Dog Fights and Summer Musings

I loosened Willa’s collar. There is such a ritual in this simple act, the concrete acknowledgement of growth. Similarly when we had to finally retire Bindi’s baby collar, the adorable honeybee one her foster mama gave her, we marked it as a rite of passage and an important acknowledgement of physical growth. With our human children, we make pencil lines on the wall, we count how many words they know at age two – the stuff of measurement. What does your dog weigh, how many commands does she know? It’s all ways of quantifying and celebrating how a living being blossoms under our care. That’s why I wax poetic about the little things. The new collar. The marks on the wall. The quantification of care and love in flesh, blood, and bone.

The gift of last week’s family emergency is that all else was tossed aside – all trappings of “regular” life. Admittedly, I’ve had little by way of regular life for quite some time. It was years ago I told myself I would take no shit and give no fucks from now on. The gloves are off. Tom was with his daughter, handling the situation at her side, several hours away from home. Without Tom’s workaday schedule structuring my chaos, I’ve slipped ever deeper in a feral mindset. Meals and bedtimes are a construct for people who can swallow, people who do not have loved ones in the hospital.

Rushing to get to my own doctor’s appointment I consider telling the truth: I was late because I was taking photos of my dog. I was late because the light on his fur was compelling. I was late because I wasted time crying. And now I am late, and resentful that I am being forced to hurry the puppy through her sniffing. How do I explain that I am late because I am trying to savor this life?


So much happens each day, I struggle to absorb it all, writing in my head, but unable to carve out the time and mindset to write anything more complex than a To Do list. I was walking Hawkitt around the pond an hour ago and looked down to see blood on my camera. The morning walk was cut short this morning because Bindi and Willa had a fight. I need to write about it, so I put Peeka outside, Bindi upstairs, and let Willa chill on the couch. The peace and quiet needed to heal their trauma and allow me to write now has a fighting (do I really want to use this word?) chance.

I had trouble deescalating the situation. Resource guarding over a chunk of shelf fungus that both dogs have played with a few times, sharing and grabbing it from each other without so much as a curled lip, today became worth a knockdown, drag-out brawl. It lasted about a minute. I got a decent hold on one dog a few times, but had trouble convincing the other to back off each time I did. I fell, got my finger twisted in a collar, at some point injured my back.

The dogs are minimally injured. Both have small cuts on a front leg. Neither dog redirected onto me. It could have been much worse. Much worse.

Adrenaline is an interesting drug. I don’t remember what I said or did during the fight. I remember clearly what I thought and how I felt, but I’m not sure what came out of my mouth. I know I managed to wheelbarrow each dog once, and that doing so helped to distract the dog and slow down the intensity. The fight ended when I had one dog firmly in my grasp and the other chose to back down. I don’t know which. I wasn’t able to physically grab both at the same time.

My thoughts were simple: I will get them to stop hurting each other. That’s pretty much it. My feelings were of caring and compassion. I felt empathy. I know I didn’t get angry, and I didn’t bellow commands. I didn’t yell. I know this for sure; that much I do remember clearly. I didn’t think “I must stop this.” I thought “I will stop this.” I was confident despite feeling sad. I was calm. I never joined in the emotional escalation. I think I said things like “that’s all” and “eeeeeeasy.” I know I didn’t raise my voice.

I have no idea if this was the “right” way to handle the fight. It’s really hard to make choices about what to do in those adrenaline-filled moments. I’m not sure it’s possible to make choices about what to feel, despite knowing that feeling angry or scared creates hormonal secretions that are palpable to the dogs. I would prefer not to do that, not to freak out, not to feel panicked or enraged, but how much control does a person have in that moment? I’m not sure. I was lucky, perhaps, that I went to a place of calm and confident hope – my mantra was “I will help them.” I will be their rock. I will end this badness and help them get through it.

Why does my pack squabble and scuffle? I have theories and questions, not answers. Bindi and Willa have enjoyed healthy play consistently since Willa’s arrival, grabbing items (including this precise stupid piece of fungus) out of each other’s mouths many times before. I watch their play closely – it has been relaxed, full of reciprocity, rest breaks, and trading roles. It’s been healthy, wonderful play for both dogs. When I’ve seen even a hint of intensity I haven’t liked, I’ve just said “Eh! Eh!” and both dogs let go of each other. Today’s escalation is completely new.

Willa is 9 months old. Developmental issues, and hormones may play a role. Overall pack dynamics are chronically difficult, as Peeka and Brody are chronically difficult. This week has been one of emotional upheaval as Tom’s daughter recovers, and I take yet one more step into accepting my own health issues and the lifestyle limitations I face. Last week, the dogs and I were alone for 5 days straight. It was calm and peaceful. I was more attuned than usual, perhaps, because I didn’t have to divide my focus between human and canine family members. This week, Tom is home, and I have been at the clinic and on the phone with doctors. It’s been quiet as ever on the outside, but under the surface, the emotions have been shifting and changing.

And all dogs resolve conflicts through fighting to one degree or another. It is a natural and relatively normal canine conflict resolution tool. Some breeds are much less likely to escalate and get physical. Some breeds are more likely to do so. Having a collection of the latter, trash talk and scuffles are going to be more likely here than in a household full of different breeds.

Two nights ago, we had a three ring circus in here with Brody and Peeka becoming unglued. Tom helped and no dogs were injured at all, but harsh words were spoken by Peeka and Willa. I had been ready for that – primed for Willa to go there with Peeka. To see her go there with Bindi tells me something important about Willa. This is part of her repertoire. This is what she will do when her stress bucket is overflowing. I need to know this and believe it, not tell myself pretty little lies about how any of this is anyone else’s fault: not Bindi’s for starting it, not mine for failing to demonstrate adequate leadership. This isn’t an alpha thing or a training thing. It’s a Willa thing. I need to stare that reality in the face and accept it.


A feral honeybee swarm is cleaning out our uninhabited beehive. I hope they choose to stay and make it their home. I watch them every day, looking to see if workers are entering with full pollen baskets. Pollen going in means the queen is laying: it’s home. So far no pollen, but I keep watching. I looked up from the hive to see a bald eagle circling over the lower pond. Largemouth bass easily 18 inches long patrol the pond, and I swear they swim over to greet me when I walk past. Either that or they’re hungry. I’ve heard largemouth bass will eat anything. The snapping turtle is new this year, and drifts around like a nefarious pool float. The eagle hasn’t swooped down for a snack, but turkey vultures, a broad-winged hawk, and the ravens from next door visit regularly.

I dug up a perennial that got bulldozed during driveway construction and somehow managed to hang on and even bloom, despite being ingloriously shoved aside by heavy equipment. Digging that plant, I happened upon a huge garter snake – triple the thickness of a more typical sized member of that species. Right before the fight erupted, I was standing in a clearing listening to a baby barred owl whistle. I have taken to slipping outside to just stand in the driveway in the early morning. I just stand there, camera in hand. The wildlife comes out from every nook and cranny. I just have to be patient and pay attention.


This life. It isn’t a pleasant evening paddle on a mirror lake. It’s getting swamped upstream in a headwind and losing your gear in November. It’s class five rapids and your helmet doesn’t fit right. It’s zip lining, bungee jumping, sky diving for the acrophobic. Five dogs, an unfinished house, and a chronic, untreatable illness … it’s a lot.

The day after the fight, I’m sore in a collection of muscles and joints I didn’t know I’d used or abused. I feel like I was in a car accident. Maybe just a fender bender but I’m banged up and bruised nonetheless. I can only imagine how the dogs feel.

Today will bring choices and decisions, same as any other day. I’ll do my best to face those decisions head on and make the best choices I can. It would be easy to hand-wring and catastrophize. It would be equally easy to shrug off the fight as an outlying event – an anomaly. My goal is to walk the middle path, and respond to what is, instead of reacting to what I hope or fear. It’s a tall order and I’m a short person, but needs must.


Posted in Catskilliana, the woof pack, writer's life | 2 Comments

Freedom and its Price

At the heart of so many dog training discussions there lies an elephant in the living room: freedom. For folks from the USA, freedom has an almost mythological meaning and importance – we see freedom as central to our identity. Not sure about that? Try telling any 9 year old raised in the USA to do something they do not want to do (or stop doing something they want very much to continue to do). The first words out of their mouth will be “it’s a free country.”

