Kiki loves winter. He wears the season like a second skin. As I write this story at my kitchen table, he’s probably outside, lapping up the Canadian cold.
The snow delights and confounds him. It’s a mystery substance he futilely tries to solve by his powers of jaw and claw. Shovel snow off the backyard deck, and, as it powders through the air, he’ll discombobulate himself in a slacktongued fool’s quest to catch it in his mouth, cartwheeling on no fixed axis. Then he’ll go to the spot where it landed and he’ll dig, dig, dig, mining for that one elusive snowflake, and in the end, yet again, hit dirt rather than pay dirt.
In the park, he’ll bound through the thick snow like Tigger (who, let’s face it, is much more dog than cat). He seems to feel he owns the whitened park in a way that’s not true when the green grass is growing. Maybe it’s simply because there are fewer dogs outdoors on the cold days, for their owners’ sakes. Arriving back home, he’ll want out into the yard, so he can sit in the cold for hours, surveying his white realm like a little polar bear on the edge of an ice shelf, sniffing the air for scent of seal or squirrel. And at the end of the day, he’ll lie not at the fireside but by the front door, to feel its chill draft sneaking onto his back.
When I was in better shape, circa 1842, I’d take Kiki for cold runs around the reservoir in our town north of Toronto. I’d let him loose on the wooded paths as I plodded along in my 18 layers of gear. He would use the paths as a departure point for explorations of who knows what, and by the end of the run he’d be dressed in snowy icicles. He was happy.
I don’t know how he got this way. He’s a Bichapoo, not a breed apt to be confused with Samoyed or Husky. And he was born in June, so it’s not like winter is the first thing he knew. Maybe it’s my fault for leaving White Fang lying around where he could read it. Maybe he really is a miniature polar bear. Beyond that, I’m stumped.
Kiki loves winter, and that’s why he’s not our dog anymore. I landed a job in Abu Dhabi, fast-growing capital of the United Arab Emirates. In this Phoenix of Arabia, temperatures reach 120ºF in August. And it’s humid.
At first we planned on bringing him with us. But then I went ahead to Abu Dhabi while my wife and daughter stayed in Canada to, respectively, wrap up our affairs and finish the school term. I saw how scarce dogs are in the UAE, and we feared the heat could prove fatal to Kiki during the summer months. He’d known nothing like it during his first five years — what if he couldn’t adjust?
And so, when I returned to Canada for a week in December to gather up my family, we drove Kiki to his new home in a new town, with outdoorsy friends who we know will take good care of him. We visited for an hour, and gave them a rundown of his habits (yes, he gets his own stocking at Christmas). Then his new dad and sister took him for a walk in the snow. I could see his tail in the air as they went down a hill and out of sight. We got in our car and drove away. We figured it’d be less confusing for him if he didn’t see us leave.
I think we did the right thing by Kiki. It was more responsible to take ourselves away from him than to take him away from winter. But that’s cold comfort when we miss him, all the times we miss him.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, love isn’t enough
Paolo broke my heart. We parted at midday, on a bleak New York City sidewalk. Tall, dark and irresistibly handsome, Paolo never looked back. But this was no ordinary breakup.
I am still married to my husband of more than 20 years, and far from a threat, Paolo had been embraced as a companion for us both. Instead, this five-year-old black Labrador Retriever became a vehicle of guilt and anguish as well as a source of grinding tension between two deeply committed dog people. Our hearts were full of hope and happiness when we welcomed Paolo into our lives. Our souls were wracked with sorrow and shame when we gave him up.
It would be tempting to say that Paolo was not a homewrecker. But in truth, he managed to wreck just about anything with which he came in contact. Paolo ate pillows, photo albums, tax records. He killed several Kong toys and, on his second day in our house, took a hunk out of my husband’s hand while playing tug-of-war. We soon realized that what we had adopted was not a dog, but an 85-pound weapon of mass destruction.
Still, we were both hopelessly besotted, and determined to save Paolo’s canine soul. As with any off-kilter relationship, we believed we could fix it. Love would conquer all, right? Wrong. Sometimes the hardest lesson of all is learning that some damage needs real experts to repair it.
After the death of our elderly black Lab, about three months passed before I began trolling for another dog. On the Internet, Paolo looked perfect. He was a big, sturdy adult with a strong, square head and a glossy coat. But it was not so much his looks as his narrative that intrigued me. The rescue agency explained that five-year-old Paolo was a Bernie Madoff victim. His previous owners had lost all their assets when Madoff ’s fraudulent financial empire fell to ruins. Forced from their Park Avenue digs, they could no longer keep Paolo. Dog people tend to see the world — and financial scandal — in peculiar terms. All I could think was: bad enough that so many people had their lives upended by Bernie Madoff’s avarice, but a dog?
