Culture: Stories & Lit
We were on our daily walk, and my dog became startled by a cow in someone’s nativity scene. Christmas decorations in general freak him out, so during the holidays, we approach many reindeer from behind, so he can sniff them and see that they aren’t real and aren’t going to chase us down the street. I don’t want him afraid of things in his environment, so I always make the effort to let him work through his fears.
Anyway, we’re walking along, and all of a sudden he stops and stares. I look ahead, and realize that the cow is staring directly at my dog. Or so he thinks. I smile, because his child-like discovery of new things is always refreshing to me. I walk him around to the rear of the cow, I touch it and let him sniff my hand, then he approaches the cow nonchalantly and stands in the middle of the nativity scene. He starts sniffing Baby Jesus, which I think is very touching. Of all the statues surrounding him, the baby lying on straw is the one that draws his attention. Then he starts to lift his leg. “No! Oh no!” I sputter, as I hurriedly pull on his leash and get him away from there. I’m not sure if any pee landed on its intended target — I was too ashamed to look closely and wanted to leave the scene in case anyone had witnessed our “crime” and wanted to give me an earful about how disrespectful it was.
I am a Christian, and I think my dog is too. I wouldn’t let him pee on anyone’s religious icon, because I believe that my dog should learn to respect all faiths. I can understand him not knowing the significance of icons from religions he’s not familiar with. But why on earth would he pee on Baby Jesus? When I talk about Jesus, my dog settles down and gives me a sage look — “Oh yes, Jesus. It’s not well promoted, but he was very good to the animals.” Christmas hymns are one of his favorite kinds of music and put him in a very relaxed state. And when we set up our Christmas tree, he alternates between lying where he can gaze at it with admiration and lying underneath its sheltering boughs, looking like he is getting the best rest he gets all year. For these reasons, I’m pretty sure my dog is Christian. So, his peeing on Baby Jesus must have some amazing, profound explanation.
Has God sent my dog to warn us of worshipping false idols? The Old Testament commands us not to worship any “graven image.” The companies that sell these religious figures assure us that as long as we put God first and realize that the figurine is just a figurine, then our money is well spent on inspiring others by our faith. But is that why we display a nativity scene these days? Lately there have been so many legal arguments over displaying nativity scenes on public property. It seems that as the arguments build, more and more people are buying nativity scenes and displaying them on their front lawns. Do they buy the nativity scene because they are divinely inspired to demonstrate their faith, or do they buy the nativity scene out of anger, daring a neighbor to say something about it? Dogs have a wonderful sense of smell. Perhaps my dog smelled the anger hormones left behind by the homeowner as he thrust his nativity scene on his lawn, laughing a cynical laugh and planning what he would do to the person who dared to challenge his display of faith.
Then again, perhaps it was the quality of the figurine that my dog took issue with. This was a cheap-looking, plastic nativity scene. It was fairly new, but if you’re going to have a representation of the Baby Jesus, shouldn’t it be the best quality that money can buy? Perhaps my dog knew that this was a cheap imitation that didn’t stand up to the life that Jesus led and the lives that he is still touching today. Could it be that my dog decided to let someone know exactly what he thought of that piss-poor representation of our Lord and Savior? Or maybe my dog smelled the cynical hormones left behind by the worker in the Jesus factory. Maybe the factory owners laugh as they count their money, knowing that they can charge whatever they want and cut costs wherever they want, because no one would dare say that Baby Jesus is too expensive. Or perhaps they get irritated with the frustrations of their job, forgetting about the magic they create. “How in the heck did we end up with 30 Marys and only 15 Josephs? Jeez, the guys running the assembly line are idiots!” Maybe my dog was smelling the hormones left behind by workers who handled the Baby Jesus.
Or perhaps it was the timing of the episode. This happened around January 8. For some reason, people in my neighborhood left their Christmas decorations out longer than usual this year. I don’t know if it’s because of the depressing news about the economy — maybe people are trying to hold onto the Christmas spirit a little longer. Or maybe it’s because we had a lot of dreary, cold days around the first of the year, and people just procrastinated going outside and taking down their Christmas decorations. At any rate, perhaps my dog is sage enough to know that if we drag out the Christmas season, it will become just another set of dreary days to get through and will lose its magic. People need to put their Christmas decorations away so that when they pull them out again next Thanksgiving, the decorations will have the needed effect of pulling on our emotions and making us present to the love of mankind that we neglect the rest of the year.
All of these things run through my mind as we make our way back home. What is the message my dog was trying to send to that homeowner? I have learned some amazing things by watching my dog, and what was I meant to learn this time? When we get settled back at the house, I sit on the couch and stare at my dog, trying to figure out what he was communicating. Then all of a sudden the realization dawns on me. I know exactly why my dog tried to pee on Baby Jesus. It’s because another dog peed on Baby Jesus first!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part VIII: Scarf the Herald Angels Sing
Holiday season is known—in the abundant countries at least—as a season of excess eating. There are the countless office parties with their vegetable-and-dip/cheese-and-cracker crudité tables and heaping buffets. There are the more intimate family celebrations, with traditional dishes such as the Christmas goose, Christmas ham, the Hanukkah brisket or, in my crowd, the Tofurkey. All of these things (excepting the latter) are very appealing to a dog.
So should a dog be invited to the holiday party? This was an issue I faced when I first adopted Chloe, because she was a very, shall we say, festive eater.
When Chloe first came to live with me, she always seemed hungry. I mean hungry in a neurotic, desperate way. I fed her very well of course: she got bones and raw food at home, homemade cooked meat mixtures when we were visiting other folks. But in the beginning, Chloe could never seem to get enough to eat. She always wanted more. After she scarfed each meal down (in two seconds) she’d lick and lick her bowl, using her paw to steady the dish. Then she would scour the floor for every last drib of meat juice, grain of rice or drop of salmon oil. Then for the rest of the day, she would follow me everywhere, hoping perhaps that at any moment I would reach into the closet and pull out a rack of beef.
Chloe, thank goodness, was never the kind of indoor scarfer who counter-hopped or stole roast chickens from the dining table. I clicker-trained her very early on not to do these things. But I can’t tell you how many times — when I first adopted her — I tripped over her in the tiny kitchen in our New York City apartment. If I dropped something on the floor — say, a piece of toast — she would dive in and grab it. When I tried to load the dishwasher, she’d rush in to lick the dishes. When I tried to open the oven, she’d try to stick her head inside and lick the racks. The refrigerator, to her, was a dream come true — especially the lower rack, where I kept her meat. She would stare at that rack with her tail wagging, hoping I’d give in and throw her a pound of turkey giblets. Sometimes, it was cute. I loved the look on her face as she waited, joyfully, for more food! But quite often, the trippingover- her part was a pain.
I don’t know my dog’s history, but it’s possible she was a stray. And former strays can be insatiable when it comes to hunger. Many of these dogs have experienced extreme hunger, even starvation, so their brains become wired to constantly seek what they lack — food. Some rescued strays, I’m told, because of this re-wiring, will continue to scarf until their dying day, even if they enjoy abundant, consistent meals in their new homes.
My vet used the term “incurable” when it came to Chloe’s relentless food-drive. He said she was just being a dog. I could accept this to a point. But not if her food-drive put her in danger (see below).
My dog is probably part Labrador Retriever, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode. But once, when I was staying at a friend’s house, we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying on her side on the fl oor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This was unusual behavior for Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate. Alarmed, I rushed over and knelt in front of her, checking her breathing and heart rate. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. She farted in response.
“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tippedover bag of kibble (our host-dog’s private batch), more than half of it gone.
“Chloe, how could you?” I said to the dog. But Chloe didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.
So here was proof that, while some dogs might try to eat until they explode, they will not actually explode. Chloe did, however, pass gas for the next few days. My friend and I joked that there should be an Overeaters Anonymous group for dogs.