I believe our cultural obsession with freedom impacts our conceptualization of freedom for our dogs. At times we equate off leash freedom with happiness and goodness, and consider the leash tantamount to punishment. We obsess about off leash dogs – either insisting that our dogs must be able to behave themselves off leash and then employing draconian efforts to make it so, or vilifying owners when off leash dogs behave like rampaging maniacs. We long for off leash freedom tempered by safety, but are so conflicted about what it entails and how to get there.

When I adopted Cairo, the track rescue greyhound, the deal was never off leash. Period. That was in the contract from the rescue organization and that was the party line: these dogs cannot ever be trusted and you must never endanger the dog’s life by placing them in that situation. Similarly, before I met Tom, he owned a cairn terrier named Killian. Killian never experienced off leash freedom. Tom walked him on a leash every day for 15 years. Tom explained it to me early on – Killian’s prey drive was too great. Killian lived in an environment quite similar to Bramley Mountain and the wildlife opportunities were also similar. Tom never risked it.

My experience of allowing off leash experiences for my dogs has been different. I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons, assessing the situational issues and choosing for each dog in each specific situation how I want to handle it. I lean towards providing a lot of freedom, and my dogs experience some level of off leash freedom every day. I probably take more risks and greater risks than many dog owners.

I believe that the experience of freedom that I was able to give Mica extended her life, maybe by as much as a year. I am equally convinced that the experience of freedom ended Cinder’s life prematurely. Freedom, for dogs, and for humans, can be fatal.

It’s been one year since Cinder’s death. I think about it every day. I still feel guilty. I still feel shame. I haven’t forgiven myself. I still feel the sick, anxious, weight in the pit of my stomach every time I think about her. I deny myself any positive experience of her – I don’t look at photographs or allow the positive memories to bubble up to the surface, although I am starting to force myself to rethink that and honor all the good as well as remembering the bad. But I can’t sugarcoat it or squirm away from the truth of it: She died as a result of my approach to freedom. Had I been more strict, she would not have lost her life.

But it was only last week that it hit me that the flip side of this awfulness is that indeed, Mica benefitted from my approach to freedom. Mica hiked the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, off leash, and yes, she did bump into porcupines and bears and likely a few coyotes and bobcats too (I can’t always see what’s happening in the thick vegetation). Mica began that journey at age 12, after being diagnosed with stage 3 mast cell sarcoma. She was very sick, elderly, and had spent her prior 11 years on the end of a chain in someone’s backyard. She was not a sensible hiking companion, and it was a huge risk to her health and safety to place her in such a different, challenging, stressful, and potentially dangerous environment.

I believe that freedom cured Mica’s cancer. She got better, despite the odds, and our choice to do no treatment. She healed herself, feasting on deer poop and sunshine and a bad attitude (she attempted to protect me from a motorcyclist one rainy day. It went badly. I had to apologize a lot. She didn’t break the skin, but motorcycle boots are pretty tough and protective. I’m sure it hurt.). I weighed the risks and benefits of every hike, every outing, every long car ride and hot day. And I kept deciding yes. Yes, she is benefitting and we should do this.

It wasn’t so clear with Cinder. She’d lived with me 9 years. I’ll never know what snapped that day. Something in her? Something in the others? She’d successfully negotiated the exact same situation literally thousands of times before. It was the definition of a freak accident, the thing that was always fine went horribly, fatally wrong. And I wasn’t there to stop it.

I’ve been obsessing about and dreading the one year anniversary of her death all spring. How do people move on after being responsible for the death of a beloved pet? I have no idea. I have no pearls of wisdom to share, no frames to place around the event to make it something we can all hang on our wall with reverence. I take some solace in knowing I am not alone. The people who reached out to me in the days and weeks immediately after her death were a lifeline. I shed gallons of tears reading your notes and holding you all in my heart as I slowly came to accept that this awful feeling is just one more part of being in it as deeply as I am. As deeply as we are.

This – this indigestible experience that will haunt me for the rest of my life – is the price of the rest of it. The depth of connection, joy, fun, amazement, accomplishments and brags, triumphs and quiet delights… all of that has a price. You can’t go that deep into pack life with 5 dogs, and embrace freedom without experiencing the price of such freedom. The price is that we cannot control everything. And if we could, if we were successful… then we would have traded freedom for control.

Having the others forces me to stay focused on not fucking up again. I force myself to do things differently. I tell myself that her death must not be in vain – that I must change and grow and learn, at the risk of having something that catastrophic happen again. In response to this clarion call, I have consumed more dog training advice, theory, ideology, methods, and propaganda over the last year than ever before. I watch videos, read books, listen to trainers talk about all of the above and more. The truth is, it’s extremely rare that anyone talks about living with dogs like mine in a household like mine. I am an outlier. That’s not a brag; it’s just a fact.

But to circle back to where I started, I think the appeal of freedom, despite the risks, is still powerful. I believe the appeal of freedom, for some dog owners, stems from the notion of conceptualizing the dog as a fundamentally free and fully separate being, able to make choices. I know that sounds sort of obvious, but I think it’s easy with pets to feel a bit like they are an extension of us. I think some trainers, if forced to use this concept of freedom to articulate what they do would say the end goal of training is to convince the dog that they do not have the choice. The purpose of training, I believe for some trainers and owners, is to ensure the dog embraces total servitude, and loves it.

Recently in an Instagram post, The Collared Scholar mused about what dogs might want, versus what humans might want, in terms of lifestyle. We work our asses off to make malinois into family pets, for example, or any number of other “square peg, round hole” situations, and when our dogs tell us as clearly as they can “I’d really rather not” we just double down and push harder. Then our community celebrates our hard work and effort… when maybe respecting who our dogs are and honoring their voice and their preferences might be a greater triumph…

To shift our thinking and see dogs as fully separate, independent, and capable of choosing how they interact with us is quite different from conceptualizing our role as that of a benevolent monarch that must (out of the justifiable need to be a responsible owner) control every aspect of their behavior. Whose love would you rather have: the love of a free being, able to choose to love you or not? Or the love of a manipulated and controlled being that can never truly choose to NOT love?

Finding the sweet spot on the continuum between freedom and safety is going to be different for every dog owner. Civilized, pleasant housemates that can perform the most basic commands to smooth out the rough edges of human-canine coexistence is pretty important. I’m not advocating for abstaining from training. And I’m not suggesting that all training is somehow an existential assault on the individual dog’s selfhood.

I just want my dog’s compliance to be meaningful. In order to be truly meaningful, they need to have options. They need to know they could choose otherwise. They need to see themselves as having that power and autonomy. To me, that’s it right there – that both of us, owner and dog, fully grasp that the dog always has a choice. That’s the stuff, that’s the ticket. Then, when that dog trades their agenda for yours, it’s powerful magic. It’s “shivers down your spine” deep because there was no compulsion, no trick, no hack, no technique. It’s just the result of an agreement reached by two independent parties.

Thinking this way doesn’t make me feel better about Cinder’s death. But it does help me feel better about Cinder’s life. And that’s the best I can do for now.  



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You can’t go home

You Can’t Go Home

The entryway was unmarked, crumbling asphalt a lane and a half wide leading to a parking area of indistinct dimensions. The edges just faded into loose gravel, a mature sycamore tree shading a freshly dumped propane grill and a rusted and overflowing garbage can. It had been hastily stenciled “Pitch In” at some point in the prior millennium and that was the last time anyone paid it any mind.

There was one other car in the parking area, and it had that look about it of abandonment and homelessness. It seemed to be just left there, not intentionally parked, but rolled to a stop sort of near an edge. I gave a quick but thorough assessment before striding past with faux confidence. I am ostensibly alone here with the driver of that vehicle, I thought.

The walkway to the dock crosses under the railroad tracks in a tunnel that was built in 1913. The concrete walkway is heaved and uneven, and passes by a spillway teeming with debris. I can smell that smell… a smell from my childhood of damp tunnels and the things people do in them. The generations of graffiti adorn the tunnel entrance but the interior is remarkably free from pretty much everything the rest of the area boasts – litter, graffiti tags, and signs of vermin. I hurry through, the thought of meeting my maker in that tunnel at the hands of a rapist-murderer seems not all that far-fetched in the late afternoon solitude. I emerge on the river side of the tracks, and see the cinder path that I know leads south towards my childhood home.

