Culture: Stories & Lit
Alice, a Beagle, enters the living room, where Comet, another Beagle, is napping on the loveseat. Comet lifts his head and sniffs.
Comet: Somebody’s been to the vet.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Getting the Dog You Need
Those of us with exuberant dogs (herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs … well, just about any dog, really) truly appreciate their exuberance. We even appreciate their excessive need for entertainment and exercise; it helps get us up and moving, after all. But admit it, my fellow exuberant-dog caretakers: don’t you sometimes just want to sit down and relax? Especially during the lazy days of summer?
Before we get to the answer, I must preface this with a description of life with my first dog, Wallace (the subject of Bark’s “Rex and the City” columns). He was a Spaniel/ Setter mix, as hyper as they come, so I never got to sit down and relax in any season. To get him even remotely tired, he needed to be taken outside — where he could gallop, chase squirrels, swim after ducks, leap fences — for at least four hours a day (12 was even better). Accomplishing this was quite a challenge, given that my then-husband, Ed, and I lived in a 300-square-foot apartment New York City. But, because our lives revolved around our beloved dog’s needs, we took Wallace hiking as often as we could. I am grateful for this. Wallace’s exuberance led us to discover some truly amazing parks, hiking trails and beaches within driving distance of NYC. There was the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and the “remote” Fort Tryon Park at the tip of Manhattan (90 blocks is “remote” to a New Yorker).
My favorite hiking trail became Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring: an easy and scenic onehour drive up the eastern side of the Hudson River. It’s not an easy trail, and some of the climbs to the ridge are rocky and — to me — a bit treacherous, but the views made it so worth the effort. You could see for miles: the Catskill Mountains … the bluffs at Bear Ridge … and the great and majestic Hudson River, which threaded its way mightily all the way down to New York City. The water, from our vantage point, looked pure and silver. I loved to watch sunlight dance across the river’s surface, as if in celebration. From the ridge, the world seemed beautiful and vibrant and manageable. We would hike down feeling renewed and ready to take on life in the city again (which could be challenging, to say the least).
After our hike, Wallace, dear Wallace, would be tired, so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open as he sat upright in the back seat of the car, resting his head against the window trying to take in the last bit of scenery as we drove south. A tired dog is a wonderful sight.
It was also wonderful to see him run for three hours straight on those trails. As soon as we unhooked his leash, he would gallop off, chasing squirrels, following scent trails and basically just seizing the day. We could hear him barking wildly in the distance — a bray of chase and joy — and when he returned, panting, he’d be covered in burrs and leaves, his eyes so bright we thought he had had a glimpse of the Great Beyond.
Yes, I will always be grateful for my exuberant dog. He brought us nature and hiking and Breakneck Ridge. In the non-hiking hours, however, I must admit that he could be rather a pest. Whenever I sat down to write, he would nudge me and poke me with his snout, running back and forth from my desk to the apartment door. Whenever Ed was stretched out on the sofa watching TV, Wallace would nudge him, too, wedging his head underneath Ed’s hand — the hand that held the remote. If I tried to meditate, he’d crawl on my lap and splay out for a belly scratch. If I tried to do yoga on the living room floor, he’d come and lick my face and then lie underneath me on the mat as I moved into downward-facing dog.
After Wallace died, I adopted another Spaniel mix, Chloe. I was divorced by then, and some of my friends and family questioned my decision to adopt yet another exuberant hunting dog. Especially given that I was living alone in New York City. But we often fall in love with certain breed types, and even certain mixes.
Those of you who are familiar with this column know I adopted Chloe sight unseen, and that I adopted her because I fell in love with her picture on Petfinder.com, and because she was listed as a Spaniel/Setter mix, just like Wallace. I was prepared for a dog who would want and need to gallop four hours a day. When I met Chloe, I began to suspect that she was also part Border Collie and/or part Lab as well. Did this mean she would need 12 hours per day — four for each breed characteristic?
For a few weeks, I was a bit terrified: a Border Collie in New York City? I kind of prayed that she was mostly Spaniel. Her markings (white with patches of brown) could be either Border Collie or Spaniel. She has those intense Border Collie eyes, however — those “I will stare at you until you do what I say” eyes. Would I ever be able to sit down and relax again?
I also have to admit that, by the time I adopted Chloe, I had become lazier about exercise in general and hiking in particular. Truth be told, it was my former husband who was the hard-core outdoorsman. Once we split, there were no more arduous six-hour treks up steep, rocky ridges for me. But I was willing to resume that old habit to keep my new dog and myself in tip-top shape.
Fortunately, by then, I also lived part-time in Woodstock, which is situated just at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. There are plenty of parks and trails through which an exuberant dog can gallop and play. My favorite trail is right in the heart of the village. I like it because it is easy and flat and relatively short — it takes about 45 minutes to walk the loop. I especially like it because of its simple beauty: the trail threads through meadows and forests and then meanders along the banks of a robust stream — one that, in spring and summer, teems with waterfowl and frogs and fish.
Wallace would have gone into a birddog frenzy at the sight of the fowl, and I figured Chloe’s Inner Spaniel would be activated as well. But the first time we hiked that trail, Chloe ran straight past the waterfowl and plunged into the water.
It turns out my bird dog is a water dog, more interested in what lies beneath the water than what paddles along on its surface.
I’d never seen anything like it. She ran into the water, tail held high, and immediately began trolling for fish. She gazed intently in the shallows (with those Border Collie eyes) until she detected even the slightest movement beneath the water. Once she spotted one of those tiny minnows, she pounced.
I stood and watched her race up and down the shore for a few minutes, splashing happily through the shallows. Part of me was eager to keep walking, to maintain our fat-burning, aerobic pace. I figured Chloe would tire of fish-trolling once she figured out that fish were not easily caught. But I quickly realized that the fun, for her, was in the pursuit. She continued to track, flush and chase these fleeting creatures for the next hour. Sometimes she swam into deeper water to flush out trout; other times, she stuck her snout into the water to try to catch one with her teeth. Her tail wagged non-stop the entire time.
After a while, I sat on a large, flat rock and watched, enjoying her enjoyment. I personally did not get much exercise that day, but Chloe did. And once we dog lovers discover something our dogs love, we tend to go out of our way to provide more of it for them.
Thus it was that I discovered that the Catskills have all sorts of hidden streams, creeks, ponds and swimming holes. Chloe loved every one of them, for each contained different types of fish, which swam at different speeds. She quickly developed new skills to adjust to each variety.
As for me, I had to adjust to the fact that I wouldn’t get much exercise with a water dog unless I swam or fished myself. Which I didn’t, (a) because mountain-stream water is way too cold, and (b) because I don’t kill fish or any living creature. (I also had to adjust to the fact that a constantly wet dog means a constantly wet and mud-splattered car, and an extra hour each day spent wiping down the wet dog and washing the dirty towels, but let’s stay on topic.)
Then I remembered something my friend Melissa often says: “We get the dogs we need.”
Since my divorce, I had become pretty serious about my spiritual practice, sometimes doing up to four hours a day of yoga, mediation, chanting, chi gung and so forth. Though this can be time-consuming, I find that doing these practices ends up creating more time — quality time — and I can get more done in the day. But still, I am human, and we humans do love to multitask. New Yorkers seem particularly creative with their multitasking, especially when it comes to their dogs, so you’ll often see city dogs “doing errands” with their guardians: walking four blocks to the dry cleaners, helping to carry home groceries with their little doggie backpacks, scoring cubes of cheese at the Friday-night wine tastings, among other things (in NYC, wine tasting at the local wine shop is an “errand”).
