Culture: Stories & Lit
Can a quiz help you find true love?
Go ahead, if you must. Go ahead and let a computer choose your travel route, your spouse, a custom-bundled insurance package or the right wine to have with dinner.
But don’t let a computer choose your dog. Please.
It’s become the way of the world to let apps, databases and websites — whether they were created by geniuses or boobs — make our decisions for us, or at least play a major role. Dogs shouldn’t be ordered via a computer and, in my view, they shouldn’t be chosen based exclusively on what an algorithm decides is “the best breed for you.” Unlike a Dalmatian, the factors involved aren’t black and white, and generalizations can be dangerous. Dependable and all knowing as it is, your computer device of choice can mess things up, sometimes even without your help.
I admit that I’m biased: I favor mutts over purebreds. I think that, as often as possible, people should get a dog who needs a home (and there are millions) as opposed to one a breeder brings into the world to make some money. And, when it comes to computers, I think that, convenient as they are, they’re making us overly dependent. We tend to let them take over work that should be done by our brains and, sometimes, by our hearts.
Given all this — and my belief that a dog should be chosen primarily by the heart, with a limited assist from the brain — you can see why I might have a problem with “breed selectors.” These little quizzes, in which your answers to a series of questions lead to a selection of breeds that “best fit your lifestyle” have popped up all over the Internet — not just on dog blogs, but on the websites of major magazines (like Good Housekeeping) and television networks (like Animal Planet). Many companies that make dog food, dog toys and dog supplies also feature them on their websites.
They all, it seems, want you to have the breed that is “best” for you, which is very thoughtful of them. But there’s another dimmer, and more cynical, view of breed selectors: Mine.
Breed selectors are based on stereotypes. They reinforce purebred snobbism. They make tough decisions too easy, too distant and too instant. And they are time-eaters, which perhaps is their real purpose: to keep you on those websites a little longer. Answer five questions, click. Answer five more, click. Just a few more questions … click… and your answers get churned in with the existing data they’ve assembled, which may or may not be accurate. In a matter of seconds, or even nanoseconds, you discover what a database has decided is your breed of choice. What could be easier?
I took five such tests, offered by five different websites. Thanks to “breed selectors,” I now know that the dog for me is a Doberman Pinscher … or a Mastiff … or a Bichon Frise … or a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel … or a Whippet … or a Bernese Mountain Dog … or an Akita.
I’m not really looking for a dog. I’m fortunate to have one, adopted from a shelter in Baltimore, who’s four dogs in one: a mix (or so repeated DNA testing has shown) of Rottweiler, Akita, Chow Chow and Pit Bull. All four are breeds of ill repute, mostly undeserved. All are sometimes said, generally by people who don’t know much, to be unpredictable, or nippers, or aggressive, or stone-cold killers.
To be honest, had I been selecting a dog by breed, I likely wouldn’t have sought out one of those four. But I wasn’t looking for a dog at all. Instead, I accidentally fell in love while visiting an animal shelter for another purpose. I ended up with the world’s most perfect, loving, friendly, sensitive dog — gentle enough to serve as a therapy dog, as lazy as I am and proof that either those breed stereotypes are way off base or that mixing breeds, if not the answer to world peace, can have some highly positive outcomes.
Why I fell in love with him is another question, one I don’t think computers can answer, and maybe I can’t either. Likely it had to do with the place I was in at the time; the hope I saw in his eyes; and a personality that seemed something like mine, only better. He was quiet, stoic, patient, curious and a fast learner. He’s seven now, and as much as he would probably like some company — ideally, it seems, a cat — my current living conditions aren’t right for a second pet.
So, while I had no business using “breed selectors,” I decided, given their prevalence and my curiosity, to check them out. I started off at Dogtime.com, which turned out to be the best of the bunch. As with the other breed-selecting machines, I listed my genuine preferences — big dogs, smart dogs, friendly dogs — and made it clear that companionship was my priority and protection wasn’t an issue, and that I’d prefer a dog with a moderate energy level — something just slightly above couch potato.
The Dogtime selector has many disclaimers, and rightfully so. Also, unlike the rest I tried out, it makes a point of at least suggesting a mutt. “In searching for the right dog, we encourage you to look beyond a breed to consider the dog himself,” the website says. “Personality is the most important indicator of what it will be like to live with a dog, and a mutt has it in spades.” I proceeded to answer the five pages of questions they threw at me. My results came in this order: Anatolian Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, German Pinscher, Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff.
Though I had expressly stated that “protection” was neither a concern nor a need, most of those breeds are noted for their guarding abilities and intimidating looks. This would turn out to be a common thread; all the breed selectors seemed to assume that if you are looking for a large dog, you need or want a bodyguard when, in reality, some of us just prefer big, goofy lugs who step on our feet and get in the way.
After the Dogtime test, I stumbled over to Good Housekeeping’s website and took its quiz — just two pages. I expressed all the same wants and priorities: a large dog, highly sociable, intelligent, moderately active, and content to be couch potato at night. Its advice? A Bichon Frise: “A cuddly lapdog like the Bichon Frise is your perfect match. Affectionate, charming, and gentle, the Bichon Frise loves everyone and is happiest when part of a family that takes him everywhere. They’re great with children and will get along with other pets. The happy temperament of a Bichon Frise makes him extremely easy and pleasant to live with.”
For a second, given the disparity in breeds offered by the first two sites — at least in terms of the size of dogs recommended — I pondered whether I might be schizophrenic. I pondered whether a Bichon Frise might make a good wife. I pondered whether size really matters, given that there seems to be a big dog inside every little dog, and a little dog inside every big dog. I pondered, briefly, whether or not a Mastiff-Bichon Frise mix, if functionally possible, might be best for me.
Confused, I headed over to the Purina Dog Breed Selector, where the first questions that popped up were how much I wanted to spend (as little as possible, I answered) and how much I was willing to commit to my dog food budget (same answer). I answered 16 questions that were intended, I guess, to reveal some things about me. By the time I was done, only two choices were offered: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Whippet.
Then a list of questions came up related to what I sought in a dog. Again I stuck with the same basic responses: a dog who was large, smart, friendly, etc. When I clicked for results, I got zero choices, so I refreshed the page and did it all again. This time I got 117 choices. Perhaps it was a computer error, perhaps it was my own. Sometimes my paws seem too big for the keyboard; sometimes, when trying to put a little check in a little box, I misclick.
Animal Planet’s breed selector only asked me 10 questions, one at a time. What’s interesting about this one is that, as soon as you answer a question, some of your choices disappear, so you can tell what it is about yourself that disqualifies you as an owner of that breed. After the first few questions, the dogs on my list were Akita, Bull Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff and Bernese Mountain Dog.
