Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Matter of Taste

For the past several moments I've been sitting here contemplating the many wonders of a dog's tongue. (Okay, so I'm in weekend mode.)

It's a crafty tool, that tongue. Think of everything it does for the system: It manages temperature control, brings food and water onboard, gives full-body baths, decides that blue cheese should be swallowed and strawberries should be spit out, applies first aid to wounds, and offers other creatures a nice wet handshake.

While we humans are bragging about our opposable thumbs, our dogs are using their tongues to "tsk-tsk" at us in pity. 

Only recently, though, have I realized how dogs rely on their tongues to experience texture as well. And moreover, they harbor opinions about the textures they perceive.

Awhile back, I began to notice that after eating peanut butter, our dogs would feel the need to wash up--to lick their legs for awhile. Until one day when my lightbulb came on. They weren't using their tongues to wash their legs; they were using their fur to scrub their tongues! My best guess is that when offered a bit of peanut butter, the doggie tongue finds itself in all-out turmoil. The taste buds go crazy for the flavor, while texture-sensors recoil at the feel of it. 

If you haven't already, you may want to take a moment to watch the above video--our documentation of The Great Peanut Butter Experiment. Take special note of Rose's face and body language after she's eaten her peanut butter. Her conflict is visible. Though she would never refuse another tasty scoop from the jar... another part of her brain is hoping she will have no more peanut butter thrust upon her.

I'm not yet sure of the offending property. Is peanut butter too greasy? Too sticky? Too gritty? Further testing is called for (and anxiously awaited by half of both dogs). I did, however, read a comment online by a woman whose dog "always licks his leg after eating peanut butter or squirt cheese." I hope no one ever tells me what squirt cheese is; the question is delightful.

Anyway, here's the only scientific conclusion I've reached so far: I'm quite certain I'd rather have peanut butter residue coating the inside of my mouth than a thick sheath of dog hair. That said, I rarely look for treats at the bottom of the garbage can or try to lick the dirty spoons in the dishwasher. Vive la difference!

Today I'll take some time to appreciate the body I've been given and its many wonders. The senses that stimulate my brain, the strength and mobility I enjoy, and how much I could accomplish in this world by maximizing its full potential.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Oh Dear, Oh Deer

NOT a deer.

It's deer hunting season in Wisconsin again. I dread it all year long and shrink about two inches (living in a perpetual cringe) when it finally arrives. Every gunshot I hear--and I will hear several while writing this brief post--forces me to imagine a tragic scene for a lovely, serene creature I cannot protect. 

I can, however, protect our own dogs. Brown-colored Rose leaping through the brush on our land does a fairly believable impersonation of a deer. Which explains the school patrol guard uniform she dons from sunrise to sunset. As you can see, the girl knows how to rock an outfit.

But why should a dog on her own land need protection? We live in a rural area with lots of deer and plenty of neighbors who delight in killing them. In Wisconsin, you only need to be 100 yards from a person's home when you fire. And the average deer rifle shoots about 300 yards. I'm no mathematician, but I do know when the most prudent choice is to quake in fear.

Here's wishing all of us (especially Bambi) a safe and peaceful Thanksgiving. 

I actually have a few deer hunters in my life. So today I'm going to spend some time remembering that they are as impassioned about their opinions as I am about mine. And we are unlikely to ever change each other. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Get the Point?

Fiver on the Lookout

It may interest you to know that dogs are one of only three animals on the planet who can follow your finger to see what you're pointing at. They get it. They see you point, and they understand you want them to look in that direction.

Latest studies show that elephants are probably hip to the game; but only one out of hundreds of house cats can do it. And nobody else. Even chimpanzees, who share our exact genetic make-up (except for about a teaspoon of DNA) couldn't follow your point, even if their lives depended on it. "Look over there! A guy with a big tranquilizer gun! I'm not kidding! Please, look!" 

They won't look. Which is how so many of them end up in frilly skirts, riding bikes in the circus. (Actually, that's not why. It has more to do with hugely flawed human beings, but that's another kind of blog entirely.)

Dogs, however, are freakin' brilliant at following your gesture. 

In fact, a six week old puppy will look to see where you're pointing--because years of domestication have programmed his tiny brain cells to grasp the concept. After all, you might be showing him something expensive to chew on, or some new place in the house he hasn't peed yet.

Forgive the boast, but our dog Rose is an expert at The Art of Point. Actually, you needn't bother yourself to raise a finger. You simply look out the window, and Rose appears at the sill to see what she must be missing: 

"Is it Fatty Blue Jay eating all the suet again?"

"Is there a feral cat out there? Huh? Is there?"
"Do not tell me that guy is back to fill the propane tank."

And by the bye, it's not a sometimes-yes-sometimes-no proposition at our house. If you look... Rose will come. So it took about 30 seconds to plan, "pose," and snap the above photo this morning. 

Today I think I'll keep a better eye on what's happening out in the yard. The cold and snow can make me burrow in too deeply if I'm not careful.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Joie de Vivre

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose. 

Well, our Rose, anyway. She is nothing if not consistent. Her role in the family has always been Class Clown. The ol' girl just turned eleven--and look! Four days later, she's still celebrating.

