Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Letting go

The past few days have been, shall we say, tumultuous. Despite taking what I had every eason to believe were appropriate and sufficient precautions, my PC has been beset with 4 viruses over less than two months, each of which forced me to expend some cash to pay a pro to clean them up. Finally, last Wednesday, the boot file/sector got corrupted, leaving my computer and data dead in the water.

Enough already.

I decided to bag PC's and Windows forevermore and get a Mac -- specifically, an iMac. And I love it.

Unfortunately, in making the transition from PC to Mac, I lost some data, including years worth of emails and my virtual address book. At first, this seemed like a huge loss. Those emails included exchanges between Allie's breeder and me, enabling me to relive the whole history of how she came into my life eight years ago. There were plenty of other emails too: notes from my husband and daughter, email interviews, all kinds of history. I didn't refer to that history often, but I liked knowing it was there.

But now it's gone. There's no way of getting it back. I have to let it go.

I'm going to be doing a lot of letting go in the next few months: leaving my home of 20-plus years, watching my daughter graduate from college and make a life of her own, for starters. Further on down the line (I hope), I'll have to let go of Allie, too. What had been light-blonde patches on her face now are starting to look white. Thankfully, she still acts like a puppy while we go on walks; who'd have thought that I'd actually welcome her tendency to use her leash as a tug toy?

I guess life is a series of letting-go events. I've reconciled myself to some of those. I'm actually liking the look and feel of an email in-box that doesn't take forever to load up. I feel proud that I've raised a splendid daughter. I'm stoked about starting a new life chapter in a new place. But even those changes evoke bittersweet feelings. As for the Allie-related eventuality -- well, there's nothing sweet in contemplating that. When it comes to my golden girl, the sweetness is all in the present.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Like dogs? Like movies?

No, this is not a post waxing nostalgic about Lassie, Old Yeller, or other classic movies of the boy-loves-dog genre. Instead, I'm veering in a somewhat less reverent direction. Specifically, I invite you to check out the Empire Online Dogs Movie Poster Mash-up. It's totally irreverent, occasionally tasteless, and completely hilarious. My personal favorite is poster #5, which I wish I could post on the Northern Virginia Dog Blog. It certainly sends the right message.

(Pictured above: the movie that poster #5 refers to)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What if they COULDN'T swim?

Like probably a gazillion other animal-loving WaPo readers, I enjoyed reading about the swimming test that the National Zoo gave to four lion cubs that were born in August. The photos of the cubs in both this morning's article and the website photo gallery were suitably aw-inducing.

At least initially, the explanations by zoo officials for the test made some sense: they needed to see if the cubs would be able to swim if those cubs fell into the moat that surrounds the lions' home there. And the test was needed now, before the cubs get too big and dangerous for trainers to handle safely. Lions, like other animals, are born with the ability to swim--but that doesn't mean that some animals don't use that ability better than others. (Among those other animals, by the way, are dogs: some swim just fine, while others tend to flail about. Hence, the need for dogs to wear life jackets when boating.)

But then I started wondering: what if one or more of the cubs hadn't been able to swim? During the test itself, the zoo's trainers would have fished the water-averse cub out of the moat, but what about after that? Would they:

-- Give the cub swimming lessons? This hardly seems likely. If the cubs are almost too big to even test, they undoubtedly soon will also be too big to be taught how to keep themselves from drowning.

-- Outfit the cub with a life jacket? Somehow, I think not. First, the cubs are growing too fast to be outfitted with appropriately-sized life jackets for each stage of growth. Second, if the cubs will soon be too dangerous to be given swim tests or swimming lessons, they certainly will soon be too dangerous to put into life jackets, even if such garments were available for lions.

-- Fence the moat? Then, what about those sea-worthy lions who might want to use it?

-- House the non-swimming cubs somewhere else? Where, pray tell?

-- Hope that they won't fall in the moat until they're fully grown? That won't matter. WaPo says the moat is nine feet deep at its deepest point. That means an adult lion could drown, too.

Soooooo ... since apparently there are no options for dealing with a lion cub who can't swim, what on earth was the point of this test -- other than to perhaps provide a photo op?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Field trip

Between today's absolutely gorgeous weather and the inspiration offered by today's Washington Post travel section on hitting the road with Fido, Stan and I decided to take Allie on a little field trip. We didn't go nearly as far afield as the WaPo travel crew ventured with their four-legged friends; instead, we headed over to dog-friendly Old Town Alexandria.

First stop on our itinerary was Founder's Park, located at 351 Union Street. This lovely waterfront oasis abounded with people and pooches--no wonder, with temperatures hitting the low 70's. We headed up to the northern end of the park, where we knew we'd find a doggie exercise area. There we tossed Allie a tennis ball several times, got acquainted with a Doberman mix named Joseph and his person, and then headed to our next stop in a roundabout way.

The roundabout way took us on a path along the Potomac, where we stopped occasionally to watch the boats skimming the water. An open gazebo made for especially nice viewing, not to mention a photo op or two. After awhile, though, our appetites got the better of us, and we headed to our next destination.

That next stop was Pat Troy's Ireland's Own, which Stan and I have visited many times, but where Allie was a guest for the very first time. We were welcomed enthusiastically by the hostess, led out to the doggie patio, and ate a tasty lunch while a harpist played some Celtic music. We think Allie appreciated the music, because she wagged her tail enthusiastically whenever the harpist played. Then we meandered back to Founder's Park, where we let Allie run around a little before we headed back home.

I'll be honest: between Allie's car issues and her sometimes over-the-top enthusiasm in greeting strangers, we haven't taken her out and about much lately. Now I regret that. Exploring new places not only deepens the bond between person and dog, but also provides the dog with much- needed physical exercise and mental stimulation. Until today, I hadn't really given Allie much of a chance to show how far she's come. But today she did great in the car, she was polite and mannerly throughout the excursion, and (bonus!) is plenty mellow this evening. I suspect a lot more field trips will be in her future -- which will nice for us all.

The rest of the Post's "have pet, will travel" section is here and here.

(Pictured above: Allie and me at the aforementioned gazebo, overlooking the Potomac. We're both feeling pretty happy. )

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Kiss and make up

I was pretty pissed at Allie earlier today. We'd taken a nice long walk over a couple of briskly covered miles, and were on the last block before reaching home when she got one of her infamous Attacks of the Zoomies. Those aren't a big deal anymore: I either wait her out, keeping the leash limp, or I get her to focus on some cookies and settle her down that way. Today I opted for the latter approach, which she responded to well ...

... until she suddenly hauled me out into the middle of the street.

From what I could tell, she saw an acorn -- a thumbnail-sized acorn, for cryin' out loud -- rolling in the street, and she darted out to investigate it, hauling a caught-off-guard me behind her. Thank God a car wasn't coming. I may espouse positive reinforcement in human-canine interactions, but I most assuredly was not feeling very positive at that moment.

Fortunately, we reached home without further incident. I filled Allie's water dish, and went off to do my thing. Later I fed her dinner, gave her a chewie, and performed the rest of the evening routine, not really paying much attention to my Golden girl beyond what was necessary.

But a little while ago, Allie quietly came into my office. For some reason, instead of calling her over to me, I went and sat down on the floor next to her. I asked her to lie down, which she did, and then she did something most uncharacteristic for her: she put her head in my lap. I stroked her for awhile, then paused, at which point she put her paw atop my hand and gently held it down on my lap. We must have stayed that way for 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel my butt going to sleep, but I didn't want to move.

Finally, Allie lifted her head and sat up. Then, very deliberately, she leaned in and gave me two licks on the cheek.

All is forgiven.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lend me your ears

I'm very careful about Allie's ears. They get infected easily--mainly due to allergies, to which Golden Retrievers are notoriously prone. That's why I feed her raw food from this company, and take care that she consume no grain whatsoever. But I've also learned how important it is to keep her ears clean, so I do the job twice a week, without fail.

I didn't realize until yesterday, though, that I must have been saying the same thing to Allie immediately prior to every cleaning: "Allie, time to clean your ears." Yesterday, however, that realization became very clear, because when I uttered those six words, my Golden girl stopped dead in her tracks, looked right at me, then turned around and began trotting away from me.

I never cease to be amazed at how closely our dogs study us and how much of our language they really do understand. While the apparent vocabulary of one dog, Rico the Border Collie, is truly remarkable, I suspect that many of us would be astounded if we took the time to make a list of the words and phrases our dogs know. Allie's list would include such words and phrases as "breakfast", "dinner," "chewie," "brush" and "cocktail" (don't ask).

