Culture: Stories & Lit
A surprise acceptance for a new arrival.
“He’s worse than a baby,” my husband liked to say about our dog Nigel when the Hairy Son was acting particularly needy and pining for our attention. Of course, this was before we had our actual (human) baby this past summer and learned that Nigel—our 11-year-old Lhasa Apso— is indeed not worse than a baby.
In fact, there’s no comparing Nigel to our daughter Mirabelle. Nigel doesn’t cry inconsolably. He doesn’t wake us up throughout the night. He doesn’t suffer from gas pains. He doesn’t require a car seat or diaper changes or burping or the application of diaper cream.
In other words, Nigel’s a dog—and a fairly self-sufficient one—but it took having a baby for me to realize it. I was so focused on how he would react to a baby interloper invading his house that I didn’t once consider how the birth of my daughter would change our relationship.
Before Mirabelle burst onto the scene in June, Nigel was my one-and-only baby. He came into my life when I was in my 20s and childless. So I did the natural thing: I infantilized and coddled my 16-pound pup beyond measure. He was my entertainment. For a good laugh, I’d put my glasses on him or make up silly songs and dance him around the house. I wasn’t particularly good at setting boundaries.
Nigel’s been with me throughout eight apartments, four jobs and grad school. I’ve known him significantly longer than my husband. Nigel and I pose together on my Facebook profile photo. And before we replaced them with pictures of our daughter, there were photos of him throughout our house. A custom-built set of stairs leads up to our bed so Nigel has easy access to a comfortable night’s rest.
Before Baby, I never thought of Nigel as a dog. That label sounded too ordinary for my adorable, grumpy, Ewok-like creature. It was no coincidence that my preferred nickname for him was “the Son.” But in the chaotic weeks immediately following the birth of our daughter, Nigel became a burden. As I tried to care for the many needs of my vulnerable five-pound baby, even something as simple as putting kibble in his bowl seemed like a chore.
Nigel’s heft (in comparison to Mirabelle’s delicate, light-as-a-feather form) and the longevity of our relationship let me take advantage of him. I felt I didn’t have the time, wherewithal and emotional capacity to shower him with the love he was accustomed to. Yet it may have been the sturdiness of our Before-Baby relationship that gave Nigel canine insight into my suddenly strange, distant behavior. He knew I’d return to him. I just needed time, which he was kind enough to grant me.
To understand why I’m so grateful to Nigel for his patience during this turbulent newborn period, you have to understand his personality. While I love him to pieces, I could not objectively describe him as a compassionate, outgoing creature. Rather, he’s stubborn, bossy, insistent, inward-focused and a bit obtuse … or, “worse than a baby” (but not really). Part of Nigel’s personality originates with his breed, and part is due to the way I’d babied him for so long. I did not have faith that he could generously share my attention with another creature.
Nigel’s vet, JoAnn Levy of Canfield Vet, Dog and Cat Hospital, had more hope than I did. Nine months pregnant at Nigel’s well-dog checkup, I mentioned that I was concerned about how Nigel would receive an infant into the fold. When she asked how he acted with other newborns, I told her that he was actually quite curious about them, an eager sniffer when friends’ babies come to visit. Dr. Levy concluded that Nigel would be fine with a baby in the house.
I doubted it could be that simple. After all, our baby would be a permanent fixture, not just an entertaining visitor available for an exploratory sniff or two.
When I adopted Nigel almost a decade ago, his original owner made me promise two things: First, that I would never let Nigel roam off-leash. Second, that if I were to have children one day, I would not exclude Nigel from our growing clan. The previous owner knew that a newborn demands an extraordinary amount of attention at the cost of nearly everything else, even a beloved pet. While the previous owner was looking out for Nigel’s best interests, even she couldn’t imagine that this finicky dog would in fact have more patience than all of us—would in fact turn out to be a full-fledged comrade in Operation Baby.
We were not short on advice on how to introduce Nigel and the baby. My sister-in-law suggested we leave her in her car seat (on the floor) and let Nigel “find” her so that she’d be his little charge. A friend suggested that I shower Nigel with affection when my husband brought the baby into the house for the first time. To familiarize him with “eau de Mirabelle,” we even brought Mirabelle’s first hat with her scent all over it home from the hospital. We implemented none of these plans.
Instead, we were already home with Mirabelle when our friend, who was looking after Nigel during my hospital stay, returned him to our abode. I was carrying Mirabelle in my arms. Nigel was happy to come home and I made an overly enthusiastic scene to welcome him.
That was probably the most attention I paid him for about two weeks.
Something surprising happened during those two weeks. Nigel did not sulk at the lack of attention or act jealous of the baby. It’s unlikely he was thrilled with his new circumstances, but he quickly took his place on the couch, head between his paws, observing it all. At night, Nigel remained on our bed as time and again, I leaned into the baby’s crib to pick her up, feed her, soothe her, rock her.
He appeared to have resigned himself to the situation and did not act out. He did not attempt to leave our bedroom, where he’s always slept. This was his family and he was staying put.
