Working Girl

There are morning people, and there are those who simply are not. My elder daughter rises early, and on those rare occasions I need to wake her, it takes only a kiss on the forehead or a gentle shake of her shoulder to elicit a warm, if sleepy smile. Not so, with my younger daughter.

In infancy, my younger daughter didn’t know the meaning of sleep. She refused to go down at night – we lived in Philadelphia at the time; my husband or I would put her in the Baby Bjorn, leash up Gryffin, and walk the city streets into the wee hours of the morning so her colicky screams didn’t wake up her sister – and she rose long before the sun. By the time she was a toddler, she could sleep until sunrise.  When she started kindergarten three years ago, that changed.  She didn’t become a late sleeper; weekends she was still up by eight. But weekdays she needed a little encouragement to get up in time to dress, eat, and catch the school bus.

Neither the kiss nor the nudge worked.  Instead, I would sit on the edge of her bed turning her favorite stuffed animal into a puppet that would sing made-up wake-up songs and cover her face and belly with kisses.  When her angry eyes blinked open, I was greeted with whining or groaning.

I dreaded most mornings.

Australian shepherds are herding dogs and as such, they were bred to work.  Our dog, Galen, is part Aussie, and as a wild and overly-energetic pup, she would herd my daughters by nipping at their heels.  A dog trainer I phoned for advice – I was afraid Galen was going to draw blood or send one of the girls tumbling down the stairs – told me that herding dogs, like Australian Shepherds and Border Collies, need a lot of exercise and even a sense of purpose.

Apparently, I needed to find Galen work around the house to make up for the absence of sheep and cows in our yard.

When Galen was about seven months old, I saw my older daughter sitting on her bed, encouraging Galen to jump onto it. I had high hopes of keeping Galen off all furniture, but my daughter undermined me. Evidently, beds aren’t furniture in the eyes of an eight-year-old. (In her defense, we had allowed Gryffin on our beds, thus why I wanted to keep Galen off. Obviously, I hadn’t made myself clear.)

Galen loved jumping onto the girls’ beds, especially when they were in them. And at some point – I can’t remember when – it dawned on me that I could outsource my morning job to the dog.

Now every weekday morning, whether the girls are rising for school or for summer camp, Galen wakes them up.  It’s pretty incredible, really.  I call out, “Galen, time to wake the girls!” and from wherever she is in the house, Galen dashes to my older daughter’s bedroom. I open the door, Galen jumps on the bed, sniffs my daughter awake – Galen is not a licker – jumps off the bed, and proceeds to my younger daughter’s room.  I open the door, up on the bed she hops, a few sniffs, and my younger daughter wakes… with a smile. Then her hands snake their way out from under the covers to pet Galen’s head, as she quietly and lovingly says, “Hi, baby.”

It’s been a year-and-a half since I’ve had to wake my younger daughter.  Instead, each morning I get to watch my dog and my daughter connect in a way that is so powerful and so beautiful.  Best of all, though, a child who once began her day with a scowl now starts the day with a smile.


Weekends can be a problem.  Sometimes at 7:00 on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I find Galen standing, tail wagging, in front of my older daughter’s closed bedroom door.  I gave Galen a sense of purpose, and she’s given my girls a reason to wake up happy; but still, I like her to take weekends off.

Killer Instinct: Update

The post Killer Instinct offered a window into Galen’s personality.  For those who haven’t read it, Galen is the dog that sits on our deck and watches groundhogs feast on whatever it is they find edible in our backyard. My previous dog, Gryffin, was a hunter who viewed groundhogs (and rabbits, squirrels, deer, birds…) as the enemy, invaders to be vanquished from his soil.

The other day, very much out of character, Galen took off after a large grey groundhog just a couple of feet from our shed. Before I could scream for the groundhog to run – I was afraid what it might do to Galen, an Aussie/lab mix that is more herder than hunter, more lover than fighter – Galen tackled the critter.

