Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch.
Wellness: Healthy Living
September 18 2017
My local shelter, the Ulster County SPCA in Kingston, N.Y., is highly regarded and much loved by the community. The vibe at UCSPCA is a good one, and some of the credit for that can go to Liz Wassal, the shelter’s Animal Reiki practitioner and teacher. For those not familiar with it, Reiki is a healing technique based on the principle that the practitioner can channel energy into the patient and activate the natural healing processes of the patient’s body, thus restoring physical and emotional well-being. (I should point out here that that the word “reiki” is a Japanese term that means “universal life force energy.” When capitalized, Reiki refers to the energy healing system founded by Mikao Usui. So, I ask all the English majors and copy editors who are reading this to be prepared for deliberately inconsistent capitalization.)
A pleasant, knowledgeable woman with an MA in psychology and a BFA in classical animation, Wassal—a Reiki Master Teacher—began volunteering at UCSPCA in 2007. Initially, she offered Reiki to the shelter’s animals informally. Even though she was low-key about it, other shelter workers quickly began to notice that an energetic shift had taken place. The animals were calmer and were healing more swiftly from injuries and surgeries. They seemed happier, too.
Eventually, Wassal was approached by board members and asked if she would teach them Reiki. Soon, staff members began requesting Reiki training as well. Currently, most of the department heads—the cat manager, the dog kennel manager, clinicians—are certified Reiki practitioners. Wassal, who is also an ordained priest, animal communicator and a chocolatier, now serves as the shelter’s official Animal Reiki teacher and offers ongoing courses in Animal Reiki to staff and volunteers. Her courses follow the principles established by Kathleen Prasad, founder of the Shelter Animal Reiki Association (SARA).
Lee Harrington: How would you describe Reiki?
Liz Wassal: Reiki is the energy of the universe. We all have it. Reiki is also called ki, chi, prana. These are all synonyms for the same subtle, transcendent spiritual energy.
LH: How do you initiate an Animal Reiki session?
LW: Well, the first thing the Reiki practitioner does before beginning a healing session is to secure consent. Obviously, a human patient would simply sign a consent form and/or give verbal permission, whereas communication with the animal recipient is non-verbal. I’ll either intuit the answer—the consent—or the animal will give clear signs that he’s willing to accept the reiki—sometimes simply by coming toward me or backing away. After securing the animal’s permission, I create a healing space by asking the reiki to flow. Intention leads the energy on. Instantly, the reiki fills the room, a building, a neighborhood or wherever it’s directed. Reiki energy has its own intelligence and knows exactly where to go. The animals also know exactly what they need.
LH: When I’ve received a Reiki healing, it looks as though the practitioner is just sitting there meditating.
LW: In fact, that’s pretty close to what it is. A Reiki session is non-invasive and passive. It’s not hands-on.
LH: Describe a typical Animal Reiki session.
LW: There really isn’t a “typical” Animal Reiki session, because we turn everything over to the animal. The animals are always in charge. They decide how long the session goes, or where they want to be or whether they want to receive the reiki energy at all.
LH: What do you mean by “where they want to be”? Are they confined to a particular area during a Reiki session and asked to stay still?
LW: Again, it’s up to the animals. They get to choose where they want to be within the perimeters of the kennel or treatment room. I often I sit with the dogs in their kennels or cages (with permission, of course). The dog is free to move around the room or, if he so chooses, can cuddle on my lap and place his head in my hands. Or he may position himself 10 feet away from me, or—if he’s not comfortable with me being so close—he can be in another room.
LH: The Reiki practitioner does not need to be able to reach the dog, or even see him, to offer the healing?
LW: Nope. The reiki energy knows where to go and what to do. In my private practice, I often do healings from a distance. At the shelter, if I’m working with a particularly fearful or agitated dog, I’ll stand on the other side of the kennel wall where he can’t see me in order not to trigger anything by being visibly present.
LH: What are some of the benefits of Reiki for animals?
LW: The benefits of Reiki and other energy healing systems are numerous. Reiki can help relieve pain and reduce stress and stress symptoms such as sleeplessness, restlessness, pacing, barking, panting and so forth. Reiki is a supportive system. It’s an energy that helps keep things balanced.
LH: And having a balanced system means that the body is better able to heal itself.
LW: Yes. We’ll often do Reiki on the animals right before, during or after procedures to help facilitate the natural healing process. Or, if an animal is crashing from stress or needs to be calm before a procedure, we’ll offer Reiki off the cuff.
LH: Can you give an example of a Reiki healing session having an immediate impact on a dog?
LW: I remember working with one of the Hurricane Sandy dogs who was brought to us from a shelter in, I think, Long Island. This young dog was so utterly terrified in the isolation area that he was urinating all over himself. He was too stressed to stay still–pacing, barking, shaking. But after 10 minutes of Reiki, he simply lay down. He accepted the energy despite his stress. A few minutes later, he fell asleep, even though other animals near him were barking.
LH: That’s impressive, especially given how challenging it can be to relax or sleep in such loud and high-stress environments.
LW: Indeed. These dogs have to put up with a lot. But Reiki does help them sleep. I’ve seen them stop barking quite suddenly and slump into sleep, their noses pressed against the kennel doors.
LH: Have you ever had a dog decline a Reiki session? And if so, did you know why?
LW: Yes. It’s hard to say why. It may be that they are very agitated and reactive and simply cannot settle down if I’m visible to them. But I always respect the animal’s wishes. If a dog is not interested in Reiki that day, no problem. I will not use treats to try to persuade an animal to accept [a healing session]. Nor will I use a dominant approach if the animal is unable or unwilling.
LH: It sounds like a nice way to establish trust.
LW: These shelter animals are in situations in which very little is under their control. So I don’t push them. Often the animals will remember this—remember me as the person who listened to them. Thus, the animals will be more willing to accept my presence, and Reiki, the next time we meet.
LH: You are also an animal communicator. Does that serve your Reiki practice, or vice versa?
LW: Animal communication is not part of Reiki, but it is an overlapping discipline that is helpful. For example, as I said earlier, it’s easy for me to intuit whether an animal is willing to accept Reiki or not.
LH: Are you officially on board at UCSPCA as an animal communicator, or is that under the radar?
LW: I’m not official, but people know I have this skill. So staff people often ask me behavioral questions, such as “What does this dog need?” Or, “Why’s he so stressed?” Or, “What can we do for him?”
LH: I could tell when I first stepped into UCSPCA that the animals knew they had a voice and were being listened to. I didn’t have the words for it at the time—it was just something I sensed. A vibration of sanity and balance and hope.
LW: The rescue community is in dire need of this type of attention. Animals come to shelters as mysteries. Unless we are able to open ourselves up to their needs, we won’t be able to truly communicate with them. And if we can’t communicate with them properly, we can’t help them to our fullest extent.
LH: When you communicate with dogs, is there a typical question you get? I know they’re all individuals with individual needs, but—
LW: The most common question I get from dogs is, Why is no one listening to me? Animals are frustrated because no one gets it, no one is speaking to them and no one is hearing them. Also, a lot of the shelter dogs ask, What did I do wrong? Why am I here?
LH: Poor sweeties. But I’m thankful they have people like you to help them. Do you offer them advice, so to speak?
LW: Well, I do whisper to the animals: Remember who you are. Don’t forget, you are more than this. A lot of religions and spiritual traditions offer similar reminders, along the lines of “Remember the light you carry.” Animals, because they are more evolved than we are spiritually, don’t usually need that reminder the same way humans do. But in such an extreme environment [at a shelter], what’s the harm in reminding them of the part of them that travels forever and will always be at peace inside of them? Remember who you are.
LH: Getting back to Animal Reiki—how hard is it to learn and to practice?
LW: It’s very easy, simple and straightforward. You can learn the basics of Reiki in a short time, and you can walk out of your Reiki 1 class empowered to offer Reiki to anyone in your circle of family, friends and most definitely your pets. My teacher, Kathleen Prasad, who founded SARA, is extraordinary. Her mission is to enable as many teachers as possible to set up Reiki programs at their own shelters, and it’s catching on, one volunteer, one shelter at a time.
LH: The more people who practice Reiki at shelters, the more uplifting those shelters will become, and more animals will be helped and adopted. UCSPCA is lucky to have you.
LW: The staff at UCSPCA is extraordinary. That shelter attracts such devoted, conscientious and open-minded people. Thank goodness the animals are in such good hands. These people are the steadiest presences in the animals’ lives while they’re with us. We’re all lucky.
Author Lee Harrington used to avoid visiting her local animal shelter because she feared the experience would be depressing, and because her own dog kept her plenty busy. But when the loss of her beloved dog led her to the place she feared most, she discovered that not only was the animal shelter not depressing, it was absolutely uplifting. Find out why, and how, in this interview by the author of popular Bark columns “Rex and the City” and “The Chloe Chronicles.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
February 3 2017
We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.
And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.
My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.
There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.
Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.
For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?
The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.
My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.
For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.
My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.
I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.
Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?
The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)
As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.
Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.
When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.
The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.
After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”
Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.
As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.
As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.
As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.
That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.
I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.
“Who needs it most?” I asked.
“Promise,” she said without hesitation.
And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.
For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.
But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.
Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.
Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.
I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.
Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.
I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Author of The Secret History of Kindness
March 5 2015
When critically acclaimed author Melissa Holbrook Pierson decided to write about the joys of clicker training, she didn’t realize that her journey would lead her, first, into the dark history of dog training and later, into the more affirming laboratories of B.F. Skinner. We spoke with Pierson about her extraordinary new book, The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn (Norton, April), covering such topics as why so many prominent trainers are “crossing over” to positive reinforcement methods, why and how we can be positively (or negatively) reinforced by our own training methods, and why and how science has proven that kindness is indeed the best approach—to dog training and to life.
