Good Dog: Studies & Research
An interview with Jeffrey Masson
This is one of the first interviews (if not the very first interview) ever to appear in the pages of Bark. It was originally published in Bark’s third issue in fall 1997—back when Bark was still printed in black-and-white on newsprint—when Jeffrey Masson first released his book Dogs Never Lie About Love.
On the day of our interview, Jeffrey Masson’s lovely Berkeley home was a bustle of activity, with friends and family popping in and out, the baby, the three dogs and the cats. There had been a wedding only days earlier and Masson was preparing for a major book tour. We were very grateful that he’d found time to squeeze us in. As we settled in for our talk, the phone rang——his agent calling to talk about Masson’s appearance on Dateline the previous night. “I’ve got to go, I’m being interviewed by the Berkeley Bark,” Masson said, cutting short talk of national TV to give this interview.
Your title is Dogs Never Lie About Love. It reminds me of a Fats Waller song, “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you, it’s a sin to tell a lie.” To me it has always been an odd lyric, because how do you lie about love, or how do you not lie about love——our emotions are so complex. What exactly do you mean by this title?
It was suggested to me by my trainer, a wonderful guy at Guide Dogs for the Blind——Mike Delosi. He said you’re gonna laugh, but I just thought of the best title your book——Dogs Never Lie About Love. Laugh!, it’s perfect! And it really is the thesis of the book, that dogs are incapable of any kid of deceit when it comes to their emotions. They don’t hide them from others and don’t hide them from themselves. We sometimes don’t know what we’re thinking and feeling and certainly often attempt to prevent others from knowing what we’re feeling. Nobody doubts this. But dogs are so upfront about their feelings. They can’t, they just can’t...
They don’t mind being the fool.
That’s right. This is who they are. They don’t think, “If I’m showing my joie de vivre they’ll think I’m unsophisticated and naive. What they’re feeling is who they are. And I think that love is really the master emotion for dogs. They really seem to have an endless supply, an endless capacity to love that just astonishes me.
You say in your introduction that you were originally attracted to the observation of wild animals because you felt that somehow the domestic dog was contaminated by association with humans. Have you changed your mind about this?
Well, I don’t really know. It’s fascinating to me that dogs feel as much as they feel and that we can read them so easily. So the question is, why can we read dogs so easily, why are they so transparent to us and we to them? There’s no other animal like that. We don’t know what a bear is feeling. You know when they’re angry, but you don’t know when they’re sad and disappointed and nostalgic and homesick and all these things that we have in common with dogs. So the question arises, did canines learn it from us or is it just some miracle of parallelism. Or is it that all animals share these things and we just can’t read them. I haven’t discovered the answer to that. I suspect one could. If you were to live with wolves long enough you might be able to say it’s clear that wolves feel the same things that dogs feel, therefore they didn’t get it from us.
Didn’t some of your studies of the wild animals, for instance elephants in the zoo, show that they have a rapport with their people?
Not like dogs, possibly, but not even cats. I have two cats here and I love them but they really don’t have that same intimate constant interaction with us that dogs have. Horses don’t, parrots don’t, no animal does.
It begs the question … Was is there from the beginning, and that’s why we got together with them?
That is an interesting question. But it’d be awfully hard to answer. I think if you knew enough about wolves, if we discovered that wolves show the same emotions with other wolves, then we could say it’s the nature of the beast——it’s not us. But I suspect that it is us. Because dogs are so eager to please us and understand us. When I first got my three dogs, I thought——I can’t do this. It’s just too much, three big dogs walking around Berkeley, how am I going to get them out of the car and into this park without putting each one on a leash. I can’t do it. And lo and behold it was really easy after a while. They figured out what I want from them and they give it to me. It took time, and I didn’t train them. It’s just that they watched me and observed me long enough to figure that “Oh, he want us to do this! Ok, I get it, I can do that.” And that’s amazing! Cats don’t do that, they may know what you want, they just don’t care.
In fact, some part of them may know what you want and do …
...the opposite. And a dog will never do that. Very rarely will a dog do what he knows you don’t want him to do. Very rarely.
My dog is very willful. If he doesn’t want to do what I want him to do he won’t look at me. He pretends he can’t hear me.
Hysterical deafness in dogs.
I find your last book (When Elephants Weep) and this book almost radical because I think it’s been anathema for intellectuals to discuss emotional states in animals. Even though anyone who has ever lived with animals or worked with them in a lab could observe that.
The people who work with them in labs have a vested interest in denying that they feel. Because if you say that you think that a dog can feel pain and can suffer as much, if not more than we can, then what kind of person inflicts that pain? It’s hard. The honest ones will say yes, that animals do suffer but animal testing helps mankind. OK, I don’t agree, but you can live with that. What I don’t like is when they say animals don’t feel anything. I don’t see how they say that about a dog. I mean maybe with a rat, I don’t believe if for a minute, but I can understand someone saying he can’t see emotion in rats.
I think it’s easy for people to denigrate their own observations because of what experts say.
You have to look at what vested interest experts have. In the segment of Dateline I just did they had to have a critic talk about my book so they get Dr. Hart who’s the head of the behavioral clinic at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and he said, “Masson is totally wrong——everything a dog does is pure instinct.” And that is the cliché——that’s what they were taught and it’s very hard to get them to move away from that. You could say that about every human emotion. If a mother saves a child who’s drowning——is that instinct or love?
I expect that there are people who have those theories about humans.
I’m sure that there are. But most people who would say that about a dog would not say it about a human being. Why would a dog have an instinct to save a human being anyway? It can hardly be instinct, and there are literally thousands of stories of dogs that have saved people.
I like something you said in your introduction. You asked, “Why is a lab scientist a more reliable observer?” Most people take it for granted that scientific method is objective and that the scientist must necessarily be an objective observer.
We’ve been taught that. They say, well you’re telling us a story and that’s just an anecdote. Anecdotal evidence. What do they think they have when they’re in the laboratory? It’s just another story. And if you have enough of them, if you’ve collected a thousand similar stories, isn’t that data?
You go over how you selected your dogs and what you were looking for and I was struck that all three were females. Did that make a difference to you?
Well, my publisher was very annoyed about that. He wanted me to have a male dog. And it’s true, it would have been interesting to compare. It just so happened that all three of the ones I wanted turned out to be females. So I’m sorry, I’d like to know whether, for example, males are more aggressive than females. These three dogs are just not aggressive. They have never gotten into a fight with each other or another dog. They’re not perfect dogs by any means, little Simi gives this horrible Grrr to every dog she meets. But she’s never actually gotten into a fight, and I wonder if she were a he, would he get into fights?
They’re all so individual.
That’s true too. Certainly there are male dogs that we encounter that would never fight. And there are certain females that we meet that would. But no dog has ever fought with mine. My theory is that males will not fight with females unless they’re trained to fight. But if we’re just walking around and they do something offensive, males will forgive it right away. And females don’t seem to fight much between themselves.
My dog has a lot of propriety and he expects other dogs to be … dignified. He gives females a lot of slack, but not males.
I think that dogs can be very dignified and there’s a difference in a dog who is not and one who is. It’s an interesting quality. In a lot of the working dogs, I have the sense that they feel that there’s a way to do things and an improper way. I was hoping to get a Border Collie for that reason, but I also hear that they’re hyper. They’ve got to be doing stuff. I’m spending three, four hours a day out with my dogs, so they get plenty of things to do. I didn’t think I would spend quite that much time, but with a little baby it’s fun. I like being out anyway and since it turns out to be my research …
What a nice life. Are these your first dogs in a while?
