Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 was not so fine. However ...

Does anyone think that this year's been a good one? Everywhere I look, pundits and prognosticators seem united in their agreement that 2009 was The Year That Sucked. Most people I know concur--and I guess I do, too. After all, I dealt with this and this, along with a couple of additional huge disappointments that for now, at least, I won't elaborate on. And that's just this year. No less an authority than Time Magazine has called this decade "the decade from hell." My husband says that instead of calling it the "Aughts" we should call it the "Uh-Oh's."

But even as I type this, some workmen in the room next door to this one are putting the finishing touches on a new gas fireplace that was the solution Stan (my husband) and I came up with to deal with a leaning chimney that was, we feared, jeopardizing the structural integrity of our entire house. The job's taken longer than expected, and our family room has resembled a nuclear wasteland since Monday. Poor Allie hasn't known quite what to make of it all. But when the job is done, we'll have a fireplace that will heat the family room and my office with a tap to a remote control device. A fire while I work: how nice that will be?

And what, you may ask, does this project have to do with The Year That Sucked and the Uh-Oh Decade? Simple. Just as the Chappell-McCullough household has been dealing with crappy conditions within our home, so have many of the rest of us been dealing with crappy conditions in our lives. But, not to sound too glib or Pollyanna-ish, they'll eventually be fixed. And just like a broken bone that heals to become stronger than it was before it was broken, maybe we will emerge from all this being stronger and better than who we were before. Meanwhile, we're still here to cheer each other on. That's something in and of itself: we are still here. And after the events of this year, I no longer take that for granted.

Happy New Year to all, and may you enjoy bidding 2009 a not-so-fond farewell.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Keeping it clean

Normally, I don't think of myself as a pack rat. When it comes to getting clothing ready for the year-end donation to the Salvation Army, I'm ruthless; if I haven't worn it in a year, it goes (wedding dress excepted). Same with books: if I haven't referred to a book for a year or so, it goes to the public library. Magazines and other home-related paraphernalia must pass the same weeding-out criterion. My husband says he looks to me help him sort through all his stuff as we get ready for the next phase of our lives, which will involve leaving this house and moving to a new one.

But when it comes to writing, I may just be a pack rat after all.

I've reached this tenative conclusion after two-plus days of solid cleaning and discarding. Last night I carted 10 garbage bags to our dumpster. Among the items I found as I conducted The Great Purge:
-- Copies of invoices to clients that I printed on a dot-matrix printer in mid-1989;
-- Phone directories from 2002;
-- The official papers that confirm my separation from Federal Government service in 1981 and allow me to re-enter Federal service if I should ever want another job with the Feds (I don't anticipate that, but you never know, right? Uh-huh.);
-- Bank statements from an account I closed a decade ago;
-- An article called "Unrealized Ambitions" that I wrote for The Washington Post in 1998 (I'm keeping that one. After all, it led to a "Quotable Quote" in Reader's Digest. I'm not keeping another piece, "Slumber Party Survival," though).
-- The very first query I sent for a pet article. I'm keeping that one, too, for totally sentimental reasons.
-- Magazines that go back as far as 10 years.

Why did I hold onto all this stuff? In part it's because, in the early years of my freelance writing career, I had to. Those were the days when you had to snail-mail hard copy clips to editors so that they could see you actually had the stuff to write the article you were proposing. And I kept invoices -- back when I still sent them snail mail -- just so that I had an indisputable record of who was supposed to pay me when.

Those days, of course (and thankfully), are long gone. I bless the day that email became the communication method of choice and the day that one could simply link to one's clips on the web and email those links to an editor. The flip side of such convenience, of course, is that the editor I'm pitching may well expect me to allow such online re-publication without paying me any extra money. Writers fought against that practice, but that fight was lost long ago.

But now, my office is clean and clutter-free for the first time in God-knows-how-many years. I'd forgotten how big my desk actually is until I removed the piles of papers and books that covered it. Heck, I'd forgotten how big my entire office is. It's become a haven again, a room of my own, a place where I can dive anew into what I do best: writing.

I just gotta keep it clean.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An update

A couple of days ago, I posted a link to a Washington Post photo essay about the Caisson Platoon Equine-Assisted Riding Program, in which Arlington Cemetery's caisson horses double as equine therapists for disabled veterans. Today, WaPo reports that one of those veterans, Capt. Mariah Kochavi, died the day before the photo essay ran. The cause of death was complications of the stroke that had prompted her to seek equine therapy in the first place.

Capt. Kocahvi was just 29 years old, and clearly led an active life. Her stroke occurred while she was hiking near Machu Pichu in Peru. She'd joined the army to pay for veterinary school at Tufts University, from which she graduated in 2006. After she finished at Tufts, she worked as a veterinarian at Fort Meade, MD, where she not only cared for a variety of animals (iguanas, anyone?) but also helped to establish an adoption program for animals whose human companions were being deployed overseas.

The Post reports that "Kochavi's parents said they would ask Army officials to bury their to bury their daughter at Arlington Cemetery, carried to her resting place by the horses she once rode."

The rest of the story is here.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Now that I've finished the Golden Retriever book (a marathon that had to be run--I mean, written--at the pace of a sprint), I'm keeping a promise I made to myself at the beginning of the project: to clean up my office when the project was done. This office purge would be a daunting enterprise; I wasn't totally kidding when I said on Facebook that the room should be declared a Federal disaster area.

Today, Day #1, I made a lot of progress. I cleared oodles of irrelevant junk from my desktop, above-the-desk shelves, book bins, and desk drawers. But not all of what I cleared was junk. Some was good stuff I'd simply forgotten about, including an article that meant a lot to me at the time I wrote it.

The piece was about a team of rescued Shelties that competed in a team obedience event at the American Shetland Sheepdog Association National Specialty Show in King of Prussia, PA, probably in March 2000. The story was for a magazine that went under before the story could be published, but I was paid for the piece. However, the magazine bought all rights to the story, so I couldn't resell it elsewhere (and still can't).

But oh, how I loved writing that story. I interviewed each of the handlers and learned about the traumatic backgrounds of each dog before being rescued. One had lived in a cage 23 hours a day; another had been tied to a tree and kicked occasionally by her not-so-loving owner. Still another had a facial deformity and had been afraid of anything that moved. The fourth and final member of the team had been found on the street of a Long Island town, near death from malnutrition and pancreatitis. Each handler had adopted one of the dogs, helped each to regain his or her health, and trained them to compete in dog sports such as obedience and agility. Now, these former rejects were competing on a national stage against dogs who had far more experience than they did, not to mention far fewer issues.

I met and interacted with each dog (including the one with the deformed face, who showed no fear of me whatsoever), and I watched, heart in mouth, as they competed. No, they didn't win a blue ribbon. They came in third, just missing second place, among seven or eight teams. But they were winners in the eyes of everyone who saw them.

I just reread the hard copy of that story, and it brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes (judging by my previous post, I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking I've got the weepies lately. What can I say?). I wasn't reacting to my fabulous prose, although that prose wasn't bad at all. I was reacting to the story itself : to the bravery of those dogs, to the commitment of their people, and to the passion with which I wrote that story.

When I realized a decade ago that that story would never see print, I was pretty disappointed. But now, ten years later, I'm wondering whether it will serve a different purpose -- as a reminder that the best writing comes from passion for one's subject. Sometimes, as in the case of this story, the passion just flows from the heart through the fingers to the keyboard to the computer screen. Other times, one has to dig inside to find that intensity and bring it to whatever one is writing. That image of excavation powers one of my favorite poems, which is here (skip the poet's initial introduction and just go to the quote by Jonathan Galassi).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lump in throat. Tears in eyes.

I dare anyone to view this and not have a similar reaction.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What bullies do

It had to happen. I'm just surprised it didn't happen sooner.

Last week, a group of animal behavior organizations issued a statement that criticized the use of aversives in dog training--specifically citing trainer Cesar Millan as a proponent of such use--and invited him to comment on the statement. Mr. Millan's "comment" came the very next day: his representatives demanded immediate retraction of the statement. They also warned the organizations that failure to do so would put those organizations at risk for being sued by Mr. Millan for libel and for threatening his business.

With the money he's earned from his books, magazine, DVD's and other enterprises, Mr. Millan probably has unlimited funds--or at least very deep pockets--with which to wage a legal battle. And because the organizations' statement originated from a United Kingdom website, he's also got the advantage of waging such a battle where the laws heavily favor libel complainants.

As far as I know, none of the organizations has publicly revealed how they will respond. Some, particularly those with healthy treasuries, may choose to call the Dog Whisperer's bluff. Others, especially those who lack such resources, may choose to exit the battlefield. Those in the latter category may feel as though they've been blackmailed into keeping silent, even though they have the expertise and scientific research to clearly demonstrate that they are in the right. They may feel they have no choice to do anything but withdraw, because to do otherwise would jeopardize their very survival.