I quickly realized that having a water dog was perfect for my new lifestyle. Each day, we drive to our favorite park and walk 20 minutes along a forest trail until we reach our favorite stream. There, Chloe trolls for fish while I do, first, my standing practice (chi gung, yoga) and then my sitting practices (meditation, mantra). I love these mornings especially in summer. I love the bubbly sound of the water (the stream always seems to be singing). I love the sound of Chloe splashing; the sight of the sunlight dappling through the trees; and the smell of so many elements: water and wood and stone and air. At that stream, it smells like Mother Earth herself. It smells like home.
Sometimes I find myself missing those hard-core hikes at Breakneck Ridge, and seeing those grand vistas with all their promises of greatness and grandeur. Sometimes I miss standing atop a mountain, above the teeming masses, so close to the sky and clouds. But at this stage in my life, I really value the stillness of sitting quietly by a stream. I am grateful for the opportunity to touch the earth, and rest, and go within.
Yes, we get the dog we need. When I was married, we needed a dog who would get us out of the cramped apartment and into nature — my husband and I would have killed each other otherwise. When I got divorced, I needed to slow down, look inside and center myself again.
And how cool is it that I get to do this and tire out an exuberant hunting/herding/fishing dog at the same time? It’s a perfect arrangement. We are both refreshed and content. Each day, Chloe has an opportunity to cultivate her Inner Water Dog and I get to cultivate my inner self.
After 90 minutes or so, it is time for us to go home. Chloe is often reluctant to get out of the water — she’ll look at me with a confused, almost betrayed, expression. But eventually, she’ll conclude that I am indeed serious about leaving the park, especially when I turn and walk away. Then she’ll bound out of the water happily — on to the next great adventure: sleep.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, what you get is better than what you wished for
I didn’t want a border collie. in fact, i wasn’t convinced that I wanted a dog of any kind. I’d had two wonderful Australian Shepherds who filled my days with all the joys of walking, working and playing with them. Not to mention with the worries and frustrations of their injuries and misbehaviors. Once they were gone, I was ready to try a dog-free life.
Or so I thought.
Instead, every morning I woke up with a profound sense of loss. I didn’t know how to take a walk without a four-legged companion. My hands kept reaching for an absent furry head and damp nose. My husband said I seemed lost. But I resisted. Because I didn’t want just another dog; I wanted a certain kind of dog: one with all the benefits of a herder (intelligence, connection, focus, trainability) and none of the drawbacks (intensity, hyperactivity, aggression).
I fostered a few candidates. This one was too dim, that one, too unpredictable. Then I saw an adorable Border Collie mix on a rescue site and wondered if she might be the one. I wrote a candid letter saying that I honestly didn’t think the dog I wanted existed. The woman at the rescue group said the dog pictured didn’t fit my ideal, but sometimes — rarely — the type I described did appear. She said I would have to be patient.
But, as it turned out, not for very long. Soon enough, she called and asked me to come see and, she hoped, foster a dog who had been found living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp; the dog was floundering in rescue, overwhelmed by the general Border Collie insanity that surrounded her.
It was a fairy-tale meeting. She threw herself directly into my husband’s lap. Though she was gimpy from what we later discovered was a broken leg that had healed without being set, half-blind and full of birdshot, she was also sweet, self-contained, thoughtful, calm, smart. It took 48 hours for fostering to turn into adopting. We named her Ainsley, Scottish for a hermitage in the woods.
She had perfect off-leash manners, was obedient but not obsequious, enjoyed learning new things and was deferential to our cat and other dogs we met on walks. She learned the great pleasures of rawhides, bones and toys, and that getting toweled off was perfect compensation for a walk in the rain. When unleashed, she returned to our front doorstep like a homing pigeon.
Well, at least for the first couple of years. Then she started the “Sorry I disappeared into the woods while you cried and called for me, but the chipmunks needed organizing” stuff. Along with “Other dogs are evil and must be chased away” and “Cars, trains, joggers, bikers and any other moving object must be pursued.” At first, I was kind of, sort of, pleased with her newfound confidence, thinking that this behavior was the result of delayed-onset adolescence and would soon fade away. But as her self-assertiveness turned into explosive moving object/dog aggression, I became confused, embarrassed, flummoxed and overwhelmed. Where had my Border Collie Lite gone? And who was this snarling, barking creature lunging at the end of my leash?
Even more important, what was I to do?
I spent hours reading articles and books and watching videos on aggression. I worked with trainers and behaviorists who prescribed everything from hard corrections with prong collars or tying her to a post and walking away to operantand counterconditioning combined with a head collar and clicker training. I contacted the rescue group and begged for insight and advice. I took her to the vet for a blood workup and complete physical. I changed my walk schedule and locations to avoid other living or moving things. In my darkest hours, I even considered returning her to rescue, as though she were a piece of merchandise that had not performed as advertised. I lost my temper, I cried, I wrung my hands. I looked into my dog’s eyes and asked what was wrong.
Eventually, I realized the truth: nothing was wrong. Ainsley was just being a whole lot more of Ainsley. As one trainer explained, after months or even years, some rescue dogs come out of depression or repression and “blossom.” As my husband more succinctly said, “She’s just being a dog.” And Ainsley’s behavior told me, “I’m having a blast.” She was still sweet and soft, affectionate and trainable — she was just a whole lot of other things as well.
I knew that ignoring or accepting her aggression would be irresponsible and dangerous. But even armed with all this new knowledge, I still balked. As I hoped for improvement rather than helped her improve, it became clear that I was the biggest barrier to progress. The truth is, I was reluctant to confront Ainsley’s behavior because I was reluctant to admit that she was something other than my dream dog come true. So I swallowed hard and gave up my fantasy of an off-leash dog. She chases everything that moves and therefore risks injuring herself as well as other critters, so now she never goes out without a leash, six feet long in town and 30 or 50 feet long when we’re in the woods.
Then I gave up my fantasy of a dog-friendly dog. I would like to walk around my town with a calm, tail-wagging canine who puts all the other ill-behaved dogs to shame. Instead, I have a dog who is perfectly behaved as long as no squirrels, other dogs or trucks are in close proximity. In which case I have a Cujo. (Fortunately, more frequently these days, I have a dog who is trying very hard to sit still and look at me for treats, even though she really wants to be a Cujo.)
The next fantasy to go was that of having the perfect dog and therefore being seen as the perfect dog owner. Instead, I throw myself into situations that ensure bad behavior on her part and embarrassment on mine so I can do all those strange and counterintuitive training things that will help her work through that bad behavior.
I also gave up my fantasy of having an ideal walking companion, and accepted that her behavior could be managed, but perhaps not changed; could be improved, but probably not eradicated; that working through it and around it would continue on each and every walk we shared, for the rest of her life. And I embraced the notion that our walks, and the training itself, could be, should be, lots and lots of fun.
