In the Beginning – an excerpt

Another teaser from the dog training book that isn’t a dog training book…

In the Beginning

I warned you that this is not a dog training book, and here’s an extended NOT dog training section. You can skip it. I’ll never know and I wouldn’t blame you.

My Dad died when I was five years old. He was diagnosed with melanoma when I was two and he died in October, six months after my fifth birthday. He was 39. He was from Brooklyn, NY (I think just about everyone’s parents or grandparents were from Brooklyn – right?) and his parents still lived there. Maybe six weeks after his death, my Mom took my sister and me to Radio City Music Hall for an evening out with my grandparents. We arrived home to find out home had been robbed.

The sliding glass door was open, November chill invading our playroom. The kitchen door had a glass window in it; broken glass and blood on the kitchen floor told that story. All our dresser drawers were pulled open and ransacked, spent matches were strewn around and dirty smudges decorated all the hallway walls. A camera and some jewelry were missing, but the unsettled sense deep in my gut was much worse than the material loss. We were all pretty shook up.

My grandfather told my mom to get a gun. For Mom, that was unthinkable. Her brother, my Uncle Michael, suggested we adopt his dog, a burly black and white German Shepherd Dog (GSD) named Zorba. Michael didn’t have a lot of time to exercise and play with Zorba and a family setting with young children seemed ideal. Zorba was gorgeous, ridiculously friendly, and a ball-crazy high-drive lunatic. I was six years old when he arrived.


Zorba — that’s me in the red stripes.

Zorba was an adult dog, and required very little from us in terms of formal training. Smart as a whip, and so eager to play ball, Zorba was a breeze to live with. I don’t remember any real challenges, although Mom did coach me to drop the leash and let him go when we walked him in the state park. Squirrels or rabbits plus cliffs and ledges equaled “let him go” for my mom. I guess she had visions of six year old me attempting to hang on while Zorbie flew down the mountain after a bunny. Thankfully nothing of the sort ever happened and Zorba was a good boy right up until he ran headlong into a tree (chasing a ball) and ended up dying from complications.

When Mom told Uncle Michael that Zorba had passed away, Michael offered us another dog. His female GSD, Gypsy, recently had puppies. Michael picked us out a gregarious male and my sister named him Vinnie Barbarino. That was the extent of her involvement with him, though. Vinnie was my project.

I was about ten years old when Vinnie flew into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. He promptly escaped from his airline kennel and roamed JFK, all gangly puppy legs and gigantic ears. He was located, and made friends with the airline workers who led him to Mom and me on a length of rope someone found for the purpose, his leash and collar long disappeared. Vinnie was going to be a project.

Although Mom was no stranger to dog ownership, Vinnie was a challenge. He was much drivier than Zorba or any dog my mom’s parents had owned. He was smart, intense, and full of beans. He picked up house breaking without issue, but getting a handle on his chewing and puppy mouthiness was more difficult. After he shredded a blouse the same day my sister bought it at Saks Fifth Avenue, Mom was ready to ask for help.

ancient history 009

We contacted Carol Benjamin and set up private lessons. Mom and I went, and learned from Carol how to harness Vinnie’s intense energy and get him engaged with us in a much more positive way. We signed up for the on leash obedience class at Rockland Community College and that first night Vinnie was a disaster. Distracted, and utterly uninterested in working with me, I lasted about 10 minutes before storming off to cry in the corner. A very bewildered Carol took over for me while my Mom died a thousand deaths of embarrassment.

By the end of the eight or ten week session (or whatever it was) Vinnie was the best in the class. He was a robot (that’s a compliment), performing every command with precision. We took Carol’s off leash obedience class and Vinnie was amazing. He and I had figured it out. Exercising him and training him were my after school “chores.” Vinnie and I hiked and rambled daily, running up Hook Mountain after school and exploring the woods when we didn’t have time to hit the Hook’s summit.

My success with Vinnie was big news in our small community, partly because I was a petite kid and he was a big boy. Passersby would ask me if I wanted a saddle for my pony, yuk yuk yuk. By the time I was about 12, I had my first ever paying job: training a neighbor’s GSD – a young male named Detlef, imported from Germany. Detlef was a piece of work. He had destroyed his owner’s kitchen, tearing all the sheetrock off the walls and consuming rather a lot of it. His owner didn’t have time to run up Hook Mountain with him… so he was pretty frustrated and bored.

