Going to the Maul

I wrote this several years ago, for an online magazine called Yoga Modern. I wanted to give it a share today, as I sit here stiff and sore from yesterday’s splitting, and discovered it is not to be found. I’m republishing it on my blog for now, but if I can find it on Yoga Modern, I’ll add that link too. Autumn — ’tis the season for splitting and stacking.

 

There are far too few opportunities, I believe, for women to go outside and hit things as hard as they can until they break.  It would not be particularly functional behavior in an urban environment, but I would argue that not many country gals have the stars line up in such a way as to offer this type of activity as a viable option on a regular basis.  But when the opportunity does present itself, we should seize upon it and split with gusto.

 

Tipping my hat in acknowledgement as I dodge the how-truly-environmentally-friendly-is wood-heat-anyway discussion, allow me to own that I am only here to sing the praises of swinging a maul.  The rest is secondary.  It is the physical effort by a 5’2”, 116 pound woman pitted against oaken rounds I can’t lift and can barely roll that move me to meditate upon this topic.  How many times in my life have I had the chance to give some physical task my all, to use every ounce of force I have in my body to bust things up?  Not often.  How many times in your life have you heard someone warn you “don’t force it.”  Be careful.  Be gentle.  Use brains, not brawn.  Work smarter, not harder.  In many contexts, I completely agree.  Finesse and gentleness have their place.

 

Most of what women do all day every day requires relatively little brute force.  This isn’t to insinuate that I think we are living cushy lives.  I know how heavy a car seat with an eleven month old infant in it can be, and how emotionally and physically draining many women’s lives are, juggling the multiple demands and multiple roles that are still all too commonly relegated to “women’s work.”  But it just isn’t the same as hitting something as hard you can until it breaks.  The challenge and the triumph of splitting that knotty old elm branch that’s bigger around than both of your thighs put together is just different.

 

I confess: I love to split wood.  I love the intensity of the effort and the immediate gratification of each successful split.  I love the sharp crack of a split just starting, and I love the roar that comes out of the depths of my being with the next swing.  I love pitting myself against the pile of logs and knowing that I will prevail.  I love hitting things as hard as I can (while I’m confessing, I am rather fond of batting cages too).  It feels like animal gratification, pure and primal.  It is a screaming prayer of ability, a thunderous “I CAN!” howled at the world.  It is pure joy in doing, finding a place where doing and being collide, and the simple experience of being a body is both ecstasy and worship.  The only comparison I can come up with is that when I hike I throw myself at the mountains with a comparable spirit of primitive intensity, and laugh raucous laughter at the summit, intoxicated by the sheer “I-can-ness” of it.

 

Is it necessary to empty oneself out like this in order to find the peace and triumphant joy that comes from doing so?  Are there other routes to such bliss – routes that don’t involve hitting and smashing and roaring?  Asana practice, or running a marathon, for example?  Or creative endeavors that don’t involve breaking a sweat, but certainly do involve plumbing the depths or entering the blackness to emerge with the story, the image, the finished piece that tells of what is there?  My opinion, after decades of many such practices is that for me splitting wood is The Way.

 

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Lost and Found

Even the dogs dislike walking through blackberries. You can’t really walk through them; it’s more of a stumble-and-try-not-to-use-your-hands-to-steady-yourself gait as layers of dead canes crosshatch the ground beneath and tender green daggers grow up in between. Uneven, stabby, treacherous travel… people do this for fun, right?P1210781

 

Peeka bore the brunt of foster Tonshi’s ire. Peeka has forgiven and moved on like a Christian, but the scars show themselves in a limp and a slow pace. I worry about all of them, as mothers do, but I worry about Peeka the most. I poke fun at her relentlessly, cherrypicking her quirks and lampooning her at every turn… but underneath all that ribbing is a bond and a commitment and a fierce love that breaks my heart wide open.

Peeka took off with Hawkitt and Cinder, the mountainside steep and their quarry anything but obvious. If it’s a bear, porcupine or human, they bark. If it’s a deer, they whine. If it’s a coyote, only Hawk goes. If it’s anything else, they are back at my side before I can yell Hawk-HAWK a second time. Sometimes I think they just go to go, to feel the exhilaration of speed. To be away from me and feel that separation as well as the rush of wind in their fur, the onslaught of scent in their brains is a thrill for them. It must be; they certainly indulge in that particular behavior often enough.

