Culture: Stories & Lit
Late November the corn is in, stubs
litter the ground, frozen and thawed
a dozen times since Veteran’s Day.
Gopher mounds poke up then collapse
across the lawn. This morning I find
bear scat halfway down the drive,
coming or going I can’t say. While
I stand and think, Don Armstrong’s
truck bounces across the rows, belching
exhaust. Whatever is he doing?
Then I see his dog Evie at the wheel,
the windows cranked down, her ears
flapping in the wind. A crazed smile
pushes hips across her teeth. I stare
in disbelief until my dog bumps
against my legs and says, “You weren’t
ever suppose to see this.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
An essay reminds us: Don’t ever leave (the gate open).
The dog has run away again. It’s the third time this month. One of the construction workers accidentally left our backyard gate open, and Bowie wandered out. Or maybe he darted out—I don’t know, since, busy washing dishes and corralling the kids, I didn’t see it happen. When I looked out the kitchen window and saw the gate wide open, I knew he was gone. He’d never let an opportunity like this—for freedom, adventure —go to waste. I dropped the sippy cup I’d been rinsing, yelled at my husband to watch the kids and sprinted out of the house. I was barefoot, but didn’t want to waste another second. As fast as he runs, he could be two towns away.
But at the sidewalk, I stop. Because we like to give him variety on his morning walk, we take him on a different route each day. He could be anywhere. I have to decide which way he loves the best.
I tell myself to think like a dog. Or, more specifically, to think like this dog. Surely he would’ve stopped at the stained mattress our next-door neighbor left at the curb weeks ago, which we’ve all complained about. Bowie likes to pee on it to show his disgust. He seems to feel it’s his civic duty. I choose to head in that direction.
I ring the doorbell of the house three doors down, where his girlfriend, a Toy Poodle named Coco, lives. They haven’t seen him but promise to be on the lookout. What else might have sidetracked him?
I run past someone’s heartbreaking Lost Dog poster. I imagine making one for Bowie, hoping it doesn’t come to that: his Beagle face looking forlorn, his huge light-brown eyes ringed with what looks like Goth-black guyliner, the perpetual puppy pudge even though he’s eight and his tricolor is turning white with age and his black body is speckled with what we tell him is a “distinguished gray.” We haven’t been getting along that well lately; I have less time for him. He resents the fact that my husband and I have introduced two new babies, less than a year apart, into his life and sacred space. I imagine he misses our original pack—my husband, him, me—and the way we used to dote on him, our little Beagle prince, named Beauregard for how good-looking he was, then nicknamed the more accessible Bowie for the playful personality that quickly emerged.
If it was at all possible for a hound’s face to fall any lower, it did the day we brought our first daughter home from the hospital. I don’t know what he’d been expecting us to bring back after those few days away. A Labrador, maybe? It was like we’d given him socks for Christmas. Now that baby has a sister, and both girls love him rough. They squeal in his ears and kiss him a little too hard and pull his tail when trying to keep up with him.
No wonder he’s run away, I think, as I scream his name in every direction. I run a street over, checking to see if he’s loitering around the pachysandra he likes to poop in. But he’s nowhere in sight and the street is eerily quiet.
He had so been enjoying having the construction workers around: new people, new smells. He walked around them with a swagger, like he was their foreman, inspecting their work. He crawled under the house with the nicest one, as if to hand the guy tools as he needed them. He’d sun himself beside them during their lunch breaks, and afterward they’d give him whatever food was left—an orange segment, a bite of empanada. My husband and I joked about fitting him for a tool belt.
A couple of the workers climbed up on our roof right before I ran out, acting as aerial guides and promising me they’d yell if they saw him. Even though he resents the babies, Bowie’s always been tolerant. During the course of a year, he endures the bunny ears, the turkey headdress, the Santa hat. Each time, as he stares at the camera, his eyes say, “You know I descended from wolves, right? You know I could kill you but show great restraint and choose not to, right?” We’re certain that’s how he sees himself: he stalks … a tennis ball. He eviscerates … a stuffed animal.
Maybe he’s run off to be a wolf. Maybe he’s searching for the respect he feels he deserves. More likely, he found a scent and followed it.
I run to the trash bins in the alley two streets from our house, where he once found the remnants of a discarded chicken dinner. He checks in there every so often in hopes of a similar bounty.