I failed miserably with Detlef, but I understood why. He didn’t need training. He needed play and exercise and hiking and bones to chew. He wasn’t a lunatic or a bad dog; he was a good dog that wasn’t getting his basic needs met. Asking him to be a good boy while his owner was at work all day was like asking him to do trigonometric equations. He was just too pent up to focus.

Success with Vinnie and failure with Detlef: early childhood experiences are referred to as formative, and in this case my most basic approach to dogs was indeed formed by “working” with these two GSD pups. Not unlike humans, I come from the school of thought that all living beings learn and “perform” best when their needs are met. Don’t ask me to braid your hair or give you a ride to the mall when I’m hungry or haven’t slept; similarly, you can’t ask a GSD puppy to be a good boy when his needs for chewing, running, etc. have not been met.

Most of the dog training books I read stressed this as well. Both Donaldson and Behan discuss basic dog needs: running/chasing and gripping/chewing. They stress the need to satisfy dogs, to provide opportunities for them to experience satiation of these predatory urges. They talk about ways to do this, such as playing fetch and tug, and doing things that simulate the hunt. I just say “let dogs be dogs.” While much easier said than done, I have set up my life and my training (meager as it is) around finding ways to allow my dogs to be dogs, as safely as possible. My “program” if one could call it that (one friend calls it doggie boot camp!), is that simple. I make sure my dogs are enabled to be dogs and fully express their dogness every day. I still don’t know why they trade their agenda for mine even in the midst of practicing this “being dogs” thing we do. But they do, reliably and completely.

Except when they don’t. The exceptions stand out in high relief against the backdrop of cooperation and compliance. I can say “well, they are dogs, not robots,” but the truth is if a military working dog failed to do his or her job just once, soldiers would die. Search and rescue dogs fail to do their job? People die. Livestock guardian dogs fail at their job? Livestock losses are the result. Working dogs are trained much more consistently and much more effectively than anything I do with my rag tag bunch of miscreant fools, and the dogs are much closer to perfect than mine could ever dream to be. 

If my guys fail to obey me? Not much by way of consequences most of the time. Once Mica bit a hiker in a parking area (she had no teeth, so it was wasn’t exactly a bite – more of a “gum”); once Vinnie tossed a yorkie around like it was a chew toy (that yorkie was fine – no injuries). A few times Hawk barked at a hiker on a trail. And most of my dogs, past and present, have been quilled by porcupines. Ok, some of my dogs have been quilled by porcupines a lot of times. One of my dogs (cough Peeka cough) has been quilled while I hollered and attempted to jump in between her and the porcupine, bellowing commands right and left, diving for her and generally enacting a slapstick comedy routine in the middle of the woods – a situation that led me to consider buying a clicker. Not for the dog. For the porcupine. Pretty sure the porkies of Bramley Mountain are more trainable and cooperative than Peeka.

I think being able to tolerate a certain amount of failure is what separates pet homes from working homes. Or at least it should. Working dogs should work – consistently and predictably. I write more about failure later on, but for me and my dogs, failure is tolerated as a stepping stone – a way to grow and learn and improve. I know I’ll never have an impeccably trained, blue ribbon dog, but my goal is to stay out of the emergency room and keep the peace. The rest is gravy.

Peeka Butt

Peeka hard at work. Porcupine or chipmunk, she crawled under the ledge until I decided enough was enough and dragged her out. She dove back in as soon as I let go of her.


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I could have just had a beer, and maybe some ice cream later, and called it dinner.


Tom swooned over the scent of the chicken stock simmering on the stove top as he left for his broadsword class. I got up from working on my dog training book to strain it. Ok, I admit it – I had forgotten about it, engrossed in my writing. I gave it a taste. It was good. The roast chicken was delicious the other night and the bones made a damn good stock.

I love Tom. I didn’t feel like cooking. I barely felt like eating. I just wanted to write. Tom went off to sword class (why does that sound vaguely dirty to me? I can scarcely write it without blushing or giggling.) without a decent dinner in his belly. He will come home on this rainy evening long past dinner time, long past hungry. And the stock tasted damn good.


