The Cop Out – A Post for Trainers

It’s the first day of school, and you’re the teacher. You run a tight ship and the kids in your class do well. You know what you’re doing.

This morning you are welcoming a new student into your classroom. You don’t know anything about this new student — no information about the child, his home, or his family is available.

When he walks in and sits down, you can see something is off. You’re not sure what. His eye contact is fleeting and he doesn’t answer when you speak to him. In fact, he seems both afraid of you and oddly defiant. He won’t interact with you or any of the other students. Within the first few minutes, he’s broken about half a dozen classroom rules.

At this point, you have choices about how you attempt to manage your new student. You can withhold everything: bathroom breaks, food, water, etc. until he starts interacting more appropriately. Remember, nothing in life is free. You could try cajoling him with M&Ms to change his tune. You could just watch and wait and see what he does next. Given your power and control over the classroom, you have lots of options.

But wouldn’t you like to know if he speaks the same language as you or not? Or if he is able to hear? Or if his mom died last night in a car accident? Was he in the car? Is he injured? Is he in shock? Does he have a traumatic brain injury? Or was that car accident five years ago and his injuries were minor? Has he traveled from a war-torn country and is here living with relatives he barely knows? Or is he the spoiled rotten son of the local aristocracy?

Would knowing any of this information assist you in reaching him and working with him? Would any of it change your approach?

***

On the surface, it sounds sensible to say, “I train the dog in front of me.” It sounds like a bandwagon we can all ride together. Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t get mired in pity. Don’t get caught up in the story. The dog in front of you will tell you all you need to know. Just be the leader the dog clearly needs. The rest will unfold.

As a psychotherapist, I know how important telling a story can be. The very act of telling can be cathartic and healing. That doesn’t mean we turn the story into gospel, however. Using the story to excuse or ignore unacceptable behavior isn’t helpful. The story isn’t a prediction of future behavior, and relying on the story as a reason to stay stuck in an unhealthy pattern is unfair and lazy. But none of those pitfalls are reasons to dismiss owners who need to tell.

I’ve had trainers say to me, point blank, “the story doesn’t matter.” I’ve heard trainers say “I train the dog in front of me,” which is shorthand for “I don’t want to hear another sob story about who abused your poor fur baby.” Some of the time, these trainers may be correct. They may do just fine with a Peeka or a Brody without knowing anything about the dogs. But they also might fail, wasting time, money, and hope. Not to mention getting injured.

The thing is, people who adopt dogs with a poignant backstory need to tell it. Trainers need to work well with human beings, so that these humans can work well with their dogs. Dismissing an owner who needs to tell their dog’s story is shooting yourself in the foot. It is a trainer’s job to listen, hear the critical parts, and tolerate being with the discomfort. Knowing a dog has been harmed is painful, but tolerating the emotions and then working with the dog and his human is the trainer’s role. Doing so teaches owners that we can feel and still make wise decisions, guided by emotions and knowledge, technique and sound methods. We can train with love, structure, and boundaries, providing clear guidance and safety. We can use our head and our heart together, in concert. Hearing wrenching stories is part of the job. Role modeling compassion and empathy while making sound decisions is part of training dogs. It’s a key aspect of teaching owners.

Ignoring the story is hubris. Telling an owner their story is not important is not only unkind, it’s also incorrect. The story is terribly important and beautiful. In it lies the seed of the bond. The owner is telling you who they are and how they see themselves in relation to the dog. This is information you, as a trainer, really need.

Being present to hear and feel the hurt and harm other humans have inflicted upon a dog is, quite simply, god’s work. It is beyond important. It is necessary. It will make us ache and weep, but it will also make us present. Being present sets us up to then take the next step: to provide what the dog needs.

You can’t know whether to be tough or lenient, strict or a softie, easy going or a total drill sergeant, if you haven’t been open and present to receive the whole picture. You can’t know how to deal with that new kid in your class if you haven’t found out what’s wrong. Does he need hearing aids or detention? You need information, and that information is in the story.

You need to be vulnerable and present to find out. As a trainer, you need to listen to the owner when they recite what seems like a rehearsed litany of wrongs the dog has been subjected to. You need to sort through the nonsense, and sift out the nuggets of truth. And then you need to step up to the plate and teach that owner how to meet the dog’s need, even if it isn’t easy. But you’ll never be able to do that if you haven’t truly listened to the dog and the owner.