The last dog I had was a long time ago, about six years ago. I had moved into someone’s house who left the dog behind. An old German Shepherd. And I really bonded with him, I was amazed, but it was in the last year of his life. And before that, in my previous marriage, we had a Standard Poodle for 15 years——I loved that dog! And before that it was as a child. So there haven’t been that many dogs in my life.
I haven’t really had a dog since childhood. My dog now, I feel very conscious of him and have a close bond. And I think that he’s taught me a great deal about human nature, too. I wonder what your dogs have taught you.
For me, that’s how the book came to have this thesis. I really do believe that dogs feel more intensely, more purely, more passionately with less ambivalence than I do. I can’t speak for you, or anyone else, but for me they definitely do. And I want to learn from them, and I do learn from them. How to live in the moment——dogs are very, very good at that. They’re really like little gurus. All these gurus claim to live in the moment, but don’t really do it. Dogs do it. They really live in the moment, and they don’t compare things. I still have a bad habit that I picked up from my parents of comparing one thing to another, one place to another, one person to another. Dogs never do that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the landfill in Berkeley, that tacky little beach opposite where we always go. But it has the world’s ugliest beach! And I took my parents there once and they said, “Jeff how can you even walk on this beach, remember when we were in the South of France and Cannes and do you remember the Italian Riviera?” And I said yeah, this is really tacky …. My dogs——they love it! They’ve been to the most beautiful beaches in the world up in Oregon and here … they don’t care! For them, it’s the moment that counts, they’re with the person they love, they’re chasing sticks, they’re jumping in the water, they’re perfectly happy——they never make those comparisons. So, those are the things I’ve learned from them. Also, I haven’t learned it, but they’re very good at forgiving. That, I’m not so sure I want to learn, but they can do it. I mean you can, I never have, but people hit dogs and a minute later the dog will lick their hand, I mean a minute later! I guess some dogs less than others, some dogs probably will remember and hold a grudge. But most dogs don’t hold grudges, they really don’t.
There is an interesting story in your book about a police dog stopping his master who’s unjustly beating a guy.
It’s a Vicki Hearne story and I believe it. It’s utterly fascinating! I wish I had observed it, I’d love to know what was going through that dog’s mind.
That’s a very complex thing!
Very complex. If that’s true it shows an extraordinary … if it’s true you don’t see it very often, that’s for sure. I asked the police here, “Does a dog ever stop a thief or a shoplifter?” No, they wouldn’t do that, they don’t care, they don’t share our values. But obviously this person had overstepped some canine value. I think it’s an utterly fascinating concept. I’ve never observed that. That’s Vicki Hearne’s. She’s very unsentimental, that was one of the few sentimental stories in her book. She’s a big trainer and I’ve seen a lot of training now and I’m not into it, it’s not my thing.
I believe she’s written about circus animal training. I just saw a film, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which featured a lion trainer, whose attitude toward the lions was adversarial, one of fear ….
Never turn your back, show who’s boss. A lot of dog training is like that too.
The interesting thing about the film is that the lion trainer had a protégé whose attitude was not adversarial, she built a rapport with the lions. The elder trainer had a very grudging respect for his young apprentice——well, it seems to work but someday she’s going to be sorry.
Right, it’s that way with dog training, also. I went to visit one of the legends of training, a guy named Sapir Weiss, have you heard of him? He’s an Israeli paratrooper and he’s trained dogs to carry dynamite. And he was amazing, I have to admit. I walked in and we started arguing right away. He doesn’t believe in emotion, nothing——it’s all training, it’s all conditioning. He says, “It’s all about who’s boss, and I’m the big boss and they know it and I have a way of letting them know this right away.” And I said I didn’t believe it. He said, “You know, I’ll prove it to you.” He said, “Are these three dogs very attached to you? I’m going to walk with them and you call them back to you and I guarantee you they won’t come.” I said no way. And they walked right by me and I called “Sasha, Simi, Rani,” and they looked at me like, “I’m sorry I can’t come”——they wouldn’t budge. I said, “What is this, is it a magic act?” He said, “I convey I’m the boss and they know it, I know how to communicate that to dogs. You don’t hear a single dog in my kennel of ninety dogs barking, do you? That’s because I let them know I won’t tolerate it.” It’s very impressive—I still don’t like it …. He had a dog, a fabulous Schutzhund but the dog seemed miserable, he never goes out, does everything Sapir says and looks at him in constant apprehension.
It’s hard to know how the dog feels about that, but for me, I don’t want to have that kind of relationship.
That’s a good point. I can’t say, but in my opinion, the dog would rather have a more equal kind of relationship. I can’t answer that. But I don’t want that with them, and I’m not going to train them to go blow up trains with dynamite so …. On the other hand I also went through Ian Dunbar’s training with the puppies and that didn’t work so well. I finally decided that the best training was no training—you hang out long enough with the dogs and they figure out what you want and they do it. My dogs come, they stop for traffic, they do the important things. I taught them the command “Leave It” when they’re eating horrible garbage. They do that.
My dog hasn’t got that one down.
Well, when I tell them stay they’re not going to do it, and I’m sure I could train them to do that but it would mean breaking their will to some extent, and I’m just not prepared to do that.
Yes, I don’t relish that authoritarian relationship, consequently my dog is not the perfect obedient dog.
But I think it allows them to be more of who they are. This is also the problem with guide dogs for the blind, I mean I’m very impressed with what they do and obviously it’s wonderful work and it’s wonderful for the blind people, I wonder how wonderful it is for the dog. You know this is not something the dogs would choose to do on their own, given the choice.
Well, you know I think there are some individual dogs who must want to.
Maybe, they take pride in it, yeah.
Like herding and working dogs, a lot of them really love to work and they do take pride, and that’s a big part of life.
But it’s not all of life … pleasure is also part. They’re not big on pleasure at Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dogs have a certain amount of time when they play but my dogs basically play all day. They don’t work and I think it makes them very happy. It’s very hard to judge. Who’s to say who’s a happier dog.
Your dogs have a good life.
They have a very good life.
What say you about leashes?
Berkeley must be the best city in the world to have a dog because we don’t have a leash law on the street. The police don’t always know it but I went to City Hall and got a little piece of paper with the ordinance that says if a dog is obedience trained and is under voice control then it shall be deemed to be upon a leash. The few times that the police have stopped me, I live across the street from the Berkeley Police Station, I’ve just shown it to them and they’ve been very nice about it. Most of the time I don’t get stopped, and I walk around Berkeley with my three dogs off leash, and I really like that. It’s just different, it really is different. It makes me feel that we are more equal. They can stop and sniff things, they can deviate a little bit. I mean, they still basically go where I want to go, it’s not equal in that way, but they’re free and I really like it.
On the other hand there is a leash law in the parks.
Yes there is, and I just don’t obey it. If a ranger tells me to leash them, I do. Most people don’t care. When we go to Inspiration Point for walks, most dogs are off-leash and people are very happy about it. But, at least once a walk, somebody will come to me and say, “Those dogs are supposed to be on a leash!” And the dogs aren’t doing anything, and I ask them, “Can you explain to me how they’re bothering you?” “It’s a law!” “Well you’re right, but they don’t seem to be harming anybody, and they’re getting so much pleasure, do you really want me to leash them? “Yes, I do!” You always get a few, but for research it was interesting to hear that.
Do you ever take your dogs on leash? Because it’s a very different experience.
