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?!”
Author of Dogtripping
Mystery-lovers know David Rosenfelt for his “Andy Carpenter” series. The fictional Andy is an exceedingly reluctant attorney whose real passion is dog rescue, particularly Golden Retriever rescue. He’s most likely to be persuaded to take a case if a dog’s somehow involved.
What his readers may not know is that Rosenfelt is himself dedicated to dogs. He and his wife—whom he credits as the real force behind their dog-welfare work—started out volunteering in the LA shelter system and in short order, found themselves running a home-based rescue and placement group. At times, they had as many as 40 dogs, some of them unadoptable due to age or infirmity.
His recent book, Dogtripping: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, and 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure, is nonfiction, the story of relocating the pack from the West Coast to the East—an improbable and wildly complicated exercise made possible, he says, by the extraordinary help and generosity of friends and fans.
While on a Dogtripping book tour earlier this year, Rosenfelt gave a reading at a local Berkeley bookstore that benefited a northern California rescue group, and The Bark took advantage of the opportunity to talk to him in person. Following are the edited highlights of that conversation, which took place in our office and included an inordinate amount of laughter (which we didn’t transcribe).
Q: Why did you choose Maine?
Q: In Dogtripping, you suggest that the move happened in spite of you. Would you do it again, and would you do anything differently?
Q: How did the dogs take to RV travel?
Q: What’s a typical day like at casa Rosenfelt?
Q: Over the years that you and your wife operated the Tara Foundation, you must’ve become quite an expert on dogs.
Q: Do you work with behaviorists?
Q: You mentioned that you’re particular about vets. What are your criteria—what do you look for?
Q: You take in older dogs and dogs with health problems. How do you deal emotionally with the loss of a dog?
Q: Are you involved in rescue now that you’re living in Maine?
Q: How would you compare living in Maine to living in California?
Discover more at davidrosenfelt.com.
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
It never fails to amuse all of us when all 12 pounds of Molly intimidates all 25 pounds of Baxter. And it is often. If Baxter even looks at Molly’s rawhide bone while she’s chewing on it, out comes a deep, serious growl from Molly. It’s a sound you would think impossible to come out of such a tiny muzzle. It’s almost like there’s a pit bull hiding behind the couch, and it’s throwing its growl. Every time I see it happen it reminds me that it’s not always the largest dog that’s the “big” dog. There have been instances where Baxter has gotten a little too close for Molly’s comfort, and she’s taken enough of a nip to leave a mark. What’s Maya doing when this is happening? Nothing. She just goes on blissfully chewing her bone. I guess when Molly joined the household she and Maya came to some kind of understanding —namely, that Molly would be Maya’s muscle. Which is sort of strange, since Baxter and Molly spend a lot of their time shadowing each other. But, make no mistake: Baxter is always Molly’s bitch, and not the other way around. However, Maya and Molly’s fondness for each other is at its strongest when they’re sleeping.
I doubt that it’s a girl thing. They weren’t littermates. Molly is three; Maya is almost ten. It’s hard to conceive of any logical kind of reason that they would look for each other when they’re looking to catch a nap or settle in for the night. But they do.
You can find them in any one of several body configurations, usually ones that would put a contortionist to shame. But there is always a common trait in their contortions: they are always touching. You would be as likely to find Molly resting her head on Maya’s neck as you would Maya doing the same to Molly. Each uses the other’s body as a blanket; each often buries her entire face under the other’s warm, soft belly fur. They have taken snuggling to an art form. But I think what makes an even bigger impact on me, and makes their behavior even more amazing, is the way that they deliberately seek each other out.
We keep the dogs in the family room at night. They all sleep on a big, brown, comfy chair that, at one time, I used to enjoy. Baxter is usually the first one to climb up the little Dachshund stairs at the base of the chair, where his bulk takes up most of the prime real estate. Next comes Molly, and without a growl or a glance she shoves Baxter out of the way and claims the choicest spot next to one of the chair’s arms. Baxter will lay his head down on the chair and start snoring away. Molly? She sits. And she waits. For Maya.
Maya is always the last to arrive. Part of that is age, and part of it is simply another of Maya’s inexplicable phobias. But, once in the family room Maya climbs the stairs, steps over Baxter’s bulk, and sidles up to Molly. It’s then they find a suitable configuration for them, one that best ensures two things: that they are warm and that they are one.
