Culture: Stories & Lit
I got the call while I was on the Amtrak Acela, headed from New York City back home to Providence: Zuzu, our nine-year-old Bichon, had gotten into a bag of leftover Halloween candy, passing up the Dots and Smarties and eating just the chocolate. She was sick, our babysitter Amanda told me. Shivering and panting.
I knew chocolate could be toxic to dogs. But how much would it take? I Googled dog eating chocolate. An ounce per pound was okay. That meant Zuzu could tolerate nine ounces. Visions of Milky Ways and Kit Kats, Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups danced through my head. How much chocolate was in that stuff? When I called the vet, she told me to watch for shallow breathing. Was panting the same as shallow breathing? The train paused in New Haven. I texted Amanda for an update. Still shivering. Still panting. Silently, I added, Still alive. Then I started to cry.
For all kinds of reasons, we love our dogs. Unconditional love. Companionship. Their warm bodies and cold noses. The funny things they do. The way they become part of our families. But it wasn’t until that call that I realized how important Zuzu was to me. Or maybe I should say that I admitted how important she was.
Like all kids, my two — Sam and Grace — wanted a dog. They entertained themselves by looking at pictures of Cockadoodles on the computer and playing with puppies in the pet store. Five-year-old Grace, however, really wanted a dog. She told us how she would train it and feed it and comb it. She told us how she would love it. That Valentine’s Day, my husband wanted to surprise her with a puppy. We’d all somehow landed on a Bichon, and we found a breeder in Oklahoma who asked us: “Do you want the one that dances?” Of course we did. Our dancing puppy had to wait for warmer weather to fly across the country to us, so Valentine’s Day came in March that year.
I wanted to name the dog Zelda. But the kids weren’t sold. As we waited for the puppy’s arrival, they spent all of their time discussing names. Then one day, they came to me. “We’ve picked the name,” Sam announced. “Zuzu!” Grace shouted. It was the perfect name. Every year I sat them down at Christmas and forced them to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with me. I didn’t care how corny the movie was or how many times I’d seen it, Christmas wasn’t Christmas if we didn’t watch it together, a bowl of popcorn passed between us and me crying when Jimmy Stewart runs inside his house calling for Donna Reed. “Zuzu it is,” I said.
Three weeks after Zuzu came to us, Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. In the last picture taken of Grace, she wears a lopsided smile as she holds that white ball of fluff, the dog she’d dreamed of. In the terrible months that followed, Zuzu took on a strange role. She was one more living thing who had known Grace. She had licked her face voraciously and slept in her lap. Such a tenuous link, but when you lose a child, those connections take on an importance that is hard to describe. That year, we did not watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Life seemed anything but wonderful.
Over these eight years, my family has realigned itself. We have added another child, Annabelle, and a menagerie of other pets: a bunny, two frogs and a rotating cast of goldfish. Last Christmas, for the first time since Grace died, I put on It’s a Wonderful Life again. Sam, now 17, rolled his eyes and groaned at the idea of watching it. Annabelle slept through the whole movie, and my husband spent more time checking his email than looking at the television. When I got that call from Amanda, I remembered the importance of Zuzu in the movie. She is the daughter who gives her father a flower that he sticks in his pocket. It is those petals that, when he finds them at the end, tell him that he is still alive and send him running back home to Donna Reed. Zuzu’s petals.
Our Zuzu gives us that, too, a reminder that our Grace was once here with us, that the rest of us are still alive and meant to seize our lives, even with her gone. Crying as the train left New Haven, I thought of the beautiful daughter I lost, how she literally jumped for joy the day I showed up at her school with Zuzu on a pink leash. “That’s my dog!” Grace shouted for the class, the world, to hear.
A text popped up on my phone: Zuzu lives!
When I walked in the door, I took Zuzu in my arms. Her brown eyes settled on mine, and I held that white puff close, my face pressed into her neck. She smelled wonderfully of dog. A respite in this grieving for all that has been lost, for at least a while longer, Zuzu lives.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I didn’t go on a pilgrimage through the holy lands of Israel and Palestine expecting to return as an international dognapper. Yet in the desert east of Bethlehem, just outside of a fourth-century monastery, that’s exactly what I was about to become.