As for Allie's antipathy to ear cleanings, I'm hoping that this task will be more palatable if I literally appeal to my puppy-girl's palate. So when I say those not-so-magic (to Allie, anyway) words in the future, I'll have a couple of pieces of venison jerky at the ready. Hopefully, those treats will encourage her compliance beforehand, and will certainly reward her for stoicism afterward.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A confession

(This post also appears on my blog, "The Positively Well-Behaved Dog." I've never before used identical posts for two blogs, but this one's very personal--and also reflects the spirit of the Never Shock a Puppy blog campaign I'm participating in.)

For this week’s post, and in the spirit of the Never Shock a Puppy blogging campaign, I’m going to make a confession. Specifically, if there was ever a day that I might have been tempted to use a choke collar, prong collar, e-collar or otherwise take aversive action with my Golden Retriever, Allie, that day was yesterday.

We were taking a long walk when my normally politely walking Golden girl got an attack of the zoomies. Such “attacks” generally result in her running crazily back and forth, picking up the biggest available stick, inadvertently whacking me on the backs of my legs with that stick and/or attempting to use the leash as a tug toy. I understand why she engages in such behavior: she’s working off excess energy (she hadn’t been for a run for a couple of days) and is also trying to get me to play with her. Most of the time, I can deal with such behavior with total equanimity. She’s seven years old, so I’ve had plenty of time to learn how.

Yesterday, however, was different. I’d had a crown put in at the dentist earlier that morning and by the time Allie and I set out on our walk, the anesthetic had warn off and my jaw was aching. The very thought of needing to deal with Allie’s acrobatics was, shall we say, unwelcome. And I’m only human: just as parents sometimes talk about giving their misbehaving kids a good swift kick (without ever seriously considering following through), at that moment, I was tempted to give Allie a good swift jerk of the leash. Fortunately, I knew I didn’t have to.

I knew that all I had to do was to just stand still—which is exactly what I did.

Just as experts suggest that a person stand still if a dog tries to pull ahead and make like a sled dog on a walk, so is the same non-move a good way to deal with a Golden Retriever’s zoomies. Sure enough, after a minute or two, Allie stopped acting like a crazy girl and settled down. At that point, I quietly asked her to “walk nice.” We then continued on our way, and after a few sedate paces, I gave her a treat. A few more equally sedate paces earned her another treat. We made it home without further incident, and she was dozing next to me under my desk as I typed this post.

I’m glad I didn’t have the equipment that would have allowed me to give in to those aversive impulses. I’m human enough to admit I might have gotten a moment’s satisfaction from ‘teaching her a lesson.’ But I’ve learned enough to realize that in such instances, the best—and certainly most humane—way to respond to a dog’s misbehavior is to not respond at all. Put another way, in order to have a positively well-behaved dog, one has to commit to being a positively well-behaved owner.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A girl and her dog

When I was a kid, I would get annoyed at what felt to me like a proliferation of stories on print and screen about boys and their dogs, but none about girls. I still do. I've always wondered where there are distaff equivalents of TV shows like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, not to mention books like Jim Kjeergaard's Red series, Eric Knight's Lassie Come-Home, or even Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh series.
Because, make no mistake about it, the bond between girls and their dogs are as powerful as those between those dogs and their brothers. I was crazy about the dogs I grew up with. As an adult, that adoration hasn't diminished. When I went off to college, I worried most not about homesickness, whether I'd get good grades or whether I'd make friends (especially the male kind). I worried most about whether our Dachshund, Casey, would remember me when I came home for Thanksgiving. And on many levels, I missed him more than I missed the human members of my family.
Apparently, I've passed that dog craziness to my daughter. Julie and Allie have always been great friends, but the intensity of that bond has grown exponentially since Julie started college three years ago. Julie's heading back to school for her senior year on Sunday--and she's said more than once how she'll miss Allie most of all.
I don't take offense at that. Unlike me, Allie can't respond to Julie's text messages or emails, and she certainly won't be coming with me when I got to visit Julie in Chicago next month. As close as Julie and I are, the mother-daughter relationship still carries a weight of history that is blessedly absent between a girl and her dog. With Allie, everything can be simple. I get that. It was the same for me--and, in fact, still is.
(Pictured above: Julie and Allie)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Not so shocking news

As should be abundantly clear by now, I'm all about training using positive reinforcement. That means I favor giving dogs rewards for when they something right over using aversives to stop dogs from doing something wrong.

Not everyone--including people I admire and respect--agrees with me, though. Many people believe that correcting a dog through the use of aversive devices should be part of a trainer's and/or dog owner's tool box. That's why I've joined a number of other dog bloggers on an 8-week campaign called "Never Shock a Puppy." This campaign aims to raise public awareness of humane alternatives to one such device: the electronic collar.

The electronic collar aims to correct unwanted behavior by delivering a shock that can range in intensity from a mild vibration to a truly painful jolt. The idea, of course, is that the dog will associate the behavior being corrected with getting the shock, and thus refrain from repeating that behavior. Over the next few weeks, my fellow bloggers and I will discuss other, more dog-friendly ways to deal with such behaviors. We'll also keep you posted on social media promotions and a boatload of great prizes associated with the campaign.

In the process, we hope to raise $2,500 for the Humane Society of Boulder Colorado's No-Choke Challenge, which will include lots of media outreach and other events in which the gorup will give away humane training tools to people in the Boulder area who relinquich their electronic, choke or prong collars. The donations will enable the organization to buy about 165 of those humane training tools.

For more info, check out the Never Shock A Puppy website. And, in the meantime, enjoy the above YouTube video of this year's Doritos Super Bowl commerical, which went a long way toward articulating the reasoning behind opposition to electronic collars.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Weather or not ...

... it's been a challenging summer for Allie.

In July alone, 22 of the month's 31 days had temperatures above 90 degrees, and August hasn't seemed any better. Those temperatures are too high for safe, much less comfortable, for our usual long walks, much less our customary fetch sessions up at the local middle school. We've been doing plenty of indoor playing, but still--indoor sessions of fetch, tug or hide-the-toy just aren't the same as chasing a ball in a wide open school field.

And even if the weather had been cooperative, my schedule hasn't been. Between writing two books, doing a goodly number of paid blog posts a week, the usual articles, and some traveling, there haven't been enough hours in the day to get through the items on my to-do list -- including those rousing play sessions. That same schedule has been making it tough for me to write here--going more than a week between posts here is embarrassing.

I'm not complaining for my own sake. I'm grateful to have the work (and will be even more grateful when I'm paid for it), and the heat hasn't bothered me nearly as much as it's bothered a lot of other people. But I feel for my Golden girl. Yes, she's getting older, so she doesn't need as many of those fetch sessions as she used to, and the sessions aren't as long as they once were. Nevertheless, I know that the next time we walk anywhere that approximate our route to the local field she'll try to pull me there--and no matter how legitimate the reason is, I'll still feel bad if I have to say no.

But this won't go on forever -- just another two weeks for the book work, and hopefully not much longer for those steamy days. Hold on, Allie. It won't be much longer.

(And for those who are wondering how I'll handle the heat with Allie when we move to Florida, I can tell you right now: I have no idea.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

A moving experience

We are going to be moving--not right away, but within the next year. This past weekend, Stan and I traveled to Lakewood Ranch, Florida, to put a deposit down on some land and begin building a house (the finished dwelling will look something like the one pictured above).

To say that we're excited is an understatement. Now that we've put down the deposit, the die is cast--and we're beginning to think about all we need to do to leave the house we've lived in for more than 20 years and begin a new phase of our lives. (And no, Julie probably won't be with us. She's finishing college next spring--how did that happen?--and beginning a new phase of her life.)

But while Stan is focused on crunching numbers, I am focusing on how to make the move dog-friendly--specifically, how to move Allie along with ourselves and our inanimate stuff. This will be no easy matter. Nevertheless, I am somewhat amused that even now I'm thinking about:

  • where Allie's crate will be located in our new house. Not totally decided on that yet.
  • how to keep Allie from freaking out when we leave the only place she can remember living in.
  • how to find pet-friendly hotels/motels for two nights on the road when we drive from northern Virginia to southwestern Florida--and making sure that pet-friendliness extends to include a 70-pound Golden Retriever.
  • where Allie will be when we do our final walk-through of the house.
That's just for starters. Am I a planner or what?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Poor Polly

Last night I watched the season premiere of AMC's Mad Men (thank God for DVR's)--and while there was much in that episode to sadden any viewer, dog lovers like me were most likely to focus on what's happened to the Drapers' Golden Retriever, Polly, since Betty divorced Don and married Henry Francis.

