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. . . .

IMG_5519

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.

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.

#InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog

Happy International Guide Dog Day.

Image by C. L. Tangenberg – Our first family pet Elyse, an American Brittany (spaniel). Although not a certified guide dog, she taught us a lot and guided our hearts.

On the Blink

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

View original post 268 more words

Five-Phrase Friday (33): Good Breeding

I’m missing my dog these days, now that the weather is warming and I can’t take her for a walk. I still like the Brittany breed, so we may try to get another when we decide to add a dog to the family again.

Mutts are just great in their blended gene health and unique blend of features. But for this post, I’m focusing on traits of a type, so I’ve selected my top five picks for ideal dog breed.

My choices are based on overall package–appearance (cute, elegant, leggy), intelligence (smart but not too smart), affection level (almost too affectionate is good), trainability (must be trainable), size (medium to medium-large), energy level (medium), character (unique, charismatic), maintenance level (low to medium–hair mainly), overall health trends (few or manageable genetic issues), and expense/availability from a breeder or rescue (why go halfway across the country when there are good dogs in need back home?).

See my previous post on dog shows and breed aesthetics.


Top Choices of Dog Breeds (includes mixes with one or more of these in them):

  1. Brittany
  2. Welsh Springer Spaniel or English Springer Spaniel
  3. Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever: similar to Brittany’s structure but more rare
  4. German Short-Haired Pointer
  5. Black and Tan Coonhound

Honorable mentions include:

Samoyed – great but just not in the top 5; maybe a bit too small

VizslaThumb

Image credit AKC website, Vizsla breed profile page

Vizsla – gorgeous and sweet; just a little too energetic, less commonly available

Flat-coated retriever – also less common and only found in black-colored coat

Belgian Tervuren or Belgian Malinois – like a German Shepherd in appearance; working dogs, equally energetic

Labrador retriever – a bit too stocky and shed too much; kinda boring (too common)

Kuvasz – too rare

Golden retriever – plentiful; I just don’t like them as much, even the pretty coat

Shetland sheepdog – perhaps a bit too small and feisty

Siberian husky – too energetic, too work driven for our lifestyle

Maltese – too small and fast (gotta be able to wrangle it!)


These would all be lovely pure breeds to have, but that doesn’t mean we’re averse to a good fit from a shelter. My husband’s list would probably include Pembroke Welsh Corgis and Dachshunds (he likes sausage-shaped dogs he can laugh at when they run), and if I were willing to go for smaller dogs, my choices would be more like West Highland White Terrier or Miniature Schnauzer.

Check out the side-by-side comparison tool at the AKC website. Pretty handy.

Really, though, at this point, I still just want my dog back. . . .

Elyse

Our dog Elyse passed away this week. I remember her now, based on revisiting the post Dog Blog: Don’t. Move.

I tried hard not to move, but she moved me more than I had thought possible after I survived movements that helped make my body attack itself. That is, after trying my best to teach high school English and journalism full time for two years and falling short while becoming ill, even after a break, caring for a dog proved much more difficult than I had anticipated.

And so much the better. She showed me I wasn’t all washed up. The challenges she continuously threw our way we met to the best of our abilities, and she became my new full-time occupation. I’d like to think I was good at the job.

In consequence, the bond we developed became close and deep, as we spent every day, most of the day, together while Daddy earned our daily bread. The greatest challenge, perhaps, was to keep trying, to renew my patience, forgive the challenges she could not help but pummel us with in her layered conditions of disease and neurosis. The serenity of the pack leader is the only surety for keeping the pack together, functioning, balanced.

Keep calm and lick. She would do that as long as I kept coming home, feeding her, maintaining her medications dosing schedule, going through our routines, showing affection, asserting my leadership, providing limitations and not just pity for the sweet, sickly little dog. She respected me to a degree, listened to me more than to Daddy, but she could be stubborn, too.

And there were certainly moments where she didn’t trust me. After all, it was primarily I who wielded the wipes, the ear cleaner, the comb, the towels, the dental hygiene products, and other instruments of regular torture. I would lose my temper, lose my patience, show my flawed humanity when she failed to stay put or stop prancing around in panic while I worked upstairs, or when she soiled the floor yet again.

With all the medication, and her neglected and abandoned past, I knew it wasn’t her fault, so I restrained myself. But she could still feel my negative vibes and would cower, hesitate, fail to come to me. I was hardly her North Star.