I really don’t like to do it. Sometimes outside of Berkeley you have to. We went on a camping trip and they were very unpleasant sometimes if the dogs were off-leash so we took them on-leash in the camping grounds. I just hate it!
I think that dogs are more aggressive on-leash.
I’ve read lots of training books, and there are many different theories. Some feel that the dogs become more territorial on your behalf on lead.
I don’t understand it. Another thing I don’t get … my dogs go completely nuts when they’re in the car and we pass a car with another dog or pass another dog on the street. All three of them. Walking down the street they pay no attention.
Not even when the other dog is behind a fence?
Behind a fence, yes. Behind the fence they hate.
I once saw a baseball game when the pitcher hit the batter with a fast ball. The batter stormed the pitcher’s mound in an attitude of “Let me at ‘em.” But both players kept their arms at their sides, shoulders back. Not until teammates came to restrain them did they really start flailing. When they were safely restrained from hurting each other, the killer came out. I see this behavior in dogs behind fences. They can engage in a little aggression because they really can’t do anything.
Maybe you’re right. If they pass each other on the street they could hurt each other, but they can’t in the car or behind a fence. Interesting. But the car thing, I don’t like it and I’ve begged them to stop, but it doesn’t do the slightest good. Not the slightest good.
You were initially not interested in studying dogs—they were perhaps contaminated by their association with humans. Have you also found that you see the wildness in dogs?
Oh yes! That’s the miracle to me, that we are living on intimate terms with a wild animal. It really is, it’s a wolf. There not that much difference between wolves and dogs, and it’s a very humbling experience. Suddenly your dog does something or howls and you feel my God, this is a wild animal and it has accepted me and we are living together! And no other animal gives you that … well cats a bit too, because they really are tigers. But dogs even more, and it’s just such a miracle to me. I can’t get over it.
Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.
Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
B: What did you find that disturbed you?
B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
B: Of all aspects of canine care and companionship, are there things you feel are happening too slowly?
B: You spent a lot of time at shelters, investigating what makes some successful in becoming no-kill, while others can’t seem to reach that goal. What do you think makes the difference?
B: In Pukka’s Promise, you take on some big players in the dog world—breeders, veterinarians, dog-food and toy manufacturers. Are you concerned about their reactions?
B: What is the big take-away you want readers to get from Pukka’s Promise?
For the full interview, see The Bark, Issue 73, Feb–Apr 2013.
Culture: Stories & Lit
At times, I forget that my dog, Floyd, can’t talk. Like, all the time. During our long walks, I’ll comment on the weather, the progress of a neighbor’s new fence, my plans for the day. My constant chatter doesn’t seem to bother him, as long as he can stop and leave some messages of his own.
Dog-behavior books give conflicting advice regarding human/canine conversation. Some experts recommend speaking in cheerful tones. One book suggested singing to dogs, a constant flowing river of happy sounds. I wonder what kind of music Floyd likes best. Howlin’ Wolf, or perhaps the Stray Cats? Other trainers recommend silence. Words other than commands only confuse the pooch. Wolves don’t chitchat. Save the speech for commands, for the words that matter: Sit. Stay. Snuggle.
I’m in the first camp. Dogs have been hanging around with our species long enough to know that we constantly voice our thoughts. I believe they’ve learned to tune us out until key words like ride, fetch and treat bubble to the top of our verbal slurry.
So I don’t think my non-command words confuse Floyd. If anything, I think they embarrass him. This may be in part because of my horrible timing. We’ve had several instances where passersby misunderstood my comments. While Floyd circled, shimmied and hopped to achieve the perfect angle for his mark on a fire hydrant, I said, laughing, “What are you doing, you freak?” Unfortunately, I posed the question as a woman pulled up next to us with her car’s window down to inquire about Floyd’s breed (only he knows, and he’s not telling). Instead of letting my comment die a quiet death, I tried to explain that I’d been talking to my dog, not to her. Her expression said it all: “Well, freaks must come in pairs then.”
Once, I said, “Come here, little man” to Floyd at the exact moment a diminutive gentleman turned the corner. How I wished I could scoop up the words in a plastic dog baggie. I wonder if Floyd is relieved that I have finally stopped calling him “Big Stink” and “Monkey Butt” in public after one too many sharp glares from someone nearby.
Calling “Get over here, you handsome devil” while Floyd played in the leaves next to my married neighbor was probably a poor choice of words. Particularly as another neighbor overheard me. Relationships on our street have been strained since.
Not only is my timing awful, I have a constant and inexplicable desire to explain everything to Floyd. “We can’t go to Reigning Cats and Dogs for a peanut butter biscuit today. I didn’t bring money.” His gaze slides to the man walking by who overhears us. I mean, overhears me.
Though I know Floyd is not going to whip out his daily planner to coordinate our schedules, I always explain why we’re taking a shorter route, or why he needs to hurry up. Dogs probably rank “clocks” up there with “lids” as the worst human inventions ever. Yet, I have said, “Give me five minutes, buddy” more than once. I have said this in front of people. Floyd chomps on an acorn to fill the awkward silence that inevitably follows. Signs instruct owners to “curb your dog.” I should really curb my comments to my dog.
My conversations with Floyd shine an ugly light on what kind of parent I would be. After he gobbled some rancid dumpster meat before I could stop him, I yelled (in cheerful singsong), “What were you thinking? We spend a fortune on your organic kibble. If you get sick, don’t come bellyaching to me.”
Did I really blurt, “You know better”?
Yes, yes I did.
And when I say things like, “Now, what did I just say to you?” I only shame myself.
Watching Floyd’s helicopter-tailhappy- dance when I ask, “Are you my best boy?” I realize that he sometimes gets a kick out of the babble. He’ll make a play bow, which is canine for “Well, yes I am. Now toss me that squeaky toy and let me show you a good time.”
We’ve all said things we regret. I’ve happened to say many of those things to my dog. He doesn’t hold it against me. A long walk, squirrel patrol and a possible biscuit later make my monkey chatter completely bearable. Or so he tells me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Animals In and Out of Books
[Guilty Pleasures] Like kale and cod liver oil, books about string theory or shenanigans on Wall Street are no doubt good for us. But are they what come to mind when we’re looking for something to read? No, they are not. When we want to relax and lose ourselves in an engrossing puzzle, give us a mystery every time, especially a well-written British police procedural. In this category, Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series definitely makes the short list. These two Scotland Yard detectives, their lives with their sons Kit and Toby, and the nuances of their work are so well articulated that we were utterly gobsmacked to discover that Crombie isn’t British but rather, Texas born and raised. Today, she lives in northern Texas with her husband, German Shepherds and cats, and divides her time between the U.S. and the U.K. Read on for the origins of Crombie’s dog love.
The German Shepherds were my husband’s fault. When he was very small, his parents kept a German Shepherd for friends who had to go overseas for a summer. He adored the dog, which was very gentle with him, as Shepherds usually are with small children. He would put his hand in the dog’s mouth and pretend he was a lion tamer. (I can imagine the little blond imp shrieking with glee at his daring, and it has just occurred to me that my fictional little blond imp, Toby, might bear some relation to my real-life husband as a child.)
The German Shepherd went back to his owners, and my husband grew up with other dogs — a Bloodhound, a Boxer. But none replaced the German Shepherd in his imagination or affections.
I, on the other hand, did not grow up in a pet-friendly household. My mother did not care for cats and she was afraid of big dogs — she’d been bitten as a small child — and above all, she didn’t want anything in the house that shed!