The rescue agency welcomed our application to relocate Paolo from Manhattan to a leafy hamlet near Boston. We were experienced Lab owners who promised long daily walks in a forest and summers in a seaside cottage. Our two previous rescue dogs had lived long, full lives. When we were invited to Manhattan for an interview and a chance to meet Paolo, the occasion was fraught with such expectation that my husband wondered if he should wear a suit.
A week later, I was back in New York City, this time with my car. It took two burly handlers and a mountain of treats to lure Paolo into the crate that occupied the entire back seat. Still, the canine behavioral psychologist — an occupation I had never heard of until then — assured us that Paolo would relax comfortably in a secure new environment.
In the weeks to come, I would remember the midwestern mother who shipped her adopted son back to Russia. When I read that story, I wanted to throttle the woman for heartlessly disrupting a child’s life. Now I reconsidered. Beyond his insatiable appetite for any object he could wrap his jaws around, Paolo also confused our rugs with outdoor surfaces. In what quickly became a pattern of daily phone calls and emails, the canine behavioral psychologist sounded indignant when I questioned whether this middle-aged dog was, in fact, housebroken. Then he admitted that the previous owners had Astroturfed their front hall to avoid taking Paolo outside.
Indeed, Paolo hated anything resembling nature. He ignored shrubs and trees and refused to walk on anything but asphalt. Squirrels bored him, and he disdained other dogs. His behavior was so troubling that I enlisted the help of a legendary, no-nonsense dog trainer. She quickly concluded our entire family would need daily sessions with Paolo. I wondered exactly how I was supposed to fit my job into that equation.
One immediate issue was what the trainer and the dog shrink agreed was Paolo’s attachment disorder. Briefly, this meant he would not let me out of his sight, challenging even my husband for my full attention. Imagine the surprise of my university colleagues when I showed up at faculty meetings with an 85-pound lap dog — who, as it happened, snored loudly. In a stroke of genius mixed with desperation, I engaged a professional dog-walking service to come to my office and take Paolo for regular strolls. Both the trainer and the doggie shrink agreed that this would help to both socialize Paolo and reduce his separation anxiety.
The same affable young male dog walker came twice a day — until day three, when he knocked on my office door and Paolo attacked him. This sturdy, six-foot-tall person was pinned against the wall, eyeball to eyeball with a snarling, lunging animal. Eventually, distracted by a leftover breakfast bagel, Paolo released his terrified prey. At that moment, I realized I could not trust this dog. What if he had turned on a child or an old person? Already, Paolo was more of a project than a pet. Now he had become a liability.
The trainer and canine behavioral psychologist concurred that Paolo should be reclassified as a special-needs dog. The shrink said Paolo had probably been in shelter shock at the rescue agency: that is to say, falsely subdued. He said owners often misrepresented the animals they brought in for adoption. And he thanked me profusely for the long memo I prepared describing Paolo’s behavior outside the shelter.
None of which made the decision to take him back any easier. On the four-hour drive back to Manhattan, Paolo slept peacefully until we edged into the city. Suddenly he shot up and shoved his snout through the small opening in the window, deliriously inhaling his beloved urban smells. I was weeping when the behavioral psychologist met us on the sidewalk, and I cried most of the way home. Paolo, the dog shrink promised in an email the next day, was doing just fine.
This story has a further happy ending. After taking Paolo back to New York, I felt like a heel, unworthy of dog ownership. Then one day I found myself poring over Labrador rescue sites. This time we moved cautiously, sending a cool-headed friend to check out a promising candidate we identified in another state. Jackson, a 5-year-old black Lab, is asleep beside me as I write. He is the love of our lives.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Dogwise Publishing, 136 pp., 2010; $16.95
As human to a couple of large, highly prey-driven dogs, I was thrilled and relieved to learn of Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book, Chase! I had done a fair amount of research over the years on the topic but hadn’t learned much beyond the fact that good management and a fail-proof recall were in order. Until I read Chase!, that is.
Every good training program begins with a solid foundation, and Reinhardt’s is no exception. The fundamental element of the program is what Reinhardt calls “communicative walks,” which she defines as “using the walk as an opportunity to build a strong bond between you and your dog through interaction and communication,” including discovering “sausage trees” together, among other activities. (The sausage tree is one of several unique and creative training ideas.)
Reinhardt provides instructions for humanely and effectively training behaviors ranging from basic to the more unusual. She also includes a chapter on mental stimulation, in which she emphasizes the importance of play and outlines games that are appropriate and inappropriate for prey-driven dogs.
While I found everything in the book to be of use, I did not find everything of use to be in the book. Two things in particular were conspicuous in their absence: instructions for training a fail-proof recall and a serious discussion on working with dogs who have killed prey animals.