I’d been watching the local boys for 15 minutes. There were three of them, about nine years old, give or take a year. Dressed in dirty jeans and t-shirts, they hung around the small parking lot near the monastery waiting for tourists. They’d approach the foreigners, the tallest boy carrying a puppy, soliciting. What, I couldn’t tell. Money? Candy? Attention? They’d look at the visitors’ cameras, gesture toward their cell phones and talk animatedly in Arabic. No one understood them.
Once the tourists continued on toward the monastery, the tallest boy would toss the puppy to the ground. I’d watched the creature hit the pavement twice. Both times, it yelped, then lay limp. In the week I’d been on the pilgrimage, I’d seen a fair amount of poverty in the West Bank. But I hadn’t seen abuse. And while I may have been misinterpreting the exact situation with the dog, I was having a hard time witnessing it.
I’ve been fond of dogs since I was a kid. As a 34-year-old, I had two of my own back home in Colorado. Or had, up until three months earlier when my divorce was final. My ex and I had decided that both dogs—yellow Labs—would be better off living with him. As a travel writer, I am out of town more often than not. But I missed them terribly. I didn’t want to make another regrettable dog decision, which is how I came to be plotting at a monastery in the Middle East.
I continued to watch. The puppy lay in the sand beside the parking lot, unmoving. It looked too small to have been separated from its mother. I imagined that it was hungry, thirsty, injured. I waited for the boys to become distracted. When a car pulled up and the Arab man inside called them over, I had my chance. I moved quickly, scooped her up and hid her in my sweater. No one seemed to notice. I ducked into the van, which was waiting curbside to take my group to our hotel for the evening. I realized that I now had a new problem: how was I going to explain this to the others?
I didn’t have much time to figure it out. Through the window, I could see that the members of my group—a team of academics—were starting to trickle out of the monastery. This 12-day pilgrimage was part of their work with a nonprofit called the Abraham Path Initiative. They wouldn’t understand. In fact, I was pretty certain they’d find my actions ridiculous, if not insulting, in an “ugly American” sort of way.
Hidden under my sweater, the puppy lay listless in my arms. It was possible no one would notice her, had it not been for the smell. Even after a full day on the trail, I was nowhere near that musty. I watched each of them crawl into the van, catch a whiff, and raise an eyebrow or scrunch a nose. Yunus, executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative and the unofficial head of the group, slid into the seat beside me. He eyed the sweater on my lap. “You know you can’t keep it,” he said.
I kept quiet. Yunus and his ilk were anthropologists and sociologists, trained in international conflict negotiation in situations far more dire than this. I was afraid they would convince me to put her back. But if I didn’t speak, there could be no persuading.
He tried again. “Just what exactly are you planning to do with it?”
I looked at him. Then I looked down at my sweater. I pulled it back a bit so her head was exposed, and tears welled up in my eyes. “It’s a she,” I said, keeping my head lowered.
Yunus tried again, more gently. “Dogs aren’t pets, they’re work animals. It’s a hard life in Palestine—for people and for dogs. But her life is here.”
His logic reminded me of the discussions my ex and I had about where the dogs would live once we divorced. I’d done the right thing, the rational thing, in giving them up. But this time, there was more at stake.
I lifted my chin and stared straight ahead. “Twendi,” I said to the driver. “Let’s go.”
He started the ignition. Yunus exhaled and sat back in his seat. Conversation resumed in hushed tones. I felt like everyone was passing judgment on me, the youngest in the group, the one with the least experience traveling in the Middle East. But I didn’t care. The puppy barely moved in the 20 minutes it took to get to our hotel. In that time, I decided her name would be Amira, which means princess in Arabic.
If the elderly woman running the Arab Women’s Union Guesthouse was surprised that I walked in cradling a puppy, she didn’t show it. Nor did she object when I went to the kitchen to get milk, bread and a small bowl.
Inside my room, I set Amira down in front of the food. She ate slowly, as if she really didn’t have the energy. I wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten. She had sable fur, the color of the sandy desert she came from, highlighted with swatches of white on her muzzle, chest and feet. Her brown eyes were an unusual almond shape that made them appear almost human. She would have been beautiful had she not been so filthy.
