Tomato Hikes

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Acceptance 2.0

(also published on the new website – check it out at www.asking-a-lot.com)

Hawkitt was bitten by a bear yesterday.

A friend checked in just now and asked how I’m doing. Well… I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and ate lunch at 9:40 a.m. I just got drenched washing a chest freezer I had defrosted, after retrieving and refreezing the 10 pound bag of beef kidneys and what I think might be a dead muskrat, both thawed and forgotten in the bowels of the freezer. I’m soaked in diluted old blood and apple-scented dish soap. I’m eating tabouli that contains neither parsley nor mint and smells unpleasantly like cat piss. Speaking of which, I watered the chives thoroughly since Hawkitt has taken to pissing on them every chance he gets. Do chives and asparagus go together? Because that’s what’s going on tonight’s pizza, if (god willing) I manage to get the dough started early enough to eat dinner before 9 p.m.

Yesterday Hawkitt got bitten by a bear, Peeka’s eye decided to leak pus instead of tears and Bindi ate a field full of grass and then spent playtime puking. Brody is Brody, shrieking and spinning this morning because Tom shook the milk jug, homogenizing the raw creamline milk by hand. Cinder is going deaf, I think, and maybe also has early signs of dementia.

So how’m I doing? About the same as ever. Holding on by the skin of my teeth, calling the vet, rifling through the medication vials looking for the right antibiotics for Hawk, ointment for Peeka’s eye, and oh shit, it’s May 6th and they need their heart worm preventatives. Six days late. Could be worse.

I try to buy the right assortment of foods to eat, and then remember to eat them before they turn into fragrant black sludge in that magical compost-producing drawer in the fridge. That is pretty much the norm around here but Corona Reality has cranked it up to 11 because I don’t go shopping more than a couple of times a month. And because of The Virus, I also don’t take the dogs to the vet unless it’s a total emergency. We had our quota for total emergencies last week when Hawk, Peeka, and Bindi tangled with a porcupine. Peek and Hawkitt required veterinary intervention. Bindi let me pull her quills, but Peeka and Hawk were both past home care level.

So is a bear bite a veterinary emergency? Hawkie is up to date with all vaccinations – rabies and leptospirosis most critically. He needed assessment and a treatment plan. Deep breath. I can do this at home, guided by the vet over the phone. If I find anything I can’t manage, Plan B is throwing Hawkitt into the car and dropping him off for stitches or staples and drains and an IV.

I’ve done this before. Never a bear bite, but bad dog-on-dog interactions have led to managing deep puncture wounds. Hawk degloved a thigh on barbed wire a few years ago. Cinder ripped open a shoulder and Iske tore up her chest, both while hiking. I’ve been here, in this intense emotional space of fighting to stay calm while looking into a hole in your beloved dog (who is scared and in pain and does NOT want to be examined) and trying to determine how deep, wide, and long it is, whether it will need stitches, and how many more wounds there are. I’ve prepped Mica for surgery in my bathroom at home, swallowing waves of nausea and panic at her condition. I can do this.

Hawk had treed a bear but the bear decided to come down and make a run for it while Hawk was still seated at the base of the tree. Judging by the location of the bite (just in front of his right hip), Hawk was backing off or turning away from the bear. I didn’t see it happen – the curve of the hillside gave me a decent view of the bear in the tree, but I couldn’t see the interaction. I just heard the yelp. No attack, no fight, just a “back off” nip in Hawkie’s general direction is what seems to have been delivered. Given the structure of bears’ jaws and teeth, I looked for four holes. Four canines. I found one and some missing fur. Hawk was incredibly lucky.

In The Mica Movie, Lizz Molloy says something about Mica’s life that, at the time, I didn’t understand. She said that having experiences, even negative experiences, such as getting quilled by a porcupine, were somehow wonderful for Mica. Exciting. Positive. Wonderful. Meaningful. Is there anything good we can take away from a powerfully negative experience?

Everything choice is a risk-reward decision at some level. Do I lie on the couch day-drinking through this Corona Reality, or do I defrost and wash a nasty freezer? Do I adopt five dogs and walk them for a few hours every day in untrailed wild places, or do I move to the suburbs and have one dog on a leash? My lifestyle is a compendium of choices other people might not make, and sometimes the consequences of those choices are rough – on me and on the dogs. But are there also upsides? Is that a reasonable framework for thinking about awful experiences?