Regardless, Chase! is definitely worthwhile if you’d like to be able to allow your prey-driven dog off leash. Reinhardt’s training philosophy is right on: “The success of anti-predation training doesn’t just depend on how well you train your dog to steer his natural tendencies in an alternative direction— toward you—but also how well you concentrate on the dog as your partner.”
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
When the one who’s always there suddenly isn’t
On the day duncan arrived, i began to dread his death. He was a seven-week-old puppy and I was 36; we were both young, but I knew I would outlive him. It’s a fact that every dog person conjures up, and each of us wonders at one time or another why we put ourselves through this guarantee of grief.
But for all the time I spent worrying about Duncan’s well-being, the one thing I never contemplated was the possibility that his vet would die.
Jay Shapiro had practiced in Manhattan for decades before becoming an “at home” vet. He made the rounds like an old-fashioned country doctor, and by the time we met him, we had two patients for his care: Bucky, a guileless puppy who was afraid of children and skateboards, and Duncan, a 10-year-old who was afraid of nothing except the shadows that were creeping across his field of vision, signaling the end of his ball-playing days.
Duncan rebelled madly, futilely, against the aging process. He was a field dog who was designed to work. By living in New York City, we had deprived him of his main calling — fetching fallen birds in the marsh — but we provided a worthy substitute: a tennis ball in perpetual flight, which he caught again and again with acrobatic grace and pure joy. He was the Derek Jeter of dogs, and when his eyesight dimmed, he suffered in a place we couldn’t reach. He snarled, he bit, he withdrew.
Jay would come over, stand patiently in the brightest patch of light he could find and let the old dog come to him. He seemed to understand in his bones the particular mix of physical and emotional pain Duncan was experiencing. He referred us to an animal behaviorist and eventually, with medication and special care, Duncan passed through the bad patch. He was creaky, yes, but he was present. We and our little team of medics had enabled Duncan to re-engage, and it was perhaps our greatest gift to him.
A few years ago, while on vacation with his young son, Jordan, Jay had an accident on an ATV. He managed to throw the boy off the machine before it rolled on him, but he wound up spending several weeks in the hospital and almost lost his foot. A year later, he was hospitalized again, and this time, all 10 of his toes were amputated. It took him months to become fully mobile, but he was determined to walk on his own steam. He ordered a special pair of sneakers — two sizes smaller than his previous shoe size — and at first, he hobbled, then he limped, then he walked. He dragged his little hospital-on-wheels behind him and seemingly could do anything, including getting to his knees on a cement floor to examine a dog who was in too much pain to be hoisted up on a table.
At the very end, a week shy of his 16th birthday, Duncan couldn’t stand up for his evening walk. That morning in the country, he had trotted around the yard. Just a few strides, really, but he was himself, smelling the air, even managing to find and pick up an old tennis ball. But by 8:30, we were back in the city and he was ailing. We called Jay. “I’m getting in the car and I’ll be there in an hour,” he said. “We’ll see what we need to do. You just hang on. I’ll be there soon.”
It was the last night of the July 4th weekend and Jay lived on Long Island; the traffic was bad, and it took him more like two hours. He arrived with another man, a young technician in hospital scrubs. What I remember from that night is Jay talking to us, helping us make the decision. Making it clear that it was a decision. He would get in his car and return to Long Island, he said, then come back in a few days and see how Duncan was doing. We could wait.
But it was clear it was time, and the peace of Duncan’s passing was punctuated only by the fireworks that simultaneously erupted along the Hudson River. I asked the tech to carry him downstairs in a blanket because I didn’t want to upset anyone in the elevator. This fellow — alas, I never learned his name — had probably been settled in front of the television with a baseball game and a beer when Jay called and asked him to drive to Manhattan in holiday beach traffic to help out an old dog. Obviously, he didn’t think twice; Jay was going to work and so would he. All the way down five long flights with a heavy load in his arms, this young man spoke about how Jay inspired him — of his dedication, his kindness, his intelligence.
The next morning, Jay called; he had done a late-night necropsy and found pervasive cancer. “I just wanted you to know for sure that you made the right decision,” he said. “You saved him suffering.”
Six weeks later, Jay was back to remove a strange growth from Bucky’s paw. I wrestled the dog onto a table and held on for dear life as Jay anaesthetized the spot and cut it away. I was terrified. Also, it was August in Manhattan; it was over 100 degrees and I was embracing 60 pounds of writhing fur. Jay had brought Jordan, now eight, who was playing a video game on the couch; they were leaving for a week’s vacation the next day. “You’re doing great,” he smiled. “Are you okay?” There he was, more than six feet tall and teetering on toosmall feet, doing the most precise surgical maneuver I’ve ever seen on a jittery animal in mediocre light on a kitchen table, and he was checking on me.