Here’s what I found helps: A head halter to humanely control her physical behavior, along with months of patient and regular counterconditioning sessions that incrementally reset her trigger threshold. Carefully observing her to determine whether she wants to move away from or toward the trigger, and using that movement as part of the reward. Working with sympathetic friends, trainers and dog kennels with the other dogs on-leash or behind fences so we can practice the abovementioned counterconditioning/proximity-controlling sessions. Having the jogger, biker, person wearing a large hat and/or driver of the big white truck who share our walking trail stop and give her treats instead of racing by at full speed. Acting like a complete goofball when a trigger comes by in order to distract her and defuse us both. Swallowing my annoyance and embracing her with joy and snacks when she suddenly reappears dragging all 50 feet of yellow nylon lead with the handle that broke when she bolted and chased deer for an hour and a half through the snow-filled woods.
But what helps most? Realizing that in fact I have something infinitely better, more interesting, complex, nuanced, challenging, rewarding, entertaining, enjoyable and authentic than a dream dog. I have a real dog.
Husky Puppy Practices His Howl
The other day a panda-loving friend shared this link with me of the San Diego’s newest panda baby. Besides being incredibly adorable, it does make one wonder how the panda evolved its distinctive circled-eyed appearance, and then I saw this video of a Husky pup learning to howl and found the resemblance sweetly surprising.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part V: Springer Has Sprung
Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Why do they do it?
On a beautiful, warm afternoon, I watched a group of dogs frolic in a dog park. Suddenly, I heard a woman’s high-pitched yelp, followed by the pounding of human feet. There was no need to look; it was obviously about humping, which we can also refer to as mounting.
Dogs hump the air, they mount pillows and blankets, and they can be found poised behind the neighbor’s dog or befriending Uncle Joe’s leg but not Uncle Albert’s. Mounting pops up in many contexts and is directed toward any number of objects, both animate and inanimate. Apart from giving mounters silly nicknames like “the humping bean” or “Sir-humps-a-lot,” what are we to make of all this bumping and grinding?
Talking about dog behavior is like talking about politics: everyone has an opinion. According to Cynthia Heyman of Utah, her three-year-old Danish-Swedish Farmdog, Jet, is a play-humper. “Jet is intact, and he likes to hump when he plays. He seems to like the boys better than the girls. Last weekend, he was humping a neutered Aussie who humped him right back as they were playing.”
For Margaret Duclos of Seattle, Wash., mounting is related to excitement and arousal. “One of my dogs sometimes humps the other when we get into the car — usually only when it has been a few days since we’ve gone somewhere and he is especially excited.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some attribute humping to dominance. Brigitte Reed of Salt Lake City, Utah says, “My female dog, Snickers, who is spayed, will hump our male dog, Kitna. The reason being is she is alpha and she is asserting her dominance over him. Putting him in his place, as it were.”
When a dog’s a humper, there’s inevitably an owner nearby with a story, usually one that describes who or what is mounted (the stuffed animal, the cat, other dogs) and the context in which the humping occurs (when guests come over, at the dog run, during obedience trials). Owners postulate that sex, breed, age, reproductive status and even size might provide information about humpers. Most of these stories culminate in questions — “Why in the world does she do this? Aren’t males the humpers?”— or impressions, anything from “It’s just play” or “She’s dominant” to “He’s quite popular!”
As you might expect, animal behavior researchers have a lot to say on the topic. When exploring any behavior, we can turn to the insights of Nobel Prize–winner and famed ethologist Niko Tinbergen for help. Tinbergen’s “four questions” provide a reliable framework within which to understand why animals behave the way they do. One of Tinbergen’s questions is particularly apt: “How does a behavior develop during an individual’s lifetime?” After all, behaviors don’t simply fall from the sky, land on a dog and voilà! Mounting! For nearly as long as ethologists have studied dogs, they have taken note of dogs’ tendency to hump outside of reproductive contexts.
In the early 1970s, University of Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff, PhD, began investigating the development of canid social behavior. Bekoff observed the interactions of young canids, pairs of three- to seven-week-old wolves, coyotes and dogs. Particularly among the dog puppies, mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting appeared early on in play. While males mounted more than females, females also engaged in aspects of the behavior. Dr. Sunil Kumar Pal, assistant teacher at Katwa Bharati Bhaban School in West Bengal, India, got similar results when investigating social behavior of young, free-ranging domestic dogs. By six weeks, both male and female puppies were mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting.
“It’s what dogs do. It’s a completely normal behavior,” explains Carolyn Walsh, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who studies the nuances of dog behavior in dog parks. “Both males and females mount, regardless of whether [they are] sexually intact or not.” Celeste Pongrácz, a Mudi breeder in Hungary, finds that mounting can change with hormonal shifts. “Right now, we live with seven bitches, and when somebody is coming into season or is in season, some dogs want to hump, and others ‘ask’ to be humped. Regardless, it always involves the bitch in season.” Studies find that neutering males can decrease mounting, but certainly does not stop it in its tracks. After all, there is more to it than hormones. (Alas, not a single study noted if Barry White songs were playing in the background at the time the behavior was exhibited.)
From tail wagging to barking, dog behavior is riddled with nuance. A wagging tail might convey “I’m quite scared” or “This is the best day ever!” Like tail wagging, mounting is far more complex than it may appear, and there is not one simple explanation. But there are some likely candidates.
In many cases, mounting is related to a surge of emotion, such as feeling anxious or being aroused (in this context, “arousal” means general stimulation). In a recent investigation of dog park behavior, Walsh and her student, Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier, found that the dogs doing the most mounting were also doing the most playing. Walsh explains, “Dog parks can be quite stimulating, and for those who are highly aroused physiologically, mounting behavior could easily come out. There can be such a buildup of social motivation and the desire to affiliate that some of that energy spills over into the sexual motivation system. You see sexual behavior coming out, but it’s mostly out of context.”
General arousal or anxiety is not restricted to the dog park. Stimulation easily translates to everyday situations: a new person comes over, a new dog is introduced or a dog is cooped up in the house all day. “One of my dogs humps the others when I grab the leashes, or otherwise am doing things that signal going somewhere,” says Duclos.
Dawn Cleary, owner of Blue Cerebus Dog Boutique in Madison, Ind., attributes mounting exhibited by one of her Golden Retrievers to excitement. “When my Frisbee champ catches the Frisbee, my littlest one likes to run out and hump her. It’s the only time she does it … sort of like she wants to share in the glory of the Frisbee being caught.” (Is this the canine equivalent of painting your face and watching the Super Bowl?)
So why mount? Peter Borchelt, PhD, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) in New York City, reminds us, “There are only so many behaviors a dog has access to, and dogs do what is part of their species-typical behavior. It is something they know how to do.” Since their options are somewhat limited, a dog, rather than read the funny pages during downtime, might be inclined to get to know a stuffed animal a little better.
What else could mounting be about? For some owners, mounting equates to dominance and control, words that suggest you might not want your four-legged friend engaging in this behavior.
But what is dominance, and where does mounting fit in? According to Carlos Drews, PhD, dominance is not a characteristic, but rather, relates to describing interactions between two individuals. “Dominance is an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agonistic interactions between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome in favour of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation … Dominance is a relative measure and not an absolute property of individuals.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior defines it as “a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots and mates.”