When I specified a smart and “very trainable” dog, the Bull Mastiff disappeared. When I said I needed the dog to provide “little or no protection,” the Tibetan Mastiff disappeared. When I told Animal Planet that I lived in a climate that was warm in the summer and cold in the winter (aren’t most?), the Akita disappeared, leaving me with the Bernese Mountain Dog: “It is a sturdy, large, hardy dog capable of both draft and droving work. This requires a combination of strength, speed and agility.” I’m not planning to do any drafting or, for that matter, any droving — and (while I do love Bernese Mountain Dogs) the Animal Planet test wasn’t one of the more impressive.
At that point, not one of the four breed selectors I tried had suggested the Newfoundland, my favorite when it comes to purebreds.
I stopped by the American Kennel Club website to see what advice it offered. While it is perhaps the most breed-focused organization in the world, the AKC doesn’t offer a breed-selector test. Instead, its website supplies potential dog buyers with general information about factors to consider when choosing a breed: temperament, size, gender, age, coat/ grooming needs and health. Genetic problems are common in some breeds, it noted, just above a link to some pet health insurance it recommended.
My final stop was puppyfinder.com. Once again, I specified a large dog, in this case choosing the “over 90 pounds” option. I ranked temperament as most important, and answered that getting along with other dogs, children and strangers were the highest priorities and protection was the lowest. This time, the top result was Newfoundland, followed by Irish Wolfhound, Saint Bernard, Scottish Deerhound and Great Dane.
As with most of the tests, puppyfinder.com made no mention of mixed breeds, which, as a group, are America’s most popular dogs. Few, if any, of the quizzes delve into whether a test-taker was ready to make the commitment to caring for a dog. Most websites seem more concerned with helping you find a dog who “fits into your lifestyle” than if your lifestyle fits having a dog. Though all of the breed-selection tests seem to have great respect for your “lifestyle,” few of them point out that adding a dog to the family is going to give that “lifestyle” a good shaking up.
All that said, I don’t find breed selectors totally despicable. While they do oversimplify and while I do question the accuracy of some of their data and the results they offered, the quizzes provide humans with some knowledge, and humans can always use more knowledge. Used to supplement the decision-making process, as a starting point or to affirm a choice we’ve otherwise researched, they can be helpful.
However, relied upon exclusively, they turn what should be a matter mostly of the heart into a matter solely of the head, a decision we can reach from afar by coldly calculating a breed’s various features — checking little boxes to specify the amount of drooling and shedding we can tolerate, and maybe even finding a coat color that fits in with our décor.
Shouldn’t a personal connection be part of the decision? Shouldn’t love conquer all? You’re getting a dog, after all, not a cappuccino machine. We don’t choose our friends, at least our non-Facebook ones, that way. We don’t examine their specifications, or befriend them based on their energy levels, how much food they eat, or whether, when threatened, they will attack on our behalf or hide under the coffee table.
Proponents of using such computerized tests to match dog to human say it will lead to better relationships and result in fewer dogs ending up abandoned or in shelters. But I’d question how many of those situations are the result of breed-specific traits and behavior, as opposed to owners who either weren’t ready for a dog in the first place or who, placing their “lifestyle” above all else, were unwilling to invest the necessary time.
Others will point out, hey, computer matchmaking works, at least sometimes, for human relationships; why not for dogs? As with human-matchmaking websites, the breed selectors allow you to cast the widest net possible, specify what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to put up with, and click your way to true love. Website ads point out that every day, increasing numbers of people are coming together that way — something like one in five marriages, according to some studies, are couples who met online.
But there’s a difference. Those people, after confirming they both like long walks on the beach at sunset, generally meet before they permanently shack up together. They spend some time confirming, face to face, that what the database suggests might be love, really is. Not so with dogs. They become instant household members. And to think that your computer-determined love for the Golden Retriever breed means you are going to love each and every Golden Retriever is wrong, not to mention an insult to the remarkable individuality of dogs.
Until the day comes when breeders manage to make every dog of a certain breed exactly the same in every way (and I hope they don’t), matching human to dog breed remains a gimmick. Humans usually fall for gimmicks.
My prediction? Expect dog-to-human matchmaking to become even more popular, and go even more the way of human-to-human matchmaking — with more emphasis on pairing up similar personalities. Human-to-human matchmaking sites are mostly based on our desire to hook up with someone, preferably, a slightly younger version of ourselves.
Indications are that’s the direction doggie matchmaking is headed as well — matching humans not with an individual dog, but with the breed that supposedly best ref lects themselves. People are drawn to breeds that mirror their own personalities, according to research by psychologists, including a recent study by scientists at the UK’s Bath Spa University, with assistance from the Kennel Club. The findings, not yet peer-reviewed, were presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in London in April 2012.
Here are some examples of what they found: Outgoing types lean toward Collies, Sheepdogs, Bulldogs, Heelers and Corgis. Highly agreeable sorts have a preference for Spaniels, Retrievers, Setters, Pointers and Weimaraners. Conscientious people go for Dalmatians, Poodles, Schnauzers, Chow Chows and Boston Terriers. Laid-back folks gravitate toward Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Foxhounds, Beagles, Dachshunds and Greyhounds.
The study — in which 1,000 dog owners took part — was based on questionnaires measuring five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and anxiety. The conclusion? “We go for dogs [who] are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner who is a bit like us,” says Bath Spa University study researcher Lance Workman. While “lifestyle” is a big factor in the breed people choose, he adds, “it seems likely that personality types are subconsciously drawn to certain breeds.”
Workman says fewer dogs might end up in shelters if prospective dog owners first took a test that measured both their personality type as well as practical, lifestyle-based concerns, such as the size of their homes. “You would type in these answers, and it would expand the 50 questions we’ve got to go into lifestyle, and it would say, ‘This is the dog for you,’” Workman concludes.
We must disagree (disagreeability being one of our personality traits). The traits and characteristics of breeds just aren’t that predictable. Your Great Dane won’t always be in the way (just most of the time); your Border Collie won’t always be a genius, your Weimaraner won’t always come around to your point of view.
What these selectors, quizzes and even scientists seem to fail to realize is that dogs are individuals, and even those bred to possess certain traits are not assembly-line creations with identical personalities. Each is unique, and guess what? There’s a soul in there; of that I’m pretty sure.
