Happy Birthday Galen!

My baby girl turned three this week, making it as good a time as any to reflect on our life together.

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Kevin and I adopted Galen in November 2010, when she was just eight weeks old. I hoped she would fill the void in my heart – and my life – that was created by Gryffin’s sudden passing. He was our first child, and we’d considered him pretty close to perfect, so Galen entered our life with a heavy burden to bear. That I’d tethered her with it was completely unfair, but she’s borne it beautifully, if quirkily. What’s more, she’s taught me far more than I’ve taught her.

I taught Galen basic obedience: to sit and to stay, to lie down and to come. I tried to teach her to shake, but at that I failed. She learned from a wonderful dog walker.

Galen taught me that just as people march to the beat of their own drum, dogs do, too, and that I should embrace marchers no matter their species and not attempt to redirect them.

She taught me that dogs can be just as stubborn as people, and reminded me that one must choose her battles wisely, a lesson that comes in handy when you’re the mother of two stubborn (human) daughters.

She taught me that a dog in the home, by its very presence, helps teach children empathy and respect, compassion and responsibility.

She taught me that a child never wakes up grumpy when awakened by a fifty-eight pound canine standing on top of her, digging her out from under her comforter, and pushing a cold, wet nose into her face.  (When the dog doesn’t wake up the child, the mother hears not, “Good morning, mom,” but, “Where’s the dog?”)

And she’s taught me to take risks. That’s why I’m writing a book about Galen, overcrowded public shelters (Galen was rescued from one), and innovative efforts to increase spay/neuter in rural and urban America, where rates are lowest. Here’s a quick overview of the crisis:

At least four million abandoned and unwanted dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters across the United States each year. That’s more than nine-thousand each day, about half the population that enters the shelters. Yet according to a recent study by PetSmart Charities, eight in ten Americans vastly underestimate the number of annual deaths, putting it at one million.

What’s perhaps even more devastating, according to animal welfare experts, is that a majority of those killed – up to ninety percent – are healthy and adoptable and would make great pets. But because not enough Americans adopt from shelters, because people relinquish their dogs and cats for myriad reasons, and because too many Americans don’t spay or neuter their pets, shelters are so overcrowded they euthanize simply to create space.

My hope is that my book will make more Americans aware of the crisis and provide solutions that communities nationwide can embrace and make their own. My hope is that I complete the book in the coming year…

Or at least by the time my baby girl turns four. For now, “Happy Third Birthday, Galen!”

A birthday card from some of Galen's favorite people -- the ladies who play with her at daycare.

A birthday card from some of Galen’s favorite people — the ladies who play with her at daycare.

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My Black Merle Aussie Sheprador

I’ve always considered Galen a mutt, or in more politically correct terms, a mixed breed. I thought of Gryffin the same way. When people would inquire about his pedigree – and they often did because he was fabulously handsome – I would answer, “Pure mutt.”

But now I realize I wasn’t giving my dogs their due.

I should have answered with their “razas unicas” – their unique breed names. Thus, Gryffin was my beloved Golden Flag-tailed Chowtriever.

Gryffin

Gryffin

Galen is my quirky Black Merle Aussie Sheprador.

Galen

Galen

If you’ve never heard of such breeds, I’m not surprised. As I said, these breeds are unique.

Perhaps, I should explain.

A video by an animal rescue organization out of Costa Rica, highlighting its efforts to increase adoptions, is burning up the Internet. The organization – Territorio de Zaguates or Territory of the Street Dogs – runs a sanctuary for the country’s abandoned dogs. These are canines – there are upwards of 500 of them at the sanctuary at any given time – that if adopted, would make great companions. The problem – and the impetus for the campaign – was that the dogs weren’t being adopted, primarily because many Costa Ricans have a stigma against mutts. Such dogs are perceived as less valuable than purebreds and, according to a blogger who visited the sanctuary, are “widely referred to as rats.”

