Culture: Stories & Lit
Dear Adoptable Dog:
Please find attached my curriculum vitae, submitted for consideration for the position as your person. As you can see from my history, I have a lengthy and proven track record of excellence and responsibility in all aspects of pet worship. I can provide documentation in the form of photo albums, memorial stones, clothes with muddy paw-print stains and memories etched in my heart.
I am not only hard-working and have a great sense of humor, I firmly believe in three things: bringing home a fresh-roasted, grocery-store chicken every week (yes, the kind you will smell before I round the last corner); giving you your bedding right out of the dryer when it’s at its warmest and fluffiest; and finally (my most fervently held belief when it comes to dogs), never talking on a cell phone while walking a dog.
I hope you will consider me for the position.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Welcome to our 75th issue. When we launched The Bark almost 18 years ago (before email became the ubiquitous medium it is today), we relied on traditional “pamphleteering” to campaign for off-leash recreation. That humble eight-page broadsheet—the first incarnation of today’s magazine— showcased articles similar to those in this glossier version.
We set out not only to help dogs (and their people) by advocating for dog parks but also, to chronicle the nascent modern dog culture. We were the first to cover it, and the first to examine the complexities of the humancanine bond. Researchers are now exploring this relationship, and some of the mysteries behind the world’s oldest friendship are being unraveled. However, all dog people know in their bones that no matter how far back our co-evolution goes, or how domestication came about, the core value of our relationship hasn’t changed much in the thousands of years since we teamed up. That continuity guides our course at The Bark.
The importance of adoption has long been a critical part of our agenda, and in this issue, we showcase innovative sheltering programs. It has been almost 10 years since we covered the plight of satos, stray dogs of Puerto Rico, and it’s encouraging to learn that progress is being made with the assistance of groups like Pets Alive Puerto Rico, profiled here. John Woestendiek examines college programs that reward students for fostering dogs and cats in their dorm rooms, and Science reporter David Grimm takes us on a visit to a unique Louisiana prison-shelter program that began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Endpiece by Elaine Sichel, prizewinner in our humorwriting contest, also perfectly complements this theme; in a lighthearted way, she makes it clear that we’re the winners when we adopt shelter dogs. Finally, our intern, Jennifer Senski, who is doing her PhD dissertation on the state of sheltering, puts out a call to the shelter community for assistance with data collection.
On other fronts, Jane Brackman considers the ways dated and misapplied definitions have been used to set breed standards, and Karen London tells us why it’s important that dogs learn to focus. Plus we discover that autumn is the perfect time to “revisit” Minnesota’s scenic Highway 61, with a drive along Lake Superior. Pieces on the value of probiotics, a recipe for homemade kibble, a home-visiting vet and the ways dog “germs” make our homes healthier round out the issue. Speaking of home, this photo shows our Kit—who recently turned five— striking a pose on a stone memorializing César Chávez at our local OLA in César Chávez Park. Many of you know that we adopted her and her sister Holly from a shelter in Kentucky. Both had rough puppyhoods, but were definitely making steady progress, Kit more so than her sibling.
Because many of you routinely inquire about the girls, I feel I must share some sad news about Holly, though it’s still difficult for me to write about. A few months ago, my husband was walking Kit, Holly and our Pointer Lola in the park’s off-leash area when an unexpected storm blew in; Holly, easily spooked, bolted. With Lola and Kit’s help, he searched for more than 45 minutes, canvassing the 100-acre park in a torrential downpour.
They finally spotted her in a parking lot, darting between cars, but before they could reach her, a car struck her, and she died instantly. I was home with our fourth dog, Charlie, nursing a broken ankle, when I got the call. Needless to say, we were devastated. At that point, my biggest concern was for Kit. I wasn’t sure how she would respond to this loss; she and Holly were inseparable, seeming at times to be one magical, eight-legged dog. Charlie turned out to be a great comfort to Kit (and to the rest of us, for that matter). Once again, I was reminded of how resilient dogs can be, and was inspired by it.
On to business matters. For a limited time, the digital version of each issue remains free for subscribers. Those who are concerned that we are abandoning print can rest easy, however, as we have no intention of dropping the ink-on-paper magazine. We too love print, but its digital cousin gives us another way to enhance our content and expand our reach. Last, a heads up: printing costs are skyrocketing and in 2014, we will be forced to increase our cover price and subscription rates to cover them. Now’s the time to take advantage of the current low rates and place a new or renewal subscription. Support independent publishing and help us get to issue 100!
Culture: Stories & Lit
In roughly two weeks, my dog Fletcher will be very sad.
And, he will most likely be going through withdrawal.
I say that because I fear Fletcher is addicted to eating cicadas. Granted, the dog has a well-documented history of eating bizarre things (even his vet has been amazed) but this is different. Prior to the cicadas arriving, I would have described Fletcher as your quintessential Golden Retriever. Friendly, good-natured and eager to please, he is simply a joy to have around. He comes quickly when called, insists on being by my side at all times and, honestly, likes me better than anything else in his world. Or so I thought. As a psychologist I’m trained to recognize addictive behavior and, in the past month, I’ve seen some disturbing signs from Fletcher.