The irises are blooming: they are the yellow ones, Iris pseudacorus – the invasive ones. The dock is empty. I scan and see a family a ways north, fishing from the shore. I walk out onto the dock, and remember that I am an excellent swimmer. If pushed off the dock and into the river, I’m fine. There is no one around to do the pushing but I’m in that mode. Hypervigilant. Planning escapes. Thinking about what’s in my hands, what’s at my disposal. I am a woman alone in public in a relatively deserted place. I am on high alert.

More garbage, litter, someone’s takeout meal neatly placed in a rather upscale looking shopping bag and left under a tree. I am starving, and I peek in, laughing at myself. “What am I going to do? Eat someone’s garbage?” I laugh out loud. No. No, I’m not. But I wonder if it was good.

The last time I came here was before smart phones. I wrote a list on a piece of paper with a pen: hike the blackheads. Visit the dock. I don’t remember what else was on that list, but I remember my pride at checking off both of those items. It was a self care list, a list of ways to try to heal myself from a devastating break up. The dock was key. I sat in my house, two counties away, unable to sleep or eat, torn apart by the betrayal and shock… and longed for the river. I told myself I needed to sleep in the arms of the river. My pain was so immense only a force of nature as primal as the river itself could hold me. So I loaded Iske up in my old diesel Jetta, and drove the hour plus to find this shitty park I knew about. It was filled with people fishing, all from the local village, all Latino men, all utterly uninterested in the short lady with the shepherd dog. The dock was a seasonal affair, not the huge permanent structure I stood on today. That sectional floating small boat dock was where I lay down. Iske curled against me. I fell asleep, floating on the river, and Iss kept me safe.

I was confused for a moment, memory of that nap confronted by a dock that did not bob on the water. Later I looked at the photographs I took and saw the seasonal dock sections piled on the shore. I walked all the way out to the edge, where the pilings had been burned. It took me a moment to absorb that fact. Someone had set fire to the pilings. This place …

As I headed back, I caught sight of the dead fish on the railing, the vultures (both turkey and black) and the osprey. Or was it a juvenile bald eagle? I couldn’t tell, the light was in my eyes. I watched the passenger train on the opposite shore head north, and the young white men wearing bright colored life vests on jet skis head south.  A strange euphorbia, one we don’t see where I live now, was blooming.

I got back to my car and headed home, full of thoughts and feelings.

I never want that place to change. It hasn’t changed since I was a child, 50 years ago. It’s a postage stamp of earth untouched by notions of “infrastructure improvement.” It feels forgotten, unlovely, yet beloved. The people who use it are also forgotten. It’s a shitty little park, haunted by forgotten and abandoned people, who catch PCB-laced fish, and grill them up in the parking lot on a grill that is technically garbage.

I wanted to weep. I had just been to the doctor’s and was emotional. I felt betrayed by my body. Let down. I have been a good caretaker. I exercise, eat only local foods, don’t smoke. I held up my end. My esophagus was letting me down, reneging on the bargain that I give up a hedonistic lifestyle and in return the parts work for a few more decades. I felt lost, betrayed by my body, my physical “home.”

So I came here, to the river. And suddenly, the betrayal was diminished and in it’s place a ridiculous and irrational happiness. I felt so deeply at peace, so contented, so utterly at home here in this dirty, forgotten and marginalized place. My hometown has been gentrified, the woods surrounding my childhood address now all housing developments, the downtown all Starbucks and Ann Taylor. Going back there is meaningless; the place I knew and loved is gone. But this place has somehow escaped that, and remains firmly stuck in a timeless decay that is so profoundly familiar and comforting to me. It made me happy, deeply happy.

I shouldn’t romanticize the shittiness here by the river. Any normal person would be appalled – litter everywhere, and every single item of infrastructure from the driveway to the railings on the buckling walkway are all literally falling apart. Truly, every single thing you rest your eyes upon is fucked, wrecked, burnt, shitty, and broken. Any normal person would be outraged. But it is real, unpretentious, uninstagrammable, and honest. The fact that I love it makes me, in a weird roundabout way, pretentious – it reminds me of the moment in a museum when my ex and I stood shoulder to shoulder looking at a pile of broken glass. It’s beautiful, he said. It needs to get swept up, I said.

The park needs to get swept up and I am braced for when that happens. It seems inevitable. Someone will finally find the money and the political will to “improve” the area. I hope when that happens the users of the park, the local fisherfolk, will be involved and respected. I’ll never forget that day back in the fall of 2006, when I was allowed to sleep on the dock undisturbed. I was a stranger, an outsider in their community. I was treated with the respectful disinterest that made my odd project successful. I’ll never forget that. Sometimes being left alone and allowed to be weird is a kindness.


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The Multi Dog Household

Recently a friend asked the question on an Instagram post: how do you manage a multidog household? While the short answer – build a fabulous relationship with every individual dog – rolls off the keyboard easily, the reality of life with a pack is so rich, deep, complex, maddening, terrifying, awful (as in full of awe), enlightening, and joyous, the response wouldn’t fit in a comment. Heck, it could probably fill a book.

First of all, what is a multidog household? For me, three is the magic number. I think that having two hands and two dogs somehow never crosses that line into “pack” dynamics. Not that all duos are easy or that double dog lives aren’t complex in their own ways, but for me they never cross the line into pack life. If necessary, with two dogs, I can have one hand on each dog and hang on. Add in a third and I can no longer manage using “hands on” tactics. That’s a huge symbolic as well as literal bridge to cross.

My mom was a “one-dog-at-a-time” advocate. We never had more than one. After my divorce, I dated a man with one dog. For the years we were together, he had his dog (a big malamute) and I had Iske. He often warned me (perhaps reading me all too well in that one arena) “never get multiple dogs. Never be outnumbered. They will ‘pack up’ on you and kill you.”

People tend to hold strong beliefs about childrearing, religion, and life with dogs. These beliefs may be rooted in fact, myth, or total bunk. The belief that pet dogs in a multi dog household will pack up and kill their owner is extreme – but I’ve heard lots of beliefs about multiple dogs over the years. Never have multiple intact males. Never have multiple females. Never add a new dog if your current pack isn’t perfectly trained and managed and stable. Never have littermates. And so on.

I’ve lived with a pack (three or more dogs) since 2009. For several of those years, the pack consisted of four Belgian females – three malinois and one Groenendael. I’ve had littermates, elderly dogs with puppies, and a mix of males and females along the way. I’ve never lived with intact males, but twice I’ve had intact females and given Hawkitt’s response to a female going into heat, I’d say he still experiences hormonal pangs (the moaning. Oh, the moaning. He would wrap a paw around her and just moan.).

In addition, due to the hectic joys and weary blues of packlife, I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating friendships on social media with other pack owners. From that combination of my own experience and the consensus of breeders, rescue folks, and others I’ve connected with over the years, I’ve come to hold the following beliefs about multidog households:

• Males might fight, but bitches hold grudges. Bitches will seethe silently, nursing their hatred. Males can experience intense conflict and then it’s over. This seems less common for females. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 50 times: Bitch fights are the worst.

• Conflict (whether or not it erupts into fighting) is inevitable. The only way to have no conflict is to have no contact… and even then, fence fighting and trash talk through baby gates, crates etc. happens. Conflict should be expected. It is part of the package. If conflict is too much for you, stick with a one-at-a-time approach to dog owning. Not everyone can or should live with a pack.

• That means managing conflict should be expected. It’s part of the package too. Having a plan, and knowing what to do if trash talk erupts, resource guarding rears its ugly head, or a dog becomes ill or injured, etc. is important.

• Your most valuable tool might be self awareness. Be relentlessly, scrupulously honest with yourself about what level of risk you are willing to endure. Multidog households are inherently riskier for all – dogs and humans. Think accidents, even those that occur while playing, and the whoopsie moments that are inevitable. Now multiply that by the number of dogs. Be honest about what you can and can’t handle, what you do and don’t want to live with, and what you can expect and demand from yourself and whoever else you live with. Everyone has a different level of risk tolerance. No judgement involved, but find your sweet spot and honor it.

