Culture: Stories & Lit
Saving robins, one fledgling at a time
It was the dead of summer and scorching temperatures had parched the ground and burnt the grass that surrounds our complex of cottages. Helen, my Bull Terrier mix—all white with coffee-colored splotches, heavy-chested, and 58 pounds of tough-looking docility—was gently nosing something in the yard. I approached, quietly asking, “Did you find something, Helen?” (I talk to Helen about everything and she understands me completely.)
The “something” turned out to be a baby bird, scrawny, with that loose, puckered, “chicken” skin common to newly hatched birds. The tiny beak stretched up to the sky, opening and closing right next to Helen’s nose. Helen looked curious, quizzical even; she tilted her head to the side, not knowing what to make of it, but instinctively knowing it needed some help. Poised over the bird, she looked at me, bowed down to the bird’s beak, looked back at me.
“Look,Helen, a baby bird!” I exclaimed.Helen caught my excitement. “Where is its mama? Where is its nest?”Helen obediently looked around. I inspected the huge maple tree over my head and, not seeing any nests to which to return the fallen bird, filled a small plastic basket with leaves, twigs and grass, then gently placed the chick inside. I positioned the basket near the cottage porch, where we quietly waited for the mother to find her baby. Soon, a large robin hopped along the grass, landed on the basket and attended to the infant. As the days passed, Helen and I were patient observers, greeting that bird each morning and supplying the mother with worms for feeding. One morning, however, there was no little bird in our basket.“Where is the baby bird,Helen?” I asked in a sweet, high voice with just a touch of distress. Helen looked in the basket, sniffed it and then began sniffing the ground, looking for a scent. I heard a slight chirping sound in the distance.
We followed the sound,Helen with her nose to the ground. We walked around to the backyard, and Helen found the chick nestled beneath a bush. “Hello, baby bird. How are you?” I exclaimed, and Helen gently gave the bird a tiny nose nudge.Mama robin observed from the roof next door, stressfully, anxiously twirping.We left the family alone, removing ourselves to a peaceful distance. Thereafter, every morning, Helen found the chick’s new hiding place, and we greeted him joyfully while mama looked on.
One day, we searched and listened, searched and listened. Alas, we did not hear any chirping and could not find the baby bird anywhere! Concerned, we strolled slowly between and around the cottages.
Suddenly, mama robin swooped down from a rooftop, landing on the ground directly in front of us. She was agitated—twirping and chirping and calling in distress. I was startled that she had landed so close to us, directly in front of the unrestrained Helen. She hopped a few paces, turned and looked at Helen and me, hopped along and looked back at us, hopped and looked back, making sure we were following her.
The three of us—bird, dog and human—continued this way, passing three separate cottages, when suddenly we heard a faint “chkkk, chkkk, chkkk.” The mother bird led us right to the edge of a deep window well.We peered in, and there was that fledgling bird, two feet down, chirping its little heart out and making tentative flapping motions with its wings. Mama bird looked at us expectantly. I gently cradled the chick in my hands, and returned it to its improvised nest, placed in the crook of a large maple tree. The next morning, Helen and I were delighted to see mother and juvenile together on a neighboring rooftop.
Now, when I ask,“Where’s the birdie?”Helen looks all over, searching for fledgling birds. Each year we keep track of those new little ones, which we find hiding in bushes, behind garbage cans, sometimes beneath cars. On occasion, when I say, “Where is it? I can’t find it,”Helen runs to the window well and peers in, just to make certain it isn’t harboring a fallen bird that needs our help.
To this day, I am astounded and touched by the determination and trust of that mother bird, the gift of our intimate encounter, and the intelligence and gentleness of an amazing dog.How little we know of nature until we take the time to observe it.How fortunate I am to have Helen to show me the way.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Out of the doghouse, into pajamas.
"This", my dad said, emphatically pointing to the small pink and lime-green house with gingerbread trim located in the middle of our cement patio, “is for dogs. That’s why they call it a doghouse.”He leaned over so far that his unlit cigar tumbled out of the center pocket of his overalls. Cursing, Dad snatched up the cigar and blew on it. Once satisfied that it was free of dog hair and dirt, he resumed his lecture. “A place where dogs reside.Where canines dwell.Where fourlegged creatures slumber.”
“Geesh, I get your point,” I told him, offended that he needed to state his case so unequivocally even though I had been pestering him nightly about our dog Fritz’s inadequate sleeping quarters.
“Dogs outside. People inside!”Dad stared at me for a good five seconds to make sure he had gotten his point across. I threw my hands up in the air to show him that I understood what he was saying, but not why.He stomped off to the garage to enjoy his cigar in the only building in which he was allowed to smoke it.
For centuries, Fritz’s ancestors had trekked miles in the snow to dig wayward travelers out of avalanches in the Swiss Alps, but I was convinced he couldn’t withstand the nippy winters on our small farm in Washington State. I pleaded with Dad to allow our St. Bernard to sleep in my bedroom, but he remained steadfast.
My room overlooked our pastel, pinstriped, two-story garage; a cement mixer; and a burn barrel.However, it wasn’t without its luxuries: It was the only bedroom with a door leading to the outside. Thus, Fritz could climb in bed with me any time the temperature dropped below 70 degrees, and no one needed to be the wiser.
Seduced by this taste of indoor life, Fritz took to bolting into the house whenever the opportunity arose. Crouching low by the side of the house, he’d patiently wait for his chance to shotgun through the door. By the time his victims picked themselves up off the ground, Fritz would be comfortably settled in the center of the living room floor. Dad would try to roll Fritz over and pick him up. This often took numerous tries. When he was finally able to get Fritz up on all fours, he’d drag him across the floor in what we called Fritz’s “ski position.” Once Dad managed to get Fritz outside, he’d triumphantly slam the door shut and lean against the wall to catch his breath and enjoy his victory. Then my mother would open the door.
It might have been the physical toll the struggle took on Dad, or perhaps it was his secret admiration for Fritz’s stubbornness and persistence—whatever the reason, he eventually relented. Fritz slept by the wood stove on a piece of carpet Dad cut especially for him.
Heidi arrived shortly after Fritz passed away. A German Shepherd/wolf mix, Heidi never bounded up to greet us or allowed the cats to sleep on her stomach like Fritz did, but she let us throw our arms around her, enduring it until we lost interest and wandered away.While Heidi actually enjoyed the doghouse, Dad reasoned that she was far too independent; fearing she might run away during the night, he allowed her to sleep in the living room. Although we consistently found dog hair on the couch, no one could catch her in the act. And because no one was willing to get up at two in the morning, we turned a blind eye and ran the lint brush over the couch cushions daily.
Dad had a purebred German Shepherd as a boy, and constantly told us tales of his blinding devotion and intelligence. To him, the German Shepherd was the pinnacle of the canine world.When he heard through the work grapevine that a co-worker was getting rid of her German Shepherd, J.D., he couldn’t resist. My older brother and I were skeptical— Heidi adored our sister Wendy’s dog, Barney, a Husky mix, but showed absolutely no interest in other dogs. Thankfully, however, she got along fine with J.D. And while the woman at Dad’s office gave us a long list of J.D.’s dietary needs, she failed to mention the fragility of his emotional state.
J.D. would sink into bouts of depression and seek refuge in the only place that brought him comfort: behind the toilet. If we had had more than one bathroom, we could have worked around this, but we didn’t. So, at least once a week, we’d find J.D. sandwiched between the toilet and the wall, nipping and growling at imaginary threats.
Company posed a problem. Mom’s assurances that they could just ignore the large snarling dog didn’t seem to comfort our guests. It was only when they looked as though they were ready to straddle our nearest potted plant that Mom would relent and coax J.D. out of the bathroom with her soothing voice and a loaf of bread.