B: I was encouraged to learn that the use of electric shock devices has been banned in Wales, and that other parts of the UK are considering similar legislation. Why are these devices ineffective, even dangerous?
MHP: Shock collars are imprecise and flawed tools for several reasons. Pain induces fear and anxiety, which have neurological effects that impede learning. Use of shock collars is correlated with increased aggression and anxiety. Finally, it is incredibly difficult to time the shock properly, which causes confusion and often, learned helplessness.
Another undesirable outcome is the unintended associations a dog may make between the pain and what’s in the environment at the time it’s experienced. For instance, a dog can’t know that when he was zapped, it wasn’t caused by the child who happened to be riding by on a bicycle at that precise moment. The next thing you know, your dog develops a fear of children on bicycles, and eventually, bites a child riding by on a bike. People say, “It was completely out of the blue.” Not to the dog.
B: You refer to a number of trainers who “crossed over” from using punitive/coercive methods to positive reinforcement. Could you tell us about that?
MHP: I cite a very well-known trainer who describes a seminal moment in her training career, in which her own dog—with whom she did competition obedience—actually ran and hid from her when it was time to begin a training session. In that moment, she asked herself, “Why is my dog hiding from me?” Then it hit her: her dog was afraid of her.
B: So this trainer realized that she herself was a stressor—a source of fear and pain—in her own dog’s life. As you point out, this is an unfortunate but common side effect of coercive training methods.
MHP: Yes, but before we get to that, I want to clarify that it’s not a matter of people being unkind, or not loving their dogs. These people love their dogs every bit as much as anyone. But living in a culture saturated by coercion, in which so many social institutions are structured to use threat or punishment to modify behavior, can blind us to what we’re actually doing. Coercing comes naturally to many of us because that’s what we’ve always known. We then visit the same sort of treatment on our own children—among whom many of us include our dogs.
For centuries, all sorts of punitive and abusive methods have been propounded as being the “right”—indeed, the necessary—way to raise our dependents. Twenty years ago, it was practically impossible to find a book on dog training that did not instruct you in the methodology of abuse.
That’s why I give the example in my book of my own childhood dog. She was truly the soul of sweetness, with no behavioral issues to speak of. But since we didn’t know how to properly housebreak her, we took the advice of a standard “How to Raise Your Puppy” book. Now, I can hardly bear to think about what we did to this dog, who was uncomprehending and completely at our mercy. We loved her. But did we know any better? No.
B: A lot of us can empathize with that guilt. But, as Maya Angelou said, “You do your best, and when you know better, you do better.” Now we do know better; science has proven—and you go into great detail about this in your book, from many angles—that positive reinforcement is the most effective training method. Can you elaborate?
MHP: It’s more effective because it’s true. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but in every case history can provide, things become easier and better when we work with fact rather than tradition, which, for lack of an alternative, often makes things extremely difficult. When you believe the Earth is flat, you are not aware that it might be easier to head west in order to gain the east. Teaching is so much more fluid, and kinder, to both student and teacher when it follows the laws of operant conditioning as well as other discoveries in natural science. We are in a great moment, one in which neurology continues to complement Skinner’s findings in illuminating how the brain works.
B: One thing I was startled to discover in your book is that the military uses positive reinforcement to train their marine animals. Does that mean that even they no longer cling to the outdated dominant, alpha-male, punitive model?
MHP: You’ve hit on one of the most interesting paradoxes in the whole thing. Critics of positive reinforcement call us “cookie pushers” and criticize us for being too kind, too lenient. But if we just look at what works, and strip away all the value-laced judgment on technique, the fact is that in almost all cases, positive reinforcement turns out to be the most efficient, most effective method. Believe me, if the navy could find a better way to train, it would; all it cares about is what works.
Several countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, are now reputed to use only positive reinforcement training in their military canine programs, and in the U.S., we are moving solidly in that direction. Reliability is the sole factor driving this movement. As I say in the book, it is not sentimental foible to train without coercion. There are data proving that it works best.
The topic of the crossover trainer is a seminal example in the whole revolution toward positive reinforcement. These are individuals who were at the height of their power and careers. They had no reason to change their methods because what they were doing was “working,” so far as they knew. But something cracked open in their hearts once what I can only call empathy opened their eyes to the way their dogs’ reactions told them something was wrong.
So I think the crossover is not fundamentally crossing from one technique to another, but rather, crossing from an egocentric point of view to an empathic one, where you actually look at what the dog is expressing, and realize: “I was blind, but now I see.”
B: Your book is full of wonderful “light-bulb moments.” Can you share some examples?
MHP: Almost everyone I know who tries clicker training experiences one moment when he or she sees the dog “get” it—an undeniable expression of happiness and eagerness. It’s the learning moment, when the doors of communication open wide. And you literally get high on it. When you see someone you love happy because of something you’ve done or given, that’s something you want to replicate. Seeing them happy makes you happy. That’s what happens with a clicker and a dog. You see this transformation and you become transformed, too.
It’s hallelujah, it’s eureka, it’s everything all at once. In a way, it’s the big bang. It’s the creation of a new universe, gaining a new language. Suddenly, you’ve discovered something. Using the language of learning results in such beautiful moments.
B: Can one experience similarly joyful moments using punitive training methods? In other words, do punitive training methods employ this language of learning?
MHP: The effect on the learner, both in the moment and later, is dramatically different. First, the nature of punishment is such that it only stops a behavior; it does not give instruction on what is desired. Then, there’s its effect on the brain. Pain (or the threat thereof) triggers a response from the reactive part, the amygdala. In moments of imminent crisis, it’s where we quickly decide what to do: fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are released to get us to act. In moments of fear or pain, the reasoning and rational parts of the brain shut down to conserve resources. We can’t learn; we need to save ourselves. The brain of a dog cowering or feeling pain is caught in a neurochemical stress cycle. Not a condition conducive to figuring things out.
On the other hand, a dog who anticipates a reward, who tries to figure out how to get the good stuff, is fully able to engage the thinking part of his brain. All this thinking and learning makes him happy. If you remember times when learning excited you, you know the feeling. It’s the moment when you can almost feel your mind stretching to get more of that sensation of wonderment.
This is almost visible in clicker-trained dogs. They start to play, to try novel behaviors. They manifest an eagerness to learn more. This is the opposite of what happens in a moment of terror, or even milder forms of distress. Fear forecloses options. Imagine asking people to do crossword puzzles as they’re fleeing a burning building. In stressful situations, we cannot access the part of our brain that is capable of such work, and neither can dogs.
B: This leads into the notion of “learned helplessness,” which we see in dogs trained using force.
MHP: Exactly. Learned helplessness occurs when you don’t understand when or why the punishment—the literal or figurative electric shock—is coming, because it seems to be random. The safest course of action is simply to offer no behavior at all, to stand pat. This kind of freezing is sometimes mistaken for “calm submission” in dogs who have been forced to submit. But they haven’t truly learned to be calm. Rather, they’ve learned to avoid an arbitrary unpleasantness by doing nothing.
You also see this in students engaged in traditional pedagogy, which often relies on threat of punishment for misbehavior instead of reinforcement for desired behavior. Kids learn to toe the line, but they don’t do much else. I personally think it’s sad; by choosing a coercive methodology, we deprive our students of the great possibilities of exploring their brain’s farther reaches.
B: Your book reminded me how much fun positive-reinforcement training can be, both for the trainer and the trainee. And conversely, how unpleasant it can be to use punishing, coercive methods. For many of us, using punitive training methods makes us feel terrible.
MHP: That’s because, from a behaviorist perspective, reinforcers act both on the subject and the teacher. Punishment, as I learned to my astonishment, can act as a reinforcer to the person who practices it: that is one of its dangers. You can end up practicing it because it is reinforcing to you. It certainly has immediate effect, which can feel good. And as Skinner taught, what feels good ends up being repeated.
But then you see its effect in your subject. Deciding which path to take brings us to the subject of empathy. Is your goal to understand how your dog understands? The revolution in kindness will continue to grow, I think, if people simply stop and ask themselves, Would I like this done to me? I dare say very few people, projecting themselves into their dog’s mind, would actively choose to have their windpipe constricted every three minutes over learning how to walk on a loose leash. Especially if being walked on a loose leash involved treats or being released to go sniff an interesting smell.
B: How does positive reinforcement reinforce the trainer?
MHP: A great bonus of positive reinforcement is that you first have to watch and learn: your dog is called upon to tell you what she finds reinforcing. It causes us to open and embrace, rather than close down and demand. It’s a gift to both parties.
B: What are the most important things you’ve learned from clicker training and/or operant conditioning?
MHP: The most important things that clicker training can teach, finally, are about life. First, maybe, is the importance of self-control. The more I can do that, the better teacher I am, also the better human being I am. In a philosophical as well as literal way, it’s about orienting to “yes” instead of “no.” Yes is a bigger place, full of potential, full of joy. It’s a little like focusing on gratitude, on what you have as opposed to what you lack.
Clicker training leaks into all aspects of life. I can be a better friend, a better listener. It teaches compassion. It teaches the importance of recognizing that so many of the things we believe are essential are really rather arbitrary. For one, language. We realize that our language is not universal at all.
The importance of understanding the language that our beloveds speak is a crucial aspect of positive reinforcement. An ancillary gift is that it causes us to consider someone else’s desires as equal to our own. Why should my desire that my dog do this or that take precedence over her desires? In order to use this methodology successfully, you have to ask your subject: What do you want? Then stop and look and listen to find out.
I think it’s a huge privilege to have this glimpse into another species’ world. With other training methods, you don’t really get that privilege.
