The Devil In A Day

3 a.m. is, in my book, last night. 3 a.m. is reachable by staying up late. It belongs to the night. 4 a.m., however, is this morning. It’s a respectable time to get up and start your day, if you’re some sort of pre-dawn psychopath or have a plane to catch. To hike the Devil in a Day, I got up at 3 a.m., and was in the car, driving across two counties, to meet a stranger named Dave, to hike the most challenging trail in the Catskills in its entirety, in one day, by 4 a.m.

The Devil’s Path is often backpacked over 2 or 3 days. It’s renowned as one of the most challenging hiking trails in the Catskills if not the northeast. It’s long (we’ll discuss the mileage below) and strenuous (rock scrambles, and a metric ton of elevation change, or in layman’s terms – you walk way up and way down a bunch of mountains). The other 2 most challenging day hikes in the Catskills are the Escarpment trail (also roughly 24 miles long with plenty of up and down) and The Nine – a combined bushwack and trailed hike that is in that 20+ mile range… as long as you don’t get lost. Having completed the Escarpment trail, solo, and done The Nine in style (see The Twelve), I have been jonesing to complete the trifecta and hike the Devil in a Day. Finally, it sure looked like my day had come.

6:45 a.m. on the first ledge on Indian Head (the chin)

What sort of hiker does this? A surprising number give it a shot; an even more surprising number complete it. Why? I can only guess at others’ motivations and aspirations, but for me it is a healthy dollop of vanity and bragging rights, along with sheer curiosity: am I really up to it? Being female and fifty-three years old, battling hot flashes and gerd by night and working as a farmhand by day, I don’t exactly have a hardcore athlete’s lifestyle. I don’t “train” for efforts like these; I just live a rather rough and tumble lifestyle and hope that my innate fitness, willingness to undergo pain for no good reason, and sheer ill temperedness are sufficient to get me over the humps… literally and figuratively.

I did some preparing, once we set the date. I loaded my already heavy Search and Rescue pack with dumbbells, and walked the dogs every day wearing that pack for 2 weeks. I “prehydrated” as best I could the day before. I dropped off 3.5 gallons of water in a secret spot under a bridge along our route (and then giggled delightedly about “water under the bridge” for the rest of the day). I reread my notes from The Twelve and prepped my food accordingly. I bought energy gels, shot bloks, and builder’s bars. I was as ready as possible.

Let’s be utterly frank here: it’s not exactly fun. Exhilarating, yes. Thrilling, in a way. But it’s all a little too uncomfortable and takes too long to feel much like fun to me. I know the trail well and have hiked every step of it previously – but in small, manageable chunks. I knew exactly what I was signing up for. One of the dominant emotions I experienced for much of the day was dread. Type 2 fun, for sure.

Dave turned out to be a perfect companion. Perfect is high praise coming from me, but he really was perfect in almost every way. His one downfall? He didn’t curse, which made me very nervous. I tried valiantly to censor the f bombs that kept trying to explode out of my mouth. The second half of the hike probably singed his ears less than the first. And full confession: he is not a complete stranger. We met briefly at a CPAC meeting a month or so ago. Our connection is via a close friend of mine: Dave is her Lieutenant. Hiking with a NYSDEC ranger, albeit off duty, gave me a dose of confidence – I was definitely with an experienced and capable hiker. Dave is a true aficionado of Type 2 fun, doing long hikes like these regularly. He is also over 6 feet tall and I think 5.5 ft of that is legs. I worried that I would drive him bananas with my 5’2” pace.

Dave by the cave, west side of Twin

The worry ended up being unwarranted. We kept pace beautifully, and I think despite my banal chatter interspersed with expletives, I think we got along famously. Dave is kind and patient and prefers IPAs. I’ll hike with him any time.

For those of you detail-oriented readers:

The Devil’s Path is an historic hiking trail that starts at the Prediger Road trail head in the town of Hunter, NY and winds its way up and over 4 Catskill High Peaks in its eastern half. It crosses Route 214 at Notch Lake and then continues past the Devil’s Acre lean to, Geiger Point and Diamond Notch Falls before heading up and over West Kill and St. Ann’s Mountains. The walk out is along a gorgeous stream that separates St. Ann’s from the dauntingly impressive east face of North Dome.

Total mileage? Depends who you ask. Internet resources state anywhere from 22 and change to 26 miles. I think it was a bit more, but my phone died at the summit of St. Ann’s, indicating 25 miles at that point. Elevation gain is also a moving target with estimates from 7 to 14 thousand feet offered as the definitive statistic. I tend to glaze over at numbers like these but after finishing I can’t help but wonder what I did at a granular level.

Based on my info, Dave and I maintained a steady 2 mph pace for the whole shebang. We really never flagged. I almost lost it ascending Plateau and needed to stop and rest for a couple of minutes (felt dangerously close to puking – was it the energy gel or just pushing too hard?), and Dave was a little slower than me ascending from Notch Lake to the Devil’s Acre lean to. But overall, we had no trouble staying together and staying with what felt like a quick pace to me. Despite that, we took 14 hours to complete the hike.

I drank one liter of water with a Nuun tablet, and about 3 or 4 liters of plain water. I ate one peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich, one plain old clif bar, one builder’s bar, and 2 energy gels. And I did partake in Dave’s caramel M&Ms.