Apparently Henry doesn't like dogs, and Polly--who'd been very much a part of the family and had actually prompted Betty to shoot some pigeons in Season 1--has been banished to the basement. No protest from Betty, of course, but when Don brings the kids back from their weekend with their dad, he lets Polly out of solitary. The dog is lying at Don's feet when Betty and Henry arrive home. After Don leaves, Polly is returned to the basement once more, at Henry's insistence.

Seeing Polly exiled broke my heart, and not just because my Allie is a Golden Retriever, too. Forcing a social animal like a dog to endure prolonged solitary confinement is, quite simply, cruel. And yet, such practices were probably pretty common in the 1960's. I remember several families who kept their dogs in their garages. Other dogs were let out to roam the neighborhood all day, and when they didn't come back, the parents simply shrugged. One dog I remember especially well was driven to a field one day by the dad in his house, and dumped in a field--the guy actually congratulated himself because he was "setting Skipper free."

These days, many people consider dogs to be members of their families--and the growth of the pet industry reflects that status. That said, pockets of old-school laissez-faire attitudes about our best friends still persist. Still, I'd like to think that the dogs of today are more likely to be understood as the social animals they are than was the case a half-century ago.

(And yes, I know Polly's not the only dog who hasn't fared well on Mad Men. )

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Four-legged meds, no side effects

Most of us who have the privilege of living with a companion animal know that doing so is just that: a privilege. But in this past weekend's edition of USA Weekend, my good friend and colleague Steve Dale has a terrific article on exactly why having a pet is good for the person who cares for that pet.

I am not going to muck this up by adding my two cents. The article says it all. Read and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Who knew?

Apparently I write like Cory Doctorow -- at least according to this website. That said, I would never name a child Poesy, much less add Nautilus as a middle name.

Many thanks to The Poodle (and Dog) Blog for sharing this.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Coming to a bookstore near you on August 30 (or around that date, anyway)!!!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

And baby makes four

I've become a great fan of Bethenny Getting Married, the Bravo TV show that chronicles the life and times of Bravo-lebrity/chef/author/entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel. The woman is flat-out funny, not to mention fearless. I mean, how many women would allow TV cameras to capture her peeing into a bucket on her wedding day? Not many, I would imagine. Certainly not I.

And yet, as much as Frankel's adventures seem way beyond any I would ever/have ever experienced, there's one area in which I can identify: her joy in becoming a mother in her late 30's. That happened with me, too -- and like Frankel, I worried about everything. One of Frankel's worries was how her 10-year-old dog, Cookie, would cope with having baby Bryn join the household, and she tweeted as much not long after Bryn was born.

As a new mother, I had a similar worry: how my 10-year-old mixed poodle, Molly, would handle having a new baby (that would be my now 21-year-old daughter) in the house. More specifically, I wondered how Molly would cope with having to share me with the baby, given that just a couple of years earlier I'd made our twosome a trio when I married Stan.

Unlike Frankel, I didn't get a boatload of responses to a tweet, but I did have one of the earliest editions of What to Expect When You're Expecting. That book contained some great suggestions for baby-prepping a dog: sending home a T-shirt with the baby's scent home from the hospital, greeting the dog separately when returning from the hospital, carefully introducing baby and dog. I followed all those suggestions to the letter, and Molly did fine. In fact, she seemed to consider herself Julie's protector, especially when the latter began walking.

Although Frankel's baby only about eight weeks old right now--and thus a long way from walking--People magazine reports that Cookie has taken on a role with Bryn that's similar to Molly's with Julie, and the new family is doing great. That warms my heart the same way that Molly did when she made it clear that she was cool with any new additions to our little pack. As long as I was happy, she was happy.

That said, if Frankel runs into any problems in the future managing Bryn and Cookie, I can recommend a terrific book: Colleen Pelar's wonderful Living with Kids and Dogs ... Without Losing Your Mind. Pelar's not only a terrific dog trainer; she's also the mother of three sons and the caregiver to two dogs. She's written a pragmatic, compassionate guide that, in my opinion, no dog-owning family should be without.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Exercising restraint

Allie adores bananas, and usually we're very generous about sharing the ones we eat with her. But this morning Julie (who's the most generous of us all) left a banana out on the kitchen counter, in preparation for packing it for a snack to take to work.

Of course, Allie saw the banana. While Julie was in her room and I was in the kitchen, our golden girl spied the coveted fruit, looked at me expectantly, and offered a very polite sit. "No can do, girl," I told her. "Go to Julie."

"I'm taking it to work," called Julie, who had overheard me. "She can't have it this time."

Allie continued to sit and continued to gaze at the banana. I got diverted by something else and went into the dining room.

When I came back, Allie had broken her sit but was still looking at the banana. But amazingly, this dog--who generally will countersurf to retrieve plastic containers and knives from the kitchen sink, much less anything edible--made absolutely no attempt to reach up to the counter to grab the fruit that had literally prompted her to drool.

Wow. What a good girl.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The four-foot fence

Yesterday I saw what looked like a brindle-coated Greyhound mix channel her inner sled-dog by pulling her very young owner (maybe he was 7 or 8?) down the street in an effort to reach her destination: the two Labs with whom she apparently had a scheduled play date. (Why are some parents so idiotic about the capacity of children to walk dogs?). This morning, I saw the same dog head over to the same house for another play date -- but this time she was by herself.

Uh oh.

A car pulled up along side the house and a harried-looking woman stepped out. The dog took one look at the woman and took off up the street behind our house.

I grabbed some treats, went outside and talked to the woman. She told me that the family had had the dog for a month, during which time the dog had accomplished several escapes. "And just after we spent $1,000 putting in a 4-foot fence!" the woman lamented.

I probably should have kept my mouth shut completely--although in my defense, I did refrain from saying, "Are you freakin' kidding me? That fence would be a piece of cake to that dog." Instead I said, as mildly as possible, "You might want to consider getting a six-foot fence."

The woman shook her head. "That's not happening," she said in a tone that brooked no further discussion.

She got back into her car and drove in the direction the dog had run. Meanwhile, I headed back into my house--but a few minutes later I saw the dog head back to the house where the two Labs lived. Once again, I grabbed the leash and raced outside. The dog was lying at the gate, and the two Labs were on the other side. I held out some treats, the dog came to me immediately, and rolled over onto her back when I attached the leash. As I did so, I saw a young boy fill two buckets with water for the Labs, and I asked him to get his mom. The mom suggested that I put the dog in the yard with her two dogs, and promised to call the dog's owner.

So all ended well--this time. But I know, I just know that today's escape won't be the last, which makes the dog's future uncertain--and all because a family tried to get away with fencing their dog on the cheap.

So frustrating.

Monday, June 21, 2010

My latest gig

Sigh ... no, my latest gig does not directly involve Hugh Jackman (pictured above), but does involve the activity in which he is engaging.

I've started a new assignment as the lead blogger for the Northern Virginia Dog Blog, a project that's being sponsored by the Northern Virginia Regional Council and the Metropolitan Council of Governments. The local governments that make up both of these groups are also sponsoring three other blogs--one on parenting, one on gardening and one infrastructure--as part of an environmental quality public outreach campaign. The underlying message of my blog is that it's important to be a good neighbor and pick up your dog's poop (just like Hugh is), but eventually the topics I cover will relate to all things dogs, both inside and outside the Beltway.

Come take a look and leave a comment or three!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Once a mom, always a mom

I remember how, when my daughter was younger, I'd worry about how she'd stack up with other kids in this, that, or the other endeavor. I don't know if I was being inappropriately competitive, investing too much of my ego in whatever she was doing, or just being a garden-variety worrywart mom. In any case, though, I thought those days were long behind me, now that Julie has become an adult in whom her dad and I take inordinate pride.

I was wrong.

This time, though, my maternal worry wasn't about Julie; it was about Allie. Let me explain.

Julie, Stan and I are planning to go on a short vacation later this summer, so yesterday I made reservations to board Allie at her usual home-away-from-home. The place is great, because Allie gets to participate in doggie day care during the day, and eat food brought from home. Most important of all, though, is that someone is on the premises 24/7--which is not the case with many boarding facilities for pets.

The problem was that because Allie hadn't been there for nearly two years (we've been staying pretty close to home lately), she needed to have a new behavioral evaluation to make sure she still behaved appropriately with the other dogs. This prospect worried me, because while Allie loved frolicking with doggie buddies when she was younger, she's become much less interested in canine companionship as she's aged. And in fact, if she decides that another dog has breached doggie etiquette, she lets the other dog know that's the case in no uncertain terms.