I am reluctant to say that I think that Molly and Maya have each other’s backs, because they are dogs. But because they are my dogs I’m going to say that they do. Maya and Molly have each other’s backs.
Dog Joy at its finest
The other day I was looking through a round of recent submissions to our Smiling Dog contest, when I came upon this one which truly made my day! It is our first video entry, and it could not have been more perfect. Annette K. seems to be inspiring her Boxer pups, Sable and Woody to give her a big smile and in doing so, has spread their joy to thousands. We posted this on our FB page and already almost 50,0000 people have viewed it.
Her pup-perfect pitch even woke up my dozing dogs who seemed to want to join in on the fun.
One comment on FB, said that they "remind me of the old SNL skit..."we're just two wild and crazy guys." What do you think? And tell us, how do your dogs greet you? Do they have their own happy dance?
British Invasion Redux
Blame it on the London Olympics, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey or fascination with the royals, but Brit-speak seems to be all the rage these days. Oft-heard terms such as cheers, brilliant, posh, loo, toff, mate, queue and even crikey are creeping into our everyday conversation. So, let’s bring these dog-related expressions across the pond as well.
Dog’s bollocks: Something really fantastic. (Not to be confused with “bollocks,” which is rubbish, er, nonsense.) Often shortened to “the dog’s.” Perhaps derived from dogs’ fascination with and time spent investigating their “down-unders.”
Mutt’s nuts: Something fantastic or excellent. Often shortened to “the mutt’s,” which is another way of saying, yup, the “dog’s bollocks.”
Puppy’s privates: The best; yet another, slightly more refined, take on the previous two.
Dog’s breakfast: A real mess. (Ed. note: I guess they don’t do gourmet pet food over there.)
Dog’s dinner: To be overdressed, or ostentatiously decked out.
Dog ride: Tagging along with someone doing an errand, or simply out and about.
Dog collar: A type of collar worn by the clergy. Also, the oversize head on a pint of Guinness.
Dog-end: A corruption of “docked-end”— a cigarette butt.
Dogsbody: A go-fer, or someone doing menial or boring work.
Dog-eye: Keep a look out.
Doggy: Stylish, of smart appearance.
Dogs are barking: Feet are tired and aching. For example, “Do you mind if I sit? My dogs are barking!”
Dog’s wages : Working just for food as payment for one’s services (Scots slang).
Give a dog a bad name: Someone with a bad reputation who’s blamed for everything.
And, lest we forget, there’s Cockney rhyming slang:
To all of which we say, “Dog save the Queen!” Given her devotion to her Corgis, that’s not much of a stretch.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
She’s happy and deeply loved
An amusing video of Loca, the pug from Ireland who can’t run properly, has been making the rounds online among both runners and dog lovers. Many runners have made comments about this video along the lines of, “Even after all the miles I’ve run. I still feel this way sometimes!” In the dog world, the comments have ranged from being charmed by the video to being appalled that people are laughing at a dog with a medical problem.
The first time I saw the video, I felt uncomfortable about having fun at Loca’s expense. I could see that she clearly has some sort of medical condition that was affecting her movement and balance, but I can’t deny that I still enjoyed the funny song and some of the footage. Then, when the note came up at the end of the video explaining that Loca has a mild brain disorder, that her family has decided it’s too risky to operate on, that the vet feels she is happy and will live to old age in good health, I was fully on board.
Loca has a full and happy life, and it’s easy to see that she is absolutely adored by her two-legged and four-legged family members alike. It seems the video is not making fun of her, but sharing the joy that her family gets from her to those of us in the wider world. With that straight in my mind and heart, I am a fan of Loca and love to watch her.
What do you think of Loca’s video?
Culture: Stories & Lit
At times, I forget that my dog, Floyd, can’t talk. Like, all the time. During our long walks, I’ll comment on the weather, the progress of a neighbor’s new fence, my plans for the day. My constant chatter doesn’t seem to bother him, as long as he can stop and leave some messages of his own.