The innovative campaign, which includes social media, community outreach, a national art exhibit, and TV appearances, seeks to undue this stigma by highlighting the “razas unicas” of the country’s canines. “They only exist in our country,” a dog expert crowed on one of Costa Rica’s most popular programs. “They are wonderful specimens… they are unique breeds.”

The message, as simple and creative as it is, is being heard. Attitudes are shifting. Adoptions are up. And as the campaign continues, dog lovers everywhere can only hope these trends continue and, they might, perhaps, even heed the message themselves. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a Shaggy Shepherd Dachspaniel, an Eye-patched Australian Dalmapointer, or a Schnaufox Melenudo?

As for me, I’m very happy with my Black Merle Aussie Sheprador, because it’s not just her breed that’s unique — she has one heck of a unique personality, too.

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I’ve got lots of links to share. Click here to see the video and here to see Territorio de Zaguates’ facebook page.

Go to Buzzfeed to see photos of some of Costa Rica’s canines, along with their unique breeds. My eleven-year-old daughter and I laughed together, as nothing puts a smile on your face like close-ups of smiling mutts mugging for the camera.

Go to Travel Mother to read the story of one blogger’s hike with Costa Rica’s street dogs. “The herd of five hundred dogs pouring out of their enclosure is a spectacular site. The pack flows like a rapid river as they turn down the trail entrance and out to the open hills. We volunteers then follow them for a couple hours of exercise, fresh air, and doggy-human socialization.” (Added to my bucket list: Hiking with the street dogs of Costa Rica.)

A mother is only as happy…

I have a lump in my throat – the kind that grows large when you’re holding back tears, when you know everything is okay, but still, your emotions get the best of you.

I used to get this feeling when I dropped off my now eight-year-old at daycare, back when she was two-years-old. On good days, she cried when I turned her over to her teachers. On bad days, she threw tantrums. I would kiss her, tell her I loved her, and leave. Then, as I’d drive to work, that familiar lump would form; my eyes would burn, but I didn’t cry.

You see, I knew my daughter was in good hands. I also knew – because her teachers told me repeatedly – that as soon as I was out the door, the crying ceased. Indeed, at day’s end, I always picked up a smiling, happy child.

With Galen, it’s different.

I dropped Galen at my mother’s house this morning, because my family is going away for the weekend. Galen loves my mother and loves swimming in her pool. But she doesn’t love being away from her family, and she’s not so enamored with my mom’s dog, Loki, who overwhelms her with his energy.

Today, Loki swatted Galen across the head with his right paw, before she crossed the threshold into the house. He was ready to play; she was not. She cowered, tail between her legs, right cheek brushing the welcome mat.

I stayed for just a few minutes, talking with my mom. Galen didn’t leave my side. She pawed my leg with her sharp little nails and gazed at me with her big brown eyes. “Please don’t leave me here,” they pleaded.

My mom is running a boarding house this weekend. In addition to Galen, she’s watching my sister’s dog, Bear; he’s there when we arrive. Bear is a thirteen-year-old black Lab, who lives his life like that tortoise from the classic children’s tale, The Tortoise and the Hare. Bear is a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of guy, which, despite the decade-large age gap between him and Galen, endears him to her. Galen’s tail wags when she sees Bear.

In the kitchen, I patted Galen’s head and gave her a kiss. I told her I loved her, walked out the door, got in my car. I’ll call my mother in a few hours to check on my little girl. But if the past is prologue, that lump will remain lodged in my throat until Monday, when I see Galen again.

My canine daughter is not as resilient as my human one.

Galen will likely spend her weekend hiding under the coffee table in my mother’s living room – I think she believes Loki doesn’t see her there. Perhaps Bear will lure her out, perhaps my mother will.

As for me, I will have a wonderful weekend with my family, but it will be tinged with the sadness of knowing that Galen isn’t happy, despite being well cared for (read: spoiled) by my mother.

It’s been said, “A mother is only as happy as her saddest child.” I don’t know who said it first, but I would like to believe she was including her canine kids in that sentiment.

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.

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

The monks would have approved.