He’s a mama’s boy, though he tries (and fails) to downplay it. Ever since he was a pup, I could say in a certain tone of voice from across a crowded dog park, “Who’s Mom’s best boy?” and he’d stop whatever he was doing and come running, tail wagging his whole body, as if to volunteer “I am! I’m your best boy! That’s me!” I yell it now in hopes he’ll follow the sound of my voice and find me.
Lately, when we go to the park, he rarely leaves my side. He sits next to me with an air of maturity, as though scoffing at the puppies tackling each other, doing all the things he used to do. He had a very long puppyhood, an extended and difficult adolescence. Yet I miss his puppy energy. I miss the feeling of endlessness to his life, our love for him. This dog has been with us since the beginning of our marriage, has seen me through some of my toughest times—infertility treatments, miscarriages, surgeries. I never needed a hot water bottle because I had my Beagle to keep me warm, to cuddle with.
The wind whips up and there’s a snap in the air. I’ve been looking for him for almost a half-hour, and it’s getting cold. This is a dog who burrows under the bedcovers every night; how will he survive in the wild? How disappointed will he be when he realizes there’s no one to pour chicken broth over his dog food, or give him a neck massage while watching TV? How will I ever sleep again, knowing he’s out here, lost, hungry, looking for home?
And how would I live without him? I thought about it when he got sick last year, but it was the sort of thought I had to quickly shake off for fear it would swallow me whole. I can’t—won’t—imagine life without that face, the face we fell in love with the moment we saw him peeking out of the empty plastic baby pool in the home of a crazy breeder in the San Gabriel mountains. He was the only puppy left.
“The runt,” the breeder had said between a puff on her cigarette and a hacking cough. Already feeling protective, I had lifted him up, covered his huge ears and said, “Nonsense. He’s perfect.”
Running around the neighborhood now, I’m feeling frantic, going hoarse, but still screaming. “Bowie! Cookies! I have cookies!”
I stub my toe on the uneven sidewalk and trip. My toenail is instantly throbbing and bleeding around the edges. I lie down on a lawn and curse, my face hot and wet with tears. He wasn’t even wearing his collar. I had just given him a bath and he was drying himself in the afternoon sun. When we adopted him, we had him microchipped, the “lojack for dogs,” but that assumes someone finds him, then actually makes the effort to take him to a vet’s office or shelter to be scanned.
It’s hopeless. He’s gone.
I remember 10 years ago when my parents’ dog died. My mother wailed into the phone, “That dog was my best friend.”
Though a lifelong dog lover, I was dogless at the time, and not only didn’t understand, but secretly pitied my mother, thinking that it was an imprudent overinvestment on her part. You enter into an agreement when you get a pet: you know in all reason and with near certainty that you will outlive this creature and will someday have to let it go—will have to endure heartbreak. And yet, you do it anyway.
Eight years into my own dog ownership, I get it now. He’s not just my best friend, he’s my first-born, and my love for him defies reason. He has his own room in my heart—a room not far down the hall from the space reserved for my children and husband. It’s not just that his love is unconditional in quality. It’s the quantity of that consistent love, which I haven’t felt before, or enough. My husband and I have the occasional fight and ensuing silent treatment. My daughters will grow into teens and hate me on and off for years.
This dog has never been mad at me.
I’ll never forgive myself for letting him get away. I should have paid more attention, but I’ve just been so busy with the babies. I feel like I’m failing everyone, especially him. I forgot to give him belly rubs, or decided that it was easier to navigate the behemoth of a twin stroller when I didn’t bring him on the walk as well. Most of the time when I talk to him lately, I’m scolding him. He has been acting out, developing an appetite for crayons, baby dolls, poopy diapers.
I turn around and notice that I’m on the lawn of the big white house with a crabapple tree that Bowie loves. He eats the apples. They give him diarrhea, but he still eats them whenever given the chance, so we usually avoid this house on walks.
“Bowie! Apples!” I call feebly.
Just like that, he appears far down the sidewalk. I can barely make him out. He stands still, stares at me, his tail waving like a flag. I yell his name. He bounds down the sidewalk, his ears back from the wind, the excitement. He charges toward me and jumps into my arms, pushing me onto my back. I can tell he knows. He knows he was lost, he knows he was scared and that I was worried. He knows I still love him as much as I did the day I scooped him up for the first time. I carry him the four blocks home, 40 pounds of pleasantly plump Beagle spilling out of my arms as he licks my cheeks.
