In drive? Park it right there, mister.

High drive, low drive, ball drive, prey drive… if you hang around dog training circles long enough, you’re bound to hear about drive. I thought I understood this canine attribute, but when an acquaintance referred to her pet dog as “high drive” and my impression of the dog was that of a unique species of couch potato, I thought maybe I had gotten my wires crossed.

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Tree drive?

What is drive? As a layperson, I thought I had a decent handle on this concept, albeit in a nontechnical way. I thought drive was the degree of relentlessness or intensity a dog possessed. I thought a high drive dog was a dog that pursued a goal with single-minded intensity: the more relentless the dog’s pursuit of that goal, the higher the drive. Add in obstacles and if the dog continues to work to achieve his or her goal – even higher drive. A dog that loves to fetch – low to medium drive. A dog that will find every ball ever manufactured, chase them until his feet bleed, fetch a ball out of a field of stinging nettles, blackberry prickers, or hot lava, and drop it at your feet — tail wagging, eyes glazed, jaws clacking, and tongue lolling: high drive. Every malinois owner reading this is now nodding in all-too-familiar agreement.

Knowing that my understanding was “pet owner” level and not sophisticated, I asked the question to my thousand or so Facebook friends (my friend list is heavily skewed to the canine crowd). I was pretty surprised by the answers I received, mostly because I was dead wrong. Drive is many things, it seems, but not what I thought it was. The definition I received started out very simple – drive is an innate biological concept that has to do with survival. Drive is a strong biological urge. This makes me want to ask if being hungry or needing to pee is a drive, although that sounds like I’m being snarky. I’m not, but that clear simple definition is too vague to be really helpful.

The next assertion was that drive is not exactly a thing in and of itself, but that there are specific drives. You can’t describe a dog as “high drive” but you can indicate which specific quality is present in abundance: high prey drive or high hunt drive, for example. Toy drive and food drive were also mentioned. Building or developing drive was also mentioned – as an owner you want to build specific drives for training but squelch other drives (especially prey drive) because it’s really inconvenient to have your dog blast off after prey animals… especially if your dog perceives the neighborhood children to be prey animals.

People talk about “high drive dogs” all the time in the malinois world but do they mean high prey drive? Or high toy drive? Or high something else drive? Getting a little bit more specific, I did learn a concrete, real world way to determine a dog’s level of drive: “Throw a ball into tall grass or brush so the dog can see the general area it went but not exactly where it landed. Then, take the dog indoors for 10 minutes or so. Go back outside and release the dog. If the dog immediately goes hunting for the ball, the dog has drive.”

Ok, now we’re on to something. This I can understand. If a dog looks for a ball after 10 minutes, it has drive. Since I have never tested this with any dog, I can now say with confidence that I have no idea whether or not any of my dogs have drive, but I can find out. I have some predictions: Peeka and Cinder will not spend one one-hundredth of a second looking for a ball. They have zero interest balls. If I stuck a bunch of porcupine quills in the ball, Peeka stand at the door whining and dancing for the entire ten minutes and then fight me to get out the door to go visit the porky ball. Cinder would ignore it completely. Brody? If the ball were near some poop, he might find the ball by accident while he zeroed in on his snack. Brody has high poop drive.

Hawkitt? I can’t predict. Hawk is a dog I would have described as high drive back when I thought I knew what it meant. But I think he might not pass this test. Hawk is very focused on me. If he gets to play with a ball, it is because I provided that ball. And I control playtime – I always have, because allowing Hawkitt to control anything is a terrifying invitation to mayhem and injury. So would he go away from me, the provider of all things play, to go look for a ball? That’s a big fat maybe. Iske would have found the ball if she thought I wanted her to. She would have found the ball before I hid it. That’s the kind of dog Iske was.

