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If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “a tired dog is a good dog.” I’ve even said it, more times than I’d care to admit. But I’m done with it. I’m jumping ship, abandoning this tired old shibboleth in favor of a new one: “A satisfied dog is a good dog.” Or maybe even better – “A satisfied dog makes for a satisfied owner.”
I’m not going to critique the “tired” saying. It’s not wrong or bad; it’s just insufficient. Folks that live by this adage will exercise a dog until Rover is physically tired. We’ve all seen the proud posts on social media – the dog with a tongue a mile long, and a lopsided grin. Wore him out, the poster will proudly proclaim. Gonna sleep well tonight is one all too familiar comment. Too tired to cause trouble is another. But happy? Satisfied? Maybe. For some dogs, that’s going to be sufficient, and this saying is just fine, and you may stop reading and head outside with your chuckit launcher.
Personally, I find tiring a dog out really boring. Not that everything I do is all about me, but I feel like my enjoyment and satisfaction should at least be one consideration. Not surprisingly, some dogs find being physically tired isn’t really very satisfying either. Tired isn’t the same thing as good, and a tired dog may still be fussy, whiny, fretful, restless, irritable, or just plain annoying. Rather like overtired children, being physically worn out isn’t the same as being soul-satisfied and ready to settle down. Being tired might make a dog appear to be more compliant, but just like humans, a tired dog may also have a shorter fuse, be more quick to snark, or be less inclined to perform commands.
The flip side of focusing exclusively on physical activity (burning off that excess energy – have we all heard that one a few thousand times too?) is the heavy focus on training. Make the dog work, make Jocko think, challenge the dog with training. He’ll sleep like a baby. Yes, true, for some dogs, some of the time, but I believe a dog that hasn’t had it’s needs met doesn’t have as much to give in training. A dog that is using training to get tired is not going to learn or grow or enjoy that activity half as much as a dog that comes to a training opportunity already satisfied. That might sound odd to some trainers or owners, but bear with me here. Would you sit your 7 year old down for a social studies lesson if he or she hasn’t had breakfast? Of course not. You’d want a child to have had what s/he needs first, before you ask her to be available for learning. I feel it’s comparable with dogs – meet their needs first, before you ask them to focus, concentrate, learn, grow, and develop. Set the dog up for maximum success by making sure they are available for training. What makes a dog available? 1) the bond with you, aka your relationship, but also 2) having had their needs met.
Training only meets some needs, a dog with a more multifaceted set of needs is going to finish a rousing training session all pent up and rarin’ to go. Ask me about dogs like Hawkitt, or Iske. The more I train Hawk, the more revved up he gets. He is a special case, for sure, an extra intense example of an intense breed, but he makes the point in bold and italics. Training him winds him up. He loves it, but it’s stimulating. He isn’t tired afterwards; he’s wired.
Physical and mental exercise will definitely tire some dogs out, but simply tiring a dog out isn’t the goal – at least not for me. Revisiting what dogs are, what they love, and what makes them tick may lead to a slightly different take on how to get to the good dog in the original saying. I don’t want a tired dog, and I’m not even sure I want a “good” dog. But I’m sure I want a satisfied dog.
A satisfied dog has had his or her needs met. This is a dog that can tolerate rejection. This is a dog with a long fuse. This is a dog who, despite being a malinois (aka Velcro, pushy, needy, intense, with the potential to be in your face and up your butt 24/7/365) or worse, being Hawkitt (think malinois size XL on crack) can leave me alone and go settle down with just a facial expression as a command. A satisfied dog is profoundly relaxed and able to play with a puppy or chill out in a crate, or sleep at my feet. It’s all good. A satisfied dog isn’t annoying.
Think about the difference of being tired after a day full of unpleasant errands, and a metric ton of annoying crap to deal with. By the end of the day you’re drained and tired but not necessarily happy or relaxed. Compare that with a day that is similarly taxing, mentally and physically, but full of stuff you love. I love to hike in untrailed wilderness, finding my way by my wits and my compass. There’s plenty of walking up steep hills, and a healthy dollop of ducking and dodging branches and clambering over downed trees or up rocky ledges. It’s physical and mental. By the end of the day, I’m empty but full. You know? Compare that to heading to the gym and running on a treadmill, then lifting some weights. Afterwards, to exercise my brain, I’d do half an hour of calculus homework. Both days would tax me, both days would challenge me, and by the end of both days I’d be tired and well worked – mentally and physically. But only one would satisfy me.
Dogs have innate, instinctual needs. They vary in intensity from breed to breed, but all dogs possess some basic needs. These include running, chasing, hunting, gripping/biting, and chewing. In Asking A Lot, I talk about meeting a dog’s needs:
I come from the school of thought that all living beings learn and “perform” best when their needs are met. Don’t ask me to braid your hair or give you a ride to the mall when I’m hungry or haven’t slept. Similarly, you can’t ask a GSD puppy to be a good boy when his needs for chewing, running, etc. have not been met.
Most of the dog training books I have read stress this as well. Most authors of dog books, whether training manuals or philosophical musings, discuss basic dog needs: running/chasing and gripping/chewing. They stress the need to satisfy dogs, to provide opportunities for them to experience satiation of these predatory urges. They talk about ways to do this, such as playing fetch and tug, and doing things that simulate the hunt. My shorthand for this is “let dogs be dogs.” While much easier said than done, I have set up my life and my training (meager as it is) around finding ways to allow my dogs to be dogs, as safely as possible. My “program,” if one could call it that (one friend calls it doggie boot camp!), is that simple. I make sure my dogs are enabled to be dogs and fully express their dogness every day. They trade their agenda for mine even in the midst of practicing this “being dogs” thing we do, reliably and completely.