This is what bullies do. They threaten people or groups in ways that jeopardize the well-being of those people or groups. The fact that those who are threatened--in other words, the defendants--are in the right doesn't matter. Even if those defendants were ultimately exonerated in a court of law, many would understandably decide that bankruptcy is too high a price to pay for such exoneration. And that's not even taking into account the emotional stress involved when a plaintiff with unlimited funds decides to take aim at one or more defendants that lack such resources.

I've seen first hand--and on more than one occasion--how well-heeled bullies get their way with those who are attempting to do the right thing. I've witnessed the anguish that objects of such bullying tactics endure. Where once I'd have urged those defendants to fight, now I know better. If my only weapon were a water pistol and someone aimed a cannon at me, I wouldn't bother firing my water pistol. I'd get off the field of battle pronto. Anyone who says they'd do otherwise either has more weaponry than the bully does, or simply doesn't understand.

It's hard to walk away from a battle when you know you're in the right. Sometimes, though, walking away is a matter of self-preservation. Sometimes it's better to retreat and regroup--and do so with the knowledge that there's always another day, another time and another place.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tomorrow ...

... we are supposed to get at least a foot of snow (rare for NoVA). And while we do, Allie the Snow Lover and I are going to frolic in our backyard and throughout our subdivision.

I hate cold weather, and as I age I am less than thrilled with snow. That said, I love the way a really big snowstorm turns busy streets and the world in general into a wonderful dog-friendly playground. Allie and I intend to make the most of it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A confession

For the past seven years, I've felt like a bit of a hypocrite as Christmas time. Every time I read an article beseeching readers not to get add a pet to the family at this particular time of year, I'm uncomfortably aware that my family and I did get a pet at Christmas. More specifically, Allie joined our family on December 26, 2002.

We didn't plan it that way. Our beloved Sheltie, Cory, had died suddenly two months earlier, and I found it very difficult to write about dogs and their care without having a dog here in the house to care for. So after a mere month of dog-less agony, I started looking for local Golden Retriever litters and breeders (and yes, I worked through the local breed club to find reputable breeders). The day before Thanksgiving, Julie, Stan and I visited a nearby breeder who had a 3-week-old litter of 11 Golden Retriever puppies. Not surprisingly, we fell in love, and put a deposit on a puppy the breeder chose for us. That puppy was Allie, and she was ready to join us the day after Christmas. And although I'd forgotten how time-consuming and challenging raising a puppy can be, none of those time-sucks and challenges Allie posed had anything to do with the holidays.

So what advice would I give to the average pet owner who wants a dog for Christmas? Think carefully about what you're doing and why, and if you have any doubts, wait till after the holidays. But if you don't, and the timing works out for a holiday adoption -- well, what the heck?

And as for average pet owners and experts' sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward them -- well, that's the stuff for another post. Right now I've got a book to finish.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A visit is not an endorsement

I find it really difficult to believe that the ASPCA would endorse Cesar Millan's training methods, even after a visit to The Dog Whisperer set. But hey, you never know. Stranger things have happened.

For that reason, I contacted two individuals at the ASPCA, both of whom acknowledged that representatives from that organization had visited The Dog Whisperer set; one of those spokespersons said the visit occurred last August. However, that visit did not result in any changes in the ASPCA's position regarding Millan or his methods. Specifically, said one spokesperson in an email to me, "the ASPCA does not endorse Mr. Millan's training methods."

That said, the ASPCA has not made any public statement specifically criticizing Cesar Millan. Instead, the organization has a position statement regarding training methods in general. That statement is here.

Still, there's some slipperiness going on here. Not not only was the Dog Whisperer's initial assertion that American Humane had visited the set and reversed its position untrue -- equally untrue was any assertion that the ASPCA had reversed its position. In all fairness, the executive producer of the The Dog Whisperer did not make that claim when he explained to the BBC that Cesar Millan had confused American Humane with the ASPCA. But he didn't go out of his way to clarify the matter, either.

Bottom line: a first-hand look at someone's training methods is not necessarily an endorsement of such methods. Any statements or omissions that fuzz up that distinction are disingenuous, to say the least.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Someone doesn't look good here. The question is who?

A couple of weeks ago, Cesar Millan appeared on a BBC news program and, in response to a question, said that the American Humane Association--which in the past has sharply criticized his training methods--had reversed its position after representatives from the organization visited him during filming of his NatGeo show, The Dog Whisperer. Outraged viewers contacted American Humane, which reportedly indicated that no such visit had taken place and that its position regarding Millan's methods was unchanged. An American Humane spokesperson also indicated that the group would request a correction/retraction from Millan or one of his representatives.

I contacted American Humane yesterday to ask where things stood in that regard. This morning I received an email from the group's public relations manager, Kelley Weir, in which she stated:

"As promised, we did follow through and ask [Millan's] TV production company, MPH Entertainment, to make a correction with the BBC. As you can see from the attached letter, MPH is attempting to set the record straight and correct this unfortunate mischaracterization of American Humane's position. We hope this helps clarify the situation. As you will also notice in the letter, American Humane has indeed accepted a courtesy visit with Mr. Millan's foundation next year in order to discuss why our position differs from his on his training methods, but that certainly does not infer that we are planning to change our position in any way."

The letter to which Weir refers is from Dog Whisperer Executive Producer Jim Milio to the BBC. In the letter, Milio explains that Millan inadvertently confused American Humane with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) -- which, according to MPH, had visited Cesar on the set. However, the MPH letter said nothing as to whether the ASPCA had subsequently endorsed Millan's training methods. And the only official reference to those methods that I could find on the ASPCA's website in that regard is this transcript from a 2007 online chat with Victoria Wells, ASPCA Manager of Shelter Behavior and Training:

"[Millan and I] have very different methods and philosophies, althouth the ultimate goal is the same. We both want to keep dogs alive. I deal with a very different population of dogs than he does. If I attempted the style of training he practices, the results would not be successful. I work with severely abused animals who need to know they can trust people. I take a lot of different trainers' and behaviorists' methods and apply them to what I do. Two people from whom I have learned tons are Dr. Amy Marder and the ASPCA's Dr. Pam Reid."

Sooooo ... what is truly going on? Did the ASPCA endorse Cesar's methods? Or did Cesar and his team equate an ASPCA visit with an endorsement? Either way, somebody's not looking very good here.

Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to create a link from this post to the PDF file of the Jim Milio letter that Ms. Weir of American Humane forwarded to me. But I'll be happy to forward a copy of the letter to anyone who asks.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Lunch Bunch dines in style

For the past several years, several trainers, one T-Touch practitioner and I have been getting together approximately once a month for lunch to talk dogs and, increasingly more often, unrelated matters. (I'm gonna have to check out The Big Bang Theory, for one thing) Generally we get together at Bertuccio's or some other sit-down-service-on-the-run establishment. But today, to celebrate the holidays and to be just to be a tad decadent, we lunched at Volt, the establishment co-owned by Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio, who's also the chef there.

Oh. my. God.

The food was, to put it mildly, amazing. Here is a link to part of the menu; not included in the link is the prix fixe menu of three courses for the incredibly reasonable price $20.09. (Guess next month it'll go up a penny?).

I went for the ravioli for the first course, chicken for the main course and apple tart for dessert. The ravioli had a tang to it that one wouldn't expect from ravioli, while the chicken had a crispy edge that one would normally associate with duck -- and it was also incredibly juicy and flavorful. The apple tart replaced the peach tart that's featured on the menu I've linked to: the pastry was light as a feather and beautifully absorbed the juices of the warm apple. The tart was paired with basil ice cream (who'd have thought basil could be an ice cream flavor?) that -- much to the amazement of at least one of my dining companions, who know I generally don't eat ice cream -- I scarfed every last bit of. That said, every one of us pretty much cleaned our plates. My daughter was very disappointed that I didn't bring home a doggie bag.

The attention to detail in unexpected places was amazing. Take, for example, the soup spoons. On one side of the bowl part of the spoon was a little divit. The reason, one of our servers explained, was to make it easier for diners to get every last bit of soup or sauce out of the appetizer dishes, which were grooved. That way, a diner could enjoy her entire portion of her appetizer without having to do something uncouth, like licking the bowl.

My only quibble was the noise level. We were seated at a long table, and I found it hard to hear what everyone else was saying (of course, it could be my age catching up with me. But I'd prefer to think not). But that's a small price to pay for what's probably the most memorable, not to mention delicious, dining experience the Lunch Bunch has had to date.

And if Bryan doesn't win next Top Chef next Wednesday (smart money's on this guy, because he's won so many challenges. I do like his simple food credo) -- well, geez, I can't imagine how great the winner's food could be.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Not-so-random ACTS

We're on Day #2 of the Allie Christmas Tree System, a.k.a. ACTS. I devised ACTS in response to Allie's having destroyed my favorite ornament less than 12 hours after we put the tree up on Monday evening.