As for me, when the time comes to get another dog — no matter how advanced technology has become by then — I’m not going to let a computer, or website, or database decide what is the best dog for me. I’m not going to let a book, a magazine or a scientist decide what is the best dog for me. The best dog for me will be decided by me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Swept away by an Italian charmer
He came into my life five years ago — my lovely Roman. I live in Ireland and was visiting my son, Dara, who works in the Vatican. It was a sun-kissed, balmy evening in October and, after visiting the Piazza Navona, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, I was in love with the eternal city. At that first meeting, I thought B was cute and friendly, if somewhat forward. He made tentative amorous advances, but I dismissed them as typical of his type. My son later told me that B had taken a big shine to me. I was flattered, but uninterested; I wasn’t looking for a relationship, certainly not a long-distance one. Admittedly, he seemed amiable and affectionate, but I reminded myself that he was Italian — ergo, he liked women, and flirting was second nature to him. Although he was born in Rome, B’s ancestors were originally from Belgium, and many had been in law enforcement. Thoughts of Poirot and “his little grey cells” sprang to mind, but believe me, there was no similarity between this guy and the inimitable David Suchet. Whatever B’s background, on that fateful evening in Trastevere I had no idea what an important role he would eventually play in my life.
A year passed. He came to Dublin, initially moving in with friends in Deansgrange. I saw him from time to time, and we spent the odd weekend together. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he wormed his way into my heart.
At my age, a time of supposed maturity and wisdom, I do realize that physical allure shouldn’t matter, but I have to say that this particular Italian is very handsome! Dark, slender and elegant, he has alert brown eyes that light up every time he sees me. He always looks smart and well groomed, and often sports a colorful cravat — sartorially stylish, unmistakably European chic.
It’s a bonus that he’s extremely intelligent. He didn’t have much English when he first settled here, but now he understands everything. Best of all, he has emotional intelligence, a quality not always evident in the male species, in my experience. Sensitive to my moods, he knows when I’m worried or anxious or upset. He’s also a great listener, which I find refreshing. Never critical, and tolerant of all my little foibles, he has taught me the reality of unconditional love.
B moved in with me three years ago, and I couldn’t imagine living without him now. Of course, he’s not perfect: He’s untidy and leaves his belongings around the house for me to pick up, but after rearing a son, I’m used to that. Though we both love pasta, he’s a true carnivore and has to eat meat every day; he devours things that would nauseate me. He lacks patience when I take too long getting ready to go out. A more irksome flaw is that he’s a bit possessive and needy, and doesn’t like to be separated from me for very long. (I’m also convinced he can mind-read — he just glanced over at me as though he’d guessed what I was writing.) Naturally exuberant, he tends to be loud at times, and I’m sure the neighbors don’t enjoy the disturbance, but as yet, they haven’t complained. I know some wonder what I see in him.
I’m quite surprised myself at how smitten I’ve become, as the idea of a long-term commitment didn’t appeal to me and I’d lived on my own for a considerable time before his arrival. Sharing my home with him now is an unexpected joy. B is highly sociable and, although wary of strangers, he always gives my friends a warm welcome. He entertains them when they visit and has charmed them all, making them smile with his winning ways. He has an endearing habit of tilting his head to one side when considering what’s being said.
We lead a simple life together. He loves the great outdoors— walking in the park, strolling on the beach, exploring the forests. I’ve never had so much exercise! He likes hunting, too, but as an animal lover, I’ve forbidden that, explaining that what is instinctive to him is abhorrent to me. Mad about the water, he swims in all types of weather. He oozes health and vitality, but has learned to accept my lazy moments, and snuggles up beside me on the couch when I’m watching television or catching up on Facebook.
My lovely Italian has totally improved my life. He’s loyal and sincere, excellent qualities in a male. He’s very protective, which makes me feel safe. Through him, I’ve made a whole new set of friends. When I go out without him, he’s there at home eagerly awaiting my return, always glad to see me. I’ve never experienced such devotion.
Benni, my beautiful Belgian Sheepdog, is indeed my ideal housemate.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Alice, a Beagle, enters the living room, where Comet, another Beagle, is napping on the loveseat. Comet lifts his head and sniffs.
Comet: Somebody’s been to the vet.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There’s a trail along the river near my house where I often jog with my Flat-Coated Retriever mix, Sylvia. I let her run off-leash until I see someone fishing along the bank. Then I lunge for her collar.
Sylvia is usually good about staying close. She’s a classic Retriever that way — laid back, happy-go-lucky, eager to please. But if she hears the thrash of a hooked fish or the whir of a reel, forget it. She’s headfirst in the water, greeting the fish as it’s reeled ashore. Or worse, startling the fish so it breaks the line and swims free.
This wouldn’t be a problem if other anglers felt the way my husband, Scott, and I do. We go fly-fishing about 50 days a year, and Sylvia joins us every time. Unfortunately, ask most fishermen about bringing a dog along and you’ll get this pithy advice: Don’t. A dog, they’ll tell you, will blunder into a promising hole, scattering wary trout. A dog will get tangled in your line. A dog will prevent you from catching as many fish as you would alone.
They’re right, of course.
But the dogless fishermen are, I think, missing the point. I don’t choose a fishing companion — human or canine — because he or she will help me land more fish. I choose to go fishing with someone who makes it fun. By that definition, I can’t imagine a better fishing buddy than Sylvia.
Then again, Sylvia isn’t your typical fishing dog. She doesn’t get bored and wander off. She won’t chase ducks or squirrels. When we’re fishing, Sylvia channels all of her energy into fishing, too. She watches every cast, her eyes glued to my fly as it floats downstream. She knows at what point in the drift a fish is most likely to bite, so she positions herself for a good view of the action. Her entire body quivers with anticipation.
Occasionally, I snag a submerged stick. If I were alone, I’d be disappointed to reel in a piece of wood instead of a fish. But with Sylvia there, it’s not a bad consolation prize. I unhook my fly, then place the branch in Sylvia’s open mouth and watch as she cavorts around in a sort of victory lap.
Once, Scott and his father stood on the bank of a wide river and debated their strategy for fishing it. They saw bugs all over the surface of the water, but no fish were swimming up to eat them. Suddenly, Sylvia splashed into the river, plowing a wake as she paddled to the other side. Scott and his dad squinted. Sure enough, in the shade along the far shore, fish were rising. The humans weren’t paying enough attention to notice, but Sylvia was.
Like any weathered angler, Sylvia has endured fishing-related mishaps. She got her foot caught in a beaver trap. She bit down on a fly and the hook pierced her tongue. She once came home from a day on the river — too early in the season, we thought, to warrant topical pest treatments — with dozens of ticks caught in her coat. Nothing has dulled her enthusiasm.
One winter, Scott went steelhead fishing several weekends in a row. To have a chance at catching these huge, sea-run trout, he had to be on the river by sunrise. His early awakenings set Sylvia’s internal alarm clock, and when the season ended, we couldn’t turn it off. Every morning at exactly 4:30 am, she crept up to Scott’s side of the bed and nudged him awake.