Because we were hiking right through my buddy’s area (she is the ranger for the whole Devil’s Path), we arranged to meet up at the midway point. Our plan fell through, so my husband took up those reins. He waited for Dave and me in the Notch Lake Parking Area with Ben and Jerry’s slices (yes, the peanut butter ones!). I was able to get a text to him in time to request that he also bring me my hiking poles, as I’d forgotten them at home. Tom worried that I might be tired or feeling low after the descent of Plateau (definitely my least favorite part of the journey) so he brought Peeka (my favorite dog) along for the ride. Seeing Peeka in the car definitely cheered me, although Tom’s kindness, support, and generosity cheered me just as much.

What I learned from finally bagging this elusive addition to my Catskills list:

  1. Every ascent is hard. They don’t really get any easier or less sweaty no matter how many you do in a day.
  2. Every descent is hard. Hiking poles are totally worth it for the descents. I’ll bet my knees would hate me less today if I used poles for the whole hike.
  3. Strong quads make the toe jamming on descents less of an issue. The prep by hiking with the extra heavy pack achieved that.
  4. The walk out after the last peak is always interminable, no matter how far it is or how long your hike. The combination of nettles encroaching upon the trail and the sudden appearance of mosquitoes made my final mile a triathlon of walking, yelling, and slapping. Not a fan.
  5. Despite moving quickly, I reveled in the glory of being atop some of my favorite Catskill peaks. The scent of the balsams is intoxicating. The views jaw-dropping. The sun-dappled trail and the tiny birds (Bicknell’s thrushes? Who knows!) so charming, I almost forgot the task at hand several times, immersed in the beauty.

And now it’s done. We did it. Box checked off. I’m grateful to Dave for offering to do this hike with me, when Christine mentioned my interest in it to him. I’m equally grateful to Chris for putting it out there. And I’m grateful to Tom, my 3 a.m. coffee and toast partner, ice cream and doggo hero of the day. Tom asked me what’s next and I told him I was all set. This was the goal and it’s done. Once he caught his breath after laughing his head off at that, I admitted, well, I might do some of the other hikes again, after my knees forgive me.

Windy on Orchid Point, Photo by David Pachan
On Twin’s false summit.
Buck Ridge Lookout. Photo by David Pachan
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Where joy resides

Last night a classic August drama unfolded with thickening clouds at 4 pm and an evening of downpours punctuated by bangs, flashes, and crashes. This morning the air is soft and damp, and if you tilt your head the right way you can see it – tiny droplets slowly drifting and dissipating. I went outside before dog walk time, just to take photos of the air and enjoy the coolness.

By the time we headed out for the walk, I thought all that mist would have evaporated and we could walk anywhere on the mountain… it’s all the same to me. I was wrong – the mist was still filtering through the trees, turned by sunlight into three dimensional shafts and columns. I wanted to stick to the eastern slopes where the light would be most dramatic and try to get some photos of mist and trees and dogs and who knows what else.

When we got to the junction, the dogs danced in anticipation. Ok, Hawkitt danced. The others, ears perked, sat and watched Hawkitt and I discuss the plan. “This way.” I opened the negotiation with a clear directive. Hawk spun and play bowed. That was his way of saying “all ways are good, but some ways are gooder than others. I kinda disagree with your route.” “This way,” I repeated. I’m not especially creative or verbose in my negotiations and today I wasn’t interested in a compromise. I added a gesture. Hawk does well with hand signals. He paused, cocked his head, then attacked a tree branch. I strode off and the other three came with me. Hawk soon overtook us, tree branch catching me behind the knees as he passed.

I think a lot about our communication, and about our relationship. Hawk is a lot of dog, in every way. He gives me a lot to think about; a lot to feel about. Our relationship is as rich and nuanced as most of my human relationships. He is a complex and sophisticated being.

About 45 minutes later I became entranced with something I was photographing. Might have been a red eft or a particularly striking fungus. It took me a while to get my shot. Once I got up and walked on, I realized I was completely alone. All four dogs had buggered off.

I walked for a little while, thinking about this. I listened. I daydreamed. I thought about why this was ok, why it wasn’t a problem. And then I got to a spot where I had decent visibility and issued the call: Hawk-HAAAW-AAAAWK! Three full breaths later a huge black blur graced my peripheral vision. No, not a bear. Hawkitt. Peek and Brody in tow. Cinder followed a bit later.

Why did they give up whatever it was they were doing to heed my call? Some would say training. I trained them to respond to that sound with that behavior. But as anyone who has ever owned a dog (especially a fun-loving dickheaded one) knows, the dogs had a choice. Much like children or spouses, they could “not hear” me. They could have continued to shove their heads in rotten logs up past their ears and lolled their tongues sideways, singing “la la la I can’t hear you.” Unless the dog is on a leash (and sometimes even then!), that dog can decide to trade his or her agenda for yours… or not.

The simple answer to my questions is the bond. The bond I develop with my dogs is the reason why they trade their agenda for mine every day, willingly and even happily. Every reunion is joyous. Hawkitt’s return to me is as enthusiastic as his departure; Peeka runs headlong into my knees and grins every time. Brody flops at my feet, his bones becoming overcooked noodles from the sheer joy of my praise. Even Cinder drops her veil of dignity and becomes puppyish when praised for these nice recalls.

I asked Facebook friends recently – how do you develop a bond with your dog? I received a ton of great responses. Concrete suggestions about feeding and training and play and affection all make sense. Yes, we definitely do all those things and more. But I think I can sum it up more succinctly than offering a list of specific exercises or techniques. It’s not a set of things to do. It’s a way to feel.

