Melody Coulter

Melody Coulter is a dog trainer, artist and one of the founding members of Dog Star Animal Sanctuary, which uses training and a natural living environment to rehabilitate abused and abandoned dogs.

Dog's Life: Travel
The Reluctant First Mate
Woman and dog sail the Atlantic Ocean.

Zach didn’t want to go. I was about to embark on the sailing adventure I’d dreamed of for 20 years when the first mate jumped ship.

It was 1991 and we were going from Key West to the Mediterranean by way of Bermuda and the Azores. Departure day was the culmination of weeks of preparation. I had made lists of the lists that had to be finished and things that had to be crossed off. Supplies, new equipment, bottom painted, sails double-stitched, on and on. Finally, it was all done. Friends were on the dock wishing fair winds and bon voyage, but we couldn’t sail because the ship’s dog was on the other side of the marina, dodging the captain’s every effort at capture.

There have been few times in my life that I have been madder at another creature than I was that day at him. This was so unlike Zach—he loved to go sailing, would go into a barking, wiggling, tail-wagging frenzy when the lines were being untied and we were pulling out of the slip. Throughout his whole seven years with me, I had run a charter boat business; he’d been going sailing many times a week since he was a pup.

Finally, he surrendered. I think he finally realized how much trouble he was in. I carried him back to the boat, put him below (not in irons) and closed the hatch. Saying my good-byes, we got underway. It wasn’t until later, when the sails were up, course was set and I had calmed down, that it dawned on me that my crew was saying in the only way he could, “I don’t want to go.”

I’m sure he wasn’t objecting to sailing the Atlantic Ocean. After all, he didn’t know exactly where we were going; he sat on charts, he didn’t read them. It was going offshore—which always happened after this kind of preparation—that he didn’t like. Offshore meant leaving trees, dock pilings and a host of vertical things he could heist his leg on. Zachary did not believe in peeing where he lived. It was, I think, a moral issue with him: You don’t soil your nest. He would hold it into the next day and finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer, would go stiff and let urine run down his leg. After that, it wasn’t okay, but he was resigned.

This would, of course, make me frantic, since I worried about bladder infections. There are no vets offshore. I would offer an example, squatting myself and peeing all over the deck. “Look, honey,Mommy does it.”He would cut me a look and go below. It was truly no big deal. A bucket of saltwater—god knows we had plenty —one whoosh, and it was out the scuppers. Tell him that.

We also went round and round about his pooping. All sailboats have extra sails tied down at the bow, ready to go up if a change is needed. And this is where he’d choose to poop. To raise one of these sails, you turn into the wind, and the sail flaps wildly going up. Which also sent the poop flying and caused me to swear like a sailor at top volume. I learned to keep my potty mouth shut when, one day, some of Zach’s “offerings” flew into it!

A Close Call
We weren’t always at odds; actually, it was rare. I loved that dog beyond reason. I could look at him and know how I was feeling.We both loved to sail, and he was a wise and wonderful companion. Though people were fascinated by the idea of me single-handing the Atlantic, I never felt that was the case. First of all, I didn’t get to singlehand the whole trip. I took a charter (a father and son who had tried to sail to Bermuda before and hadn’t made it). They went a quarter of the way, to Bermuda, and that helped pay for the trip. I always tell people that I wasn’t alone for the other 3,000 or so miles; I had Zach. They usually brush that off as though he didn’t count, but I couldn’t have made the trip without him, and wouldn’t have wanted to— it wouldn’t have been any fun. And truthfully, I wouldn’t have survived it; he saved my life.

One beautiful afternoon, about 400 miles out from the Azores, things were perfect—the wind was just right and the skies were blue, with puffy tradewind clouds.We were rocking along making good time, right on course. I decided this called for fixing my favorite lunch—yellow food. Eating out of cans is monotonous even when, like me, you can’t cook, but I never got tired of macaroni, tuna and peas.