Asking Google for help led to a few websites worth exploring (side note – why are dog websites so badly written?). Here’s a new definition of drive, courtesy of “high drive dogs dot com.” High drive dogs tend to share the following characteristics:

  • tirelessness (they will keep fetching the ball until their feet fall off);
  • intelligence (they will think up new ways to ask you to throw the ball again after you say “time’s up!”);
  • focused like a laser on their human… Velcro much?;
  • enthusiastic and motivated to the point of not needing much external reward – the work or task or game is the reward;
  • focused on the work/game/task even when significant distractions are present.

This definition paints a picture that hearkens back to my original thought – that drive is related to relentlessness and a single-minded commitment to a goal. A low drive dog is an easier dog to live with for most dog owners. Low demand, easy-going, and happy with a modicum of stimulation but no need to go all crazy equals low drive. A dog that is seeking to engage you in doing stuff together to meet the dog’s needs … that’s higher drive. A dog that is constantly up your butt, bugging you to do stuff, even though you already did five different activities: that’s a high drive dog. Mental stimulation, physical exercise, affection, bonding, obedience, and just plain burn off energy with fetch… and the dog is still tapping his paw and looking at you with *that* look: high drive dog.

Perhaps that definition is incorrect. Maybe there is no such thing as drive, and all drive is specific. I still don’t know. What I do know is that some dogs possess an intensity that is palpable. They aren’t “easy” in any sense. They hum and buzz with passion for whatever they do. Some dogs focus this into certain areas, like killing and eating squirrels (coughCindercough), or greeting porcupines (PEEEEEEEEKA!!! LEAVE IT!!!) while others are intense about EVERYTHING. They have a zest for life that is infectious and a joy to be around… for a couple of minutes. Then they are really freaking exhausting.

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High mud drive

Iske was a wonderful example of a dog that threw herself into whatever she did with the accelerator pedal flat on the floor. Food, toys, obedience, killing groundhogs, loving her human family members, running up and down sheer cliff faces… Iske had a joie de vivre that was pegged in the red zone and transcended all her other qualities. It made her more than a bit neurotic, but it also made her incredibly special. Hawkitt is similar and has that same quality, although not in the same quantity. None of the others before, during, or since have that quality – that unbridled enthusiasm for doing anything and everything. Any suggestion I make is the best, most exciting thing ever. Every reward is secondary to the sheer thrill of doing. Doing what? WHO CARES, LET’S JUST DO IT MORE! That’s how some dogs approach life.

If that’s not drive, that’s fine. All the other names — passion, intensity, relentlessness – are all fine. What is drive? I guess I don’t really need to know. Not knowing hasn’t impacted how I enjoy my dogs, but it may have led to me using the wrong term to describe them. No problem. I can take it out of drive and leave the whole topic in park.

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Thanksgiving 2018

Darkness at 4:30 p.m., sheet-of-ice driveway, and the woodstove’s flickering glow is a necessity, not an option. All say “January” but the calendar still says November. November is hard up here on Bramley. I make and sell handmade jewelry and November is a busy but hopeful month, with the anticipation of good sales paying for dog food through the winter. November is hunting season and that means crazy deer and crazy humans and crazy coyotes are all right here, on the property and sometimes right on the driveway when we step outside in the 6 a.m. darkness. And November into December carries the expectation of family time, with all the joys, sorrows, memories, and logistical challenges family gatherings entail.

In the midst of all this, I am mourning not only Lily’s passing, but the other good dogs whose ashes we scattered on this hill last year or the year before. With the old guard (Iske, Mica, and Lily) gone, the pack changed. With Hawkitt, Peeka, and now Brody here, the pack has changed again. Not gonna lie – I miss the old days when Cinder squabbling with Mica was my biggest problem. Cinder, at 65 lbs, was a huge female… until I met Hawkitt. Now huge has a new face.

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This fall has not been easy. We have survived dog fights and endless rain. My close friend and beloved hiking companion had surgery on her shoulder, sidelining her for the time being. We all miss sweet Lily. Winter weather came early and I try to hide my worry that it will last well into April again this year. Will 5 cords be enough?