Addiction has telltale signs. Addicts become fixated and pushy in their attempts to obtain their fix. They will travel to forbidden places to find what they think they need. They refuse to listen and will ignore the pleas of loved ones begging them to stop.
Normally sociable, they now prefer to spend their time pursuing their fix. Sometimes, they don’t even try to hide their use. You catch them in the act and they show no remorse, no shame. Often, they don’t even seem to care about your reaction. Many addicts are able to overcome their obsession but there is always the danger of replacing one addiction for another.
Maybe I’m overanalyzing so you decide. Here’s Fletcher’s recent behavior.
Normally the only time Fletcher lets me know he really wants to go outside is when he spots his nemesis, the chipmunk. Then he stands by the door and wines but if I ignore him, he soon stops. Now, after being outside for the first time of the day (apparently after getting his morning taste of the cicadas), Fletcher stands by the door, paces, whines loudly, then frantically searches the house for me. (The first time he did this, I thought something was very wrong, like a fire broke out or an intruder—seriously—he was that insistent). And Fletcher will not stop pestering me until I let him outside. Does that sound pushy and fixated?
There’s more. Usually Fletcher enjoys hanging out in the back yard, exploring the entire area, being careful to stay out of the flowerbeds (where he is forbidden to go). After about fifteen minutes he will sit by the door and patiently wait for me to let him back inside. Not anymore. After spotting Fletcher nosing around in my flowerbed, I repeatedly call him, but I’m ignored. I see he is eating something and beg him to stop.
Finally, he raises his head, chewing and swallowing quickly, and there is dirt around his mouth and nose. Fletcher looks at me like he has never seen me before in his life. I walk over to him, scold him, but he doesn’t seem to care. I take him by his collar and begin to lead him back to the house. Fletcher resists and I realize that he would rather be somewhere else than with me. I am heartbroken.
I am hopeful all this will change once the cicadas are gone and I’ll have my old dog back. The psychologist in me knows that recovery from addiction is difficult because once you’re hooked on something it is hard to give it up. Oftentimes addicts unwittingly substitute one addictive behavior for another so as not to miss the thrill of it all. I suspect this will be true of Fletcher as well.
You see, as I was walking Fletcher back to the house, I said to him, “You know, once the cicadas are gone you’ll have to go cold turkey to get over them.”
Fletcher jerked his head around to face me and with a gleam in his eye gave me a look that said, “Did you just say turkey?!”
Worth tuning in
A friend of The Bark’s just told me about BBC Radio 4’s marvelous series called Dog Days. You have only a few days left to listen to them. Each runs around 15 minutes, and discusses various aspects of dogs behavior and dog culture. Interviews with researcher, John Bradshaw, and other British dog aficionados. From My Dog Tulip and Flush to current research on dog love. As the programs’ presenter, Robert Hanks (along with his Whippet Timmy), describes it, “When we tell stories about our dogs, we are also telling stories about ourselves.” Give a listen.
Culture: Stories & Lit
It never fails to amuse all of us when all 12 pounds of Molly intimidates all 25 pounds of Baxter. And it is often. If Baxter even looks at Molly’s rawhide bone while she’s chewing on it, out comes a deep, serious growl from Molly. It’s a sound you would think impossible to come out of such a tiny muzzle. It’s almost like there’s a pit bull hiding behind the couch, and it’s throwing its growl. Every time I see it happen it reminds me that it’s not always the largest dog that’s the “big” dog. There have been instances where Baxter has gotten a little too close for Molly’s comfort, and she’s taken enough of a nip to leave a mark. What’s Maya doing when this is happening? Nothing. She just goes on blissfully chewing her bone. I guess when Molly joined the household she and Maya came to some kind of understanding —namely, that Molly would be Maya’s muscle. Which is sort of strange, since Baxter and Molly spend a lot of their time shadowing each other. But, make no mistake: Baxter is always Molly’s bitch, and not the other way around. However, Maya and Molly’s fondness for each other is at its strongest when they’re sleeping.
I doubt that it’s a girl thing. They weren’t littermates. Molly is three; Maya is almost ten. It’s hard to conceive of any logical kind of reason that they would look for each other when they’re looking to catch a nap or settle in for the night. But they do.
You can find them in any one of several body configurations, usually ones that would put a contortionist to shame. But there is always a common trait in their contortions: they are always touching. You would be as likely to find Molly resting her head on Maya’s neck as you would Maya doing the same to Molly. Each uses the other’s body as a blanket; each often buries her entire face under the other’s warm, soft belly fur. They have taken snuggling to an art form. But I think what makes an even bigger impact on me, and makes their behavior even more amazing, is the way that they deliberately seek each other out.
We keep the dogs in the family room at night. They all sleep on a big, brown, comfy chair that, at one time, I used to enjoy. Baxter is usually the first one to climb up the little Dachshund stairs at the base of the chair, where his bulk takes up most of the prime real estate. Next comes Molly, and without a growl or a glance she shoves Baxter out of the way and claims the choicest spot next to one of the chair’s arms. Baxter will lay his head down on the chair and start snoring away. Molly? She sits. And she waits. For Maya.