But all kidding aside, we were lucky that this incident passed without terrible repercussions — no stomach pumping or intestinal twisting. As we know, overeating and scarfing can be dangerous for dogs.
Especially in New York. There, the discarded food that litters the streets can be hazardous. On the sidewalks, Chloe found such benign appetizers as pizza crusts and discarded bagels, but there was also rat poison, radiator fluid and chicken bones to worry about. Eating a cooked chicken bone, as we know, can be a life-threatening issue for a dog, so I spent many a morning having to pry Chloe’s jaws apart grabbing the bone before she swallowed. It’s a gross feeling to have to stick one’s fi ngers down a dog’s gullet.
I should point out here that Chloe’s on-leash behavior is exemplary. We know how to navigate the sidewalks of New York City quite well. In fact, she knows such commands as “right” and “left,” “halt,” and “reverse,” which are all essential things to know when trying to weave one’s way through the crowds. When I hold Chloe’s leash and call out the navigational cues, it’s like controlling the lever on a video game. I always score high points.
But I am also told that even service dogs will scarf from time to time. It’s in dogs’ natures. Even after Chloe got to the point in her training where she would leave food alone if I said “No,” she still sometimes managed to snatch up those pizza crusts before I issued the command. (Thus somehow scoring her own point by getting around the rules.) I ultimately left New York.
Even after we left the city, Chloe still found both dangerous and/or merely gross things to scarf. At the beach, she’d snuff around for crab claws, seagull poop, and the carcasses of dead fish. (To roll in and then scarf). Upstate, she liked to hunt for dead deer parts and bear scat. Mostly the repercussions were having to give lots of baths, and having to endure the odor of passed gas, but I knew I had to do something about the food obsession and scarfing. It was too risky.
The vet whom I consulted suggested that I limit Chloe’s walks (huh?). Another suggestion was to put Chloe on an appetite suppressant. I was suspicious of this advice, primarily because his was one of those veterinary practices that really pushed pharmaceutical products. In the waiting room, there were pamphlets for anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, anti-shedding, anti-flea, and even those horrible anti-bark sprays on every table and windowsill. To me this suggested a symptom-not-cause approach, and I eventually switched to a holistic vet. I decided I would not use appetite suppressants for Chloe. (Turns out they’re toxic for the kidneys anyway.)
This vet also suggested a basket muzzle, and I did look into this option — for about two minutes. At the pet store, a clerk helped me try to find one that would fit Chloe’s wide head and thin snout. The fitting was not a pleasant experience for either me or the dog. Chloe tried to paw the muzzle off and scraped her head against the shelves and floors. She looked so distressed—and Hannibal Lector-ish—that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
So no drugs, no restraining devices: I decided to do the smartest thing and sign up for more intensive clicker training sessions. For the indoor “following-me-around-obsessivelyin- the-kitchen” behavior, I clicker-trained Chloe to stay in one particular place while I free-ranged though the kitchen. It was actually quite easy. I purchased a rubber-backed bath mat — black, so that it wouldn’t soil so obviously, and situated the mat in an out-of-the-way section of the kitchen. Then I clicker-trained her to lie down on that mat whenever she entered the kitchen. She could look but not touch, in other words. Chloe’s reward for following this new stay-on-the-mat rule were simple. She got the pleasure of watching me prepare food while I bustled about the kitchen, and she got to enjoy the delicious suspense of knowing that she would get some of this food as a result of her own good behavior. The standard click-and-treat method. It was brilliant.
My friends are particularly impressed that, even during parties, when there are platters of cheeses and crackers and cured meats placed low on coffee tables, Chloe remains on her mat, poised alert and as complacent as a Sphinx. She stays there because she enjoys being a good dog, and because she always knows — because of operant conditioning — that, once I stop preparing for the party and sit down to relax, she will be allowed to get up and receive a treat. The rind of a Spanish drunken goat cheese, perhaps. A nibble of pepperoni. A piece of chicken.
For outdoor scarfing issues, we worked on new commands and hand signals and/or modifying the times of our walks so that we weren’t at the beach, for example, at low tide when there were more shells and dead things exposed. Plus, as the months passed, Chloe seemed to realize that she would never starve again in this lifetime. Her rather frantic need to eat seemed to wane, replaced by a sort of excited gratitude each time I placed her food dish before her. Her behavior no longer suggested “This might be my last meal” but more “Ah yes, ground turkey and salmon oil with a dash of kelp again. My compliments to the chef. But a little less kelp next time, s’il vous plaît.”
Chloe still hasn’t lost her taste for scat, however, and at this time of year we have at least two dozen wild turkeys wandering around our property. Chloe, my non-birdy bird dog, will follow the turkeys around—not chase them, mind you—and happily eat their poop, acting as if she is doing us all a favor. She never overeats, however. Just enough for, as the French would say, an amuse-bouche before her proper meal.
I am proud of her, in a way only dog people can understand. Proud of her progress from chemically imbalanced rescue dog to happily settled old gal.
At my last holiday party, I must say that Chloe was the best-behaved guest of the lot. My friends are artists, writers, musicians, theater-types and drag queens, and while we respect our brain cells enough not to do drugs, the wine did pour freely, and the eggnog and the grog and the wassail, the latter of which prompted a lot of impromptu carols about wassailing, (sung completely on key despite the alcohol, with a soaring finale and a kick-ass bass solo to boot). And all the while, Chloe stayed on her mat, observing curiously, occasionally getting up to snuggle next to people and/or greet new guests at the door. I noticed that she completely ignored the cheese trays and the glazed duck, choosing instead to wander into the center of our song circle and feed off our admiration of her.
During the choral finale, Chloe threw herself onto her back and shimmied around on the fl oor, wagging her tail and waving her legs in the air. She howled a few times in joy. “Hark the herald angel sings,” the drag queen shouted, and we began all over again.
Culture: Stories & Lit
“Oh, look, it’s a baby!” I have heard this comment, or some variation, a thousand times while walking along the esplanade on New York City’s East Side. I’ve also heard others speak in mock-friendly (but actually sarcastic) tones about my dog and her carriage. But either way, Bella, a small Chihuahua- Boston Terrier mix, doesn’t seem to pay attention. As her tour-guide, I ignore their comments, while Bella licks her paws and enjoys the ride.
We bought a dog carriage (the size and almost exact design of a baby’s) because Bella developed a problem in her back knees. Called luxating patella, it’s common in small dogs; running or jumping (or for Bella, wrestling) will eventually make walking painful. My sister and I first noticed that Bella was having trouble during one of our trips to the park, when Bella held her left back paw off the ground and trotted along on three paws instead of four. Last September, she had corrective surgery, but despite the doctors’ assurances that she would recover within three weeks, it took much longer. So we bought a carriage. Now, even though her leg has healed, Bella still loves riding in it.
“Oh, look, it’s a baby!”
The baby has a white face and pink circles around her eyes where the hair fades away. She has Yodalike ears and a set of sharp teeth, which she only uses to “play bite.” She stands roughly 18 inches high, weighs 14 pounds, and from the base of her neck on down is solid black — “jet black,” my sister says. To passersby, she’s “simply adorable.”
We’ve found that the best thing to do when confronted by criticism from a stranger is to pretend that Bella has a gift that would make walking dangerous — something so valuable that we can’t afford to let Bella’s feet touch the ground: “Yes, isn’t she cute! Bella, do the howl! Bella, bark my name! Sing, Bella!” Or, we could explain why we bought the carriage. I did this for a month before I realized it was a waste of time. People don’t care, and for most, there’s nothing you can say that will justify your dog having her own carriage. So play with it. Give your dog a gift. Bella can whistle. On occasion, when presented with a treat, she can wink. She has a whole carriage-worth of tricks.
Bella enjoys the ride, the wind on her tongue, the view of the East River. Last September, the carriage was a necessity, but now it’s a luxury, one we both appreciate. I want to get outside, and Bella wants to see the world beyond the apartment. So, like the rest of the city’s carriage trade, we hit the streets, take in the sights and are, in turn, taken in.