I went online to find a dog years calculator--it's not a straight "seven per," you understand. According to this one, Rose is somewhere between 65 and 72 on the human timeline. Then again... what does that actually mean? 

My mom, who lived her whole life in moderation, shrugged out of her mortal coil at a mere 63 years of age. While my father, a recovering alcoholic / smoker, is still planting and harvesting his own lunch at 85.

Even Dad, however, has never been spotted rolling around on his back, in a swirl of his own hair, chewing on a bone. Has Rose discovered the fountain of youth? Wait. It's not that muddy puddle out in the driveway, is it?

Anyway, Happy Birthday, sweet Rose. 

I'm going to conduct an experiment today. I will try to make "happy" my reaction to whatever the next 24 hours bring. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Doggie Morals

I know that not everyone feels the urge to wax poetic about dogs, and that's cool with me. Vive la différence. But some people live at the other end of the spectrum, showing unkindness toward dogs, and that is wholly uncool. Do you suppose those people have trouble seeing dogs as thinking, feeling creatures who care deeply about things? 

To help those people out, I submit this video of Gracie wrestling with her own desire, remorse, restraint, avoidance, resignation, speculation, and hope.

And just in case those same people think that all dogs are alike, I submit another piece of evidence I found, depicting a different inner dialogue entirely. 

Today I think I'll go out of my way to do a special kindness for a dog, to help make up for some of those other people.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Put Yourself There

It's simple, what's happening in this photo. Simple in the way that a venti-iced-skinny-sugar-free-extra shot-no-whip macchiato is simple.

Here's what happens. Constantly. 

Rose decides she has displeased Gracie in some way and begins licking Gracie's mouth to soothe her. Gracie loathes having her mouth licked, which she demonstrates to Rose by pulling back her lips in a warning snarl. Rose, noticing Gracie's rising disapproval, licks with more gusto which makes Gracie add a growl to her snarl. Frantic over upsetting Gracie and ashamed of herself for doing such a poor job of licking, Rose redoubles her efforts until Gracie loses her cool entirely and erupts in the sound of the Warner Brothers' tasmanian devil and walks away.

To me... this photo is about empathy. The absence of empathy. 

Each dog is stuck in the groove of her own reaction without understanding how the other one feels. Rose knows what she knows (that a good tongue bath will calm Gracie), and Gracie knows what she knows (that Rose is trying to annoy her). 

I give Rose and Gracie a pass, because chances are they don't have the mental capacity to put themselves inside the head and heart of one another. But we humans have no such excuse. Heck, our brain size is what we flaunt to all those lesser creatures so far beneath us on the animal ladder. 

And though I don't believe my superior intelligence makes me more important than other animals in the kingdom, I'm smart enough to know that when you're talking brain function, size matters.

The question is, what amount of good am I doing with my enormous potential? What if we each committed a few nanoseconds every day to focusing our lazer-ray brain function on someone else who could use the extra understanding? 

Our great gift of empathy lets us climb inside the head of a person (or other animal) who's annoying us, specifically to fumble around for how that creature might be feeling

There is a person in my life who did a horrible thing to me once upon a time, and the wound still throbs with pain and anger I can't seem to get rid of. But I can at least get to my forgiveness place when I put myself inside of this person's skin and realize it was fear behind the decision to do me harm. I can feel sorry for a person who is fearful. And my sadness crowds out my pain and anger for awhile. 

So, really, empathy for another creature is something I do for myself.

Today I think I'll conjure up someone else who is hard for me to bear (because of annoyng tongue baths or some other perceived transgression). I'll try to share brains for awhile to feel what I can feel.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014



Whether or not a person believes in organized religion, we all go to church. And by that I mean we've found a place (or two, or ten) that transports us up and out of our animal brains, onto a higher plane.

Thoughts of body, time, and personal struggle melt away as we lose ourselves in the spirit of the moment.

Personally, I have a church at South Point on Hawai'i, looking out over the ocean. I can also find church, sometimes, when I'm writing. And laughing with people I love? Hallelujah.

Each of our dogs has her own separate places of worship, but they also share one in common. Rose and Gracie have been faithful members of the River Church for years. Plunging into the sacred waters, they're figuratively and literally uplifted. They revel in the flow, completely forgetting their aching joints and the long wait until dinner.

Our responsibility as their people is to give them the chance to practice their devotion as often as possible. Luckily, another church of my own is watching our girls romp in the river.

Today I'm going to seek out one of my churches and spend a few celebratory minutes in blissful reverence. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let Us Prey

Once in a precious while, after patroling the perimeter night and day, after sniffing up cubic tons of smells, after listening for creatures who might be peeping, creeping, or leaping a quarter mile away--something at long last happens.

It was this past Thursday. Both dogs sortied out from the porch to bring down some intruding rodent who threatened our way of life from his hiding place inside a tiny hole in the flowerbed wall.

Neither Mark nor I ever got a visual on the interloper, so praise be the keen senses of our canine response team (CRT) who not only alerted us to the danger, but put themselves bodily between the attacker and our homestead (fearlessly protecting our vast supplies of kibble and Cheesy Bacon Snax).

