Our Diva Dog

Galen loves daycare. In fact, most mornings she stalks Kevin as he dresses, hoping he’ll take her there on his way to work. She doesn’t always get her wish. Good daycare – for dogs, as for children – isn’t cheap.

But this morning, Galen was in luck.

Kevin called me after dropping her off. “Let me tell you about our diva dog,” he said.

Apparently, Jen, who works the early shift, greeted Galen with, “Good morning, Miss Galen.” To Kevin, she said, “[Galen] will be getting her nails done at 2.”

“This is why I work and have nothing to show for it,” Kevin quipped.

(Disclaimer: Galen gets her nails clipped at daycare; she does not get manicures.)

Galen the diva in her crate

Galen
the diva in her crate

Kevin and I decided long ago that Galen is a diva. She’s been known to take bones out of the mouths of Bear and Kuma, her canine cousins. Or show no interest in a toy until Loki, my mother’s dog, picks it up. She can also be downright discourteous. Galen will turn her head away from Loki when he lies down beside her or give him the cold shoulder when he tries to play with her – unless, of course, she’s in a playful mood.

Even with us, Galen can be a tad tempermental. One night she sleeps in bed with us, the next she chooses her crate over our company. Some evenings she wants to play fetch, some evenings she prefers a walk through the neighborhood. She enjoys chewing bones and bully sticks, but only in the backyard. She refuses bones offered to her in the house.

Did Galen come by her diva-ness naturally, or is this something we nurtured?

The debate whether nature or nurture – our genes or our environment – shape our personalities goes all the way back to Plato, who favored nature. Centuries later, John Locke argued individuals are born with a tabula rasa or clean slate and thus, are shaped by their experiences, nurture. Today, most people agree both nature and nurture shape us into who we are.

Researchers are now examining canine personality. And it’s no surprise, perhaps, that their findings reflect a mingling of nature and nurture here, too. In The Genius of Dogs, evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare writes, “How we nurture a dog affects how they behave, but so does their nature.” In some breeds, their nature can be genetically traced back to their ancestors, the wolf.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter whether Galen was born a diva or whether we coaxed the diva out of her. She is one, and we allow her to be.

We’ll have to be a bit more heavy-handed when it comes to how we raise our daughters.

Give up or Give in?

Galen and I took a walk today.  If she were any other dog, there’d be no need for this post; walking is what dogs do.  But Galen’s not just any dog.

I gave up walking Galen months ago, because we never got very far.  After several yards, she would suddenly lie down in the direction of our house and refuse to go on.  One can only tug a sixty pound dog so hard, for so long, before her stubbornness carries the day.

Kevin wasn’t prepared to give up.  He decided to see what would happen if he took Galen off the leash.  His discovery:  What Galen doesn’t like about walks isn’t the walk itself, it’s the leash.  Set her free, and she’s not just a happy little soldier, she’s a quite disciplined one.

I’d been hesitant to walk Galen off leash.  What if she waded too deep onto a neighbor’s lawn or chased a deer?  Would a neighbor call me out for not having her on a leash– I’m sure that violates some municipal code.

But our backyard was a swamp following an explosive rain, so I decided to unleash my dog.  She impressed me.  Most of the time Galen stayed by my side.  Every now and then she fell behind to sniff a bush or patch of grass, but then she’d catch up.  Once she half-heartedly darted toward a gopher, but as the critter ran away, she put on the brakes and returned by my side.

Raising a dog isn’t that unlike raising children.  Either way, there needs to be a core set of rules that must be followed.  But there should also be space to experiment, to push limits, even to fail.  That’s how they learn, how we all learn.

Perhaps I was too quick to give up on Galen.  By giving in, Kevin learned that we had done a darn good job of raising her, and that given her freedom, she flourished.

Currently I’m writing a book about Galen’s Southern roots and canine homelessness.  Perhaps I now have the subject of my next one:  Everything I learned about raising children I learned from my dog.

Or has someone already written that?

Galen, leashless,  in the Sourland Mtns.

Galen, leashless,
in the Sourland Mtns.