In a moment of desperation, Dad took J.D. to a dog psychologist, who informed us that J.D. had emotional issues. “Are you kidding me?” Dad yelled. “For $75, I could have told you that. I’m the one who has to turn around every time I sit on the toilet!” J.D.’s self-imposed bathroom exiles became part of our family routine and continued until his death. Heidi took J.D.’s death as she did his arrival, in stride. But shortly after, my parents went to my sister’s house to help her bury Barney, who’d succumbed to pneumonia.When they returned,Heidi went up to my mom and sniffed her, then went into the doghouse and refused to come out. She died a few days later on the morning of her vet appointment; my dad was prepared to load the doghouse on the back of the truck to get her there. Heidi was the last dog to ever use the doghouse.
The doghouse wasn’t even an option for Bodie, a black Lab I adopted from the Humane Society when my parents were on a trip celebrating their retirement. My mother made Bodie colorful bandannas to wear, and every morning he’d walk up and down the hallway barking what was referred to as his “I am the world’s greatest dog” proclamation. A proud dog with visions of long beach walks and mountain-climbing adventures, he was in and out of the vet clinic during his relatively short life with broken bones, arthritis, hip dysplasia and, finally, bone cancer.My parents said they wanted to keep Bodie close to them, so he slept in their bedroom.
Some years later, I moved to New Orleans and finally acquired my own dog, Dixie, a black-and-white Pit Bull. When Dixie was five months old, I started working longer hours and learned that the building I lived in was being sold. I called my parents and asked if Dixie could live with them for a few months until I got better situated. They adamantly refused. I pleaded. I promised. Finally, Dad shouted, “We’re not getting a Pit Bull. No way! That’s final.” Dixie flew out the next week.While my parents might have envisioned a snarling beast, they were surprised to find a very small, very happy puppy waiting in a carrier at the airport. Bodie was wary of her at first because of his fragile condition, but Dixie attached herself to him with such devotion that even he was won over.
The first warning sign that Dixie was going to become a permanent Northerner came when Mom said she was too busy to talk because she was making matching bandannas for Dixie and Bodie. The second sign was when I came home for a visit to find Dixie snoozing on the furniture—this was furniture I wasn’t allowed to sit on. My grandmother’s recently reupholstered antique couches were now covered in sheets with circus clowns and polka dots.
The third sign was Mom dressing Dixie in homemade flannel pajamas with pigs and hearts all over them. “You know we like to sleep with the windows open, and Dixie gets so chilled,” she explained. The final sign came when Dixie took to sleeping in my parents’ bed. While Bodie was the first dog to sleep in my parents’ room, no dog had ever breached the sacred ground of their bed. Dixie started at the foot of the bed, then moved to the middle, and now sleeps shoulder to shoulder with my parents.Mom argues that this is perfectly acceptable, since they never allow her under the sheet. “She’s a snuggler,” Dad brags.
My sister is perplexed by this gradual turn of events, but sums it up as emptynest syndrome. Except, she says, instead of the dogs being mere replacements, they’re more like upgrades.When I was a child, our dogs ate generic dog food dumped by my father into an old kettle that served as a dog bowl. Now, before my dad’s morning coffee is hot, he’s already cooking Dixie her meal: hamburger, oatmeal, veggies, brown rice and powdered milk. “That’s my little sensitive- tummy girl,” he coos, pouring the feast into her monogrammed bowl. The only time we had hot food in the morning was when we stuck our Lucky Charms in the microwave.
Did we wear our parents down, or was it time and circumstance that allowed them to become the dog owners they were destined to be? Without children to raise and a clock to punch, did they finally have the opportunity to truly appreciate the souls of these multifaceted creatures? Or, perhaps, just as older siblings pave the way for the youngest child, Dixie has Fritz,Heidi, J.D. and Bodie to thank for paving the way from the ramshackle doghouse to the middle of a luxurious king-sized bed.Whatever the reason,my parents learned with age that dogs don’t just fill time in our lives; they fulfill our time of life.
During one of my recent visits home, I awoke to find Dad asleep in the recliner and Mom camped out on the couch. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh,”Dad said, pulling himself out of his chair and stretching his stiff body. “Dixie was kicking a lot last night.” I was appalled. I loved Dixie too, but this was too much. Dad had just had knee surgery; Mom was getting over a cold. There had to be limits. I loudly expressed my opinion. “Shhh,” Dad scolded. I looked down at Mom, still asleep on the couch, wrapped up in one of her afghans, and apologized. Dad gave me an irritated look, then tiptoed down the hallway and quietly closed the bedroom door.“Don’t you know better? Dixie likes to sleep late on weekends.”And then he went out to the garage to smoke his cigar.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The taming of a pugnacious pup.
“Pogo eats strangers,” or so I was told, and when I first met him, he exploded. Barking, growling, snarling, lots of teeth, lunging—all the tricks that make scary people go away. To all that, he added a four-foot, straight-up-in-the-air jump, which explained why he was named Pogo. He looked like a small red Chow: lots of russet hair, thick muscular body, curled tail, short, Jack Russell legs (which makes the jumping all the more impressive). He had bitten potential adopters, so he wasn’t bluffing. It was obvious why he couldn’t be adopted.
I had been flown from my home in Iowa to his shelter in New Jersey by Best Friends Animal Society as part of their “Training Partners”program. This innovative program matches trainers experienced in dealing with aggressive dogs with the unadoptable dogs from their incredible Hurricane Katrina rescue, as well as with other dogs who need help with training and behavior.
The busy shelter staff left me alone with him, so I pulled up a bucket outside his run; sat down; turned sideways; and tried to keep my body loose and a slight smile on my face, and to avoid eye contact. Then I began gently pitching small pieces of canned chicken breast toward his feet. Pretty heady stuff for a guy living on dry food and sleeping on cement. I had his attention—it’s hard to continue to be rude to someone who’s slipping you the equivalent of $50 bills through the fence!
When the staff came in to clean his section of the runs, I walked around, talked with them and then strolled back over and gave Pogo a treat.He was reacting less and less to my approach.
Everyone was leery of letting him out to greet me because previously, that’s when he had attacked strangers. I thought he’d be okay, and was prepared to throw a big chunk of chicken if he rushed me. He rushed me all right, but it was for the chicken.
I made no effort to touch him, and that, as much as the treats, kept me safe. Had I leaned over him and tried to pat him on the head (like any adopter would do), he would have nailed me. He reminded me of a tough little street kid ready to take offense at the slightest thing. Since we both passed that first allimportant test, they brought him to me on a 20-foot lead, and we went exploring the grounds. A misty rain was falling, and after 30 minutes of aerobics, I sat down on a dry spot underneath the branches of a thick pine.Pogo came back to me occasionally, got a quick treat and was off to the end of the tether again to soak up more smells. On one of these drive-by greetings, I reached out and stroked him from shoulder to tail, avoiding his head. He went to the end of the lead and then oh-so-casually turned and came right back by so I could do it again. My heart gave a flip. I was a stranger no more.
That was the beginning of my “rehabbing Pogo” story. It’s been a year since New Jersey and more than two and a half years since Katrina; Pogo’s made incredible progress—he’s not ready for prime time yet, but he’s a whole different dog. Smart, trainable, a truly individual personality and—who knew—very affectionate. The boy loves a lovin’. Still, he reacts like a crazy man if surprised by a stranger.
I’m sure Pogo spent his early life on a chain. He can unwrap a lead from around his legs with the dexterity of a pro. He didn’t know about stairs and couldn’t believe I wanted him to come in the house. That took lots of coaxing. His heartworm test was positive and he wasn’t neutered. I’m thinkin’ he didn’t have it easy in the Big Easy.
