Culture: Stories & Lit
Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie
For the past few years, my dog Chloe and I have been going south for the winter, staying in rentals ranging from cottages at artists’ colonies in Florida to cabins at spiritual retreat centers in South Carolina. I don’t pack lightly for these annual trips. Thus, I always hire someone to help me load my van.
“Just how many dogs do you have?” asked my most recent moving man as he maneuvered yet another large dog bed into the already overstuffed van.
“Just one,” I said.
“And how many dog beds do you have?” the man asked.
He took off his hat and scratched his head as though my answer made his mind itch.
“Creature comforts,” I said.
Yes, it’s true that my dog-to-dog-bed ratio is quite high.
But my girl is getting old. Although I don’t know her age for certain, nine years have passed since I adopted her, so she’s at least 10. Only recently has she started showing signs of old age. The clearest sign is that her new favorite thing in the world is sleep. And I believe that an old, arthritic dog who spent her early days lying on a concrete floor in a shelter deserves a comfortable place to sleep. The more the merrier.
Most of Chloe’s beds were freebies, by the way. One was a gift from a friend in the city who can’t resist buying things in bulk at Costco. (“A $12 dog bed! Can you believe it?” she exclaimed.) Two were hand-me-downs from another friend whose beloved Vizsla passed. The enormous thermopedic mattress came via Freecyle.com from a woman who couldn’t bear to throw it away. The final two were thrift-store scores. It’s easy to find a good dog bed if you know where to look.
At our New York house, I keep one bed in the master bedroom, one in the main living area, one on the deck (for optimal deer-viewing), one in the van (I took out all the seats, so it’s like a studio apartment in there), one in the office (where I spend the majority of my time) and one at our favorite English Setter Rainbow’s house (where Chloe frequently stays).
When we drive south for the winter, I take four of these beds, stacking them on top of one another next to the back passenger door, creating a rather precarious travel throne. Perched up there, Chloe looks like the princess in the “princess and the pea” story. I actually don’t mind dogs on the furniture, in case you were wondering. In fact, I welcome it. There’s something about a sleepy dog curled up on a chair or sofa that makes the house feel more cozy. More down-toearth. (“That’s because you have actual earth on your furniture,” my stepmother used to say.)
In my defense, I do like to keep some pieces of furniture dirt-free, so when I first adopted Chloe, I taught her which pieces were available for her use and which were forbidden. She has her own special corner of a very soft couch, and she is welcome to sleep on my bed at any time. I was dismayed, however, to realize that she only wanted to sleep on my bed when I wasn’t in it. Chloe, it turns out, is not a snuggler. This saddens me to a certain extent—I don’t know what happened to Chloe in her previous life that led her to keep her distance from humans; I don’t know what private sorrows she holds, or how her trust was violated. But I accept her needs. So if she prefers to sleep on the sofa in the living room, that’s fine.
The point is moot now, because Chloe is too arthritic to jump onto furniture. I see her approach “her” sofa, looking longingly at those comfy cushions. I watch the way she seems to ponder the situation, analyzing the amount of strength it would take to leap up and whether her current level of stiffness allows this. More often than not, she turns away and opts for one of her beds.
Yes, my girl is slowing down.
In the past, Chloe was always the first to wake in the morning. She’d trot into my bedroom and stare at me, tense with anticipation, waiting for me to wake up, too. The moment I opened my eyes she’d start her “happy dance,” running around in circles, leaping joyfully, trying to herd me toward the front door so we could take our morning walk. There, she’d press her nose to the crack, wag her tail and wriggle her whole body in barely contained excitement, as if saying Seize the day, seize the day! It was like this for nine years. In her feisty-dog opinion, I slept too much.
Things are different these days. Chloe now sleeps in the bedroom on that glorious thermopedic mattress she loves so much. We call it the Master Bed. I like having another being in the room—another beating heart asserting the continuity of life. Also, I’m now the first to rise in the morning. What surprises me is that Chloe no longer leaps to her feet when I get out of bed; instead, she remains on her Master Bed, stretching a little and wagging her tail, waiting for me to come to her to say good morning and give her a quick belly rub. It surprises me further that she remains on her bed even as I head into the bathroom or walk downstairs to the kitchen.