It’s still light out.

I love Tom more than I want to indulge in laziness or the fantasy that I have possess edgy roughness, a crass exterior made of poor eating habits and alcohol. I’m a health food eating, yoga practicing, drinker of herbal tea, despite my fantasies to the contrary, grubby jeans, judicious use of the word fuck, and muddy steel-toed boots.

Hawkitt, Peeka and I went out the back door. Hawk came with me into the woods; Peeka stopped at the edge of civilization, trusting that whatever the hell I was doing I’d be done soon. Hawk followed me to the patch of wild leeks, and stayed nearby while I picked.

We walked back towards the house together. Hawk veered off at one point, interested in our new squatters — the cottontail rabbits that have taken up residence under the deck. I murmur “inside” and he changes direction without breaking stride. We collect Peeka from her perch on the hillside and again, I murmur “this way, inside” and she falls in step. My heart swells. Successful interspecies communication is such a turn on. These dogs seduce me daily.

I do a mediocre job cleaning the leeks, and then swipe at the remaining mud with a muddy finger. Grilled, I decide. Grilled leeks, leftover roast chicken breast, and cremini mushrooms in a bowl with hot broth poured over the top. Only I don’t have enough chicken for both servings. Ok, Tom gets the chicken.

And I’m cooking. Mushrooms in the pan, leeks on the grill, stock simmering away. Dogs everywhere, because chicken stock is a call to action. Music on.

Grilled wild leeks are sweet and smoky.  I eat too slowly, and the soup gets cold. The bottom of the bowl is gritty and I assume that’s mud. Maybe it’s black pepper. Either way, I toss the last sip or so.

Tom won’t be home for another hour, so I sit down to write. Only now it’s not the dog training book I want to work on. It’s love. “This moment this love comes to rest in me… inside the needle’s eye a turning night of stars.” I moved through this tiny world this evening loving the dogs, loving the rain, loving the leeks, and loving Tom. It doesn’t happen like this all the time but when it does, it’s worth noticing.



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Thirteenth Night – A Teaser

The pilot wrapped the stained and fraying Ace bandage around Violet’s ribcage once more, flattening her breasts into believably masculine pectoral muscles. “You batten down them hatches any tighter, my eyes gonna pop clean out,” she chirped, her blue eyes bulging.

“Lower your voice,” the pilot growled, wiping the blood from his sideburns with the back of his hand. He shot a furtive glance over his shoulder and held his mangled index finger to his lips. Violet had no problem holding her breath; it was breathing normally that was proving to be a challenge. She heard a twig snap, and then the sound of dry leaves rustling. Her heart slammed against its Ace bandage cage while the pilot slid his right hand towards his brand new Sig Sauer the bureau had sprung for when they assigned him this mission.

A young white-tailed deer picked its way through the plane’s wreckage, each step preceded by a careful sniff. It came upon the survivors huddled under the huge spruce, torn clothing and first aid supplies strewn about on the pine-scented duff. It stamped once and its dark eyes locked on Violet’s as the pilot drew his sidearm. Violet backhanded his the gun away from him and the deer turned and bounded away, downhill, towards the road and Violet’s destination.

“What the fuck, dipshit? Have you tasted what they call rations? You could have had fresh venison for your first meal on assignment. Everyone says does taste better.” The pilot grumbled.

“How y’all know that was a doe?”

“No antlers, genius.”

“Why, bless your heart, you greenhorn. All deer are antlerless right now. Y’all cain’t tell a doe from a young buck in June without a good look at their south side.” Violet rolled her protruding eyes.

“You understand what you need to do?” The pilot changed the subject, irritated. Violet’s slack jaw offered a vote of no confidence. The pilot shook his head. “We’re fucked,” he mumbled, and began bandaging the gash on his arm.

Violet, seated with her back against the tree, tried to take deep breaths to quell her anxiety about the subterfuge. The bandage made that impossible, so she began to hum a song she heard on the radio that morning before she left Virginia.

“I Shot The Sherriff? Really?” The pilot raised his voice. “You need to get your shit together, ya dig? You have a job to do. Sorry this mission isn’t all peaches and cream, little lady, but you need to pull yourself together, go infiltrate that drug ring, get The Duke to implicate himself while you’re wearing your wire, and then get the fuck out of there, so we can make the bust and go home. Is that so all-fired complicated?”