This life here on this mountain that isn’t always pretty. The dangers we face aren’t always elegant or dashingly dramatic. Sometimes they’re just fucked up. I have spent a lot of time defending my choices and my lifestyle – not only to you, dear readers, but to my mom, my kid, myself. I’ve spent many words and many pages explaining it. It’s not for everyone. It’s a life in which dogs do occasionally interact with wildlife. It’s not desirable; it’s always better to avoid it. I feel the stab of guilt, and then that self-inflicted wound has to heal, slowly, like Hawk’s bear bite wound – ever mindful of infection.

It dawned on me today: has no dog ever been injured while competing in any organized dog sport? Is agility, dock diving, IPO or PSA a guarantee of safety? Of course not. My vet told me the story of the worst porcupine quilling she ever saw: hunting dogs, while hunting. (No, they were not hunting porcupines.) I offer condolences, not judgement, when my friends report their sport or protection dog has a torn ACL, or some other injury. A friend and reader sent me a moving account she wrote about her training experiences with her Dutch Shepherd – the emotional and psychological scars from which she worked for years to overcome. Then I harken back to Lizz’s words. Mica got to have a wide variety of experiences, after 11 years experiencing only the monotony of confinement. Even if not every experience is rainbows and unicorns (or decoys and bite sleeves), every experience is valuable. Every experience enriches life. Every experience – even powerfully negative ones – make us more fully who we are. And yes, when I say us, I do include my dogs.

Will I continue to do everything in my power to prevent powerfully negative experiences from happening? Yes, of course. I will continue to do everything I can to protect myself and the dogs and the locals from Bad Things. But I know some bad things will happen anyway. That’s life on this mountain. Accepting that, and living the most conscious, ethical, and authentic (yes, I gagged on that word too) life I can is my goal. I strive to keep us all here, alive and well, under control, and at peace with our extremely sexy neighbors. I strive to live well, doing the right thing, with a pack of prey driven smarty paws that would not mind being utterly unethical.

It’s not so much about working and striving and committing to the goal of staying safe. It’s more about the acceptance and even embracing of the experience of a bad thing once it’s happened. In other words, I think I’m starting to understand Lizz’s deep words from all those years ago. The challenges we face and the choices we make, and then the consequences we are dealt are all valuable parts of us.

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Updates and Pupdates

New and improved! A new website and a new home for the blog! I’m delighted to announce that www.asking-a-lot.com is live and almost finished. After publishing the book, I thought well heck: I guess I should have a website that celebrates Asking A Lot and echoes what the book is all about. The new website is one stop shopping for all things Heather Rolland – writing (books, blogs, and other published works), photography, and jewelry.

I’m still working out the technical aspects of making this switch, but “subscribing” isn’t as straightforward as it is here. For now, I’ll post here as well while I figure out a forwarding gizmo, or create the subscription option the way squarespace help says to do it. Or hire a teenager to do it for me. Yes, it looks *that* complicated!

If you’d like to pick up a signed copy of Asking A Lot, leave a comment below, or reach out to me on social media. Price is $25.00 plus media mail shipping for $2.80. That means a total of $27.80. I’d love to personalize an inscription and ship it to you pronto. We can work out address, payment etc. details privately. The e-book is $3.99 on Amazon, if the paperback cost is a bit steep. Click here to go to Amazon to order an e-book.

I hope you are staying safe, feeling well, and navigating this challenging new reality we’re all experiencing. I am staying home up here on the mountain, trying to write, cook, clean, train dogs, grow a garden, brew beer, and work on the house without going quite mad from worry or sadness about lives lost and wrenching societal change. It’s deep stuff. I don’t have any wonderful words of wisdom beyond what I posted as a first post on the new blog – here’s the link: http://www.haliagrace.com/blog/2020/4/23/the-new-rules. If nothing else, I hope some time spent reading about dogs, porcupines, and the “hectic joys and weary blues” of bonding with Bramleywolves is a pleasant diversion.

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Eternal puppies

Many years ago, I received some odd (and lousy) advice from a dog owner that, due to its oddness and badness, has stuck in my brain all these years. It didn’t make the cut, so it isn’t a chapter in Asking A Lot. But I do find myself circling back to it from time to time when out on the morning walk, marveling at how different my life with my pack would be had I heeded this particular advice.

“Don’t ever let your dog grow up” was his edict. “Keep them puppies for their whole life.” Since that’s physiologically impossible, what does it mean? In what way would it be possible to prevent a dog from maturing, and how on earth could an owner freeze a dog in puppyhood for eternity? Before I explore the how, I want to consider the why.