B: Can you share one useful training tip for those readers who might be new to the joys of clicker training?
MHP: One of the most powerful tools I found actually comes from classical, not operant, conditioning: associate your dog’s name, spoken with a specific intonation, with the receipt of something good. This simple act has allowed me to give my dog some of the freedom she craves because I’ve greatly increased the chances that she will come back to me. She understands that coming when she hears this particular sound is going to result in a pleasant outcome.
I can let my dog off leash (only, of course, in areas that I know to be as safe from man-made hazards as I can humanly determine), and it all started in the kitchen. I would say her name and give her a treat; my particular dog has informed me of the paramount value of edibles, while to another dog, a tug toy might be preferred. I could see fireworks exploding in her brain. I could practically hear her think: You mean, all I do is go to her when I hear that sound and I get a reward? Then I can go away again and have more fun? Oh boy!
This to me is the best and simplest tip. Once you’ve successfully associated the dog’s name with something good, be careful in the future to avoid pairing it with something negative or undesirable. Otherwise you get what is called a “poisoned” cue.
B: This makes me think of your wonderful statement: “It all comes down to: do you want to train with yes or with no?”
If I had to boil down the whole book to one word, it would be “yes.” Isn’t it what we all want to hear, more than anything else?
Dog's Life: Humane
March 11 2014
Many of us have experienced this conundrum: We love animals and want to help them— especially our local shelter animals, many of whom experience trauma, confusion, pain and fear. And yet, the very thing that drives us to help—their suffering—can also be the thing that prevents us from actually going into the shelters to help. It’s hard to witness suffering, plain and simple. It’s hard to stand in the midst of such need and fear and sorrow and not fall apart. Suffering can make us feel helpless, which in turn makes us feel that we cannot help other helpless beings. And ’round and ’round it goes.
Two years ago, Pamela Fisher, DVM—a holistic veterinarian and founder of the Rescue Animal Mp3 Project, a nonprofit organization that distributes free music-loaded Mp3 players to animal shelters across the country— found herself in a similar situation. As she says, “I, along with many people, had trouble going into animal shelters. I wanted to help the animals [with Reiki and energy healing], but it tore at my heartstrings to see all those animals shaking at the back of their cages. And the barking can be deafening. I thought, there’s got to be a way I could help the animals feel better and be calmer. All I could think of was music.”
Dr. Fisher has used vibrationalhealing music—music specifically designed to not only promote relaxation in the animals and their human companions, but also, to help regulate the immune system—for years at her Ohio-based holistic veterinary practice. Thus, she has witnessed its benefits firsthand. These days, most of us are aware that science has proven that listening to specially calibrated music can help lower blood pressure, calm the nervous system, stabilize emotions and reduce anxiety. This applies to animals as well as humans; the animals who visit Dr. Fisher’s practice, even the vet-phobic ones, always become significantly more calm in the presence of the healing music.
One of the first vibrational healing CDs Dr. Fisher discovered was Healing Touch for Animals (Volume I). Composed by Carol Komitor and Inner Sound (Arden Wilken), this music is specifically designed to not only promote relaxation in the animals and their human companions; but to help regulate the immune system as well. “Of all the CDs I play at my office,” says Dr. Fisher, “I probably play this one the most. In fact, this is the one that helped inspire me to create the Mp3 project for shelters. At first, I figured I could donate some of this [Healing Touch for Animals] music to my local shelter. Then I found out that I was required to get permission to distribute all this copyrighted music. I figured if I was going to do all that work, I might as well try to find a way to distribute the music to all the shelters in the United States.”
Thus, the remarkable Rescue Animal Mp3 Project was born. Dr. Fisher began contacting musicians, sound healers and producers, asking them if they would be willing to donate the use of their music to this project. She focused animal-specific, sound-healing CDs. Most of the musicians Dr. Fisher contacted were thrilled at the idea of being able to help shelter animals. Eventually, she secured the rights to reproduce and distribute almost 30 hours of music.
The current Rescue Animal Mp3 is a “best of” compilation in animal sound healing therapy. Selections include tracks from Pet Calm and Pet Healing by Rick Collingwood, Canine Lullabies by Terry Woodford, Harp Music to Soothe the Savage Beast (gotta love that title) by Alianna Boone, Animal Angels and Connecting with Animals by Stuart Jones and Margrit Coates, Animal Healing and Music for Pets by Perry Wood and Margrit Coates, and the Healing Music for Animals and Their People (Healing Touch for Animals®) series mentioned above. (For a full list of music included on the Rescue Animal Mp3).
It took Dr. Fisher almost eight months to acquire the music and complete the necessary paperwork. Once that was accomplished, she went on to raise funds for the project and apply for grants so that she could purchase the Mp3 players and other necessary equipment. Finally, she loaded the players with the music and begin distributing them to shelters. When asked how many hours she put into the project in its preliminary stages, she says, “I won’t even venture to think about it. I work on it nonstop. My mission was to make it easy for the shelters. They don’t have the time or resources to acquire this music, so I did it for them.”
And when Dr. Fisher says easy, she means easy. All the shelters need to do is fill out an application. Project volunteers ship the pre-loaded Mp3 player at no cost, and provide easy installation instructions along with an FAQ page on their website. Typically, the shelter is required to provide its own amplification system (dock, CD player, speakers or computer), which most institutions already have in place. Sometimes, Fisher says, she donates speakers to shelters in need.
The response has been nothing short of remarkable. Survey responders consistently report that the music’s effect is overwhelmingly positive. Dogs have shown signs of reduced anxiety and anxiety-related behaviors such as barking, scratching, pacing and whining. Aggressive animals have mellowed out, traumatized dogs seem less fearful and storm-phobic dogs are noticeably calmer. Shelter workers have even noticed physical improvements in the form of increased appetites and more speedy recoveries from injuries and illness.
“Overall,” says Dr. Fisher, “the animals are better able to cope with the stress of shelter environments, and in turn, this improves their quality of life and increases their chance of acquiring forever homes. It’s part of a whole program. The Mp3 project is helping the animals get adopted.”
Currently, Rescue Animal Mp3s have been distributed to more than 800 shelters in 50 states, calming more than 87,000 animals. The Humane Society has endorsed the project, and the players are in use at such highprofile shelters as the New York CACC and the ASPCA. The project’s calming music can now be heard in animal sanctuaries as well; as of this writing, lions in Zimbabwe are listening to and benefiting from the music.
These statistics are remarkable, considering that the project—conceived and founded by one woman acting with one mission: to help animals— has been up and running for less than two years.
“The whole process of designing this project, starting a nonprofit, raising funds and applying for grants has been an interesting and difficult challenge for me,” Fisher admits. “But so rewarding for the animals’ sake.”
I hope you are as inspired by this woman and her project as I am. To find out more, donate or volunteer, visit rescueanimalmp3.org.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie
January 6 2014
For the past few years, my dog Chloe and I have been going south for the winter, staying in rentals ranging from cottages at artists’ colonies in Florida to cabins at spiritual retreat centers in South Carolina. I don’t pack lightly for these annual trips. Thus, I always hire someone to help me load my van.
“Just how many dogs do you have?” asked my most recent moving man as he maneuvered yet another large dog bed into the already overstuffed van.
“Just one,” I said.
“And how many dog beds do you have?” the man asked.
He took off his hat and scratched his head as though my answer made his mind itch.
“Creature comforts,” I said.
Yes, it’s true that my dog-to-dog-bed ratio is quite high.
But my girl is getting old. Although I don’t know her age for certain, nine years have passed since I adopted her, so she’s at least 10. Only recently has she started showing signs of old age. The clearest sign is that her new favorite thing in the world is sleep. And I believe that an old, arthritic dog who spent her early days lying on a concrete floor in a shelter deserves a comfortable place to sleep. The more the merrier.
Most of Chloe’s beds were freebies, by the way. One was a gift from a friend in the city who can’t resist buying things in bulk at Costco. (“A $12 dog bed! Can you believe it?” she exclaimed.) Two were hand-me-downs from another friend whose beloved Vizsla passed. The enormous thermopedic mattress came via Freecyle.com from a woman who couldn’t bear to throw it away. The final two were thrift-store scores. It’s easy to find a good dog bed if you know where to look.
At our New York house, I keep one bed in the master bedroom, one in the main living area, one on the deck (for optimal deer-viewing), one in the van (I took out all the seats, so it’s like a studio apartment in there), one in the office (where I spend the majority of my time) and one at our favorite English Setter Rainbow’s house (where Chloe frequently stays).
When we drive south for the winter, I take four of these beds, stacking them on top of one another next to the back passenger door, creating a rather precarious travel throne. Perched up there, Chloe looks like the princess in the “princess and the pea” story. I actually don’t mind dogs on the furniture, in case you were wondering. In fact, I welcome it. There’s something about a sleepy dog curled up on a chair or sofa that makes the house feel more cozy. More down-toearth. (“That’s because you have actual earth on your furniture,” my stepmother used to say.)
In my defense, I do like to keep some pieces of furniture dirt-free, so when I first adopted Chloe, I taught her which pieces were available for her use and which were forbidden. She has her own special corner of a very soft couch, and she is welcome to sleep on my bed at any time. I was dismayed, however, to realize that she only wanted to sleep on my bed when I wasn’t in it. Chloe, it turns out, is not a snuggler. This saddens me to a certain extent—I don’t know what happened to Chloe in her previous life that led her to keep her distance from humans; I don’t know what private sorrows she holds, or how her trust was violated. But I accept her needs. So if she prefers to sleep on the sofa in the living room, that’s fine.
The point is moot now, because Chloe is too arthritic to jump onto furniture. I see her approach “her” sofa, looking longingly at those comfy cushions. I watch the way she seems to ponder the situation, analyzing the amount of strength it would take to leap up and whether her current level of stiffness allows this. More often than not, she turns away and opts for one of her beds.