“I cain’t breathe,” Violet squeaked again. “You pulled them bandages too tight.” She stood up, stumbled over an exposed root, and then crash landed for a second time that afternoon.


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Use the Bathroom



The article I wrote for the Watershed Post’s 2016 Outdoor Guide has been making the Facebook share rounds. It’s always a bit startling, and totally fun, to see something you wrote and got published, from the perspective of having moved on. Sweet nostalgia – my research for the piece consisted of an awesome few days of driving all over the extended Catskills. Not just the high peaks areas I know well, but deep into the foothilly wilds of Sullivan County. I went alone, not even a dog or two in the back seat. Me, my camera, and my assignment – and it was exhilarating.

But print is a very strict medium. Brevity rules with an iron fist and this left me with a few misgivings and a story left untold. Check out the photos from the editing room floor (above) and my favorite story from the whole shebang (below). But first, some incredibly important information.


I’m not kidding. I’m not trying to be funny. I’m not making some weird double meaning, innuendo, or snark or anything else. I am telling you key information you need to enjoy visiting these places.

There are no public bathrooms in any of these places. There is no restroom, no water fountain, and no place to powder your nose. Stop in the closest village, buy a snack, or a map, or a cool touristy t shirt, and ask to use a restroom.


Some of these places have limited parking, and some have VERY limited parking. You will be ticketed if you park illegally, but much more importantly, first responders have complained that due to illegal parking there have been issues with getting emergency vehicles where they need to go. Maybe your illegally parked car won’t block an ambulance, but the guy who parks behind you might. Trust me, none of these adventures are so cool they’re worth that kind of drama, trouble, and guilt that would involve.


If you are thinking “No shit, Sherlock,” great. You are not who I’m talking to, and I’m delighted. However, lots of people take the approach of “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.” With the exception of Grossingers, every place mentioned in the article is located on public land and access is legal. On Lundy Road, this is a little bit more complicated – the structures are not accessible and can only be viewed from the road. But the photo in the article was taken by me standing in the road – you really don’t have to step off the road one inch to get a great look at the house.

You’ll note that I suggest mountain biking on Lundy Road, and going to play a round of golf at Grossingers. Both activities would be fun, legal, and afford you views of super cool stuff. You want more? I’m sorry, but the answer is no.


Again, if this is beyond obvious, that’s as it should be. Pack it in, pack it out. Enjoy these places respectfully.


Numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 involve hiking. That means you’ll need decent hiking boots, a day pack, food and water, and all the normal safety and comfort gear and accountrements for a day (or at least a few hours) in the woods. Kaaterskill High Peak, Bearpen, and Stoppel Point are not short strolls on level ground. Rochester Hollow and Russell Brook Road are less strenuous but still – it’s hiking. If you want to check out ruins, but you don’t enjoy hiking, you may want to explore some different options.

And here is the story:

For those of you that don’t know me, I’m a pretty small person. I have been teased about being the size of an average 5th grader, and have boasted about not weighing enough to donate blood. My husband is always lukewarm at best about me heading off on solo adventures, be they in the wilderness or in civilization. He was a police officer years ago and has instilled in me a certain worst case scenario mentality that I tend to ignore until it stares me in the face.

Lundy Road is about 7 miles long and much of it runs through state land, remote and wild. Not suburbia. No houses for miles on end. Beautiful and quiet and I’ll admit it – a touch eerie. Years ago a village way back at the end of the road called Potterville was rumored to be haunted. You can’t really get there any more and the buildings are all but gone, but for me the vibe remained.

The road got pretty bad – rutted and narrow and funky – maybe 5.5 miles in and I thought “aww hell no” to the idea that I’d have to back out. I found a place to park nose in and hopped out, ready to explore what remained on foot.

A few moments later it came to me: I was literally miles from nowhere, armed with a camera and that’s it. No cell service, no emergency gear. Not even a Clif bar. I had this sudden, intense awareness of my own vulnerability. So I ignored it and kept walking (NOTE: I had all that stuff in my car and folks at home knew where I was, the details of my itinerary, and my ETA. I’m crazy, but I’m not stupid.).

