From Bedlam Farm to Bramley Mountain: Good Ideas, Bad Writing, and Matters of Life and Death

A few days before Mica died, I let her rough house and wrestle despite her chest full of cancer. I wrote “my poor judgment and failure to protect her from her own impulses could well have cost her her life.” That’s it right there: life and death. It is normal, natural, responsible, and in some cases the law to protect dogs from their own impulses. And it isn’t always possible. Nor is it always what I will choose to do. But that choice always weighs heavily upon me.

I think about how to manage my dogs all the time. A bit like human children in this regard, they consume my intellect and psyche with their ravenous appetites and big sharp teeth. I am responsible for their health and safety, and at least nominally, I’m in control.

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photo by Beth Adams of Candid Canine Photography

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I’m in charge.

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I’m definitely in charge.

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I’m totally in charge.

But how much control do I exert? I’ve written about this before (most of the posts in the woof pack category on this site), and I’ll probably write about it again. My pack and I inhabit the space where safety and responsibility intersect with “let dogs be dogs.” Dogs are carnivorous predators. My role is to keep them safe, but also to keep the world safe from them. Letting dogs be dogs has risks and those risks translate into expenses: both veterinary and spiritual. When my dogs kill wildlife, I pay twice. Sure, the porcupine paid with its life, but the vet visits are stacking up and the dog is still a mess, and my guilt is not assuaged…

There’s a blog post by Jon Katz making the rounds. It’s from March 2016, but like many iconic posts in the dog world, it is once again getting the shares and likes on social media. It’s called The Rainbow Bridge Curse: Loving Dogs Into Dumbness. A little clickbaity, sure, but what he has to say is interesting. Only I can’t in good conscience tell you to read the post because it’s so full of typos or software glitches or proofreading failures … it’s actually incomprehensible at times. This is a famous writer – someone who got an agent, a contract, money, fame… and ok, I forgive the occasional typo especially in a Facebook post if you’re over 50 and using an iPhone… but for heaven’s sake PROOFREAD. However, he’s writing about this very issue and it’s always interesting to compare and contrast one’s own beliefs and practices with those of folks with stature in the community and the label of expert upon their lapel.

In the blog post, Katz posits that “letting dogs be dogs” is the best form of dog ownership and management. Basically he thinks modern dog owners have become helicopter parents, anthropomorphizing their carnivorous predator pets into furry human children, and then coddling them into becoming soft-boiled morons. He further suggests that dogs need to be dogs (i.e. uncoddled) in order to learn, grow, and develop their intellect.

One of the examples he provides of coddling dogs is not cooking them in hot cars in the summer. Here’s the passage that addresses this:

It is a tragedy for dogs when people tell me they are afraid to take their dogs along with them when they do chores in warm weather, another new kind of social abuse in the guide [sic] of animal welfare. Dogs have accompanied us on our rounds for centuries, very few have died for it.

So, let me get this straight: it’s actually ok to bring a dog along on a hot summer day and leave the dog in a car while you run errands, despite what we know about that car’s interior temperature… because dogs somehow learn from being overheated? Assuming the dog doesn’t die, what does a dog learn from being trapped in a hot car?

Perhaps I set up a bit of a straw man there, and perhaps Katz would never state, point blank, that leaving a dog to overheat in a car in a shopping mall parking lot is a learning experience. The problem is he doesn’t make those distinctions, and doesn’t leave room for nuance. He’s painting with a bit of a broad brush and the devil is always in the details.

For example, today I took Brody (my dog) to go meet Cooper (my neighbor’s dog) for some play time. We’d never tried this before because, quite frankly, Brody is not right in the head and I wasn’t sure he could handle something as simple as a playdate with a puppy. Using Katz’s framework of letting dogs be dogs, not helicoptering, and not micromanaging, we would have let both dogs off the leash and allowed them the space and freedom to work it out. Brody probably would not have injured Cooper, and Cooper would have had lots of fun trying to get poor psycho Brody to play. Would Brody have bolted? Run in the road? Taken off into the woods? I can tell you, knowing my dog as I do, the one result I would not predict is that he’d learn something positive from being tossed into this situation. So I coddled. I controlled. I kept Brody on a leash and requested that Cooper also remain leashed. We just did a short parallel walk and then I took Brody home. A few minutes of increased stress for the BroMan but nothing bad happened. And we can try again.