Julie, Stan and I wondered why Allie would start going after ornaments now, when she's shared seven previous holidays with us. Only yesterday did I realize why: this was the first full year that we didn't put Snappy Trainers (a cross between a ping-pong paddle and a mousetrap that makes a loud noise when touched but does no harm). IOW, I never actually taught Allie to refrain from touching the tree ornaments. I just deterred her from them. Without the deterrence, the ornaments were fair game.

Hence, the institution of ACTS. The elements consist of:
1. Using the clicker and treats to show Allie that she needs to keep her nose, mouth and teeth off the ornaments. I c/t when she approaches the tree, then turns away. She's figured that out pretty quickly: she's now trotting up to the tree, turning around expectantly, and is trotting back as soon as she hears the click.
2. Adding the "off" cue--which I'd already taught Allie with respect to other forbidden items -- once Allie caught on to what was expected of her around the tree.
3. Not allowing her to have access to the tree when we're not around. This means that she's crated when we leave the house, and is with a household member at all other times.

So far, so good ... Allie's ornament take remains at just one.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The spirit of real Christmases

Last night I watched A Dog Named Christmas, because I've always thought myself to be a total sucker for sentimental holiday movies, not to mention sentimental movies about dogs. Getting both in one made-for-TV movie was a can't-miss proposition. Or so I thought.

But as I watched the idyllic scenes of the McCray family farm I thought, where are such farms anymore? Family farms are disappearing, and those that remain probably don't support the kinds of lavish Christmas parties that the McCrays were hosting. I looked at the huge spread of food that was being prepared and thought, who has time to do that? And even if they have time, who does it? I stopped baking my favorite cookies--recipes for which have been in my family since 1941!--years ago because they were such artery cloggers.

Then there was the school calendar. Mrs. McCray was a teacher, and her school let out for the holidays around December 15? Who does that? Our local school district goes up through December 23.

And then there was Christmas--the dog, that is. He was portrayed by a 10-year-old canine actor named Johnny (yay for the senior dogs!) but his character was impossibly angelic. The worst thing he did was grab a couple of Christmas cookies. Otherwise, he was a perfect gentleman. Meanwhile, our family has been trying to figure out how to keep Allie from damaging our Christmas tree and pilfering ornaments short of spending $100 or more for an exercise pen to put around the base of the tree like a fence. We haven't put presents under the tree before Christmas Eve for years, because Allie likes to unwrap said gifts ahead of time.

Then there's the dialogue that ensues when we put up our Christmas tree, which we've just finished doing. There are certain ornaments that one person likes that the other two do not, so decorating the tree is as much a matter of hiding ornaments as bringing them out into the open. Each of us--Julie, Stan and I--attempts to supervise the other two. I protest against what I consider to be the "boudoir effect" of certain decorating combinations, such as long strings of beads trailing out of glass bowls much like ladies' jewelry on dressing tables of old (speaking of which, what woman has a dressing table anymore?). My husband laughs at me and my daughter calls me a Scrooge. Similar name-calling ensues when either Stan or Julie expresses a decorating opinion that runs counter to what the other two members of our family think.

No, our Christmas certainly comes nowhere the near the picture perfection of the fictitious McCrays. And yet, right now, I am supremely happy.

Because Christmas isn't about perfection. It's about being who we are and celebrating that. It's about realizing the love that runs beneath the banter. It's about appreciating the fact that a Golden Retriever who wreaks havoc on a Christmas tree whenever she gets the chance will lie at our feet when we're in the living room gazing at that tree, simply because the only thing she wants is to be with us. It's about knowing how lucky we are to be together, the four of us, for yet another holiday.

To me, that is everything. I'll take our real-life Christmas over the McCrays' Hallmark perfection (but then, the show was sponsored by Hallmark, so I guess such perfection is appropriate) any day.

May your holidays be as joyful for you--because they are uniquely yours, imperfections and all.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I'm grateful for

On this national day of gratitude, I'd like to give thanks for a variety of people, places and occurrences -- some momentous, some not:

-- After just having watched the taped National Dog Show on NBC, I'm grateful that shoe designers and manufacturers have come up with footwear that looks reasonably chic but also allows female handlers to sprint around the ring without having to wear athletic shoes and socks.

-- Although I'm taking a day off from said writing today, I'm profoundly grateful to have the chance to write a book about my current heart-breed, the Golden Retriever, and get paid for doing so.

-- I'm always, always, always grateful to have friends with whom to share history, good times and, in many cases, love of dogs and writing.

-- I'm equally grateful to have a loving husband and daughter, both of whom are healthy and here, and who have been my mainstays not only during 2009, but always.

-- I'm just as grateful to be sharing my life with the namesake of this blog, who amazes me every day.

-- And, finally, I'm super grateful just to be here. I know it could have been otherwise.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cue the Twilight Zone theme. Now.

Finished what I needed to do for today on Golden Retriever, my book in progress. Ran some errands, came back to the house, opened the mail, sat on the living room couch to read it. I could hear Allie moving around in our bedroom on the other side of the house.

A minute or two later, Allie walked into the living room with two black objects in her mouth, placed the objects on the carpet and looked up at me expectantly.

The objects were my slippers.

I did not teach her to do this.

Definitely an omigod moment.

At least I had the presence of mind to thank her.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Coming up for air (briefly)

I'm in the midst of writing a book about Golden Retrievers, and the manuscript is due January 1. That means, effectively, that I've got to finish the manuscript by Christmas and use the week between Christmas and New Year's to proof and edit my opus. Hence, my posts here have been even less frequent than usual.

But I had to take a minute to hail yesterday's triumphant run at the Breeder's Cup Classic by Zenyatta, the five-year-old mare who'd been undefeated in her 13 previous races. Yesterday made it 14--and this time, she raced against the boys.

I don't ride horses and I don't bet on horse races. I've never even been to a race. But I am of the double-X persuasion, not to mention being as easily thrilled by a spectacular come-from-behind effort as the next person. Those are the reasons that I salute Zenyatta.

If only Rachel Alexandra had been there.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A demo dog speaks her mind

Every week for my dog training apprenticeship, I need to teach an exercise, and this week's exercise is "wait." This exercise differs from "stay" in that "wait" simply prompts the dog to pause in whatever he's doing and not move any further forward until released. On the other hand, "stay"-- which is usually paired with a sit or a down -- requires a dog to not only pause but to remain unmovingly in position until released, which is quite difficult for many dogs, especially puppies, to do.

(There's half my spiel right there.)

Public speaking is not really my forte, but I perform much better when I prepare beforehand. To that end, I've written and practiced my spiel, and have been coupling that with actually pretending to teach the "wait" cue to Allie. As I will suggest to my students this evening, I've been practicing at her mealtimes.

Allie is not exactly thrilled with being my practice demo dog for this exercise. I taught her this manuever years ago when she was a puppy after she mowed me down one too many times in her eagerness to eat start her dinner while I was still setting her dish on the floor. But she waits like a champ now -- and her reaction to having to wait longer for her dinner than usual as I pretend to demo the exercise to an invisible audience is difficult for me to ignore.

She barks. Loudly. I can practically hear her saying, "Dammit, I know how to do this. You've been making me do it for years. I do it right. Why in hell are you making me wait so long all of a sudden? Just gimme my dinner, will ya?"

Eventually, of course, I do. I tell myself that it's good to practice amid distractions -- and my Golden girl's diatribe is indeed a distraction. In any case, though, I've probably practiced enough. Undoubtedly Allie will be relieved to have mealtimes go back to normal.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Live ... from the Patriot Center ... it's ...

... Cesar Millan, bringing "his enlightening and hugely entertaining Brand New live show to major U.S. cities this fall" -- including the George Mason University in Fairfax, VA (outside DC) on December 6.

According to the announcement from Bill Silva Entertainment, which is producing the tour, “From Sheepdogs to Schnauzers, Poodles to Pomeranians, Cesar Millan will have audiences spellbound as he shares his amazing insights on dog psychology and how people can inadvertently play a role in their dog's behavioral issues."

I can only imagine what behavioral issues the dogs in the tour might experience, going up on a live stage and becoming "balanced" in an arena that's normally reserved for rock concerts and basketball games.

Here is the rest of the announcement. I, for one, will not be going.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sounds of Silence

Several friends of mine have recently faced, or soon will face, the death of a beloved canine companion. It's with them in mind that I share today's Washington Post story about how, "amid the din of health-care reform, nuclear proliferation, insurgencies, and politics as normal, unnoticed but felt profoundly by a neighborhood, an era has passed on Capitol Hill."

Find yourselves some Kleenex, and read the story here. And to my friends (you know who you are), hugs.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Three reasons to be happy today:

1. My neurosurgeon gave me a clean bill of health this morning! He did suggest that I try not to bump my head in the future. But that's something I want to avoid anyway.