He still doesn’t in some ways. He doesn’t like my dogs, and they only tolerate him. I’m a painter when not training dogs and he spends most of his time in the studio alone. That’s his choice—the door’s open. He spends a lot of time in there playing with an old blanket, tossing it around. I think bedding is what he had to play with in the year and a half he spent in shelters.
When the other four dogs are out in the back yard, he keeps his distance. When I first brought him home, they tried to play with him, but I don’t think he knew how, and now that window’s closed. Emma, the boss, gave him a classic play bow that first day, but he just stood there. Emma loves to play, and she cut him a disgusted look, walked off and has never tried again. I hate it that he doesn’t have that “pack” feeling. He does have it when we go for runs, though.We go to a 64-acre, no-leads-required place, and we’re the only ones who ever use it. I call it “Disneyland,” because it’s like taking five kids to a magic kingdom. That’s one of the things I love about dogs: Their excitement for life is contagious. I’m in awe of that common stretch of pasture land and timber because they are.
When Pogo’s out there, he’s on the team. He sniffs and pees where the others do, and they bow to his expertise, rushing over to check out whatever he’s found to sniff and pee on. There, he’s comfortable with them; he’s got their backs and they have his. I love it so much that I take them as often as I can.
It’s going to be a long road. The idea was that I’d rehab him and then adopt him out, then go back and get another one. I liked that idea.Maybe if I were a better,more efficient trainer, he’d be further along than he is. I have trained him. He can sit, stay, come, walk on a leash with the best of them. I’m just not very efficient at broken hearts and damaged spirits.We’re now doing desensitization and counter-conditioning.Among other things, we go to the ballpark and hang out around strange guys—his main trigger. He’s getting used to men at a distance, and I slip him a bit of hot dog or chicken when someone comes near. It’s working, it really is, but it’s slow…downright glacial, in fact.
And anyway, I won’t be adopting him out. My mother, a Depression baby and product of hard times herself, has fallen for him big time.No matter what he does, she has at least three excuses for it. Keeps reminding me of what a hard life he’s had. They’re both a little ornery and they bonded from the beginning, so it’s two against one. He’s not going anywhere—and I’m sure he won’t be eating anyone.
Culture: Stories & Lit
…but not out in LA
While walking my dog Ilia one morning, I run into our lovely neighbors Bea and Barry and their cadre of five (!) dogs. “Let’s go down to the river!” Bea suggests. Sounds good, I say, and off we go.
Upon arriving, Barry notices a guy tossing stuff into the river and walks down the steep embankment to the water’s edge to inquire as to why said stuff is being tossed. The guy pretends not to speak English and walks away. Barry, Good Samaritan that he is, manages to fish out the tossed bag. Which appears to contain a fully roasted turkey.
He dispatches the unfortunate bird into a nearby waste receptacle.
So, since we’re now near the water’s edge, I enthusiastically (yet stupidly) suggest that we continue our constitutional along the bucolic, cement-encrusted bank.We let the dogs off-lead and Ilia explodes into a glorious burst of speed. What a pleasure to watch him run! Ears a-flappin’, tail aspinnin’. What a sight. Really, really beautiful…until he launches himself (as though wearing a cape) headlong into what we charitably—and delusionally—call the LA “River.”
I call him out and he races obediently toward me full tilt, stops six inches in front of my unshaven knees, careens to starboard and flings himself back into the brackish mire. He then begins to swim downriver, where it is too deep for him to get out.After much frantic calling and waving on my part, he manages to get back to his original port of departure and extract himself. Shaking vigorously and giving everybody a full bacterial misting, he then sprints down the embankment and flings himself back into the drink. I finally manage to coax him out and leash him, whereupon he once again transfers the river’s slimy contents by showering our entire party.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that any body of water that has the initials “LA” preceding its name is probably a notch or two below being a paragon of pristine aqueous virtue. My slightly germophobic brain goes into overdrive imagining the disease-causing microorganisms sodden Ilia is now covered with. Before long the list of ailments includes (but is not limited to) beri beri, typhoid, diphtheria, dropsy, Ebola and, quite possibly, rickets.
But, here is what you must know about this dog: he is not a typical pet. This sleek black Lab/Golden Retriever cross is my son’s service dog, bred and trained to serve nobly alongside a wheelchair. For the first 18 months of his life, he was raised by dedicated, loving volunteers who doted on, trained and subsidized him. Then, they made the heartwrenching trip to the main campus to turn him in and say good-bye forever. Highly skilled trainers took over from there, spending the next six months teaching him advanced commands like picking up dropped objects and opening doors so that when he was matched with his human companion, he would give the gift of independence to his disabled partner. Then, they gave us this dog. Free.
Appropriately, this organization maintains ownership of the dog while he is in service so they can closely monitor his care and health. So…how do I call their facility and tell them I’ve allowed their precious gift to become infected with West Nile Virus?
Panicked, I take my charge home and immediately deposit him into the tub, then spend an hour scrubbing him down to the molecular level…desperate to punish anything with a flagellum out of existence. Furious but clean, he searches my hardwood-floored house for a corner of carpet to rub on. Finding none, he finally settles for curling into an impossibly tight ball on the couch, where he remains for several hours, deeply offended that I cut short his aquatic spree.
I am happy to report that he is now warm, dry and delightfully Ebola-free.
I sent the good people at Canine Companions for Independence this tale in the hope that they would be entertained and allow us to keep the dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A little herbal help for Rex’s party nerves
It’s always stressful to throw your first adult party, and it can be even more stressful if you have a really hyper, poorly trained (or rather, imperfectly trained) dog. It was the year 2000 and Ted and I had just moved to a 350-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. This was a big step up for us, given that our previous apartment was only 300 square feet. You might be shocked at that number, but we were overjoyed to have a bedroom door that could actually close (or slam, as the case may be) because there were no bureaus or beds blocking the way. It was indeed cause to celebrate.
So we decided to throw a housewarming party. Now, long-time readers of this column may recall that, when we first adopted Rex, three years prior to this party, he came to us fear-aggressive, anxious and mistrustful of humans, one of whom had abused him cruelly. With lots of loving care and training, we managed to “cure” him of his aggressions, but there is one thing you can’t cure an English Setter of, and that is being an English Setter, which means exuberant and energetic— and in a 350sf apartment, “energetic” can translate into “hyper.” Plus, only one-third of our guests would qualify as “dog people”—the rest of them liked to wear black and keep their clothing fur-free.
My first thought was to send Rex off to doggie day-care for the morning. (Because we were now officially adults, we decided to throw a brunch rather than a big smoky keg party with Jell-O shots and bags of chips.)
But Ted, having been sent off to boarding school as a pre-teen, said this could cause undue psychological damage.
“How’s he going to know we didn’t invite him to our party?” I said.
“Dogs always know. Plus, he’ll smell the remnants of 80 people … and quiche.”
So the dog was invited.
Then something—an article in the New York Times, perhaps?—gave me an idea: Sedate the dog. Now, before you throw this magazine down in disgust and call me irresponsible, hear me out: people do this in New York, you see, when they need to bring their dogs before potential co-op boards for “review.” A co-op board, whose job it is to make sure that you are socially acceptable and financially secure, can reject you for any number of reasons—maybe your daughter’s tongue piercing would be more appropriate at a co-op in Tribeca than one on the Upper East Side, or maybe you are a world-famous entertainer who happened to have published nude photographs of yourself a few years back. And I’d heard more and more stories of people getting rejected because the boards didn’t approve of their dogs.
Then and now, dogs often get a bad rap in New York. Every week, it seems, the local papers publish articles on this-or-that bad dog doing such-and-such, and as a result, co-op boards have become more and more strict about what kinds of dogs they allow into their hallowed towers, or if they allow them at all. Board members worry that dogs will bark all day; pee in the elevators; jump on strangers; or, in the spring, when the rain is at its worst, shake themselves off right next to a famous socialite and ruin her $4,000 Fendi baguette handbag.
