Friday, January 29, 2010

Leash Work

We all have cabin fever. Either it's been too cold to be outside because of the windchill, snowy, rainy. Quite frankly, when there is sun or gray days with temperatures in the mid-20s, I lack the motivation to bundle up and get out there.

This is not good.

It is not good for them. They are bored. Bored dogs whine and chew and bark, three activities on the rise in this house. It is not good for me. I'm spiritually stagnant, unconnected.

I throw the ball around for Ollie in the back yard. It is cold, really cold. I'm going to need gloves. Ollie and Marshall get excited and start wrestling. This is a good time for me to get ready. Gloves, earmuffs, scarf, walking shoes, yoga pants, tank top, long-sleeved t-shirt, and winter jacket. Ollie and Marshall sprint to the house and bolt through the dog door the minute they hear the leashes. They know they have to sit to have their leashes put on and Ollie plants his hindquarters on the ground. Poor Marshall's tail is so excited that he can't sit properly, so he slouches in a sloppy puppy-sit. I'll take it.

Leashes clipped and door locked, and we are ready to go. I give them the cue 'let's go' to tell them they are released from their sit. We walk down our street and cross the main road into the neighborhood with the park and plowed streets. This is when it all goes down hill.

Marshall is the poster pup for perfect leash behavior. Part of that is because he hates pressure around his neck. Ollie is too excited and his long legs make him walk fast. I imagine walking next to me for him is like me walking next to someone with a cane or walker. You understand why the other person needs more time, but your steps become unnaturally shortened to keep in step with them.

No walking meditation today. It's leash work time.

I started out with the right things.

Let the dog burn off excitement energy. This is especially important if the dog has been home alone all day and you've just gotten in for the evening. They are glad to see you.

I was able to get Ollie in the right 'following rules' mindset by doing a few drills with him. Sit for leashes, lay down and wait to go outside, sit and wait while I shut the door.

Ollie was just too excited for this walk. This means reinforcing the rules, the biggest of which is You Follow Me.

When training this, I use two methods: Crazy Lady and Treat In Hand

Training the Crazy Lady way means turning on your heel the second your dog starts to get a head of you. This doesn't mean wait until the dog is pulling and whip around, jerking the leash and yanking on the dog's neck. The purpose of this is to not let the dog think it knows where you are going and to always defer to you for directions.

Training with the Treat In Hand method is basically as simple as it sounds. Walk with a loose lead holding kibble in your hand. The dog will walk next to you, sniffing your hand. Treat him occasionally, saying 'good dog' or other verbal praise (keep it consistent). Do this for short walks at first, then slowly lengthen the walks and the time in between alternating praise and treats.

The important thing is to stay calm and patient. If you feel angry at any time, pack it in. Yanking, pulling, whipping, jerking, is not only painful to your dog, but also hurtful to your relationship. Punishment, if not timed correctly, becomes arbitrary and unpredictable to a dog. You look less like a mentor and more like a dictator.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Walking Meditation Tips (and tip-tips)

As I re-read yesterday's post, I heard Marshall's little prance across the kitchen floor. Marshall's tip-tip toes reminded me that others might need some tips on how to pull off this whole 'walking meditation thing' with a dog. (It also reminded me how much I need to trim Marshall's nails.)

A lot of people confuse meditation or presence with the stereotypical sit-on-the-floor-all-pretzel-like-and-say-ohm-till-you're-zoned-out characters on TV shows. There is nothing zoned-out about mindful walking or walking meditation, especially with a furry friend. It is a little more complicated than just walking by yourself in a secluded setting. You have to be aware of cars, crossing streets, the message you are sending down the leash, communicating turns or commands if you have certain rules about other dogs, distractions, pedestrians, or cars. (Ollie has to sit on the shoulder for cars coming from behind him. He used to be so afraid of things he couldn't see, he'd run without thinking -- a very dangerous habit that had to be corrected.)

There are so many great websites on walking meditation, but here are a few of my tips:

  • The key is to be kind to yourself. Wear comfortable clothing, drink water before you go, don't worry about how far you are going to walk. This is not training for a 20K charity walk. It is training for being mindful and aware. Listen to your body. If in the spring and summer you are too hot or feel winded, dizzy, or otherwise woozy while walking, sit down for a minute or stand and lean against a tree or building in the shade. If on a cold day you find your hands and feet are losing feeling, maybe it is time to go inside and warm up.

  • You aren't going to be able to connect with your breathing if your dog is over-excited and pulling you everywhere. You're going to be fighting him the whole way. Let your dog run around outside before you go, throw a ball, tire him out a little. Let him have a good drink of water. Dogs really don't need sweaters and coats until it is well below 30 degrees. Unless the dog is small and has fur with no undercoat (Italian Greyhound, Min-Pins, etc) or is almost naked (Chinese Crested, Chihuahuas, groomed Poodles, etc.) they probably don't need any people clothes on a walk. If your pooch does need outerwear, check periodically to make sure there is no rubbing or chafing.

  • When just out walking your dog, practice good leash habits. It doesn't really matter if the dog is in front of you a little or behind you. What matters is there is no leash-pulling.

  • When you and your pooch start off, begin walking a little faster than normal. The increased heart rate forces your body to start breathing correctly and really accepting your breath. You may naturally begin breathing in your nose and out your mouth. Plus, a little feel-good endorphins never hurt anyone, right?

  • After about four or five minutes, slow down a bit and let your breath fall into a natural rhythm. Don't expend the energy trying to force yourself to breathe in or out on a certain step, just notice when you do breathe. Lengthen your stride to fit the rhythm of your breath.

  • This is about the time where one of two things will happen with your walking partner. Either he will sense your changing mental state and join you in it, falling into step beside you, or he will feel you starting to relax and take it as an opportunity for free-for-all leash time. If you experience the second response, you and pooch need more leash time and more training walks. (Tomorrow's post)

  • Soft-focus your eyes, relaxing the muscles in your face, forehead, and around your eyes. Be aware of your step, hear your breath. As thoughts or feelings surface, don't try to ignore them, rather acknowledge them and let them go as if they were the trees or houses you are passing. To help you remember to praise your dog for good leash behavior, choose an object ahead of you. Do not focus on that object, just use it as a guide. When you pass it, give soft and calm verbal praise.

  • Smile at people you pass. Smiling is important. "Sometimes the source of your smile is joy. Your smile can also be the source of your joy." --Thich Nhat Hahn

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Walking Meditation II

Note: This is a revised post, originally posted 7.19.2009

It is another partly cloudy day. The last one I expect to see this week. I could base my prediction on the local weatherman's forecast of lower than normal temperatures and thunderstorms. Instead, I look at the trees for conformation. The breeze grows stronger throughout the day and the silver undersides of the leaves are exposed. The silver maple sparkles for a moment. This is how I know tomorrow will bring rain.

