Autumn Book News

I’ve always loved the way autumn ushers itself into the northeastern United States: Leaves turn orange and amber and yellow; the sky, devoid of clouds, shines the brightest lightest blue; and summer’s heat and humidity retreat, leaving the air brisk and invigorating. This is also the time of year that the Jewish people celebrate the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are days of reflection, when we contemplate the year behind us and welcome the new one stretching before us.

Four years ago, Rosh Hashanah fell on a gorgeous fall day. My family had yet to go to synagogue, had yet to read the passage about this being the time of year when God makes his plans for how each of us will experience the year ahead. But apparently God had already made his plans for our dog, Gryffin, because that Rosh Hashanah morning, in the car with my husband and our eldest daughter, en route to the Sourland Mountains for an hour-long hike, a tumor that we hadn’t known was tucked behind Gryffin’s ribcage ruptured. Several hours later, our boy was dead, and we were sitting in a pew in our synagogue wrestling with our grief and our shock.

I didn’t know then that I would look back at that day as the start of a new journey – a journey that would begin with my family adopting Galen, a rescue dog from a North Carolina animal shelter, and that would culminate with the publication of my first book.

That book, Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem will be released by Ashland Creek Press next autumn. (Despite living in the digital age, book publishing moves at a pace seemingly closer to that of the Gutenberg press than that of the Internet.)

Dogland is Galen’s story, and it is the story of the South, where, more than in any other region of the country, healthy, adoptable dogs in overcrowded animal shelters are euthanized to make room for the next ones that will inevitably come through their doors. And it is the story of humble visionaries who believe there is a home for every shelter dog, that spay/neuter rates can rise in the even the poorest communities, and that the South’s children – the next generation of dog owners – can transform a culture. What’s more, they believe that their ideas and their passion can transcend the South to the many communities throughout the United States where euthanasia is used to remedy the problems of shelter overpopulation.

In the coming months I will be moving this blog to a new website built to herald the release of Dogland. I hope you will come with me, that you will continue to support this blog, and that you will consider purchasing (and reading) Dogland. All the proceeds from the book will be funneled back to the people and programs working to end shelter euthanasia, which remains the leading cause of canine death in the United States.

-Jacki

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The many faces of fetch

“Dog, you get dumber by the day.”

I lift my head from my book. Kevin is standing in the middle of our backyard talking to Galen. She is several yards away on a small island of black mulch that circles a tree near where our yard ends and our neighbor’s begins. Galen’s purple ball – it looks like an oversized kettle bell – rests on the ground in front of her. She picks it up by its handle, shakes it furiously, and then returns it to the earth.

“Bring the ball,” Kevin says for the third, maybe fourth, time. I watch the scene unfold from our deck – my husband and my dog are infinitely more interesting than the story I am reading.

Galen stands her ground. At this, Kevin turns and walks toward the back of our property, which stretches for two acres. Galen darts after him.

Kevin and Galen are engaged in a tug-of-war of sorts over the rules by which the game of fetch should be played. Kevin would prefer the traditional rules: Human throws ball. Dog retrieves. Dog returns ball to human. Galen prefers a more complex version of the game: Human throws ball. Dog retrieves ball and runs to the mulch (or to a mound of wood chips, remnants of a tree that once shaded the deck). Human approaches dog and repeatedly tries to kick ball out of dog’s mouth as dog raises her hips in the iconic downward-facing dog posture, all the while refusing to release the ball until the human says, “Drop it.”

Interestingly, Galen isn’t our first dog to refuse to play fetch the way the game was intended. Gryffin, too, established his own rules, which called for a stick in addition to a ball. In Gryffin’s version: Human throws stick. Dog retrieves it and waits for human to throw ball. Then, with stick in mouth, dog chases and then pounces on ball. Human walks to dog, grabs stick, then ball. In neither Galen’s nor Gryffin’s fetch does the dog return the ball to the human.

I often wonder how it is that Kevin and I raised two dogs who can’t play a traditional game of fetch. Sometimes I like to think it’s that we raised our dogs much like we are bringing up our daughters – to be creative, independent thinkers for whom we provide the parameters within which they are permitted a large percentage of freedom.

Other times, I concede that our dogs trained us better than we trained them.

Back from their walk, Galen grabs her purple ball by the handle and runs to Kevin. He pets her, heaps praise upon her. This is how the game is played, he tells her. Then he hurls the ball across the yard. Galen retrieves it and runs… back to the mulch. She shakes the ball and looks at Kevin expectantly. This time it is Kevin who stands his ground.