Culture: Stories & Lit
All of my life, i have dreamed of having at least two dogs, but always knew I would have to wait for the right situation. For me, the “right situation” involved living in the country rather than in New York City, in a house surrounded by lots of land and with all the time in the world on my hands. Or at least, enough time to train my second dog and help him adjust to his life with Chloe and me (in our house in the country). I wanted to be able to take them hiking and give them plenty of attention, engagement, exercise and so forth. I figured that, with a second dog, my caretaking duties — meaning my supervised duties, above and beyond the care my dogs always receive — would amount to about four hours per day.
Why four hours? I wanted to adopt an English Setter.
You know how it is — we dog lovers can be partial to certain breeds or types of dogs. And, oh, the glories of mixedbreeds! Who can resist the combos? My own Chloe is some sort of Spaniel/Lab/Border Collie amalgam, and I adopted her, in part, because of my Spaniel/Setter fixation. To me, the only thing better than having a bird dog as a companion is to have two bird dogs. So the idea of adopting a second dog was always on my mind.
In 2006, I finally left New York City and moved to the Catskill Mountains full time. I had had Chloe for about a year at that point, and we had enjoyed a rich life, spending part of our time in an apartment in the city and the other part at a small cottage upstate. It was an ideal situation in many ways, but it got to be exhausting. The commutes and the changes and all that packing and backing-and-forthing was too much, especially with a large dog in tow.
So I moved to that big house with lots of land I had always dreamed about. Finally, it was time to adopt my second dog.
I was very excited at the prospect, and I knew Chloe would be too. We all know that dogs are pack animals and thus are happiest and most comfortable when they are members of a canine pack. Chloe loved other dogs — she loved to play and romp and flirt — and she also seemed to enjoy being a mother dog. I got a kick out of watching her play with puppies at the dog park, wrangling them and letting them crawl all over her, giving them playful but very gentle swats and nips. It made me wonder if she had had puppies at some point in her young life, before I adopted her. It made me wonder if she missed them.
Therefore, I decided I would adopt a puppy this time around, rather than an adult. I had the time, after all. And I knew what raising and training a puppy would entail. I felt fully prepared to adopt my Setter pup.
And so, I began my search on Petfinder.com.
Whereas I’d searched the Internet for several months before choosing Chloe, the second-dog search took only a few weeks. I found a Setter rescue group that I liked, and they were in the midst of arranging adoptions for a litter of nine liver-and-white pups. Seven of them were male, and I knew I wanted to adopt a male. I telephoned immediately, and spoke with a kind and encouraging volunteer, who filled me in on the adoption process. We spoke for about 45 minutes — about me, their group and my potential dog — and by the end of the conversation, she told me she’d send an application. (Apparently, this group will not even send out applications until they speak to the candidates in person or on the telephone.) “You sound like an ideal candidate,” the woman said.
I must confess that I also thought I was an ideal candidate to adopt a dog. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect human specimen, or that I know every last thing there is to know about dogs, but I do work for a dog magazine, for goodness sake, and — thanks to Wallace and Chloe — have scads of experience in living with and training birdy-type dogs. Plus, I seemed to have all the right answers to all the questions on the adoption application:
• How many hours per day are you home? (Average, about 20.)
• Where will your dog sleep? (Wherever he damn well pleases — usually on the most comfortable bed in the house.)
• How much exercise will your dog get? And where? (Hours daily, at dog parks and on hiking trails.)
• What is your income? (Enough to keep the dogs, and myself, well fed, comfortably housed, healthy, impeccably groomed, constantly entertained, etc.)
• What will you feed your dog? (Bones and raw food and homemade meat/vegetable/supplement mixtures.)
• What sort of training methods will you use? (Clicker.)
• Do you have a fenced-in yard? (Um … kind of … but we have many acres of land in a low-population area with no cars.)
When I expressed concern to the volunteer about my lack of a fenced-in yard, she said that this group often made exceptions for “the right candidates.”
Can you blame me if I thought I was a shoo-in? After my application was approved (with flying colors, I might add), we arranged for a home visit. One of the volunteers from the rescue group would come the following Saturday to meet me and my dog and check out our digs.
Gleefully, I started to prepare — mentally and literally — for the arrival of my new puppy. I bought cute little toys and a memory-foam bed. I read up on puppy-specific training, and on the body language of puppies and mother dogs/ female dogs. I even picked out a name: Trinley, in honor of a Tibetan monk of whom I am particularly fond. (He said it would be all right to name a dog after him.) “Trinley’s coming,” I’d say to Chloe in a sing-song voice. “Your new little brother Trinley!” One night, I even dreamed about him; in the dream, he snuggled and squirmed in a way that seemed incredibly real. Trinley was so excited to be with us and we were so excited to be with him. When I woke, I was convinced that the dream was prophetic — that Trinley was meant to be my second dog.
Yes, the thought sometimes crossed my mind that I would not be approved, but those thoughts were fleeting. After all, I had adopted Chloe without any trouble. Millions of dogs in this country needed homes. Surely my offer to provide a home for an unwanted dog would be granted.
My evaluator, Mr. W, arrived at my house on a sunny Saturday. An older man, he was wearing khakis and a polo shirt of a distinctive color that we in the know call “Nantucket Red.” He drove a silver Volvo with a Connecticut license plate, and had a gorgeous Belton-type English Setter in tow. The dog had one of those long names I can no longer remember. “Constantine’s Westchester Amblefoot Toucan Pie” or some such thing, with the call name “Took.”
“Took,” I repeated happily, and reached into the car window to pet him. “Would you like to come meet Chloe, Took?”
The man seemed uncertain. “He doesn’t really play with other dogs. I’m not sure I should let him out of the car.” I must have looked at him perplexedly, because he added, “He’s a show dog.”
Took was now barking madly and scratching at the car window, trying to wedge his body through the small crack.
“Well, I suppose I could take him out,” Mr. W said. He then strung Took up on a choke chain and let him out of the car.
I should point out here that I Iived on 16 acres of land, much of it bordering thousands of acres of state land. Chloe is never on a leash because she does not need to be: (a) she is not a roamer, and (b) she is, as we have seen, well trained and has perfect recall. For recall, I use hand signals in addition to verbal cues, and a special whistle she can hear at great distances. She’s a terrific dog who has earned her freedom.
Now, Chloe waited for my “okay” command before she said hello to Took. She play-bowed and he play-bowed back, then he leapt forward for a romp, only to be yanked back rather cruelly by Mr. W, who had pulled sharply on the choke collar.
I winced. I hate to see dogs yelping in pain. “Do you want to let him off-leash and watch them interact?” I said. “We can watch their body language and signals, to see how Chloe interacts with other dogs.”
“I never let him off-leash,” he said. “He hasn’t been off-leash since he was six weeks old, straight from the litter. If I let him go, he’d never come back.” Do you know that for certain? I wanted to ask. But I held my tongue.
“Will you let him off leash inside the house?” I asked.
“Sure, I think that will be okay.” I wish I hadn’t asked. Once we got inside and Took was released, he began to wreak havoc. First, he peed on my sofa, then he ran into the kitchen and jumped up on all the counters, sweeping his snout across in search of food, knocking over blenders and utensil containers along the way. Finding nothing to eat, he ran into the bathroom, tipping over my little metal trashcan with a sharp rattle and digging around for used tissues. Meanwhile, Chloe followed Took with a rather perplexed look on her face, as if to say: We don’t do that around here.
“I think I’ll put him in the car,” Mr. W said. Back outside, I showed Mr. W the property. As we walked with Chloe across the meadows and around the pond, I pointed out stone walls in the distance that marked the borders, and the mountain that loomed behind us — the beginnings of the great Catskill Park.
“Chloe is boundary trained,” I said. Mr. W had never heard of this, so I explained that I had spent many hours taking Chloe along the property’s perimeter, which I’d marked with light-colored flags on various trees, and used a clicker to teach her that she was not to wander beyond those barriers. “It was time consuming, but it was worth it.”