So, I approached Allie's impending evaluation with a certain amount of trepidation. I even talked to her about it. Please, I implored her, be patient with the other puppies. Cut them a little slack; after all, older dogs did the same for you when you were a gangly pup.

We got to the boarding facility, and the young woman in charge welcomed Allie enthusiastically. She told me the procedure wouldn't take long, because Allie was already in their records. At her suggestion, I unclipped Allie's leash, and the girl brought out another Golden Retriever: a bouncy 10-month-old named Lucy.

I held my breath.

Lucy dashed madly around Allie, trying to encourage her to play--and, hallelujah, Allie deigned to play with the youngster. "Oh wow," said the young woman. "She's so much more tolerant than other dogs her age are. She's absolutely awesome."

I was so proud.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Allie rebels

The irony is unmistakable: the busier I am writing about dog care and maintaining the human-canine bond, the less time I have to spend tending to the bond between me and my own canine.

And these days, I'm plenty busy. I'm writing two books, one of which is due in 3 weeks, and a 2,000-word article that's due early next week. I've got another article due the week after that, and I haven't even begun to write that sucker. Meanwhile, I'm also doing a weekly blog for this company, and starting next week will take on a new, twice-weekly blogging gig for another organization (more about that new gig in future posts here).

I am not complaining--quite the opposite. These are challenging times for writers, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have this much work right now. Yes, the workload is testing my sanity, not to mention my ability to organize and prioritize. But I'll do it all and I will do it well. I always do. That's just how I roll.

But while I'm not complaining, Allie certainly is. And she's got reason to. Our daily mid-afternoon walk to the local park or school field for a vigorous game of fetch, followed by her triumphantly carrying her ball home, has been reduced to a quick potty break in the back yard and -- maybe -- an equally quick tug-of-war session inside afterward. Sometimes, there isn't even enough time for tugging. This change in routine upsets Allie mightily and she lets me know it. Among her modes of expression are:

-- Barking repeatedly in short, sharp, loud vocalizations that, to my anthropomorphic ears and guilt-ridden heart, sound highly indignant.

-- Checking to see if I've left a bathroom door open so that she can unroll and chew the toilet paper -- actions which, when I hear them, will prompt me to dash upstairs and offer her a cookie to lure her away from the toilet paper.

-- Seeing if she can pry open the kitchen garbage can (yes, those wars continue). Actually, she succeeded in getting that garbage can open yesterday. I'd forgotten to barricade it behind some bar stools, and so she simply got behind the garbage can and tipped it over. The nifty little gizmo that I'd used to keep the lid shut popped open, and by the time I got upstairs there was garbage strewn all over the kitchen floor.

I really can't blame Allie and I certainly can't get mad at her. I get it: I'm her best pal, the giver of all good things, and I've been less available to her lately. She doesn't understand why I'm less available; she could care less that my current embarassment of writing riches is necessary to offset the dearth of assignments that afflicted me (and apparently a whole bunch of other writers) earlier in the year.

I want to tell her I'm sorry. I want to tell her that the irony of this situation is not lost on me.

Right now she's lying under my desk. I reach down to give her a scritch, in the hopes that my loving touch will be worth a thousand words -- or at least a whole bunch of apologies.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A new look at an old favorite

Normally, my daughter writes much more about movies (and sometimes television) than I do. My desire to write about movies has long since given way to a desire -- which I've happily been fulfilling for well over a decade -- to write about dogs and other animals. Sometimes, though, my old passion for cinema intersects with my newer passion for writing about the non-humans we live with. Last night, when I watched one of my all-time favorite movies for the first time in quite a few years, was a case in point.

The movie was Far From the Madding Crowd, the 1967 cinematic opus that's based on the Thomas Hardy novel of the same title. In the 40-plus years (yikes!) since I first saw this movie, and in the many times I've seen it since, I've never stopped loving the opening titles--both the gorgeous vistas and the sublimely pastoral music by Richard Rodney Bennett--and the fact that the movie is quite faithful to Hardy's work. Last night, however, I was struck by an aspect of the movie that I'd never considered before: the roles of animals in the story, and how those roles were depicted on film.

Much of the movie takes place on farms, so it's natural that animals would at least be part of the scenery. But this story gives non-human individuals some pivotal roles that really propel the story forward. Since the movie was made long before CGI or animatronics were available to filmmakers, I couldn't help wondering last night how on earth those who created this movie achieved the animal-related effects they did. Specifically (warning: spoilers ahead), how did the filmmakers:

-- create the scene near the beginning of the movie, where Gabriel Oak's young Border Collie leaps into a sheep pen, herds the sheep to one end of the pen so that they topple the fence surrounding the pen, and then literally herds those sheep over a cliff where they fall to their deaths (I'm assuming that the carcasses that we see on the beach below are puppets of some sort)?

-- create the scene where the sheep on one farm come down with an apparent case of bloat, forcing Bathsheba to beg Gabriel (whom she had fired in a previous scene) to come and cure them? Specifically, how did they get all those sheep to stagger, fall over onto their sides, and do that fast, shallow breathing (I'm assuming, again, that puppets were what Oak sticks that great big needle into)?

-- create the cock-fighting scene that irrevocably establishes Frank Troy as a ne'er-do-well (for anyone who'd had doubts up to that point) whose marriage with Bathsheba was doomed as surely as Gabriel's first flock of sheep were?

I wonder, too -- particularly regarding that cock-fighting scene -- whether anyone monitored the animal action. Although American Humane's Film and TV Unit has been around for more than 65 years, the organization's "no animals were harmed" tag line didn't begin to appear in movies until 1972. And American Humane itself acknowledges that "achieving wide-scale compliance [with its guidelines] was complicated even then by the number of films shot overseas." Far From the Madding Crowd, which was helmed by the British director John Schlesinger, and shot on location in England, would certainly have fallen in the problem category.

Were any animals harmed by the making of one of my favorite works of cinema? At the very least, that cock-fighting scene looked unnervingly authentic; however, I'll probably never know what actually occurred. But the thought that harm might have occurred in the name of art casts one of my favorite movies in a different light than before.

P.S. Please excuse the shameless maternal brag that I probably not-so-artfully slipped into my lede sentence. I probably shouldn't have, but I just can't help myself.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A sign of peace

I was raised as a Catholic, but am no longer practicing. Nevertheless, when I visit my mom--as Stan, Allie and I did this past weekend--I occasionally attend Mass with her. Masses at my mom's church actually can be somewhat enjoyable, even to me, because one of the frequent attendees is a visually impaired woman with her service dog, a male Golden Retriever who looks a lot like Allie.

The woman and her dog were there yesterday, and a gesture she made actually brought tears to my eyes. There is a point in the Mass where the priest directs the members of the congregation to offer "a sign of peace" to each other. Generally this consists of shaking the hands of the people of surrounding you in your pew and saying something like "peace be with you." The woman, however, chose to take that moment to bend down, give her dog some strokes and whisper something in his ear. I have no idea what she actually said, of course, but I'd like to think that she was thanking him for his service to her.

And speaking of thanks and service and peace: today is Memorial Day, so it's a good time to thank those who serve our country overseas--be they servicemen, service women, or military service dogs.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost and found, or the morning after

Until recently, Allie hasn't been much of a literal couch potato. When I watch TV, she's usually nearby on the floor at my feet or on a little fleece rug next to the fireplace. But lately, she's been hopping up onto the couch where I'm sitting, with my permission. Once she's on the couch, she'll generally curl up in one of the corners and snooze awhile--unless she needs a potty break or thinks it's time for her dinner, in which case she'll paw me and/or stare at me.

But last night was different.

Last night, I gave myself over to the finale of that sci-fi/spirituality mash-up known as Lost, which certainly lived up to the hype that had preceded it (rare for a series finale. Case in point: The Sopranos.) Not everything about Lost's denouement was perfect, but at a number of intervals, I certainly cried. The whole thing was very emotional--and, on an emotional level, was wholly satisfying. And part of that emotional satisfaction was that during a good chunk of the two-and-a-half finale, Allie was not only on the couch but was stretched out next to me with her head in my lap.

I've always loved the Jungian idea of animals serving as spiritual guides--and while I'm not ready to say that watching Lost last night was a spiritual experience, it was really good to have Allie there with me while I was undergoing my various stages of emotional catharsis.