A twig snapped.

No shit, that really happened a moment or two after my conscious mind clued me in to how potentially dangerous my situation was.

I stopped and listened.

The road is enclosed on both sides by dense laurel thickets. I peered in, but you can’t see two feet deep into laurels. They are multi-stemmed shrubs with dense foliage at eye level. I shrugged it off and took a few more steps and again – a twig or two snapped.

I stopped again and slowly squatted down, aiming to peer through the naked laurel trunks. Once I got low enough to see below the leaves, my eyes met a small coyote’s. She looked at me, and I looked at her. For a long split second, we shared that space. Then she broke the gaze and trotted away.

I didn’t get a decent photo, although I did try. In my anthropomorphic, wishful thinking way, I figured I had been accepted into that space and was safe to continue. The rest of the adventure was uneventful – just a pleasant walk on a nice road in the woods.


Enjoy exploring in the Catskills. Be respectful of all the locals – wildlife and humans alike – and have a wonderful adventure.


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At Ease

The hot water heater stopped working. I always check the water temperature before getting in the shower, so I was spared that particular discomfort on the first of this year, but darn it — I need a shower. This is the latest stressor in a week that has included an ER visit by my husband for mysterious gastric misery, a car accident, a chimney fire, an emergency vet visit, a missed flight, multiple last minute overnight visitors, and a new job. And Christmas and New Year.

We are not set up for overnight visitors. Not one, and certainly not two. The house is far from finished and Tom and I sleep in a hallway. The bathroom has no door. Hell, none of the rooms have doors.  Naked sheetrock and exposed insulation: unfinished. And I have deadlines to meet, sick folks to administer to, and funky infrastructure to demystify. I came home from a dog walk to find the power to the house inexplicably shut off. And now the hot water heater…

The chimney fire got snuffed out, the husband feels a bit better each day, and airline disasters have a way of getting fixed if you douse them in enough cash. The car is totaled, but no one was hurt. The dog with the swollen face has me worried; the dog with cancer has me sad.

Last night the canine house guest barked each time snow slid off the roof – starting at 1 a.m. this continued the rest of the night. Jerked out of sleep seven or eight times between the wee hours and dog walking o’clock, to say our nerves are shredded would not be histrionic.


And yet, when the time came for The Morning Walk, off we went: the autistic, the rambunctious, the aged and infirm, and the killer. My bosom companions. About an inch of fresh snow fell overnight, smoothing out and covering up all the evidence of walks past. That’s where I fell when Hawk kneecapped me, that’s where Cinder and Peeka tussled and I had to scream at them, that’s where Hawk attacked the tree… all nicely smoothed and remolded into a fresh coverlet of white. Nothing but mice playing here.

It was sunny, and we’ve had a lot of gray, sky-spitting days. The sun, the fresh snow, the 30 degree temperature all conspired to render me at ease.  At ease, soldier. No grand pronouncements, no pithy or pretentious revelations. Just a few moments of ease, sun and relative peace. The day will bring battles and triumphs: laundry will get folded, appliances will go belly up and there will be “who’s blood is this?” moments. I’ll sort, create, repair, and triage my way through it, chipping away at the mountain of tasks this life throws in my path, recognizing there is never an end. Only the at ease moments to soak in before, once more, I am called upon to enter the fray.



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A Dog Training Manual as Memoir

Eventually I will write this book. The whole thing. Not sure when “eventually” will turn into “soon” but it will happen. I’m sharing it now, prematurely, since the rest of the book hasn’t been written yet, as a way to keep myself honest. If I do a spoiler alert then I really truly have to write the rest of it — right? Good winter project, perhaps.

Because I have a number — ok, a LARGE number, in some folks’ opinions — of notyouraverage dogs, training is a huge part of my life. Call them working breed, high drive, or just plain INTENSE, my dogs are not like “normal” dogs. Their needs are different and their responses to “normal” stuff is different. Training isn’t suggested or important – it’s critical to everyone’s survival. But I am not much of a dog trainer, not in any organized or thoughtful way. The book — once I write it — is about living with these dogs: surviving, thriving, enjoying, screwing up, and learning how to live in harmony and relative peace with beings that seem to take great pleasure in destruction of all things humans care about. What follows is the introduction… I think.