What are the differences between a puppy and an adult dog? Well, let’s pretend the above imperative to prevent maturity has been heeded. According to my source, the best kind of adult pet dog is simply a larger and physically fully developed being that maintains a puppy demeanor. Adult body but puppy heart, soul, and brain. Puppyish devotion and dependence for life. And a pet – owner relationship with all the hallmarks of puppy ownership, forever.

Why manage a dog with this as your goal? Deep down, I believe the answer is fear-based. This is the same guy who said “never have more than two dogs. They develop pack mentality and will kill you.” Mmm hmmm. The theory is that dogs are wolves with a thin veil of domestication. The fear is that without constant effort and micromanagement, a fully realized adult dog would kill and eat its owner – literally and/or metaphorically. The need to keep the dog a puppy is about the illusion of maintaining total control. A competent, mature adult dog is a dangerous and unwanted being, not a good pet, in this way of thinking.

not a puppy

Puppies are dependent upon human owners for providing structure and safety, and running interference with the giant and overwhelming outside world. Human owners have a specific role to play in raising a puppy and it’s quite “hands on.” Housebreaking, feeding, training … we constantly manage our puppies’ urges and teach them how to live in harmony with us. Life with puppies, adorable as it is, is a constant managing of normal dog instincts: don’t bite me, don’t eat that, don’t pee there. Chew this, not that. Play with this, not that. Bite this, not me or the cat. We manage the snot out of puppies, because they require that level of management in order to become pleasant companions and safe, sane housemates.

I have five dogs at the moment and since we got home from the morning walk a few hours ago, I haven’t managed anything. I haven’t given a single command, nor removed any contraband from anyone’s mouth. I haven’t even had to say “go lie down, kid, you’re bugging me” to the puppy. And that’s totally normal in my house. None of my dogs need micromanagement. They all know how to live in peace with me and Tom and each other (ok, Peeka and Brody really struggle with this, but they try and I can claim steady, if microscopic, improvement).

But are they adults? Have I allowed them to grow up?

I have very limited experience with puppies. As cute as babies of any species may be, I am not a fan. Too much work. I did not love being the mom of a human infant, but from her second birthday on, I have enjoyed my daughter more every single day. She’s the coolest adult I know. I did my best with her, understanding that caring for her as an infant was critically important. But my goal was always to back off and give her as much space to be herself as possible (and reasonably safe, although her father and I often disagreed about what constituted safe… there was a serious mentos and diet coke phase). Same with Bindi, the most recent puppy to grace my home. She arrived here as a six month old pup and honestly her foster mom had done all the heavy lifting. All I needed to do was not screw up the excellent foundation Mama Jan created.

So I did my best. Frequent potty breaks. Loads of praise for success. Loads of toys, bones, and stuffed kongs to help with any interest in chewing the wrong items. Loads of supervision. I might have severely limited her freedom using crates and baby gates, but Bindi hurled herself into gen pop quite literally, vaulting over the baby gate. She then behaved so beautifully, I let her have freedom. Had she struggled more with that much freedom it would have been curtailed. But my goal was always to do less — to help Bindi reach a point where she needed less direction from me and could interact with the pack and the world without me shepherding her every move.

In my pack, the morning walks are the training ground where the dogs grow from puppyhood to adulthood. This is where they have to deal with freedom and respond to me in a smart, sensible, grown-ass way. This is where they have to take all the support they’ve had to date and put it into practice. And this is what Asking A Lot is all about, a compendium of everything that can and does go wrong and how I circle back to the fundamentals in order to (hopefully) minimize risks and maximize joy.

We do this incrementally. No one is tossed into the deep end on the first outing. Leashes, long lines, and loads of short practice walks around the property all constitute increments of exploring safely. Sometimes I stop and take photos, do some weeding, or just watch the birds, allowing a lot of wandering. I issue no recalls despite the time or distance. The dogs have to decide when to return to me. How far is too far? How long is long enough? I want the dog to feel what it feels like to be a dog without a helicoptering human right there. I want the dog to experience the freedom of making choices and decisions that aren’t mitigated or brokered by me. And I make damn sure that every reunion with me is joyously well-rewarded.

not a puppy

It’s a fine line. They also have to have recall, and we need to have a trusting relationship – a deep bond. That doesn’t happen overnight. They need to make decisions like they did this week – to walk away from a bear and return to me to continue our hike. The bear was sexier than I could ever hope to be, all 500 pounds of him ambling along without a care in the world. One swipe of his paw could have ended any one of my dogs. He could have made mincemeat out of me. While bears are not typically aggressive, I couldn’t safely approach and take over. The dogs had to choose to leave the bear and return to me… and they did.

