Dogs, Not Robots

Hours. I spent hours today, hours of my life that I will never get back, chasing an errant knave of a dog on Bramley Mountain. And it wasn’t exactly his fault, nor is he a bad dog, nor was he exhibiting bad behavior, and (hold onto your hats because this is the biggie) nor am I a bad owner.

Shit happens. Before this morning’s escapade, I was mulling over my next blog post, considering the notions we humans have of good dogs and bad dogs, good behavior and bad behavior. Wanted and unwanted actions and how we handle them – this is what I think about when I have down time. It’s also what I think about when I’m busy, or when I’m working on a pleasantly mindless or repetitive task… like weeding or planting seedlings, both of which I spend a lot of time doing these days.

Good behavior, level one, is easy to define. A dog that obeys a command demonstrates good behavior, right? That’s a no brainer: I say sit and the dog sits. If he sits quickly and without rolling his eyes at me, even better. I call him and he comes… good dog. But what about the actions that occur without our commands – the stuff they do when no one is watching, or when we’re watching but not intervening?

Examples? I love watching my dogs make decisions and choices, and I give them ample opportunities to do so. You’d think I have a laundry list at the ready of independent actions my gang does to illustrate this idea, but my mind has gone blank. Why? Probably because Hawkitt took off this morning and I spent hours reobtaining him. I’m working on my attitude as I write, trying to breathe and understand, to tease apart the threads of my responsibility and his nature, to understand what I can reasonably expect from him and from myself.

Crushingly handsome as Tom would say, but what a dickhead.

Hawkitt is a good dog by my definition. He is ridiculously obedient. He has a large vocabulary and completes an ever-increasing number of commands perfectly and consistently. He has a lovely temperament and is kind (anthropomorphic, I know, but if you’ve ever met a dog that wasn’t kind, you know what I mean). And I hesitate to describe what he did this morning as running away. Running away, to me, implies that he was guided by the intent to be away from me. Running away means just that in my book – running AWAY from home, pack and family.

Hawk was home the whole time he was away. He never came to a physical property boundary, or a road. He cannot distinguish the difference between the public land on one side of a stone wall and our private property on the other. He was running around in an area that we hike in together almost every day. It’s all home turf to him. When strangers hike on the public trail, Hawkitt needs to go confront them. To him, they are strangers in his home. That he confronts them with play and gentleness and joy is a blessing, and a huge relief, but the point remains. When strangers step onto that trail, to Hawk they are visiting his home. He needs to say hi.

The fact that he doesn’t say hi the vast majority of the time counts for something. When I see that look in his eye, the stiffness of his erect ears, or the hard stare in the general direction of the trail, I say “no, leave it” and he does. Reliably and consistently. But this morning he was chasing a chipmunk with Peeka and Cinder. I let them go. I never intervened, because I saw no reason to. I moved on with Brody, like I have done year in and year out. 99.999% of the time Hawkitt returns to me and remains with me for the rest of the walk. This time Hawk must have pulled his head out of a chipmunk hole and caught scent of people. He was gone before I could suggest he stay with me. And this happens about once a year.

I’m sure there are readers who feel concerned or critical of me and my handling of this situation. I readily admit, I have my moments where I feel rage and despair at the situation and wonder how much we could get for our unfinished house. I think about leashing Hawkitt for the rest of his natural life, or just not bringing him on the morning walk. Never hiking with him here at home, where I moved specifically because I could go hiking without getting in the car, feels extreme. And yet simply shrugging and saying well he’s a dog, not a robot, feels like a cop out.

Understanding this, at a deep level, is hard. It’s hard for me to be so inconvenienced and yet get it, deep down – that Hawk did nothing wrong. For the behaviorists in the crowd – let it be known that every time Hawkitt has visited hikers on that trail, it has resulted in high value rewards. The hikers play fetch with him endlessly, charmed by his adorable stick addiction. They set no limits, tell him he’s “so cute” and throw the stick every time he drops it. Why wouldn’t he go check the trail for playmates every chance he gets? How can I compete with that and still run a tight ship?

I saw an Instagram video this morning of a breeder training her dog. Her caption was about having a bad time of it with the dog totally misbehaving and failing to do what was asked. I commented “we all have off days and I always say they are dogs, not robots.” I believe that, but I hold other people’s dogs and training hiccups in a much more compassionate light than my own. Everyone is welcome to make mistakes and have their journey with their dogs (or humans, for that matter) be circuitous, bumpy, and zigzagging… except me. Except Hawkitt. Not my dogs, not my pack.

