Culture: Readers Write
Small Dogs Healing Ways
2009 was a terrible time in our household, just plain grind-you-to-pulp kind of year. My partner had a soul-splattering, over-bearing job dealing with others’ money, where her only bonus was the fun eight mile commute out to the suburbs on her speedy and shiny orange bike. Then in late spring, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. It was low-grade (good) but large (bad), and in my lymph node (bad), so I had to have surgery and chemo. I had only been out of vet school for a year and I suddenly had to take five months of medical leave. The cancer year is its own monster of story, for another time. But what happened during and after because of the Chihuahuas, well, that’s a tale for here.
After my mastectomy, I had to be careful around the dogs and my stitches. We had at the time one large, one medium, and one small dog. But they seemed to understand right away what was going on. Wren, the tiniest, slept on my pillow, almost in my hair, like a cat, every single moment I was in bed, which was a lot. When my hair fell out, she slept on my shoulder, curled into my hatted head.
To this day, I tend to say how Wren saved me by sleeping on me. She was my anchor.
And later, when I was healed, and zoom out three years later and we adopted Chibi, aka Tiny Dog, the six pound Chihuahua with dry eye, I realized Tiny Dog liked being in my sweater for heat and comfort, and I liked her being there for heat and comfort too. She fit exactly where my breast used to be, and I could zip her into my vest in the winter, and she’d fall asleep, content. I also had a prosthesis to wear out in public, but at home, I did not, and wore the Chihua instead.
I would never claim cancer gave me gifts. Cancer made me believe in randomness and not fate. But Wren, then Tiny Dog, made niches for themselves, a kind of commensalism, lovely for all of us. And when Tiny Dog is in my vest, she’s right against my heart tick ticking away, her pulse fluttering back in counterpoint.
Culture: Readers Write
What my blind Pug and overweight Labrador taught me about how to adapt and move on
Buddy was so obese that when he sat down, rolls of fat surrounded him. I found Buddy through a Labrador Retriever rescue group. My husband Brendan and I wanted to adopt an older dog who was comfortable with cats. A few weeks after submitting our application, we met Buddy. His foster mom said he was sweet, five years old, and good with cats and children.
When we met him, he nudged us with his black nose to pet his head. His foster parents told us that Buddy was free fed and left outside a lot. “But he’s such a good dog,” his foster mom said. We were in love. When we leashed him up, his foster mother teared up. “If anything goes wrong, we’ll take him back no problem.” His foster dad couldn’t watch us leave, opting to hang out in the kitchen instead.
During his first week with us, we took him to the vet and learned he was a whopping 118 pounds. The vet warned us that he needed to lose weight or diabetes and arthritis were in his future. When we took him out for walks, Buddy refused to move and sat down in the driveway. We tried to play with him. I tossed him a stuffed frog toy. It hit him in the face. He had no idea how to play. We came home one day and found Buddy had torn his bed to shreds. Cotton filling covered our floors.
To help him lose weight, we restricted his diet to a cup and a half of kibble twice a day, but Buddy was hungry all the time. He snatched at any food he’d find on walks, once devouring stale hot dog buns that were left on a front lawn. Slowly, Brendan and I got Buddy to do a 10-minute walk, then gradually 15 minutes.
He was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which made weight gain easy for him. With regular exercise and the proper medication, it took about a year and a half, but the weight came off. He slimmed down to 85 pounds, his ideal weight.
During his weight loss journey, my plump puppy often got unkind remarks from strangers. One person asked me if I fed him McDonald’s French fries. “No,” I said angrily. “He’s losing weight.” Another person told me that he looked old. Though I was annoyed when people told me how fat he was or how he looked old, Buddy still wagged his tail and greeted these rude people happily. Buddy wasn’t bothered by the insulting comments. Every person was an opportunity to be pet. Instead of snapping at people, I smiled politely when people judged him.
The change in Buddy was tremendous. He went from a lethargic dog who didn’t know how to play to a pup who loved chasing his yellow stick in the park. When we took him to the beach, he dove into the ocean to swim. I photoshopped a before-and-after photo of Buddy to show off like a proud parent. He looked younger, happier, and slimmer. My friend Darren joked that if they had a dog version of The Biggest Loser, Buddy would be the star.
After we moved to the Bay Area in 2010 for Brendan’s work, I persuaded Brendan to adopt a Pug from a local rescue group. I loved Pugs’ big dog personality in a little dog body. We found Bessie, a nine-year-old blind Pug who had been abandoned at a vet’s office. She had several litters before she was dumped.
I had no idea what was in store for me.