I assess all the ways things could go sideways and then head out the door with the swirling and bounding mass of dogflesh carrying me like a wave … and I let it happen. We go. They flow over rock walls and the steep and pitted hillside, and I let them go, enjoying their athleticism and power. Their explosive acceleration when a chipmunk sounds the air raid siren takes my breath away. The puppy’s wobbly gait shifts gears when a catalyzing scent transforms her into a canine freight train.
[W]hen the stars line up, I linger. I take the long way. I amble and daydream, letting my gaze go soft focus. I am discovering that for this pack, more time at a chipmunk hole seems to translate into even deeper peacefulness later on when I want to sit down and write. I let the dogs determine the pace of the walk on these mornings and try to hold my tongue: no yelling, no commands, no sense of time pressure. I work to keep the pack together but not necessarily moving forward. A mile walk can take an hour if we allow it to be a mile of sniffing, digging, and looking up trees.
A friend recently mentioned to me about the power of sniffing for a dog. So simple, and for so many owners so annoying. Letting a dog sniff, endlessly if they so desire, is gold to a dog. The richness and depth of canine experience of scent is hard for mere mortals to imagine. But for the dog, just sniffing – reading the pee mail – is profoundly satisfying.
Similarly play, with a well-matched canine partner, is uniquely and powerfully satisfying for dogs. For those of us that have had human children, we know that no matter how hard we might work as parents to provide a fun and enriched compendium of childhood experiences, we know that nothing can compare with unstructured and unsupervised play with a well-matched human playmate. Kids just plain need time away from adults to be kids, to fully express their kid self. Dogs, the same. They benefit from positive interactions with peers in ways that no matter what we do… we can never be that. The unbridled dogness of play is such a heart-melting joy to watch because it is so perfectly satisfying and beyond what we humans can provide. It’s like watching magic happen.
It’s this type of experience – of the unfettered dogness of sniffing, playing, racing each other (ever see one dog start to run, a pack mate joins in, the two exchange a look, and then peeewwwwww! The race is on!), listening to distant hawks and nearby songbirds, and stiffening at the too near sounds of civilization – that leads to the deep satisfaction I am talking about. Letting them go – fully, safely, in the right environment — can mean not a tired dog (although fatigue may be a byproduct) but a satisfied dog. Providing the ability for a dog to find profound joy and soul satisfaction is my goal. The by product is a peaceful home and “good” dogs.
I have a love-hate relationship with dog training. I love watching my dogs grow and learn and deepen their relationship with me or Tom. Now that COVID-19 has changed how certain titles can be evaluated, Hawkitt earned his first AKC title. Since I can earn additional ones via video… I think it’s a safe guess that he’ll be earning more. Bindi too.
I love seeing them think, struggle, put forth effort, and have “ah-ha!” moments. I love the differences between them, how Peeka loves us but hates complying, and Hawkitt loves complying and is a lot less fussy about who or what he’s complying with. Bindi has a sassy streak that is adorably naughty, but respects my authority when I whip it out. And Brody is hapless but sweet and just glows with pride when he stumbles into compliance. I would never experience any of this if I didn’t try to do some semblance of formal training with them.
But training means interacting with trainers, no matter how minimally, whether online or in person, and trainers are a breed unto themselves. Because I live in a vast dog training wasteland, hours from all but very few possible options, I check out a bunch of trainers who ply their trade online. Some are wonderful. Some are not. Most are a mixed bag, with some great insights and some whoopsies and gaffes sprinkled in amongst the gems.
One thing I’ve noticed of late is that many of these online trainers focus heavily upon puppies. Getting off on the right paw with your new puppy is important, of course, and the focus on this makes great sense. If you create a solid foundation, you set the stage for a lifetime of fun. I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say every pup needs and deserves this.
The devil is in the details, but most trainers, breeders, and veterinarians would agree that good food in appropriate quantities, safe and clean shelter, veterinary care as needed, basic training, and exposure to a wide range of stimuli would be a good place to begin. I am totally in this camp. I agree wholeheartedly – providing these elements is key. Doing so is also fun and satisfying for most puppy owners. Raising a puppy is a delightful experience that most people really enjoy.
The problem with the emphasis many trainers place on this first year of balanced nurturance and challenge is this: what about the dogs that don’t receive a decent first year? This is where I see great trainers fall face first into serious gaffes – they say “well, that doesn’t matter.” Huh? If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 25 times: “Don’t tell me the dog’s story. It doesn’t matter.” The message, phrased many different ways, boils down to this: if you focus on the dog’s past, despite it being substandard by all accounts, you are failing the dog. You are a helicopter dogmom. You are the worst of what furmamas represent, a whining excuser of bad behavior that spoils the dog and fetishizes the sob story.
My response is – which is it? Is the first year important or not? Do we want to focus on it and create reams of text, videos, training protocols, etc., driving home the critical importance of a solid foundation in the first year? Or do we shrug and say “it doesn’t matter” when the dog that shows up for class has received none of that? Because you can’t have it both ways.
In a recent live discussion on Facebook, I asked the question “what would you expect from a dog that received NONE of what we identified as important during that first year?” The answers – offered by a group of experienced and knowledgeable dog folks – were instructive:
Inability to socialize with people and dogs;
When they shut down or turn off it’s difficult to train;
they will not thrive as a companion, but on survival mode;
They can have both physical and mental issues;
Physical, mental, “emotional” issues;
Aggressive or shy
The bottom line is this: dogs that have had a Not Good Enough first year do not respond to normal training in normal or predictable ways. In fact, they do not respond to normal stimuli in normal or predictable ways. Here’s an example, and yes, this really happened. You can all guess which dog it was. My friend was feeding cheese as a treat to a dog who was doing a beautiful sit for treats. When the cheese was gone, my friend turned away to put the wrapper in her backpack. Once her back was turned, the dog nailed the treat giver. Bit her hard. Why? Who knows. She was engaged and working for treats 2 seconds prior.