Chloe used to follow me everywhere in the mornings— from the bathroom to the kitchen to the refrigerator (for the French Roast), to the coffeemaker, back to the refrigerator (for the cream), back to the kitchen drawer (for the spoon). She didn’t relent until I finally finished my morning routine and followed her out the door. Now, instead of trying to herd me, she lies in bed and observes me from the loft—watching, listening, sniffing—alert, but still. She seems to have concluded that she’s not going to walk all the way down those stairs until it’s worth her while.
After nine years of cohabitation, Chloe has figured out my morning routine. She knows I can be slow to get out the door. She has come to expect that first there will be the sound of the refrigerator being opened, then the sound of a kettle being placed on the stove, then a bubbling of water, followed by the slight hiss of the French press and the smell of coffee. Then this liquid is poured into a travel mug. And so forth. With her keen ears and sensitive nose, she can predict things down to the minute. Once she hears the lid being sealed on the travel mug, she knows what will come next: the sound once again of an opening refrigerator door, that Pandora’s box of cold food smells, the scraping of a stew-pot being removed from the top shelf, and then me calling her name and saying that most special of words: “Breakfast!”
Only then will she spring from her bed, showing signs of the formerly spry Chloe as she scrambles—panting with excitement, down the stairs. While she gobbles her food, I finish my pre-walk tasks: pulling on boots or sneakers, grabbing a hat, searching for keys, opening the front door. Once she hears that sound, Chloe—with another burst of youthful enthusiasm—launches herself through the door.
But our morning walks are different these days. Chloe used to charge down to the river or to the beach (depending where we were), and I would follow briskly, trying to keep up. Now, in deference to Chloe’s arthritic pace, we walk more slowly. We amble, meander, mosey. There is a whole new set of verbs for what we do. Although I miss the aerobic factor of our previous morning walks, these slow ambles allow me to focus on the journey rather than on the destination. On the intricate beauty of a new day. Or the way the birds sound their individual sunrise calls. Or the way the mists rise off the river— as if all the elements of water, sun and air are conspiring to whisper ancient secrets, which one might come to understand if one listens. Or even the distant hum of traffic, which, in the morning, sounds peaceful and hopeful, as the human race tries once again to redeem itself through daily tasks.
Chloe, a water dog, used to spend hours in the water, chasing fish, harassing frogs, observing the ducks and herons in the distance. Now she wades around for 20 minutes or so— sometimes less—then comes and sits next to me on the shore. I like to meditate while she plays in the water. Now, we meditate together: two silent companions harmonizing ourselves with the motherly rhythms of nature and breathing in the water-scented air. It’s nice. It’s peaceful.
Recently, however, Chloe decided that this shoreline was not comfortable enough for her stiff old body, and actually started to head home by herself. Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about having to cut short my morning meditation, but still. No matter how safe it is (the trails lead straight to the house), I couldn’t let her walk home unaccompanied.
As soon as we return from our morning walk, Chloe goes straight to her bed. This is another new pattern. I’m accustomed to a dog who runs in circles around the house, sustaining the outdoor sensation of a body in motion. I’m accustomed to a dog who grabs the nearest toy and tosses it into the air, clinging to the joy of having been outside. I’m used to a dog who then dashes into the kitchen to see if any food has materialized since her last investigation. So this new going-straight-to-bed thing is almost alarming. Especially when I haven’t even had the opportunity to give her a “thanks-for-coming-home” treat. Chloe’s former favoritething- in-the-world used to be food. Then swimming. Then her boyfriend Rainbow. Then me. Then sleep.
The bed Chloe chooses post-morning walk is the Office Bed, because she knows this is where I’ll be spending the remainder of the day. It’s one of those Snuggle Nests, plush with big bumpers so that I don’t accidentally roll into her with my office chair.
In Chloe’s younger days, my writing seemed to bore her; it was something she had to endure until our next walk. Sure, she would nap while I wrote, but it was a vigilant sort of sleep. If I so much as moved—stretched or yawned or shifted in my chair—she would spring to her feet in one swift, athletic motion and rush to the door, smiling at me with joy, ready for our next great adventure. In her mind, I was always on the verge of doing something fascinating. (This is a dog’s approach to life. We would do well to emulate it.) Most of my daily office gestures, however, are mundane. I might rise to make another cup of tea. I might pause to check my email. I might moan out loud, saying something to the effect of, “I should just give up on this novel and become a street busker.”
