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Culture: Stories & Lit
Dogs Bring Comfort in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Tragedy
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
How to Train a Goose Dog
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
The Maven: A Poem by Edgar Allan Pug

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.”

News: Guest Posts
Doggy Blues
A short story from across the pond

“Dear Sir, Your dog is driving me mad. I can’t concentrate. I should be obliged if you would bring your hound under control. Yours faithfully, E Brown.”

  Paul tore up the note and threw the bits towards the waste bin. Rambo raced after them, growling ferociously.    “She says you are driving her mad,” he said.   Rambo wagged enthusiastically. Paul looked in dismay at a torn cushion, chewed slippers and broken houseplant. “She can’t concentrate. She says I’ve got to control you.”   Rambo threw himself at his lead and dragged it to Paul’s feet, prancing with anticipation at the thought of rabbits and cats to chase. It had been a long day and now it was his turn for some attention. He launched at the door, nearly knocking his head sideways in his excitement.   “I suppose I’d better take you out despite the fact that you’ve been a bad, bad dog.” Paul looked at his new neighbour’s prim garden and raised flowerbeds. He guessed she was a prim person. Her handwriting was as neat as her curtains. If E Brown had trouble concentrating, then that was her problem.   “Come on, Rambo, let’s go hit the park.”   Paul commuted daily to his job. He was often late home because of train cancellations. It was frustrating, especially when he knew that Rambo had probably been watching for him since about four o’clock. Rambo was his brother’s dog and he had promised to look after him till he returned from abroad. That had been a year ago.   “Rambo... what am I going to do about you?” Paul groaned, as the dog brought over a wet and sticky stick for him to throw for the twentieth time. He threw it into a tangled bush. Rambo bounced after it, fresh as a frisky foal. The dog was full of unleashed energy. He’d been saving his adrenalin all day.   The next evening, Paul opened the front door and gasped at the scene of total chaos that met his eyes. Torn newspapers, chewed chair legs, his pyjamas heaped on the floor and clearly slept on. Teeth marks in packets of biscuits, a curtain hanging off its hooks, dirty paw marks all over the sofa.   Rambo was hiding under the desk, ears back, making himself as small as possible and hoping he couldn’t be seen.   “You bad dog,” Paul shouted. He had all this clearing up to do just when he wanted to put his feet up with a glass of cold beer. He heard an envelope drop through the letterbox. Rambo shot from his hiding place. Paul came second by one-fifth of a second and wrenched it from Rambo’s teeth.   “Dear Sir, Your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. He is bored and lonely. Kindly buy him some new toys or I shall never finish my work. Yours faithfully, E Brown.”   “What am I to do with you, Rambo?” Paul raged, getting out a dustpan and brush. “I can’t move, not with this mortgage, change my job, far too difficult, give you away. What would my brother say? There’s such a thing as family responsibility.”   Rambo agreed, sheepishly. He sat, waiting patiently for Paul to finish the clearing up, not letting the man out of his sight. He was fiercely dependent on his new owner. Panic set in every time Paul went out of the door.   Paul always took Rambo for a quick stroll before breakfast. He tried a good talking to before he left for work.   “Now please try and be good. No hunting and attacking prey all over the house, no helping with the housework, no making your own supper. We’ll go for a longer walk this evening.”   Rambo leaped up onto the windowsill as soon as Paul left for work. He barked loudly at the postman, at the milkman, at every passing car, at any bird that dared alight on their tree and hysterically at the snooty cat from next door. The cat sat on the dividing wall, turning an elegant back on the noisy dog.   “Dear neighbour,” began the now familiar writing. “It’s not that I dislike dogs. I like all animals, even ones with behaviour problems. Please do something before I explode with frustration. The first fifteen minutes are the worst. Yours truly, Elinor Brown.”   Paul was just about to toss the note into the bin when his attention was caught by the last sentence. What did she mean? The first fifteen minutes were the worst.   He put an advertisement in the local paper: “DOG-SITTER REQUIRED FOR MAD DOG. INSURANCE NEGOTIABLE. BOX NO 138.”   He was inundated with replies. The envelopes fell through his letterbox like snow. Rambo had a terrific time especially with the second post. He shredded the lot, buried them under the carpet, surrounded himself proudly with the fruit of his labour. Paul tried to fit the pieces together while Rambo licked his ear. “It’s no good trying to get round me,” Paul groaned. “This is hopeless. Dozens of helpful people and I can’t put together a single address.”   The only address he could put together was the one next door. Elinor Brown had written again, no doubt issuing a writ.   Paul decided to go round on bended knee. He washed his best shirt, finished off the drying with the hair dryer. He knocked nervously on the door expecting a sour-faced dragon.   “Come in,” said Elinor, a young woman with a sweet smile. “I’ve been expecting you.”   “Rambo and I have come to apologise.”   Rambo leaped in, high on hopes of demolishing the cat. Elinor began to laugh. “This is Rambo? A small King Charles Spaniel?”   Rambo hung his soft and floppy spaniel ears, his big brown eyes eloquent with desperation to be liked. She rubbed his curly coat.   “My brother’s dog,” said Paul.   “That explains it. Rehomed dogs surround themselves with the smell of their new owner, worried that he’s not coming back. They can find your scent on almost anything. So they chew it, tear it up, curl up on it when the panic is over. But if they think that their owner’s return means anger and shouts, so they also get guilty and even more anxious.”   “I’m trying to find a dog-sitter, but Rambo tore up all the replies.”   “Why not me?” said Elinor. “You could leave him here. I work from home.” She nodded towards a big computer. “I analyse consumer products. Companies send me sales figures and I make charts, project swings. My cat has a cat-flap. She’ll soon get used to Rambo.”   She already regretted her last letter. She hoped it had been torn up. In her anxiety she dropped her pen. Rambo hurtled after it, thrashed it lifeless, then returned it to her, tail wagging enthusiastically.    “We could celebrate by going for a walk,” Paul said. “Would you like to come with us?” Elinor spun her wheelchair forty-five degrees so that she could see the expression on his face. “Cool,” she said.

