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!
News: Guest Posts
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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Look at Me
I have a border collie. which means i have a dog especially alert to motion of any kind. My Border Collie, Ainsley, is one of those who sometimes—well, okay, frequently—has rather explosive reactions to the motion of trucks, dogs, bikers and squirrels, to mention just a few. Which means I also need to be Border Collie–alert to motion so I can coach her on more, shall we say, appropriate responses.
Fortunately, I have a lovely path just outside my front door that wends between a river and canal, and curves in such a way that I can see almost anything coming or going for about half a mile in either direction. Even better, it’s traveled just enough to give us opportunities to practice self-control, but not so much that we can’t relax and enjoy our walk. It is not unusual to see fishermen along this path. While they don’t move much, they do wave their poles back and forth, an activity that can easily set off my dog. One day, as we walked, I saw a man on the bank of the canal about a quarter-mile ahead. I let Ainsley continue sniffing and scampering at the end of her 30-foot lead, worked on controlling my own breathing and, as we got closer, called her cheerfully to my side. Taking up the slack in the leash, I got a treat in hand, and together, we walked calmly by the man with the freaky stick.
This activity may seem absurdly straightforward to most dog owners, but it is actually hard-won for me and Ainsley. She is a rescue with a mostly unknown past, found wandering the woods, living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp, gimpy from a broken leg that was never set and healed crooked, pregnant, full of bird shot, and blind in one eye. She is, true to her breed and in spite of her rough start, sweet, smart and trainable. She was, unlike her breed, very low-energy and cautious. Or so I thought. It turns out she was mostly just deeply inhibited. After a couple of years, as she became healthier, happier and more confident, she also became much more reactive. With a lot of help, advice, reading, consistent counterconditioning work and her ability to forgive my many mistakes, we found ways to manage this behavior. We never leave the house without a pocketful of treats. I taught her tricks to use as playful distractions. We work diligently at recalls. She is no longer an off-leash dog.
But one of the most fundamental building blocks of training remained elusive. As anyone who has dogs knows, you can’t teach them much until you teach them to pay attention to you. As anyone who has tried to manage reactivity knows, teaching a dog to make direct eye contact is the first step to effective counterconditioning. Ainsley is indeed very focused on me. However, she somehow learned shake, spin, down, come, leave it, enough, high-five, wait and so much more while simultaneously avoiding direct eye contact. She’d look at my face, but not into my eyes. If I insisted, she’d turn her muzzle askance and squint at me, blinking uncomfortably. I know that direct eye contact, while intimate among humans, is confrontational among dogs, so I accepted her oblique gaze. For a long time, Ainsley also did not know how to play— with me, with a toy, with a rawhide or with another dog— so it was clear that she had missed some pretty fundamental experiences. But slowly, over the course of several years, she has become engaged and responsive. Less hypervigilant. Goofy even. And from time to time, instead of looking at my eyebrows or cheekbones or chin, she will look steadily into my eyes. For a few moments, at least.
So having her trot at my side, glancing up at me, relaxed and unconcerned about the strange man with the weird appendage, was a not insignificant victory. In fact, I was so relieved and proud that I immediately let the leash unloop in my hand and told her to “go play,” which she happily did, sniffing along both sides of the trail as it took a sharp turn around an outcropping of rock. I rounded the bend behind her and saw a big blue bucket, net and tool bag lying in the grass just ahead. Ainsley was already there, nose to the ground. I quickly called “leave it” and began to take up the slack in the leash. But I was too late. By the time I’d crossed the distance from my end of the leash to hers, she’d found a pole hidden in the grass. Both her lip and tongue were pierced with two separate, four-barbed hooks. The look on her face was confusion more than pain. The look on mine must have been much worse. I held her jaw and spoke every comforting word I could think of as I tried to figure out how to keep her from getting more entangled. Fortunately, the barb in her lip came free. But the one in her tongue was completely set. I took hold of the hook, attached to 45 pounds of dog through a millimeter of skin, and tried to shove the miniature torture device back through the small hole it had made in the edge of her tongue. She squirmed and danced. Now her four and my two legs were also getting entangled in 30 feet of bright pink leash and several feet of invisible fishing line.
I said “easy, easy, easy,” my usual cue for getting her to slow her gait, and “wait, wait, wait,” my cue for getting her to stop moving, and blinked away the hot tears of fear. I tried fighting the hook without fighting my dog, but her tongue slipped in and out of my trembling fingers and the barbs pricked me instead of her. I tugged and pushed and twisted; the hook would not budge. I yelled for help. The fisherman was too far away and out of view. Blood, hers and mine, dripped off my fingertips.
I couldn’t back out the lure, so I had to snip it. With my free hand, I fumbled in the tool bag, looking for wire cutters— didn’t fishermen always have a pair for just this sort of eventuality? No luck. The only tool I could find was a knife. She’d recovered from so many much worse injuries in her life, I told myself she’d easily recover from a tiny slice in her tongue. I unsheathed the knife, set it against the hook, and pushed hard and fast into that sliver of flesh that held her. Suddenly, she was free.
She trotted off, shaking her head and spraying drops of blood into the landscape. I reordered the fisherman’s gear and tried to regulate my shallow breathing and pounding heart. Slowly, my panic was replaced with gratitude for Ainsley’s calmness during our little ordeal. She is, fortunately, a naturally sensible dog. But what struck me was that she had struggled against the hook, but not against me. She had listened. She had let me help her. I watched her return immediately to sniffing for feral cats and rabbit poop, and I was reminded, again, why it is so profoundly important that we train our dogs. Yes, we train because tricks are fun to show off to family members. Because a dog who doesn’t void in the house or jump on guests is easier to live with. But even more important, we train them to wait at an open door and walk on a leash to keep them safe. Dogs are, in many ways, human creations. We have domesticated them to live with us. And in doing so, we have brought them into immediate contact with things they might more naturally avoid: roads, cars, toddlers, garbage cans, toxic substances and so much more. We’ve bred them to be our best friends; training is the most essential thing we can do to be their best friends.