Dissed by my Dog

I’d like to say Galen and I are having issues, but really, I’m the one with the issues; my diva dog is living life exactly the way she wants.  I’m just not always included in her plans.

For example, Galen loves to play with these oversized green and purple rubber balls we keep in the backyard.  She’s very particular – some days she wants to play with the green ball, only the green ball; some days she wants to play with the purple ball, only the purple ball.  And she likes to play her own unique form of fetch, where Kevin or I try to kick the ball out of her mouth as she grips it in her teeth while in a downward dog yoga position.  She gives chase either when we knock the ball from her mouth or when we kick it after telling her to drop it.

Galen It's a purple ball kind of day

Galen
It’s a purple ball
kind of day

But for a couple of weeks now, she has lost all desire to play ball with me.  When we go outside and I say, “Galen, get your ball,” she turns her head away from me as if to say, “I don’t hear you.”  But when Kevin comes home at the end of the day, Galen stalks him until he takes her outside.  Then she pounces on the ball of the day and chases it all over the yard.  Her tail wags, her tongue hangs out, and she wears a huge smile on her face.

The other night Kevin had to cut their playtime short because it was his turn to pick up our daughters from dance class. I came outside to replace him, as Galen had a lot of energy she hadn’t yet worked through.  I kicked the ball and… she gave me the cold shoulder, just turned away from me.  I ran to the ball and kicked it again.  As far as Galen was concerned, I wasn’t even there.

Galen has also stopped sleeping with me and Kevin, which should make me happy, because I never wanted her on the bed in the first place, but which is actually making me sad.  And it’s not like she’s choosing to sleep on our bedroom floor like our previous dog did – Gryffin would sleep at the foot of the bed sentry-like; he was part watchdog.  No, Galen seems to now prefer the family room and her crate over the master bedroom and our bed. Last night I tried to lure her out of her crate and upstairs with a cookie, but apparently, the treat wasn’t tempting enough because she stayed put, and the treat still sits on my nightstand.

When my children were toddlers and they picked up habits I would have rather they hadn’t, a wise woman – my mother — said to me, “This, too, shall pass.”  And the habits did pass, only to be replaced by others that also, in time, went away, only to be replaced…  Another of those circles of life, I suppose.

I know Galen loves me.  She wags her tail when I walk into the room, and she whimpers and whines to welcome me home whether I’ve been gone for an hour or a day.  But where she used to be a mommy’s girl, she’s definitely more daddy’s girl right now.  I can only hope that this, too, shall pass. Because right now I’m feeling very dissed by my dog.

The Evolution of Brownie to Bella

Naming a dog can cause as much consternation as naming a baby. After all, a name stays with a person – or a dog – for a lifetime (usually).

Last year, the most popular dog names were Bella, Bailey, Max, Lucy, Molly, Buddy, Daisy, Maggie, Charlie, and Sophie, according to VPI, a pet insurance company.  Spot, Rover, and Fido didn’t make the cut.

Giving pets “people” names dates back to the 1960s, but picked up during the 1980s, according to UC Berkeley anthropologist Stanley Brandes, who studied pet naming trends as revealed by gravestones at a pet cemetery outside New York City.  Today’s “pets-with-people-names-craze” as VPI calls it, reflects another evolution of the last several decades: treating dogs as kin.

Prior to World War II, Brandes found that pets rarely shared names with people.  In the first 50 years of the 20th century, stones were engraved with names like Brownie and Boogle, Hobo and Jaba, Punch and Pippie.

Kevin and I named our first dog – who we’ve always considered our first child – Gryffin.  We wanted a unique name that would have special meaning for us.  At the time I was reading the Harry Potter series on Kevin’s recommendation, so we looked to the boy wizard for inspiration.  Harry, we agreed, was too blatant a choice; Gryffin, short for Gryffindor, now that had a nice ring.

When we adopted Galen after Gryffin died, we turned to religion for inspiration.  In Judaism it is customary to name a baby after a relative who has passed away – it is said this keeps the person’s memory alive, and in a metaphysical way forms a bond between the soul of the newborn and of the deceased family member. It was a given for us that our new pup would be named after Gryffin. Going through “G” names we came upon “Galen,” the name belonging to an Ancient Greek physician.  As Kevin is a doctor, “Galen” held a welcome secondary meaning.  Then a web search revealed Galen means “calm,” which is, of course, the canine temperament we were hoping for in our new dog.