We are walking, Marshall and I. He is a good walker. His toenails tap the pavement as he bounces next to me. I call his happy walk "tip-tip-tip". His head is up, his whippy tail reminds me of the Wacky-Waving-Inflatable-Flailing-Arm-Tube-Man outside the local Chevy dealership.

Marshall is a happy puppy. I'm realizing as I write this that he only has a few short months until he is no longer a puppy. He will be two in November. People always think he is much younger and mistake him for a sixteen-week old Rottweiler. The truth is we don't know what he is, a Heinz 57 mutt that most closely resembles a German Pinscher, the dogs that are the ancestors of Doberman Pinschers, Schnauzers, and Affenpinschers.

His prance has been passed down from three hundred years of working dogs. Marshall walks with pride. He has a job and he does it well. I am currently working with him to be a service dog. My service dog.

I am one of the thousands of people with an invisible disability. People with Epilepsy, Autism, Diabetes, Alzheimer's, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other serious psychiatric disorders fall into this category. Marshall is being trained in medical alert and response, certain tasks to help me in my daily life, as well as all of his public access standards. I may have periods of recovery where I may not fit the definition of disabled and meet the requirements to bring Marshall with me. I actually hope for those times. We continue training regardless of what the future brings, trying to stay in "the now".

He is off-duty right now and enjoying the scents coming to him in the pre-rain breeze. We stand for a moment in the shade of an oak tree, close our eyes and smell. Someone is burning leaves and yard waste and from far away someone is grilling. The scent of sun-ripened blackberries down the path beckons me. I start to walk ahead, but Marshall is not moving. He has firmly planted himself next to the tree.

When I move closer, he nudges my knee. It is one of his gentle alerts. I take my pulse and realize I do, in fact, need to sit down and continue the deep breathing we were doing before. The tightness in my chest builds then subsides and I breathe through it. A few minutes later, I feel a tug on the leash. Marshall is standing on the path with his happy wagging tail. He tap-dances at me to tell me it's time to get going and I'm ok again. It is time to finish our walk, side-by-side.

I am reminded at this point of a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh's "Faith as a Living Thing".

Faith is nourished by understanding. The practice of looking deeply helps you understand better. As you understand better, your faith grows.

My faith has been fed today. And I think Marshall's has, too.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Walking Meditation Beginnings

Note: This is a revised post from 7.8.2009. It appeared as part of the collection of blog entries on mindfulness and meditation.

This week I walked with Gus. He is a Silky Terrier who stays with us most of the time. His owner, Heather, is a friend who was staying at our house for a while. She works long hours and spends most of her days off helping her family. We get the benefit of having him when he is not with her.

Gus was a former puppy mill puppy. Through his puppyhood and early adolescence he was kept in an 8'x8' pen with four to five other litters. Surrounded by so many dogs, he never learned how to develop the social skills or bonding needed for mental and physical development. His only human interaction was being kicked out of the way when someone cleaned his cage or decided to change the water and food.

When the ASPCA had enough evidence to close the mill, he was taken to a rescue on the border of Ohio and Southern Michigan. I found him through a search on My friend was looking for a Yorkshire or Silky terrier but also wanted to adopt rather than go through a breeder. His picture showed a scraggly dog with matted hair, looking up hopefully at the camera.

I spoke to the foster mom. She gave me a little bit of his background and told me that he's a little fearful of strangers. I've worked with socializing shy and fearful dogs before, so that didn't seem like much of a challenge. Heather and I drove out to meet Gus at his foster home in late December.

I knew immediately he would be a difficult rehabilitation. While all the other foster dogs ran to meet us at the door, Gus only peeked out from around the corner. It took almost an hour for him to let me pet him without shaking. Heather had decided it was love at first site. "He's going to need a lot of work. I can help, but it's going to be a long road. It's not too late to change your mind," I told her as we walked back to the car. She nodded sincerely but could hardly contain her smile as she said, "I know."

By the time we got him to my house, Gus was exhuasted. He fell asleep on the floor by the couch after meeting Ollie and Marshall. I tried to brush his fur to no avail. I knew we were going to have to cut it. Poor little Gus slept the whole time while I clipped and Heather thought of names, eventually settling on Gus-Gus after the mouse from Disney's Cinderella. A friend who does grooming cleaned up my hack-job Army haircut just before his appointment with our family vet.

His vet records said he was about eight months old. Our vet immediately showed us Gus was over a year old, perhaps older. "See the tartar build up here and here?" Dr. K said, pointing to the tar-like brown and black covering the top half of his molars and incisors. "Most of that is from not getting regular cleaning and chew toys. In my opinion, that level of build up wouldn't be able to accumulate in less than 18 months, maybe two years." Dr. K looked at the little shivering waif and you could see her imagining his life. "You struck gold, buddy. This is a really good family. You're gonna get your teeth brushed."

As I watched him over the next few weeks, I became fairly certain he was closer to two years old.

Two years. No human contact. No positive play or dog interaction.

He was certain every sudden movement was to be feared. He had no understanding of how to relate to my dogs. He hoarded toys and socks in the corner of his crate or under Heather's bed. He guarded his food. He cowered and lowered his head every time someone tried to pick him up or pet him. We would joke that he 'hated how much he loved' belly rubs because he would be so happy being pet, but the minute you loosened your grip or moved he would run away. And when it came time to put on a leash he fought ferociously and would nip and yelp.

It's been six months since he first came home and hours of classical and operative conditioning. Now he enjoys snuggling and will fall asleep in my arms. In May he learned how to entertain himself and play by himself with a tennis ball. He is becoming more consistent with 'come', 'wait', and 'sit' but that's about it. We've had quite a few rough days. A lot of days he feels like a chore and some days I threaten to give him to a traveling circus. We have so much more work to do together and so much more training ahead of us.

Walking with Gus this past week strangers would comment, "What a cute dog!" and "What a happy puppy!" as they passed. I looked down at Gus prancing beside me, bright eyed with a 'smile' on his face. I realized I am seeing what other people see: a happy terrier enjoying his daily walk along the lake.

My walking message for mindfulness I learned today:

Take the time to realize small achievements toward your goals. Reward small progresses and use this awareness to see that others are working on their stuff too.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Walking Meditation

Walking is a pretty spiritual thing for me. It is a time to be aware of my body and my surroundings. I am fortunate to live in an area where there are boardwalks and bike paths that go around lakes and into wooded areas. The air is sweet and cool on spring and early summer days and the lake is fairly still. Swans and ducks and the occasional egret or heron enjoy the marsh by the boardwalk. Bullfrogs and turtles and leopard frogs rest on fallen branches.