We once spent a Memorial Day weekend flogging three renowned trout streams from sunrise to sunset. But constant rainstorms had swollen and muddied the water, so we never felt a bite. By the end of the third day, casting my line was an exercise in meditation more than function. No matter what fly I tied on, I wasn’t going to catch anything. Why even bother?
Then I’d look down at Sylvia, her brown eyes still focused on my line. Her rain-soaked hair stood in otterlike spikes. Her pink tongue darted from her lips to her nose. Her muscles were tense with unwavering optimism. She was, I realized, more than a good fishing buddy. She was the perfect angler. She embodied the fascination that pulls every fisherman to the river, the singular thought that keeps us drawing back our rods, again and again.
This next cast, she seemed to be thinking, this could be the one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Getting the Dog You Need
Those of us with exuberant dogs (herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs … well, just about any dog, really) truly appreciate their exuberance. We even appreciate their excessive need for entertainment and exercise; it helps get us up and moving, after all. But admit it, my fellow exuberant-dog caretakers: don’t you sometimes just want to sit down and relax? Especially during the lazy days of summer?
Before we get to the answer, I must preface this with a description of life with my first dog, Wallace (the subject of Bark’s “Rex and the City” columns). He was a Spaniel/ Setter mix, as hyper as they come, so I never got to sit down and relax in any season. To get him even remotely tired, he needed to be taken outside — where he could gallop, chase squirrels, swim after ducks, leap fences — for at least four hours a day (12 was even better). Accomplishing this was quite a challenge, given that my then-husband, Ed, and I lived in a 300-square-foot apartment New York City. But, because our lives revolved around our beloved dog’s needs, we took Wallace hiking as often as we could. I am grateful for this. Wallace’s exuberance led us to discover some truly amazing parks, hiking trails and beaches within driving distance of NYC. There was the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and the “remote” Fort Tryon Park at the tip of Manhattan (90 blocks is “remote” to a New Yorker).
My favorite hiking trail became Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring: an easy and scenic onehour drive up the eastern side of the Hudson River. It’s not an easy trail, and some of the climbs to the ridge are rocky and — to me — a bit treacherous, but the views made it so worth the effort. You could see for miles: the Catskill Mountains … the bluffs at Bear Ridge … and the great and majestic Hudson River, which threaded its way mightily all the way down to New York City. The water, from our vantage point, looked pure and silver. I loved to watch sunlight dance across the river’s surface, as if in celebration. From the ridge, the world seemed beautiful and vibrant and manageable. We would hike down feeling renewed and ready to take on life in the city again (which could be challenging, to say the least).
After our hike, Wallace, dear Wallace, would be tired, so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open as he sat upright in the back seat of the car, resting his head against the window trying to take in the last bit of scenery as we drove south. A tired dog is a wonderful sight.
It was also wonderful to see him run for three hours straight on those trails. As soon as we unhooked his leash, he would gallop off, chasing squirrels, following scent trails and basically just seizing the day. We could hear him barking wildly in the distance — a bray of chase and joy — and when he returned, panting, he’d be covered in burrs and leaves, his eyes so bright we thought he had had a glimpse of the Great Beyond.
Yes, I will always be grateful for my exuberant dog. He brought us nature and hiking and Breakneck Ridge. In the non-hiking hours, however, I must admit that he could be rather a pest. Whenever I sat down to write, he would nudge me and poke me with his snout, running back and forth from my desk to the apartment door. Whenever Ed was stretched out on the sofa watching TV, Wallace would nudge him, too, wedging his head underneath Ed’s hand — the hand that held the remote. If I tried to meditate, he’d crawl on my lap and splay out for a belly scratch. If I tried to do yoga on the living room floor, he’d come and lick my face and then lie underneath me on the mat as I moved into downward-facing dog.
After Wallace died, I adopted another Spaniel mix, Chloe. I was divorced by then, and some of my friends and family questioned my decision to adopt yet another exuberant hunting dog. Especially given that I was living alone in New York City. But we often fall in love with certain breed types, and even certain mixes.
Those of you who are familiar with this column know I adopted Chloe sight unseen, and that I adopted her because I fell in love with her picture on Petfinder.com, and because she was listed as a Spaniel/Setter mix, just like Wallace. I was prepared for a dog who would want and need to gallop four hours a day. When I met Chloe, I began to suspect that she was also part Border Collie and/or part Lab as well. Did this mean she would need 12 hours per day — four for each breed characteristic?
For a few weeks, I was a bit terrified: a Border Collie in New York City? I kind of prayed that she was mostly Spaniel. Her markings (white with patches of brown) could be either Border Collie or Spaniel. She has those intense Border Collie eyes, however — those “I will stare at you until you do what I say” eyes. Would I ever be able to sit down and relax again?
I also have to admit that, by the time I adopted Chloe, I had become lazier about exercise in general and hiking in particular. Truth be told, it was my former husband who was the hard-core outdoorsman. Once we split, there were no more arduous six-hour treks up steep, rocky ridges for me. But I was willing to resume that old habit to keep my new dog and myself in tip-top shape.
Fortunately, by then, I also lived part-time in Woodstock, which is situated just at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. There are plenty of parks and trails through which an exuberant dog can gallop and play. My favorite trail is right in the heart of the village. I like it because it is easy and flat and relatively short — it takes about 45 minutes to walk the loop. I especially like it because of its simple beauty: the trail threads through meadows and forests and then meanders along the banks of a robust stream — one that, in spring and summer, teems with waterfowl and frogs and fish.
Wallace would have gone into a birddog frenzy at the sight of the fowl, and I figured Chloe’s Inner Spaniel would be activated as well. But the first time we hiked that trail, Chloe ran straight past the waterfowl and plunged into the water.
It turns out my bird dog is a water dog, more interested in what lies beneath the water than what paddles along on its surface.
I’d never seen anything like it. She ran into the water, tail held high, and immediately began trolling for fish. She gazed intently in the shallows (with those Border Collie eyes) until she detected even the slightest movement beneath the water. Once she spotted one of those tiny minnows, she pounced.
I stood and watched her race up and down the shore for a few minutes, splashing happily through the shallows. Part of me was eager to keep walking, to maintain our fat-burning, aerobic pace. I figured Chloe would tire of fish-trolling once she figured out that fish were not easily caught. But I quickly realized that the fun, for her, was in the pursuit. She continued to track, flush and chase these fleeting creatures for the next hour. Sometimes she swam into deeper water to flush out trout; other times, she stuck her snout into the water to try to catch one with her teeth. Her tail wagged non-stop the entire time.
After a while, I sat on a large, flat rock and watched, enjoying her enjoyment. I personally did not get much exercise that day, but Chloe did. And once we dog lovers discover something our dogs love, we tend to go out of our way to provide more of it for them.