Whatever. We all know there is no such thing as a “bad dog.” Just a poorly trained or improperly treated one. But New Yorkers have learned to take extra precautions in their “dog interviews” with the co-op board. Elite groomers are paid hundreds of dollars to triple-bathe the dogs, administer hot-oil conditioners, spend an hour on the blow-outs and then spritz the dogs with special aromatherapy oils, like bergamot or lavender, which are said to lull board members into a state of complacence and well-being.
Or people will spend $1,500 for five one-hour sessions with a dog trainer who specializes in the dog interview. In these sessions, the dog learns to sit, hold a down-stay and shake hands with the president of the co-op board, all while counting out his/her guardian’s income with thumps of his/her tail (say, one thump for every hundred thousand).
Then there was the couple in Tribeca who had a rather nasty and very vocal Jack Russell Terrier who didn’t like shoes, and because most people in the lobbies of luxury co-ops wear shoes, he was constantly nipping peoples’ ankles. They knew they could not bring him to the interview because all the board members would be wearing shoes. And so, at the last minute, they traded their dog for an imposter, a look-a-like JRT from a different litter. This imposter licked the president’s face, shook her hand, then went into a down-stay and literally smiled and thumped her tail at each board member who spoke. They were unanimously approved.
What I found most shocking were the stories I heard about people sedating their dogs with Valium. I guess, if you can’t afford the $300-an-hour training fee, Valium is available for a few dollars (or nothing, if you steal them from someone else’s medicine cabinet at their first housewarming party). But still. I was horrified. I was horrified and yet a little seed had been planted in my head.
And I know it sounds awful and irresponsible to even consider sedating a dog for a party, but I was an idiot back then, and lazy, and had not yet discovered clicker-training, which works so well I probably could have clicker-trained Rex into donning a tuxedo and mixing drinks.
“You can’t give him drugs,” Ted said. “What kind of mother are you? He’s fine the way he is.”
“I know he’s fine. He’s perfect. This will make him more perfect.”
“But this isn’t a co-op interview,” Ted added. “It’s a party for our friends.”
“It’s just that not all of our friends love dogs the way we do. Besides, I’m not giving him Valium. I’ve giving him herbs.”
A friend had recommended Rescue Remedy, which she said was the vodka martini of the dog world. It wouldn’t sedate him, she said; it would just “chill him out.” They use it for dogs in shock, she said, and for those who are terrified of thunder.
Now, I’m a fan of chillin’, so I used myself as the test subject before dosing up the dog. Just a few drops in a glass of water, or straight onto the tongue, and lo, I didn’t feel drugged or sedated, just oddly blasé and unhurried. I felt I had discovered the New Age “Mother’s Little Helper.” In fact, I liked it so much I decided to give myself a triple dose for the party. (Things like hosting parties stress me out, and Martha Stewart’s magazine is to blame, because her level of perfection is one that I can never seem to meet.)
“Want some?” I said to Ted, half an hour before our guests were to arrive. I held out the little glass vial which was, I realized, the same size as a syringe. Ted shook his head. “Bad mother,” he said, in the same teasing voice he used when he said “Bad dog.” I placed four drops of the Mother’s Little Helper on top of Rex’s head.
We served what adults are supposed to serve at housewarming parties: white wine, tiny quiches, fancy sparkling waters and a gruyère fondue. And we also served up an uncannily well-behaved dog. He’d been to the groomer and smelled like lavender oil, and his fur was silky and oh-so-white. People kept commenting on how beautiful he was, and how sweet and calm. There was a $16-per-pound wedge of Spanish goat cheese on the low coffee table that he didn’t even bother to sniff, let alone scarf up. And he didn’t climb up onto the windowsill and bark at passersby on the sidewalk. He did not once try to jump on the furniture because it was more effort than he could expend. Mostly, he wanted to lie on the floor and receive his well-deserved belly-scratches. “I wish I had a dog like that,” one of Ted’s friends said, and I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t a dog like that, but I was feeling just so blissfully blasé.
Throughout the party, I’d notice Rex resting his head on the knee of my editor, or sleeping at the feet of Ted’s boss, and was pleased to see that he hadn’t slobbered on her shoes. In fact, he hadn’t slobbered on anyone, or jumped, or barked. And for the first time, I knew what it was like to have a mellow dog—to have the sort of dog a co-op board would approve.
“Didn’t people, in the olden days, used to give their children brandy to help them sleep?” I said to Ted after the party.
“Yes,” Ted said. “In their milk.”
“I am a bad mother,” I said.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Ted said. We took Rex to Prospect Park as a reward. The “remedy” had worn off at that point, and he was back to his hyper, happy, hunting-dog self. We let him off-leash and watched as he chased after squirrels, manically followed scent trails, crashed through bushes and leapt over rocks, and actually bit the base of an oak tree, seemingly determined to bring it down because there was a squirrel’s nest up there. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a hangover,” Ted said. “Maybe I’ll try this herb myself.”
“Oh, you should,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly (because what wife doesn’t want to sedate her husband once in a while?).
Ted just raised an eyebrow and called for the dog. He came bounding back to us, covered with burrs and mud and panting with bliss. So much for the $70 trip to the groomer and the aromatherapy oil. He seemed positively delighted with himself and his condition. And we were delighted, too. “Perfect dogs probably get really boring,” I said to Ted.
“Perfect people, too.”
Years later, one of our guests became the president of our co-op board when our building went co-op. Rex didn’t have to go to the dog interview—he had already passed.
Culture: Stories & Lit
My hound dog Carolina is sitting in the car, and I’m in the drugstore standing in an aisle I haven’t been down for fifteen years. Carolina is in heat. Such an archaic concept, heat. I’m looking for something to slip into the mesh pocket of a red Speedo-like contraption I’ve just bought for her. Who knew they made such things for dogs? I recall the flimsy little garter belts we girls got with our first box of sanitary napkins and the accompanying pamphlet regarding the human reproductive cycle. Light years ago. I pick an item that comes wrapped in pink and says mini and then I hobble over to Aisle 4b, Pain Relievers, where I’m more at home. My back hurts. I grab aspirin, pay for everything and head for the car.
Carolina’s nose is smeared against the window. Good dog, I say, good dog, and manage to get myself sitting down without screaming and I pat her big head and nuzzle her neck, and her tail thwacks against the passenger seat. Carolina is halfway through her first treatment for heartworm and going into heat seems grossly unfair. “Jesus, yet more trouble,” as some martyr said when the executioner reached in to yank out his intestines. (I can’t remember which saint this was, but my mother loved to quote him.) Before I start the car I line up the arrows, take off the cap, stab a pen through the foil seal and gobble down three aspirin.
This is my first experience with a dog in heat but the back pain arrived thirty years ago when I bent to pick a canned peach off the kitchen floor and couldn’t straighten up. My new husband seemed familiar with the problem. “My god, what is this called?” I cried as he tried to help. “It’s called my back is killing me,” he said. This version of my back is killing me comes from wearing a pair of stylish new red shoes that pinch my left foot and make me walk lopsided. I don’t know why I keep putting them on except they show off my ankles. At age sixty-three, ankles are my best feature unless you count cake.
When I get home I discover it’s nearly impossible to put this thing on my dog. There is a place for her tail and Velcro fastenings that go over her haunches but try sticking a dog’s long tail through the hole of a small slippery garment while the dog turns around and around in circles. It takes fifteen minutes and when I succeed, Carolina turns her baleful eyes on me and I want to apologize. She is a dog dressed like a monkey.