This small yet very stressful incident with the fishing hooks could have been much worse. Part of the reason it wasn’t is because of all the painstaking, frequently embarrassing and often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work I put into my relationship with Ainsley. I showed her what to do with a stuffed toy that squeaks when she bites on it, a dried-up piece of cowhide, a regal cat who refuses to be herded, a big white truck barreling towards us.
In the process, I suddenly realized, I was also showing her what to do with me. She learned I was good not only for putting kibble in a bowl and a leash around her neck, but also for introducing her to agility obstacles, playing “get it” games, removing snowballs from her paws and helping her sort through what to do about the strange things that pop up out of the landscape on our walks. This day, on this walk, she let me help her sort through a fishy, thorny problem with her tongue. More than teaching Ainsley to look at me, I realized I had finally, and much more importantly, taught her to look to me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lessons for a service dog in training
Jake piper’s making slow sense of the Home command. I’m not sure how much he’s really got it. He follows Puzzle readily when she leads us home, but I notice that he is clearly following her. He is a moment behind her dance steps, always, and doesn’t appear to be making any choice of direction. When I give him a handful of trial runs beside her, I realize that as long as she is with us, he will be content to let her lead. I don’t think he’s got it. It’s time to work him on the Home command alone.
I’ve watched him work his nose since the very first day he came to us, and what I know about Jake Piper is that he’s got a keen sense of scent and a high drive impulse. But, unlike Puzzle, he doesn’t have six years of finding a specific something and leading me to it with his nose. Jake also naturally works more head down across the turf than head up across the wind. He can trail a rabbit’s recent path through our back yard quite easily, but it’s Puzzle, head up, who seems to snag the airborne scent of passing humans long before they reach the house. It’s Puzzle who picks up on the roof-hugging squirrel pressed flat to the tiles above us. Of course, she is a field dog by birth and long trained to work air scent, and he is all raw nose talent and completely unversed. I’m interested to see just how quickly he picks up the Home command and recognizes what I need him to do. I’m curious if he’ll consistently backtrack our trail or if he, too, in time will simply take us home by moving from scent zone to scent zone regardless of the path we took outbound. It’s possible he won’t pick up this command at all.
Jake learns words quickly, so I start with teaching him what I mean by home. Walking along the boundary of the property, I’ll suggest we go home, and then, as we approach the front of the house, tell him to find the door. Jake has successfully learned that the Door command can mean door in as well as door out, so I hope to build on that understanding. Where once it was just about finding the door, Jake’s task now demands he find home and the door. For a week’s worth of sessions, I simply say, “Let’s go home,” as we approach the house, adding the Door command as we step onto the property. Jake learns commands well. The first time I say, “Let’s go home,” along the back fence of the property, and he chooses to run the length of the fence and then turn right to get to the front door, I mark it as a success. Yes, he did pee over other dog marks on the way—a quick hike of leg out of form rather than function— but he got us there. He enjoys the command, the job, and the big, big praise for a good dog doing well. In this he is much like Puzzle. Home is a happy command to give a once abandoned dog like Jake. Every time we work it, I’m reminded that in a way Home celebrates what he nearly never had.
We begin to train farther away. This is tougher for Jake, working across a merry universe of distractions. Even one house down from ours there are enticements: a cat arching in a window, any number of piss marks on trees, a child’s sock, a dead pigeon. Before we can nail the Home command, Jake has to reliably Leave It, a term he now understands. Usually good about it, he occasionally plays dumb and lunges for whatever (Never heard that command in my life). He also plays deaf (Even if I do know the command, I didn’t hear it).
Jake’s a curious beast, leaving the taunting cat and the rotting pigeon much more readily than the piss marks, leaving the child’s sock most reluctantly of all. He doesn’t try to snatch the sock as toy, but he’s curious about it. When Jake does Leave It on the second command, he looks up at me in puzzled innocence, as though he’s wounded by my tone of voice.
In a few days, from one house away, he leads me home. In a week, from two houses away, he leads me home. When the month is out, I can give him the Home command as we round any block leading to the house, and he’ll take me there, long lead drooping and scraping across the sidewalk, a loose connection between us so that I can be certain I’m not cuing him with tugs even I don’t recognize. For a time we work into the sun so that my shadow is thrown behind me—I want to make sure I’m not even cuing him by some lean of body he can see, though I’m not sure he recognizes what a shadow is.
We have several good Home finds from a block away, once even approaching from a side of the block we had not taken outbound, and I think it’s time to let Jake Piper advance a little more. We take a long, free-to-be-dog walk into town, and halfway back I put on his service vest. He stands still for the putting-on-of-uniform, slides into it easily, and I see the change of demeanor I see in Puzzle when the vest goes on, as if he understands which rules apply.
“Take me home, Jake,” I say. We are about three blocks away. It’s a big step up from the block he had been doing, but we’re on the very road we took outbound, and we are walking into the wind. With any luck, it’s blowing straight over the house and into our faces. With any luck, Jake has so much of our outbound scent and home’s scent that the path back glows.
Jake perks at the command and starts off with great energy. Too much energy. For a moment I have to rush to keep the lead slack between us. If we weren’t near traffic, I’d drop the lead entirely to see which route he’d take. Jake’s head is lifted. The spotted left ear is standing almost straight up. The right ear twists like a corn chip. Everything about him looks happy, and with a terrier’s easy, distinctive trot, he moves confidently in the right direction. His pace is steady: Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home. A couple of times he turns around to shoot me a glance. It’s a check-in but so confident and prideful that it reads less like How am I doing? and more like I am so on this. Who’s the good Jakey?