Another example? Brody snarls and lunges at me at least once every day. He has lived here for almost 3 years. He loves Tom and me. He accepts our authority. He is obedient. He has learned routines and commands, and plays fetch and other games nicely with both of us. And he loses his mind and has what I call “behavioral seizures” every day. He will charge me if I shift from daydreaming to concentrating on something. He has charged me, barking and snarling, because I juiced a lemon, opened a bottle of wine, or used a different knife than usual. If I look at my phone and do not touch it, he will bark and snarl at me. He flips out when we flush the toilet. At night, he barks like a maniac at the ceiling. He reacts to things on TV – not just doorbells or the sound of knocking, but changes in emotional level of the actors. Changes in background music. And so on. He has never bitten anyone, but his responses to normal stimuli are not remotely normal.
It was Phillippa who used the term “trauma informed care” during the live conversation and I think she nailed it. Trauma informed training speaks to the notion that training must be informed by the dog’s experiences. Pretending they don’t matter is arrogant at best, and dangerous at worst. How much of the dogs’ behaviors are “choices” or training issues, and how much are physiological or due to neurological damage? That’s always a question, but in order to answer it you need to know the dog’s history. You need all the information to determine what’s important and what isn’t.
In Asking A Lot, I address this head on:
Saying “I work with the dog in front of me” is a copout. Information is helpful. A good trainer can weed out the relevant from the irrelevant, the helicoptering furmama foolishness from the critical veterinary history. Great example of this: Brody used to poop in his crate when I crated him overnight. A trainer could employ all manner of behavioral interventions to eradicate this revolting behavior. But knowing that Brody has malrotation of the small intestine and partial situs inversus (in lay person’s terms, his guts are all fucked up) changes the expectation of how long he can hold his poop and how urgently he needs to go, and how much pain he is in at different moments when food moves through those screwy guts. Any trainer working with him deserves to have the full picture. And any trainer who discounts the full picture doesn’t deserve to work with him.
P.S. He doesn’t poop in the crate anymore. I changed feeding times and food texture. Problem solved.
The dogs I have dedicated my dog-owning life to need trauma informed care and training. Peeka and Brody were not fed regularly and landed at the shelter at almost one year of age with severe malnutrition. Peeka was 27 pounds. Think about that for a moment – the shelter was a huge IMPROVEMENT in Peeka’s life. The shelter was the first place she lived where she was fed regularly. The shelter was better than home. Chew on that for a while. Trainers, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. If that first year matters, then dogs that have been starved, beaten, or simply neglected prior to age one need to be seen for what they are. The damage needs to be acknowledged. The discomfort of being with an unpredictable, scary dog that might flip on you at any moment for any reason – knowable or utterly unknowable – is part of life with imperfect dogs. And the limits to what they can do, and to wat degree they can overcome their past will vary from dog to dog. It will be a factor of innate qualities in the dog, quality of the training, and the magic of the bond. They may grow, develop, change, and mature into amazing companions… but not without trauma informed care.
The baby ravens were yelling their heads off this morning. I don’t know why they yell like that. Some days they do and some days they don’t. I guess it’s for the same reasons most humans yell their fool heads off: food or sex. Hopefully, given that these are mere fledglings, it’s the former.
Listening to the baby ravens’ raucous cries is a treat, unadulterated aural delight. I walk along laughing silently, amazed at my blessed circumstances. I saw a young buck this morning and a toddler porcupine. I saw rare warblers and now I’m listening to ravens.
It’s been over a week since Cinder died. I’ve picked up her ashes. I’ve washed and put away her dog bowl and been blindsided by photos of her on my phone. These rituals of loss and grief are almost comforting to me. “Ah yes, that pang of sadness tinged with self hatred, I know it well. Been here before.” At first, I avoided the clearing in the woods where the fight occurred. I just couldn’t bring myself to go there – literally or emotionally. Then avoiding the place became bigger than the place itself and I found myself going there out of some strange sense of convenience, a getting it over with – like it was suddenly better to take that route and feel those feelings, better than anything else I could have done that day. It makes no sense and yet it was logical to me at the time.
I went there and was surprised at how little I felt. I thought I’d be blasted by emotions and have some sort of dramatic catharsis. I imagined feeling cleansed by the process, offered new wisdom or perspective. I felt the sadness that I now feel at every hint of her. But no drama. No catharsis. No wracking sobs. Just quiet. I came across an Alan Watts quote and it feels accurate: “Quieting your mind is like a cloudy pool. Leave it alone and it’ll clear/quiet itself.” Standing there on that spot I didn’t try to do or feel or think anything. I just stood there letting my mind and that spot clear themselves… letting that place become just another spot in the woods. Sure, it has history. But it no longer has power. I stood there while the cloudiness of blame and guilt and avoidance cleared to just leaves and dirt and, if I searched for it, I guess blood and fur.
Since her death, I’ve been hiking without the dogs every day. I’ve been even more obsessed than usual with wildlife and photography, stalking Otis the adolescent bear (I haven’t seen him), camera in one hand, bear spray in the other. I carry the bear spray every day now, a nod to Tom’s anxiety and insistence. I don’t believe I’ll ever use it, but that’s not a commitment. If I need it, it’s there. I stalk coyotes, Otis, the collection of porcupines both named and unnamed, ginseng, foxes, fishers, mink, bobcats, and anything my phone app tells me is rare. This morning two warblers I photographed were identified as “rare” by my app. I’m over the moon.
I have to learn to trust myself again, and to trust the dogs. What happened was not normal, not predictable, not an escalation of something I should have seen, something I missed. My dogs are not ill, untrained, feral, psychotic, etc. My leadership skills are not in the toilet. I tell myself all that, but there is another voice in my head – a critical voice. I realized today it’s the voice of a dog trainer. Not any specific dog trainer, just the imaginary hater from the comment thread that tells me how badly I’m handling everything. It’s the naysayer, the harshest critic, the most unkind pro, exposing my amateurishness. The backseat driver of dogness, this voice tells me I am an imposter, just “lucky” that more disasters haven’t darkened my doorstep. This voice deems my dogs generous and kind, as they protect me from my own ineptitude. This voice promotes shame and guilt.