Then in the background: “Dad, can I download an app on your iPhone?”
Four days later, Jay was dead. His last email to me, written the day before he died, assured us that Bucky’s growth, while a tumor, was benign, and his surgery was curative. “The leaves are starting to change color in New Hampshire,” he wrote. “Hope all is well, will check in next week.”
We didn’t know about his death until several weeks later. His phone had been disconnected and he wasn’t replying to emails, so I finally called his sister. On the phone, she told me many things about Jay, including that when he was hospitalized the previous year, he had spent a week in a coma. She, his best friend, sat beside him, holding his hand. Finally, he emerged and, at age 62, taught himself how to walk, and work, again.
We hadn’t known. He was so stoic, so tough. Like Duncan, he just soldiered on, got to the other side of whatever pain he was feeling, whatever obstacle his body threw at him. And no matter what, he was always there. We never had to worry, never had to dread. All we had to do was pick up the phone and call. “You just hang on, I’ll be there soon.”
He was loyal, constant and true. It hit me like a gale force, the realization that I had taken so much for granted about this man and the role he played in our lives. By the time I understood, he was gone, and it was too late to say goodbye.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Home is where the dog is … living and working in Africa
He greeted me at the gate. tall and muscular, a rich, deep, tan color with black ears and snout, he was gentle and curious, yet reserved — a stoic African giant. I wanted to become great friends and yet wanted to remain detached, to avoid the inevitable heartbreak when I left.
I had arrived in Kampala, Uganda, a few days previous to begin my field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. I was excited, energized, curious and anxious to meet the people I would be living and working with over the next six months. Though I felt well qualified for work as a nurse in a large HIV/AIDS project in northern Uganda, I was less certain about my ability to live with 10 complete strangers and adapt to the extended separation from family, home and pets.
I have great difficulty with leave-takings and goodbyes. Yet over the previous decade, I had shifted my career toward international work, knowing it meant leaving the comfort, security and love of family: my husband of 31 years; my aging mother; my sisters; my dog, Helen; and my cat, Netty. I have left them behind on numerous occasions in the past, first for three- to four-week volunteer assignments, then for twomonth stays during my summer break from academia. The longest I had been separated thus far was a three-month stint in Ethiopia. The six-month commitment required by MSF was daunting. Yet, it was my opportunity to satisfy a lifetime passion — to use my nursing skills to help people in all parts of the world. Working with MSF was a dream come true, and I could not pass up this opportunity.
While it may sound irreverent, it is much more difficult for me to leave my pets than it is to leave my spouse. I rationalize this as follows: My husband understands the concept of time, and knows exactly when I will return. He has been involved in the decision making and the preparation, and we maintain contact on a regular basis through email and weekly phone conversations. For him, I am not totally gone, as I am as far as my pets are concerned. For them, the anxiety begins with the onset of packing. Helen, dejected, stares at me, her head resting on her paws. Since she doesn’t understand the concept of time, I am simply gone — returning? or not? It isn’t until the plane is in the air that I begin to look forward to my destination.
When, after introductions and a brief orientation in the capital, I learned that one of my housemates in the field (an eight-hour drive north) was a dog, I relaxed, becoming less anxious, confident that all would be OK. I knew it would feel more like home because of the dog. Even then, I had no idea how helpful the dog would be.
His name is Tasia. The story is that he had been born in the MSF compound in this large town in northwest Uganda about seven years previous. His mother, also an MSF dog, had died of cancer a few months after Tasia and his brother were born. Tasia has been living with the rotating team of ex-pats that come and go at various intervals ever since. Stability is provided by the support staff (cooks, watchmen, housekeepers), who feed him daily and provide companionship.
Our relationship began slowly enough … I was happy to greet him each morning and at the end of a long working day. He was always there at the gate, nose through the slats, anxious to see who was arriving home. He knew who belonged and who did not. He was not permitted in the house and rarely attempted to test those boundaries. In the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa, the unscreened doors were left wide open day and night. We all spent the majority of our time at home on the veranda or in the yard, so Tasia had lots of company.
He came in the house just two times in the six months that I lived there. One day, when it was raining, windy and cold, I came out of my room to see him lying just inside the living room door, never venturing to move farther into the house. Another early morning, I found him chasing Maay, our goat, out of the house — these two were generally good and tolerant partners on the outside. It was Tasia’s role to keep the other animals in line, and one of his favorite games was to run in circles with the ever-present lizards that scampered around the yard.