 

Culture: Tributes
In Tribute to Maggie Mae
Maggie Mae is buried – there just beyond my kitchen window

 

Maggie Mae is buried – there just beyond my kitchen window under the summer canopy of ancient apple trees   Appropriate don’t you think? Her round head, round eyes framed in apples, her greeting a dizzying  round go round.               Today the wind picked up             and a dozen apples fell             one split in two revealing             A chambered heart--necessary dark seeds.               At dusk deer will tiptoe hushed             into the palpable shadows             and I will hear her bark bark             at their trespass, will see her run                                     run again, run wily and whole                         first into the tall grasses                         before the sweet turning back                         toward the light of home.

 

News: Guest Posts
Four Winning Tales
True dog folk wielded pens for Bark’s 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest

They all have at least one dog, and three out of four, have at least two. It’s not really a surprise that the winner and three finalists in The Bark’s 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest would share their lives with dogs. I mean, why else would they read Bark, if not out of some direct connection to our central subject matter? But what I find interesting is that these writers don’t just scoop poop and kibble, they all go an extra mile for canines—beginning by rescuing dogs to volunteering at shelters, reporting about dogs, and, of course, weaving them into the cloth of their fiction.

Since we announced our contest winners last week, I’ve been able to read the winning stories and e-chat with the authors. (Bark readers will also have the opportunity to read all four stories in the magazine and brief interviews online over the course of this year.) Each story sheds light on the power and/or plight of our companions. In her winning tale, “Village Dogs,” Bim Angst provides a poignant look at how two people read each other through their feelings for a dog—in this case, a brindle Pit Bull who bears a very strong resemblance to one of Angst’s own dogs, Graciella. (Look for this story in the April/May issue.) A biologist in Maine, finalist Don Katnik created a fictional dog haven in “The Stepping-Off Place.” He drew his inspiration from a real-life island that might soon be off-limits to free-roaming dogs. Unable to buy and preserve that favorite place, he created one with words.

Experienced writers and newbies submitted to our contest. For finalist Shawn Kobb, who is a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in the Bahamas, “Street Dog,” about a homeless man and a stray, is his first story to be published. Congratulations Shawn! At the other end of the spectrum is Katerina Lorenzatos Makris (a.k.a. Kathryn Makris), who after publishing 17 novels, decided to take a stab at short fiction—and wrote her story, “Small Change,” in the last two days of 2009, submitting it minutes before the midnight deadline. “Small Change” follows a flinty old woman when she visits an animal shelter to adopt. Many of us know life often changes at a shelter—don’t worry, no spoilers here.

Thanks again to everyone who submitted a story to our contest. I hope you enjoy reading our selections and feel inspired to throw your manuscript into the ring next time.