Is mounting associated with dominance? Not necessarily. Becky Trisko, PhD, behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., studied dog-dog interactions in the dog daycare setting. Mounting was not associated with status-related (“agonistic”) behaviors like aggression and submission, but instead was correlated with play and other affiliative behaviors. For example, a dog who muzzle-licks another dog — a behavior often associated with “Let’s be friends. Like me! Like me!” — might also mount the same dog. If mounting indicated status or a dominance relationship, we would expect mounters to receive submission from other dogs, but that’s not what we’re finding. Likewise, a dog is probably not trying to dominate the dog bed he just mounted.
Mounting occurs in a variety of contexts and can be surrounded by many different behaviors. Humping could be an assertive behavior related to social bonds rather than competition for resources or status. In friendly contexts, mounting could be an attention-getting behavior to instigate an interaction. As Trisko explains, “Among preferred play partners (scientific jargon for friends), it almost seems to be a way to get the other to play. A dog might do a play bow, bark and paw at a dog. If the second dog isn’t really responding, mounting will often get a rise out of the dog, and then they’ll play.”
Trisko also suggests that mounting among friends is associated with bond-testing. “This is the idea that dogs perform potentially annoying behaviors like mounting to test the strength of the recipient’s investment in the relationship. It’s like saying, ‘How much will you put up with?’ ‘How much do you really like me?’” Since mounting seems to appear in affiliative, not aggressive or status-related contexts, this is a provocative possibility.
At the same time, mounting is not always related to friendship. Aimee Moore, CPDT, of Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison, Wisc., says, “I don’t think there is one simple explanation, but with unfamiliar dogs, or often even with owners, it can be pretty rude and related to status.”
As Borchelt, who has treated behavior problems for more than 30 years, observes, “Mounting could be part of a suite of behaviors associated with aggression, such as high posture, resource guarding, direct stares, and threats and standing over. But mounting, by itself, doesn’t indicate a status issue. By itself, mounting might not mean a lot.”
He also feels that it could even be problematic to ascribe the label of “dominance” to a dog who is a mounter. “If you perceive a dog as dominant because he mounts, you might think you have to take steps so that the dog isn’t dominant to you — maybe always make the dog heel, which could cut back on sniffing, exercise and dog-dog interactions, or use intimidation to make the dog follow explicit rules. This could have negative consequences for the relationship.”
But there is more to the story than the mounter. Not all dogs welcome being mounting. Jessie Nelson of New York City notes that her dog Gracie, a mutt who more closely resembles Falkor the Luckdragon from The Never Ending Story than a member of Canis familiaris, changed her relationship with mounting as she aged. As Nelson recalls, “Gracie used to let other dogs hump her, and then they would continue playing. Now she will freak out at dogs who mount her.”
What to Do?
Training and dog-owner communication can help a humper maintain friendly interactions with dogs and humans alike. Moore suggests various training techniques. “I would work on obedience so I could get my dog’s attention when she starts to focus on another dog. I would also work on call-aways — dog greets and sniffs appropriately, then call her back and reinforce for that behavior. This way, you are catching her before she mounts.” Since mounting is often associated with arousal levels, when working on mounting, Moore recommends relaxation protocols, down-stays or teaching an alternative behavior. Angela Limburg of Chicago, Ill., tries redirecting her dog. “My boy humps his bedding … It seems to happen when he is overexcited. We try to redirect him — usually, offering cheese or cookies works.”
But at the end of the day, mounting is still a tricky behavior to figure out. “Mounting is one of those behaviors you would not want to have a single answer for,” explains Borchelt, and Bekoff agrees. “It is complex, and we don’t want to say mounting is always this or always that. What we are learning about animal behavior is that we need to be very careful about generalities. Dogs don’t always greet each other by sniffing the anogenital region, and they don’t always circle before they lie down.”
It is not uncommon for owners to say, “I am deeply embarrassed that she humps.” Some sense disapproval from other owners: “I feel a social imperative to stop his humping.” These feelings are understandable, because for many, dogs don’t simply contribute hair to our favorite black pants; they are our family members and best friends. Which means that some of our best friends are humpers.
“I think the sense of embarrassment is not well placed,” remarks Walsh. Given that mounting is a normal part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire, owners can eliminate some of the stress and anxiety by getting to know mounting as it pertains to their individual dog.
When trying to get behind any behavior (pun intended), Bekoff recommends becoming an at-home ethologist. “Get a paper and pencil, and watch and record what happens before and after the behavior of interest. This can tell you more about the behavior itself.” This technique can help you determine when a behavior needs to be managed and when it’s just fine.
If dogs could talk — and they actually are with their behavior — they’d ask us not to clump mounting into one universal meaning. So what’s your dog’s mounting behavior telling you?
All in all, when we’re trying to figure out a behavior, we’re better served by observation and understanding of its roots than by the stories we tend to tell ourselves and others.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Perky, pesky and utterly unflappable, a new neighbor makes himself at home
When I opened the cottage door to call our dogs—Molly, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and Barbie-Q, the little no-name brand—in for dinner, I recognized him immediately. New neighbors had moved in across the road two days earlier, and the Pug was part of their family; I’d seen him playing on the deck of their cottage.He looked up at me, big brown eyes round and appealing above the black mask that covered his snout, and wriggled his curly pig-tail.
Beside me Molly paused and looked up. I knew that expression. I glanced over at the neighbors’ cottage. No one was around.
“Okay,” I answered Molly’s silent request. I looked down at the Pug. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
He wriggled his tail again, then pranced up the steps and past me.
He proved to be an appreciative guest, his enjoyment of our doggy cuisine obvious as he burrowed his little black mouth deep into gravy-laced kibble. He even gave a lusty burp and licked his chops with gusto when he finished.
“Bruiser! Bruiser, where are you?”
He cocked his head to one side, then trotted to the full-length screen door and looked out, tail wiggling. His reaction left no doubt. He was Bruiser.
I opened the door for him and followed him onto the deck.
“He’s over here,” I called across the lane to the young woman in shorts and tank top. “He stayed to dinner.”
“Thanks.” She jogged across the road as Bruiser rushed to greet her. She introduced herself as Nancy as she lifted his squirming body in her arms.
“Bruiser’s an unusual name for a Pug,” I said, as she tucked him against her side.
“I named him after the dog in the movie Legally Blonde,” she grinned. “Hope he wasn’t any trouble.”She waved and headed back across the road carrying the Pug.
“Any time,” I called.
The trouble began soon afterwards. The next morning, in fact, when Molly dashed out as usual to fetch the morning paper at the end of the drive. At the corner of our cedar hedge where the carrier normally tossed it, she stopped short. No paper. She lowered her nose and began a serious investigation of the area. After a few minutes of watching my dog’s unsuccessful attempts to find the daily news, I scuffled into my moccasins and went to help her.
As I was opening the front door, I saw my new neighbor running across the road in slippers and PJs. She was waving something in a blue plastic sleeve. Under her left arm, Bruiser hung ignominiously.
“Sorry,” she said as she ran up the steps.
“Bruiser’s been watching your dog fetch the paper for the last couple of days. He must have thought it was a good idea, so he brought your paper to us.”
“No problem,”I replied taking the paper and giving Bruiser a little head-pat. “Shows initiative, right, guy?”He licked my hand, snuffled a Pug sound and wriggled his tail.