2. I checked the sales figures for Housetraining For Dummies, 2nd Edition -- and apparently in just two months, the book has already earned back half the advance.

3. Stan and I are meeting friends for dinner tonight at the restaurant of this executive chef. He comes off as a bit of a d-bag on TV, and a not-so-talented one, at that. But his real-life food is amazing. And the company will be fun, too.

Life is good.

Next morning update: The food was delicious and the company fun. Because I am easily starstruck, I was pleased to exchange a thumbs-up with Chef Mike as he checked on the lamb roasting in the kitchen, which I could see from our table. Later, as our party left, I saw him posing for pictures with a group of very excited female diners. I found this amusing and somewhat ironic, given that he's being portrayed as something of a woman-hater (at least in the kitchen) on Top Chef.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Love, honor and negotiate

My husband, Stan, likes to say that the secret to a good marriage is that both parties make and keep a promise to "love, honor and negotiate" with each other. I think he's absolutely right. Throughout our nearly 25 years together -- most of them in wedlock -- we've managed to surmount some significant challenges not just through love and respect but also through what at times are painstaking negotiations. From money matters to who does what chore to the way we balance work time and play time, solo time and couple time -- all these issues need to be open to negotiation.

I found myself thinking of that maxim of Stan's a couple of days ago when, as part of my dog training apprenticeship, I was working with a shelter puppy named Chloe. She looked to be a Border Collie mix, four months old, and she was smart as a whip. She already knew a verbal sit, and was easily lured into a down and a spin. She seemed to have just one problem: a very rough mouth that was filled with sharp puppy teeth. Giving treats to her was, literally, painful.

To teach Chloe to take treats nicely, I would hold the treat for her, then close and withdraw my hand slightly if she performed a tooth-lunge for the treat. That would prompt her to bump, nuzzle and finally lick my hand, at which time I would open the hand and allow her to take the treat. We continued this routine for a couple of minutes until Chloe herself appeared to offer me a proposal.

Whenever she performed a tooth-lunge and I began to withdraw and close my hand, she would gently place her paw atop my wrist to hold my arm still. Then, she would gently nuzzle my hand for a treat. Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing, but it seemed to me that she was saying, "Hold your arm still, and I'll take that treat nicely. I promise." Which is exactly what I did and, subsequently, she did.

And certainly, I've learned to negotiate with Allie, or at least to listen to her. Take the matter of wrestling and rough-housing. Allie's favored play-style is body-slamming and wrestling, an activity that I've shied away from sharing with her because she plays too rough and gets overstimulated to the point where she engages in (what for me are) painful play nips. At the relatively mature age of nearly 7, Allie's not much into playing with other dogs anymore. I am her #1 playmate, so my refusal to engage in any form of a human-canine smackdown must have frustrated her no end.

But Allie recently came up with a solution to our problem. A few weeks ago, she trotted over to me with a tug toy in her mouth, but indicated that she did not want to tug. Instead, she body-bumped me on one side, then the other. I gently pushed back, and soon we were engaged in some not-so-rough rough-housing. With the tug toy firmly between her teeth, Allie couldn't play-nip me, and we could enjoy some lady-like rough-and-tumble that proved enjoyable to both of us. Since then, we've had several repeat sessions.

Those who are devoted to so-called dominance theories of dog training would probably be appalled at the above accounts. In no way, would these devotees say, should I have allowed Chloe or Allie to set the agenda. These devotees often subscribe to the idea that the humans must be alpha wolves and the dogs must be, well, subservient 24/7. After all, dogs are descended from wolves, aren't they?

Probably so, but descendance from wolves may be kind of beside the point, according to a recent article in Time magazine. In that article, author Carl Zimmer points out that researcher Brian Hare believes that "the evolutionary pressures that turned suspicious wolves into outgoing dogs were similar to the ones that turned combative apes into cooperative humans." In other words, some of what makes the human-canine bond so profound is not that one species necessarily and always must dominate the other, but that they cooperate with each other. And one form of cooperation is negotiating.

Here is the article from Time. May it serve as a nail in the coffin of the whole alpha-wolf thing, and open us all to the idea that our relationships with our dogs can flow from cooperation, mutual respect and love.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To the Washington Redskins

Go get him!

And thank you, Main Line Animal Rescue, for a truly creative fundraising idea.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Maternal musings

My daughter went back to school today. She's a third-year student at DePaul, so you'd think I'd be used to her comings and going by now.


They're still hard. Saying goodbye at the airport I get very brisk so that I don't make a complete fool of myself by starting to blubber in public. Julie does the same, but adds some humor to her demeanor as well. Today she said, "Mom, who will I talk with about this?"

What can I say? We have a close relationship that's not necessarily built on a foundation of high culture.

In any case, I'm not the only one who has trouble dealing with Julie's departures. When Allie saw Julie get out her suitcase this morning, she looked right at it, then looked away. Later, she made it clear that she did not want to go for a last walk with Julie, and when Julie went to say goodbye to Allie, our golden girl not only refused to give any kisses but wouldn't even look at her. And now, she won't let me out of her sight.

Sigh. Goodbyes are hard.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Can Dachshunds countersurf?

Those of us who have the privilege of sharing our lives with larger dogs know that one downside to living with these individuals is that they can easily hoist themselves up on to their hind legs, place their front legs atop a kitchen counter, and proceed to score any unauthorized goodies within their reach.

But today's AP obituary for the world's oldest dog -- a wirehaired Dachshund named Chanel -- contains this interesting anecdote: "Along with her owner, Chanel spent nine years on assignment in Germany, where she became adept at stealing sticks of butter from kitchen countertops and hiding them in sofa cushions in the living room."

What I want to know is this: how the hell did a Dachshund manage to reach that countertop in the first place?

In any case, rest in peace, Chanel. The obit is here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Joys and sorrows

I have special feelings for each book I've written, but I think Senior Dogs For Dummies is probably my favorite. Certainly that book was the most heartfelt. I wrote much of that book while I was grieving the sudden death of my late great Sheltie, Cory. But also, because I decided to include profiles of real-life senior dogs who were living their lives to the fullest, I also came into contact -- albeit virtual in most cases -- with some unforgettable canine characters and their devoted people.

One of those individuals was CH Bramblewood's Taali' of Husn, an Ibizan Hound who shared her nearly 16 years with Carol Dickerson Kaufmann. I profiled Taali' in SDFD because she was being treated for mast cell cancer while continuing to enjoy life. When Taali was diagnosed in 2002 at the age of 9, Carol decided to pursue the best treatment available: radiation treatments at a clinic that was 170 miles from her home. The regimen required 16 such treatments over a period of three weeks. After the treatment ended, Taali' showed no sign of cancer for nearly a year and a half. But then, another lump occurred -- and again, the diagnosis was a mast cell tumor. This time, Carol and Taali' went to the clinic so that Taali could have surgery and chemotherapy. Carol was told that such treatment offered Taali a 70 percent chance of living for another year.

That was nearly six years ago.

Today I received a note from Carol that Taali' -- an Arabic name that means "star of destiny" -- passed away this past June 23, just two weeks short of her 16th birthday. I hope that, as Carol grieves the loss of her friend, that she'll realize that Taali's courageous example has probably inspired more dog people than she or I will ever know. For my part, I never had the privilege of meeting Taali' in person -- but I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to write about her.

Pictured above: CH Bramblewood's Taali' of Husn.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The thrill is NOT gone

Even after 30 years as a working writer, 12 years of writing about dogs, and four previous books to my credit, I still getting a little thrill when my author's copies of a new opus arrive on my doorstep. That happened today when I got my copies of Housetraining For Dummies, 2nd Edition.

One reason I enjoy writing about housetraining is that, as I say in the book, I actually get paid for getting in touch with my inner eight-year-old by discussing bathroom matters. But all humor aside, I'm proud of this book for many reasons -- not the least of which is that I made almost all my deadlines despite having taken an unexpected bump to the head during the time I was writing it. (The one I missed was only by a week, and the great folks at Wiley gave me an extension.)

If you need a housetraining refresher, or know someone who needs help teaching proper potty protocol to his or her pooch, just point that person here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Et tu, Ed?

I had the pleasure of meeting Pennsylvania Governor (and former Philadelphia Mayor) Ed Rendell about five years ago when I served as a presenter at the rescue parade at the Golden Retriever Club of America's annual specialty show. The show was held in Gettysburg, and the Governor's two Goldens, Mandy and Ginger, were scheduled to participate in the parade. The Governor himself paraded each dog individually around the ring, just like any other proud owner of a rescued dog, and he graciously accepted a rosette from me for each dog. I was especially impressed that he didn't try to work the room and declined the opportunity to make a speech. He seemed to really just want to show off his dogs.