He’s the good Jakey, I think, and I am just about to share his overconfidence when suddenly he shivers all over, the nose drops, and the tail goes from a sway to a wag. This is the very kind of animation we may see in search dogs the moment they catch human scent. There is nothing about the Home command that should torque Jake up in this way; I’m thinking this even as he moves from the trot to a scramble and, nose down, begins to pull me along the sidewalk—right-direction-right-direction-yes-it’s-the-way-we-came—and then suddenly goes across the street on a diagonal, onto the opposite sidewalk, and into a row of bushes. Jake is crittering. He has chosen a place where possums like to sleep off the day, and I have no doubt he’s trailing one now. He is on it. He thrusts into the green so deeply that all I can see is his madly waving tail. By this time, I’ve abandoned my role as observer of the process and am pulling him into me, heaving hand over hand down the long lead. We meet somewhere in the middle of the thicket, and as a huddle of little possums scatter in the underbrush, Jake sits and turns to look at me. His expression isn’t guilty. He beams as though he thinks he’s done the job.
“Jake, come out of here,” I say, leading him out, giving an embarrassed little wave to an elderly man grinning from a neighboring porch.
No treat. Sit for Jake. Deep breath. Let’s try this again.
“Jake, take me home.” Jake stands and looks pointedly at the hedge, then back to me.
“No, Jake. Take me home.”
His expression mystified, as though he can’t imagine why a hedge full of baby possums is not the thing I want, Jake begins again. We move away from the hedge in a cloud of Leave Its; Jake crabs sideways, looking back toward possum land as long as he possibly can. Somehow, though, when we hit the sidewalk, he seems to shake off the hedge’s allure. He is service dog in training again, and I am hopeful that this time he’s got it. He’s slowed from a trot to a walk, a better pace for a human handler behind him, and I’m glad to see he made that choice. (I hope he made it out of consideration for his partner, but he may have made it because we’re now upwind of possum.) The lead between us is slack.
Two blocks from home. A block and a half from home, and we’re still moving in the right direction, at a partner-sensible pace. A car passes, honks lightly, its driver smiling at the two of us. I smile back, because really, we are on it this time, and here we are, woman and dog, the picture of obedience and collaboration. A nice walk now; Jake-goes-home-now-Jake-goes-home-now. No pull, no tension on the lead, still moving in the right direction.
A block from home, Jake’s head pops up with interest, and for a moment I fear he’s on another possum. But no— though Jake has snagged some happy scent on the wind, he doesn’t break stride for it. Instead, he moves steadily forward and with great confidence, leading us down the last block, up a low set of steps, and to the front gate. He sits and grins at me, eyeing the treat bag.
This was right on so many levels. Right direction, right pace, no startle at the car honk, a lead up the steps, to the gate, and the happy Here we are! Sit. The only problem: We’re at the wrong house. Not only the wrong house, but one of the most splendid historic properties in our little town. A beautiful full-blown Victorian mansion with turrets and wraparound porches, its lovely landscaping bounded by a wrought-iron fence.
To Jake’s credit, we passed this house outbound, and today it’s immediately downwind of our own. I can see home from where we stand. So could Jake if he were looking for it, but at the moment he’s happy with the house he’s found for us. Holding his Sit, he perks every time I look at him. This is home, isn’t it? I give him credit for having good taste, if not accuracy. He seems pretty sure we should just head on through the gate.
Excerpted from The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of “Unadoptables” Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson. Copyright © 2013 by Susannah Charleson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Chloe has an encounter with a marrowbone, Lee expands her tool chest.
Lately—because it’s a new year—I’ve been considering canceling my health insurance. I know it sounds crazy, but I never—and I mean never— go to the doctor, at least not allopathic doctors. Whenever I have some ailment I’ll visit an acupuncturist or a homeopathic practitioner or the like, and those visits often cost less than the co-pay for a Western doctor. Plus, there’s the fact that most doctors’ offices these days seem to run like factories, with new patients scheduled every 15 minutes; you barely have time to tell your doctor what your symptoms are before the doctor has to leave the room to tend to someone else. My dog Chloe gets better medical care. Speaking of which …
Chloe, a sweet-faced Spaniel mix, doesn’t look like a troublemaker or act like a troublemaker: she is well-behaved, well-trained and always remains within sight when I let her off-leash. But in the eight short years I’ve had her, she has troubled my bank account a bit, managing—through various small mishaps—to rack up several thousand dollars in veterinary bills. I’m not complaining; she’s worth every penny. Just don’t ask me about the time she ate a river rock and had to have emergency surgery. That procedure cost more than three months’ rent. Still—my dog is priceless.
A few years ago, Chloe and I had to make a special trip to the vet because she somehow managed to get a marrowbone lodged around her lower jaw. Yes, one could say it was my fault for letting her have such a small marrowbone in the first place. (I honestly didn’t know then that size mattered.) And yes, one could also say her torn ACL in 2009 ($3,300) was my fault, for letting her off-leash to chase rabbits (but I—a city person—didn’t know there were rabbits hidden in the brush so late in the season). And let us not forget the lacerated paw pads of 2008 from running through tide pools ($376); the epic river rock adventure of 2007 (swallowed for free, surgically removed for several thousand dollars); or even the strained shoulder, which wasn’t anyone’s fault—her boyfriend Rainbow, an exuberant English Setter whom we love, plowed into her on the play field (not that we blame him for wanting to play).
Anyway, any of these could be seen as my “fault” because I allow my dog to run in the woods, and play, and leap over fallen logs, and plow through bramble bushes, and swim in the river. And it’s not as though I ever let Chloe run around unsupervised. She, for one, never lets me out of her sight, so lack of supervision is not possible for either of us.