I was as polite and gentle as I could be when I collected him from those hikers on the summit. I snapped on the leash and barked commands at him and gave him zero slack, jerking his head up when he dove for the stick. Playtime is over, pal. He isn’t looking great this week – coat is a bit dusty and dull, and once again he looks too thin to me. I imagined the hikers feeling sorry for him, thinking “that poor underfed furbaby with the mean owner” and I felt awful. No wonder he ran away from me, right?

We heeled halfway home (that’s about half a mile, through untrailed wilderness), with him on target and in position. Since I snap a leash on him about once a year this is pretty damned impressive. We did some longer down stays and I rewarded him with a stick. He had to work for it, but work is his middle name. We were almost home when I saw a red eft inside a rotten log. It looked like something had kicked the log apart as it ran past – maybe a deer? Bear? Hawk got put in a sit stay while I examined and photographed thoroughly. I’ve never seen an eft inside a log before. The last time Hawk chaperoned hikers off Bramley was last summer. My buddy drove to the trail head while I ran up the mountain. On my way, bushwacking through the steeps, I stumbled upon a gorgeous chicken of the woods mushroom, which I harvested for dinner. While I was doing so, my phone went off: Kristie had picked up Hawkitt. I foraged a free dinner.

Striped marauder #2. Not a dickhead but a crackhead in her own right.

Do these serendipitous happenings somehow make it worth it? I know folks who would offer that Hawk is “giving” me these experiences and it is up to me to accept them as treasures and be grateful. I won’t go that far, and I will continue to strive to step up to the challenges of owning a dog like Hawkitt (not to put too fine a point on it, but have you noticed that NONE of my other dogs have ever done this? Past or present: zero. Not Lily, Iske, Mica, Tonshi, Brody, Peeka, or Cinder have ever decided to chaperone a hiker down to the parking area. Both Cinder and Peeka have confronted hikers, sized them up, and departed to return to me. But said hikers threw Hawkitt’s proffered stick. I think I’m gonna blame them and the stick throwing for my misfortune.)

They are dogs, not robots. They do the unexpected. They aren’t badly behaved, even when they do things we really really REALLY don’t want them to. And we aren’t bad owners for being in the soup with them, having it go badly one day and better the next. Life with dogs is just that: ups, downs and a whole lot of sidewayses. Life with the striped marauders of Bramley Mountain  – the Bramleywolves, if you will – is mostly sideways. It might not be instagrammable or elegant but it’s real. And when I look at them at the end of the day, I see dogs that have had their needs met. They are full and sated. Throwing a stick for miles on end doesn’t do that but being worked does. I might not be the nicest-sweetest-funnest furmama ever, but so be it. I am in it with them, working and playing, learning and growing. For me, that’s as good as it gets.

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It’s Mother’s Day on the mountain and I’m gifted with a day to do what I love best: hike alone, write without interruption (well, the dogs may destroy that fantasy but so far so good… one sentence in), drink coffee all morning and beer all afternoon, and nap if the need arises. Zero complaints here.

This week I said it out loud, on Facebook, and that makes it real. I am “mother” to dogs that have brain damage. Not joking around, not being histrionic or indulging in hyperbole, but real medical terminology here: brain damage. I have had Peeka for four years, and Brody for almost two, and I’m finally now saying it out loud, in public with all the weight that carries. Call it traumatic brain injury, lesions on the brain, or just plain brain damage, I am mother to dogs that are unpredictable, difficult, and at times profoundly Not Right. I’ve made offhand comments for years about these dogs, but for the first time this week I heard those words repeated back to me by my vet. “Lesions on the brain.” “Even a blind and deaf dog wouldn’t behave the way you’re describing.” “This is brain damage.”

A sweet moment with Brody. We have lots of sweet moments as well as spicy, salty, and sour ones.

My vet has been my right hand through the years-long process of trying to improve their lives and cope with their unique brand of crazy. Some of their behaviors are adorable and chuckle-worthy. Tom and I just shake our heads and let it be. Some of these behaviors are deeply worrisome; some a major management issue. And some scare me, harbingers of increasing levels of stress and challenges to pack harmony. I know where this will go. I know where this path ends. I have no idea when or how long we’ll have together, but Brody’s reactivity this week made me wonder if we’ve increased our speed. He’s a young dog. I thought we had another ten years of this. It’s a blessing and a punch to the gut to think that maybe we have a lot less time than I thought.