Maya is always the last to arrive. Part of that is age, and part of it is simply another of Maya’s inexplicable phobias. But, once in the family room Maya climbs the stairs, steps over Baxter’s bulk, and sidles up to Molly. It’s then they find a suitable configuration for them, one that best ensures two things: that they are warm and that they are one.
I am reluctant to say that I think that Molly and Maya have each other’s backs, because they are dogs. But because they are my dogs I’m going to say that they do. Maya and Molly have each other’s backs.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Darwin’s beloved Polly
Words cannot begin to express the loss of this great wire-haired white bushy animal. An eagle-eyed observer. A keen hunter. Lost to the world for today and tomorrow. And that’s not me I’m barking about, but my master, Dr. Charles Darwin, who never had much to say to us, submissive as he was; he loved collecting those words, as much as his bugs and his barnacles, lining them up just so, sometimes bounding up, paws flailing, speaking them aloud (while I lay curled in a tufted basket before a fiery hearth) and taking one turn around the study before collapsing back into his sagging leather chair on wheels that he rolled up to his desk where he scratched at his books some more, leaving a long, long trail of tracks for all who could read his scrawl. Those words would lead any seeker right to where you could find him.
But, I didn’t need to. I was always by his side. I was the constant day and night companion to the squire of Down House. (Underfoot by day and yanked by the mistress off his bed at night). I answer to Polly. He called me that, “Oh, my good, good girl Polly,” he’d say. A small white Fox Terrier with black button nose and pleading eyes, I jumped to his every command from the terrible day I got there to the terrible day when he was gone.
You see, we critters are not so much the seeing but the sniffing kind, and when I first came to Down my litter of puppies was taken away from me. I lay down and when I opened my eyes, the devil herself was sitting on my belly holding me down (drowned they were, though that hag never owned up, but there my little pups were, still in their sacs like stuffed wet socks) and I went wild, wild, oh so whining wild. Spinning like a whirling dervish. Dis-POSSESSED, I had nothing to lick. To lick down, the mine that moments before was me.
Dr. Charles, quiet as he was, somehow had an instinct for my trouble and gave me his hands and his face to lick for hours on end until I could lick no more, snuggling into his chest where I simply sat and got comfort from that strong heart of his, ’til our beats were one, and I finally closed my eyes again and fell into a long sleep. This was bonding.
So he was a hunter as you all know, and a seer into the dog condition, as only I can tell you, but he was a lot more. He was nothing if not methodical. His kind have things called clocks. I heard them gonging all the time in Down House, reminding everyone to fall in line, not to stray off, but who needed clocks with Dr. Charles making his way around the oblong gravel Sandwalk morning, noon and sometimes evenings too. It comforted him and it thrilled me to hear the tick-tock of his iron-shod walking stick as he made his way around the walk, every now and then pausing to push his tiny nose into the head of a flower. He wanted to have what we have and if ever there were a man who deserved our superior snout, it was Dr. Charles. When he wasn’t stooped over looking under duff or turning over stones for worms, he was arching his back and shading his eyes, scanning the sky, pointing in wonder at the high-flying tumblers and the double-crested Baldheads, and then making his way to the pigeon loft at the end of the Sandwalk to listen to the low cooing of the males and the trumpeters laughing, and to count the new little wispy squabs and take his measurements of the various Rock doves in the aviary. He said that keeping pigeons in coops had to be the world’s most boring hobby but you’d never guess it to see his face light up at the yawning beak of a peeper.
His walks would lead us sometimes beyond the brick walls of the Sandwalk, out into the wild “Big-Woods” of the Orchis bank, where one day I so spooked a squirrel that my bark sent him scurrying up Dr. Charles’ leg clear onto his back, while he stood still as a statue, with the mother screaming bloody murder from a beech bough. He seemed to know our ways or want to, and that made him able to creep up very, very close. His prowling about was always to look and never to pounce.
Sometimes he seemed more comfortable with us than with them. He was always letting me out on the verandah or in through the drawing room window, cheering me on to bark with an ear-scratching whisper “those naughty, naughty people.” He was tender and playful, egging me on, and when I was scolded by one of the naughty people, he commanded me to be “a good little girl, now sit still,” and then producing a small biscuit from his pocket he’d place it on the top of my nose, urging me to stay and then he’d wink and I caught it and we both jumped for joy and I’d stand at attention for more. Sometimes out of the blue he patted the funny patch of red hair on my back, that had grown in red after a burn, and say with special fondness “Oh, Polly, you’re your father’s girl, you are.” Though I don’t know who else’s I’d be, and never knew him. Now, Dr. Charles was bald up top, but something about that red tuft of hair delighted him and made me feel special. So who would quibble with that?
Whether I came from wolves or jackals and how my kind found their way from the wild to the trash heaps to the hearths of man doesn’t much matter to me. We did. But it does to them, because you see, they think they came from us … Well, it’s a long twisting story with lots of dead ends, but one of their word trails from people of long ago gives it away, saying: “The dog is what we would be, if we weren’t who we are.”* So if I sniff it right, they think they lost something.