News: Guest Posts
We Have A Winner! Update.
In The Bark's 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest

The editors of The Bark are very proud to announce that Bim Angst is the winner in our 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest. Selected from hundreds of entrants, her work, Village Dogs, was the unanimous choice for both its literary merit and its insightful depiction of the human-dog bond. Village Dogs will be published in the April/May issue.

Bim Angst teaches writing at Penn State, Schuylkill, and lives in Saint Clair, Pa., with her three dogs, all of whom she adopted from the local shelter. Their spirits imbue her story, which is rich and dense in its understanding of the complex emotional dance that happens between a man, a woman and a dog.

Editor in chief Claudia Kawczynska was thrilled with the response to Bark's first writing competition, and sends her thanks to all the writers who submitted their work.

 

UPDATE: Three additional fiction entries by contest runners-up will be published in future issues of The Bark. These include an untitled story by Shawn Kobb of Dulles, Va.; Small Change by Katerina Lorenzatos Makris of Encinitas, Calif.; and Stepping-Off Place by Don Katnik of Hampden, Me. Congratulations!

We'll follow-up on the blog with more about the writers and their winning stories.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An Autographed Copy of Speaking For Spot
It’s a great gift.

Every year about this time I start to hyperventilate at the thought of the holiday shopping that still remains. No matter how early I start (even the previous December!), I never seem to have it done as soon as I’d like.

This year, I’ve got a little help. Nancy Kay, the author of Speaking For Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, has a great idea. She will personally autograph a copy of her book and send it directly to the dog lover on your list. She even offers the option of dog motif gift wrap, and will enclose any gift cards you include with your orders when she mails the gifts to the recipients.

That is my idea of easy shopping! If only Dr. Kay also had insightful books on every topic I need to finish my shopping: golfing, geocaching, fishing, quilting. . . Then I’d probably be done by now.

(FYI: Nancy Kay and her book have been discussed before on Bark’s blog, including in an entry that discusses her interview on NPR with Terry Gross.)

Culture: Stories & Lit
Brute Strength
Severn House Publishers, 224pp., 2011; $28.95

It’s been way too long since the last Holly Winter mystery hit the shelves — 2007, to be precise, when All Shots was released. But finally, oh finally, our patience is rewarded with the 19th in the series: Brute Strength.

Fights, frights and mysteries break out at every turn in this new book. Amazingly, none of them are of the canine variety. Rather, Holly’s family and friends are the ones doing the scrapping. Turning down adoption applicants for her local Alaskan Malamute rescue group doesn’t win Holly any points, either. The big story, however, is the way catastrophe seems to surround a new neighbor, a woman with a gorgeous and slightly overweight Malamute female, the latter of whom has her almond-shaped eyes on Sammy, Holly’s young Mal.

Add references to Jane Austen, clueless (and careless) breeders, and observations on real-life training techniques and the scientific investigation of dog cognition and you have a literary meal dense and rich enough for the hungriest Malamute. Speaking of which … Over the years, I’ve learned as much about the behavior of northern breeds by reading this series as I have from much more serious works. At least once, and usually more often, I find myself smiling in recognition as Conant describes a typical behavior — in this case, the mealtime feeding frenzy, which Holly chooses not to train her dogs out of: “I have seen sick and dying dogs become indifferent to food and refuse it altogether. These raucous displays of appetite are confirmations of health, and I revel in every leap and every shriek.” To which I say amen.

As she frequently does, Conant keeps multiple story lines going, wrapping them up tidily at the end, albeit with a major scare as part of the conclusion. Now, when’s the 20th Holly Winter mystery coming out?

Culture: Stories & Lit
Vesper: A Heartbeat at My Feet
The brief lives of dogs leave deep tracks.

I woke up in my warm bed, my hand automatically stretching to feel Vesper’s warm, silvery fur. I knew of course that she was not there. On an ordinary morning, I might actually have snuck out of bed, cautiously hoping that neither she nor my husband would wake and that I could brew coffee or even read an article or two in the paper without attending to their needs. Today my cozy kitchen was chillingly empty.

Most often during the past dozen years, Vesper had gotten up before me, her long body stretched against the wainscoting of the hall, waiting for her belly rub, her food, her walk. We shared the early hours of the day. I would pull on some clothes, and we would head out and make our way to the Brooklyn Promenade. We’d look at the harbor, Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the small boats, the Staten Island Ferry, Lady Liberty and the new park growing at our feet. Vesper would bare her teeth and growl at dogs who came over to “say hello,” and I would wearily explain to their owners that she was “scared” and “private,” not unfriendly. Even though she was 13, she was so slim and beautiful that people regularly mistook her for a puppy.