Those of us that “do rescue” (such a minimalist phrase for what we do) know this path. I’m not the only one who has screwy dogs. In rescue it’s pretty common, at all levels of screwy, from mildly idiosyncratic to “holy cow that dog is fucked up in the head.” For most non-rescue (AKA normal) pet owners, our lives with our dogs are exactly what is avoided at all costs. Think of every article offering advice on how to pick out your puppy to purchase – choose a good breeder to minimize poor genetics, then pick the most stable, friendly, gregarious pup of the litter, then provide a fabulous first year of safety and good nutrition, positive experiences and excellent training. Tom and I adopt the exact opposite: the worst dogs, from the worst experiences. Brody and Peeka don’t have dramatic stories in the rescue world – they are run of the mill rescue dogs. Terrible genetic loading, a laundry list of medical issues, and horrible temperaments.

But brain damage. That’s one more step into the muck, one step deeper into the work of loving flawed beings. Yeah yeah yeah, we’re all flawed beings. Isn’t this beautiful spiritual work? Sure, until you’ve been nailed for breaking up a shriekfest because the completely normal thing that happens Every Goddamned Day happened and the dogs lost their marbles AGAIN.

So, a bit like a mother who has a special needs child and is just so damn tired of being patient and positive and seeing sunshine and unicorns in every soiled diaper… I get tired. I get disappointed. I get worried. I get scared. And yeah, when folks who don’t know me or the dogs at all express opinions like “you don’t ask much of your dogs” I get angry. Truly, madly, deeply angry. When folks who inhabit the world of “perfect” dogs: great bloodlines, puppyhoods filled with professional training and the very best food, comfort, safety, leadership and love make “suggestions” about how I train my ragtag crew of fucked up shitty dogs… I get angry. I get defensive. I get impatient, not with my dogs but with humans. And I have trouble letting it go.

Finally saying it out loud this week on Facebook felt like a bombshell for those who know and love my pack. The messages poured in, expressions of loving concern and support. When Brody’s former foster mom intimated that my decisions about his future would be understood and respected, I realized that the anger and hurt and shame and exhaustion at managing had been piling up. The dam is breaking, bit by bit, and I’m admitting to myself and Brody’s community just how hard this is. Yes, it’s also sweet and so touching, but the daily management is a vampire, and some days I’m damn near bled out.

I don’t need help. I don’t need suggestions. I don’t need recommendations for herbal remedies or acupuncture or CBD oil. I don’t need a trainer or a behaviorist or an animal communicator (although I admit that the idea of an animal communicator does kind of kick up the “that would be cool” response in me). I don’t need to be more positive or change my outlook. I don’t need to see the spiritual gift in having these challenges, or offer gratitude for the great things in life I do have in spades.

I don’t need patronizing or condescending comments from folks who’ve never picked up a skeletal dog from a transport or shelter, never shaved fur matted with blood and shit to find human-inflicted wounds underneath, never evaluated a dog stuck in the shelter with no fosters or adopters to step up, never stayed up all night to check if that foster dog is still breathing, never xrayed their elderly dog to discover she’s lived ten years with you with shotgun shot embedded in her back. I’m not much of a rescue person – I am not on the front lines like some of my friends who live these scenarios day in and day out. I’m lucky to dip my toes in and then have space and time with each dog. But I don’t need the opinions of those who’ve lived a pet life free from the filth and horror that many of us face regularly.

I need patience and enormous amounts of well-brewed IPAs. I need support, empathy, respect, and sometimes to be left the hell alone. I need to vent and rant and curse and tell the truth about living with crazy fucked up dogs: it’s really hard sometimes. And I need to say thank you, once again, to the folks out there who get it.

I know I’m not alone. I know I have colleagues; hell, I have my tribe. I’m lucky and grateful and resentful and exhausted in equal measure. I know you guys are too. So a special happy mother’s day to all of you out there who mop up another lake of excrement and then pet the beast who did it, knowing this is just what we do. Loving comes in many flavors. Loving rescue dogs, especially malinois and dutchies, is kinda like black licorice, I guess. Some folks love it, many more hate it. Black licorice ice cream, in that appealing shade of gray… that’s my flavor of dog, I guess.