It was a revelation today when I realized I should just turn that tape off. While it’s not quite that simple, it was a moment of clarity. That’s what I would tell any friend, any dog owner, any parent torturing themselves with hypercritical internal dialog. Find the atoms of truth in the critiques, learn the lessons, and kick the rest of that shit to the curb. Easier said than done, perhaps, but the seed has been sown. I can start noticing and applying brakes every time I start up that internal dialog. I can starve that evil spirit until it finds some other soul to haunt.
Meanwhile, I have been testing the waters of hiking with the dogs again. Not the same as before, but trying different places, different combinations, different levels of freedom and restraint, to both regain my feet and reestablish my trust in myself. I rode horses (badly) as a kid and then again (still badly) when my daughter was a child. She was an excellent rider, gutsy and skillful at age 8. She got bucked off a bratty pony who took her on a wild ride, and she took a break before she got back on. I trusted her that she would do what was right for her – leave riding altogether or getting back on that horse, quite literally. She did choose to ride again, and she rode beautifully. But it took her some time to heal the self doubt and fear. She did so in private, without me offering help or interference. I remember my total faith in her to take care of herself. I try to conjure that same faith in my own ability to make good decisions and take care of myself and my pack now.
Life goes on. Get back on that horse and ride. Listen to the ravens’ incessant complaining and feel the joy of witnessing such moments. That’s what I keep telling myself. The best dog owner and the best human is the one who is present. I have to keep showing up, welcoming the joy as well as the pain. While I was writing this, Hawkitt and Bindi played a rousing game of bitey face wrestlemania on the studio floor. It was pure canine joy, unbridled and carefree. It was annoying and distracting and beautiful and instructive. I hate to romanticize them as teachers or god forbid gurus, but perhaps, just for today, the shoe (or muzzle) fits.
Finding the right place to begin is a bit like finding the right words. I keep bargaining with myself that if I do that – find the right words – this will be ok. That’s fiction. This isn’t ok and nothing I say, out loud or in writing, will ever make it ok. But bargaining is part of grief, part of the well I’ve trapped myself in. Words are not rungs of the ladder out of this well. Only time and forgiveness can build those steps.
Cinder died early last Tuesday. On Monday, we hiked the mountain, just like we always do. She and the others sprinted after a chipmunk, just as they have thousands of times before. I heard barking. It sounded like Peeka’s excited bark, and I assumed either a porcupine or a bear was involved. I recalled the dogs and they did not comply. I had Brody with me so I made my way down the slope towards the barking slowly and carefully, holding onto Brody’s collar. When I arrived, all my dogs had redirected from the prey to Cinder. There was a fight. It was ugly. I couldn’t let go of Brody as he was triggered by the others’ adrenaline. I got Bindi and Peeka under control fairly quickly. Hawk downed on command after a very long minute or two. Cinder was obviously injured and terrified. Two leg wounds and an ear wound were what I saw immediately. She couldn’t walk.
I called Tom and he left work to come help me. I hiked the mile or so back to the house with the four dogs, leaving Cinder where she was. Tom met me and we hiked back in. We built a stretcher from saplings and our shirts. We carried her out and I got her to the vet within 2 hours of the incident. She was stabilized at the animal hospital, her larger gashes stapled, and given supportive care. X rays were negative: no sign of any punctures to her trachea or other life-threatening injuries. She brightened up significantly with fluids, pain medication, and oxygen. She walked to my car when I picked her up, and my strict instructions were to keep her separate from all the other dogs. I did that, using a separate entrance to the back room.
When I got her home, she walked to the door by herself. I settled her in and she rested alone back there, with Tom and I taking turns visiting her and sitting with her until midnight.
Tom found her dead at 5:30 the next morning.
I don’t know what happened at that critical moment when a normal chipmunk chase – the kind that all the dogs have engaged in, together, with collisions and intense proximity a thousand times a year for a decade without incident – turned into a fight among packmates. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t see it. And I was not in control. If I had been there, I believe I could have stopped a fight before it started. If I was there, or got there faster, I could have bear-sprayed all the dogs, quite possibly saving Cinder’s life. I could have stepped into between whoever started it and Cinder, de-escalating the situation. These are the thoughts that go through my head when I allow them to, the what ifs and if onlys that fill my gut with something so leaden, I feel ill.
I feel like a fraud. I have brayed about a lifestyle that I now see through a very different lens. I have regaled you all with tales of this dramatic life… harrowing and delightful, because they all end well. Yes, Peeka has been quilled by porcupines five million times. And yes, Hawk did get bitten by a bear this spring. I never wrote about it because I had ethical concerns (I hate the Disney-ification of wildlife and feel misrepresenting pet and wildlife interactions is powerfully negative), but earlier this spring Cinder played with a coyote. Yes, Cinder… We disturbed his nap under a rock ledge. I hustled all the dogs away and left him on his own. We looped back 30 minutes later… and he was waiting for us. He played chase with Cinder, Brody, and Bindi. I would never have believed it had I not seen it unfold. I watched body language in total shock. It was unmistakably play.
Adventure after adventure, I learn and the endings remain as happy as possible. These are incidents that I can spin, finding the teachable moment and accentuating the positive.
The wonderful life I gave Cinder — so full of freedom and authentic dogness — is also at least in part responsible for her premature death. No, we can’t bubble wrap our dogs, and we can’t control every moment of their lives. Nor would we want to. But this… this is a heavy price to pay. I failed to fulfill my number one job as a pet owner – to keep my dogs safe.