I carried her into the bathroom and set her in the sink. I rinsed her fur, lathered her with my shampoo and rinsed her again. I remembered how I had washed Cody Bear in the bathtub at least once a week when he was a pup. Part of it was my new-dog-mom obsession with keeping him clean. Part of it was his penchant for jumping into any body of water he saw, including the tub. He loved the water. Amira didn’t. She squirmed under the spray from the faucet, but was too weak to put up a struggle.
As I toweled her off, she fell asleep. Her breathing was labored. She didn’t stir when I searched out and removed three ticks. When I was done, I joined the others for dinner. Yunus spoke first. “There is a shelter in Jerusalem,” he offered. I told the group that I didn’t know if she’d make it through the night. I couldn’t tell if their eyes were sympathetic or condescending.
Amira opened her eyes when I walked back into the room. Her ears perked when I reached for her. I took her off the bed and let her do her business. She walked to the now-empty food bowl and looked up at me. I hurried back to the kitchen and got her more bread and milk. She ate with considerably more gusto, and then set out to explore the room, sniffing under the bed, in my suitcase, around the trash can. We played tug of war with a sock on the Persian rug at the foot of the bed, and she yipped and pranced like a princess. I felt a surge of hope. When she started wagging her tail, I knew she was going to make it. And if she could make it, I could surely find a way to get her out of Palestine.
I opened my computer to do some sleuthing. In order to bring her back with me, she needed a health certificate from a vet and proof of rabies vaccination at least 30 days prior to her arrival in the U.S. That wouldn’t work. Maybe I could convince Cody Bear’s vet to forge papers, have them faxed to me, and pretend she had been traveling with me from the start. I checked pet regulations on the airline I‘d flown. No dogs allowed. Shoot. Maybe I could buy a ticket on another airline for the return flight. Or I could take her to a shelter in Jerusalem, pay for 30 days’ worth of care and vaccinations, and then have her sent to me on an airline that permitted pets once she was ready. I was so busy scheming that I almost forgot the biggest roadblock: three months earlier, I’d decided that I wasn’t home enough to have a dog.
I turned to look at Amira. She was asleep at the top of the bed, curled up against the pillow. She opened one almond eye at my movement, and I remembered Yunus’ words, her life is here. I knew then that I couldn’t take her with me. Not just for my own good, but also for hers. I thought about her in a shelter, in a crate on an airplane, in my 400-square-foot apartment in Boulder, and none of it seemed right. However much I struggled with the conditions I’d seen in Palestine on this trip, Americanizing Amira was not the answer. I got ready for bed with a heavy heart. I didn’t know how or where I’d leave her, just that I had to let her go.
Amira slept curled beside me on my pillow. I slept little. In the morning, I got my things ready for the day’s trek, and fashioned a pouch for Amira out of a headscarf, like those I’d seen mothers carry their babies in at the Whole Foods store in Boulder. At breakfast, the group looked at me like I was crazy. I did my best to ignore them. On the trail, Amira was a good sport about riding in the pouch. She mostly slept.
An hour into our walk, we came across a family of Bedouins, nomadic shepherds. Typical of Muslim hospitality, they offered us tea and bread, and we accepted. I let Amira out to stretch her legs. As I sipped the sweet black tea, I noticed how she blended in, wagging her tail among the goats and sheep. The Bedouins had their own sheep dog—tall and rangy, with light fur—tied to a tree. I imagined that’s what Amira would look like when she was grown. It was easy to picture a future for her here. She seemed to belong.
When we stood up to leave, I didn’t retrieve her. I thought perhaps she could earn her keep as a sheep dog. She had a better chance with the Bedouins than she did with the boys in the monastery parking lot.
The matriarch of the tribe motioned that I’d forgotten something. I shook my head no. I opened my arms to say, here, here is where she belongs. The old woman nodded. She reached down and touched Amira’s head. I turned so they wouldn't see me cry.
Amira didn’t follow me. And I didn’t turn back for one last look. Instead, I walked at a quicker pace than usual. I felt like I needed to keep my body moving so my mind could rest. The others gave me space, and I hiked alone for the better half of the morning.