What I didn’t know when choosing Galen’s name or Gryffin’s, is that there are rules for naming dogs proffered by people reporter Jan Hoffman calls “self-anointed dog-naming experts.” Hoffman’s story in today’s New York Times recounts her family’s quest to find the perfect name for their Havanese.  Most interesting to me was the advice she got from the Monks of New Skete:  “Avoid human names.”  People who don’t, the monks say, tend to anthropomorphize their pets.

Hmmm.  Based on those popular dog names, there’s a lot of anthropomorphizing going on in America these days.

***

George Washington owned a dog named Lady. Abraham Lincoln owned a dog named Fido.

The monks would have approved.

The Diva and The Pogo Stick

Galen is a mellow gal. Sure, she had a rambunctious puppyhood, committing such typical puppy crimes as chewing up my favorite slippers, teething on the wooden leg of a living room end table, and persistently and dangerously nipping at my daughters’ ankles. But by about eight months old, she shed her freneticness for a far less frenzied disposition. At two, her energy reserves still run deep, and she’s excruciatingly demanding when she wants to play, but more often than not she is a calming yoga breath sprinkled with a little diva.

Then there’s Loki.

A little over one year old, Loki is excitement unbound, a pogo stick, a whirling dervish. He explodes energy from the moment he bursts out of his crate in the morning until he runs back in at night. His ears tell his story – reaching upright from his head, they are alert, electric. Galen’s speak to her character, too:  They flop.

Loki is my mother’s dog, a mixed-breed rescue with a Doberman-colored coat whose most distinguishing feature — after his ears — is the Lone Ranger-like mask that wraps around his golden snout.  Loki is vacationing with us this winter, ping ponging back and forth between her home and ours two weeks at a time. We’re nearing the end of his second visit, but I don’t think its conclusion can come soon enough for Galen. The diva is tiring of the young whippersnapper. For her, he’s the houseguest who overstayed his welcome.

I can see Galen’s brewing frustration. At the start of Loki’s visits, Galen’s happy to engage him. They fang fight, they play tug with the carcasses of stuffed animals that have long lost their stuffing, they race around the backyard – Loki giving chase and Galen showcasing her speed and agility. But as one day spills into the next, she becomes less enamored with his playful ways. She starts to ignore him when he nips at her back legs or nibbles on her ears to encourage another round of fang fighting. She stands her ground in the backyard when he runs at her to initiate chase, sometimes even permitting him to deliver a body blow that she simply shrugs off. Alas, Loki doesn’t know what it means to give up, so when his entreaties become just too much, Galen seeks the refuge of her crate. It is the one and only place she is completely free from him.  He will stick his snout in the doorway, but he knows better than entering further.

I take Galen aside and tell her that Loki will only be with us for a few more days, and that when he’s gone she will miss his doting. She cocks her head quizzically, and looks at me. “Please speak my language,” she seems to say. “Ask me if I want a cookie.”  But I know that when Loki’s gone Galen will miss him.

We’ve been through this before.

After his first two-week visit, Galen acted relieved to see him go. But she quickly found that life without a suitor had a downside. Who else was going to spend hours with her sniffing around the backyard?  Who else was going to gaze at me with big brown pleading eyes and persuade me to dole out extra treats? Who else would accede to her demands to play every time she demanded?

Right now, Galen may be giving Loki the cold shoulder, but he’ll leave, and during his two-week absence she’ll start to yearn for her pogo sticked playmate.  And then Loki will return, and the games will begin… until the diva decides she’s had enough.

Grab a tissue… or two, or three

You’ve probably seen the heartrending photo of a Labrador retriever lying in front of his owner’s flag-draped casket. If not, here it is:

casket

The dog is Hawkeye; his owner, a Navy SEAL, was killed in Afghanistan in August 2011, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Chinook helicopter. The photo – and the story – went viral as an iconic depiction of the profound bond between people and their pets.