The perennial puppy is the result of micromanagement. That’s my interpretation of the original comment: you, human pet owner, must control everything, and keep the dog in a dependent state for all his or her days. Supervision of and control over every choice presented to the dog, with total dependence upon the human for everything – food, fun, safety – that might sound like responsible dog ownership. To me, it’s just too much. Not only is it impossible with five dogs, but to me it isn’t desirable.

As fun as children or puppies might be, I want adult companionship, human or canine. I want to be around fully realized beings – again, human or canine. I want my pets to be whole, deep, complex, and rich beings, who have love for me and respect for me (not slavish devotion to me) because they have chosen it. That choice has to come from a place of knowledge, experience, and freedom. I want them to respect me and choose to bond with me, and thus obey me when the chips are down and the quills are up… not because I have bribed, trained, or tricked them into it. Not because I have followed a series of instructions – a recipe for “leadership.” Not because they are helpless and hapless puppies that need me to navigate the world for them. Because we are partners. Equals even. And because we work together as partners to enjoy a life that is fulfilling for adult dogs.

But it can be even simpler than that. Think about the type of relationships you can have with children. Now think about the kind of relationships you can have with adults. Both are good, right? Kid are awesome, but they have their limits. Same for me with dogs. Puppies are awesome but they have their limits. They can never bond the way an adult bonds. They can never step up to the partnership plate the way an adult can. I’m willing to experience the puppy joy, but for me, that depth and intensity of bond that can only come from an adult is where it’s at.

not a puppy

I know it all sounds a little crazy when we’re talking about pets. No matter how much I romanticize the collegial nature of our relationship, I admit that there is a clear hierarchy. But I don’t want a dog that respects me by rote or requirement. I want a dog to choose to respect me, after having thoroughly considered the alternatives. Imagine what it might be like if an adult wolf or coyote chose to partner with you. You’d be wowed. You’d be floored. You’d be honored. Because that animal … well, it doesn’t have to partner up with you. It could just as likely have chosen to kill you or die trying.

I don’t fear competent and confident dogs. I am drawn to them. Keeping them puppies forever is fine if that’s what turns you on. But I feel a little sorry for those folks. I think they’re missing out on a lot.

There’s more to say on this topic. What if your dog grows up to be a real asshole of an adult dog? What if the adult dog doesn’t respect you and doesn’t choose to bond with you? If you are somehow not available or not deemed competent by a dog that is smarter or stronger than you… then a fully realized adult dog IS a problem. But that’s for another post. Let’s leave this here for now and chew on it together for a while.

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Asking A Lot, #stayhome style

Take a shower. Get dressed. Stoke the fire. Make a To Do list. Staying home isn’t new to me. I’ve been living a modified #stayhome lifestyle for years. For me, it’s been both economic and psychological. If I go out, I tend to spend money. Since I make very little money, staying home (and staying away from online seductresses like Etsy and Amazon) has been a conscious choice. Save gas, save cash, make it myself or go without — these have been the rallying cries of the Bramleywolves for the past 6 or so years.

A huge part of that lifestyle has been writing. Writing for clients, writing this blog, writing short stories, but front and center – writing my book. The Book. Working on the book has occupied a central part of my Bramleylife for the past 6 years. Or not working on the book and feeling the need to work on the book (which is a huge component of writing).

And now it’s done. You may buy The Book. It’s out of my hands, and available on the shelves. To get your copy, click here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0868Y7Z9J (e-book version) or here, for the paperback: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B086BC11HZ?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860

It’s a strange feeling, being finished. I mean, now the real work begins. Writing is the fun part. It’s the beautiful part, for me. I love words, and I love thinking about my dogs, life, nature, wildlife, and how to be the best human I can be. I love the process of finding the words to share what is so often wordless. Wonder, joy, love… for me the process of writing is like a funky internal rodeo in which amorphous concepts get rounded up, hog-tied, and branded. Hmmm, maybe that’s a little violent. Rounded up and hugged, smooched on the nose, and given an embroidered collar with a pretty daisy on it. Ok, that’s kind of cloying. But the search and the consideration, the trying on of phrases and paragraphs… it’s joyful. It’s the shower in which my soul belts out Born To Run, off key and off tempo but enthusiastic as fuck. Eventually I find the phrase that works, years go by, and the book gets written.