Eventually, Yunus caught up with me. I don’t know what I expected—a scolding perhaps, or maybe an I told you so. But he matched my pace and didn’t say a word.
I spoke first. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Yunus slowed down a little. “You know, originally, no one agreed with what you did. But you improved conditions for that puppy, alleviated some bit of suffering.”
I snuck a glance at him. It was true. Amira was better off. I couldn’t guarantee her safety or her health, but I’d done what I could. I’d removed her from a harmful situation. In that moment, I realized how powerless I’d felt on the pilgrimage. Walking through an oppressed and impoverished society can do that to you. The magnitude of issues in the West Bank had made all of us feel that there was nothing one person could do to help.
I slowed my frantic pace and fell into step with Yunus. I’d done something. However small, it was something. “Ultimately, it’s not about what we can’t do. It’s about what we can,” he said.
I realized I was dogless once again. But it didn’t feel quite so terrible this time.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There is a tippy little table in the living room that terrifies the dog. On occasions too numerous to count, this table has lurched at him. He gives it a wide berth and a sideways eye. And when it goes for him, he tucks his tail and scrabbles for cover under the dinner table.
There is a malevolent lamp in the den. And a moment ago, there was a spoon on the edge of the counter that, at the brush of my sleeve, hit the floor with a clatter, sending the dog skittering across the hardwood.
“Dog, oh, dog,” I sigh as the woodchips settle. “What is it with you?”
He looks hurt. “I am a godfearing dog.”
At this I am taken aback. I know he’s a sensitive, even emotional, dog. He’s a Shepherd mix with a heart of gold and nerves of glass. But religious?
“Buddy, what do you mean?” I ask.
He sighs. “I’m an animist! An orthodox animist, really. I can’t believe you didn’t know this about me.” He drops his brown head on his paws and rolls his eyes. “This whole house is full of beings, beings with intentions. And most of the intentions are bad.”
Animist. I cast about for the tenets of that creed. Oh, yes: Everything has a spirit. Everything is part of the divine. That doesn’t sound so scary. Not like being a Scientologist. But I know nothing of orthodox animism.
“You wouldn’t,” the dog says. “You people were ruined by Socratic reasoning and the Scientific Revolution. And your gods were always fighting and killing each other off until you ended up with just one, who, frankly, is kind of vague. Really vague, actually. What does your god say about that vile little table? You look at it and all you see is a wood product. But you people used to be animists too, back when you were wild.”
The dog does this sometimes, harkens back to when humans did a lot more hunting and gathering. The subject tends to come up when I refuse to help him get the neighbor’s cat out of a tree. Or when I’m rubbing baking soda and peroxide into his skunked neck.
“You’ve all gone deaf,” he’ll growl. “Thunder once meant something to you people. It meant the sky was angry. You knew that when a tree fell on your hut, it didn’t just randomly tip over. It bashed in your hut because of something you did. And you used to eat cat.”
I hadn’t given his grumbling much thought, but now he has my interest. It is true that people who still hunt and gather for a living are usually animists. It seems to be the default philosophy of humans until we form permanent settlements and begin studying for the SATs. Why?
The dog flops onto his side. The spoon was a false alarm. Not like that foul little table.
“Same reason as me,” he says. His tongue unrolls to collect a corn flake on the floor. “The world is full of animals who want to eat you. Animals are all around you, waiting to pounce on you or sting you or poison you with their bite. Avalanches want to crush you. Lightning wants to burn you. Flash floods want to drown you. Anything that happens suddenly has a good chance of being bad. Maybe I sometimes run from a crackly paper bag, but it’s better to run from a paper bag 10 times than not to run the one time it’s actually a lion.”
I’m not going down that rabbit hole. I’ve tried talking sense to the dog about a number of scientific discoveries: People cannot just appear or vanish. A Jeep barreling down the street cannot stop in 18 inches. Lions live in Africa. My logic falls on velvety but deaf ears.
Besides, I still want to know how jumping away from a noisy spoon makes a person, or animal, religious. If it’s just an instinct, then running under the dinner table isn’t quite the same as saying the rosary, is it?