Yes, my girl is slowing down.
In the past, Chloe was always the first to wake in the morning. She’d trot into my bedroom and stare at me, tense with anticipation, waiting for me to wake up, too. The moment I opened my eyes she’d start her “happy dance,” running around in circles, leaping joyfully, trying to herd me toward the front door so we could take our morning walk. There, she’d press her nose to the crack, wag her tail and wriggle her whole body in barely contained excitement, as if saying Seize the day, seize the day! It was like this for nine years. In her feisty-dog opinion, I slept too much.
Things are different these days. Chloe now sleeps in the bedroom on that glorious thermopedic mattress she loves so much. We call it the Master Bed. I like having another being in the room—another beating heart asserting the continuity of life. Also, I’m now the first to rise in the morning. What surprises me is that Chloe no longer leaps to her feet when I get out of bed; instead, she remains on her Master Bed, stretching a little and wagging her tail, waiting for me to come to her to say good morning and give her a quick belly rub. It surprises me further that she remains on her bed even as I head into the bathroom or walk downstairs to the kitchen.
Chloe used to follow me everywhere in the mornings— from the bathroom to the kitchen to the refrigerator (for the French Roast), to the coffeemaker, back to the refrigerator (for the cream), back to the kitchen drawer (for the spoon). She didn’t relent until I finally finished my morning routine and followed her out the door. Now, instead of trying to herd me, she lies in bed and observes me from the loft—watching, listening, sniffing—alert, but still. She seems to have concluded that she’s not going to walk all the way down those stairs until it’s worth her while.
After nine years of cohabitation, Chloe has figured out my morning routine. She knows I can be slow to get out the door. She has come to expect that first there will be the sound of the refrigerator being opened, then the sound of a kettle being placed on the stove, then a bubbling of water, followed by the slight hiss of the French press and the smell of coffee. Then this liquid is poured into a travel mug. And so forth. With her keen ears and sensitive nose, she can predict things down to the minute. Once she hears the lid being sealed on the travel mug, she knows what will come next: the sound once again of an opening refrigerator door, that Pandora’s box of cold food smells, the scraping of a stew-pot being removed from the top shelf, and then me calling her name and saying that most special of words: “Breakfast!”
Only then will she spring from her bed, showing signs of the formerly spry Chloe as she scrambles—panting with excitement, down the stairs. While she gobbles her food, I finish my pre-walk tasks: pulling on boots or sneakers, grabbing a hat, searching for keys, opening the front door. Once she hears that sound, Chloe—with another burst of youthful enthusiasm—launches herself through the door.
But our morning walks are different these days. Chloe used to charge down to the river or to the beach (depending where we were), and I would follow briskly, trying to keep up. Now, in deference to Chloe’s arthritic pace, we walk more slowly. We amble, meander, mosey. There is a whole new set of verbs for what we do. Although I miss the aerobic factor of our previous morning walks, these slow ambles allow me to focus on the journey rather than on the destination. On the intricate beauty of a new day. Or the way the birds sound their individual sunrise calls. Or the way the mists rise off the river— as if all the elements of water, sun and air are conspiring to whisper ancient secrets, which one might come to understand if one listens. Or even the distant hum of traffic, which, in the morning, sounds peaceful and hopeful, as the human race tries once again to redeem itself through daily tasks.
Chloe, a water dog, used to spend hours in the water, chasing fish, harassing frogs, observing the ducks and herons in the distance. Now she wades around for 20 minutes or so— sometimes less—then comes and sits next to me on the shore. I like to meditate while she plays in the water. Now, we meditate together: two silent companions harmonizing ourselves with the motherly rhythms of nature and breathing in the water-scented air. It’s nice. It’s peaceful.
Recently, however, Chloe decided that this shoreline was not comfortable enough for her stiff old body, and actually started to head home by herself. Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about having to cut short my morning meditation, but still. No matter how safe it is (the trails lead straight to the house), I couldn’t let her walk home unaccompanied.
As soon as we return from our morning walk, Chloe goes straight to her bed. This is another new pattern. I’m accustomed to a dog who runs in circles around the house, sustaining the outdoor sensation of a body in motion. I’m accustomed to a dog who grabs the nearest toy and tosses it into the air, clinging to the joy of having been outside. I’m used to a dog who then dashes into the kitchen to see if any food has materialized since her last investigation. So this new going-straight-to-bed thing is almost alarming. Especially when I haven’t even had the opportunity to give her a “thanks-for-coming-home” treat. Chloe’s former favoritething- in-the-world used to be food. Then swimming. Then her boyfriend Rainbow. Then me. Then sleep.
The bed Chloe chooses post-morning walk is the Office Bed, because she knows this is where I’ll be spending the remainder of the day. It’s one of those Snuggle Nests, plush with big bumpers so that I don’t accidentally roll into her with my office chair.
In Chloe’s younger days, my writing seemed to bore her; it was something she had to endure until our next walk. Sure, she would nap while I wrote, but it was a vigilant sort of sleep. If I so much as moved—stretched or yawned or shifted in my chair—she would spring to her feet in one swift, athletic motion and rush to the door, smiling at me with joy, ready for our next great adventure. In her mind, I was always on the verge of doing something fascinating. (This is a dog’s approach to life. We would do well to emulate it.) Most of my daily office gestures, however, are mundane. I might rise to make another cup of tea. I might pause to check my email. I might moan out loud, saying something to the effect of, “I should just give up on this novel and become a street busker.”
Eventually, Chloe figured out the signals. Rising from the office chair with a glazed look on face meant more coffee, not walk. Moaning about the uselessness of writing meant I was going to check Facebook, not walk. The real moment— the true and absolute sign of an impending walk—was (and still is) the moment I shut down the computer, snap the lid shut and click off the wireless mouse. That one tiny click was like a starting gun for her: she’d push herself up and hurry toward the door.
Now, Chloe sleeps so soundly that sometimes, she doesn’t even hear the click. It’s hard not to smile. A dog in repose conjures up everything sleep should be: restful, peaceful, soothing, safe, warm, comfy. She sleeps so deeply that she snores—a soft, regular snore that sounds like contentment. She often seems to dream as well. I like to watch the way her eyelids twitch and her paws flex. I like to hear her sweet, muffled woofs, which are always sounded in patterns of three. Like a metered poem.
I often wonder what she dreams. Most people assume that dogs dream of chasing rabbits, of leaping over streams, of flushing grouse. But perhaps dog dreams go beyond these mundane visions we humans ascribe to them. Perhaps in her dreams, Chloe visits other realms, alternate universes where all beings exist in harmony, where there is no violence, no suffering, no animal abuse. Perhaps this is the paradise she’s chasing—not some mundane rabbit. Perhaps this is why she used to do that happy-dance in the morning. She’s trying to tell me that such worlds do exist. I hate to wake her. But soon, it is time for our afternoon walk. I lean over and whisper her name. She opens her eyes slowly, unfocused. Then she looks at me, surprised to find herself once again back inside a dog’s body. Surprised, but not disappointed. This has been a good life for her.
Our afternoon walks used to be long, but now—by Chloe’s choice—they are short, especially if the weather is not to her liking. Sometimes she walks a few yards onto the grass, makes a quick pee, then immediately returns to the house and heads straight back to her bed. She’ll circle a few times, then settle down into the foam with a satisfied “oof.” Mission accomplished.
I, however, require more of a head-clearing walk at this time of day, so—iPod in hand—I go back out without her for a brisk power walk along the beach or through the dunes. It’s glorious. Spectacular. Rejuvenating. Refreshing. And yet it feels so strange to walk without my dog. It feels wrong. But I simply adapt to this new phase in my life.
Another new phase: it used to be that when I came home, Chloe was there to greet me at the door. We all know the drill—the happy dance, the joyful barks, the whines of relief. Chloe’s specialty was to grab a toy or a shoe and carry it around in her mouth, enticing me to chase her. These days, Chloe isn’t always there to greet me. She sleeps so soundly that she doesn’t hear me come home.
I must confess I have moments of panic when this happens. I rush through the house, searching for her (because I never know which bed she’ll choose). Seconds might go by, minutes, in which my heart beats more rapidly and I imagine the worst. But then I hear her footsteps and the clicking toenails and there she will be, at the top of the steps, wagging her tail slowly, her lips askew and her face all puffy from sleep, too lazy to come downstairs to say hello.
I rush up the steps to hug her. Her body is warm with safety and trust and comfort; mine is flush with relief. She licks my face and wags her tail, and I get the sense that she is trying to reassure me somehow. Don’t worry so much, she says to me telepathically. But I do worry. My dog is aging. That’s a fact. Her health might very well decline. Maybe someday, she won’t be able to walk at all. And I won’t be able to lift her. But you are here with me, now, Chloe says. We are together now. That’s all that matters. And when the time comes, you will still be with me. And I will be with you.
Then she goes back to sleep. And I go back to my work. Each is its own cure.
One of my favorite parts of my day is the end of it. (I don’t mean that sarcastically, despite my fluency in sarcasm.) What I mean is, I love to read in bed and I love my own thermopedic mattress. Late in the evening, after our final short peewalk, I’ll say to Chloe: “Time to go up to the Master Bed!” At that, she leaps up from her living-room bed and runs up the stairs as enthusiastically as she used to splash through rivers and tide pools. She’ll go straight to her bed, circling a few times and settling herself down with a contented sigh.