Eventually, Chloe figured out the signals. Rising from the office chair with a glazed look on face meant more coffee, not walk. Moaning about the uselessness of writing meant I was going to check Facebook, not walk. The real moment— the true and absolute sign of an impending walk—was (and still is) the moment I shut down the computer, snap the lid shut and click off the wireless mouse. That one tiny click was like a starting gun for her: she’d push herself up and hurry toward the door.
Now, Chloe sleeps so soundly that sometimes, she doesn’t even hear the click. It’s hard not to smile. A dog in repose conjures up everything sleep should be: restful, peaceful, soothing, safe, warm, comfy. She sleeps so deeply that she snores—a soft, regular snore that sounds like contentment. She often seems to dream as well. I like to watch the way her eyelids twitch and her paws flex. I like to hear her sweet, muffled woofs, which are always sounded in patterns of three. Like a metered poem.
I often wonder what she dreams. Most people assume that dogs dream of chasing rabbits, of leaping over streams, of flushing grouse. But perhaps dog dreams go beyond these mundane visions we humans ascribe to them. Perhaps in her dreams, Chloe visits other realms, alternate universes where all beings exist in harmony, where there is no violence, no suffering, no animal abuse. Perhaps this is the paradise she’s chasing—not some mundane rabbit. Perhaps this is why she used to do that happy-dance in the morning. She’s trying to tell me that such worlds do exist. I hate to wake her. But soon, it is time for our afternoon walk. I lean over and whisper her name. She opens her eyes slowly, unfocused. Then she looks at me, surprised to find herself once again back inside a dog’s body. Surprised, but not disappointed. This has been a good life for her.
Our afternoon walks used to be long, but now—by Chloe’s choice—they are short, especially if the weather is not to her liking. Sometimes she walks a few yards onto the grass, makes a quick pee, then immediately returns to the house and heads straight back to her bed. She’ll circle a few times, then settle down into the foam with a satisfied “oof.” Mission accomplished.
I, however, require more of a head-clearing walk at this time of day, so—iPod in hand—I go back out without her for a brisk power walk along the beach or through the dunes. It’s glorious. Spectacular. Rejuvenating. Refreshing. And yet it feels so strange to walk without my dog. It feels wrong. But I simply adapt to this new phase in my life.
Another new phase: it used to be that when I came home, Chloe was there to greet me at the door. We all know the drill—the happy dance, the joyful barks, the whines of relief. Chloe’s specialty was to grab a toy or a shoe and carry it around in her mouth, enticing me to chase her. These days, Chloe isn’t always there to greet me. She sleeps so soundly that she doesn’t hear me come home.
I must confess I have moments of panic when this happens. I rush through the house, searching for her (because I never know which bed she’ll choose). Seconds might go by, minutes, in which my heart beats more rapidly and I imagine the worst. But then I hear her footsteps and the clicking toenails and there she will be, at the top of the steps, wagging her tail slowly, her lips askew and her face all puffy from sleep, too lazy to come downstairs to say hello.
I rush up the steps to hug her. Her body is warm with safety and trust and comfort; mine is flush with relief. She licks my face and wags her tail, and I get the sense that she is trying to reassure me somehow. Don’t worry so much, she says to me telepathically. But I do worry. My dog is aging. That’s a fact. Her health might very well decline. Maybe someday, she won’t be able to walk at all. And I won’t be able to lift her. But you are here with me, now, Chloe says. We are together now. That’s all that matters. And when the time comes, you will still be with me. And I will be with you.
Then she goes back to sleep. And I go back to my work. Each is its own cure.
One of my favorite parts of my day is the end of it. (I don’t mean that sarcastically, despite my fluency in sarcasm.) What I mean is, I love to read in bed and I love my own thermopedic mattress. Late in the evening, after our final short peewalk, I’ll say to Chloe: “Time to go up to the Master Bed!” At that, she leaps up from her living-room bed and runs up the stairs as enthusiastically as she used to splash through rivers and tide pools. She’ll go straight to her bed, circling a few times and settling herself down with a contented sigh.
Before I get into bed myself, I lie on the floor next to her to say goodnight. I place my face right in front of hers, nose to nose, and whisper some endearment about how pretty she is. She sighs, not really liking such close proximity but tolerating it for my sake. I breathe in her breath. Sometimes she’ll thump her tail a few times, the sound muffled by the bed. Sometimes she’ll hook one paw over my arm and just hold it there. It feels like reassurance. And solidarity. We’ll stay like that for a long while, until I feel her pulse and she feels mine. Until the two of us are aligned.