A few times in the middle of the night when the baby’s cries grew in volume, I took her into the living room, where we retired to the rocking chair. The Hairy Son, who was accustomed to lounging on our king-sized bed, plush sofas, lush blankets and down pillows, took his place on the hardwood floor by my feet as I rocked the baby. He did it to keep me company.
One night a couple of weeks after Mirabelle’s introduction to our household, Nigel returned to my radar. It was 9 pm. I was exhausted, but Mirabelle, in the throes of the “witching hour,” was alternating between two states: fervent eating and fervent crying. Bedtime was nowhere in sight.
Except for Nigel. As he does every night, he went into our bedroom to retire for the evening. This simple act gave me hope that one day (with luck, sooner rather than later) my daughter would learn a nighttime routine as well. I thought to myself that if my Hairy Son is smart enough to know when it’s bedtime, then surely our Hairless Daughter will grasp this one day, too.
That night, for the first time, I viewed Nigel as an independent being and developed a sense of respect for him. He was not a creature to be coddled and infantilized. He knew the ropes. He gave me hope that from chaos can come order. It just takes time.
Yet even though I appreciated Nigel’s patience with me and our new situation, I didn’t understand it. How could a dog who would ordinarily growl at anyone trying to move him from his spot on the couch be so docile with a vociferous baby invading his space?
I called Dr. Levy, his vet, for some answers.
“Once a new baby comes into the family, they see that baby as part of the pack because that baby is so attached to you, his beloved human,” said Dr. Levy.
“They often become better behaved because they have a younger member of the pack to protect and include.”
But I still didn’t understand why Nigel wasn’t acting jealous.
“They have a job now,” said Dr. Levy. “They kind of get that you’re taking care of the newest member of the pack.”
I’m happy if Mirabelle gives Nigel a renewed sense of purpose. But I’m truly grateful for the sacrifice he’s made.
Mirabelle’s in daycare now. Mornings are quiet; I work at my computer on the couch with Nigel by my side. When I take a break and glance up from the screen, I often find myself looking at Nigel and thinking, Thank you.
Calm’s returned to our house. Though the pecking order is different, Nigel remains his strong self. But it took having a baby for me to realize that.
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.
A case for personalizing greetings.
For most of th e year I’m more than happy with my decision not to have kids. But then the holidays come around and I want to send out cards and realize I can’t because somehow this has turned into a thing that only parents are allowed to do. It didn’t used to be this way. It used to be that people just sent regular cards and if they wanted to stick in a snapshot or some school portraits of their kids that was a perfectly fine option. But it wasn’t standard. It wasn’t de rigueur. It wasn’t the kind of thing where if your holiday card did not include a photo of your kids it would be relegated to the pile of impersonal, pre-printed cards sent by your insurance agent and your dentist and the place where you get your hair cut.
In recent years, holiday cards are all about photo cards showing the kids. And let’s face it, if you’re a childless couple and you send a photo card featuring multiple shots of the two of you walking on the beach or hiking in the woods or laughing with your heads thrown back, you have likely created something that looks like an advertisement for herpes medication. If you’re a single person and you send a version of this card, you look like you’re selling lowfat yogurt (that is, if you’re a woman; if you’re a man it would PROBABLY never occur to you to do this at all.)
Or you can do a card like this one, which I made last year but never actually sent. I figured it was the kind of thing that represented the line between dog people and dog people, and I didn’t need those kinds of italics in my life. But now that I’m seeing it again, I actually think it looks pretty good. Maybe next year I’ll make a calendar.
Culture: Stories & Lit
An essay reminds us: Don’t ever leave (the gate open).
The dog has run away again. It’s the third time this month. One of the construction workers accidentally left our backyard gate open, and Bowie wandered out. Or maybe he darted out—I don’t know, since, busy washing dishes and corralling the kids, I didn’t see it happen. When I looked out the kitchen window and saw the gate wide open, I knew he was gone. He’d never let an opportunity like this—for freedom, adventure —go to waste. I dropped the sippy cup I’d been rinsing, yelled at my husband to watch the kids and sprinted out of the house. I was barefoot, but didn’t want to waste another second. As fast as he runs, he could be two towns away.
But at the sidewalk, I stop. Because we like to give him variety on his morning walk, we take him on a different route each day. He could be anywhere. I have to decide which way he loves the best.
I tell myself to think like a dog. Or, more specifically, to think like this dog. Surely he would’ve stopped at the stained mattress our next-door neighbor left at the curb weeks ago, which we’ve all complained about. Bowie likes to pee on it to show his disgust. He seems to feel it’s his civic duty. I choose to head in that direction.
I ring the doorbell of the house three doors down, where his girlfriend, a Toy Poodle named Coco, lives. They haven’t seen him but promise to be on the lookout. What else might have sidetracked him?
I run past someone’s heartbreaking Lost Dog poster. I imagine making one for Bowie, hoping it doesn’t come to that: his Beagle face looking forlorn, his huge light-brown eyes ringed with what looks like Goth-black guyliner, the perpetual puppy pudge even though he’s eight and his tricolor is turning white with age and his black body is speckled with what we tell him is a “distinguished gray.” We haven’t been getting along that well lately; I have less time for him. He resents the fact that my husband and I have introduced two new babies, less than a year apart, into his life and sacred space. I imagine he misses our original pack—my husband, him, me—and the way we used to dote on him, our little Beagle prince, named Beauregard for how good-looking he was, then nicknamed the more accessible Bowie for the playful personality that quickly emerged.