Still, she surrendered to my love, returning calm, and gentle hand. I became an expert of sorts in many aspects of canine care, not least of which was dog massage. Neither side had any choice, really. She was at our mercy. We coddled, spoiled, and humanized her with the best of them. We showered our only child with more affection than she thought strictly necessary, I’m sure. But love won out in both directions.

All things end, and now is her life ended. Dearest Elyse–our first family dog, adopted as a rescued American Brittany on June 29, 2012, laid to rest February 8, 2016–we will move on, eventually. As the snow finally seals winter in, and layers over your fresh grave, the temperature drops with my motivation.

Binding us so tightly to her with all that need for constant care–as much a source of stress as companionship, an amazingly tiny package experiencing and bringing such frequent struggle–Elyse has been my whole world for more than 3 and a half years. We certainly gave it our all. It’s time to re-invent myself yet again.

Irony comes calling again. Just when I’d get up the urge to write or read or improve my home or health, her own health would waver and pull me back from myself. Now that I’m “free” of her needs, I can scarcely think, choose, or move.

Is balance, after all, sheer impossibility? I threw myself into full-time teaching, hardly sleeping, barely keeping up with grading and lesson planning, making myself ill from the chronic strain and stress, not having been used to work in such a way at such a pace in such a place. Basically, not having been challenged enough before that point. Then, after nursing the wounds from dismissal, and intending to get a healthy, active dog that would help me become healthier, I found myself thrown into another nearly impossible project–taking care of an ailing dog.

I was partly manipulated into it by the rescue organization (they unmistakably lied about her age and misrepresented the severity of her health problems), largely smitten by the sweet little creature herself, partly pressured by my spouse’s falling as much in love as I had in a few short days, and partly led by my determination to get right whatever I undertook.

Am I finally to learn how not to go overboard? Or, at least how to do so gainfully? Am I discounting the gotten gains? Can I find balance at last?

Or, is it disingenuous to ask for this? Do I really just want fame and money, and only persist in denying my vanity and greed in the vain hope that I’m a better person than I seem to be? Either way, it will come down to balance, if no other kind but that between seeking ultimate “success” and seeking a balance between career and personal life. I take everything so personally, so seriously, do I even know the difference between work and life? Did I ever? Is there such a stark distinction at all?

Cesar Millan, best known as The Dog Whisperer, has said we don’t get the dog we want; we get the dog we need. I’m still trying to figure out how that was the case with Elyse and me. What am I supposed to have learned? What am I to take a way from all this? What about her did I need? And was the need fulfilled?

I don’t know. I think it may take a while to figure out. Everything with me does, but right now, grief clouds the issue. I’ll let you know if light dawns.

Of course, I’m assuming the verity of a pat aphorism that may be bull, even though the man may indeed know dogs better than anyone. As I established in my Five-Phrase Friday post last week, what’s true for some may not be true for all.

What I know to be true is this: I loved that dog. It was not all in vain. We do learn from experience. We have great, rich memories of our time with her.

What a sweet, gentle, affectionate, adorable, quirky, beautiful little girl. She only ever barked in her sleep and, in her immune-compromised isolation, energetically loved meeting any new canine friends.

I’ll miss . . .

  • the sound of her long toe nails tapping as she trotted along the floor
  • the jingling shake of her collar tags
  • the oh-so-cozy softness of her fur coat and leg feathers
  • her clumsy goofiness
  • her insistent invasion of personal space
  • those Dumbo-like ears of submission
  • an eagerness to walk, sniff and mark
  • her unabashed excitement and joy to see us come home
  • her playful groan of a signal to go outside
  • the thrashing of animal toys
  • an obsessed tooth-and-claw attack of her Kong toy full of treat bits
  • a thrasher hairstyle with head hanging, fast asleep, off her bed’s edge
  • running in her sleep
  • the frustrating way she’d wipe her face on your legs to get rid of the oozing eye goop
  • her strength and resilience amidst 3 heart conditions, chronic coughing, painful arthritis episodes, blocked tear ducts, bad teeth, chronic shivering and shuddering, occasional choking on food, low blood sugar, isolated mystery ailments including seizures, limping, lost appetite, and reverse sneezing that would clear up inexplicably, bleeding toenails from quicks so close to the tip, being stepped on repeatedly, swallowing a frothy toad, freezing her paws in harsh winter, and stepping on a bee
  • her huntress alertness, bird stalking, squirrel obsession
  • the way she’d open her front paws and legs while lying down so we’d rub her fluffy chest
  • her yawns of sleepiness and confusion
  • the drollness of her growing directional deafness–2 feet behind her, called her, and she perked and ran towards the sound in the opposite direction
  • her long, slender, elegant pointer legs
  • those eyes, that nose, that tongue, and that nubbin!
  • her love of peas and apple sauce and traces of flavored yogurt and peanut butter and
  • . . . oh, so much more