Actually... full disclosure... Gracie soon relieved herself of that duty, heroically volunteering for Guard of Cocktail Appetizers.

But not Rose. No, ever vigilant, she held her position, monitoring the enemy stronghold, poised to throw herself upon the foul beast, should he dare to make a run for it. 

Rose gave every moment of her outside time that day to this vital work. That said, Rose's afternoon also involved long stretches (and yawns) in the loving arms of air-conditioned comfort. 

Refreshed and recharged, she would trot back outside to her post where she doled out more silent intimidation (confident that the critter in the stone wall--feeling the same commitment to his job--had clocked back in for another shift of quivering and quaking).

So the next time my work gets to feeling fruitless or thankless, I'll try to access my inner Rose: I'll do a top-notch job for as long as seems reasonable--and then step away for a nap.

Monday, June 30, 2014


They were blurry and grainy, but these photos marked a specific moment in history: the point at which people stopped wondering if galloping horses ever brought all four feet off the ground at the same time.

I guess a photo doesn't have to be artful to be pivotal. In fact, I offer another blurry, grainy example in evidence:

Gracie's Photo

I suppose most people would glance at this photo and see nothing of note. A snapshot of a dog, like any one of a million other dogs. But when I bumbled upon this picture, something electrical grabbed me by the lapels and shook hard--which must be what Destiny feels like.

Let me back up. After months of reeling from the loss of our dog, Madeline, my fallow heart had started to revive--and was aching in that empty place that only a dog could fill.

I went online to and began looking at photos of adoptable dogs. After a few weeks I had looked at hundreds of dogs. Hundreds of sweet-looking, please-bring-me-home-faced dogs. But none of them seemed quite right, and I was beginning to think that I must not be ready for another pup in my life.

And then up popped this photo. A picture of a dog who in no way met my search criteria. I had selected: a golden retriever-mix puppy, 8 to10 weeks old, who would grow into a large-sized dog. Trying to stifle her laughter, Fate slipped me this poorly-shot photo of a 4-month-old German shepherd mix who would grow up to be only medium in size.

And I just had to have her.

I couldn't tell from the photo that she had crazy-soft fur, a missing tooth, and four dainty little feet. But I could see the lapel-clutching reality that Tab A of her soul would fit into Slot B of mine.

On a less cosmic level, I found the splash of white on her chin adorable, as if she'd just lifted her face from a bowl of breakfast cereal. So of course I thought that Captain Crunch would make a perfect name for her. Mark, however, couldn't quite agree, so we named her Gracie, which I suppose suits her better (though I still call her Crunchy sometimes when no one's listening).

And from the first day we brought her home, she seemed to feel the same connection to us.

Gracie Helping with Dishes

More than 10 years later, I look at Gracie, and I can still get teary-eyed with gratefulness for the way this kooky ol' Universe makes things right.

Today I'm going to remind myself to listen more carefully for other messages I know are out there for me.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Stop What You're Doing, and Laugh


I tend to believe that if you don't assign a dog a career, like pulling a sled or leading the blind, then that canine will feel compelled to choose a vocation. 

I know dogs who have hired themselves on as Homeland Security, Food Monitor, Ball Retrieval Specialist, Human Shadow, Bed Warmer, Mailman Detector, Rodent Exterminator, or Doorbell Alert Squad Leader.

Chester chose himself the lofty career of Court Jester. (Court Chester?)

Now certainly, the inborn nature of most dogs gets people laughing easily and often. But make no mistake about it: Chester was committed. Humor was this dog's calling. With a little more muscle in his hind legs, he would have played the circuit as a stand-up comic. 

Lucky for Chester, he lived with two hilarious friends of mine, so they could all keep each other giggling. 

My most vivid memories of Chester go something like this: We humans are sitting in the living room cracking wise about one thing or another, until someone gets off a good one--the kind of joke that shoots wine through your nose if you're not careful. The guffaw still rattling the windows, around the corner trots Chester, head cocked, studying our laughter and deconstructing the punchline (so he can work it into a later routine).

And oh, how Chester loved to play jokes on people. He would stare at a fixed point over your shoulder until you could stand it no longer. When you turned 'round to see what he was looking at, he would grab the (insert forbidden object here) and bound away, his wiggling body spelling out the letters of "neener-neener."

Not that I have completely deified Chester, of course. I could see the gaps in his craft. I mean... he had no gift at all for subtle humor. Irony was lost on him, his grasp of literary allusion was pathetic, and he couldn't even pull off a decent pun. 

But Chester was a master of slapstick.

Chester guarding the house at night

Once upon a time, a mystery was plaguing his people. They would hear a loud bang from upstairs, and dashing up to investigate would find nothing out of order. They would, however, notice Chester standing by the bathtub looking longingly at the faucet, which they would turn on for him. (Chester loved to drink water from the tub spout.) This pattern continued for some time: A loud bang, a thorough investigation, and a purely coincidental opportunity to let Chester have a sip from the tub.

Until one day the man-person acted on his ever-mounting suspicion. When next he heard The Big Bang, he crept quietly up the stairs, and from his vantage point watched Chester use his snout to lift the toilet seat high into the air and let it drop. 

