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The Primal Howl

The diagnosis came in June: old dog, new limp, X-ray, bad news. Bert had bone cancer, a lump growing in his left foreleg. We could amputate, the vet said, but that probably wouldn’t stop the spread. And did it make sense for a 12-year-old Bulldog anyway? Molly and I knew that pet owners can talk themselves into almost anything, and we didn’t want that for Bert. So we opted for pain meds and no heroic measures. We’d know when it was time to put him down, the vet assured us.
“It could be five days,” he said when we asked how long. “It could be a few weeks.”
This prognosis proved errant. The thing on Bert’s foreleg grew bigger, but still he played, wagged, ate with gusto. The new puppy we’d promised our four-year-old daughter, Larkin, arrived on the scene, injecting a large dose of puppy joy. The Old Man loved it. Summer passed, and he seemed to thrive — cancer or no cancer.
He’s the Lance Armstrong of dogs, we joked.
In truth, his disease was getting bad. But, like most changes in life, the badness deepened incrementally and its progress was hard to see. Bert got up a little less, limped a little more. At some point during the fall, he became incontinent at night, so we covered the mudroom floor with newspapers and moved his bed to the doorway. That became the new normal. At least he wasn’t pooping in his bed, Molly and I told ourselves. The mudroom, that’s sorta, kinda like doing it outside, right?
Basic fact of human nature: for better or worse, we adjust.
A few days before Thanksgiving, however, something happened. From then on, the bad leg was useless, flapping and splaying at weird angles. Gamely, Bert persisted, hobbling like John Cleese in the Ministry of Funny Walks. We carried him outside now. Sixty-three pounds of Bulldog, six times a day — that was hard. But the strain wasn’t really on our backs; hauling him around like a sack of potatoes violated the dignity we accord creatures in our care, these companionate animals. One day, I left Bert outside to pee and came out minutes later to find him lying in the garden, sunk down in the dead leaves like a garden ornament, looking up at me.
It was time.
We had hoped that when it came, Bert would be semi-comatose — “ready,” as the vet had said, not looking up with alert brown eyes. But we can’t fine-tune the exit from life, not even for our pets.
There remained the question of how to tell Larkin. What do you say to a four-year- old about the imponderable mystery of life and death? Of course, calling something “imponderable” is mostly a way of saying “I don’t want to.” The truth is that death is eminently ponderable (and if you think your four-yearold isn’t already pondering it, you’re kidding yourself.) At my computer, I googled, “How do I tell my four-yearold we’re putting our dog down?” Click, an instant panoply of reassurances. The angels want him. He’s chewing a bone in Doggie Heaven. He’ll be with Grandma/ Grandpa/our cat Tuffy. There was the Rainbow Bridge poem (“Inspired by a Norse Legend”), its couplets describing an eternal romp in pet paradise. On this golden land, they wait and they play/Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.
Such sentimentality in the face of a child’s capacity for honesty struck me as craven, even as I wondered whether my aversion to well-intended bromides was really a form of arrogance that would leave me empty-handed in the crunch, and our daughter unconsoled. Well, you build with the tools you have. No rainbow bridges from me, or from Molly either. Instead, we brought Larkin home from preschool on the appointed day, sat down with her in the kitchen and spoke to her as calmly as we could. Did she remember back in June, we asked her, when we’d found out Bert had cancer and we thought he was going to die soon?
She looked up warily.
“Well,” I continued, “we got really lucky. Bert hung on so much longer than we expected. We thought it might be five days, and it’s been five months. But now — ”
Her face reddened, and she interrupted. “I don’t want Bert to die.”
“It’s his time, honey. He can’t walk. A dog needs to walk.”
“No! I don’t want him to die!”
Molly put her arm around Larkin.
“Honey, he’s had a really wonderful life with us, and we really, really love him. But his body hurts him. He’s in pain, and it’s time for him to die. So let’s spend an hour with him, and then I’m going to take him to the vet.”
We all got down on the floor with Bert. “It’s okay to be sad,” Molly said. “We’re all going to miss him a lot.”
For parents, there’s something dreadful about the prospect of your child and her dying dog. Desperately, you want to avoid Total Family Meltdown — a chain reaction, your child’s grief amplifying your own until the three of you become a throbbing, shaking tag-team of sorrow (though, as your therapist would ask, what do you think would happen if this did occur?). I had a fallback for this scenario, a diversionary crutch. Recently, I’d taken Larkin to a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She’d fallen hard for the play, and I’d put the film version in our Netflix queue; fortunately, it had arrived hours earlier. Did she want me to put it on? I asked.
“Yes! I want to watch Joseph!”