“My dog could never be trained like that,” he said. I wanted to say, With a clicker, you can do anything, but I held back out of respect for his point of view.
I showed him Chloe’s various skills, cueing her with a mix of hand signals, verbal cues, eye movements, whistles and clicks. It felt like a circus act, but she seemed very pleased with herself, and happy to entertain our guests.
When I told her to “run to the pond,” she ran to the pond, which was quite a distance away. Then I shouted “Come” and blew the whistle, and Chloe returned, bounding happily across the grass, ears flapping.
Mr. W was impressed. He petted Chloe and praised her when she returned. “What a good dog!” he said. “I never knew dogs could do such things.” She beamed.
Then the issue of the fenced-in yard came up. I had a pool, which was fenced, but both of us knew that didn’t really count. I was banking on the fact that this particular rescue group made exceptions to the fence rule for the right candidates.
“Chloe loves to swim,” I said, pushing through the gate into the pool area. “She does laps.”
“Technically, we require six-foot fences,” Mr. W said, looking around, “and I worry about this pool.” Then he turned to me and smiled. “But I think you’re a good candidate. I’ll put in a positive recommendation.”
I was so happy that I hugged him. Chloe, sensing the mood, threw herself on her back and waved her legs in the air. We talked a bit more about bird dogs in general and Setters in particular, and then discussed the logistics of the adoption process. “I submit a report of my home visit,” he said, “and then the board meets to decide.”
All in all, I felt that this home visit had been a pleasant experience, and a successful one. As we parted ways Mr. W emphasized that Chloe seemed to have a good life here.
So imagine my shock when, a few days later, I received an email notifying me that I had been rejected. The reason? Lack of a fenced-in yard. And more: boundary training. “We cannot give our dogs to people who boundary train,” I was told.
I was crestfallen. Rejection never feels good in any situation, but this felt like an emotional, even personal, blow. I cried for days, realizing I had fallen in love with Trinley and lost him before even meeting him. You who have had your applications rejected will know what I mean.
Soon, my sorrow was replaced by anger and indignation. I complained to my off-leash and dog park friends, to my rescue friends, to my dog-writer friends. Everyone had choice things to say about this rescue group’s decision. I am not usually a back-stabber, but it helped to let off some steam.
After a few days of immature moaning, I finally had to settle into the truth that Trinley would not be coming to live with us. I like to think that I’m rational, and I always try to see both sides of the story. Thus, I reminded myself that people who work at rescue groups are well meaning. Actually, that’s an understatement. They volunteer their time and effort and heart all for the sake of rescuing and rehoming dogs. They have witnessed cases of intolerable neglect and abuse. They have seen dogs die at the hands of humans. They have rescued dogs who were emaciated, or broken-spirited, or simply confused at being separated from people who didn’t care enough to keep them. I am sure that doing this kind of work would make it hard to have faith in the human race. So I guess they didn’t have faith in me.
I must say, it took quite a while to get over their decision. In fact, I pretty much gave up on the idea of trying to adopt another dog. Years passed, and by the time I started to reconsider, Chloe was a different dog. Now she’s showing signs of arthritis, and is no longer all that patient with exuberant dogs, especially pups. She has also become — forgive the pun — quite the bitch, and doesn’t necessarily want to share her space with anyone else but me. So perhaps it was all for the best. Who knows?
I think about Trinley sometimes. I am sure he found a home; puppies always do. But I wonder about all the dogs who still do not have homes because their applicants were rejected. I do respect a rescue group’s need to err on the side of caution, but I often still wonder: What exactly is the fine line between caution and error? We look forward to hearing your responses.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Can a quiz help you find true love?
Go ahead, if you must. Go ahead and let a computer choose your travel route, your spouse, a custom-bundled insurance package or the right wine to have with dinner.
But don’t let a computer choose your dog. Please.
It’s become the way of the world to let apps, databases and websites — whether they were created by geniuses or boobs — make our decisions for us, or at least play a major role. Dogs shouldn’t be ordered via a computer and, in my view, they shouldn’t be chosen based exclusively on what an algorithm decides is “the best breed for you.” Unlike a Dalmatian, the factors involved aren’t black and white, and generalizations can be dangerous. Dependable and all knowing as it is, your computer device of choice can mess things up, sometimes even without your help.
I admit that I’m biased: I favor mutts over purebreds. I think that, as often as possible, people should get a dog who needs a home (and there are millions) as opposed to one a breeder brings into the world to make some money. And, when it comes to computers, I think that, convenient as they are, they’re making us overly dependent. We tend to let them take over work that should be done by our brains and, sometimes, by our hearts.
Given all this — and my belief that a dog should be chosen primarily by the heart, with a limited assist from the brain — you can see why I might have a problem with “breed selectors.” These little quizzes, in which your answers to a series of questions lead to a selection of breeds that “best fit your lifestyle” have popped up all over the Internet — not just on dog blogs, but on the websites of major magazines (like Good Housekeeping) and television networks (like Animal Planet). Many companies that make dog food, dog toys and dog supplies also feature them on their websites.
They all, it seems, want you to have the breed that is “best” for you, which is very thoughtful of them. But there’s another dimmer, and more cynical, view of breed selectors: Mine.
Breed selectors are based on stereotypes. They reinforce purebred snobbism. They make tough decisions too easy, too distant and too instant. And they are time-eaters, which perhaps is their real purpose: to keep you on those websites a little longer. Answer five questions, click. Answer five more, click. Just a few more questions … click… and your answers get churned in with the existing data they’ve assembled, which may or may not be accurate. In a matter of seconds, or even nanoseconds, you discover what a database has decided is your breed of choice. What could be easier?
I took five such tests, offered by five different websites. Thanks to “breed selectors,” I now know that the dog for me is a Doberman Pinscher … or a Mastiff … or a Bichon Frise … or a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel … or a Whippet … or a Bernese Mountain Dog … or an Akita.
I’m not really looking for a dog. I’m fortunate to have one, adopted from a shelter in Baltimore, who’s four dogs in one: a mix (or so repeated DNA testing has shown) of Rottweiler, Akita, Chow Chow and Pit Bull. All four are breeds of ill repute, mostly undeserved. All are sometimes said, generally by people who don’t know much, to be unpredictable, or nippers, or aggressive, or stone-cold killers.
To be honest, had I been selecting a dog by breed, I likely wouldn’t have sought out one of those four. But I wasn’t looking for a dog at all. Instead, I accidentally fell in love while visiting an animal shelter for another purpose. I ended up with the world’s most perfect, loving, friendly, sensitive dog — gentle enough to serve as a therapy dog, as lazy as I am and proof that either those breed stereotypes are way off base or that mixing breeds, if not the answer to world peace, can have some highly positive outcomes.
Why I fell in love with him is another question, one I don’t think computers can answer, and maybe I can’t either. Likely it had to do with the place I was in at the time; the hope I saw in his eyes; and a personality that seemed something like mine, only better. He was quiet, stoic, patient, curious and a fast learner. He’s seven now, and as much as he would probably like some company — ideally, it seems, a cat — my current living conditions aren’t right for a second pet.
So, while I had no business using “breed selectors,” I decided, given their prevalence and my curiosity, to check them out. I started off at Dogtime.com, which turned out to be the best of the bunch. As with the other breed-selecting machines, I listed my genuine preferences — big dogs, smart dogs, friendly dogs — and made it clear that companionship was my priority and protection wasn’t an issue, and that I’d prefer a dog with a moderate energy level — something just slightly above couch potato.
The Dogtime selector has many disclaimers, and rightfully so. Also, unlike the rest I tried out, it makes a point of at least suggesting a mutt. “In searching for the right dog, we encourage you to look beyond a breed to consider the dog himself,” the website says. “Personality is the most important indicator of what it will be like to live with a dog, and a mutt has it in spades.” I proceeded to answer the five pages of questions they threw at me. My results came in this order: Anatolian Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, German Pinscher, Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff.
