Culture: Stories & Lit
I was sitting on the sofa thinking about sleep when you walked into the room. Standing in front of me, you gazed into my eyes, your mouth opening and closing and opening again like you had something to say. Maybe fatigue was making my thoughts a little fuzzy, but in that instant, I realized that I loved you.
Do you remember the day we met? I do because I had gone looking for someone else, not you. I dragged my husband out because I wanted to see the white speckled dog with the broad head whose photo graced the front page of the animal shelter’s website. When I asked about him, the adoption counselor told me that he was too energetic for a first-time dog owner. Then she directed me to you: your elbows scabbed, your body slightly misshapen, your white-and- brindle coat patchy. If I were more assertive, I would’ve told her that I didn’t like brindle dogs because they looked like criminals, but she was already putting a leash on you and I didn’t want her to know about my canine prejudices.
“He’s not all brindle,” I said to my husband as we followed you and the counselor outside to a dusty enclosure. Your name was Dante then, but that didn’t matter because you didn’t answer to it. You ran to the opposite side of the enclosure to look at something much more interesting than us through the chain link. I wondered if you were deaf. You weren’t, just indifferent.
Only a couple of minutes passed before the adoption counselor asked, “Well, what do you think? Do you like him?”
“I guess he’ll do,” I said.
The counselor beamed and directed me to the office to fill out paperwork. Looking back, I think she wasn’t a very good adoption counselor. Either that or she was brilliant. Regret was already washing over me, but I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d changed my mind. I’d never had a dog before, and a realization of the upheaval that you would bring was slowly sinking in.
My husband lifted you into the back seat of our car and I crawled in to sit next to you on our journey home. Was your heart beating as quickly as mine that day? Were you as filled with fear and anticipation?
Those first few nights, I’d wake up to see you standing next to me, watching me as I slept. Then I’d hear the click of your nails on the hardwood as you went to the other side of the bed to watch my husband for a few moments more before returning to your own bed. You made this journey many times during the night.
In the beginning, I wanted to take you back to the shelter. I never told you that, did I? I was unprepared and inadequate. Secretly, I was afraid for your life and mine. You weren’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. It was a disaster. My husband made me keep you.
Do you remember the day you learned to sit? Was that as amazing for you as it was for me? Do you remember all the time we spent in the backyard, me teaching you to jump over boards propped up on paint cans? I had big plans for you. We were going to compete in agility. The only problem was that you didn’t like to jump over anything … ever. You also didn’t fetch. Which was fine because I think that’s a dumb game too.
I do like having you around. I like the way you run at the back fence when someone walks down the alley, the way you kind of tap dance through the house when you’re in a playful mood, the way you roll around on your back in the sunshine after a bath.
The steady rhythm of your snoring keeps me company on nights my husband works late. When we walk down the street, people often call out to me, “That’s a really good-looking dog.” I say thanks.
You lay on the floor behind me breathing heavily as I write this love letter to you. I hope that after all this time, maybe you love me too.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A YEAR INTO RAISING OUR PUPPY, Nora Ephron, Brian and I can’t help but compare it to our experience with our first dog, Ezra Pound. Nora and Ezra, black Lab mixes, were named after 20th-century writers. Their personalities, though, are quite different, starting with their experiences and lifestyles.
Ezra was 100 percent city dog. For most of his 11 years, he lived in a duplex apartment in an 1846 brownstone. A lot of stairs to hike up and down. Three times a week, he went to doggie daycare, and the other two days, he was out in the neighborhood with his dog walker and a pack of friends. An active week, for sure, but very urban and predictable.
Nora, even in her first year, has already had more of the country life, splitting her time between a high-rise apartment during the week, where she attends Dog City, and our house in rural Hudson Valley on the weekends. There, she explores in an orchard, visits sheep and goats, and has a donkey boyfriend on the farm next door. Ernie the donkey lives in his own outbuilding. When he sees or hears little Nora, he trots down to greet her at the fence. She wags her tail. He flirts back with a kick. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next.
Nora’s first weeks were spent in a foster home on Long Island, where she lived with a group of six dogs. Early on, even when she was as tiny as a thimble, she learned to be social with big dogs. On top of her typical puppy energy, Nora is optimistic, always angling to play. And, unlike many dogs, she actually likes being held and hugged. Ezra was hit-or-miss friendly, more inclined to lean against you than sit on your lap, but Nora loves everyone: big, small, hairy, tall. Strangers—animal or human—are simply best friends she hasn’t made yet.
Then, there’s her elimination routine. Nora pees all the time. Six, seven times a day, she flags us or whines for a run outside. Not a big pish, mind you, more of a quick tinkle. I don’t think it’s a breed thing, and we’re training her the same as we did with Ezra, with a target goal of four potty trips max per day. Is this a gender thing, we wonder? Are we more indulgent when she has to go? Do we leave the water bowl down too long? Do girls just pee more?