Long story short, falling back on the “I train the dog in front of me” line is a cop out. Strong emotions can support bonding and training, but we can’t deal with them appropriately if we’re too scared to feel them. Feeling, being present, and being vulnerable are critical components of bonding… and training.

If you find yourself sighing and rolling your eyes at yet another canine tale of woe, ask yourself what it would cost you to be present and feel. We steel ourselves against feeling to avoid the pain, but when you let yourself feel the pain, you discover the answers. You have more to gain than to lose.

Posted in the woof pack | 4 Comments

Expect Dog Hair and Delays!

T SHIRT NEWS: TWO WEEKS NOTICE!

Howdy T shirt buyers! I haz news!


I ordered 2 colors and saw the shirts yesterday. There are pink shirts (turquoise ink), and eggplant shirts (pale yellow ink). They are 100% cotton, made in the USA, and are lightweight. Same brand and same style as the red, white, and blue Mica Movie shirts (but a lighter weight than the gray Mica shirts). The pink color is a rich medium pink. Not muted or “dusty” at all, it’s a lovely, strong and bright mid-tone pink. The turquoise ink will be a gorgeous contrast. The eggplant color is sold as “oxblood black,” but it is NOT black at all. It’s a dark reddish purple, very saturated, and truly – it’s nice. It’s unique, not a maroon, not a red, not a purple, but a super cool color. The pale yellow ink will really pop. Both the eggplant and the yellow are more muted or “dusty” tones. I can’t get you photos … so you’ll have to take my word for it!


The image is the Bramley Wolf Press logo. It looks freaking awesome on the shirts.

Design by Kimberly McGuire


I’m using a local, family-owned print shop (Catskill Mountain Embroidery and Screenprinting), right here in Delhi, NY. They are extremely experienced and provide fabulous customer service, and do a wonderful job with price.


Because I’m using the local shop, I had to buy a bunch of shirts. This is where it gets a little wonky. I’ll have a stash of shirts. I’ll sell them. Some sizes will run out faster than others. I’ll have to reorder, but I’ll need to sell enough stock to have the money to reorder… blah blah blah. Basically: be patient with me. I am not a store. I’ll do my absolute best to give retail store customer service, but remember… I’m just a crazy dog lady sitting in a house in upstate NY. I might get distracted in the middle of filling your order because someone needs a potty break. I’ll be as fast, professional, and buttoned up as I possibly can, but expect dog hair and delays… then you can be pleasantly surprised if I’m on track!


Sizes: S-XL, and XXXL. I didn’t buy any XXL this time around.


This run will be first come, first served. Paying for a shirt reserves you a shirt. The shirts are $20 each, $5 for shipping. I will be happy to discount a bulk order — message me if you’d like more than 2 shirts and we can talk! I can take paypal or venmo — paypal email address is purplemayajaya@yahoo.com.


The shirts should be ready in about 2 weeks (roughly March 1, 2020). I’ll update y’all as I know more.

Posted in the woof pack | Leave a comment

Acceptance

Imagine getting a new job. Let’s pretend your new boss is eager to work well with you, and for you to work well with her.

From the outset, however, you feel like your boss wants you to be different than how you naturally are. You might figure this is just the learning curve, and it’s pretty steep. You keep telling yourself it’s newness, or nerves, and that things will get better, but it feels deeper. No matter what you do, you feel like who you are, at your core, is not acceptable. Your boss wants you to be different, fundamentally different, from who you are. Trying to do the right thing helps a bit, and each time you actually manage to complete a task the way your boss wants you to, you receive your paycheck. But you can feel it — your boss is never actually happy with you, and you, just plain old you being you never makes her happy. She always seems at least a little bit disappointed in you.

If you express yourself at work, either verbally or by acting out, your boss punishes you. You learn pretty quickly that self-expression is a bad idea. If you just try to zone out and disengage and be content by yourself, you get harangued until you interact more. But you can’t interact with her the way she wants you to, so you just make her more disappointed and angry, and you feel more and more hopeless.

You might start to wonder why you were hired, since you’re definitely not what the boss wants. You probably feel like it’s pointless to try harder, since all your past efforts have come up short. No matter what you do right, you’re always getting schooled, guided, forced, or bribed to be different. It reaches the point where you find it hard to trust those good moments, few as they are, when you’re actually getting praised. The praise is only for what you did – the action, not you.