He came back. Someday, he may not. Someday, he won’t be able to run that fast. Someday, I’ll have to decide when it’s time to let him go. But I refuse to sit with these thoughts for more than a second, because this afternoon, I am the luckiest mom alive: I have more days with my best boy.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Dear Adoptable Dog:
Please find attached my curriculum vitae, submitted for consideration for the position as your person. As you can see from my history, I have a lengthy and proven track record of excellence and responsibility in all aspects of pet worship. I can provide documentation in the form of photo albums, memorial stones, clothes with muddy paw-print stains and memories etched in my heart.
I am not only hard-working and have a great sense of humor, I firmly believe in three things: bringing home a fresh-roasted, grocery-store chicken every week (yes, the kind you will smell before I round the last corner); giving you your bedding right out of the dryer when it’s at its warmest and fluffiest; and finally (my most fervently held belief when it comes to dogs), never talking on a cell phone while walking a dog.
I hope you will consider me for the position.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Welcome to our 75th issue. When we launched The Bark almost 18 years ago (before email became the ubiquitous medium it is today), we relied on traditional “pamphleteering” to campaign for off-leash recreation. That humble eight-page broadsheet—the first incarnation of today’s magazine— showcased articles similar to those in this glossier version.
We set out not only to help dogs (and their people) by advocating for dog parks but also, to chronicle the nascent modern dog culture. We were the first to cover it, and the first to examine the complexities of the humancanine bond. Researchers are now exploring this relationship, and some of the mysteries behind the world’s oldest friendship are being unraveled. However, all dog people know in their bones that no matter how far back our co-evolution goes, or how domestication came about, the core value of our relationship hasn’t changed much in the thousands of years since we teamed up. That continuity guides our course at The Bark.
The importance of adoption has long been a critical part of our agenda, and in this issue, we showcase innovative sheltering programs. It has been almost 10 years since we covered the plight of satos, stray dogs of Puerto Rico, and it’s encouraging to learn that progress is being made with the assistance of groups like Pets Alive Puerto Rico, profiled here. John Woestendiek examines college programs that reward students for fostering dogs and cats in their dorm rooms, and Science reporter David Grimm takes us on a visit to a unique Louisiana prison-shelter program that began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Endpiece by Elaine Sichel, prizewinner in our humorwriting contest, also perfectly complements this theme; in a lighthearted way, she makes it clear that we’re the winners when we adopt shelter dogs. Finally, our intern, Jennifer Senski, who is doing her PhD dissertation on the state of sheltering, puts out a call to the shelter community for assistance with data collection.
On other fronts, Jane Brackman considers the ways dated and misapplied definitions have been used to set breed standards, and Karen London tells us why it’s important that dogs learn to focus. Plus we discover that autumn is the perfect time to “revisit” Minnesota’s scenic Highway 61, with a drive along Lake Superior. Pieces on the value of probiotics, a recipe for homemade kibble, a home-visiting vet and the ways dog “germs” make our homes healthier round out the issue. Speaking of home, this photo shows our Kit—who recently turned five— striking a pose on a stone memorializing César Chávez at our local OLA in César Chávez Park. Many of you know that we adopted her and her sister Holly from a shelter in Kentucky. Both had rough puppyhoods, but were definitely making steady progress, Kit more so than her sibling.
Because many of you routinely inquire about the girls, I feel I must share some sad news about Holly, though it’s still difficult for me to write about. A few months ago, my husband was walking Kit, Holly and our Pointer Lola in the park’s off-leash area when an unexpected storm blew in; Holly, easily spooked, bolted. With Lola and Kit’s help, he searched for more than 45 minutes, canvassing the 100-acre park in a torrential downpour.
They finally spotted her in a parking lot, darting between cars, but before they could reach her, a car struck her, and she died instantly. I was home with our fourth dog, Charlie, nursing a broken ankle, when I got the call. Needless to say, we were devastated. At that point, my biggest concern was for Kit. I wasn’t sure how she would respond to this loss; she and Holly were inseparable, seeming at times to be one magical, eight-legged dog. Charlie turned out to be a great comfort to Kit (and to the rest of us, for that matter). Once again, I was reminded of how resilient dogs can be, and was inspired by it.
On to business matters. For a limited time, the digital version of each issue remains free for subscribers. Those who are concerned that we are abandoning print can rest easy, however, as we have no intention of dropping the ink-on-paper magazine. We too love print, but its digital cousin gives us another way to enhance our content and expand our reach. Last, a heads up: printing costs are skyrocketing and in 2014, we will be forced to increase our cover price and subscription rates to cover them. Now’s the time to take advantage of the current low rates and place a new or renewal subscription. Support independent publishing and help us get to issue 100!