• Notions of dominance, hierarchy, and the “alpha” role are of very limited use. While yes, dogs do experience hierarchies, that framework tends to be too rigid to best express the fluidity of how pet dogs operate in a pack environment. For example, Bindi (age 2, female, mixed breed, new to the pack) is allowed to mount Hawkitt (age 8, male, oldest dog and longest resident). He lets her mount him, and he lets her eat his food – he shares. Is she alpha? Absolutely not. If she were to touch his toy, or attempt to sleep in his bed, he’d dismember her. But if Hawkitt attempts to mount Willa (7 months old, intact female and brand new to the pack) she corrects him. He may have rules, but so does she. All hierarchies are situational and subject to change.

Understanding pack dynamics is a life’s work, and all my generalizations are just that: generalizations. Your results may vary. I structure my understanding via a three layer approach: species, breed, individual. Dogs as a species have certain characteristics – they are predators, with certain general and fundamental characteristics and behaviors. Within that, different breeds have been developed and also have specific breed characteristics and behaviors. Thus learning about dogs overall is really helpful and important, as is learning about breed specific characteristics. But both of those more formal and academic bodies of knowledge must be tempered with a grasp of the individual dog that’s being added to the pack, or being asked to accept a new pack member. All three of these aspects of a dog’s psyche – species, breed, and unique individual traits – all contribute to what you see in the dog’s behavior and attitude.

What does that mean for an owner? To circle back to where I started, building fabulous relationships with each dog is key. It’s the foundation upon which trust is established. When new situations arise, the dogs trust that you will help them navigate and manage, and this leads them to look to you … rather than address problems by themselves.

Now, for those of you that know me, you may know that I break many of the rules I mentioned earlier. I have unstable dogs and an unstable pack, littermates, and imperfections up the wazoo. I am not a typical pet household, and a pleasant, happy, “normal” home isn’t my goal. My goal, when I began fostering and adopting dogs in earnest, was to provide a home for dogs that couldn’t make it elsewhere. Dogs that were unadoptable medical cases, behavioral cases, or elderly dogs were my first choices. This inevitably led to a pack of dogs that do not do well – alone or together.

Management is a daily activity, as much a part of my day as feeding or walking. Managing the current constellation of dogs is a complex affair involving muzzles, baby gates, and crates. Peeka and Willa are not safe together. I am not sure they ever will be, so I face the prospect of living this way – separate quarters, muzzling Peeka, crate and rotate, for the rest of Peeka’s life. It’s not a carefree existence, but it’s also not the end of the world. Peeka and Willa are fine until there is pack arousal… and pack arousal is something that absolutely cannot be predicted or controlled.

Pack arousal is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. It’s the most dangerous and most terrifying aspect of life with a pack. Knowing when it’s likely to happen (i.e. what triggers it) and having some notion of how to deal with it in your back pocket at all times is the reality of life with a pack. I am a psycho about Hawkitt NOT barking when Tom comes home from work. Why? Hawkitt’s increase in arousal, expressed by barking, despite being 100% positive – Hawkie is just excited to see Tom – may set Peeka off into an aggressive and out of control psychotic episode in which she will attack any of the other dogs… and if that happens, I will have a multidog fight erupt.

Similarly, when Willa and Bindi play, there is a limit to how much Hawkitt can join in. Why? Hawkitt can become overaroused by play and flip into prey mode at the drop of a proverbial hat. If that happens, once again, I will have a multidog fight on my hands.

Arousal and more than two dogs means in a pinch, I am indeed outnumbered and can’t physically separate dogs that have blasted over threshold and are now truly out of control, and unable to hear me, much less respond to me. I am often alone with all the dogs, so being able to manage low level arousal and de-escalate situations before they cross the threshold and become catastrophes is key. I do this using every technique and tool in the book: separate the dogs when I predict high arousal (so before Tom’s truck pulls in the driveway, I crate Peeka and throw Willa in a different room). Train the dogs so that they have a wide range of verbal commands at the ready. Use commands to help a dog refocus away from some sexy triggering stimulus. Take toys-bowls-twigs-molecules of dust away from Brody when he fixates on them and enters his trance state (it’s upsetting to watch and destabilizes Peeka). And so on. I have to multitask all day, every day, no matter what I’m doing, like any mother of toddlers. I need to have eyes in the back of my head, and even while I sit here writing this post, I need to be aware of what all 5 dogs are doing.

The bottom line is that you can do everything right, and still have a terrible outcome. That’s the nature of multidog households, and the reality of “dogs, not robots.” Dogs do dog things. Malinois do malinois things. These things can, at times, be deadly to other pack members. Every single multidog owner I have ever spoken to (yes, 100%) has admitted to having at least one dog fight among pack members. No matter how committed you are to a conflict-free environment, shit happens. Using training, tools, and management practices will bring the risk down to the lowest possible level for a multidog home, but not all the way down to zero. Fights happen. And sometimes those fights have deadly results.

To wrap it up, I love analogies. I hope you do too. Owning dogs can be like paddling. You can rent a canoe once or twice a year and paddle on a glassy lake. You’ll have an amazing day out on the water, reveling in sensory delights – an eagle raking a bass out of the water only yards away, a mink on the shore. It’s easy, peaceful, and stunning. Or you can approach paddling by purchasing a kayak and attacking class 5 rapids. The activity is thrilling. Your heart is pumping and you are pitted against the water, your very survival at stake. People die enjoying the sport you’ve chosen as a hobby. Both approaches to paddling are wonderful, but neither approach would be satisfying to the connoisseur of the other.

Your level of risk and challenge need to meet your needs, and satisfy that dog-owning part of your soul. Taking on a pack is all-consuming, like motorcycle racing compared to a bike ride on a rail trail. It will bring you the hectic joys but the price will be the weariest of blues, and more. Pack life has cut me to my core, and broken my heart in ways I can’t articulate. It is the life I’ve chosen and it has become who I am. But that doesn’t exactly mean it’s a good thing. It’s only as good as the fit.

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Dramarama llamas

I’m not someone who typically trots out that old cliché “the universe is trying to tell me something.” [Side note – if you haven’t seen the video Bill Nye (the science guy) and Amy Schumer made (, it’s a must watch.] But twice within the last 24 hours, I’ve been involved in drama, in two very different ways. As someone who seeks to avoid drama, conflict, and interpersonal strife, twice in 24 hours is noteworthy. Blog post worthy even.

First, I have my own particular history with what most people now call drama. Back when I was in my 20s, I didn’t call it that. I don’t remember what I did call it; I think I had no name for the unpleasant interpersonal issues that popped up from time to time. I believed that it was possible for everyone to like me and get along with me. If there was a problem, a blip in the smooth sailing of all relationships, then it had to be my fault and my failure and it had to be fixed… immediately. I would get so anxious about conflicts I would be unable to sleep or eat until they were resolved and I would turn myself inside out to do so.

Fast forward 3 decades and a lot of human interactions later, and I no longer harbor these beliefs. I embrace the notion that conflict is part of life, that some folks dislike each other, that “chemistry” between people is real and can be good, bad, neutral, and anything in between… and fluid. I’ve learned to tolerate the discomfort of conflict, but I still dislike it. Some people thrive on it – that initial adrenaline jolt of an attack, be it emotional or verbal, in writing, online, or in person, can be a thrill or even an addiction for some folks. Some people hate it enough to avoid it at all costs. And lots of people find themselves somewhere in the middle ground of tolerating it as I have learned to do, no longer internalizing all experience of conflict as my own personal failing to keep peace or be “nice” enough.

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail (yes, ink on paper with a stamp and everything!) that was a shot across the bow. The emotional equivalent of having a rock thrown at me, it didn’t hit me, but it did create that initial adrenaline jolt. Then I had to decide how to respond.

This morning, my ritual scroll through Instagram revealed a pretty big drama in the dog training world. Accusations, emotions, and stories tumbled forth from quite a few accounts I follow. I found myself trying to string together a narrative, a timeline. What happened, and what needs to happen next?