Before I get into bed myself, I lie on the floor next to her to say goodnight. I place my face right in front of hers, nose to nose, and whisper some endearment about how pretty she is. She sighs, not really liking such close proximity but tolerating it for my sake. I breathe in her breath. Sometimes she’ll thump her tail a few times, the sound muffled by the bed. Sometimes she’ll hook one paw over my arm and just hold it there. It feels like reassurance. And solidarity. We’ll stay like that for a long while, until I feel her pulse and she feels mine. Until the two of us are aligned.
Thank you, I say. Even though my life is chaotic and rushed and very often unsatisfying—even though it sometimes feels like a puzzle I can’t quite solve—I look at Chloe resting so contentedly and know that here is something I am doing right. Something about me gives this dog comfort. “If you want to feel safe,” the Dalai Lama once said, “help another being feel safe.” She falls asleep within minutes.
I personally don’t know any humans who sleep so well. There she is, snoring lightly, her chest rising and falling and her brown snout smooshed against a pillow. There she is, smelling faintly of sunshine and earth, with a mind uncomplicated by thoughts. Dogs don’t agonize over what they have or have not accomplished on any given day; they don’t worry about the additional tasks, hopes or goals they will not accomplish during the day that follows. No, they simply sleep, breathing in the oneness, breathing it out.
Chloe starts to dream, woofing and flexing her paws. I watch her with such love and tenderness I feel I might burst. Sometimes I wonder if she remembers her life at the shelter and all the nights she slept on a concrete floor. I wonder if those memories help her appreciate the marvelous fact that she now has six beds. But maybe it’s not about remembering or forgetting. We can forget and move on, or we can remember and move on. The trick is to not let those things plague us. We need only keep leaping through the meadows, running forever forward toward the next great thing.
Yes, my old girl is slowing down. So I will just try to slow down with her.
Manhattan’s Vet On the Go.
October 9 2013
Jeffrey Levy, a Manhattan-based DVM and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist, is one of only a handful of veterinarians who makes house calls in New York City. And, as the lead singer and founder of Pet Rox, an animalcentric band, he’s also one of the more unusual. A specialist in canine rehabilitation, Dr. Jeff (as he likes to be called) offers both conventional and alternative medical treatments, including acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Reiki. Plus, he can sing.
Bark: We’ve noticed a rising trend in the number of house-call veterinary services available in the United States. Why did you choose to specialize in this approach rather than a more traditional office setting?
BK: What kind of canine patients do you typically see?
BK: I should point out here for our readers that travel in New York City is never easy; a lot of people walk their dogs to the vet or hire a car service. Many taxi drivers will not even stop if they see that you have a dog with you. So it can be challenging. And expensive.
BK: How do you get to your house calls?
BK: What’s in your medical bag?
I should point out that some things are not appropriate for house calls: Broken bones require an X-ray machine. A breathing problem might necessitate an oxygen cage. This is why I spend time on phone consultations.
BK: I understand that you also work with a lot of cancer patients.
This leads to another category of patients: nervous or aggressive pets. They’re not going to enjoy trips to the vet’s office; they’re much more cooperative and comfortable on their own turf. Another advantage of seeing an animal at home is that it’s a more healing environment. With acupuncture patients, I get a much better sense of what we call in Chinese medicine their “constitution.” That helps with TCM diagnoses.
Home visits also help me develop a relationship with the animals. Dogs especially like routine, so I try to keep my appointments consistent in terms of days and times. I also remain consistent with treatment location. A dog might have a special bed or blanket that we use just for acupuncture treatments. Pretty soon, when I walk in the door, the dog will walk over to that bed and lie down. Ultimately, I let the dogs choose their environment. If they want to get upside down on the couch to receive their acupuncture treatment, I’ll get upside down on the couch with them. They know what to do. Most of them fall asleep as soon as I put the needles in.
BK: I’ve witnessed that myself. My dog receives regular acupuncture treatments for arthritis and takes Chinese herbs to help heal an ACL injury. While I can’t say she loves the needles, she seems to know it’s good for her. She falls asleep within minutes.
BK: How do you suggest your clients prepare for a home visit?
BK: I understand that you’re involved with a band called Pet Rox, a familyfriendly musical group dedicated to animal welfare. Tell us about that.
BK: Who else is in the band?
BK: You’re the force behind “Just Sniffing Around,” a Pet Rox CD. Do any animals sing on it?
September 24 2013
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver is arguably one of the most beloved living poets in the English language. She is certainly, according to the New York Times, “America’s best-selling poet,” and the reasons for that are numerable. Renowned for her love of nature, Ms. Oliver writes exquisite, lyrical poems that not only capture the beauty of, say, a rushing waterfall or a blade of grass or a flock of wild geese; her poems also transform those moments of witness into something magical, even spiritual. Oliver’s poems, in other words, remind the reader of how much there is to love in this world.
Nowhere is this love more evident than in Oliver’s latest collection, Dog Songs, which includes new material as well as some of her most famous poems about her many beloved dogs. We meet Bear, who, running through the snow, writes “in large, exuberant letters/a long sentence/expressing the pleasures of the body in this world.” And Luke, a former junkyard dog who came to love flowers: “Briskly she went through the fields,/ yet paused/for the honeysuckle/or the rose/her dark head/and her wet nose/ touching/the face/ of every one.” And Benjamin, a formerly abused dog who was afraid of many things. To comfort the dog, Oliver “fondles his long hound ears” and tells him, “Don’t worry. I also know the way/the old life haunts the new.” We also meet Sammy, infamous in Oliver’s hometown for roaming, and Ricky, a rescue from Cuba with lots of attitude.
And of course we meet Percy, a rescue whom Oliver immortalized in her celebrated “Percy” poems (in 2008, 2,500 people gave Oliver a standing ovation when she read some of these poems). Oliver, who described Percy as “a mixture of gravity and waggery,” often wrote from his point of view.
This excerpt from the Percy poem “The Sweetness of Dogs” made me cry:
… Thus, we sit, myself
There isn’t room in this review to quote every remarkable poem. All I can do is encourage you to buy this book and savor it. Who else but Mary Oliver can bring dogs to life with such tender, touching imagery? These poems will make you smile, laugh, cry and nod your head in delighted agreement.
This exquisite collection closes with an essay entitled “The Summer Beach.” Here, Oliver summarizes the many reasons to love dogs. “The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, of the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him … Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased.”
Oliver—who, I should add, is a fan of The Bark and has been published here many times—concludes with: “What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be without dogs?”
I would add: What would the world be like without Mary Oliver’s poetry?
If You Are Holding This Book
Culture: Stories & Lit
Chloe has an encounter with a marrowbone, Lee expands her tool chest.
April 19 2013
Lately—because it’s a new year—I’ve been considering canceling my health insurance. I know it sounds crazy, but I never—and I mean never— go to the doctor, at least not allopathic doctors. Whenever I have some ailment I’ll visit an acupuncturist or a homeopathic practitioner or the like, and those visits often cost less than the co-pay for a Western doctor. Plus, there’s the fact that most doctors’ offices these days seem to run like factories, with new patients scheduled every 15 minutes; you barely have time to tell your doctor what your symptoms are before the doctor has to leave the room to tend to someone else. My dog Chloe gets better medical care. Speaking of which …
Chloe, a sweet-faced Spaniel mix, doesn’t look like a troublemaker or act like a troublemaker: she is well-behaved, well-trained and always remains within sight when I let her off-leash. But in the eight short years I’ve had her, she has troubled my bank account a bit, managing—through various small mishaps—to rack up several thousand dollars in veterinary bills. I’m not complaining; she’s worth every penny. Just don’t ask me about the time she ate a river rock and had to have emergency surgery. That procedure cost more than three months’ rent. Still—my dog is priceless.
A few years ago, Chloe and I had to make a special trip to the vet because she somehow managed to get a marrowbone lodged around her lower jaw. Yes, one could say it was my fault for letting her have such a small marrowbone in the first place. (I honestly didn’t know then that size mattered.) And yes, one could also say her torn ACL in 2009 ($3,300) was my fault, for letting her off-leash to chase rabbits (but I—a city person—didn’t know there were rabbits hidden in the brush so late in the season). And let us not forget the lacerated paw pads of 2008 from running through tide pools ($376); the epic river rock adventure of 2007 (swallowed for free, surgically removed for several thousand dollars); or even the strained shoulder, which wasn’t anyone’s fault—her boyfriend Rainbow, an exuberant English Setter whom we love, plowed into her on the play field (not that we blame him for wanting to play).
Anyway, any of these could be seen as my “fault” because I allow my dog to run in the woods, and play, and leap over fallen logs, and plow through bramble bushes, and swim in the river. And it’s not as though I ever let Chloe run around unsupervised. She, for one, never lets me out of her sight, so lack of supervision is not possible for either of us.
But off-leash recreation is obviously a larger topic. Should you keep your dog confined and/or leashed, keeping him/her safe but undoubtedly frustrated and bored? Which can then lead to destructive behavior such as chewing and incessant barking and a genuinely unhappy dog? (New sofa: $1,499; replacement for chewed-up dog crate: $189 plus s/h; irate neighbor: how does one set a price on that?) Or should you let your dog off-leash for quality playtime, stimulation and exercise? (Thus, some would argue, putting the dog at risk for injury.)
I have obviously chosen the latter approach. But does this make me, as a dog guardian, bad to the bone?
Let’s get back to the bone. Who knew marrowbones could be dangerous? And what dog doesn’t love a good marrowbone? Especially on a blustery winter day, when the winds are gusting at 60 mph and the freezing rain sounds like machinegun fire against the windows, and there is nothing to do but remain inside and stare at the hideously wallpapered walls of the Myrtle Beach, S.C., high-rise where we were staying to escape the chilly weather of New York. What dog doesn’t particularly love a bone when she has been condemned to strictly limited exercise, meaning three short pee-walks per day, because of a fairly recent rabbit-chasing incident that resulted in a re-strained ACL and two $250 trips to the vet? Chloe loves her marrowbones, and I love watching her enjoy them. Plus, it kept her occupied while I applied acupressure to her knee points. I was only doing what I thought was right.