Later, I interviewed Judge Marjorie Rendell, the wife of the Governor, about the Rendells' rescued Goldens for a magazine article I was writing. There was no mistaking the commitment of both Rendells to animal rescue.

So, with the signing of Michael Vick to the Philadelphia Eagles, I figured both Rendells would be horrified. Unfortunately, according to an article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, the Governor is keeping any such horror strictly private. His statement:

"I don't have to take a backseat to anyone in my commitment to helping protect all animals, and specifically our dogs and puppies. I also believe strongly in the tenets of rehabilitation and redemption. I believe Michael Vick has paid a strong and just penalty for his horrific acts, but he has endured that penalty with dignity and grace. He seems to be genuinely remorseful."

Sorry, I don't buy it.

Snippets of Vick's 60 Minutes interview, to be broadcast tomorrow night on CBS, show him saying, "I didn't step up" -- as though his worst crime was to passively allow the dog-fighting to occur on his property. But the evidence shows that Vick was an active participant in the systematic cruelty he and his cronies perpetrated on the dogs in his kennels. "Didn't step up" doesn't nearly cover what he did. He still doesn't get it.

And, apparently, neither does Governor Rendell.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dear Neighbor

Actually, you're not so dear.

Once again, you were walking up the street, reading your newspaper, with your leashless dog lagging behind. This is the same dog who got into a staring contest with my dog (leashed, thank you very much) on one occasion, charged across a neighbor's lawn to get to her and to me on another occasion, and dragged your daughter down our street to reach us on still another occasion. The last incident was particularly galling because your child's clearly clueless grandma was smiling idiotically the whole time.

I managed my dog, who frankly has no love for yours. I crossed the street, got out some treats, waited behind a car out of your dog's view, and fed the treats to my dog. Your dog still had seen mine, and was performing her customary stare. At that point you saw me, and stopped long enough for your lallygagging pooch to catch up to you. I kept feeding treats to my dog until you and your dog passed beyond where we were hiding -- yes, hiding.

And I've been nice to your dog. On several occasions when she's gotten loose, I've brought her back home. I've put her back in her yard, closed the gate, and put dumpsters in front of it to block her in . On one occasion, your next-door neighbor -- who, by the way, is deathly afraid of most dogs -- helped me. I've left you notes, asking you to please secure your fence. Not a peep from you, though.

I'm tired of having to cross the street to avoid you and your dog. I should not have to hide behind a car with my dog because you are too pig-headed to leash your not-totally-dependable dog properly. I should not have to stop your wife on the street to ask her to ask you to leash your dog. I should not have to convene an inner debate over whether to risk a confrontation with you (because you are about a gazillion feet tall to my just barely 5' 3") to just get you to comply with local leash laws.

Did you see me staring at you, douchebag?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I love Richard Cohen

Well -- today anyway.

WaPo's long-time columnist has taken on the issue of convicted dog abuser/former quarterback Michael Vick's quest to rejoin the NFL. So far, no team has signed him, and it's my sincere hope that no team does. Alas, according to Cohen, my hope may be in vain. He writes:

"In due course, Vick will play again. His entry has already been smoothed by the touching concern of Jackson and others, not to mention a bevy of sportswriters who seem to have programmed their computers to type out "paid his debt to society" with a single keystroke. Some of them have pointed out that they are dog lovers. Touching. But we have yet to hear from the dogs themselves."

It's a brilliant piece of impassioned ranting. Read it here.

Update: Philadelphia Eagles (and you other four teams), shame on you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Update and Luddite fretting

Yup, it's been way too long. But I did not vanish from the face of the earth. Instead I:

-- Continued to work with Allie on dealing with her car phobia. We were doing very well until mid-July when we took a massive couple of steps backward. Apparently the combo of a long trip, time in a crate and time with lots of other distracting dogs was just too stressful for the Golden Girl, and she balked at being asked to impose one more stressor on herself: getting back in the car. An awesome trainer named Katie Ervine did the lion's share of the work of coaxing Ms. Dog back into the Second Allie Car. We took about two weeks off from Car Re-hab, but started back again this week. Short trips to a local park to play ball have been going well.

-- Went on vacation. Stan and I journeyed to Sarasota, Florida, to see how much we like the area and whether we might want to relocate there when he retires from the Federal Government in a couple of years. The answers are, respectively, a lot and absolutely.

-- Kept working. Have lost track of what I've been writing.

-- Kept up with my dog training apprenticeship.

As to my Luddite fretting, my dilemma is this: whether to join Facebook and/or Twitter. I've been hesitating about Facebook because my dear daughter has issued me the following warning: "You know I love you, Mom. But if you join Facebook I. will. not. friend. you." That declaration hurt my feelings for awhile, but at this point, so many people I know seem to be on it that I can almost not care whether she friends me or not. The question is: will it be useful beyond re-connecting with people from high school whom I otherwise can barely remember? Or will I simply become addicted to stalking people from my past?

As for Twitter, some friends whom I have great respect for have urged me to do so, and there's a wonderful article here about why it's a good thing to do. But I still don't get it. It feels like a lot of navel-gazing to me (no flames, please -- I'm just being honest). Am I wrong? Why?

Which one should I do? Facebook? Twitter? Both?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Multiple choice question

What breed is the dog in this photograph?

a) Afghan Retriever
b) Salukidoodle
c) Something else

The answer is c). More specifically, this dog is Allie after receiving her post-swimming haircut. Although she appeared to enjoy her swim at Quiet Waters Park, that dip and a subsequent roll in the sand of the dog beach turned Allie's golden tresses into dreadlocks. The kindest way to undo this 'do was, in her groomer's words, to "make her look like a Lab."

Allie appears to like her new look. She's friskier than she's been for quite awhile. And I don't miss having to vaccuum up all those golden dust bunnies. I suspect the "summer cut" will be her June-through-August coif for many years to come.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Read this and marvel

The cover story of today's issue of The New York Times Magazine is a fabulous article by Charles Siebert describing what scientists have learned about the apparent efforts of gray whales to communicate with the human beings who study them in the Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California, Mexico. In the article, Siebert describes asking noted behavioral/wildlife biologist Toni Frohoff whether the actions of these whales might indicate that they've forgiven human beings for having slaughtered gray whales in the past. Her response:

"Those are the kinds of things that for the longest time a scientist wouldn't dare consider. But thank goodness we've gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I'd say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount that possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So thee are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility ... I'd put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined."

Here's the rest. Allow yourself to be awestruck.

Dear Tito

Here we are, retrieving balls together in the South River near Annapolis this past Thursday.

I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention to you when we encountered each other that day. You seem to be a really nice nine-month-old Labrador Retriever--and, as a six-year-old Golden Retriever who's quite experienced in the ways of dog-dom, I can tell you that meeting truly *nice* young guy dogs doesn't happen all that often. But the thing is this: when I am retrieving, IT IS ALL ABOUT THE BALL. I'm not interested in anything--or anyone--else.

Your almost-friend,


Friday, July 10, 2009

Three Amigas

Yesterday, Allie, Julie and I took that day trip to Annapolis to give Allie some quality swimming time and to give the three of us some family female bonding time. Both were great.

Yes, Allie was reluctant to get into the car, and I'm having to get increasingly creative in designing incentives for her to overcome that reluctance. Yesterday's jackpot: a small bowl of venison jerky treats, which proved quite effective. Good thing she got plenty of exercise, both in and out of the water, to work off those extra calories. And Julie proved a good partner in the let's-get-Allie-into-the-car effort, not to mention helping me navigate my way back to where I was supposed to be driving at least twice. (Did I mention that I am geographically impaired?)

Pictures will be up as soon as I can get the photographer (i.e., Julie) to email them to me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Goin' mobile, beep-beep

Since the past weekend, Allie and I have taken several two-block trips to a nearby park in The Allie Car II. Puppy-girl was shaking like a leaf during the first two trips, but much less on subsequent excursions. And today, a major milestone occurred: we used the new seatbelt in the car for the first time (previously, I'd put her in it just in the house so she could get used to it, and drove the two blocks sans belt. No flames, please), and drove a couple of miles. No shakes at all from Puppy-girl this time, although more inducement than usual was required to persuade her to enter the car: not just the Orbee ball, but also some treats and one of the regular tennis balls she found during our walk yesterday.

Tomorrow, hopefully, another milestone: Julie and I will take Allie to Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, where there's both a great dog park and dog beach that Allie loves. After that, we'll head to a dog-friendly pub in the heart of the town for a late lunch. If Julie remembers to bring her camera, I'll have pictures with my report.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Getting Allie into the new Allie-car

Allie's never been a big fan of cars, and after last week's misadventure on I-270, that lack of enthusiasm morphed into a no-way-no-how-am-I-getting-into-one-of-those-things-ever-again attitude. I couldn't blame her. Not only did the unwelcome contact of an SUV with my car's back end destroy Allie's seat belt, sending her to the floor between the back seat and front seat, but she also had to stay in the car as it was being loaded onto the tow truck, because there was no room for her in the cab. Then, when we got to the gas station where the tow guys dropped us off, she had to clamber down the ramp of the truck bed, with my help. By the time Stan got to the gas station to drive us both home, Allie had to literally be pushed into his car.