The freezers are getting filled as farmers and hunters share the remains of their livestock and deer harvest with me. I am elated to receive the texts: “do you need a carcass?” and I can’t help but wonder who I have become. This wasn’t quite the life I imagined when I was choosing to come back to New York from India, or Nicaragua, back in the 1980s. Not much in my life has unfolded as a result of a specific and conscious choice, but I did choose several times, on purpose, aiming for something called home and family. I had no idea where those choices would take me.

Home has no central heating. I handle our heat multiple times – rolling the rounds into place, splitting, stacking, carrying, restacking indoors, feeding the stove, and then dumping the ashes (ok, Tom handles that task). There is an intimacy in embracing wood heat from start to finish. We cut down trees on our property and my friend came over the help me cut them up. She worked the chain saw while I split the lengths by hand. Now I feed the stove, remembering that day with Christine. Turning a thermostat dial just doesn’t carry memories. People love to say that wood heat warms you twice, but between the tasks and the memories I find I am warmed many more times.

Home is where the dogs are. I rented a crummy little cape, then bought a slightly less crummy village house back in my one dog days. The contractors taught me the word “basura” (garbage) as they removed rotten timbers that sure looked load-bearing to me. The house didn’t collapse, but there were days when I thought I might. Single parenting is not for the faint of heart, joint custody notwithstanding. Iske and Maya and I celebrated Thanksgiving, just the three of us, eating Cornish game hens in the living room on a table set with name tags handcrafted by ten year old Maya. I never finished painting the hallway or the kitchen. When I met Tom and realized we would be leaving our little basura house, Maya and I mourned. It was hard for an outsider to see, perhaps, why we loved it so much, but we did. It was home.

My father died when I was five years old. Holidays underscored his absence and our family’s smallness. Often we were allowed to spend holidays with friends or later boyfriends. As a young adult I realized I wanted a family. It was a desire strong enough to make me choose to stop traveling, and to turn my back on the romance and intensity of a life that beckoned.

Recently a new friend asked me “why do you have so many dogs?” While every dog came with a tale of woe and a passel of needs that I convinced myself I alone could meet, the truth is that choice I made all those decades ago to come back to New York to have a home and a family has finally come to fruition. The family is canine; it’s more of a pack than a human family but it works for me. It fills that need. The relationships we forge — me with Tom, me and Tom with the dogs, and the dogs with each other – create that abstract thing I call family. I may have stumbled into it, dog by dog, but isn’t that how lots of families get made too?

I never meant to be here, but here I am. Home and family. For me, it’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

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The New Normal

Sometimes (ok, often) when I write a post I have an axe to grind, but sometimes I just have observations to share. I tend to prefer those grindy posts because they feel more passionate and driven… but today instead of driving, I’m just a passenger looking around and musing about what I see.

After Lily’s death, I expected the pack to adjust. Adjustments can take a wide variety of forms, and quite honestly with this current bunch of striped marauders and miscreant fools, I’ve been braced for anything and everything.

 

The changes I perceive are subtle for the most part. Tom doesn’t notice them. For every example, there’s an exception. But I know my pack, and I know what I feel. Something has shifted.

Lily’s death has come at a time when Hawkitt has grown into the next level of adult for a high drive guy. He’s about 5 years old, and his maturity is palpable to me. I see it in photographs – that rakish youth and wicked glint in his eye is replaced by something else. Something steadier. Earlier this year, our vet suggested I increase Hawk’s weight and as I did I saw him not only fill out physically, but also fill out in an emotional-psychological way that is hard for me to articulate. He is less kinetic. More solid. Less flighty. And it’s all really subtle.