But off-leash recreation is obviously a larger topic. Should you keep your dog confined and/or leashed, keeping him/her safe but undoubtedly frustrated and bored? Which can then lead to destructive behavior such as chewing and incessant barking and a genuinely unhappy dog? (New sofa: $1,499; replacement for chewed-up dog crate: $189 plus s/h; irate neighbor: how does one set a price on that?) Or should you let your dog off-leash for quality playtime, stimulation and exercise? (Thus, some would argue, putting the dog at risk for injury.)
I have obviously chosen the latter approach. But does this make me, as a dog guardian, bad to the bone?
Let’s get back to the bone. Who knew marrowbones could be dangerous? And what dog doesn’t love a good marrowbone? Especially on a blustery winter day, when the winds are gusting at 60 mph and the freezing rain sounds like machinegun fire against the windows, and there is nothing to do but remain inside and stare at the hideously wallpapered walls of the Myrtle Beach, S.C., high-rise where we were staying to escape the chilly weather of New York. What dog doesn’t particularly love a bone when she has been condemned to strictly limited exercise, meaning three short pee-walks per day, because of a fairly recent rabbit-chasing incident that resulted in a re-strained ACL and two $250 trips to the vet? Chloe loves her marrowbones, and I love watching her enjoy them. Plus, it kept her occupied while I applied acupressure to her knee points. I was only doing what I thought was right.
That night, however, while I was in the kitchen making ginger tea, I heard a yelp and a helpless little whine, and rushed into the living room to see what was wrong. There, I found Chloe with the bone-ring lodged around her lower jaw. I have to admit that it was hard not to laugh—she had stopped whining and was looking at me with a completely perplexed expression on her face, the bone shaping her mouth into a goofy smile. And don’t be mad at me for laughing because everyone who has experienced this tells me they laugh, too. They take pictures. And videos. And post them online. Google it and you’ll see.
I did not take photos, however. Instead, I knelt before the dog, stroked her head and told her I would help her get the bone off. But said bone was wedged behind her canine teeth, and I could see no way to slip it back over those teeth and off her jaw. In fact, it looked as though I would have to wedge it off—no benign slipping allowed. I realized that this is why Chloe had yelped: one hard crunch had forced the bone behind her teeth.
Poor baby. As I inspected her mouth and turned her jaw this way and that, my good girl kept her head still and wagged her tail. She even tried to kiss me, but her tongue was, um, obstructed by a marrowbone.
I’m not a handy person, nor skilled at geometrical problem solving. I have difficulty with spatial thinking, too. But still, I kept analyzing the bone and its position in relation to the jaw, to see if there was any possible way it would slip off. To the best of my limited knowledge, it looked as though Chloe’s teeth were one-quarter of an inch too long to make this possible. Plus, the bone seemed to fit perfectly around her jaw— hugging the contours as though it had been custom made. There was no way I could get the bone off without causing my dog pain. And there was no way I would do that.
I went online, where I found all those pictures of all those other silly dogs with bones ringed around their lower jaws. I tried not to giggle at their goofy faces. As I read on, I realized that each of these dogs, in the end, had to be taken to the vet. I couldn’t find any solutions to the problem. Just comic descriptions of the episodes, concluding with those trips to the vet, where the marrowbones were either sawed (eek!), cut (ouch) or drilled (you must be kidding) off.
And here we arrive at another loaded subject: veterinary costs. How many of you hesitate, just for a second, when faced with a costly late-night trip to the emergency vet when you could wait until morning? Especially in a non-emergency, which you could quite possibly resolve yourself? This is what I faced that night.
It was stormy outside. The roads were icy. I was also in an unfamiliar city. I did not know any local vets on Myrtle Beach. Then there was the fact that, at that point in my life, I was financially strapped. I am a writer, after all, which means that there are many stretches of time during which I don’t get paid, and if you’re a slow writer like me, those stretches of time can get really stretched out. There was a time when I couldn’t even afford pet insurance, because my savings account kept getting drained by Chloe’s veterinary bills. It was a game of cat-and-mouse that, I am happy to say, I no longer have to play. We are all insured.
Even in those toughest times, Chloe always came first. Some people thought it was crazy that I would, for example, delay my own trips to the dentist so that Chloe could get her horribly chipped incisor repaired. I know that dog people always understand. Love is the reason. When I first adopted Chloe, and rescued her from a life of neglect, abuse and abandonment, I made a vow—an oath. I vowed to always take care of her. To keep her safe and warm and healthy and fed and happy. No matter the cost.
So back to the bone. I spent another 20 minutes trying to calculate—geometrically—if/how I could wedge it off my patient, now-drooling dog. I tried to lubricate it with extra-virgin olive oil. Nope. I tried arnica gel. Nope. Petroleum jelly (which can’t have tasted good). Still, the bone wouldn’t budge. Chloe wagged away, seeming to enjoy the attention. I looked out the window to see if the storm had cleared. Nope. Back to the olive oil.
Finally, poor Chloe had had enough, and she crawled off into the closet to avoid me, her tail between her legs. At that point, I decided to call the nearest vet I could find online. When I told the receptionist that my dog had a marrowbone ring around her lower jaw, and that I needed to find someone who could cut the bone off, the receptionist replied, “You mean you want us to cut off your dog’s jaw? Hold on while I ask the vet if he can do that.”
I didn’t hold. The next vet I called was able to comprehend that I needed to have a marrowbone removed from my dog’s jaw—that I did not need to have the jaw itself removed—so we made an appointment and I was there within an hour.
The first thing I heard as I entered the waiting room was the terrible, piercing howl of a dog in pain, but let us not talk about that, or about the fact that I overheard that the dog’s owner was currently in jail or that the poor sweet man taking care of the dog in the interim could not afford to get the dog’s nails clipped, which was why the dog was now suffering from embedded toenails. My heart ached for all of them.
Chloe, meanwhile, happily greeted the man and the receptionist—wagging her tail rapidly at first, then more slowly as she began to comprehend that she would be going to that same back room.