And so the three of us sat in the family room, petting Bert and taking refuge in a silly Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on a Biblical tale of fealty, betrayal and dreams, and starring, it turned out, a grown-up Donny Osmond, toothy child star of my youth. We sang along, Larkin shouting her favorite line, “And when Joseph made the scene, the brothers turned a SHADE OF GREEN!” Outside, a storm had begun to blow, gusts of wind and sheets of rain. It was December 1, and a two-day warm spell was fighting a rearguard battle against the first blast of winter. In the kitchen, an exhaustfan vent banged in the wind, lending a strange syncopation to the music.
When it was time to go, Molly looked at me, tapping her watch, and I paused the video. “We have to take Bert in now,” Molly said to Larkin. “Let’s all give him a hug.”
Larkin knelt and hugged Bert, crying, and I pushed my own grief down and jammed a lid on it. After a minute, Larkin returned to the movie; I picked up Bert and carried him outside.
The storm was whipping as I lugged him down the steps, cold rain splattering my face. I wondered why the gods so often seem to grace life’s dramas with the showy objective correlative of weather: in our case, on the exalted mid-January day our daughter was born, it had been freakishly sunny and 60 degrees; and now this Shakespearean tempest, elemental and unruly, as though betokening a loss so strong it rattled nature itself.
Molly went to the car and opened the hatchback, where she spread out a blanket. I stood on the patio, holding Bert. “It’s okay, buddy,” I said. “It’s okay.”
He’d been stone-deaf for years, but we’d never kicked the habit of talking to him. Doing so now popped that lid I’d shut inside myself, and out it all came. You’re our guy, I sobbed, you’re the best. I didn’t know how to say what I needed to. That morning, I’d fried a steak and fed it to Bert, sitting with him on the kitchen floor as he took one greedy, disbelieving gobble after the next. It was a condemned dog’s last meal. Now, holding him in the pelting rain, I truly did sense his life, or rather, his life in our lives, flashing before me. Bought 12 years earlier on a calculated whim, chosen for jollity at a time when Molly and I— not yet married and uncertain we ever would be — badly needed some, Bert had been the harbinger of a hope we had for our future, which had since come to pass. What a chunk of time and experience he had witnessed! The lifespan of pets is, in many ways, a neat miniaturization of our own, letting us reckon the 10 or 12 dog lives we ourselves are granted: another one down, so that in grieving my dog I grieve, inevitably, my wife, my daughter, myself.
Crossing the patio, wailing the whole way, I placed Bert in the back of the car, the cramped space where for years he had passengered along, uncomplaining, on our family trips. Many had been to a lake in Maine, where he blundered his way into the water — surely nature’s least gifted swimmer, yet frantically eager to try, summoning the hilarity under pressure that had been his contribution, again and again, to our lives.
I shut the door, and Molly drove off.
Back inside, Larkin sat entranced before the television screen. I put her on my lap, grateful that the division of tasks between Molly and me — of talents, really — would spare me the final session with our hippie vet, Gus, and the last sight of Bert, dead on the steel table. My far less taxing job was to stay with our daughter and help steer her through the moment.
I thought about what a four-year-old does and doesn’t understand. Larkin’s birth had been bookended by two hard deaths — Molly’s brother, six months before Larkin was born, and my mother, six months after. We told Larkin about these events, and she learned early on to say things like, “Uncle Wes died, Mom, and you were sad,” or “Don’t worry, Dad, you’ll see your mom again. You’ll see her in your heart.”
Such utterances are mostly lexical; a toddler says them, says the words, without necessarily grasping their implications. But they create a vessel, a concept begun in the act of saying, which gradually fills with comprehension. As we watched the rest of Joseph, I studied Larkin. When a song would end, I thought I could see an awareness of something badly amiss creep back onto her face, only to be erased by the next song. Thank God for music. Finally, though, the movie was over. Larkin turned to me. She frowned, and her face reddened again and crumpled in on itself.
“I want Bert!” she said.
“I know, honey. I know.”
“I want Bert! I want Bert! I want Bert!” Over and over she wailed it, a dozen times at least. I want Bert!
And there it was. The most primal declaration, more so even than “I love.” It was what I’d struggled and failed to say before, out on the patio. I want, I want, I want. The words come from the deepest place in us, where emotion is appetite, and “missing” someone cries out a painful incompleteness: something lacking, something ripped out or torn away; a ghost limb; a desperate craving. Put it back. Make me whole. I want.
I hugged Larkin. Later, Molly and I would make it through night number one of Life After Bert — cooking up a storm in the kitchen, listening to old pop tunes, drinking plenty of wine and paging through our Bert photo album. But for now, my mission was to hold on tight to my sobbing daughter, accompanying her as she discovered the wildness of grief. Let the old dog go, I thought. Let the inner animal howl.