Dog-behavior books give conflicting advice regarding human/canine conversation. Some experts recommend speaking in cheerful tones. One book suggested singing to dogs, a constant flowing river of happy sounds. I wonder what kind of music Floyd likes best. Howlin’ Wolf, or perhaps the Stray Cats? Other trainers recommend silence. Words other than commands only confuse the pooch. Wolves don’t chitchat. Save the speech for commands, for the words that matter: Sit. Stay. Snuggle.
I’m in the first camp. Dogs have been hanging around with our species long enough to know that we constantly voice our thoughts. I believe they’ve learned to tune us out until key words like ride, fetch and treat bubble to the top of our verbal slurry.
So I don’t think my non-command words confuse Floyd. If anything, I think they embarrass him. This may be in part because of my horrible timing. We’ve had several instances where passersby misunderstood my comments. While Floyd circled, shimmied and hopped to achieve the perfect angle for his mark on a fire hydrant, I said, laughing, “What are you doing, you freak?” Unfortunately, I posed the question as a woman pulled up next to us with her car’s window down to inquire about Floyd’s breed (only he knows, and he’s not telling). Instead of letting my comment die a quiet death, I tried to explain that I’d been talking to my dog, not to her. Her expression said it all: “Well, freaks must come in pairs then.”
Once, I said, “Come here, little man” to Floyd at the exact moment a diminutive gentleman turned the corner. How I wished I could scoop up the words in a plastic dog baggie. I wonder if Floyd is relieved that I have finally stopped calling him “Big Stink” and “Monkey Butt” in public after one too many sharp glares from someone nearby.
Calling “Get over here, you handsome devil” while Floyd played in the leaves next to my married neighbor was probably a poor choice of words. Particularly as another neighbor overheard me. Relationships on our street have been strained since.
Not only is my timing awful, I have a constant and inexplicable desire to explain everything to Floyd. “We can’t go to Reigning Cats and Dogs for a peanut butter biscuit today. I didn’t bring money.” His gaze slides to the man walking by who overhears us. I mean, overhears me.
Though I know Floyd is not going to whip out his daily planner to coordinate our schedules, I always explain why we’re taking a shorter route, or why he needs to hurry up. Dogs probably rank “clocks” up there with “lids” as the worst human inventions ever. Yet, I have said, “Give me five minutes, buddy” more than once. I have said this in front of people. Floyd chomps on an acorn to fill the awkward silence that inevitably follows. Signs instruct owners to “curb your dog.” I should really curb my comments to my dog.
My conversations with Floyd shine an ugly light on what kind of parent I would be. After he gobbled some rancid dumpster meat before I could stop him, I yelled (in cheerful singsong), “What were you thinking? We spend a fortune on your organic kibble. If you get sick, don’t come bellyaching to me.”
Did I really blurt, “You know better”?
Yes, yes I did.
And when I say things like, “Now, what did I just say to you?” I only shame myself.
Watching Floyd’s helicopter-tailhappy- dance when I ask, “Are you my best boy?” I realize that he sometimes gets a kick out of the babble. He’ll make a play bow, which is canine for “Well, yes I am. Now toss me that squeaky toy and let me show you a good time.”
We’ve all said things we regret. I’ve happened to say many of those things to my dog. He doesn’t hold it against me. A long walk, squirrel patrol and a possible biscuit later make my monkey chatter completely bearable. Or so he tells me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We were on our daily walk, and my dog became startled by a cow in someone’s nativity scene. Christmas decorations in general freak him out, so during the holidays, we approach many reindeer from behind, so he can sniff them and see that they aren’t real and aren’t going to chase us down the street. I don’t want him afraid of things in his environment, so I always make the effort to let him work through his fears.
Anyway, we’re walking along, and all of a sudden he stops and stares. I look ahead, and realize that the cow is staring directly at my dog. Or so he thinks. I smile, because his child-like discovery of new things is always refreshing to me. I walk him around to the rear of the cow, I touch it and let him sniff my hand, then he approaches the cow nonchalantly and stands in the middle of the nativity scene. He starts sniffing Baby Jesus, which I think is very touching. Of all the statues surrounding him, the baby lying on straw is the one that draws his attention. Then he starts to lift his leg. “No! Oh no!” I sputter, as I hurriedly pull on his leash and get him away from there. I’m not sure if any pee landed on its intended target — I was too ashamed to look closely and wanted to leave the scene in case anyone had witnessed our “crime” and wanted to give me an earful about how disrespectful it was.