I walked my dogs and given my dogs’ penchant for drama, this took a couple of hours. I collected my thoughts. I tried to make a video, putting all my thoughts and experiences into words. I gave up after the 27th attempt got interrupted by some dog or other. I wondered if the universe was trying to tell me something and decided that if there was a message it was this: you’re a better writer than videographer. Go with your strengths. So here we are:

First, tell the truth. That’s where I start (for you yoga peeps, yes, we start at the beginning with satya – truthfulness). Telling the truth includes admitting when you’re wrong. Several years ago, I called someone out on social media for doing something dumb. I should not have. Call out culture can be really toxic and unkind. It can also be important and valuable. The trick is to decide carefully which is which and act accordingly. I didn’t. What I did was more along the lines of venting and complaining. I didn’t need to do that publicly and I definitely could have kept those opinions to myself, or shared with close friends. I believe at times, social media brings out the worst in humans, and this was definitely an example of that. The brief euphoria of catharsis was really not worth the ensuing years of name calling and other retaliation I received. I hope I can say “lesson learned” but to declare it so would be arrogant. I’ll just say “I was wrong.” That much is honest.

Second, doing nothing can be the best response to an attack. The letter I received? I believe no response would be positive: there is nothing I can say that would lead to learning, growth, reconciliation, or even détente. To respond in any way would simply feed the beast. However, the situation is such that I’m the only “victim.” No one else stands to be harmed. I can safely choose to do nothing because I can sleep at night knowing that I am not allowing a situation to continue in which innocent people may be at risk. For me, satya – truthfulness – informs and is informed by ahimsa – non-violence or doing no harm. I cannot choose inaction and allow a situation to continue in which others can be harmed. That goes against my ethics.

In the situation on Instagram, accusations of unprofessional behavior and bullying were central to the situation. There is the potential for harm. I applaud those that stepped forward. Validating the experiences of others and preventing future harm are ethical reponses. However, I still have real misgivings about “call out culture.” I worry about the weaponizing of accusations. I worry about bandwagoning, and the ability for reputations and careers to be destroyed, when accusations go viral. Ugliness and dishonesty can appear to be terribly sexy and charming, and I’m talking about both accusers and accused. It’s a bit of a minefield. Eliciting stories and gleaning fact from emotion is an important aspect of the whole process, and something that each person must do for themselves.

Third, there is a subculture in the social media dog training world that (and I’m dating myself here) reminds me of Howard Stern’s or Andrew Dice Clay’s popularity. Shocking, rude, denigrating, and derogatory language is seen as “badass,” and bravado is mistaken for honesty. I’ve heard trainers call people “fucking assholes” for disagreeing with them. I’ve watched trainers demand their followers do their marketing for them, and become nasty and abusive about it. While that approach can garner a lot of views, clicks, likes, and shares, what it doesn’t get is the “fucking assholes” who really need to learn and potentially do a better job with their dogs to access the wisdom and experience of the “badass” teacher. In general, people tend to learn when they are not actively being insulted or verbally abused. Much like dogs – they tend to learn when taught, not clobbered. The verbal clobbering is entertaining, sure, but what does it really say about the trainer?

Same goes for trainers who “complain” (aka gloat) that they have to fix other trainers mistakes. Putting others down, and complaining about other trainers or other training styles does not elevate you or yours. It just makes you look petty. Again, it can be entertaining, and the more unhinged the performance, the more clicks and shares, right?

But here’s the thing about making a reputation out of being nasty: at some point, that badass trainer who is so “honest” is going to insult you. Expect it. One day the reward you will reap for being a true believer is that something you believe or practice will be lampooned or insulted, and you will be the one getting called a fucking asshole. That bad boy persona that seemed so fun and engaging and refreshingly truthful is going to bite you in the butt.

These two will not bite you in the butt.

I’ll end with a quick story: the other day the puppy destroyed my laptop charger while my husband was supposed to be watching her. I was furious and let him know. He defended himself vigorously, reminding me that bad things had happened on my watch too, and that “she was quiet” so he didn’t realize that he had to “keep his eyes glued to her at every moment.” Etc. All I had wanted was the acknowledgement – the apology and understanding that his mistake was going to inconvenience me and cost us money. Mistakes happen, but they can’t be forgiven when they are being so vigorously denied.

Maybe two days later, I was getting a baking dish out of a cabinet and I leaned on the door. The hinge ripped out of the side of the cabinet. I immediately said “I broke the cabinet door hinge. I’m sorry. It was my fault. I leaned on it and I shouldn’t have.” I was distracted and a little off balance, squatting and dealing with the large glass baking dish. And I immediately recognized that my moment of carelessness was going to mean time and effort by the hubby to fix the door.

Being angry at Blue Bathrobe Man (aka Thomasina, my beloved hubby) got me nowhere. We just argued, I cried, and he fixed the charger while I searched online for a replacement. But I am tentatively hopeful that maybe role modeling what I meant, when I apologized and owned my role in making work for him (side note – he immediately said “no, I used screws that were too short.” Well – they were holding just fine right up until I leaned on that thing.) was actually helpful. It wasn’t performative; it was genuine. But maybe he saw something in real time that he’ll be able to use in the future?

Where does this leave us? We all make our own choices about who we are, and who we want to be. We all choose our own heroes and teachers. And we all have to figure out how to navigate ugliness, drama, accusations, and the natural impulse to defend ourselves. My very best advice (although no one asked me) is as follows:

Tell the truth, even when it implicates you. Admit wrong doing. Acknowledge the impact of your actions upon others.

Trust initial impressions. That letter I received yesterday? I needed to take a second and give it real, honest, unemotional thought: what had I done wrong? What was my responsibility and what do I need to own? I should never have gotten involved in the first place, ten plus years ago. I had a bad feeling, a yucky “take” on the person who ushered me into the group. I should have honored that “gut sense” all those years ago and sidestepped the entire connection. I had my reasons for discounting that gut feeling, and ego numbers among those reasons. Again, I wish I could say “lesson learned” but it’s more honest and accurate to say “I see what I did and I forgive myself.”

Do not engage in a battle of wits with the unarmed. (I know, that’s not original.) But the point is well taken: don’t throw good time-effort-energy after bad. Step aside. Don’t bother to engage. Keep on scrolling. The folks who mailed me that letter? They don’t deserve my time, and probably can’t integrate any wisdom. Practice ignoring stuff on social media that is inaccurate, or provocative. Scroll on by.

Drama isn’t good or bad. People who create or gravitate towards drama aren’t good or bad. Drama happens. If you get off on it – go for it. You will find your tribe. If you hate it – learn to duck.

If someone shows you who they are (e.g. the “bad boys” of dog training -so badass with their “honesty” and f bombs) – believe them. Expect them to shine that light upon you.

Consider keeping your social media focused on who you are, not who you aren’t. Don’t put anything out there that conflicts with who you are or what you aspire to be. Don’t let stuff you dislike rent any space in your head or on your accounts.

When in doubts, wash all your dog bowls. Clean something. Wipe down a countertop. Do something to get out of your own head and make the world a tiny bit better.

And while I’m shoveling clichés at you all, let’s end with this one: try to be the person your dog believes you are.

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What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

What’s luck got to do with it?

Recently I joined a Facebook group for women wildlife photographers. I’m a wannabee, a passionate amateur. The group is warm, welcoming, and full of extraordinary artists, professional women creating stunning photos. There are also a decent number of inspired (ok, awed) amateur folks like me. This morning I saw a photo posted in the group that just blew me away: it was an classic example of art and science coming together in a craft that elevates photography to the finest of fine arts. Not exaggerating; this photo was so satisfying to enjoy. It was flawless. Technically perfect, it was the obvious culmination of an investment.

First and foremost, the photo demonstrates an investment of time. The photographer invested time in learning her craft. She spent time learning how to use her camera, lens, and editing software. She spent time seeking her subjects, learning their habitat and habits and then placing herself in the correct location at the correct time… for god only knows how many hours, days, or weeks. Her eye, her personal vision, plus her technical prowess added up to a strikingly beautiful image. I saw all this immediately and was truly inspired.

As an amateur, I occasionally have a dynamite photo that I’m proud to share. Because of this, I know how often professional photographers hear the same refrain: “That’s a great shot! What camera did you use?” Or “Wow! What a lucky shot!” Or some variation on those themes: either – your equipment took that photo, or damn, you have all the luck. Neither could be further from the truth. There is no luck involved in learning when and where to be, which lens to use, and how to edit. There is skill, commitment, dedication, timing, a learning curve, and money, but not luck.