News: Guest Posts
Till Death Do Us Part?

In her recent column, The New York Times Ethicist Ariel Kaminer took on a very challenging question from a veterinarian in Boston, Mass.

I am a veterinarian, and one of my clients is an elderly woman who loves her eight-year-old Pomeranian dearly but has no family or friends who might inherit it. She wants me to sign a legal document stating that I will euthanize it if she dies before the dog does. What should I do?

Mercifully, Kaminer ultimately comes down against the euthanization. But her first forays are cause for concern. The short version of the Ethicist’s reasoning begins as such: if the vet eats meat, she or he should have no more qualms in euthanizing the Pomeranian than she would seeing a cow slaughtered for her hamburger. From a vegetarian or vegan standpoint, complicity in the slaughter of farm animals is equally objectionable to terminating the life of a perfectly healthy pet upon request. But that doesn’t mean the reverse is true. In other words, making what might be considered an immoral choice in one area of my life (eating meat) does not amount to a behavioral free pass to other questionable acts (requesting the euthanization of my healthy companion animal).

This is a standard logical fallacy—It’s even got a fancy Latinate name, ad hominem tu quoque, broken logic that suggests a claim I make can’t be true if it is inconsistent in any way with my previous actions. But here’s the thing—few among us are uniform in our moral and ethical choices. And thankfully, because heaven knows what the implications would be of a bacon chili cheeseburger.

Have you prepared for your dog’s care in the event of your death? What arrangements have you made? What do you think is the responsible choice?

News: Karen B. London
Dogs Good For Business
They even give their names to them

Dave Ward is a self-described coffee freak and when that hobby turned into a business, he named it after his dog. Buddy Brew Coffee in Tampa, Fla. is a thriving small business that draws inspiration from the loyalty and trust that dogs inspire.

Businesses that are named after dogs are far from unusual. Biff’s Bagel’s, a popular place in Flagstaff, Ariz. is named after the owner’s Samoyed. Mutt Lynch Winery in Sonoma, Calif. is clearly dog friendly, with wines sporting names like Unleashed Chardonnay and Merlot Over and Play Dead. The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company in Madison, Wisc. was one of my favorite restaurants when I lived there, and now they have four more of them—a small litter if you will.

What are your favorite businesses that have canine names? Has your dog inspired the name of your business or any products?

News: Guest Posts
Rescue Reveals Tragedy
Kayaker pulls traumatized dog out of water
Barney Vizsla rescue kayak fisherman

A fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico was shocked when a dog appeared beside his kayak, far from shore. In this video, you can see him pull the Vizsla to safety and comfort the shivering canine. At first, he thought the dog was cold but after seeing bleeding cuts, he realized the dog was traumatized.

The mystery was solved when the kayaker heard on the news that a woman, Donna Chen, had been struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking her dog Barney. Barney had no tags on his collar. But when the kayaker brought him to the vet, he was scanned for a microchip. It was this microchip that allowed Barney to be reunited with members of Chen's family.

Does your dog wear tags at all time? What information is on yours? What about a microchip?

News: Karen B. London
New Book About Rin Tin Tin
The story remains compelling decades later

Discussing her new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend on NPR, Susan Orlean said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: “During the silent film era, dogs were on par with human actors. Nobody had the power of speech. A dog was just as credible as a character conveying through gesture and action and the look on his face. A dog was just as good as a human at doing that and, frankly, more natural.”