First, Buddy wasn’t too pleased about sharing his two favorite people with another dog. If Brendan was petting Bessie, Buddy would push his way to Brendan. I read countless articles online about how to help a blind dog—make lots of noise on walks, don’t move the furniture, and help them with stairs—but on our first walk together, Bessie bumped into me many times. The world became different. I had to be her seeing-eye human, looking out for curbs or street signs she could stumble in to.
She bumped into a lot of things—walls, furniture, people’s legs, and Buddy’s wagging tail. Brendan called her our furry Roomba. She liked to sleep in Buddy’s bed, much to his dismay, even though she had two of her own. True to Pug personalities, she was difficult and stubborn. She hated going on walks. But at night, she cuddled against my chest, snoring loudly as I pet her soft black ears. I fell in love with her hard.
We moved back to Los Angeles in 2013 and rented a house with a doggie door. Bessie, try as she might, had trouble using it. Undeterred, she kept trying every day. Instead of picking her up, I gave her encouragement. “You can do it, Bess!” I cheered as she’d attempt to hop through the door. Then, one day she made it all by herself. Her tenacious behavior taught me that if you want something, you can’t give up on your first try. Sometimes it takes a hundred attempts—a particularly helpful lesson when I was first learning to stand-up paddleboard. Even though I was nervous about balancing on a surfboard in a river and paddling forward, my companions reassured me that it was so easy. “No one ever falls,” they said. Except for me. I fell once, got up unsteadily, then promptly plunged back into the water. Clutching the board to my chest, I wanted to give up and sit on the sidelines, but like Bessie, I tried again. And this time I didn’t fall.
My friend Alina joked that I was the owner of the misfit toys. Much like the broken toys that no girl or boy would want in the classic Rudolph Christmas movie, my motley crew of a cat and two dogs were fixer uppers of the pet world. I struggled to be a good pet parent. Sometimes I got impatient with Bessie or angry when Buddy devoured a week’s worth of kibble when we weren’t home. But what I loved most about adopting these misfits was their ability to adapt. They could go through blindness, obesity, and being abandoned by previous owners—and still give unconditional love. I’m not perfect, but neither are my pets and I adore them for their imperfections.
Culture: Readers Write
Toby was bossy, brilliant, single minded, the quintessence of Terrier tenacity. But she was once a puppy, dithering and distracted, thoughts running in every direction. A seasoned dog trainer advised me, the ingénue, that puppy’s brains are scrambled eggs: time and guidance would firm them up. Evie, just past babyhood, rescued us a month after Toby’s untimely departure. She was always a bit airheaded, eggs never solidifying like Toby’s but gelling nicely. Then the unsettling: the senility announcing itself a year ago at 15. The eternal puppy face, with its distinctive pink nose a bit faded and crusty now, doesn’t match the mechanics of her body and mind. Her devoted humans have now become her caretakers as she resides blissfully in the doggie version of la-la land. She stands looking blankly at the wall, engrossed until we bring her attention back, usually with food. Her appetite remains hearty, her meals enriched with antioxidants and life enhancers, an arthritis pill and a powder to prevent flare-ups of the gallbladder issue which nearly cancelled last year’s vacation.
Sleep drugged, I don the massive old down coat and snow boots with lightning speed to get us outside after the 2 am pacing wakeup. I try to know in this interminable, coldest winter of Evie’s long life that the hushed, moonlit, snowy outing with my fuzzy sweetheart is a fleeting blessing, that I’m grateful it’s a Saturday night and there’s no need for a working brain until Monday morning, that I must be patient as we stand in the bone chill while she tries to remember why we came out. Back in the house’s warmth, the pacing may continue, or if luck holds, she’ll doze again soon.
The dozing comes easier now. The strong short legs that carried her on hill climbs, on all weather hikes, propelling her onto the couch to her favorite lookout are slow and cranky, moving tentatively. The cloudy eyes, the small bewilderments, the hearing loss compressing her surroundings are all her present existence, yet she still loves this life way too much to leave it. Grief is for us, not for her: she is blissfully devoid of self-pity, free to live out her quirky dotage as it comes. We accommodate, assist, hug, and excuse each mishap.
There’s no handbook for this, the Old Dog time, the way to prepare for the suddenly odd activities, the unscrambled eggs, the closing of the circle. Puppy antics, housebreaking, obedience: educational material abounds. We learn that meds exist for this cognitive disorder thing, supplements, pheromone diffusers, acupressure, herbal remedies. They all work for Evie for a time, until they don’t. What we need is an instruction manual for watching our darling, the always-game socialite, our surrogate child, fade before us, progeria-like. Polite sympathy from dog free acquaintances, friends: not the heartfelt commiseration they shared over my Mom’s denouement. I don’t expect them to get it, and I move quickly on to other subjects.