“No, it’s a much simpler system than that,” he retorts. “Even squirrels are animists. And crows. If something acts like it has a spirit, believe it. And assume that spirit is probably on the evil side. I mean, look at that nasty little table: why does it leap at me? If something wants to be friends, it comes up in plain sight, like a Jeep. It doesn’t wait, dead quiet, staring, and then JUMP! That’s what predators do. And if a spoon uses predator behavior, I’m not going to stand around wondering why. I’m going to assume the spoon intends to get me.”
I’m starting to understand. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and intention. This makes sense, at least for living things. After all, every living thing—tree, mosquito, buffalo—does intend to eat, compete and reproduce. I suppose those plans could amount to a kind of spiritual life—a blind, biological faith.
But the dog’s animism is the belief that even rocks and furniture have plans.
He returns his head to his paws and studies me. “You think you’re so different, down under the scientific stuff? How come you jump and bark when somebody pops a balloon? Because the old part of your brain still works, that’s why. Your wild brain knows that noise could be lightning coming to get you. How come when I stare at the side of your head at dinner time, you look at me? Because your wild brain is always on the look-out for eyes, that’s why. Lion eyes. You people haven’t gone completely soft. Somewhere in there, you’re still godfearing.”
His lids are drooping and he yawns. “You knew other things too,” muses the pious beast. “When something runs away from you, it’s food. I’ve reminded you so many times. Even if it goes up a tree and stops running: still food.” He sighs. “You used to know that.” And then he’s asleep, his twitching legs carrying him back to a time when together we crossed entire, mystical continents, running from the lions and eating the cats.
News: Guest Posts
In the introduction to his 1997 book Queer Dog: homo/pup/poetry, Gerry Gomez Pearlberg writes, “Why do gay men and lesbians have so much to say on the subject of dogs? Perhaps because we’re masters at reconfiguring what it means to create family, what it means to be animal and living in skin, what it means to exist in a state of exuberant, unapologetic disobedience.”
It is the spirit of this quote I hoped to bring to life Saturday night, January 16, when I guest curated a pets-themed evening of the successful NYC storytelling series Queer Memoir. The event brings to the stage people from all areas of the community to “provide an avenue to share queer lives and celebrate the ritual and community-building value of storytelling.”
Queer Memoir: Pets was attended by nearly 80 people included storytellers from all across the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community with many stories focusing on the special role that dogs have played in the lives of readers.
Allison Joy, who combines a Reiki practice with her work as a dog trainer with social justice activism, brought a treat bag and clickers to the stage and shared a series of rants about dominance-based training. Colten Tognamino, a dog photographer, shared intimate stories about the joy and heartbreak of being a dad of several very high-needs dogs.
The love and loyalty of dogs was a common theme shared by readers, including Jessica Pabón, who read about holding her best friend Emma, a rescued Rottweiler, before she “went to sleep forever.” I shared an excerpt of my own story (first published in my anthology Kicked Out), which focuses on how my teen years were spent competing in dog agility, but when I came out as gay and became homeless I lost my dogs.
Ultimately, a common thread among the storytellers on this night was the power of dogs to help us make sense of our place in the world. Sound familiar?
Culture: Readers Write
We had already bought our dog a car to chauffeur her properly. The next logical step was to get her some real estate.
Our new fifty-eight acres of rocky hillside sat on a dead-end road in the Catskill Mountains, three hours from our apartment in Brooklyn. There, slowly but surely, the three of us (husband, wife and Mercy) could become the wild animals we were apparently meant to be.
Well, Mercy, our Border Collie mix, was a wild animal; we just hadn’t seen the full evidence yet.
Our neighbors on the road, who often stopped their pickup truck to chat with us on their way to the village, had shared stories of the feared coyotes who spirited away their chickens or cats or pet dogs. “Watch out for those coyotes,” they said. “They’ll take everything.” There were tales of their hoodlum behavior, luring small innocents out beyond the protective circle of yards, only to carry them away to some horrible end. I thought for a moment that maybe I should heed their advice to always keep my dog on leash. But then what was this mortgage for? The hefty monthly sum paid for Mercy’s freedom to exercise all her senses. Ours, too, as we watched her do so.