Being of the here and now, my paws firmly rooted in this earth and not yesterday or tomorrow, my nose was always at his feet. So when he took to his bed, with fever, coughing and crying out, and his hands now cold and clammy and his breath smelling sour, there was a stinking rot about him and I sensed his body becoming stiff and still like the earth. The play skittered right out of him, like a rogue breeze escaping to fresh air. There was no more going out, no whistle, no ticktock of his stick, no tasting the salt of his hand.
I began to ache and slink away from a body whose life was leaving him as he cried to stay. With me! I held my breath, swallowed my cry and the lump in my throat began to swell. A muffled whimper was all I could do.
Oh, they made fun of Dr. Charles, the naughty people did, for being sappy about dogs, for claiming we could return affection. [But the loving tickle of my belly or the taste of his tears returned in kind is something of the nature only he and I knew.] Dr. Charles once caught me barking at a parasol that was idly lolling in the wind on the lawn and he likened that to people’s belief in spirits. But that last day when I padded in to find him lying in the arms of our mistress, the wind blew the curtain twisting to be let out into the afternoon sunshine … and I jumped and with all the wolf in me, let go a longing howl to follow.
But he didn’t respond. Not even a lick and a promise. They latched the window and drew the drapes and his time stopped. The wind had swept him away as if there were no tomorrow … leaving no scent, no trace, no heart to rest a weary head on.
The outside lost its color, its voice, its touch, its breath. The old dog had gone away. They took his body and placed it in a gonging church. They took mine and buried me in a sack under the Kentish Beauty apple tree in the orchard, which was forever bearing fruit. … It was as if we’d taken one last turn on the Sandwalk, and he’d skedaddled off the path, and lost track of time.
*An Aboriginal Dreamtime saying
Culture: Stories & Lit
If grief stops the clocks, turns time into that thick substance it feels nearly impossible to trudge through, joyousness has the opposite effect. Tee’s first job in our household was to enact his own boundless sense of JOY, to get the moments of our day to tick forward once again.
We really needed him in this regard. As we’d explained to the women at the shelter, we were depending on him to keep us up and out of bed, to free us from the prison that gloomy room had become. He was there to remind us how much work a rambunctious puppy is. We had no choice but to do this work. If we weren’t up for what it took to care for this dog, we’d have to take him back.
The Greeks named Necessity the mother of all Three Fates. This new dog of ours—acquired out of plain, grim need— seemed to bring us the message of how it’s Necessity that will swing open the hinge that shows the present moment might be built on the Past, but also predicates the Future. Our lives without Thiebaud become almost instantly unthinkable, which did not mean we were missing Whistler less, only that we were now mourning him in a more healthy, active way, missing him in every step we took as we walked those same trails with this new dog, who most likely—because of his astonishing time-layered senses—could still faintly track him. The Three Fates, named also the Daughters of Necessity, has seemingly arranged to give us the dog who was Whistler’s opposite: Tee was humorous, stable, not one whit jealous of his place in the New World he was asked to join, easily confident he’d find his rightful slot in the hierarchy.
Affectionate, overtly sociable, he seemed on a mission to win all people over to him, sure he could accomplish this if he just patiently took them one by one. He was like a Bill Clinton– type politician, not to be satisfied until everyone had fallen hard for him. Whistler’s sense of pride? That measured cool aloofness? Not Thiebaud; being dignified simply never occurred to him.
For a long-kenneled animal, Thiebaud had miraculously become this sensible, intelligent, exceedingly trusting and friendly dog. Like any foundling, he excelled at self-sufficiency, suffering not at all when left alone. Of course I identified with him: All orphans are like this, we take no one’s affection for granted, we never assume anyone will like us, but once we’re convinced we can trust you, we’ll fall even ridiculously in love with you. We do it because we’re so relieved and grateful. But it was my husband, Jack, whom our dog latched on to as his first ardent attachment, which made sense since each has the same talent for happiness. Happiness is probably like any other gift—dancing, say, or being musically inclined? and coming easily only to some. Then there are the others— and I am one, my dog Whistler was another—who will simply have to work at it.
Thiebaud was interested in everything Jack did as long as they could be together: sitting quietly outside watching as Jack looked after his fruit trees or restocked his birdfeeders. Then, inside—after running a few frenetic interior exploratory laps around the big room he seemed to take as a dogtrack— Tee lay with Jack on the couch, his small ears flicking back and forth, seeming to really listen to the Metropolitan Opera being broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio every Saturday afternoon.
Tee had the characteristically beta personality, but Jack— who discounts our current requirement that we dismissively label and judge—called it his dog’s good Southern manners.
Thiebaud was both patient and deferential, sitting by his full bowl watching until both Jack and I were seated at the dinner table. It was because of our dog that Jack and I began our now longstanding practice of reading a different grace from a little book we have of ecumenical blessings, this so Tee—in hearing the somewhat singsong cadences of prayer always ending in the word Amen—would get the signal that he too was now invited to eat.
Thiebaud had simply demanded that we come to life, saying you need to grab a leash, need to step outside into Jack’s fragrant little orchard where the pear and cherry and apple were now budding, need to notice how the hillside beyond the shed has gone crazy with wildflowers: bluebell, cowslip, adder’s-tongue, trout lily.
Over the short time we’d been away in California, spring had riotously arrived, making our little patch of Morgan County into a whole new and beautiful world. Look at this! our new dog seemed to say: How amazing to be alive!
