Culture: Stories & Lit
At times, I forget that my dog, Floyd, can’t talk. Like, all the time. During our long walks, I’ll comment on the weather, the progress of a neighbor’s new fence, my plans for the day. My constant chatter doesn’t seem to bother him, as long as he can stop and leave some messages of his own.
Dog-behavior books give conflicting advice regarding human/canine conversation. Some experts recommend speaking in cheerful tones. One book suggested singing to dogs, a constant flowing river of happy sounds. I wonder what kind of music Floyd likes best. Howlin’ Wolf, or perhaps the Stray Cats? Other trainers recommend silence. Words other than commands only confuse the pooch. Wolves don’t chitchat. Save the speech for commands, for the words that matter: Sit. Stay. Snuggle.
I’m in the first camp. Dogs have been hanging around with our species long enough to know that we constantly voice our thoughts. I believe they’ve learned to tune us out until key words like ride, fetch and treat bubble to the top of our verbal slurry.
So I don’t think my non-command words confuse Floyd. If anything, I think they embarrass him. This may be in part because of my horrible timing. We’ve had several instances where passersby misunderstood my comments. While Floyd circled, shimmied and hopped to achieve the perfect angle for his mark on a fire hydrant, I said, laughing, “What are you doing, you freak?” Unfortunately, I posed the question as a woman pulled up next to us with her car’s window down to inquire about Floyd’s breed (only he knows, and he’s not telling). Instead of letting my comment die a quiet death, I tried to explain that I’d been talking to my dog, not to her. Her expression said it all: “Well, freaks must come in pairs then.”
Once, I said, “Come here, little man” to Floyd at the exact moment a diminutive gentleman turned the corner. How I wished I could scoop up the words in a plastic dog baggie. I wonder if Floyd is relieved that I have finally stopped calling him “Big Stink” and “Monkey Butt” in public after one too many sharp glares from someone nearby.
Calling “Get over here, you handsome devil” while Floyd played in the leaves next to my married neighbor was probably a poor choice of words. Particularly as another neighbor overheard me. Relationships on our street have been strained since.
Not only is my timing awful, I have a constant and inexplicable desire to explain everything to Floyd. “We can’t go to Reigning Cats and Dogs for a peanut butter biscuit today. I didn’t bring money.” His gaze slides to the man walking by who overhears us. I mean, overhears me.
Though I know Floyd is not going to whip out his daily planner to coordinate our schedules, I always explain why we’re taking a shorter route, or why he needs to hurry up. Dogs probably rank “clocks” up there with “lids” as the worst human inventions ever. Yet, I have said, “Give me five minutes, buddy” more than once. I have said this in front of people. Floyd chomps on an acorn to fill the awkward silence that inevitably follows. Signs instruct owners to “curb your dog.” I should really curb my comments to my dog.
My conversations with Floyd shine an ugly light on what kind of parent I would be. After he gobbled some rancid dumpster meat before I could stop him, I yelled (in cheerful singsong), “What were you thinking? We spend a fortune on your organic kibble. If you get sick, don’t come bellyaching to me.”
Did I really blurt, “You know better”?
Yes, yes I did.
And when I say things like, “Now, what did I just say to you?” I only shame myself.
Watching Floyd’s helicopter-tailhappy- dance when I ask, “Are you my best boy?” I realize that he sometimes gets a kick out of the babble. He’ll make a play bow, which is canine for “Well, yes I am. Now toss me that squeaky toy and let me show you a good time.”