One night, Mercy and I were alone together in the house—a neighborless house that felt seemed poised on the edge of the known world. Night in the country goes unpenetrated by light except that of the stars and the moon. All of civilization, including me, was asleep. But the natural world was still awake to the mysteries of life. A cry cut through sleep like a fierce sword. I woke to the very sound of wildness.
It was as if someone had taken loneliness and compressed it, sent it echoing out over the black mountains. It was at once fearsome, ancient, comforting. It was the cry of a coyote sounding like a thousand coyotes, all saying something utterly beyond me.
But it was not beyond Mercy. She answered in an otherworldly voice I had never heard before. It shook me. Her howl seemed to put a coyote in my room, at the foot of the futon, where before there had only been a dog, one who wore a red collar and loved ice cream cones. In that moment, she told me—by telling her cousins out there—that she was only partly mine. She was of a piece with them. It turned out she was a coyote herself, from way back.
Some days later, Mercy and I went walking up the steep hill behind the old farmhouse, up into an old red-pine plantation. For us it was a magisterial cathedral in which to wander. Mercy was off-leash. I felt it was no more my right to prevent her full interaction with life—risk and revelry both—than it would later be mine to keep my son safe but inert within four walls. She bounded ahead, investigating this, chasing that, always returning.
Then I stopped: I thought I saw a shape in the shadows ahead. A shape like a dog. But wait—over there was Mercy, black and solid. What I couldn’t instantly comprehend—What’s a German Shepherd doing in our woods?—in the next second became clear. That’s a coyote! Ten yards from my dog! My dog, who is now starting to move toward a wild predator!
Frozen, I could only watch as Mercy approached slowly, at an angle. Her ears were up, tail waving hesitantly. The coyote stood his ground, staring and still, then looked away. He had said “I am not a threat” in universal canine language. But the fact that he did not advance also announced: “I don’t necessarily think that’s wise, little sister.” Now Mercy paused. This unknown creature was acting a bit differently than her playmates at the dog park. I think she was yielding to something regal in his bearing. Something she must honor. Indeed, his behavior was honorable.
Finally, head down, the coyote swung around and trotted slowly off. Mercy watched intently, as if part of her wanted to follow. I didn’t blame her. Part of her wished to go, but the part that was bonded to her domestic situation (and me) wanted to stay.
I had witnessed something timeless: the meeting of what a dog is with what that dog once was. The two had met on equal ground, free to come, free to go. If fear had kept my dog tied to me, this moment would have been lost. I would never have seen what Mercy truly was, wild at heart. And I would never have known such a profound sense of completeness then pervading the quiet woods. We had met our purported enemy. And he was us.
Kiki loves winter. He wears the season like a second skin. As I write this story at my kitchen table, he’s probably outside, lapping up the Canadian cold.
The snow delights and confounds him. It’s a mystery substance he futilely tries to solve by his powers of jaw and claw. Shovel snow off the backyard deck, and, as it powders through the air, he’ll discombobulate himself in a slacktongued fool’s quest to catch it in his mouth, cartwheeling on no fixed axis. Then he’ll go to the spot where it landed and he’ll dig, dig, dig, mining for that one elusive snowflake, and in the end, yet again, hit dirt rather than pay dirt.
In the park, he’ll bound through the thick snow like Tigger (who, let’s face it, is much more dog than cat). He seems to feel he owns the whitened park in a way that’s not true when the green grass is growing. Maybe it’s simply because there are fewer dogs outdoors on the cold days, for their owners’ sakes. Arriving back home, he’ll want out into the yard, so he can sit in the cold for hours, surveying his white realm like a little polar bear on the edge of an ice shelf, sniffing the air for scent of seal or squirrel. And at the end of the day, he’ll lie not at the fireside but by the front door, to feel its chill draft sneaking onto his back.
When I was in better shape, circa 1842, I’d take Kiki for cold runs around the reservoir in our town north of Toronto. I’d let him loose on the wooded paths as I plodded along in my 18 layers of gear. He would use the paths as a departure point for explorations of who knows what, and by the end of the run he’d be dressed in snowy icicles. He was happy.