News: Guest Posts
A fine memoir of a road trip with dogs to the World Sheepdog Trials
Not far into Mr. and Mrs. Dog, Donald McCaig says of himself and his talented “Blockhead” of a Border Collie, Luke, the male of the title: “I’ve never done as well with Luke as a better handler might have, but Luke adores me. When I go out at 2 a.m. to check lambing ewes, Luke comes too. When I wake with the night sweats, Luke wakes. He thinks I am a better man than I am. If I sold him, his earnest doggy heart would break.”
It is a tribute to McCaig’s capacity for self-reflection and humor that he is willing to admit his own failures as an occasionally over anxious sheepdog handler. He knows that dogs are not machines and we are not infallible. Ultimately all you can do is the best you can do under sometimes disastrous circumstances.
Upon reaching 68 years of age half a decade ago and finding himself with two quality border collies in their prime, McCaig decided the time had come to launch a campaign to fulfill his dream of the worlds.
Traveling 34,000 miles in his twenty-year-old car, McCaig, Luke, and June (Mrs. Dog) compete in sheepdog trials around the country hoping to compile enough points to secure invitations to join the American team in Wales. At the last minute, June garners the invitation, and Luke gets to compete as McCaig’s second dog.
If his best-selling Nop’s Trials is McCaig’s contribution to “lost dog” literature—think of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang—Mr. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies is his homage to an equally venerable tradition, the “the dog road trip,” of which John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is perhaps most famous. McCaig is on the road not only to qualify for the worlds but also to broaden his dogs’ experience of different sheep and environments—in a fundamental sense to educate them so they will be better able to cope with situations and varieties of sheep they have not seen before.
Although June pulled them through on cumulative points for the year, her most memorable performance came at a trial in West Texas when she decided to forego herding sheep and goats in favor of far bigger game--a huge, ground-thumping oil exploration seismograph truck. “June wanted, nay NEEDED to fetch that big thumping, flickering weirdness,” McCaig writes, “and nothing I said—neither my shouts nor redirects—swayed June from her goal.”
Once abreast of the thumper, June realized she had not a clue what to do with it and returned to McCaig, but there were no longer any goats to fetch. Her assault on the seismograph thumper had disqualified her.
Hoping to further his own education, McCaig periodically detours from the sheepdog circuit to visit trainers known for their skill in training methods they have developed or adapted. Along the way, he correctly points out that the battle between practitioners of what we might call punishment-based training and those who prefer awards-and rewards-directed training is now more than 100 years old.
For much of that time it appears that punishment has ruled—aversive training, as it were. McCaig himself is something of a follower of William Koehler, the Disney animal trainer from the mid-twentieth century, who developed a method of obedience training relying on long lines and various chain collars and leashes. Even today, most people attending obedience classes probably follow some version of Koehler’s method.
McCaig is looking for training epiphanies; bright moments of understanding or enlightenment that will help him better train and manage his dogs. He meets animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, and attends sessions given by trainers using the dog’s ‘innate’ drives, rewards, the Koehler method, and shock collars, which so engage him that he adopts the industry’s terminology and calls them e-collars.
Over the years, McCaig and I have agreed to disagree about shock collars, and in future postings, I hope to examine different approaches to training. For now, I’ll just say that people searching for a blanket endorsement of shock collars or other training devices or methods will not find them here—with the possible exception of the thirty-foot long line, which need not deployed in punitive fashion.
McCaig’s book arrived shortly after I had visited my favorite trainer, Lourdes Edlin. She is one of those gifted people who will have a dog literally eating out of her hand within minutes of meeting it. She understands that to train a dog, she must learn what motivates it—food treats in many cases, but in others a ball or Kong® or simply praise.
Edlin said that she was growing tired of teaching people basic obedience—sit, stay, heel, come—and becoming more focused on “teaching people how to do things with their dogs.” The basics would follow from that.
I was reminded of Edlin’s comments when I read McCaig’s reflections on his forays into the world of training. “Though each trainer believes his or her method is best, I don’t think it matters which method the pet owner adopts so long as that owner finds a capable mentor and sticks with the training,” he writes. ”Eventually you will learn to see your dog and when that happens the richness of your and your dog’s lives will tell you what to do next.
“Neither Luke nor June was ever trained to ‘heel’ nor ‘sit’ nor ‘stand for examination.’ They have never retrieved a ball or dumbbell. They rarely play with each other and never play with other dogs. Yet they would be mannerly in any human environment. Not because they were ‘trained’ for good manners, but because they were properly socialized, exercised daily, and have a job—stock work. Mannerliness is a by product of that training.”
A few paragraphs later, he concludes, “Have the highest expectations, do the work, and your dog can walk at your side anywhere on earth. He’ll become the dog you’ve empowered to change your life. As Luke and June have changed mine.”
McCaig’s account of the trio’s trip to Wales is informative, amusing, and somewhat sad. The two males manage to win a local Welsh competition, the South Wales Sheepdog Trials Hafod Bridge, where McCaig penned his sheep brandishing his Stetson® hat instead if the traditional shepherd’s crook. A revolution was doubtless averted when McCaig confessed that he simply had deemed his crook too difficult to manage on the flight across the pond and he had neglected to obtain one. Clearly a telescoping shepherd’s crook is in order.