We reconnected at the coyote junction, the rendez-vous spot where coyote family groups reconvene when the young are old enough to hunt independently but young enough to need those check-ins with Mama. My dogs read their pee-mail and roll in the long wet grass. Once we all but stepped on a porcupine passing through this open meadow. Good brakes, even better obedience, and a lot of nervous laughter but no quills shed. The dogs know we’re almost home when we get to this spot. They linger, panting, while I pick berries or take photos. It’s a good spot.

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We have Brody now. Peeka’s littermate, I finally relented and took him from his beloved foster mom. The move upset his apple cart and he is responding by baring his teeth all too often – at me, Tom, and all the dogs. We all ignore as much as we can and gently rebuke the rest. He backs down, apologizes, but remains tense. We go slowly with him. We have faith that he will relax. We see glimmers – he grumbled but snuggled with the dog pile last night, Hawk’s feet  resting upon his back legs. He is having a bad morning this morning, and after the third attempt to bully Hawkitt (who has not so much as raised his head in response), Peeka came in and herded him onto the rug, then lay down next to him. He softened. She slept.

P1210736It’s blackberry season. I have made jam, crumbles, and stains on my fingers and t shirts. I see seed-filled scat in the woods – from my dogs and other wild creatures feasting on these lemony-when-underripe, appley-when-overripe treats. I remember my first summer here, weighing the bags and stacking them in the freezer: 2 pounds per day for weeks. This year it was the golden chanterelles that blessed me with abundance. My freezer is full of neatly stacked Ziploc bags looking nasty, but promising mushroom sauces and soups all winter long.

I take photos, pick berries, and yell for errant and absent dogs. They are lost; they are found. A colleague from another life stopped in during Open Studio Day, and the memories hit me like a hard shove off that particular cliff. Once upon a time I had a profession and a full time job. Now I play hide and seek with five dogs on a pricker-filled mountainside. Lost and found, but not always where you expected to wind up. It’s ok. I’d rather be lost or found here with them than anywhere else.

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Vocabulary, Commands and the Difference Between Hawkitt and Peeka

Hawkitt is a 4 year old Dutch Shepherd I adopted back in 2014. He is high drive, meaning he is [expletive deleted] relentless. One day he thought he had a shot at getting someone to play with him, so he asked over and over again, dropping the stick at the feet of about 6 different men — for 8 hours straight. No one ever threw it. He never stopped asking. That’s high drive.

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Hawkie can reliably respond to the following commands:

sit

down

hop up (AKA “place”)

up (jump on me)

come

stay

leave it

around (walk around me in a circle)

down at a distance

paw or touch (wack it with your paw)

speak

quiet

wait (different from stay. This means just hang on a second.)

go (this is when he is begging me to play and I want to continue to walk)

tug

SH! or the one hand raised hand signal — this means silence and hold perfectly still. No panting. This is for those moments when I think I hear something in the woods that we all need to know about.

Play with the baby. This means do something to stop Peeka from acting weird. He usually just jumps on her and chews on various body parts.

Find it.

Settle down; go lie down; go away. Synonyms. All result in Hawkie crashing to the floor at my feet with a big sigh.

Back up.

Peeka can sit.

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maybe down.

Sometimes she can come, although if I really want a nice response from her to a recall command I need to call Hawkitt. She will follow.

 

Same breed. Same trainer. Different dogs.

Very different dogs.

 

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Whitewater Dog Walking

Some people enjoy dog walks. I survive them. Each day when we arrive back home – INSIDE the house with all the dogs (because until we are inside with the door closed, all bets are off) – I breathe a sigh of relief and feel a surge of triumph. We all survived; me, the local flora and fauna, and the dogs. Nothing bad happened.

When Tom gets home from work and asked how my day was, that’s what he wants to know – how did the dog walk go? “Nothing bad happened” is the norm and the background from which the porcupine-bear-coyote-deer-human misadventures stand out in high relief. Nothing bad happened is what we all want and need, and yet…

Dogs are my adrenaline rush. They are my class five rapids, my free climbing. They are my arena in which I test myself and where I learn my hardest lessons. They are where I explore the edge of what’s possible for me in terms of personal power. Most people don’t have five extra-adrenaline dogs and of those that do, most don’t walk them off leash in wild places filled with enticing creatures like bears and porcupines. As a 50+ year old woman, personal power tends to be a bit elusive. Yeah yeah yeah – Tom will claim I’m not lacking in personal power — often when I meet people for the first time, they are astonished at how physically small I am. On Facebook you seem much bigger, they often say. But the truth is a) female, b) over 50, and c) physically petite add up to a deficit in the personal power department.  I make up for that by having large dogs (literally and figuratively) and bossing them around.