Bonding happens when you meet the dog’s needs. Not just physical needs, but dare I suggest… deeper needs. Not all dogs have complex spiritual and emotional needs (cough Peeka cough) but most of the dogs I am familiar with (i.e. pointy-eared herding breeds that have crappy genetics and a terrible start in life replete with neglect and abuse) are not exactly “easy.” Bonding with them is not straightforward, but it is necessary. And it comes from determining what their needs are, first, and then endeavoring to meet those needs as best as possible, despite being a flawed human.

Bonding takes time. Not necessarily time spent doing anything in particular, just time getting to experience each other’s harmonic vibration and adjusting to synchronize the vibe together. How’s that for some new agey bullshit??? I don’t exactly believe it, but I don’t NOT believe it either. I believe that those first three nights that Peeka was here, when I cornered her in Maya’s old bedroom and caught her like a wild animal and then held her in my arms while we slept all night… I believe those nights were profound for both of us. She was a filthy stinking rat of a dog, reeking of lime sulfur dip and infection and blood and misery. She was afraid of everything except Hawkitt. And yet she slept all night, curled against my belly. I’ve never done anything like that before or since, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone trying to figure out how to bond with a dog. But I believe she needed exactly that, so I gave it. And she is bonded to me. Soul-spliced even.

Hawkitt needs structure. He needs clear boundaries and a ton of interaction – intense interaction. But he doesn’t really need all that much affection. He’d rather do bitework than snuggle. Cinder would rather snuggle than breathe. And Brody? I’m still trying to figure out what his needs are.

The thing is, once you commit to meeting the dogs’ needs, you can fall into the trap of thinking that at some point you will actually be finished. That somehow, all this meeting needs will end up with a being that no longer has that need because it has been sated. That was the ah-ha moment I had this morning while I took photos and yelled for my dogs. No matter how much I snuggle Cinder, she will need to be snuggled tomorrow. That is a defining characteristic of Cinder: it is who she is. Hawkitt might become an easier dog as he ages. He might stop needing me to be a drill sergeant. He might not. It’s not a failing on his part or mine. There is no goal – we don’t meet the needs with the hope or expectation that we will extinguish them.

Meeting the need isn’t a means to an end – the end being the absence of that need. Meeting the need is love in action. It’s an “in the moment” thing – a presence and selfless giving, with no expectations regarding the future. It’s definitely why I live a life surrounded by dogs.

Sometimes what’s needed most of all is to NOT meet a need when it’s presented. Saying no, setting a limit, and pushing a dog to be ok without that particular need getting met by me this instant… sometimes that meets a deeper and even more important need for both of us in developing our bond. I’m not an affection Pez dispenser and you can’t just noseflip my arm every time you feel needy. No, it isn’t play time 24/7 and no, you can’t always come with me every time I leave. Discerning which needs are the ones for me to meet as Loving Hippie Earth Mama and which needs are better met by Drill Sergeant Mama is an important distinction that comes with experience and trust. Trust in myself, trust in my dogs, and trust in the universe, I guess, that it will all come out ok.

Sure, training is part of what we do. It’s the technical part, the boring part for me. Boring but required, a bit like memorizing times tables or knowing how to drive a stick shift. It’s part of the package of this life with dogs, but it isn’t the point. It isn’t the end; training is just building a common language. The why, the bond, the choice – that’s where the joy resides.  

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Life With Brody

I’ve thought about writing this post and then talked myself out of it over and over again. I don’t know if I can convey in words what life with Brody is like, and much of the time I’m not sure I want to, at least not publicly.  Sharing his story is fraught with peril, and it’s a carefully considered choice every time I do. I know full well that someone – well-meaning or ill-intentioned – will attempt to backseat drive. With Brody, trust me when I say: you can’t know what this is like. Your advice or judgment, no matter how much experience you have with odd dogs, is not going to hit the mark because – again, you just have to trust me on this – Brody is different.

Let’s get a few basics out of the way. He’s not being a brat, he’s not trying to be dominant, he’s not overmedicated or improperly medicated or undermedicated. He’s not “working me” and I’m not failing to demonstrate leadership. He’s not engaged in bad behavior and I’m not “just his pal.” These are all good suggestions and worth exploring when you have a dog exhibiting unwanted behaviors. However, they are all incorrect. I have a metric ton of unanswered questions about Brody, but these are not among them. This much I do know with certainty and confidence.

He has been getting worse, and while it’s not a linear progression, it’s worrisome. I seesaw between dread and hope, knowing in my gut that this is organic and degenerative, and hoping beyond hope that just like Mica and her cancer, sometimes miracles do happen.

Brody’s beginnings are largely unknown. Some trainers would say that doesn’t matter and that you work with the dog in front of you. I agree fully when the dog in front of your is medically cleared – free from medical conditions that may impact functioning, behavior, temperament, and ability to learn. However, when the dog in front of you has medical conditions due to starvation while developing, background knowledge is useful. By way of example, if you are trying to teach trigonometry to a brain-injured adult with a 75 I.Q., knowing that person’s medical history is definitely going to impact how you teach. If you are a compassionate guide, your understanding of the individual’s past will also impact your goals as a teacher. You can lure, bribe, praise and punish using every technique and method under the sun but it’s unlikely you’ll get a passing grade on the trig regents exam from your human student. And it may be unkind to try. Understanding Brody’s history – bio-psycho-social history – should impact what we expect of him. If we are compassionate and devoted to him (not some training dogma) then his history and limitations (genetic, medical and emotional) matter.