The colder it gets, the more difficult it is to be motivated to walk. The neighborhood roads are usually plowed, though. And even when it is blustery and cold, the dogs always enjoy our walks. The snow and ice right now cover the naked branches and sparkle in the sun. Children ice skate on the lake. It truly is a beautiful place to live when I take the time to notice it.

I very rarely bring my iPod along when I walk by myself or with the dogs. I feel it breaks the connection down the leash as well as the time to listen to my body. I use walking as a meditation frequently since I don't seem to be doing well lately with sitting still and feeling present. When we walk, the dogs and I get a chance to see and smell small changes around us and within.

Many of my favorite quotes on mindfulness are by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk exiled in France. Rather than explain what I think of these quotes, I will simply include them and let you come to your own conclusions thinking on them.


People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and touch happiness every moment.
Each step brings a fresh breeze.
Each step makes a flower bloom.
Kiss the Earth with your feet.
Bring the Earth your love and happiness.
The Earth will be safe
when we feel safe in ourselves.


Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now it is time for us to take good care of her. We bring our peace and calm to the surface of the Earth and share the lesson of love. We walk in that spirit.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Prompted by an article shared by a friend, I thought I would spend this week on the history of our domestication of common pets and how it has historically affected our treatment of animals.


In my spiritual studies back in college, I came across a Zen Buddhist koan that has stuck with me since. A koan is a question or parable whose answer cannot be reached through rational thinking, logic, or arguing. The answer is more of a meditation that one has to interpret intuitively.

A monk asked his Chinese Zen master: `Master, does a dog have Buddha-nature?'

The master answered: `Mu.' (or Wu-- the Japanese symbol for null or nothing)

I thought about this koan for days, walking to and from class. This one word, Mu, meaning "nothing" or "null set" in a literal translation, but in the meaning of the Buddhist koan, meaning the question itself is moot. There is no discontinuation of nothingness, there is no end to existence. In that one word, "mu" conveys that subjectivity and objectivity become one. The moment you ask the question, you lose your own Buddha-nature, your own innate ability to access the entirety of your mind and body and awakeness. It matters and it matters not.

I was instantly reminded of this koan when a friend brought a recent article by Marc Bekoff from Psychology Today to my attention. Bekoff is a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and in his article, he asks the question, "Are nonhuman animals more moral than human animals?"

For those of us who share our lives with animals, it isn't that surprising that Bekoff comes up with a the (almost) answer of yes. He goes on to explain that predatory behavior is not immoral, merely survival and the circle of life. He discusses the rarity of predators killing more than what is needed for the meal of an individual or pack. He explains how disputes over territory pales in comparison to human war and conquest. And while there are a few cases of violent 'scapegoating' or 'picking on' a weak member of the group, there is also evidence of empathy and compassion within and between species.

I related this article and my personal experiences to the Buddhist koan. I struggle constantly with the idea that we share the same space, resources, and energy with all animals (even mosquitoes) and all animals are equal life and all life has equal value. This koan makes our observations and clinical assessment or argument of the value of those observations like those in the article are moot. Thinking too much gets in our way of being present to experience the wonder that is sharing a life with an animal.


And before the Wise Ones appeared,

Forty million years of ducks in the mud.
Blowing out a candle
ten thousand miles away

Cutting up a duck for dinner.
A dog barks at nothing,
a thousand ducks twitch--

winds of winter.
Has a duck the Buddha-Nature?

Stop quacking like a duck."
- Michael P. Garofalo

Friday, January 15, 2010

Smell and connection

This whole week has been devoted to The Skunk Incident of 2009. Primarily my focus has been on coping with the smell of skunk musk and how it affected my relationship with Ollie and Marshall. I also had to cope with how it affected my home. I was obsessive about getting that smell out of my house, not just because the smell was offensive to my nose, but because it was disrupting my spiritual focus.

Scent is very powerful. Some studies have shown that scent is one of the strongest sense connected with our memories. Certain smells can evoke emotions, positive or negative, and activate physiological responses.

I am very connected to scents. I am particular about what scents I have on me in terms of perfumes, lotions, or shower gel. I have very strong opinions about how my bedroom should smell (warm sandalwood, vanilla, sweet tabacco, and earth), my laundry room (Bath and Body Works Fresh Linen), and my kitchen soap is always, always lemon.

I even go so far as to adjust my plug-in air freshener scents in cycles. Post-holiday winter is black currant, spring is lavender, early summer has some kind of lime, citrus, or lemon verbena. The early-harvest August through holiday season bring apples and cinnamon, pumpkin, orange and clove, and fir and balsam.

These scents are not just for ambience. Scent, being so strongly attached to memory, is also attached to actions. The changing of scents are a cycle that generates thoughts and behaviors that help me connect with the season. I associate the fresh scent of lavender with activities that freshen my life and home: cleaning, organizing, letting go of hibernating hurts and grudges. Citrus smells make me feel juicy and full of energy, active and ready to take in sun and connect with earth. Apples and cinnamon make me long sleeves, long walks, and long fireside discussions over cider. The smells of the holidays encourage me to breathe deeply and focus on the warm feelings from connecting with those I love instead of associating the season with frenetic urgency, irritation, or stress.

I find that when I am having a hard time connecting spiritually, scents of wood and leather help me find roots. When I having a particularly difficult time with forgiveness of myself, others, or the world in general, lighting my citrus and sage candle during meditation or thoughtful reading helps me release the anger blocking me from healing my hurt and also helps release whatever ties that bound me to that anger.

Maybe this is why TSI of 2009 brought about so much change for me, so much reflection. I had to restore my house, my furry four paws, and myself to their own true scent to feel that connection as strongly.


True nature is always elusive,

Only the heart of no-heart
can grasp-it.

Up in the mountain,
the burning jade stays brilliant.

And in the roaring furnace,
lotus blossoms keep their fragrance.
- Ngo An, Korea, (circa 1090)

I Talk With My Hands

I am one of those people.

I talk with my hands and most of the time I don't knock over stuff, but sometimes I do. But when it comes to dogs, I have always talked with my hands in a very literal sense from their Homecoming Day and onward using hand signals.

Thank Heavens.

This week has been very long and not fun for my furry friends. I've been sick and mostly in bed or on the couch with tea and Kleenex and in various stages of losing my voice. However, I am still able to tell Ollie, Marshall and Gus (and to a lesser degree, Orange Cat) that I need them to move, be quiet, sit, wait, back up, relax, come here, or snuggle.