Thus it was that I discovered that the Catskills have all sorts of hidden streams, creeks, ponds and swimming holes. Chloe loved every one of them, for each contained different types of fish, which swam at different speeds. She quickly developed new skills to adjust to each variety.
As for me, I had to adjust to the fact that I wouldn’t get much exercise with a water dog unless I swam or fished myself. Which I didn’t, (a) because mountain-stream water is way too cold, and (b) because I don’t kill fish or any living creature. (I also had to adjust to the fact that a constantly wet dog means a constantly wet and mud-splattered car, and an extra hour each day spent wiping down the wet dog and washing the dirty towels, but let’s stay on topic.)
Then I remembered something my friend Melissa often says: “We get the dogs we need.”
Since my divorce, I had become pretty serious about my spiritual practice, sometimes doing up to four hours a day of yoga, mediation, chanting, chi gung and so forth. Though this can be time-consuming, I find that doing these practices ends up creating more time — quality time — and I can get more done in the day. But still, I am human, and we humans do love to multitask. New Yorkers seem particularly creative with their multitasking, especially when it comes to their dogs, so you’ll often see city dogs “doing errands” with their guardians: walking four blocks to the dry cleaners, helping to carry home groceries with their little doggie backpacks, scoring cubes of cheese at the Friday-night wine tastings, among other things (in NYC, wine tasting at the local wine shop is an “errand”).
I quickly realized that having a water dog was perfect for my new lifestyle. Each day, we drive to our favorite park and walk 20 minutes along a forest trail until we reach our favorite stream. There, Chloe trolls for fish while I do, first, my standing practice (chi gung, yoga) and then my sitting practices (meditation, mantra). I love these mornings especially in summer. I love the bubbly sound of the water (the stream always seems to be singing). I love the sound of Chloe splashing; the sight of the sunlight dappling through the trees; and the smell of so many elements: water and wood and stone and air. At that stream, it smells like Mother Earth herself. It smells like home.
Sometimes I find myself missing those hard-core hikes at Breakneck Ridge, and seeing those grand vistas with all their promises of greatness and grandeur. Sometimes I miss standing atop a mountain, above the teeming masses, so close to the sky and clouds. But at this stage in my life, I really value the stillness of sitting quietly by a stream. I am grateful for the opportunity to touch the earth, and rest, and go within.
Yes, we get the dog we need. When I was married, we needed a dog who would get us out of the cramped apartment and into nature — my husband and I would have killed each other otherwise. When I got divorced, I needed to slow down, look inside and center myself again.
And how cool is it that I get to do this and tire out an exuberant hunting/herding/fishing dog at the same time? It’s a perfect arrangement. We are both refreshed and content. Each day, Chloe has an opportunity to cultivate her Inner Water Dog and I get to cultivate my inner self.
After 90 minutes or so, it is time for us to go home. Chloe is often reluctant to get out of the water — she’ll look at me with a confused, almost betrayed, expression. But eventually, she’ll conclude that I am indeed serious about leaving the park, especially when I turn and walk away. Then she’ll bound out of the water happily — on to the next great adventure: sleep.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, what you get is better than what you wished for
I didn’t want a border collie. in fact, i wasn’t convinced that I wanted a dog of any kind. I’d had two wonderful Australian Shepherds who filled my days with all the joys of walking, working and playing with them. Not to mention with the worries and frustrations of their injuries and misbehaviors. Once they were gone, I was ready to try a dog-free life.
Or so I thought.
Instead, every morning I woke up with a profound sense of loss. I didn’t know how to take a walk without a four-legged companion. My hands kept reaching for an absent furry head and damp nose. My husband said I seemed lost. But I resisted. Because I didn’t want just another dog; I wanted a certain kind of dog: one with all the benefits of a herder (intelligence, connection, focus, trainability) and none of the drawbacks (intensity, hyperactivity, aggression).
I fostered a few candidates. This one was too dim, that one, too unpredictable. Then I saw an adorable Border Collie mix on a rescue site and wondered if she might be the one. I wrote a candid letter saying that I honestly didn’t think the dog I wanted existed. The woman at the rescue group said the dog pictured didn’t fit my ideal, but sometimes — rarely — the type I described did appear. She said I would have to be patient.
But, as it turned out, not for very long. Soon enough, she called and asked me to come see and, she hoped, foster a dog who had been found living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp; the dog was floundering in rescue, overwhelmed by the general Border Collie insanity that surrounded her.
It was a fairy-tale meeting. She threw herself directly into my husband’s lap. Though she was gimpy from what we later discovered was a broken leg that had healed without being set, half-blind and full of birdshot, she was also sweet, self-contained, thoughtful, calm, smart. It took 48 hours for fostering to turn into adopting. We named her Ainsley, Scottish for a hermitage in the woods.
She had perfect off-leash manners, was obedient but not obsequious, enjoyed learning new things and was deferential to our cat and other dogs we met on walks. She learned the great pleasures of rawhides, bones and toys, and that getting toweled off was perfect compensation for a walk in the rain. When unleashed, she returned to our front doorstep like a homing pigeon.
Well, at least for the first couple of years. Then she started the “Sorry I disappeared into the woods while you cried and called for me, but the chipmunks needed organizing” stuff. Along with “Other dogs are evil and must be chased away” and “Cars, trains, joggers, bikers and any other moving object must be pursued.” At first, I was kind of, sort of, pleased with her newfound confidence, thinking that this behavior was the result of delayed-onset adolescence and would soon fade away. But as her self-assertiveness turned into explosive moving object/dog aggression, I became confused, embarrassed, flummoxed and overwhelmed. Where had my Border Collie Lite gone? And who was this snarling, barking creature lunging at the end of my leash?
Even more important, what was I to do?
I spent hours reading articles and books and watching videos on aggression. I worked with trainers and behaviorists who prescribed everything from hard corrections with prong collars or tying her to a post and walking away to operantand counterconditioning combined with a head collar and clicker training. I contacted the rescue group and begged for insight and advice. I took her to the vet for a blood workup and complete physical. I changed my walk schedule and locations to avoid other living or moving things. In my darkest hours, I even considered returning her to rescue, as though she were a piece of merchandise that had not performed as advertised. I lost my temper, I cried, I wrung my hands. I looked into my dog’s eyes and asked what was wrong.
Eventually, I realized the truth: nothing was wrong. Ainsley was just being a whole lot more of Ainsley. As one trainer explained, after months or even years, some rescue dogs come out of depression or repression and “blossom.” As my husband more succinctly said, “She’s just being a dog.” And Ainsley’s behavior told me, “I’m having a blast.” She was still sweet and soft, affectionate and trainable — she was just a whole lot of other things as well.