I am a Christian, and I think my dog is too. I wouldn’t let him pee on anyone’s religious icon, because I believe that my dog should learn to respect all faiths. I can understand him not knowing the significance of icons from religions he’s not familiar with. But why on earth would he pee on Baby Jesus? When I talk about Jesus, my dog settles down and gives me a sage look — “Oh yes, Jesus. It’s not well promoted, but he was very good to the animals.” Christmas hymns are one of his favorite kinds of music and put him in a very relaxed state. And when we set up our Christmas tree, he alternates between lying where he can gaze at it with admiration and lying underneath its sheltering boughs, looking like he is getting the best rest he gets all year. For these reasons, I’m pretty sure my dog is Christian. So, his peeing on Baby Jesus must have some amazing, profound explanation.
Has God sent my dog to warn us of worshipping false idols? The Old Testament commands us not to worship any “graven image.” The companies that sell these religious figures assure us that as long as we put God first and realize that the figurine is just a figurine, then our money is well spent on inspiring others by our faith. But is that why we display a nativity scene these days? Lately there have been so many legal arguments over displaying nativity scenes on public property. It seems that as the arguments build, more and more people are buying nativity scenes and displaying them on their front lawns. Do they buy the nativity scene because they are divinely inspired to demonstrate their faith, or do they buy the nativity scene out of anger, daring a neighbor to say something about it? Dogs have a wonderful sense of smell. Perhaps my dog smelled the anger hormones left behind by the homeowner as he thrust his nativity scene on his lawn, laughing a cynical laugh and planning what he would do to the person who dared to challenge his display of faith.
Then again, perhaps it was the quality of the figurine that my dog took issue with. This was a cheap-looking, plastic nativity scene. It was fairly new, but if you’re going to have a representation of the Baby Jesus, shouldn’t it be the best quality that money can buy? Perhaps my dog knew that this was a cheap imitation that didn’t stand up to the life that Jesus led and the lives that he is still touching today. Could it be that my dog decided to let someone know exactly what he thought of that piss-poor representation of our Lord and Savior? Or maybe my dog smelled the cynical hormones left behind by the worker in the Jesus factory. Maybe the factory owners laugh as they count their money, knowing that they can charge whatever they want and cut costs wherever they want, because no one would dare say that Baby Jesus is too expensive. Or perhaps they get irritated with the frustrations of their job, forgetting about the magic they create. “How in the heck did we end up with 30 Marys and only 15 Josephs? Jeez, the guys running the assembly line are idiots!” Maybe my dog was smelling the hormones left behind by workers who handled the Baby Jesus.
Or perhaps it was the timing of the episode. This happened around January 8. For some reason, people in my neighborhood left their Christmas decorations out longer than usual this year. I don’t know if it’s because of the depressing news about the economy — maybe people are trying to hold onto the Christmas spirit a little longer. Or maybe it’s because we had a lot of dreary, cold days around the first of the year, and people just procrastinated going outside and taking down their Christmas decorations. At any rate, perhaps my dog is sage enough to know that if we drag out the Christmas season, it will become just another set of dreary days to get through and will lose its magic. People need to put their Christmas decorations away so that when they pull them out again next Thanksgiving, the decorations will have the needed effect of pulling on our emotions and making us present to the love of mankind that we neglect the rest of the year.
All of these things run through my mind as we make our way back home. What is the message my dog was trying to send to that homeowner? I have learned some amazing things by watching my dog, and what was I meant to learn this time? When we get settled back at the house, I sit on the couch and stare at my dog, trying to figure out what he was communicating. Then all of a sudden the realization dawns on me. I know exactly why my dog tried to pee on Baby Jesus. It’s because another dog peed on Baby Jesus first!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part VIII: Scarf the Herald Angels Sing
Holiday season is known—in the abundant countries at least—as a season of excess eating. There are the countless office parties with their vegetable-and-dip/cheese-and-cracker crudité tables and heaping buffets. There are the more intimate family celebrations, with traditional dishes such as the Christmas goose, Christmas ham, the Hanukkah brisket or, in my crowd, the Tofurkey. All of these things (excepting the latter) are very appealing to a dog.
