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.