I knew that ignoring or accepting her aggression would be irresponsible and dangerous. But even armed with all this new knowledge, I still balked. As I hoped for improvement rather than helped her improve, it became clear that I was the biggest barrier to progress. The truth is, I was reluctant to confront Ainsley’s behavior because I was reluctant to admit that she was something other than my dream dog come true. So I swallowed hard and gave up my fantasy of an off-leash dog. She chases everything that moves and therefore risks injuring herself as well as other critters, so now she never goes out without a leash, six feet long in town and 30 or 50 feet long when we’re in the woods.
Then I gave up my fantasy of a dog-friendly dog. I would like to walk around my town with a calm, tail-wagging canine who puts all the other ill-behaved dogs to shame. Instead, I have a dog who is perfectly behaved as long as no squirrels, other dogs or trucks are in close proximity. In which case I have a Cujo. (Fortunately, more frequently these days, I have a dog who is trying very hard to sit still and look at me for treats, even though she really wants to be a Cujo.)
The next fantasy to go was that of having the perfect dog and therefore being seen as the perfect dog owner. Instead, I throw myself into situations that ensure bad behavior on her part and embarrassment on mine so I can do all those strange and counterintuitive training things that will help her work through that bad behavior.
I also gave up my fantasy of having an ideal walking companion, and accepted that her behavior could be managed, but perhaps not changed; could be improved, but probably not eradicated; that working through it and around it would continue on each and every walk we shared, for the rest of her life. And I embraced the notion that our walks, and the training itself, could be, should be, lots and lots of fun.
Here’s what I found helps: A head halter to humanely control her physical behavior, along with months of patient and regular counterconditioning sessions that incrementally reset her trigger threshold. Carefully observing her to determine whether she wants to move away from or toward the trigger, and using that movement as part of the reward. Working with sympathetic friends, trainers and dog kennels with the other dogs on-leash or behind fences so we can practice the abovementioned counterconditioning/proximity-controlling sessions. Having the jogger, biker, person wearing a large hat and/or driver of the big white truck who share our walking trail stop and give her treats instead of racing by at full speed. Acting like a complete goofball when a trigger comes by in order to distract her and defuse us both. Swallowing my annoyance and embracing her with joy and snacks when she suddenly reappears dragging all 50 feet of yellow nylon lead with the handle that broke when she bolted and chased deer for an hour and a half through the snow-filled woods.
But what helps most? Realizing that in fact I have something infinitely better, more interesting, complex, nuanced, challenging, rewarding, entertaining, enjoyable and authentic than a dream dog. I have a real dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Searching for mountain lions.
Jadzia’s barks wake us in the dead of night.
Not happy ones or play ones, but her all-business barks. I leap from bed thinking a bear must be prowling outside. The trailer’s screens can’t keep out mosquitoes, much less a grizzly. But Jadzia is not looking out a window. Instead, I find her in the middle of the gear room, barking at the closet door.
“What’s your problem?”
She ignores me. Hey, you in there! Come out and fight!
I sigh and open the door.“There’s nothing in there, ya moron.” Jadzia lunges for the top shelf. Then I see it—a radio collar that, until yesterday, was worn by a mountain lion. It’s wrapped in three layers of plastic bags. Jadzia paws at it. “You weren’t so brave when we found it,” I tell her.
It is Labor Day. My wedding anniversary. Three times a week since May, my wife Misty and I have taken turns squeezing into the passenger seat of a Cessna 185 to fly over the southern Selkirk Mountains, tracking radio-collared lions for my graduate research. Our trailer is next to the grass runway on the end of Sullivan Lake in northeastern Washington. Although a dozen other small planes landed here over the holiday weekend, Jadzia’s tail hadn’t begun wagging this morning until she heard the faint drone of the one Misty was on. Jadzia ran for the airstrip, then whined and pranced while the plane circled the lake, floated down over the water to the end of the runway, then bounced and rolled to a stop. She ran to the plane and greeted Misty and the pilot, Dave, with enthusiastic kisses. Misty reported that they’d detected a radio collar that hadn’t moved in two days. A dead lion or a slipped collar.Anniversary or not, we had to investigate.
To get to the ridge the radio collar was on, across the border in British Columbia, we had to walk through a pasture. Perhaps the cows were bored, or maybe they thought we had something better than Canadian grass to eat, but we soon had a Pied Piper thing going. Jadzia, the third member of our field crew, immediately started dishing smack to the cows. She’s part Rhodesian Ridgeback, so the fur from her shoulders to her rump rose in a canine Mohawk. She thinks it’s tough, but it really looks ridiculous. The cows were unimpressed, too.
“Leave it!” I told her.
Jadzia snorted. Just doing my job.
“Leave it anyway.”
She moped after us into the forest at the base of the ridge, where we broke out our radio gear to track the collar. It was spooky work. Somewhere above us was either a dead lion, which might have attracted another predator like a grizzly bear, or a live, uncollared one. An hour later we found the radio collar in the thick brush.We didn’t find the lion—it had slipped its collar and could be miles away. Or, only feet. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. Misty was ready to go, but Jadzia—chuffing and pacing around a pile of leaves and branches—wasn’t. I shifted some vegetation and saw a deer carcass cached beneath it, leftovers from the lion’s last meal. A recent one, judging by the kill’s bloody condition.Misty and I must have walked by it a dozen times while searching for the collar. Usually Jadzia cannot resist picking up bones or rubbing her ruff in decaying goo, but she wanted no part of this dead animal. She sat off to one side, tail tucked between her legs, the antithesis of her normal dominant behavior. Ironically, Rhodesians were bred to hunt African lions. We were a long way from Africa, though, and Misty and I were the only pack-mates around to watch Jadzia’s back if a big cat wanted to mix it up. Jadzia sniffed the air.
“Uh-oh,” I said, “vertical fur factor.” Jadzia’s back hairs were standing straight up again. She looked part Stegosaurus.Misty rolled her eyes. Did I mention this was our anniversary? “Good find,” I said, and patted Jadzia, trying to smooth down her fur, as though that would eliminate the cause of her unease. Locating lion kills was an important part of my predation study, but hanging around a half-eaten meal with an uncollared lion nearby was a really bad idea.
We flagged the site and headed down the ridge. As each step added to the distance between us and the lion’s kill, Jadzia’s tail and usual cockiness re-emerged. By the time we reached the pasture, she was ready to take on the Canadian cows again.
Investigating predation sites is not as glamorous as it sounds. There are thick woods to thrash through and steep slopes to slip on.Usually the kills are weeks old, with little left but a scatter of bones.Helping us locate these bones is one of Jadzia’s jobs.After finding the collar dropped by the mountain lion, I decided we should work a nearby site, where the same lion had killed a mule deer a month ago. Bouncing down dusty logging roads to get to a specific area was time-consuming, so it seemed logical to me to do this now rather than return another day, even though it was our anniversary.
