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.

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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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