The very next day, I started walking around the car with Allie on leash and a clicker and treats (cheddar cheese--yum!) in one hand. The first day, we merely walked around Julie's car, and would stop every few feet for her to sit and for me to click and treat her. The next day, I opened the car door, and placed some cheese on the very edge of the seat. After some hesitation, she tentatively took the cheese. For the next few days after that, I made a Hansel and Gretel trail of treats halfway across the back seat -- first in Julie's car, then in my new set of wheels. In either car, Allie was willing to put her front paws on the seat and reach for the cheese, but that was as far as she'd go.

Then I remembered how I'd persuaded her to come into a local creek and swim. No treats were involved. The inducement was a tennis ball. I waded into the middle of the creek and held the ball out for her to see. That sight was enough for her to overcome her water-based timidity (yes, she is a Golden Retriever. But clearly an unusual Golden Retriever) and discover that she actually did like swimming, particularly when ball retrieval was involved.

So for the past three days, I've taken Allie's favorite pink-and-orange Orbee ball and tossed it onto the opposite end of the Allie car's back seat. With just a little coaxing, Allie has jumped into the back seat to retrieve the ball. The first day she managed to get past me and run with the ball into our back yard and make a fool of me playing keepaway. But I didn't get upset, I just thought "Great! She's getting a great real-life reward for venturing into the car!" And eventually, she did give up the ball and come back into the house.

I didn't make that mistake again, though. Yesterday and today, Allie again hopped into the car to get the ball, but I went in right after her and grabbed her leash. We sat on the back seat together and I let her gum the ball for a couple of minutes. Then we headed up to the nearby middle school field to play a rousing early-morning game of fetch, after which we returned home and I put the ball into a tote bag I'm keeping in the Allie car.

We haven't gone motoring together in the new car yet. That'll probably occur over the weekend, after the new back seat cover arrives and I install it. We'll take some short trips to local parks where Allie and I can play fetch, and we may even venture over to that local creek for the first time this year. But in any case, I have high hopes that Allie's and my travels together are not a thing of the past. Fingers crossed....

Friday, June 26, 2009

The new Allie-car

Ain't it purty????

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I get lucky -- again

Nice picture, huh? That is my now former car.

Allie and I were headed to our training class in Hagerstown two days ago, motoring along on I-270, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard a tremendous ear-rattling crash that was way too close for comfort. The vehicle behind me had hit my car hard: hard enough to shatter one of the plastic clasps of Allie's seat belt and send her from the back seat to the floor, hard enough to send my car into the rear end of the car in front of me. Apparently the driver behind me was not paying attention to his driving. Instead, according to one witness, he was looking at someone changing a tire on the left shoulder of the interstate. The result is that not-so-nice picture.

Fortunately, Allie and I are both okay. I've got mild whiplash, which is being treated with prescription ibuprofen and a muscle relaxant. Allie seems fine physically, but is sticking closer to me than usual. And she's not at all interested in getting into a car again, thank you very much. I'd like to change that, obviously. So I'm using a clicker and high-value treats to try and convince her to give motoring another go. But it'll take a long time to get her there, I think.

Meanwhile, my former vehicle, known affectionately as The Allie Car, has been written up as a total loss. I've turned the title over to the insurance company (hence, the "former" characterization) and given the tags to Virginia's DMV. I should get a check in the next day or so, at which point I'll go out and get Allie Car Number Two.

As for Allie's broken seatbelt, I'm taking the advice of someone who wrote a product review of canine seat belts, and plan to invest in this clasp-less number.

A couple of people have commented to me that I've had an awful year so far -- what with brain surgery in February and now a car that's been totaled due to someone else's negligence. I can see why people would see my year that way. But I choose to see it differently: that these events have happened, yes, but I am still here. I'm not only surviving but thriving -- still -- and Allie's been right here with me.

Update, 6/26: Several people told me that the picture of my car didn't show up on the blog, so I've removed it. Probably just as well that it didn't show because, as my brother said, "my imagination already took care of it."

In better news, though, I bought a new car last night. Now I need to try to get Allie to like it as much as I do!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Geez, Louise

One of my pet peeves (pun fully intended) regarding writing about dogs and other companion animals is the insistence by many editors that any animal be referred to as "it" unless the name of the animal -- and thus, supposedly the gender, is known. As I explain in all my For Dummies books, any animal, even those who are surgically altered so that they cannot reproduce, is of one gender or another and deserves the dignity of being referred to as such. That said, I realize that any editor I write for is my client and, if I fail to convince said editor to make an exception to the animal-is-an-it dictum, I do what I'm told.

But this item in The Washington Post's June 11 "Animal Watch" column, which reports local incidences of lost, stray or otherwise errant animals, on June 11 really turned that dictum on its head:

"A person found a stray female Labrador retriever and took it to the police station. There were no identifying tags on the dog. It was taken to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter to await retrieval by its owner."


Air conditioning update: Three leaks in the brand new compressor were found and fixed, but a new leak occurred 10 days later -- this time on the inside coil. That is supposed to be fixed next week to the tune of $500. Meanwhile, we're getting freon hits as needed. So, at least for the present, everything's cool.

Allie update: Allie is great. She totally rocked the training class in which this training apprentice is supposed to gain and practice dog handling skills. Way to help me set myself up for success, girlfriend!

Family update: Dear daughter is home from college for the summer. Parents are thrilled. So is big blonde dog.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


That would stand for Freon Leak Detector Dogs. Are there any? Is it even possible to train one?

I do not ask these questions idly. For SIX YEARS we have been struggling with a/c problems due to freon leaks that somehow our a/c servicing company can never find -- or, if they do find one, another springs up. We are now on our third compressor -- and there is yet another leak. If our service company can't find them, could a detector dog do it (assuming it would be safe for the dog. I have no idea whether or not would be the case.)?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Getting your goat(s)

Yesterday, while browsing in the Tyson's Galleria branch of Eileen Fisher (and, thankfully for my credit card balance, not finding anything I wanted to buy), I saw a poster-sized picture of a woman-owned business that intrigued me. The business was The Goat Patrol, owned by Alix Bowman in Durham, NC, which offers an environmentally friendly way to rid one's yard of plants that are overgrown or otherwise pose a problem. The Goat Patrol's modus operandi is to turn a herd of goats loose on those plants. The goats spend the day quietly grazing, with a trained goatherd to watch over them. At the end of the day, the plants are considerably fewer, if not totally gone. The goatherd loads the goats into a trailer and takes them back to the farm from whence they came.

Why would a clothing store feature such an enterprise? Because each year, Eileen Fisher bestows grants of $10,000 apiece to woman-owned businesses such as The Goat Patrol. The company also operates grant programs to help women and girls improve their images of themselves. More about both of these programs is here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- Allie's on page 60 ...

... and both Allie and I appear on pages 82 and 123. But even if we didn't -- and even if the author weren't a good friend of mine -- I'd still say buy. this. book.

I'm talking about Bonding With Your Dog: A Trainer's Secrets for Building A Better Relationship by Victoria Schade (Wiley). In a world where there's a whole lot of deadly serious information about how to train a dog--much of which is actually misinformation--Victoria's 201-page tome revolves about having fun with one's canine companion. And in service of that have-fun theme, she comes up with all kinds of creative ways to build person-pooch partnerships that become win-win situations for all concerned.

For example, suppose Fido sees a squirrel while the two of you are out for a walk. Do you pull back with all your might to prevent Fido from giving chase? Not according to Victoria, who suggests that the owner join Fido in chasing that fluffy-tailed rodent--after Fido performs a sit at the owner's request. The rest of the book contains similarly unorthodox ideas, such as walking at different times and on different routes each day to give your dog some variety, and hiding from your dog while in the dog park so that he'll learn to check in with you while he's romping with his canine buddies.

Of course, Victoria is a passionate proponent of the positive reinforcement training philosophy that I strongly believe builds better human-canine relationships. That philosophy permeates the entire book. But to her credit, Victoria also acknowledges that sometimes the implementation of that philosophy can be a little tricky, such as when she discusses the logistics of handling poop bag plus clicker plus treats plus leash plus dog when teaching the dog to walk nicely on leash. I still find that exercise tricky, but by following Vic's clear directions, I'm at least no longer feeling like the clumsiest kid in P.E. class -- and Allie has become much more mannerly on the leash.