Hawkitt did not comply with a recall command. How many times have I talked about, written about, read about recall under distraction? How many times have we practiced? How many successes have we celebrated and bragged about? The other day Hawk and I were playing and I gave him a series of commands. I noticed he kept tilting his head and looking at his front leg as he complied. Sit, down, heel, stay… finally I released him, and he pulled a bee off that leg. He was obedient and focused while being stung by a bee. A day or so earlier, I caught a typical and telling moment on video: Hawk was walking ahead of me with all the dogs loose. He showed interest in leaving the path to follow a scent. I murmured “uh-uh” — just a quick grunt of reminder that he doesn’t have my approval for that action. He jerked his head up and ignored the scent as if he was on a leash and had received a correction. Another day last week all the dogs were out loose for exercise time when the UPS truck pulled into the driveway. I recalled, used “wait” and “quiet” commands, and not so much as a bark or a twitch occurred. Total compliance under severe distraction. The UPS truck is on par with bears and porcupines in this household.
I’m not recounting these moments to prove my worth as his owner. I’m recounting them in anguish – how could the dogs be so clearly attuned to me, so on target, so obedient, so connected… and then fail to comply when the chips were down? These tests and their successful completion happen often enough that I have to concede – it’s not luck. It’s not coincidence. The dogs really are trained and bonded and our relationship really is solid. But despite all the times they willingly trade their agenda for mine, this was somehow different. And the difference led to a terrible situation. And that terrible situation may well have cost Cinder her life.
Since Tuesday we have not hiked together off the property. For me, this is a huge loss and a colossal adjustment. The morning walk with all the dogs was the cornerstone of my day – physically, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually. There was – is – a raw and pure joy in being on the move with the pack. Replacing it with hiking alone – without dogs – is not bad but the transition is wrenching.
Finally, yesterday I took Peeka and Bindi hiking, but Hawkitt is not coming any more. It’s not that his behavior is so out of control – in fact up until last Monday his behavior had been stellar. It’s that if something goes sideways, he has the potential to take the situation from bad to utterly unmanageable. His size, strength, and drive all add up to a management issue that I am ready to say I can’t reliably control. I know there are folks out there who will snark “what took you so long?” And “why did a dog have to die for you to do something so clearly necessary and long overdue?” And more, I’m sure. Getting away with having 5 dogs – managing, triumphing, controlling, and embodying that elusive quality of leadership in highly stimulating environments for nearly two decades made me cocky. I thought I was a badass dog owner, able to leap bears and porcupines in a single bound. Success made me overconfident.
I have been doing more structured work with Hawkitt and the others here at home: obedience on and off leash, frisbee, nosework, and futile efforts to get Hawk and Bindi into the pond. It’s time consuming, but worth it. As social distancing restrictions ease, I will take him to more distracting places for more stimulating challenges, as he adores being in public and is happy to work around people. The farmers market is his wet dream – dogs, people, and food. I will keep them satisfied and stimulated, worked and played, pushed hard and rewarded well. Given the wide variety of needs and quirks they all possess, this will be a full time job. But it’s what I signed up for, what I took on when I adopted 5 … I mean 4 dogs.
I think the lesson I feel most confident and passionate about sharing at this point is that shit happens. Shit happens to good dogs, good owners, and good dog-owner teams. The thing that was safe 5,000 times became unsafe once with serious consequences. How many times have we all read a Facebook post about an incident and passed judgement on the owner? I admit it – I definitely have, more than once. I will be a lot slower to do so in the future. Losing a dog in a horrible “accident” is a tremendous lesson in compassion. I know I will be more gentle in the future, more generous of spirit when faced with the news that someone has lost their dog under heart-breaking circumstances. Because once the guilt and recriminations fade, the loss is still there, palpable and prickling, day in and day out.
I made yogurt today and it had always been Cinder’s treat to clean the pot when I finished. Peeka had always challenged Cinder for the right to help, and Cinder had always prevailed through intimidation and violence. This pot is mine. Peeka backed down time and again. Today Peeka and Bindi cleaned the pot. We will adjust, rearrange, memorialize, learn, grow, and move forward. It’s all we can do.
A friend checked in just now and asked how I’m doing. Well… I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and ate lunch at 9:40 a.m. I just got drenched washing a chest freezer I had defrosted, after retrieving and refreezing the 10 pound bag of beef kidneys and what I think might be a dead muskrat, both thawed and forgotten in the bowels of the freezer. I’m soaked in diluted old blood and apple-scented dish soap. I’m eating tabouli that contains neither parsley nor mint and smells unpleasantly like cat piss. Speaking of which, I watered the chives thoroughly since Hawkitt has taken to pissing on them every chance he gets. Do chives and asparagus go together? Because that’s what’s going on tonight’s pizza, if (god willing) I manage to get the dough started early enough to eat dinner before 9 p.m.
Yesterday Hawkitt got bitten by a bear, Peeka’s eye decided to leak pus instead of tears and Bindi ate a field full of grass and then spent playtime puking. Brody is Brody, shrieking and spinning this morning because Tom shook the milk jug, homogenizing the raw creamline milk by hand. Cinder is going deaf, I think, and maybe also has early signs of dementia.
So how’m I doing? About the same as ever. Holding on by the skin of my teeth, calling the vet, rifling through the medication vials looking for the right antibiotics for Hawk, ointment for Peeka’s eye, and oh shit, it’s May 6th and they need their heart worm preventatives. Six days late. Could be worse.
I try to buy the right assortment of foods to eat, and then remember to eat them before they turn into fragrant black sludge in that magical compost-producing drawer in the fridge. That is pretty much the norm around here but Corona Reality has cranked it up to 11 because I don’t go shopping more than a couple of times a month. And because of The Virus, I also don’t take the dogs to the vet unless it’s a total emergency. We had our quota for total emergencies last week when Hawk, Peeka, and Bindi tangled with a porcupine. Peek and Hawkitt required veterinary intervention. Bindi let me pull her quills, but Peeka and Hawk were both past home care level.