We’ve all said things we regret. I’ve happened to say many of those things to my dog. He doesn’t hold it against me. A long walk, squirrel patrol and a possible biscuit later make my monkey chatter completely bearable. Or so he tells me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Animals In and Out of Books
[Guilty Pleasures] Like kale and cod liver oil, books about string theory or shenanigans on Wall Street are no doubt good for us. But are they what come to mind when we’re looking for something to read? No, they are not. When we want to relax and lose ourselves in an engrossing puzzle, give us a mystery every time, especially a well-written British police procedural. In this category, Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series definitely makes the short list. These two Scotland Yard detectives, their lives with their sons Kit and Toby, and the nuances of their work are so well articulated that we were utterly gobsmacked to discover that Crombie isn’t British but rather, Texas born and raised. Today, she lives in northern Texas with her husband, German Shepherds and cats, and divides her time between the U.S. and the U.K. Read on for the origins of Crombie’s dog love.
The German Shepherds were my husband’s fault. When he was very small, his parents kept a German Shepherd for friends who had to go overseas for a summer. He adored the dog, which was very gentle with him, as Shepherds usually are with small children. He would put his hand in the dog’s mouth and pretend he was a lion tamer. (I can imagine the little blond imp shrieking with glee at his daring, and it has just occurred to me that my fictional little blond imp, Toby, might bear some relation to my real-life husband as a child.)
The German Shepherd went back to his owners, and my husband grew up with other dogs — a Bloodhound, a Boxer. But none replaced the German Shepherd in his imagination or affections.
I, on the other hand, did not grow up in a pet-friendly household. My mother did not care for cats and she was afraid of big dogs — she’d been bitten as a small child — and above all, she didn’t want anything in the house that shed!
When I was nine, my parents gave in to what I’m sure was my incessant and annoying whining, and took in an adult toy Poodle (no shedding) from some elderly relatives who could no longer care for her. Oh, dear, oh dear. The disappointment on all sides. The poor dog, Jolie, had been raised as a faux-human, and never adjusted to the deterioration in her circumstances, although she bore with us bravely for a good many years.
But this dog, who didn’t care for children and had never been taught to play, was not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, and my heart was broken. I consoled myself by reading books about imaginary dogs, and spending hours poring over dog encyclopedias trying to decide on the perfect pup.
My first dog as an adult was a buff Cocker Spaniel, bought as a surprise for our seven-year-old daughter. His name was Taffy. He had every bad trait that plagues Cocker Spaniels. I adored him, and he me. We lost him to cancer when he was nine, and we found we couldn’t bear being dogless, even for a week.
I’d had visions of an English Cocker, perhaps a bi-color or a blue roan, but my husband had his heart set on a German Shepherd, and so Hallie came into our lives. She’s 14 now, and frail. Our younger Shepherd, Neela, is seven, and they have been everything that that long-ago little girl imagined as the ideal dog — brave, loving, loyal, smart, playful and funny. Oh, and we live in a sea of dog hair.
Gemma, of course, got the blue roan Cocker Spaniel, Geordie, and he is the dog of her heart. Kit’s Tess, on the other hand, the little foundling who might be a Norfolk Terrier, sprang out of nowhere, just as dogs sometimes do in real life. A frightened boy seeking shelter and solace found a frightened little dog behind a supermarket, and a match was made.
Before the fictional dogs, however, Duncan acquired a cat, Sid, a big black fellow who had belonged to his late friend and neighbor in Hampstead. Having resisted the temptation to give my primary f ictional characters German Shepherds, I’ve given the GSDs walk-on roles in a number of novels.
Dogs and cats weave in and out of all the books in the series. I notice I’ve had a particular fondness for black Labrador Retrievers, which pop up in a number of books. Duncan’s parents have a lovely Border Collie. One of my favorite fictional dogs has been Mo, the English Mastiff in Where Memories Lie (Wm. Morrow, 2008). Mo was modeled on a real English Mastiff named Big Mo. Big Mo’s owners bid at a Humane Society auction for the opportunity to have him appear in a book, and I hope I did him justice. I certainly enjoyed spending a book with him, drool and all. I particularly love the scene where he eats the tub of ice cream.