I don’t know how he got this way. He’s a Bichapoo, not a breed apt to be confused with Samoyed or Husky. And he was born in June, so it’s not like winter is the first thing he knew. Maybe it’s my fault for leaving White Fang lying around where he could read it. Maybe he really is a miniature polar bear. Beyond that, I’m stumped.
Kiki loves winter, and that’s why he’s not our dog anymore. I landed a job in Abu Dhabi, fast-growing capital of the United Arab Emirates. In this Phoenix of Arabia, temperatures reach 120ºF in August. And it’s humid.
At first we planned on bringing him with us. But then I went ahead to Abu Dhabi while my wife and daughter stayed in Canada to, respectively, wrap up our affairs and finish the school term. I saw how scarce dogs are in the UAE, and we feared the heat could prove fatal to Kiki during the summer months. He’d known nothing like it during his first five years — what if he couldn’t adjust?
And so, when I returned to Canada for a week in December to gather up my family, we drove Kiki to his new home in a new town, with outdoorsy friends who we know will take good care of him. We visited for an hour, and gave them a rundown of his habits (yes, he gets his own stocking at Christmas). Then his new dad and sister took him for a walk in the snow. I could see his tail in the air as they went down a hill and out of sight. We got in our car and drove away. We figured it’d be less confusing for him if he didn’t see us leave.
I think we did the right thing by Kiki. It was more responsible to take ourselves away from him than to take him away from winter. But that’s cold comfort when we miss him, all the times we miss him.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, love isn’t enough
Paolo broke my heart. We parted at midday, on a bleak New York City sidewalk. Tall, dark and irresistibly handsome, Paolo never looked back. But this was no ordinary breakup.
I am still married to my husband of more than 20 years, and far from a threat, Paolo had been embraced as a companion for us both. Instead, this five-year-old black Labrador Retriever became a vehicle of guilt and anguish as well as a source of grinding tension between two deeply committed dog people. Our hearts were full of hope and happiness when we welcomed Paolo into our lives. Our souls were wracked with sorrow and shame when we gave him up.
It would be tempting to say that Paolo was not a homewrecker. But in truth, he managed to wreck just about anything with which he came in contact. Paolo ate pillows, photo albums, tax records. He killed several Kong toys and, on his second day in our house, took a hunk out of my husband’s hand while playing tug-of-war. We soon realized that what we had adopted was not a dog, but an 85-pound weapon of mass destruction.
Still, we were both hopelessly besotted, and determined to save Paolo’s canine soul. As with any off-kilter relationship, we believed we could fix it. Love would conquer all, right? Wrong. Sometimes the hardest lesson of all is learning that some damage needs real experts to repair it.
After the death of our elderly black Lab, about three months passed before I began trolling for another dog. On the Internet, Paolo looked perfect. He was a big, sturdy adult with a strong, square head and a glossy coat. But it was not so much his looks as his narrative that intrigued me. The rescue agency explained that five-year-old Paolo was a Bernie Madoff victim. His previous owners had lost all their assets when Madoff ’s fraudulent financial empire fell to ruins. Forced from their Park Avenue digs, they could no longer keep Paolo. Dog people tend to see the world — and financial scandal — in peculiar terms. All I could think was: bad enough that so many people had their lives upended by Bernie Madoff’s avarice, but a dog?
The rescue agency welcomed our application to relocate Paolo from Manhattan to a leafy hamlet near Boston. We were experienced Lab owners who promised long daily walks in a forest and summers in a seaside cottage. Our two previous rescue dogs had lived long, full lives. When we were invited to Manhattan for an interview and a chance to meet Paolo, the occasion was fraught with such expectation that my husband wondered if he should wear a suit.
A week later, I was back in New York City, this time with my car. It took two burly handlers and a mountain of treats to lure Paolo into the crate that occupied the entire back seat. Still, the canine behavioral psychologist — an occupation I had never heard of until then — assured us that Paolo would relax comfortably in a secure new environment.