When I sat down to wait for a consultation, the nice man with the dog in pain whispered to me, “Gotta be careful, ma’am. They-uz here’ll try to jack up your bill here with things y’all don’t need. Ask for an estimate ’fore you let ’em do anything.”
“Thanks,” I whispered back, grateful for the tip.
“That’s a good-looking dog you got there,” he said. “’Cept for that there bone ’round her mouth.”
We laughed despite ourselves, and Chloe wagged her tail.
Soon, I was called into a consultation room, where a young vet, seemingly nervous, inspected Chloe quickly—looking rather than touching—as though afraid she might bite. Now, by that point, I already considered myself an expert on marrowbone removal, given that I had spent 40 minutes on the Internet reading about it. (Don’t we all consider ourselves medical experts now that we have the Internet?) Thus, I listened with skepticism as the vet recommended a complicated series of painkillers, penicillin, antibiotics and some other pills I’d never heard of but that sounded unnecessary.
“All this to clip a bone off?” I said.
“She’ll need to be anesthetized, too.”
Now, I’m not a fan of anesthesia personally, nor am I a fan of anesthesia for my dog (let alone the bills). The first time Chloe was anesthetized (see the aforementioned River Rock Incident) I swear her personality changed. But that also is another story to add to the list of other stories. “I’d prefer not to do that,” I said. Plus, instinct told me this would not be necessary. Nor would the antibiotics or painkillers.
Following my instincts (and the man in the waiting room’s advice to be prepared for overcharges), I pared the bill down to two things: office visit and removal of foreign object.
“You sure?” the vet said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Okay, then.” The vet said he’d take Chloe to the back room and that I could wait where I was.
But I insisted that I be allowed to remain in the room during the procedure. I am a New Yorker, after all, and we must uphold our reputation of being pushy, obnoxious Yankees. “I want to be with her,” I said. “I’m going to apply acupressure to one of her calming points so that she’ll stay still.”
“Acu- what?” the vet said.
“Acupressure. It’s a form of Chinese medicine in which you stimulate certain meridian points to relax your dog in stressful situations.” I did my best to explain what this was. Acupressure is the practice of applying light pressure with the fingertips to specific meridian points in the body with the aim of sending healing energy (or chi) to those parts of the body. “My vet at home practices acupressure,” I told him. “And homeopathy.”
Homeopathy is hard to explain. So I just said it was another form of alternative holistic medicine.
A vet tech came and led us into a treatment room. The vet went off to prepare. In the meantime, I started to think about his recommendation for a painkiller. Even though I sensed Chloe would not need it, I began to second-guess myself. Did people with unwanted wedding rings stuck on their fingers get painkillers when it came time to clip the rings off? (Or was the divorce painful enough?) And what about that poor dog I’d heard howling when I first walked in? Had that been a sign?
I put my hands on Chloe and began applying pressure to her various calming points. Beneath my fingertips, I could feel her warm pulse, and within minutes, she was relaxed, mellow and trusting.
I had expected the vet to return equipped with saws, drills, rubber gloves and a headlamp, the way a dental surgeon might. Instead, he came in with a pair of what looked like wire cutters, such as you might get at Home Depot. Sharp tool aloft, he sank to his knees in front of Chloe, who rested calmly on the floor. I, however, was not calm, and increased my acupressure on the dog, whispering “It will be all right” into her ear. Suddenly, I heard a clip and a quick snap, and the marrowbone fell to the floor. Matter resolved. Chloe did not even yelp.
“That was brilliant!” I said, truly impressed. “What kind of tool is that?”
“Just your basic pliers,” he said.
“Pliers,” I said. “Wow.” I am a single female living in New York, which means I am impressed by things like tools. I do not own a wrench. Or a screwdriver, or a hammer. My toolbox consists of eyebrow tweezers and nail files.
“Yes, wow,” the vet said, smiling. “Pliers.”
I love the way southern people say the word pliers. “And how’d you do that Chinese acupressure thing?” he asked. “Your dog sure is calm. Lots of dogs here are afraid of the vet.”
I showed him the points I had tapped, which have beautiful names such as the Governing Vessel and the Place of a Hundred Meetings. “People can do this on themselves, too,” I told him.
“Is that right? I’ll have to try it on my wife.”
“Absolutely.” I showed him a few points on his wrist he could press for peace of mind.
“Learn something new every day,” he said. As we walked with the dog back to the reception area, I asked, “Um, where did you get those pliers?” I worried for a second that he would laugh at me. I could hear him telling his buddies later that night, “These damn Yankees don’t even know where to buy pliers.”
But he just said, “Any hardware store’ll have them. Seven ninety-nine.”
And then he surprised me by giving them to me. I was very touched. In return, I offered to pay the bill for the man in the waiting room and his howling dog.
New-agey northerner learns down-home southern ways. We can all learn from each other, I realized. And that’s what makes it priceless.
So I now have a few new resolutions: Renew veterinary insurance. Get pliers/wire cutters ($7.99). And make sure that none of the bones I give Chloe from this day forth will fit over her jawbone.
April 3, 2016, marks the 92nd birthday of Doris Day — adored for her nonpareil career as a singer and actress, and equally admired for her dedication to animal welfare and the creation of the Doris Day Animal Foundation. In 2006, Bark had the opportunity to interview Ms. Day by phone, and was joined by singer Nellie McKay, an incredible singer and animal activist in her own right.
She said "Call me Doris," and my heart leapt with joy. How do you describe her voice? A smoothie cocktail with a southern inflection—warm, rounded and welcoming. I was dying to tell her about my Uncle Patrick, who entered adolescence listening to her records because he thought her purring voice was the sexiest sound on earth.