But if working dogs have had minor roles in previous books, they get their due in No Mark Upon Her (Wm. Morrow, 2012). Finn, a black Lab, and Tosh, a female German Shepherd who just happens to look exactly like our Neela, are search-and-rescue dogs with a volunteer organization I’ve called Thames Valley SAR in the book. TVSAR is based on a real volunteer group called Berkshire SAR, whose members were extremely helpful when I was researching the book. They allowed me to handle a search dog in training exercises, and to hide and pretend to be a victim. (In the dark, in the mud, I might add. All the more fun.)
I have tremendous respect for both dogs and handlers, and if the dogs in my book are heroes, their real-life counterparts are more so.
Will there be dogs and cats in future books? Undoubtedly. I can’t imagine my own life without their companionship, and my characters deserve to be equally blessed.
There is one caveat, however — the dogs and cats are not allowed to talk.
This essay first appeared in the “Animal” issue of Mystery Readers Journal and is reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The social patterns of a dog park
The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.
“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you talk to a lot at the cemetery—you meet them somewhere … we were down at Granny Killams when it was open one night and this woman came over and said, ‘Al, how are you? how’s the dogs? how’s all this?’ and I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, ‘And this is …,’ and I realized I had no idea, it wasn’t that I had forgotten her name, it was that I’d never known her name. I knew her dog … I mean, I had no idea. And, this was not somebody that I just knew very casually, this was somebody that I probably walked with three or four mornings a week. But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which, I think, says something about who’s worth knowing anyway.”
Even today what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years and many of them just don’t know each other’s real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves or hates. They just know each other’s dogs’ names. So when they refer to one another, they might say, “Circe’s mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own.” Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping, they’ll say, “Ellroy’s mom!” and then when nothing’s left to say, say, “Uh, how goes it?”
Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby-talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben’s mother, about this.
“I think I really get a sort-of window into people’s … well, into people’s souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace and every once in a while yelling for their dog and ….”
Here’s Al again: “I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog. When I see people hit a dog, I’m really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that.
“I mean, I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn’t. I know people who’ve got trophy dogs and people who’ve got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.”
I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where, more often than not, I’d find Jeff and Keana. The minute Jeff realized I was a writer he went to the library and over the course of a week read everything I’d ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others, too.
When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning—a photograph of Keana and himself. He brought it up obsessively, about how Keana was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped, and how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks—a good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor’easter hit, the need to time everything just perfectly so that Keana would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for her picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.
In retrospect there were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba-diving … later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears, he and Keana in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War-era husband and wife, he in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind Keana who was perfectly coifed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me, literally beaming.
After Christmas I left the country for several weeks and when I came back, some time after a massive ice storm, Jeff was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn’t seem to want to talk about it … didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves, and Jeff … he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive. What I learned was this: he’d had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He’d asked someone from the cemetery to put him up, another line crossed. But that hadn’t worked out. Keana was taken to a kennel by Megan, Matty’s mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn’t. Week after week she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up Keana, that he was gone. That’s when Keana was adopted by someone else.
Here’s Megan: “You start talking about this stuff with somebody and then you realize, “I didn’t even know this person … like with Jeff, I mean, it was like you knew everything about his life but in the end how much of that was actually true? And, you know, you didn’t even know this person … it was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.”
There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he’d robbed a bank. Someone knew someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast. Maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed. Betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He’d become too intimate. Now he was gone and it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else’s eye. During those dark winter months the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived … someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggy shampoo?
Sara and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator right up until a couple of months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he’d been, for I was pretty certain that he couldn’t have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he’d been inches from a life he imagined for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love, with friends he was guaranteed to see every day and he’d had a couple of bad breaks—got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog and then panicked.
Now time has passed. People come and go and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive and every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they’re in Mecca. Circling the Ka’ba. In general I’d say things are back to the way they were—intimate but not intimate. We stand around in dumfounded joy with ten, twenty, thirty other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play. Dalmatian Man still flashes sign language at his deaf Dalmatian, the Pickup Artist still works his magic, the Lawn Chair Family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day, covering their legs with wool blankets.
Fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers, eventually something happens that brings you together. Sometimes something small. The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers, and there were all these living people, too, who only know me as Trout’s dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me. The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end, and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything, and we stood in a circle watching it rise. For a minute or two we just stood there glowing orange, the dogs didn’t exist at all.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When I’m asked if I live alone, I reply, “No, I live with Lucy.” Lucy is my 12-year-old Beagle. She’s a stubborn little dog, but especially sweet and loving. My late husband, Don, and I adopted her from the local shelter nine years ago. We had been checking the shelter weekly, and when we drove up one Sunday in early June, the attendant said, “I have just the dog for you.” He led us to a tri-colored hound, unlocked the pen and said, “Her name is Lucy.”
The frisky Beagle charged toward us, running from one to the other. She wiggled all over when we stooped down to pat her. We were hooked immediately by her affection. “Her ears are like velvet,” I said, stroking her and smiling up at Don. He nodded, then asked the attendant, “Where do we sign?”
Within minutes, the paperwork was completed. Don opened the back door of our Buick station wagon and Lucy hopped right in. The trip home took about 10 minutes. She sat looking out the window as though she had ridden with us all her life. When she placed her front right paw on the armrest, we knew she was special; later that night, as we listened to her snore, we agreed she was a perfect fit. I intended for her to be Don’s dog. He had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I had read that a dog would be helpful. They became buddies at once. Don spent hours in the back yard throwing a tennis ball, which Lucy raced after but never retrieved. She’d sit at the ball and wait until Don traipsed across the yard to pick it up and throw it again. They never tired of that little game. As his illness progressed, his stride became a slow shuffle. Lucy waited patiently for him to reach her. “Go get it,” he said, tossing the ball again.
One afternoon, it became quiet in the back yard. I headed toward the door to check on them, then noticed that they were both asleep on the braided rug in the family room. Don’s arm was around Lucy. When I approached, she opened her eyes without moving an inch, so as not to disturb him. I ran for the camera.
When Don puttered around the yard or went down to the basement, she was at his side. Evenings, after they had their ice cream, he sat in his recliner with Lucy curled up on his lap.
In September, we signed her up for obedience training. I handled her during classes, as Don’s memory was failing; he sat on a bench nearby and watched. The instructor said Beagles are stubborn, but Lucy surprised us. Head and tail held high, she pranced along beside me like a show dog. As a proud mother, I beamed.
When I could no longer provide Don’s care, he became a resident at a nursing facility. Lucy mourned his absence in our home. She waited at the back door with the tennis ball in her mouth. If I opened the freezer door, she dashed into the kitchen, expecting ice cream.
Each afternoon, we visited Don. Lucy was so excited that she dragged me across the parking lot. She stood on her hind legs at his wheelchair, her entire body wagging. Don’s laughter filled the hallway. As his illness progressed and he was no longer able to acknowledge us, Lucy was completely undemanding. She sat quietly at the foot of his wheelchair and grieved.
Evenings at home, when I sat in Don’s recliner, Lucy would jump up on my lap. I welcomed the closeness, but her 36 pounds was too much for me. I’d point to the floor and say, “Down, girl, down. You’re too heavy for me.” Reluctantly, she’d jump down and nestle alongside the chair, looking up. I rubbed her velvet ears, and we were both comforted.
It’s been nearly four years since we lost Don. That sensitive little Beagle has transferred her love to me. Her companionship and loyal devotion fill the void in my life. She is never far away, and I talk to her all day long. Her bed is in a corner of my bedroom. Every night before she settles down, she comes alongside the bed for a little smooch. I pat her head and say, “You’re a good girl. Mommy loves you.” It fills a need for both of us.
I’ve had many dogs in my 83 years, but never one as loving and devoted as my Lucy. She keeps me company, makes me laugh and snuggles up when she senses I’m lonely. She is the perfect housemate. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
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.
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