If it was at all possible for a hound’s face to fall any lower, it did the day we brought our first daughter home from the hospital. I don’t know what he’d been expecting us to bring back after those few days away. A Labrador, maybe? It was like we’d given him socks for Christmas. Now that baby has a sister, and both girls love him rough. They squeal in his ears and kiss him a little too hard and pull his tail when trying to keep up with him.
No wonder he’s run away, I think, as I scream his name in every direction. I run a street over, checking to see if he’s loitering around the pachysandra he likes to poop in. But he’s nowhere in sight and the street is eerily quiet.
He had so been enjoying having the construction workers around: new people, new smells. He walked around them with a swagger, like he was their foreman, inspecting their work. He crawled under the house with the nicest one, as if to hand the guy tools as he needed them. He’d sun himself beside them during their lunch breaks, and afterward they’d give him whatever food was left—an orange segment, a bite of empanada. My husband and I joked about fitting him for a tool belt.
A couple of the workers climbed up on our roof right before I ran out, acting as aerial guides and promising me they’d yell if they saw him. Even though he resents the babies, Bowie’s always been tolerant. During the course of a year, he endures the bunny ears, the turkey headdress, the Santa hat. Each time, as he stares at the camera, his eyes say, “You know I descended from wolves, right? You know I could kill you but show great restraint and choose not to, right?” We’re certain that’s how he sees himself: he stalks … a tennis ball. He eviscerates … a stuffed animal.
Maybe he’s run off to be a wolf. Maybe he’s searching for the respect he feels he deserves. More likely, he found a scent and followed it.
I run to the trash bins in the alley two streets from our house, where he once found the remnants of a discarded chicken dinner. He checks in there every so often in hopes of a similar bounty.
He’s a mama’s boy, though he tries (and fails) to downplay it. Ever since he was a pup, I could say in a certain tone of voice from across a crowded dog park, “Who’s Mom’s best boy?” and he’d stop whatever he was doing and come running, tail wagging his whole body, as if to volunteer “I am! I’m your best boy! That’s me!” I yell it now in hopes he’ll follow the sound of my voice and find me.
Lately, when we go to the park, he rarely leaves my side. He sits next to me with an air of maturity, as though scoffing at the puppies tackling each other, doing all the things he used to do. He had a very long puppyhood, an extended and difficult adolescence. Yet I miss his puppy energy. I miss the feeling of endlessness to his life, our love for him. This dog has been with us since the beginning of our marriage, has seen me through some of my toughest times—infertility treatments, miscarriages, surgeries. I never needed a hot water bottle because I had my Beagle to keep me warm, to cuddle with.
The wind whips up and there’s a snap in the air. I’ve been looking for him for almost a half-hour, and it’s getting cold. This is a dog who burrows under the bedcovers every night; how will he survive in the wild? How disappointed will he be when he realizes there’s no one to pour chicken broth over his dog food, or give him a neck massage while watching TV? How will I ever sleep again, knowing he’s out here, lost, hungry, looking for home?
And how would I live without him? I thought about it when he got sick last year, but it was the sort of thought I had to quickly shake off for fear it would swallow me whole. I can’t—won’t—imagine life without that face, the face we fell in love with the moment we saw him peeking out of the empty plastic baby pool in the home of a crazy breeder in the San Gabriel mountains. He was the only puppy left.
“The runt,” the breeder had said between a puff on her cigarette and a hacking cough. Already feeling protective, I had lifted him up, covered his huge ears and said, “Nonsense. He’s perfect.”
Running around the neighborhood now, I’m feeling frantic, going hoarse, but still screaming. “Bowie! Cookies! I have cookies!”
I stub my toe on the uneven sidewalk and trip. My toenail is instantly throbbing and bleeding around the edges. I lie down on a lawn and curse, my face hot and wet with tears. He wasn’t even wearing his collar. I had just given him a bath and he was drying himself in the afternoon sun. When we adopted him, we had him microchipped, the “lojack for dogs,” but that assumes someone finds him, then actually makes the effort to take him to a vet’s office or shelter to be scanned.
It’s hopeless. He’s gone.
I remember 10 years ago when my parents’ dog died. My mother wailed into the phone, “That dog was my best friend.”
Though a lifelong dog lover, I was dogless at the time, and not only didn’t understand, but secretly pitied my mother, thinking that it was an imprudent overinvestment on her part. You enter into an agreement when you get a pet: you know in all reason and with near certainty that you will outlive this creature and will someday have to let it go—will have to endure heartbreak. And yet, you do it anyway.
Eight years into my own dog ownership, I get it now. He’s not just my best friend, he’s my first-born, and my love for him defies reason. He has his own room in my heart—a room not far down the hall from the space reserved for my children and husband. It’s not just that his love is unconditional in quality. It’s the quantity of that consistent love, which I haven’t felt before, or enough. My husband and I have the occasional fight and ensuing silent treatment. My daughters will grow into teens and hate me on and off for years.
This dog has never been mad at me.