So is a bear bite a veterinary emergency? Hawkie is up to date with all vaccinations – rabies and leptospirosis most critically. He needed assessment and a treatment plan. Deep breath. I can do this at home, guided by the vet over the phone. If I find anything I can’t manage, Plan B is throwing Hawkitt into the car and dropping him off for stitches or staples and drains and an IV.
I’ve done this before. Never a bear bite, but bad dog-on-dog interactions have led to managing deep puncture wounds. Hawk degloved a thigh on barbed wire a few years ago. Cinder ripped open a shoulder and Iske tore up her chest, both while hiking. I’ve been here, in this intense emotional space of fighting to stay calm while looking into a hole in your beloved dog (who is scared and in pain and does NOT want to be examined) and trying to determine how deep, wide, and long it is, whether it will need stitches, and how many more wounds there are. I’ve prepped Mica for surgery in my bathroom at home, swallowing waves of nausea and panic at her condition. I can do this.
Hawk had treed a bear but the bear decided to come down and make a run for it while Hawk was still seated at the base of the tree. Judging by the location of the bite (just in front of his right hip), Hawk was backing off or turning away from the bear. I didn’t see it happen – the curve of the hillside gave me a decent view of the bear in the tree, but I couldn’t see the interaction. I just heard the yelp. No attack, no fight, just a “back off” nip in Hawkie’s general direction is what seems to have been delivered. Given the structure of bears’ jaws and teeth, I looked for four holes. Four canines. I found one and some missing fur. Hawk was incredibly lucky.
In The Mica Movie, Lizz Molloy says something about Mica’s life that, at the time, I didn’t understand. She said that having experiences, even negative experiences, such as getting quilled by a porcupine, were somehow wonderful for Mica. Exciting. Positive. Wonderful. Meaningful. Is there anything good we can take away from a powerfully negative experience?
Everything choice is a risk-reward decision at some level. Do I lie on the couch day-drinking through this Corona Reality, or do I defrost and wash a nasty freezer? Do I adopt five dogs and walk them for a few hours every day in untrailed wild places, or do I move to the suburbs and have one dog on a leash? My lifestyle is a compendium of choices other people might not make, and sometimes the consequences of those choices are rough – on me and on the dogs. But are there also upsides? Is that a reasonable framework for thinking about awful experiences?
This life here on this mountain that isn’t always pretty. The dangers we face aren’t always elegant or dashingly dramatic. Sometimes they’re just fucked up. I have spent a lot of time defending my choices and my lifestyle – not only to you, dear readers, but to my mom, my kid, myself. I’ve spent many words and many pages explaining it. It’s not for everyone. It’s a life in which dogs do occasionally interact with wildlife. It’s not desirable; it’s always better to avoid it. I feel the stab of guilt, and then that self-inflicted wound has to heal, slowly, like Hawk’s bear bite wound – ever mindful of infection.
It dawned on me today: has no dog ever been injured while competing in any organized dog sport? Is agility, dock diving, IPO or PSA a guarantee of safety? Of course not. My vet told me the story of the worst porcupine quilling she ever saw: hunting dogs, while hunting. (No, they were not hunting porcupines.) I offer condolences, not judgement, when my friends report their sport or protection dog has a torn ACL, or some other injury. A friend and reader sent me a moving account she wrote about her training experiences with her Dutch Shepherd – the emotional and psychological scars from which she worked for years to overcome. Then I harken back to Lizz’s words. Mica got to have a wide variety of experiences, after 11 years experiencing only the monotony of confinement. Even if not every experience is rainbows and unicorns (or decoys and bite sleeves), every experience is valuable. Every experience enriches life. Every experience – even powerfully negative ones – make us more fully who we are. And yes, when I say us, I do include my dogs.
Will I continue to do everything in my power to prevent powerfully negative experiences from happening? Yes, of course. I will continue to do everything I can to protect myself and the dogs and the locals from Bad Things. But I know some bad things will happen anyway. That’s life on this mountain. Accepting that, and living the most conscious, ethical, and authentic (yes, I gagged on that word too) life I can is my goal. I strive to keep us all here, alive and well, under control, and at peace with our extremely sexy neighbors. I strive to live well, doing the right thing, with a pack of prey driven smarty paws that would not mind being utterly unethical.
It’s not so much about working and striving and committing to the goal of staying safe. It’s more about the acceptance and even embracing of the experience of a bad thing once it’s happened. In other words, I think I’m starting to understand Lizz’s deep words from all those years ago. The challenges we face and the choices we make, and then the consequences we are dealt are all valuable parts of us.
New and improved! A new website and a new home for the blog! I’m delighted to announce that www.asking-a-lot.com is live and almost finished. After publishing the book, I thought well heck: I guess I should have a website that celebrates Asking A Lot and echoes what the book is all about. The new website is one stop shopping for all things Heather Rolland – writing (books, blogs, and other published works), photography, and jewelry.
I’m still working out the technical aspects of making this switch, but “subscribing” isn’t as straightforward as it is here. For now, I’ll post here as well while I figure out a forwarding gizmo, or create the subscription option the way squarespace help says to do it. Or hire a teenager to do it for me. Yes, it looks *that* complicated!
If you’d like to pick up a signed copy of Asking A Lot, leave a comment below, or reach out to me on social media. Price is $25.00 plus media mail shipping for $2.80. That means a total of $27.80. I’d love to personalize an inscription and ship it to you pronto. We can work out address, payment etc. details privately. The e-book is $3.99 on Amazon, if the paperback cost is a bit steep. Click here to go to Amazon to order an e-book.
I hope you are staying safe, feeling well, and navigating this challenging new reality we’re all experiencing. I am staying home up here on the mountain, trying to write, cook, clean, train dogs, grow a garden, brew beer, and work on the house without going quite mad from worry or sadness about lives lost and wrenching societal change. It’s deep stuff. I don’t have any wonderful words of wisdom beyond what I posted as a first post on the new blog – here’s the link: http://www.haliagrace.com/blog/2020/4/23/the-new-rules. If nothing else, I hope some time spent reading about dogs, porcupines, and the “hectic joys and weary blues” of bonding with Bramleywolves is a pleasant diversion.
