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.