(Orange Cat knows my hand signals for 'snuggle' and 'come here', lately it's just a matter of if he *feels* like coming or snuggling. Cats were once worshipped by an entire culture and we humans will never live that down. Ever.)

Dogs understand hand signals well before they understand the verbal command or cue. In part, this is because their eyes are designed to detect small movement. While most dogs don't actually 'see' very well (about a human equivalent of 20/70), their eyes are able to detect slight changes in the way we walk or move even from great distance. Their ears are designed to hear noises from great distances with incredible directional accuracy, evaluate pitch and volume at much greater frequencies than the human ear is capable of.

Unfortunately, that does not mean they are good at differentiating human noises. Our words become a foreign language to them.

When teaching a foreign language, one of the best techniques is Total Physical Response method which is basically immersion with overstated, exaggerated movements to show what the word or phrase means. (Note: It does not help to just stand there and repeat the phrase louder over and over and hope the other person understands what you are saying.) Essentially, since we are teaching dogs human language, that is what hand signals accomplish. Dogs will never be able to replicate our vocalizations, but may learn correct responses to 30-200 verbal commands and gestures given the right training.

As the week goes by and I have to communicate what I want or need from my dogs without any verbal commands, I'm realizing how much we look at each other to make sure the message got across. I had forgotten sometimes to look for the body language that is asking essentially, "This is what you want, right?" and reinforce the behavior. I am realizing how much I talk.

And how much I don't need to.
And how much I talk with my not-furry friends.
And how much I don't need to.

I think I'm learning why monks take a vow of silence-- not so much to learn a 'new' way of communicating with the earth and the beings here. Rather to return to a very natural and basic way of communicating. I'm thinking that some of my frustration the last few weeks is from talking too much and not listening-- not hearing-- what other's silences are saying.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


With all this talk about The Skunk Incident, I thought I might pass on a few tips and shortcuts I've learned over the last few years.

De-Skunking Tips for Dogs

  • Be prepared. Starting in spring, I make an Emergency Skunk Kit: One large box of baking soda, a gallon of distilled white vinegar, a small bottle of apple cider vinegar, two large bottles of hydrogen peroxide, baby wipes, rubber gloves, Dollar Store leashes, and a couple rags.
  • This is most likely going to happen at night. If you have more than one dog, check and see if each was skunked. They will be scared and shaky and possibly foaming at the mouth with significant nasal mucus in response to the spray.
  • Take off the dog's collar. Trust me, it's too much work to get the odor out, especially if it is leather. Pitch it, but make sure to get the license and ID tag off first!
  • Use the cheap-o Dollar Store leash as a lead by creating a slipknot. (Put the connecting end through the loop and it should cinch around the dog's neck.) This will keep the dog from slipping the collar if he tries to pull away. Check periodically to make sure you aren't pulling the lead too tight.
  • Bathe the dog first with regular dog shampoo. Skunk spray is oily and this will help break up the oils. Rinse throughly.
  • Lather De-Skunking mixture (recipe below) into your dog's fur, starting just behind the ears and cover the whole body. Use a washcloth on muzzle taking care to avoid the eyes. Let the lather sit for three-five minutes. Or, in my case, while you lather up the other dog.
  • Rinse throughly. Towel dry with a towel you've been meaning to throw out because you've had it since college. Use toweling dry to pet, talk in happy tones, good dog pep talk and give the pooch a biscuit.
  • Use the baby wipes two times a day to gently wipe muzzle, forehead, and area in between eyes.

De-Skunking Tips for the House

  • Close all the open windows for at least five hours. This prevents more of the "skunk cloud" from drifting into the house.
  • Turn on all fans that push the air out of the house, not recirculate.
  • You'll need eight small glasses. I use juice glasses. In four, put in 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar. In the other four, put 2-3 tbsp of coffee grounds. Put one of each cup in the main rooms of your house. The vinegar absorbs odors, when it starts to get cloudy in a day or two, dump it.
  • Fresh Wave natural odor products work the best. I'm not saying this because they are all natural. When it comes to skunk, I personally don't care much about chemicals and how harmful they are as long as they get rid of that God-awful smell. The odor absorbing crystals and spray are not cheap, but worth every penny.
  • Oust. Oust. Oust. Every hour or so, just walk through the house spraying. (Not where candles are lit!)
  • Febreez odor neutralizing candles are pretty awesome. I'm not sure they do anything, but made me feel like it was getting better.
De-Skunking YOU:
  • Yup, you smell. If you care about the clothes you were wearing through the dog de-skunking, strip down and put them straight into the wash with two cups of vinegar. If your washer has an option for an extra rinse cycle, add another cup during that cycle. Dry as usual.
  • If you were part of the skunking (ninja skunk attacked while you were on a walk) one of the best ways to get the smell out of your own hair that doesn't involve peroxide is feminine douche. I'm not joking. Massengil could re-brand their entire line of non-scented douche as Skunk Be Gone. It works for the dog's fur, too-- and can be used as a second line of defense for breeds with thick undercoats.

De-Skunking Mixture:

Mix in a metal bowl:
1 quart hydrogen peroxide
1/4 cup baking soda
and 1 teaspoon liquid soap (any mild dish detergent)

Update: April 24, 2010

If your dogs have managed to kill a skunk like mine did yesterday, don't forget to hose down the kill site. Otherwise, you might have a dog who wants to relive his victory and roll in the grass where the animal had been.

Oh, and someone sent me this link I thought I would share Mythbusters: Ancient Death Ray Skunks

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Keeping up

This whole skunk experience didn't just get me thinking about alternative ways to bond with my dogs. I began considering the ways I show my human friends how much I appreciate them when distance (thank goodness not smell) makes hugs and body language obsolete.

About five years ago, I read The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman on the recommendation of a friend. She had read the book on the recommendation of her therapist. The therapist had read it on the recommendation of her marriage counselor. The book is highly recommended, but I think you can save yourself some time and money by simply reading the summary on their website.

Basically, Chapman says there are five ways people tend to show that they care:

  • Words of Affirmation: hearing and reading that you are loved.
  • Quality Time: having the full attention of the one you love, knowing you are heard
  • Gifts: physical reminders that you are thought of and loved, especially on meaningful days
  • Acts of Service: easing the burden and responsibilities of another
  • Physical Touch: physical accessibility are crucial for hugs and little touches.

I'm a hugger, snuggler, touchy-feely person. I like proximity and ever since I was a little girl I am calmed by touch. With friends, I am pretty good at keeping up with other's personal boundaries when it comes to touch, but I can't ever resist a hug goodbye. I'm also word-oriented and like letters and emails and written notes. I appreciate the meaningful nature of a gift more than the gift itself. I love helping people with things and have had to learn to not over-commit myself or over-volunteer to help others out.