I’ll never forgive myself for letting him get away. I should have paid more attention, but I’ve just been so busy with the babies. I feel like I’m failing everyone, especially him. I forgot to give him belly rubs, or decided that it was easier to navigate the behemoth of a twin stroller when I didn’t bring him on the walk as well. Most of the time when I talk to him lately, I’m scolding him. He has been acting out, developing an appetite for crayons, baby dolls, poopy diapers.
I turn around and notice that I’m on the lawn of the big white house with a crabapple tree that Bowie loves. He eats the apples. They give him diarrhea, but he still eats them whenever given the chance, so we usually avoid this house on walks.
“Bowie! Apples!” I call feebly.
Just like that, he appears far down the sidewalk. I can barely make him out. He stands still, stares at me, his tail waving like a flag. I yell his name. He bounds down the sidewalk, his ears back from the wind, the excitement. He charges toward me and jumps into my arms, pushing me onto my back. I can tell he knows. He knows he was lost, he knows he was scared and that I was worried. He knows I still love him as much as I did the day I scooped him up for the first time. I carry him the four blocks home, 40 pounds of pleasantly plump Beagle spilling out of my arms as he licks my cheeks.
He came back. Someday, he may not. Someday, he won’t be able to run that fast. Someday, I’ll have to decide when it’s time to let him go. But I refuse to sit with these thoughts for more than a second, because this afternoon, I am the luckiest mom alive: I have more days with my best boy.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Dear Adoptable Dog:
Please find attached my curriculum vitae, submitted for consideration for the position as your person. As you can see from my history, I have a lengthy and proven track record of excellence and responsibility in all aspects of pet worship. I can provide documentation in the form of photo albums, memorial stones, clothes with muddy paw-print stains and memories etched in my heart.
I am not only hard-working and have a great sense of humor, I firmly believe in three things: bringing home a fresh-roasted, grocery-store chicken every week (yes, the kind you will smell before I round the last corner); giving you your bedding right out of the dryer when it’s at its warmest and fluffiest; and finally (my most fervently held belief when it comes to dogs), never talking on a cell phone while walking a dog.
I hope you will consider me for the position.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Welcome to our 75th issue. When we launched The Bark almost 18 years ago (before email became the ubiquitous medium it is today), we relied on traditional “pamphleteering” to campaign for off-leash recreation. That humble eight-page broadsheet—the first incarnation of today’s magazine— showcased articles similar to those in this glossier version.
We set out not only to help dogs (and their people) by advocating for dog parks but also, to chronicle the nascent modern dog culture. We were the first to cover it, and the first to examine the complexities of the humancanine bond. Researchers are now exploring this relationship, and some of the mysteries behind the world’s oldest friendship are being unraveled. However, all dog people know in their bones that no matter how far back our co-evolution goes, or how domestication came about, the core value of our relationship hasn’t changed much in the thousands of years since we teamed up. That continuity guides our course at The Bark.
The importance of adoption has long been a critical part of our agenda, and in this issue, we showcase innovative sheltering programs. It has been almost 10 years since we covered the plight of satos, stray dogs of Puerto Rico, and it’s encouraging to learn that progress is being made with the assistance of groups like Pets Alive Puerto Rico, profiled here. John Woestendiek examines college programs that reward students for fostering dogs and cats in their dorm rooms, and Science reporter David Grimm takes us on a visit to a unique Louisiana prison-shelter program that began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Endpiece by Elaine Sichel, prizewinner in our humorwriting contest, also perfectly complements this theme; in a lighthearted way, she makes it clear that we’re the winners when we adopt shelter dogs. Finally, our intern, Jennifer Senski, who is doing her PhD dissertation on the state of sheltering, puts out a call to the shelter community for assistance with data collection.
On other fronts, Jane Brackman considers the ways dated and misapplied definitions have been used to set breed standards, and Karen London tells us why it’s important that dogs learn to focus. Plus we discover that autumn is the perfect time to “revisit” Minnesota’s scenic Highway 61, with a drive along Lake Superior. Pieces on the value of probiotics, a recipe for homemade kibble, a home-visiting vet and the ways dog “germs” make our homes healthier round out the issue. Speaking of home, this photo shows our Kit—who recently turned five— striking a pose on a stone memorializing César Chávez at our local OLA in César Chávez Park. Many of you know that we adopted her and her sister Holly from a shelter in Kentucky. Both had rough puppyhoods, but were definitely making steady progress, Kit more so than her sibling.
Because many of you routinely inquire about the girls, I feel I must share some sad news about Holly, though it’s still difficult for me to write about. A few months ago, my husband was walking Kit, Holly and our Pointer Lola in the park’s off-leash area when an unexpected storm blew in; Holly, easily spooked, bolted. With Lola and Kit’s help, he searched for more than 45 minutes, canvassing the 100-acre park in a torrential downpour.
They finally spotted her in a parking lot, darting between cars, but before they could reach her, a car struck her, and she died instantly. I was home with our fourth dog, Charlie, nursing a broken ankle, when I got the call. Needless to say, we were devastated. At that point, my biggest concern was for Kit. I wasn’t sure how she would respond to this loss; she and Holly were inseparable, seeming at times to be one magical, eight-legged dog. Charlie turned out to be a great comfort to Kit (and to the rest of us, for that matter). Once again, I was reminded of how resilient dogs can be, and was inspired by it.