Humans can look for new jobs. We can move out of toxic marriages, cut off dysfunctional relationships, and if economic conditions permit, leave soul-killing jobs.

Dogs cannot.

I read a lot of dog trainer blogs, watch videos, and listen in on Facebook groups. I have picked up on a theme among some trainers and their disciples. Leadership is being confused with acting like the boss in our example above. To all those people struggling to be a good leader for their dog, and in the process being unsuccessful and dissatisfied with your dog’s progress, I ask: can you accept that your dog is trying her hardest and doing her best? What if what you’re getting, right now, today, with crappy leash walking and broken stays, is the very best your dog will ever offer you? Can you accept your dog as he or she is?

That’s worth repeating. Can you accept your dog as he or she is? What if all your efforts to make Buddy be different is making you both feel exhausted and lousy about the relationship? Can you stop demanding that the dog be different and accept the dog as he or she is?

This doesn’t mean you don’t train your dog. This doesn’t mean you let your dog engage in dangerous activities like running into the road. This doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and do nothing with the dog. But it does mean that everything you do comes from a place of truly knowing and accepting the dog for who he or she is. Maybe not loving it – that may or may not ever be a part of the picture. I have known some very unlovable dogs.

But acceptance is different. Accepting a dog as he or she is means you adjust your goals. You manage some situations because your dog simply can’t. You can drill, train, demand, cajole, and bang your head against a wall but you won’t change who your dog is. You won’t be able to erase the factory default setting. You can buy new leashes, clickers, collars of every type, harnesses, and whips and chains (not literal ones!) but all you’ll do is end up with a ton of stuff you don’t use. You can pay trainer after trainer, and attend every class your local area offers, but your dog will still be who he or she is.

You see, a bit like a bad boyfriend, or the gem you end up marrying, the innate characteristics don’t change because of love or pressure. Ask anyone who ever believed a partner would change for them. No amount of love, nookie, or verbal bludgeoning ever made anyone change. Pick the partner with whom you click, because no matter how much he or she may even want to… people can’t fundamentally change who they are to please other people in their lives. And neither can dogs.

Accepting your dog won’t make him or her more biddable or more cooperative. It won’t earn you blue ribbons. It won’t be the magic ingredient that suddenly turns your relationship around and firmly places you in the leadership role. What it will do is make all the effort sting a little bit less. It changes the definition of success. It changes your goals.

And it changes your biochemistry. Accepting your dog (or your spouse or kid) for who he or she is will reduce stress, and that will change your hormonal secretions when you’re around your dog, and guess what? Your dog will be able to tell. You will feel different to be around. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend. You have to do it for real, with your whole heart. But the results will be better.

The truth is that we click with some dogs and not others. Monique Anstee writes about intuitive dogs in her book As a Dog Thinketh, but I think sometimes it’s not just the dog that’s intuitive. I think there are also some people who are more fluent in Dog, more open to receiving dog essence, and just plain “get” dogs. Maybe not all dogs, but those intuitive folks are champs at accepting their own dogs. And when you have a dog that seems to truly “get” you and vice versa, it’s pure magic. It flows, it’s easy, and it’s like having a best friend that finishes your sentences for you.

If you’re seeking that, know that you have to offer it. You have to be available for connection by being present without demands. You have to spend time NOT training, not asking anything, not working your dog, not stimulating him, not doing all the things your Instagram guru told you to do, but just by being with the dog. Being present and accepting your dog without expectation, desire, or need. No pressure, no goals, no hopes or fears. Just acceptance.

Thoughts?

Posted in the woof pack | 16 Comments

If Self Doubt Was a Sport, I'd Be a Champion

I’ve been waking up early lately – 4:30 or 5 a.m. has become typical. I don’t get up, but lie there going over yesterday’s high points, or plans for the day, or ways to get revenge on people that irritate me… you know, all the normal stuff people do when they wake up too early.

Yesterday the dogs and I had an especially fun play time. I was thinking about it in a few different ways this morning, and that sparked the desire to share.

First, though, play time requires some explanation and description. Four of the five dogs come outside with me. Cinder stays indoors because she is the fun police. Apparently it’s illegal to have any fun at all around Cinder, so she gets private play time. Nice and safe.