We're all like this-- we all have characteristics of each love language at different times. Chapman's book encourages us to look at how other's love languages might not match our own and learn how to be bi-lingual when it comes to love. (Or, at least have a conversational fluency.)

Going along with Chapman's book and my new-found knowledge about new ways of interacting, I looked back at my email sent box. I had easily sent more than two times the amount of emails I normally do in a week's time. I looked at my calendar and noticed it was a little more full than usual with time designated to meet up with someone for dinner or coffee or some other errand to help out a friend.

A benefit of a skunky situation: learning how to reconnect with those I care about.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Skunk! (part 2 of 2)

Play is so important in the dog world. Like toddlers playing house, dog's play creates make believe situations that teaches important messages about their world: body postures and their meanings, social rules, and roles within their day-to-day world. Adult dogs will occasionally let puppies win at tug or wrestling and then skillfully pin the pup when he gets a little too full of himself. Build confidence, but keep it in check, always know who's boss. Dogs have perfected what early childhood development teachers call 'purposeful play'.

Humans can use play with dogs to do teach many of the same social cues. A simple game of fetch can teach a dog to wait during distraction and surrender something over to you that he wants. Commands like "wait" and "drop it" can truly save a dog's life, keeping a dog from chasing a squirrel across a busy road or relinquishing a dangerous item. Keeping the game going teaches the dog that you will continue the game if he complies with the rules. Exercising together creates social bonds.

Marshall learned all these cues and commands during his socialization outings. He was in the middle of Therapy Dog training, going on field trips to farmer's markets and sidewalk sales almost daily to interact with new people and situations. Marshall's Top Five Bonding Activities are going on walks, snuggling, watching the yard, belly rubs, and interacting with people. Ollie's Top Five are play ball, do tricks, play ball, snuggle, and play ball. It had never concerned me before that Marshall didn't play with toys much except for dog-to-dog game of tug with Ollie.

I went outside with a ball and to do a little investigating. I threw the ball and Ollie took off like a rocket, Marshall close behind. Ollie lunged with precision, plucking the ball from the grass and in one graceful move tossed it into the air and caught it again. He sprinted back to bring the ball to me for another throw. Marshall, meanwhile, was still standing with his tail wagging where the ball had landed. It didn't take long for me to figure out why Marshall didn't play fetch with me.

I never let him win.

I realized that I was rarely ever alone with him in the backyard. The backyard wasn't "our thing". When we were out back, Ollie was always there. Ollie was faster, bigger, and third in command in our house after me and Mike, and the cat. If I didn't give him a rule, Marshall always deferred to his "big brother" to show him what to do. I never held Ollie back and let Marshall get the ball. Consequently, I never taught Marshall how to play with me.

That isn't to say that Marshall doesn't enjoy running around outside together. Playing ball in the backyard was something new we could do to bond. He still doesn't quite understand what this 'fetch' thing is all about, but happily wags his tail now when he sees me holding a ball, knowing it means we're going to run around together. By the end of the summer we were both well into learning how to play together.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Skunk! (part 1 of 2)

On warm summer Sunday night, just as I was starting my bedtime routine, shutting down my computer, and saying goodnight to my houseguest when I heard a commotion outside. I wasn't sure if Ollie, Marshall, and their little friend Gus were just wrestling outside in the dark, chasing fireflies, or perhaps excitedly sniffing heavy scents that concentrate at dusk. When I heard Ollie begin to growl, I was certain this was not an innocent Backyard At Night exploration. I ran to the back door just in time to hear what sounded like a very large man walking through a very large pile of dried leaves.

There was a yelp.
Then there was a smell.

I called the dogs to me, helpless as the freshest of fresh skunk cloud wafted toward the house. My friend began closing windows as I grabbed Ollie by the collar and sniffed. My immediate gag reflex told me he had indeed been skunked. Gus ran half-circles in my periphery and Marshall darted past me and through the dog door into the house.

My friend (Gus' owner) caught Marshall by the collar at the top of the stairs which caused Marshall to resist, flopping around like a wet noodle and not wanting to be dragged back outside. He wanted to hide, safe and sound in his bed. I didn't blame him. I didn't want to be outside either and my bed was sounding pretty darn good just a few minutes ago.

Once all the dogs were in the yard and the dog door secured and locked, I began making the de-skunking formula in a metal mixing bowl. My friend turned on all the bathroom fans and started lighting every scented candle we owned. My husband hooked up the hose to a spigot in the garage and set up the industrial flood lights I normally use when painting a room. Somehow, Gus had managed to avoid getting sprayed and whined from inside as his friends were stripped of their collars and hosed down. Two hours and two very sad, lonely, wet, scared, dogs later, the immediate concern was taken care of.

It took three days, four air neutralizing candles, and and about three entire spray cans of Oust before the house was minimally tolerable.

When dogs get skunked, the hardest part to clean is their faces. Unfortunately, this is the part that gets most of the spray. Try as you can, it can take days or weeks and several applications of baby wipes to get rid of the smell. Every time Marshall or Ollie drank from their water bowls, the newly moistened odor molecules permeated the air. The last thing in the world I wanted to do is nuzzle their muzzles or give little good night nose kisses.

This is a problem. One of the bonding routines in our house is jokingly referred to as 'Forced Snuggling'. There is a method to the snuggles, using touch as a bonding tool and as a preparatory set for vet checks, emergency situations, and toddler-proofing. There is lots of petting and belly rubs with a good amount of touching the in and outside of ears, mild tugging on tails, slight pressure on the ribcage, muzzle rubs and fingers by eyes, sticking fingers and hands in the mouth and touching teeth as well as brushing their soft puppy lips. There is paw touching and paw holding and a little bit of pressure in between toes. There is close-face talking and nose-kisses and chin nuzzling. I feel very bonded. They feel very bonded. We become a tangled pig-pile of fuzzy love on the living room floor.

Although I am usually the one who instigates these sessions, Marshall and Ollie both have their own ways of saying they are ready for Forced Snuggling. Marshall lays on the futon and lifts his front right paw as if he is opening up his little arms to give a hug. Ollie comes to wherever I am sitting or standing and sits on my feet with his back to me and looks over his shoulder, reminding me the seals I remember from Sea World shows.

In the days after the skunking, there were a lot of hug-offers and seal-smiles. There was also be a lot of attention-seeking behavior and Are-We-Still-Friends? looks. "Of course we're still friends," I say in happy-happy voice. "I just don't want to nuzzle your gross nose."