It’s the same with dog training. You’re out in public and your dog is well-behaved, walking nicely on a leash, lying calmly under your table at the café, and someone says “Your dog is so well-behaved. You’re so lucky!” “You’re so lucky you can bring Cujo out in public like that. My Spitfire is so hyper; he’d never lie still lie that.”

When I see a well-behaved dog in public, I do not think “oooh, what a lucky owner.” I think the dog is the evidence of a committed, dedicated, invested owner. Perhaps the owner had great raw material to work with – a dog with nice genetics and a decent first year. That’s a great starting point. But luck? No. Work. Commitment and consistent effort. That’s what I see.

Just as that great photo will spark the query “what camera are you shooting with?” and gearheads will geek out over lenses ‘til the cows come home, a well-behaved dog often gets the third degree regarding the tools used to achieve obedience. Years of work gets reduced to “oh, you use a [fill in the blank with the tool trend of the day]. No wonder the dog is so [fill in the blank with the epithet of the day].” Same basic idea – the assumption is that the dog came that way from the factory, or your tools did it.

Cameras don’t create beautiful images without humans behind them, investing in the creation of those images. Breathtaking photographs are not the result of luck. The investment of time, money, and brain power, the commitment to lifelong learning to evolve as an artist and hone the craft – these are the components of a flawless image.

Similarly, ecollars, prong collars, and freeze-dried salmon bites don’t create flawless dogs. Nor are amazing dogs “born that way.” Sure, they may have potential, but as someone who has worked in rescue for a couple decades, I can attest to the fact that dogs with great genetic potential can be royally screwed up by horrible handling, especially during puppyhood.

Dog training, like photography, is an art that has both technical and human/emotional (or dare I say spiritual?) components. You can’t make a photo without a camera (although you can make a camera out of an oatmeal container). There is always a technical aspect – in dog training it might not be a tool, per se, if you eschew all tools (no leash? Ever? Ok…) but even when and how you say good dog, when and how you touch the dog, when and how you play with the dog… all of these decisions and choices add up to a technique. But how you build a relationship with your dog, and how you grow that bond into a lifelong, mutually fulfilling and dynamic experience… well, that’s not luck, tools, technique or gear. That’s heart, soul, brains, and the investment of time.

Now excuse me while I go shop for a new lens and a new leash!

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Danger! Thin Ice!

I headed out for playtime with the four adult dogs, same as ever. Hawkitt loves to fetch and tug, Bindi loves to harass Hawk, Peeka loves to watch and I’m still not sure what Brody loves to do. Willa must wait her turn indoors. Such is the life of a puppy.

It was raining lightly, the first real rain since it started warming up – rain making the ice and snow on the driveway slick before disappearing. I was warm enough with my heavy wool coat on. It had been my father-in-law’s – a firefighter’s winter jacket for wearing around town. It was fire engine red with the white emblem on the back and his name – Hans – embroidered on the front.

I think it was the third throw. The ball took a wicked bounce off a tree root and landed on the remains of the late March ice on the lower pond. The pond is deep and the ice, unstable and melting, is still thick in places, even after several 60 degree days.

What happened next took on that slow motion, surreal quality that has become such a cliché when trying to describe a life and death situation. Hawk set off after the ball. I really thought Hawk wouldn’t set foot on that ice. He is a sensible dog, often more sensible than me. When I saw him out there in the middle of the pond running across the ice, I yelled “no.”

It was too late. He was already breaking through. The ice was about 2 inches thick, maybe 3. He was in a circle of water but couldn’t get purchase and couldn’t break up the remaining ice. I ran to the pond’s edge and shouted encouragement. No good. He was panicked, and thrashing, and then every few thrashes… bobbing underwater. His whole head disappeared twice. I saw the look on his face.

I ran around the pond to the side where the ice was thinnest and implored him. “Come on, buddy, THIS way.” Nope. He was too far gone. He couldn’t take in information and use it. He just kept trying to climb out onto the ice, but he couldn’t pull himself up and the ice wasn’t breaking up to allow him to swim to shore.

I was going to watch him die. I had that thought clear as a bell. If I fail to act, I will watch him die.

So I told Peeka and Bindi to stay (they had joined me at the water’s edge), and I crawled out onto the ice. I was amazed it held me as long as it did. I reached Hawkitt, and shifted my weight to grab his outstretched paw. I saw the ice crack under me. I had one thought. Just one. “I’m going in.”

I hate swimming, by the way. I never actually choose to swim, when given the choice. I dislike being in water. It always makes me vaguely nauseous. But I am a strong, competent swimmer. I have lifeguard training and scuba certification. I can swim just fine. I just hate it.

I was in the water, up to my armpits. I couldn’t stand, but I didn’t sink in any deeper. I beat the ice with my arms and kicked my way back to shore, a human ice breaker so that Hawk could swim behind me. He did. We both got out, dripping and stunned. For once, I didn’t laugh out loud at my folly.

I stripped on the front step, my wool coat now sodden and impressively heavy. I had to pry my Muck boots off, and pour what looked like a quart of water out of each of them. I left both outside in the rain. The rest of my clothes got dumped in the washing machine and I toweled Hawkitt off vigorously. He kept shaking. I kept telling him what a good boy he was. Then I got in the shower and realized I couldn’t feel any of the fingers on my left hand at all. Washing the pond water out of my hair was an adventure.

I got dressed in too warm clothes for the day, and poured myself a beer. A double IPA. Then I talked to Tom on the phone. He said “thank you for saving our boy. And thank you for not dying.”

When I was a little girl, I often ice skated on a pond in the woods. All the neighborhood kids did. And all our parents read us the riot act about thin ice, and threatened and begged us to be careful. To my knowledge none of us ever fell through. I carried a belief, though, that falling through would mean instant death. Our parents, God love them, failed to empower us to handle the “what if I do” scenario. It was pretty normal 1970s parenting: just don’t. That’s an order. I assumed if I fell through I’d instantly freeze, sink, and drown/die of hypothermia. My understanding of icy water wasn’t very sophisticated.

After a few sips of beer, I texted my best friend, a forest ranger with extensive training in rescues of all sorts. I asked her what I should have done; what’s the correct set of steps to such a rescue? She said encouragement and support for a self rescue is the first step. If you don’t panic, you can often pull yourself out or do what I did and swim to shore – depending of course upon all the variables – distance, fitness, mindset, etc. As unpleasant as going for a swim in March in 40 degree rain may be, it’s not instant death.

And Hawkitt? No tool, no gear, no training could have prevented this from happening. Had Hawk been wearing an ecollar, I wouldn’t have had time to even grab the controller, much less push any buttons. I yelled, but I’m not sure that my NO didn’t make matters worse. Perhaps Hawk hesitated when I hollered and that moment of reduced forward motion was what made him fall through. Maybe, maybe not.

No tool, no training, no gear, no method, no planning… nothing short of bubble wrapping Hawk and staying indoors could prevent these sorts of accidents. I know some folks do just that – live their lives attempting to identify and then mitigate against or prevent every bad thing that crosses their awareness from happening. I honor that as one (respectable) way to approach life with dogs.

I train. I use tools. I seek sensible and sane solutions to every challenge and safety issue I identify. I am not cavalier, throwing caution to the wind at every opportunity. The puppy wears a long line despite demonstrating a reliable recall. Why? Because she is a puppy. Puppies can be impulsive. And the tool keeps her safe while increasing her freedom. Win win. But I understand that no tool is a panacea. And that every tool can be involved in a horrible outcome. I remember a dog in my neighborhood growing up that was killed because he was on a leash – he bolted off a deck while tethered and was hung. Any tool can become lethal. Any situation can go horribly, catastrophically sideways. Bad things happen to good dogs and good owners.