It’s well known that a substantial amount of dogs’ communication is visual, but I had never considered that this made them as good as or better than human silent film actors. This helped me to better understand the reasons that Rin Tin Tin was considered a national treasure.

Besides the insight into Rin Tin Tin’s acting skills and reputation, Susan Orlean tells great stories about this dog’s life and that of Lee Duncan. Duncan rescued Rin Tin Tin from a kennel that had been destroyed, probably by artillery fire, during World War I. An animal lover who had spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and part on an isolated ranch in the absence of other children, his dog was his main companion, he was unable to leave the mother and her new litter of puppies (including Rinty, as Duncan called Rin Tin Tin) behind in the destruction of the battlefield.

In another part of the interview, Orlean remarks on the close emotional connection between Duncan and Rin Tin Tin. Though the dog was his livelihood and had made him a very rich man, Duncan always seemed to value the dog as a close personal friend, rather than as a source of wealth, saying, “. . . what mattered to him was his relationship with the dog.” I often think about how times have changed with dogs becoming ever more important in our lives, particularly the emotional part, but Rin Tin Tin’s story reminds me that great love for dogs has existed in every era.

News: Guest Posts
Cliffhanger for Teen and His Dog

We’re taught from grade school not to litter, but one LA-area man learned his lesson in a particularly dramatic episode on the afternoon of Thursday, December 29. Hiking the ridges of Lakeview Terrace, Ivan Salas’s father threw a water bottle over the edge of the 300-foot sheer cliff beside them. Lola, their one-year-old German Shepherd mix, sprang after the bottle, lost her balance and slid over 100 feet down.

Seeing her stranded on the unstable rockface, 19-year-old Ivan Salas heroically attempted to scale down and rescue his dog, becoming trapped himself. Firefighters, responding to both police and 911 calls, initially began a rescue effort by helicopter, but the draft kicked up rocks and dust, increasing the risk of a fatal slide.

Rescuers regrouped. Several firefighters rappelled down the cliffside, first securing terrified Lola and bringing her to safety, then getting a hold of Salas, just as the rocks give out below his feet. Salas, who thought he was going to die as he slid quickly in loose gravel, is grateful and intends to take the firefighters to dinner to thank them for their efforts. As for Lola, she is surely lucky to have a guardian willing to risk his own life to save hers. Would you have ventured down the cliff like Ivan did?

News: Guest Posts
Taxidermy on TV

Meter maids. Storage-unit foragers. Turtle trackers. And now, taxidermists.

Reality television has already poked into the far corners of Americans’ working lives, but this might be near the limit for some of us: American Stuffers, a show about pet taxidermists, premiering on Animal Planet Jan. 5.

The name is a bit crass, to be sure, especially since the show focuses on bereaved pet owners who come to Xtreme Taxidermy in Romance, Ark., to have their beloved animals preserved for posterity. One clip shows a couple arriving to pick up the taxidermied version of their Chihuahua, Toot Toot: No matter how you feel about the practice, it’s easy to sympathize with them as they tearfully examine and pet the mounted Toot Toot.

American Stuffers also introduces viewers to the people behind Xtreme Taxidermy, turning them into “characters” of their own: Daniel Ross and his bookkeeping wife LaDawn run the shop with help from staffers Fred (a country character), Dixie (squeamish veterinary student), and Joseph (bold younger guy). Daniel and LaDawn’s three young sons get an eyeful of the family business, too.

The show’s press release promises that audiences will “laugh, cry, and squirm”—not the most appealing description, but probably an apt one considering the subject. Indeed, a warning pops up that “this program contains material that may be disturbing to some viewers.”

It’s hard not to think about your own pets when watching the show. How do you feel about taxidermy-- is it a touching tribute or a ghoulish anachronism? Would you consider having your dog taxidermied? Do you know someone who’s done it?

News: Karen B. London
How Long to Wait for the Next Dog
Everybody’s answer is different

The loss of our dogs is nearly inevitable since their life spans are not as long as ours, but that never lessens the pain. The logic of predictability rarely helps a grieving heart. For many people, part of what does help is welcoming a new dog into their lives as soon as they can find the right one. For many others, it takes a long time before they are ready for that, and some never are.