Brody was found when he was about nine months old with four other dogs. It is believed they are all littermates due to their physical similarities (age, size, markings). Finding one Belgian malinois in rural upstate New York is unusual. Finding five is an indicator of a backyard breeder dumping unsold dogs. Of all five dogs, Brody was the largest and the closest to a normal weight. He was close to 30 pounds, and for a pup his age and breed he should have been closer to 50. Now, at a healthy adult weight he weighs 53 pounds. The other pups weighed between 22 and 27 pounds.

He was adopted out from the shelter and returned for aggressive behavior. The shelter contacted malinois rescue and he entered foster care. Over the next two years, he was adopted out and returned 4 times, each time for aggressive behavior. He was tried as a solo dog in the home, and also in multi dog homes. He didn’t work out in any of these situations, and was returned to his foster owner each time. None of these behaviors were seen at his foster home, but his foster owner – one of the New York State coordinators for malinois rescue – felt that I could give him a more enriched life than she could. I hike daily with my dogs and have a very flexible work schedule such that I get to spend time and interact with the dogs a lot. Brody was doing well with Debbie, but Deb worked full time and was often competing with her other malinois on the weekends. I finally agreed to take him after meeting him and falling in love.

I took adopted him in late July 2017. He settled in remarkably well, given how difficult his presumed littermate, Peeka, can be with new dogs. But within a day or two, the pack of five dogs was coexisting peacefully.

Brody with Peeka in the back yard

My immediate concern was that Brody seemed to respond to invisible stimuli. He would suddenly snarl, growl, and start barking aggressively… at nothing. At least nothing that was visible, audible or detectable by humans. He would also react aggressively to all unknown experiences by charging me or Tom, barking like Cujo. Opening a jar, using a citrus juicer, or the inadvertent clatter of silverware in the sink were all causes for charging and intense barking. If either one of us left the room, when we returned Brody treated us as if we were strangers. These situations are troubling, but I was more concerned about the reactions to ‘ghosts’ and wondered if maybe he was having some type of atypical seizure.

After ruling out seizure disorder, the vet suggested a trial of Prozac. On the medication, his reactions to invisible stimuli stopped. He continued to have issues with us, but at least we could always see what happened to precipitate the charge.

Getting charged is startling, and the psycho barking is annoying, but I’ve never felt afraid of Brody. His behavior never stopped me from doing what I was doing (e.g. walking down the stairs or making dinner) and underreacting by just saying “knock it off” and essentially demonstrating by my attitude and behavior that what sure looked like an attempt to intimidate me wasn’t working. I totally ignored the outbursts, beyond saying “cut it out” and for the most part, Brody would just sheepishly back off after an initial barrage of barking. I have never had a problem handling him for grooming including nail trims and can muzzle him at the vet’s without any drama. He is nervous but under control at the vet’s and recently handled a series of x rays without sedation or a muzzle – no problems.

We also tried to give a command when we looked like he was getting ready to spazz out. This was helpful sometimes – he could respond to a command instead of charging us. Sometimes he charged anyway.

He was stable at this level of screwy behavior for about a year and a half, with some problematic resource guarding (and everything, from a splinter of firewood on the floor to a human seated at the dinner table, could become a resource) and some very odd quirks – his bowl obsession being the most photogenic and winsome of these.

I did see progress as well. When he arrived he seemed unable to play. He loved being outside with Hawkitt and Peeka at playtime, but he didn’t seem to be able to engage with a human for an organized game. He just chased Hawkitt as Hawk played fetch. Brody ran at Hawk’s side for months. He’d spin with excitement for each throw of the ball, but never attempted to pick up a ball or stick or play himself. Over time, he has developed the ability to play fetch, which included understanding our directions, and complying with our commands to come, sit, wait, and leave it. For Brody, this is monumental progress.

He developed a nagging cough or retch. As escalating treatments failed to improve it, we did x rays and a contrast series. The tests showed that Brody has malrotation of the small intestine and some partial form of situs inversus. His guts and organs looked “wacked out,” to borrow his vet’s technical term. Perhaps some of his shrieking at ghosts was also pain related?

Slowly over the past few months he has gotten worse. He has good days and bad. He has gone after all his packmates here, and while none of these incidents have escalated into a fight that sure seems like only a matter of time. He has had a couple of outbursts where he fails to “come back” as quickly as he used to. He is once again growling and barking at “nothing” and is definitely much worse in the evening. Some nights, he lies against the couch as we watch tv, and just shrieks at the world. No dogs near him, no humans touching him, no perceptible problem… but suddenly he is furious or terrified or both.

It looks a little bit like rage syndrome, but not enough to strongly consider that as a diagnosis.

He is a handsome young dog. He is sweet and affectionate with both Tom and me, and loves to be petted. He rolls over for belly rubs, and obeys me even when he doesn’t want to. He sits calmly at mealtimes, accepting the bizarre human notion of taking turns and taking food from my hands gently. He has come so far, it pains me to admit that he is getting worse. Of the five siblings he was found with, one died at age two from a fast-growing cancer. One has been diagnosed with mega-esophagus and struggles with comparable behavioral issues. Peeka, his littermate, has struggled with serious medical issues for years, as well as terrible temperament issues. From what little we know, it sure seems that the genetic loading on these dogs is godawful.

The nagging question of what to do is ever present. Yes, he’s been on CBD oil and no, it didn’t help at all. No, I won’t use any “alternative” approach if there is no science to indicate it’s actually effective. Yes, he’s still on Prozac and we added some trazodone. No, it isn’t a miracle. Yes, I make sure he gets unstructured and structured exercise, mental stimulation, play, affection, and training every day. No, we’re not working with a trainer but we are working very closely with a veterinarian who has said point blank “this is not a training or behavioral issue. This is a brain issue.” Yes, I’ve listened to some excellent advice from a trainer anyway because once you start thinking about euthanasia, you have to grasp at straws. And yes, we have said the E word.