I wouldn’t want it any other way. The searing beauty of life is that it is indeed fragile. Shit happens. I don’t want to live fearful and bubble wrapped, avoiding experiences and fetishizing safety. Life is a fucking mess, and I want to celebrate that mess. Not in an irresponsible, “fuck it, let’s just throw up our hands and do whatever” kind of way, but in a reverent “lay it at the feet of God” way. In every decision, every choice, every situation, I weigh the options as best I can. Down at the banks of the pond, I had only a couple of minutes, by the looks of Hawkitt’s face and the frequency with which he was bobbing under the water. I had to decide fast. I took the risk that I too would land in the drink if I tried to save him. But I was pretty sure he was worth it. And pretty sure I’d survive the effort, even if I did end up going for a swim.

Today the ice on the lower pond is completely melted. And I’m looking at Hawkitt a little bit differently than I did yesterday.

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One Week


It’s coming down steadily now, thick flakes blanketing the mud and ice with snow, its texture and appearance that of confectioner’s sugar. The tired old cliché “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” feels accurate once you’ve lived in a snowy clime. This is March snow. Spring snow is more likely to have that oddly cakey texture, the lumpy confectioner’s sugar appearance. It’s sticking, and the road is impassable at the moment (I heard a truck fail to get up the hill while I was out walking the gang) but in as little as a few minutes that could change. It is March, a month of changes. 

Tom is asleep on the couch; all the dogs are asleep in their respective corners and perches. It’s midday on a Sunday and while we don’t have newsprint scent in our nostrils or ink on our fingers, the feeling is much the same. We’ve read the paper, so to speak. We’re caught up. I gave Tom a haircut, walked the dogs, ate lunch. 

There is no immediate pressing need to address. I’m not so exhausted I also need to sleep, nor so strung out I need to storm off into the woods alone to weep and wonder at all the accumulated frustrations and challenges piled at my feet. It’s quiet. This March snow gives a certain permission to nap on a Sunday afternoon. The peace in the house is palpable.


I’m officially over my threshold. My “dog friends” know what this means and it isn’t good. Going over threshold happens when external stimuli overwhelm the dog’s ability to maintain self control. It’s when the shit hits the fan and fur flies… metaphorically or literally, depending upon the situation. No learning can occur when a dog is over threshold – their brain isn’t receptive to taking in and processing information in that way. It’s the definition of reactivity. Not good.

What landed me here, over threshold? Sleep deprivation, due to a pup with an upset tummy. Often she makes is through the night but the past few nights have been a bit bumpy. Life with a puppy is enough to put any normal person over threshold temporarily. Puppies need a lot: I don’t have a lot to give under the best of circumstances. It’s no surprise that I’ve crossed the line and am officially over threshold.

The way I framed it as I hiked with the gang this morning was that I need my life to be easier. My “Life Challenges” barrel got filled and now it’s overflowing. The stressors are cumulative: 

  • menopause, 
  • a puppy, 
  • Peeka’s and Brody’s behavioral issues and pack management, 
  • a rare medical condition (anyone who has ever needed to navigate the American health insurance system to seek treatment “out of network” for an oddball condition knows exactly what I’m talking about), 
  • Peeka’s and Brody’s health issues
  • A puppy with giardia and the emotional rollercoaster that I always ride when any of them are unwell, 
  • sleep deprivation (which may be due to any of the aforementioned issues) 

There are likely more items for this list but the ability to focus, concentrate, and remember are casualties of today’s sleep deprivation, as is my more typical buoyant mood.

It gives “self care” a whole new meaning. I keep ratcheting my expectations ever lower. As Anne Helen Peterson so astutely described, I scroll through social media waiting for something I see, something I read to make me feel better. I keep taking another hit, chasing the elusive high. I’m seeking something to help me feel good again, but it’s not there. It’s not there for me, mostly because I’m not there for me. I’m over threshold and I can’t take in what is there. It’s not whether the number of likes or followers or comments or even an outpouring of support are present… it’s that I’m not present.  


The pup still has a yucky tummy, so I gave a plastic container of her poop a ride to the vet for analysis. She came too, for training purposes. I want less frantic behavior in the car, especially when we stop. A little dignity, a smidge of restraint and self control – that’s all I ask. I brought dried chicken breast for bribes.

She did beautifully at being quiet and sitting when the tech took the poop and my credit card. When the tech returned, Willa expressed the desire to leap into the front seat and lunge (in a friendly malinois puppy way – lots of teeth and enthusiasm, but not a lot of ire) at the tech. I sent her a cease and desist letter in the form of chicken. She remained in the back seat (good), silent (good), and tapped out her greetings with her front paws… on my head. Hashtag malinois problems. I gave her more chicken. Two out of three ain’t bad.

She puked on the way home. Car sickness? Or on-going tummy troubles from the giardia? She has had plenty of both. Or her car queasiness is a symptom of her yucky tummy? Who knows. 

Peeka has a wound that won’t heal despite multiple rounds of antibiotics. She suddenly gained weight despite no changes in diet or activity level.

Brody has regressed a bit post-Adequan. He isn’t as bad as he was pre-Adequan, but progress has halted. He is able to move around… he just doesn’t want to. “Come on, let’s go, come on sweetie, COME ON MOTHERFUCKER” might be what I sound like some days on the morning walk after the 10th time he stops walking and just stands there like a damn speed bump. Why does he stop and stand still and require enormous amounts of encouragement? I am not sure. Is it pain-related? Maybe. Is it brain related (atypical mild seizure activity)? Maybe. Is it just laziness? Maybe. Maybe he’d just plain rather not.

This week Bindi and Hawkitt are looking pretty damn spiffy: weight and condition is spot on for both of them. Bindi is fast becoming the highest drive dog in the house. Her play drive is legendary. I’ve started telling her to cut it out at times, her relentless needling the others to play having destabilizing effects when she tips Hawk over into prey mode. 

I am awaiting word from my doctor’s office that they have processed the out of network referral. The insurance company has 5 days to approve or deny the request. I waited to get the esophagram, then waited to get the scope, then waited for the scope results, then waited for the manometry, and then waited for those results. The waiting gets old. Yesterday, over a beer, I tried to tell Tom what it feels like… I started crying and ended with “I want to have something else to tell you about. I want to be more interesting. I don’t want this to be what we talk about.” 

On Friday I write my F bomb post for Facebook. I’ve written one every Friday for years. It’s a silly ritual but I believe it helps some people… helps them feel empowered to hurl curses at the heavens from the depths of their souls. It’s healthy to rail against injustices even if those injustices are petty and absurd. It’s ok to let loose and say fuck everything and mean it, if just for that second. We all exhale, then pick up the reins and go back to doing the dishes or sweeping the floor. Or in my case, worrying about poop and puke, and wounds that don’t heal.


I figured out my next book. I knew after finishing Asking A Lot that I wasn’t finished. The Yoga of Dog Training bubbled to the surface today as a concept. Maybe even the title. And in that moment, the proverbial blink of an eye, I have a project. And all is right with the world. Sure, I can’t swallow and the puppy still has giardia, and the house still isn’t finished and Tom still can’t retire … but whether I’m morbid and depressed or elated by the prospect of the next project, all those things would be the same. Some folks cope by drinking. I cope by writing. 

The Yoga of Dog Training. 

I think it’s catchy. 

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Being and Doing

Today I’m back. It’s like a black cloud has lifted, the heaviness of burn out somehow miraculously replaced by energy, enthusiasm, plans and an attack on the kitchen mess. Feels good. This much change for no apparent reason makes me very suspicious of hormones. Hormones act like magic spells, cast by folks far away from the center of my life. Toying with me, playing around, fucking with my head. “Here, let me give her a few days of everything feels impossible and I just want to weep.” LOL.

March is upon us in all her glory: rotten snow, dog shit, mud and ice, all combined in the driveway to make walking even 10 steps out the front door and adventure in unpleasantness. There is no “being careful.” There is no “watch your step.” There is only falling into an icy puddle that has melting dog shit in it. March is a bitch.

Change is what it’s all about. The air feels different. The days are noticeably longer. What was flat white is now pockmarked and patched with deep red-black earth and rotten logs and wet rocks and running water. Change rules the day.