Luke, June, and McCaig washed out in the first round of the big show. McCaig blames himself for failing to meet his expectations, but he should not.
He’s written a fine book and made a most excellent life with Mr. and Mrs. Dog. Moreover, they have had many an excellent adventure. What more could a dog or human want?
This blog originally appeared on Psychology Today. Reposted with permission.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Look at Me
I have a border collie. which means i have a dog especially alert to motion of any kind. My Border Collie, Ainsley, is one of those who sometimes—well, okay, frequently—has rather explosive reactions to the motion of trucks, dogs, bikers and squirrels, to mention just a few. Which means I also need to be Border Collie–alert to motion so I can coach her on more, shall we say, appropriate responses.
Fortunately, I have a lovely path just outside my front door that wends between a river and canal, and curves in such a way that I can see almost anything coming or going for about half a mile in either direction. Even better, it’s traveled just enough to give us opportunities to practice self-control, but not so much that we can’t relax and enjoy our walk. It is not unusual to see fishermen along this path. While they don’t move much, they do wave their poles back and forth, an activity that can easily set off my dog. One day, as we walked, I saw a man on the bank of the canal about a quarter-mile ahead. I let Ainsley continue sniffing and scampering at the end of her 30-foot lead, worked on controlling my own breathing and, as we got closer, called her cheerfully to my side. Taking up the slack in the leash, I got a treat in hand, and together, we walked calmly by the man with the freaky stick.
This activity may seem absurdly straightforward to most dog owners, but it is actually hard-won for me and Ainsley. She is a rescue with a mostly unknown past, found wandering the woods, living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp, gimpy from a broken leg that was never set and healed crooked, pregnant, full of bird shot, and blind in one eye. She is, true to her breed and in spite of her rough start, sweet, smart and trainable. She was, unlike her breed, very low-energy and cautious. Or so I thought. It turns out she was mostly just deeply inhibited. After a couple of years, as she became healthier, happier and more confident, she also became much more reactive. With a lot of help, advice, reading, consistent counterconditioning work and her ability to forgive my many mistakes, we found ways to manage this behavior. We never leave the house without a pocketful of treats. I taught her tricks to use as playful distractions. We work diligently at recalls. She is no longer an off-leash dog.
But one of the most fundamental building blocks of training remained elusive. As anyone who has dogs knows, you can’t teach them much until you teach them to pay attention to you. As anyone who has tried to manage reactivity knows, teaching a dog to make direct eye contact is the first step to effective counterconditioning. Ainsley is indeed very focused on me. However, she somehow learned shake, spin, down, come, leave it, enough, high-five, wait and so much more while simultaneously avoiding direct eye contact. She’d look at my face, but not into my eyes. If I insisted, she’d turn her muzzle askance and squint at me, blinking uncomfortably. I know that direct eye contact, while intimate among humans, is confrontational among dogs, so I accepted her oblique gaze. For a long time, Ainsley also did not know how to play— with me, with a toy, with a rawhide or with another dog— so it was clear that she had missed some pretty fundamental experiences. But slowly, over the course of several years, she has become engaged and responsive. Less hypervigilant. Goofy even. And from time to time, instead of looking at my eyebrows or cheekbones or chin, she will look steadily into my eyes. For a few moments, at least.
So having her trot at my side, glancing up at me, relaxed and unconcerned about the strange man with the weird appendage, was a not insignificant victory. In fact, I was so relieved and proud that I immediately let the leash unloop in my hand and told her to “go play,” which she happily did, sniffing along both sides of the trail as it took a sharp turn around an outcropping of rock. I rounded the bend behind her and saw a big blue bucket, net and tool bag lying in the grass just ahead. Ainsley was already there, nose to the ground. I quickly called “leave it” and began to take up the slack in the leash. But I was too late. By the time I’d crossed the distance from my end of the leash to hers, she’d found a pole hidden in the grass. Both her lip and tongue were pierced with two separate, four-barbed hooks. The look on her face was confusion more than pain. The look on mine must have been much worse. I held her jaw and spoke every comforting word I could think of as I tried to figure out how to keep her from getting more entangled. Fortunately, the barb in her lip came free. But the one in her tongue was completely set. I took hold of the hook, attached to 45 pounds of dog through a millimeter of skin, and tried to shove the miniature torture device back through the small hole it had made in the edge of her tongue. She squirmed and danced. Now her four and my two legs were also getting entangled in 30 feet of bright pink leash and several feet of invisible fishing line.
I said “easy, easy, easy,” my usual cue for getting her to slow her gait, and “wait, wait, wait,” my cue for getting her to stop moving, and blinked away the hot tears of fear. I tried fighting the hook without fighting my dog, but her tongue slipped in and out of my trembling fingers and the barbs pricked me instead of her. I tugged and pushed and twisted; the hook would not budge. I yelled for help. The fisherman was too far away and out of view. Blood, hers and mine, dripped off my fingertips.