Culture: Stories & Lit
In roughly two weeks, my dog Fletcher will be very sad.
And, he will most likely be going through withdrawal.
I say that because I fear Fletcher is addicted to eating cicadas. Granted, the dog has a well-documented history of eating bizarre things (even his vet has been amazed) but this is different. Prior to the cicadas arriving, I would have described Fletcher as your quintessential Golden Retriever. Friendly, good-natured and eager to please, he is simply a joy to have around. He comes quickly when called, insists on being by my side at all times and, honestly, likes me better than anything else in his world. Or so I thought. As a psychologist I’m trained to recognize addictive behavior and, in the past month, I’ve seen some disturbing signs from Fletcher.
Addiction has telltale signs. Addicts become fixated and pushy in their attempts to obtain their fix. They will travel to forbidden places to find what they think they need. They refuse to listen and will ignore the pleas of loved ones begging them to stop.
Normally sociable, they now prefer to spend their time pursuing their fix. Sometimes, they don’t even try to hide their use. You catch them in the act and they show no remorse, no shame. Often, they don’t even seem to care about your reaction. Many addicts are able to overcome their obsession but there is always the danger of replacing one addiction for another.
Maybe I’m overanalyzing so you decide. Here’s Fletcher’s recent behavior.
Normally the only time Fletcher lets me know he really wants to go outside is when he spots his nemesis, the chipmunk. Then he stands by the door and wines but if I ignore him, he soon stops. Now, after being outside for the first time of the day (apparently after getting his morning taste of the cicadas), Fletcher stands by the door, paces, whines loudly, then frantically searches the house for me. (The first time he did this, I thought something was very wrong, like a fire broke out or an intruder—seriously—he was that insistent). And Fletcher will not stop pestering me until I let him outside. Does that sound pushy and fixated?
There’s more. Usually Fletcher enjoys hanging out in the back yard, exploring the entire area, being careful to stay out of the flowerbeds (where he is forbidden to go). After about fifteen minutes he will sit by the door and patiently wait for me to let him back inside. Not anymore. After spotting Fletcher nosing around in my flowerbed, I repeatedly call him, but I’m ignored. I see he is eating something and beg him to stop.
Finally, he raises his head, chewing and swallowing quickly, and there is dirt around his mouth and nose. Fletcher looks at me like he has never seen me before in his life. I walk over to him, scold him, but he doesn’t seem to care. I take him by his collar and begin to lead him back to the house. Fletcher resists and I realize that he would rather be somewhere else than with me. I am heartbroken.
I am hopeful all this will change once the cicadas are gone and I’ll have my old dog back. The psychologist in me knows that recovery from addiction is difficult because once you’re hooked on something it is hard to give it up. Oftentimes addicts unwittingly substitute one addictive behavior for another so as not to miss the thrill of it all. I suspect this will be true of Fletcher as well.
You see, as I was walking Fletcher back to the house, I said to him, “You know, once the cicadas are gone you’ll have to go cold turkey to get over them.”
Fletcher jerked his head around to face me and with a gleam in his eye gave me a look that said, “Did you just say turkey?!”
Worth tuning in
A friend of The Bark’s just told me about BBC Radio 4’s marvelous series called Dog Days. You have only a few days left to listen to them. Each runs around 15 minutes, and discusses various aspects of dogs behavior and dog culture. Interviews with researcher, John Bradshaw, and other British dog aficionados. From My Dog Tulip and Flush to current research on dog love. As the programs’ presenter, Robert Hanks (along with his Whippet Timmy), describes it, “When we tell stories about our dogs, we are also telling stories about ourselves.” Give a listen.
Culture: Stories & Lit
It never fails to amuse all of us when all 12 pounds of Molly intimidates all 25 pounds of Baxter. And it is often. If Baxter even looks at Molly’s rawhide bone while she’s chewing on it, out comes a deep, serious growl from Molly. It’s a sound you would think impossible to come out of such a tiny muzzle. It’s almost like there’s a pit bull hiding behind the couch, and it’s throwing its growl. Every time I see it happen it reminds me that it’s not always the largest dog that’s the “big” dog. There have been instances where Baxter has gotten a little too close for Molly’s comfort, and she’s taken enough of a nip to leave a mark. What’s Maya doing when this is happening? Nothing. She just goes on blissfully chewing her bone. I guess when Molly joined the household she and Maya came to some kind of understanding —namely, that Molly would be Maya’s muscle. Which is sort of strange, since Baxter and Molly spend a lot of their time shadowing each other. But, make no mistake: Baxter is always Molly’s bitch, and not the other way around. However, Maya and Molly’s fondness for each other is at its strongest when they’re sleeping.