I smile inwardly. It will only be a few seconds before Kevin walks toward Galen. You see, she is the more stubborn of the two. And she’s no dummy. She knows she’s trained him well.

Galen

Galen and her favorite fetch-worthy ball.

Father Time

He looks old.

That was my first thought – and my second. It hit me in the gut. It hadn’t been what I’d expected. Not that I’d expected anything, really; I hadn’t thought about what he’d look like. I’d just really wanted to see him, and now, incredibly, I was.

The first time I met Maurice was thirteen years ago at my friend Daphne’s Atlanta home. He was about three months old and ridiculously cute – a pint-sized golden boy with a charcoal snout and ears that pointed skyward. He made me want one of my own – not an unusual reaction to playing with a puppy. What was unusual was what happened next.

I adopted one.

Gryffin was Maurice’s brother and he, with the rest of their litter, was at the DeKalb County Humane Society outside Atlanta. I could have chosen any one of the puppies, but something about Gryffin spoke to me. Like Maurice, Gryffin was golden with charcoal accents he’d later outgrow, but whereas Maurice’s ears stood tall, Gryffin’s flopped forward.

For two Southern boys, the dogs lived very little of their lives in the South. Gryffin came with me to Philadelphia, then to suburban New Jersey. Maurice went with Daphne to Israel. Now, thirteen years after meeting Maurice, I was seeing him again – this time, in Tel Aviv; this time, with Kevin and our daughters. We scoured Maurice’s face for some resemblance to Gryffin, who we’d had to put down three years earlier. A tumor we hadn’t known was tucked behind his ribcage burst and filled his belly with blood – one day he was playing ball in the backyard, the next he was gone. So we stared at Maurice, and we saw Gryffin in his snout and in his eyes, still not in his ears.

Kevin said he felt closure, that seeing Maurice in life somehow allowed him to let go of Gryffin in a way that had before been elusive. My feelings were messy. Maurice moved slowly. Stairs were a struggle. He looked weary. Part of me found comfort in knowing that Gryffin never slowed, never struggled with steps, never faced the frailties, the fears that accompany old age. But, I wondered – have been wondering – did I feel that comfort for him or for me? Seeing the toll that Father Time was taking on Maurice hit me unexpectedly, sending me on an emotional rollercoaster I wasn’t prepared for.

It’s been almost two months since I saw Maurice, and I’m still struggling to come to terms with my feelings – about what they mean and about what they might say about me and my ability to face old age be it in a dog, a family member, or myself.

Too young (to die)

I’ve been thinking a good deal about death lately. It’s not surprising, perhaps, as it’s now a full year since my father died. I think about the man a lot, too – and I talk about him. Months ago Kevin mentioned that I talk about my dad more now than I did when he was alive. I hadn’t noticed. A few weeks ago, Kevin reprised the observation. This time I knew why: I talk about my dad, because I can’t talk to him.

My dad died at 65. Several weeks after his passing, I went to a memorial service of the Essex County Bar Association honoring attorneys, like my father, who were members and who died in 2012. The other honorees had twenty, even thirty years on him. They lived long lives, like people are supposed to.

It’s harder to accept the loss of someone who dies young, and the younger the life lost, the more unacceptable. Just ask any parent who’s buried a child.

I’ve also been thinking about death because I’ve been thinking about Gryffin. I presume that’s a hard turn for some people to make – turning from the loss of a human to the loss of a dog – but in my case, both were family and both died too young. Kevin and I considered Gryffin our first child, and presumed he would be in our lives a good thirteen, fourteen years. But when he was ten, a tumor, hidden behind his ribcage, burst; vets could do little to save him.

In the 1980s psychologists began studying – and taking seriously – the grief people report feeling after a pet dies. Their findings may not surprise those who’ve lost their best canine or feline friend, but researchers discovered that the grief triggered by the loss of a beloved companion animal can be so profound that it can surpass the grief associated with the death of a human companion, even a family member.

I’ve been thinking about Gryffin, because in a few weeks, during a trip to Israel, I will see his brother – a littermate – who’s now thirteen. Maurice lives in Tel Aviv with my friend Daphne, and according to her, “He’s slowing down, but he’s as handsome as ever.” It’s funny; we used that same word – handsome – to describe Gryffin. I still do, when I talk about him.

And I talk about Gryffin a lot, because so much about Galen reminds me of him. And even when she acts in ways he never would, my mind meanders back to him.

I miss my dad. And I miss Gryffin. And I’ll keep talking about them both, because right now, that’s the only way I know to keep them alive.

Happy Birthday Galen!

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

***

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.

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.