After a week or two, I noticed that Tasia frequently stood at the front gate looking longingly at the people and animals passing by outside — goats, cows and chickens roamed freely on the road. While the yard was quite large and Tasia had plenty of company, he rarely went off the grounds. I began taking him for daily walks, using my belt for his leash. I enjoyed the exercise and the diversion from work, and I loved introducing Tasia to the neighborhood children. Our daily routine helped me feel comfortable in my new surroundings and introduced me to our neighbors, who were not accustomed to seeing a large dog being walked on a leash. More importantly, it felt like home for me — the same routine I had with my own dog. It made me feel closer to Helen to walk Tasia each day.
It is not the norm in this area of the world for a dog to be walked on a leash. Dogs remain inside gated compounds to guard the property. There were surprisingly few stray dogs roaming the neighborhood streets. By and large, the local people were frightened of dogs, and crossed to the other side of the street when we walked by. Sometimes I heard the muttered word simba (“lion” in Swahili), and it’s true that Tasia was almost as large as a lion, and was similarly colored.
Eventually, the children became used to seeing the two of us every afternoon and would wave gleefully as we walked by. Some would even run toward us, always stopping a good distance away, afraid of getting too close to the dog. Tasia proved to be a great canine ambassador. He sat readily on command, and I taught the children how to allow the dog to smell them, to approach gently, and to feel his soft and velvety fur. Tasia was always calm and charming, and the children became brave and confident as they gradually developed the nerve to touch him.
Our relationship grew, and soon, Tasia began to expect his daily or twice-daily walks — in the early morning before work and in the evening when I returned home. On days when I was running late, I would feel guilty when those soulful eyes looked at me with longing as I walked out of the gate without him. On Sundays, when the office was empty, I took Tasia with me. He would greet the watchmen, explore the yard and the nooks and crannies of the office, then lay on the cool cement floor as I emailed home. My teammates began teasing me that I was spoiling Tasia and would have to take him back to the U.S. with me when I returned. I must admit it was tempting; Tasia was truly a regal dog and I knew I would miss him greatly. I believed he would also miss me, since no one else provided him with daily walks.
I began scheming about how to get him home, but in my heart, knew that the plane ride was just not something to which I could subject him. Each leg of the journey would require a minimum of 10 to 12 hours in a crate. I have seen dogs that have made this journey — the large ones limp for days, and all look sorely stressed. Tasia belonged to Africa.
My work was challenging, both from a cultural perspective and an emotional one — after all, it was an HIV/AIDS project in an area of limited resources, where sad things happened on a daily basis. But on particularly difficult days, when it all seemed too much to bear, there was Tasia waiting at the gate, with his soft touch, his gentle nuzzle and his constancy in just being there. We would sit on the veranda, me sipping a beer while he rested his head on my knee. I cannot begin to describe how this helped lessen my burden and give me the strength and encouragement I needed to continue. While it helped to destress with my teammates, nothing filled my emotional needs like the quiet, loving acceptance of that dog.
The day I left to begin my journey home, I walked Tasia very early in the morning, wanting to spend as much time as possible with him. I explained that I would be leaving, and that he would always be in my heart. I thanked him for his love and attention, and his friendship. He then did something he had never done before: he gently licked me on the cheek. He understood; he had been through this before.
Some time after my return, I worked with an MSF nurse who had taken part in the same project. She reported that she ran with Tasia every morning, and assured me he was happy and healthy and thriving with his rotating circle of friends — the ever-changing MSF team. For me, he will always be the great African dog who saved my soul and gave me the love and encouragement I needed while living so very far away from home.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Throwaway dogs provide comfort in frightening times
Mr. bones was only a few days old when someone left him and his littermates next to a dumpster behind a grocery store in Fairmont, W.Va. Fortunately, the squirming box of Beagle-mix pups was discovered before the trash was mechanically compacted and trucked to a landfill. We met the timid puppy a few weeks later; he cowered in the back of a stainless-steel kennel at the Marion County Humane Society & Rescue and yelped in fear when we tried to coax him out. Then, trembling, he managed to wag his white-tipped tail. We took him home.
Seven years later, on a Friday afternoon in April 2007, these memories returned as I watched a student with a blonde ponytail stroke Bones’ soft ears. Her blue eyes, bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, filled with tears as she frowned and said, “I really miss my dog at home.”
That afternoon, 20 or so dogs spread across the grassy lawn next to Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory on the Virginia Tech campus. Like Mr. Bones, they sprawled in the sun and gladly accepted hugs, pats and treats from the loose crowd of students. An aged Chihuahua in a maroon-and-orange jersey with “Hokies” printed across the back scrounged for biscuit crumbs. A fawn-colored Boxer mix bounded from one group of students to another. Nearly every dog was dressed in Virginia Tech–themed gear; Mr. Bones wore a maroon bandana with a black ribbon pinned to it.