Clearly, Chester's legacy is his ability to make people smile; I do it to this day, every time I think about him.

With Chester as my inspiration, I'll find some time this morning to ponder what people are most likely to remember about me when I'm gone--and figure out if that's what I want to be remembered for.

Friday, May 30, 2014


A hobo traveling the country in search of work would use a piece of coal or chalk to mark the fencepost at a house he was leaving. Through a language of simple signs, he passed warnings and tips to the next man who might happen along.

I mention this because years ago, over a span of about six months, we were visited by a series of canines, each in some type of trouble. Though I couldn't spot it, I had a hunch there was a mark scratched into the gravel of our driveway by some dog who had been shown a kindness at our place:


One of the most memorable walk-ins during those doggie-hobo days was this lovely lady (apologies for the blurry photo).

She must have left her dog tags and microchip in her other pants, so we had no idea what her name might be. She was thin, and judging by her poo, had been most recently living on raw corn.

I'm of the mind that a dog in a tough situation needs a fortifying name to help elevate her, so I decided she would be called--"Glory."

Glory was alert and gentle, and made you want to do right by her. We posted signs in all the usual bars, and placed calls to veterinarians around these parts, but didn't hear anything for a couple of days.

In the meantime, a dear friend of mine had found Glory a wonderful home in St. Paul with a person who had recently lost her dog. We were just finalizing the logistics of the hand-off, when a car pulled into our driveway.

I don't mean to be unkind, so I will describe these humans in scant detail. But suffice to say, when I realized they were Glory's people, I felt a strong flight-or-fight sensation. My Spidey-sense told me that they were not the nurturing family I had wished for her.

She didn't readily move toward the car (though it was clear she knew them), so one of the sullen teenagers in the back seat came out to grab her collar.

I needed to stall, giving my brain time to pore through a host of illegal options. (Snatch her back and bolt away? Dognap her a few days down the road?) 

I blurted out the first thought to come to mind (that wasn't a shaming admonishment). I told him we had named her Glory. The kid looked at me oddly, saying--and I'll never forget this--

"Her name is Gravedigger."

Have you ever burst into tears on the inside, without telling your face?

As I watched their car with its precious passenger head out of our lives, I made a decision. If Glory ever walked up our driveway again... there would be no signs posted in bars or calls to local vets. There would be only a celebratory car ride by dead of night to St. Paul.

Today I'll spend a few minutes remembering that I am not the Queen of the Universe who gets everything she wants, and try for the skillionth time to come to better terms with that.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A dog walks into a saloon, and the bartender says, "Hey, Sidewinder, what can I get ya?" and the dog says...

"...I'm lookin' for the man who shot my Paw."

No one shot dear Rose, of course. Years ago, she'd been hurtling through the woods in her youthful, non-watchful way, and must have caught her foot in a hole, or in a pile of brush--and kept on running. She broke her leg that time, which was incredibly sad, because hauling a cast through the woods was much less fun.

She got lots of babying, though, and I would like to say she learned a valuable lesson... but Rose will always be the clown in the family. And with clowning comes vet bills. And skunk spray remover bills. And--well--I'd better reserve some of her antics for future blog fodder.

Suffice to say, Rose makes us laugh every day. It's one of her great many gifts to us.

This morning I'm going to think about a human in my life who cracks me up on a regular basis. And I'll try to remember a particular time that this person got me to guffaw, so I can laugh about it all over again today. (I find that memories of laughs are almost as funny--and rarely get you kicked out of the library.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


         Gracie at 4 months old                                                     Gracie at (almost) 11 years old

You're digging through a drawer and you spot it--or your sister emails it to you--or you open an old book and it slips to the floor. 

A photo of your dog from a much earlier time.

I don't know if this makes me an oddball, but my reaction is unwaveringly consistent: I get punched with the big Double-Oh

First, I see the sweet photo of my dog in her youth, and my whole body curves in on itself as my face crinkles up in a high-pitched Ohhhhhh... I'm washed in not just the memories--but the feelings--of her bouncier days and silly puppy choices.

And then, before I can finish pronouncing all of those Hs, my brain yanks me hard into Oh Number Two. This Ohhhhhh (octaves lower) is the reflexive moan from the cosmic ice cream scoop scraping along my insides, emptying me of everything but the sense of loss and impending grief that's been trying to get my attention for years, as I've watched her face get whiter and her steps grow slower. 

Rose at 2 years old                                                     Rose at (almost) 11 years old

When the Ohhhhhhs finally release me, I'm back to where I was, freshly reminded to squeeze in more snout-kissing and stick-throwing today, because it's better for my soul than the project I'm trying to finish for work. 

I'm doing my best to remember that there is joy in a dog's aging, too. I look into the eyes of both of our girls in their earlier photos, and compare them to their eyes now, and see that they've traded their puppyish view of the world for a greater wisdom. 

They've had enough experience to know that falling asleep in your water dish can lead to rude awakenings and should be avoided.

They've lived long enough to realize that when you look out the kitchen window and see a squirrel at the bird feeder... once you're let out the front door, you've got to run all the way around the house to get back to where the squirrel is. (Was.) 

And they've figured out that plowing through the woods without worrying where you put your feet can lead to very painful outcomes, and it's best not to do that.