Was that cruel of me to deprive Brody of that opportunity to navigate his own emotions? Was it “emotionalizing” him and did it harm Brody’s admittedly damaged and limited intellect? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe just the opposite. You see, Brody is a hot mess for a reason, or a bunch of reasons. I don’t know all the reasons why he’s so broken, and I don’t bother making up stories about his past. All I know is the dog in front of me is a basket case. Placing him in situations that terrify him is akin to leaving him in a locked car in the summer, sitting on asphalt. I just don’t see a lot of learning happening. Stress, and possible damage, but no development of instincts or intellect.

I think what Katz might be missing is that a lot of learning happens when dogs feel safe. Try screaming and beating a dog to get him to do something. Might work, might not. You’ll get a scared, stressed dog along with the possibility of compliance. But try eliciting that behavior with a treat or praise or a lure and it might work too. What motivates dogs, lights them up, and develops in them an eagerness to work with you? Fear or affinity?

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Foster Tonshi, completely lit up like a Christmas tree at the prospect of working for the next toss.

What happened in Katz’s post is that his fundamental decent idea got backed into a corner and came out swinging. If we just stay with the basic idea that dogs (perhaps like humans?) need a certain amount of freedom and space to explore their world, and that doing so within safe limits fosters growth, learning, and a reasonable level of fulfillment, I’m on board. I agree that some dogs are really dumb, but how did that happen? Did we dumb them down by “emotionalizing” them? I think we have to look at genetics as well as experiences to fully grasp that. Bloodlines, temperament, overall health – there are a lot of factors that contribute to the appearance of what humans might call intelligence in a dog.

Overall, are dogs any dumber than they were a human generation or two ago? It’s an interesting question. What evidence could be used to demonstrate such a claim? What studies have been done to test that theory? Are we just considering it true because we see the ridiculousness of modern dog ownership in purse puppies and absurd animal welfare laws? Are dogs the ones who have been dumbed down, or is it humans that have become less sharp, less eager to do the hard work of critical thinking, less open-minded and curious, and increasingly quick to jump on bandwagons of blame or reactionary  fantasies of ‘the good old days’?

That basic idea of freedom and space and the push-me-pull-you of safety versus risk is where I live. Bramley Mountain has become shorthand for all of it – the risks, the danger, the bad decisions and lost lives, and the profound soul-deep satisfaction of a dog (and a human) that is allowed to fully express his or her dogness. It’s easy to romanticize such freedom, and it’s easy to champion it when you’re not living it. It looks awesome from the outside. Standing over a lifeless coyote that my dog just executed, it’s a little harder. The coyote paid with her life for a dog that was not under my control. What if it was my neighbor’s cat? Would we still be arguing for growth and learning? Or would we be calling my dog aggressive and dangerous? She was just being a dog. Dogs are territorial carnivorous predators. I cannot ever forget that fact.

 

 

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Things Fall Apart

So I started reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s on those damn literary life lists of 100 books you simply must read if you’re going to hold your own in pretentious cocktail party conversations. I don’t go to cocktail parties and I am probably pretentious enough, since I am worrying about my pretentiousness quotient, but here I am slogging through it, feeling uninitiated and vaguely confused. This, I tell myself after putting down my kindle for the night, is why folks should take literature classes – so someone can tell you what to think and feel when you read stuff that you kind of just read. It’s just words. I feel dense, like I’m reading with my eyes only, skimming the surface. Reading the words this prize-winning author wrote, knowing every sentence was crafted and labored over, and probably contains more subtlety than I will ever grasp, even with assistance, I feel inadequate. It’s a theme these days, so it’s not surprising that my leisure activity (reading a novel – how utterly decadent) makes me feel inadequate.

I have become that archetypal mom of toddlers, as if I gave birth to demon triplets, say about 3 years ago. Tom comes home from work and all I have to offer over our ritual beer is talk of poop and biting. Brody ate poop again. Hawk bit me when I said playtime was over. They dogs listened. The dogs didn’t listen. They were good; they were horrible. I’ve become a stay-at-home mom to five psychotic toddlers.

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Like most moms of toddlers, I love it. I am incredibly fulfilled by my miscreant charges. And I am resentful and sick to death of them. They are my pride and joy and my ball and chain. I watch the clock when I am away from home, knowing their exercise and feeding schedule shall not be disturbed, come what may. The price of such disturbances may be indoor poop or shredded cashmere sweaters. Keeping the house civilized and sanitary is my Sisyphean task.

I’m bored.

Not really. I mean, I’m too busy to be bored, and too passionate about all the elements of dog care and pack dynamics to be less than fulfilled. But I remember when I thought about other things as well – art or literature, music or politics. I remember when I could do things out in the world, like have a cup of coffee with a friend, and that wasn’t constrained by the needs of five canine toddlers. I miss being all parts of me.