I began writing this post after an especially bad day. Nothing happened, no fight, no dramatic incident, no bite. But Brody was clearly miserable, shrieking fury and fear at the universe repeatedly all day. We’re well into the second good day in a row, a day in which Brody tolerates Tom and me moving freely about the house without charging or growling, and he hasn’t flipped out on any other his packmates either. He seems calmer today than he has been for a while. Perhaps he felt all my worry and distress? Perhaps the trazodone is kicking in? Is it just too hot and humid to get all worked up? Maybe I should try some Pepcid in case his outbursts are partly just due to a tummy ache?

This is life with Brody. In between all the worry and all the soul-searching, we snuggle and laugh and play and have fun. I look up from cooking to find him seated at my feet, often with one front paw lifted in his beseeching gesture: please sir, may I have some more? I want to give him more and I hope I can. Life with Brody is all about hope.

Selfie smooches

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Dogs, Not Robots

Hours. I spent hours today, hours of my life that I will never get back, chasing an errant knave of a dog on Bramley Mountain. And it wasn’t exactly his fault, nor is he a bad dog, nor was he exhibiting bad behavior, and (hold onto your hats because this is the biggie) nor am I a bad owner.

Shit happens. Before this morning’s escapade, I was mulling over my next blog post, considering the notions we humans have of good dogs and bad dogs, good behavior and bad behavior. Wanted and unwanted actions and how we handle them – this is what I think about when I have down time. It’s also what I think about when I’m busy, or when I’m working on a pleasantly mindless or repetitive task… like weeding or planting seedlings, both of which I spend a lot of time doing these days.

Good behavior, level one, is easy to define. A dog that obeys a command demonstrates good behavior, right? That’s a no brainer: I say sit and the dog sits. If he sits quickly and without rolling his eyes at me, even better. I call him and he comes… good dog. But what about the actions that occur without our commands – the stuff they do when no one is watching, or when we’re watching but not intervening?

Examples? I love watching my dogs make decisions and choices, and I give them ample opportunities to do so. You’d think I have a laundry list at the ready of independent actions my gang does to illustrate this idea, but my mind has gone blank. Why? Probably because Hawkitt took off this morning and I spent hours reobtaining him. I’m working on my attitude as I write, trying to breathe and understand, to tease apart the threads of my responsibility and his nature, to understand what I can reasonably expect from him and from myself.

Crushingly handsome as Tom would say, but what a dickhead.

Hawkitt is a good dog by my definition. He is ridiculously obedient. He has a large vocabulary and completes an ever-increasing number of commands perfectly and consistently. He has a lovely temperament and is kind (anthropomorphic, I know, but if you’ve ever met a dog that wasn’t kind, you know what I mean). And I hesitate to describe what he did this morning as running away. Running away, to me, implies that he was guided by the intent to be away from me. Running away means just that in my book – running AWAY from home, pack and family.

Hawk was home the whole time he was away. He never came to a physical property boundary, or a road. He cannot distinguish the difference between the public land on one side of a stone wall and our private property on the other. He was running around in an area that we hike in together almost every day. It’s all home turf to him. When strangers hike on the public trail, Hawkitt needs to go confront them. To him, they are strangers in his home. That he confronts them with play and gentleness and joy is a blessing, and a huge relief, but the point remains. When strangers step onto that trail, to Hawk they are visiting his home. He needs to say hi.

The fact that he doesn’t say hi the vast majority of the time counts for something. When I see that look in his eye, the stiffness of his erect ears, or the hard stare in the general direction of the trail, I say “no, leave it” and he does. Reliably and consistently. But this morning he was chasing a chipmunk with Peeka and Cinder. I let them go. I never intervened, because I saw no reason to. I moved on with Brody, like I have done year in and year out. 99.999% of the time Hawkitt returns to me and remains with me for the rest of the walk. This time Hawk must have pulled his head out of a chipmunk hole and caught scent of people. He was gone before I could suggest he stay with me. And this happens about once a year.

I’m sure there are readers who feel concerned or critical of me and my handling of this situation. I readily admit, I have my moments where I feel rage and despair at the situation and wonder how much we could get for our unfinished house. I think about leashing Hawkitt for the rest of his natural life, or just not bringing him on the morning walk. Never hiking with him here at home, where I moved specifically because I could go hiking without getting in the car, feels extreme. And yet simply shrugging and saying well he’s a dog, not a robot, feels like a cop out.

Understanding this, at a deep level, is hard. It’s hard for me to be so inconvenienced and yet get it, deep down – that Hawk did nothing wrong. For the behaviorists in the crowd – let it be known that every time Hawkitt has visited hikers on that trail, it has resulted in high value rewards. The hikers play fetch with him endlessly, charmed by his adorable stick addiction. They set no limits, tell him he’s “so cute” and throw the stick every time he drops it. Why wouldn’t he go check the trail for playmates every chance he gets? How can I compete with that and still run a tight ship?

I saw an Instagram video this morning of a breeder training her dog. Her caption was about having a bad time of it with the dog totally misbehaving and failing to do what was asked. I commented “we all have off days and I always say they are dogs, not robots.” I believe that, but I hold other people’s dogs and training hiccups in a much more compassionate light than my own. Everyone is welcome to make mistakes and have their journey with their dogs (or humans, for that matter) be circuitous, bumpy, and zigzagging… except me. Except Hawkitt. Not my dogs, not my pack.