On to business matters. For a limited time, the digital version of each issue remains free for subscribers. Those who are concerned that we are abandoning print can rest easy, however, as we have no intention of dropping the ink-on-paper magazine. We too love print, but its digital cousin gives us another way to enhance our content and expand our reach. Last, a heads up: printing costs are skyrocketing and in 2014, we will be forced to increase our cover price and subscription rates to cover them. Now’s the time to take advantage of the current low rates and place a new or renewal subscription. Support independent publishing and help us get to issue 100!
Culture: Stories & Lit
In roughly two weeks, my dog Fletcher will be very sad.
And, he will most likely be going through withdrawal.
I say that because I fear Fletcher is addicted to eating cicadas. Granted, the dog has a well-documented history of eating bizarre things (even his vet has been amazed) but this is different. Prior to the cicadas arriving, I would have described Fletcher as your quintessential Golden Retriever. Friendly, good-natured and eager to please, he is simply a joy to have around. He comes quickly when called, insists on being by my side at all times and, honestly, likes me better than anything else in his world. Or so I thought. As a psychologist I’m trained to recognize addictive behavior and, in the past month, I’ve seen some disturbing signs from Fletcher.
Addiction has telltale signs. Addicts become fixated and pushy in their attempts to obtain their fix. They will travel to forbidden places to find what they think they need. They refuse to listen and will ignore the pleas of loved ones begging them to stop.
Normally sociable, they now prefer to spend their time pursuing their fix. Sometimes, they don’t even try to hide their use. You catch them in the act and they show no remorse, no shame. Often, they don’t even seem to care about your reaction. Many addicts are able to overcome their obsession but there is always the danger of replacing one addiction for another.
Maybe I’m overanalyzing so you decide. Here’s Fletcher’s recent behavior.
Normally the only time Fletcher lets me know he really wants to go outside is when he spots his nemesis, the chipmunk. Then he stands by the door and wines but if I ignore him, he soon stops. Now, after being outside for the first time of the day (apparently after getting his morning taste of the cicadas), Fletcher stands by the door, paces, whines loudly, then frantically searches the house for me. (The first time he did this, I thought something was very wrong, like a fire broke out or an intruder—seriously—he was that insistent). And Fletcher will not stop pestering me until I let him outside. Does that sound pushy and fixated?
There’s more. Usually Fletcher enjoys hanging out in the back yard, exploring the entire area, being careful to stay out of the flowerbeds (where he is forbidden to go). After about fifteen minutes he will sit by the door and patiently wait for me to let him back inside. Not anymore. After spotting Fletcher nosing around in my flowerbed, I repeatedly call him, but I’m ignored. I see he is eating something and beg him to stop.
Finally, he raises his head, chewing and swallowing quickly, and there is dirt around his mouth and nose. Fletcher looks at me like he has never seen me before in his life. I walk over to him, scold him, but he doesn’t seem to care. I take him by his collar and begin to lead him back to the house. Fletcher resists and I realize that he would rather be somewhere else than with me. I am heartbroken.
I am hopeful all this will change once the cicadas are gone and I’ll have my old dog back. The psychologist in me knows that recovery from addiction is difficult because once you’re hooked on something it is hard to give it up. Oftentimes addicts unwittingly substitute one addictive behavior for another so as not to miss the thrill of it all. I suspect this will be true of Fletcher as well.
You see, as I was walking Fletcher back to the house, I said to him, “You know, once the cicadas are gone you’ll have to go cold turkey to get over them.”
Fletcher jerked his head around to face me and with a gleam in his eye gave me a look that said, “Did you just say turkey?!”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Looking at unemployment through the eyes of my four-legged friend.
I am unemployed. There. I said it. So what if I’ve been in denial? So what if I’ve spent the last two months “on vacation,” visiting with friends and family, collecting severance and happily not waking to an alarm for the first time in three years. Now, however, my current state of joblessness is starting to sink in. I’ve finished my “funemployment” phase and have moved into “Uh-oh, I have bills piling up” mode. It occurs to me that looking at the world through the eyes of my newly rescued Spaniel mix, Murphy, might calm my worries.
Tonight when I walked Murphy, I realized that he sees things from a completely different vantage point than I do. I mean, obviously— he’s approximately four and a half feet shorter than me. But he also sees and appreciates things in a simpler way. Here are a few of the lessons he’s teaching me every day.
Appreciate routine. Since I don’t have a back yard for Murphy to romp in, we go for walks at least four times a day. When he hears the jingle of his leash or hears me ask “Wanna…,” his eyes light up as though he’s been offered five pounds of raw beef with no limitations. Who knew a walk could be so exciting! I might be unemployed but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate my own new routines and embrace them: a morning smoothie, checking TMZ.com to see what LA gossip I missed, logging into my email account to see if any job leads have come through, walking my completely lovable dog around my neighborhood. I’m learning to appreciate whatever routine I have and be grateful for it, because when I’m back in the nine-to-five routine, I’m going to dream of the “good old days” when I could do whatever I wanted.