By the time the episode was over, Allie had gone upstairs to bed. But I was still very happy from having had her there with me like that for awhile. That happiness doubled when I saw the final scenes of the episode: our hero Jack finally letting go, finally able to cross over to the other side, looking skyward to see the plane carry his friends away--and with Vincent the dog by his side. That's the image staying with me now, the morning after.

Pictured above: Madison, the dog who portrayed Vincent on Lost.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The $1,600 dog

Today's "44" blog on the The Washington Post's website contains an interesting bit of information from President Obama's financial disclosure forms: that the value of Bo, the Portuguese Water Dog given to the Obama family by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, was $1,600.

My first reaction was that Bo's reported monetary value makes an interesting parallel to his current street address. My second reaction was, "Oh God, people are gonna be bellyaching about this." The comments to the article have borne out my prediction, although the range of idiocy in the comments is breathtaking. Some examples:

-- "This is a white man's dog. It's a Kennedy dog ... Obama thinks he's white."

-- "Remember how the Washington Post dutifully reported that Obama was getting a "rescue dog ? Yeah, right. This is just standard operating procedure for Obama."

-- "Obama didn't really need a dog. He already had a lap dog in the White House press corps."

-- "I wonder why O would claim 1600 for the dog when it was a gift? Why would the taxpayers pay for the dogs food, if in fact that is where the 1600 comes from? "

-- "Obama couldn't find an animal shelter with a map, much less adopt an animal in need of a home. Instead his buddies went to a breeder for one of their 'genetically pure' dogs. "

You get the idea. That said, I was also pleasantly surprised by the intelligence of some of the other comments:

-- "There's nothing wrong with adopting a purebred dog, people ... I have no problem with people who adopt from shelters. I think that's great. But simply put, a lot of people aren't comfortable adopting a dog when they have no idea what kind of personality or temperament it will have. Never mind all of the different kinds of psychological or emotional baggage the dog might have as a result of previous owners/living in a shelter."

-- "The Obamas' daughters are allergic. Portugese Water Dogs are virtually hypoallergenic. They don't shed. A rescue dog really wasn't an option. "

I don't know which is worse: the unbelievable degree of ignorance among the naysayers, or the fact that I'm surprised that not all of the comments reflect such ignorance.

And for the record, my family and I paid $1,000 for Allie back in 2002. An inflation calculator would put that amount at about $1,185 today. For that amount, we got a healthy puppy with a sound temperament whose parents had passed screenings for genetic diseases, and who'd had the very best of care during those crucial first eight weeks of her life. She was (and even more so today is) worth every penny. But the best defense of buying a dog from a reputable breeder I've ever seen is here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time passages

(Apologies to Al Stewart)

Lately I've been feeling my age. I can't run on a treadmill anymore without my knees hurting like hell, so I walk very fast and gulp down my Osteo-BiFlex every morning. Running up and down stairs is a thing of the past. And staying up late on Saturday nights to watch SNL is out of the question, even when someone as awesome as Betty White is hosting. (Thank God for Hulu.) How on earth she caroused till 3 a.m. at the afterparty is beyond me.

So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that Allie, who in dog years is about the same age I am, is slowing up a little bit, too. Just as I take my anti-achey meds, so does she also take hers. A couple of years ago, when I took her for a run, she'd be good for at least 10 or 15 strenuous retrievals of her beloved tennies or Orbee balls. Now, she's more apt to run that hard for 4 or 5 tosses, after which she insists on resting and gumming the ball for awhile before going for a couple more high-speed fetches. Plus, she has far fewer zoomie attacks and, consequently, has become much better at walking on leash. I've longed for the latter ever since she was a puppy -- but now that she's mature enough to actually be a good walking companion, I find myself feeling a little sad.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Garbage can wars

For almost as long as Allie's been with us, she's been an accomplished, not to mention enthusiastic, garbage-can raider.

Our kitchen doesn't have any doors that we can shut to keep her out of that room and away from the garbage can, which is a flip-top. Therefore the only way to keep her out of the garbage can was to put it a corner and turn the front of the can to the wall. That worked for awhile, but then she figured out how wedge her nose into the corner and push the can out from the wall. So we took two barstools and placed them in front of the garbage can, which we then returned to the corner. Soon, thereafter, we saw her easing her head between the legs of the barstool and edging the garbage can out from the corner. Plus, Stan really hated having to remember to position the garbage can and haul out the barstools.

So I came up with what I thought was a genius solution: find something to hold the garbage can lid shut. A month or two ago, I drove to a local toy store and found this nifty device. It's designed to keep refrigerator doors shut and the contents therein out of the reach of curious toddlers, but I figured it would hold a garbage can shut, too.

For awhile I was right. But twice today, I caught Allie wedging her nose underneath the area where the strap goes from the vertical side of the can up and on to the horizontal lid of the can, and then pushing the strap loose. She didn't totally dislodge the strap, but she came close. So at least for now I have:
-- reattached the strap
-- put the garbage can back in the corner and turned it to the wall
-- blocked it off with barstools

On a certain level I admire Allie's ingenuity, not to mention her determination. On the other hand, though, this is getting really old.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Enough, already!

This week, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have featured articles about dealing with canine cancers, and possible ways to prevent their occurrence. The articles center on the WSJ reporter's late, great Golden Retriever, who died of cancer recently. She (the reporter) noted, as did I a few posts back, that Goldens are especially susceptible to cancer, but also points out that other breeds have health issues, too. Examples include Dachshunds, who are vulnerable to back problems; Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, who are at risk for mitral valve disease; and short-nosed breeds like Bulldogs, who may have breathing problems. The authors go on to share suggestions for at least partially counteracting some of the environmental factors that can increase a dog's risk for becoming a cancer statistic.

Not surprisingly, both articles drew a lot of reader comments. Unfortunately, more than a few commenters suggested that people eschew purebred dogs in favor of adopting mixed breeds from animal shelters. These commenters seem to think that by adopting a mixed breed dog, an adopter will dodge the canine cancer bullet.

Don't get me wrong: I think adopting a shelter dog can be wonderful. I've done so myself: my first dog as an adult was a wonderful mixed Poodle named Molly, who lived with me for over 16 years. I have dearly loved every dog I've ever had the privilege of living with, but I speak of Molly as the dog of my soul.

And she died of cancer: specifically, mast cell cancer, one of the most common canine malignancies.

Aside from the fact that mixed breed dogs are certainly vulnerable to cancer and at least some of the other canine ills that beset purebred dogs, I am getting so tired of the contention that opening one's heart and home to a purebred dog denies a home to a shelter dog. I'm sick of the assertion that this is an either/or proposition. I'm as weary of these "dog wars" as I was of the so-called "mommy wars" that raged when my daughter was little.

A woman can be a good mother whether she works outside the home, devotes herself to full-time at-home parenting, or -- as I did -- split the difference by running a home-based business. Similarly, a person can be a committed dog guardian no matter where she acquired her dog: from a reputable breeder, from a rescue group, from a shelter or -- as I did -- split the difference by acquiring a dog from more than one of these sources. (No, I'm not saying that people who buy dogs in pet stores are bad owners -- but, for the purposes of this post, I just don't want to go there).

Rather than focus on the differences in how we got our dogs, can't we simply agree that we want our dogs -- no matter what their breed or mixes -- to live longer, healthier lives? Can't we agree that a discovery regarding cancer in Golden Retrievers holds promise not only for Goldens but for all dogs? Can't we please call a cease-fire to this purebred-vs-mutt conflict and focus more on how we can work together?


Sunday, May 2, 2010

The return of the reader

A paradox of my life as a writer is that I go through periods where I don't want to read any books at all. These periods usually occur when I'm writing a book. Apparently the act of creating a book renders me too spazzed, tired, and/or drained to read, much less appreciate anyone else's literary creation. Instead I turn to Facebook or Twitter or whatever I'm currently obsessed with on television (my current obsession is this show).

So for the next couple of months, when it turns out I'll be writing not one but two books simultaenously, I would have expected to be unable to read more than a short magazine or newspaper article, much less a book. And, in fact, reading's been tough for me over the past several weeks, ever since I started writing my book about Dachshunds. But strangely enough, even though I've agreed to do this second book project even while I'm immersed in all things Doxie, I'm actually emerging from my latest can't-read-a-book phase.

The vehicle for that emergence is a newly compiled collection of short stories by Charlaine Harris that focus on that intrepid barmaid from Bon Temps, Louisiana, Sookie Stackhouse. I love HBO's True Blood, the TV show that's based upon the full-length Sookie novels, and had pretty much devoured (please excuse the poor verb choice here. The books deal with vampires) those novels while I was recovering from surgery last year. But the short stories are a special treat. Harris is an easy writer to read, and short stories, by their very nature, are much more easily digestible to the reading-averse than a full-length novel, much less a work of non-fiction.