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Today we reached a point in the dog walk where we have options. It was raining steadily and we had Lily with us. The short route means hanging a left and heading downhill. Going straight involves prickers and bushwacking and most likely coyotes and deer and quite possibly human remains (Ok, not really. It was most likely a pig. That’s the consensus – pig. But for a while there a bunch of smart people were really stumped. I called the police. But you have to realize that for me to have anything to show the police, I had to take the chunk o’ flesh from Hawkitt and carry it home. Meditate upon that for a moment, friends. Super repulsive, and what an amazing dog to hand over a prize like that just because I said so.).

Hawk stopped at the crossroads and gave me a meaningful look. GO THE FUN WAY, he said with his eyes and his seductive low rapid tail wag. Come on, Hawkie, I cajoled. This way. He looked stricken, pained even. He hesitated. Come on, buddy. This way. All the other dogs stopped, waiting. What would it be – cooperation or a merry chase? He looked at me, then swung his enormous head in the direction of mayhem. He looked back at me fetchingly. No, I said. This way.

I stood aside, making room for him, and gestured with my arm. This way. He turned his back on all that was wonderful in the woods, and trotted downhill, heading for home.

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Why? Why give up and do my bidding? He didn’t get anything for his sacrifice – no treat, no reward, barely a “good dog” and only the most cursory pat-stroke as he surged past me on the steep slope. I don’t know why. I have a few guesses but I figure they are likely anthropomorphic assumptions and undereducated fantasies. They include: He is a nice dog. He loves me. He values pack harmony. He respects my authority. He knows “this way” is a command and he must obey commands. Who knows… maybe the last time he ran with the coyotes they were impolite or laughed at him behind their paws and refused to explain their jokes to him. Whatever went on inside his thick skull, it ended up with him choosing to substitute his agenda for mine.

But tomorrow? I take nothing for granted. Tomorrow we will play out this drama again, and the ending may be different. The other dogs may take on his role while he plays the obedient one. Anything might happen. And I admit it: I kind of hope it does.

 

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On Failure

I feel like a failure regularly. While some of you real dog trainers are yelling “that’s because you are!” many of you are nodding your heads in sympathy and camaraderie. Some of the failures are laughable blips – you don’t get what you want but you get something that teaches you that much more about how your dog thinks and acts. Some of the failures are catastrophic and terrifying – lost dogs, serious fights, or a blown off recall that involves roads and cars.

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Thankfully I do not have to admit to many of the catastrophic failures, and so far all my dogs have survived my ownership, living to ripe old age in relative health and safety. But the small to medium failures happen with greater frequency than I’d prefer. My husband and I were talking about this the other morning, and his context for failure was woodworking. He had spent days on a project only to have the finishing go badly awry. Time, effort, and money lost. He had to back up several steps and try again. He quoted a woodworking guru on failure: Christopher Schwartz’s column entitled “Failing since 1993” is all about letting go of the notion that somehow – by putting time, money, effort, practice, and paying your dues in bruises and worse – you no longer fail. Sure it happens less frequently, and good lord willing, less catastrophically, but it never stops. The failures never end. They keep us humble. And they keep us hungry – hungry to learn more, get more curious, dig deeper, and go beyond the obvious.

Hawkitt just nipped me. It was a classic asshole nip – I ended playtime and was walking him into the house. He wanted to take the toy and run away with it. I said no. He twisted his head around like a godforsaken owl or Linda Blair and nailed me in the forearm with his tiny front razorblade teeth. We’ve been at this for three years. He’s been through a million repetitions of ending play time with dignity. And here I am, at repetition number one million and one, with a fresh bruise. I feel like a failure.

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Is there anything I could have done to prevent this? Sure: for starters, don’t adopt dogs like Hawkitt. His doing and his undoing is his intensity and drive. I understand the nip as “overflow” – he did it not because of dominance or because I never trained him to respect me or any other explanation I’m sure half of you formulated in your head as you read the previous paragraph. He nipped me because that’s what dogs like him do. Period. The fact that he *doesn’t* nip me 99.99% of the time makes this noteworthy. But it still hurts and I still feel like a failure because I do not want to get nipped.

Failures are a central part of the process. They force us to learn and they insist we get better at this – whatever this might be. They are the discomfort that prods us into new territory, and our dogs lead the way. There is always new territory. The learning never ends. And the failing never ends.