And now I have to end this and run because someone (cough Peeka cough) is barking at a pot on the stove that has been there since November. Today it’s a Serious Problem. And the beat goes on…

The good moments are worth it. Peeka and Cinder.
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Amoeba Penguin Tire

I left at midday. The raven family in the spruce stand across the street sent me off with a guttural serenade heard through the open car windows. Ravens. My closest neighbors are ravens, their raucous cries background noise. My heart swells; all I’ve ever really wanted was proximity to wild creatures. Here I have it, in spades.

I left for another world, or so it seems. Florida is different in almost every way. Far enough south to mean a different day length and different sunrise time, I’m jarred from Day One, confused about day and night, and quite literally fumbling about in the dark.

Nokomis Beach at dawn

I don’t fit in. I can pack sandals and tank tops, but somehow my clothes don’t look right in Florida. I am too untidy and wild in my appearance, my thoughts, my opinions, for this place. I step outside on the grass and am struck by how spongey it is. Even the grass isn’t wild here, but delivered and cut to fit.

Mom asks me what I remember from my childhood. I share more and more memories as they come up, all week long. I don’t know if they are genuine or manufactured. Remembering that I used to remember is a particular type of memory and when trauma is involved, I don’t completely trust my recollections. Maybe I remember, or maybe the memory is a brittle tableau that decades have hardened into a knickknack I can turn over between my fingers and state with confidence “there it is.” I tell Mom my memory of how my father’s death was revealed to me. She categorically denies that that’s how it went down. Dueling memories. I tell her it happened on a Thursday. The internet is a fantastic invention: we look it up. I was right. About the Thursday part. Does that mean I was right about the rest? Do we trust a five and a half year old’s memory or a ninety year old’s memory? Both seem suspect. Mom had a memory test administered when the visiting nurse came. She passed with flying colors. She then told me it was too easy. I offered to give her a harder one. Remember three words: amoeba, penguin, tire. But it was my memory test too – I had to remember to ask her to repeat the words at dinner that night. We both remembered.

Mom talks about the sense of rootlessness she experiences, tracing it back to the evacuation of London. She says that being taken away from her home and family as a child took away her sense of roots. I want her to say more, to explain and tell stories, to flesh that out and make it real for me. I don’t know if I feel that too, the death of my father and the trials of childhood adding up to a divorce from my hometown. I was seventeen when I left home, not ten, like my mother. Our experiences were different. But our emotional experience of rootlessness, or disconnection… is that similar?

I wonder about it. I ponder. Am I disconnected? From a sense of home and family? Are we all struggling with disconnection and rootlessness to varying degrees, or are some folks truly anchored in places and people they call home and family? A couple of years ago when Tom returned home from helping his daughter move to Georgia, I asked him about the area. “What’s it like?” I wondered, wanting to hear about ecosystems, wildlife, flora and fauna. “It’s just a place people live,” he replied with a bit of a shrug. I felt his answer viscerally, like a punch to the gut. I don’t think I’d survive living in “just a place people live.” In the past I’ve told Tom that I cannot move too far from the Hudson River – that no matter what, I need to be able to get to the river in less than a day’s drive. The river is real. It anchors me. I can’t live in a place that feels empty. I’m afraid that emptiness will infect me, swallow me, overwhelm me.

I can coach myself out of that feeling, much like I coached myself not to panic as I flew northward, up the eastern seaboard, amid bone-rattling turbulence. “The plane will not fall like a stone from the sky,” I told myself. It worked a little; I didn’t shed tears or throw up.

I tell myself I’m being dramatic, that I don’t really feel empty at all. My life is full. My husband is my family. My daughter is family. My step daughter and my step dog and my dogs are family. The ubiquitous ravens and porcupines are not exactly family, but community. Community is a close cousin to family, a set of relationships that fulfill a deep need to belong, to feel held and connected. To matter.

I attended an event last night, and felt held in community by a group of people. As a rule, I don’t do large social occasions well. I am awkward and uncomfortable and have no poker face at all. But by the end of the evening, when the goodbyes were shared, the hugs and kisses were so genuine and so warm, I drove home mulling over the contradiction. I guess I am not such a misfit after all. I guess I do have roots, even if some are kind of shallow. I do have a tribe, and when they tease me I know I am home. “You will always be my favorite pain in the ass,” he joked with one last hug, and I felt it. I am home.