Though I had expressly stated that “protection” was neither a concern nor a need, most of those breeds are noted for their guarding abilities and intimidating looks. This would turn out to be a common thread; all the breed selectors seemed to assume that if you are looking for a large dog, you need or want a bodyguard when, in reality, some of us just prefer big, goofy lugs who step on our feet and get in the way.
After the Dogtime test, I stumbled over to Good Housekeeping’s website and took its quiz — just two pages. I expressed all the same wants and priorities: a large dog, highly sociable, intelligent, moderately active, and content to be couch potato at night. Its advice? A Bichon Frise: “A cuddly lapdog like the Bichon Frise is your perfect match. Affectionate, charming, and gentle, the Bichon Frise loves everyone and is happiest when part of a family that takes him everywhere. They’re great with children and will get along with other pets. The happy temperament of a Bichon Frise makes him extremely easy and pleasant to live with.”
For a second, given the disparity in breeds offered by the first two sites — at least in terms of the size of dogs recommended — I pondered whether I might be schizophrenic. I pondered whether a Bichon Frise might make a good wife. I pondered whether size really matters, given that there seems to be a big dog inside every little dog, and a little dog inside every big dog. I pondered, briefly, whether or not a Mastiff-Bichon Frise mix, if functionally possible, might be best for me.
Confused, I headed over to the Purina Dog Breed Selector, where the first questions that popped up were how much I wanted to spend (as little as possible, I answered) and how much I was willing to commit to my dog food budget (same answer). I answered 16 questions that were intended, I guess, to reveal some things about me. By the time I was done, only two choices were offered: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Whippet.
Then a list of questions came up related to what I sought in a dog. Again I stuck with the same basic responses: a dog who was large, smart, friendly, etc. When I clicked for results, I got zero choices, so I refreshed the page and did it all again. This time I got 117 choices. Perhaps it was a computer error, perhaps it was my own. Sometimes my paws seem too big for the keyboard; sometimes, when trying to put a little check in a little box, I misclick.
Animal Planet’s breed selector only asked me 10 questions, one at a time. What’s interesting about this one is that, as soon as you answer a question, some of your choices disappear, so you can tell what it is about yourself that disqualifies you as an owner of that breed. After the first few questions, the dogs on my list were Akita, Bull Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff and Bernese Mountain Dog.
When I specified a smart and “very trainable” dog, the Bull Mastiff disappeared. When I said I needed the dog to provide “little or no protection,” the Tibetan Mastiff disappeared. When I told Animal Planet that I lived in a climate that was warm in the summer and cold in the winter (aren’t most?), the Akita disappeared, leaving me with the Bernese Mountain Dog: “It is a sturdy, large, hardy dog capable of both draft and droving work. This requires a combination of strength, speed and agility.” I’m not planning to do any drafting or, for that matter, any droving — and (while I do love Bernese Mountain Dogs) the Animal Planet test wasn’t one of the more impressive.
At that point, not one of the four breed selectors I tried had suggested the Newfoundland, my favorite when it comes to purebreds.
I stopped by the American Kennel Club website to see what advice it offered. While it is perhaps the most breed-focused organization in the world, the AKC doesn’t offer a breed-selector test. Instead, its website supplies potential dog buyers with general information about factors to consider when choosing a breed: temperament, size, gender, age, coat/ grooming needs and health. Genetic problems are common in some breeds, it noted, just above a link to some pet health insurance it recommended.
My final stop was puppyfinder.com. Once again, I specified a large dog, in this case choosing the “over 90 pounds” option. I ranked temperament as most important, and answered that getting along with other dogs, children and strangers were the highest priorities and protection was the lowest. This time, the top result was Newfoundland, followed by Irish Wolfhound, Saint Bernard, Scottish Deerhound and Great Dane.
As with most of the tests, puppyfinder.com made no mention of mixed breeds, which, as a group, are America’s most popular dogs. Few, if any, of the quizzes delve into whether a test-taker was ready to make the commitment to caring for a dog. Most websites seem more concerned with helping you find a dog who “fits into your lifestyle” than if your lifestyle fits having a dog. Though all of the breed-selection tests seem to have great respect for your “lifestyle,” few of them point out that adding a dog to the family is going to give that “lifestyle” a good shaking up.
All that said, I don’t find breed selectors totally despicable. While they do oversimplify and while I do question the accuracy of some of their data and the results they offered, the quizzes provide humans with some knowledge, and humans can always use more knowledge. Used to supplement the decision-making process, as a starting point or to affirm a choice we’ve otherwise researched, they can be helpful.
However, relied upon exclusively, they turn what should be a matter mostly of the heart into a matter solely of the head, a decision we can reach from afar by coldly calculating a breed’s various features — checking little boxes to specify the amount of drooling and shedding we can tolerate, and maybe even finding a coat color that fits in with our décor.
Shouldn’t a personal connection be part of the decision? Shouldn’t love conquer all? You’re getting a dog, after all, not a cappuccino machine. We don’t choose our friends, at least our non-Facebook ones, that way. We don’t examine their specifications, or befriend them based on their energy levels, how much food they eat, or whether, when threatened, they will attack on our behalf or hide under the coffee table.
Proponents of using such computerized tests to match dog to human say it will lead to better relationships and result in fewer dogs ending up abandoned or in shelters. But I’d question how many of those situations are the result of breed-specific traits and behavior, as opposed to owners who either weren’t ready for a dog in the first place or who, placing their “lifestyle” above all else, were unwilling to invest the necessary time.
Others will point out, hey, computer matchmaking works, at least sometimes, for human relationships; why not for dogs? As with human-matchmaking websites, the breed selectors allow you to cast the widest net possible, specify what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to put up with, and click your way to true love. Website ads point out that every day, increasing numbers of people are coming together that way — something like one in five marriages, according to some studies, are couples who met online.
But there’s a difference. Those people, after confirming they both like long walks on the beach at sunset, generally meet before they permanently shack up together. They spend some time confirming, face to face, that what the database suggests might be love, really is. Not so with dogs. They become instant household members. And to think that your computer-determined love for the Golden Retriever breed means you are going to love each and every Golden Retriever is wrong, not to mention an insult to the remarkable individuality of dogs.
Until the day comes when breeders manage to make every dog of a certain breed exactly the same in every way (and I hope they don’t), matching human to dog breed remains a gimmick. Humans usually fall for gimmicks.
My prediction? Expect dog-to-human matchmaking to become even more popular, and go even more the way of human-to-human matchmaking — with more emphasis on pairing up similar personalities. Human-to-human matchmaking sites are mostly based on our desire to hook up with someone, preferably, a slightly younger version of ourselves.
Indications are that’s the direction doggie matchmaking is headed as well — matching humans not with an individual dog, but with the breed that supposedly best ref lects themselves. People are drawn to breeds that mirror their own personalities, according to research by psychologists, including a recent study by scientists at the UK’s Bath Spa University, with assistance from the Kennel Club. The findings, not yet peer-reviewed, were presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in London in April 2012.
Here are some examples of what they found: Outgoing types lean toward Collies, Sheepdogs, Bulldogs, Heelers and Corgis. Highly agreeable sorts have a preference for Spaniels, Retrievers, Setters, Pointers and Weimaraners. Conscientious people go for Dalmatians, Poodles, Schnauzers, Chow Chows and Boston Terriers. Laid-back folks gravitate toward Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Foxhounds, Beagles, Dachshunds and Greyhounds.
The study — in which 1,000 dog owners took part — was based on questionnaires measuring five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and anxiety. The conclusion? “We go for dogs [who] are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner who is a bit like us,” says Bath Spa University study researcher Lance Workman. While “lifestyle” is a big factor in the breed people choose, he adds, “it seems likely that personality types are subconsciously drawn to certain breeds.”