Limiting our comparisons to the dogs, though, isn’t fair.
We’re also part of the equation. Ezra was our first dog together. Everything was new for me, from walking Ezra past skateboarders to skillfully opening the end of a plastic poop bag with one hand. With Ezra, I was nervous all the time, busy reading nutrition labels and worrying about his feelings. Both of us attended every vet appointment. Raising Nora, on the other hand, is a more casual endeavor. We’re more confident, less manic. She whines all the time and we laugh. She eats her dinner, or she doesn’t. Brian texts me about vet appointments. We didn’t even cover the electric outlets. (Please don’t call child services.)
I asked my favorite canine researcher, Julie Hecht, about gender differences. She pointed me to Bark articles on the topic as well as some hard-core research on the web. My takeaway from those sources was that testosterone has some kind of role and, yes, more research is needed.
Next, I reached out to my own pet-owner network. My friend Victor, parent to Maya, an six-year-old ex-racing Greyhound, thinks that female dogs are identical to males “except they growl less, pee more discretely, rarely step in their own poop, and that whole six-nipple thing.” Nora’s foster mother, Susan, has an even larger focus group, having hosted more than 150 dogs in the last two years. The biggest difference that she’s noticed is tension between two female adult dogs who seem less motherly when together, while two Husky-mix boys nurture pups “to the point where we have had young pups try to nurse off of them.”
I look down at Nora curled up on a blanket and wonder if she would have gotten along with her brother Ezra. I suspect that she probably would have worshipped him, and he would have tolerated her: the spunky little sister with a jackass for a boyfriend, who always, for some reason, has to go out for a tinkle.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Same breed, different dog, new challenge.
Our first Standard Poodle, Sophie, was everything you assumed when you just read the words “Standard Poodle.” A reincarnated 1920s flapper girl with an apricot coat and long legs, Sophie was always ready for a party, and her prance told you she was well aware of her charms.
Our second Standard Poodle, Buddy, was a black-and-silver puppy-mill rescue with oversized paws splayed from years of standing in metal cages, and all the grace of a goony bird. He had to learn to go on walks, to play with toys, to leap into a car, to accept a treat and feel like he deserved it. After a few weeks of sitting in the yard, somber as a rabbi, staring at the grass, he fell in love with the world. From then on, he woke up happy every morning, practically grinning at the joy of this new freedom and fun.
Two years after we adopted him, he was diagnosed with thoracic lymphoma.
No, I wailed. That is not fair. You don’t spend four years locked in a kennel with broken glass and feces all around you and get only two years to love the world.
With some skilled—and pricey—chemo (we dubbed him Our Little Trip to Greece), we bought him time. I was doing “cancer math,” desperate that he have at least as much joy as he’d had sorrow. He had another wonderful two and a half years, and when the cancer came back, it was merciless but swift.
And then came Louie, our third Standard Poodle.
Raised with cattle dogs, Louie learned their loud bark and rowdy ways. He barged into any situation, barking with such force that he scared away the strangers he was desperate to befriend. When we adopted him (given up because he barked too much … and his person had never really liked the breed anyway, she loved her cattle dogs … it was her partner who bought the Poodle, and a few years later, they broke up …) Louie was already seven and a half. For a year, we waited for him to settle into calmer, older-middle age—just as we were trying to do. But Louie stayed as bouncy as a young kangaroo, excited about everything, without an ounce of prudence.
“For God’s sake, Lou,” I said more than once on each walk. “Settle down, sweetheart.” “No bark.” “Easy.” “Good to be quiet.” “By my side.”
He heard and responded, each time, for approximately three seconds. Then a glint came into his eyes, and he bounded ahead, barking even louder.
Friends were used to my eyes softening whenever they asked about Buddy. “Aw, he’s great,” I’d say. “Sweetest dog on earth. Best dog I’ll ever have.” Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was I still comparing, and did Louie somehow know it?
Well, no. Lou just likes to bark. Not inside, I might add; he stopped that as soon as he was removed from the pack of cattle dogs. Inside, he trotted after us, cuddled close, did whatever was asked. The problem was just stimulus—anything encountered on a walk; any poor souls, God help them, walking past our front yard; anyone ringing our doorbell.
At the 18-month mark, my husband and I admitted that all the hushing in the world wasn’t going to interrupt the electricity flying along those synapses. We needed a new approach. Instead of trying to prepare my dog, I started preparing the humans.