The cool thing about art (writing or any other form) is that sharing it is the point. Art is by nature communal, although its creation is often a solo act. The sharing is at once vulnerable and triumphant; my fervent prayer is not just that others like it, but that it connects. Strikes the chord, hits the nerve, touches the soul… and somehow feels helpful. I guess that’s the big goal. Not only do I hope that readers are entertained by Asking A Lot, although that would be enough, but I hope that readers are somehow helped to feel a sense of community – that they are not alone in how they think, feel, or get by. If I can help one reader heave that sigh of relief and say “Whew! So I’m not the only one who feels that way?!?” I’ll be delighted. I wrote the book in part to sort my own life out, but also to give voice to what I just don’t hear enough – simple commonsense approaches to life with dogs.   

And here we are, sharing a moment in history in which we are all struggling to adjust to constant anxiety, questions, loss, and tremendous uncertainty. How long will this social distancing last? When can I have my life back? What will my world look like when this is all over? Are you already sick and tired of thinking that phrase: “when this is all over?” I had a beautiful heart to heart last night (over Messenger) with a friend struggling to be productive and focused during this time. She said to me “how can I focus on MY work? It seems petty and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.” I hear ya. The hubris of releasing a book about dogs and nature now, in the midst of a pandemic, seems incredibly small and selfish. Trying to promote the book and ask people to purchase it seems almost absurd.

And yet… here’s what I hope: that reading my book (and any other book! READ ALL THE BOOKS!) will give you some respite from the uncertainties and relief from the dreadful feeling in the pit of your stomach. Come with me on my morning walk, laugh at my ridiculous conundrums, and let yourself have a few moments of escape. Yesterday, Peeka killed a dead mink on the morning walk. Truly, I can’t make this stuff up. But I can shake my head and laugh, and so can you… even while you’re worried.

I’ll do some author events too. Facebook Live and Instagram Live: I can do a reading, answer questions, and yell at my dogs and Tom “live” and we can build an Asking A Lot online community of support. Heck, we already have one every Friday morning on Facebook!

Read, enjoy, and if you feel moved to do so, share! Your social media shares can help Asking A Lot reach beyond our inner circle and into the larger dog community. That would be a dream come true for me and the gang.

Be safe, hang in there, read, and connect. We’re all in this together.

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Of Dogs and Porcupines

A picture’s worth a thousand words. And when that picture is a trail camera photo of your porcupine-addicted dog standing calmly several feet away from a porcupine clambering into his den, it’s also worth a few hundred bucks in vet bills.

We live in the heart of Porcupine Country. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a porcupine-enriched ecosystem. This two-thousand or so acre area we call home is deciduous forest, farmed for decades before being sold to the New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection as buffer land for the NYC watershed. It’s a mix of maple, oak, beech, and hornbeam, with a few open meadows being taken over by hawthorn and blackberry. It’s used recreationally for hunting, trapping, and hiking. For reasons that a wildlife biologist or ecosystem scientist may be able to explain, it is an amazingly porcupine-rich place. We also have heaps of foxes, fisher, chipmunks, red squirrels, blackberries, bobcats and bears. But the porcupine population is gigantic – unusually so.

Porcupines are rodents. Squint and you can see how similar they are to beaver, the largest rodents in North America. Beaver are buck-toothed aquatic rodents equipped with a wide, flat, hairless tail. Porkies are buck-toothed arboreal rodents sporting wide, flat, quill-covered tails. Both flip or flick their tails when distressed. Beaver splash the surface of the water when they do so; porcupines often smack the faces of the scary marauders they are fending off when they use a tail slap.

Porcupines cannot shoot or throw their quills. The quills are barbed and hook into attackers. They are pulled loose from the porcupine only by attaching to something (or someone) else. I’ve gotten quills stuck in my hands and legs many times while removing them from my dogs. They hurt going in and they hurt coming out.