That night, however, while I was in the kitchen making ginger tea, I heard a yelp and a helpless little whine, and rushed into the living room to see what was wrong. There, I found Chloe with the bone-ring lodged around her lower jaw. I have to admit that it was hard not to laugh—she had stopped whining and was looking at me with a completely perplexed expression on her face, the bone shaping her mouth into a goofy smile. And don’t be mad at me for laughing because everyone who has experienced this tells me they laugh, too. They take pictures. And videos. And post them online. Google it and you’ll see.
I did not take photos, however. Instead, I knelt before the dog, stroked her head and told her I would help her get the bone off. But said bone was wedged behind her canine teeth, and I could see no way to slip it back over those teeth and off her jaw. In fact, it looked as though I would have to wedge it off—no benign slipping allowed. I realized that this is why Chloe had yelped: one hard crunch had forced the bone behind her teeth.
Poor baby. As I inspected her mouth and turned her jaw this way and that, my good girl kept her head still and wagged her tail. She even tried to kiss me, but her tongue was, um, obstructed by a marrowbone.
I’m not a handy person, nor skilled at geometrical problem solving. I have difficulty with spatial thinking, too. But still, I kept analyzing the bone and its position in relation to the jaw, to see if there was any possible way it would slip off. To the best of my limited knowledge, it looked as though Chloe’s teeth were one-quarter of an inch too long to make this possible. Plus, the bone seemed to fit perfectly around her jaw— hugging the contours as though it had been custom made. There was no way I could get the bone off without causing my dog pain. And there was no way I would do that.
I went online, where I found all those pictures of all those other silly dogs with bones ringed around their lower jaws. I tried not to giggle at their goofy faces. As I read on, I realized that each of these dogs, in the end, had to be taken to the vet. I couldn’t find any solutions to the problem. Just comic descriptions of the episodes, concluding with those trips to the vet, where the marrowbones were either sawed (eek!), cut (ouch) or drilled (you must be kidding) off.
And here we arrive at another loaded subject: veterinary costs. How many of you hesitate, just for a second, when faced with a costly late-night trip to the emergency vet when you could wait until morning? Especially in a non-emergency, which you could quite possibly resolve yourself? This is what I faced that night.
It was stormy outside. The roads were icy. I was also in an unfamiliar city. I did not know any local vets on Myrtle Beach. Then there was the fact that, at that point in my life, I was financially strapped. I am a writer, after all, which means that there are many stretches of time during which I don’t get paid, and if you’re a slow writer like me, those stretches of time can get really stretched out. There was a time when I couldn’t even afford pet insurance, because my savings account kept getting drained by Chloe’s veterinary bills. It was a game of cat-and-mouse that, I am happy to say, I no longer have to play. We are all insured.
Even in those toughest times, Chloe always came first. Some people thought it was crazy that I would, for example, delay my own trips to the dentist so that Chloe could get her horribly chipped incisor repaired. I know that dog people always understand. Love is the reason. When I first adopted Chloe, and rescued her from a life of neglect, abuse and abandonment, I made a vow—an oath. I vowed to always take care of her. To keep her safe and warm and healthy and fed and happy. No matter the cost.
So back to the bone. I spent another 20 minutes trying to calculate—geometrically—if/how I could wedge it off my patient, now-drooling dog. I tried to lubricate it with extra-virgin olive oil. Nope. I tried arnica gel. Nope. Petroleum jelly (which can’t have tasted good). Still, the bone wouldn’t budge. Chloe wagged away, seeming to enjoy the attention. I looked out the window to see if the storm had cleared. Nope. Back to the olive oil.
Finally, poor Chloe had had enough, and she crawled off into the closet to avoid me, her tail between her legs. At that point, I decided to call the nearest vet I could find online. When I told the receptionist that my dog had a marrowbone ring around her lower jaw, and that I needed to find someone who could cut the bone off, the receptionist replied, “You mean you want us to cut off your dog’s jaw? Hold on while I ask the vet if he can do that.”
I didn’t hold. The next vet I called was able to comprehend that I needed to have a marrowbone removed from my dog’s jaw—that I did not need to have the jaw itself removed—so we made an appointment and I was there within an hour.
The first thing I heard as I entered the waiting room was the terrible, piercing howl of a dog in pain, but let us not talk about that, or about the fact that I overheard that the dog’s owner was currently in jail or that the poor sweet man taking care of the dog in the interim could not afford to get the dog’s nails clipped, which was why the dog was now suffering from embedded toenails. My heart ached for all of them.
Chloe, meanwhile, happily greeted the man and the receptionist—wagging her tail rapidly at first, then more slowly as she began to comprehend that she would be going to that same back room.
When I sat down to wait for a consultation, the nice man with the dog in pain whispered to me, “Gotta be careful, ma’am. They-uz here’ll try to jack up your bill here with things y’all don’t need. Ask for an estimate ’fore you let ’em do anything.”
“Thanks,” I whispered back, grateful for the tip.
“That’s a good-looking dog you got there,” he said. “’Cept for that there bone ’round her mouth.”
We laughed despite ourselves, and Chloe wagged her tail.
Soon, I was called into a consultation room, where a young vet, seemingly nervous, inspected Chloe quickly—looking rather than touching—as though afraid she might bite. Now, by that point, I already considered myself an expert on marrowbone removal, given that I had spent 40 minutes on the Internet reading about it. (Don’t we all consider ourselves medical experts now that we have the Internet?) Thus, I listened with skepticism as the vet recommended a complicated series of painkillers, penicillin, antibiotics and some other pills I’d never heard of but that sounded unnecessary.
“All this to clip a bone off?” I said.
“She’ll need to be anesthetized, too.”
Now, I’m not a fan of anesthesia personally, nor am I a fan of anesthesia for my dog (let alone the bills). The first time Chloe was anesthetized (see the aforementioned River Rock Incident) I swear her personality changed. But that also is another story to add to the list of other stories. “I’d prefer not to do that,” I said. Plus, instinct told me this would not be necessary. Nor would the antibiotics or painkillers.
Following my instincts (and the man in the waiting room’s advice to be prepared for overcharges), I pared the bill down to two things: office visit and removal of foreign object.
“You sure?” the vet said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Okay, then.” The vet said he’d take Chloe to the back room and that I could wait where I was.
But I insisted that I be allowed to remain in the room during the procedure. I am a New Yorker, after all, and we must uphold our reputation of being pushy, obnoxious Yankees. “I want to be with her,” I said. “I’m going to apply acupressure to one of her calming points so that she’ll stay still.”
“Acu- what?” the vet said.
“Acupressure. It’s a form of Chinese medicine in which you stimulate certain meridian points to relax your dog in stressful situations.” I did my best to explain what this was. Acupressure is the practice of applying light pressure with the fingertips to specific meridian points in the body with the aim of sending healing energy (or chi) to those parts of the body. “My vet at home practices acupressure,” I told him. “And homeopathy.”
Homeopathy is hard to explain. So I just said it was another form of alternative holistic medicine.
A vet tech came and led us into a treatment room. The vet went off to prepare. In the meantime, I started to think about his recommendation for a painkiller. Even though I sensed Chloe would not need it, I began to second-guess myself. Did people with unwanted wedding rings stuck on their fingers get painkillers when it came time to clip the rings off? (Or was the divorce painful enough?) And what about that poor dog I’d heard howling when I first walked in? Had that been a sign?
I put my hands on Chloe and began applying pressure to her various calming points. Beneath my fingertips, I could feel her warm pulse, and within minutes, she was relaxed, mellow and trusting.
I had expected the vet to return equipped with saws, drills, rubber gloves and a headlamp, the way a dental surgeon might. Instead, he came in with a pair of what looked like wire cutters, such as you might get at Home Depot. Sharp tool aloft, he sank to his knees in front of Chloe, who rested calmly on the floor. I, however, was not calm, and increased my acupressure on the dog, whispering “It will be all right” into her ear. Suddenly, I heard a clip and a quick snap, and the marrowbone fell to the floor. Matter resolved. Chloe did not even yelp.
“That was brilliant!” I said, truly impressed. “What kind of tool is that?”
“Just your basic pliers,” he said.
“Pliers,” I said. “Wow.” I am a single female living in New York, which means I am impressed by things like tools. I do not own a wrench. Or a screwdriver, or a hammer. My toolbox consists of eyebrow tweezers and nail files.
“Yes, wow,” the vet said, smiling. “Pliers.”
I love the way southern people say the word pliers. “And how’d you do that Chinese acupressure thing?” he asked. “Your dog sure is calm. Lots of dogs here are afraid of the vet.”
I showed him the points I had tapped, which have beautiful names such as the Governing Vessel and the Place of a Hundred Meetings. “People can do this on themselves, too,” I told him.
“Is that right? I’ll have to try it on my wife.”
“Absolutely.” I showed him a few points on his wrist he could press for peace of mind.
“Learn something new every day,” he said. As we walked with the dog back to the reception area, I asked, “Um, where did you get those pliers?” I worried for a second that he would laugh at me. I could hear him telling his buddies later that night, “These damn Yankees don’t even know where to buy pliers.”
But he just said, “Any hardware store’ll have them. Seven ninety-nine.”
And then he surprised me by giving them to me. I was very touched. In return, I offered to pay the bill for the man in the waiting room and his howling dog.
New-agey northerner learns down-home southern ways. We can all learn from each other, I realized. And that’s what makes it priceless.