I doubt that it’s a girl thing. They weren’t littermates. Molly is three; Maya is almost ten. It’s hard to conceive of any logical kind of reason that they would look for each other when they’re looking to catch a nap or settle in for the night. But they do.
You can find them in any one of several body configurations, usually ones that would put a contortionist to shame. But there is always a common trait in their contortions: they are always touching. You would be as likely to find Molly resting her head on Maya’s neck as you would Maya doing the same to Molly. Each uses the other’s body as a blanket; each often buries her entire face under the other’s warm, soft belly fur. They have taken snuggling to an art form. But I think what makes an even bigger impact on me, and makes their behavior even more amazing, is the way that they deliberately seek each other out.
We keep the dogs in the family room at night. They all sleep on a big, brown, comfy chair that, at one time, I used to enjoy. Baxter is usually the first one to climb up the little Dachshund stairs at the base of the chair, where his bulk takes up most of the prime real estate. Next comes Molly, and without a growl or a glance she shoves Baxter out of the way and claims the choicest spot next to one of the chair’s arms. Baxter will lay his head down on the chair and start snoring away. Molly? She sits. And she waits. For Maya.
Maya is always the last to arrive. Part of that is age, and part of it is simply another of Maya’s inexplicable phobias. But, once in the family room Maya climbs the stairs, steps over Baxter’s bulk, and sidles up to Molly. It’s then they find a suitable configuration for them, one that best ensures two things: that they are warm and that they are one.
I am reluctant to say that I think that Molly and Maya have each other’s backs, because they are dogs. But because they are my dogs I’m going to say that they do. Maya and Molly have each other’s backs.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Darwin’s beloved Polly
Words cannot begin to express the loss of this great wire-haired white bushy animal. An eagle-eyed observer. A keen hunter. Lost to the world for today and tomorrow. And that’s not me I’m barking about, but my master, Dr. Charles Darwin, who never had much to say to us, submissive as he was; he loved collecting those words, as much as his bugs and his barnacles, lining them up just so, sometimes bounding up, paws flailing, speaking them aloud (while I lay curled in a tufted basket before a fiery hearth) and taking one turn around the study before collapsing back into his sagging leather chair on wheels that he rolled up to his desk where he scratched at his books some more, leaving a long, long trail of tracks for all who could read his scrawl. Those words would lead any seeker right to where you could find him.
But, I didn’t need to. I was always by his side. I was the constant day and night companion to the squire of Down House. (Underfoot by day and yanked by the mistress off his bed at night). I answer to Polly. He called me that, “Oh, my good, good girl Polly,” he’d say. A small white Fox Terrier with black button nose and pleading eyes, I jumped to his every command from the terrible day I got there to the terrible day when he was gone.
You see, we critters are not so much the seeing but the sniffing kind, and when I first came to Down my litter of puppies was taken away from me. I lay down and when I opened my eyes, the devil herself was sitting on my belly holding me down (drowned they were, though that hag never owned up, but there my little pups were, still in their sacs like stuffed wet socks) and I went wild, wild, oh so whining wild. Spinning like a whirling dervish. Dis-POSSESSED, I had nothing to lick. To lick down, the mine that moments before was me.
Dr. Charles, quiet as he was, somehow had an instinct for my trouble and gave me his hands and his face to lick for hours on end until I could lick no more, snuggling into his chest where I simply sat and got comfort from that strong heart of his, ’til our beats were one, and I finally closed my eyes again and fell into a long sleep. This was bonding.