Now comes Tommy, a seven-year-old German shepherd in San Donaci, Italy, who has been attending mass for the last two months at the church where his owner’s funeral was held and where, before she died, they attended mass together daily.

Tommy in Santa Maria Assunta church

Tommy in Santa Maria Assunta church

You can read the full story here.

But so far as I know, only one dog has been memorialized in bronze for his exceptional loyalty.

In 1924, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University adopted an Akita he named Hachiko. Each morning, dog and owner would walk to Shibuya Station, where Ueno would catch a train to the university.

Each evening, Hachiko would return to the station to welcome the professor home. But on May 21, 1925, Ueno didn’t return; he’d died after suffering a stroke during a faculty meeting. From that night on, for nearly ten years, Hachiko returned to the station at precisely the time Ueno’s train was due to arrive.

A newspaper story about the loyal Akita lured people from all over Japan to visit him. In 1934, a bronze statue of Hachiko was erected in front of the station’s ticket gate with the dog on hand for its unveiling. During World War II, the Japanese melted the statue to use its bronze for the war effort, but in 1948, the original sculptor’s son created a replica, which still stands today. The statue is said to be one of the most popular meeting places in all of Tokyo.

Hachko's statue in Shibuya Station

Hachko’s statue in Shibuya Station

Hollywood knows a good story when it hears one, and Hachiko’s was too good to pass up. Thus:  Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, A True Story of Faith, Devotion and Undying Love hit U.S. theaters in 2009. The story is true only in the Hollywood sense; produced for an American audience, it is set in a quaint New England town, and the professor is played by a very handsome Richard Gere. Joan Allen is Gere’s wife, and Jason Alexander is Carl, the train station attendant. My family rented the movie a couple of years ago and cuddled on the couch to watch it, without any notion of its Japanese roots.

Reading about Tommy started me thinking about Hachi, the movie, and then Hachiko, the dog. And then I thought about my dogs. For me, Galen is more than a companion or a best friend – she is a deeply loved member of my family, as was Gryffin before her. I’m not alone in my thinking. A 2011 Harris poll found 92% of dog owners considered their pooch part of their family.

Back to Hachi:  The movie is definitely worth watching.  Just be sure to grab a tissue… or two, or three.

Actually, grab a whole box. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need it!

***

I can still see my first dog. For six years he met me at the same place after school and convoyed me home—a service he thought up himself. A boy doesn’t forget that sort of association.

– E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan

They think, therefore they are

One of my favorite and most difficult courses in high school was AP Social Studies with Mr. Grasso. He introduced me to philosophy, and if not for his class, I’m not sure I would have gotten through the one philosophy course I took in college. Some of his teachings have even stayed with me after all these years, like Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum“ – “I think, therefore I am.”

I came across Descartes again recently, in an unlikely place.  I was reading Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. It turns out that Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician, and writer regarded as the Father of Modern Philosophy, was a dog killer.  Descartes believed that dogs did not have the capacity to think, that they had no emotions and no feeling, even for pain.  McConnell writes:

[Descartes] illustrated this principle by nailing live dogs to barn walls and eviscerating them. While the dogs writhed and screamed, he told the crowd of onlookers that their struggles were merely automatic movements of the body – no more felt by the dog than a clock feels the movement of its hands.

Wow.

McConnell points out that as recently as 1989, educated folks shared Descartes’ crazy ideas. One philosopher she cites argues that because dogs can’t feel anything “concern about them is unethical, because it takes time and money away from helping humans.”

Again: Wow.

I hope anyone who’s spent any time with a dog would see the outrageousness of all this. On a daily basis I see the wheels in Galen’s head spinning (though my husband will often point out that at times they spin quite slowly). Case in point:  A couple of weeks ago, I walked into our laundry room, which doubles as a mud room, and began lacing up my sneakers. Galen followed, and  upon seeing the sneakers started wagging her tail and smiling, as she presumed we were either going for a walk or heading to the backyard to play with her favorite purple ball. Unfortunately for her – and for me – my destination was the supermarket. When I told her so, her tail quit wagging and her expression turned from expectantly happy to sad, leaving me guilty and wondering, “Couldn’t I have chosen a different pair of shoes?”