I was as polite and gentle as I could be when I collected him from those hikers on the summit. I snapped on the leash and barked commands at him and gave him zero slack, jerking his head up when he dove for the stick. Playtime is over, pal. He isn’t looking great this week – coat is a bit dusty and dull, and once again he looks too thin to me. I imagined the hikers feeling sorry for him, thinking “that poor underfed furbaby with the mean owner” and I felt awful. No wonder he ran away from me, right?

We heeled halfway home (that’s about half a mile, through untrailed wilderness), with him on target and in position. Since I snap a leash on him about once a year this is pretty damned impressive. We did some longer down stays and I rewarded him with a stick. He had to work for it, but work is his middle name. We were almost home when I saw a red eft inside a rotten log. It looked like something had kicked the log apart as it ran past – maybe a deer? Bear? Hawk got put in a sit stay while I examined and photographed thoroughly. I’ve never seen an eft inside a log before. The last time Hawk chaperoned hikers off Bramley was last summer. My buddy drove to the trail head while I ran up the mountain. On my way, bushwacking through the steeps, I stumbled upon a gorgeous chicken of the woods mushroom, which I harvested for dinner. While I was doing so, my phone went off: Kristie had picked up Hawkitt. I foraged a free dinner.

Striped marauder #2. Not a dickhead but a crackhead in her own right.

Do these serendipitous happenings somehow make it worth it? I know folks who would offer that Hawk is “giving” me these experiences and it is up to me to accept them as treasures and be grateful. I won’t go that far, and I will continue to strive to step up to the challenges of owning a dog like Hawkitt (not to put too fine a point on it, but have you noticed that NONE of my other dogs have ever done this? Past or present: zero. Not Lily, Iske, Mica, Tonshi, Brody, Peeka, or Cinder have ever decided to chaperone a hiker down to the parking area. Both Cinder and Peeka have confronted hikers, sized them up, and departed to return to me. But said hikers threw Hawkitt’s proffered stick. I think I’m gonna blame them and the stick throwing for my misfortune.)

They are dogs, not robots. They do the unexpected. They aren’t badly behaved, even when they do things we really really REALLY don’t want them to. And we aren’t bad owners for being in the soup with them, having it go badly one day and better the next. Life with dogs is just that: ups, downs and a whole lot of sidewayses. Life with the striped marauders of Bramley Mountain  – the Bramleywolves, if you will – is mostly sideways. It might not be instagrammable or elegant but it’s real. And when I look at them at the end of the day, I see dogs that have had their needs met. They are full and sated. Throwing a stick for miles on end doesn’t do that but being worked does. I might not be the nicest-sweetest-funnest furmama ever, but so be it. I am in it with them, working and playing, learning and growing. For me, that’s as good as it gets.

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It’s Mother’s Day on the mountain and I’m gifted with a day to do what I love best: hike alone, write without interruption (well, the dogs may destroy that fantasy but so far so good… one sentence in), drink coffee all morning and beer all afternoon, and nap if the need arises. Zero complaints here.

This week I said it out loud, on Facebook, and that makes it real. I am “mother” to dogs that have brain damage. Not joking around, not being histrionic or indulging in hyperbole, but real medical terminology here: brain damage. I have had Peeka for four years, and Brody for almost two, and I’m finally now saying it out loud, in public with all the weight that carries. Call it traumatic brain injury, lesions on the brain, or just plain brain damage, I am mother to dogs that are unpredictable, difficult, and at times profoundly Not Right. I’ve made offhand comments for years about these dogs, but for the first time this week I heard those words repeated back to me by my vet. “Lesions on the brain.” “Even a blind and deaf dog wouldn’t behave the way you’re describing.” “This is brain damage.”

A sweet moment with Brody. We have lots of sweet moments as well as spicy, salty, and sour ones.

My vet has been my right hand through the years-long process of trying to improve their lives and cope with their unique brand of crazy. Some of their behaviors are adorable and chuckle-worthy. Tom and I just shake our heads and let it be. Some of these behaviors are deeply worrisome; some a major management issue. And some scare me, harbingers of increasing levels of stress and challenges to pack harmony. I know where this will go. I know where this path ends. I have no idea when or how long we’ll have together, but Brody’s reactivity this week made me wonder if we’ve increased our speed. He’s a young dog. I thought we had another ten years of this. It’s a blessing and a punch to the gut to think that maybe we have a lot less time than I thought.

Those of us that “do rescue” (such a minimalist phrase for what we do) know this path. I’m not the only one who has screwy dogs. In rescue it’s pretty common, at all levels of screwy, from mildly idiosyncratic to “holy cow that dog is fucked up in the head.” For most non-rescue (AKA normal) pet owners, our lives with our dogs are exactly what is avoided at all costs. Think of every article offering advice on how to pick out your puppy to purchase – choose a good breeder to minimize poor genetics, then pick the most stable, friendly, gregarious pup of the litter, then provide a fabulous first year of safety and good nutrition, positive experiences and excellent training. Tom and I adopt the exact opposite: the worst dogs, from the worst experiences. Brody and Peeka don’t have dramatic stories in the rescue world – they are run of the mill rescue dogs. Terrible genetic loading, a laundry list of medical issues, and horrible temperaments.

But brain damage. That’s one more step into the muck, one step deeper into the work of loving flawed beings. Yeah yeah yeah, we’re all flawed beings. Isn’t this beautiful spiritual work? Sure, until you’ve been nailed for breaking up a shriekfest because the completely normal thing that happens Every Goddamned Day happened and the dogs lost their marbles AGAIN.