So he was a hunter as you all know, and a seer into the dog condition, as only I can tell you, but he was a lot more. He was nothing if not methodical. His kind have things called clocks. I heard them gonging all the time in Down House, reminding everyone to fall in line, not to stray off, but who needed clocks with Dr. Charles making his way around the oblong gravel Sandwalk morning, noon and sometimes evenings too. It comforted him and it thrilled me to hear the tick-tock of his iron-shod walking stick as he made his way around the walk, every now and then pausing to push his tiny nose into the head of a flower. He wanted to have what we have and if ever there were a man who deserved our superior snout, it was Dr. Charles. When he wasn’t stooped over looking under duff or turning over stones for worms, he was arching his back and shading his eyes, scanning the sky, pointing in wonder at the high-flying tumblers and the double-crested Baldheads, and then making his way to the pigeon loft at the end of the Sandwalk to listen to the low cooing of the males and the trumpeters laughing, and to count the new little wispy squabs and take his measurements of the various Rock doves in the aviary. He said that keeping pigeons in coops had to be the world’s most boring hobby but you’d never guess it to see his face light up at the yawning beak of a peeper.
His walks would lead us sometimes beyond the brick walls of the Sandwalk, out into the wild “Big-Woods” of the Orchis bank, where one day I so spooked a squirrel that my bark sent him scurrying up Dr. Charles’ leg clear onto his back, while he stood still as a statue, with the mother screaming bloody murder from a beech bough. He seemed to know our ways or want to, and that made him able to creep up very, very close. His prowling about was always to look and never to pounce.
Sometimes he seemed more comfortable with us than with them. He was always letting me out on the verandah or in through the drawing room window, cheering me on to bark with an ear-scratching whisper “those naughty, naughty people.” He was tender and playful, egging me on, and when I was scolded by one of the naughty people, he commanded me to be “a good little girl, now sit still,” and then producing a small biscuit from his pocket he’d place it on the top of my nose, urging me to stay and then he’d wink and I caught it and we both jumped for joy and I’d stand at attention for more. Sometimes out of the blue he patted the funny patch of red hair on my back, that had grown in red after a burn, and say with special fondness “Oh, Polly, you’re your father’s girl, you are.” Though I don’t know who else’s I’d be, and never knew him. Now, Dr. Charles was bald up top, but something about that red tuft of hair delighted him and made me feel special. So who would quibble with that?
Whether I came from wolves or jackals and how my kind found their way from the wild to the trash heaps to the hearths of man doesn’t much matter to me. We did. But it does to them, because you see, they think they came from us … Well, it’s a long twisting story with lots of dead ends, but one of their word trails from people of long ago gives it away, saying: “The dog is what we would be, if we weren’t who we are.”* So if I sniff it right, they think they lost something.
Being of the here and now, my paws firmly rooted in this earth and not yesterday or tomorrow, my nose was always at his feet. So when he took to his bed, with fever, coughing and crying out, and his hands now cold and clammy and his breath smelling sour, there was a stinking rot about him and I sensed his body becoming stiff and still like the earth. The play skittered right out of him, like a rogue breeze escaping to fresh air. There was no more going out, no whistle, no ticktock of his stick, no tasting the salt of his hand.
I began to ache and slink away from a body whose life was leaving him as he cried to stay. With me! I held my breath, swallowed my cry and the lump in my throat began to swell. A muffled whimper was all I could do.
Oh, they made fun of Dr. Charles, the naughty people did, for being sappy about dogs, for claiming we could return affection. [But the loving tickle of my belly or the taste of his tears returned in kind is something of the nature only he and I knew.] Dr. Charles once caught me barking at a parasol that was idly lolling in the wind on the lawn and he likened that to people’s belief in spirits. But that last day when I padded in to find him lying in the arms of our mistress, the wind blew the curtain twisting to be let out into the afternoon sunshine … and I jumped and with all the wolf in me, let go a longing howl to follow.
But he didn’t respond. Not even a lick and a promise. They latched the window and drew the drapes and his time stopped. The wind had swept him away as if there were no tomorrow … leaving no scent, no trace, no heart to rest a weary head on.
The outside lost its color, its voice, its touch, its breath. The old dog had gone away. They took his body and placed it in a gonging church. They took mine and buried me in a sack under the Kentish Beauty apple tree in the orchard, which was forever bearing fruit. … It was as if we’d taken one last turn on the Sandwalk, and he’d skedaddled off the path, and lost track of time.
*An Aboriginal Dreamtime saying
Culture: Stories & Lit
If grief stops the clocks, turns time into that thick substance it feels nearly impossible to trudge through, joyousness has the opposite effect. Tee’s first job in our household was to enact his own boundless sense of JOY, to get the moments of our day to tick forward once again.
We really needed him in this regard. As we’d explained to the women at the shelter, we were depending on him to keep us up and out of bed, to free us from the prison that gloomy room had become. He was there to remind us how much work a rambunctious puppy is. We had no choice but to do this work. If we weren’t up for what it took to care for this dog, we’d have to take him back.