Workman says fewer dogs might end up in shelters if prospective dog owners first took a test that measured both their personality type as well as practical, lifestyle-based concerns, such as the size of their homes. “You would type in these answers, and it would expand the 50 questions we’ve got to go into lifestyle, and it would say, ‘This is the dog for you,’” Workman concludes.
We must disagree (disagreeability being one of our personality traits). The traits and characteristics of breeds just aren’t that predictable. Your Great Dane won’t always be in the way (just most of the time); your Border Collie won’t always be a genius, your Weimaraner won’t always come around to your point of view.
What these selectors, quizzes and even scientists seem to fail to realize is that dogs are individuals, and even those bred to possess certain traits are not assembly-line creations with identical personalities. Each is unique, and guess what? There’s a soul in there; of that I’m pretty sure.
As for me, when the time comes to get another dog — no matter how advanced technology has become by then — I’m not going to let a computer, or website, or database decide what is the best dog for me. I’m not going to let a book, a magazine or a scientist decide what is the best dog for me. The best dog for me will be decided by me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Swept away by an Italian charmer
He came into my life five years ago — my lovely Roman. I live in Ireland and was visiting my son, Dara, who works in the Vatican. It was a sun-kissed, balmy evening in October and, after visiting the Piazza Navona, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, I was in love with the eternal city. At that first meeting, I thought B was cute and friendly, if somewhat forward. He made tentative amorous advances, but I dismissed them as typical of his type. My son later told me that B had taken a big shine to me. I was flattered, but uninterested; I wasn’t looking for a relationship, certainly not a long-distance one. Admittedly, he seemed amiable and affectionate, but I reminded myself that he was Italian — ergo, he liked women, and flirting was second nature to him. Although he was born in Rome, B’s ancestors were originally from Belgium, and many had been in law enforcement. Thoughts of Poirot and “his little grey cells” sprang to mind, but believe me, there was no similarity between this guy and the inimitable David Suchet. Whatever B’s background, on that fateful evening in Trastevere I had no idea what an important role he would eventually play in my life.
A year passed. He came to Dublin, initially moving in with friends in Deansgrange. I saw him from time to time, and we spent the odd weekend together. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he wormed his way into my heart.
At my age, a time of supposed maturity and wisdom, I do realize that physical allure shouldn’t matter, but I have to say that this particular Italian is very handsome! Dark, slender and elegant, he has alert brown eyes that light up every time he sees me. He always looks smart and well groomed, and often sports a colorful cravat — sartorially stylish, unmistakably European chic.
It’s a bonus that he’s extremely intelligent. He didn’t have much English when he first settled here, but now he understands everything. Best of all, he has emotional intelligence, a quality not always evident in the male species, in my experience. Sensitive to my moods, he knows when I’m worried or anxious or upset. He’s also a great listener, which I find refreshing. Never critical, and tolerant of all my little foibles, he has taught me the reality of unconditional love.
B moved in with me three years ago, and I couldn’t imagine living without him now. Of course, he’s not perfect: He’s untidy and leaves his belongings around the house for me to pick up, but after rearing a son, I’m used to that. Though we both love pasta, he’s a true carnivore and has to eat meat every day; he devours things that would nauseate me. He lacks patience when I take too long getting ready to go out. A more irksome flaw is that he’s a bit possessive and needy, and doesn’t like to be separated from me for very long. (I’m also convinced he can mind-read — he just glanced over at me as though he’d guessed what I was writing.) Naturally exuberant, he tends to be loud at times, and I’m sure the neighbors don’t enjoy the disturbance, but as yet, they haven’t complained. I know some wonder what I see in him.
I’m quite surprised myself at how smitten I’ve become, as the idea of a long-term commitment didn’t appeal to me and I’d lived on my own for a considerable time before his arrival. Sharing my home with him now is an unexpected joy. B is highly sociable and, although wary of strangers, he always gives my friends a warm welcome. He entertains them when they visit and has charmed them all, making them smile with his winning ways. He has an endearing habit of tilting his head to one side when considering what’s being said.
We lead a simple life together. He loves the great outdoors— walking in the park, strolling on the beach, exploring the forests. I’ve never had so much exercise! He likes hunting, too, but as an animal lover, I’ve forbidden that, explaining that what is instinctive to him is abhorrent to me. Mad about the water, he swims in all types of weather. He oozes health and vitality, but has learned to accept my lazy moments, and snuggles up beside me on the couch when I’m watching television or catching up on Facebook.
My lovely Italian has totally improved my life. He’s loyal and sincere, excellent qualities in a male. He’s very protective, which makes me feel safe. Through him, I’ve made a whole new set of friends. When I go out without him, he’s there at home eagerly awaiting my return, always glad to see me. I’ve never experienced such devotion.
Benni, my beautiful Belgian Sheepdog, is indeed my ideal housemate.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Alice, a Beagle, enters the living room, where Comet, another Beagle, is napping on the loveseat. Comet lifts his head and sniffs.
Comet: Somebody’s been to the vet.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There’s a trail along the river near my house where I often jog with my Flat-Coated Retriever mix, Sylvia. I let her run off-leash until I see someone fishing along the bank. Then I lunge for her collar.
Sylvia is usually good about staying close. She’s a classic Retriever that way — laid back, happy-go-lucky, eager to please. But if she hears the thrash of a hooked fish or the whir of a reel, forget it. She’s headfirst in the water, greeting the fish as it’s reeled ashore. Or worse, startling the fish so it breaks the line and swims free.
This wouldn’t be a problem if other anglers felt the way my husband, Scott, and I do. We go fly-fishing about 50 days a year, and Sylvia joins us every time. Unfortunately, ask most fishermen about bringing a dog along and you’ll get this pithy advice: Don’t. A dog, they’ll tell you, will blunder into a promising hole, scattering wary trout. A dog will get tangled in your line. A dog will prevent you from catching as many fish as you would alone.
They’re right, of course.
But the dogless fishermen are, I think, missing the point. I don’t choose a fishing companion — human or canine — because he or she will help me land more fish. I choose to go fishing with someone who makes it fun. By that definition, I can’t imagine a better fishing buddy than Sylvia.
Then again, Sylvia isn’t your typical fishing dog. She doesn’t get bored and wander off. She won’t chase ducks or squirrels. When we’re fishing, Sylvia channels all of her energy into fishing, too. She watches every cast, her eyes glued to my fly as it floats downstream. She knows at what point in the drift a fish is most likely to bite, so she positions herself for a good view of the action. Her entire body quivers with anticipation.
Occasionally, I snag a submerged stick. If I were alone, I’d be disappointed to reel in a piece of wood instead of a fish. But with Sylvia there, it’s not a bad consolation prize. I unhook my fly, then place the branch in Sylvia’s open mouth and watch as she cavorts around in a sort of victory lap.
Once, Scott and his father stood on the bank of a wide river and debated their strategy for fishing it. They saw bugs all over the surface of the water, but no fish were swimming up to eat them. Suddenly, Sylvia splashed into the river, plowing a wake as she paddled to the other side. Scott and his dad squinted. Sure enough, in the shade along the far shore, fish were rising. The humans weren’t paying enough attention to notice, but Sylvia was.
Like any weathered angler, Sylvia has endured fishing-related mishaps. She got her foot caught in a beaver trap. She bit down on a fly and the hook pierced her tongue. She once came home from a day on the river — too early in the season, we thought, to warrant topical pest treatments — with dozens of ticks caught in her coat. Nothing has dulled her enthusiasm.
One winter, Scott went steelhead fishing several weekends in a row. To have a chance at catching these huge, sea-run trout, he had to be on the river by sunrise. His early awakenings set Sylvia’s internal alarm clock, and when the season ended, we couldn’t turn it off. Every morning at exactly 4:30 am, she crept up to Scott’s side of the bed and nudged him awake.