So, a bit like a mother who has a special needs child and is just so damn tired of being patient and positive and seeing sunshine and unicorns in every soiled diaper… I get tired. I get disappointed. I get worried. I get scared. And yeah, when folks who don’t know me or the dogs at all express opinions like “you don’t ask much of your dogs” I get angry. Truly, madly, deeply angry. When folks who inhabit the world of “perfect” dogs: great bloodlines, puppyhoods filled with professional training and the very best food, comfort, safety, leadership and love make “suggestions” about how I train my ragtag crew of fucked up shitty dogs… I get angry. I get defensive. I get impatient, not with my dogs but with humans. And I have trouble letting it go.

Finally saying it out loud this week on Facebook felt like a bombshell for those who know and love my pack. The messages poured in, expressions of loving concern and support. When Brody’s former foster mom intimated that my decisions about his future would be understood and respected, I realized that the anger and hurt and shame and exhaustion at managing had been piling up. The dam is breaking, bit by bit, and I’m admitting to myself and Brody’s community just how hard this is. Yes, it’s also sweet and so touching, but the daily management is a vampire, and some days I’m damn near bled out.

I don’t need help. I don’t need suggestions. I don’t need recommendations for herbal remedies or acupuncture or CBD oil. I don’t need a trainer or a behaviorist or an animal communicator (although I admit that the idea of an animal communicator does kind of kick up the “that would be cool” response in me). I don’t need to be more positive or change my outlook. I don’t need to see the spiritual gift in having these challenges, or offer gratitude for the great things in life I do have in spades.

I don’t need patronizing or condescending comments from folks who’ve never picked up a skeletal dog from a transport or shelter, never shaved fur matted with blood and shit to find human-inflicted wounds underneath, never evaluated a dog stuck in the shelter with no fosters or adopters to step up, never stayed up all night to check if that foster dog is still breathing, never xrayed their elderly dog to discover she’s lived ten years with you with shotgun shot embedded in her back. I’m not much of a rescue person – I am not on the front lines like some of my friends who live these scenarios day in and day out. I’m lucky to dip my toes in and then have space and time with each dog. But I don’t need the opinions of those who’ve lived a pet life free from the filth and horror that many of us face regularly.

I need patience and enormous amounts of well-brewed IPAs. I need support, empathy, respect, and sometimes to be left the hell alone. I need to vent and rant and curse and tell the truth about living with crazy fucked up dogs: it’s really hard sometimes. And I need to say thank you, once again, to the folks out there who get it.

I know I’m not alone. I know I have colleagues; hell, I have my tribe. I’m lucky and grateful and resentful and exhausted in equal measure. I know you guys are too. So a special happy mother’s day to all of you out there who mop up another lake of excrement and then pet the beast who did it, knowing this is just what we do. Loving comes in many flavors. Loving rescue dogs, especially malinois and dutchies, is kinda like black licorice, I guess. Some folks love it, many more hate it. Black licorice ice cream, in that appealing shade of gray… that’s my flavor of dog, I guess.

And now I have to end this and run because someone (cough Peeka cough) is barking at a pot on the stove that has been there since November. Today it’s a Serious Problem. And the beat goes on…

The good moments are worth it. Peeka and Cinder.
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Amoeba Penguin Tire

I left at midday. The raven family in the spruce stand across the street sent me off with a guttural serenade heard through the open car windows. Ravens. My closest neighbors are ravens, their raucous cries background noise. My heart swells; all I’ve ever really wanted was proximity to wild creatures. Here I have it, in spades.

I left for another world, or so it seems. Florida is different in almost every way. Far enough south to mean a different day length and different sunrise time, I’m jarred from Day One, confused about day and night, and quite literally fumbling about in the dark.

Nokomis Beach at dawn

I don’t fit in. I can pack sandals and tank tops, but somehow my clothes don’t look right in Florida. I am too untidy and wild in my appearance, my thoughts, my opinions, for this place. I step outside on the grass and am struck by how spongey it is. Even the grass isn’t wild here, but delivered and cut to fit.

Mom asks me what I remember from my childhood. I share more and more memories as they come up, all week long. I don’t know if they are genuine or manufactured. Remembering that I used to remember is a particular type of memory and when trauma is involved, I don’t completely trust my recollections. Maybe I remember, or maybe the memory is a brittle tableau that decades have hardened into a knickknack I can turn over between my fingers and state with confidence “there it is.” I tell Mom my memory of how my father’s death was revealed to me. She categorically denies that that’s how it went down. Dueling memories. I tell her it happened on a Thursday. The internet is a fantastic invention: we look it up. I was right. About the Thursday part. Does that mean I was right about the rest? Do we trust a five and a half year old’s memory or a ninety year old’s memory? Both seem suspect. Mom had a memory test administered when the visiting nurse came. She passed with flying colors. She then told me it was too easy. I offered to give her a harder one. Remember three words: amoeba, penguin, tire. But it was my memory test too – I had to remember to ask her to repeat the words at dinner that night. We both remembered.

Mom talks about the sense of rootlessness she experiences, tracing it back to the evacuation of London. She says that being taken away from her home and family as a child took away her sense of roots. I want her to say more, to explain and tell stories, to flesh that out and make it real for me. I don’t know if I feel that too, the death of my father and the trials of childhood adding up to a divorce from my hometown. I was seventeen when I left home, not ten, like my mother. Our experiences were different. But our emotional experience of rootlessness, or disconnection… is that similar?