Hawkitt needs to exercise. My role is to facilitate this exercise and get out of the way. We play fetch alternating balls and frisbees, and each throw is earned. Hawk must obey commands and demonstrate self-control. Yesterday I tried issuing commands without speaking – just moving my mouth. Hawk had to read my lips. He also has to respond to whispers and shouts, and commands issued when my back is turned or I’m lying face down on the ground. He has to hop in and out of a trailer, touch the other dogs with his paws, ignore the puppy gnawing on his elbow, climb up a stack of tires, and anything else I can think of, in addition to come, down, sit, around, back up, and speak. For Hawkitt, this is all fantastic. He could go all day. I’ve never met a dog happier to team up and do fun stuff. He requires 100% of my focus and attention.

Brody has to play fetch. He is a lot that four year old kid whose parents signed him up for T-ball because the outfits are so cute. He got stuck in the outfield and he’s wandering. He’s a flower-picking butterfly-chaser. He’s eating poop. He’s lying down, chewing his ball. He’s whining and barking at his ball as he pushes it around with his paws. He will come when I call him, and chases the ball each time I throw it, but then… he needs help staying on task. He requires 100% of my focus and attention.

Bindi, the puppy, is eager to Do All The Things. She wants to chase Brody and Hawkitt, eat poop, play biteyface-tackle with Peeka, and fetch and tug with me. Her favorite game is Keepaway and she is a master. Despite the wonky paw, she is incredibly athletic. She and Hawkitt have developed an acceptance of taking turns that I sort of taught and sort of just insisted upon. I do something with Hawk – Bindi sits and waits. Then I turn to Bindi and do something with her. By now Hawk is back with the ball or frisbee. He stands still and waits. And so on. Bindi requires 100% of my focus and attention.

Peeka watches. She moves as little as possible and needs to be left alone. Tom calls her “Inertia.” A body at rest…. She asks nothing of me. She monitors the perimeter from her perch and I keep an eye on her because she is the early detection system. Dangerous intruders are visible in her facial expression at a half a mile away. Snowplows, UPS trucks, chickadees in the spruce trees, ravens across the street… all dangerous intruders. She is the only dangerous dog of the bunch so I need to know where she is and what she’s doing at all times. Thankfully she doesn’t move around much.

Each dog has specific strengths, specific talents. Hawk is just a perfect Dutch shepherd: he’s good at everything, and does it all with enthusiasm. Peeka has the most incredible nose I’ve ever experienced. If the dogs lose a ball, Peeka could find it in half the time the others take… including Hawkitt, who is more motivated, focused, and driven than Peeka, but Peeks has zero interest in helping. She’d rather snooze. Bindi is kinetic. She will leap and launch herself for the sheer joy of it. She pivots and shoots off in new directions, playing keepaway or chase like she’s an agility star. All three could be contenders in the dog sport world. Hawkie would kick ass in whatever it’s called this year (schutzhund is out. IPO might be in. IPG may be correct. PSA is another sport. Not mondio ring or French ring, though. Ring sports are a different thing.). Peeka could clean up at scent work… if you could entice her to move. And Bindi is absolutely already earned her title in the combination sport: driveway agility plus biteyface-tackle. Brody… nope. Just nope. Not him.

Because the dogs and I exist at this moment in history, we have access to ginormous quantities of information about dog sports via social media, I know way too much about all the things I’m not doing with them. Lest anyone misunderstand, let me be explicit: dog sports are great. I mean, I’m no expert since I’ve never participated in any, but from what I can see and what friends tell me – dogs and humans alike definitely gain a great deal from participating. I am not “against” sports, and I’m not critical of those who do them. I think if that works for you and your lifestyle, your family, your budget, and your dogs… there is nothing wrong or bad about sports at all. Quite the contrary.

I’ll admit it, sometimes I wonder if doing some sort of organized sport would be “better” than what happens here on the mountain. I do get sucked into comparing myself and my gang to what I see out there in the social media world of dogs, and I do engage in soul searching. Should we be doing more? Do I owe it to them?  