After only a few minutes at the site, Jadzia emerged grinning from the shrubs. I expected to see a bone in her mouth, but instead, the whipping tail of a field mouse protruded from her lips.
“Drop it!” Misty said.
Jadzia’s brow furrowed and her big brown eyes grew sad. Are you KIDDING, Mom? Don’t you know how hard this thing was to catch?
Jadzia opened her mouth and the soggy mouse plopped to the ground. It looked around wildly, then scurried away.
Part of my predation study involved measuring vegetation to determine differences between sites where lions made kills and sites where they did not. As I walked out laying a transect sample line, I slipped and fell, but didn’t hit the ground, hanging instead in the thick shrubs like a fly in a spider’s web. I heard the brush rattle. It was not a spider, but Jadzia. What are you doing, Dad? A few face-licks and she moved on. Dad’s okay—he’s just a little weird.
Watching Jadzia leap over logs and thread through dense thickets with ease and grace, I could picture a mountain lion working the same terrain, using its stealth and agility to stalk an unsuspecting deer. Like me, Jadzia is part couch potato.Yet in the forest, her wild ancestors seemed less distant than mine, providing me with another, non-human perspective into the natural world. Away from their heated homes and kibble dinners, few companion animals are wild enough to survive on their own, yet most are more connected to the natural world than are their human friends.
Another one of Jadzia’s roles on the crew was beast of burden. When I regained my feet and reached the end of my transect line, I realized I didn’t have the clinometer—a device for measuring tree heights. “Where’s the clinometer?” I shouted to Misty.
“Don’t you have it?” she shouted back.
A few moments later, Jadzia appeared next to me, clinometer tucked under her collar. She was laughing dog-style, tongue lolling from her gaping mouth, eyes bright with glee. Forgot something AGAIN, didn’t you?
“Who asked you?” I replied. “Let’s not forget who makes your dinner.”
Jadzia snorted.We both knew who’s really in charge here. She turned and raced back toward Misty. A moment later, I heard my wife cry out. I sprang to my feet and thrashed back through the morass of shrubs, fearing lions and carnage. I found Misty at the bottom of a small rise, kneeling, her back to me. Between her shoulder blades was a muddy paw print—a dog’s.
“She just jumped over me!”Misty said.
By the time we finished our work, Jadzia had covered 10 times as much ground as the two of us combined.When we got back to the trailer, she collapsed in the yard. We had to wake her up for her Popsicle, then hold it while she raised her head and licked the cold treat.
Although a vital member of the field crew, Jadzia is not a working dog. She’s a pet. The state ofWashington had a policy against dogs riding in state trucks, and we compromised by strapping Jadzia’s crate in the bed. I thought Jadzia would balk at riding back there, but every morning she would be in the crate before I came out with my coffee. Come on, Dad! Let’s go!!
I turn the triple-bagged radio collar over in my hands.“What was she barking at?”Misty calls from the bedroom.
Unlike jadzia, who was the crew’s dog-of-all trades, specially trained hounds were used to catch the lions. I remember standing knee-deep in powder snow above Stony Creek, in the rugged region called the Forgotten Corner of northeastern Washington.
Up there, the cold air was silent except for the baying of the Black and Tan Coon Hounds— Boomer, Sooner and Maggie—in the valley bottom far below.
“Must have a cat treed,” said the houndsman, Tom.He meant a mountain lion.He was a short man of few words.His favorite story was the time my lunch sack came open on the back of my snowmobile, leaving a trail of food for him to follow. There was a bit of hound in him.
Washington voters banned hound hunting in 1996, yet it remained a contentious issue, with as many opinions as there were people in the state. The dogs’ hard-wagging tails and eager barks when setting out on a fresh trail left no doubt as to what they thought about the subject. The lions, if the dogs managed to tree them, disdained opinions, simply watching both humans and dogs below. If they had a middle finger, no question about what direction it would be pointing. But we were not out there to shoot a lion.We were hoping to radio collar one. Since the ban, Tom and his hounds had continued to work by helping state game wardens remove lions who ventured too close to someone’s back yard and assisting research projects like mine. The population of caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains, which stretch north from Washington and Idaho to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, had been in rapid decline for decades. Lion predation was the suspected cause. My job was to find out if that was true. The Black and Tans were the specialists of my field crew, trained by Tom from pups to do a single, dangerous job—tree big cats.
We unloaded all the gear needed to safely anesthetize and lower a 200-pound animal from 20 feet up a pine tree. But before we could strap on our snowshoes to head down the steep slope, the hounds’ baying changed from quick, constant barks to sporadic, frustrated howls. “Cat’s bailed,” Tom said. “He’s on the run again.”With all our gear, we had no hope of keeping up with the animals. Tom headed down alone with just a radio, a knife and a Snickers bar.He also had a pistol for protection, but I’d never seen him take it out of the truck.My job was to wait for his call and try to keep from freezing. The lion, hounds, and houndsman zigzagged across the valley all day without the dogs getting close enough to run the cat up another tree.As night closed in, Tom called the hounds off the trail.We packed up our gear and headed home. It took two weeks—dozens of hours snowmobiling backcountry roads looking for lion tracks—before we treed the cat again and collared it.
Jadzia won’t stop barking at the bagged collar. Finally, I take it outside and put it in the cab of the truck.When I come back in, she follows me into the bedroom, climbs up on the bed and snuggles down between us. She sighs and tucks herself into a furry ball. Soon her feet start twitching as she dreams—perhaps of chasing rabbits. If it’s a good dream, she’ll catch one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Their bedraggled faces peered at me from the adoption website Petfinder.com. Lucky Dog, a 3-year-old Bichon Frise, and French Fry, a 2-yearold Bichon/Poodle mix, had been rescued from a puppy mill that kept dogs under appalling conditions and bred them until they died. Lucky looked like a tough guy and the protector of Frenchy, his pitiful sidekick. Together, they called to mind woeful street orphans from a hundredyear- old daguerreotype. They came as a duo — no separate adoptions allowed. I wasn’t a prospective adopter; I was just looking. And looking. I kept going back to the site and staring at those two hurt creatures.
Lucky looked just like Goody, my son’s 12-year-old Bichon, who had died the night before I had surgery to remove a three-and-a-half-pound cancerous tumor from my colon. The tumor weighed exactly what my son, Jesse, had weighed at birth. He had died two years earlier, suddenly, in his sleep at age 17. After the surgery, I was the semi-walking wounded, recovering on my daybed, watching reality shows to see if they bore any relation to my current reality, which seemed more like a particularly disturbing episode of The Twilight Zone.