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Flawed Perfection

The K9 handler and I strolled back to the command post after completing the task we were assigned. His dog had already made the find so we walked easily, enjoying that happy glow of a job well done. He said to me, beaming with pride, that the dog had recently put in a four hour day. Four hours!!! And the dog didn’t appear tired when that day’s work was completed. I’m sure he saw the shadow cross my features. I have no poker face at all. Four hours is nothing, I thought. “You’re not asking much of your dog,” is the thought that entered my head.

I didn’t say that. I took another moment to think about the man and his dog. He was clearly proud of his dog who had just performed well. I don’t have a dog of that breed, and my experience handling a working k9 under similar circumstances is limited at best. I clamped my jaws shut until I could come up with a positive, encouraging, friendly, and genuine response and then I shared it. What possible good could have come from me raining on his parade, even if we pretend for a moment that I was correct? Would he change his opinion of his dog? Not likely. Would he be hurt or angry, or bewildered by what could only come across as a unpleasant response from someone he just met? Maybe. Insulting his dog when I have limited knowledge of the specifics would have spoken volumes about me and said very little about him and his dog.

Recently I was similarly judged and found wanting. This experience always rocks me back on my heels. Digesting an insult, no matter how unintended it may be, is a project. Good thing I know that yoga is not all pretzel limbs, a toned butt, and an eco-friendly mat with a lotus design on it. Yoga is looking at the ugly panty lines of self, owning them, and then committing to being inwardly honest, outwardly truthful, and dedicated to vibing on a higher level. Digesting an insult is a yoga class in and of itself.

It would have been easy for me to insult that handler. Maybe I was correct, that his dog was not being adequately challenged. I could easily climb upon my high horse and wax eloquent about how important it is for the dog to be perfect. Lives depend upon it. I would have facts on my side. I could have easily made the claim that correcting his false impression about his inferior dog and his inferior training was for the best, and an invitation to help him be better. I could hide behind the claim that I was being helpful.

But would that really have been honest? Scathingly, intensely, deep down to the bone honest?

Or would the comment carry the jealousy and small-minded pettiness of my need to know more and be better than? Better than that handler, better than his dog, better than anyone or everyone? Because the fact is, I don’t know details about the dog, the situation, or the task. I don’t regularly engage in that specific activity. I don’t own that breed of dog and never work with them. Truly, if I was lucky enough to be correct, it would be luck, not experience or familiarity that provided for my accuracy. Hubris is where I’d be coming from. And that is a seriously ugly panty line on me.

The day I stop being open and start telling others how crap they are, I will know I have lost access to learning and growth. And shit – that damn yoga thing about vibing on a higher level – I guess learning and growth is really more important than being right and telling anyone else how wrong they are.

Social media connections have meant that I am incredibly lucky and blessed to have developed a large and vibrant community of people I call friends — friends I never met — who share information and emotion with me. We laugh and cry over our dogs antics and ailments, and cheer each other on through the challenges. Yes, there are also those that like to be the Monty Python foot coming out of the sky and proving FACTS (kaboom – you are all wrong and you are crap owners-trainers-handlers and your dogs are crap and your training methods are crap and your ability to manage is crap blah blah blah), but they are blessedly few and far between. We crossed paths recently and we will again, I’m sure.

I see that impulse in me and I own it and I’ll work on it. That’s the best I can do. Thank you to the person who insulted me; thank you for showing me that part of myself and challenging me to work on it. I hate this work and simply want to be right, and tell the world how right I am. But hey, that’s the work, at least for now.

We’re all flawed.

Pay attention to the dog, not the dogma.

Heather Rolland
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Soul Ache

“It’s dirty. All the houses have all kinds of shit piled outside and everything is dirty. And the weather isn’t helping.”

Grim. Bleak. Gray is my favorite color but the red-brown-gray of Catskills road grit fails to move me, no matter how hard I try to wax romantic about it. She’s right. It’s dirty. Everything is dirty. And the weather isn’t helping – oppressively heavy steely skies and a flat light that makes everything look… well… dirty, bleak, and grim. No wonder she hates it here.

But she’s gone. I just dropped her off in Rhinebeck, NY, a village with zero snow, zero grit, zero bleakness and zero grubbiness. Driving back across Ulster County, I passed the largest kaleidoscope in the world. A wordless emotion akin to nostalgia clobbers me and I’m blubbering at the wheel. I took her there when she was about 2 years old. We hung out in a toy store (one that might even still be there) for an hour or so, playing with all the Folkmanis puppets. She won’t remember and I’m no longer with her dad, who may or may not remember. But I remember. I remember every time I drive past that spot, and I remember her as a two-year-old, and me as a young mom, patient and present. And I tear up.