It’s an odd feeling to be out of sync with what sure seems like the dominant paradigm. I don’t recognize myself in the dog world on social media. I do it differently, from feeding to exercising to training. And, truth be told, I’m not seduced by what I see. I don’t yearn for my life or my dogs to look more like anyone else’s. I second guess myself, and I am plagued with questions about what I can do and what I should do… but I always circle back to what I AM doing. What I do well. How the dogs look, act, feel. And that’s where I take heart. They are vibrant, healthy, happy, fun, obedient and well mannered, and full of beans (maybe not all of them get A+ in all those categories all the time, but we hold steady at good enough most of the time.).

Talent is not an imperative. Humans or dogs or any other species… talent is not a clarion call to serve. Finding peace and sharing joy are imperatives. Meeting needs is imperative. But competing in something because you happen to possess significant innate skill? I vote no.

Can I meet my dogs’ needs without competing in anything? Yes. Totally, definitely, 100% yes. Can I satisfy Hawkitt, Peeka, and Bindi without competing in anything? Yes. No question about it, no discussion: we have a blast, we work hard and play hard, they learn, grow, and blossom, and they sleep the comatose slumber of the sated. They show me with gorgeous behavior and an ever-increasing repertoire of beautifully executed commands that they are satisfied, from the tips of their toes to the depths of their soul.

The dogs don’t care. They might really enjoy all the trappings that competition would provide. They might not. They might shine… they might fizzle. I think we all know how Peeka would handle being asked to do anything in public. If there were men present, Bindi would spend her agility run hiding under the table. And Hawk? He would do whatever it took to get me to throw the goddamn ball. He would be oblivious to all the trappings of a competition, just like he is oblivious to the puppy biting his elbow or jumping on top of him while he runs through his drills.

Self-doubt is my sport, and gnawing uncertainty is my challenge. Letting go of expectations about what it means to own a dog (or five), even high drive dog/s, and simply responding to my dogs is where it’s at, at least for me. The worry, the questioning, the doubt seeps in but I think that’s part of the human condition in this modern age, whether it’s dogs or human physical health, mental health, nutrition, fitness, eco-consciousness, home organization, or any other arena in which everyone else seems to be better-happier-cleaner-tidier-thinner-more-productive etc. than me. Developing the confidence to shrug all that shit off, be happy for those that are doing more with their dogs, and head back outside with my goofballs is my plan. I don’t know what we’ll “work on” today, but I know it won’t feel like work for any of us.

Posted in the woof pack | 1 Comment

Second Chances

Bindi peed on the floor in the upstairs bedroom. It was totally my fault. She asked me to take her out, but I misinterpreted the request. In my defense it looked suspiciously like many other requests. “Play with me,” “love me,” “make the other dogs be more fun,” “give me something delicious to eat,” “give me anything to eat at all, including nonfood items,” and so on all had been communicated with a tackle that would make a linebacker proud. I don’t mind being jumped on, but a bit like the word “dude,” her jumping has a few dozen meanings and I misunderstood the context on that fateful morning.

I was furious. Not with her, but with myself for failing to heed her clear request. Also at Tom, because pretty much everything annoying is his fault. He wasn’t home, but I managed to spin that in my twisted, hate-filled brain into a further wrong he inflicted upon me.

I mopped urine, which due to my choices about interior home construction, was not only on the floor upstairs, but dripped through the decking to the main floor. Puppy urine splashed my desk, a rocking chair adorned with a gorgeous wool throw, and the floor. I can put up with a lot – but indoor excrement really gets me psychotic. Words were said through gritted teeth. I made absolutely zero effort to correct the pup in any way because she had only done her best. The pee wasn’t personal.

One specific flavor of my fury was the fear that I had royally screwed up the pup’s potty training. Any time she visited the loo indoors, it seemed to me, was reinforcing that doing so was a viable option. I had just handed her a setback on a silver platter. I had just served myself an acid cocktail of failure and backtracking and extra work, or so I believed. I was pissed, but I was also worried and disappointed. Today’s pee was all cleaned up but I felt like I had made an appointment with tomorrow’s or the next day’s by screwing this up.

If nothing else, dogs teach you that you always have another opportunity. If it was worth doing, it will be worth doing again. And if it was a problem, your dog will definitely do it again.

I worried that either Bindi would not bother alerting me to her full bladder next time because I had failed to act upon her alert last time, or that she would alert me again in the same manner and … since I’m a thick-headed human, I’d misread that text again. I watched her like a hawk over the next few days but no missteps occurred. To be honest, again, like the thick-headed human I am, I kind of forgot about it.