So Things Fall Apart. It was the title that drew me in. Things do fall apart, predictably and regularly. I tend to have a bit of a death grip on life, approaching most tasks or projects with a control freaky type A intensity. I take all failures, large and small, very personally. And yet things fall apart willy-nilly, from dog training efforts to my own half-a-century old body. This week I had to have general anesthesia to undergo an endometrial biopsy. For most women, this would be a brief, albeit uncomfortable, office procedure. No anesthetic needed. But I have cervical stenosis, a condition that has rendered my cervix impenetrable, more closely resembling leather that has been left out in the rain and sun for a few seasons – dried, tough, and rock hard — than a part of a living human body.

And Peeka killed a porcupine. Talk about training efforts falling apart, everything that could have gone wrong did. The end result was a dead porcupine and a very large (and growing – we’re not out of the woods yet… so to speak) vet bill. While many people see porcupines as nuisance animals, I can’t quite line up behind any excuse. The porcupine was exhibiting odd behavior for sure, but my dogs are supposed to have rock solid recall. And they do… except when they don’t. Countless times, my dogs – including Peeka – have successfully been called off porcupines. Big ones, little ones, ones in trees, ones on the ground, ones in dens, and ones on the trail. Famously, Hawkitt did the unthinkable – he made friends with a HUGE porcupine. Just walked up to him, and said hi… slowly, gently, and without any drama. They touched noses, and each went on their way. If I hadn’t seen it myself I would never have believed it. But that’s Hawk – he also smooched a fawn he found in the woods. His first response to new and unfamiliar beings is to smooch. Peeka, not so much.

So it’s been a week of reading about white missionaries arriving in Nigeria, waiting for biopsy results, and nursing a very swollen Peeka… all the while nursing feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and anticipation. It’s been a long week. I still don’t have biopsy results, nor do I trust that I can keep both Peeka and the porcupines of Bramley safe from each other. Things fall apart, and somehow we have to live with it. I go out alone with my camera a lot more than I used to, and hope that I’ll be rewarded with glimpses of wildlife that the five canine toddlers would render impossible. So far the results are meager, but so are my efforts. Dusk and dawn, that’s when I need to be out there, with a tripod and a metric ton of patience. Each morning that I lie in bed contemplating the width of my consciousness (wide awake? I think many days I find myself “narrowly” awake.) and not leaping out of bed, grabbing the camera and yelling “Honey, take the dogs out after I leave” is a morning I miss the dawn’s parade of coyote and bobcats, foxes and fishers and godknowswhat else across the trail on the lower loop. I know they are all there – I see the tracks at 9 am. But 9 am may as well be noon for all the good it does me.

Things fall apart. Trying to hold them together may well be shoveling sand against the tide. Perhaps that’s the lesson contained in Achebe’s subtle and carefully wrought prose. I’m still not sure, but I’ll soldier on. And I’ll let you know what I find out.

 

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The Blue Tarp

Ask a troubleshooter in any profession: what’s the most difficult type of problem to address? Hands down, it’s the intermittent problem, the thing that happens some of the time, unpredictably and with no clear antecedent. Sometimes it seems like X causes it; sometimes X is no problem at all. Whether we’re talking automotive, medical, or dogs, it’s those now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t, non-reproducible glitches that are the toughest nuts to crack.

I left Brody loose in the house today when I went to work. It was a calculated risk. He is fine in the house most of the time, his worst crimes being barking at dog bowls and knocking over the kitchen step ladder to improve access to the dog bowl in the raised feeder… in order to bark at it more thoroughly. However, we have had a nasty round of The Big D in our pack and when there’s a tummy bug going around all bets are off. It’s been 6 days of gentle diet and metronidazole (AKA The Cork) and he has been looking rather stable and handling 8 hours overnight without incident. I thought I could give it a try. Truth be told, I was running late and too tired (i.e. lazy) to crate him when it came time to leave. He was quiet and comfy on a dog bed and I wanted to leave him be, to escape the house with a minimum of fuss and fanfare. So I grabbed my keys and slipped out with a whispered “good dog.”

I came home to a clean, undamaged, poop-free home. We’ve done this successfully before, and we’ve had problems before. Indoor pee, indoor poop, destruction of dustpans, and rearranged furniture to name a few of the misdemeanors. Once, while I was outside collecting firewood, I watched him through the windows. He faced off with a rocking chair and wacked it repeatedly with his paw. Each time it rocked, he barked at it. Wack. Barkbarkbarkbarkbark. Wack. Barkbarkbarkbarkbark. He eventually knocked the chair over. Wouldn’t have been all that bad, except that my husband’s guitar was in the chair. Oops.