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Little Tonshi – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Little Tonshi needs a new foster or adoptive home. She has been with us on Bramley Mountain since February. We nursed her through heartworm treatment and her spay surgery. We’ve gotten to know her, and we’ve gotten attached. But she cannot stay any longer. If she could be safe around my dogs, she would stay here forever – Tom is smitten and all her other quirks are minor.

I can’t stress enough how fun Tonshi is — she really is a classic malinois. She is a bit of a clown, loves to be airborne, and has a truly engaging and winsome smile. She is nine years young – yeah, I always hated that phrase until I met Tonshi. She really is way younger than her years. Athletic, eager, smart, and rarin’ to go, she will make someone a fabulous dog… but that someone can’t be me. She is tolerant of some of my dogs, but truly aggressive towards Peeka. We hoped against hope that this would improve, but it hasn’t. The situation is stressful and neither Tonshi nor the rest of us thrive under stress. She needs a place where she can continue to improve and work on her other issues, and have much more fun. Because really, fun is what Tonton is all about!

If she can’t find a good match, she will need to enter boarding. Quite frankly, Tonshi is not a great candidate for boarding so I though I’d try one last ditch effort to find that perfect match for her. Please share widely, but given Tonshi’s issues, please understand that she’s going to need a very specific new family, with experience and skills to match her needs.

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The Good:

  • Tonshi is smart — smart for a malinois, so that puts her in the upper echelons of smart —  and learns quickly. Learning and working with a human is her favorite thing to do. Solid medium to high ball drive. Hunt drive could be developed. Toy and food motivated. Loves to work. LOVES to work. LOVELOVELOVES to work. She lights up like a Christmas tree when it’s her turn to work.
  • Has a nice “off switch” and will settle indoors. Sometimes this requires a couple of reminders…
  • She loves to swim! Fearless around water. Leaps off my pathetic little dock  — no problem.
  • She can walk nicely on a loose leash when she is feeling confident and secure.
  • Fully vetted: spayed, UTD on vaccines and preventives. Healthy and athletic!
  • Crate trained; no crate issues.
  • Housebroken.
  • Affectionate; loves her people.
  • Alerts when new people enter the property. Not over the top, but great alert barking. Greets strangers at our home without issues.

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The Bad:

  • Tonshi has dog aggression issues. Not every single dog, and not 100% of the time, but her inability to live with my pack has put her in this predicament. She will need a home that can handle total separation and “crate and rotate” or an only dog home.
  • Tonshi lacks confidence. This too can be changed, built up, trained through, and improved – she’s made fabulous improvements in her few months here. Patient support and training will make a world of difference with this.

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The Ugly:

  • Tonshi has what I believe is called “drive aggression.” I call it biteys. She will grab-nip-bite her handler when she gets revved up. She is VERY responsive to training on this and I have made huge strides with redirecting this behavior. I believe decent training could eliminate this quickly and completely… but she will need a malinois savvy person who understands this behavior and doesn’t freak out at a little mali-clacking that escalates!
  • Tonshi also will grab-nip her handler when she is panicked. She escalates to being frantic and starts grabbing at her handler in new situations. She responds to calm, gentle and firm redirection. Again, I feel certain she could be helped through this and it will improve, but you need to be ready for that first time!

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We know very little about Tonshi’s back story, but she was born in March 2008 in Belgium. She has “papers” (as a rescue person I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I think it’s good). She lived in Ohio in a home with other malinois, and it appears to me that she must have had a nice bond with a human who worked with her somewhere in her past. She came into rescue with some commands in German, and a true love of work. She knew what toys were, and she knew how to play fetch and tug. Someone loved her and lavished attention on her way back when. She remembers that and is desperately trying to teach me how to make her happy and fulfilled.

Her issues with other dogs also date back to her original home. Her head is covered in scars, old and new. She has been fighting most of her life. Our home and my skills are just not up to the task of keeping everyone separate and that is what’s needed to keep everyone safe. I feel terribly sad but resigned and committed. She has to go. Malinois ownership guiding tenets: face the facts, deal with them and know your limitations. I can’t manage dogs that hate each other, and Tonshi really hates Peeka.

Volunteering with rescue is like signing up for heartache, but hope prevails. I hope the right family steps up for Tonshi and soon. I hope this post helps her find her people. And I hope the next foster works out for us, because there is always a next one… and another and another after that…

 

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How to Hike With A Human Guest Post By Peeka Mouse

I sat down to write this post, but Peeka head butted me out of the way and started typing. Fine. I’ll drink coffee and look out the window instead. Thanks for the time off, Peeka!