Four days earlier, on April 16, the worst mass shooting in United States history had begun inside the gray limestone walls of the dormitory that towered above us. A 19-year-old freshman and a 23-year-old resident advisor had been fatally shot by a fellow student; two hours later, across campus, the same disturbed student shot 45 people — 30 of them fatally — inside classrooms in Norris Hall.
The names of the dead and injured had slowly been released; graduate teaching assistants, athletes, international students, world-renowned scholars, fathers, an ROTC cadet and even a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor were among them. Everyone had lost someone. I had lost a favorite student, a focused, kind, intelligent 18-year-old biology major with enormous potential and a smile that could brighten even the most boring class. She died studying Intermediate French along with 11 classmates and her professor.
The university cancelled classes for the rest of the week, and by Tuesday or Wednesday, most students had gone home, back to their grateful parents. But others remained, either by choice or because they had no way to leave or nowhere to go. It was for these hollow-eyed, sleep-deprived students that we gathered outside the dorm with our dogs.
I squinted in the April sun as more and more rumpled, dazed undergrads trickled out of the dorm, some singly, some in groups of two or three. At first they seemed surprised to see a pack of maroon-clad canines, but after a moment or two, they cautiously approached and finally found themselves cross-legged on the grass, stroking the sun-warmed fur of a friendly hound.
“My dog at home looks a lot like this one.”
“My mom is coming tomorrow. I hope she brings my dog.”
“I really missed my puppy this week.”
“Who brought all these dogs?”
Earlier that morning, an email had circulated through Virginia Tech’s veterinary school, where my husband Jesse was about to begin his fourth and final year of study. Members of a student organization, the Animal Welfare Club, had an idea about how to help the traumatized students who remained on campus, and a few hours later, we assembled.
Southern Virginia’s rural shelters are often overcrowded and operate on shoestring budgets; euthanasia rates are staggering. Veterinary students involved with the Animal Welfare Club fostered dogs and cats from the local shelters, extending the animals’ lives. Often, the fostered animals became permanent companions to the future veterinarians. Many former shelter dogs now milled around on the lawn: a yellow Lab mix with three legs and soulful brown eyes; two or three brindle Pit Bull mixes, tongues lolling; stubby-bodied Chihuahua crosses; a leggy black Greyhound mix. The majority, however, had obvious Beagle heritage.
A student in a maroon tee shirt with a maroon VT painted on her cheek approached and knelt in front of Mr. Bones. He looked up at her, blinked against the sun and sniffed the air. She ran her hands over his ears and he wagged the tip of his tail. She brushed her black bangs out of her eyes and stared at him seriously, without smiling or crying. After a few moments, she stood, looked at Bones and sighed, then spun and hurried down the sidewalk, folding her arms over her chest. Another student soon took her place, and another after that: Bones would look, sniff, wag; the student would pet his ears, his neck or his white chest, then smile, cry or sigh.
Like these students, Mr. Bones had persevered through difficult times. He almost didn’t make it past puppyhood; he survived being thrown out with the trash, and then he survived weeks at the shelter. And then, as soon as we got him home, we realized he was sick. He vomited his meals and continued to dry-heave, his small rib cage expanding and contracting. He developed diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. His eyes dulled and he became lethargic. We rushed him to the vet, who diagnosed our new little puppy with parvovirus, a highly contagious and often deadly disease of the intestines.
Mr. Bones had to be hospitalized and rehydrated with subcutaneous, then intravenous, fluids. He lost muscle mass and could barely stand. When we’d visit him, he could only move his eyes and the tip of his tail, which twitched when he saw us approaching. I sat on the tile floor outside his hospital cage and wept. I could count his ribs. I could see his tiny hipbones jutting under his smooth black-and-tan fur. He was only 10 or 12 weeks old and had already suffered so much.
“We know you’ll do what’s right for Bones,” our wellmeaning family members said. They meant, “We think you should have Bones put to sleep.”
But after a week in the hospital, he began to show interest in food again. He wolfed a bowlful of chicken and rice and kept it down. Then he could stand. And soon he found his voice, his Beagle-y woo woo wooo! We took Mr. Bones home, and in no time he became the shoe-eating, couch-destroying, puppy-breathed monster we’d expected.
As the afternoon grew warmer, more dogs and more students made their way to the lawn. Another Beagle mix in a Virginia Tech football jersey joined us, as well as a small black Terrier in a gray baby-tee. As I watched the wagging tails and shell-shocked students, it occurred to me that there had been no dog skirmishes, no growling and very little barking. These were not “service” dogs; some had been well trained, of course, but none had an official title. There were no therapy dogs or assistance dogs or dogs who could lead the blind. Most were dogs who had been thrown away — abandoned on the side of a highway, left tied to the door of an animal shelter, turned out of a kennel after years of breeding. Maybe some, like Bones, had been treated literally like garbage — left by a dumpster, not even worth the effort of being driven an additional two or three miles to the county shelter.