The most common wisdom regarding dogs and porcupines is that some dogs learn to leave porkies alone, and some do not. Some dogs never learn despite repeated encounters and some only get quilled once. Some never get quilled at all. Peeka has been quilled very thoroughly more than once. She has been unlucky: one of her more awful quill experiences came after the porcupine she barked at from a distance fell out of a tree and hit her in the head on the way down. Yup, Peeka broke his fall. Another encounter ended badly for all – Peeka killed the porcupine and endured three subsequent surgeries as quills migrated and needed mitigation. Some were removed from her eye socket.

But we live in a porcupine-enriched world in which daily interactions are unavoidable. You see, with five dogs and a steep wooded landscape filled with nooks and crannies (fallen logs, rock ledges, hollow trees, etc.), it isn’t possible to see what every dog is doing at all times. Tonshi, one of our foster dogs, was quilled at 10 p.m. when we went out for a pee break. She was out of sight for about 20 seconds. She returned to the pool of light by the front door sporting a quill beard. One of the local porcupines lived quite literally in our driveway for the better part of 2019. Tom and I would look up from dinner to see him strolling past the front windows. If we wanted to avoid all contact, we’d have to move, or never let the dogs out.

But it’s a bold claim I’ve made, that my dogs come face to face with porcupines on a regular basis without any quills shed. Because there’s no prickly evidence, and most of the time it happens when I’m not looking, it’s been hard to know for absolutely certain if that’s true. The trail cam photo is evidence – hard fast proof – that what I’ve believed all these years is true.

This evidence of calm, restrained behavior around a moving rodent – Peeka is obviously hanging back in the photo and not barking, not play bowing, not harassing the porcupine in any way – gives me pause. What do we really know about how our dogs comport themselves when we’re not there? It’s fascinating to ponder. What do dogs do when humans are not directing them, not ordering them around, not mitigating their interactions with each other, other species, and humans? For years I have been claiming that this is the norm, that my dogs have been taught to leave the locals alone, and that they do… with very few and very dramatic exceptions.

We can’t monitor and intercede at every turn… at least I can’t. It’s simply not possible.

I’ve been writing this post for days, juggling laundry, cooking, dog walks, and other interruptions. I started when I saw the trail cam photo. Today, several days later, Bindi took off at 6 a.m. only 3 steps from the front door. I hustled everyone else inside, grabbed a flashlight, and ran in the direction of her barking. Sure enough – a porcupine waddled into the pool of light, Bindi only inches from its tail. She hung back just enough to remain out of reach, and Franklin (I’m pretty sure it was Franklin, our recent porcupine resident of the wood shop soffit who has since moved to the rock ledge) ambled along, piloerection in full swing. I recalled Bindi. She obeyed. She tagged my fingertips and hurtled back to Franklin. This game continued: She obeyed my recall but shot back down the trail to monitor Franklin’s departure twice more. Third times a charm. She came, she stayed with me, and I can only guess that she decided breakfast (indoors, quill-free) was a good idea.

I can’t prevent these encounters. We’d never leave the house. The only thing I can do is train recall under distraction until we all turn blue. I believe in this kind of training, but sometimes I don’t even know I need to issue the recall command. What then? What happens when the dogs are on their own without direction from me, facing porcupines, deer, bears, coyotes, foxes, and so on? Because I think I can assume if we see Peeka on the trail cam with a porcupine, that’s the tip of the iceberg. That’s just the one time she got caught.

I don’t exactly have an answer. It’s food for thought. What do dogs do when we don’t insist they trade their agenda for ours? How much do they rely upon instinct and to what degree do they refer back to previous commands, previous training sessions, previous painful encounters? I’m sure it varies by breed, individual temperament, and other variables I haven’t even considered. But it’s fascinating.

Peeka’s and Bindi’s behavior definitely earns them the label of Good Dogs. The choices they made in those situations were good choices by any human standard. But we all know Peeka is not a good dog. Not really. She’s the minimally rehabbed offspring of a feral rat, with a bad attitude, serious mental problems, and no bite inhibition. She’s definitely not a good dog, no matter how you slice it. Bindi is a puppy, part terrier and part German shepherd. She is a prey-driven hot mess of a girl, more excited about hunting voles than playing with her border collie buddy when both opportunities are present. But both of them made pro-social, Happy Mama decisions WITHOUT ME THERE. I guess to me that’s just … well… fascinating. I don’t know what else to call it. It’s fascinating to think that perhaps somewhere deep in the recesses of their brains, there’s a piece of Mama that resides, giving orders and setting limits, even when I’m not physically present. Much like human children, somehow, someday, they choose to do the right thing without adult assistance or threats and bribes.