There was also the time I fled a screening of G.I. Jane to escape to a better place, courtesy of my Young Man with a Horn LP. Doris Day was always a refuge for me, transporting me to a time of innocent romance, when there were no bad hair days, men had good manners, and the music was pleasant and sweet.
These days, I have fewer illusions, but Doris Day continues to inspire me, because even though the world can be ruthless and inhumane, we still have people like her working to help those less fortunate. Through her Animal League and Foundation, Doris Day is a beacon of hope for the animals who need our help so badly.
Talking to her was a dream come true—there's no one I admire more.
—Nellie McKay, Recipient of the 2005 Doris Day Music Award
Cameron Woo: I must tell you that I’m quite a fan of yours. Some of the first films I recall are the movies you made with Gordon MacCrae…
Doris Day: Silvery Moon and Moonlight Bay—I loved doing those. You know, if life could be like it was in those movies, it would be beautiful, wouldn’t it?
Nellie McKay: Every time I hear one of your records or see one of your movies, the world becomes that way for me, if just for the length of the record or movie. It’s that transporting.
DD: Oh, what a compliment. I had the best costars you could ever have, and I miss them so much. We had such a great time working together. Some years ago, I made a special with John Denver and was asked to sing Memories, Barbra Streisand’s song, which she did so beautifully. Then I was told that huge pictures of all of my leading men would be shown as I sang, and I said, “Oh my God, how do you expect me to get though that?” But I did it.
NM: Your autobiography is incredible—you have such heart.
DD: Well, I’ve been through everything. I always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls—you know, those dolls you could push down and they’d come back up? I’ve always been like that. I’ve always said, “No matter what happens, if I get pushed down, I’m going to come right back up.”
CW: You’ve been such a success in an amazing range of careers, from singer to actress to animal activist. What moved you to begin speaking out for animals?
DD: You have to do things, you have to step out and stick up for animals, because they can’t do anything for themselves. And really, I’ve been led by God to everything I’ve done in my life. I’ve been put here and put there—out of Cincinnati and into a band, then to Hollywood, and now, the foundation and animal league.
CW: Can you talk a little bit about the Katrina rescue effort? I know your group was instrumental in one of the airlifts; I understand those animals went to Santa Cruz.
DD: Yes, right to Santa Cruz. Some were quite ill and couldn’t be put on the plane, so people drove to the Gulf Coast and brought the sick ones back by car. Both groups were accompanied by a veterinarian. They’re coming in every few days from Santa Cruz and whenever they’re brought in, I’m there. The hard part is that I want them all!
There’s another thing I’d like to mention here. People sometimes say, “Oh, Miss Day, I can’t take another animal, I just can’t replace my darling little dog.” Many people, when they lose their pet, can’t face getting another. I felt like that once, and then I realized my baby would understand, and would want me to give a home to another animal. I want people to know they’re not replacing the one they lost. They’re giving another wonderful little soul a home. I’ve done this over and over again, and have never regretted it. I’ve only been rewarded.
CW: When you were a child, did you form a bond with animals?
DD: Immediately! I always had pets. We had a puppy, and I adored this little dog, a little Manchester Terrier. My father said, “The puppy has to be in the basement,” and I never forgave him for that. I realized he didn’t like animals. But I put up such a fuss that that little dog wound up in my bed. And they still are!
CW: People certainly develop intuitive connections with their animals—scientific studies have demonstrated that. But I imagine that as an animal lover, you know that.
DD: Oh, I know this so well. My dogs are sensitive...when I pick up my bag, they know I’m going out, and they walk around and around. Before I come home, I call to say I’m on my way, and by the time I ring the gate bell, they’re all at the door. I get this big greeting, and I’ve only been gone 45 minutes! You can’t beat that. And now, as I’m speaking with you, they’re all gathered around me. I’ve always found inspiration and comfort in animals.
CW: I was reading your letter in the Doris Day Animal Foundation magazine, and in that, you noted that when you were on the set of The Man Who Knew Too Much, you demanded that animals used on the set be better taken care of.
DD: Oh, well, I didn’t want to act like a big shot; it wasn’t like that. But I did go to Mr. Hitchcock, whom I loved dearly, and we had a long talk about it. I said “Hitch, I can’t bear it, I can’t bear to see what goes on here with animals.” The horses were so thin, the donkeys were overburdened, and I was just horrified at the dogs running loose and starving. I told him I really couldn’t work unless we fed these animals. And he said, “We’re going to do that, I want you to just relax and know that they will be taken care of.” But then I thought, once we leave, it will go right back to the way it was.
CW: I think that was very courageous of you to take a stance like that. I also recall reading that there still are problems in Hollywood in terms of the treatment of animals.
DD: Yes. Though I understand there are actors and actresses who really care and are letting the studios know their position on this issue. Cameron Diaz said that she will never work with animals again because of the way they’re treated.
CW: Our readers have pointed out that there seems to be trend in movies to victimize animals in the name of humor. Dogs are thrown out windows, cats are flushed down toilets, and that’s considered amusing. Even in these mainstream, family-oriented movies, it’s somehow acceptable to use animals as the butt of jokes.
DD: Everything’s acceptable in Hollywood now, it seems. I’m glad I’m not there, because I would be screaming. I hope and pray that the Hollywood stars who are making so much money really take a stand. It’s hideous to have families watching these movies, and children seeing this portrayed as though it’s okay.
CW: You were also a pioneered in another groundbreaking effort, pet-friendly hotels. Carmel’s Cypress Inn, with which you’re involved, was among the first to make this available, I believe.
DD: Well, thank you, but really, I consider that an inspiration from God. The man who owned the inn was looking for a partner, and my son spoke with him; our only condition was that the hotel had to be animal-friendly. After he got used to the idea, he agreed, and we were ecstatic. Carmel is so dog-friendly, and now many of the hotels allow guests to bring their pets.