“If he likes you”—flattery always helps—“he’ll bark really loudly. It means he wants to play.” Which was entirely true, and which instantly erased their wariness. Suddenly, the bark was a prize, and the interactions that resulted were delightful. “Well, I’ll play with you,” people teased, bending close, and Louie bounced with joy and barked again, proving his affection. Instead of me slinking away, mortified, dragging a chastened dog who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, I walked away waving good-bye, and Louie bounced along at my side, adding another new friend to his roster.
Before dinner parties, I emailed our guests and explained that our dog would be barky and seem, well, insane, for the first 10 minutes, then would settle down and become a good dog. As a result, nobody jumped or stepped back, which had always prompted our confused but eager dog to bounce even closer and bark even louder. “Ahh,” they said instead, “there goes Loud Louie!”
And in about five minutes, instead of 10, he settled down and became a good dog.
None of this is any excuse for poor training, and yes, it was incumbent upon us to teach him to behave better, and yes, we failed and resorted to a sloppy workaround. All true.
But the lessons it took so long to learn with Louie were the same lessons it had taken me too long to learn in marriage: The creature you love is Other. You don’t own his quirks and habits and opinions. They may change over time; they may not. So you love him thoroughly and completely and stop fretting about what people might think.
And sometimes you do a bit of tactful explaining ahead of time.
Culture: Stories & Lit
It’s a summer day in 1994. Smoke drifts lazily toward the pale blue sky, its woody aroma penetrating the house. Looking out the kitchen window, I watch my husband Bill clear some of the acreage that will be our back yard. Bill drags a tree limb toward the fire. Carrying a small branch in his mouth, a stray dog follows close behind. He places the limb beside the fire, then follows Bill to retrieve more brush.
We had heard about a mutt who helped neighbors clean the creek after a hard rain. It had to be the same dog. The stray had been sleeping on a back porch of a nearby house, and each morning, the woman who lived there gave him a biscuit, his food for the day. Like hoboes of yesteryear, this dog apparently believed in working for his handouts.
I watch the dog leave as Bill enters the house. A few days later, he’s back. Our toddler grandson, playing in the front yard, falls and cries, and the dog goes to him. Our grandson stops crying and puts his arm around the dog. They lean toward each other, and our grandson laughs. Bill says, “We’re going to keep him.”
That’s how the medium-sized, shorthaired dog with one blue eye and one brown eye became a member of our family. Our neighbor said he was the ugliest dog she had ever seen.
Like most homeless dogs, he had ear mites, worms and fleas aplenty; he was also intact. The vet neutered him and made sure he was rid of all parasites. I named him Freddie Flealoader.
He learned quickly that there were things he could not do in the house, but he had a sneaky streak. He slept on the couch when we were gone, then jumped down when he heard our car engine. Our daughter had a hound named Copper. When Freddie escaped, he and Copper could be heard late in the night, yapping and running through the woods. No one’s perfect (but Freddie came close).
As time marched relentlessly forward, Copper died and we all grew older. Our three grandsons became young men.
Sleeping soundly, aging Freddie would move his feet, surely dreaming of running through the woods with Copper. He survived a stroke, and then, during what turned out to be his last year, his vet removed a large malignant growth from his mouth. By that time, he had been with us for 19 years, which made him more than 100 in human terms. Chasing his tail and enjoying life, he was still amazing.
Freddie’s last day came in September 2013. He had a terrible night, and in the early morning, I took him to the yard. His back legs were weak. When he stepped on the wooden walk leading to the deck, he couldn’t navigate the first step. Having been a reasonable fellow all his life, he simply lay down.
I removed the leash, came in the house to tell Bill and then called our daughter. It was seven on a Saturday morning, and I knew I had awakened her, but she and her husband were at our house within 10 minutes.
The vet clinic didn’t open until 9 on Saturdays, so we assembled our lawn chairs around Freddie and drank mugs of coffee and tea. Because he liked nothing better than being near his family, he was content. Wagging his tail, Freddie looked up at me with his cataract-clouded eyes as if to say, I know you can fix it.
Freddie’s incredible age could not be reversed. I couldn’t fix it.
The dreaded time arrived. My daughter wrapped a towel around Freddie, and her husband gently picked him up and placed him in the back of their SUV. Rain was beginning to come down hard, and by the time they reached the vet’s office, it was a torrent. Still, a vet assistant came out to their vehicle and administered the life-ending injection. She was drenched by the time she re-entered the office. That’s dedication.