The puppy is growing and change rules her days as well. It’s a synchronized changing, the earth and my pup are experiencing. I wonder how she feels, how she experiences it. As she grows, each day her physical being feels new and unfamiliar and off kilter, while all that was known yesterday has quite literally changed overnight. That rock wasn’t visible; this bridge wasn’t here. She shows fear at landmarks she bravely conquered yesterday. I get it. She’s different. The world is different. It’s overwhelming.

photo by Velga Kundzins

I think a lot about my role as her owner. Her partner, her guide, her mama. I don’t go in hard for leader-like words. We’re a partnership. She will teach me if I am willing to learn. I will hold the space, enforce the boundaries, and keep the peace. But I’m not worrying about any of that now. Not top of mind anyway.

Today I’m fretting over her distractibility. She is almost distant, disinterested in tug or fetch, obedient but distracted. Sniffing, sniffing, sniffing. Everything the melting snow has laid bare requires a thorough examination. I reach the end of my patience pretty quickly. I take it personally. She doesn’t want to play with me. (I shouldn’t take it personally. She barely wants to play with Bindi either. Distracted and consumed by the changes, she wanders away from bitey face to sniff some more.)

I have the bandwidth today to play with you and train you and engage with you, puppy. I finally feel like it and it isn’t a chore. It’s on my to do list, kid. And you are … not really available. What do I do?

I ate lunch, made Tom some pumpkin bread, cleaned the kitchen, washed dog bowls, dumped the compost, and pondered. Do I insist she focus on me? Do I place her in an environment where she has fewer choices? Do I let it go and figure she it just changing with the seasons and this is nothing to fret over?

And it hit me. I focus on doing all the time with her. Doing “interactive play.” Doing training. Doing leash walking. Doing biological fulfillment. So fucking productive with my list of meeting puppy’s developmental needs… I forgot one. Being. Just go be with her. Do nothing. Plan nothing. Expect nothing. Just go be with her.

I went into her safe space and sat down. I didn’t speak or call her or even really look at her. She came over and lay in my lap. We hung out for a while. She did puppy things. I witnessed them. She discovered a pocketful of kibble (lol, I’ve become *that* person), so I made her give eye contact for each handful. We did more being and some nothingness.

I had to get the pumpkin bread out of the oven, so I left her alone in her space and shut the gate. She ambled back to her crate and settled. A few minutes later I heard her dreaming.

Fuck doing. There is always tomorrow for more doing, extra doing, catching up on doing. But being? There is only today for being.

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Stoke The Fire

6 a.m. dogs out for potty break. Dog breakfast. Coffee. Stoke the fire. Morning walk. Potty and play for Willa. Stoke the fire. Do something productive for an hour or two. Often the best I can manage is shopping. I am appalled at how much stuff I “need.” (Although this week I am studiously adhering to the boycott of Amazon and you should too, even though individualizing responsibility isn’t the answer… Unionization is patriotic. It’s as American as apple pie. Have a hot dog and boycott Amazon.) Lunchtime potty breaks for all and stoke the fire. Afternoon training and exercise, solo and in groups. Stoke the fire. Pour a beer and let Willa and Bindi have indoor playtime. (This means crate time for Peeka and Hawk needs to be under control.) Wait for Tom to come home. Plan and execute dinner. Stoke the fire. Watch TV or destroy Tom at scrabble. Potty dogs. Stoke the fire. Bed.

There is a pointlessness I battle these days when I try to write. I read newsletters by Anne Helen Peterson and Heather Cox Richardson, clutching “Letters from an American” like a lifeline each morning. But I can’t read much more than that. I imagine most of us feel this way, at least to some degree. It’s part of the depression, grief, loss, mourning, anger, shock and relentless efforts to come to terms with … all of it. My ability to read is shit, and my acknowledgement of that is to question the relevance of writing. It’s just adding to the discordant cacophony… pretentious discordant cacophony.

Something about the (endless) pandemic mood, and the (endless) dragging on of shutdowns, semi shutdowns, and the tentative opening up (oops, nope, we had better shut down again) nature of the past year that has obliterated any ability to concentrate or focus. And, at least for me, meaning. It all seems pointless. I carry on but underneath the performance of the days’ routines (stoke the fire, exercise the dogs, figure out dinner, scroll through Instagram) I feel numb.

I have been drinking a lot of raspberry leaf tea. I has almost no flavor. It tastes a bit like what I imagine a cup of hot water plus some dust might taste like, but a bit more bitter. It’s perfect. Flavors would mean I need to decide if that’s what I am in the mood for, if that’s what I want. A tea that tastes like nothing is hydration without choice, thought, decisions. Given the level of burn out I feel, it’s the right non choice.

Sure there are blips. Bindi found a dead vole on the upper pond today and left it when I gave the command. A dead vole is a high value item and a prompt “leave it” that included backing up and sitting and giving me eye contact was pretty damn impressive. I think she’s been listening in on my clicker sessions with Willa. It jolted me out of the doldrums for a moment. The obscenely blue sky the other morning, too.

Log on: dry wood, oxygen, and a spark. Kindling, then just log on. Sometimes, on good days, I am in the fire, burning brightly, giving warmth and cheer. Those days are fewer and farther between now. This (endless) winter has been (endlessly) gray. Sunlight has not yet been declared an endangered species, much like the grouse I see on our walks – threatened but not legally protected, it is a welcome sight, greeted joyfully and then gone. Relentless gray continues into March.

A few years ago, Tom and I ran out of wood. We have no furnace, no backup central heating. Tom procured hardwood pallets and chainsawed them up into “logs.” Cleaning the grate involved removing nails and screws. We survived, no frozen pipes and none the worse for wear. I wasn’t sure if I felt more proud of our ingenuity and pluckiness or ashamed of our redneck desperation.

Another year we burned green wood. Being the one home, I battled with the stove, frustrated and chilly. Dry, seasoned wood means more BTUs. And less gunk in the chimney. I think it might have been late in that season a chimney fire started. The roaring sound terrified the dogs. I shut down the air intakes and prayed. It burned itself out. I’ve been a fascist about chimney cleanings and dry wood ever since.

I think it was Annie Dillard who said, “Keep showing up.” We don’t have to do anything well. Just keep showing up. Keep at it. Keep logging on, saying something/anything, sharing truth and life, as honestly as possible. So I do. I keep showing up. I log on every morning and do my best to be a part of something.

Input. I have to put stuff in – logs, words, photos, oxygen – in order to create heat. Warmth. Perhaps connection. I keep creating. I keep logging on. I feed the fire to keep it burning.

Spring is coming. There have been days where I forget, get distracted, and just let the fire burn out. Burn out, until there is nothing left and all that was fuel has been consumed and all that was spark and warmth has been reduced to smoke and ash. Burnt out.

I do something else instead of filling the wood rack and stoking the fire. I pet a dog, make another loaf of pumpkin bread. Try to write. Try to read. Try to be productive. I’m burnt out without ever really burning brightly, without ever having given much warmth this winter. I managed to paint the trim in the studio, after 4 years of not getting to it. Now the closet doors need scraping and painting and I … just … can’t. I can’t get to it. I’m too busy being burnt out and unfocused and distracted and numb.

And, in all fairness, I’m busy caring for five dogs. One puppy, two with medical issues, one high drive and high need… in some ways the puppy is the easiest. Five dogs and the management of the household, such as it is. Cooking, cleaning, scheduling, finances… long term planning, short term planning, gardening and the planning of food storage for next winter. Scan the horizon for opportunities to contribute financially. And pet a dog some more.

There will be days and then weeks and months where we don’t burn. Good lord willing, the earth will be warmed once more by the sun, and our speck of dirt here on the mountain will be not only thawed but fecund and redolent with life – plant, animal, mushroom and whatever other kingdoms have been added since I was in freshman biology class.

The part of me that looks forward to things is on strike, unable to muster the energy to look forward to much of anything, but I know it will be easier. I know warmth that I didn’t create from my own toil will happen, that feeling of sun on skin will buoy me in ways I can’t make the effort to imagine today. I trust. I believe in the sun and the seasons and the inevitability of change.

And I know I’m not alone. Others may be more or less articulate than me in their summation (“I’m fucking sick of everything” kind of works). We are all here together in this numb, gray, shitty space, waiting for the spring to come. Perhaps it is cold comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless. I care about how you’re doing. I care about how you feel. I wish I could ease your burden, whatever it might be. I am consumed by my own, but not so far gone as to no longer know you are there, soldiering on alongside me, in the next town or the next continent. And that matters.

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