Galen’s connecting a walk with my sneakers could have been more Pavlovian than intellectual, but the only explanation I have for why her tail wagging stopped and her face fell when I told her she wasn’t coming with me is that she understood.

Fortunately, anecdotes such as this – that point to an intellectual capacity in canines or a thought process of some kind – are starting to have the support of science and scientists who study human and canine brain structure and brain chemistry. It’s just too bad the science wasn’t there for Descartes. Then he could have extended his cogito to canines:  They think, therefore they are, and taken a dog or two as a pet rather than using them for sadistic experimentation.  

Galen

Galen, with her favorite ball. Despite others littering our yard, she will play with no other.

Did you pet a dog today?

The horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of twenty children and six educators, has families hugging one another a little tighter, and pundits and politicians talking (again) about guns, mental health issues, and media violence.  In the midst of all the news coverage, however, was a story you may have missed, about a special group of dogs and their visit to Newtown.

Lutheran Church Charities photo

Lutheran Church Charities photo

Barnabas, Chewie, Chloe, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Ruthie and Shami – all golden retrievers from the Chicago area – are comfort dogs with Lutheran Church Charities. The day after Adam Lanza’s rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School, the dogs traveled to Newtown to do what they’ve been trained to do: comfort the bereaved and grief-stricken.  They do their job well.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Lutheran Church Charities launched its comfort dog initiative in 2008, after a gunman killed five students on the campus of Northern Illinois University.  Just this past October, the group’s dogs were not far from my New Jersey home, comforting those whose homes and lives were devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

After my dad passed away a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting with Galen and petting her.  The activity had a meditative quality to it, at once both relaxing and rejuvenating. Usually I walk by Galen and simply give her fur a quick brush of my hand – I’m busy with kids, job, running a household; at night, though, I usually do take a few seconds to pet her as a means of winding down my day.

I’m not surprised about the increasing use of dogs to console people in times of tragedy or simply times of stress.  After all, therapy dogs have long brought comfort to people in nursing homes and hospitals.  Just last week, the owner of the daycare center I take Galen to suggested I train her to be a therapy dog.  “Galen has just the right temperament,” she said.  (I’m adding Galen’s training to my ever-growing To Do List.)

Recently there has been a spate of news stories about universities from coast to coast bringing dogs on campus to help students deal with the anxiety that can accompany final exams.  The Huffington Post even reports that Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School have resident therapy dogs in their libraries that can be “borrowed through the card catalog just like a book.”

There’s science to back up why petting Galen lifted my spirits, and why Lutheran Church Charities has seen its comfort dog initiative grow to sixty dogs in six states to meet demand.  According to WebMD, it takes spending only 15 to 30 minutes with a dog to feel less anxious and less stressed.  That’s because in that short time with the dog, the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, goes down, and the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being and happiness, goes up.

Perhaps a take-away here is that whenever we need a pick-me-up, be it because of a minor stress or a life-altering tragedy, man’s best friend can also be man’s best medicine.  I’m not naïve enough to think that in times of tragedy hugging a dog will turn everything right.  But thank goodness tragedies are rare; feeling stressed out is not.  So when you are stressed, you might ask yourself, “Did I pet a dog today?”  If you didn’t, add that to your To Do List.

***

In our social media age, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Barnabas, Chewie, Chloe, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Ruthie, Shami and their fellow comfort dogs have their own Facebook page, Twitter account and email, so they can keep in touch with people they meet.  Each dog also carries an old-fashioned business card.  (Thanks to the Chicago Tribune for these fun facts.)

I want to be my dog

There are many times in my life that I would have liked to be my dog, but perhaps none more than right now.