As I write this, Freddie rests in our pet cemetery in the same yard where he carried branches to the fire with Bill so long ago. The dog hair and the soiled foam bed are gone, but Freddie remains in our recollections. His barks—at strangers, at grasshoppers, at deer— echo through time. His wagging tail, his quick snap when offered food, his devil-dog eyes: they stay with us. Our loved ones, although gone, live on in our memories.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Socializing pups for guide-dog program satisfies on many levels
Okay. So my motives weren't entirely altruistic when I signed on to be a “puppy socializer” for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I had just learned that I wouldn’t be able to breed Callie, my Golden Retriever, as I had hoped, and I was feeling bereft. I needed a puppy fix—bad. My three daughters were clamoring for their own dog (Callie, they pointed out, was mine). This program seemed to offer the best of all worlds: an endless supply of puppies without the chaos, mess and expense of adding three more permanent pets to our menagerie. That it was a good deed was a secondary consideration.
The purpose of “puppy socialization” is to help dogs develop the confidence they need to become full-fledged Guiding Eyes companions, I learned at the orientation session offered to new socializers. Our job is to take two or more pups at a time into our home for four or five days at a stretch and simply play with them, love them, keep them clean. Guiding Eyes provides everything else: a travel crate, playpen, food, bowls, leashes and, most important, a number to call for any question that comes up. Pups that have been home-socialized are more apt to pass the first stage of tests designed to weed out those who do not have the potential to ultimately become guide dogs. Those who pass go on to puppyraisers for their first phase of training. Those who do not are released to the public as pets—there is a twoand- a-half-year waiting list for the “release” dogs. In anticipation of our first visit last winter, we stockpiled newspapers and paper towels, puppy-proofed the kitchen, and dug out Callie’s old puppy toys. Then, for some reason, I felt that the whole family should share in the experience of picking the puppies up from the breeding facility. It was not the positive bonding experience I had envisioned.
Poor Callie was so agitated by the pathetic whimperings of pups unhappy with their first car trip that she started drooling, creating little puddles on the car seat. Then the girls overreacted when the pups did what pups do, and added their own festive note to the atmosphere with exaggerated retching noises. When we finally arrived home, Callie shot off for the woods, desperate to be away from all of us. The girls vanished too, only to miraculously reappear as soon as the crate and its inhabitants were clean. Once released to the kitchen, the pups relieved themselves yet again in virtually every nook and cranny. They nipped and jumped and peed with astonishing enthusiasm. And we had obviously forgotten how sharp those little teeth could be. The girls were squeamish about cleaning up the messes, the cat was outraged by this intrusion and I was wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. But after a few hours,we hit our stride—the girls fell in love, the pups calmed down and Callie finally returned, tiny icicles hanging off her muzzle.
Since that first episode,my daughters have become experts in the socialization process.We have learned that dressing puppies up in doll clothes is not only amusing but helps them get used to being handled; that all the puppies preferred Gregorian chanting to Britney Spears and that none of them was particularly interested in Nintendo, although exposure to all kinds of noise is beneficial.
Occasionally, to see how successful we’ve been at our job, I watch the Guiding Eyes puppy evaluators perform their tests and find myself silently cheering them on: Don’t be afraid, it’s just an open umbrella…go check it out…No, no! Don’t hide under the tester’s feet! Our success rate is quite high, I’m happy to report.
No matter how much I intellectualize it, we always return our charges to the kennel with mixed emotions. We love that we’ve had a small part in helping these dogs move toward their ultimate goal, but saying good-bye is hard, even after just a few days’ visit. As I gave a final snuggle to yet another of my favorites, I asked a veteran volunteer if anyone ever got so attached to one of the pups that they refused to give the puppy back. “That,” she informed me with a smile, “is what we call a puppy raiser.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is a nonprofit organization that provides professionally bred and trained guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired. For more information on the puppy socialization program, call 845.878.3749 or visit guidingeyes.org.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A most unusual adoption arrangement
One summer, hoping to be a role model for my kids, I volunteered at a local animal shelter as an assistant helper—in essence, a pooper-scooper.
Starting at 6 am, I bagged poop and hosed down dog cages. I remained on poop patrol until my shift ended at 11 am.
During the training orientation, I was instructed not to feed the dogs, as this task fell to the full-time senior staff.
I abided by these rules until a Monday morning in early July when I met Murphy. His 96-year-old owner Lila had passed away, and Murphy was found sitting beside her on the bathroom floor, head on her shoulder.
When Lila’s body was transferred to a stretcher, Murphy climbed aboard. Unable to reach next of kin, a kind EM T brought him to the shelter.
He looked exactly like a Labrador in every way, except he was a color they don’t usually come in: pure white.
My morning routine at the shelter always began with a cacophony of barks, growls, yips and yaps—your basic pandemonium. This particular morning was no exception. My canine friends acknowledged my arrival with a standing ovation.
Our newest guest didn’t budge.
I introduced myself to him. The rest of the crowd went wild. Murphy didn’t move.
I knew conventional wisdom says to let sleeping dogs lie.
The only problem was, I didn’t think Murphy was actually sleeping. I thought that, at best, he was ignoring me and at worst, he was really depressed.