A few nights earlier, I had thrashed myself awake after a violent dream. Like many, I hadn’t slept soundly since the shooting, and I wasn’t sure if I’d been sleeping or just replaying horrifying scenarios in my subconscious. Either way, I stared at the ceiling in our dark bedroom and started to cry. Soon I was sobbing and shaking. When I began to choke, I sat up. I couldn’t catch my breath. Jesse woke, too, and Mr. Bones uncurled himself and sat in front of me on the bed, his ears half-lifted. “Breathe,” Jesse said, putting his arms around me. “It’s OK. Just breathe.” When I stopped hyperventilating, Jesse got up to find some tissues. Bones calmly stared into my eyes as though waiting for me to do something; I stroked his ears and then his shoulders. Then I hugged his whole body. He rested his chin on my shoulder and I felt him sigh.
I won’t claim that Mr. Bones is perfect. He’s skittish to a fault, chases squirrels and often employs selective hearing. He attempts to roll in or eat (or both) other creatures’ feces. He barks at the neighbors. But Mr. Bones possesses a gift — certainly not a unique gift — perhaps a gift common to all dogs: he knows how to help heal. And he does it effortlessly, without the promise of reciprocation, without uttering a word. His patient brown-eyed gaze, graying muzzle, silken ears, smooth black back and, of course, his white-tipped tail can salve even the deepest, rawest hurt.
The shadows were lengthening by the time we left the dorm’s lawn. Mr. Bones padded along the sidewalk beside us, pausing every few feet to sniff lampposts and flowerbeds. He would glance up at me, wag, then resume. His maroon bandana still hung around his neck. I had never been more proud of him.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The chaser in the rye
Dogs have always played an important role in my life. My earliest memory is of me astride our small German Shepherd/Husky mix, dog-back riding. No saddle horse was ever as well-trained as that dog. As I grew, dog riding became impossible, so I focused on more traditional canine pursuits: sit, heel, lie down, stay. Training our dogs became an obsession with me, and no methodology was too bizarre if it achieved the desired result.
I recall, for instance, the time I decided to teach our longcoated German Shepherd, Caitie, to speak on command. My family watched dubiously. I stood before her, firmly commanded “Speak!” and then myself “woofed.” At my first “bark,” Caitie cocked her head to the side. I repeated the procedure. The third time I said, “Speak,” Caitie leaned forward with an eager “woof.” I rewarded her with a treat from my coat and an effusive hug. From that time on, Caitie “spoke” on command. The fact that she also began barking at other times — when she wanted to come in, or go out, or for no real reason in particular — rendered our success somewhat less meritorious.
The next time I resumed my dog-training pursuits, the goal was nothing as frivolous as entertainment. This training would benefit our livelihood. My family owns a farm that produces winter rye as one of the crops. When all other crops succumb to snow and freezing temperatures, the rye endures. The tender roots hold the precious topsoil in place through winter’s cycles of freezing and thawing, preventing erosion. Then in the spring, the limp green shoots grow tall and stiff. It is at this time that we mow it and bale it into square straw bales that we sell for decoration, mulch or construction. It is a valuable crop … if it weren’t for the geese.
Each winter, thousands of Canada geese migrate to warmer climes, and each winter they tarry at our farm. And eat our rye. Some years their voracious feeding has completely decimated our crop. My great-grandfather used to combat Canada geese by firing a twelve-gauge shotgun in the air. When that no longer scattered the flocks, we tried a loud bird cannon. The resounding booms scared the geese for a while … but only until they grew accustomed to the regularity of the noise. Then it was back to grazing as usual.
About this time, my affection for training dogs came to my aid. My current dog was a tri-colored Sheltie named Bailey. By breeding, Bailey was a herding dog. By practice, he was a couch potato. Bailey’s former owners lived in the suburbs of Chicago, so his natural skills of bunching and directing sheep were, well, underdeveloped, to say the least. I, however, was undeterred. Bailey was a purebred, pedigreed herding dog; with a little schooling, breeding would tell. So I began a training regimen designed to take my dog from laid-back house pet to aggressive goose-chaser.
In any program of this sort, the first goal is to create pleasurable associations with the desired outcome. In other words, the dog has to think he does his job because he likes it, not because he’s ordered to. I determined to connect “geese” with “fun.” Training began the first time a flock of geese flew overhead honking loudly. Stopping in my tracks, I pointed to the sky and said breathlessly, “Geese, Bailey! Geese!” Bailey, of course, had no idea what “geese” meant, but being highly intuitive he knew it was exciting. He lifted his little black ears, circled me at a run and barked frantically. Within a very short time, any mention of “geese” elicited this exuberant response. Step one accomplished.