So I now have a few new resolutions: Renew veterinary insurance. Get pliers/wire cutters ($7.99). And make sure that none of the bones I give Chloe from this day forth will fit over her jawbone.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Chloe Chronicles
February 11 2013
My dog Chloe has been in a serious relationship for two years now. Her boyfriend is a handsome English Setter named Rainbow, and they are very well-matched. Both weigh about 60 pounds, and both are not-very-birdie bird dogs. Both love to play tug and keep-away; both love to swim in our nearby creek and hunt for fish. (Chloe actually sticks her snout into the water and tries to catch them; Rainbow barks at the fish from a safe place on the shore.) In terms of hierarchy, Chloe is definitely the boss, which suits them both fine. Chloe always passes through doorways first, always wins the rope during games of tug-ofwar and always tries to steal Rainbow’s food. And because he will so willingly let her steal his food, we try to feed them separately, for Rainbow is always on the verge of being too thin and Chloe is always on the verge of being too fat.
“Chubs” is what Rainbow’s guardian, Greg, calls Chloe behind my back. I know this because Greg and Mindy’s seven-year-old son, Clayton, tells me everything. We are neighbors in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y.
But anyway, it makes me happy to see Chloe and Rainbow together. It makes me happy to witness dog love: the joyous, raucous way they greet one another; the impish, playful ways in which they bite each other’s ankles; and, at the end of the day, the adorable way they nap together, sometimes facing with legs entwined, other times spooning like an old married couple. Always, their bodies are touching, and I love to see the content, tired look on Chloe’s face when she sleeps with her head draped across Rainbow’s neck. That look speaks of companionship, and ownership, and true love. It makes me want two dogs, but that second dog would have to be Rainbow, and he’s not on the market. So, as with most relationships from which we want more, we take what we can get. I call Rainbow my half-dog.
Recently, however, Chloe and I went on an extended book tour, which meant that for seven weeks we had to leave Rainbow behind. That’s seven weeks without anyone biting your ankles, or pinning you to the ground so that he can bite your neck, or trying to take away your saliva-soaked stuffed bunny rabbit, or cuddling with you on a big stinky dog bed. By “you” I mean Chloe, of course. Every night, before we went to sleep, I promised Chloe that soon we’d see Rainbow again. I even, as a joke, marked the calendar with our return date and pointed to it as proof. “See? That’s Rainbow Day!” She always smiled at me and thumped her tail.
About two weeks into our tour, I called Greg to check in on the family. “Rainbow has a new girlfriend,” Greg said.
“Who is she?” I said, in the same exact voice I used, oh, 20 years ago when the Love of My Life told me he was in love with someone else.
“Her name is Phoenix,” Greg said. “She lives next door.”
“What kind of dog is she?” I said, again in that voice.
“A black Lab.”
My heart stopped. You see, Chloe hates black Labs. I can’t explain this hatred; it seemed to come out of nowhere 12 months prior. One day Chloe was a friendly, open, I’ll-play-with-anyone kind of dog; the next day I had to pull her off a female black Lab who had had the audacity to say hello at the dog park. Since then, any time we see a black Lab, Chloe makes a strange rumbling noise—not quite a growl, more like the revving of an engine—and strains determinedly on her leash. It’s the sound of hatred, I guess, of exacting some sort of revenge. But for what? Maybe Chloe was psychic. She knew the love of her life was going to cheat on her with a female black Lab.
“Rainbow really loves Phoenix,” Greg was saying. “They play all day long. She’s a really fast dog.”
I was offended. Chloe, being on the verge of being fat, was not as fast a runner as Rainbow. But that was part of her charm.
“But what about Chloe?” I said to Greg in a whiny voice. “Chloe’s in Massachusetts. So are you. He has to play with someone.”
So, basically, it was out of sight, out of mind. Spoken like a true male.
After Greg and I got off the phone, I sat down on the floor next to Chloe. I smoothed out the sun-bleached fur on her ear flaps, I stroked her heart-shaped little brown nose, I told her she was a pretty, pretty girl. I can’t explain how heartbroken I was at even the thought that Rainbow loved another dog more than he loved Chloe. That Chloe had been replaced. Just like that. We turn our backs for 10 minutes and look what happens! I actually started to cry.
Now is probably the time to admit that I myself do not have a boyfriend. I am not the love of anyone’s life. No one nips at my neck or my earlobes. So, of course, it gave me pleasure that at least my dog was getting love. Someone in this equation has to get the guy. I mean, in order to believe in love you have to see it, every day, in action. That’s why so many women read romance novels and see sappy movies. You have to keep that hope alive. Otherwise you become the pathetic single woman who lives alone in Woodstock and apparently lives vicariously through her dog. This was quite disturbing.
I did not tell Chloe about Rainbow and his black Lab mistress. I simply pointed at the calendar and told her that Rainbow Day was coming soon.
Meanwhile, there we were on Cape Cod. Which is not a bad place to be Without Love. We spent our mornings at the shore of a tiny freshwater pond in Brewster, Mass., watching the mist rise off the water in the postdawn light. Chloe swam around hunting for fish while I meditated and read Harry Potter. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, where Chloe hunted for more fish—a smorgasbord at low tide—and I just watched the horizon, never growing tired of how vast and mysterious and promising the world could seem if you just kept your eyes on this proverbial horizon rather than on your computer screen. It’s hard to find love through a computer screen, which doesn’t even show your own reflection.
Meanwhile, Chloe went and fell in love.
It happened at the Brewster Book Store. I had gone in to sign some copies of my paperback, and to introduce Chloe to the store’s owner, Nancy, a real dog lover who has rescued several dogs herself. Nancy had set up a wonderful display of dog-themed books on a small antique table, and had placed, at the table’s base, a large stuffed animal— a black-and-white Husky, with one of those benign Husky smiles embroidered onto its fake-fur face. He (I assumed this stuffed Husky was a he) was about the size of a real-life Springer Spaniel, and his straight-legged, straight-spined stance made him look noble and rugged and devoted. Which is perhaps why Chloe fell so hopelessly in love with him.
You should have seen it! First Chloe stood in front of this stuffed animal—this Love Effigy—and touched her nose to his. (This is what she does to me when she wants my attention—she pokes me with her snout.) Then she went down into a play-bow, with her tail swishing madly. Then, because the Husky still had not responded, she barked at him—just a playful, flirtatious little yip. Still, the Husky remained mute, stiff and guarded.
I decided that the dog’s name was Skipper, because he looked like a Skipper (his steady, glass-eyeballed gaze seemed to imply he was looking beyond the horizon of a great blue sea).
I also decided that maybe Chloe wasn’t as smart as I’d always made her out to be. We’ve always thought she was part Border Collie—the smartest dog out there—but no self-respecting Border Collie would ever mistake a stuffed dog for a real one, right?
Ah, love. It makes even the smartest females blind.
Chloe poked Skipper with her snout again, and then threw herself at his feet, rolling onto her back and displaying her pink-spotted belly.
Nothing. No response from Skipper.
She shimmied a little and barked and flailed her legs in the air dramatically. Nothing. Skipper remained impassive. Finally, she nipped him on the ankles—a sweet, playful gesture that always worked with Rainbow.
Meanwhile, Nancy and I watched, along with a number of very amused customers. We laughed. We made comments about “men.” How aloof they can be, how non-responsive, how no female can resist the strong and silent type.
I’ve always loved cross-species friendships: the tiny kitten who snuggles with a Pit Bull, the horse who nuzzles a pig, that famous Ridgeback in South Africa who foster-mothered a baby lion. This says to me that love knows no boundaries— that love is simply Love. So even though I was standing there watching my dog Chloe flirt with an inanimate object, and worrying that she was less intelligent than her brethren, and basically making a fool of herself, I also told myself that didn’t matter. Whoever said love had anything to do with intelligence, anyway?
Finally, after receiving a particularly vigorous ankle bite from Chloe, Skipper finally toppled on top of her and then just lay there, on his side. Chloe, in response, sprung onto all fours—in that remarkably quick way dogs have— and proceeded to bite Skipper on the throat—another one of her favorite moves with Rainbow. But Skipper continued to lie there, unmoving.
“I used to date a man just like that,” one of the bookstore customers said. And we nearly died laughing.
This leads to a tangent: About a year ago, I developed a disturbing and all-consuming celebrity crush. I’m really not the celebrity type—I don’t watch TV or read magazines or even see all that many movies. And I certainly have never followed celebrity gossip. But in this case, I happened to meet the man in person, locked eyes with him (eyes as blue as the sea!) and experienced, well, a form of zap that stayed in my system for months. I won’t bore you with the web-trolling, image downloading, fan-site drooling details… (okay, it was Viggo Mortensen) but I will share with you the conversation I had with one of my friends, who’d had a similar obsession with Orlando Bloom. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I remember her telling me. “This crush has awakened something in you. Since your divorce you’ve been kind of shut down toward men. You should be thankful that this person has brought back your capacity to love.”
“And lust,” I said.
“Oh, yes, that too.”
Anyway, seeing Chloe flirt happily and unabashedly with her fake-dog boyfriend made me think fondly of my own fake boyfriend, and of all the happy times we had together (in my head). It made me realize that it can just be so much fun to love someone. It almost doesn’t matter if he/she loves you back.
And what does this have to do with Rainbow? Nothing, really. We were totally over that cad.
When we got back to Woodstock, the first thing Chloe and I did was visit Rainbow. Their reunion was riotous. Leaping, chasing, biting, throwing themselves at one another. Rainbow brought Chloe one of his toys—a little rubber doll—and Chloe immediately stole it from him and then flaunted her triumph, tossing the toy in the air and refusing to let Rainbow have it. They chased each other around the pool, across the tennis court, in and around a grove of pine trees that bordered the land. They took turns tearing mock-savagely at one another’s scruffs; they bit each others’ rumps and ankles. They played until they were exhausted and too weak to stand up anymore. And even then, lying together on the rug at the hearth, they played, mouthing each other silently, clacking teeth. Finally, after another hour, they fell asleep entwined, their very breaths in sync.