That’s the moment I decided to break the “no feeding” rule. Grabbing a dog biscuit off the shelf, I placed it by Murphy’s nose.
He wouldn’t touch it. I pretended to leave the room.
He devoured it. I repeated this routine at least five more times. On the sixth go-around, I decided to stay. Murphy decided he’d eat.
More than three weeks passed before Murphy decided to take part in the standing-ovation segment of the morning.
After that, he was first off his feet and after that, I was hopelessly in love.
The end of summer was now approaching, time for the shelter’s annual “Adopt a Furry Friend” campaign. I made posters and greeted many of the prospective adoptive families. The event was a huge success!
Fifteen dogs were in need of homes.
Fourteen were adopted.
No one chose Murphy, and I couldn’t understand why until the shelter director explained.
“All the other dogs play the part. They work hard at making themselves appear adoptable. They allow themselves to be petted, they lick hands and faces, give out their paws and play with the kids. Murphy mopes. That is, with everyone but you.”
We lived in a condo with a no-pets policy. It did not seem fair. Murphy and I belonged together.
I knew that. The shelter director knew that. So we made an arrangement. I would be allowed to “adopt” Murphy. The only caveat: he would sleep at the shelter. I would provide love, nurturing, food and exercise. The shelter would provide, well, shelter.
And so Murphy and I began our unorthodox partnership. Every morning after I put the kids on the bus and before I left for work, I’d head out to feed Murphy breakfast, take him for a run and cuddle with him on a chair in the employee break room.
Dog treats and toys became staples on my weekly shopping list. Every afternoon, once the kids finished their homework, Murphy and I played Frisbee in the exercise yard and then stretched out on the lawn for a hug-fest before I left.
It took time, but I taught him how to keep a biscuit steady on his nose and not move until I said “Okay, buddy, chew!” He never cheated. Not even once.
Sometimes, on the very best of summer days, we walked to the park down the block and ran through the sprinklers together. He chased birds and ducks and geese and squirrels and little kids in wagons. I chased him.
Our love affair lasted nearly two years.
Murphy passed away quietly in his sleep. I was just one block away when it happened. I placed a biscuit by his nose. Murphy was the only pet I was ever privileged to have.
Some would argue I really wasn’t his owner because he didn’t live with me.
I would argue back that he did indeed live with me, in the most important place of all: my heart.
Culture: Stories & Lit
One lick at a time, a reformed Terrier helps the unemployed find reassurance.
Einstein greets my clients with an enthusiasm no paid receptionist could match. I mean, even if I paid a receptionist $100,000 a year, he or she wouldn’t give each client a big sloppy kiss. He then escorts the client to the sofa, sitting right next to him (if not on his lap) and bestowing another round of kisses. An occasional client prefers career counseling without a face-washing and eases Einstein off the sofa. Undeterred, Einstein assumes the position: head on the client’s shoes.
Sometimes, a client gets anxious during a session. After all, it’s not easy to discuss having been unemployed for eons and trying to land a good job at a time when they’re harder to find than a perfect (and cheap) dog-sitter who’ll stay at your house 24/7. When clients feel stressed, they often pet Einstein; if they were already petting him, they tend to speed up—a useful anxiety detector for me.
Einstein is also my stress management consultant; I’ll often snuggle up to him on the floor, nose to nose, and rub his belly. Thirty seconds of that makes anxiety a physical impossibility. He’s my fitness trainer as well. Without him, it would be too tempting to stay on my butt, but Einstein needs his exercise, so we take walks four times a day.
Lest you think Einstein is the perfect dog, let me tell you what he was like before he matured into a multitasking professional.
When I walked into the shelter’s adoption area, I was greeted in the first cage by a Pit Bull, who sort of snarled. I sped up. In the next cage, a Rottweiler retreated in fear. I walked on by. But in the third cage, a little white Terrier with a Poodle-y face stood on his back legs and pawed the cage, squealing: “Please take me out. Puh-leeze!” The attendant told me this sweet dog had been thrown over the fence into the pound’s parking lot in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, the shelter policy required My Doggie to stay there for seven days lest the owner decided to reclaim him. The nanosecond the pound opened on the seventh day, I phoned: “Is that white Terrier/ Poodle mix still available?” Yup. I jumped in the car and retrieved him. He jumped happily on me, then equally happily into the car. He didn’t, however, like our next stop—the vet, for neutering—quite so much. But he handled it without a hint of a growl.
Alas, while his trials were over, mine were just beginning. Although he was almost a year old, he still had a bad case of puppy hyperactivity on top of new-home anxiety. Within the first week, Einstein had eaten the only pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever felt looked good on me, and chewed a hole in three, yes, three, carpets.