We once spent a Memorial Day weekend flogging three renowned trout streams from sunrise to sunset. But constant rainstorms had swollen and muddied the water, so we never felt a bite. By the end of the third day, casting my line was an exercise in meditation more than function. No matter what fly I tied on, I wasn’t going to catch anything. Why even bother?
Then I’d look down at Sylvia, her brown eyes still focused on my line. Her rain-soaked hair stood in otterlike spikes. Her pink tongue darted from her lips to her nose. Her muscles were tense with unwavering optimism. She was, I realized, more than a good fishing buddy. She was the perfect angler. She embodied the fascination that pulls every fisherman to the river, the singular thought that keeps us drawing back our rods, again and again.
This next cast, she seemed to be thinking, this could be the one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Getting the Dog You Need
Those of us with exuberant dogs (herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs … well, just about any dog, really) truly appreciate their exuberance. We even appreciate their excessive need for entertainment and exercise; it helps get us up and moving, after all. But admit it, my fellow exuberant-dog caretakers: don’t you sometimes just want to sit down and relax? Especially during the lazy days of summer?
Before we get to the answer, I must preface this with a description of life with my first dog, Wallace (the subject of Bark’s “Rex and the City” columns). He was a Spaniel/ Setter mix, as hyper as they come, so I never got to sit down and relax in any season. To get him even remotely tired, he needed to be taken outside — where he could gallop, chase squirrels, swim after ducks, leap fences — for at least four hours a day (12 was even better). Accomplishing this was quite a challenge, given that my then-husband, Ed, and I lived in a 300-square-foot apartment New York City. But, because our lives revolved around our beloved dog’s needs, we took Wallace hiking as often as we could. I am grateful for this. Wallace’s exuberance led us to discover some truly amazing parks, hiking trails and beaches within driving distance of NYC. There was the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and the “remote” Fort Tryon Park at the tip of Manhattan (90 blocks is “remote” to a New Yorker).
My favorite hiking trail became Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring: an easy and scenic onehour drive up the eastern side of the Hudson River. It’s not an easy trail, and some of the climbs to the ridge are rocky and — to me — a bit treacherous, but the views made it so worth the effort. You could see for miles: the Catskill Mountains … the bluffs at Bear Ridge … and the great and majestic Hudson River, which threaded its way mightily all the way down to New York City. The water, from our vantage point, looked pure and silver. I loved to watch sunlight dance across the river’s surface, as if in celebration. From the ridge, the world seemed beautiful and vibrant and manageable. We would hike down feeling renewed and ready to take on life in the city again (which could be challenging, to say the least).
After our hike, Wallace, dear Wallace, would be tired, so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open as he sat upright in the back seat of the car, resting his head against the window trying to take in the last bit of scenery as we drove south. A tired dog is a wonderful sight.
It was also wonderful to see him run for three hours straight on those trails. As soon as we unhooked his leash, he would gallop off, chasing squirrels, following scent trails and basically just seizing the day. We could hear him barking wildly in the distance — a bray of chase and joy — and when he returned, panting, he’d be covered in burrs and leaves, his eyes so bright we thought he had had a glimpse of the Great Beyond.
Yes, I will always be grateful for my exuberant dog. He brought us nature and hiking and Breakneck Ridge. In the non-hiking hours, however, I must admit that he could be rather a pest. Whenever I sat down to write, he would nudge me and poke me with his snout, running back and forth from my desk to the apartment door. Whenever Ed was stretched out on the sofa watching TV, Wallace would nudge him, too, wedging his head underneath Ed’s hand — the hand that held the remote. If I tried to meditate, he’d crawl on my lap and splay out for a belly scratch. If I tried to do yoga on the living room floor, he’d come and lick my face and then lie underneath me on the mat as I moved into downward-facing dog.
After Wallace died, I adopted another Spaniel mix, Chloe. I was divorced by then, and some of my friends and family questioned my decision to adopt yet another exuberant hunting dog. Especially given that I was living alone in New York City. But we often fall in love with certain breed types, and even certain mixes.
Those of you who are familiar with this column know I adopted Chloe sight unseen, and that I adopted her because I fell in love with her picture on Petfinder.com, and because she was listed as a Spaniel/Setter mix, just like Wallace. I was prepared for a dog who would want and need to gallop four hours a day. When I met Chloe, I began to suspect that she was also part Border Collie and/or part Lab as well. Did this mean she would need 12 hours per day — four for each breed characteristic?
For a few weeks, I was a bit terrified: a Border Collie in New York City? I kind of prayed that she was mostly Spaniel. Her markings (white with patches of brown) could be either Border Collie or Spaniel. She has those intense Border Collie eyes, however — those “I will stare at you until you do what I say” eyes. Would I ever be able to sit down and relax again?
I also have to admit that, by the time I adopted Chloe, I had become lazier about exercise in general and hiking in particular. Truth be told, it was my former husband who was the hard-core outdoorsman. Once we split, there were no more arduous six-hour treks up steep, rocky ridges for me. But I was willing to resume that old habit to keep my new dog and myself in tip-top shape.
Fortunately, by then, I also lived part-time in Woodstock, which is situated just at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. There are plenty of parks and trails through which an exuberant dog can gallop and play. My favorite trail is right in the heart of the village. I like it because it is easy and flat and relatively short — it takes about 45 minutes to walk the loop. I especially like it because of its simple beauty: the trail threads through meadows and forests and then meanders along the banks of a robust stream — one that, in spring and summer, teems with waterfowl and frogs and fish.
Wallace would have gone into a birddog frenzy at the sight of the fowl, and I figured Chloe’s Inner Spaniel would be activated as well. But the first time we hiked that trail, Chloe ran straight past the waterfowl and plunged into the water.
It turns out my bird dog is a water dog, more interested in what lies beneath the water than what paddles along on its surface.
I’d never seen anything like it. She ran into the water, tail held high, and immediately began trolling for fish. She gazed intently in the shallows (with those Border Collie eyes) until she detected even the slightest movement beneath the water. Once she spotted one of those tiny minnows, she pounced.
I stood and watched her race up and down the shore for a few minutes, splashing happily through the shallows. Part of me was eager to keep walking, to maintain our fat-burning, aerobic pace. I figured Chloe would tire of fish-trolling once she figured out that fish were not easily caught. But I quickly realized that the fun, for her, was in the pursuit. She continued to track, flush and chase these fleeting creatures for the next hour. Sometimes she swam into deeper water to flush out trout; other times, she stuck her snout into the water to try to catch one with her teeth. Her tail wagged non-stop the entire time.
After a while, I sat on a large, flat rock and watched, enjoying her enjoyment. I personally did not get much exercise that day, but Chloe did. And once we dog lovers discover something our dogs love, we tend to go out of our way to provide more of it for them.
Thus it was that I discovered that the Catskills have all sorts of hidden streams, creeks, ponds and swimming holes. Chloe loved every one of them, for each contained different types of fish, which swam at different speeds. She quickly developed new skills to adjust to each variety.
As for me, I had to adjust to the fact that I wouldn’t get much exercise with a water dog unless I swam or fished myself. Which I didn’t, (a) because mountain-stream water is way too cold, and (b) because I don’t kill fish or any living creature. (I also had to adjust to the fact that a constantly wet dog means a constantly wet and mud-splattered car, and an extra hour each day spent wiping down the wet dog and washing the dirty towels, but let’s stay on topic.)
Then I remembered something my friend Melissa often says: “We get the dogs we need.”
Since my divorce, I had become pretty serious about my spiritual practice, sometimes doing up to four hours a day of yoga, mediation, chanting, chi gung and so forth. Though this can be time-consuming, I find that doing these practices ends up creating more time — quality time — and I can get more done in the day. But still, I am human, and we humans do love to multitask. New Yorkers seem particularly creative with their multitasking, especially when it comes to their dogs, so you’ll often see city dogs “doing errands” with their guardians: walking four blocks to the dry cleaners, helping to carry home groceries with their little doggie backpacks, scoring cubes of cheese at the Friday-night wine tastings, among other things (in NYC, wine tasting at the local wine shop is an “errand”).