When I was nine, my parents gave in to what I’m sure was my incessant and annoying whining, and took in an adult toy Poodle (no shedding) from some elderly relatives who could no longer care for her. Oh, dear, oh dear. The disappointment on all sides. The poor dog, Jolie, had been raised as a faux-human, and never adjusted to the deterioration in her circumstances, although she bore with us bravely for a good many years.
But this dog, who didn’t care for children and had never been taught to play, was not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, and my heart was broken. I consoled myself by reading books about imaginary dogs, and spending hours poring over dog encyclopedias trying to decide on the perfect pup.
My first dog as an adult was a buff Cocker Spaniel, bought as a surprise for our seven-year-old daughter. His name was Taffy. He had every bad trait that plagues Cocker Spaniels. I adored him, and he me. We lost him to cancer when he was nine, and we found we couldn’t bear being dogless, even for a week.
I’d had visions of an English Cocker, perhaps a bi-color or a blue roan, but my husband had his heart set on a German Shepherd, and so Hallie came into our lives. She’s 14 now, and frail. Our younger Shepherd, Neela, is seven, and they have been everything that that long-ago little girl imagined as the ideal dog — brave, loving, loyal, smart, playful and funny. Oh, and we live in a sea of dog hair.
Gemma, of course, got the blue roan Cocker Spaniel, Geordie, and he is the dog of her heart. Kit’s Tess, on the other hand, the little foundling who might be a Norfolk Terrier, sprang out of nowhere, just as dogs sometimes do in real life. A frightened boy seeking shelter and solace found a frightened little dog behind a supermarket, and a match was made.
Before the fictional dogs, however, Duncan acquired a cat, Sid, a big black fellow who had belonged to his late friend and neighbor in Hampstead. Having resisted the temptation to give my primary f ictional characters German Shepherds, I’ve given the GSDs walk-on roles in a number of novels.
Dogs and cats weave in and out of all the books in the series. I notice I’ve had a particular fondness for black Labrador Retrievers, which pop up in a number of books. Duncan’s parents have a lovely Border Collie. One of my favorite fictional dogs has been Mo, the English Mastiff in Where Memories Lie (Wm. Morrow, 2008). Mo was modeled on a real English Mastiff named Big Mo. Big Mo’s owners bid at a Humane Society auction for the opportunity to have him appear in a book, and I hope I did him justice. I certainly enjoyed spending a book with him, drool and all. I particularly love the scene where he eats the tub of ice cream.
But if working dogs have had minor roles in previous books, they get their due in No Mark Upon Her (Wm. Morrow, 2012). Finn, a black Lab, and Tosh, a female German Shepherd who just happens to look exactly like our Neela, are search-and-rescue dogs with a volunteer organization I’ve called Thames Valley SAR in the book. TVSAR is based on a real volunteer group called Berkshire SAR, whose members were extremely helpful when I was researching the book. They allowed me to handle a search dog in training exercises, and to hide and pretend to be a victim. (In the dark, in the mud, I might add. All the more fun.)
I have tremendous respect for both dogs and handlers, and if the dogs in my book are heroes, their real-life counterparts are more so.
Will there be dogs and cats in future books? Undoubtedly. I can’t imagine my own life without their companionship, and my characters deserve to be equally blessed.
There is one caveat, however — the dogs and cats are not allowed to talk.
This essay first appeared in the “Animal” issue of Mystery Readers Journal and is reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The social patterns of a dog park
The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.
“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you talk to a lot at the cemetery—you meet them somewhere … we were down at Granny Killams when it was open one night and this woman came over and said, ‘Al, how are you? how’s the dogs? how’s all this?’ and I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, ‘And this is …,’ and I realized I had no idea, it wasn’t that I had forgotten her name, it was that I’d never known her name. I knew her dog … I mean, I had no idea. And, this was not somebody that I just knew very casually, this was somebody that I probably walked with three or four mornings a week. But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which, I think, says something about who’s worth knowing anyway.”
Even today what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years and many of them just don’t know each other’s real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves or hates. They just know each other’s dogs’ names. So when they refer to one another, they might say, “Circe’s mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own.” Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping, they’ll say, “Ellroy’s mom!” and then when nothing’s left to say, say, “Uh, how goes it?”
Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby-talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben’s mother, about this.
“I think I really get a sort-of window into people’s … well, into people’s souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace and every once in a while yelling for their dog and ….”
Here’s Al again: “I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog. When I see people hit a dog, I’m really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that.
“I mean, I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn’t. I know people who’ve got trophy dogs and people who’ve got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.”
I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where, more often than not, I’d find Jeff and Keana. The minute Jeff realized I was a writer he went to the library and over the course of a week read everything I’d ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others, too.
When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning—a photograph of Keana and himself. He brought it up obsessively, about how Keana was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped, and how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks—a good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor’easter hit, the need to time everything just perfectly so that Keana would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for her picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.
In retrospect there were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba-diving … later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears, he and Keana in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War-era husband and wife, he in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind Keana who was perfectly coifed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me, literally beaming.
After Christmas I left the country for several weeks and when I came back, some time after a massive ice storm, Jeff was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn’t seem to want to talk about it … didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves, and Jeff … he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive. What I learned was this: he’d had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He’d asked someone from the cemetery to put him up, another line crossed. But that hadn’t worked out. Keana was taken to a kennel by Megan, Matty’s mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn’t. Week after week she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up Keana, that he was gone. That’s when Keana was adopted by someone else.
Here’s Megan: “You start talking about this stuff with somebody and then you realize, “I didn’t even know this person … like with Jeff, I mean, it was like you knew everything about his life but in the end how much of that was actually true? And, you know, you didn’t even know this person … it was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.”
There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he’d robbed a bank. Someone knew someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast. Maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed. Betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He’d become too intimate. Now he was gone and it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else’s eye. During those dark winter months the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived … someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggy shampoo?
Sara and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator right up until a couple of months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he’d been, for I was pretty certain that he couldn’t have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he’d been inches from a life he imagined for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love, with friends he was guaranteed to see every day and he’d had a couple of bad breaks—got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog and then panicked.
Now time has passed. People come and go and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive and every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they’re in Mecca. Circling the Ka’ba. In general I’d say things are back to the way they were—intimate but not intimate. We stand around in dumfounded joy with ten, twenty, thirty other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play. Dalmatian Man still flashes sign language at his deaf Dalmatian, the Pickup Artist still works his magic, the Lawn Chair Family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day, covering their legs with wool blankets.
Fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers, eventually something happens that brings you together. Sometimes something small. The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers, and there were all these living people, too, who only know me as Trout’s dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me. The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end, and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything, and we stood in a circle watching it rise. For a minute or two we just stood there glowing orange, the dogs didn’t exist at all.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When I’m asked if I live alone, I reply, “No, I live with Lucy.” Lucy is my 12-year-old Beagle. She’s a stubborn little dog, but especially sweet and loving. My late husband, Don, and I adopted her from the local shelter nine years ago. We had been checking the shelter weekly, and when we drove up one Sunday in early June, the attendant said, “I have just the dog for you.” He led us to a tri-colored hound, unlocked the pen and said, “Her name is Lucy.”
The frisky Beagle charged toward us, running from one to the other. She wiggled all over when we stooped down to pat her. We were hooked immediately by her affection. “Her ears are like velvet,” I said, stroking her and smiling up at Don. He nodded, then asked the attendant, “Where do we sign?”