I had to do a lot of thinking about how I show my affection to my dogs and reinforcing their want to bond and socialize in both human and dog ways. I started brainstorming and everything I was coming up with was very human/primate-oriented. I had come up with a dozen ways that were mostly some form of talking and snuggling. The only thing left on the list was "play ball." Ollie would be thrilled for an afternoon of ball. I knew Marshall, on the other hand, wouldn't be as enthusiastic.


Friday, January 8, 2010

My Furry Four Paws: Ollie

Oliver B. Superbiscuit is a Rhodesian Ridgeback--81 pounds of pure muscle. If you aren't familiar with the breed, picture a carmel colored greyhound with a broader chest that could stand on his hind legs, put his paws on a woman's shoulders and look her in the eye. (Thank goodness he's never jumped up in his life.)

We adopted Ollie in May of 2006. I had been volunteering at the Franklin County Animal Shelter at the time. He had come in as a puppy, but I rarely paid any attention to the new pups. Puppies that were old enough to be adopted usually moved on in less than ten days. Ollie was no different and was adopted quickly. It wasn't until Ollie's first owner brought him back, exhausted and frazzled that I heard about him. "I thought I was ready for a dog, I'm just not. I'm not." she told a friend at the front desk. She barely stuck around long enough to fill out the surrender paperwork.

Another volunteer did a temperament test and couldn't find anything wrong with him. He was incredibly smart and she recommended moving him to foster care immediately. Smart and sensitive dogs don't fare well in shelter conditions. Around the time he was moved to foster care, Mike and I both had decided to look for our first dog.

The foster coordinator knew I had a different dog-- a three-month old scruffy thing-- in mind and called me to say someone had put in an application in on him. She told me about Ollie. "Is that the owner-surrender that came in last week?" I asked. "I heard he's really sweet." She gave me the foster-mom's phone number.

It didn't take long for Mike and I to fall in love with his sweet face. They thought he was a six-month old dachshund-beagle mix, which happens to be the same mutt type as Mike's parent's first dog. Ollie was interested, but not intrusive. He was a little handshy, but warmed up quickly to petting, so I was sure that could be changed. Two days later, we picked him up and took him home, and gave him his new name.

I took him from the shelter to Orange Cat's vet. It was a 'well baby' check-up post-adoption, she had her intern do the check. It went well. He was healthy. Being a new dog owner, I didn't know much of anything other than what I remembered from my dad's hunting dogs. I also knew that beagles get really chunky and being overweight for a doxie is bad on the back. I took Ollie out with me on my 'runs' while training for a half-marathon. I say 'runs' and what I really mean is 3-6 miles (5-10K) of jogging where once I was passed by an elderly speed-walker in matching track suit. I did have enough sense to run early in the morning or after dark.

Ollie was a great pup. He spent that summer playing, running, and growing. And growing. And growing some more. It was quickly becoming apparent that he was no dachshund. By late July, when Ollie hit 55 lbs, I figured he wasn't any sort of a doxie mix. I took him to the vet on an emergency visit (his jaw was cemented shut after a stealthy attempt to go diving for kitty clumps...eww....). As she wielded the water pick and Ollie's ridge went up she said, "Well... you've got an otherwise healthy Ridgeback on your hands."

She looked at his paws and asked if we had a concrete dog run. I explained our routine and her jaw dropped. "You've been running around with a 5-month old pup?" I said, no. He should be about 8 or 9 months old by now. He should stop growing any time, right?

She burst out laughing and informed me I needed to slow down on the running, keep it under 3 miles since he was used to longer runs, and I'd be lucky if he weighed in less than 75 lbs as an adult.

Ollie is by far the most highly expressive and empathetic dog I've ever worked with. He has an amazing vocabulary (over 50 phrases and names) and is able to figure out what is needed from him in a lot of varied situations. He has dog friends of all sizes ranging from a four-pound teacup Pomeranian to a 90-pound husky. Once he gets to know you, he is affable and goofy, and delights in showing off tricks he knows.

His neuroses and phobias, however, make him difficult to bring in public. He is scared of men in baseball hats. He is horrible at generalizing and I am never quite sure how he will react. His fears include (but are not limited to): topiaries, fire hydrants, newspaper vending machines, rectangle street signs, red plastic cups--not blue, yellow, or clear, clear plastic forks, duffle bags, newspapers--but not wrapping paper, garbage bags, garbage cans, cardboard boxes, tight spaces, and anything out of its normal order or place. When he is frightened, he does not bite or bark, but simply freezes and won't move except to look frantically from me to the offending object and whine.

In many ways, he is the dog version of Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rainman.

And I wouldn't change a thing about him.

Ten Things I Learn From Ollie

Ollie teaches me so many things about living in a scary world. When I need time to recharge and evaluate my decisions, he is a great role model. I wrote Ten Things I Learn from Ollie and Therese Borchard, a friend and fellow blogger, asked to repost my article on her website, Beyond Blue. Ollie has no idea his picture has been seen by so many people. That's probably good, he might get a little freaked out.

1. It takes a lot of courage to 'come see' something that is scary. Even when someone you love and trust is telling you it's okay to come check it out. Even if it is something you've seen a million times and weren't scared before. You should always do a happy dance when you've done something brave.

2. It's frustrating when you know how to do something and someone else is still learning. You can either stay beside them and model the correct behavior or walk away. It's ok to do either, but not ok to interrupt the learning. Don't show off.

3. It's good to let the little ones win. It's okay if a four-pound teacup Pomeranian thinks he can beat you in tug of war. He gets self confidence. You get to play. It's a win-win.

4. Diversity in friends is good. You learn the best things about yourself when you have friends around you who think differently than you do. It stretches your mind as you figure out how to play with them. Some are threatened by you when you move fast. It's best to get on their level and move slowly. Some like to take care of you but don't really like it for you to take care of them. Be flexible and they will keep playing with you.

5. Help older friends. Visit them regularly. Wait for them to catch up without being impatient. Let them eat first. Just because they can't get up doesn't mean they don't want to play. Bring them the toys and they will play from their bed.

6. If someone you love won't get out of bed, bring them a ball. Wag your tail. Look happy. If they don't get out of bed, sometimes the best thing you can do is be quiet, lay down next to them, and let them cry on you. Then, try the ball again. Don't whine.

7. When friends are sick, sometimes they just need you to be there or spend the night by their side. It is comforting to have a friend close. Sometimes friends are too sick to let anyone know. If that is the case, whine until someone with more medical expertise listens.

8. When someone is breaking a big rule, try to tell them yourself to stop. If they don't listen, it's okay to let someone with more authority know. Especially if your friend might hurt themselves.

9. It's ok not to like something, but you have to try it first. And if you're creative, you can find a way to kind of like it. Swimming pools are a good example. If you don't like swimming, find a friend who does. He can go swimming and gets the ball to fetch. You take the ball from him at the edge of the pool and bring it to whoever is throwing.

10. When you think your patience is exhausted or the environment is too scary, take a deep breath then leave the room or go outside by yourself for a minute. Run around. Entertain yourself. Or take a nap. Then you will be able to interact with others and play again.

What life lessons do you learn from you furry friends?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Furry Four Paws: That Little Orange Cat

As of the winter of 2010, Orange Cat is about seven years old.

My husband Mike --fiance' at the time-- moved to Columbus in late-winter of 2003. I followed him after my job transfer went through in October. Between February and October of that year, I came down from Detroit to visit whenever I had two days off in a row, cramming as much as I could into my tiny red convertible.

At some point in the spring, Mike started talking about four cats that kept hanging around our barn. One, a little orange tabby, was very friendly. On one of my mini-moving trips that summer, I finally saw the little orange tabby. "That's not a cat," I told Mike over dinner. "That's a kitten. I bet he's not over nine months old."

When I was properly moved-in and settled in October, I met my neighbors. I found out the kittens were their barn cats. The neighbors raised horses and one of their barn cats had kittens in the fall. The momma cat had been hit by a car in front of our house. "I'm so sorry," I said. My neighbor shrugged and said, "She was a barn cat. Bound to happen."

Now, I know a lot of farmers with barn cats. I'm not faulting these people for seeing the cats as no different from the swallows that build homes under the apex of the barns. These are people who see animals who have sought shelter in their barns as nature that found its way indoors and it's Mother Nature's job to take care of them. Most barn cats are truly feral and hide in the shadows when humans are around. I suppose I was only shocked by the response because they took such good care of their horses, I assumed they would love all animals the same way. They had named one of the cats Minnie. If you name something, doesn't it make it yours?

As it got colder, we didn't see the cats for the whole winter. Occasionally I would look out our sliding glass door at a field of snow, hoping the little ones were warm enough and getting enough food. When spring came and Mike fired up the barbeque for the first time, the little orange tabby came running through the field. I'm fairly sure one of our friends had slipped the cat a morsel or two because from that point on, the little orange tabby made a home under our porch.

During a blizzard in late January of 2005, I glanced at the sliding glass door. There was the little tabby, huddled on the corner of our deck. I wasn't sure what to do --it wasn't my cat, after all -- so I made a little shelter for him from a kid-sized craft table, duct tape, and weed control fabric the previous occupants in our house had left behind. I stuck a few old towels in there and created a little hut for the cat. He slept in there all winter long.

By the middle of the next summer, I had started keeping a water bowl out for the cat and occasionally feeding him. Mike strongly opposed both the food and water as well as naming the cat. "The minute he has a name, he's gonna show up her hurt or something and we'll be stuck with a big vet bill because you won't be able to handle the idea that he's someone else's cat." But as much as he groused about the cat, I knew it was all bluster and bluffing. One day I walked into the garage to see the both of them, craning their necks to look under the hood of Mike's project Honda, then the cat looking intently as Mike described how he was going to try another way to fix the car.

One day in August, I was weeding and heard a weak 'prrt?' behind me. I turned around to see the little tabby, visibly sick with some kind of upper respiratory infection. I called my neighbors to tell them they should take the cat to the vet and was told, "We'll just let nature take it's course." I told them I didn't feel comfortable with that, I had had cats my whole life and this isn't something he'll get over naturally. "Well, do what you want," my neighbor responded casually. "He practically lives over there anyway."

I didn't have a cat carrier, so I scooped up the cat and put him in a picnic basket and drove to the vet's office up the road without an appointment. The receptionist assured me they'd get to him right away and started making a patient profile. "What is his name?" she asked. I said I didn't know. We'd only ever called him 'that little orange cat' as part of Mike's no naming theory. "I have to have a name to start a profile, so we'll put that in until you come up with a name. It is easy to fix."

He weighed in at a sickly 5.6 lbs, drastically underweight. When the vet saw how emaciated and ill the cat was, she started to angrily lecture me about animal care and proper weight. I explained that I knew, that it was a stray, that I basically had stolen him from my neighbors to take him for medical care. Her entire demeanor softened and she listened to our history with the cat. As she gave me the antibiotics she said, "If those people call you and want this sweet little boy back, then call me. I have some words for them. Try to keep the cat inside for a couple days if he lets you."

When Mike got home and found the cat in the house, I told the story. He just shook his head and smiled. "I knew this was going to happen, I told you this would happen." He had a gleam in his eye, as if he were already laughing at an inside joke. "We can keep the cat on one condition: his name doesn't change."

"We're going to call him That Little Orange Cat forever?" I asked. He nodded. We looked at the orange tabby sleeping soundly in the picnic basket on the floor. It was perfect.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Furry Four Paws: Marshall

Marshall T Wunderstrudel was brought home December 8th, 2007 from the Michigan Humane Society. He was about five weeks old at the time and still recovering from bordetella, commonly known as "kennel cough" and pretty comparable in both symptoms and severity to pertussis or pneumonia in people. He, along with three siblings, had been abandoned in a box outside the MHS vet center Thanksgiving week.

We aren't quite sure what breed he is other than a perfect mutt. He's a black and tan German-something-or-other with a Zorro mask a little bit taller than a beagle. He meets the breed standards, behaviors, and appearance of a German Pinscher, the dogs that Karl Dobermann began working with in the 1890s. I find it highly unlikely that someone would abandon a whole litter of purebred dogs, so the commonalities are probably coincidence.

Marshall was (and still is) a snuggle pup from the first day we brought him home. After a few days of introduction, our older dog Ollie accepted his 'little brother'. He needed special love and attention but has always been a people-pleaser, so training came easy. He was mostly potty-trained in about seven days, learned "sit", "come", and "wait" in ten days. In terms of basic obedience and puppy kindergarten, he might be the fastest-learning dog I've ever worked with.

He quickly showed promise at doing Therapy Dog work. He came with me twice to visit my grandmother in a pet-friendly nursing home as a puppy and loved each trip. One gentleman down the hall who'd had a stroke looked at him with wide eyes and a one-sided smile. I asked the man if he wanted to pet Marshall, and the man started to move a shaky hand. I sat in a chair next to him, put Marshall in my lap, and guided his hand to pet my puppy. An orderly walked by and went to get a nurse. I immediately was afraid I had done something wrong, but the nurse assured me I hadn't. They were just shocked. It had been six weeks since the man had the stroke and hadn't shown any signs of responding to conversation or interaction.

Marshall trotted in his prancing little way out to the car. He seemed proud and alert and I know I am in danger of anthropomorphizing his behavior. I'll just say that I'm not sure if he was content to interact with others or was picking up on how proud I was of him. He snuggled into his bed in the back seat and quickly fell asleep with little choo-choo train puppy sleeping breaths.

We began socialization trips to start the Therapy Dog training. He's learned how to walk on different types of floors, use escalators and elevators, walk calmly next to people in scooters and wheelchairs. He can do a three-minute down-stay, wait for me even when I am out of sight, and only accepts treats on my command. He knows his manners when it comes to greeting new people and dogs, sits politely for petting, and does a perfect heel on leash.

That doesn't mean to say we don't have a few behaviors we're working on at home, but it's pretty fair to say I'm exceptionally proud of Marshall and looking forward to his Therapy Dog testing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gone to The Dogs

I've been quiet for a while, writing instead in my striped bound journal next to my bed. I've been trying to find my center, what makes me happy and whole and feel connected. Feeling pen on paper always adds a bit of connection and I desperately needed some.

When I began writing privately about my dogs, at first I felt like the Crazy Dog Lady. As if I had nothing else to do with my time than gush over my dogs and obnoxious cat. I hadn't gone to the extent that I had cross-stitched pillows with cutesy sayings like "Spoiled dogs live here!" or "I can has HOTDOG?". In the interest of full disclosure, I do feel like I should say that I have made an punchneedle pattern of an orange cat for my husband a few years ago for Christmas.

I realized through my writing that I had been doing what I love for months, working with my dogs and donating my time to friends and family to help them with training issues with their pooches either in person or by email. Not only was I doing what I love, but I find myself feeling a certain closeness to my spiritual nature and being more mindful. When I actually pause and take the time to reflect, I am learning more through these interactions and learning how to apply spiritual teachings in a more integrated way.

When talking about animals and spirituality, I mean it in whatever way works the best for you. My spiritual background is a hodgepodge of religions and belief systems. I typically categorize myself as a Dirt-Worshipping Quasi-Buddhist who doesn't mind reading the Bible now and again. Whatever your background or belief system, please know that when I say 'Energy' or 'Universe' or 'Spirit', I am doing my best to include everyone while being true to my own belief system.

I believe in kindness and being self-aware so as not to hurt anyone intentionally. And I believe we are all here to help and make a difference in each other's lives. It is in this way that I think our animals give us such an insight into how to be more compassionate, to wholly realize ourselves, and to find ways to become more integrated with our sense of spirituality. Together, through sharing our stories and observations, we can walk together and learn from each other.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Welcome to Furry Four Paws

This concept of Furry Four Paws blog was created as an entry into a blogging contest for Beliefnet in August of 2009. I set out with the goal of writing about how my interactions with dogs and other furry friends enriches my spiritual life. Out of over one hundred contestants, the collection twenty entries I wrote that month was chosen to be in the top five finalists.

After that rollercoaster of writing regularly, being selected as a finalist, and having the honor of working with so many talented writers, I did what a lot of creative people do. I withdrew from written pursuits while I processed what I had learned from the experience.

What did I learn?

  • I loved thinking on a different level about the furry four-pawed friends in my life.
  • I enjoyed writing about it, too.
  • I thought more critically about my spirituality and was more active in spiritual pursuits during the time of Beliefnet's blogging contest.
  • Once I stopped writing, I felt a little more detached. As the hustle and bustle of the holiday months got into full swing, I felt something was missing.
  • I need to write about this, it is who I am.
I hope you will enjoy the journey with me, learn with me, and add your thoughts and experiences along the way.


@furryfourpaws on Twitter

Humble Pie for Breakfast

I was woken up by a certain very happy Silky Terrier. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of owning a terrier, you may not be aware of how they share their happiness.

Barking. High pitched, two-toned, ear-piercing barking.

The behavior was a desirable trait in the past 600 years of terrier breeding. Often used to hunt rats and other varmints living in grain silos, barns, factories, and farms, terriers were bred to have a loud bark. Rodents move fast and the barking allowed for owners to locate the dog, even if it had followed it's prey into burrows or warrens underground. This is one reason why Yorkies, Jack Russells, Silkies, Westies, and Schnauzers have earned the reputation of 'yippy dogs'.

Gus is no different.

Gus has made great strides in his development since he came home in December. He socializes well, meets new dog friends regularly, is interested in play and people. The first toy he played with was a tennis ball. He would pick it up by the fuzz and toss it in the air, run, and pounce. His aim was exacting. Two years of being cooped in a puppy mill pen had not re-wired his prey drive.

Over the next few weeks, Gus began to bring home more evidence of his ancestry. The summer body count has risen to five chimpunks, eight field mice, two voles, and a cardinal. (Though I suspect Orange Cat had some role in the bird catching itself...)

I am rather accepting of predatory instincts, 'circle of life', animal nature stuff. I'm not a fan of watching scenes on nature programs where animals get killed and eaten, but I understand how the animal kingdom works. My dogs and cat, however, get fed twice a day. They are not starving. They are not even hungry. They are merely acting on instinct, but that instinct could cause an infestation of parasites, fleas, and viruses. It is not safe.

Each time I scooped up a teensy carcass, I wished peace to the little energy that once resided there. I tried not to be angry at Gus for doing something natural for him. I have learned the difference between 'cheerleading from the sidelines as Ollie and Marshall wrestle' barking from "YAY! CHASE THE RODENT! GET 'EM!" barking. I finally broke down and got Orange Cat a quick-release collar with a bell and affixed a bell to Gus's collar as well.

I didn't realize how angry I was getting until this morning when I was jolted out of a fairly sound sleep by "Get 'em! Get 'em!" barks. I cussed loudly as I came down the stairs. The thoughts that went through my head were,

"He is so selfish! He doesn't even eat the damn things."

"He is a serial killer. He is cruel and unmerciful."

"The damn barking! He's doing this on purpose! Just to piss me off!"

I stomped through the kitchen and opened the sliding glass door with a little too much force as I yelled, "Gus, get your ass over here!"

And there he was, standing in the middle of the yard, looking at me quizzically.

In the moment that followed, I immediately felt ashamed. I had just broken so many of my own rules. I called a dog to come in anger. I had given Gus human motivations and expectations. I had let my grief over senseless death and secret expectations of rehabilitating generations of instinct overwhelm me.

Gus trotted over to me, tipped his head to the side, then sniffed my toe. I bent down to pick him up and he playfully hopped backward and play bowed. Then in a fantastic burst of energy, he began running circles in giant graceful leaps, barking his happiness for the world to hear. The bark I had assumed was foreshadowing another rodent's demise was actually a celebration of life and body and movement.

Gus was dancing in the rain.