The next morning I can barely walk. My friend Claudette comes to the rescue. She puts Carolina on a leash lest a pack of hormone addled canines show up in my yard, and later she drives me to her acupuncturist. I have never been to an acupuncturist but I’m ready for help here. The process is very interesting, all those needles tingling in my feet and legs and hands, and so relaxing that I would probably doze off were it not for the needle stuck right under my nose. I just can’t stop thinking about that one. Nevertheless I do feel better until I hit the dairy case at the Hurley Ridge Market and reach for half a gallon of milk. On the way back through town we drive past the half-dressed youth of Woodstock lying on the village green. They are a beautiful sight, but what with my bad back and good memory I am glad not to be one of them. They have far too much future. Sometimes it is a relief to be over the hill.
Meanwhile, my fat Beagle Harry has found himself capable of leaping straight up into the air like Rudolph Nureyev. If Carolina doesn’t notice, and she doesn’t, he does it again. He is no longer capable of reproducing, but that doesn’t dampen his spirit. Rosie too is affected by whatever hormones are flying. She engages in much vigorous grooming, attending obsessively to the nooks and crannies of both Harry and Carolina. She would have made an excellent mother. Now and then Carolina rouses herself long enough to emit a howl. Everybody’s getting hot around here except me. I am just beginning to wonder where all the would-be suitors are when a big white dog materializes in the driveway. Ha! Carolina’s first admirer.
Harry and Rosie take up their positions on the back porch barking their heads off and I call my sister and tell her proudly we’ve got an intact Huskie hanging around who probably never finished grammar school. “Now you know how Mom and Dad felt,” she says. I go outside holding Carolina’s leash in one hand, and a mop in the other. The mop doubles as cane and threat, and I shake it at the ruffian when he comes too close. He looks at Carolina and she looks back. Oh yeah, I remember that look. If this animal were human he’d be wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. He’d be lighting a cigarette. Forget my bad back, my advanced years. If this animal were human and I were in Carolina’s shoes, let’s face it. I’d be all over him like white on rice.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A friendly pack is scaling ivory towers on campuses worldwide
Spinoza defines far and near like this: far he said, is the constellation of the dog in the night sky, and near is the animal who barks—the distance between abstraction and reality, the ideal, elevated theoretical realm and our earthly, immediate lives. So it is surprising to find that, at colleges and universities—bastions of abstract thought—scholars are closing the gap on what dogness means, both the far kind and the near. Not one but several dogs are barking at the foot of the ivory tower, and a friendly pack is scrambling up the stairs.
As the subject of human-animal interaction is now deemed worthy of serious scholarship, efforts to understand dogs in depth are emerging on college campuses around the world. It wasn’t that long ago that when one thought of dogs and research, shudder-inducing visions of laboratory animals with implanted electrodes came to mind. While some of that still exists, increasingly, scholars are focusing on the ethical treatment of animals, and taking a hard look at university practices along the way.
Another player in this fundamental shift was Marjorie Garber, the director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, who published her book Dog Love a decade ago. Exploring the portrayal of dogs in film and literature, and the roles they play in American culture, her work signaled a trend in literature courses and seminars, and at national conferences in many humanities fields. Animals and dogs—as ideas and in reality—were suddenly ripe for exploration.
From Trend to Mainstream
Mangum, whose background is in 19th-century literature and who has a personal affinity for dogs, had found herself shifting in recent years to the ideas that concern us daily, and how those ideas show up in literature, providing a resonance and also a resource for rethinking common human problems. She began with Victorian literature on aging, and gradually became interested in the ways pets fit into human lives and begin to define us in new ways. Her article, “Dog Years, Human Fears” (Representing Animals 2002) considers the interplay of human anxieties about aging and the rise of middle-class pet culture. And in the course she taught as part of the Articulating the Animal project, she asked her students to analyze the stories humans tell about animals, both in literature and at the local animal shelter.
Mangum was interested in getting her students out of the classroom and into new “narrative zones,” and placed many of her students as volunteers with the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center under the direction of Misha Goodman. A county shelter first featured in Bark (“Being in Dog Time,” Fall 2005), it is a model among shelters around the country, having successfully reinvented itself as a humane, low-kill facility with an excellent reputation for both animal treatment and placement. The students got to know the staff and other volunteers, and spent time observing and actively working with the animals, relating what they learned to the rigorous course reading Mangum required. For their final project, they were asked to creatively interpret all that they had learned using a variety of media—film, video, visual works and essays. The hope was that these projects would also benefit the shelter itself, either as a way to educate more people about the mission of the organization or to orient volunteers to new ways of understanding their canine companions.
Donna Haraway, a noted theorist in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also shifted her focus, from cyber-studies to dog culture. As the owner of a small pack of Australian Shepherds, Haraway found herself drawn to the issues of “breeding,” and how technology is poised to sort out canine genetics and cloning. At bottom, Haraway is interested in the affection we have for a particular look or kind of dog, and how it comes about:
…what might possibly be meant by love in a way that disrupts various romanticisms, troubles certain kinds of certainties about the relationship that we have with this other complex species, dogs, and perhaps leads us into a place I’ve tried to get throughout most of my work: that is, elsewhere.
In her most recent book, When Species Meet, Haraway continues to explore the philosophical underpinnings of our animal-human encounters—the ways that curiosity, respect and affection come to define how we treat one another. Haraway’s work echoes the exploration of canine human affection done by Garber, and has popularized the notion of a “companion species manifesto” to redefine dog and human interactions. The immediacy of exchange with the dogs in the lives of their professorial companions—their literal nearness—appears to inspire far-fetched and ground-breaking ideas.
For Teresa Mangum, the questions raised about dogs and animals began in series of discussions at a conference of 19th-century scholars whose research interests were mostly related to literature. In the late 1980s, these academics had witnessed the “sudden explosion of cultural studies … that challenged assumptions about how we see animals.” Harriet Ritvo, a professor of British history at MIT, published a seminal book, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age in 1987, which represented the culmination of those early discussions. Twenty years later, Deborah Denenholz Morse, professor at William and Mary College, edited the book Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007) with Martin A. Danahay of Brock University; included are many who were involved in those early dialogues: Mangum; Cannon Schmitt at the University of Toronto; Susan David Bernstein at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Nigel Rothfels, a history professor and director of the Edison Initiative at UW–Milwaukee.
Rothfels, whose historical interests are in zoos, circuses and elephants, spearheaded efforts to create a wider dialogue about animals among historians and professors of literature. He is currently working with Mangum to create a North American/UK critical animal studies biannual conference. “Nigel is a lynchpin in the ‘critical animal studies’ movement” Mangum says. “It was a crystallizing moment at a conference in Milwaukee he organized a few years ago, where we realized we all were seriously exploring similar ideas and were anxious for a forum in which to share them.” In the last two years, Rothfels has been at the University of Texas at Austin, which hosted a conference on “Animal Humanities” in April 2006, and at a 2007 York University conference, “Envisioning Animals.” Rothfel’s own book, Representing Animals (2002), included essays by Mangum and other key members of the original 19th-century literary group and is now a curriculum standard in many animal studies classes.
Around the same time, across the pond in the UK, Erica Fudge, a lecturer in English Literary Studies at Middlesex University, London, was creating her own curriculum in literature and animal studies. In the last few years, she has published a remarkable succession of scholarly books: Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (2002); Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (2004); and Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England (2006). The topics showing up at conferences and in the number of new course offerings around the world made Fudge aware of how many other scholars were interested in similar subjects of animals in literature and science. As a member of H-Animal, a special section of the scholarly web zone H-Net (Humanities Network, h-net.org), she has been instrumental in fostering greater communication among colleagues around the world.