Eat well. I’m pretty sure I feed my dog better than I feed myself. I pay a little more for his food, but do it happily because I feel I’m extending the time we’ll have together. Since I’ve been unemployed, I may not have a lot of money to go out to dinner, but I can still meet a friend for a drink and an appetizer at a trendy new hot spot. Just getting out of the house and hanging with my friends makes me feel better. A self-proclaimed “foodie,” I’ve also decided it’s a good idea to start cooking, so I search the Internet for money-saving recipes and invite my friends over for a meal. They appreciate the home-cooking— and maybe next time, they’ll take me out to the newest hot spot for dinner on them!
Networking is important. Now, Murphy is not a dog who “networks”— he’s not looking for a job or trying to start a business. He is, however, very interested in other dogs, sniffing private parts and making friends. He remembers where he previously ran into Gizmo or Spencer, and lingers in hope of running into one of them again. When we’re out walking, we invariably run into a handful of dogs and their people. The dogs wag and sniff, the people chat. You never know when you might hear about a job lead or find out that someone works at that great firm where you’ve been hoping to get your foot in the door. Network, network, network: it’s the best way to get that next job.
Take time to smell the proverbial roses. When I worked full time, I often forgot to look at what was going on around me because I was so busy tackling the crowded freeways, handing in that overdue report or grabbing lunch on the run. When I walk Murphy, he sees and smells everything: the halfeaten cookie on the ground, the wild rosemary by the side of the house and, if he’s lucky, another dog. While I’m unemployed, I’m trying to take things a little slower, enjoy the view from my patio, mow my own lawn, window shop, sit at the local coffee shop and people-watch. Enjoy life.
Wake up on the right side of the bed. I am definitely not a morning person. However, when I wake to a cute little dog staring at me with his puppy-dog eyes, willing me to get up and take him for a walk, how can I not start the day with a smile on my face? With a beginning like that, I can’t help but have a good morning that sometimes lasts all day. I may not have checks coming in, but I have a dog who loves and relies on me. If I’m in a better mood, I’m more apt to have a spring in my step and more open to the opportunities around me.
Since I adopted Murphy, I’ve tried to see things through his eyes. If you’re currently unemployed, consider adopting an animal or volunteering at a local shelter. It will help you pass the time until you head back to the work-day world.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Darwin’s beloved Polly
Words cannot begin to express the loss of this great wire-haired white bushy animal. An eagle-eyed observer. A keen hunter. Lost to the world for today and tomorrow. And that’s not me I’m barking about, but my master, Dr. Charles Darwin, who never had much to say to us, submissive as he was; he loved collecting those words, as much as his bugs and his barnacles, lining them up just so, sometimes bounding up, paws flailing, speaking them aloud (while I lay curled in a tufted basket before a fiery hearth) and taking one turn around the study before collapsing back into his sagging leather chair on wheels that he rolled up to his desk where he scratched at his books some more, leaving a long, long trail of tracks for all who could read his scrawl. Those words would lead any seeker right to where you could find him.
But, I didn’t need to. I was always by his side. I was the constant day and night companion to the squire of Down House. (Underfoot by day and yanked by the mistress off his bed at night). I answer to Polly. He called me that, “Oh, my good, good girl Polly,” he’d say. A small white Fox Terrier with black button nose and pleading eyes, I jumped to his every command from the terrible day I got there to the terrible day when he was gone.
You see, we critters are not so much the seeing but the sniffing kind, and when I first came to Down my litter of puppies was taken away from me. I lay down and when I opened my eyes, the devil herself was sitting on my belly holding me down (drowned they were, though that hag never owned up, but there my little pups were, still in their sacs like stuffed wet socks) and I went wild, wild, oh so whining wild. Spinning like a whirling dervish. Dis-POSSESSED, I had nothing to lick. To lick down, the mine that moments before was me.
Dr. Charles, quiet as he was, somehow had an instinct for my trouble and gave me his hands and his face to lick for hours on end until I could lick no more, snuggling into his chest where I simply sat and got comfort from that strong heart of his, ’til our beats were one, and I finally closed my eyes again and fell into a long sleep. This was bonding.
So he was a hunter as you all know, and a seer into the dog condition, as only I can tell you, but he was a lot more. He was nothing if not methodical. His kind have things called clocks. I heard them gonging all the time in Down House, reminding everyone to fall in line, not to stray off, but who needed clocks with Dr. Charles making his way around the oblong gravel Sandwalk morning, noon and sometimes evenings too. It comforted him and it thrilled me to hear the tick-tock of his iron-shod walking stick as he made his way around the walk, every now and then pausing to push his tiny nose into the head of a flower. He wanted to have what we have and if ever there were a man who deserved our superior snout, it was Dr. Charles. When he wasn’t stooped over looking under duff or turning over stones for worms, he was arching his back and shading his eyes, scanning the sky, pointing in wonder at the high-flying tumblers and the double-crested Baldheads, and then making his way to the pigeon loft at the end of the Sandwalk to listen to the low cooing of the males and the trumpeters laughing, and to count the new little wispy squabs and take his measurements of the various Rock doves in the aviary. He said that keeping pigeons in coops had to be the world’s most boring hobby but you’d never guess it to see his face light up at the yawning beak of a peeper.