I couldn’t back out the lure, so I had to snip it. With my free hand, I fumbled in the tool bag, looking for wire cutters— didn’t fishermen always have a pair for just this sort of eventuality? No luck. The only tool I could find was a knife. She’d recovered from so many much worse injuries in her life, I told myself she’d easily recover from a tiny slice in her tongue. I unsheathed the knife, set it against the hook, and pushed hard and fast into that sliver of flesh that held her. Suddenly, she was free.
She trotted off, shaking her head and spraying drops of blood into the landscape. I reordered the fisherman’s gear and tried to regulate my shallow breathing and pounding heart. Slowly, my panic was replaced with gratitude for Ainsley’s calmness during our little ordeal. She is, fortunately, a naturally sensible dog. But what struck me was that she had struggled against the hook, but not against me. She had listened. She had let me help her. I watched her return immediately to sniffing for feral cats and rabbit poop, and I was reminded, again, why it is so profoundly important that we train our dogs. Yes, we train because tricks are fun to show off to family members. Because a dog who doesn’t void in the house or jump on guests is easier to live with. But even more important, we train them to wait at an open door and walk on a leash to keep them safe. Dogs are, in many ways, human creations. We have domesticated them to live with us. And in doing so, we have brought them into immediate contact with things they might more naturally avoid: roads, cars, toddlers, garbage cans, toxic substances and so much more. We’ve bred them to be our best friends; training is the most essential thing we can do to be their best friends.
This small yet very stressful incident with the fishing hooks could have been much worse. Part of the reason it wasn’t is because of all the painstaking, frequently embarrassing and often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work I put into my relationship with Ainsley. I showed her what to do with a stuffed toy that squeaks when she bites on it, a dried-up piece of cowhide, a regal cat who refuses to be herded, a big white truck barreling towards us.
In the process, I suddenly realized, I was also showing her what to do with me. She learned I was good not only for putting kibble in a bowl and a leash around her neck, but also for introducing her to agility obstacles, playing “get it” games, removing snowballs from her paws and helping her sort through what to do about the strange things that pop up out of the landscape on our walks. This day, on this walk, she let me help her sort through a fishy, thorny problem with her tongue. More than teaching Ainsley to look at me, I realized I had finally, and much more importantly, taught her to look to me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lessons for a service dog in training
Jake piper’s making slow sense of the Home command. I’m not sure how much he’s really got it. He follows Puzzle readily when she leads us home, but I notice that he is clearly following her. He is a moment behind her dance steps, always, and doesn’t appear to be making any choice of direction. When I give him a handful of trial runs beside her, I realize that as long as she is with us, he will be content to let her lead. I don’t think he’s got it. It’s time to work him on the Home command alone.
I’ve watched him work his nose since the very first day he came to us, and what I know about Jake Piper is that he’s got a keen sense of scent and a high drive impulse. But, unlike Puzzle, he doesn’t have six years of finding a specific something and leading me to it with his nose. Jake also naturally works more head down across the turf than head up across the wind. He can trail a rabbit’s recent path through our back yard quite easily, but it’s Puzzle, head up, who seems to snag the airborne scent of passing humans long before they reach the house. It’s Puzzle who picks up on the roof-hugging squirrel pressed flat to the tiles above us. Of course, she is a field dog by birth and long trained to work air scent, and he is all raw nose talent and completely unversed. I’m interested to see just how quickly he picks up the Home command and recognizes what I need him to do. I’m curious if he’ll consistently backtrack our trail or if he, too, in time will simply take us home by moving from scent zone to scent zone regardless of the path we took outbound. It’s possible he won’t pick up this command at all.
Jake learns words quickly, so I start with teaching him what I mean by home. Walking along the boundary of the property, I’ll suggest we go home, and then, as we approach the front of the house, tell him to find the door. Jake has successfully learned that the Door command can mean door in as well as door out, so I hope to build on that understanding. Where once it was just about finding the door, Jake’s task now demands he find home and the door. For a week’s worth of sessions, I simply say, “Let’s go home,” as we approach the house, adding the Door command as we step onto the property. Jake learns commands well. The first time I say, “Let’s go home,” along the back fence of the property, and he chooses to run the length of the fence and then turn right to get to the front door, I mark it as a success. Yes, he did pee over other dog marks on the way—a quick hike of leg out of form rather than function— but he got us there. He enjoys the command, the job, and the big, big praise for a good dog doing well. In this he is much like Puzzle. Home is a happy command to give a once abandoned dog like Jake. Every time we work it, I’m reminded that in a way Home celebrates what he nearly never had.
We begin to train farther away. This is tougher for Jake, working across a merry universe of distractions. Even one house down from ours there are enticements: a cat arching in a window, any number of piss marks on trees, a child’s sock, a dead pigeon. Before we can nail the Home command, Jake has to reliably Leave It, a term he now understands. Usually good about it, he occasionally plays dumb and lunges for whatever (Never heard that command in my life). He also plays deaf (Even if I do know the command, I didn’t hear it).
Jake’s a curious beast, leaving the taunting cat and the rotting pigeon much more readily than the piss marks, leaving the child’s sock most reluctantly of all. He doesn’t try to snatch the sock as toy, but he’s curious about it. When Jake does Leave It on the second command, he looks up at me in puzzled innocence, as though he’s wounded by my tone of voice.