We’ve become the crazy old couple we’d have scorned in our youth, lavishing countless hours and dollars on a dog, willingly. I scale back my strength training so shoulders and hips can handle the pickup and carry without pain. We reserve movies and dinners out for only those deserving of hiring the dogsitter: we’d rather hang out with Evie, checking frequently while she naps that the soft blonde fur still gently rises and falls.
The company of this beautiful little old girl has filled the house, our hearts, seemingly forever: loving background music in our lives. Unbearable to imagine stillness.
Culture: Readers Write
Two years after I had returned my husband of 20 years to the universe (great customer service!), my younger sister, the owner of two small rescue dogs, sent a photo of a little Border Terrier Dachshund-mix puppy to me one day at work in June of 2012. In the photo, her tail was wagging so fast you could not see it and at first I didn’t think she had a tail! My heart was captured by the little brown rectangular, “tailless” puppy in that photo and Tika became mine two weeks later. She was my first dog ever. Two months after I rescued Tika from the concrete kennel she then knew as home, as I was lying in bed, reading with Tika at my side, she kept insisting on being on my right side near my shoulder. I scooched over a bit and allowed her to get comfy under my right arm, as I held my book to read. Tika started burrowing and nudging my right side, near my breast. She led me to a small lump in my breast. I knew at the moment it was cancer. It was diagnosed 5 days later. After surgery and 6 weeks of radiation, I’m healthy, loving life and deeply in love with these 14 pounds of soft fur, big feet, scruffy tail and sweet face. Every single day, Teeks makes me laugh and smile. I find myself wondering how I ever lived without her before! I did not know you could love a dog the way I cherish this little one.
News: Guest Posts
Jake's visits to the dog park ended when he bit off part of a Bulldog's ear. Jake, a black Lab-Pit Bull mix, belonged to a first-time dog-owner who reacted to his frequent aggressive behavior by saying, “Oh, Jakey, we don't do those things” in a high, sing-song voice. Jake's owner paid the $1000-plus bill for the Bulldog's surgery but the incident reflected the biggest problem with dog parks-and it isn't the dogs.
In 2010, the city of Cambridge, Mass. built a state-of-the-art fenced dog park close to our house. It has running water and bowls for the dogs, free biodegradable waste bag dispensers, and awning-covered benches for the owners. There are two smaller fenced areas, one for puppies and one marked “Time Out.”
At first, it was nirvana for dog-owning city-dwellers.
But as the number of visitors increased, the “Dog Park Rules” posted at the entrance were supplanted by the unwritten code “My Way Rules.” Some examples:
1. You must accommodate my dog's peccadilloes.
2. My dog is sick. Deal with it.
3. My dog is a studly guy. It's an honor for him to hump your dog. Or how about the owner who chuckled as she commented on the libido of her young 110-pound Bernese Mountain Dog while he relentlessly mounted much smaller dogs. Observers mentioned that his behavior was a sign of dominance, not sexual prowess. She looked annoyed and half-heartedly reprimanded him, without physically removing him from his victims. One of the objects of his supposed “affection” was a smaller dog whose rear legs collapsed under the weight of the young goliath.
4. I've got mail. I've got to check the Red Sox scores. Dog? What dog?
After avoiding the dog park for the past year, I recently walked my leashed dog on the paved path near its perimeter fence. I watched as a Weimaraner assumed “the position” near a knot of seven preoccupied owners and left a pile that could not be missed if anyone had been paying attention. Not a single person moved to clean it up.
Dog parks have become popular in urban and suburban areas, and they can be a wonderful resource if people are considerate. Some tips for making the experience pleasant for everyone:
Linda Handman is a long-time dog owner, writer, lawyer, and business owner living in Cambridge, Mass.
Just had to tell you how very much I enjoyed Patricia McConnell’s “Lending a Helping Paw.” What dog person doesn’t love everything this woman has to say? She is certainly on the mark with this article.
My Skye girl came to me five years ago as a pup. It was always my hope that we could work our way to being a therapy-dog team, but that depended more on her than on me. She was such a handful—always in one’s face, independent as the day is long, knew her manners but not dependable about them.
We are fortunate to have a most marvelous canine facilitator in our area. Chris Moe-Herlick encouraged and mentored Skye and me. We started with basic classes, progressed to agility (not competition, just for fun) and I took her to several of the children’s programs at our small local library. She achieved her CGC, and miraculously, this past summer, we became a certifi ed, registered therapy-dog team. We continue with our child-oriented program participation and are now also doing twice-weekly visits to a nearby assisted-living/nursing-home facility. I couldn’t be more proud of Skye.
I wasn’t sure we would ever get to this point, but with time, patience and understanding, Skye’s personality has come together. I cannot imagine trying to force this type of interaction with a dog who did not love it.