It’s been said you can’t outfox a fox. Molly soon proved that the cliché also applied to Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers. Bright and early the next morning, she posted herself on our front step.
The Pug proved to be a worthy opponent. As I glanced out the front window, I saw a small, black-masked snout peering out from the hedge.
I got my coffee and drew up a chair. This was going to be interesting.
A few minutes later, the carrier’s car appeared over the crest of the knoll. Instantly, Molly was on her feet, alert and ready. In the hedge, a small beige-andblack body also came to attention.
The car slowed at the end of our drive, an arm appeared through its open driver’s window and the morning news flew through the air. Simultaneously (or so it appeared) both dogs lunged.
The collision occurred at the corner of the hedge. A yelp, a squeal and Bruiser went flying. Molly paused a moment, shook to regain her dignity, then picked up the paper precisely in its middle and triumphantly trotted back to the cottage, the obvious winner in this war for words.
By then, Bruiser had scrambled to his paws. He too shook himself vigorously, paused a moment (I assume to make sure he was still intact) and proceeded to prance behind Molly toward our cottage.
When I opened the screen door for Molly and accepted the paper she carefully presented “to hand,” Bruiser, his joie de vivre apparently unabashed, trotted inside behind her, the corners of his mouth curled up in a good-natured grin.
The following morning, it bucketed rain and Molly opted to watch for the paper from the front window. Surely, she may have speculated, the Pug wouldn’t come out in such inclement weather for a fetch he now knew he couldn’t possibly retrieve.
Molly would soon learn never to underestimate the tenacity of a Pug.
I’d gone back into the kitchen for a moment when I heard the carrier’s car approaching and Molly’s excited whines. “No rush, girl,” I assured her as I headed toward the front door to let the now yelping, prancing dog out.
Then I saw the reason for her distress. Bruiser darted out of the hedge and lifted his leg. His aim perfect, he peed on her precious blue-sleeved paper.
Two weeks later, Nancy crossed the road to ask a favor. She and her partner were going to visit non-dog-fancying relatives for a couple of weeks. Could we keep Bruiser? No problem, husband Ron and I readily agreed. By then, Bruiser had become a frequent and welcome visitor. Barbie-Q and Molly enjoyed him, and so did we. So the Pug who came to dinner gathered up his collar, leash and bowl and moved in.
“He’s housebroken and doesn’t chew things,”Nancy said as she placed him on the kitchen floor. “There’s only a couple of tiny problems. He steals and he parties.”
“Oh?” we replied in surprised unison, although the former came as no surprise after the newspaper incidents. And as for partying. A Pug? Really?
The first couple of days, nothing untoward occurred. The three dogs played happily on the deck, in the yard and at the beach. On the third morning, however, things changed.
When I went to call the dogs in after their morning ablutions, I found a pair of pink plastic flowers, a few of their fake petals missing, on the deck. As I recalled having seen them on a neighbor’s lawn, I looked at Bruiser sitting beside them, a grin plastered across his pushed-up little face.
“Did you take those?” I asked pointing at the posies.“No, no! Bad boy!”
The black ears dropped repentantly… for a moment. Then he blinked an eye at me and wiggled his tail.
An hour later, when our neighbor went grocery shopping, I furtively stuck the two worse-for-wear flowers back in her garden. That was easy, I thought, as I trotted home. And now that he knew better, our houseguest wouldn’t do it again. He’d looked so contrite.
Apparently I hadn’t learned anything about Bruiser’s persistence during his paper-pirate days, I realized later that week. Each morning, our deck sported new booty. A tennis ball, a toy truck, a plastic shovel, a baseball cap, a deflated beach ball (I refused to reflect on how it had gotten into that condition) and, most alarmingly, what looked like a doll’s amputated arm.
But worse was yet to come. The next morning, a shoe appeared on the deck. Obviously new, obviously expensive.
“Oh, Bruiser!” I breathed, turning the slender, high-heeled strappy sandal over in my hands.“What have you done now!”
For a moment, my tone of voice made his ears droop and his tail straighten. For a moment he looked almost ashamed. Almost. And only for a moment. Then his tail re-knotted, his ears went up and his wide mouth widened in that now familiar roguish grin.
Ron joined me on the deck. “There’s only one thing to do about this,” he said. He took the shoe from my hand and, like the prince in Cinderella, set off down the road to find someone with its mate.
“That’s it.” On his return, Ron picked up the Pug and looked him squarely in the eyes.“No more stealing, understand?” For a moment, black ears drooped and the broad mouth sagged. For a moment one could almost believe he was truly sorry. Almost.
The instant Ron replaced the canine culprit on the deck, his entire body flashed back to perky exuberance. He turned to Barbie-Q, who’d been dozing in the sun, and began racing around her, barking and daring her to play.
“When did Nancy say she’d be back?” Ron asked as they made circuit after circuit of the cottage, barking and yelping.
That evening marked the beginning of a long weekend in New Brunswick. Shortly after 6, the air grew rich with the smell of barbecuing beef and pork from our neighbor’s barbecues. All three dogs—lying on the deck, bellies full of supper—sniffed deeply. Leaving them to savor the aroma, I went inside to clear away our dishes.
I returned to the deck 20 minutes later and found Bruiser missing. When 9 o’clock arrived and he hadn’t returned, I set out to look for him. Yes, most of our neighbors informed me, he’d visited their parties but he was no longer around. Finally, as darkness and mosquitoes gathered around me, I headed home. I hoped to find him on the deck. No such luck.
When the rest of our household settled to sleep (“He’ll be along,” Ron said confidently as he headed off to bed). I curled up on the couch with a book to wait… I awoke with a start when I heard paws on the deck. Stumbling to my feet, I switched on the outdoor light. There Bruiser stood, a big T-bone thick with meat clamped in his jaws.
“Where have you been?” I scolded, opening the door for him.
He glanced up at me disdainfully, then staggered up the steps and past me into the cottage, clutching his booty. He reeked of fat and barbecue sauce.
He looked up at me again, gave a weary sigh, then walked toward the kitchen. There, with a tired grunt, he climbed onto the couch that had become his bed at our house. It took the last of his energy to bury his booty under a pillow. The task completed, with another sigh, he settled himself on top of it and closed his eyes. His belly, bloated with the results of foraging from party to party, stuck out beneath him.
Nancy arrived home several days later. With big news. And a request. She’d decided to join the armed forces. Could we keep Bruiser while she was away at boot camp and basic training?
“Well…okay,”we agreed. For some reason, Molly chose that moment to demonstrate a trick I’d been trying to teach her for several days.
She lay down on the deck and covered both eyes with her paws.
Bruiser, sitting beside her, grinned.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But which one does she really prefer?
It’s become an early-Sunday-morning ritual. I stumble out of bed, throw on a ratty robe and wait for my apartment buzzer to go off.
It’s Bill, Becky’s other dad, come to take her for a seven-mile hike up into the wilderness trails of the Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Becky is my two-year-old black Lab. Bill, a steel-grey, captain-ofindustry type, is the capable, commanding and alpha dad who gives Becky the exercise and discipline she desperately craves, while I am the lazy, good-fornothing beta dad she’s forced to live with all the rest of the time.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes two daddies to raise this dog.
