride. Like a light switch flicking on, once he’s captured, Ethan submits, albeit sheepishly, and waits patiently by the door to be led outside. Even better, once we are outside, he quickly falls into walking as if he’s fallen out of bed—exploring, scent tracking, surveying, and exercising along the sidewalks, yards, devil strips, clearings, and playground of our neighborhood. He enjoys car rides just fine, too, though he can get a little car sick with excess hills or turns.

These days, Ethan’s fears are overpowering his desires. Ethan has taken the same Intro to Agility course twice. He loved it the first time and seemed to love it the second time, though he also seemed a bit more confused about what to do, even though we did practice in between course runs. However, when we were practicing focus forward today for agility, even when I upped the ante with a higher value food reward—chunks of dried beef roll—he still wasn’t sure he could trust me enough to grab his harness without killing and roasting him on a spit.

After a few successful runs, his suspicion began to outweigh his interest in the exercise, so I called it quits. I preferred not to find myself chasing an unleashed, untethered, unfenced-in chicken of a puppy across the neighborhood—no matter how delicious he’d be.

Early on in our relationship, I wondered if he was showing aggression, but he’s more nervous in his warnings. He seldom barks, unless frustrated, bored, or playful. He has never barked at other people or dogs outside, only at us and our dog sitters in the house when he wants something or doesn’t like what we’re doing or not doing. Usually, it’s when I’m gone, and others are left to fend for themselves with him.

After making some headway in our first few months together, between teaching him to trust and teaching him to obey, now we’re not getting far with either. Some results have plateaued while others seem to have eroded from the hill of progress.

I think he knows what many words mean, even if he doesn’t follow basic commands consistently. He understands “no” and “ah-ah-ah” as deterrents, and he shows respect when we’re eating after we tell him to “go lay down,” sometimes with a follow-up gesture, eye contact, or saying his name low and warningly. His powerful nose makes him rude while we cook, too, but with repetition, I can get him to lie down and stay put–for a while.

Ethan reluctantly gets that “all done” means no more food. He knows to go into his crate when I say “in your bed” in the bedroom. He has been exposed to “sit,” “come,” “stay,” “down,” “up,” “look,” “place,” “yes,” “wait,” and “okay,” but his understanding of these is unclear because his reactions are inconsistent. He may realize that “stairs” means we’re going to throw treats up and down them so he can run and eat at the same time. He has learned to nose the chimes on the sliding glass door handle when he wants to go outside—even when he doesn’t have to relieve himself. Sometimes he just does it out of boredom.

He’s clever and sensitive enough to learn what he wants to learn, in his own way.

Although rather mellow when not afraid, Ethan is definitely an athlete. When he does make it out the door, he climbs on boulders and flat rocks around the neighborhood, jumping up onto higher ones and down off them again. Sometimes, while playing the mountain goat, he looks for a treat right away. Other times, he just moves on to the next thing, needing no more reward than the climb itself.

He walks the ledge perimeter of raised flower beds at the playground and allotment entrance. He ascends and descends hills, crosses streets, and trudges through snow happily. He even has the athletic build of a deep-chested, sleek-legged racing hound. He’s pretty fast when he can stretch those legs.

He is more curious than nervous around people and dogs on the walk. He likes to crunch on acorns, despite our protests, and he prefers eating rabbit and deer scat to sniffing it. Thankfully, we can prevent his ingestion of dog poop . . . most of the time.

As good, brave and adventurous as he can be, Ethan has had to learn to tolerate boredom because his indoor fears often prevent us from doing things. He has mastered destroying toys, for one.

Gradually, we got him used to a more flexible schedule than he started with, but maybe he still needs old routine more than we think. He naps for good portions of both day and evening, though, and he doesn’t freak out when we don’t go for a walk first thing. His acceptance of the new patterns actually seems pretty strong.

He has been learning frustration tolerance gradually, learning that he can’t always get what he wants, at least when he’s not too afraid to want. When he is afraid, all he wants is to be left alone, to flee, to hide, to run away, to duck and cover.

I think it’s fair to say he’s teaching us more frustration tolerance than he’ll ever have to know. It’s deeper than being incorrigible. Ultimately, it’s his tolerance of fear that we really have to counter-condition. Only in our dreams can we afford to believe it’s just a phase.

As I’ve said, Ethan does have his moments. He loves to play, he’s learning not to bite during play, and, once guided, he’ll stop playing and settle down. He greets known guests happily now, he falls asleep readily day or night, and stays asleep all night, entering his crate without hesitation or verbal command.

He hasn’t peed or pooped in the house even once since the very few times last summer during his adjustment to his new home. He chews on nothing but his toys, and he chews a lot. He’s not so high energy as to be a constant barker or annoying jumper, humper, or counter surfer. He’s pretty chill, he can be totally hilarious, and he is, of course, the handsomest dog on Earth. These are not small victories. We’re grateful that the rescue organization, who gave him his name, chose us to care for Ethan.

But Ethan’s got a long way to go to be a happy, comfortable dog most of the time. It will probably take years if he ever gets there. Although he’s a sprinter, this will be a marathon for all of us. It’s not what I was hoping for, I’ll admit. I really didn’t want a special “pet” project this time, which we had with Elyse, our chronically ill first dog. For now, Ethan does have good physical health, but we’re already dosing him with anti-anxiety medication to support his behavior reshaping.