As I was fooling around down below, waiting for the water to boil, Zachary, who was in the cockpit, started a low, mean-sounding growl. I glanced up at him and saw the hair raised along his spine. He was always on watch for dolphins, gulls and great big imaginations. I said, “Take it easy, big guy, there’s nothing around here for hundreds of miles.” But he kept it up, so, to please him, I popped my head up to see what he was looking at. There was a gigantic sea monster! It was headed right for us.

There are sea monsters in the world, and for small sailboats, they’re called freighters. I dived for the engine switch, pushed the throttle down hard, threw the tiller over and got the hell out of there at a 90 degree angle. I watched the freighter’s wake and saw that it never changed course or speed. The big ships are run by computers, and the lookout, if there is one, is watching for something big enough to hurt the ship. This one wouldn’t even have noticed running us down. The thing was huge; it was like a city going by. The flag of registry—red with a hammer and sickle—flying off the back was as big as a house. She was a Russian ship bound for the Americas. I could’ve used a jolt of vodka myself about then.

When my heart rate returned to something compatible with life, I was able to fix and eat my yellow food, but the crew dined on a large can of chicken breast, a meal befitting the best lookout and first mate in the whole Atlantic Ocean.

Dog Star
When we made landfall in the Azores, we were treated like royalty.While I was completely surprised by this, Zach took it as our due. There were invitations to a different boat every night for drinks and dinner, and to swap sea stories. A local family had us to their home in the hills for a magical mid- summer’s eve party and bonfire.We had so many offers that if Zach wasn’t invited too, we could always hold out for one where he was welcome. For 11 days, we played, explored the island, met lots of interesting people and dogs, and just had fun. Then we were rested, the galley was restocked and it was time to push on. Europe waited.

Zach wore a bandanna (regular collars stayed wet too long) and it was a measure of his charm that someone was always adding to his collection. He had all colors and designs. As we started to motor out of the Horta, Azores, marina, someone I didn’t know came running down the dock behind us, yelling in a heavy accent, “Come back, come back!” Now, sailboats are not made for backing up, there wasn’t room to turn, and we were surrounded by multimillion-dollar yachts, but this guy was excited. I slowed, shifted into reverse, and made a wobbly, nervewracking retreat to the dock.He wanted to give Zach a bandanna and have one last chance to pet him! I didn’t remember the guy, and don’t think I made much of an impression on him either. He barely spoke to me, but he was sure sorry to see Zach go.

Something similar happened later when we were in Spain. An older English couple on holiday had heard about us and knocked on the boat late one night after we had gone to bed. I sleepily went on deck to see what they wanted; Zach, for once in his life, stayed below. They chatted me up briefly about the Atlantic trip, and then there was a long, awkward pause. Finally, the woman said, “Really, luv, we came to see the dog.”

The dog and I had many more adventures; he was always up for anything new, always in a good mood, never borrowed money, never got drunk. Zach was truly the best first mate on any ocean.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Pogo Eats Strangers
The taming of a pugnacious pup.
Illustration by Heather Horton

“Pogo eats strangers,” or so I was told, and when I first met him, he exploded. Barking, growling, snarling, lots of teeth, lunging—all the tricks that make scary people go away. To all that, he added a four-foot, straight-up-in-the-air jump, which explained why he was named Pogo. He looked like a small red Chow: lots of russet hair, thick muscular body, curled tail, short, Jack Russell legs (which makes the jumping all the more impressive). He had bitten potential adopters, so he wasn’t bluffing. It was obvious why he couldn’t be adopted.

I had been flown from my home in Iowa to his shelter in New Jersey by Best Friends Animal Society as part of their “Training Partners”program. This innovative program matches trainers experienced in dealing with aggressive dogs with the unadoptable dogs from their incredible Hurricane Katrina rescue, as well as with other dogs who need help with training and behavior.

The busy shelter staff left me alone with him, so I pulled up a bucket outside his run; sat down; turned sideways; and tried to keep my body loose and a slight smile on my face, and to avoid eye contact. Then I began gently pitching small pieces of canned chicken breast toward his feet. Pretty heady stuff for a guy living on dry food and sleeping on cement. I had his attention—it’s hard to continue to be rude to someone who’s slipping you the equivalent of $50 bills through the fence!