Many years ago, I received some odd (and lousy) advice from a dog owner that, due to its oddness and badness, has stuck in my brain all these years. It didn’t make the cut, so it isn’t a chapter in Asking A Lot. But I do find myself circling back to it from time to time when out on the morning walk, marveling at how different my life with my pack would be had I heeded this particular advice.
“Don’t ever let your dog grow up” was his edict. “Keep them puppies for their whole life.” Since that’s physiologically impossible, what does it mean? In what way would it be possible to prevent a dog from maturing, and how on earth could an owner freeze a dog in puppyhood for eternity? Before I explore the how, I want to consider the why.
What are the differences between a puppy and an adult dog? Well, let’s pretend the above imperative to prevent maturity has been heeded. According to my source, the best kind of adult pet dog is simply a larger and physically fully developed being that maintains a puppy demeanor. Adult body but puppy heart, soul, and brain. Puppyish devotion and dependence for life. And a pet – owner relationship with all the hallmarks of puppy ownership, forever.
Why manage a dog with this as your goal? Deep down, I believe the answer is fear-based. This is the same guy who said “never have more than two dogs. They develop pack mentality and will kill you.” Mmm hmmm. The theory is that dogs are wolves with a thin veil of domestication. The fear is that without constant effort and micromanagement, a fully realized adult dog would kill and eat its owner – literally and/or metaphorically. The need to keep the dog a puppy is about the illusion of maintaining total control. A competent, mature adult dog is a dangerous and unwanted being, not a good pet, in this way of thinking.
Puppies are dependent upon human owners for providing structure and safety, and running interference with the giant and overwhelming outside world. Human owners have a specific role to play in raising a puppy and it’s quite “hands on.” Housebreaking, feeding, training … we constantly manage our puppies’ urges and teach them how to live in harmony with us. Life with puppies, adorable as it is, is a constant managing of normal dog instincts: don’t bite me, don’t eat that, don’t pee there. Chew this, not that. Play with this, not that. Bite this, not me or the cat. We manage the snot out of puppies, because they require that level of management in order to become pleasant companions and safe, sane housemates.
I have five dogs at the moment and since we got home from the morning walk a few hours ago, I haven’t managed anything. I haven’t given a single command, nor removed any contraband from anyone’s mouth. I haven’t even had to say “go lie down, kid, you’re bugging me” to the puppy. And that’s totally normal in my house. None of my dogs need micromanagement. They all know how to live in peace with me and Tom and each other (ok, Peeka and Brody really struggle with this, but they try and I can claim steady, if microscopic, improvement).
But are they adults? Have I allowed them to grow up?
I have very limited experience with puppies. As cute as babies of any species may be, I am not a fan. Too much work. I did not love being the mom of a human infant, but from her second birthday on, I have enjoyed my daughter more every single day. She’s the coolest adult I know. I did my best with her, understanding that caring for her as an infant was critically important. But my goal was always to back off and give her as much space to be herself as possible (and reasonably safe, although her father and I often disagreed about what constituted safe… there was a serious mentos and diet coke phase). Same with Bindi, the most recent puppy to grace my home. She arrived here as a six month old pup and honestly her foster mom had done all the heavy lifting. All I needed to do was not screw up the excellent foundation Mama Jan created.
So I did my best. Frequent potty breaks. Loads of praise for success. Loads of toys, bones, and stuffed kongs to help with any interest in chewing the wrong items. Loads of supervision. I might have severely limited her freedom using crates and baby gates, but Bindi hurled herself into gen pop quite literally, vaulting over the baby gate. She then behaved so beautifully, I let her have freedom. Had she struggled more with that much freedom it would have been curtailed. But my goal was always to do less — to help Bindi reach a point where she needed less direction from me and could interact with the pack and the world without me shepherding her every move.
In my pack, the morning walks are the training ground where the dogs grow from puppyhood to adulthood. This is where they have to deal with freedom and respond to me in a smart, sensible, grown-ass way. This is where they have to take all the support they’ve had to date and put it into practice. And this is what Asking A Lot is all about, a compendium of everything that can and does go wrong and how I circle back to the fundamentals in order to (hopefully) minimize risks and maximize joy.
We do this incrementally. No one is tossed into the deep end on the first outing. Leashes, long lines, and loads of short practice walks around the property all constitute increments of exploring safely. Sometimes I stop and take photos, do some weeding, or just watch the birds, allowing a lot of wandering. I issue no recalls despite the time or distance. The dogs have to decide when to return to me. How far is too far? How long is long enough? I want the dog to feel what it feels like to be a dog without a helicoptering human right there. I want the dog to experience the freedom of making choices and decisions that aren’t mitigated or brokered by me. And I make damn sure that every reunion with me is joyously well-rewarded.
It’s a fine line. They also have to have recall, and we need to have a trusting relationship – a deep bond. That doesn’t happen overnight. They need to make decisions like they did this week – to walk away from a bear and return to me to continue our hike. The bear was sexier than I could ever hope to be, all 500 pounds of him ambling along without a care in the world. One swipe of his paw could have ended any one of my dogs. He could have made mincemeat out of me. While bears are not typically aggressive, I couldn’t safely approach and take over. The dogs had to choose to leave the bear and return to me… and they did.
The perennial puppy is the result of micromanagement. That’s my interpretation of the original comment: you, human pet owner, must control everything, and keep the dog in a dependent state for all his or her days. Supervision of and control over every choice presented to the dog, with total dependence upon the human for everything – food, fun, safety – that might sound like responsible dog ownership. To me, it’s just too much. Not only is it impossible with five dogs, but to me it isn’t desirable.