And those weren’t the worst things. He decided to make a meal of my medication. The fact that it was in a sealed pill bottle didn’t stop my goal-oriented boy. He treated it like a chew toy. Alas, his reward was 20 pills. Off to the vet to get his stomach pumped.
But the scariest episode of all happened one morning when I opened the door to get the newspaper. Einstein escaped and tore down the street. I—in T-shirt, shorts and slippers—raced after him. While there are many turns he could have chosen, he picked the one that put him on the freeway on-ramp. I chased him up the ramp and, for the first time in my life, was grateful for traffic. Cars on the freeway were at a dead stop. Knowing Einstein likes being in the car, I yelled, “Someone open your car door!” Miraculously, someone did, whereupon Einstein jumped in and was saved.
Believe me, it’s all been worth it. Einstein is a beloved family member. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I care more for him than I do for most people. (I love him almost as much as my wife.) He’s a true member of the family, not to mention the world’s best receptionist, co-counselor, stress reducer and fitness trainer
Culture: Stories & Lit
What We Do for Them.
I should start by saying that my dog Sydney is not normal. She doesn’t sit or shake or play with toys. She only really likes to interact with other dogs to size them up. She interacts with people to discuss politics and existential suffering. She is a surprisingly picky eater, especially when you consider that she once maneuvered an entire deer head through the dog door and put it on my couch. Depending on the day, she will respond to you or ignore you in both English and Spanish. She came from the basurero (garbage dump) near Bucerias, Jalisco, Mexico, where she was nursing nine puppies in March of 2006.
Since then, I’ve spent a fair bit of time waiting for Sydney. Waiting for her to come back to the car after a hike, waiting for her to show up after she has run off to eat a carcass or kill a woodchuck (or run a town meeting, who knows). But never have I spent more time waiting for Sydney than the week of Monday, September 23, to Friday, September 27, 2013. She ran off from a friend’s house on Monday morning, which wasn’t in any way unusual. The unusual part was that she then roamed an area of approximately 10 miles for the next five days, ending up virtually where she started.
I waited calmly at first, then with worry, then with panic. Then I waited with meat. Lots of meat. The low point of this five-day ordeal was when I sat in the woods with a rotisserie chicken, crying like a toddler, screaming Sydney’s name into the air with a futility and a pitiful intonation that even I could recognize as borderline losing it. Camping out at the house she disappeared from, surrounded by smoking meat, pieces of my clothing in the woods nearby to scent the air, was a close second. The coyotes were loud, and when they would quiet down, I’d imagine them eating her body. A nice bottle of port helped, but not that much.
I set a trap, one of those oversized humane metal things that barely fit in the back of my Subaru. I thought it was absurd, but I did it anyway because I felt the need to be continually “doing something” while half of the community was out looking for her; by this time, my dog’s face was plastered all over town like a missing child on a milk carton. As a veterinarian, I was aware of the professional embarrassment this whole scenario represented, but by the time the flyers were up, I was already desperate enough not to care. Hence, I set a trap.
The assumption is that the animal will be hungry enough to be baited with food, walk into the trap and be waiting there for you in the morning. Sydney was too resourceful to be hungry, and I knew it. She was seen on day two of her journey tearing open trash bags, for crying out loud. The dog was fine. If she was hungry enough to be trapped, I figure she was just as likely to trot directly up to me in my tent where I waited like a meat-scented Unabomber. But I set the trap anyway, almost closing myself in the damn thing in the process.
Days four and five were scenes of increasing despair and decreasing function. Overwhelmed by calculations of how many years it had actually been since I’d lived without a dog, and preparing myself for that new reality, I was raw and just plain lonely. We take for granted the presence of a dog—even a quiet one who doesn’t do much and isn’t very soft.
Until there is no dog, it is hard to imagine how much space one actually occupies just by curling up on a small circular cushion that L. L. Bean calls a bed. Without a dog, the air is thin, like the decreased percentage of oxygen at higher altitudes. Without a dog, there’s nobody to check in with, out of the corner of your eye, just to feel a sense of “you and me, we are both here, now”—a sense that, as it turns out, is pretty damn important. Without a dog, days have less structure— no going home to let the dog out, or feed, or tend to—and while structure doesn’t always equal meaning, I think that with a dog, it does. Without a dog, being one person in one space is surprisingly lonely. With a dog, there is connection.
These thoughts about the meaning of “dog-ness” were swirling through my brain as I gazed at a glistening pile of canine feces. Glistening is important because it meant it was fresh, and I got excited when I saw it because it looked about Sydney-sized and -shaped. Some people will likely find this next part offensive and strange, but I don’t care; those people likely have never loved a dog. I touched it with my bare hand to see if it was still warm and broke it apart to check for evidence of Sydney’s hair. It was cold and there were some suspicious hairs, but nothing that clearly said, This is Sydney’s poop. It was something, though, and that was good enough for me.