Thank you, I say. Even though my life is chaotic and rushed and very often unsatisfying—even though it sometimes feels like a puzzle I can’t quite solve—I look at Chloe resting so contentedly and know that here is something I am doing right. Something about me gives this dog comfort. “If you want to feel safe,” the Dalai Lama once said, “help another being feel safe.” She falls asleep within minutes.
I personally don’t know any humans who sleep so well. There she is, snoring lightly, her chest rising and falling and her brown snout smooshed against a pillow. There she is, smelling faintly of sunshine and earth, with a mind uncomplicated by thoughts. Dogs don’t agonize over what they have or have not accomplished on any given day; they don’t worry about the additional tasks, hopes or goals they will not accomplish during the day that follows. No, they simply sleep, breathing in the oneness, breathing it out.
Chloe starts to dream, woofing and flexing her paws. I watch her with such love and tenderness I feel I might burst. Sometimes I wonder if she remembers her life at the shelter and all the nights she slept on a concrete floor. I wonder if those memories help her appreciate the marvelous fact that she now has six beds. But maybe it’s not about remembering or forgetting. We can forget and move on, or we can remember and move on. The trick is to not let those things plague us. We need only keep leaping through the meadows, running forever forward toward the next great thing.
Yes, my old girl is slowing down. So I will just try to slow down with her.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Companionship Through the Ages
Whether his correspondence comes via snail mail or email, Duncan, my father, closes it with love, and always includes the names of his dogs sending love my way. When I was younger, this sentimental touch made me laugh and sometimes embarrassed me. But over time, I came to appreciate this sign-off—an endearing reminder that a family is always the sum of its individual members, be they human or animal.
That’s why the real impact of Sasha’s demise didn’t hit me until I read an email ending in a simple “love, Mum and Dad.” Sasha had been 14, a good age for a Labrador, and now Duncan, 71, claimed he had finally reached a bad age to be thinking about another dog. Had the man who seemed incapable of a future without a dog by his side finally hung up his leash?
Many of my elderly clients crave the companionship of a dog. They love the responsibility, the reason for getting up in the morning, the easy conversation and the unparalleled emotions these creatures draw from us. But they fear not being physically able to care for a dog and not providing sufficient exercise. Most of all, they worry about who will look after their dog when they pass.
Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. When I contacted her regarding this dilemma, she was brimming with ideas. “What if middle schools and high schools had a program to train young people how to help the elderly care for their pets? Everyone wins. The elderly get help walking and feeding their pets. The young people get to cuddle with the dogs and feel useful. Throw in school credit, cross-generational friendships and you’ve got a terrific way to generate a sense of community in our increasingly isolated lives.”
Given that my father lives in rural England, I went with a different approach. “Why not adopt an older dog?” I asked. “Unlike a new puppy, what you see is what you get. They’re already housetrained and ready to go for walks.”
Truth is, older shelter dogs are always looking for good homes because they are more difficult to adopt. People see an older dog and wonder if they’ve been relinquished because of behavioral or expensive health problems. Connie had another great idea.
“What about a national registry for elderly pet owners? They could register when they adopt, alerting family and friends so that when they pass, there is a system in place to find new homes. This way, future adopters would know the reason for the pet’s abandonment.”
In fact, Dogs Trust, the largest dog-welfare charity in the UK, already has a free service known as the Canine Care Card, whereby they guarantee to take on the responsibility of caring for and rehoming a dog should the worst happen to its owner. Even if they cannot find a suitable home, they promise to look after the dog for the rest of its natural life.
How did I find out about Dogs Trust?
“You read my mind, son. There’s such a large hole in my life without Sasha. I still go out alone for our walk, talk to her, imagine she’s with me, but I hate walking alone. An older dog would be grand. Mind, she’d have to be good around sheep.”
There’s always been a period of mourning, time for my father to let the world know he was grieving a significant loss. Still, there’s hope for another dog in his future, a female no less. I wonder how long before a new name finds its way to the last line of his letters.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
In dog training, taking things one step at a time can make a world of difference
Maddie was a lovely little dog, with creamy white fur and an open, smiley face. She seemed willing and smart and ready to learn, but her guardian had brought her to me because the dog was driving her crazy. Every time the family asked Maddie to sit and stay, she jumped up and licked their faces. No matter what they did, they couldn’t seem to get her to stay still, even for an instant. Someone told them it was because she was trying to assert “dominance” over them. Someone else suggested she’d been abused. Maddie had nothing at all to say on the topic, but kept cheerfully bounding up like a jack-in-the-box every time she was asked to sit and stay.