His walks would lead us sometimes beyond the brick walls of the Sandwalk, out into the wild “Big-Woods” of the Orchis bank, where one day I so spooked a squirrel that my bark sent him scurrying up Dr. Charles’ leg clear onto his back, while he stood still as a statue, with the mother screaming bloody murder from a beech bough. He seemed to know our ways or want to, and that made him able to creep up very, very close. His prowling about was always to look and never to pounce.
Sometimes he seemed more comfortable with us than with them. He was always letting me out on the verandah or in through the drawing room window, cheering me on to bark with an ear-scratching whisper “those naughty, naughty people.” He was tender and playful, egging me on, and when I was scolded by one of the naughty people, he commanded me to be “a good little girl, now sit still,” and then producing a small biscuit from his pocket he’d place it on the top of my nose, urging me to stay and then he’d wink and I caught it and we both jumped for joy and I’d stand at attention for more. Sometimes out of the blue he patted the funny patch of red hair on my back, that had grown in red after a burn, and say with special fondness “Oh, Polly, you’re your father’s girl, you are.” Though I don’t know who else’s I’d be, and never knew him. Now, Dr. Charles was bald up top, but something about that red tuft of hair delighted him and made me feel special. So who would quibble with that?
Whether I came from wolves or jackals and how my kind found their way from the wild to the trash heaps to the hearths of man doesn’t much matter to me. We did. But it does to them, because you see, they think they came from us … Well, it’s a long twisting story with lots of dead ends, but one of their word trails from people of long ago gives it away, saying: “The dog is what we would be, if we weren’t who we are.”* So if I sniff it right, they think they lost something.
Being of the here and now, my paws firmly rooted in this earth and not yesterday or tomorrow, my nose was always at his feet. So when he took to his bed, with fever, coughing and crying out, and his hands now cold and clammy and his breath smelling sour, there was a stinking rot about him and I sensed his body becoming stiff and still like the earth. The play skittered right out of him, like a rogue breeze escaping to fresh air. There was no more going out, no whistle, no ticktock of his stick, no tasting the salt of his hand.
I began to ache and slink away from a body whose life was leaving him as he cried to stay. With me! I held my breath, swallowed my cry and the lump in my throat began to swell. A muffled whimper was all I could do.
Oh, they made fun of Dr. Charles, the naughty people did, for being sappy about dogs, for claiming we could return affection. [But the loving tickle of my belly or the taste of his tears returned in kind is something of the nature only he and I knew.] Dr. Charles once caught me barking at a parasol that was idly lolling in the wind on the lawn and he likened that to people’s belief in spirits. But that last day when I padded in to find him lying in the arms of our mistress, the wind blew the curtain twisting to be let out into the afternoon sunshine … and I jumped and with all the wolf in me, let go a longing howl to follow.
But he didn’t respond. Not even a lick and a promise. They latched the window and drew the drapes and his time stopped. The wind had swept him away as if there were no tomorrow … leaving no scent, no trace, no heart to rest a weary head on.
The outside lost its color, its voice, its touch, its breath. The old dog had gone away. They took his body and placed it in a gonging church. They took mine and buried me in a sack under the Kentish Beauty apple tree in the orchard, which was forever bearing fruit. … It was as if we’d taken one last turn on the Sandwalk, and he’d skedaddled off the path, and lost track of time.
*An Aboriginal Dreamtime saying
Culture: Stories & Lit
Look at Me
I have a border collie. which means i have a dog especially alert to motion of any kind. My Border Collie, Ainsley, is one of those who sometimes—well, okay, frequently—has rather explosive reactions to the motion of trucks, dogs, bikers and squirrels, to mention just a few. Which means I also need to be Border Collie–alert to motion so I can coach her on more, shall we say, appropriate responses.
Fortunately, I have a lovely path just outside my front door that wends between a river and canal, and curves in such a way that I can see almost anything coming or going for about half a mile in either direction. Even better, it’s traveled just enough to give us opportunities to practice self-control, but not so much that we can’t relax and enjoy our walk. It is not unusual to see fishermen along this path. While they don’t move much, they do wave their poles back and forth, an activity that can easily set off my dog. One day, as we walked, I saw a man on the bank of the canal about a quarter-mile ahead. I let Ainsley continue sniffing and scampering at the end of her 30-foot lead, worked on controlling my own breathing and, as we got closer, called her cheerfully to my side. Taking up the slack in the leash, I got a treat in hand, and together, we walked calmly by the man with the freaky stick.
This activity may seem absurdly straightforward to most dog owners, but it is actually hard-won for me and Ainsley. She is a rescue with a mostly unknown past, found wandering the woods, living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp, gimpy from a broken leg that was never set and healed crooked, pregnant, full of bird shot, and blind in one eye. She is, true to her breed and in spite of her rough start, sweet, smart and trainable. She was, unlike her breed, very low-energy and cautious. Or so I thought. It turns out she was mostly just deeply inhibited. After a couple of years, as she became healthier, happier and more confident, she also became much more reactive. With a lot of help, advice, reading, consistent counterconditioning work and her ability to forgive my many mistakes, we found ways to manage this behavior. We never leave the house without a pocketful of treats. I taught her tricks to use as playful distractions. We work diligently at recalls. She is no longer an off-leash dog.
