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.

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Lilica’s Tale

I haven’t posted in a few months because I’ve been working on my book, which I’m thrilled to report is about 95% complete. Whew! But I came across this incredible story about a Brazilian dog named Lilica and decided it is just the kind of feel-good tale that will make every dog lover and even every non-dog lover smile. Be sure to watch the accompanying you-tube video to see Lilica in action and to see why the humans who know Lilica believe this junkyard dog can teach us all a lesson about caring for one another.  

http://www.lifewithdogs.tv/2014/07/dog-travels-eight-miles-each-night-to-feed-her-friends/

I want my sleep back

When my younger daughter was an infant, she didn’t sleep. Not at night. Not at nap time. What she did was cry, especially in the evening, so I took it upon myself to diagnose her with colic. Thus, I had an explanation for why she cried and why there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The colic eventually passed, as did her habit of rising before the sun. She never took to napping, at least not until she went to daycare and was under somebody else’s watch. It took several years, but now she sleeps like a champ.

Over that long haul, I came to savor a good night’s sleep. And I’ve become adept at getting one.

But recently, Galen has started messing with my beauty rest.

When Galen was a puppy, Kevin and I let her hang out on our bed while we watched TV or read, but she slept in a pen in the corner of the bedroom. As she got older, she became less interested in the pen, so we took to bribing her with American cheese. One night, she refused the bribe. She looked at me, looked at the cheese, and didn’t move. I put the cheese under her nose so she could get a good whiff. Nothing. I picked her up, put her in the pen, gave her the cheese, and turned out the light.

Almost immediately, whining. Kevin and I ignored it. More whining. More ignoring. The whining got louder. Is a dog like a baby, we wondered? Should we let her whine it out? If we did, would she wake our daughters? How many nights would it take? Because we each had work the next day, we let Galen back onto the bed. We agreed to take a hard line over the weekend.

The weekend came and went.

Once Galen sensed she was on the bed to stay, she left the no-man’s land at the foot of the bed to nestle her fifty-eight pound frame up against Kevin. That proved problematic, because Kevin doesn’t sleep well. He tosses and turns and wakes during the night. Having nearly sixty pounds of dead weight inhibiting all that movement made his pursuit of zzz’s all the more challenging. He started threatening to put Galen back in the pen; she would whine, he said, but she would get over it.

I cringed. When we wanted our daughters to sleep through the night, we let them cry. But for some reason, I couldn’t do that to Galen.

Perhaps I should have.

A few weeks ago, Galen settled into a new night-time routine. She jumps off our bed at lights out and retreats to the family room to curl up in her crate. Then, around 4:40 a.m. – I think the delivery of our newspaper must wake her – she returns, lies next to me, and because I’m a side sleeper, she whacks me on the back with her paw. I give her head or belly a quick rub. When I stop, she whacks me again. And again. Until I pet her. If I stop, whack. This goes on until my alarm goes off.

If Galen persists, I may be inclined to do something I’ve repeatedly said I do not want to do: I might have to cancel the newspaper.

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.

iVacuum

Some people remember their dreams; some don’t. I only remember my anxiety dreams, and I’ve come to believe that that’s because they’re the dreams I have most often. (That should tell you something about me.) Also, nine out of ten times, I have the same dream I’ve been having since the early 1990s, when I went to work for CNN. It unfolds like this:

I am in the Headline News newsroom, at a computer, writing a story – the story itself is never clear. A clock on the wall ticks down the minutes to show time. As it ticks, I type. The show starts; I type. The show ends; I’m still typing. Never do I morph into the Holly Hunter character in “Broadcast News,” who darts through the newsroom, videotape in hand, making her deadline. No, my deadline passes, and still, I type.

So I was surprised by the dream I had the other night. In it, my vacuum breaks, and I am left to pick up Galen’s hair, strand by strand. I’d clear a small section of the living room’s hardwood floor, only to find it fully covered moments later. This sequence repeats over and over and over…

In truth, a broken vacuum cleaner would be my nightmare. Galen sheds a lot, so I vacuum at least once a day. As much as I love my dog – and I love her a lot – I hate the sight of dog hair.  Kevin knows this about me, so he pointed out a story in Sunday’s New York Times, “Robot Vacuum Makes War on Cat Hair.” According to the article, the newest Roomba by iRobot “not only cleans floors as well as an upright or canister vacuum cleaner, it may actually do a superior job on pet hair.” Sold!

Galen She eats, sleeps, plays, and sheds.

Galen
She eats, sleeps, plays, and sheds.

Or so I thought, until I got to this little bit of information: It sells for $700. The reporter said he’d have to go through “considerable financial contortions to justify the purchase.” So would I. And I would also have to consider Galen – she already hates the vacuum. Would she hate the Roomba – a flying saucer-shaped contraption that scoots across the floor in search of dust, dirt, and pet hair? Then again, should I even consider her feelings, when she is the reason I vacuum as often as I do?

By the end of the article, the reporter seemed to have financially contorted himself enough to make the purchase. I’m not there yet – though a few more of those dreams or a broken vacuum cleaner, and I just may be. But for now, I’ll pass on the Roomba by iRobot and stick with what I know best: iVacuum.

Indulge the dog

On a recent Sunday morning, Galen threw her version of a hissy fit.

It was about seven o’clock, and Kevin wanted to take her for a walk, but Galen didn’t want to go. She stood in the driveway, immobile. Kevin yanked her leash; she stood her ground. He came inside, grabbed a slice of American cheese, and bribe in hand, returned outside. I was sitting at our kitchen island reading the newspaper. I looked out the window expecting to see my husband and our dog round the corner of our driveway into the street. I saw nothing.

Moments later, there was Galen in the backyard, darting after her purple ball, pouncing on it, shaking it, romping with it, exuding pure joy. She’d gotten her way: She was playing ball with her daddy.

Studies show that dogs have the mental acumen of a two-year-old. Both know about 165 words, understand numbers up to four or five, and can show basic emotions like happiness and anger. I would add (anecdotally) that both can be stubborn, especially when demanding their way.

When my now-eleven-year-old was two, she threw a tantrum because she didn’t like an outfit I picked for her. She was intent on choosing her own clothing, which would have been fine if what she chose matched. But it didn’t. So I yelled, she screamed, and we got nowhere. In that moment, I believed that what she wore reflected my competency and ability as a mother, not to mention my sense of style. Kevin stepped into the room and said, “Pick your battles.” I swallowed my pride and empowered my daughter, and from that day forward her clothing clashed – until one day it didn’t. (Of course, by then our younger daughter was either mismatching clothes or leaving the house in full princess regalia.)

As many parents learn, not every battle is worth fighting. But I’ve begun to see that when it comes to Galen, we pick fewer fights. She demands to eat her meals outside. Fine. She refuses to go for a walk. Fine. She wants to walk, but without a leash. Fine, but not on main roads. She sleeps on our bed. Fine –we half-heartedly fought this battle, but caved to her crying. We are suckers for our dog. We are far more strict with our daughters.

Perhaps that’s how it should be. Galen will always live under our roof, a toddler for all time; our girls will grow up, move out, live life on their own. The battles we pick — and choose not to pick — will shape the adults they become. So we indulge our dog, but we battle our daughters. Because we are madly in love with them both.  

***

As Kevin was persuading Galen to go for a walk, I was reading this in the New York Times: “A few months after we took him in, Harley began conducting sit-down strikes during our walks, sprawling as flat as he could in the road in sort of a canine version of planking.”  I had to laugh. I’ve stood in this reporter’s shoes, as Galen, too, sat then sprawled mid-walk. It’s nice to know there are other canines as quirky as mine.  

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.