Cinder has changed the least, but the one change I see is mind-blowing: she initiates play with Hawkitt. She seems to want to hang out and communicate with him, through bitey face or just snuggling. She seeks him out and shows him affection. Pre-Peeka, Cinder and Hawk played bitey face, but it was always tense and careful. Could Cinder, at her ripe old age of almost 10, finally be relaxing? Did Hawkitt’s change engender this change in Cinder? Or did Lily’s death somehow allow Cinder to let go of something? Or was it always there, this limited and gentle seeking of contact, and I never noticed it before, but now that I am looking for newness I see it?

Brody … ok, maybe Brody has changed the least. Or he is changing the most, depending upon how you look at it. Despite having lived here 14 months, he is still arriving, still new and still adjusting to living with us. He tries hard, and has good moments and rough spots. He doesn’t yet manage to have good entire days, but we praise and celebrate the good moments, where he tolerates dogs and humans alike and we try to address the rough spots with firm, kind support.

Peeka has changed the most. I decreased her dose of Prozac earlier this summer but she has been on the same lower dose for months. Since Lily’s death, Peeka has become more independent and more adventurous on our walks, while at the same time more obedient. When I first starting hiking with Peeka, she was glued to me, much the way Brody is now. Hawk or Cinder were always out in front, leading and alerting us all to the wildlife or hikers in our midst. That has totally changed. Peeka is always the leader now.

Her prey drive is problematic, but her nose is uncanny. She tells me when I need to call all the dogs and change direction, long before Hawk’s or Cinder’s ears go up. She is fearless, flying off after a scent without a second look, often alone. In the past, she would only jet if Hawkitt went first. Now Hawkitt hangs back and watches, and willingly obeys my casual “let’s go!” even if Peeka is barreling down the mountain, yipping like a coyote.

Hawkitt is more connected to me, more affectionate, and more obedient too. He was always affectionate, but more interested in roughhousing and crazy play than just snuggling. These days he barely manages to walk around the pond without stopping for a lovefest with me.

Peeka is also more active, more restless, and more playful with me these days. I bear the scars of all this, as she has no idea how to play and her repertoire includes body slamming and biting. She turns herself inside out trying to seduce Cinder and Brody to play with her, and in addition to her body slamming and biting, she will playbow repeatedly and do the classic running-diving playbows. Both Cinder and Brody growl or ignore her. That hasn’t changed.

I’ve changed. I am more relaxed, and yet more attentive. I no longer have that distracted feeling of being torn — half of me here with the young dogs, and half of me indoors, worrying and feeling sad for Lily. I have more energy for working with them – for Hawk, this means training and tricks. For Cinder, more playtime and more snuggles. And for Peeka and Brody, more challenges and more opportunities to lose some bad habits, grow through some issues, and develop into even more resilient and stable beings. It’s a tall order, but for the first time in a long long while, I feel hopeful about both of them.

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Photo by Kristie Burnett

 

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Every Pack Needs A Lily

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In a pack full of superheroes, Lily was a sidekick. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, Lily was our solid good dog. It was wonderful to have ONE dog I could trust, no matter what, in all situations, with humans, dogs, bears or porcupines. Lily was that dog.

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She entered our lives late in the summer of 2007. I had just moved in with Tom and we were planning to get married in September. These were pre-Facebook days, and my connection to the world of Belgian dogs was via the listserv called “Belg-L.” It was there I saw Lily, in a shelter in Cheboygen, Michigan. To our knowledge, Lily had had a good life up until being left at the shelter. She was purchased from a breeder and had been well cared for. When her owners had a baby, they dropped Lily off at the shelter but she was there only few days before the wheels started turning to get her out. The shelter labeled her a “chow mix” but one of the women involved in Belg-L told me she knew Lily’s breeder. Lily was a purebred groenendael, but she was what’s known in some circles as an “ugly” groenendael – her head was boxier than the slender long-nosed dogs you’ll see if you search google images.