Within minutes, the paperwork was completed. Don opened the back door of our Buick station wagon and Lucy hopped right in. The trip home took about 10 minutes. She sat looking out the window as though she had ridden with us all her life. When she placed her front right paw on the armrest, we knew she was special; later that night, as we listened to her snore, we agreed she was a perfect fit. I intended for her to be Don’s dog. He had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I had read that a dog would be helpful. They became buddies at once. Don spent hours in the back yard throwing a tennis ball, which Lucy raced after but never retrieved. She’d sit at the ball and wait until Don traipsed across the yard to pick it up and throw it again. They never tired of that little game. As his illness progressed, his stride became a slow shuffle. Lucy waited patiently for him to reach her. “Go get it,” he said, tossing the ball again.
One afternoon, it became quiet in the back yard. I headed toward the door to check on them, then noticed that they were both asleep on the braided rug in the family room. Don’s arm was around Lucy. When I approached, she opened her eyes without moving an inch, so as not to disturb him. I ran for the camera.
When Don puttered around the yard or went down to the basement, she was at his side. Evenings, after they had their ice cream, he sat in his recliner with Lucy curled up on his lap.
In September, we signed her up for obedience training. I handled her during classes, as Don’s memory was failing; he sat on a bench nearby and watched. The instructor said Beagles are stubborn, but Lucy surprised us. Head and tail held high, she pranced along beside me like a show dog. As a proud mother, I beamed.
When I could no longer provide Don’s care, he became a resident at a nursing facility. Lucy mourned his absence in our home. She waited at the back door with the tennis ball in her mouth. If I opened the freezer door, she dashed into the kitchen, expecting ice cream.
Each afternoon, we visited Don. Lucy was so excited that she dragged me across the parking lot. She stood on her hind legs at his wheelchair, her entire body wagging. Don’s laughter filled the hallway. As his illness progressed and he was no longer able to acknowledge us, Lucy was completely undemanding. She sat quietly at the foot of his wheelchair and grieved.
Evenings at home, when I sat in Don’s recliner, Lucy would jump up on my lap. I welcomed the closeness, but her 36 pounds was too much for me. I’d point to the floor and say, “Down, girl, down. You’re too heavy for me.” Reluctantly, she’d jump down and nestle alongside the chair, looking up. I rubbed her velvet ears, and we were both comforted.
It’s been nearly four years since we lost Don. That sensitive little Beagle has transferred her love to me. Her companionship and loyal devotion fill the void in my life. She is never far away, and I talk to her all day long. Her bed is in a corner of my bedroom. Every night before she settles down, she comes alongside the bed for a little smooch. I pat her head and say, “You’re a good girl. Mommy loves you.” It fills a need for both of us.
I’ve had many dogs in my 83 years, but never one as loving and devoted as my Lucy. She keeps me company, makes me laugh and snuggles up when she senses I’m lonely. She is the perfect housemate. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We were on our daily walk, and my dog became startled by a cow in someone’s nativity scene. Christmas decorations in general freak him out, so during the holidays, we approach many reindeer from behind, so he can sniff them and see that they aren’t real and aren’t going to chase us down the street. I don’t want him afraid of things in his environment, so I always make the effort to let him work through his fears.
Anyway, we’re walking along, and all of a sudden he stops and stares. I look ahead, and realize that the cow is staring directly at my dog. Or so he thinks. I smile, because his child-like discovery of new things is always refreshing to me. I walk him around to the rear of the cow, I touch it and let him sniff my hand, then he approaches the cow nonchalantly and stands in the middle of the nativity scene. He starts sniffing Baby Jesus, which I think is very touching. Of all the statues surrounding him, the baby lying on straw is the one that draws his attention. Then he starts to lift his leg. “No! Oh no!” I sputter, as I hurriedly pull on his leash and get him away from there. I’m not sure if any pee landed on its intended target — I was too ashamed to look closely and wanted to leave the scene in case anyone had witnessed our “crime” and wanted to give me an earful about how disrespectful it was.
I am a Christian, and I think my dog is too. I wouldn’t let him pee on anyone’s religious icon, because I believe that my dog should learn to respect all faiths. I can understand him not knowing the significance of icons from religions he’s not familiar with. But why on earth would he pee on Baby Jesus? When I talk about Jesus, my dog settles down and gives me a sage look — “Oh yes, Jesus. It’s not well promoted, but he was very good to the animals.” Christmas hymns are one of his favorite kinds of music and put him in a very relaxed state. And when we set up our Christmas tree, he alternates between lying where he can gaze at it with admiration and lying underneath its sheltering boughs, looking like he is getting the best rest he gets all year. For these reasons, I’m pretty sure my dog is Christian. So, his peeing on Baby Jesus must have some amazing, profound explanation.
Has God sent my dog to warn us of worshipping false idols? The Old Testament commands us not to worship any “graven image.” The companies that sell these religious figures assure us that as long as we put God first and realize that the figurine is just a figurine, then our money is well spent on inspiring others by our faith. But is that why we display a nativity scene these days? Lately there have been so many legal arguments over displaying nativity scenes on public property. It seems that as the arguments build, more and more people are buying nativity scenes and displaying them on their front lawns. Do they buy the nativity scene because they are divinely inspired to demonstrate their faith, or do they buy the nativity scene out of anger, daring a neighbor to say something about it? Dogs have a wonderful sense of smell. Perhaps my dog smelled the anger hormones left behind by the homeowner as he thrust his nativity scene on his lawn, laughing a cynical laugh and planning what he would do to the person who dared to challenge his display of faith.
Then again, perhaps it was the quality of the figurine that my dog took issue with. This was a cheap-looking, plastic nativity scene. It was fairly new, but if you’re going to have a representation of the Baby Jesus, shouldn’t it be the best quality that money can buy? Perhaps my dog knew that this was a cheap imitation that didn’t stand up to the life that Jesus led and the lives that he is still touching today. Could it be that my dog decided to let someone know exactly what he thought of that piss-poor representation of our Lord and Savior? Or maybe my dog smelled the cynical hormones left behind by the worker in the Jesus factory. Maybe the factory owners laugh as they count their money, knowing that they can charge whatever they want and cut costs wherever they want, because no one would dare say that Baby Jesus is too expensive. Or perhaps they get irritated with the frustrations of their job, forgetting about the magic they create. “How in the heck did we end up with 30 Marys and only 15 Josephs? Jeez, the guys running the assembly line are idiots!” Maybe my dog was smelling the hormones left behind by workers who handled the Baby Jesus.
Or perhaps it was the timing of the episode. This happened around January 8. For some reason, people in my neighborhood left their Christmas decorations out longer than usual this year. I don’t know if it’s because of the depressing news about the economy — maybe people are trying to hold onto the Christmas spirit a little longer. Or maybe it’s because we had a lot of dreary, cold days around the first of the year, and people just procrastinated going outside and taking down their Christmas decorations. At any rate, perhaps my dog is sage enough to know that if we drag out the Christmas season, it will become just another set of dreary days to get through and will lose its magic. People need to put their Christmas decorations away so that when they pull them out again next Thanksgiving, the decorations will have the needed effect of pulling on our emotions and making us present to the love of mankind that we neglect the rest of the year.
All of these things run through my mind as we make our way back home. What is the message my dog was trying to send to that homeowner? I have learned some amazing things by watching my dog, and what was I meant to learn this time? When we get settled back at the house, I sit on the couch and stare at my dog, trying to figure out what he was communicating. Then all of a sudden the realization dawns on me. I know exactly why my dog tried to pee on Baby Jesus. It’s because another dog peed on Baby Jesus first!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part VIII: Scarf the Herald Angels Sing
Holiday season is known—in the abundant countries at least—as a season of excess eating. There are the countless office parties with their vegetable-and-dip/cheese-and-cracker crudité tables and heaping buffets. There are the more intimate family celebrations, with traditional dishes such as the Christmas goose, Christmas ham, the Hanukkah brisket or, in my crowd, the Tofurkey. All of these things (excepting the latter) are very appealing to a dog.