This morning, a couple of hours after we returned home from the morning walk, Bindi marched into my study where I was creating a voice memo. The transcription will read “DEC Region 4 updates RRRR-RUFF! RUFF! RUFF!” Oh yes. Bindi decided to leave nothing to chance this time. She planted her wonky paw and it’s three amigos on the studio rug, and squared her skinny shoulders, and barked imperiously at me. I stopped the memo and flew down the stairs praising the ever living fuck out of her, threw my boots on, and got out the door faster than you can say “NO INDOOR EXCREMENT.” We made it and she took care of business like an adult, continent, ladydog.

I have no idea why she upped the ante. I don’t know if that was intentional or a coincidence, but I can tell you she’s never barked at me like that before, and she clearly needed to use the ladies room. I don’t know if she felt the indoor bathroom was inadequate or unappealing, or if she simply prefers to go outside. All I know is we were unsuccessful as a team on round one. Round two came along in due time and we nailed it.

There isn’t a big life lesson or dog training maxim here. Just more of the same old Asking A Lot classics: Pay attention. The screw ups aren’t personal. Listen to your dog. Run fast and praise effusively. And blame your spouse/partner for everything.

Posted in the woof pack | 3 Comments

Happy Imperfect New Year!

Recently I posted an ode to imperfection, and the imperative to stop shoulding on ourselves. That nagging guilt of not being or doing enough, the Not Good Enough Wife-Mother-Friend-DogTrainer-RescueVolunteer-Hiker-CompetitiveAthlete… I’m exhausted and I haven’t even finished the sentence. Life is imperfect. My dogs are mega imperfect. My marriage is imperfect. All of this is old hat.

But today is the last day of the year and in honor of New Year’s Eve, I’m vacillating between not giving a fuck about what day it is, studiously ignoring all the focus out there in the world on resolutions and Year In Review posts and … well… reviewing the year. Participating in the ritual of Year End and New Beginnings because … well… I do actually believe in the value and power of rituals, underneath my curmudgeonly great coat. I enjoy many daily rituals and participate in precious few annual ones.

Thus in honor of the spirit of resolutions and the ritual of reviewing the year, I give you the 2019 round up, Red Eft Lodge and BramleyWolf style:

  • First things first: I have been imperfect in many ways in 2019, and while I fully expect that to continue, it won’t be without some kicking and screaming. Acknowledging one’s flaws doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and say “oh well.” It means you double down on them, identifying what you can change and then… CHANGING IT. If you’ve discovered you hold beliefs that are not consonant with the facts, change your beliefs. I know you love your beliefs; I love mine too. Letting go of beliefs or even entire belief systems is challenging. Maybe even wrenching. But if your beliefs are simply without basis in fact, they gotta go. Same deal with behavior. If you do things that makes no sense, or worse, things that are in conflict with your beliefs or ethics… no time like the present to stop it, and adjust your behavior to come into line with facts and beliefs. This is wisdom from my therapist days – behaving in ways that are out of sync with a) reality/facts and b) you beliefs and ethics leads to feeling miserable. Or at least wicked uncomfortable. So I’m jettisoning beliefs and behaviors that don’t make sense. Wish me luck. I’ll still be imperfect, but at least I might be a bit more comfortable.
  • 2019 was a year of changes, especially on the economic homefront. It was the worst year for sales in the jewelry biz. There are probably good reasons for that and I’ll do a bit of an autopsy as I prep for taxes, but that’s an interesting year in review starting point.
  • I worked at Burnett Farms from February through September and what a fabulous experience that was. Among the many gifts I received while in Steve and Kristie’s employ, I gained the confidence to grow my own garden here at home. The hubby busted his ass to get the structure organized and set up for a spring planting. I’m beyond psyched to get back to something that, for you followers of this blog know, started many decades ago.
  • I was thrilled to come out of “retirement” to work with Sarah once again. My fall gig at Coqui Content Marketing was an amazing blast of new skills and new friendships, as well as a wonderful refresher for my connection with Sarah. I have to say… I loved every minute of it, with special mention going to the chats with Deb, Gretchen (Grey), and Sarah. As sad as I was to see that gig end, I was much sadder to lose the daily connection with these strong women I had just met.
  • I finished a first draft of Asking A Lot: Life With Dogs on Bramley Mountain. Hang on, let me say that again. I FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT OF MY BOOK, ASKING A LOT. Hallelujah, praise the lord. I’m editing like a fiend and so grateful to Melissa and Emma for their read throughs and editorial comments. 2020 is going to include a heckuva lot more posts about The Book.
  • My photos were included in a book published by SUNY press, called Doghiker. Bittersweet, as a photo of Mica kicked up memories afresh, but I’m proud as punch to have a few of my photos make the final cut.
  • I have deepened some wonderful friendships in 2019 and am so humbled by the love and connection so many people share with me, both in person and via the magic of the internet. Locally I have bonded with a crew of women affectionately known as the 5 foot 2 club. Small but mighty, we are lucky to have each other as neighbors, friends, and confidantes.
  • Ok, now this might sounds really consumeristic and banal, but stay with me: we got two new cupboards for our kitchen and they have changed my life. Not in a Marie Kondo de-clutter fantasy way, but close. They are beautiful and old, wonky and imperfect (sense the theme here?), and Tom and I refinished them together. Totally outside my comfort zone, I followed Tom’s instructions and learned wholly new skills. Finishing this house is one small project at a time, with a ton of waiting in between, but these cupboards represented a Great Leap Forward.