Companion Animals in Our Social World
While this may seem like a trivial pursuit, particularly to those who do not have pets, it may also be a study that eventually changes policies. Just a few years ago, many dogs now classified as “therapy pets” were excluded from on-board airline travel and most public places. In the United States and in universities abroad, the ways that dogs are being defined and their rights as individual creatures are under review. While it requires motivated citizens to affect local, national and global policy, it often takes university studies to support their goals. As Teresa Mangum found in her own animal seminar, the time is now particularly ripe to “examine how disciplinary definitions, associations, assumptions, distinctions, uses, fears, and fantasies about animals produce elaborate systems of meaning.”
Similarly, Haraway’s work has been influential in the Tokyo-based Companion Animal Information and Research Center begun by Dr. Yoichi Shoda, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. Shoda’s group is interested in how pets are allowed in, and interact with, the human social world. The shift in thinking from “pet owner and pet” to co-equal “companions” has been key to adjusting animal protection and management laws to allow dogs and cats in collective housing in Japan. Shoda is also exploring the conflict between the humans over their conduct or that of their pet; this was a focus at the 11th Annual International Conference on Human-Animal Interaction, which convened this fall in Tokyo.
At Colorado State University, Jerry Vaske and Maureen Donnelly, professors in CSU’s Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, are also looking at how dog interaction in shared open spaces is dependent on owner interaction. Negative traits in dogs—which, roughly translated, is “what bugs other humans about our dogs”—came down to owners not picking up after their dogs, dogs chasing wildlife, dogs jumping on and pawing visitors, and dogs flushing birds. The researchers then tailored a program, known as the Voice and Sight Tag Program, for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) department. Willing dog owners participated by watching a video about voice- and sight-control commands, essential training for dogs in off-leash areas. Vaske and Donnelly’s research is part of widespread owner education about the sort of “social manners” necessary for shared turf; some public dog parks also now offer courses and certificates in “canine citizenship.”
A variety of researchers are pursuing the value of pets and animals in our lives. Dr. Gail F. Melson, professor emereta of psychology at Purdue University, studies pets in child development and is the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children (2001). Dr. Andrea Beetz, an independent researcher from Germany, has researched the way empathy develops into attachment and the “emotional intelligence” within human–animal interactions. Richang Zheng, in the Department of Social Psychology at Beijing Normal University, is likewise doing research on companion animals in the context of the psychological health of the elderly, while in Australia, at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Dr. Bruce Headey, in a case study in China, is looking at how pets improve the health of their human companions.
Dog Thought/Dog Language
Budapest’s Eötvös University has a world-renowned program in which dog behavior is researched using methodology that is more anthropological than zoological in its approach. In this discipline, which has been dubbed ethology—the study of animal behavior—researchers treat their dogs as thinking individuals, and visit them on the dogs’ preferred turf—either at home with their human companions or out in nature. At the Eötvös campus lab, as Colin Woodard reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Research and Books (April 2005), “Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.” Researchers led by Dr. Vilmos Csányi and Dr. Adam Miklosi have made significant breakthroughs in how dogs are perceived and in the subtleties of communication between dogs and their owners. Some of the Eötvös research focuses on the nonverbal ways we communicate right and wrong, and gesture approval and disapproval—how a slight movement of our eye or hand may give a dog clues in problem-solving.
The ways in which dogs have been “domesticated” have been also been rethought and reexamined at Eötvös through experiments raising dogs and wolves in equal controlled environments. Similar research is also being done at Harvard by Dr. Brian Hare, whose work with the “singing” dogs of New Guinea provides “direct evidence that that dogs’ lengthy contact with humans has served as a selection factor, leading to distinct evolutionary changes.” (Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, News and Notices)
Dr. Friederike Range and Dr. Ludwig Huber of the University of Vienna and Dr. Zsófia Viranyi of Eötvös University are focusing on the similarities between humans and dogs in the ways they copy one another’s actions, particularly when their respective physiques are so patently different. “Selective imitation” is a phrase that may seem foreign to us now, but then, so did “natural selection” a century and a half ago. As reported in Current Biology (May 15, 2007), these scientists have found that dogs not only imitate actions they see, but also, like human babies, “adjust the extent to which they imitate to the circumstances of the action.” They employ a basic reasoning in choosing which of our actions to mimic (not “ape”), with reference to the separate and somewhat abstract goal of the action.
Barbara Smuts, a world-renowned behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, was a keynote speaker at that seminal conference in Milwaukee a few years ago. Smuts began her research on primate societies, but in recent years, has devoted most of her attention to dog interaction and socialization. Her particular interest is in how dogs play, their signals and rules invented on the spot. With the assistance of her fellow researchers, she has developed an “ethogram,” or written description of each body movement and vocalization dogs use to initiate play with one another. In this complex version of game theory, the way the rules are drawn and how they change are based on complexities of canine dominance. Smuts has also found parallels between dogs and primates, which she explored in “Gestural Communication in Olive Baboons and Domestic Dogs,” published earlier this year in The Cognitive Animal (MIT Press).
Thus, the dialogue about dogs going on in academic circles is making its way into the mainstream in all sorts of ways, from courses attended and books written to extensive discussions, policy changes, traveling exhibitions and international conferences. We are abandoning old cultural prejudices and coming to a new understanding of dogs on their own terms, drawing on abstract literary stars in the sky and the waggy ones barking nearby. It is a welcome blend of theory and reality.
More to come! See Part Two, “Literary Dogs,” in the January/February 2008 issue.
Seeing Is Believing
June 16, 2008—August 18, 2008
The Animals Among Us
© 2007 D.L. Pughe
Culture: Stories & Lit
Second child means second chance for dog love.
NO ONE WOULD DREAM of asking a woman walking her dog: So, when are you going to have another one? There isn’t the presumption that a singleton dog is lonely, or will grow up with some terrible maladjustment, perhaps diagnosable,without another dog in the family.
I never felt committed to the demographic destiny of two-point-something children. One was not merely enough; one was extraordinary. Pushing my son around in his stroller, I chaperoned his love affair with every dog in the West Village. I learned that the desire to have long woofing and nibbling sessions animates all of us. He was wild about dogs, and I was wild about him.My life was good.
But now I do have a second child—a second boy— and I’ll admit that this replication is different in a profound way, far beyond having to double the Cheerios purchases or finding myself squished between a duet of car seats when we drive on a family vacation. True,with two children, we’ve cut the adult-child ratio in half and more than doubled the worry. But having another child also means a return to dog.
Even before my second son hit 12 months, he could make the sound of every animal. The horses, cows, frogs and, of course, the dogs…woof! In our home, the humans and the animals speak one language. There is one word for all joys and all desires, one affirmative to all questions. Are you hungry? Woof! Are you ready to get dressed? Woof! Shall we go outside? Woof! Woof packed with nuance and intonation.Woof packed with possibility.
And here we are, out for a walk, my second son and I.He’s got the super-power doggy radar of a one-year-old on, now scanning a 180-degree horizon of streetscape. The alert goes off: Ah woo woo woo woof! I look around, slowly, an adult reacting in turtle-time, and I see that yes, indeed, there is a dog down the block on the other side of the street, not barking, not racing, not straining against his leash, unlike my barking toddler who is about to burst out of his stroller straps.
Don’t you get it, Mom?
I shouldn’t be surprised. I’d been around the block on dog-watch before with my first son.Yet I am surprised to find myself behind the wheels of the stroller again, surprised to find myself the mother of a second boy hard-wired to love dogs.
I’ve realized that dogs don’t need training (or re-training) as much as I do; I’m the one who has trouble learning.Why have another baby? To remember dog.To see that dog can be new again even though you think you already know her. I had to have a second child so that the daily dog walk could be part of my life again.My second baby gives his heart away to every dog that comes along, in every shape and color; he loves them for being alive, for their very dogginess. He loves them unconditionally, before he’s even met them. Before he knows anything about their personality or their achievements, before he knows if they love children or are scared of hats, he loves them. Every encounter with dog is a chance for love at first sight.
My second son my second teacher my second dog-lover my second mommywhisperer: Smile, mom, don’t worry.We’re here together. Look, here comes a dog.
I used to think I could make the decision to have a dog when I was ready: when my family was ready, when we were older but not too old, out of diapers but not into college applications.When things would be going well between me and my husband and we could divvy up dog chores without a fight.When we’d live in a big enough space.When everything was ready, then the dog would be part of the picture.
And I waited. I waited so long to get the dog my older son wanted that suddenly— at least it seemed sudden—he no longer loved dogs. It happened sometime toward the end of his preschool years, or perhaps during kindergarten, while I was pregnant for the second time. My son grew afraid of dogs. If a dog approached us on the street, instead of dragging me up to greet the dog, he ran behind me so the dog wouldn’t see him—or so he wouldn’t see the dog, I’m not sure which.When did he begin to fear the thing he once loved most in all the world? When did he realize his great love might bite him? I wondered if he had been bitten, if I’d missed some traumatic event that had left him fearful. But I don’t think so; he outgrew trains and fire trucks and dogs (he still loves dinosaurs and big mammals, but he doesn’t run into too many of these on the street).
I didn’t miss the trains, or the fire trucks, but dogs…Looking for dogs had made going anywhere fun.You could see them on the way to the doctor for shots or on the way home from a funeral. I’d looked forward to meeting up with dogs even when I wasn’t with my son; just imagining how he’d respond had made me happy. And then it was all over—the whole dog show. No more woofing, no more waving, no more doggy radar. I still noticed dogs on the street, but I looked at them nostalgically, as if I’d lost my dog.
What I’d lost was my first baby, the baby who had a passion for dogs. I mourned his innocence and my own as a parent (and wondered if this was a little taste of what life would be like in his teen years, when I’d long for his boyhood). I missed dogs. I missed his joy. I missed seeing them kiss, dog plus baby, and getting a few slurpy licks myself. I had to shift into a different role: protecting him from dogs. Every time I saw a dog coming I had to assess whether it was old enough or reserved enough to pass us by without incident, or if it was too kid-friendly or too puppyish and might jump toward my son, reinforcing his fear. I caught a glimmer ofmy son’s uneasiness:He feared the unruliness of dogs, their unpredictability. And I had my own lesson in unpredictability, in the way time changes everything.
ONE DAY IN EARLY SPRING, I WAS OUT walking with my boys. The baby was in the stroller, and the big boy was helping me push. I wasn’t surprised to hear the dog alert go off—but it was from my older son! It was my big boy who saw the dog first, who shouted, “Look, there’s a dog!”with total delight, his fear forgotten. My big boy was seeing through the baby’s eyes, experiencing the baby’s doggy joy.
At that moment, there were three of us about to burst, two little hearts and one big one—the baby wanting his wet kiss; the big boy wanting to see the baby get all excited and happy; and me, big old mama dog, marveling at my brood, savoring the older one’s pleasure in the little one. While the big boy demonstrated how to pet the dog without pulling its hair, I gave a silent prayer of thanks.
I leaned down to stroke the dog myself, and I felt the electricity running through me: my big boy’s early dog love, his lost love, his renewed love, plus the baby’s new love, plus my own redoubled. We added up to so much more than three people loving a dog.
WHEN WE WERE A FAMILY OF THREE, I thought I knew myself, and my husband, and my son. I knew our family. I knew who we were as parents and who he was as a boy. I knew who I was (mom) and, when I gave birth again, who I’d become (mom2boys). But then comes a new baby who waves his tiny magic fist around and, presto, we are new, some other family. My husband isn’t who I thought he was, nor am I.My son is someone else, too. We are all angry, and tired, and cranky; sometimes serially, sometimes all of us at the same moment.Who is this man snapping at me, and why did I marry him? Who is that woman with my voice, snapping back? I can’t remember. And who is this older son of mine, who used to love dogs and used to love me, and now is so furious he kicks me, screams at me, throws tantrums the way he never did before? Baby toys that my big boy hasn’t looked at in years are suddenly hot property; they belong only to him and cannot possibly be touched by the baby. The baby nurses and the big boy wishes he could too, hates the little one for getting to nurse, hates himself for wanting something he’s been told he’s too old for…I am trying to embrace these people I don’t recognize, including myself, and it’s hard.
One morning, I’m out with the boys, and we’re counting dogs we pass on the way. This has become our new ritual, now that my big guy is happy to be out on the dog-watch with his baby bro. He thinks that Dog Number 8 is a Poodle. I don’t think so, I suspect it’s a Terrier, but I’m so happy he’s talking about dogs that I go along with the Poodle theory.
“I’ve heard that Poodles are really smart,” I say. “I’ve heard that they’re good animals to live with. Hey—would you like to have a dog?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can.
“No,”he answers.“I want a cat,not a dog.”
“We can’t have a cat,”I tell him,“because they make me sneeze.”
“I know,”he says.“That’s why I don’t like you.We can’t have a cat because of you.”
I don’t know how to repair my relationship with my first son. Can he ever forgive me? Can we ever begin to approximate the closeness, the seamlessness, we had before? Can I forgive myself? And will he ever completely outgrow his lingering fear of dogs?
The other day, a generous woman out walking her dog gave me the clue to navigating the street with one boy who loves dogs and one who fears them. If the dog’s tail is up and wagging, she’s happy to see you. If her tail is down, you don’t want to pet her or get close because she’s afraid and might bark or bite.
So here’s my hope: It will come to pass that we will all want a dog at the same time.That there will be a sign—tail up, tail down—telling me the moment is right, after my older son outgrows his fear and before my little one outgrows his passion. That I will be able to read my children and follow my heart.
Hummed or howled, tunes find a receptive audience.
YES, IT’S EMBARRASSING, but many people have the urge to sing to their canine companions. Don’t worry about it—it’s natural. In fact, singing to your dog can be a lot more fun than crooning to a baby or toddler. For one thing, your dog will never develop the capacity for irony or satirical thinking so annoying in humans, so any stupid or caustic lyrics you make up won’t be understood. And your doggie will never fling these songs back to you in a family counseling session, or years later as you lie on your death bed.
The guidelines for satisfying canineoriented singing are not stringent, but you might want to consider a few strategies for making the most out of your warbling sessions with your pet.
>When choosing a name for your pooch, consider making it five letters. This enables you to use the famous song B-I-N-G-O as the base melody for special songs you can make up for your dog. For example, my new dog’s name is Nimby. I really didn’t choose it for that reason (long story—he’s named after a fairy character I created for my daughter), but WOW, what a boon! And Nimby was his name-o!
>Dig back into your past and find the songs you really enjoyed performing as a child, including perennial chestnuts such as Old MacDonald Had a Farm (for which you can substitute the repeating verses with a BARK BARK here, or a GROWL GROWL there…)
>Never underestimate the power of a narrative song, such as Little Rabbit Foo-Foo. For the uninitiated (bless you), Little Rabbit Foo-Foo is an involved tale about a little bunny who seems to go into the forest, where he scoops up all the field mice and inexplicably bops them on the head. And then a fairy descends—well, you kind of get the warped idea. So you only need to substitute your dog’s name, and perhaps his prey of choice (squirrels? moles?), and you have the makings of a really fascinating song.