Lily was my entrée into the world of crazy dog people. Sight unseen, I committed to adopting her. Elsa Gambert – a malinois owner who lived about 5 hours away from the shelter – drove to Cheboygen and picked Lily up, and about a week later drove Lily to Falconer, NY, where Tom and I met her. Elsa taught me how to brush Lily’s gorgeous coat (I’d never owned a long-haired dog before), gave us some gifts for Lil, and handed her off to us. Elsa refused to take a penny for gas or her motel room, or even Lily’s adoption fee. “Make a donation to the shelter” was all she asked.

Lily was dog number 2, second fiddle to Iske, my malinois. Iss was about 5 and Lily was 2 and a half when she arrived. This was my first attempt at owning more than one dog at a time. I made mistakes and learned at their expense. Lily challenged Iske for dominance and I let them battle it out. After several months, Iske emerged the clear winner and Lily never challenged a newcomer after that. She accepted her status as omega and there she remained for the rest of her life.

In a pack full of extremes, Lily stayed the middle course. Iske was the highest drive, most neurotic intense malinois I’ve ever had. She was the poster child for Velcro dogs. She tried to crawl inside my ribcage or up my nose when stressed. Some dogs live to play ball or chase birds. Iske lived to please me. She would turn herself inside out, leap into the fires of hell, and fly to the moon if I asked her to. She could read my facial expressions and obey commands before I’d spoken them out loud. She was uncanny, prescient, and unbelievably intense. Lily was there, being beautiful and good — a solid good dog.

We fostered Red Cloud. He was the single worst case of starvation I’ve ever seen. He had been a street stray from Miami, and was a huge skeletal mess upon arrival. Intense and extreme. Lily was there, standing by, being a good dog.

We adopted Cinder. She arrived with baggage that did not fit in her overhead compartment, her teeth having been kicked out by a brutal “trainer.” She behaved normally outdoors, but indoors, she would not budge from the living room rug. For months, I had to bring food and water to her on the rug, where she lay tense and worried. Cinder soon distinguished herself as our prey drive problem dog, and she considered the neighbors to be prey. Lily wagged and waited with me for Cinder to stop being so intense. Lily was a good dog.

We fostered Jack. Poor guy bloated on transport and was driven straight to the emergency vet for treatment before he ever made it to our home. Jack’s arrival was extreme and intense, but he settled down quickly, and rapidly showed himself to be rather like Lily – a solid good dog. We only had him for a few weeks.

Shortly after Jack left, we stepped up to foster Mica. Mica could not have been more of a rockstar in our household. She was loud and proud, and the epitome of intense and extreme. Lily just moved over and made room for all of Mica’s wow factor. Iske and Mica clashed. Cinder and Mica clashed. But Lily just ducked her head and looked the other way when Mica got in her face. Lily let Mica be as extreme and intense as she needed to be, and Lily just stood by, watching and being a good dog.

Not long after we moved to Bovina, we adopted Hawkitt. At this point our status as crazy dog people was well established: we’d been living with 4 Belgian bitches for a year or more. Iske was aging and Mica was in the throes of her second round of cancer, but we added a Dutch shepherd puppy to the mix because Extreme and Intense. Hawkitt just about broke my spirit. Huge, stronger than any dog I could safely handle by an order of magnitude, he was a mannerless goober. Mica bullied him, but Lily showed him kindness and canine friendliness. Of all the dogs in my pack, past and present, she was the only one who responded to his entreaties to play with a play bow and a wag. He was always on the verge of becoming out of control, a psychopath around bears, and so damn adventurous, he was off befriending the resident coyotes or the human hikers on the public trail… while Lily stuck by my side, being a good dog.

Not long after Hawk arrived, Mica died. A few months later, we adopted Peeka. Physically ill and frail, and mentally utterly unlike any dog I’d ever encountered, Peeka took the prize for being intense and extreme. She quite literally would chew glass. If she could run with scissors while shrieking expletives and lighting off M80s, I believe she would have. After several months of living with her, I doubted that she was a dog at all. I really thought she was some sort of wild animal. She embodied “not right in the head.” And through all of her outbursts and shenanigans, Lily was right there, ready to chomp on Peeka’s head. Peeka took all the corrections Lily doled out without any reaction, because I think even crazy malfunctioning Peeka understood that Lily was a good dog.