I quickly realized that having a water dog was perfect for my new lifestyle. Each day, we drive to our favorite park and walk 20 minutes along a forest trail until we reach our favorite stream. There, Chloe trolls for fish while I do, first, my standing practice (chi gung, yoga) and then my sitting practices (meditation, mantra). I love these mornings especially in summer. I love the bubbly sound of the water (the stream always seems to be singing). I love the sound of Chloe splashing; the sight of the sunlight dappling through the trees; and the smell of so many elements: water and wood and stone and air. At that stream, it smells like Mother Earth herself. It smells like home.
Sometimes I find myself missing those hard-core hikes at Breakneck Ridge, and seeing those grand vistas with all their promises of greatness and grandeur. Sometimes I miss standing atop a mountain, above the teeming masses, so close to the sky and clouds. But at this stage in my life, I really value the stillness of sitting quietly by a stream. I am grateful for the opportunity to touch the earth, and rest, and go within.
Yes, we get the dog we need. When I was married, we needed a dog who would get us out of the cramped apartment and into nature — my husband and I would have killed each other otherwise. When I got divorced, I needed to slow down, look inside and center myself again.
And how cool is it that I get to do this and tire out an exuberant hunting/herding/fishing dog at the same time? It’s a perfect arrangement. We are both refreshed and content. Each day, Chloe has an opportunity to cultivate her Inner Water Dog and I get to cultivate my inner self.
After 90 minutes or so, it is time for us to go home. Chloe is often reluctant to get out of the water — she’ll look at me with a confused, almost betrayed, expression. But eventually, she’ll conclude that I am indeed serious about leaving the park, especially when I turn and walk away. Then she’ll bound out of the water happily — on to the next great adventure: sleep.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, what you get is better than what you wished for
I didn’t want a border collie. in fact, i wasn’t convinced that I wanted a dog of any kind. I’d had two wonderful Australian Shepherds who filled my days with all the joys of walking, working and playing with them. Not to mention with the worries and frustrations of their injuries and misbehaviors. Once they were gone, I was ready to try a dog-free life.
Or so I thought.
Instead, every morning I woke up with a profound sense of loss. I didn’t know how to take a walk without a four-legged companion. My hands kept reaching for an absent furry head and damp nose. My husband said I seemed lost. But I resisted. Because I didn’t want just another dog; I wanted a certain kind of dog: one with all the benefits of a herder (intelligence, connection, focus, trainability) and none of the drawbacks (intensity, hyperactivity, aggression).
I fostered a few candidates. This one was too dim, that one, too unpredictable. Then I saw an adorable Border Collie mix on a rescue site and wondered if she might be the one. I wrote a candid letter saying that I honestly didn’t think the dog I wanted existed. The woman at the rescue group said the dog pictured didn’t fit my ideal, but sometimes — rarely — the type I described did appear. She said I would have to be patient.
But, as it turned out, not for very long. Soon enough, she called and asked me to come see and, she hoped, foster a dog who had been found living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp; the dog was floundering in rescue, overwhelmed by the general Border Collie insanity that surrounded her.
It was a fairy-tale meeting. She threw herself directly into my husband’s lap. Though she was gimpy from what we later discovered was a broken leg that had healed without being set, half-blind and full of birdshot, she was also sweet, self-contained, thoughtful, calm, smart. It took 48 hours for fostering to turn into adopting. We named her Ainsley, Scottish for a hermitage in the woods.
She had perfect off-leash manners, was obedient but not obsequious, enjoyed learning new things and was deferential to our cat and other dogs we met on walks. She learned the great pleasures of rawhides, bones and toys, and that getting toweled off was perfect compensation for a walk in the rain. When unleashed, she returned to our front doorstep like a homing pigeon.
Well, at least for the first couple of years. Then she started the “Sorry I disappeared into the woods while you cried and called for me, but the chipmunks needed organizing” stuff. Along with “Other dogs are evil and must be chased away” and “Cars, trains, joggers, bikers and any other moving object must be pursued.” At first, I was kind of, sort of, pleased with her newfound confidence, thinking that this behavior was the result of delayed-onset adolescence and would soon fade away. But as her self-assertiveness turned into explosive moving object/dog aggression, I became confused, embarrassed, flummoxed and overwhelmed. Where had my Border Collie Lite gone? And who was this snarling, barking creature lunging at the end of my leash?
Even more important, what was I to do?
I spent hours reading articles and books and watching videos on aggression. I worked with trainers and behaviorists who prescribed everything from hard corrections with prong collars or tying her to a post and walking away to operantand counterconditioning combined with a head collar and clicker training. I contacted the rescue group and begged for insight and advice. I took her to the vet for a blood workup and complete physical. I changed my walk schedule and locations to avoid other living or moving things. In my darkest hours, I even considered returning her to rescue, as though she were a piece of merchandise that had not performed as advertised. I lost my temper, I cried, I wrung my hands. I looked into my dog’s eyes and asked what was wrong.
Eventually, I realized the truth: nothing was wrong. Ainsley was just being a whole lot more of Ainsley. As one trainer explained, after months or even years, some rescue dogs come out of depression or repression and “blossom.” As my husband more succinctly said, “She’s just being a dog.” And Ainsley’s behavior told me, “I’m having a blast.” She was still sweet and soft, affectionate and trainable — she was just a whole lot of other things as well.
I knew that ignoring or accepting her aggression would be irresponsible and dangerous. But even armed with all this new knowledge, I still balked. As I hoped for improvement rather than helped her improve, it became clear that I was the biggest barrier to progress. The truth is, I was reluctant to confront Ainsley’s behavior because I was reluctant to admit that she was something other than my dream dog come true. So I swallowed hard and gave up my fantasy of an off-leash dog. She chases everything that moves and therefore risks injuring herself as well as other critters, so now she never goes out without a leash, six feet long in town and 30 or 50 feet long when we’re in the woods.
Then I gave up my fantasy of a dog-friendly dog. I would like to walk around my town with a calm, tail-wagging canine who puts all the other ill-behaved dogs to shame. Instead, I have a dog who is perfectly behaved as long as no squirrels, other dogs or trucks are in close proximity. In which case I have a Cujo. (Fortunately, more frequently these days, I have a dog who is trying very hard to sit still and look at me for treats, even though she really wants to be a Cujo.)
The next fantasy to go was that of having the perfect dog and therefore being seen as the perfect dog owner. Instead, I throw myself into situations that ensure bad behavior on her part and embarrassment on mine so I can do all those strange and counterintuitive training things that will help her work through that bad behavior.
I also gave up my fantasy of having an ideal walking companion, and accepted that her behavior could be managed, but perhaps not changed; could be improved, but probably not eradicated; that working through it and around it would continue on each and every walk we shared, for the rest of her life. And I embraced the notion that our walks, and the training itself, could be, should be, lots and lots of fun.
Here’s what I found helps: A head halter to humanely control her physical behavior, along with months of patient and regular counterconditioning sessions that incrementally reset her trigger threshold. Carefully observing her to determine whether she wants to move away from or toward the trigger, and using that movement as part of the reward. Working with sympathetic friends, trainers and dog kennels with the other dogs on-leash or behind fences so we can practice the abovementioned counterconditioning/proximity-controlling sessions. Having the jogger, biker, person wearing a large hat and/or driver of the big white truck who share our walking trail stop and give her treats instead of racing by at full speed. Acting like a complete goofball when a trigger comes by in order to distract her and defuse us both. Swallowing my annoyance and embracing her with joy and snacks when she suddenly reappears dragging all 50 feet of yellow nylon lead with the handle that broke when she bolted and chased deer for an hour and a half through the snow-filled woods.
But what helps most? Realizing that in fact I have something infinitely better, more interesting, complex, nuanced, challenging, rewarding, entertaining, enjoyable and authentic than a dream dog. I have a real dog.
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