Most of us add dogs to our lives not because we want to show how polite we can teach our dogs to be, but because we want to experience the joys of having a deep relationship with a non-human being. Bonding With Your Dog will show you how to build a partnership that allows you to experience those joys--and to have fun building it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Just who were they thinking of here?

In today's WaPo is a mostly heartwarming article about the efforts of a rescue group to re-hab and re-home six Foxhounds who were badly burned and more than a little frightened after a fire at Red Hill Farm, owned by Fairfax Hunt, a hunt club in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Unfortunately, one paragraph in that piece stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the article, which lauded the fact that Lost Dog Rescue and Fairfax Hunt have worked together to care for the traumatized hounds. Fairfax Hunt's Master of Hounds, Joseph Keusch, admitted that there'd been some tension with Lost Dog Rescue, in part because "... a national foxhunting association ... wanted the [Fairfax] hunt to retrieve the dogs [from Lost Dog Rescue] to avoid negative publicity from animal rights activists."

IOW, the national organization was putting its own convenience ahead of the welfare of the dogs who were in need of the care and attention that prompted Fairfax Hunt to work with Lost Dog Rescue in the first place.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taking the easy way out

A couple of weeks ago, an uncharacteristically insipid review by WaPo's Jonathan Yardley of Michael Schaffer's new book, One Nation Under Dog, prompted me to get my rant on. I was incensed at Yardley's using the book to get his rant on about what he considers to be excessive spending on companion animals by the pet-owning public--even though he acknowledged having willingly parted with substantial chunks of change to care for his own beloved dogs. Other reviews take a similar tone: that Schaffer's book is a long-overdue indictment of pet owners' misplaced priorities.

Much to my surprise, I received an email the following day from Mr. Schaffer. I'm honoring his request that I not publish that email, but I think it's fair to say his note prompted me to buy the book myself and make my own judgment. I did wince over the back-cover accolades, one of which called the book "a masterwork of comic sociology," while another proclaimed that the book holds "a mirror to our pet-obsessed culture." The author bio on the inside flap didn't help, either: after saying where Mr. Schaffer and his family live, the bio says that the author and his family "insist that their own pets ... are not freakishly pampered."


I'm not disputing that pet-keeping takes on some extreme forms. How could I: I've lost count of the number of newspaper and magazine articles, in addition to book reviews, that screech about such excesses. And for the record, I:

-- do not dress Allie in any clothing. I even take off the kerchief and occasional hair bows that her groomer bestows on her. If I didn't, she would try to.

-- do take Allie to that groomer every six weeks or so. Given that Allie weighs 70 muscular pounds, and that I weigh only about 30 not-s0-muscular pounds more than she does (especially since I've been recovering from this adventure), paying for a monthly doggie spa date seems to me to be a prudent investment. That said, I brush her several times a week, clean her ears weekly, and do all the other maintenance stuff that good canine stewardship requires.

-- get Allie's food from this company and pay a hefty price for doing so. But I'd rather pay that money to keep my golden girl healthy than to treat near-continuous ear infections brought on by her allergies to common dog food ingredients such as chicken, beef, wheat and corn (the latter can also be difficult for dogs to digest and may affect dogs' behavior, as this article by trainer Robin Bennett points out).

My foregoing disclaimers, not to mention the one that ends Mr. Schaffer's book-flap bio, probably seem a little defensive. And no wonder: all those cultural scolds who criticize animal-related financial outlays cause many of us to feel that we have to defend those outlays. But to laud or criticize One Nation Under Dog on the basis of those excesses is to miss the book's essential point. Unfortunately, that point doesn't begin to emerge till page 250, when the author reflects on why he finds himself returning to a pet bereavement group long after he'd completed his research on that group for the book:

"I'd started doing my research on the new pet world--way back when--feeling mainly bemused about how I'd been sucked into the universe of dog walkers and pet hotels and veterinary antidepressants. I thought of it as a chronicle of absurdities, albeit absurdities in which I was a participant ... My early expectations of the pet bereavement group, in particular, had involved crazy cat ladies rather than sophisticated grievers ... [But] I realized after a while that I was coming back again and again as a sort of communion ... talking about pet mourning turned out to provide rare moments of genuine, thoughtful sharing."

By the end of the book, the author concludes that "pets and how we treat them, are a public reflection of our deepest human values" -- in other words, something far more important than what drives all those rants and ravings about pet lovers' fiscal and other choices. But in choosing to use One Nation Under Dog as a springboard for such criticism, reviewers have done the book a disservice. In the end, to my surprise, the book's a far more thoughtful and balanced treatise than those reviewers indicate. Those reviewers took the easy way out: they went for surface instead of searching for what the author was really saying. The author may bear some responsibility for the path that those reviewers took, particularly if he was the person who crafted his back-flap bio. In any case, though, I wouldn't have bothered to read the book if the author hadn't found a way to almost guilt me into doing so. And that would have been a shame.

Medical update: I saw my neurosurgeon this past Friday, who said I'm doing great and told me to "go live your life" -- which I fully intend to do (starting with a long overdue date with my hairdresser. Yo, Maryam: call me back. Please.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dear Mrs. Obama:

I'm sorry that Bo, your new puppy, is keeping you and the POTUS awake at night with his nocturnal antics. Certainly hearing a bouncy Portuguese Water Dog playing with his ball just outside your bedroom door is not conducive to getting a good night's sleep. And I can totally relate to your husband's adamant declaration last week that the Bo would not be sleeping in his bed. My husband feels the same way.

But my husband also understands that a dog, especially a puppy, is a social animal, and needs to be with his pack, especially at night. That means that the best place for Bo to be at night is in your bedroom. That said, he need not be on your bed. Talk to your hubby. Suggest that you bring Bo and his crate (you have one, don't you?) into your bedroom at bedtime. Put Bo in his crate with a chew toy. If he whines, dangle your fingers in front of the crate so he can sniff them. In short, give him the opportunity to share some space with you. You'll all sleep better.


Susan McCullough

P.S. And if you and the POTUS feel a little frisky before bedtime or in the middle of the night, don't worry. Dogs are extremely discreet. Bo won't tell anyone what you guys were doing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Amazing ... Retrievers

I'm a big fan of CBS's The Amazing Race, the 14-seasons-strong reality show in which 10 or 11 teams of two contestants each have to negotiate various challenges in a race around the world. The incentive: $1 million for the winning team.

Last night's installment found the teams in China. During one challenge there, teams had to go by raft to the middle of a small bay, where one person from each team had to throw fish into the water for trained birds to retrieve. Yes, you read that correctly: birds. As one contestant noted, "If someone put filet mignon in my mouth, I would eat it, not hand it back."

Here is the clip. I don't know how those birds were trained (maybe I don't want to know), but I thought the challenge was very cool.

P.S. I totally thought that Keisha and Jen were playing dirty with Luke. Way dirty -- and not in a good way.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Not just the presidential dog

A welcome dose of perspective from WaPo's Colbert King:

"If the Obamas haven't learned it yet, they soon will find out that friendship in this oh-so-political town tends to rise and fall with the polls. Bo, on the other hand, will remain by their side simply because there is nowhere else he would rather be.

"He's not going to tell the president when he screws up. Or remind the first family of their mistakes. He won't care whether Barack Obama's presidency is successful or a flop. The time may even come when the Obamas mean little to the country. But they will remain all the world to Bo. "

Here is the rest.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reconsidering my silence

I've been reluctant to add my voice to those in print and the blogosphere that are reporting or just plain talking about the new First Puppy, Bo. But over the past couple of days, a few things have happened that have prompted me to reconsider my relative silence.

First, I've been conversing by email with two Portuguese Water Dog devotees, both of whom I know to be very reasonable, intelligent people. They have polar opposite views of the new attention being paid to their breed. One person views the Obamas' acquisition of a PWD as an opportunity to educate the public about responsible breeders. The other fears that publicly sharing their breed expertise will result in their being harassed by animal rights extremists like these folks.

Second, I received an email yesterday from a person who clearly has yet another point of view. This person decries the fact that the Obamas chose to acquire their re-homed dog from a responsible breeder, rather than from a shelter or rescue group. The email (which I am reproducing without the sender's permission, because she certainly didn't ask my permission before sending it to me and a whole bunch of other people) says, in part:

"Is anyone else as outraged as me? I mean you'd never know given the lack of coverage in the media today. Why isn't this headline news? We need to let it be known what their family has just done. Michele has not kept her word after stating that they would be adopting their pup from a rescue? ... They have just created hundreds of puppy mills. Puppy mills here and most assuredly, around the world ... Don't we have any more reputable, thorough, and unbiased reporters and activists any longer?"