Vesper and I usually had more quiet time before my household, now consisting only of my husband, woke up. He was as crazy about her as I was.

Since our daughter was a toddler, some 50 years earlier, I never witnessed him being as openly affectionate to anyone as he was toward the dog. I confess that I was jealous. Sometimes Vesper responded to his entreaties; most often, she only accepted—demanded, really —caresses when she was in a mood. She always had a mind of her own.

Both my husband and I had grown up with dogs. Thereafter, our lives were too full and complicated to include canines. It was David, our grown son, who, for one of my birthdays, gave me Sasha, a wirehaired Dachshund puppy. It was an ideal gift for a writer living in an empty nest. Sasha and the books I created made me feel that I was still a fertile young woman. The dog was perfect company. In the apartment, he followed me from room to room, just as my children had done when they were small. In the morning after I straightened the house, we repaired to my study. Sasha curled up under my desk where my bare feet could touch his fur whenever I needed reassurance. I thought that he slept deeply, but once, when I cried while writing an emotion-laden passage, he rose in distress, ambled over and vigorously licked my bare legs.

Life is hard. David had been infected with the HIV virus at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He was fortunate in that the deadly virus went about its work without undermining his ability to enjoy life. I will be forever grateful that David let me be his care-partner and allowed me to try to pack the love of a lifetime into whatever time he had left. My husband and my daughter surrounded me with love, but their heartache was as great as mine. It was comforting that upon my return from spending time with David in San Francisco, Sasha let me know in no uncertain terms how much he had missed me and how relieved he was that I was back. David died in 1993, and taking the dog out three times a day, feeding, bathing and caressing him helped me regain my composure.

Four years later, when Sasha died, it was as if I had to relive all of the agony of my son’s death.

We thought that we were all done with dogs, but the next April we heard of an 18-month-old female wirehaired Dachshund who needed a home because she refused to learn to hunt. I liked that dog’s attitude and we went to see her.

“Try her for a week,” the breeder said.

“You can return her, no questions asked.”

Well, that was that. Vesper had never been on a leash or peed on asphalt, but she weathered the transition to city life. She was very different from Sasha— more even-tempered, less aggressive, less slavishly devoted to me. At first I considered her a poor substitute for Sasha, but gradually I fell in love with her determination, her quiet nature and the affection she showered on me and mine.

Soon after we got Vesper, we moved to our summer residence in Maine. The bark-less city dog fiercely defended our one wooded acre from neighboring pets, chipmunks and even the occasional ducklings approaching us by the lake. Vesper never trespassed on neighboring property, patrolling our land so precisely that I was asked whether we had an electric fence.

One day my husband and I took her up Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. We huffed and puffed for a good hour, but she scrambled ahead. When we reached the peak, our threesome met three fierce-looking dogs. Vesper barked; the other dogs called her bluff. An instant later, my dog had vanished. We all searched for her, but she was nowhere. Thirty minutes later, I abandoned the peak, believing that I had lost her for good. I met an upward-bound party. “Nice day,” they said. “Yes, but I lost my pup,” I answered tearfully. “Well, we saw a dog hot-footing it down the hill.” When we got down, there she was, f lat as a pancake, hiding under our car! She was always so good at managing her problems.

Vesper stayed with us for 11 years. Then she started vomiting. The vet gave her antibiotics. She got better, then she got worse and the animal who had eaten voraciously all her life was not even tempted by a spoonful of peanut butter. She got weaker and weaker, but maintained her clean habits, peeing and pooping on the street, trying as the vet said “to please.” She wagged her tail when my children or grandchildren came. Five days after she got really sick, we decided, together with our vet, to end it.

I am by now familiar with grief, but I was surprised by the intensity with which I responded to her loss. It was all so familiar. I held her while she received her fatal life-robbing injection. I had the vet put her in a box. I searched for a canine crematory, then was shocked by the unctuous prose and the prices. Unlike my son, whose apartment I had to empty in San Francisco, Vesper did not have many possessions, but there were leashes, food, drugs, feeding bowls and the many toys we had bought her over the years. I packed the latter in three bags to give to the fellow dogs in the house. The owners will probably throw them out—I would—but the idle gesture helped me.

I know that I will feel better— we humans have an amazing ability to recover from loss—but how I wish that I did not have to go through so much pain.

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