I’ll miss being so constantly needed. I’ll miss my irreplaceable fur-baby and friend.

Rest in peace, pain free and joyful, baby girl.

A world of possibilities opens up before me now, and it’s ready for my forward movement. At some point, you get sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time—and do something productive. All hope is not lost.

Although I feel a little like Zaphod Beeblebrox when he failed to find the ultimate question–“Good stuff. I’ll just go find something else for my whole life to be about.”–I’m still hopeful that the best is yet to come, yet to be made and discovered. I’ve been blessed repeatedly, given many chances to start over, and now, aided by my circumstances, I have yet another gift of choice.

I will do my best to embrace this new freedom, in keeping with my values, in honor of my loved ones–the living and the dead. I’ll take responsibility for my life and health, not only to do but to be.

Life goes on, and the search continues.

Book Review: Rose in a Storm

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

I’m ambivalent about this one.

The novel Rose in a Storm uses an omniscient third-person narrator to switch back and forth between the farmer Sam’s and his border collie Rose’s viewpoint, but most of the story is Rose’s. The novel is better than the few non-fiction books I’ve read that attempt to convey the canine perspective, and the descriptions of farm life and tasks ring true.

Taking a scientific outlook, though, I found it difficult to settle on what I thought of Katz’s portrayal of the dog’s thought processes and feelings. The depiction straddles anthropomorphism and restrained observational reporting of animal behavior, though still through her eyes. Although most of the book succeeds in avoiding implausible sentimentality in the dog, focusing instead on her straightforward efforts to adapt to and navigate her changing world, there are some sappy tropes involved. The notion of the dog’s spiritual vision is the most blatant of these.

BookCover_RoseInAStorm_Katz

As a story, this is a fine read–simple, fluid, plot driven. It’s suspenseful, interesting, descriptive, and engaging. The book also refrains from tying things up in a neat little bow, preserving some of the realism of imagined canine perceptions, if one can call such a thing realism.

I have read no other Katz books to compare it to, but I think I detect his non-fiction roots coming across in this try at a novel. His style lends both a dryness that bored me and a grounded feel that I appreciated. Katz seems to overextend his anthropomorphism with his portrayal of other farm animals’ viewpoints, and some explanations of Rose’s behavior become repetitious in the book’s latter half.

Where the author succeeds is in communicating the complex relationship between Sam and his working farm dog. Rose is not in any way a pet, as she shares no affection with him, though she did with Sam’s late wife Katie. Nor is she strictly a regular working dog. The reader comes to know Rose as extraordinary among herding dogs–obedient and focused on her specific management role when Sam’s in charge and able to take the initiative to care for the farm’s animals in a devastating blizzard when Sam is unable to guide her.

Yet, Rose does not ascend to superdog status and escapes being made ridiculous in the process. Katz portrays her limitations as fairly as he demonstrates the stretching of her giftedness into innovation when faced with new challenges. This is a difficult balance, and he struck it well.

Full of description, the novel uses little dialogue, which both limits its interest for the reader and seats it fittingly within the speechless realm of the dog. The simplicity of the book, however, leaves little room for other layers to admire. There’s no underlying symbolism, no literary boosts of irony or genre bending or a greater lesson, and I saw no transcendent merit in it. It’s just a largely plausible story of a great dog’s experiences, which dog lovers will likely enjoy.

Overall, I liked Rose in a Storm, loved some parts but not many, and was not sorry to have read it. It helped that the book was not very long at a little over 200 pages. It was a pleasant if underwhelming experience, good but not great. 3 stars.


If you enjoyed this dog book review, you may also like:

Book Review: The Dog Bible

For more of my thoughts on other books, go to the Book Reviews page of my blog.