I wonder about it. I ponder. Am I disconnected? From a sense of home and family? Are we all struggling with disconnection and rootlessness to varying degrees, or are some folks truly anchored in places and people they call home and family? A couple of years ago when Tom returned home from helping his daughter move to Georgia, I asked him about the area. “What’s it like?” I wondered, wanting to hear about ecosystems, wildlife, flora and fauna. “It’s just a place people live,” he replied with a bit of a shrug. I felt his answer viscerally, like a punch to the gut. I don’t think I’d survive living in “just a place people live.” In the past I’ve told Tom that I cannot move too far from the Hudson River – that no matter what, I need to be able to get to the river in less than a day’s drive. The river is real. It anchors me. I can’t live in a place that feels empty. I’m afraid that emptiness will infect me, swallow me, overwhelm me.

I can coach myself out of that feeling, much like I coached myself not to panic as I flew northward, up the eastern seaboard, amid bone-rattling turbulence. “The plane will not fall like a stone from the sky,” I told myself. It worked a little; I didn’t shed tears or throw up.

I tell myself I’m being dramatic, that I don’t really feel empty at all. My life is full. My husband is my family. My daughter is family. My step daughter and my step dog and my dogs are family. The ubiquitous ravens and porcupines are not exactly family, but community. Community is a close cousin to family, a set of relationships that fulfill a deep need to belong, to feel held and connected. To matter.

I attended an event last night, and felt held in community by a group of people. As a rule, I don’t do large social occasions well. I am awkward and uncomfortable and have no poker face at all. But by the end of the evening, when the goodbyes were shared, the hugs and kisses were so genuine and so warm, I drove home mulling over the contradiction. I guess I am not such a misfit after all. I guess I do have roots, even if some are kind of shallow. I do have a tribe, and when they tease me I know I am home. “You will always be my favorite pain in the ass,” he joked with one last hug, and I felt it. I am home.

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Flawed Perfection

The K9 handler and I strolled back to the command post after completing the task we were assigned. His dog had already made the find so we walked easily, enjoying that happy glow of a job well done. He said to me, beaming with pride, that the dog had recently put in a four hour day. Four hours!!! And the dog didn’t appear tired when that day’s work was completed. I’m sure he saw the shadow cross my features. I have no poker face at all. Four hours is nothing, I thought. “You’re not asking much of your dog,” is the thought that entered my head.

I didn’t say that. I took another moment to think about the man and his dog. He was clearly proud of his dog who had just performed well. I don’t have a dog of that breed, and my experience handling a working k9 under similar circumstances is limited at best. I clamped my jaws shut until I could come up with a positive, encouraging, friendly, and genuine response and then I shared it. What possible good could have come from me raining on his parade, even if we pretend for a moment that I was correct? Would he change his opinion of his dog? Not likely. Would he be hurt or angry, or bewildered by what could only come across as a unpleasant response from someone he just met? Maybe. Insulting his dog when I have limited knowledge of the specifics would have spoken volumes about me and said very little about him and his dog.

Recently I was similarly judged and found wanting. This experience always rocks me back on my heels. Digesting an insult, no matter how unintended it may be, is a project. Good thing I know that yoga is not all pretzel limbs, a toned butt, and an eco-friendly mat with a lotus design on it. Yoga is looking at the ugly panty lines of self, owning them, and then committing to being inwardly honest, outwardly truthful, and dedicated to vibing on a higher level. Digesting an insult is a yoga class in and of itself.

It would have been easy for me to insult that handler. Maybe I was correct, that his dog was not being adequately challenged. I could easily climb upon my high horse and wax eloquent about how important it is for the dog to be perfect. Lives depend upon it. I would have facts on my side. I could have easily made the claim that correcting his false impression about his inferior dog and his inferior training was for the best, and an invitation to help him be better. I could hide behind the claim that I was being helpful.

But would that really have been honest? Scathingly, intensely, deep down to the bone honest?

Or would the comment carry the jealousy and small-minded pettiness of my need to know more and be better than? Better than that handler, better than his dog, better than anyone or everyone? Because the fact is, I don’t know details about the dog, the situation, or the task. I don’t regularly engage in that specific activity. I don’t own that breed of dog and never work with them. Truly, if I was lucky enough to be correct, it would be luck, not experience or familiarity that provided for my accuracy. Hubris is where I’d be coming from. And that is a seriously ugly panty line on me.

The day I stop being open and start telling others how crap they are, I will know I have lost access to learning and growth. And shit – that damn yoga thing about vibing on a higher level – I guess learning and growth is really more important than being right and telling anyone else how wrong they are.

Social media connections have meant that I am incredibly lucky and blessed to have developed a large and vibrant community of people I call friends — friends I never met — who share information and emotion with me. We laugh and cry over our dogs antics and ailments, and cheer each other on through the challenges. Yes, there are also those that like to be the Monty Python foot coming out of the sky and proving FACTS (kaboom – you are all wrong and you are crap owners-trainers-handlers and your dogs are crap and your training methods are crap and your ability to manage is crap blah blah blah), but they are blessedly few and far between. We crossed paths recently and we will again, I’m sure.

I see that impulse in me and I own it and I’ll work on it. That’s the best I can do. Thank you to the person who insulted me; thank you for showing me that part of myself and challenging me to work on it. I hate this work and simply want to be right, and tell the world how right I am. But hey, that’s the work, at least for now.

We’re all flawed.

Pay attention to the dog, not the dogma.

Heather Rolland
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