So should a dog be invited to the holiday party? This was an issue I faced when I first adopted Chloe, because she was a very, shall we say, festive eater.
When Chloe first came to live with me, she always seemed hungry. I mean hungry in a neurotic, desperate way. I fed her very well of course: she got bones and raw food at home, homemade cooked meat mixtures when we were visiting other folks. But in the beginning, Chloe could never seem to get enough to eat. She always wanted more. After she scarfed each meal down (in two seconds) she’d lick and lick her bowl, using her paw to steady the dish. Then she would scour the floor for every last drib of meat juice, grain of rice or drop of salmon oil. Then for the rest of the day, she would follow me everywhere, hoping perhaps that at any moment I would reach into the closet and pull out a rack of beef.
Chloe, thank goodness, was never the kind of indoor scarfer who counter-hopped or stole roast chickens from the dining table. I clicker-trained her very early on not to do these things. But I can’t tell you how many times — when I first adopted her — I tripped over her in the tiny kitchen in our New York City apartment. If I dropped something on the floor — say, a piece of toast — she would dive in and grab it. When I tried to load the dishwasher, she’d rush in to lick the dishes. When I tried to open the oven, she’d try to stick her head inside and lick the racks. The refrigerator, to her, was a dream come true — especially the lower rack, where I kept her meat. She would stare at that rack with her tail wagging, hoping I’d give in and throw her a pound of turkey giblets. Sometimes, it was cute. I loved the look on her face as she waited, joyfully, for more food! But quite often, the trippingover- her part was a pain.
I don’t know my dog’s history, but it’s possible she was a stray. And former strays can be insatiable when it comes to hunger. Many of these dogs have experienced extreme hunger, even starvation, so their brains become wired to constantly seek what they lack — food. Some rescued strays, I’m told, because of this re-wiring, will continue to scarf until their dying day, even if they enjoy abundant, consistent meals in their new homes.
My vet used the term “incurable” when it came to Chloe’s relentless food-drive. He said she was just being a dog. I could accept this to a point. But not if her food-drive put her in danger (see below).
My dog is probably part Labrador Retriever, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode. But once, when I was staying at a friend’s house, we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying on her side on the fl oor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This was unusual behavior for Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate. Alarmed, I rushed over and knelt in front of her, checking her breathing and heart rate. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. She farted in response.
“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tippedover bag of kibble (our host-dog’s private batch), more than half of it gone.
“Chloe, how could you?” I said to the dog. But Chloe didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.
So here was proof that, while some dogs might try to eat until they explode, they will not actually explode. Chloe did, however, pass gas for the next few days. My friend and I joked that there should be an Overeaters Anonymous group for dogs.
But all kidding aside, we were lucky that this incident passed without terrible repercussions — no stomach pumping or intestinal twisting. As we know, overeating and scarfing can be dangerous for dogs.
Especially in New York. There, the discarded food that litters the streets can be hazardous. On the sidewalks, Chloe found such benign appetizers as pizza crusts and discarded bagels, but there was also rat poison, radiator fluid and chicken bones to worry about. Eating a cooked chicken bone, as we know, can be a life-threatening issue for a dog, so I spent many a morning having to pry Chloe’s jaws apart grabbing the bone before she swallowed. It’s a gross feeling to have to stick one’s fi ngers down a dog’s gullet.
I should point out here that Chloe’s on-leash behavior is exemplary. We know how to navigate the sidewalks of New York City quite well. In fact, she knows such commands as “right” and “left,” “halt,” and “reverse,” which are all essential things to know when trying to weave one’s way through the crowds. When I hold Chloe’s leash and call out the navigational cues, it’s like controlling the lever on a video game. I always score high points.
But I am also told that even service dogs will scarf from time to time. It’s in dogs’ natures. Even after Chloe got to the point in her training where she would leave food alone if I said “No,” she still sometimes managed to snatch up those pizza crusts before I issued the command. (Thus somehow scoring her own point by getting around the rules.) I ultimately left New York.
Even after we left the city, Chloe still found both dangerous and/or merely gross things to scarf. At the beach, she’d snuff around for crab claws, seagull poop, and the carcasses of dead fish. (To roll in and then scarf). Upstate, she liked to hunt for dead deer parts and bear scat. Mostly the repercussions were having to give lots of baths, and having to endure the odor of passed gas, but I knew I had to do something about the food obsession and scarfing. It was too risky.
The vet whom I consulted suggested that I limit Chloe’s walks (huh?). Another suggestion was to put Chloe on an appetite suppressant. I was suspicious of this advice, primarily because his was one of those veterinary practices that really pushed pharmaceutical products. In the waiting room, there were pamphlets for anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, anti-shedding, anti-flea, and even those horrible anti-bark sprays on every table and windowsill. To me this suggested a symptom-not-cause approach, and I eventually switched to a holistic vet. I decided I would not use appetite suppressants for Chloe. (Turns out they’re toxic for the kidneys anyway.)
This vet also suggested a basket muzzle, and I did look into this option — for about two minutes. At the pet store, a clerk helped me try to find one that would fit Chloe’s wide head and thin snout. The fitting was not a pleasant experience for either me or the dog. Chloe tried to paw the muzzle off and scraped her head against the shelves and floors. She looked so distressed—and Hannibal Lector-ish—that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
So no drugs, no restraining devices: I decided to do the smartest thing and sign up for more intensive clicker training sessions. For the indoor “following-me-around-obsessivelyin- the-kitchen” behavior, I clicker-trained Chloe to stay in one particular place while I free-ranged though the kitchen. It was actually quite easy. I purchased a rubber-backed bath mat — black, so that it wouldn’t soil so obviously, and situated the mat in an out-of-the-way section of the kitchen. Then I clicker-trained her to lie down on that mat whenever she entered the kitchen. She could look but not touch, in other words. Chloe’s reward for following this new stay-on-the-mat rule were simple. She got the pleasure of watching me prepare food while I bustled about the kitchen, and she got to enjoy the delicious suspense of knowing that she would get some of this food as a result of her own good behavior. The standard click-and-treat method. It was brilliant.
My friends are particularly impressed that, even during parties, when there are platters of cheeses and crackers and cured meats placed low on coffee tables, Chloe remains on her mat, poised alert and as complacent as a Sphinx. She stays there because she enjoys being a good dog, and because she always knows — because of operant conditioning — that, once I stop preparing for the party and sit down to relax, she will be allowed to get up and receive a treat. The rind of a Spanish drunken goat cheese, perhaps. A nibble of pepperoni. A piece of chicken.
For outdoor scarfing issues, we worked on new commands and hand signals and/or modifying the times of our walks so that we weren’t at the beach, for example, at low tide when there were more shells and dead things exposed. Plus, as the months passed, Chloe seemed to realize that she would never starve again in this lifetime. Her rather frantic need to eat seemed to wane, replaced by a sort of excited gratitude each time I placed her food dish before her. Her behavior no longer suggested “This might be my last meal” but more “Ah yes, ground turkey and salmon oil with a dash of kelp again. My compliments to the chef. But a little less kelp next time, s’il vous plaît.”
