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.

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

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

Miss Independent

My little girl is growing up.  Yes, it’s totally cliché – bad when voiced and worse when written, but it’s true. Galen will turn two in October, and according to the famed Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, that means she’s pushing 21.

A post on Milan’s blog states that the oft-cited “multiply by seven” rule to determine a dog’s age is a myth. Apparently, dogs mature fastest in their first two years and then age an average of four human years each year thereafter.  Admittedly, I was one of the misguided. I thought Galen was just now entering her teen years, but apparently we’ve already lived through them. I can only hope that when my human daughters reach those potentially tumultuous years that they navigate them with as much grace and as little drama as Galen did.

Galen’s physical size exploded seemingly overnight.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise – all large dogs grow quickly – but still, the transformation from soft, sweet-smelling puppy to full-grown dog happened much too fast.

Galen entered our lives at eight weeks old, the size of an adult Chihuahua, and in less than nine months she was pushing 50 pounds, her legs had grown long and slender, her snout pushed forward, and her blue merle coat had lightened. I love that the bronze fur that topped her floppy ears as a puppy still covers them today.

Galen, about 13 weeks old, on the two-inch thick dog bed in our kitchen.

However, the biggest change from Galen then to Galen now is in her personality. She came to us so needy. I spent a good many hours over the course of a good many weeks sitting on a two-inch thick dog bed on our kitchen’s hardwood floor; Galen would curl up on my lap and gnaw a bone, chew her stuffed hedgehog, or nibble on my fingers with her teeny razor-sharp teeth. She needed human contact in a way that our previous dog, Gryffin, rarely seemed to want. Gryffin had entered our lives as an aloof puppy, and he remained that way his entire life. My husband and I took to calling Galen the anti-Gryffin.

Fast forward 22 months and in many ways Galen has taken on the personality of the brother she never knew. As I write this post, I’d love to say that she is curled up by my feet or sleeping soundly on the rug steps from my desk, a Norman Rockwell vision of the writer and her best friend. But Galen’s nowhere to be seen, because she has decided she is a yard dog. She spends her days sitting on our deck surveying the backyard or lying on the driveway waiting for either the postman – he usually tosses her a treat – or the school bus.

Yet even with this new-found independence, Galen still welcomes the girls home as only the most submissive dog in the world can:  tail wagging, rump pointing to the sky, head reaching to the ground, right ear scraping the driveway, whole body inching forward while sounds that resemble a horse’s whinny escape her mouth.

I don’t expect Galen’s submissive nature to subside in her lifetime, but I am enjoying watching her grow from needy puppy to independent adult. I can’t read her mind – though I attempt to all the time – but I see her autonomy as a sign she’s happy and secure in the love my family has for her. I hope to see a similar arc of growth and confidence take shape in my daughters.

We just have to survive their teenage years.

The Secret Service Agent and the Spy

If I had to describe Gryffin’s personality in one word, it would be “aloof.” He loved me and Kevin, but he didn’t have much use for anyone else. He lovingly tolerated his human sisters, but when they’d bicker, he’d dart to the sliding glass door in our family room to signal he wanted out. I truly believe he’d have been happy to be an only child.

Gryffin

Gryffin was downright rude to strangers. When we lived in Philadelphia, we would walk around Rittenhouse Square, and inevitably someone would stop us to comment on his good looks and ask about his breed.  My answer was always the same: “One hundred per cent pure mutt.” I would add that the shelter we rescued him from told us he was a Retriever-Chow mix. Gryffin’s response to the flattery was most un-dog like: No tail wagging.  No smiling up at the person with wide “please pet me” eyes. No, Gryffin would turn his back to the person, completely uninterested.

After the girls were born, I started calling Gryffin our Secret Service agent because he was always near us, just not next to us. He wasn’t one for cuddling, except for rare occasions early in the morning.  And sometimes the vibe you’d get when you’d sit on the floor next to him wanting to give him some love, was that he’d just as soon be left alone.  But he always had our back. In fact, we never installed an alarm system in our Philly home; we had Gryffin – loyal, loving and always on guard. Perhaps that was the Chow in him.

Galen, our Aussie/Lab rescue, wouldn’t make it in the Secret Service.  She’s more like a KGB spy.

Galen slinks around the house.  Her head hangs lower than her body, and her big brown eyes emanate guilt, like she’s done something wrong. She moves from room to room doing her darnedest to avoid our hardwood floors, so she takes circuitous routes determined by the layout of our area rugs. She never enters the kitchen.