DD: I want to tell the truth, and maybe that’s why they trust me. When I was acting, I believed what I said ... every line. I’m so grateful to my fans and donors and friends, people who do trust me. When people donate, I write to them and say, “I love you for caring,” because that’s what it is in life, caring.
NM: When you’re working to have people care about animals, do you think it’s best to start with companion animals, rather than, say, farm or lab animals?
DD: Companion animals are what I know best, but it all needs to be addressed. We’re involved with Greyhounds and the dog-racing issue, and we’re finally getting the bill banning the slaughter of wild horses passed. And puppy mills—we’re really involved with that issue. We’re putting what we can into stopping them.
CW: Speaking of companion animals, tell us about Spay Day.
DD: Well, spaying and neutering are the most important things you can do for animals. Everything is cause and effect—the cause: people don’t alter their animals; the effect: the SPCA is filled with animals that are euthanized weekly. It really is the most important thing we can do.
CW: We thank you for your time, and are happy to support Spay Day. We hope it’s bigger than ever this year.
DD: I loved meeting both of you, and I hope to meet you in person some day. That would be great fun!
Check for the date of the next Doris Day Animal Foundation Spay Day.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Examination of the enduring bonds.
You didn’t know how much you cared. Hell, she was only a dog. Nothing special. A Heinzey-57 varieties. Just a mutt.
But she …
Six months after your dog died, you still can’t talk about her. You turn your face away, embarrassed and perhaps ashamed of your tears.
Only a dog.
On one particularly bleak morning, Anne told me, “I wake up and Zippy’s gone and I wish I was dead too.”
“Only a dog”: that stupid, heartless diminutive comes straight from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.
Why did the ancient Semites seek to disrupt the profound, ancient connection between man and dogs?
In legends of other native peoples, the dog is a benign and helpful creature; sometimes he’s God’s companion, sometimes the guardian spirit of the underworld. Maria Leach’s wonderful God Had a Dog lists 70 native gods who had or used a dog.
Early nomadic Semitic peoples needed dogs for hunting, watchdogs, war and to defend their all-important flocks. The Midrash counts Abraham’s sheep-guarding dogs as part of his wealth.
But Semitic writers never once praise the dog’s virtues. The dog’s fidelity and courage go unremarked. He is absent from the 23rd Psalm, and at Christ’s nativity, when those terrifying angels brighten the night sky, the shepherd’s dogs don’t bark.
I tuned into an Evangelical radio broadcast whose preacher instructed children, “Sure, you like old Spot and you must be kind to him, but remember, children, you have a soul and old Spot doesn’t.”
This doctrine troubles some devout Christians who hope to see their dog in an afterlife and, scripture to the contrary, presume they will. Some trust that since theirs is a loving God, He will slip their pets past Saint Peter. More consistent Christians assume they will be so busy worshipping God in the afterlife that they won’t miss their dogs—that their love for Spot is merely an earthly love, no more important than their affection for their Chevy Impala.
Early Semites worshiped gods of fertility and gods of war: Dagon and Hadad, and Baal, “the rider on the clouds.” Often cruel, these gods required propitiation, but you could do business with them.
These capricious, somewhat manipulable gods might make the barren wife fertile, bring rain, or cause an enemy’s spear to miss its mark, but they never shared with human worshippers their god-attributes, neither their power nor their all knowingness nor their ability to live forever.
Aspiring to a god’s powers was a bad idea; see Icarus.
Belly full, protected by the watchful dog lying beside him, man began to dream of the impossible. We can trace the painfully slow, irresistible progress of this dream through the years of the Old Testament’s creation.
Although they hedged their bets with Dagon, Baal and the occasional golden calf, some Semites began to dream of a single god. One can read the Pentateuch as the history of how Jews became monotheists. They swapped out a host of familiar, approachable gods for one remote, powerful, all knowing, loving but extremely cranky Deity.
Why did God love a species that often denied Him, defied Him and sometimes ranked Him second after that golden calf?
God loved weak, sinful, forgetful, rebellious man because, “And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth …” (Genesis 1:26).
“After our likeness”—that brilliant link made monotheism possible. Just as there is one man, so there is one God. The worshipper is commanded to become “like” God (imitatio Dei). And surely, if we are “like” God, can’t we share some of his attributes, even His immortality?
Emphatically, God did not make dog in His own image. Monotheism asserted an extreme human singularity that has engaged philosophers ever since: “Man, the featherless biped.” “Man, the rational animal.” “Homo faber.” “Man the animal that makes promises.” Our determination to distance ourselves from other animals—indeed, from nature itself—has powered eco-catastrophes that endanger all life on Earth.
When God made man in his own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures, he simultaneously banished the dog from his special place at man’s side.
The betrayal of dog by man—the “Lost Dog” story— is one of our oldest, most poignant tales. When Odysseus returns home after years of wandering, no creature recognizes him except his dying dog. “Infested with ticks, half dead from neglect, here lay the hound, old Argos. But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by, he thumped his tail, muzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master.”
Gelert was the favored hound of the 13th-century Welsh prince, Llewellyn ab Joweth . One day, Prince Llewellyn noticed that Gelert had left the hunt. When the prince got home, the bloody Gelert greeted his master exuberantly, but the prince’s infant son wasn’t in his crib, and blood splattered the walls. The enraged prince promptly slew Gelert. Moments later, he discovered his unharmed son, next to the corpse of the wolf Gelert had killed protecting the child.
There are at least 30 recorded versions of the Gelert story, the earliest before the Christian Era.
“Lost Dog” is paradigmatic; retold so many times in modern literature, it seems to be the only dog story we need to tell. White Fang, Lassie Come Home, The Incredible Journey, The Plague Dogs, my own Nop’s Trials: all stories of sundering and loss.