Chloe still hasn’t lost her taste for scat, however, and at this time of year we have at least two dozen wild turkeys wandering around our property. Chloe, my non-birdy bird dog, will follow the turkeys around—not chase them, mind you—and happily eat their poop, acting as if she is doing us all a favor. She never overeats, however. Just enough for, as the French would say, an amuse-bouche before her proper meal.
I am proud of her, in a way only dog people can understand. Proud of her progress from chemically imbalanced rescue dog to happily settled old gal.
At my last holiday party, I must say that Chloe was the best-behaved guest of the lot. My friends are artists, writers, musicians, theater-types and drag queens, and while we respect our brain cells enough not to do drugs, the wine did pour freely, and the eggnog and the grog and the wassail, the latter of which prompted a lot of impromptu carols about wassailing, (sung completely on key despite the alcohol, with a soaring finale and a kick-ass bass solo to boot). And all the while, Chloe stayed on her mat, observing curiously, occasionally getting up to snuggle next to people and/or greet new guests at the door. I noticed that she completely ignored the cheese trays and the glazed duck, choosing instead to wander into the center of our song circle and feed off our admiration of her.
During the choral finale, Chloe threw herself onto her back and shimmied around on the fl oor, wagging her tail and waving her legs in the air. She howled a few times in joy. “Hark the herald angel sings,” the drag queen shouted, and we began all over again.
Culture: Stories & Lit
“Oh, look, it’s a baby!” I have heard this comment, or some variation, a thousand times while walking along the esplanade on New York City’s East Side. I’ve also heard others speak in mock-friendly (but actually sarcastic) tones about my dog and her carriage. But either way, Bella, a small Chihuahua- Boston Terrier mix, doesn’t seem to pay attention. As her tour-guide, I ignore their comments, while Bella licks her paws and enjoys the ride.
We bought a dog carriage (the size and almost exact design of a baby’s) because Bella developed a problem in her back knees. Called luxating patella, it’s common in small dogs; running or jumping (or for Bella, wrestling) will eventually make walking painful. My sister and I first noticed that Bella was having trouble during one of our trips to the park, when Bella held her left back paw off the ground and trotted along on three paws instead of four. Last September, she had corrective surgery, but despite the doctors’ assurances that she would recover within three weeks, it took much longer. So we bought a carriage. Now, even though her leg has healed, Bella still loves riding in it.
“Oh, look, it’s a baby!”
The baby has a white face and pink circles around her eyes where the hair fades away. She has Yodalike ears and a set of sharp teeth, which she only uses to “play bite.” She stands roughly 18 inches high, weighs 14 pounds, and from the base of her neck on down is solid black — “jet black,” my sister says. To passersby, she’s “simply adorable.”
We’ve found that the best thing to do when confronted by criticism from a stranger is to pretend that Bella has a gift that would make walking dangerous — something so valuable that we can’t afford to let Bella’s feet touch the ground: “Yes, isn’t she cute! Bella, do the howl! Bella, bark my name! Sing, Bella!” Or, we could explain why we bought the carriage. I did this for a month before I realized it was a waste of time. People don’t care, and for most, there’s nothing you can say that will justify your dog having her own carriage. So play with it. Give your dog a gift. Bella can whistle. On occasion, when presented with a treat, she can wink. She has a whole carriage-worth of tricks.
Bella enjoys the ride, the wind on her tongue, the view of the East River. Last September, the carriage was a necessity, but now it’s a luxury, one we both appreciate. I want to get outside, and Bella wants to see the world beyond the apartment. So, like the rest of the city’s carriage trade, we hit the streets, take in the sights and are, in turn, taken in.
Culture: Stories & Lit
All of my life, i have dreamed of having at least two dogs, but always knew I would have to wait for the right situation. For me, the “right situation” involved living in the country rather than in New York City, in a house surrounded by lots of land and with all the time in the world on my hands. Or at least, enough time to train my second dog and help him adjust to his life with Chloe and me (in our house in the country). I wanted to be able to take them hiking and give them plenty of attention, engagement, exercise and so forth. I figured that, with a second dog, my caretaking duties — meaning my supervised duties, above and beyond the care my dogs always receive — would amount to about four hours per day.
Why four hours? I wanted to adopt an English Setter.
You know how it is — we dog lovers can be partial to certain breeds or types of dogs. And, oh, the glories of mixedbreeds! Who can resist the combos? My own Chloe is some sort of Spaniel/Lab/Border Collie amalgam, and I adopted her, in part, because of my Spaniel/Setter fixation. To me, the only thing better than having a bird dog as a companion is to have two bird dogs. So the idea of adopting a second dog was always on my mind.
In 2006, I finally left New York City and moved to the Catskill Mountains full time. I had had Chloe for about a year at that point, and we had enjoyed a rich life, spending part of our time in an apartment in the city and the other part at a small cottage upstate. It was an ideal situation in many ways, but it got to be exhausting. The commutes and the changes and all that packing and backing-and-forthing was too much, especially with a large dog in tow.
So I moved to that big house with lots of land I had always dreamed about. Finally, it was time to adopt my second dog.
I was very excited at the prospect, and I knew Chloe would be too. We all know that dogs are pack animals and thus are happiest and most comfortable when they are members of a canine pack. Chloe loved other dogs — she loved to play and romp and flirt — and she also seemed to enjoy being a mother dog. I got a kick out of watching her play with puppies at the dog park, wrangling them and letting them crawl all over her, giving them playful but very gentle swats and nips. It made me wonder if she had had puppies at some point in her young life, before I adopted her. It made me wonder if she missed them.
Therefore, I decided I would adopt a puppy this time around, rather than an adult. I had the time, after all. And I knew what raising and training a puppy would entail. I felt fully prepared to adopt my Setter pup.
And so, I began my search on Petfinder.com.
Whereas I’d searched the Internet for several months before choosing Chloe, the second-dog search took only a few weeks. I found a Setter rescue group that I liked, and they were in the midst of arranging adoptions for a litter of nine liver-and-white pups. Seven of them were male, and I knew I wanted to adopt a male. I telephoned immediately, and spoke with a kind and encouraging volunteer, who filled me in on the adoption process. We spoke for about 45 minutes — about me, their group and my potential dog — and by the end of the conversation, she told me she’d send an application. (Apparently, this group will not even send out applications until they speak to the candidates in person or on the telephone.) “You sound like an ideal candidate,” the woman said.
I must confess that I also thought I was an ideal candidate to adopt a dog. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect human specimen, or that I know every last thing there is to know about dogs, but I do work for a dog magazine, for goodness sake, and — thanks to Wallace and Chloe — have scads of experience in living with and training birdy-type dogs. Plus, I seemed to have all the right answers to all the questions on the adoption application:
• How many hours per day are you home? (Average, about 20.)
• Where will your dog sleep? (Wherever he damn well pleases — usually on the most comfortable bed in the house.)
• How much exercise will your dog get? And where? (Hours daily, at dog parks and on hiking trails.)
• What is your income? (Enough to keep the dogs, and myself, well fed, comfortably housed, healthy, impeccably groomed, constantly entertained, etc.)
• What will you feed your dog? (Bones and raw food and homemade meat/vegetable/supplement mixtures.)
• What sort of training methods will you use? (Clicker.)
• Do you have a fenced-in yard? (Um … kind of … but we have many acres of land in a low-population area with no cars.)
When I expressed concern to the volunteer about my lack of a fenced-in yard, she said that this group often made exceptions for “the right candidates.”
Can you blame me if I thought I was a shoo-in? After my application was approved (with flying colors, I might add), we arranged for a home visit. One of the volunteers from the rescue group would come the following Saturday to meet me and my dog and check out our digs.