As I watched them, I found myself filling with happiness again. And relief. It was clear that Chloe was still Rainbow’s favorite girlfriend. She had not been replaced. At least not at this instant. Plus, the thing about Dog Love is, there’s always plenty to go around.
I never told Greg’s family or Rainbow about the stuffed dog. Primarily because they would have made fun of me. Plus, Chloe’s brief affair was like any summer fling… fleeting, insignificant, all style no substance. So it was a private joke between me and my dog when we presented Rainbow with his reunion present: a stuffed black Lab.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part VIII: Scarf the Herald Angels Sing
November 8 2012
Holiday season is known—in the abundant countries at least—as a season of excess eating. There are the countless office parties with their vegetable-and-dip/cheese-and-cracker crudité tables and heaping buffets. There are the more intimate family celebrations, with traditional dishes such as the Christmas goose, Christmas ham, the Hanukkah brisket or, in my crowd, the Tofurkey. All of these things (excepting the latter) are very appealing to a dog.
So should a dog be invited to the holiday party? This was an issue I faced when I first adopted Chloe, because she was a very, shall we say, festive eater.
When Chloe first came to live with me, she always seemed hungry. I mean hungry in a neurotic, desperate way. I fed her very well of course: she got bones and raw food at home, homemade cooked meat mixtures when we were visiting other folks. But in the beginning, Chloe could never seem to get enough to eat. She always wanted more. After she scarfed each meal down (in two seconds) she’d lick and lick her bowl, using her paw to steady the dish. Then she would scour the floor for every last drib of meat juice, grain of rice or drop of salmon oil. Then for the rest of the day, she would follow me everywhere, hoping perhaps that at any moment I would reach into the closet and pull out a rack of beef.
Chloe, thank goodness, was never the kind of indoor scarfer who counter-hopped or stole roast chickens from the dining table. I clicker-trained her very early on not to do these things. But I can’t tell you how many times — when I first adopted her — I tripped over her in the tiny kitchen in our New York City apartment. If I dropped something on the floor — say, a piece of toast — she would dive in and grab it. When I tried to load the dishwasher, she’d rush in to lick the dishes. When I tried to open the oven, she’d try to stick her head inside and lick the racks. The refrigerator, to her, was a dream come true — especially the lower rack, where I kept her meat. She would stare at that rack with her tail wagging, hoping I’d give in and throw her a pound of turkey giblets. Sometimes, it was cute. I loved the look on her face as she waited, joyfully, for more food! But quite often, the trippingover- her part was a pain.
I don’t know my dog’s history, but it’s possible she was a stray. And former strays can be insatiable when it comes to hunger. Many of these dogs have experienced extreme hunger, even starvation, so their brains become wired to constantly seek what they lack — food. Some rescued strays, I’m told, because of this re-wiring, will continue to scarf until their dying day, even if they enjoy abundant, consistent meals in their new homes.
My vet used the term “incurable” when it came to Chloe’s relentless food-drive. He said she was just being a dog. I could accept this to a point. But not if her food-drive put her in danger (see below).
My dog is probably part Labrador Retriever, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode. But once, when I was staying at a friend’s house, we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying on her side on the fl oor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This was unusual behavior for Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate. Alarmed, I rushed over and knelt in front of her, checking her breathing and heart rate. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. She farted in response.
“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tippedover bag of kibble (our host-dog’s private batch), more than half of it gone.
“Chloe, how could you?” I said to the dog. But Chloe didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.
So here was proof that, while some dogs might try to eat until they explode, they will not actually explode. Chloe did, however, pass gas for the next few days. My friend and I joked that there should be an Overeaters Anonymous group for dogs.
But all kidding aside, we were lucky that this incident passed without terrible repercussions — no stomach pumping or intestinal twisting. As we know, overeating and scarfing can be dangerous for dogs.
Especially in New York. There, the discarded food that litters the streets can be hazardous. On the sidewalks, Chloe found such benign appetizers as pizza crusts and discarded bagels, but there was also rat poison, radiator fluid and chicken bones to worry about. Eating a cooked chicken bone, as we know, can be a life-threatening issue for a dog, so I spent many a morning having to pry Chloe’s jaws apart grabbing the bone before she swallowed. It’s a gross feeling to have to stick one’s fi ngers down a dog’s gullet.
I should point out here that Chloe’s on-leash behavior is exemplary. We know how to navigate the sidewalks of New York City quite well. In fact, she knows such commands as “right” and “left,” “halt,” and “reverse,” which are all essential things to know when trying to weave one’s way through the crowds. When I hold Chloe’s leash and call out the navigational cues, it’s like controlling the lever on a video game. I always score high points.
But I am also told that even service dogs will scarf from time to time. It’s in dogs’ natures. Even after Chloe got to the point in her training where she would leave food alone if I said “No,” she still sometimes managed to snatch up those pizza crusts before I issued the command. (Thus somehow scoring her own point by getting around the rules.) I ultimately left New York.
Even after we left the city, Chloe still found both dangerous and/or merely gross things to scarf. At the beach, she’d snuff around for crab claws, seagull poop, and the carcasses of dead fish. (To roll in and then scarf). Upstate, she liked to hunt for dead deer parts and bear scat. Mostly the repercussions were having to give lots of baths, and having to endure the odor of passed gas, but I knew I had to do something about the food obsession and scarfing. It was too risky.
The vet whom I consulted suggested that I limit Chloe’s walks (huh?). Another suggestion was to put Chloe on an appetite suppressant. I was suspicious of this advice, primarily because his was one of those veterinary practices that really pushed pharmaceutical products. In the waiting room, there were pamphlets for anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, anti-shedding, anti-flea, and even those horrible anti-bark sprays on every table and windowsill. To me this suggested a symptom-not-cause approach, and I eventually switched to a holistic vet. I decided I would not use appetite suppressants for Chloe. (Turns out they’re toxic for the kidneys anyway.)
This vet also suggested a basket muzzle, and I did look into this option — for about two minutes. At the pet store, a clerk helped me try to find one that would fit Chloe’s wide head and thin snout. The fitting was not a pleasant experience for either me or the dog. Chloe tried to paw the muzzle off and scraped her head against the shelves and floors. She looked so distressed—and Hannibal Lector-ish—that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
So no drugs, no restraining devices: I decided to do the smartest thing and sign up for more intensive clicker training sessions. For the indoor “following-me-around-obsessivelyin- the-kitchen” behavior, I clicker-trained Chloe to stay in one particular place while I free-ranged though the kitchen. It was actually quite easy. I purchased a rubber-backed bath mat — black, so that it wouldn’t soil so obviously, and situated the mat in an out-of-the-way section of the kitchen. Then I clicker-trained her to lie down on that mat whenever she entered the kitchen. She could look but not touch, in other words. Chloe’s reward for following this new stay-on-the-mat rule were simple. She got the pleasure of watching me prepare food while I bustled about the kitchen, and she got to enjoy the delicious suspense of knowing that she would get some of this food as a result of her own good behavior. The standard click-and-treat method. It was brilliant.
My friends are particularly impressed that, even during parties, when there are platters of cheeses and crackers and cured meats placed low on coffee tables, Chloe remains on her mat, poised alert and as complacent as a Sphinx. She stays there because she enjoys being a good dog, and because she always knows — because of operant conditioning — that, once I stop preparing for the party and sit down to relax, she will be allowed to get up and receive a treat. The rind of a Spanish drunken goat cheese, perhaps. A nibble of pepperoni. A piece of chicken.
For outdoor scarfing issues, we worked on new commands and hand signals and/or modifying the times of our walks so that we weren’t at the beach, for example, at low tide when there were more shells and dead things exposed. Plus, as the months passed, Chloe seemed to realize that she would never starve again in this lifetime. Her rather frantic need to eat seemed to wane, replaced by a sort of excited gratitude each time I placed her food dish before her. Her behavior no longer suggested “This might be my last meal” but more “Ah yes, ground turkey and salmon oil with a dash of kelp again. My compliments to the chef. But a little less kelp next time, s’il vous plaît.”
Chloe still hasn’t lost her taste for scat, however, and at this time of year we have at least two dozen wild turkeys wandering around our property. Chloe, my non-birdy bird dog, will follow the turkeys around—not chase them, mind you—and happily eat their poop, acting as if she is doing us all a favor. She never overeats, however. Just enough for, as the French would say, an amuse-bouche before her proper meal.
I am proud of her, in a way only dog people can understand. Proud of her progress from chemically imbalanced rescue dog to happily settled old gal.
At my last holiday party, I must say that Chloe was the best-behaved guest of the lot. My friends are artists, writers, musicians, theater-types and drag queens, and while we respect our brain cells enough not to do drugs, the wine did pour freely, and the eggnog and the grog and the wassail, the latter of which prompted a lot of impromptu carols about wassailing, (sung completely on key despite the alcohol, with a soaring finale and a kick-ass bass solo to boot). And all the while, Chloe stayed on her mat, observing curiously, occasionally getting up to snuggle next to people and/or greet new guests at the door. I noticed that she completely ignored the cheese trays and the glazed duck, choosing instead to wander into the center of our song circle and feed off our admiration of her.
During the choral finale, Chloe threw herself onto her back and shimmied around on the fl oor, wagging her tail and waving her legs in the air. She howled a few times in joy. “Hark the herald angel sings,” the drag queen shouted, and we began all over again.
Copyright © 1997-2017 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc