“Alexa, play music.” I didn’t know I could use Alexa until yesterday. I like to listen to music while I cook dinner, and yesterday being my 14th wedding anniversary, I was wrist deep in minced herbs when I thought hey, some tunes would be nice.
Alexa told me she was going to select a song from “my soundtrack” which sounded a bit ominous, but in for a penny, in for a pound: I let her choose. Crash into Me, by Dave Matthews, started playing.
It’s my wedding anniversary and the most romantic and cheeky song ever is selected by a robot. (I know she’s not exactly a robot but don’t pick nits, eh?) Dinner prep just got all the more delicious. I’m singing and swaying and chopping away, feeling the sweet nostalgia of my early days with Tom.
A younger version of me would be wistful (ok, pissed off) that Tom was not sharing this delightful moment with me. I’d be sad (translation: angry) that I was experiencing this awesome romantic moment… alone. I’d have been filled with longing (make that regret) that my partner and I could not enjoy the same nuggets of goodness the weird world occasionally serves up. Tom doesn’t like the same music as me. Hell, he isn’t even especially interested in music (the horror) and stopped listening to anything new after he left high school. The soundtrack of my life isn’t something we can enjoy together.
He will never feel the way I feel about music. I will never feel the way he feels about woodworking.
Tom is asleep on the couch. He is 63, and he is tired. The past two years have knocked the stuffing out of both of us in different ways. He needs rest, and a fat month of deep restful sleep, desperately. So do I, although I’d settle for being able to swallow without pain, a swallow that doesn’t get hung up mid way down my esophagus. An 8 hour stretch without a hot flash wouldn’t be bad either but I’m not that greedy. The pandemic hit us both hard, with loss after loss. It hasn’t stopped. We’re both beyond tired, beyond stretched to the breaking point.
Tom indulges me. When a local cover band advertised that they were presenting Genesis’ Seconds Out album in its entirety, live, I had to go. Tom came along, happy to dress up and have an evening out. He was proud (and perhaps entertained… and maybe a little embarrassed) that I sang along to Every Single Word. I had that whole double album memorized. The stranger sitting next to me was a little surprised too, but since his son was the drummer, he was pleased. I tried to not to sing too badly off key.
When the Queen movie came out, I had to see it. Tom was game. I wept, sobbed, and hit pause to explain some aspect of why this was SO EMOTIONAL for me about 27 times. He isn’t uninterested, and he’s willing to be schooled … but it’s just not his thing. And once upon a time, that would have been a deep wound to me.
But I’m not who I was back when I was falling in love with Counting Crows’ August and Everything After album. I’ve grown, and mellowed a bit. I’m not the emotional ogre I once was, ready to rip limb from limb any partner who failed to meet my needs, the rageful victim of neglect. I’m a grownass woman, and have the hot flashes and meno-belly to prove it. I use coping mechanisms, count to ten, go for walks, and consider others’ perspectives. I’ve learned and I’m learning. It’s actually kind of fun.
Most importantly, I’ve learned compassion. Some of the lessons have been loud and yeah, there’s been some kicking and screaming. But loving is a hot mess of process, patience, and tolerating imperfection. Understanding his current status and honoring it is an act of love. It’s one of the few things I can do to ease his burden – to understand and consider his perspective. Being happy – fully happy (ok, ecstatic and almost psychedelically transported into another dimension) because of a song on the Amazon music app is also an act of love. Loving Tom means being happy – fully happy – and enjoying this crazy fucked up life in any given imperfect moment. The life we live is deeply imperfect and so are we. But it’s also good enough, and worth being happy about.
The other day I posted a photo of Hawkitt on my Instagram account, and a friend asked me to submit it to an edited collection of photos he’s seeking to publish. A dog book, full of gorgeous photos of dogs living their best outdoor recreational lives, each photo captioned with a short write up about the dog.
I can’t fire off a glib few paragraphs waxing eloquent and comedic about Hawkie’s antics and passions. Hawkitt is amazing; he is unlike any other dog I’ve ever known. The only dog in my pack to stroll casually up to a porcupine and touch noses, then meander off unquilled, and the only dog to stumble upon a fawn and gently, tenderly (I swear), sniff and smooch the little thing all over before walking away calmly, Hawkitt is unique. He is also the dog that committed the single worst sin, breaking the ultimate taboo of pet dog life: he killed a pack member. How can I write about him and not address that?
So I didn’t fail to address it. I wrote what I could about Hawkitt and my life with him. Here’s that text:
The dog world is not always a nice place. Dogs are not always nice creatures. Dog behavior, especially at its extreme edges, is not always nice. Humans have taboos about violent behavior – taboos that get broken at the cost of our own souls sometimes, but dogs don’t have those taboos. They can behave in ways that both melt our hearts and break them. They can do things that are unfathomably horrible, including killing another family pet, or a child. And they will do things that are equally delightful, performing as a working K9, sniffing out cancer or IEDs.
The world of dogs is also a world of people, and people can be generous and kind and beautiful. We can also be cruel and judgmental and rigid. The dog world is full of contradictions – beauty and ugliness, joy and despair, the bounty of the gifts the dogs give us, and the destitution of loss that we feel when they leave. It is a place where we can experience the sublime beauty of the human-canine bond, where we can experience the pure wonder at interspecies communication at levels of sophistication that leave us breathless and tearful. It has all this to offer, but it is not consistently, reliably, or exclusively a nice place.
When Cinder died, a part of me broke irreparably. That Hawkitt (the dog whose portrait is shown here) caused her death and I live with him, cater to his whims, continue to love him, continue to meet his needs, continue to tolerate all of the emotions engendered by his presence and her absence … feels impossibly difficult and yet necessary. Simply holding the knowledge of what happened that day is too much to bear, but I do. I carry on, hiking, training, feeding, grooming, loving, and sharing my life with a dog who killed a packmate.
I share this shameful secret because I know that others reading this have experienced this taboo being broken – family pet killed by another family pet. When I break the silence and utter the impossible words “Hawkitt killed Cinder” I know what that does in the dog world. The hope of self protection takes over and people find themselves, in the face of this gut-wrenching tragedy saying things like “Why was the dog off leash? Why didn’t you have the dog muzzled? If you knew the dog was an indiscriminate eater, had an issue with prey drive, loved to chase cars… why was the dog allowed to be outside off leash and unmuzzled? You were courting disaster.” Because hindsight is 20/20, and if we can pinpoint the failing, identify the error, and accurately assign blame… we are safe. We seek to identify the human failing and assign blame and maintain superiority: “I would never let that happen.” We can maintain the fiction that it won’t happen to us.
We, the dog community, don’t do tragedy well. We tend to either overdo the forgiveness or overdo the blame, without finding that sweet spot in the center, where responsibility, learning, and compassion intersect. I never wanted to take on this role, to be a member of the dog world who has experienced this extreme. But when Cinder died, I told the truth. I didn’t hide what happened from my community. My private message box exploded with responses. People who carry shame and guilt, who ache and suffer, who fear retribution and the obscene unkindness other humans feel justified to heap upon us… so many people simply said “thank you for sharing this. It happened to me too.”
Me too. It’s a club none of us wish to join. But here we are, so many of us, suffering in our shame and silence. Despite backlash, despite judgment, despite the retelling tearing open the wound barely healed over… I believe allowing the experience of losing a dog to a fight with a packmate must have a place in the dog world where we can talk about it, without shame or condemnation. We already punish ourselves enough. I cannot look at a photo of Cinder without feeling physically ill. I cannot allow myself to enjoy her memories, to feel happy at the life she had. The way she left this world will haunt me forever. It’s punishment enough.
Look at Hawkitt. He is majestic. He is breathtaking. He is an incredible dog, a dog you would simply fall in love with him. He is special, smarter than any dog I’ve ever owned, save Iske. He is a fantastic dog, and he has done the unspeakable. And I must somehow live with it.
To those of you who have lost a dog in a tragic way, an accident, a horrible moment, I know that whether or not you consciously feel responsible… you feel responsible. To those of you who have lost a dog, when the day started out like any other day and the dog was healthy and fate and forces that you’ll never understand created an accident so horrific that your dog, your beloved dog, lost its life… To all of you, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how responsible you feel – I absolve you. I can tell you that this is life with dogs. Yes, it is the extreme, the edge that no one talks about, but it is not your fault. It is not your failure. And you are not alone.
To those of you that have never experienced this, I pray you never do. I pray you never plumb these depths. I pray your life with dogs and your experience of the dog world is never ever tainted by what I have experienced. And I ask of you to have compassion for those of us who have been forced by fate to experience and accept our role in the dog world as cautionary tales. We didn’t choose it and we don’t deserve it.
In the Catskills region of upstate New York, there is a mountain called Peekamoose. When we adopted Peeka, I was on a kick to name my dogs after Catskills peaks. “She has to be Peeka MOUSE because she’s so small,” commented Cindy Garcia, a malinois rescue coordinator I’ve been friends with for years. Peeka Mouse. It stuck.
We thought she had ringworm when we brought her home from the shelter. Ringworm is extremely contagious. Both dogs and humans can contract it from an infected dog. We were told to keep her isolated until the ringworm treatment was completed. We set up a bedroom where she could stay, locked away from the whole pack which at that point was Hawk, Iske, Lily, and Cinder. That first night I thought no one would sleep well with a fussy puppy behind a flimsy hollowcore door. So I slept with her, ostensibly to help her settle and keep her quiet. I had to corner her and catch her like a wild animal, but when I scooped up all 27 pounds of her and laid her on the bed, she nestled into the curve of my belly and slept all night.
My intention was to foster her as briefly as possible and send her on her merry way. I didn’t want a puppy and was still mourning Mica’s passing. But Peeka’s first vet visit dashed all hopes of that. She was too sick to be spayed. She was too sick to be moved. And she had fallen head over paws in love with Hawkitt. Given her health status and her ridiculous “fit” with Hawk … I adopted her only a few weeks later.
That was February 2015.
Yesterday I chose to euthanize Peeka. She was not ill, not any more so than any other day. I ended her life because our life together had become unsafe.
I understand the impulse to ask “what happened?” I understand the need to hear a story, to wrap our brains around a narrative that explains how my dog, my beloved Peeka, could need to be killed. But for all of you that want to armchair quarterback this decision, the question I have for you is: Why do you need to know? Do you need to evaluate whether or not it’s the right decision? Do you want to critically evaluate my choice? Let’s call a spade a spade — Do you really want to backseat drive? Do you really want to decide whether or not I’m worthy of your compassion?
If so, I can make this easy for you: assume I made the wrong choice. Assume I acted out of selfishness, ignorance, or laziness or any other unacceptable motive. I’m not worthy. You have my permission and invitation to make that judgement – to call it that way. I am not worthy. But now, knowing that I’m not worthy – does that help you feel better? If you can be angry or hate me for what I did, does that help you feel better about it? Will it help you take better care of your dog or your loved ones, to know that you have judged me and found me wanting?
For 6 years I battled to keep the world safe from Peeka, and to keep Peeka safe from the world. On social media, I portrayed her as a winsome, klutzy, problem child of a dog with an obsession for porcupines. That made her seem adorably hapless and sweetly off kilter. I posted a photo series of “Peeka hiking” and in every shot she was lying down. It was one of my coping mechanisms, one of the ways I blew off steam after a particularly difficult day or episode, to reframe it all as so innocently quirky. But that was not the whole picture.
The whole picture was so hard to hold. Yes, she had medical issues, some of which likely caused pain. She was wracked with arthritis, head to tail. She had an autoimmune disorder with intermittent flare ups. She had swollen lymph nodes for years, and eosinophilia. She struggled mightily to learn the most basic commands, and reacted in the most aggressive ways to the oddest stimuli. She could be fine one moment and attacking a packmate literally at the drop of a hat – or the electronic beep of a cell phone’s notification. She lost her mind over and over again at the sight of a traffic cone holder Tom built. She exploded over threshold and attacked as a redirection of almost anything: noises, Hawkitt’s barking, and increasingly – my behavior. Each time something went wrong, I would say to myself “I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.”
The grind of hopelessness is ultimately poisonous. It has seeped into our very bones and made us as reactive as the dogs. The concept of “trigger stacking” is relevant for humans as well as dogs, and at this point Tom and I both are in an awful reactive mode where the slightest provocation sends us over threshold ourselves. We never meant to become a locked ward for mentally ill dogs. We never meant to be a sanctuary for aggressive dogs. As Peeka’s behavior unfolded and we came to understand how damaged she was, we stumbled into becoming exactly that – the mythical farm upstate where dogs that can’t make it in society go to live out their lives in safety and freedom.
We tried so hard to be that, but the “farm upstate” is truly mythical and elusive at best. We don’t – can’t – exist outside society. The pandemic meant that new neighbors moved in and the sounds of a baby crying, or children’s laughter meant we had a new worry – the proximity of children deepened my stress over Peeka. The normal neighborhood sounds of back-up beeps from the construction vehicles at the neighbor’s place, the kids laughing, screaming, crying, the adults just having conversations… all sent the pack over threshold. Peeka redirected onto the nearest dog. I spent all day every day praying for quiet, and telling the dogs to calm down… over and over again.
While we all tried to adjust to the new sounds and experiences, Tom worked 80 hour weeks for the local telephone company. While many people lost jobs because of the lockdowns, Tom’s work as a telecom technician exploded. People could not function without connectivity, but life in the country means service interruptions. Tom worked 7 days a week over and over again, and one by one his colleagues had to be quarantined. Tom never took risks, never tested positive, and never got a mandatory 2 week staycation.
I was alone with the dogs way more than usual. And I got sick. Not an acute, discrete illness that could be treated, but an insidious chronic condition that has so far proven to be untreatable and undiagnosable. I can’t swallow normally, and this has meant that I choke on my own saliva… pretty often. Peeka began charging me when I started coughing. In addition, she stopped being able to tolerate handling she used to enjoy – brushing and nail clips were an intimate and cozy way we bonded, but over the winter, she began to lunge and snap at me for attempting to groom her. Then she lunged at me for muzzling her, after weeks of muzzle conditioning – all of which went well, supervised by an experienced trainer. The last time she lunged at me was a couple of weeks ago when I was taking a photo of her.
Denial is a powerful force. Each time she showed aggression towards me, I blamed myself or discounted it as “nothing.” She didn’t feel well. I must have hurt her. She didn’t mean it. She was triggered by the other dog in the room. And so on. I denied, excused and apologized for everything she did. And continued to try to find ways to help her enjoy life, get her needs met, and be as fulfilled as possible. My vet expressed shock at my request to euthanize her, which made me realize how much I had hidden.
I feel like the unspoken question on everyone’s lips is “you’ve worked so long and hard with Peeka, why would you give up? Why give up on her? Why give up on yourself?” The answer is I have indeed worked so long and hard with so little success and such miniscule incremental and inconsistent success … so I turn the question around and ask of all of you: wouldn’t I know better than anyone else when I cannot do more?
To all of you who are angry at me, pained at this choice, and reject the notion that behavioral euthanasia is an ethical option, I say this: thank you. Thank you for holding my feet to the fire and ensuring that before I took this step I was truly certain I would be able to live with your criticism, knowing I could do no more for her. The unspoken words I imagine you saying have helped me take the time to think it through again, to question one more professional trainer, to wait one more day-week-month.
I often described Peeka as nasty and aggressive because I felt that if I used those words people would instantly form a mental image of her that would help keep everyone safe. The truth I didn’t and still don’t think Peeka was nasty or aggressive. I think she was incredibly sweet. I don’t think she was always fearful although I do think she was fearful sometimes. I think most often what ailed her was an idiosyncratic way of experiencing the world. She was so tangled up inside that her emotions and cognitions and sensory experiences were overwhelming to her and incomprehensible to me. The way she experienced sound, touch and even being looked at… she was so thoroughly not normal, I believe her daily existence was profoundly difficult for her. These emotions and the way she processed them led to behaviors that were downright dangerous.
I don’t understand it, even after 6 years, well enough to explain it with any confidence. What I did know was that she loved me and that she felt safe with me. She wanted connection with me. She also felt safe with Hawkitt, and adored him. The most successful relationship she had in her entire life was with him. If only I could have abandoned them on a deserted island… he would take care of her. And she would act normal for him. They brought out the best in each other.
I could play it off like it’s some great thing I did, a beautiful sacrifice – that I’m placing the good of the dogs above my own selfish desire to keep her around simply because I love her. I could spin that so that it sounds viable. There is some truth to that… I am choosing the good of the whole over the good over any individual. But with Peeka from day one, there was no good option. This is a dog who should have been drowned at birth. That would have been the kindest thing of all… and that’s a horrible way to feel and a horrible truth to face. From day one, we had no good options.
The last fight left a mark. My hand is pretty badly injured. Willa’s leg has a nasty gash. I miss Peeka terribly. I struggle to move on, rehashing the decision and wallowing in self doubt and self pity. Willa is currently showing a decent amount of reactivity to Brody (who continues to randomly explode with or without identifiable triggers) and management continues to be critical. Tom lost his temper yesterday morning. I saw in his loss of control (which he promptly owned and apologized for) the depth of stress and exhaustion we both have been experiencing. We are truly running on fumes.
I am sad, angry, jealous, and overwhelmed by what used to give me such joy on social media: happy people with normal dogs. I see nice normal owners doing nice normal things with nice normal dogs and I just have to walk away.
Then yesterday, when Tom finally got home from work all day Sunday, we sat outside and had a beer. Bindi and Willa were loose outside with us. Bindi relaxed. Willa hunted for tiny frogs and chewed a frisbee, and poked Bindi, and asked for pets, and wandered off to step on plants in my garden… all normal malinois puppy stuff. I had a good 30 minutes of “brewery dog” experience at home. No diving to separate dogs that had become destabilized by radio frequencies we couldn’t hear. No hard stares because I cleared my throat. No hackles because the other dog sniffed a rock too close to your head-butt-paw-tail-aura. I had that glimpse of what’s possible, what we could find our way back to: a joyful life with dogs.
I choose to heal, and to honor Peeka by doing my best, every day, with every dog in front of me. I will remember Peeka, as painful as these memories are. I want to delete every photo and video, and not see her, not be reminded. But I will tough it out, look at her and remember. She was my dog, through and through. I could never love her enough but god knows I tried. And I will never stop wishing I could have exorcised her demons and healed her soul.
“Some dogs can’t be fixed, and some dogs can’t be broken.” Trish McMillan
How do we set our dogs up for success? For most of us, a fairly straightforward recipe of meeting the dog’s holistic needs does the trick. My specifics for meeting these needs are summarized below:
Food – quality and quantity. I watch each dog’s weight, and as they age and change, adjust both calories and nutrients to help keep them at a healthy weight and in the best shape possible. I add supplements as I learn about them and try hard to stay current on what’s necessary, versus what’s trendy. I have two big freezers dedicated to dog food, and buy as much as I can from local farmers.
Shelter. I use crates and dog beds, and one couch is dog-friendly as a perch and comfy snuggle spot. If they wanted to, at any given moment all five dogs could sack out on a dog bed without sharing, with plenty of space for privacy and solo snoozing. My dogs are in the house with me or hiking or running errands with me. They aren’t kenneled ever.
Grooming. I handle all the grooming. Everyone gets brushed regularly and nail trims as often as needed. Ok, I slack on the nail trims.
Biological fulfillment. Every day, come what may, all the dogs get at least a solid hour of “enrichment” or “biological fulfillment” or whatever you call it. They have time outdoors in an enriching and interesting environment, with supervision but not necessarily interference. They are able to sniff, run, chase, and make decisions and choices without me micromanaging them.
Physical exercise. In addition to the sniffy walk, every day every dog receives time with me to do some physical exercise. What this looks like varies a lot from dog to dog, but all of them get some exercise later in the day, after the morning walk. Fetch, tug, frisbee, and swimming are some of the ways we’ve handled exercise.
Mental stimulation. All the dogs get asked to do things, or experience things, or explore things at least a couple of times a week. This might look like training, especially for Hawk and Bindi and Willa. For Brody and Peeka it may be exposure to new environments, or training, or tolerating something uncomfortable (with support).
Hang out, affection, presence. Every day I try to spend quiet time with each dog, just being with them in a “hang out” way. Maybe I’m giving skritches, maybe I’m just sharing the couch and letting a dog sleep on my legs. It’s down time we share, a time to just be together.
Professional trainers and use of tools. I’ve used professional trainers 4 different times, and taken advantage of online consults countless times. I’ve used prong collars, e collars, long lines, crates, behavioral medication, food, treats, toys, tug, and play. Hawk has earned two titles, Bindi one, and Willa is almost ready for her first. I aim to master all the skills of the Canine Good Citizen title, whether or not I actually test the dogs for it. I’ve taken the dogs dock diving, and learned rally and trick training, and tracking is high on the list for upcoming efforts.
Continuing education. While it’s not exactly something the dogs experience, I try hard to continue to expand my knowledge and experience by reading, and watching trainers on social media.
Despite ensuring that all my dogs receive all of these types of attention, and I try to maintain and enhance my own knowledge, I still have problems. I have serious problems sometimes, dangerous and deeply distressing serious problems.
Trish McMillan’s words strike such a deep chord with me. “Some dogs can’t be fixed, and some dogs can’t be broken.” I think of Iske, a dog who had as bad a first year as any, neglected and abused in a puppy mill. She was caged for 16 months and received no exposure to people or dogs, save the humans who cut off her tongue (it was a punishment for barking) and broke the cartilage in her ear by hitting her over the head. But you couldn’t break her friendly, happy spirit – she was an easy malinois, pleasant and sweet to humans and ridiculously tolerant of dogs. She was likely fed the cheapest of kibble that first year, but lived to be well over 15, and survived the one bout with cancer she had.
Peeka and Brody are dogs that can’t be fixed. I have known this for years. I’ve lived with this knowledge, absorbed it and mourned it, railed against it, and then had it stare me down… again and again. Yes, I’ve tried e collars. Yes, I’ve tried trainers. Yes, I’ve had long hard talks with the husband about our quality of life and theirs. Yes, I’ve used behavioral medications in combination with training. Because why wouldn’t I? Occasionally on social media I come across such unkind suggestions, barely masked – “why don’t you try training?” It’s hurtful and exhausting but it’s part of the deal.
I step back and wonder at some of the accusations – both spoken and implied – when owners like me state what Trish put so eloquently. Some dogs cannot be fixed. No tool, no method, no technique can cure what ails these dogs. They have been peddling as hard as they can for years. And so have I. If you don’t believe that, you are blessed and lucky and I am jealous of you because it means that you have never experienced it. Your dog owning life has been full of Iskes, not Peekas.
All the doom and gloom aside, Peeka and Brody have both made wonderful gains. Despite these gains, Peeka still looks for a dog to attack when my husband’s cell phone dings, and Brody still cannot handle the sound of the toilet flushing. If Tom leaves the room, when he returns, he is a stranger and Brody is reactive. Every time. It’s been 4 years. Upticks in pack arousal are potentially deadly. The other night the sound of a dog barking on TV set the dogs off and despite Peeka’s being muzzled … we ended up with a vet visit and I also received a nasty bite.
I’m not inexperienced. I’m not an asshole. You can’t write me off as someone who doesn’t know dogs. This is the reality of one extreme in the dog owning world. Some dogs are not ok, and never will be. Blessedly, the percentage is small. Most dogs that live the kind of life I describe above do well. They thrive. They respond beautifully to training and decent care, and they are fabulous companions or competitors for a decade plus.
My life has been touched by the unicorn magic of two dogs from the same litter that struggle and fail to be normal. They break my heart wide open. And they make me ask the hardest questions any sentient being ever has to ask – do I have the strength and grace to put an end to this?
I loosened Willa’s collar. There is such a ritual in this simple act, the concrete acknowledgement of growth. Similarly when we had to finally retire Bindi’s baby collar, the adorable honeybee one her foster mama gave her, we marked it as a rite of passage and an important acknowledgement of physical growth. With our human children, we make pencil lines on the wall, we count how many words they know at age two – the stuff of measurement. What does your dog weigh, how many commands does she know? It’s all ways of quantifying and celebrating how a living being blossoms under our care. That’s why I wax poetic about the little things. The new collar. The marks on the wall. The quantification of care and love in flesh, blood, and bone.
The gift of last week’s family emergency is that all else was tossed aside – all trappings of “regular” life. Admittedly, I’ve had little by way of regular life for quite some time. It was years ago I told myself I would take no shit and give no fucks from now on. The gloves are off. Tom was with his daughter, handling the situation at her side, several hours away from home. Without Tom’s workaday schedule structuring my chaos, I’ve slipped ever deeper in a feral mindset. Meals and bedtimes are a construct for people who can swallow, people who do not have loved ones in the hospital.
Rushing to get to my own doctor’s appointment I consider telling the truth: I was late because I was taking photos of my dog. I was late because the light on his fur was compelling. I was late because I wasted time crying. And now I am late, and resentful that I am being forced to hurry the puppy through her sniffing. How do I explain that I am late because I am trying to savor this life?
So much happens each day, I struggle to absorb it all, writing in my head, but unable to carve out the time and mindset to write anything more complex than a To Do list. I was walking Hawkitt around the pond an hour ago and looked down to see blood on my camera. The morning walk was cut short this morning because Bindi and Willa had a fight. I need to write about it, so I put Peeka outside, Bindi upstairs, and let Willa chill on the couch. The peace and quiet needed to heal their trauma and allow me to write now has a fighting (do I really want to use this word?) chance.
I had trouble deescalating the situation. Resource guarding over a chunk of shelf fungus that both dogs have played with a few times, sharing and grabbing it from each other without so much as a curled lip, today became worth a knockdown, drag-out brawl. It lasted about a minute. I got a decent hold on one dog a few times, but had trouble convincing the other to back off each time I did. I fell, got my finger twisted in a collar, at some point injured my back.
The dogs are minimally injured. Both have small cuts on a front leg. Neither dog redirected onto me. It could have been much worse. Much worse.
Adrenaline is an interesting drug. I don’t remember what I said or did during the fight. I remember clearly what I thought and how I felt, but I’m not sure what came out of my mouth. I know I managed to wheelbarrow each dog once, and that doing so helped to distract the dog and slow down the intensity. The fight ended when I had one dog firmly in my grasp and the other chose to back down. I don’t know which. I wasn’t able to physically grab both at the same time.
My thoughts were simple: I will get them to stop hurting each other. That’s pretty much it. My feelings were of caring and compassion. I felt empathy. I know I didn’t get angry, and I didn’t bellow commands. I didn’t yell. I know this for sure; that much I do remember clearly. I didn’t think “I must stop this.” I thought “I will stop this.” I was confident despite feeling sad. I was calm. I never joined in the emotional escalation. I think I said things like “that’s all” and “eeeeeeasy.” I know I didn’t raise my voice.
I have no idea if this was the “right” way to handle the fight. It’s really hard to make choices about what to do in those adrenaline-filled moments. I’m not sure it’s possible to make choices about what to feel, despite knowing that feeling angry or scared creates hormonal secretions that are palpable to the dogs. I would prefer not to do that, not to freak out, not to feel panicked or enraged, but how much control does a person have in that moment? I’m not sure. I was lucky, perhaps, that I went to a place of calm and confident hope – my mantra was “I will help them.” I will be their rock. I will end this badness and help them get through it.
Why does my pack squabble and scuffle? I have theories and questions, not answers. Bindi and Willa have enjoyed healthy play consistently since Willa’s arrival, grabbing items (including this precise stupid piece of fungus) out of each other’s mouths many times before. I watch their play closely – it has been relaxed, full of reciprocity, rest breaks, and trading roles. It’s been healthy, wonderful play for both dogs. When I’ve seen even a hint of intensity I haven’t liked, I’ve just said “Eh! Eh!” and both dogs let go of each other. Today’s escalation is completely new.
Willa is 9 months old. Developmental issues, and hormones may play a role. Overall pack dynamics are chronically difficult, as Peeka and Brody are chronically difficult. This week has been one of emotional upheaval as Tom’s daughter recovers, and I take yet one more step into accepting my own health issues and the lifestyle limitations I face. Last week, the dogs and I were alone for 5 days straight. It was calm and peaceful. I was more attuned than usual, perhaps, because I didn’t have to divide my focus between human and canine family members. This week, Tom is home, and I have been at the clinic and on the phone with doctors. It’s been quiet as ever on the outside, but under the surface, the emotions have been shifting and changing.
And all dogs resolve conflicts through fighting to one degree or another. It is a natural and relatively normal canine conflict resolution tool. Some breeds are much less likely to escalate and get physical. Some breeds are more likely to do so. Having a collection of the latter, trash talk and scuffles are going to be more likely here than in a household full of different breeds.
Two nights ago, we had a three ring circus in here with Brody and Peeka becoming unglued. Tom helped and no dogs were injured at all, but harsh words were spoken by Peeka and Willa. I had been ready for that – primed for Willa to go there with Peeka. To see her go there with Bindi tells me something important about Willa. This is part of her repertoire. This is what she will do when her stress bucket is overflowing. I need to know this and believe it, not tell myself pretty little lies about how any of this is anyone else’s fault: not Bindi’s for starting it, not mine for failing to demonstrate adequate leadership. This isn’t an alpha thing or a training thing. It’s a Willa thing. I need to stare that reality in the face and accept it.
A feral honeybee swarm is cleaning out our uninhabited beehive. I hope they choose to stay and make it their home. I watch them every day, looking to see if workers are entering with full pollen baskets. Pollen going in means the queen is laying: it’s home. So far no pollen, but I keep watching. I looked up from the hive to see a bald eagle circling over the lower pond. Largemouth bass easily 18 inches long patrol the pond, and I swear they swim over to greet me when I walk past. Either that or they’re hungry. I’ve heard largemouth bass will eat anything. The snapping turtle is new this year, and drifts around like a nefarious pool float. The eagle hasn’t swooped down for a snack, but turkey vultures, a broad-winged hawk, and the ravens from next door visit regularly.
I dug up a perennial that got bulldozed during driveway construction and somehow managed to hang on and even bloom, despite being ingloriously shoved aside by heavy equipment. Digging that plant, I happened upon a huge garter snake – triple the thickness of a more typical sized member of that species. Right before the fight erupted, I was standing in a clearing listening to a baby barred owl whistle. I have taken to slipping outside to just stand in the driveway in the early morning. I just stand there, camera in hand. The wildlife comes out from every nook and cranny. I just have to be patient and pay attention.
This life. It isn’t a pleasant evening paddle on a mirror lake. It’s getting swamped upstream in a headwind and losing your gear in November. It’s class five rapids and your helmet doesn’t fit right. It’s zip lining, bungee jumping, sky diving for the acrophobic. Five dogs, an unfinished house, and a chronic, untreatable illness … it’s a lot.
The day after the fight, I’m sore in a collection of muscles and joints I didn’t know I’d used or abused. I feel like I was in a car accident. Maybe just a fender bender but I’m banged up and bruised nonetheless. I can only imagine how the dogs feel.
Today will bring choices and decisions, same as any other day. I’ll do my best to face those decisions head on and make the best choices I can. It would be easy to hand-wring and catastrophize. It would be equally easy to shrug off the fight as an outlying event – an anomaly. My goal is to walk the middle path, and respond to what is, instead of reacting to what I hope or fear. It’s a tall order and I’m a short person, but needs must.
At the heart of so many dog training discussions there lies an elephant in the living room: freedom. For folks from the USA, freedom has an almost mythological meaning and importance – we see freedom as central to our identity. Not sure about that? Try telling any 9 year old raised in the USA to do something they do not want to do (or stop doing something they want very much to continue to do). The first words out of their mouth will be “it’s a free country.”
I believe our cultural obsession with freedom impacts our conceptualization of freedom for our dogs. At times we equate off leash freedom with happiness and goodness, and consider the leash tantamount to punishment. We obsess about off leash dogs – either insisting that our dogs must be able to behave themselves off leash and then employing draconian efforts to make it so, or vilifying owners when off leash dogs behave like rampaging maniacs. We long for off leash freedom tempered by safety, but are so conflicted about what it entails and how to get there.
When I adopted Cairo, the track rescue greyhound, the deal was never off leash. Period. That was in the contract from the rescue organization and that was the party line: these dogs cannot ever be trusted and you must never endanger the dog’s life by placing them in that situation. Similarly, before I met Tom, he owned a cairn terrier named Killian. Killian never experienced off leash freedom. Tom walked him on a leash every day for 15 years. Tom explained it to me early on – Killian’s prey drive was too great. Killian lived in an environment quite similar to Bramley Mountain and the wildlife opportunities were also similar. Tom never risked it.
My experience of allowing off leash experiences for my dogs has been different. I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons, assessing the situational issues and choosing for each dog in each specific situation how I want to handle it. I lean towards providing a lot of freedom, and my dogs experience some level of off leash freedom every day. I probably take more risks and greater risks than many dog owners.
I believe that the experience of freedom that I was able to give Mica extended her life, maybe by as much as a year. I am equally convinced that the experience of freedom ended Cinder’s life prematurely. Freedom, for dogs, and for humans, can be fatal.
It’s been one year since Cinder’s death. I think about it every day. I still feel guilty. I still feel shame. I haven’t forgiven myself. I still feel the sick, anxious, weight in the pit of my stomach every time I think about her. I deny myself any positive experience of her – I don’t look at photographs or allow the positive memories to bubble up to the surface, although I am starting to force myself to rethink that and honor all the good as well as remembering the bad. But I can’t sugarcoat it or squirm away from the truth of it: She died as a result of my approach to freedom. Had I been more strict, she would not have lost her life.
But it was only last week that it hit me that the flip side of this awfulness is that indeed, Mica benefitted from my approach to freedom. Mica hiked the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, off leash, and yes, she did bump into porcupines and bears and likely a few coyotes and bobcats too (I can’t always see what’s happening in the thick vegetation). Mica began that journey at age 12, after being diagnosed with stage 3 mast cell sarcoma. She was very sick, elderly, and had spent her prior 11 years on the end of a chain in someone’s backyard. She was not a sensible hiking companion, and it was a huge risk to her health and safety to place her in such a different, challenging, stressful, and potentially dangerous environment.
I believe that freedom cured Mica’s cancer. She got better, despite the odds, and our choice to do no treatment. She healed herself, feasting on deer poop and sunshine and a bad attitude (she attempted to protect me from a motorcyclist one rainy day. It went badly. I had to apologize a lot. She didn’t break the skin, but motorcycle boots are pretty tough and protective. I’m sure it hurt.). I weighed the risks and benefits of every hike, every outing, every long car ride and hot day. And I kept deciding yes. Yes, she is benefitting and we should do this.
It wasn’t so clear with Cinder. She’d lived with me 9 years. I’ll never know what snapped that day. Something in her? Something in the others? She’d successfully negotiated the exact same situation literally thousands of times before. It was the definition of a freak accident, the thing that was always fine went horribly, fatally wrong. And I wasn’t there to stop it.
I’ve been obsessing about and dreading the one year anniversary of her death all spring. How do people move on after being responsible for the death of a beloved pet? I have no idea. I have no pearls of wisdom to share, no frames to place around the event to make it something we can all hang on our wall with reverence. I take some solace in knowing I am not alone. The people who reached out to me in the days and weeks immediately after her death were a lifeline. I shed gallons of tears reading your notes and holding you all in my heart as I slowly came to accept that this awful feeling is just one more part of being in it as deeply as I am. As deeply as we are.
This – this indigestible experience that will haunt me for the rest of my life – is the price of the rest of it. The depth of connection, joy, fun, amazement, accomplishments and brags, triumphs and quiet delights… all of that has a price. You can’t go that deep into pack life with 5 dogs, and embrace freedom without experiencing the price of such freedom. The price is that we cannot control everything. And if we could, if we were successful… then we would have traded freedom for control.
Having the others forces me to stay focused on not fucking up again. I force myself to do things differently. I tell myself that her death must not be in vain – that I must change and grow and learn, at the risk of having something that catastrophic happen again. In response to this clarion call, I have consumed more dog training advice, theory, ideology, methods, and propaganda over the last year than ever before. I watch videos, read books, listen to trainers talk about all of the above and more. The truth is, it’s extremely rare that anyone talks about living with dogs like mine in a household like mine. I am an outlier. That’s not a brag; it’s just a fact.
But to circle back to where I started, I think the appeal of freedom, despite the risks, is still powerful. I believe the appeal of freedom, for some dog owners, stems from the notion of conceptualizing the dog as a fundamentally free and fully separate being, able to make choices. I know that sounds sort of obvious, but I think it’s easy with pets to feel a bit like they are an extension of us. I think some trainers, if forced to use this concept of freedom to articulate what they do would say the end goal of training is to convince the dog that they do not have the choice. The purpose of training, I believe for some trainers and owners, is to ensure the dog embraces total servitude, and loves it.
Recently in an Instagram post, The Collared Scholar mused about what dogs might want, versus what humans might want, in terms of lifestyle. We work our asses off to make malinois into family pets, for example, or any number of other “square peg, round hole” situations, and when our dogs tell us as clearly as they can “I’d really rather not” we just double down and push harder. Then our community celebrates our hard work and effort… when maybe respecting who our dogs are and honoring their voice and their preferences might be a greater triumph…
To shift our thinking and see dogs as fully separate, independent, and capable of choosing how they interact with us is quite different from conceptualizing our role as that of a benevolent monarch that must (out of the justifiable need to be a responsible owner) control every aspect of their behavior. Whose love would you rather have: the love of a free being, able to choose to love you or not? Or the love of a manipulated and controlled being that can never truly choose to NOT love?
Finding the sweet spot on the continuum between freedom and safety is going to be different for every dog owner. Civilized, pleasant housemates that can perform the most basic commands to smooth out the rough edges of human-canine coexistence is pretty important. I’m not advocating for abstaining from training. And I’m not suggesting that all training is somehow an existential assault on the individual dog’s selfhood.
I just want my dog’s compliance to be meaningful. In order to be truly meaningful, they need to have options. They need to know they could choose otherwise. They need to see themselves as having that power and autonomy. To me, that’s it right there – that both of us, owner and dog, fully grasp that the dog always has a choice. That’s the stuff, that’s the ticket. Then, when that dog trades their agenda for yours, it’s powerful magic. It’s “shivers down your spine” deep because there was no compulsion, no trick, no hack, no technique. It’s just the result of an agreement reached by two independent parties.
Thinking this way doesn’t make me feel better about Cinder’s death. But it does help me feel better about Cinder’s life. And that’s the best I can do for now.
The entryway was unmarked, crumbling asphalt a lane and a half wide leading to a parking area of indistinct dimensions. The edges just faded into loose gravel, a mature sycamore tree shading a freshly dumped propane grill and a rusted and overflowing garbage can. It had been hastily stenciled “Pitch In” at some point in the prior millennium and that was the last time anyone paid it any mind.
There was one other car in the parking area, and it had that look about it of abandonment and homelessness. It seemed to be just left there, not intentionally parked, but rolled to a stop sort of near an edge. I gave a quick but thorough assessment before striding past with faux confidence. I am ostensibly alone here with the driver of that vehicle, I thought.
The walkway to the dock crosses under the railroad tracks in a tunnel that was built in 1913. The concrete walkway is heaved and uneven, and passes by a spillway teeming with debris. I can smell that smell… a smell from my childhood of damp tunnels and the things people do in them. The generations of graffiti adorn the tunnel entrance but the interior is remarkably free from pretty much everything the rest of the area boasts – litter, graffiti tags, and signs of vermin. I hurry through, the thought of meeting my maker in that tunnel at the hands of a rapist-murderer seems not all that far-fetched in the late afternoon solitude. I emerge on the river side of the tracks, and see the cinder path that I know leads south towards my childhood home.
The irises are blooming: they are the yellow ones, Iris pseudacorus – the invasive ones. The dock is empty. I scan and see a family a ways north, fishing from the shore. I walk out onto the dock, and remember that I am an excellent swimmer. If pushed off the dock and into the river, I’m fine. There is no one around to do the pushing but I’m in that mode. Hypervigilant. Planning escapes. Thinking about what’s in my hands, what’s at my disposal. I am a woman alone in public in a relatively deserted place. I am on high alert.
More garbage, litter, someone’s takeout meal neatly placed in a rather upscale looking shopping bag and left under a tree. I am starving, and I peek in, laughing at myself. “What am I going to do? Eat someone’s garbage?” I laugh out loud. No. No, I’m not. But I wonder if it was good.
The last time I came here was before smart phones. I wrote a list on a piece of paper with a pen: hike the blackheads. Visit the dock. I don’t remember what else was on that list, but I remember my pride at checking off both of those items. It was a self care list, a list of ways to try to heal myself from a devastating break up. The dock was key. I sat in my house, two counties away, unable to sleep or eat, torn apart by the betrayal and shock… and longed for the river. I told myself I needed to sleep in the arms of the river. My pain was so immense only a force of nature as primal as the river itself could hold me. So I loaded Iske up in my old diesel Jetta, and drove the hour plus to find this shitty park I knew about. It was filled with people fishing, all from the local village, all Latino men, all utterly uninterested in the short lady with the shepherd dog. The dock was a seasonal affair, not the huge permanent structure I stood on today. That sectional floating small boat dock was where I lay down. Iske curled against me. I fell asleep, floating on the river, and Iss kept me safe.
I was confused for a moment, memory of that nap confronted by a dock that did not bob on the water. Later I looked at the photographs I took and saw the seasonal dock sections piled on the shore. I walked all the way out to the edge, where the pilings had been burned. It took me a moment to absorb that fact. Someone had set fire to the pilings. This place …
As I headed back, I caught sight of the dead fish on the railing, the vultures (both turkey and black) and the osprey. Or was it a juvenile bald eagle? I couldn’t tell, the light was in my eyes. I watched the passenger train on the opposite shore head north, and the young white men wearing bright colored life vests on jet skis head south. A strange euphorbia, one we don’t see where I live now, was blooming.
I got back to my car and headed home, full of thoughts and feelings.
I never want that place to change. It hasn’t changed since I was a child, 50 years ago. It’s a postage stamp of earth untouched by notions of “infrastructure improvement.” It feels forgotten, unlovely, yet beloved. The people who use it are also forgotten. It’s a shitty little park, haunted by forgotten and abandoned people, who catch PCB-laced fish, and grill them up in the parking lot on a grill that is technically garbage.
I wanted to weep. I had just been to the doctor’s and was emotional. I felt betrayed by my body. Let down. I have been a good caretaker. I exercise, eat only local foods, don’t smoke. I held up my end. My esophagus was letting me down, reneging on the bargain that I give up a hedonistic lifestyle and in return the parts work for a few more decades. I felt lost, betrayed by my body, my physical “home.”
So I came here, to the river. And suddenly, the betrayal was diminished and in it’s place a ridiculous and irrational happiness. I felt so deeply at peace, so contented, so utterly at home here in this dirty, forgotten and marginalized place. My hometown has been gentrified, the woods surrounding my childhood address now all housing developments, the downtown all Starbucks and Ann Taylor. Going back there is meaningless; the place I knew and loved is gone. But this place has somehow escaped that, and remains firmly stuck in a timeless decay that is so profoundly familiar and comforting to me. It made me happy, deeply happy.
I shouldn’t romanticize the shittiness here by the river. Any normal person would be appalled – litter everywhere, and every single item of infrastructure from the driveway to the railings on the buckling walkway are all literally falling apart. Truly, every single thing you rest your eyes upon is fucked, wrecked, burnt, shitty, and broken. Any normal person would be outraged. But it is real, unpretentious, uninstagrammable, and honest. The fact that I love it makes me, in a weird roundabout way, pretentious – it reminds me of the moment in a museum when my ex and I stood shoulder to shoulder looking at a pile of broken glass. It’s beautiful, he said. It needs to get swept up, I said.
The park needs to get swept up and I am braced for when that happens. It seems inevitable. Someone will finally find the money and the political will to “improve” the area. I hope when that happens the users of the park, the local fisherfolk, will be involved and respected. I’ll never forget that day back in the fall of 2006, when I was allowed to sleep on the dock undisturbed. I was a stranger, an outsider in their community. I was treated with the respectful disinterest that made my odd project successful. I’ll never forget that. Sometimes being left alone and allowed to be weird is a kindness.
Recently a friend asked the question on an Instagram post: how do you manage a multidog household? While the short answer – build a fabulous relationship with every individual dog – rolls off the keyboard easily, the reality of life with a pack is so rich, deep, complex, maddening, terrifying, awful (as in full of awe), enlightening, and joyous, the response wouldn’t fit in a comment. Heck, it could probably fill a book.
First of all, what is a multidog household? For me, three is the magic number. I think that having two hands and two dogs somehow never crosses that line into “pack” dynamics. Not that all duos are easy or that double dog lives aren’t complex in their own ways, but for me they never cross the line into pack life. If necessary, with two dogs, I can have one hand on each dog and hang on. Add in a third and I can no longer manage using “hands on” tactics. That’s a huge symbolic as well as literal bridge to cross.
My mom was a “one-dog-at-a-time” advocate. We never had more than one. After my divorce, I dated a man with one dog. For the years we were together, he had his dog (a big malamute) and I had Iske. He often warned me (perhaps reading me all too well in that one arena) “never get multiple dogs. Never be outnumbered. They will ‘pack up’ on you and kill you.”
People tend to hold strong beliefs about childrearing, religion, and life with dogs. These beliefs may be rooted in fact, myth, or total bunk. The belief that pet dogs in a multi dog household will pack up and kill their owner is extreme – but I’ve heard lots of beliefs about multiple dogs over the years. Never have multiple intact males. Never have multiple females. Never add a new dog if your current pack isn’t perfectly trained and managed and stable. Never have littermates. And so on.
I’ve lived with a pack (three or more dogs) since 2009. For several of those years, the pack consisted of four Belgian females – three malinois and one Groenendael. I’ve had littermates, elderly dogs with puppies, and a mix of males and females along the way. I’ve never lived with intact males, but twice I’ve had intact females and given Hawkitt’s response to a female going into heat, I’d say he still experiences hormonal pangs (the moaning. Oh, the moaning. He would wrap a paw around her and just moan.).
In addition, due to the hectic joys and weary blues of packlife, I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating friendships on social media with other pack owners. From that combination of my own experience and the consensus of breeders, rescue folks, and others I’ve connected with over the years, I’ve come to hold the following beliefs about multidog households:
• Males might fight, but bitches hold grudges. Bitches will seethe silently, nursing their hatred. Males can experience intense conflict and then it’s over. This seems less common for females. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 50 times: Bitch fights are the worst.
• Conflict (whether or not it erupts into fighting) is inevitable. The only way to have no conflict is to have no contact… and even then, fence fighting and trash talk through baby gates, crates etc. happens. Conflict should be expected. It is part of the package. If conflict is too much for you, stick with a one-at-a-time approach to dog owning. Not everyone can or should live with a pack.
• That means managing conflict should be expected. It’s part of the package too. Having a plan, and knowing what to do if trash talk erupts, resource guarding rears its ugly head, or a dog becomes ill or injured, etc. is important.
• Your most valuable tool might be self awareness. Be relentlessly, scrupulously honest with yourself about what level of risk you are willing to endure. Multidog households are inherently riskier for all – dogs and humans. Think accidents, even those that occur while playing, and the whoopsie moments that are inevitable. Now multiply that by the number of dogs. Be honest about what you can and can’t handle, what you do and don’t want to live with, and what you can expect and demand from yourself and whoever else you live with. Everyone has a different level of risk tolerance. No judgement involved, but find your sweet spot and honor it.
• Notions of dominance, hierarchy, and the “alpha” role are of very limited use. While yes, dogs do experience hierarchies, that framework tends to be too rigid to best express the fluidity of how pet dogs operate in a pack environment. For example, Bindi (age 2, female, mixed breed, new to the pack) is allowed to mount Hawkitt (age 8, male, oldest dog and longest resident). He lets her mount him, and he lets her eat his food – he shares. Is she alpha? Absolutely not. If she were to touch his toy, or attempt to sleep in his bed, he’d dismember her. But if Hawkitt attempts to mount Willa (7 months old, intact female and brand new to the pack) she corrects him. He may have rules, but so does she. All hierarchies are situational and subject to change.
Understanding pack dynamics is a life’s work, and all my generalizations are just that: generalizations. Your results may vary. I structure my understanding via a three layer approach: species, breed, individual. Dogs as a species have certain characteristics – they are predators, with certain general and fundamental characteristics and behaviors. Within that, different breeds have been developed and also have specific breed characteristics and behaviors. Thus learning about dogs overall is really helpful and important, as is learning about breed specific characteristics. But both of those more formal and academic bodies of knowledge must be tempered with a grasp of the individual dog that’s being added to the pack, or being asked to accept a new pack member. All three of these aspects of a dog’s psyche – species, breed, and unique individual traits – all contribute to what you see in the dog’s behavior and attitude.
What does that mean for an owner? To circle back to where I started, building fabulous relationships with each dog is key. It’s the foundation upon which trust is established. When new situations arise, the dogs trust that you will help them navigate and manage, and this leads them to look to you … rather than address problems by themselves.
Now, for those of you that know me, you may know that I break many of the rules I mentioned earlier. I have unstable dogs and an unstable pack, littermates, and imperfections up the wazoo. I am not a typical pet household, and a pleasant, happy, “normal” home isn’t my goal. My goal, when I began fostering and adopting dogs in earnest, was to provide a home for dogs that couldn’t make it elsewhere. Dogs that were unadoptable medical cases, behavioral cases, or elderly dogs were my first choices. This inevitably led to a pack of dogs that do not do well – alone or together.
Management is a daily activity, as much a part of my day as feeding or walking. Managing the current constellation of dogs is a complex affair involving muzzles, baby gates, and crates. Peeka and Willa are not safe together. I am not sure they ever will be, so I face the prospect of living this way – separate quarters, muzzling Peeka, crate and rotate, for the rest of Peeka’s life. It’s not a carefree existence, but it’s also not the end of the world. Peeka and Willa are fine until there is pack arousal… and pack arousal is something that absolutely cannot be predicted or controlled.
Pack arousal is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. It’s the most dangerous and most terrifying aspect of life with a pack. Knowing when it’s likely to happen (i.e. what triggers it) and having some notion of how to deal with it in your back pocket at all times is the reality of life with a pack. I am a psycho about Hawkitt NOT barking when Tom comes home from work. Why? Hawkitt’s increase in arousal, expressed by barking, despite being 100% positive – Hawkie is just excited to see Tom – may set Peeka off into an aggressive and out of control psychotic episode in which she will attack any of the other dogs… and if that happens, I will have a multidog fight erupt.
Similarly, when Willa and Bindi play, there is a limit to how much Hawkitt can join in. Why? Hawkitt can become overaroused by play and flip into prey mode at the drop of a proverbial hat. If that happens, once again, I will have a multidog fight on my hands.
Arousal and more than two dogs means in a pinch, I am indeed outnumbered and can’t physically separate dogs that have blasted over threshold and are now truly out of control, and unable to hear me, much less respond to me. I am often alone with all the dogs, so being able to manage low level arousal and de-escalate situations before they cross the threshold and become catastrophes is key. I do this using every technique and tool in the book: separate the dogs when I predict high arousal (so before Tom’s truck pulls in the driveway, I crate Peeka and throw Willa in a different room). Train the dogs so that they have a wide range of verbal commands at the ready. Use commands to help a dog refocus away from some sexy triggering stimulus. Take toys-bowls-twigs-molecules of dust away from Brody when he fixates on them and enters his trance state (it’s upsetting to watch and destabilizes Peeka). And so on. I have to multitask all day, every day, no matter what I’m doing, like any mother of toddlers. I need to have eyes in the back of my head, and even while I sit here writing this post, I need to be aware of what all 5 dogs are doing.
The bottom line is that you can do everything right, and still have a terrible outcome. That’s the nature of multidog households, and the reality of “dogs, not robots.” Dogs do dog things. Malinois do malinois things. These things can, at times, be deadly to other pack members. Every single multidog owner I have ever spoken to (yes, 100%) has admitted to having at least one dog fight among pack members. No matter how committed you are to a conflict-free environment, shit happens. Using training, tools, and management practices will bring the risk down to the lowest possible level for a multidog home, but not all the way down to zero. Fights happen. And sometimes those fights have deadly results.
To wrap it up, I love analogies. I hope you do too. Owning dogs can be like paddling. You can rent a canoe once or twice a year and paddle on a glassy lake. You’ll have an amazing day out on the water, reveling in sensory delights – an eagle raking a bass out of the water only yards away, a mink on the shore. It’s easy, peaceful, and stunning. Or you can approach paddling by purchasing a kayak and attacking class 5 rapids. The activity is thrilling. Your heart is pumping and you are pitted against the water, your very survival at stake. People die enjoying the sport you’ve chosen as a hobby. Both approaches to paddling are wonderful, but neither approach would be satisfying to the connoisseur of the other.
Your level of risk and challenge need to meet your needs, and satisfy that dog-owning part of your soul. Taking on a pack is all-consuming, like motorcycle racing compared to a bike ride on a rail trail. It will bring you the hectic joys but the price will be the weariest of blues, and more. Pack life has cut me to my core, and broken my heart in ways I can’t articulate. It is the life I’ve chosen and it has become who I am. But that doesn’t exactly mean it’s a good thing. It’s only as good as the fit.
I’m not someone who typically trots out that old cliché “the universe is trying to tell me something.” [Side note – if you haven’t seen the video Bill Nye (the science guy) and Amy Schumer made (https://youtu.be/6eqCaiwmr_M), it’s a must watch.] But twice within the last 24 hours, I’ve been involved in drama, in two very different ways. As someone who seeks to avoid drama, conflict, and interpersonal strife, twice in 24 hours is noteworthy. Blog post worthy even.
First, I have my own particular history with what most people now call drama. Back when I was in my 20s, I didn’t call it that. I don’t remember what I did call it; I think I had no name for the unpleasant interpersonal issues that popped up from time to time. I believed that it was possible for everyone to like me and get along with me. If there was a problem, a blip in the smooth sailing of all relationships, then it had to be my fault and my failure and it had to be fixed… immediately. I would get so anxious about conflicts I would be unable to sleep or eat until they were resolved and I would turn myself inside out to do so.
Fast forward 3 decades and a lot of human interactions later, and I no longer harbor these beliefs. I embrace the notion that conflict is part of life, that some folks dislike each other, that “chemistry” between people is real and can be good, bad, neutral, and anything in between… and fluid. I’ve learned to tolerate the discomfort of conflict, but I still dislike it. Some people thrive on it – that initial adrenaline jolt of an attack, be it emotional or verbal, in writing, online, or in person, can be a thrill or even an addiction for some folks. Some people hate it enough to avoid it at all costs. And lots of people find themselves somewhere in the middle ground of tolerating it as I have learned to do, no longer internalizing all experience of conflict as my own personal failing to keep peace or be “nice” enough.
Yesterday I received a letter in the mail (yes, ink on paper with a stamp and everything!) that was a shot across the bow. The emotional equivalent of having a rock thrown at me, it didn’t hit me, but it did create that initial adrenaline jolt. Then I had to decide how to respond.
This morning, my ritual scroll through Instagram revealed a pretty big drama in the dog training world. Accusations, emotions, and stories tumbled forth from quite a few accounts I follow. I found myself trying to string together a narrative, a timeline. What happened, and what needs to happen next?
I walked my dogs and given my dogs’ penchant for drama, this took a couple of hours. I collected my thoughts. I tried to make a video, putting all my thoughts and experiences into words. I gave up after the 27th attempt got interrupted by some dog or other. I wondered if the universe was trying to tell me something and decided that if there was a message it was this: you’re a better writer than videographer. Go with your strengths. So here we are:
First, tell the truth. That’s where I start (for you yoga peeps, yes, we start at the beginning with satya – truthfulness). Telling the truth includes admitting when you’re wrong. Several years ago, I called someone out on social media for doing something dumb. I should not have. Call out culture can be really toxic and unkind. It can also be important and valuable. The trick is to decide carefully which is which and act accordingly. I didn’t. What I did was more along the lines of venting and complaining. I didn’t need to do that publicly and I definitely could have kept those opinions to myself, or shared with close friends. I believe at times, social media brings out the worst in humans, and this was definitely an example of that. The brief euphoria of catharsis was really not worth the ensuing years of name calling and other retaliation I received. I hope I can say “lesson learned” but to declare it so would be arrogant. I’ll just say “I was wrong.” That much is honest.
Second, doing nothing can be the best response to an attack. The letter I received? I believe no response would be positive: there is nothing I can say that would lead to learning, growth, reconciliation, or even détente. To respond in any way would simply feed the beast. However, the situation is such that I’m the only “victim.” No one else stands to be harmed. I can safely choose to do nothing because I can sleep at night knowing that I am not allowing a situation to continue in which innocent people may be at risk. For me, satya – truthfulness – informs and is informed by ahimsa – non-violence or doing no harm. I cannot choose inaction and allow a situation to continue in which others can be harmed. That goes against my ethics.
In the situation on Instagram, accusations of unprofessional behavior and bullying were central to the situation. There is the potential for harm. I applaud those that stepped forward. Validating the experiences of others and preventing future harm are ethical reponses. However, I still have real misgivings about “call out culture.” I worry about the weaponizing of accusations. I worry about bandwagoning, and the ability for reputations and careers to be destroyed, when accusations go viral. Ugliness and dishonesty can appear to be terribly sexy and charming, and I’m talking about both accusers and accused. It’s a bit of a minefield. Eliciting stories and gleaning fact from emotion is an important aspect of the whole process, and something that each person must do for themselves.
Third, there is a subculture in the social media dog training world that (and I’m dating myself here) reminds me of Howard Stern’s or Andrew Dice Clay’s popularity. Shocking, rude, denigrating, and derogatory language is seen as “badass,” and bravado is mistaken for honesty. I’ve heard trainers call people “fucking assholes” for disagreeing with them. I’ve watched trainers demand their followers do their marketing for them, and become nasty and abusive about it. While that approach can garner a lot of views, clicks, likes, and shares, what it doesn’t get is the “fucking assholes” who really need to learn and potentially do a better job with their dogs to access the wisdom and experience of the “badass” teacher. In general, people tend to learn when they are not actively being insulted or verbally abused. Much like dogs – they tend to learn when taught, not clobbered. The verbal clobbering is entertaining, sure, but what does it really say about the trainer?
Same goes for trainers who “complain” (aka gloat) that they have to fix other trainers mistakes. Putting others down, and complaining about other trainers or other training styles does not elevate you or yours. It just makes you look petty. Again, it can be entertaining, and the more unhinged the performance, the more clicks and shares, right?
But here’s the thing about making a reputation out of being nasty: at some point, that badass trainer who is so “honest” is going to insult you. Expect it. One day the reward you will reap for being a true believer is that something you believe or practice will be lampooned or insulted, and you will be the one getting called a fucking asshole. That bad boy persona that seemed so fun and engaging and refreshingly truthful is going to bite you in the butt.
I’ll end with a quick story: the other day the puppy destroyed my laptop charger while my husband was supposed to be watching her. I was furious and let him know. He defended himself vigorously, reminding me that bad things had happened on my watch too, and that “she was quiet” so he didn’t realize that he had to “keep his eyes glued to her at every moment.” Etc. All I had wanted was the acknowledgement – the apology and understanding that his mistake was going to inconvenience me and cost us money. Mistakes happen, but they can’t be forgiven when they are being so vigorously denied.
Maybe two days later, I was getting a baking dish out of a cabinet and I leaned on the door. The hinge ripped out of the side of the cabinet. I immediately said “I broke the cabinet door hinge. I’m sorry. It was my fault. I leaned on it and I shouldn’t have.” I was distracted and a little off balance, squatting and dealing with the large glass baking dish. And I immediately recognized that my moment of carelessness was going to mean time and effort by the hubby to fix the door.
Being angry at Blue Bathrobe Man (aka Thomasina, my beloved hubby) got me nowhere. We just argued, I cried, and he fixed the charger while I searched online for a replacement. But I am tentatively hopeful that maybe role modeling what I meant, when I apologized and owned my role in making work for him (side note – he immediately said “no, I used screws that were too short.” Well – they were holding just fine right up until I leaned on that thing.) was actually helpful. It wasn’t performative; it was genuine. But maybe he saw something in real time that he’ll be able to use in the future?
Where does this leave us? We all make our own choices about who we are, and who we want to be. We all choose our own heroes and teachers. And we all have to figure out how to navigate ugliness, drama, accusations, and the natural impulse to defend ourselves. My very best advice (although no one asked me) is as follows:
Tell the truth, even when it implicates you. Admit wrong doing. Acknowledge the impact of your actions upon others.
Trust initial impressions. That letter I received yesterday? I needed to take a second and give it real, honest, unemotional thought: what had I done wrong? What was my responsibility and what do I need to own? I should never have gotten involved in the first place, ten plus years ago. I had a bad feeling, a yucky “take” on the person who ushered me into the group. I should have honored that “gut sense” all those years ago and sidestepped the entire connection. I had my reasons for discounting that gut feeling, and ego numbers among those reasons. Again, I wish I could say “lesson learned” but it’s more honest and accurate to say “I see what I did and I forgive myself.”
Do not engage in a battle of wits with the unarmed. (I know, that’s not original.) But the point is well taken: don’t throw good time-effort-energy after bad. Step aside. Don’t bother to engage. Keep on scrolling. The folks who mailed me that letter? They don’t deserve my time, and probably can’t integrate any wisdom. Practice ignoring stuff on social media that is inaccurate, or provocative. Scroll on by.
Drama isn’t good or bad. People who create or gravitate towards drama aren’t good or bad. Drama happens. If you get off on it – go for it. You will find your tribe. If you hate it – learn to duck.
If someone shows you who they are (e.g. the “bad boys” of dog training -so badass with their “honesty” and f bombs) – believe them. Expect them to shine that light upon you.
Consider keeping your social media focused on who you are, not who you aren’t. Don’t put anything out there that conflicts with who you are or what you aspire to be. Don’t let stuff you dislike rent any space in your head or on your accounts.
When in doubts, wash all your dog bowls. Clean something. Wipe down a countertop. Do something to get out of your own head and make the world a tiny bit better.
And while I’m shoveling clichés at you all, let’s end with this one: try to be the person your dog believes you are.
Recently I joined a Facebook group for women wildlife photographers. I’m a wannabee, a passionate amateur. The group is warm, welcoming, and full of extraordinary artists, professional women creating stunning photos. There are also a decent number of inspired (ok, awed) amateur folks like me. This morning I saw a photo posted in the group that just blew me away: it was an classic example of art and science coming together in a craft that elevates photography to the finest of fine arts. Not exaggerating; this photo was so satisfying to enjoy. It was flawless. Technically perfect, it was the obvious culmination of an investment.
First and foremost, the photo demonstrates an investment of time. The photographer invested time in learning her craft. She spent time learning how to use her camera, lens, and editing software. She spent time seeking her subjects, learning their habitat and habits and then placing herself in the correct location at the correct time… for god only knows how many hours, days, or weeks. Her eye, her personal vision, plus her technical prowess added up to a strikingly beautiful image. I saw all this immediately and was truly inspired.
As an amateur, I occasionally have a dynamite photo that I’m proud to share. Because of this, I know how often professional photographers hear the same refrain: “That’s a great shot! What camera did you use?” Or “Wow! What a lucky shot!” Or some variation on those themes: either – your equipment took that photo, or damn, you have all the luck. Neither could be further from the truth. There is no luck involved in learning when and where to be, which lens to use, and how to edit. There is skill, commitment, dedication, timing, a learning curve, and money, but not luck.
It’s the same with dog training. You’re out in public and your dog is well-behaved, walking nicely on a leash, lying calmly under your table at the café, and someone says “Your dog is so well-behaved. You’re so lucky!” “You’re so lucky you can bring Cujo out in public like that. My Spitfire is so hyper; he’d never lie still lie that.”
When I see a well-behaved dog in public, I do not think “oooh, what a lucky owner.” I think the dog is the evidence of a committed, dedicated, invested owner. Perhaps the owner had great raw material to work with – a dog with nice genetics and a decent first year. That’s a great starting point. But luck? No. Work. Commitment and consistent effort. That’s what I see.
Just as that great photo will spark the query “what camera are you shooting with?” and gearheads will geek out over lenses ‘til the cows come home, a well-behaved dog often gets the third degree regarding the tools used to achieve obedience. Years of work gets reduced to “oh, you use a [fill in the blank with the tool trend of the day]. No wonder the dog is so [fill in the blank with the epithet of the day].” Same basic idea – the assumption is that the dog came that way from the factory, or your tools did it.
Cameras don’t create beautiful images without humans behind them, investing in the creation of those images. Breathtaking photographs are not the result of luck. The investment of time, money, and brain power, the commitment to lifelong learning to evolve as an artist and hone the craft – these are the components of a flawless image.
Similarly, ecollars, prong collars, and freeze-dried salmon bites don’t create flawless dogs. Nor are amazing dogs “born that way.” Sure, they may have potential, but as someone who has worked in rescue for a couple decades, I can attest to the fact that dogs with great genetic potential can be royally screwed up by horrible handling, especially during puppyhood.
Dog training, like photography, is an art that has both technical and human/emotional (or dare I say spiritual?) components. You can’t make a photo without a camera (although you can make a camera out of an oatmeal container). There is always a technical aspect – in dog training it might not be a tool, per se, if you eschew all tools (no leash? Ever? Ok…) but even when and how you say good dog, when and how you touch the dog, when and how you play with the dog… all of these decisions and choices add up to a technique. But how you build a relationship with your dog, and how you grow that bond into a lifelong, mutually fulfilling and dynamic experience… well, that’s not luck, tools, technique or gear. That’s heart, soul, brains, and the investment of time.
Now excuse me while I go shop for a new lens and a new leash!