With each day came Sydney sightings that ranged from mundane—“I saw her trotting down Lower Creek Road”— to proof of her resourcefulness—“She was seen opening trash bags”—to commentary that could describe no dog other than Sydney: “I saw her cross Route 366. She looked both ways before crossing and looked like she knew where she was headed.” A common theme in the sightings was the assessment that she was capable and fine, thank you very much. Meanwhile, I was rendered dysfunctional, perching in the woods yelling things like, “I’m eating your chicken, Sydney! It’s really good!” and “If you don’t come eat your ham, this is a lot of wasted pork!” Seems unfair, doesn’t it? I think so.
As Sydney was about to spend her fifth night away, and with no sightings for 24 hours, I received a phone call. “Hi, Katherine, this is Glenn Swan. I think I have your dog here. She is very happy on our dog bed, with my daughter brushing her …” The message went on, but I had already started to cry and put on my shoes. Glenn Swan, owner of Swan Cycles, is well known in the cycling community; he’s also a former employer of a close friend, and sold me my Fuji road bike in 2008.
I was greeted at the door by Glenn and his young daughter, who was wearing a pink tutu. Sydney was lounging on a pile of dog beds far nicer than the one she had at home, and while she did wag her tail briefly, she could otherwise barely be bothered to greet me. Hussy.
She looked fine; not thin, barely dirty, sporting no wounds or ailments that might have summoned some empathy from me. I asked her if she wanted to go home. She gave me a look that said, Um, hold on, let me think … I guess so, before slowly rising and following me to the door. I thanked Glenn and his family profusely and we walked outside. Glenn showed me the spot right near the door where she had been waiting to be let into his house. The whole time, I was thinking, Are you f—ing kidding me, Sydney?
As my friend Heather said, she could have at least had the decency to have a laceration or simple lameness. Even after I got her home, I still could not believe she was back. The mix of emotions, compounded by running on no sleep, spending five days in the same pair of meat-smoke-infused, brown Carhartt overalls, contemplating life without a dog, was intense. Do I kiss and cuddle her, or scream obscenities at her? It was a tough call.
One glass of red wine later, breaking my firm “no dogs in the bed” rule, I buried my face in Sydney’s dirty coat, speckled with vegetation and ticks, and breathed her in. It was the first time in five days that I was alone in my house without being lonely.
As I write this, Sydney is sleeping on her bed after a thorough brushing, tick-picking and bath. I wish I knew what she was thinking, but I suppose that is one of the mysteries of dogs. I breathe more deeply knowing that the air in my home is full of dog-ness once again, but I have no idea how we can love them so much. All I know is that I will probably love her more now that she is outfitted with a GPS device on her collar.
Culture: Stories & Lit
If grief stops the clocks, turns time into that thick substance it feels nearly impossible to trudge through, joyousness has the opposite effect. Tee’s first job in our household was to enact his own boundless sense of JOY, to get the moments of our day to tick forward once again.
We really needed him in this regard. As we’d explained to the women at the shelter, we were depending on him to keep us up and out of bed, to free us from the prison that gloomy room had become. He was there to remind us how much work a rambunctious puppy is. We had no choice but to do this work. If we weren’t up for what it took to care for this dog, we’d have to take him back.
The Greeks named Necessity the mother of all Three Fates. This new dog of ours—acquired out of plain, grim need— seemed to bring us the message of how it’s Necessity that will swing open the hinge that shows the present moment might be built on the Past, but also predicates the Future. Our lives without Thiebaud become almost instantly unthinkable, which did not mean we were missing Whistler less, only that we were now mourning him in a more healthy, active way, missing him in every step we took as we walked those same trails with this new dog, who most likely—because of his astonishing time-layered senses—could still faintly track him. The Three Fates, named also the Daughters of Necessity, has seemingly arranged to give us the dog who was Whistler’s opposite: Tee was humorous, stable, not one whit jealous of his place in the New World he was asked to join, easily confident he’d find his rightful slot in the hierarchy.
Affectionate, overtly sociable, he seemed on a mission to win all people over to him, sure he could accomplish this if he just patiently took them one by one. He was like a Bill Clinton– type politician, not to be satisfied until everyone had fallen hard for him. Whistler’s sense of pride? That measured cool aloofness? Not Thiebaud; being dignified simply never occurred to him.