Walking around the pond with the whole family off leash, we came upon a dead, semi-disemboweled toad. Several family members leaned in for a closer look. Without missing a beat, I commanded “Leave it,” in a clear, unemotional but unequivocal, tone. I commanded like a pro – accustomed to giving such directives and fully expecting to have them obeyed. The one small glitch? I was talking to my husband.

Training my dogs isn’t something I do. It’s something I live. Training isn’t an activity separate from daily life, as poor Mr. Toad’s demise demonstrates. Everything that happens on this mountain where we all live is fodder for a command. Every day, every moment I’m with the pack, we’re teaching and learning and those roles are fluid. My approach to having well-behaved “trained” dogs is not something I could lay out in a training manual, and this is not a “dog training” book. I figure out, convince, cajole and mold my dogs into beings I want to be around all the time. As my husband is fond of saying (albeit with regard to weight loss): It’s a lifestyle, not a diet and exercise plan. What I do with my dogs often ends up “training” them, but that isn’t exactly the goal. The goal is happy, safe, dogs and a relatively tolerable household. Given that I lived in a one room shack with five large, high drive dogs for three years, I’ll admit it can be a tall order.

The impetus to write this book was born of reading other dog training books. You see, I do wonder what I’m missing by not training my dogs the “normal” way. I’m endlessly curious about dogs. Coyotes and wolves too, but because I live with dogs, and there’s tons written about them, I tend to read about dogs and dog training. I’ve read a few classics and learned something from each: Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of The Leash and Suzanne Cloutier’s Bones Would Rain From The Sky were consumed when I adopted Hawkitt, and he benefitted from the expertise I gleaned from these authors. A year or so later, I devoured On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas in an afternoon. I love looking up from my iPhone at the breakfast table (yes, I’m that kind of jerk) to see my husband using these signals (I taught them to him) with our newest challenge – Peeka.

However, it was reading Jean Donaldson and Kevin Behan side by side that made me decide to write my own book. Your Dog is Your Mirror and The Culture Clash could not approach dogs and training them from more divergent perspectives, yet both authors speak with great authority and conviction, seem knowledgeable and experienced, and boast extensive successes. Both speak in absolutes, and the books are full of always/never language and unwavering assertions. They seem so certain of their techniques, methods, and the theoretical underpinnings thereof, and back up these assertions with reams of “proof.” And I believe them. I am not insinuating that either one of them are blowing smoke. I think these two wildly different approaches are both yielding consistent success. Put plainly, I think they are both right. And maybe they are both wrong.

I use neither of their approaches with any consistency at all, and in my 10 years or so fostering and adopting pointy-eared Belgian and Dutch shepherds I’ve created a number of obedient, fun dogs out of frightened, abused and nearly feral wrecks. I am open-minded, but absent-minded. I’m not unwilling to try a new technique and see how it works, if I can remember all the steps. But I can’t always spit out the correct dog’s name, much less “perform” steps or apply techniques in an organized or consistent manner. My life just isn’t like that. I need commands because of bears and porcupines, not tunnels and teeter totters. I need dogs that are safe with me and my lifestyle, which is a bit rough and tumble to say the least. And my eclectic mish mash of McConnell, Cloutier, Karen Pryor, Donaldson, Behan, and many others seems to work. I let the dog, the unique individual in front of me, dictate how we come to live in harmony.  Ok, maybe not dictate, but at least participate. The dogs and I work it out – I demand, they comply a little, I bend a little and we end up somewhere mutually acceptable.

Where am I going with this? If Donaldson’s Skinnerian behavioral approach, Behan’s energetic paradigm, and my chaotic bumbling all work reasonably well most of the time with most dogs, what does that really say about dogs and training them? I believe it bespeaks of a heresy: most methods work. Most approaches, no matter what the philosophy behind them, regardless of whether they’re based on research or intuition or hogwash, work.