Hence, this May-masquerading-as-August Sunday found me in a happy place: ensconced on our living room sofa reading about Sookie's initial encounter with the Queen of Louisiana. Allie lay at my feet, sitting up occasionally to collect some ear scritches and back-of-the-neck strokes. Meanwhile, the chicken I'd put in the oven to roast an hour earlier was starting to smell very good. Contentment abounded.

I know now that I'll be ready to dive into the next novel-length installment of Sookie's adventures, which should arrive here in a couple of days. And the pile of books on my night stand doesn't look so intimidating anymore, which makes me feel very happy. That's not to say, though, that I'm swearing off TV. Not by a long shot.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The art of listening

Allie's not big into leisurely jaunts. All too often, when I take her for a walk, she gets a funny (evil?) glint in her eye and proceeds to grab her leash with her mouth. Occasionally, she simply holds it as we walk along together. More often, though, she pulls in the direction opposite the way we're traveling in an effort to start a game of sidewalk tug-of-war.

Because I consider a tranquil walk with one's dog to be one of life's greatest joys, Allie's efforts to pump up the volume during our walks used to really bug me. I'd get impatient, I'd get angry, I'd try to get her to let go of the leash by giving her the "drop it" cue (which she would ignore) -- all of which seemed to spur her into holding onto the leash, shaking it and otherwise working harder to get me to play with her.

The funny thing is, for the longest time I didn't realize her desire to play was what was prompting her leash-grabbing. She wasn't trying to be obnoxious. She wasn't trying to be difficult. She simply wanted me to play her favorite game with her, and was suggesting that we do so in the only way she knew how. Unfortunately, I was too busy being annoyed with her to listen, much less respond appropriately.

How often do our dogs try to tell us something, only to find that we don't understand what they're trying to communicate--or worse, that we don't even try to understand? How often, conversely, do we shove own agendas down their throats without even realizing that we're doing so? How often do we miss opportunities to really connect with our dogs because we're too busy doing something else? How often do we really pay attention? How often are our relationships with our dogs more like one-way streets in which we set the agenda? How often do we give them a chance to do so?

These days, when Allie plays the leash-grabbing game, I respond very differently from the way I used to. If I'm not in the mood to play, I just keep the leash slack, and refrain from looking at her. When I do that, she understands pretty quickly that tug is not going to happen right now, drops the leash, and we continue on our way. Other times, though, I'll use my special Allie voice (sort of like baby-talk, but not really) and ask her, "Allie, are you feeling evil? Are you The Evil One?" and let her pull the leash a little bit. Sometimes we both stand still while she tugs; other times we continue walking while we play.

In any case, there's no more negativity or impatience from me when Allie asks to play sidewalk tug. That said, I'm glad we've got a durable leather leash.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Miles apart

Every time Allie and I go to Dunn Loring Park, we see her: a young, energetic Golden Retriever who's all alone in her yard. Her name is Sophie, and when I see her, my heart goes out to her. She's not physically mistreated -- she's just always out there, all by herself. Usually she starts barking wildly and dashing madly around the yard when she sees us passing by her house. When she does, her owner -- an older gentleman -- comes out to tell her to shush. Then he goes back inside, without her. I've never seen him bring her inside.

Why does he have a dog if he doesn't want her companionship? If she's too rowdy, why doesn't he play with her and train her (or hire someone to do it)? If he can't be bothered, why doesn't he find her a home where someone can and wants to be bothered?

I feel the same way when I see people walking their dogs up the street with the leash in one hand and cell phone in the other. They're yakking away to God-knows-who while their dog walks on ahead with nary a backward glance. The person and dog are walking together--but, in a sense, they're miles apart. Neither really enjoys the companionship of the other. And if they don't have that companionship, what's the point of it all?

Today, when Allie and I passed by Sophie's house, she engaged in her usual manic barking and racing. But there was a difference today: she came back to her fence with a tennis ball in her mouth, and emitting what sounded to me like play growls. Meanwhile, Allie--who'd just had a bracing fetch session with me in the park--was walking serenely beside me, carrying her prized Orbee ball. I gave her ears a little scritch and thought, you're a lucky dog, Allie.

Too many dogs are relegated to the back yard or are ignored during their walks with their people. Either way, it's a lonely life for all concerned--but it's a particularly sad fate for an animal that's hard-wired to not just be social, but to bond with people.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I'm so excited!

My very good friend, Victoria Schade, is the cover person ("cover girl" sounds so retro!) and subject of a profile in Bucks County Woman magazine.

Here it is!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Taking our lumps

One not-so-great aspect of writing about dogs and other companion animals is that you learn just enough about canine training and health to make yourself crazy. If you find a lump on your dog, for example, you immediately conclude that it's got to be cancer, and you put your considerable research skills to work scoping out symptoms, treatments and prognoses.

So when Allie began sporting a lump on her tail earlier this week -- well, you can guess what I was doing.

I've had two other dogs who succumbed to cancer, and I fully expect that some variation of this scourge will claim Allie one day. Golden Retrievers are notoriously susceptible to malignant tumors. According to Golden Retriever health expert Rhonda Hovan, 60 percent of Goldens die from cancer--not quite double the rate for all other dogs. (The full text of Hovan's excellent white paper, "Understanding Cancer in Golden Retrievers," is here.) I knew this, and acquired Allie with my eyes wide open. That doesn't mean, however, that I'm truly prepared for that eventuality -- especially since Allie is only 7. I do know that cancer strikes younger dogs, such as this one, and I myself lost a 7-year-old Sheltie to cancer several years ago. But when I found that lump on Allie, my thoughts coagulated around one plea: "Not yet. Not yet. Not this soon."

Yes, I know that a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence for a dog. I'm thrilled that just in the last year a new drug has been developed specifically for treating mast cell cancer (which killed my first dog back in 1994). I'm excited that a simple blood test could be used to diagnose cancer in dogs. I'm intrigued by the idea that canine saliva could hold the key to treating cancer. I also know full well that lumps don't necessarily mean The Big C. Allie herself has acquired a couple of non-cancerous lipomas and has dealt with sebaceous cysts.

So often, though, fear trumps knowledge--so it was with fear that I brought Allie to her vet earlier today.

The verdict: an infected oil gland, probably brought on by an insect bite. The treatment: warm compresses and antibiotics twice daily for the next week or so, then another visit to the vet.

Needless to say, I am greatly relieved. I feel like Allie and I have dodged a bullet. Whatever happens, it's not happening yet. But if and when cancer does strike my Golden girl, it's good to know that there probably will be a lot more treatment options available than was the case the last time I heard that diagnosis about a beloved dog. And in the meantime, I'll cherish each day with Allie, and try very hard not to make myself crazy the next time something unwelcome pops up.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cluelessness, parental version

I love seeing kids and dogs together. The dogs I grew up with highlighted my childhood, and to this day I am a total sucker for sentimental kids-and-dogs movies, and have been known to watch reruns of Timmy and Lassie well into adulthood. But even I, as sentimental as I am, know that kids and dogs together can also be disasters waiting to happen. Generally, that's not the fault of either the kids or the dogs. The blame lies squarely with their clueless parents.

Take the two little girls I saw yesterday afternoon while Allie and I were walking. They couldn't have been older than early grade school -- seven years old at most -- but they were walking a bouncy puppy who was at least two-thirds their size, with nary an adult in sight. As I watched them, I was imagining all kinds of worst case scenarios in which they could lose control of that puppy, such as:

-- the puppy getting *really* bouncy and knocking one or both of them over.
-- the puppy seeing a squirrel cross its path and deciding to give chase, dragging one of the little girls behind him.
-- the puppy reacting -- strenuously -- to the barking of either the two dogs whose house they were passing or crossing the street and running afoul of the dog who charges at her fence whenever she sees another canine passing.

I could just see the parents opining that the little girls needed to learn about being responsible, which is why they'd gotten the dog in the first place, yadda yadda yadda. But I found myself hoping that those little girls wouldn't learn instead about what it's like to see their dog die because their parents had no idea what responsibilities to lay on their children and when.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hortas and dragons

I was a Star Trek fan from the original show's beginnings in 1966, and one of my favorite episodes of all time was The Devil in the Dark, from that show's very first season. The episode focuses on a distant planet that's home to a strange and frightening creature called the Horta. The creature is killing miners who are unearthing an ore called pergium and, in the process, destroying silicon nodules. The miners, naturally, want to kill the Horta. Enter Kirk and his team, who swoop onto the planet, ready to do battle with the creature, only to find that the situation is not what it appears to be. Everything they've thought about the Horta, not to mention those silicon nodules, turns out to be wrong.