In a few days, from one house away, he leads me home. In a week, from two houses away, he leads me home. When the month is out, I can give him the Home command as we round any block leading to the house, and he’ll take me there, long lead drooping and scraping across the sidewalk, a loose connection between us so that I can be certain I’m not cuing him with tugs even I don’t recognize. For a time we work into the sun so that my shadow is thrown behind me—I want to make sure I’m not even cuing him by some lean of body he can see, though I’m not sure he recognizes what a shadow is.
We have several good Home finds from a block away, once even approaching from a side of the block we had not taken outbound, and I think it’s time to let Jake Piper advance a little more. We take a long, free-to-be-dog walk into town, and halfway back I put on his service vest. He stands still for the putting-on-of-uniform, slides into it easily, and I see the change of demeanor I see in Puzzle when the vest goes on, as if he understands which rules apply.
“Take me home, Jake,” I say. We are about three blocks away. It’s a big step up from the block he had been doing, but we’re on the very road we took outbound, and we are walking into the wind. With any luck, it’s blowing straight over the house and into our faces. With any luck, Jake has so much of our outbound scent and home’s scent that the path back glows.
Jake perks at the command and starts off with great energy. Too much energy. For a moment I have to rush to keep the lead slack between us. If we weren’t near traffic, I’d drop the lead entirely to see which route he’d take. Jake’s head is lifted. The spotted left ear is standing almost straight up. The right ear twists like a corn chip. Everything about him looks happy, and with a terrier’s easy, distinctive trot, he moves confidently in the right direction. His pace is steady: Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home. A couple of times he turns around to shoot me a glance. It’s a check-in but so confident and prideful that it reads less like How am I doing? and more like I am so on this. Who’s the good Jakey?
He’s the good Jakey, I think, and I am just about to share his overconfidence when suddenly he shivers all over, the nose drops, and the tail goes from a sway to a wag. This is the very kind of animation we may see in search dogs the moment they catch human scent. There is nothing about the Home command that should torque Jake up in this way; I’m thinking this even as he moves from the trot to a scramble and, nose down, begins to pull me along the sidewalk—right-direction-right-direction-yes-it’s-the-way-we-came—and then suddenly goes across the street on a diagonal, onto the opposite sidewalk, and into a row of bushes. Jake is crittering. He has chosen a place where possums like to sleep off the day, and I have no doubt he’s trailing one now. He is on it. He thrusts into the green so deeply that all I can see is his madly waving tail. By this time, I’ve abandoned my role as observer of the process and am pulling him into me, heaving hand over hand down the long lead. We meet somewhere in the middle of the thicket, and as a huddle of little possums scatter in the underbrush, Jake sits and turns to look at me. His expression isn’t guilty. He beams as though he thinks he’s done the job.
“Jake, come out of here,” I say, leading him out, giving an embarrassed little wave to an elderly man grinning from a neighboring porch.
No treat. Sit for Jake. Deep breath. Let’s try this again.
“Jake, take me home.” Jake stands and looks pointedly at the hedge, then back to me.
“No, Jake. Take me home.”
His expression mystified, as though he can’t imagine why a hedge full of baby possums is not the thing I want, Jake begins again. We move away from the hedge in a cloud of Leave Its; Jake crabs sideways, looking back toward possum land as long as he possibly can. Somehow, though, when we hit the sidewalk, he seems to shake off the hedge’s allure. He is service dog in training again, and I am hopeful that this time he’s got it. He’s slowed from a trot to a walk, a better pace for a human handler behind him, and I’m glad to see he made that choice. (I hope he made it out of consideration for his partner, but he may have made it because we’re now upwind of possum.) The lead between us is slack.
Two blocks from home. A block and a half from home, and we’re still moving in the right direction, at a partner-sensible pace. A car passes, honks lightly, its driver smiling at the two of us. I smile back, because really, we are on it this time, and here we are, woman and dog, the picture of obedience and collaboration. A nice walk now; Jake-goes-home-now-Jake-goes-home-now. No pull, no tension on the lead, still moving in the right direction.
A block from home, Jake’s head pops up with interest, and for a moment I fear he’s on another possum. But no— though Jake has snagged some happy scent on the wind, he doesn’t break stride for it. Instead, he moves steadily forward and with great confidence, leading us down the last block, up a low set of steps, and to the front gate. He sits and grins at me, eyeing the treat bag.
This was right on so many levels. Right direction, right pace, no startle at the car honk, a lead up the steps, to the gate, and the happy Here we are! Sit. The only problem: We’re at the wrong house. Not only the wrong house, but one of the most splendid historic properties in our little town. A beautiful full-blown Victorian mansion with turrets and wraparound porches, its lovely landscaping bounded by a wrought-iron fence.
To Jake’s credit, we passed this house outbound, and today it’s immediately downwind of our own. I can see home from where we stand. So could Jake if he were looking for it, but at the moment he’s happy with the house he’s found for us. Holding his Sit, he perks every time I look at him. This is home, isn’t it? I give him credit for having good taste, if not accuracy. He seems pretty sure we should just head on through the gate.
Excerpted from The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of “Unadoptables” Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson. Copyright © 2013 by Susannah Charleson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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