I'm trying to remind myself that though the span of time I have with these creatures feels way too short--this is my dog's whole history. So it's a noble effort to avoid wallowing in my own sorrow, and spend those brain cells making it a rich history, for whatever time I am granted. (See: stick-throwing / snout-kissing, above.)

And P.S.--I need to get better at accepting the things I cannot change.

In the spirit of enriching history... I think I'll try to do one thing in the next 24 hours that improves the day of an older person in my life.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I Feel You

This is Madeline. I'm not quite ready to blog about her yet.

She left this world and our intimate relationship 11 long years ago, but thoughts of her still make the breath catch in my throat. That said, writing a blog about soulful dogs and not including Madeline seems all wrong. So maybe we just peek at a tiny sliver of her today and see how that goes.

Searching for a photo, I came upon this one where her face reminds me of a particular anecdote. It's a story that illustrates one of the many wonders of Madeline: her uncanny ability to know things that a regular being couldn't possibly know.

One day, I was watching TV while Madeline slept two rooms away. For whatever reason, I found myself sideswiped by a memory of my mother who had died years earlier, and I felt newly-bereft all over again, as can happen when you lose your mom. But I didn't move a muscle; I just waited for the sensation to pass.

A single beat after the full-body grieving began, I heard Madeline rise with purpose (not with a stretch and a head shake, which was her wont). She walked directly from the music room, crossed the foyer, and stopped at the threshold of the living room to study me--wearing the very same look you see in this photo.

An instant later she headed for my legs and didn't stop until she was close enough to press the long length of her body up against them. Hard. In the tightest hug she could muster.

Make of that what you will. The science geek in me wants to believe that Madeline could smell a chemical change in my body and responded with an evolutionary drive to do whatever she could to heal a member of the pack, thus ensuring her own safety and propagation of the species (though she had already been spayed, and I might as well have been, too).

But if you knew Madeline--or if you happen to know one of the many, many, many other dogs who share this same skill--then you understand my belief that there was a heckuva lot more going on here.

In my humble opinion, we humans haven't found the right word to describe the connection we share with dogs. ("Symbiotic" is too utilitarian and "psychic" scares people off.) But that doesn't mean it ain't real.

Today I'm going to think of a human in my life who can sense when a person needs comfort and always steps up to offer some. Then I'm going to whisper a special little thank you under my breath.
(I'm sure there's a dog in your life who knew something s/he couldn't possibly have known. I'd love to hear the story if you have a mind to share it. You can always click on my name in the gray box below to find my email)   

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Road More Traveled

I recently turned around to check out the walk Rose and I were having. 

One of us did very little sniffing and pulling and peering into culverts, and the other had a lot more fun.

Once again I was reminded that just because you can live life along the straight path ahead of you, doesn't mean you should.

Sooo... today for one ordinary task, I'll stop and choose a more delightful approach.

Friday, April 18, 2014

How Do I Love Thee?

It's so easy for us humans with our muscular tongues and fancy-pants lips to rattle off the sentiment before hanging up the phone: "Love you." Boom! Just like that. Message sent and received.

Dogs, however, have a much tougher go of it. Even the few canines on YouTube who have learned to say "Aaah-Waa-Rooo" (which, if you squint your ears, can sound believable) are working pretty hard to crank it out. And chances are, at the moment they make those noises, they're not actually thinking that they love you. They're thinking, "I wonder if this will earn me another cookie."

The sad truth is that saying those three little words is one big impossibility for a dog--which feels like some kind of cosmic mistake for a creature who is basically a giant Valentine heart in a velvet suit. I mean, who am I to criticize the Universe? But c'mon... the brave among us will admit that horses' legs are way too skinny, sleeping is a waste of time, and dogs should be able to communicate their sweet-tempered view of the world--and of us--a lot more easily.

Our pups have to work like dogs (sorry) to show their love instead of speak it, and then hope we notice the gesture.

How do they love us? Let me count the ways:

  • With soulful looks that enter your brain and ooze warm syrup through your body
  • By coming to your side when he knows you're in pain
  • By whining to be closer when she's somewhere she can't touch you
  • By nuzzling you with his nose and forehead, eyes closed
  • By feeling so awful when you scold her
  • With the full-body lean--the best hug he can give you without arms
  • By using her tongue to soothe you, caress you, connect with you
  • By rolling onto his back, trusting you with his softest, most vulnerable parts
  • By doing the Giddy Dance at the door because you've come home to her
  • With that cute little thank you groan when you rub his ear
  • By pushing herself up the stairs to be with you, even when her old joints are aching
  • By falling asleep with her chin on your feet
Oh, we are lucky, lucky creatures to be chosen by Dog.

Feeling the love this morning of my dear Gracie who made it up the stairs and snoozes lightly behind me as I write... Today I think I'll jot down a few new ways I could show my love for a particular creature in my life--human or not.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Trust & Jump

It's a lousy photo and a lengthy post--but a good story.

I can't quite remember this young fella's name, so I'll call him Charlie if that works for you.

Several summers ago I was driving along my favorite tree-lined stretch of road by our place, when I came around a curve--and there he was. Dead center in the middle of the street, head held high, watching my car come straight at him.