Without giving anything away on this blog, it's fair to say that I kept thinking of that Star Trek episode when I went to see the movie How to Train Your Dragon yesterday afternoon. There, too, humans are attempting to fight creatures -- in this case, fire-breathing dragons -- without having any real knowledge of why those dragons are doing what they're doing. This failure of understanding threatens to have tragic consequences, until a hiccup (of sorts) intervenes.

We do it all the time: jump to conclusions without having any idea of what's really happening. But if a 43-year-old TV show and the latest animated kiddie movie can show us another way to look at potential confrontations, I'm all for it. Plus, the animation in said movie is very cool.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Recall redux

Just last week, I wrote about how a near mis-adventure in Allie's youth illustrated the importance of teaching one's dog a rock-solid recall.

Today, nearly six years later, she had another one.

On this glorious April-masquerading-as-June day, Allie and I took a long walk around our subdivision, then headed to a nearby school field for a rousing fetch session. Generally, we head halfway up a path that leads from the sidewalk to the field, at which point I let go of her leash and let her run the rest of the way onto the field. I did that today, only to hear the sound of a distant lawn mower immediately afterward. A moment later I saw that the lawn mower was right on the field--not, as I'd thought, in one of the enclosed yards bordering it--and that it was coming closer. My stomach lurched as I called, "Allie! here!"

Thankfully, my Golden girl turned around right away and came racing back to me. I picked up her leash, praised her extravagantly, gave her a ball to carry (a reward that she really values), and we went home.

I'm supremely grateful that Allie heeded my call, but not entirely surprised. That's because she and I have been practicing that maneuver in other locations. For example, at another park we like to frequent, I let her dash up a path ahead of me--but quite often, I'll then call her back to me. The sooner she comes back, the sooner she gets the reward she knows is coming, be it a treat or the chance to carry a ball. It's a win-win situation for both of us.

Certainly we both won today. Practice not only makes perfect; practice also saves lives.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Allie the therapist

Some people have suggested to me that Allie would make a wonderful therapy dog. And I see their point. Allie adores any and all human beings. Sometimes, though, she adores them just a little too much.

A case in point is our mail carrier: if Allie sees a Postal Service truck and/or the mail carrier making his deliveries, her overriding goal becomes getting to that mail carrier, even if she has to drag me halfway down the street to reach him. I can just see her wanting to reach a patient in a hospital or nursing home and knocking over another patient's walker in order to arrive at her destination. Note, too, that Allie already has earned her Canine Good Citizen certification, which contains 10 of the 11 elements needed to receive certification with Therapy Dogs International. That 11th element, saying hello without going bonkers, would be tough for her.

For that reason, I don't see formal therapy work in Allie's future. That's not to say, however, that she doesn't serve a therapeutic role for some people. Two of those people will have a chance to benefit from her talents over the next couple of weeks.

One of those people is my daughter. She's a 21-year-old third-year college student, consistently on the dean's list, happy and self-sufficient. That said, she's missed Allie more since she's been in college than I think she expected, and got a chance to explain why when she was interviewed for this article. So tomorrow evening, when Julie comes home for spring break, it's a safe bet to assume that the first family member she'll look for will be Allie, and that Allie will be wagging her tail so hard that the entire back half of her body will be in motion. Then, for the next few days, Julie and Allie will be best buds--until Julie hauls out her suitcase to pack for the trip back to school, and Allie performs her usual you're-leaving-me-again body wilt.

The other person is my mom. She loves dogs, but hasn't had one for more than seven years; after that dog (an unforgettable Dachshund named Mimi) passed away, she and my Dad decided that they could no longer handle taking care of a dog. My dad had just been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and they both worried that a dog would be lost in the shuffle of caring for my dad as his illness progressed. My father succumbed to complications of Parkinson's a year and a half ago -- but at this point in her life, my 82-year-old mom is unwilling to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog.

That's where Allie comes in. My mom will be visiting here for nine days or so starting just after Julie leaves -- and with Allie here, Mom will get her dog fix. Allie will pay plenty of attention to her: cuddling, paw nudging, nose bopping and, if all else fails, amping up her usual level of doggie antics. Mom will get to re-live all the joys of living with dogs, but not have to deal with any of the hassles, such as taking the dog out on a rainy day for a potty break. I guess having a grand-dog is like having grandchildren: you can enjoy their company, but when it comes time for nitty-gritty care, you can hand the dog or child back to the parents.

And that's just fine with me. Allie probably won't ever be a certified therapy dog, but she provides the best kind of canine therapy to two people who are among those I love best. I can live with that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The bond, redefined?

Allie is very food motivated. This characteristic is often a good thing, because she's easily rewarded when I teach her new cues. But the same characteristic can also be a bad thing, because she will do just about anything to score an edible goodie. At times I have felt that Allie only loves me for the treats that I offer. Say what you will about behavioral science. I am human, and I want her to love me just because I'm me.

So what happened last night really amazed me.

Stan (a.k.a. Dear Husband) and I were eating dinner in our family room so that we could watch TV. I was trying out a new dish (which, by the way, was amazing). Just as we were about to sit down, though, I needed to use the bathroom. I asked Stan to watch my food, so that our canine food opportunist extraordinaire -- I mean, this dog once snatched a piece of Indian bread right out of my hand -- wouldn't scarf down my dinner before I could even taste it.

But to my amazement, Allie paid no attention to my food. Instead, with wrinkled brow, she followed me to the bathroom. Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but I had the feeling she was worried about me. (I was fine.)

So, could a definition of a strong human-canine bond be that the canine eschews tasty food to check up on the human? I should put that question to the author of this book.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dachshund delights

These days I'm all about Golden Retrievers, due in no small measure to the fact that Allie is a stellar representative of that breed. But my childhood dog was an unforgettable Dachshund named Casey, and my parents shared their lives with two successive Dachshunds after Casey died. Consequently, I've got a real affection for the breed, not to mention experience in living day to day with these inimitable canine characters. Whenever I have the opportunity to write about wiener dogs, I jump at it.

That's why I'm now thrilled to be writing my second book for TFH Publications: an opus called Dog Life: Dachshund. I just finished the first chapter -- which actually will probably be one of my favorites, because I got to look up all kinds of breed-related trivia. That's because I needed to include information about notable Dachshunds and their people. During the course of my research I discovered that:

-- Tough guys like Marlon Brando and Napoleon had soft spots for Dachshunds.
-- Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst eulogized his late, great Dachshund in a newspaper column.
-- Despite the breed being out of favor due to its Germanic origins, General George S. Patton enjoyed the company of a Dachshund named Ryan during World War II.
-- Although they're small in size, Dachshunds have big-dog attitudes, and have been known to alert their people to fires and intruders.

When I get to ferret out stuff like that, I really love my job. And just so you know: Casey, Lola and Mimi -- this book's gonna be for you.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Clueing in the clueless

On this gorgeous day, with temps around 60, I decided to take Allie for a long walk. We both were having a good time -- me enjoying not having to avoid snowpiles and Allie checking out the new pee-mail --until we encountered an elderly gentleman and his dog.

Allie generally isn't thrilled with meeting other dogs when she's on leash. And even if she were, I'm hesitant to permit such encounters because unknown dogs, leashes and social mis-cues can lead to spontaneous canine combustion way too quickly. That's why, when we first saw the gentleman and his dog from across the street, Allie and I kept moving and I had treats at the ready. (A little vension jerky seems to keep my girl mellow -- or at least diverted -- when other dogs make the scene). We all moved on, and all seemed to be well.

But a little while later, we saw the pair again, and this time they made straight for us. The dog was barking and giving Allie the eye. Allie and I backed away, but Mr. Clueless either didn't understand or chose to ignore the signals we were attempting to send. He and the dog just kept right on coming. Finally I said, "Keep your dog away from my dog, please."

Mr C looked at me blankly and kept coming. I repeated my request in a louder voice. "Oh -- okay," he said. He looked a little puzzled, but he and the dog moved away from us. Allie and I walked a few more blocks; all the while I was inwardly composing yet another rant for this blog about idiotic dog owners.

And then we saw Mr. C and his dog a third time, again across the street. The dog resumed his staring behavior, so I started orienting Allie to me with more venison jerky. As I did so, Mr. C watched us with apparent interest. Then he spoke.