In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” an overwhelmed husband abandons the family dog beside the road: “He saw his whole life a ruin from here on. If he lived another fifty years—hardly likely—he felt he’d never get over it, abandoning the dog … A man who would get rid of a little dog wasn’t worth a damn. That kind of man would do anything, would stop at nothing.”
We rewrite and reread this predictable, profoundly satisfying story, although in each recounting, we humans are cruel betrayers and dogs are our moral superiors.
The story satisfies because it is true. Yes, we betrayed the dog.
Our old partner, the animal who ensured our survival, who slipped into our genetic code like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, became “only” a dog, no more privileged than hogs or sheep. We needed to spurn him because the dog threatened the same dreams his watchfulness made possible.
Freed by dog to dream of God, freed to yearn for God’s attributes, to escape the tragedy of human mortality, man gave up his dog for the greatest vision man has ever had.
Yet the dog remains eager—pathetically eager—to renew that 100,000-year-old genetic partnership from which he has been forever banished: Lost Dog.
Man didn’t abandon his dog cheaply. He didn’t sell him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Man asked the greatest reward any creature ever asked of his god: immortality.
We lost our dog to live forever.
Excerpted from Mr. & Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies, forthcoming from University Press of Virginia (March 2013). Used with permission.
British Invasion Redux
Blame it on the London Olympics, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey or fascination with the royals, but Brit-speak seems to be all the rage these days. Oft-heard terms such as cheers, brilliant, posh, loo, toff, mate, queue and even crikey are creeping into our everyday conversation. So, let’s bring these dog-related expressions across the pond as well.
Dog’s bollocks: Something really fantastic. (Not to be confused with “bollocks,” which is rubbish, er, nonsense.) Often shortened to “the dog’s.” Perhaps derived from dogs’ fascination with and time spent investigating their “down-unders.”
Mutt’s nuts: Something fantastic or excellent. Often shortened to “the mutt’s,” which is another way of saying, yup, the “dog’s bollocks.”
Puppy’s privates: The best; yet another, slightly more refined, take on the previous two.
Dog’s breakfast: A real mess. (Ed. note: I guess they don’t do gourmet pet food over there.)
Dog’s dinner: To be overdressed, or ostentatiously decked out.
Dog ride: Tagging along with someone doing an errand, or simply out and about.
Dog collar: A type of collar worn by the clergy. Also, the oversize head on a pint of Guinness.
Dog-end: A corruption of “docked-end”— a cigarette butt.
Dogsbody: A go-fer, or someone doing menial or boring work.
Dog-eye: Keep a look out.
Doggy: Stylish, of smart appearance.
Dogs are barking: Feet are tired and aching. For example, “Do you mind if I sit? My dogs are barking!”
Dog’s wages : Working just for food as payment for one’s services (Scots slang).
Give a dog a bad name: Someone with a bad reputation who’s blamed for everything.
And, lest we forget, there’s Cockney rhyming slang:
To all of which we say, “Dog save the Queen!” Given her devotion to her Corgis, that’s not much of a stretch.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Nine years ago, when our family got our first dog, I never could have imagined the number of lessons he (and eventually they) would teach us about love, connection and responsibility.
As a child, I didn’t have an opportunity to understand the bond that could exist between humans and canines. My parents didn’t think of dogs as pets, much less as members of the family. Neighborhood dogs came and went through my childhood with no collars, no fences and no place to truly call home.
When our kids were five and two, my husband and I opted to treat them to a canine friend. My husband was in the military and had just returned from artillery training, and we wanted a connecting and bonding experience for all four of us. We chose a Boxer, Arty (short for Artillery Howitzer Knight), who allowed our daughter to climb on him and dress him in boas and tutus. Much more than a baby-sitter, he quickly became our third child.
My husband deployed to Afghanistan, and before long, we got another Boxer. Not quite as smart but certainly as loveable as Arty, Clover was just as rambunctious as he had been at the same age. Because we traveled a lot, the dogs spent a great deal of time outside, with trusted neighbors stopping in to feed and play with them.
As the kids and the dogs got older, I managed to ease out of one job and into another that afforded me more time with both dogs and family. What I found was certainly amazing: The more time and love I gave to the dogs, the more was replenished, and at astounding rates. When I began truly having a relationship with them, my own patience and understanding skyrocketed.
One Christmas, we managed to save a mixed-breed pup from going to the pound (while my husband was on another deployment to Iraq), and I must say, she was a godsend! Freyja didn’t chew things up, and the Boxers took her in as their own. Her disposition was completely different from the others (barking was the only negative).
As if three dogs weren’t enough, we succumbed once more—again, we started down the puppy path, with vague memories of the havoc and chaos to which Arty and Clover had introduced us. Oda (Operation Detachment Alpha—my husband’s job in the military) began sleeping with me in the absence of my deployed (again) husband, and before much time had passed, he weighed 60 pounds and was no longer the little pup I’d invited onto the bed on those lonesome nights.
I am now working from home, which affords me a lot more time with my canine kids. Oda still sleeps with us, alongside Freyja and Clover. Arty sleeps on the floor next to the bed.
What I have learned from the dogs far exceeds what they have learned from me. I’ve learned to welcome all interactions with my children, who are now 15 and 11. I’ve learned I should take naps when I am sleepy, run when I have energy, be on guard when strangers approach the house and snuggle up with those I love.
I have also learned that when I extend love, I have more capacity to give it. I have learned to be aware of others’ feelings because they won’t always tell me what they’re thinking, and to try to understand what others desire or require for their own comfort and happiness. I have also learned that when I let the boundaries of who I think I am dissolve into the dogs, I am happier and more fulfilled because I recognize that we are truly connected. This has taught me to do the same for the people in my life. When I allow my own edges to blur into theirs, we are one. And when we are one, I feel nothing but kindness, compassion and love for others (who are really just extensions of me).
Thank you, Arty, Clover, Freyja and Oda, for teaching me how to love, really love, the people in my life.
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