The Greeks named Necessity the mother of all Three Fates. This new dog of ours—acquired out of plain, grim need— seemed to bring us the message of how it’s Necessity that will swing open the hinge that shows the present moment might be built on the Past, but also predicates the Future. Our lives without Thiebaud become almost instantly unthinkable, which did not mean we were missing Whistler less, only that we were now mourning him in a more healthy, active way, missing him in every step we took as we walked those same trails with this new dog, who most likely—because of his astonishing time-layered senses—could still faintly track him. The Three Fates, named also the Daughters of Necessity, has seemingly arranged to give us the dog who was Whistler’s opposite: Tee was humorous, stable, not one whit jealous of his place in the New World he was asked to join, easily confident he’d find his rightful slot in the hierarchy.
Affectionate, overtly sociable, he seemed on a mission to win all people over to him, sure he could accomplish this if he just patiently took them one by one. He was like a Bill Clinton– type politician, not to be satisfied until everyone had fallen hard for him. Whistler’s sense of pride? That measured cool aloofness? Not Thiebaud; being dignified simply never occurred to him.
For a long-kenneled animal, Thiebaud had miraculously become this sensible, intelligent, exceedingly trusting and friendly dog. Like any foundling, he excelled at self-sufficiency, suffering not at all when left alone. Of course I identified with him: All orphans are like this, we take no one’s affection for granted, we never assume anyone will like us, but once we’re convinced we can trust you, we’ll fall even ridiculously in love with you. We do it because we’re so relieved and grateful. But it was my husband, Jack, whom our dog latched on to as his first ardent attachment, which made sense since each has the same talent for happiness. Happiness is probably like any other gift—dancing, say, or being musically inclined? and coming easily only to some. Then there are the others— and I am one, my dog Whistler was another—who will simply have to work at it.
Thiebaud was interested in everything Jack did as long as they could be together: sitting quietly outside watching as Jack looked after his fruit trees or restocked his birdfeeders. Then, inside—after running a few frenetic interior exploratory laps around the big room he seemed to take as a dogtrack— Tee lay with Jack on the couch, his small ears flicking back and forth, seeming to really listen to the Metropolitan Opera being broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio every Saturday afternoon.
Tee had the characteristically beta personality, but Jack— who discounts our current requirement that we dismissively label and judge—called it his dog’s good Southern manners.
Thiebaud was both patient and deferential, sitting by his full bowl watching until both Jack and I were seated at the dinner table. It was because of our dog that Jack and I began our now longstanding practice of reading a different grace from a little book we have of ecumenical blessings, this so Tee—in hearing the somewhat singsong cadences of prayer always ending in the word Amen—would get the signal that he too was now invited to eat.
Thiebaud had simply demanded that we come to life, saying you need to grab a leash, need to step outside into Jack’s fragrant little orchard where the pear and cherry and apple were now budding, need to notice how the hillside beyond the shed has gone crazy with wildflowers: bluebell, cowslip, adder’s-tongue, trout lily.
Over the short time we’d been away in California, spring had riotously arrived, making our little patch of Morgan County into a whole new and beautiful world. Look at this! our new dog seemed to say: How amazing to be alive!
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A fine memoir of a road trip with dogs to the World Sheepdog Trials
Not far into Mr. and Mrs. Dog, Donald McCaig says of himself and his talented “Blockhead” of a Border Collie, Luke, the male of the title: “I’ve never done as well with Luke as a better handler might have, but Luke adores me. When I go out at 2 a.m. to check lambing ewes, Luke comes too. When I wake with the night sweats, Luke wakes. He thinks I am a better man than I am. If I sold him, his earnest doggy heart would break.”
It is a tribute to McCaig’s capacity for self-reflection and humor that he is willing to admit his own failures as an occasionally over anxious sheepdog handler. He knows that dogs are not machines and we are not infallible. Ultimately all you can do is the best you can do under sometimes disastrous circumstances.
Upon reaching 68 years of age half a decade ago and finding himself with two quality border collies in their prime, McCaig decided the time had come to launch a campaign to fulfill his dream of the worlds.
Traveling 34,000 miles in his twenty-year-old car, McCaig, Luke, and June (Mrs. Dog) compete in sheepdog trials around the country hoping to compile enough points to secure invitations to join the American team in Wales. At the last minute, June garners the invitation, and Luke gets to compete as McCaig’s second dog.