It’s common to feel that the house is just not a home without a dog and that this absence must be remedied quickly before arriving home one more time without the sound of four-legged footsteps running to the door. If a new dog will ease the sadness and bring joy, then there’s no doubt that adopting a new dog is the right course of action.

For people who need to grieve longer before they feel prepared to love another dog, then waiting makes sense. If working through the pain without the complication of a new relationship feels right, then it’s only sensible to hold off on getting a new dog. Among the reasons that some people wait before sharing their lives with a new dog is the feeling that loving a new dog would be disloyal to the dog who recently died.

I deeply respect this view, though I don’t personally share it, in large part because of a comment my mother-in-law made years ago. She is an exceptionally kind and tolerant person whose view on her dad marrying again soon after her mom’s death was that it just showed he really enjoyed being married. She took it as an indication that being married to her mom made him happy and that he naturally wanted to be married—and happy—again. It’s a perspective that’s unusual, but one that prevented many bad feelings from developing.

Though some people want a new dog right away and others want to wait quite a long time, still others have no time frame in mind. They simply wait until the right dog comes along, whenever that may be.

If you’ve lost a dog, how long did you wait until a new dog joined your family, and why?

News: Karen B. London
Dog Walking Bliss
Joy comes even after a rough beginning

The new season has officially arrived for those of us who live in cold weather zones. It’s the time of year in which many of us require extra motivation to walk our dogs—at least some of the time.

Many motivational options exist: encouraging quotes, using the walk as a way to procrastinate, caving to guilt and walking with a human friend so you both commit to the walk. As for me, I take inspiration from my college roommate.

One night during our senior year at about 11:00, we were contemplating going out. I was uncharacteristically leaning towards staying in, as I was feeling a bit tired and just a bit disinterested in making the effort to go anywhere. My roommate posed this life-changing question to me, “Have you ever, even once, in your whole life regretted going out, even when you didn’t really feel like it at first?” The answer was no, and I replied, “Give me five minutes to get ready!” The night turned out to be a great one, and I’m still glad I didn’t miss out on it by my inaction.

Dog walking is much the same. Usually, it’s not a chore, but something to look forward to and enjoy. Yet, there are times when it’s an effort to head out, and that’s when I consider my roommate’s take on the situation: Have I ever regretted taking a dog on a walk, even when I didn’t feel like it at first? Of course not. Even when the weather is foul, the house is cozy and I have a million things to do, the walk is a source of joy and peace.

No matter how rough the start of a walk, it tends to turn into a good experience. Some great moments with our dogs come while we are out on a walk enjoying the air, the sights and the break from the rest of the day, and it doesn’t really matter what our mood was at the outset.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Step by Step Training Guide for "Leave It"
A complete training guide
Stella

Leave-it, a cue that asks your dog to leave something alone, is up there among the most useful things you can teach your dog. Think of it this way: your dog might not stop chasing that deer into traffic on her own, but with an airtight leave-it cue you can stop her in her tracks and save her life. So whether it’s another dog, that slice of pizza on the edge of the counter, a squirrel, the person uninterested in your dog’s attention, or the baby’s toys, anything can be protected from unwanted attention with a well-practiced leave-it. Here’s a short drill you can practice with your dog every day to master this essential technique.

What You’ll Need

  • A hungry dog
  • Two kinds of treats (one far more delicious than the other)

What To Do

Begin with one of the ordinary treats in an open palm. Lower it to where your dog can see it (pictured above).
 

When your dog tries to take the treat, close your hand around it. She will likely nudge at the treat. Ignore this behavior. Ignore any behavior attempting to pry the treat out of your hand. What you’re waiting for is even the slightest hesitation in interest.
 

The moment your dog shows even a fleeting second of hesitation in trying to wrest that treat from your hand, you bring one of the better treats out in your other open palm.
 

The dog gets this treat as a reward for that moment’s hesitation.

In repeating this drill over the course of days or weeks, you are building up your dog’s skills by waiting for incrementally longer hesitations until it becomes clear she is beginning to understand.
 

Here, Stella is showing more restraint than she did the first time she was shown the treat.
 

Still more restraint is being shown here. At this point, you can begin to integrate the verbal cue, saying “leave it” when the dog makes the move for the first treat. If she listens the first time, she gets the better treat in the other hand. If she doesn’t, the fist closes, you wait, and you try again together.

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