Yes, you read that correctly. I think most people, no matter what they do, manage to train their dogs about as much as they want to, sometimes much much more. Sometimes folks give up after experiencing precious little success, but I think the fat part of the bell curve is full of folks who’d describe their training experience as “yeah, I did ok. We got most of what we needed to do accomplished.” Most people manage to establish that outdoors is for bathroom functions, and a sit-down-stay-come that works in at least 75% of situations. Maybe even polite leash walking. For many people, that’s plenty. And they get there using every method and technique under the sun. I’ve met quite a few clicker fans, and seen incredible results. Some people use food treats for everything, and have that treatbag on their belt at all times. Flawless dogs reported. I trained my very first dog exclusively using leash corrections (it was the 1970s so don’t get your panties in a knot), and he was perfect (he was also a German Shepherd Dog and a damn good one at that). Every one of these approaches has its cheerleaders and its naysayers. And I think all of them work.

But back in the second paragraph I promised you that this wasn’t a dog training manual. That’s because the “how” of getting a dog to do our bidding isn’t interesting to me. Seems like there’s plenty of information out there about the “how” and plenty of options. Wanna get Fido to do something? Try a technique. If it doesn’t work well enough, try another one. Figuring out how to teach a trick so that a dog will perform it is not interesting to me. Once I am sure I’m not being cruel, I’m also equally sure that eventually some method will work. Trying to get a dog to stop engaging in a behavior is more challenging to me, but that too is the realm of “how” – and again, try a technique. If that doesn’t work, try another one. In the vast majority of cases, something works.

But the “why” of dog training – now that keeps me up at night. Not why train your dog at all (I just rolled my eyes and smacked you upside your head), but why dogs comply. Why do dogs trade their agenda for ours? I am outnumbered and outgunned when I walk my pack. They are stronger, faster, and much more lethal than me. They could do whatever the hell they wanted to, and I couldn’t stop them. They have to know this. They are not stupid or insensitive to my impotence. But when they explode after a deer, I can reliably get them to hit the brakes and return to my side immediately. I have nothing to offer them for that act of trading their agenda for my own. I don’t have a treat or a toy or even much of a response. But they do it. They leave prey animals alone. They do “tricks” like “high five” or recently Hawkitt climbed a tree, just because I asked him to. I use no incentive, no reward, no punishment. I just said “hey Hawk, go climb that tree” and whaddya know – he did it. My question is: Why? My endless fascination is with the willingness of my dogs to do make this trade – their agenda for mine – and that’s what this book is about.


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The End of Summer (ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes)

Change of heart. Change your mind. Loose change. Change of pace. Changeling. Change of life. Small change. Change it up. Chump change.

Change or die.


Knowing and being ready to act upon knowledge are two very different things indeed. How many habits have you known you needed to break, only to circle back, to indulge in one more “last time?” I could feel a change brewing for much of this summer, but the experience of knowing it and feeling it coming on couldn’t quite morph into living it.

Change is hard. I settle into routines as easily as the next guy and only pain and suffering wrests me out of those routines. I had worked out a great dog care routine here at the shack, but this summer I could feel it inching (and, at times, hurtling) towards change. But still I resisted. I didn’t want to change. I still don’t. But it’s inevitable. Change or die.

Iske died in February. I knew what a giant loss this would be to our pack. It’s not sentimental, and I doubt they “miss” her, although if Cinder could articulate her emotions, perhaps she’d describe it that way. They needed her. She played a critical role here, and her presence even as an aged, blind, deaf, incontinent, demented and ultimately dying pack member meant certain types of nonsense was not going to happen. The young and the restless did not act up when she was alive. She didn’t rule with fangs and claws, but somehow rule she did. She kept a certain sense of order and decorum. Without her, I predicted, there would be a real hole in our pack and none of the other dogs would step up to fill it. I was right.


Iske and Mica skewed the pack in the elderly direction. Hawkitt and Peeka reorient it towards youthfulness. And mayhem. Cinder has no interest in maintaining order – she just wants to do her own thing and be left alone. Lily is firmly ensconced in her Omega position. There’s no one but me to keep the nudniks in line.

Add in that Mica and Iske both loved hiking. They were natural hikers, at ease and utterly comfortable in the woods, trotting ahead of me on the trail enjoying chipmunking but not manic or compulsive about it. Cinder is compulsive – all moving things must be stopped. Peeka is confused but eager. And Hawkitt is bored. The daily hikes no longer meet the pack’s needs the way they once did. And a bored, high drive, 95 lb striped marauder is just no good at all. Hawk attacks trees, brings toys along to play with on the way, and on one awful braindead morning, followed his nose to go join another hiker. I spent hours looking for him, yelling myself hoarse calling him… only to find him safely delivered to our home via a car ride from a stranger. That can’t happen again.