In the weeks to come, I would remember the midwestern mother who shipped her adopted son back to Russia. When I read that story, I wanted to throttle the woman for heartlessly disrupting a child’s life. Now I reconsidered. Beyond his insatiable appetite for any object he could wrap his jaws around, Paolo also confused our rugs with outdoor surfaces. In what quickly became a pattern of daily phone calls and emails, the canine behavioral psychologist sounded indignant when I questioned whether this middle-aged dog was, in fact, housebroken. Then he admitted that the previous owners had Astroturfed their front hall to avoid taking Paolo outside.
Indeed, Paolo hated anything resembling nature. He ignored shrubs and trees and refused to walk on anything but asphalt. Squirrels bored him, and he disdained other dogs. His behavior was so troubling that I enlisted the help of a legendary, no-nonsense dog trainer. She quickly concluded our entire family would need daily sessions with Paolo. I wondered exactly how I was supposed to fit my job into that equation.
One immediate issue was what the trainer and the dog shrink agreed was Paolo’s attachment disorder. Briefly, this meant he would not let me out of his sight, challenging even my husband for my full attention. Imagine the surprise of my university colleagues when I showed up at faculty meetings with an 85-pound lap dog — who, as it happened, snored loudly. In a stroke of genius mixed with desperation, I engaged a professional dog-walking service to come to my office and take Paolo for regular strolls. Both the trainer and the doggie shrink agreed that this would help to both socialize Paolo and reduce his separation anxiety.
The same affable young male dog walker came twice a day — until day three, when he knocked on my office door and Paolo attacked him. This sturdy, six-foot-tall person was pinned against the wall, eyeball to eyeball with a snarling, lunging animal. Eventually, distracted by a leftover breakfast bagel, Paolo released his terrified prey. At that moment, I realized I could not trust this dog. What if he had turned on a child or an old person? Already, Paolo was more of a project than a pet. Now he had become a liability.
The trainer and canine behavioral psychologist concurred that Paolo should be reclassified as a special-needs dog. The shrink said Paolo had probably been in shelter shock at the rescue agency: that is to say, falsely subdued. He said owners often misrepresented the animals they brought in for adoption. And he thanked me profusely for the long memo I prepared describing Paolo’s behavior outside the shelter.
None of which made the decision to take him back any easier. On the four-hour drive back to Manhattan, Paolo slept peacefully until we edged into the city. Suddenly he shot up and shoved his snout through the small opening in the window, deliriously inhaling his beloved urban smells. I was weeping when the behavioral psychologist met us on the sidewalk, and I cried most of the way home. Paolo, the dog shrink promised in an email the next day, was doing just fine.
This story has a further happy ending. After taking Paolo back to New York, I felt like a heel, unworthy of dog ownership. Then one day I found myself poring over Labrador rescue sites. This time we moved cautiously, sending a cool-headed friend to check out a promising candidate we identified in another state. Jackson, a 5-year-old black Lab, is asleep beside me as I write. He is the love of our lives.
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Dogwise Publishing, 136 pp., 2010; $16.95
As human to a couple of large, highly prey-driven dogs, I was thrilled and relieved to learn of Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book, Chase! I had done a fair amount of research over the years on the topic but hadn’t learned much beyond the fact that good management and a fail-proof recall were in order. Until I read Chase!, that is.
Every good training program begins with a solid foundation, and Reinhardt’s is no exception. The fundamental element of the program is what Reinhardt calls “communicative walks,” which she defines as “using the walk as an opportunity to build a strong bond between you and your dog through interaction and communication,” including discovering “sausage trees” together, among other activities. (The sausage tree is one of several unique and creative training ideas.)
Reinhardt provides instructions for humanely and effectively training behaviors ranging from basic to the more unusual. She also includes a chapter on mental stimulation, in which she emphasizes the importance of play and outlines games that are appropriate and inappropriate for prey-driven dogs.
While I found everything in the book to be of use, I did not find everything of use to be in the book. Two things in particular were conspicuous in their absence: instructions for training a fail-proof recall and a serious discussion on working with dogs who have killed prey animals.
Regardless, Chase! is definitely worthwhile if you’d like to be able to allow your prey-driven dog off leash. Reinhardt’s training philosophy is right on: “The success of anti-predation training doesn’t just depend on how well you train your dog to steer his natural tendencies in an alternative direction— toward you—but also how well you concentrate on the dog as your partner.”
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
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