The next step was to transfer his enthusiasm from the word “geese” to the act of chasing geese. This proved slightly more difficult. One day I took Bailey to a field full of geese. I waved my right arm in the direction of the fowl: “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” My dog yapped and circled and jumped and cavorted … but he never once headed toward the desired objects. Utter failure.
I recalled my experience with Caitie. Perhaps a demonstration was required. Since the geese still sat there placidly eating, I commenced immediately. “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” I called, running toward the geese while waving my arm in their direction. Bailey loved this new game. He ran alongside me, periodically circling and barking. When the geese finally took flight, I got the impression it was more out of sympathy than fear.
I do confess that the incident undermined my confidence, but not for long. After all, it was only the first attempt. Next time would be better.
It wasn’t. Nor was the third or the fourth or the fifth. I couldn’t understand it. My dog was smart. At the slightest movement of my hand, he would sit, lie down, stay (more or less), come or go upstairs. He had a working vocabulary on a par with most college students. What was the hang-up with Get the geese?
I understood Get the geese. Sometimes I found myself stopping mid-sentence when I heard geese approaching: “Geese, Bailey, geese!” I got to the point where I would pull my car over to the side of the road when I saw geese eating, let the dog out of the car and run at them pell-mell yelling, “Get the geese, Bailey!” Walking back to the car after one such episode I had to ask myself, Just who’s training whom here? I almost quit trying. The only thing that kept me going was my brother’s smug look after each abortive attempt and his condescending, “That dog will never learn to chase geese.”
Perhaps Bailey sensed my despair. Perhaps the months of rigorous repetition did their work. Perhaps he knew what I wanted all along and just wanted to see how long he could keep me running around rye fields like a woman possessed. I don’t know. All I do know is that one day as Bailey and I walked my horses to pasture, we skirted a rye field being ravaged by geese. Saying anything was useless: My hands were busy with three 1,700-pound horses. I wasn’t chasing geese this trip.
That’s when it happened. My dog suddenly took off across the field, his tiny body barely skimming the dirt. Silently he hurtled toward the geese. Within yards of them, his telltale bark exploded. So did the geese. Black-and-white Vs scattered into the air, squawking indignantly. Bailey turned and trotted in my direction. Two impertinent ganders settled back to the ground. Bailey turned and barreled toward them again. This time they took off for good.
I stood at the side of the field, my jaw brushing the tops of my boots. Bailey stopped at my feet, his tongue lolling and his tail wagging. I stretched my arms as far as the lead ropes would allow and ruffled his perky ears. I couldn’t believe it: I had finally trained a goose-dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Once upon a table shiny, while I trembled, meek and whiny, Under a dizzying dose of chloroform too pungent to ignore, While I slobbered, half-sedated, certain something grim awaited, Sure enough, the vet I hated paraded in and closed the door. “Booster shot,” I ruminated. “That is what this visit’s for. Just a shot, and nothing more.” While I let my thoughts thus wander, Doc examined me down yonder, Leaving me not one bit fonder of the guy than theretofore. Long he eyed me, clearly scheming, scalpel lifted, cruelly gleaming, All the while, his face was beaming, dreaming of his evil chore. What, I wondered, had he meant when, just before he’d closed the door, He’d whispered to me, “Nevermore.”
So intent was he on snipping precious parts not meant for clipping, That he scarcely heard me yipping, yipping as my flesh he tore. Written there, upon his pocket, in red thread that seemed to mock it, Such a name upon his smock—it shocked me to my very core. Shocked was I, and stirred and shaken, shocked and shaken to my core, Not to mention, very sore. When at last the nightmare ended, gradually my stitches mended, Due to tender care extended by the owner I adore. Nonetheless, I felt quite bitter, for no stud was ever fitter, And I’d only sired one litter, with a chocolate Labrador, Six puppies with a Labrador her human family called S’more, Who birthed them on a hardwood floor.
Now that I am ten years older—hard of hearing, stiff of shoulder— Memories grow ever colder of my youthful days of yore. Rest assured I’ve not forgotten him who did the deed most rotten, Leaving me with balls of cotton, at the fertile age of four, A fate that I could not ignore when, at the fertile age of four, My love life ended evermore.
Though fur grew back that once was shaven, on my rear is still engraven, On my tender groin engraven, in that spot erstwhile so sore, Words that cause my loins to quiver, heart to break, and spine to shiver, Loud and long, I cried a river o’er that deed I yet deplore, Words etched by the carving maven, craven surgeon I abhor— “Neutered by Yul Suffermore.”
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