Galen

Galen

Then there’s her unfounded suspicion that I’ve done something nefarious to her food. Every morning and night I fill her bowl with kibble and carry it outside – one of her many quirks is that she doesn’t like eating in the house; she prefers al fresco dining on our deck. (She even eats outside when it’s raining – her choice, not mine.) After I put her bowl down, she slowly backs away and looks at me. I put a single piece of kibble between my thumb and forefinger and hold it out for her to sniff. Ultimately, she takes it; then she stands beside her bowl and waits for me to leave.  She doesn’t like being watched while she eats.

We go through the same ridiculous routine when I buy new dog treats. She gingerly takes one from my hand only after she sniffs it, and it passes whatever test she’s putting it through.

I’ve long wondered what shaped Gryffin’s and Galen’s distinct personalities.  Is it the breeds that combined to make up their doggie selves?  Did being separated from their mothers when they were just weeks old impact their infant psyches? Did being raised by me and Kevin make a difference in who they became?

I suppose with canines, as with humans, it all comes down to that mysterious melding of nature and nurture. In any case, we’ve been fortunate:  Our Secret Service agent gave us ten great years of love and devotion, and these days, the spy who lives with us slinks about our house bringing us joy and making us laugh.

Gryffin or Breastmilk?

I have extraordinarily healthy children.  My older daughter will enter fifth grade having missed just one day of school in five years.  My younger daughter enters third grade with a similarly stunning record.  My husband and I are fortunate:  We have two healthy, smart, beautiful girls.

I’ve always taken credit for the healthy part.  I recall rarely being sick as a child, and I think I, too, made it through whole school years without an absence.  But I don’t pat myself on the back because I passed on healthy genes.  I do it because I breastfed both girls, and to say it wasn’t easy is one of the great understatements of all time.

My older daughter and I got off to a cruel start, perhaps because of her unexpected entrance into the world via C-section. Each feeding brutalized my breasts more than the previous one; my nipples were so raw I cringed when the cotton of even my softest T-shirt brushed against them.  Being too stubborn and proud to give up, I kept at it, although I could never understand how something supposedly so natural, could be so awkward and, at times, feel so utterly impossible.

Ultimately, my body healed, and I nourished my child the “right” way, giving her all the benefits researchers say come from breast milk.  We got so good at it, my daughter decided she had no use for a bottle, and for six months I was her sole source of nutrition.  My younger daughter latched on more easily, but she decided to go bottle-free for nine months.  What were the chances of that happening again?

Needless to say, I always figured I was the reason I had such healthy kids… until I read this in The Week:

Finnish researchers found that children who lived with a dog were 31 percent more likely to be in good health than those who didn’t. They were also 44 percent less likely to have developed an ear infection and 29 percent less likely to have needed antibiotics… The more time pets spent outdoors, the healthier the babies that lived with them were, which suggests that dogs and other pets may track in dirt and germs from outdoors that ‘stimulates the immune system’ of babies ‘to do a better job of fighting off infection.’”

While my breasts suffered the wrath of my babies’ gums, Gryffin’s sheer presence in our home may have been as beneficial as my breastfeeding!

I often refer to Gryffin as my first child.

Gryffin

Kevin and I rescued him from an Atlanta-area shelter when he was twelve weeks old, and we were living in Philadelphia. I doted on Gryffin:  He came with me to work, we walked around Rittenhouse Square together, and he slept on my bed many a night when Kevin’s medical training kept him at the hospital round the clock. My mother says Gryffin brought out my maternal instincts, and I agree.

I will always be indebted to Gryffin.  He taught me I was ready to be a mom, not just to a canine kid, but to human kids, too.  He was my protector in Philly, the alarm system that Kevin could count on to keep me safe when he pulled all-nighters at the hospital. Gryffin instilled in my children a love of dogs so strong that after he died, the girls persuaded me and Kevin to cut our mourning period short. Thus, we rescued Galen, whose name doesn’t start with “G” by accident.

And now it turns out, he may have given the girls the gift of health, via all the germs, mud, dirt, and grime he tracked in off the city’s streets and dog parks.  If I’m worthy of a pat on the back for the girls’ good health, Gryffin surely deserves a pat on the head.

***

When I’m feeling magnanimous, I share some of the credit for our girls’ good health with Kevin, who is a strong believer in the hygiene theory, which posits that exposure to viruses and bacteria in early life strengthens a child’s immune system.  Thus, he never panicked when one of our daughters took a toy from the floor and stuck it in her mouth – even after Gryffin, just back from the dog park, stepped on it.