We do. Which is why I respond thus:

1. Activists, by the very definition of the word, are not unbiased.
2. The Obamas' first priority, very rightly, was to find the right dog for their family. Hopefully, they have -- they've certainly done everything right so far. Not only did they take the time to research breeds; they also sent the dog to a trainer using these methods for his initial schooling.
3. Although the Obamas' acquisition of Bo may not have directly saved a life, they've done the next best thing: making a donation to the Washington Humane Society. That donation will certainly go a long way toward making other, less fortunate dogs' lives better.

Lest anyone think that I am completely biased in favor of responsible breeders, let me add another thought. I think that some in the fancy who fear that animal rights extremists want to eradicate not only purebred dogs but also dog ownership in general need to consider ways that they may have inadvertently fanned such extremism. When certain breeds have so many wrinkles on their noses that the hair and folds on those noses cause corneal ulcers (I had to write about that recently. Not fun) ... when another breed's top line is so slanted that the dog looks as though it's squatting when it's actually standing ... when the same sires keep getting used over and over again to the detriment of the breed ... things need to change.

I'm no expert on genetics, even though the subject fascinates me. But anyone who took high school biology with me knows that I had considerable difficulty understanding how Gregor Mendel figured out the genetics of beans; the genetics of dogs are beyond my comprehension for the most part. Fortunately, there are other people who are far more comfortable and conversant with the subject. The solutions that some of them propose -- sensible, careful outcrosses -- make sense to me.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reviewer, review thyself

Generally, I look forward to seeing WaPo's Jonathan Yardley's book reviews and other writing about dogs. He clearly loves them, and his 2008 elegy to a departed canine companion made me cry. The fact that he proclaimed in print his admiration for one of my favorite authors gives him major points in my book, too.

But the book review in today's paper: yikes.

The book in question is Michael Schaffer's One Nation Under Dog (Henry Holt). Based on Yardley's review, the book appears to be a 288-page version of countless newspaper and magazine articles that cluck-cluck-cluck about the excesses -- fiscal and otherwise -- of some segments of of the dog-owning public. Yardley writes that readers "are referred to page after page of advertisements for pet-related products in Sky Mall, the magazine for bored (and generally affluent) airplane passengers. The sky, literally and figuratively, is the limit. People who see pets as extensions and reflections of themselves apparently have no hesitation about laying out significant sums to give those pets the best (i.e., the most expensive) food, accoutrements and veterinary care."

Yardley also notes in his review that the veterinary profession has become "almost unbelievably specialized and increasingly dominated by women (emphasis mine)." Domination of a profession by women is a problem? Specialization is to be criticized?

On and on the review goes, decrying the apparent metamorphosis of pet keeping from viewing animals "as an economic unit" to loving "animals for their own sakes ... and [being] increasingly willing to act on that love by ordering up previously unimaginable medical interventions." His tone is one of exasperation, even indignation. Yet, in that very eloquent elegy, Mr. Yardley acknowledges that he and his family apparently were willing to part with significant sums of money to care for their ailing dogs. Which is fine, I've done the same thing. But it seems a little inconsistent, to say the least, to decry spending a lot of money on veterinary care when one has done that oneself.

The rest of the review is here.

For my part, I'd much rather read about the positive aspects of the human-canine bond, particularly about how to grow that connection -- which is why I can't wait to read this book written by my very good friend, Victoria Schade (yes, Mr. Yardley, a female trainer! Deal with it.)

And, speaking of bonds, I sincerely and fervently hope that Bo Obama builds a deep and long-lasting bond with his new family.

Update: Kudos to Christie Keith of PetConnection for her dogged reporting of how Vicki Kennedy and a very responsible breeder brought Bo to his new family. The story is here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Some REAL experts weigh in

One thing that's bugged me ever since I started writing about dogs and other companion animals is that some trainers insist on calling themselves behaviorists, even though they have no certification from organizations such as the Animal Behavior Society or American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. And as for one Cesar Millan, who has the audacity to call himself a dog psychologist and whose training facility is called the Dog Psychology Center -- well, anyone who asks knows how I feel about him.

But now a group of real experts, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, has released a position paper that takes direct issue with the outdated dominance-based training theories that guide Millan and, way back in the 1970's, the Monks of New Skete. As Timothy Kirn of VIN News Services points out, "the dominance theory spoutedfor years by many in the dog community is a poor model for describing wolfbehavior and is an even worse model for training your dog. Unfortunately, just like there is still a Flat Earth Society there are still those likeCesar Millan, who hang on to a dog training model that is erroneous and based on creating confrontation and fear."

The AVSAB recommends that its members make a point of not referring clients to trainers who espouse dominance-based training. The group's anti-dominance position paper is here.

Many thanks to Pat Miller for her heads-up on both the VIN article and AVSAB position paper.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Being lucky

Over the past two days, it's become abundantly clear to me how very, very lucky I am. A seemingly innocuous skiing accident on a bunny slope ended up killing actress Natasha Richardson. An autopsy is being conducted even as I write this, and results are expected to be released later today.

Not to be pompous or pretentious, but I feel a kind of survivor's guilt. What made the difference between her dying and my living? Why am I so lucky?

My family and friends have been absolutely wonderful, I can never thank them enough. They've been staying in touch (especially over the past few days; Richardson's accident has freaked them out, too). Allie has been a Doggie Therapy Goddess. Regular tug-of-war sessions with her are helping to restore the strength in my left arm, and her companionship has been nothing short of sustaining.

I saw my neurosurgeon the day before yesterday. He says I'm doing well. My brain is starting to resorb the remaining hematoma, my balance is much better, and I've been able to cut way down on painkillers and anti-seizure meds. And while I tire very easily, I'm working and making my deadlines. (Full disclosure, though: my editors have been absolutely wonderful about extending those deadlines.) There are other activities, though, that I can't manage right now, and that frustrates me no end. My doctor tells me to be patient: full recovery from brain surgery takes months, not weeks. My surgery was just three weeks ago.

There are some humorous aspects to this whole saga. Because I had to have some strips of hair shaved for the surgery, I've developed a new sympathy for balding men who attempt to master the art of the combover. My own hair is longer than it's been in years (I'm not allowed to go the hairdresser until the scabs from the incisions on my head are gone) and is wildly curly. I kinda like it.

Interestingly, I have not had a single hot flash since this whole business started three weeks ago. Since the precipitating incident involved three rowdy dogs, I'm wondering if I should proclaim this development (or lack thereof) the Meno-paws Cure.

But on a serious note, know that March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Learn the facts, and never, ever make light of a bump to the head.

Update: According to, the New York City medical examiner's office has announced that Richardson died of "blunt impact to the head." The impact resulted in an epidural hematoma, which differs from the brain bleed that I have had, subdural hematoma. Epidural hematomas, because they involve the arteries, result in much more rapid bleeding than do subdural hematomas, which involve the veins. Hence, Richardson developed symptoms within hours, where I developed symptoms over the course of six weeks.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Head games

The last week or so has taken my family and me on a not-so-welcome medical adventure. The roots of said adventure were probably in mid-January, during this encounter. I thought I'd emerged relatively unscathed from that event, but apparently that wasn't the case. After several days of horrible headaches, extreme exhaustion, and, frighteningly, losing some function in my right leg, my doctor gave up on prescribing ever-stronger painkillers and sent me to the emergency room of our local hospital. A CAT scan revealed that I had developed two subdural hematomas that were actually shifting my brain out of place. The treatment: drill and drain, which occurred this past Thursday night. I now have a head full of staples, all scheduled to be removed in three days. I've also lost a bit of hair, but -- amazingly -- didn't need a full head shave. Julie thinks I should get a shave anyway, though. She thinks I'd look bad-ass. I'm not so sure.

I'm out of the hospital now, but not entirely out of the woods. After the drains were removed from my head, another pool of blood was found. Hopefully my brain can re-sorb the blood over the next few weeks (months?), but until then I need to watch for a recurrence of symptoms. If that happens, I'll face another drill-and-drain session, and may reconsider that remember-remember-the-fifth-of-November change of coiffure. The fact that my birthday happens to be the fifth of November makes that prospect seem somewhat appropriate.

Meanwhile, though, a few shout-outs to:

-- Mani the night nurse. I hope he got in some good sledding yesterday. Six prongs for the engagement ring, buddy!

-- Katie the day nurse. I hope the copy of Senior Dogs For Dummies that I gave her will help her deal with her dog's passage over the Rainbow Bridge.

-- Kate the other day nurse, who made it possible for me to have my first post-surgery shampoo!

-- The great neurological surgeons at Inova-Fairfax, who answered my endless questions with equally endless patience.

-- The wonderful folks at Wiley's Consumer Dummies team who sent me the gorgeous bouquet of flowers that just arrived!

-- The equally wonderful folks at Bowtie, Inc. for sending me an equally lovely just-arrived bouquet!

-- My DH, Stan, who's taking such good care of me.

-- My daughter, Julie, whose visit from Chicago was so welcome.

-- My Golden girl, the Divine Miss Allie, who refuses to leave my side.