How do you make sense of good behavior that happens without your bidding?

The trail cam photo — Franklin and Peeka
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Bindi – Pupdates from the Trenches

It’s March and that means mud season is upon us. The pond is thawing and the opportunity to track critters in the snow is ending (although it is going out with a bang: I tracked an otter up and over the mountain the other day!). It also means Bindi, our newest pup, is completing her first revolution around the sun. We don’t know when she was born but I guessed that March was probably her birth month, given her age when Foster Mama Jan scooped her up.

We’ve enjoyed Bindi’s presence in our home and pack for 6 months. She arrived here in September, a donkey-eared black puppy with that adorable wonky paw. She has grown like a weed and filled out, but her ears have also grown. All those predictions that she’d grow into her enormous satellite dish ears prove incorrect -she is still sporting ridiculous ears on a cute little black and gold brindled body.

She has been so easy, so relaxed, so happy, it’s been hard to reconcile her quirks. Now, at the six month mark, I’m ready to call it: she fits right in. That means she is both perfect and flawed. And I’m finally ready to write about her issues.

Bindi is a fearful dog. She is timid. I have no idea why. She was found very young, and fostered by a champion foster mama, in a warm, loving, safe, fun household. Her first 8 weeks or so may not have been great, but since then she has had nothing but kind structure and loving guidance, first from Mama Jan, and then from me and my pack. She is confident and playful at home with her packmates and me, the picture of a normal pup of her age. But the moment Tom gets home from work, she is distressed. She barks and hides and scoots away from him if — god forbid – he approaches her.

She is timid when meeting all new people and dogs. She warms up to dogs quickly, especially if they are submissive. She is all hackles and deep-voiced barking at first, but within 2 minutes, she is relaxed and playing. Humans? She’s ok with women but not friendly. She will take treats but doesn’t really want to interact. She will not approach men. Forget about it.

She is fabulous at the animal hospital and settles as if she’s home. Sleeps, even, while waiting for the vet to examine her. If the vet and I chat, she flops to the floor and takes another nap. She can walk nicely on a leash in stores or busy streets, but could not be cajoled or dragged into a friend’s home. That was too scary.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re not worried and we’re not unhappy. This is fine. I’d be stunned if a dog without issues called our pack home. A little wonky paw and timidity is no big deal. But I do have a few thoughts about it.

First, the temptation to assume that a man was abusive to her is natural, but I don’t necessarily buy that. Maybe. But maybe not. Her fear of men may be due to something other than a past experience. It could be something in the present – scent, size, vibe, or something else. Men are different from women (you may call me Captain Obvious), and those differences might be enough to tip sensitive little Bindi Loo Who into fear.

You see, even dogs with great pasts have issues. It happens. Just like some humans are more nervous and some are more trusting, I think it’s just her temperament. The quirks and idiosyncrasies are what make her who she is, and I think to a certain degree, this is just how she came from the factory. Maybe there was a bad experience that turned the volume up on a pup that was already predisposed to fear. Maybe not. We’ll never know.

How to handle a dog that is fearful of a family member is an interesting window into all the relationships in the home. Tom is accustomed to forging his own relationship with the dogs, separate and different from my relationship with them. He is also well versed in flux – he’s watched dogs grow and change in our care. The most dramatic is Peeka, but all of them change as they age. As do Tom and I.

Tom asked me what he should do. I counseled patience and distance. Don’t approach. Don’t ask her to make friends. Don’t push. Let her approach you. Let her do this in her own way, on her own time frame. Be uninterested and uninteresting. That conveys safety.

Tom calls her, sticks a hand out, follows her when she runs from him, and bribes her with food.

I have to laugh. He’s been pretty successful. She still runs from him and barks at him, but she also approaches and receives his ministrations graciously at certain times of the day. She seems to like him best if he is wearing his blue bathrobe. Go figure. If he is sitting still, focused on a meal or computer work, she will nose flip him… especially if I tell her to go haunt a house. She is changing, a lot more slowly that I would have expected for such an overall robust dog, but I expect she will eventually accept him with the same affection and comfort as she accepts me.

I sought a puppy to adopt with the expressed goal of having an easy, “issue-free” new pack member. I wanted a nice dog, one I could bring with me on hikes or in public places, one that would be a healing salve on the wounds inflicted by life with Peeka and Brody. I got a gimpy, fearful, barking fruit bat. And I couldn’t be happier.

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