"Why are you afraid of my dog?" he asked. "He's friendly."

Huh. At least he's asking a question, I thought. "That may be," I said. "And I'm not afraid of your dog. But he *was* barking and staring at my dog, and my dog doesn't react well to such behavior. I just didn't want any trouble."

He nodded, slowly. I decided to push my luck, and added, "It's usually a good idea to ask the other person if they're okay with your dog approaching their dog."

He nodded again. "Okay," he said. "I didn't know that."

Will he act on his new knowledge in the future? I hope so.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A hero passes

Riley, the Golden Retriever whose calm demeanor while being ferried across the ruins of the World Trade Center epitomized the heroism of search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs, died on February 26. He was 13.

His owner and handler, Chris Selfridge, says that while Riley had aced a physical this past December, a mass was found in his abdomen on February 20. Surgery to remove the mass took place on February 24, but Riley died two days later.

Chris and I exchanged email last fall when I was writing my book about Golden Retrievers and wanted to feature Riley as a representative of the breed. At that point, Riley was still enjoying chasing Frisbees and had helped to welcome a new puppy into the family. He clearly was enjoying his retirement from SAR work -- and, as seen in the video below, which was shot two days after the twin towers collapsed, few dogs have done more to earn that retirement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Confession time

A recent essay by Susan Orlean in the The New Yorker really resonated with me. She confessed that, despite her belief that people have no business capturing orcas for their own entertainment (the validity of which became abundantly clear after an orca at Sea World killed a trainer last week), she loved seeing orcas perform there. She also acknowledged that she'd begged for the opportunity to pet another orca, Keiko, while researching a story about him a few years ago.

I can relate -- because ever since I can remember, I've wanted to meet dolphins. Every time I hear of a program that offers an opportunity to even just sit on a platform and see a dolphin up close and personal, I consider signing up. My most recent fantasizing in this regard took place only a week ago, when my family and I booked a short trip to Bermuda for later this year. At the island is a facility called Dolphin Quest that I've known about for years, so after we flexed some plastic for our plane tickets and hotel, I logged over to the Dolphin Quest website. There I read the description of the program and decided that I could somehow justify paying a few hundred bucks for one of the cheaper packages. Then I read the guest reviews.

Oh, dear.

Some people raved about the experience, but plenty of others complained. Some simply said that they didn't get much dolphin contact for their money. But others reported that the dolphins are kept in very small tanks. I could just see myself plunking down the money, getting to the facility, bursting into tears when I saw those tanks, and high-tailing it out of there. I've had a similar reaction every time I've considered doing such a program. If the size of the tanks doesn't worry me, it's my thinking that I can choose to see the dolphins but the dolphins have no choice with regard to seeing me. Either way, I'd be setting myself up to feel guilty, all to satisfy a selfish fantasy.

That's why my efforts to find a guilt-free dolphin encounter program for the masses are at an end. For me, I don't think there is such a program. On the other hand, I'd love to do this.

Susan Orlean's article is here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What my friend sent me

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a link to a website for a person who sells, ahem, miniature Golden Retrievers. Upon viewing the site, "I thought of your blog," she said.

Oh, how well she knows me.

She knows, for example, that I will be wanting to tear out my admittedly very short locks over not only the fact that this individual appears to have at least five different litters of Golden Retriever mixes available now, but also takes deposits before any "matings" even occur. As for training advice, this individual not only highly recommends that buyers acquaint themselves with the videos of this trainer, but also goes out of their way to differentiate that trainer from this trainer, who is probably far more knowledgeable.

But, in the interest of maintaining my coiffure, I'm going to keep my hands off my head. Instead I would pose the following questions to this individual -- and, in fact, to any individual who engages in similar enterprises:

1. What steps have you taken to guarantee the health of your puppies? Have the parents' hips and elbows been certified by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals? Have their eyes been checked by the Canine Eye Registration Foundation? Since Goldens are involved in your breedings, have you had a veterinary cardiologist evaluate the parents' hearts? (Goldens are subject to an often deadly condition called subaortic stenosis.)

2. Have you stopped to consider whether a trainer who specializes in what appear (at least on TV) to be abusive dog handling techniques -- is suitable for any dog, much less a fragile, impressionable puppy? Have you also considered whether a trainer whose techniques are opposed by many in the scientific community is the best choice for those who purchase your dogs?

3) Have you actually investigated the work of the trainer whom you seek to differentiate your preferred trainer from?

4) Although you say that some of your dogs are registered with the American Kennel Club, would you perhaps care to elaborate on why you are now using this registry instead? (I can guess, but your explanation would be interesting.)

Just wonderin' ....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dialogue? Maybe. Transparency? Absolutely!

I'm all for establishing a dialogue between disagreeing parties, if such a dialogue can be truly constructive. Living in the Washington DC area, I haven't seen too much of that lately. Sometimes I wonder if civility, bipartisanship, and commonality are concepts that will sooned be labeled "archaic" by most dictionaries.

Which is why I sat up and took notice when I got an email from my good friend and colleague, Steve Dale, about an upcoming symposium between American Humane and "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan. The idea of such a symposium is surprising, given the brouhaha that resulted when Millan incorrectly stated last December that American Humane representatives had visited the set of NatGeo's The Dog Whisperer and, consequently, had endorsed his methods. (Later, a spokesman for Millan amended that assertion to say that the ASPCA, not American Humane, had visited the set.)

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm no fan of Cesar Millan. I don't doubt that he's sincere in his desire to help dogs. But, with the exception of his oft-stated belief that dogs don't get enough exercise, I find his pronouncements and methods to be anachronistic and potentially dangerous. I'm certainly not alone in that assessment; here is just one trainer's eloquent explanation of why she believes his methods don't work.

So, is a true dialogue possible? I honestly don't know. I would, however, urge American Humane to be as transparent as possible regarding the preparations for the symposium and to open that symposium to the press and public. Let journos and dog lovers alike know where and when the symposium will be and who will be speaking, in addition to Millan. Let anyone who wishes to attend hear for themselves what all the speakers have to say. And, above all, let those who attend serve as a reality check if, for some reason, any speaker later attempts to spin the proceedings in a manner that doesn't accurately reflect what actually occurred.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pleasure amid predictability

To nobody's surprise, Sadie the Scottish Terrier won Best in Show at the 134th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last night. But while Sadie's victory seemed pretty much a foregone conclusion -- despite the valiant efforts of David Frei and his colleague to inject some suspense into the proceedings -- I found plenty of pleasure amid the predictability.

For one thing, I did get a real charge out of finding out that my Allie and the Golden Retriever BOS winner, a dog named Chaos, share a grand-sire. Speaking of which, similarly star-struck Golden and Lab owners should check out a great website called Just type in the name of the dog you're interested in and voila! if the dog's been entered into the site's database, you can see a pedigree that extends back five generations. You can even search the database by call name instead of registered name. That said, using a common call name may bring you more results than you care to deal with. For example, when I typed in "Allie," I got 77 hits. Some of the AKC registered names for all these Allies are unforgettable, though. There's:

-- Ducat's Tin Pan Allie;
-- Malagold's Tornado Allie;
-- Summit Heritage C U Later Alligator; and
-- Sweet Allie Oop

to name just a few. I can only imagine how these dogs' owners arrived at some of these names (is there an article here?).

Not so surprising but still incredibly enjoyable was watching Westminster BIS judge Elliott Weiss do his thing last night. I first saw Weiss about 10 years ago, when I was covering Westminster for a couple of publications. He was serving as the judge for a preliminary Junior Showmanship competition. I was impressed with how very patient he was with the kids, some of whom were visibly and understandably nervous, and how gentle he was in pointing out their mistakes.

Later, when I wrote a profile of English Setters for the AKC Gazette, I had the good fortune to encounter Weiss via email. He not only is a devotee of English Setters, but has also judged them in the show ring. Here's how he described to me his experience with a legendary English Setter named Hadji:

"He possessed attributes not worded in the breed standard. Not only was he a wonderful example of the breed, but he had a persona no words could capture. He would carry himself into a show ring and defy you not to look at him. He was one of those rare creatures that indeed seemed to command the world around him. He was above all else a great statesman for the breed of English Setters."

When someone speaks of a dog who's not his own with that kind of eloquence and affection, those who are listening can't help but take pleasure in the person's description. And in Weiss's case, one can not only forgive him making a predictable judgment (I really did like this dog better, but what do I know?); one can even concede that maybe, just maybe, he made the right call.