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Me and Cinder doing the goodest hiking together.

Mama saided she wanted to write a post about hiking with me and Hawkie and Cinder and I whined “Please, Mama, let me write it.” So Mama saided yes because Mama is a pushover and I’m her favorite. I am also the goodest at hiking so I am an expert.

Hiking Dos and Don’ts for Dogs:

  • Do listen to your mama and do everything she says. Don’t run away from her when she says “COME” for example.
  • Do come back to your Mama after you run away from her when she yelled “come.” Run as fast as you can towards her and then slam your head into her knee, preferably from the side so you catch her on an angle and make her fall down, or at least make her bark and whine.
  • If your Mama falls down while hiking, run to her as fast as you can. Get there quick, while she’s down on the ground, and stand on her hair. Now lick her eyeballs. Trust me, this is the goodest thing to do if your mama falls down. It tends to stop all the F bombs from coming out of her mouth.
  • Don’t roll in bear poop when your Mama is watching. Wait until she is very busy taking photos of flowers and then do it quietly.
  • Do all your poop and pee off the trail if you’re hiking on a trail. Hawkie goes kinda far off the trail, like halfway to Bloomville. Then he comes running back at like 50 hundred miles per hour and scares me and Cinder and barks at us and acts like a jackass (Mama’s word). Don’t do that unless you want to hear your mama yell knock it off, asshat, or something equally impolite.
  • Don’t chase drunken porcupines up trees and then stand underneath them, barking. Sometimes they fall out of trees and boy are they ornery when they do. Don’t ask me how I know about this.
  • Do stand under wobbly chipmunks when they run up trees. Sometimes they fall out of trees too. It is incredibly important to sniffer the difference between an airborne chipmunk and an airborne porcupine. If you hike with Cinder, though, you will never get the chance to do anything except sniffer the chipmunk because she will snatch it out of mid-air before you can even blink.
  • Do lie down and rest when you get tired. Lie down and rest before you get tired too. Lie down and rest when your Mama takes photographs. Lie down and rest when your brother goes poop. Lie down and rest as often as possible.
  • If you see any people, don’t bite them. Do bark at them and get them super upset, because then Hawkie will take over and bark at them more. Don’t bark at other hikers.
  • If you meet other hikerdogs, don’t turn around and run the other way. Don’t hide under rocks. Don’t say Grrrrr or the F word. Don’t twist out of your collar and squirm around like a greased pig when your mama tries to hold you. Don’t ask me how I know about doing all these wrong things; I readed a book about it once.
  • If you meet wildlifes, like baby deers, or porcupines, or coyotes, or bears, don’t bark at them or chase them. If they are lying down being quiet then you be quiet too. You can give baby animals tiny licks on their eyeballs if you want, but only super gently. Hawkie can show you how; he’s the goodest at that. He kissed a baby deer on its head once and Mama almost died from the cuteness. He also didded a tiny sniffer nose to nose with a porcupine once. Mama holded her breath so much she really did almost die.
  • If your mama puts a leash around your neck, do stop walking and lie down. Don’t move. Turn all your muscles and bones into granite and become one with the earth. This will make your mama very happy and she will probably laugh and sing happy songs. Don’t ask me how I know this.
  • Don’t eat too much plants. You’ll frow up.
  • Don’t eat too much poop. Your mama might frow up if she smells your breath.
  • Remember to run into your mama and bang your head into her as often as possible. Also, if you like to carry a stick when you hike, like Hawkie, make sure it’s a very big stick with pointy parts and smash the pointy parts into your mama as often as possible. You can do this by running up behind your mama, but also try other angles to get the bestest bruise pattern on her legs.
  • Do drink water from every single puddle. The muckier the betterer for making your tummy happy on the drive home. You can combine this tip with #8 and lie down in every puddle while you drink. But don’t do mud snorkeling. That’s Cinder’s sport and she is the goodest and you just can’t compete. Trust me.
  • If you bring a toy or a ball into the woods with you, don’t leave it there. The porcupines don’t like to play with dog toys. They think toys are dumb. And your mama will yell at you “FIND IT” like 50 hundred times and then she will grumble about how much money she spended at Chewy’s to buy you toys that you lose.
  • If your mama points her camera at you, do stick your tongue out as far as possible.

That’s pretty much it. If you follow all my suggestions you can be the goodest hikerdog too. You mama will probably call my mama to thank her for all these wonderful ideas. Gotta go; it’s time for me to go strolling around in the woods!

 

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