I’m beginning to think my dog trainer’s preference always to look for a good breeder is the right idea. Rescuers, God bless you, she says. The thing is, when you’ve done all your homework and still end up with piles of work beyond the already large amount that comes standard with raising a dog, it’s sometimes, well, intolerably frustrating. Then again, it’s life, not just how one acquires a pet dog, that’s like that proverbial chocolates box.

I just hope we get a chance to see the benefits of what will become substantial investments of focus, time, money, energy, and emotion. Ethan has great potential, after all. I hope it’s true that, if anyone can do it, we can. Meanwhile, we continue enjoying the good stuff and eagerly await the spring.


If you like this post, you may enjoy more canine-related content on this blog:

  1. Winter Warrior: Elyse the American Brittany – pooch in boots
  2. Spring cleaning – a photo
  3. Dog Blog: Don’t. Move. – stealth and a shape shifter
  4. Blogging 101: Dream Reader, the Irony in My Life – ouch
  5. The Perfect-Pooch Parade – dog shows and pets
  6. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10 – a husky “battles” starlings
  7. Five-Phrase Friday (3): Pet Epithetic – nicknames for our dog
  8. Book Review: Rose in a Storm – fiction
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (33): Good Breeding – my canine aesthetic
  10. Elyse – a good-bye
  11. Book Review: The Dog Bible – nonfiction reference
  12. Letter to Elyse – in memory, looking ahead
  13. Our New Puppy Ethan – a photo
  14. Backyard Brief: Ethan’s Playground – collage on the jungle gym
  15. Ethan Builds Frustration Tolerance – in himself and in us
  16. #InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog – from On the Blink
  17. Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! (a reblog) – from Scotland with the Wee White Dug
  18. Helping Dogs that Fear Being Alone – separation anxiety treatment tips, resources
  19. Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1 – Ethan digs in the yard, passes the thrill on to me
  20. Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part  2 – our “digging” proves fruitful and rather gross
  21. Resolutions 2018, Kept and Keeping – insight into Ethan’s place in our lives
  22. National Dog Day 2018: Reminiscing – list of my dog-related posts sorted by category

Helping Dogs That Fear Being Alone

aequo animo – with even mind, calmly (my blog’s motto)

Dog owners, if you have a sensitive, clingy, or anxious dog as I do, and you’re not sure where to begin to tame those wild (or undo those learned) instincts, a good introductory article to help you manage your dog’s separation anxiety can be found at the bottom of this post. If you need further guidance after reading the piece, while I’m not a professional expert on canine separation anxiety, the comments below are based on my experience and accumulation of research over the years.


Note the Petfinder article’s recommended calm, low-key way to depart and return. Be aware of your energy. If you’re anxious about leaving, the dog will sense this and become anxious, too. Stay calm inside and project calm.

This won’t be enough for us to get our new pup Ethan used to time alone, and he’s only just turning 7 months old soon, so that plays a role. We’ve set up a webcam and Foscam to monitor his behavior while we’re out and he’s confined to his crate. Because this testing helps establish a benchmark on the degree of the issue’s severity, I recommend using a similar method of insight if you have concerns about your dog’s nerves before you leave or when you return.

A process of desensitization can be helpful, too, but it requires the owner’s patience and diligence. Leaving and coming back frequently throughout the day can help the dog learn it’s no big deal and you always come back. Also, try making sure you do leave every day–at first, just the building of your home, then in a vehicle the dog can hear running and fading away, or just the garage door opening and closing. I admit I haven’t been great at executing my desensitization plans for Ethan, and that’s likely part of his problem.

If you’re able to increase the amount of time you’re gone very, very gradually, start at only a few minutes and working up to hours over a period of several days. Learn more about desensitization training from a trainer, your vet, or a reputable online source.

Getting the dog to calm down well in advance of your departure and making sure the dog’s energy has been drained through exercise or mental stimulation, such as puzzle solving, are also key considerations when the usual, basic rules don’t apply. Likewise, not overfeeding your pet will give you a leg up on preventing behavior being fueled by excess energy.

Our trainer says to keep in mind that while fussiness is acceptable, panic should be actively minimized. In your video or streaming feed, note your pup’s pace of respiration and signs of panting, constant fidgeting or restlessness, constant alertness (sitting up, ears perked, eyes wide), urination or defecation, attempts to escape his confines, repeated scratching or biting at self, crate or objects, near-constant noise making of whatever kind, or some combination of these.

When you find out what’s actually happening while you’re away, you are better equipped to decide on the proper course of action. If your dog shows any of the above responses, the situation may require professional behavior consultation, training, and/or veterinary intervention. Once the dog gets used to freaking out, which is sufficiently unpleasant the first time, without an altered approach, freaking out will become habit and that habit may intensify over time.

Finally, never punish an anxious canine for losing control of bowels or bladder. By the time you find out and can be in the room to address it, the dog will not only not make the connection between your anger and the mess, but the anxiety will only increase.

Be sure you clean up thoroughly so the dog is not inclined to repeat due to residual odor, and make sure your potty training house is in order. If you’ve crossed these T’s and your puppy dog is still losing continence while you’re away, as Petfinder makes clear, it’s another serious sign for professional intervention.

See the article Separation Anxiety by Petfinder for more information, and best of luck in preventing or calming your fur baby’s fears!

Keep Calm

and

Calm Your Dog.

For a snippet of my past experience with this issue, check out Dog Blog: Don’t. Move.