I was a little worried about approaching this particular canine; his stance made him look powerful and ready to deal with me. But a dog on his own needs a human's help. Period. So I always stop. I figure that nothing on my schedule is more important than trying to keep someone from dying that day.

He was wet from nose to tail and covered in burs. I walked toward him, making a mental inventory of the food I had on me to coax him into the car. The pickin's were slim: a tube of toothpaste and a handful of Tums. But as it turned out, human kindness was temptation enough. He broke from his I'm-bigger-than-you posture to close the distance between us, hungry for me to touch him--which I was hungry to do.

When I asked if he wanted to get into my car, he used his whole body to say, "Hell, yeah." He jumped into the passenger seat, and before I could lecture him on the wisdom of accepting rides from strangers, he let his legs collapse under him and plunged into sleep. I still remember the heft of his head in my lap.

That single moment is the one I return to time and again when I think about Charlie (and the trusting nature of Dog). He could have bolted when he saw me getting out of my car. But he made the monumental decision to stop fending for himself, and turn his fate over to me--a person he had never met.

Mark and I put up a couple of signs, asked neighbors if they knew him, and phoned local vet clinics and bars. And then we waited. The next morning we got a call from Charlie's person who had gotten our information from a restaurant where we'd left word.

The poor man had been looking for his dog late into the night, driving door to door, asking people if they'd seen him. In fact, he'd actually driven up our driveway, but--deciding it looked like no one was home--pulled out again. (Sometimes life imitates scenes from made-for-TV movies.)

Here's the back story. Charlie had begun the trip downriver in his man's canoe, but at some point realized he'd rather be in the water.

He swam next to the canoe for awhile, got out to run along shore, then got back into the river. But at some point he took off into the woods on a grand adventure, forgetting to triangulate where the canoe would end up when he was ready to head home.

Anyway, Charlie was reunited with his person, and all was right with the world.

Now. I don't want to get all metaphysical on you... but I've done enough dog-saving to know one thing for sure. The universe steps up to help me. I never worry, What the heck am I going to do with this dog? If I bring the pup into safety and try to find his person--or a new person for him--it always, always works out. Always. Just like Charlie trusted me, I trust the forces of nature that want such things to have happy endings.

So that's my brain fodder for today. I'm going to think back over the many times when I took a scary leap because it was the right thing to do... and had someone slip me a soft landing.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who Are You?

I was maybe six years old, sitting out in the bleachers at a school event. Because I was wearing a little cross around my neck, the teacher beside me asked, "Are you Catholic?"

Indignant, I replied, "No! I'm Irish!"

I had no idea why Mrs. Bobis burst out laughing, but I still remember how mad it made me--showing my celtic nature, I guess. But my father was raising his children as diehard Irish (and to my mother's people I now say, "Sorry, Germany.")

My point is... how important is your heritage? 

According to Rose's shelter paperwork, 25% of her lineage is unknown--probably the result of a passing dog without pedigree or curfew. But we do know she's a full three quarters Siberian husky. Experts who study such things describe huskies as gentle with children (and intruders), carefree, energetic, athletic, and a couple of other "etics" that make them a handful to live with. So I guess we have ourselves a typical husky.

And their love of snow? That part's true too.

Rose is getting on in years, but re-finds her jaunty puppy self every time she steps out into the snowy, very snowy, oh-so-snowy winter we've been having.

Yesterday, however, it hit a balmy 64° in our little township, and though it brought me outside for the year's first martini on the porch, Rose's mood was less festive. I don't think the troubled look on her face (below) is about how ugly the prairie plantings look this time of year.

But seasons change, and Rose isn't remembering that it's almost time to start digging in the mud, so she'll be cheering up again soon.

In the meantime, just for fun, I'll spend a few minutes thinking about my personal bloodlines and their stereotypes. I've always thought myself to be as Irish as Rose is husky--but I know I've got some German in here somewhere, and today I'm going to find it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Not Mine, You Don't

I know. Your first thought when you saw this photo was "Wow, cool dog."

Me too. That small, black speck in the frame is Tara, a German shepherd who pulls hard on your heart when you're not with her. She lives in Hawai'i with her person, a longtime friend and whale researcher.

You may have noticed something else about this photo (besides my good hair day). Sperm whales. Loads of them. A couple hundred tons of leviathan on the move, each animal the size of a slippery Greyhound bus. And all Tara could think was, "Get outta my yard!"

She barks ferociously at whales until, frightened out of their minds, they almost notice her. It's one of her many duties, keeping the whales in the water and off of her boat. And by gawd, she's never had an infraction. Her job's not an easy one, either, protecting a territory that's constantly changing its location.

Once the mega-mammals have been chased off, Tara resumes her sweet, endearing disposition. (In future posts, I'll try to describe the essence of Tara, but I don't envy me. She is as enigmatic as she is mystifying.)

This morning Tara has been on my mind. The protector of her pack--apparently the only one who can even see the danger, much less keep it at bay. And I've been wondering about this idea of territory. What do I have in my life that makes me bolt up from a sound sleep to protect it so fiercely? Maybe even beyond good sense?