Gleefully, I started to prepare — mentally and literally — for the arrival of my new puppy. I bought cute little toys and a memory-foam bed. I read up on puppy-specific training, and on the body language of puppies and mother dogs/ female dogs. I even picked out a name: Trinley, in honor of a Tibetan monk of whom I am particularly fond. (He said it would be all right to name a dog after him.) “Trinley’s coming,” I’d say to Chloe in a sing-song voice. “Your new little brother Trinley!” One night, I even dreamed about him; in the dream, he snuggled and squirmed in a way that seemed incredibly real. Trinley was so excited to be with us and we were so excited to be with him. When I woke, I was convinced that the dream was prophetic — that Trinley was meant to be my second dog.
Yes, the thought sometimes crossed my mind that I would not be approved, but those thoughts were fleeting. After all, I had adopted Chloe without any trouble. Millions of dogs in this country needed homes. Surely my offer to provide a home for an unwanted dog would be granted.
My evaluator, Mr. W, arrived at my house on a sunny Saturday. An older man, he was wearing khakis and a polo shirt of a distinctive color that we in the know call “Nantucket Red.” He drove a silver Volvo with a Connecticut license plate, and had a gorgeous Belton-type English Setter in tow. The dog had one of those long names I can no longer remember. “Constantine’s Westchester Amblefoot Toucan Pie” or some such thing, with the call name “Took.”
“Took,” I repeated happily, and reached into the car window to pet him. “Would you like to come meet Chloe, Took?”
The man seemed uncertain. “He doesn’t really play with other dogs. I’m not sure I should let him out of the car.” I must have looked at him perplexedly, because he added, “He’s a show dog.”
Took was now barking madly and scratching at the car window, trying to wedge his body through the small crack.
“Well, I suppose I could take him out,” Mr. W said. He then strung Took up on a choke chain and let him out of the car.
I should point out here that I Iived on 16 acres of land, much of it bordering thousands of acres of state land. Chloe is never on a leash because she does not need to be: (a) she is not a roamer, and (b) she is, as we have seen, well trained and has perfect recall. For recall, I use hand signals in addition to verbal cues, and a special whistle she can hear at great distances. She’s a terrific dog who has earned her freedom.
Now, Chloe waited for my “okay” command before she said hello to Took. She play-bowed and he play-bowed back, then he leapt forward for a romp, only to be yanked back rather cruelly by Mr. W, who had pulled sharply on the choke collar.
I winced. I hate to see dogs yelping in pain. “Do you want to let him off-leash and watch them interact?” I said. “We can watch their body language and signals, to see how Chloe interacts with other dogs.”
“I never let him off-leash,” he said. “He hasn’t been off-leash since he was six weeks old, straight from the litter. If I let him go, he’d never come back.” Do you know that for certain? I wanted to ask. But I held my tongue.
“Will you let him off leash inside the house?” I asked.
“Sure, I think that will be okay.” I wish I hadn’t asked. Once we got inside and Took was released, he began to wreak havoc. First, he peed on my sofa, then he ran into the kitchen and jumped up on all the counters, sweeping his snout across in search of food, knocking over blenders and utensil containers along the way. Finding nothing to eat, he ran into the bathroom, tipping over my little metal trashcan with a sharp rattle and digging around for used tissues. Meanwhile, Chloe followed Took with a rather perplexed look on her face, as if to say: We don’t do that around here.
“I think I’ll put him in the car,” Mr. W said. Back outside, I showed Mr. W the property. As we walked with Chloe across the meadows and around the pond, I pointed out stone walls in the distance that marked the borders, and the mountain that loomed behind us — the beginnings of the great Catskill Park.
“Chloe is boundary trained,” I said. Mr. W had never heard of this, so I explained that I had spent many hours taking Chloe along the property’s perimeter, which I’d marked with light-colored flags on various trees, and used a clicker to teach her that she was not to wander beyond those barriers. “It was time consuming, but it was worth it.”
“My dog could never be trained like that,” he said. I wanted to say, With a clicker, you can do anything, but I held back out of respect for his point of view.
I showed him Chloe’s various skills, cueing her with a mix of hand signals, verbal cues, eye movements, whistles and clicks. It felt like a circus act, but she seemed very pleased with herself, and happy to entertain our guests.
When I told her to “run to the pond,” she ran to the pond, which was quite a distance away. Then I shouted “Come” and blew the whistle, and Chloe returned, bounding happily across the grass, ears flapping.
Mr. W was impressed. He petted Chloe and praised her when she returned. “What a good dog!” he said. “I never knew dogs could do such things.” She beamed.
Then the issue of the fenced-in yard came up. I had a pool, which was fenced, but both of us knew that didn’t really count. I was banking on the fact that this particular rescue group made exceptions to the fence rule for the right candidates.
“Chloe loves to swim,” I said, pushing through the gate into the pool area. “She does laps.”
“Technically, we require six-foot fences,” Mr. W said, looking around, “and I worry about this pool.” Then he turned to me and smiled. “But I think you’re a good candidate. I’ll put in a positive recommendation.”
I was so happy that I hugged him. Chloe, sensing the mood, threw herself on her back and waved her legs in the air. We talked a bit more about bird dogs in general and Setters in particular, and then discussed the logistics of the adoption process. “I submit a report of my home visit,” he said, “and then the board meets to decide.”
All in all, I felt that this home visit had been a pleasant experience, and a successful one. As we parted ways Mr. W emphasized that Chloe seemed to have a good life here.
So imagine my shock when, a few days later, I received an email notifying me that I had been rejected. The reason? Lack of a fenced-in yard. And more: boundary training. “We cannot give our dogs to people who boundary train,” I was told.
I was crestfallen. Rejection never feels good in any situation, but this felt like an emotional, even personal, blow. I cried for days, realizing I had fallen in love with Trinley and lost him before even meeting him. You who have had your applications rejected will know what I mean.
Soon, my sorrow was replaced by anger and indignation. I complained to my off-leash and dog park friends, to my rescue friends, to my dog-writer friends. Everyone had choice things to say about this rescue group’s decision. I am not usually a back-stabber, but it helped to let off some steam.
After a few days of immature moaning, I finally had to settle into the truth that Trinley would not be coming to live with us. I like to think that I’m rational, and I always try to see both sides of the story. Thus, I reminded myself that people who work at rescue groups are well meaning. Actually, that’s an understatement. They volunteer their time and effort and heart all for the sake of rescuing and rehoming dogs. They have witnessed cases of intolerable neglect and abuse. They have seen dogs die at the hands of humans. They have rescued dogs who were emaciated, or broken-spirited, or simply confused at being separated from people who didn’t care enough to keep them. I am sure that doing this kind of work would make it hard to have faith in the human race. So I guess they didn’t have faith in me.
I must say, it took quite a while to get over their decision. In fact, I pretty much gave up on the idea of trying to adopt another dog. Years passed, and by the time I started to reconsider, Chloe was a different dog. Now she’s showing signs of arthritis, and is no longer all that patient with exuberant dogs, especially pups. She has also become — forgive the pun — quite the bitch, and doesn’t necessarily want to share her space with anyone else but me. So perhaps it was all for the best. Who knows?
I think about Trinley sometimes. I am sure he found a home; puppies always do. But I wonder about all the dogs who still do not have homes because their applicants were rejected. I do respect a rescue group’s need to err on the side of caution, but I often still wonder: What exactly is the fine line between caution and error? We look forward to hearing your responses.
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