 

Lily is the only dog in my pack that never got quilled by a porcupine.

 

As a young dog, Lily was a spectacular athlete. Once, coming down North Dome following an especially terrible route, we found ourselves in a steep and ledge-filled area. We watched Lily hurl herself down a rock chute, twisting in midair to bank off one rock and reorient for a landing below. She completed multiple rounds of the Catskill 35, and easily a thousand trips around Bramley mountain, most of those strenuous hikes completed without Tom and I ever realizing that she had severe hip dysplasia and by the looks of her x-rays should not have been able to walk. She adored playing fetch, and charmed hundreds of visitors to Hunter Mountain when she accompanied me to my volunteer fire tower duties. She was a fabulous swimmer.

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We teased her, calling her a rug with legs, and often said “black is the new blonde” but her comfort and ease around people and dogs was such a relief and desperately needed counterbalance to all the crazy intensity all the other dogs brought. She was not without the means to be a formidable powerhouse; she just chose not to be. Once, while playing Bite The Water with Tom and the hose, she bit Tom by accident. She opened him up like a tin can, the power of her jaws sobering. She could have been a real liability and a danger. Instead, she was a good dog.

We thought we were going to lose her when she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease. She didn’t respond to the oral cortisol, so we gave her that first injection on a Friday. She had stopped eating, and was suffering terribly. I called the vet on Monday morning to schedule her euthanasia. The vet, dog bless her, said to me “hang in there. Give her one more day.” I did, Lily rallied, and we got 4 more years.

As her arthritis worsened, she got bullied out of food or balls by the others. This led to separate meals and special one on one play time with her, every day, for the past few years. She waited her turn for play and understood that when Hawk and Brody came in, she would go out. She waited at the door and pushed through with enthusiasm and surprising strength, even a couple of days before she died. She would push out and then as often as not these last few weeks, lose her balance and faceplant on the driveway. We picked her up and rearranged her increasingly useless back legs for her and rolled the ball a few feet away. Up until 2 days before she died, she went after it and brought it back, wagging.

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In any other household, set against any pack of normal dogs, Lily would have been the rockstar. She would have stood out as a ravishing beauty and a smart and capable companion. It was just her rotten luck to have landed in a home where she would be outshone by the extreme and intense malinois and dutchie housemates she ended up sharing her life with.

At the vet’s office, she was given a sedative first. When it took effect, I could feel the tension and effort leave her body. For the first time in days, I felt her receive our pets, rather than brace herself against them. It hit me hard that she had become so unstable she could no longer enjoy being petted. Ease and comfort had been elusive for way too long. Feeling her let go and receive our touch gave me all the confirmation I needed that our decision was the right one. She slipped away peacefully.

 

Peeka searched for her this morning. We will all adjust. Lily’s infirmities created routines. Her absence will create new ones. I’ll have to get used to saying “I have 4 dogs.” She will be missed. I will fight the urge to fill her absence with another dog in need. We will find a new normal. And then we will go through it all again. It’s what we all sign up for when we fall in love.

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Ego Extensions

We all know a dude who bought a Harley when he reached that point in his life. Tattoos, piercings… Oh, is that an Alex and Ani bracelet you’re wearing? It’s a human thing to buy, make, wear, collect, and/or display the stuff that we feel expresses who we are. It’s basic self-expression, and fun to poke fun at (ourselves and each other), and fun to explore.

We do it with our pets too. I think we should all own up to this. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just a funny human thing. We “click” with a dog (or just as often, we click ON a dog!) and fall in love, and somehow our identity gets wrapped up in loving that dog and being that dog’s person. For some of us, this extends to the breed, and we become basenji fans or deerhound dudes. For others, it’s all about the backstory and the rescue. I guess this happens with cats and pigs and turtles too. It’s very cool, and also very interesting.