She visited me, after about 2 years in which she earned her master’s degree and lived for a year in Morocco, completing field work for her PhD.  She arrived with the flu, and spent the first few days coughing and complaining, powering through the days taking Paracetamol and Sudafed (her UK and US pharmaceuticals), doing her best to be pleasant company, and teetering on the edge of needing a visit to Urgent Care. It was parenting on steroids, figuring out whether she needed a beer or a throat lozenge, sleep or entertainment, more doting or more space.

I am not good at this. Just admitting that feels at once self-indulgent (suddenly it’s all about me) and a colossal relief. I am not good at this and I never was. Somehow we both survived my parenting, but the trademark joke of Maya’s childhood was that Iske (our Belgian malinois) was a better parent than me. Maya turned out ok because of Maya – because she popped out of the womb with morals and values and an ethical compass… and a shockingly large quantity of good sense. She waited out childhood and muddled through while I made mistakes and tried hard to step up to the plate.

But being a parent is a selfless undertaking and I have never been able to sustain selflessness for long. Parenting requires sacrifice and I suck at self-sacrifice. I am self-indulgent and resentful by default and all my efforts to hide or mitigate those tendencies inevitably fall short. I end up being me. I can’t hide it or fake it. I do my best for the short amount of time she’s here and then she leaves and I feel guilty and inadequate. I wasn’t present enough. I wasn’t nice enough. I wasn’t sufficiently focused on her. I gave gifts instead of time. I gave money instead of love. I didn’t give enough of either.

So she endured a few days of gray and grim grit, and I drove her the 2 hours to a nicer place to meet her dad today. As I recrossed the Catskills and headed west back home, it started to snow. I arrived home to a place that was cold, remote and inhospitable. I accept all the symbolism therein and dove in to the afternoon chores, feeling the urgency of a house full of dogs that have been alone for 6 hours. Bathroom breaks, exercise, and focused attention for all of them all came before the eagerly anticipated beer for me.

I am just not good at this, but it is a required component of this phase of parenting. I wasn’t especially good at diaper-changing, breast-feeding, or parent-teacher conferences but I did my best. I cried back then, feeling inadequate and guilty. Not a whole lot has changed. But here we are. I get to admire who she has become and await who she will grow into. I get to beat myself up for being selfish, distant, or self-absorbed, or not. It is what it is.

I spend enormous amounts of time alone with my dogs, and it suddenly hits me as I squint at the windshield, tears reducing what little visibility I had left: the dogs anchor me in the here and now. They may not be in the moment, but they force me to be. The dog chores – the daily walks, the necessary chuckit sessions, the remembering to take out meat for dinner – keep me grounded in a reality that doesn’t permit spiraling off into recriminations or flights of guilty fancy. The life I have crafted here on this cold and snowy mountain is remote and rather grubby, but it is intentionally so. It’s safe. The distance works for me. The large biting dogs work for me. The world is kept at bay, but perhaps more importantly, much of my past is also kept at bay. I am anchored in the present and the past is dim, distant and fuzzy.

Until it shows up, coughing and feverish, and in need of mothering. I love, care for, and administer relief as best I can. I stand back and watch as she navigates four large biting dogs with grace and relative ease, and I chuckle as she manages the temper tantrums they pitch. They seem to love and accept her unquestioningly. I’m floored. They are difficult with new people at best, and some of them (cough Peeka cough) are terrible with new humans in their home. Her visit goes without a hitch.

So I’m back here, perched upon this mountainside, where it is cold, remote, snowy, windy, and dirty. There is all manner of detritus in the front yard, bearing witness to our poor housekeeping and our white trash reality. I fed the dogs their deer ribs and pork trimmings, courtesy of other rednecks like me who eke out an existence up here where a cold, dirty, remote, gritty existence is the best we can do. And I drown my feelings – all of them, the complicated love-guilt-inadequacy-backtolove feelings – in local craft beer. We are all doing our best, loving and letting go, and staying connected as best we can. I might not be good at this, and perhaps I won’t ever get much better, but I can stay as present as possible and watch it all unfold. That’s as good as it gets for me.img_6861


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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.


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.


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.


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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