My old dog, Sam, died earlier this year; Sam was a once-ferocious mutt who had calmed down over the years, so much so that I could read the paper while taking him for a slow mosey around the block. Becky, recently acquired from a down-onhis- luck screenwriter, is a fancy-shmancy dog, an AKC-registered hound with more papers than a Mayflower descendant. She’s sleek and black and beautiful, like a well-oiled seal, and at 61 pounds, too strong and energetic for me to handle without a Halti, a choke collar, a bridle and a stun gun. (Just kidding about the stun gun.) Laurie,my wife,who’s also in better shape than I am (let’s face it,Dom DeLuise is in better shape than I am) is a mere slip of a thing, and prefers a genteel game of tennis to being dragged by a dog who’s pulling with the power of a tow truck in pursuit of every squirrel, bird, butterfly and blowing candy wrapper that crosses her path.
Which may be why Bill has volunteered to perform this unusual form of community service. Becky leaps up, yipping, at the first sight of his Ford Explorer, her paws scrabbling at the side door, her tongue hanging out, her neck straining at the Louis Vuitton collar and leash.(My wife’s idea,may I add.) Bill gets out to let her in, and I cannot help but admire his taut abdomen, his well-muscled calves, his take-charge attitude; even though he’s a few years older than I am, Bill hasn’t let himself go. I, on the other hand, never really had a hold on myself in the first place.
While Becky and Bill are off hiking and running and romping in the hills, and Laurie’s tearing up a tennis court somewhere, I go back to bed (on a well-timed pick-up day, the blankets are still warm), then set another alarm to get up and throw together a sad excuse for a brunch. Some coffee, some grapefruit juice, some pricey (but good) muffins from the new City Bakery in the Brentwood Country Mart. It’s the least I can do. Laurie tries to get home from her tennis match around the same time as Bill—often accompanied by his equally fit counterpart,Mimi —returns with Becky.
But sometimes they’re all a bit late, and that’s when I have too much time on my hands—time to think about how this all looks. My dog needs another man to give her what she requires, and everybody knows it. She needs the strong, sure hand I do not know how to provide. When we first got Becky, we briefly hired an expensive trainer, a big woman with short-cropped red hair and baseball cap,who observed my dog-walking technique. For a block or two, I did my best to control Becky’s wild and powerful lungings while at the same time trying to reason with her, to explain to her why she needed to stop pulling, or spit out the snail she’d just crunched between her perfect white incisors. “You’re a man of words,” the trainer finally said, fixing me with her gimlet eye. “Yes, I guess I am,” I said, modestly. “I’m a writer.” “Dogs don’t understand many words,” she said, taking the taut leash from my hands and effortlessly removing the squashed snail from Becky’s slavering jaws, all with a magical gesture of some kind and a simple “Leave it.” The dog looked up at me as though thinking, Is that all you wanted? Why didn’t you say so?
Why indeed? Because, as this dog has brought home to me, I lack the dominant gene. I cannot impose my will on anything: I can barely retrieve a soda from a vending machine. Do Becky and Bill, I wonder, laugh about that as they march over hill and dale? What do they say about me and my slothful habits? Does Becky implore Bill, her other dad, to—I can hardly contemplate this—adopt her, to give her the active, fun-filled life that I,with my sedentary habits and submissive nature, can never do?
Do they talk about my bald spot?
When the buzzer goes off again, and Becky bounds into the house, racing for her water bowl, everyone is all smiles.Bill says something nice like, “Oh, Becky’s home again, and wants to see her daddy.” And Mimi exclaims over the muffins.My wife, in her tennis duds, crows about her latest victory, and I try to turn the topic to a book review or an inflammatory editorial—whatever I’ve managed to read in the 15 minutes I’ve been up since the last alarm went off. But nobody’s fooled, not even Becky. We’re all wondering how long we have to keep up this charade, how long we have to go on pretending that Becky needs two daddies at all. I offer everyone more juice, and try to hold the pitcher—still pretty full and heavy—steady as I pour. But everyone, I fear, can see the tremor in my hand. Becky, in particular, doesn’t miss a thing.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Caught in the act
My daughter, an only child, has been deprived of sibling rivalry, so she does what comes naturally: She takes it out on The Dog. “You love him more than me,” she’ll pout, and of course most times I protest that it isn’t possible.
But who could blame her for suspecting differently? When she was nine, Kelly even caught me singing her “special” song to the dog. That was a bad moment. I never confessed that her anthem was once her father’s particular song in our halcyon childless days, and I had just adapted it for her. Kelly also went to pieces whenever I called the dog by her affectionate nickname, “Tootsie,” and I admit that I sometimes did it intentionally— what fun is being a mom if you can’t glory in a bit of passive aggression?
Interspecies relationships are hopelessly muddled in any household, especially since a family usually gets a dog for a kid. That’s a big mistake, because young kids don’t really like to take care of a dog and tend to tire of them the way they lose interest in the newest PlayStation game. I ignorantly passed down the kid/puppy tradition from my own family: I had received a puppy as a gift when I was eight, so I promised my kid one at the same age.
At the time, I forgot that I’d never once taken care of my dog, even though my family lived in a rambling exurban community where dogs didn’t even have to be walked. Filling her water dish was my only responsibility, but I still couldn’t hack it—at one point, after paying rapt attention in fourth-grade science class, I tried to convince my mother that my dog’s water dish was empty because of evaporation, not neglect. And so it went with my kid, who foisted off the dog care on me on its second day with us.
Sitting every day with me in the home office, the little dog became inordinately attached to me, as creatures are wont to do when you walk and feed them. But I felt swamped with duties, and it was a terrible recipe for family friction, going on for years as I struggled to do my work, stay interested in my marriage, prepare meals, help my kid with her homework, and walk and clean up after the dog. The puppy, a pudgy, short-legged Jack Russell Terrier named Silver, became the most pleasurable part of the domestic equation, providing endless hours of writerly procrastination. But when it came to my other duties, I was frequently seething in that way only moms can seethe—in a deep Vesuvian mode where the steam coming from one’s head is always present, threatening imminent eruption.
I don’t mean to suggest that the dog was perfect, but he was certainly the least demanding member of the household, and, being smart, he caught on to the family dynamic right away. Silver the dog knew that the kid was important, and he had to pretend to like the young hairless pup, even though she moved quickly and unpredictably and mostly tortured him. As a canine actor, Silver rivaled Brando or De Niro—he was positively Stanislavskian—and any visitor to our house would think he adored the kid. He would let her pick up and fondle him while he fell limp in her arms and traveled to his Canine Happy Place, wherever that was.Maybe it was a mountain made out of rawhide, or, more likely, a wonderland with unlimited access to all of her stuffed animals. But after Kelly fell asleep or let him down from the couch, he would immediately go upstairs to her room and destroy whatever toy she loved the most. It was uncanny —he always knew, and he had puppy teeth that could cut through granite. In a way, he was a doggy Mahatma Gandhi, practicing an extreme form of passive resistance. Hold me, hug me, bug me—but in the end, I will destroy the material goods you hold dearest!
Once, when my kid was 13 and the dog was five, she started descending into her customary self-pity. “You love Silver more than you love me,” she said, waiting for the usual reassurances.
That day I’d had some lousy phone calls and, later, a few glasses of wine.My kid was a teenager, so I figured she might as well know the truth. “Oh yeah?” I hissed.“You think I love you more than The Dog? Yeah, you’re right—why wouldn’t I adore The Dog? Why not? He’s always happy to see me when I come home. He eats anything I put down, and he listens to anything I say. And I don’t have to put him through college!”
Even I felt crummy during the stunned silence. I still feel crummy. That’s why, now, four years later, I am offering an olive branch, an apology of sorts. Well, actually, I’m offering my daughter something I think she will enjoy:
However badly you feel about The Dog, and my attachment to him, and however much you might resent it, consider this: I once threw away our dog’s beloved sexual partner right in front of him. Be glad that I can never do this to you.
Yes, it’s true. When I was moving from the East Coast to California, I stood in my daughter’s bedroom, took a large plastic bag and threw a big carnival stuffed bear into it. As I turned around to take the bag downstairs, I saw Silver.He was sitting quietly, looking on, and I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but I could swear I saw a small tear roll down from his left eyelid and hit his furry snout. I was discarding the only animal he’d ever truly loved.
Some background here: Of course,my dog was neutered, as all good doggies should be, however traumatic it is for their human relatives.My own mother didn’t trust me to neuter my dog, so she offered to take care of Silver when he was five months old, and when she returned him, he was missing some gonads. I thought he was much too young, and was vaguely upset, but figured she was probably right—I might not have done anything until a fellow doggy-park regular showed up on my doorstep with a strange litter of half-and-half Jack Russell Terriers and German Shepherds. Because, from the beginning, Silver had sexual charisma, attracting girlfriends twice and thrice his size.He was a regular Don Juan/Napoleon type with a seemingly high libido for a puppy, and I have the bad back to prove it: One morning at the park, Silver’s earliest girlfriend, a Mastiff puppy named Gertrude, ran right through my open legs trying to get away from my dog’s advances, and I ended up on the operating table with a shattered disk. Silver always went for the tall girls.
We first noticed Silver’s secret sex life with stuffed animals about a year after he was neutered. He would disappear for about 45 minutes up the stairs and then come back in a triumphant rush, scurrying on his little legs as fast as he could down the stairs, then stopping on a dime and looking up with his eyes glazed over and his tongue hanging out. If he could have produced a human sound, it would have been “Ta-da!”
I knew he’d been doing something bad, but when I arrived at the crime scene, I still didn’t get that my little boy had discovered himself. I was confused that I didn’t find anything chewed up—no pencil shavings, no wooden toy cars half masticated. Instead, there was Kelly’s four-foot-long stuffed whale, marooned in the middle of her carpet.
It was always the same: To the dog, size mattered. Kelly had half a dozen oversize toys that suddenly became members of Silver’s bordello. No shelf was high enough to prevent him choosing a partner for the evening. I felt like a pervert, or Jane Goodall, following my dog stealthily up the stairs to spy on his sexual sessions with a stuffed whale, two giant teddy bears, a large swan and, his personal favorite, Cinnamon the Pony. First he would steal the thing off the shelf, using any guile necessary, and many jumping gymnastics. Then he would arrange it carefully facedown, and then…well, he would go at it. If I yelled at him, he would leave the room for a bit and then return furtively. I have to admit that I even experimented with positions, seeing if he would “do” an animal if it were lying face up. Despite his small stature, if Silver found one of the animals that way, he would spend as much as 15 minutes flipping it over and arranging it “doggy-style.”Mind you, most of his sex partners were at least twice as large as he. But he was filled with shame if I should interrupt his session, and would walk around painfully, dragging his erection behind him. I felt badly for him—he had been robbed of his sexuality and was only practicing a charade that allowed him to establish his masculinity. For all I knew, maybe he thought that the sex menagerie was there for his use.
I should have stopped all the madness much earlier, especially since he eventually slipped a disk in his back and had to be rushed to the veterinary emergency room after a particularly strenuous tryst.
“Umm, I suppose I should mention this,” I said to the veterinary student doing triage. “He was having sex with a large stuffed teddy bear when this happened.”
The vet I was talking to looked all of 12 years old and pretended at first not to understand what I was saying. I went on, explaining that Silver had a habit of pleasuring himself with giant stuffed mammals.
“You better put those away right now,” he said sternly, although I could imagine him telling the story over beers later that night. “You cannot leave the toys around, or your dog could suffer serious consequences. Do you want him to be unable to walk?”
And so Silver’s sex life ended, I thought, that day. It was just as well. I hadn’t intended to actually illustrate sex for my child, but I found out a while later that she had often hung out in her bed watching the little dog romance the fake fur. “Eeew,” she said when she admitted it. I was horrified. What kind of a mother was I?
A bad one, it seems, for both my human and canine progeny. For although I put away the giant stuffed animals, hiding them on high shelves in locked closet around the house, I forgot one chintzy big bear, a very cheap, stiff old carnival prize that Silver had chosen only once in a pinch—stuffed with cardboard or newspaper, she was not cushy like the others, and her butt was a bit flat for a guy like Silver,who preferred some junk in the trunk.Yet he had certainly dallied with her at least once, and now, in the process of moving, I had unearthed her, only to throw her away again as he looked on.
Silver and I were both celibate for a long time in California until I decided he needed a new toy and got a stuffed Labrador Retriever that was certainly not life-size, but a bit larger than his other chew toys. Evidently size no longer mattered to my little dog, who was now middle-aged, and I returned from an errand one day to the familiar huffing and humping I’d heard in his halcyon days. He was doing it again! I watched and let him do what he needed, and then took the new dog and threw him away, too.
Sex partners come and go so quickly in doggyland, don’t they? But whenever I feel guilty, I think of how simple Silver’s breakups were, and how it might have been better if a few of my lovers had been kicked to the curb in a garbage bag. It would have been especially great to be able to do that with my daughter’s first boyfriend, too.
“I Done Them Wrong” ©2007 by Cathy Crimmins, included in Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, From The Bark Ediors; forthcoming October 2007 from Crown Publishers. Used with permission.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Out of the doghouse, into pajamas.
"This", my dad said, emphatically pointing to the small pink and lime-green house with gingerbread trim located in the middle of our cement patio, “is for dogs. That’s why they call it a doghouse.”He leaned over so far that his unlit cigar tumbled out of the center pocket of his overalls. Cursing, Dad snatched up the cigar and blew on it. Once satisfied that it was free of dog hair and dirt, he resumed his lecture. “A place where dogs reside.Where canines dwell.Where fourlegged creatures slumber.”
“Geesh, I get your point,” I told him, offended that he needed to state his case so unequivocally even though I had been pestering him nightly about our dog Fritz’s inadequate sleeping quarters.
“Dogs outside. People inside!”Dad stared at me for a good five seconds to make sure he had gotten his point across. I threw my hands up in the air to show him that I understood what he was saying, but not why.He stomped off to the garage to enjoy his cigar in the only building in which he was allowed to smoke it.
For centuries, Fritz’s ancestors had trekked miles in the snow to dig wayward travelers out of avalanches in the Swiss Alps, but I was convinced he couldn’t withstand the nippy winters on our small farm in Washington State. I pleaded with Dad to allow our St. Bernard to sleep in my bedroom, but he remained steadfast.
My room overlooked our pastel, pinstriped, two-story garage; a cement mixer; and a burn barrel.However, it wasn’t without its luxuries: It was the only bedroom with a door leading to the outside. Thus, Fritz could climb in bed with me any time the temperature dropped below 70 degrees, and no one needed to be the wiser.
Seduced by this taste of indoor life, Fritz took to bolting into the house whenever the opportunity arose. Crouching low by the side of the house, he’d patiently wait for his chance to shotgun through the door. By the time his victims picked themselves up off the ground, Fritz would be comfortably settled in the center of the living room floor. Dad would try to roll Fritz over and pick him up. This often took numerous tries. When he was finally able to get Fritz up on all fours, he’d drag him across the floor in what we called Fritz’s “ski position.” Once Dad managed to get Fritz outside, he’d triumphantly slam the door shut and lean against the wall to catch his breath and enjoy his victory. Then my mother would open the door.
It might have been the physical toll the struggle took on Dad, or perhaps it was his secret admiration for Fritz’s stubbornness and persistence—whatever the reason, he eventually relented. Fritz slept by the wood stove on a piece of carpet Dad cut especially for him.
Heidi arrived shortly after Fritz passed away. A German Shepherd/wolf mix, Heidi never bounded up to greet us or allowed the cats to sleep on her stomach like Fritz did, but she let us throw our arms around her, enduring it until we lost interest and wandered away.While Heidi actually enjoyed the doghouse, Dad reasoned that she was far too independent; fearing she might run away during the night, he allowed her to sleep in the living room. Although we consistently found dog hair on the couch, no one could catch her in the act. And because no one was willing to get up at two in the morning, we turned a blind eye and ran the lint brush over the couch cushions daily.
Dad had a purebred German Shepherd as a boy, and constantly told us tales of his blinding devotion and intelligence. To him, the German Shepherd was the pinnacle of the canine world.When he heard through the work grapevine that a co-worker was getting rid of her German Shepherd, J.D., he couldn’t resist. My older brother and I were skeptical— Heidi adored our sister Wendy’s dog, Barney, a Husky mix, but showed absolutely no interest in other dogs. Thankfully, however, she got along fine with J.D. And while the woman at Dad’s office gave us a long list of J.D.’s dietary needs, she failed to mention the fragility of his emotional state.
J.D. would sink into bouts of depression and seek refuge in the only place that brought him comfort: behind the toilet. If we had had more than one bathroom, we could have worked around this, but we didn’t. So, at least once a week, we’d find J.D. sandwiched between the toilet and the wall, nipping and growling at imaginary threats.
Company posed a problem. Mom’s assurances that they could just ignore the large snarling dog didn’t seem to comfort our guests. It was only when they looked as though they were ready to straddle our nearest potted plant that Mom would relent and coax J.D. out of the bathroom with her soothing voice and a loaf of bread.
In a moment of desperation, Dad took J.D. to a dog psychologist, who informed us that J.D. had emotional issues. “Are you kidding me?” Dad yelled. “For $75, I could have told you that. I’m the one who has to turn around every time I sit on the toilet!” J.D.’s self-imposed bathroom exiles became part of our family routine and continued until his death. Heidi took J.D.’s death as she did his arrival, in stride. But shortly after, my parents went to my sister’s house to help her bury Barney, who’d succumbed to pneumonia.When they returned,Heidi went up to my mom and sniffed her, then went into the doghouse and refused to come out. She died a few days later on the morning of her vet appointment; my dad was prepared to load the doghouse on the back of the truck to get her there. Heidi was the last dog to ever use the doghouse.
The doghouse wasn’t even an option for Bodie, a black Lab I adopted from the Humane Society when my parents were on a trip celebrating their retirement. My mother made Bodie colorful bandannas to wear, and every morning he’d walk up and down the hallway barking what was referred to as his “I am the world’s greatest dog” proclamation. A proud dog with visions of long beach walks and mountain-climbing adventures, he was in and out of the vet clinic during his relatively short life with broken bones, arthritis, hip dysplasia and, finally, bone cancer.My parents said they wanted to keep Bodie close to them, so he slept in their bedroom.
Some years later, I moved to New Orleans and finally acquired my own dog, Dixie, a black-and-white Pit Bull. When Dixie was five months old, I started working longer hours and learned that the building I lived in was being sold. I called my parents and asked if Dixie could live with them for a few months until I got better situated. They adamantly refused. I pleaded. I promised. Finally, Dad shouted, “We’re not getting a Pit Bull. No way! That’s final.” Dixie flew out the next week.While my parents might have envisioned a snarling beast, they were surprised to find a very small, very happy puppy waiting in a carrier at the airport. Bodie was wary of her at first because of his fragile condition, but Dixie attached herself to him with such devotion that even he was won over.
The first warning sign that Dixie was going to become a permanent Northerner came when Mom said she was too busy to talk because she was making matching bandannas for Dixie and Bodie. The second sign was when I came home for a visit to find Dixie snoozing on the furniture—this was furniture I wasn’t allowed to sit on. My grandmother’s recently reupholstered antique couches were now covered in sheets with circus clowns and polka dots.
The third sign was Mom dressing Dixie in homemade flannel pajamas with pigs and hearts all over them. “You know we like to sleep with the windows open, and Dixie gets so chilled,” she explained. The final sign came when Dixie took to sleeping in my parents’ bed. While Bodie was the first dog to sleep in my parents’ room, no dog had ever breached the sacred ground of their bed. Dixie started at the foot of the bed, then moved to the middle, and now sleeps shoulder to shoulder with my parents.Mom argues that this is perfectly acceptable, since they never allow her under the sheet. “She’s a snuggler,” Dad brags.
My sister is perplexed by this gradual turn of events, but sums it up as emptynest syndrome. Except, she says, instead of the dogs being mere replacements, they’re more like upgrades.When I was a child, our dogs ate generic dog food dumped by my father into an old kettle that served as a dog bowl. Now, before my dad’s morning coffee is hot, he’s already cooking Dixie her meal: hamburger, oatmeal, veggies, brown rice and powdered milk. “That’s my little sensitive- tummy girl,” he coos, pouring the feast into her monogrammed bowl. The only time we had hot food in the morning was when we stuck our Lucky Charms in the microwave.
Did we wear our parents down, or was it time and circumstance that allowed them to become the dog owners they were destined to be? Without children to raise and a clock to punch, did they finally have the opportunity to truly appreciate the souls of these multifaceted creatures? Or, perhaps, just as older siblings pave the way for the youngest child, Dixie has Fritz,Heidi, J.D. and Bodie to thank for paving the way from the ramshackle doghouse to the middle of a luxurious king-sized bed.Whatever the reason,my parents learned with age that dogs don’t just fill time in our lives; they fulfill our time of life.
During one of my recent visits home, I awoke to find Dad asleep in the recliner and Mom camped out on the couch. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh,”Dad said, pulling himself out of his chair and stretching his stiff body. “Dixie was kicking a lot last night.” I was appalled. I loved Dixie too, but this was too much. Dad had just had knee surgery; Mom was getting over a cold. There had to be limits. I loudly expressed my opinion. “Shhh,” Dad scolded. I looked down at Mom, still asleep on the couch, wrapped up in one of her afghans, and apologized. Dad gave me an irritated look, then tiptoed down the hallway and quietly closed the bedroom door.“Don’t you know better? Dixie likes to sleep late on weekends.”And then he went out to the garage to smoke his cigar.
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