Today I'm going to figure out what triggers that defensive response in myself, and try to imagine how I could tone it down a bit.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's There If You Look

I dunno.

I'm getting pretty long in the tooth, and in all my years can't remember meeting a dog I didn't like. I've been disinterested in one or two, and annoyed by some. But I've never known a dog who made me wince and look away, hoping for him to be gone when I looked back.

Until Roger.

One phenomemon of an invisble fence is how it holds your dogs inside, while granting access to any creature who randomly happens along. Roger lives up the hill from us. And every few days he swings by to remind me what a bad person I am because I can't find a place in my heart for him.

It's not because he lifts his leg on every vertical structure made by man or nature. It's not because he--well, I'll just say it--empties his bowels in at least three spots during his 2-minute visit (as shown here, in flagrante delicto). It's not even because when he spots a dog toy in the yard he snatches it in his slobbering maw and bolts back up the hill to his house. (Next we'll look to his people, who, sitting on a mound of ill-gotten squeaky piggies, haven't had to buy Roger a toy since 2007.)

Truth be told, his eccentric stunts make for prime cocktail hour fodder, so it's not Roger's behaviour I take issue with. It's his--attitude. I mean, look into this dog's eyes. Where I feel I should see some sign of "Oops! Busted!" I get only "Yeah, so I'm defiling your iris bed--and your problem is?"

That's the way he carries himself on every tour through our yard, oblivious to Gracie and Rose who run to tend to him. They neither slow his pace nor hasten his escape. Roger moves on Roger Time.

That said, if I'm completely honest with myself, my (non) relationship with Roger taps into one of my great weaknesses. I'm a person who loves to love and be loved. So Roger's apathy toward me is like realizing your sock has a hole in it inside of your shoe--it won't ruin your time at the party, but you can't stop thinking about it, either.

I'm sure Roger has redeeming qualities once you get to know him--if anyone ever gets to know him. So today I'm going to write down the names of three other people in my life that I have problems with, and beside each name I'll note one of their positive attributes.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Not a Pencil

Do we own dogs?

I'm no statistician, but I'm willing to hazard a guess and say that the percentage of people who feel they own their dog numbers in the high 90s. It's the way the relationship has been defined since the first person brought a wolf pup into the cave.

I've always owned the dogs in my life too. Until maybe 15 years ago when I realized I wasn't thinking of it that way anymore. I no longer believe one life can own another life.

I mean, our superior brain-mass-to-body-size gives us dominion over our dogs, so we can make them do whatever we want--like try to survive in the bed of a moving pickup truck, for instance. I just can't bring myself to say the phrase "dog owner" anymore. And it doesn't feel like a radical stance to me; I'm not trying to convince anyone else. In fact, I don't know that I've ever voiced the opinion before. I just know in my cells the rightness of it.

I still say "my dog," just as I would want Gracie to call me "her person" if she had the verbal capacity, because we have a committed relationship. But I don't feel like a dog owner. And I don't feel like Gracie's mom (though I love it when people talk about their dogs that way). I feel like someone who is Gracie's special person. I'm her custodian. A custodian who would take a bullet for her.

Okay. Maybe this does sound kind of radical. I understand if you choose not to read my blog anymore.

But here's how I plan to use this thinking today. Somewhere along the line I stopped feeling like a dog owner and became a dog caretaker. There was a moment in my life, or a transitional month in my life, when I went from hating Brussels sprouts to craving them (roasted in a little olive oil until almost black). How do such dramatic life changes come about? I think I'll make myself a list of ways I've changed over the years and be sure I feel the changes are for the better.

Friday, April 4, 2014

What Do You See?

This is Fiver. He's family.

And while we're on the topic of Fiver's kin... a recent DNA test confirmed what we’d long suspected--that at least one Chesapeake Bay Retriever had come sniffing 'round his family tree once upon a time. There may have been other visitors too: a Siberian Husky, a Belgian Sheepdog, a Portuguese Podengo Pequeño (¿qué?), a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, and a Chinese Shar-Pei.

But that’s just silly ol’ science talking. Here's the real Fiver:

In his youth, at his peak weight of 92 pounds, he moved with the grace of a dancer. He loves to lie on the floor with his person resting her head on his shoulder, and he reminds me of Stephen Fry as Jeeves--treating us ladies and gentlemen with deference, though his IQ has an extra number in it.

Unlike other Americans, Fiver has no birth certificate on file in a government archive. His first recorded history was scribbled on a piece of paper and stuck to a chain link door in a shelter: Stray.

Which brings me to the crux of my post today: What’s up with us humans?

Some of us look directly at an unearthed diamond, a wet masterpiece, a rare gift from some spiritual place… and see nothing worth hanging onto.

Let’s set it free to roam the streets and assume everything turns out all right.

And others--like my dear friend, Fiver's person--visit a shelter and come home with the grand prize. For the next 13 years she feels graced by his presence. Cared for. Loved beyond all reason.

I was thinking this morning that the first person in Fiver's life couldn't have understood him for what he was. That person only saw a possession he was done with. And it made me wonder if I might be missing out on some big juicy truths in the world because of my blind spots.