But one of the most fundamental building blocks of training remained elusive. As anyone who has dogs knows, you can’t teach them much until you teach them to pay attention to you. As anyone who has tried to manage reactivity knows, teaching a dog to make direct eye contact is the first step to effective counterconditioning. Ainsley is indeed very focused on me. However, she somehow learned shake, spin, down, come, leave it, enough, high-five, wait and so much more while simultaneously avoiding direct eye contact. She’d look at my face, but not into my eyes. If I insisted, she’d turn her muzzle askance and squint at me, blinking uncomfortably. I know that direct eye contact, while intimate among humans, is confrontational among dogs, so I accepted her oblique gaze. For a long time, Ainsley also did not know how to play— with me, with a toy, with a rawhide or with another dog— so it was clear that she had missed some pretty fundamental experiences. But slowly, over the course of several years, she has become engaged and responsive. Less hypervigilant. Goofy even. And from time to time, instead of looking at my eyebrows or cheekbones or chin, she will look steadily into my eyes. For a few moments, at least.
So having her trot at my side, glancing up at me, relaxed and unconcerned about the strange man with the weird appendage, was a not insignificant victory. In fact, I was so relieved and proud that I immediately let the leash unloop in my hand and told her to “go play,” which she happily did, sniffing along both sides of the trail as it took a sharp turn around an outcropping of rock. I rounded the bend behind her and saw a big blue bucket, net and tool bag lying in the grass just ahead. Ainsley was already there, nose to the ground. I quickly called “leave it” and began to take up the slack in the leash. But I was too late. By the time I’d crossed the distance from my end of the leash to hers, she’d found a pole hidden in the grass. Both her lip and tongue were pierced with two separate, four-barbed hooks. The look on her face was confusion more than pain. The look on mine must have been much worse. I held her jaw and spoke every comforting word I could think of as I tried to figure out how to keep her from getting more entangled. Fortunately, the barb in her lip came free. But the one in her tongue was completely set. I took hold of the hook, attached to 45 pounds of dog through a millimeter of skin, and tried to shove the miniature torture device back through the small hole it had made in the edge of her tongue. She squirmed and danced. Now her four and my two legs were also getting entangled in 30 feet of bright pink leash and several feet of invisible fishing line.
I said “easy, easy, easy,” my usual cue for getting her to slow her gait, and “wait, wait, wait,” my cue for getting her to stop moving, and blinked away the hot tears of fear. I tried fighting the hook without fighting my dog, but her tongue slipped in and out of my trembling fingers and the barbs pricked me instead of her. I tugged and pushed and twisted; the hook would not budge. I yelled for help. The fisherman was too far away and out of view. Blood, hers and mine, dripped off my fingertips.
I couldn’t back out the lure, so I had to snip it. With my free hand, I fumbled in the tool bag, looking for wire cutters— didn’t fishermen always have a pair for just this sort of eventuality? No luck. The only tool I could find was a knife. She’d recovered from so many much worse injuries in her life, I told myself she’d easily recover from a tiny slice in her tongue. I unsheathed the knife, set it against the hook, and pushed hard and fast into that sliver of flesh that held her. Suddenly, she was free.
She trotted off, shaking her head and spraying drops of blood into the landscape. I reordered the fisherman’s gear and tried to regulate my shallow breathing and pounding heart. Slowly, my panic was replaced with gratitude for Ainsley’s calmness during our little ordeal. She is, fortunately, a naturally sensible dog. But what struck me was that she had struggled against the hook, but not against me. She had listened. She had let me help her. I watched her return immediately to sniffing for feral cats and rabbit poop, and I was reminded, again, why it is so profoundly important that we train our dogs. Yes, we train because tricks are fun to show off to family members. Because a dog who doesn’t void in the house or jump on guests is easier to live with. But even more important, we train them to wait at an open door and walk on a leash to keep them safe. Dogs are, in many ways, human creations. We have domesticated them to live with us. And in doing so, we have brought them into immediate contact with things they might more naturally avoid: roads, cars, toddlers, garbage cans, toxic substances and so much more. We’ve bred them to be our best friends; training is the most essential thing we can do to be their best friends.
This small yet very stressful incident with the fishing hooks could have been much worse. Part of the reason it wasn’t is because of all the painstaking, frequently embarrassing and often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work I put into my relationship with Ainsley. I showed her what to do with a stuffed toy that squeaks when she bites on it, a dried-up piece of cowhide, a regal cat who refuses to be herded, a big white truck barreling towards us.
In the process, I suddenly realized, I was also showing her what to do with me. She learned I was good not only for putting kibble in a bowl and a leash around her neck, but also for introducing her to agility obstacles, playing “get it” games, removing snowballs from her paws and helping her sort through what to do about the strange things that pop up out of the landscape on our walks. This day, on this walk, she let me help her sort through a fishy, thorny problem with her tongue. More than teaching Ainsley to look at me, I realized I had finally, and much more importantly, taught her to look to me.
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