Why was the rocking chair a problem one day and no problem at all another day? Some days the raised feeder or the contents of the utility closet are in need of an all out, balls to the wall attack, and some days Brody can sleep peacefully while those inanimate objects plot against us.

This brings us to the blue tarp. Up in the woods, about half a mile from our home, a tumbledown deer stand sports a frayed blue tarp, hanging on by a thread to a big maple a few yards off the main trail. Some days Brody can walk past the blue tarp without a reaction. Some days he can’t. What’s different on those days when he strolls on by? Who knows.

The first time Brody alerted on the blue tarp, he caught me by surprise. I was down the hill when his bark shot through me: not much screams RED ALERT like a sudden dog bark. Barking in the woods is very unusual. Porcupines, bears, and humans engender barking. The first two of those are exciting but problematic; the third is just plain bad. I whirled around to see Brody stiff-legged, erect tail, and full throttle barking… at the blue tarp, 12 feet up in the tree, tattered and pathetic but still flapping.

I try to see it from Brody’s point of view. It doesn’t belong there; he’s right. It’s out of place and weird and it’s moving. I’d like to bark at the jerk who decided to leave it there. But we can’t go through life shrieking like banshees at everything that is out of place (I know, I know, my husband thinks I already do this). Correct him for barking at the weird thing? Praise him for identifying something odd in the environment? I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I started walking uphill. I got close and decided to give a command and see what happens. I called him. He came. I threw a party. Then we hung out, looking at the weird scary thing and I praised him for being quiet while we looked.

These days when we walk past the blue tarp, Brody doesn’t bark. He doesn’t trust the tarp and he’s worried about it, but he isn’t barking at it. I don’t assume we’re out of the woods, tarp-wise, but I think I’m seeing a slow but definite increase in confidence. He let me sweep one half of the floor this morning without any reaction at all. The second half of the floor was a problem. Why? He just watched me operate the broom for minutes without distress. But then I remember, thinking back on it – I had a lid from a jar in my hand for that second half of the room. I don’t know why I picked the lid up and kept sweeping – menopause fries your brain. I was probably going to put it away and forgot, halfway across the room, and just continued sweeping since that was a task I could remember how to complete. I have never swept while holding a lid before.

A friend shared a quote with me last night: “everything is inherently broken. We lose what we love, and any corner of reality is graspable for only a very short time. Maybe things make sense, maybe sometimes they don’t. Contemplative practice helps us endure.” There was more, and it was lovely. Yes. Not much is more inherently broken and lovely and briefly graspable than dogs. Sometimes I believe I have it all sorted and organized and I understand what I need to do… and for that magical moment the universe falls into line and the dogs behave. Often we’re barking at each other, hackles raised and adrenaline flowing. The morning dog walk is contemplative practice. It’s the time spent alone in my own head, silent and present… and not present and screaming. And silent once more. It’s peace, and breath, and pain and rage, and then peace and breath again. It’s bearing witness to life and death on a tiny stage in a scrubby little forest. It is the best I can do and I do my best, every day.

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Happy Holidays

Well, well, well. 2017 was quite a year.

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Staring down 2018…

But since we’re staring down 2018, I thought I’d share some holiday thoughts and wishes for you all.

I hope you get to enjoy yourselves thoroughly throughout the holiday season. Go ahead — have a ball.

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Have a drink at your favorite watering hole.

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Go a little nuts – get crazy – it’s only once a year!

But remember, above all — stick together!

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Best wishes for a splendid 2018 from all of us here at the Red Eft Lodge on Bramley Mountain.

Peace and love,

Heather, Tom, Lily, Cinder, Hawkitt, Peeka, Brody, Iske and Mica from the other side, Sid Vicious (from his hospital room at the FFF Wildlife Center), Leo (resident porcupine), Grenadine (resident snapping turtle), and about 300,000,000 red efts.

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Going to the Maul

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Lost and Found

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vocabulary, Commands and the Difference Between Hawkitt and Peeka

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

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Hawkie can reliably respond to the following commands:

sit

down

hop up (AKA “place”)

up (jump on me)

come

stay

leave it

around (walk around me in a circle)

down at a distance

paw or touch (wack it with your paw)

speak

quiet

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

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

tug

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

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

Find it.

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

Back up.

Peeka can sit.

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maybe down.

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

 

Same breed. Same trainer. Different dogs.

Very different dogs.

 

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