You see, some of the change I must adapt to is not part of the natural evolution of my pack. When we chose to move to this place, our choice was in part due to the property backing up to over a thousand acres of public land – public land that had no public hiking trail on it. This summer that changed. A public trail was opened, and the result is exactly as I predicted – I have lost something I valued beyond words. While I know many people would think one person’s loss means little on the balance sheet when “The Public” stands to gain so much, but that isn’t really accurate or fair. What I lost is gone forever, and quite frankly, I’m stuck here. What was gained by the community could have been gained many other local places… Scutt Mountain, Moon Mountain, or up in Prattsville, where the waterfall trail has been waiting to be finished for years. My backyard wasn’t the only option for a hiking trail. But now it is there. And I just have to adapt. Change … or watch change happen around you.

I am heartsick and grieving the loss of this mountain and my daily routine, but I don’t have the luxury to process that loss. I have to function, taking care of 4 beings (ok, 5 if you add in Tom) with very different needs. I have to find ways to satisfy all of them, imperfectly perhaps, but it’s got to be good enough to keep everyone mentally healthy. Me included.

Hawk’s foray onto the public trail and his interest in meeting a human really took me by surprise, but instead of getting angry at him, I interpreted it as communication: Hawk wants more interaction with the outside world. God knows why – I loathe interaction with the outside world. But Hawkitt believes he is the mayor of Bramley Mountain – perhaps of Delhi and Bovina as well. He needs to meet humans and tell them how happy they are to meet him. He is gregarious with a capital G. So I’ve been taking him to the Delhi Farmer’s Market each week. Some of the vendors have gotten to know him and literally squeal with delight when he rounds the corner. “It’s HAWKITT!” they cry and his wag could send bushels of winter squash flying. He loves being a good boy in public. I’m changing, letting this be part of the routine.


I had thought that part of the changes coming up would include adding a new member to our pack. I committed to taking in Summer, a drop dead gorgeous 10 month old malinois from Florida. We were awaiting transport details when an incident unfolded that ultimately made us all – me, Tom, and Cindy, Summer’s coordinator – change our minds. My dogs acted as a pack, aggressing against an “outsider.” I was able to break up the 3 against 1 melee but not before my friend’s dog bit me. I’ve received a lot of accidental nips and bites (Hawkitt isn’t careful about adjusting his grip on the stick), and plenty of what I affectionately term “asshole nips” by Peeka. This was neither. I received a full-on hard bite from a frightened dog defending itself. I’m fine, and I was able to prevent injury to all involved (well, ok, except me), but this whole thing shook me up. I couldn’t think straight for a few days, just so dismayed that I had placed all the dogs in that situation. When I finally settled down enough to think clearly, I knew that losing Iske had been even more monumental to this pack, and to me, than I realized. Without her, there is an instability that could pop up at any moment, with dangerous results. Taking in a new dog was possible, I realized, but not without making radical changes in how I managed everything around here. It would be a fully new experience, despite the number of new dogs I’d introduced before. I talked it over with Cindy and left the final decision up to her. She chose wisely, and Summer is safe in Florida in an excellent foster home. Saying no to a new dog… that’s a change I hadn’t anticipated.

We’re moving into the new house on October 15. The changes to come are incredible. I’ve never lived in a house I participated in building before and it’s an amazing feeling looking around, and knowing – I touched every single piece of insulation. I picked up and carried every single piece of rough-sawn siding. Items that sat in our backyard for years (the kitchen sink was acquired long before this property was!) are in place and functioning. My new kitchen will be magazine-worthy. I have lived in one room for 3 years. Sleeping in a different room and having to walk from where I sleep to where I eat… down stairs, around a corner, into a fully different space – this is huge. Everything about how I manage the dogs will be different – where they eat and sleep, how we walk each morning, and where we go to pee at 10 pm. We will all adjust most joyously, I think.

Change or die… and sometimes, change and live well. I guess that’s the definition of hope.




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