So today I'm going to spend a few minutes looking at one thing other people adore that I can't be bothered with. I'll try to shift my thinking to see if I can find the wonder in it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Here and Not Here

Every first Wednesday of the month at precisely 11:00 a.m., a wolf begins to howl from several miles away. Without fail, our dear Rose interrupts her slumber, or her squirrel monitoring, or her sniff patrol to let him know he is not alone.

She does it because her people have always done it. It’s obvious when you listen—she uses the ancient voice that waits in her bones. When she hears the wolf who needs answering, her whole body responds. She throws back her head, squeezes her eyes half-closed, and gives in to the prehistoric pull. For those precious 3 minutes, she stops scanning for the sound of kibble being poured into her dish, she’s not trying to find a way under the porch to put the fear of Dog into those stinking chipmunks, she’s not even worrying about What if just this once they don’t open the door when I scratch to come in? (She’d been returned twice to the shelter where we got her and hasn’t been able to shake her abandonment issues.)  

After 8 years of trying to connect with that wolf, Rose never seems to take it personally that he doesn’t come over. And when he reaches out to her again tomorrow, I’m pretty sure she’ll take his call.

With Rose’s howling on my mind this morning, I made myself a list of activities that stir me to the bone, making me forget where I am. And today I’m going to find time to do one of them.

Monday, March 31, 2014

I'm Cool With That

Did you ever look into the soulful eyes of a dog who loves you profoundly, consistently, wigglingly... and realize that this animal could take you out in about 3.5 seconds without working up a pant? Even the most miniature canine could ruin the soft, vulnerable throat of a person caught unawares.

It's a testament to the warmhearted nature of Dog that we feel so at ease slipping off to sleep with a furry toothed missile beside the bed.

This morning I feel grateful for the obliging spirit that comes factory-installed in dogs. It makes me wonder... could I be more accommodating to the people in my life? I'll be watching for that as today unrolls itself.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sometimes Y' Just Know

Jack & Will

There are so many stories to be told about Jack. He's got an extra heaping teaspoon of that magic all dogs have in some amount, so he can't help but leave a wake of anecdotes on his way through. In fact, no one in my family has seen Jack in person for years now, but it's not uncommon for his name to come up in conversation a couple of times on a given day, and yesterday was one of those days.

The best I can do is begin with my favorite story about Jack. The one that starts with a happy ending.

Mark and I were trying to find him a good home, which we imagined could take awhile. For one thing, we weren't about to let this magical dog live with just anyone. And there was another reason too. Jack's early life was spent with people who didn't love him as much as we did, so he had a few unusual fears. And when fright overtook Jack, he would try to bite his way out of it. Not hard, but not playfully, either. So the person who received our gift of Jack would need to be patient enough to help him overcome his fears, and courageous enough to take a few nips without dropping him at the neighborhood dog pound.

We finally found a possible love match for our boy. "Will" lived pretty far away, but I liked the sound of his voice and the kindness in his words. Unconcerned about Jack's indiscretions, he knew that a troubled dog would need a special kind of attention. And in the meantime, the two of them could make a life together playing frisbee and going on bike rides (bike/runs).

So it was all set. Mark, Jack, and I would drive for several hours, Will would drive for several hours, and we'd meet in a nice park to see how we all felt about each other. But I'd screwed up. I'd forgotten to tell Will that one of Jack's greatest fears was a man in a hat. That particular combinaton brought out Jack's snarlingest self.

And wouldn't you know it, we sat on a picnic table watching Will get out of his car--in a hat. It was too late to shout for him to remove it, and besides, I didn't want to freak him out. Maybe "Quick--take off your hat!!" was a common greeting where Will came from, but I kinda doubted it.

Jack stood statue-still, riveted on the approaching stranger. Will, who had given us a friendly wave on his way over, was now smiling at our rigid border collie. I took a firmer grip on the leash, ready to pull out if things went poorly. As Will bent down to pet Jack, bringing his scary, scary hat within inches of our pup's face, the dog melted into a full-body wag. I'm not painting a pretty picture here because it's how I want to remember it--this is just how it was. Half an hour later, as the two of them walked to Will's car, Mark and I sat on that picnic table smiling at their future.

I guess hats don't matter much when you've found the person you were meant to be with.

When I first got up this morning, I looked through photos that Will had sent us over the years. Tiny peeks into Jack's happy life as a forever-family member. So today I'm going to think about a few life-changing moments in my own past--connections that might never have happened if they weren't meant to--and I'm going to appreciate the magic in them.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Shape Shifting


  • Spends lots of her time looking inward, wondering if she’s all right
  • Spends the rest of her time studying us to see if we’re all right 
  • Tries to fix us when we’re not all right 
  • Knows the rules, embraces the rules, worries “I’m still within the rules, right?”


  • Lives to play
  • Can’t keep track of her own body parts (read: injuries--hers and ours)
  • Pushes her face through the snow on the run
  • Sleeps on the dining room table

Add Mark and myself to the pack, and we're talking FOUR wildly distinct personalities in our house--with at least one thing in common. We’re all pretty good at adjusting ourselves to fit into one another.

I’m going to take a little time today to think about my closest friends and their gracious acceptance of the many ways I’m unlike them.