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.