Goody had been a prince among dogs. He had arrived on my son’s bed Christmas morning, after a spoken request to Santa Claus. The request had carried weight: Jesse was quadriplegic, nonverbal and, at the time, seven years old. Little-boy longing had pushed the word “dog” out of his mouth, and there was no question that heartfelt wish would be granted.
I showed Lucky and Frenchy’s picture to my husband. Chris was noncommittal, but there was no mistaking that softening around his eyes. We became prospective adopters. Three recommendations and a home visit were required. We passed, even though we were convinced nerves made us seem shifty. After signing impressive-looking contracts (how would they enforce them?) and promising to never kennel them, we drove to Connecticut for the pick-up. It was a June day, four months after Goody had died, four months after the surgery, 30 months since our son had died.
On the first day, I took stock: They weren’t housebroken; they didn’t know their names; they shrank from us, so no leash was possible. To interest them in following me to our unfenced yard, I had to summon my inner canine. What if they bolted? I pictured the formidable interview lady checking up on us, only to find we had allowed Lucky and Frenchy to be crushed by a school bus on their first day of freedom.
They ran behind me, tottering like elderly little men on walkers, their legs stiff from a life encaged. I blinked back tears and herded them into our enclosed pool area. Their true dog selves emerged; they began cavorting and chasing each other. Lucky careened around a corner and fell into the pool. Chris heard me scream and stood on the deck above the pool, highly amused, as he watched me haul myself out of the water, hampered by clothes that now weighed a ton. Lucky pranced off, ungrateful for my lifesaving heroics. Chris brought me a towel, still laughing. A lot. Our laughter was creaky from disuse, like Lucky and Frenchy’s legs.
It’s a year later. They’ve commandeered the comfy chair. They’re housebroken, they know their names and they walk on leash (Lucky bites his). Frenchy nudges my leg, asking for caresses. Lucky still runs away if I even glance at him, and he sleeps with one wary eye open. He’s my favorite, because he’s both dauntless and terrified, and he reminds me of me. In bursts of bravery, he’ll stretch himself forward, quickly lick my hand, then bolt. I stalk and capture him to put him in my lap and pet him.
“You heal me, and I’ll heal you,” I whisper.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Looking for love—and a meal.
He lay in the shelter of the cantilevered deck of a large house perched on top of a dune and watched the pelting rain pockmark the sand. With a practiced paw, he scratched at the fleas who had made his shabby coat their home this past week —the week that found him alone and hungry. The beach was deserted, as were most of the houses along this strip of golden coast. He remembered a time when he had all the food he could eat and a bed next to a fireplace whose dying embers gave him warmth. Someone had always combed his fur, which made him ripple with pleasure. A strange-smelling collar, gently fitted around his neck with love, seemed to him both protection and a sign that he belonged.
He rose stiffly and tried to shake the unwanted tenants from his yellow coat as he yawned mightily. A gnawing in the pit of his stomach drove him to seek sustenance. Two houses away, the tiny woman sometimes gave him leftovers if he moaned piteously by the back door; it was worth a try, but today that tactic failed. The place had been sealed for the winter. His sometime-benefactor was gone.
He trekked the long empty road to town and searched for alleys with overflowing trash cans in which he could forage for something to eat. That was a last resort, for, as he had found, other dogs had laid claim to the garbage and he had learned not to mess with them. They traveled in packs, slinking around corners in the darkened streets and showing him their sharp teeth when they found him in their territory. One of them, the leader, Whippet-thin and short-haired, as they all were, had chased him from his domain, snapping at his tail as he ran. At a safe distance, he turned his head and saw them in a tight cluster—sentinels of scraps, who made sure he had gotten the message before they turned their attention to the remnants of gourmet meals on which they subsisted.
When the rain let up, he trotted to the narrow blacktop road, stopping at a pothole to slake his thirst in a rainwater puddle. His eyes then moved to the distant highway where he watched the occasional car speed by. Wearily, he moved ahead, head hanging low.
A squat, boxy station wagon pulled into a nearby driveway. He crept along the tall, untrimmed hedge, lay down, and watched as four people emerged and pulled boxes and suitcases from the back of the vehicle. The faint smell of food drifted from the boxes they carried to the house and made him salivate.
A small boy spotted him hiding near the hedge and bent down, regarding him solemnly. Shaking his coat once again, he stood and wagged his tail to show he was friendly. The boy reached out a tentative hand and he licked the fingers ever so gently. The child’s face crinkled with delight. He ran to the man and tugged at his sleeve. The dog watched the man turn, frown at him and shake his head. The child pleaded and was soon joined by the little girl, who clapped her hands and made cooing noises. Both ran to the woman, who smiled at the dog and touched the man’s arm. She nodded, and he snapped his fingers. Obediently, the dog trotted forward, sat and waited.
His coat was now raked with little fingers, which brought back memories of other scratchings, warm beds and food. Suddenly, the man once again shook his head. The dog heard the people talking,words he could not understand, but he had a bad feeling about this. The children started to cry and the woman whispered something to the man; he shrugged, picked up a box and walked toward the house. The dog waited. The woman squatted, looked into the dog’s eyes and ran a cool hand over his rough golden coat. She clicked her fingers and he followed her to the back door, where she pointed to a fiber doormat, upon which he lay down.
The woman entered the house and returned moments later with a bowl of water that she placed by his head. She said something in a pleasing tone and re-entered the house.
All afternoon, the children played with the dog. They led him to the beach and he showed them his prowess in retrieving a thrown stick, wading far out into the surf to return with the object clamped in his mouth.He deposited it at the foot of one child, then the other, giving each equal time. Barking with delight, he did this over and over until the children grew tired of the game. He ignored the rumbling in his stomach; surely food would be his payment for all his hard work.
Finally, when the sky grew darker, the family gathered at the house, and the dog followed. He sat on his mat and waited. The man lit a barbeque on the deck and the woman brought great platters of meat and vegetables. As the aroma of charred beef rose in the air, the dog fought to control himself. In a little while, a plate was placed next to him and, although he was so hungry he could easily have eaten a shoe, he showed great restraint by gently nibbling at the food while the woman watched. She smiled and moved away. Before she had returned to the table, the dog’s reserve had disappeared, as had the meat. He licked the dish so vigorously, it moved from the side of the mat some three feet on the grass.When nothing else could be gleaned from the empty plate, he lapped at his water and stretched out on his mat. A nap was called for on this wondrous day.
Exhausted, the dog closed his eyes but remained wary. It felt good to be with people again, to belong. Sleep was out of the question, for if he dozed off, the people might not be here when he woke up.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part V: Springer Has Sprung
Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
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