As fun as children or puppies might be, I want adult companionship, human or canine. I want to be around fully realized beings – again, human or canine. I want my pets to be whole, deep, complex, and rich beings, who have love for me and respect for me (not slavish devotion to me) because they have chosen it. That choice has to come from a place of knowledge, experience, and freedom. I want them to respect me and choose to bond with me, and thus obey me when the chips are down and the quills are up… not because I have bribed, trained, or tricked them into it. Not because I have followed a series of instructions – a recipe for “leadership.” Not because they are helpless and hapless puppies that need me to navigate the world for them. Because we are partners. Equals even. And because we work together as partners to enjoy a life that is fulfilling for adult dogs.
But it can be even simpler than that. Think about the type of relationships you can have with children. Now think about the kind of relationships you can have with adults. Both are good, right? Kid are awesome, but they have their limits. Same for me with dogs. Puppies are awesome but they have their limits. They can never bond the way an adult bonds. They can never step up to the partnership plate the way an adult can. I’m willing to experience the puppy joy, but for me, that depth and intensity of bond that can only come from an adult is where it’s at.
I know it all sounds a little crazy when we’re talking about pets. No matter how much I romanticize the collegial nature of our relationship, I admit that there is a clear hierarchy. But I don’t want a dog that respects me by rote or requirement. I want a dog to choose to respect me, after having thoroughly considered the alternatives. Imagine what it might be like if an adult wolf or coyote chose to partner with you. You’d be wowed. You’d be floored. You’d be honored. Because that animal … well, it doesn’t have to partner up with you. It could just as likely have chosen to kill you or die trying.
I don’t fear competent and confident dogs. I am drawn to them. Keeping them puppies forever is fine if that’s what turns you on. But I feel a little sorry for those folks. I think they’re missing out on a lot.
There’s more to say on this topic. What if your dog grows up to be a real asshole of an adult dog? What if the adult dog doesn’t respect you and doesn’t choose to bond with you? If you are somehow not available or not deemed competent by a dog that is smarter or stronger than you… then a fully realized adult dog IS a problem. But that’s for another post. Let’s leave this here for now and chew on it together for a while.
Take a shower. Get dressed. Stoke the fire. Make a To Do list. Staying home isn’t new to me. I’ve been living a modified #stayhome lifestyle for years. For me, it’s been both economic and psychological. If I go out, I tend to spend money. Since I make very little money, staying home (and staying away from online seductresses like Etsy and Amazon) has been a conscious choice. Save gas, save cash, make it myself or go without — these have been the rallying cries of the Bramleywolves for the past 6 or so years.
A huge part of that lifestyle has been writing. Writing for clients, writing this blog, writing short stories, but front and center – writing my book. The Book. Working on the book has occupied a central part of my Bramleylife for the past 6 years. Or not working on the book and feeling the need to work on the book (which is a huge component of writing).
It’s a strange feeling, being finished. I mean, now the real work begins. Writing is the fun part. It’s the beautiful part, for me. I love words, and I love thinking about my dogs, life, nature, wildlife, and how to be the best human I can be. I love the process of finding the words to share what is so often wordless. Wonder, joy, love… for me the process of writing is like a funky internal rodeo in which amorphous concepts get rounded up, hog-tied, and branded. Hmmm, maybe that’s a little violent. Rounded up and hugged, smooched on the nose, and given an embroidered collar with a pretty daisy on it. Ok, that’s kind of cloying. But the search and the consideration, the trying on of phrases and paragraphs… it’s joyful. It’s the shower in which my soul belts out Born To Run, off key and off tempo but enthusiastic as fuck. Eventually I find the phrase that works, years go by, and the book gets written.
The cool thing about art (writing or any other form) is that sharing it is the point. Art is by nature communal, although its creation is often a solo act. The sharing is at once vulnerable and triumphant; my fervent prayer is not just that others like it, but that it connects. Strikes the chord, hits the nerve, touches the soul… and somehow feels helpful. I guess that’s the big goal. Not only do I hope that readers are entertained by Asking A Lot, although that would be enough, but I hope that readers are somehow helped to feel a sense of community – that they are not alone in how they think, feel, or get by. If I can help one reader heave that sigh of relief and say “Whew! So I’m not the only one who feels that way?!?” I’ll be delighted. I wrote the book in part to sort my own life out, but also to give voice to what I just don’t hear enough – simple commonsense approaches to life with dogs.
And here we are, sharing a moment in history in which we are all struggling to adjust to constant anxiety, questions, loss, and tremendous uncertainty. How long will this social distancing last? When can I have my life back? What will my world look like when this is all over? Are you already sick and tired of thinking that phrase: “when this is all over?” I had a beautiful heart to heart last night (over Messenger) with a friend struggling to be productive and focused during this time. She said to me “how can I focus on MY work? It seems petty and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.” I hear ya. The hubris of releasing a book about dogs and nature now, in the midst of a pandemic, seems incredibly small and selfish. Trying to promote the book and ask people to purchase it seems almost absurd.
And yet… here’s what I hope: that reading my book (and any other book! READ ALL THE BOOKS!) will give you some respite from the uncertainties and relief from the dreadful feeling in the pit of your stomach. Come with me on my morning walk, laugh at my ridiculous conundrums, and let yourself have a few moments of escape. Yesterday, Peeka killed a dead mink on the morning walk. Truly, I can’t make this stuff up. But I can shake my head and laugh, and so can you… even while you’re worried.
I’ll do some author events too. Facebook Live and Instagram Live: I can do a reading, answer questions, and yell at my dogs and Tom “live” and we can build an Asking A Lot online community of support. Heck, we already have one every Friday morning on Facebook!
Read, enjoy, and if you feel moved to do so, share! Your social media shares can help Asking A Lot reach beyond our inner circle and into the larger dog community. That would be a dream come true for me and the gang.
Be safe, hang in there, read, and connect. We’re all in this together.