If his best-selling Nop’s Trials is McCaig’s contribution to “lost dog” literature—think of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang—Mr. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies is his homage to an equally venerable tradition, the “the dog road trip,” of which John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is perhaps most famous. McCaig is on the road not only to qualify for the worlds but also to broaden his dogs’ experience of different sheep and environments—in a fundamental sense to educate them so they will be better able to cope with situations and varieties of sheep they have not seen before.
Although June pulled them through on cumulative points for the year, her most memorable performance came at a trial in West Texas when she decided to forego herding sheep and goats in favor of far bigger game--a huge, ground-thumping oil exploration seismograph truck. “June wanted, nay NEEDED to fetch that big thumping, flickering weirdness,” McCaig writes, “and nothing I said—neither my shouts nor redirects—swayed June from her goal.”
Once abreast of the thumper, June realized she had not a clue what to do with it and returned to McCaig, but there were no longer any goats to fetch. Her assault on the seismograph thumper had disqualified her.
Hoping to further his own education, McCaig periodically detours from the sheepdog circuit to visit trainers known for their skill in training methods they have developed or adapted. Along the way, he correctly points out that the battle between practitioners of what we might call punishment-based training and those who prefer awards-and rewards-directed training is now more than 100 years old.
For much of that time it appears that punishment has ruled—aversive training, as it were. McCaig himself is something of a follower of William Koehler, the Disney animal trainer from the mid-twentieth century, who developed a method of obedience training relying on long lines and various chain collars and leashes. Even today, most people attending obedience classes probably follow some version of Koehler’s method.
McCaig is looking for training epiphanies; bright moments of understanding or enlightenment that will help him better train and manage his dogs. He meets animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, and attends sessions given by trainers using the dog’s ‘innate’ drives, rewards, the Koehler method, and shock collars, which so engage him that he adopts the industry’s terminology and calls them e-collars.
Over the years, McCaig and I have agreed to disagree about shock collars, and in future postings, I hope to examine different approaches to training. For now, I’ll just say that people searching for a blanket endorsement of shock collars or other training devices or methods will not find them here—with the possible exception of the thirty-foot long line, which need not deployed in punitive fashion.
McCaig’s book arrived shortly after I had visited my favorite trainer, Lourdes Edlin. She is one of those gifted people who will have a dog literally eating out of her hand within minutes of meeting it. She understands that to train a dog, she must learn what motivates it—food treats in many cases, but in others a ball or Kong® or simply praise.
Edlin said that she was growing tired of teaching people basic obedience—sit, stay, heel, come—and becoming more focused on “teaching people how to do things with their dogs.” The basics would follow from that.
I was reminded of Edlin’s comments when I read McCaig’s reflections on his forays into the world of training. “Though each trainer believes his or her method is best, I don’t think it matters which method the pet owner adopts so long as that owner finds a capable mentor and sticks with the training,” he writes. ”Eventually you will learn to see your dog and when that happens the richness of your and your dog’s lives will tell you what to do next.
“Neither Luke nor June was ever trained to ‘heel’ nor ‘sit’ nor ‘stand for examination.’ They have never retrieved a ball or dumbbell. They rarely play with each other and never play with other dogs. Yet they would be mannerly in any human environment. Not because they were ‘trained’ for good manners, but because they were properly socialized, exercised daily, and have a job—stock work. Mannerliness is a by product of that training.”
A few paragraphs later, he concludes, “Have the highest expectations, do the work, and your dog can walk at your side anywhere on earth. He’ll become the dog you’ve empowered to change your life. As Luke and June have changed mine.”
McCaig’s account of the trio’s trip to Wales is informative, amusing, and somewhat sad. The two males manage to win a local Welsh competition, the South Wales Sheepdog Trials Hafod Bridge, where McCaig penned his sheep brandishing his Stetson® hat instead if the traditional shepherd’s crook. A revolution was doubtless averted when McCaig confessed that he simply had deemed his crook too difficult to manage on the flight across the pond and he had neglected to obtain one. Clearly a telescoping shepherd’s crook is in order.
Luke, June, and McCaig washed out in the first round of the big show. McCaig blames himself for failing to meet his expectations, but he should not.
He’s written a fine book and made a most excellent life with Mr. and Mrs. Dog. Moreover, they have had many an excellent adventure. What more could a dog or human want?
This blog originally appeared on Psychology Today. Reposted with permission.
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