For a long-kenneled animal, Thiebaud had miraculously become this sensible, intelligent, exceedingly trusting and friendly dog. Like any foundling, he excelled at self-sufficiency, suffering not at all when left alone. Of course I identified with him: All orphans are like this, we take no one’s affection for granted, we never assume anyone will like us, but once we’re convinced we can trust you, we’ll fall even ridiculously in love with you. We do it because we’re so relieved and grateful. But it was my husband, Jack, whom our dog latched on to as his first ardent attachment, which made sense since each has the same talent for happiness. Happiness is probably like any other gift—dancing, say, or being musically inclined? and coming easily only to some. Then there are the others— and I am one, my dog Whistler was another—who will simply have to work at it.
Thiebaud was interested in everything Jack did as long as they could be together: sitting quietly outside watching as Jack looked after his fruit trees or restocked his birdfeeders. Then, inside—after running a few frenetic interior exploratory laps around the big room he seemed to take as a dogtrack— Tee lay with Jack on the couch, his small ears flicking back and forth, seeming to really listen to the Metropolitan Opera being broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio every Saturday afternoon.
Tee had the characteristically beta personality, but Jack— who discounts our current requirement that we dismissively label and judge—called it his dog’s good Southern manners.
Thiebaud was both patient and deferential, sitting by his full bowl watching until both Jack and I were seated at the dinner table. It was because of our dog that Jack and I began our now longstanding practice of reading a different grace from a little book we have of ecumenical blessings, this so Tee—in hearing the somewhat singsong cadences of prayer always ending in the word Amen—would get the signal that he too was now invited to eat.
Thiebaud had simply demanded that we come to life, saying you need to grab a leash, need to step outside into Jack’s fragrant little orchard where the pear and cherry and apple were now budding, need to notice how the hillside beyond the shed has gone crazy with wildflowers: bluebell, cowslip, adder’s-tongue, trout lily.
Over the short time we’d been away in California, spring had riotously arrived, making our little patch of Morgan County into a whole new and beautiful world. Look at this! our new dog seemed to say: How amazing to be alive!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Nine years ago, when our family got our first dog, I never could have imagined the number of lessons he (and eventually they) would teach us about love, connection and responsibility.
As a child, I didn’t have an opportunity to understand the bond that could exist between humans and canines. My parents didn’t think of dogs as pets, much less as members of the family. Neighborhood dogs came and went through my childhood with no collars, no fences and no place to truly call home.
When our kids were five and two, my husband and I opted to treat them to a canine friend. My husband was in the military and had just returned from artillery training, and we wanted a connecting and bonding experience for all four of us. We chose a Boxer, Arty (short for Artillery Howitzer Knight), who allowed our daughter to climb on him and dress him in boas and tutus. Much more than a baby-sitter, he quickly became our third child.
My husband deployed to Afghanistan, and before long, we got another Boxer. Not quite as smart but certainly as loveable as Arty, Clover was just as rambunctious as he had been at the same age. Because we traveled a lot, the dogs spent a great deal of time outside, with trusted neighbors stopping in to feed and play with them.
As the kids and the dogs got older, I managed to ease out of one job and into another that afforded me more time with both dogs and family. What I found was certainly amazing: The more time and love I gave to the dogs, the more was replenished, and at astounding rates. When I began truly having a relationship with them, my own patience and understanding skyrocketed.
One Christmas, we managed to save a mixed-breed pup from going to the pound (while my husband was on another deployment to Iraq), and I must say, she was a godsend! Freyja didn’t chew things up, and the Boxers took her in as their own. Her disposition was completely different from the others (barking was the only negative).
As if three dogs weren’t enough, we succumbed once more—again, we started down the puppy path, with vague memories of the havoc and chaos to which Arty and Clover had introduced us. Oda (Operation Detachment Alpha—my husband’s job in the military) began sleeping with me in the absence of my deployed (again) husband, and before much time had passed, he weighed 60 pounds and was no longer the little pup I’d invited onto the bed on those lonesome nights.
I am now working from home, which affords me a lot more time with my canine kids. Oda still sleeps with us, alongside Freyja and Clover. Arty sleeps on the floor next to the bed.
What I have learned from the dogs far exceeds what they have learned from me. I’ve learned to welcome all interactions with my children, who are now 15 and 11. I’ve learned I should take naps when I am sleepy, run when I have energy, be on guard when strangers approach the house and snuggle up with those I love.
I have also learned that when I extend love, I have more capacity to give it. I have learned to be aware of others’ feelings because they won’t always tell me what they’re thinking, and to try to understand what others desire or require for their own comfort and happiness. I have also learned that when I let the boundaries of who I think I am dissolve into the dogs, I am happier and more fulfilled because I recognize that we are truly connected. This has taught me to do the same for the people in my life. When I allow my own edges to blur into theirs, we are one. And when we are one, I feel nothing but kindness, compassion and love for others (who are really just extensions of me).
Thank you, Arty, Clover, Freyja and Oda, for teaching me how to love, really love, the people in my life.
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