But you know I’m going to say something a bit more critical than this incredibly obvious and bland observation. You can count on me to be incisive, so here goes: For some folks, I think this is actually a little bit of a problem. Sometimes, despite loving your pet and trying to be a good owner (or at least starting out that way), your dog becomes an extension of your own ego. When that happens, your psychological boundaries get a little fuzzy and you stop seeing them accurately as animals and pets, and get a bit enmeshed with them. I know, that sounds like psychobabble, so let me be more clear – I think sometimes for some people, the dog stops being a dog and functions as a prop and/or psychological crutch for the owner.

I’m not just talking about purse puppies. Their owners are easy to pick on. In the malinois world, you see folks that want to be as badass as their dogs’ reputation. However, owning a malinois is by far the most badass thing about them. The dog is a stand in for a prowess they never had and will never attain.

But what I’m thinking about is more subtle, more nuanced. I stumbled upon this particular flavor of dogs as ego enhancers when I was looking at photos on a very popular dog group on social media. Some photos get a huge number of likes, and some gain very little attention. Because I am ridiculously competitive, I started wondering why, and looking for patterns. One thing that jumped out at me was that the quality of the photo didn’t seem to matter that much. Bad photos might earn a ton of likes, whereas some good photos might get ignored.

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Bad photo, cute dog

Omitting posts about dogs that have died or posts seeking a name for a brand new puppy, both of which tend to receive enormous amounts of (well deserved) attention, I think I spotted a trend. Photos that tend to showcase the dog resonate with people. Photos that tend to obscure the dog don’t. Ok, I might be wearing my Captain Obvious cape, but stick with me here. Look at a ton of Facebook or Instagram photos of dogs. Some people step back and let the dog shine in the photo, and some people seem to get in their own way. Looking at photo after photo of a bazillion dogs, that’s what I think I noticed – that some people somehow manage to capture and share the dog. Some people just capture and share themselves.

When you look at a photo of a dog you’ve never met, do you feel like you can see into the dog’s soul? Do you feel like you know the dog? Or do you feel, despite photo after photo, like you couldn’t recognize the dog if you bumped into it on the street? Maybe the owner is just a lousy photographer, but I suspect at least some of the time, the issue is that the owner can’t see the dog. Yep, I’m psychobabbling again, but I really mean it. Have you ever spent an hour chatting with someone and walked away feeling like the other person never quite noticed that you exist? He or she was so busy telling you whatever it was they were telling you, they never received you. You never felt heard or acknowledged. It’s subtle, but it’s common. I see that in some photos of dogs. The owner is so consumed with their own thing, they can’t really see the dog. And because they can’t see the dog, they can’t show you the dog.

Ponder this. Look at photos. Let me know what you see and what you think.

 

 

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Stopping and Going

Steady rain and four of the Bramley Mountain Five (aka The Woof Pack, The Striped Marauders, and other less family friendly names) were my hiking partners this morning. We opted for the long loop, gaining and losing elevation like kids learning to ski: up to the top of the bunny hill and back down again as many times as we could handle until we were ready to drop from exhaustion and exposure. The dogs, that is, were ready to drop, and drop they did, in the muddiest vernal pools they could find. I was doing ok: the recent trail maintenance hikes with a heavy pack have helped to condition my legs and lungs to harder work than I’ve done in a while. The rain meant no camera, so I was moving more freely, arms swinging, nothing to hang onto, nothing to protect from drizzle, nothing to prevent from getting bashed by canine drive-bys.

The boulder field was carpeted with white wood violets. My eyes darted right and left; the field full of flowers acknowledged. My brain announced what my eyes had taken in as I continued on, without breaking stride. About a step and a half later I stopped. That was a field full of white wood violets. STOP AND LOOK AT THEM, you idiot. Stop walking and look at the damn beauty.