Bindi doesn’t get a bullet point, she gets her own paragraph. On September 7, 2019, Bindi Bramleywolf (posh name: Große Indien aus der Roten Wassermolch Hütte) arrived at the Red Eft Lodge and transformed the pack and our lives. Technically B’Indi is a contraction of Big Indian, the name of a mountain in the Catskills. We just call her Bindi. She is an easy pup, playful and fun and a pleasure in every way except that she has that godforsaken Labrador retriever quality of eating everything and anything. If I don’t kill her for consuming inedibles, she will grow into being the most beloved and iconic pack member ever, wonky paw and all.

Eat All The Things… ~Bindi

And here we are, a family of seven heading into 2020. Looking back over the decade, all the dogs I owned at the beginning of 2010 are gone. My hair is a lot grayer. My body hurts more. I hike in the forest preserve less, my life circumscribed by this pack and their needs, Tom and his needs, and me and my needs too. I finished my term as president of the Catskill 3500 Club, and can forever rest easy knowing I did my best and left an indelible mark. We moved from within the Blue Line to Bramley Mountain and built this house. It’s been quite a decade.

I don’t make resolutions per se, but I do think about goals. I plan to read more books, and spend less time on social media. No offense, I just know how much is too much for me and I’ve hit that mark a few times this past fall. Time to nip it in the bud.

I plan to work on The Book until it is the very best it can be, ready to be placed at the feet of God. Yep, that much work, that much care and love and patience and editing. That much laboring over sentence structure and punctuation and word choice. That much time. It’s worth it. No regrets.

I plan to keep my mouth shut more. Given that it’s an election year, I am feeling serene with the decision that I will do all I can to further good, and fight evil. And not arguing is a decent part of that, especially not on social media.

I plan to make and sell gorgeous t shirts and other bling to make some cash so I can keep the dogs eating fancy schmancy gourmet meals. Stay tuned. I’m working with a graphic design student who kicks ass. I met her hiking when she was just a tyke and stayed in touch for damn near 10 years… and she is a killer fine and graphic artist. Bramley Wolf Press shirts first but there will also be Wonky Paw merchandise. And who knows what else. Like I said… stay tuned.

And to wrap this up, in post Christmas sales, Tom bought all the ingredients to brew his first batch of beer in six years. Can I get an Amen? It’s been too long for him to flex that creative muscle. I’m so happy for him. I bought myself a bone saw. I am going to cut up the carcasses I have been given. I am delighted and psyched to step it up a notch and get into proper butchering techniques. The old WHAM with a limbing axe days are over. Big thanks to Andersen for the recommendation for which saw… yes it was over a year ago when he told me to buy it. I listen, I just don’t always move all that quickly.

Be safe, have fun, and don’t drink and drive. Happy New Year!

Posted in the woof pack, writer's life | Leave a comment

The Book or the Movie?