So should a dog be invited to the holiday party? This was an issue I faced when I first adopted Chloe, because she was a very, shall we say, festive eater.
When Chloe first came to live with me, she always seemed hungry. I mean hungry in a neurotic, desperate way. I fed her very well of course: she got bones and raw food at home, homemade cooked meat mixtures when we were visiting other folks. But in the beginning, Chloe could never seem to get enough to eat. She always wanted more. After she scarfed each meal down (in two seconds) she’d lick and lick her bowl, using her paw to steady the dish. Then she would scour the floor for every last drib of meat juice, grain of rice or drop of salmon oil. Then for the rest of the day, she would follow me everywhere, hoping perhaps that at any moment I would reach into the closet and pull out a rack of beef.
Chloe, thank goodness, was never the kind of indoor scarfer who counter-hopped or stole roast chickens from the dining table. I clicker-trained her very early on not to do these things. But I can’t tell you how many times — when I first adopted her — I tripped over her in the tiny kitchen in our New York City apartment. If I dropped something on the floor — say, a piece of toast — she would dive in and grab it. When I tried to load the dishwasher, she’d rush in to lick the dishes. When I tried to open the oven, she’d try to stick her head inside and lick the racks. The refrigerator, to her, was a dream come true — especially the lower rack, where I kept her meat. She would stare at that rack with her tail wagging, hoping I’d give in and throw her a pound of turkey giblets. Sometimes, it was cute. I loved the look on her face as she waited, joyfully, for more food! But quite often, the trippingover- her part was a pain.
I don’t know my dog’s history, but it’s possible she was a stray. And former strays can be insatiable when it comes to hunger. Many of these dogs have experienced extreme hunger, even starvation, so their brains become wired to constantly seek what they lack — food. Some rescued strays, I’m told, because of this re-wiring, will continue to scarf until their dying day, even if they enjoy abundant, consistent meals in their new homes.
My vet used the term “incurable” when it came to Chloe’s relentless food-drive. He said she was just being a dog. I could accept this to a point. But not if her food-drive put her in danger (see below).
My dog is probably part Labrador Retriever, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode. But once, when I was staying at a friend’s house, we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying on her side on the fl oor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This was unusual behavior for Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate. Alarmed, I rushed over and knelt in front of her, checking her breathing and heart rate. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. She farted in response.
“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tippedover bag of kibble (our host-dog’s private batch), more than half of it gone.
“Chloe, how could you?” I said to the dog. But Chloe didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.
So here was proof that, while some dogs might try to eat until they explode, they will not actually explode. Chloe did, however, pass gas for the next few days. My friend and I joked that there should be an Overeaters Anonymous group for dogs.
But all kidding aside, we were lucky that this incident passed without terrible repercussions — no stomach pumping or intestinal twisting. As we know, overeating and scarfing can be dangerous for dogs.
Especially in New York. There, the discarded food that litters the streets can be hazardous. On the sidewalks, Chloe found such benign appetizers as pizza crusts and discarded bagels, but there was also rat poison, radiator fluid and chicken bones to worry about. Eating a cooked chicken bone, as we know, can be a life-threatening issue for a dog, so I spent many a morning having to pry Chloe’s jaws apart grabbing the bone before she swallowed. It’s a gross feeling to have to stick one’s fi ngers down a dog’s gullet.
I should point out here that Chloe’s on-leash behavior is exemplary. We know how to navigate the sidewalks of New York City quite well. In fact, she knows such commands as “right” and “left,” “halt,” and “reverse,” which are all essential things to know when trying to weave one’s way through the crowds. When I hold Chloe’s leash and call out the navigational cues, it’s like controlling the lever on a video game. I always score high points.
But I am also told that even service dogs will scarf from time to time. It’s in dogs’ natures. Even after Chloe got to the point in her training where she would leave food alone if I said “No,” she still sometimes managed to snatch up those pizza crusts before I issued the command. (Thus somehow scoring her own point by getting around the rules.) I ultimately left New York.
Even after we left the city, Chloe still found both dangerous and/or merely gross things to scarf. At the beach, she’d snuff around for crab claws, seagull poop, and the carcasses of dead fish. (To roll in and then scarf). Upstate, she liked to hunt for dead deer parts and bear scat. Mostly the repercussions were having to give lots of baths, and having to endure the odor of passed gas, but I knew I had to do something about the food obsession and scarfing. It was too risky.
