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.


Photo by Kristie Burnett


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Every Pack Needs A Lily


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.


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.


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.


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

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


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

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Ego Extensions

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

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

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

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

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


Bad photo, cute dog

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

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

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



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Stopping and Going

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

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


white wood violets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Early Spring

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

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

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


And worse… the canine “exercise area.”

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

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




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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.


photo by Beth Adams of Candid Canine Photography


I’m in charge.


I’m definitely in charge.


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?


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.


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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