>Classic folk songs are great. Consider the ballad John Henry, one version of which reads, “When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his papa’s knee…” Think how wonderfully you can put your dog’s name in there: “When Mortimer was a little puppy, sucking on his mommy’s teat…” >Don’t discount the standards. You can adapt Cole Porter or George Gershwin pretty well to doggies. Consider “I’ve got you under my fur…” or “I get a bite out of you…” Or how about Irving Berlin? “God bless my doggie girl/Pup that I LOVE!!!/Stand beside her, and guide her…”
Well, these are merely guidelines. You must constantly look for inspiration in every facet of your past and present life—old Girl and Boy Scout songs and commercial jingles (gum, SpaghettiOs, Pepto-Bismol, late-night carpet advertisements, mnemonic bank lyrics, cereal ditties). Finding a suitable tune and putting your dog’s name into it, along with, perhaps, a few choice lyrics, is really the auditory equivalent of paint-by-numbers.
Singing to your dog is one of life’s simple pleasures. Just remember that, should you be caught doing it, you’ll have to act as though you’re warming up for choir practice. Once, someone came upon me as I was doing show tunes geared to my dog down at our community garden, and I had to pretend that I was an American Idol contestant.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Giving new meaning to the term “assisted living.”
My sister left me a phone message : “I think Mom has had a stroke.” It was shorthand for us, a message my sister and I have exchanged many times, whenever our mother was particularly difficult or unreasonable.“Having a stroke” meant our mother was irrational, belligerent, mean, needy or any of the other possibilities that crop up regularly between women who care too much for each other. If I called my sister back every time our mother “had a stroke,” I would have to wear a phone headset and my sister would need to invest in a toll-free number.
Several hours later, I got a more frantic message from my sister. “Didn’t you get my message? I’m in the emergency room with Mom. I think she’s had a stroke.” And then she added, because she must have figured out why I hadn’t called her back: “A real stroke.” So began a journey that was to teach me about a lot of clichés; among them, the limits of love and the importance of not losing heart. And this is where Mom’s dogs,Daisy and Pumpkin, come in, for in many ways,we were in the same bind:We were three gals who had lost our mommy, and we didn’t know what we were going to do next.
To say that Daisy and Pumpkin are Mom’s dogs is like saying that there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It’s essentially true, but it doesn’t begin to describe the degree or the depth of the situation. My mother has always had dogs and has always been devoted to them, but since my father’s death12years ago, and my aunt’s death a few years later, Daisy and Pumpkin have become her family, her tribe and her friend base. “My fur people,”Mom calls them. It fell to me, in the midst of dealing with Mom’s medical crisis, her frantic friends and her unraveling life, to figure out what to do with Daisy and Pumpkin.
Of course, I had promised my mother —five years ago and nearly every week since then—that if anything ever happened to her I would take care of her dogs.And so I began to call her friends, relatives and acquaintances. Everyone wanted to help.“What can we do?” they asked.“What we really need,”I told them, “is for someone to take care of the dogs.” “Well,” they’d say,“what else can we do?” Several people offered to help by taking the dogs to the vet to be “put down.” Even the local no-kill shelter said,“Bring them in and we’ll euthanize them.” I learned quickly that being alone, elderly and female is perilous, whether one is canine or human. Every day I would return from the hospital and tell the dogs not to worry, that I would think of something. And every day, as it became clear that Mom would not be able to return home, I said it with less conviction.
I admit that Daisy and Pumpkin were a hard sell. Here is the ad I would have had to run in order to find a new home for them: “Wanted. Home for two 14- year-old, deaf, possibly blind, obese, flearidden, mangy, matted, incontinent dogs. Have never heard the word ‘No.’Will eat only Beef ’n’Cheese Snausages and Booda Smacklepuffs Chicken Quesadilla Dog Treats, and then only if you hand-feed them one by one. Both bark incessantly, so you’ll never have trouble with burglars (or your friends, ever again) entering your house. No need to walk them; they just pee on the carpet when nature calls. Comfy sofa a must.” But finding a new home for them wasn’t an option, because even though Mom could hardly speak, she mustered enough strength to tell me she would die if anything happened to her dogs. Every day in the hospital, it was the same story: How are the dogs? Who’s taking care of the dogs? When can I see the dogs? It was her mantra, one of the few ways we had to measure that she hadn’t lost her mind entirely. If she stops asking for the dogs, I decided, we’ll declare her gone.
Daisy and Pumpkin had each been through adoption fairs, foster homes and humane societies before my mother took them in. Mom had spotted Daisy at an adoption fair and had fallen madly in love. She had made my father sit on Daisy’s crate while she went to fill out the forms, so afraid was she that someone else would snap Daisy up.Daisy had been with Mom through my father’s illness and death and has been her companion during all the years since. Pumpkin had been my Aunt Barbara’s dog, and Mom had ended up with her after Barbara’s early death from brain cancer, when there was no one else who could take her. This was at least the third time that no one had wanted Pumpkin.
Except for me. I wanted Pumpkin. And Daisy. After two weeks of caring for them in my mother’s house, I wanted both of them. I wanted their incessant barking, their fatness, their blindness, their weird eating habits reinforced by years of my mother’s singular parenting style.We were, I figured, sisters under the skin, or fur. I wanted everything about them. I wanted them to come and sleep on my sofa. I wanted them to shed bales of fur in my house. I wanted them to bark until my eardrums frayed. I loved them both with a fierceness that astounded me, and I was not about to have them “put down” or sent to a “nice home in the country.” Taking care of them was perhaps the only thing I could do for my mother, and I was determined not to fail.
I live on the other side of the country from my mother, and my rescue illusions bumped up against reality when the vet told me that there was little chance Daisy and Pumpkin would survive a plane trip or a long car ride. My mother moved into assisted living, and Daisy and Pumpkin moved temporarily to Camp Bow Wow, where they played outside with other dogs and slept in “cots” in their “cabins” at night. Since returning home to Seattle, I’ve watched them on the CamperCam as they trot around with their new pack and get their ears scratched by the staff. Daisy and Pumpkin look happy. Pumpkin has lost weight and they both play avidly with the other dogs. Camp Bow Wow is about a mile from my mother’s assisted living apartment, and friends take the dogs to visit her a few times each week.
From the beginning, I considered Camp Bow Wow to be a stopgap, a place where Daisy and Pumpkin could be cared for until I could figure out how to get them to Seattle.We could afford to keep them there for a month or two at the most, and after that I was out of ideas.
And this is the part of the story where human generosity and the importance of not losing heart come in, for just as I was reaching a point of despair about not being able to keep my promise to my mother, I learned that it is not just I who unexpectedly fell in love with my mother’s dogs. Tony Caruso and Kim Martin, “rangers” at Camp Bow Wow, called to tell me that they wanted to foster Daisy and Pumpkin for us, that the dogs could stay at Camp Bow Wow for the rest of their lives, as a favor to us and as a way to help my mother get better. Daisy and Pumpkin won them over with their determination to make the best of a bad situation. Tony and Kim were touched by my mother’s devotion to her dogs and by our dedication to not giving up on them. They are in a position to help and they would like to do so. Would we possibly consider their offer?
It is not perfect for Daisy and Pumpkin to live the rest of their lives at Camp Bow Wow. There are no antique sofas to sleep on, no mailmen to attack, no junk food. They will see my mother only sporadically and, like my mother, will never return “home.”But it is as perfect a solution as we are likely to find. All three of these elderly ladies, down on their luck and in failing health, have gone into assisted living. The dogs won’t ever again live with my mother, but they will live with people who saw their plight and were able to love them because of it.
In one of the darkest times of my life, when I was faced with both losing my mother and breaking my promise to her, Daisy and Pumpkin showed me what true compassion, generosity and love look like. They helped me take care of my mother and keep my promise. Near the end of their lives and with the help of Camp Bow Wow and Tony and Kim, Daisy and Pumpkin rescued me.
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