The vet whom I consulted suggested that I limit Chloe’s walks (huh?). Another suggestion was to put Chloe on an appetite suppressant. I was suspicious of this advice, primarily because his was one of those veterinary practices that really pushed pharmaceutical products. In the waiting room, there were pamphlets for anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, anti-shedding, anti-flea, and even those horrible anti-bark sprays on every table and windowsill. To me this suggested a symptom-not-cause approach, and I eventually switched to a holistic vet. I decided I would not use appetite suppressants for Chloe. (Turns out they’re toxic for the kidneys anyway.)
This vet also suggested a basket muzzle, and I did look into this option — for about two minutes. At the pet store, a clerk helped me try to find one that would fit Chloe’s wide head and thin snout. The fitting was not a pleasant experience for either me or the dog. Chloe tried to paw the muzzle off and scraped her head against the shelves and floors. She looked so distressed—and Hannibal Lector-ish—that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
So no drugs, no restraining devices: I decided to do the smartest thing and sign up for more intensive clicker training sessions. For the indoor “following-me-around-obsessivelyin- the-kitchen” behavior, I clicker-trained Chloe to stay in one particular place while I free-ranged though the kitchen. It was actually quite easy. I purchased a rubber-backed bath mat — black, so that it wouldn’t soil so obviously, and situated the mat in an out-of-the-way section of the kitchen. Then I clicker-trained her to lie down on that mat whenever she entered the kitchen. She could look but not touch, in other words. Chloe’s reward for following this new stay-on-the-mat rule were simple. She got the pleasure of watching me prepare food while I bustled about the kitchen, and she got to enjoy the delicious suspense of knowing that she would get some of this food as a result of her own good behavior. The standard click-and-treat method. It was brilliant.
My friends are particularly impressed that, even during parties, when there are platters of cheeses and crackers and cured meats placed low on coffee tables, Chloe remains on her mat, poised alert and as complacent as a Sphinx. She stays there because she enjoys being a good dog, and because she always knows — because of operant conditioning — that, once I stop preparing for the party and sit down to relax, she will be allowed to get up and receive a treat. The rind of a Spanish drunken goat cheese, perhaps. A nibble of pepperoni. A piece of chicken.
For outdoor scarfing issues, we worked on new commands and hand signals and/or modifying the times of our walks so that we weren’t at the beach, for example, at low tide when there were more shells and dead things exposed. Plus, as the months passed, Chloe seemed to realize that she would never starve again in this lifetime. Her rather frantic need to eat seemed to wane, replaced by a sort of excited gratitude each time I placed her food dish before her. Her behavior no longer suggested “This might be my last meal” but more “Ah yes, ground turkey and salmon oil with a dash of kelp again. My compliments to the chef. But a little less kelp next time, s’il vous plaît.”
Chloe still hasn’t lost her taste for scat, however, and at this time of year we have at least two dozen wild turkeys wandering around our property. Chloe, my non-birdy bird dog, will follow the turkeys around—not chase them, mind you—and happily eat their poop, acting as if she is doing us all a favor. She never overeats, however. Just enough for, as the French would say, an amuse-bouche before her proper meal.
I am proud of her, in a way only dog people can understand. Proud of her progress from chemically imbalanced rescue dog to happily settled old gal.
At my last holiday party, I must say that Chloe was the best-behaved guest of the lot. My friends are artists, writers, musicians, theater-types and drag queens, and while we respect our brain cells enough not to do drugs, the wine did pour freely, and the eggnog and the grog and the wassail, the latter of which prompted a lot of impromptu carols about wassailing, (sung completely on key despite the alcohol, with a soaring finale and a kick-ass bass solo to boot). And all the while, Chloe stayed on her mat, observing curiously, occasionally getting up to snuggle next to people and/or greet new guests at the door. I noticed that she completely ignored the cheese trays and the glazed duck, choosing instead to wander into the center of our song circle and feed off our admiration of her.
During the choral finale, Chloe threw herself onto her back and shimmied around on the fl oor, wagging her tail and waving her legs in the air. She howled a few times in joy. “Hark the herald angel sings,” the drag queen shouted, and we began all over again.
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