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white wood violets

Side note: this is an on-going theme in my life. I catch myself scrolling through my Instagram feed, flipping past breathtaking photo after breathtaking photo, looking but not enjoying, seeing but moving on as if I had something else to do. Just checking off a box before getting to the real thing I meant to do when I picked up my phone, right? But no, looking at fantastic professional photos in my own handheld gallery is exactly why I am on Instagram. It is the point; it is the thing I’m doing.

Being disconnected and distracted isn’t new to me. Long before instragram or even personal computers — throwing it all the way back to the 1970s when I ran around in the woods with no camera, no cell phone, and only one dog — I moved too fast and saw without savoring. I saw wildflowers I’d read about and jumped for joy… and kept right on going up the mountain.

I never stop. I don’t like to rest. I eat too fast. I walk fast, on the trail or in the supermarket. I read books as if there was a prize at the end. I came this way from the factory. It’s just who I am.

But I know better. I don’t want to race to the grave; I want to enjoy my visit here. I want to savor it, to know it, to glean every nuance such that at the end of the day I have no regrets.

So I stopped. I stood still and I feasted my eyes on the violets. I drank in the amazing moment, the explosion of bloom and the dot matrix of white against brown leaf litter and gray rock.

I was instantly swarmed by blackflies and all the dogs took off. Sigh. Why do the dogs behave when I have a camera in my face, but act like wild maniacs when I don’t? Who knows. Now I’m all alone, under attack, and in a bad mood, with 4 dogs to track down and no snow to give me clues as to their whereabouts.

So much for patience and savoring and spiritual metaphors. I move fast because it makes sense for me to move fast. I move fast, harvesting the sensory experiences as I keep going, because I need to keep going. Stopping is a luxury for people who don’t have a pack of neo-wolves. Stopping is for people who need to stop. I need to keep moving. I can unpack those experiences when I sit down at beer thirty to share my day with the hubby. But in the moment? I think I’ll keep moving.

 

 

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Early Spring

The longer the winter, the hungrier for color I find myself becoming as the spring melt off commences… only to remember, once again, that the earliest moments are a disappointment. What lies beneath the melted snow is not verdant green but drab tan. An endless thatched mat of leaf litter, crushed and dried out, and the remains of all that got left behind when the snows hit — laid bare. It’s not pretty.

At the very bottom of a breath before the inspiration to inhale restarts the cycle, the snow’s departure leaves absence and flatness. Colors are flat, textures are flat; someone pulled the plug and it all deflated. Everywhere is faintly dusty, as if the entire woods has been in a parking lot, snow mountains melted off and a coating of gravel and road dust covering all that remains. Melted snow gives way not to gorgeous wildflowers but grit and death in shades of layers of compressed leaves. Four foot tall goldenrod stems lie prostrate, weaving a chevron pattern across the boggy plateau. Wild leeks and day lilies pop through the mud only to get hammered by the freeze and thaw. Leaf tips shrivel, entire plants heave up and lie sideways, swollen and lifeless. The dogs trample anything that dares to attempt an existence in our walkway.

Around the house, it’s worse. Dog shit and construction debris someone failed to secure last fall lie scattered about the edges of the driveway, sharp edges poking through the wake of pea gravel left by the plow.

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And worse… the canine “exercise area.”

Monochrome and breathless. The dogs are the only signs of life out here in the woods, save for the intermittent cries of the robins and blue jays. We come upon bones and feathers, hollow carcasses of deer, porcupines, coyotes, fur clinging to skeletons, pillbugs scattering when I give the bones a gentle kick.

The moment is brief. Warmth and/or water transforms the flatness into gleaming and slick leaf litter, buds and shoots everywhere, and every shade of red, purple, and green challenging the relentless tan. In a week it will all be different. In a month green will dominate. But for now, it is that moment just before the beginning.

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