Asking A Lot exists as a manuscript, a full-length nonfiction work that explores my life here with dogs. Truth be told, I’m still writing and rewriting, revising and editing, and then writing some more. “Work in progress” is the clichéd phrase we trot out when we’re knee deep in swampy muck and wading in deeper, no sign of being finished on the horizon. But at least as a complete draft, it exists.

The morning walks are the centerpiece. That’s where the action is most days. The morning walks are where I meditate, think, write in my head, train the dogs, and observe. Every day, come hell or high water, we go, and every day I shoot photos, watch the dogs, and sink a little deeper into this life. One morning it’s about 18 degrees and snowing like a motherfucker. The next morning it’s subzero is brilliantly sunny. Either way, I don’t hurry. In some ways it’s the best part of the day so I savor it, even if it’s only an hour. I dress for the weather and piss and moan about it afterwards. It’s all part of the fun.

The thing is, so much of what is best about the morning walk is wordless. I can throw one thousand adjectives at a page but still feel like I’ve missed the boat when it comes to conveying the texture of Peeka’s fur. Or the golden light of angled sun through the rime ice. So much of what makes me go weak at the knees, or spurs me on to wander for another mile or so despite the fill-in-the-blank weather defies description. The day I heard the ravens chasing off the bald eagle and both sounded like grumpy old men, hollering at each other to get off their lawns – what listening to that did to me was physical and emotional and spiritual. Wrapping it up is words is intellectual: the one thing the experience wasn’t. The dogs share these moments with me. They stop and cock their heads and I follow their gaze to see the acrobatics of a red squirrel or the distant formation of Canada geese, and, well, the fact that we’re watching together just knocks my socks off.

Most days there is no drama, no high stakes wildlife encounter or dog fight. Most days the mountain and I are like an old couple sharing a morning cup of coffee together. The mountain shoves a stunning vista across the breakfast table at me and I nod appreciatively. We both continue to enjoy our morning ritual with the dogs. The other day I took photos of urine in snow. Fox, coyote, and deer piss stains in snow. They aren’t especially beautiful or even very visually arresting… but they were there, so I took note. The mountain showed them to me and I glanced over the offering before moving on, a bit like me showing Tom a particularly incisive meme or breathtaking dog photo. His eyes flick over the image, he grunts in appreciation, and then continues arguing about politics with some meatheads on Facebook.

I don’t argue when I’m on the morning walk but tell that to the neighbors who hear me shouting. Brody eats poop. Not just deer or bunny or porcupine, but carnivore poop. That’ll get me bellowing like a stag in rut every time. This week, it seems, Bindi has decided to give this filthy habit a try. After tackling her, hollering terrifying epithets designed to make the inhabitants of the next county over blush, and removing the frozen logs from her maw, she smooches me. Enthusiastically. In the eye, or if I’m not careful, French smooching. Oh yes, poop tongue in the mouth. It’s a wonder I’m not dead.

Some days I think a film would have been better. Gorgeous lighting and long patient shots of fur with snowflakes, ripples on the pond, juncos and chickadees in the trees. Some days I am at a loss, the majesty caught in my throat. The mountain and I are a lot alike: average. Bramley is a crappy little uninteresting foothill, one of many in this area. No old growth, no thrilling cliffs or ledges, no drama. I’m just a human with some dogs, trying to take it all in. It’s not the Galapagos; it’s not Everest. It’s not the Sargasso Sea or the Grand Canyon. It’s just where I live. Perhaps a film could elevate it, make it pop and sparkle. Perhaps on film I could communicate the awe. It the very least, the blooper reel would be hilarious – getting mugged by a dog or two is a regular event. The Otterbox on my phone isn’t for looks.

But for all my photos and “home movie” quality videos, I know that words are my superpower. I’m not visual. I’m wordy. Very wordy at times. And I am one of those “the book is always better than the movie” folks. I can’t make a film about my life with dogs because I have too much to say, and a compelling need to blabber. I might be living the film version, but I’m writing the internal experience, the part the film cannot access no matter how many lingering shots of my furrowed brow or some other metaphor we try to capture.

Being faintly dissatisfied and wishing I could nail it… these emotions are my constant companions. They act as muses, spurring me to revise again, reread, slice and dice. They are welcome guests in my head, and I trust that they will help me make it better.

Thanks for witnessing the process and coming along for the ride.

Posted in Catskilliana, the woof pack, writer's life | 1 Comment