When the staff came in to clean his section of the runs, I walked around, talked with them and then strolled back over and gave Pogo a treat.He was reacting less and less to my approach.

Everyone was leery of letting him out to greet me because previously, that’s when he had attacked strangers. I thought he’d be okay, and was prepared to throw a big chunk of chicken if he rushed me. He rushed me all right, but it was for the chicken.

I made no effort to touch him, and that, as much as the treats, kept me safe. Had I leaned over him and tried to pat him on the head (like any adopter would do), he would have nailed me. He reminded me of a tough little street kid ready to take offense at the slightest thing. Since we both passed that first allimportant test, they brought him to me on a 20-foot lead, and we went exploring the grounds. A misty rain was falling, and after 30 minutes of aerobics, I sat down on a dry spot underneath the branches of a thick pine.Pogo came back to me occasionally, got a quick treat and was off to the end of the tether again to soak up more smells. On one of these drive-by greetings, I reached out and stroked him from shoulder to tail, avoiding his head. He went to the end of the lead and then oh-so-casually turned and came right back by so I could do it again. My heart gave a flip. I was a stranger no more.

That was the beginning of my “rehabbing Pogo” story. It’s been a year since New Jersey and more than two and a half years since Katrina; Pogo’s made incredible progress—he’s not ready for prime time yet, but he’s a whole different dog. Smart, trainable, a truly individual personality and—who knew—very affectionate. The boy loves a lovin’. Still, he reacts like a crazy man if surprised by a stranger.

I’m sure Pogo spent his early life on a chain. He can unwrap a lead from around his legs with the dexterity of a pro. He didn’t know about stairs and couldn’t believe I wanted him to come in the house. That took lots of coaxing. His heartworm test was positive and he wasn’t neutered. I’m thinkin’ he didn’t have it easy in the Big Easy.

He still doesn’t in some ways. He doesn’t like my dogs, and they only tolerate him. I’m a painter when not training dogs and he spends most of his time in the studio alone. That’s his choice—the door’s open. He spends a lot of time in there playing with an old blanket, tossing it around. I think bedding is what he had to play with in the year and a half he spent in shelters.

When the other four dogs are out in the back yard, he keeps his distance. When I first brought him home, they tried to play with him, but I don’t think he knew how, and now that window’s closed. Emma, the boss, gave him a classic play bow that first day, but he just stood there. Emma loves to play, and she cut him a disgusted look, walked off and has never tried again. I hate it that he doesn’t have that “pack” feeling. He does have it when we go for runs, though.We go to a 64-acre, no-leads-required place, and we’re the only ones who ever use it. I call it “Disneyland,” because it’s like taking five kids to a magic kingdom. That’s one of the things I love about dogs: Their excitement for life is contagious. I’m in awe of that common stretch of pasture land and timber because they are.

When Pogo’s out there, he’s on the team. He sniffs and pees where the others do, and they bow to his expertise, rushing over to check out whatever he’s found to sniff and pee on. There, he’s comfortable with them; he’s got their backs and they have his. I love it so much that I take them as often as I can.

It’s going to be a long road. The idea was that I’d rehab him and then adopt him out, then go back and get another one. I liked that idea.Maybe if I were a better,more efficient trainer, he’d be further along than he is. I have trained him. He can sit, stay, come, walk on a leash with the best of them. I’m just not very efficient at broken hearts and damaged spirits.We’re now doing desensitization and counter-conditioning.Among other things, we go to the ballpark and hang out around strange guys—his main trigger. He’s getting used to men at a distance, and I slip him a bit of hot dog or chicken when someone comes near. It’s working, it really is, but it’s slow…downright glacial, in fact.

And anyway, I won’t be adopting him out. My mother, a Depression baby and product of hard times herself, has fallen for him big time.No matter what he does, she has at least three excuses for it. Keeps reminding me of what a hard life he’s had. They’re both a little ornery and they bonded from the beginning, so it’s two against one. He’s not going anywhere—and I’m sure he won’t be eating anyone.