In high school it would have been nice to be Sammie, my West Highland White Terrier, instead of a teenage girl navigating her way through the tumult that is teenage relationships. While I picked apart my looks and longed for a boyfriend, Sammie guarded our house from the squirrels that dared to climb our trees. She’d position herself on my bed, staring out the window at our front lawn until a squirrel appeared. Then, barking, she would dash down two flights of stairs to the den’s sliding glass doors to get a closer look at the invader. Alas, those doors led to the backyard, so she would dart back up the stairs and onto my bed. If the squirrel was still there, back down she would go… up and down the stairs, never distinguishing the front yard from the back. I’m sure Sammie thought those squirrels were taunting her, but I can’t imagine their teasing was more hurtful than finding out that the boy I liked didn’t like me.

This October, after Superstorm Sandy slammed into New Jersey, it would have been nice to be Galen. My family was lucky; we may have lost electricity, water, and about a dozen trees, but our home’s structure is as sound today as it was before Sandy blew through. All I have to do is drive around town or watch the news to know we got off easy. But the day after the storm, as I huddled with my husband and two daughters in front of the fire burning in our wood stove, concerned about friends and family, unable to flush a toilet, fearing we would lose all the food in our refrigerator and freezer, Galen was the picture of happiness. And why wouldn’t she be happy:  On what other Tuesday would her family be home with her? I remember thinking, “At least the dog is enjoying herself.”

And most recently, after losing my dad to cancer, it would be especially nice to be Galen. Then I wouldn’t feel the pain that’s waiting to greet me once the numbness goes away.

A Simile I Can Believe In

“Dogs are like tattoos.

Ask folks about their tattoos and they can tell you exactly what was going on in their lives when they got them, how the idea came to them, why it seemed, at the time, a good thing to do… They mark their owners permanently with a visual memorial of the past.  Like dogs do.

I’ve never had a tattoo, but I’ve had many dogs, and all of them have left their own indelible marks on me.”

I wish I could take credit for that passage, but those words belong to Ken Foster and are from his book The Dogs Who Found Me:  What I’ve Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind.  It’s a compelling story about a man who had the misfortune to be living in downtown New York City on 9/11 and in New Orleans during Katrina, and the dogs who found him during those in-between years.

When I read the passage I had to put down the book and contemplate the three dogs that have graced my life:

  • Sammie, a West Highland White Terrier, who joined my family when I was thirteen.  She was a peace offering from my parents who had just announced they were splitting up.  It was sort of like, “On the downside, your parents are getting divorced, but on the upside you are finally getting that dog you’ve always wanted.” (Apologies to mom and dad if that’s not the message you intended to send.)
  • Gryffin, a Retriever-Chow mix I adopted from the Humane Society in Georgia, when I was living in Philadelphia but working for a company in Atlanta. My girlfriend had adopted Gryffin’s brother and was crusading to save the entire litter. In uncharacteristically spontaneous fashion – I am one of the least spontaneous people you will ever meet – I quickly got okays from my fiancé, from Delta airlines (to let the puppy fly coach with me to Philly), and from the Humane Society (which had to approve my adoption request). It was the best, if only, spontaneous decision I’ve ever made.
  • Galen, a Labrador retriever-Australian shepherd mix my husband and I adopted just two months after Gryffin’s death.  We had planned to wait to adopt another dog, but the emptiness in our house was too much for me to bear.  So with heavy hearts and plenty of urging from our two daughters, we showed up at a local rescue group’s adoption day. That’s where Galen squirmed her cute little puppy self into Kevin’s heart. I had assumed we were looking for a male to replace Gryffin and to even out the uneven gender ratio in our home (one Kevin to three females), but Galen had him hooked.  She still does.

I’ll have to ask my friend Shari about the indelible marks her dogs have left on her.  When I met Shari in Atlanta, she was living with Hank and Lou and at least one cat.  These days she lives in New Jersey, and while Hank and Lou past before she made the journey north, she did bring along Penny.

Little Miss Penny

Penny is a princess with a mean streak who keeps her recently adopted brother, Calvin, in line.

Calvin

Both Penny and Calvin are rescues.

If you own or have ever owned a dog, I hope Foster’s words inspire you to take a walk down memory lane… with your dog, of course.

***

If you rescued a dog (or dogs), send me a picture (or two). I’ll post the pictures on shesadork.com. And if you have a story to tell about your dog, send that along, too. –Jacki