As an animal lover and a person who enjoys hiking with my dogs, I found it disturbing to read that contributor Rebecca Wallick allows her dog to run free through the forest; chasing deer. Her article on GPS tracking devices for dogs, (Sept/Oct 2012 issue) was informative, but her final sentence angers me. Her “knowing that if one day, he disappears after a deer, they will be reunited,” because he is wearing a GPS collar. Is this after the dog has injured, maimed or killed the deer, or any other wildlife that catches his eye?
Another of your writers, Lee Harrington, also wrote how she allows her dog to run off leash; chasing wildlife. Do people not understand how annoying and potentially dangerous it is to allow their dogs to run loose on nature trails, in public parks and recreation areas? This is the main reason dogs are banned from many local, state and national parks. I've had numerous (often frightening), encounters with loose dogs, charging into the faces of my leashed dogs. This culminates to growling, snapping, shouting and aggravating situations. An enjoyable, relaxing activity quickly spirals into a tense, nerve wracking event. People who choose to ignore the posted "All dogs must be leashed" signs, are ruining it for the rest of us.
Do us all a favor, stop this irresponsible behavior. Please keep your dog on a leash when biking, hiking or running in any public nature trail, park or recreation area. It is common courtesy, not to mention common sense. It is safer for all concerned, especially the dog and the wildlife.
Culture: Readers Write
When you entered our lives who would have guessed that our humble abode would become truly blessed!
When I first saw your face, those gigantic feet...My firsts thought was “holy crap” how much will he eat?
Fast-forward to age 7:
Mounds of your discarded fur on the floor, a fastidious cleaner I am no more!
Horizontal streaks of mud on the walls...I guess that’s the payback for having “snipped” off your balls! (sorry ‘bout that)
Your snoring that keeps us awake through the night...the way that your drool stains my pants—right at thigh height (not a good look)
On our walks:
The horror in the eyes of the people we meet...and then hearing them exclaim “Oh my God—he is SO sweet—your tail that offers them infinite wags...you’re the sole reason I’ve started to hoard plastic bags!
So—on our next trek, with your nose to the ground...could you please stop and think
...that when you chomp on that horse poop—it makes your breathe really stink!
Ike, you are 140 pounds of love and pure joy and it is an honor to consider you as my 3rd little boy!
Dream Dog Awakening
I wish there were more articles and stories like this one. I have a Boxer mix who, at about two years old (she’s just turned three) became leash reactive, or leash aggressive. We got her as a rescue at eight weeks and took her everywhere, doing everything we thought we should to socialize and train her. But the leash reactiveness happened anyway. Twice a week, she goes to doggie day care, where they say she is a complete angel; they love her to death and she’s never had a problem playing with the other dogs. We go to off-leash places (the dog park, the beach) where she plays like there are no issues whatsoever. But if she’s on a leash, she turns into Cujo, just like Saville’s dog. We don’t go for walks very often, which I miss. When we do, I’m armed with treats and patience. We don’t go to dog-friendly events where dogs have to be leashed, which I also miss. We attended a “Reactive Rover” class put on by our local humane society, and it gave us some great “homework,” which I practice as often as possible. It’s still hard to be walking my dog and encounter someone who does not understand the situation and acts as if I should not be out with my dog.
Thank you again for this article. As I said, I wish there were more, if for no other reason than to reassure myself that I am not alone, and that I am doing everything I possibly can for my sweet pea on the end of the leash.
Dream Dog Awakening
The process Laurel Seville went through with Ainsley is so similar to mine with Lizzie that it’s eerie. Although Lizzie is not a rescue, she went from getting her CGC and therapy-dog certification right after her first birthday to barking and lunging at strangers, especially strange dogs, two years later. Although she never really enjoyed therapy visits, I pushed her because I wanted her to be good at it. My dream was for her to be a canine Mother Theresa. When it became obvious that she was not going to be, I too cried, got mad and tried to pretend I could manage it without really fixing it.
Somewhere along the way, I reread Suzanne Clothier’s Bones Would Rain from the Sky, then had my epiphany: she was what she was and would never be my dream dog, and I needed to accept that. It was hard to listen to family and friends, and have them give me “that look” when she acted out. Like, For this you go to training every week? I was the family’s dog-whisperer—how could I not have a well-behaved dog? Then I followed Seville’s route: I scoured the Internet, spent a fortune on training books and DVDs, bugged the heck out of my training buddies, and am still hooked on Yahoo dog forums. Basically, I made her worse before I started to make her better. Now, I never leave the house without a clicker and a pocketful of treats. My favorite line in the essay is “a dog who is trying hard to sit still and look for treats even though she wants to be Cujo.”
Perfect! I hope Saville contributes again to Bark.
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