The same week, I had another client whose treatment plan included teaching his dog Bruno a variety of tricks. The first trick had him stumped, because no matter how hard he tried, and how many tasty treats he used, he couldn’t get Bruno to roll over. He tried and tried, and finally came into the office convinced that his dog was deficient.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Understanding this—that all actions are actually made up of many smaller ones—can elevate you from a moderately good dog trainer to a great one. The seemingly dim dog Bruno ended up learning to roll over in one session because all I asked him to do initially was to lie down and turn his head toward his tail. Of course, I helped him at first by luring his nose in the right direction with a piece of food, but in no time at all, Bruno was happy to offer the behavior on his own. “Look at my tail for chicken? I can do that!” Bruno began throwing himself down on the ground and enthusiastically twisting his head toward his tail, tail thumping furiously. Next, I asked him to move his head a bit farther back, this time turning it toward his other side, enough that his top foreleg began to rise off the ground. Bingo! More chicken. Step three included luring his head around even farther, until his body followed and completed the roll over in one smooth motion. The humans clapped and cheered, Bruno wagged and grinned, and the pile of chicken pieces rapidly decreased.
Bruno’s guardian, a relative novice at dog training, had tried to teach Bruno to roll over by luring his head around with tasty snacks, but because he thought of “rolling over” as, well, rolling over, it didn’t occur to him to give Bruno the snack until the dog had executed the entire action from beginning to end. Dog trainers see this problem on a daily basis—people who try to teach a dog to sit up or roll over, and end up throwing in the towel because they can’t get the dog to do what they want. This is one of those times when it would help if people were more anthropomorphic (rather than less so as we’re often advised). We don’t wait to praise our children until they play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony perfectly, do we? Yet, that’s common behavior with our dogs—we often expect them to do it right all the way through the first time. Anything less is categorized as a failure.
We’re even less likely to think of our own actions as the summation of many tiny behaviors. Take Maddie, the dog who wouldn’t sit and stay. In the office, I suggested the guardians give it a try so I could see what was going on. The mom of the family stood up, turned to face Maddie, and said “sit” and “stay.” As she said “stay,” she backed up about a half a step. In response, Maddie sat politely, but then leapt up as soon as she heard the stay signal. “See what I mean!” her guardian said, with no small amount of exasperation in her voice. Next, I asked her to call Maddie to come.
You guessed it. She turned to face her dog; said, “Maddie, come!”; and then backed up exactly as she had when she said “stay.” Maddie was paying attention to one small component of the “stay” signal—the backward movement, which she had learned meant “come”—and bless her heart, she kept giving it her best shot, in spite of the confusing response of her humans. It’s a miracle they don’t bite us more often, truly.
My favorite exercise at seminars is to have a trainer ask her dog to sit, and then ask the audience how many different movements made up that “simple” signal. Usually we come up with at least six or eight movements and one spoken word, any of which could act as the relevant cue to the dog. The last time I played that game, we observed that each time the trainer asked for a sit, she nodded her head ever so slightly. Until her dog saw her nod her head, he would not sit. Once she did, he’d sit instantly. The dog was focusing on the nod, and the human was focusing on the word she was saying. I would bet money if you could’ve asked the dog to describe the signal for “sit,” the dog would’ve said, “Why, the head nod, of course!”
Bruno, the dog who finally mastered the “roll over” command, reminds us that even one continuous motion—like rolling over—is also the sum of its parts. The general principle of dividing an action up into steps is old news for many trainers, but we can profit from revisiting its importance. Even those of us who are long familiar with what’s called “shaping,” or the process of reinforcing incremental improvements in behavior, can benefit by remembering that it relates to everything that we and our dogs do.
Understanding that any behavior can be divided up into smaller parts is the guiding principle taught to all students of animal behavior. It was the first thing that I learned from my ethology professors at the university, and it’s the first thing good, psychologically based behavior analysts learn. The fields of ethology and psychology may have very different perspectives, but they agree completely on the importance of understanding behavior as a series of incremental actions. Step-by-step, brick by brick, the foundation of any behavior is built upon little things that add up to bigger ones. The better you are at deconstructing it, the better a trainer you’ll be.
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