I don’t know which animal was more stunned.  Galen steamrolled right over the groundhog and kept running.  No killer, she; though, she might make a great linebacker. The groundhog lay motionless before righting itself and scurrying under the shed.

I have to believe pure animal instinct sent Galen sprinting toward the groundhog.  But the entirety of her action confirmed what I already knew:  the groundhogs that venture into our yard are safe under her watch. They might get the wind knocked out of them, but they’ll live.

No Go

When you adopt a dog, you and the dog form a unique understanding. You will walk the dog, because dogs demand exercise, and the dog will walk, thus ensuring that you, too, get a work-out. In a country with ever-increasing obesity rates and a down economy, dog walking is a win-win for your body and your bank account – no costly gym membership required.

Unfortunately for me, my dog, Galen, may be the only dog on this earth that does not enjoy going for a walk. There may be some toy breeds that dislike walking because their little legs can’t keep pace with their humans (not being a veterinarian, this is pure speculation), but Galen is a 21-month-old, 60-pound black lab/Australian shepherd mix. She is rife with energy (and she has long legs).

The day we adopted Galen, I carried the tiny eight-week-old pup out of the Agway Garden Center where she, her siblings and several cats were up for adoption. I set her down in the parking lot, snapped on her leash and headed to the car.  Galen didn’t follow; she simply sat down.  No problem, I thought, too young to walk on a leash.

As the weeks and months passed, little changed.  I would attach Galen’s leash to her collar, get halfway down the driveway… and she would sit down.  This tendency toward being a homebody was a blessing when she was loose in the yard, but frustrating when I wanted to walk.

My vet counseled me to take the reins of our relationship.  And I did.  But our walks weren’t very pleasant.  We’d walk a few yards, Galen would sit, I would tug, and we’d walk a few yards, Galen would sit, I would tug, and we’d walk a few yards… I was not burning many calories, and she was not releasing any of the puppy energy she was using to terrorize my children.  (More on Galen the Terror when I write the forthcoming post: Daycare Saved My Marriage.)

One day, rather than a forced march through the neighborhood, I decided we would walk to the horse farm down the road.  My previous dog, Gryffin, loved taking that walk with me.  Galen and I barely got a quarter of the way to the stable when she didn’t simply sit down; she turned her body toward home and lay down. I waved the white flag. If this was a battle over who was more stubborn, she was clearly winning.

On our retreat home, we passed a cow pasture. This day, a very large brown and white cow was nestled up against the fence which stands about a foot from the road. As Galen and I approached, the cow turned its massive head toward us and mooed.  Galen froze. No amount of pulling or prodding would move that dog forward. I had to pick her up – by now she weighed more than 40 pounds – and carry her home.

Of course, I could strap on my iPod and walk by myself. Lots of people who don’t own dogs do just that. But when you have a dog, you have an understanding:  you no longer need to walk alone. You get to go with a friend. Unless your friend is Galen.


Galen in the Sourland Mountains.

 My family has learned that although Galen does not like walking on a leash, she does enjoy hiking off one. In fact, she’s a pleasure to hike with, because she doesn’t stray from us or the path.

She simply leads the way.

Killer Instinct

It’s been almost two years since Gryffin died, yet not a day goes by that I don’t think of him or speak of him. And it’s all Galen’s fault.

The other day, I sat at my kitchen island staring out the window when I noticed a large brown groundhog in the middle of the backyard. It stood on its haunches surveying its surroundings, lowered to the ground, and shuffled toward the house. Then it did it again, and again. I knew Galen was outside, so I got up to look for her.

I knew if Gryffin were still around that groundhog would be a goner.  Gryffin did not allow critters of any kind to invade his terrain.  He’d been known to kill baby bunnies too young and too slow to hop to safety on the other side of our invisible dog fence.  And more than once he got his snout bloodied trying to root out groundhogs from under our shed.

Gryffin, the hunter.

About four years ago, I came home to a stand-off between Gryffin and an exceptionally large groundhog. It was unusual for Gryffin not to greet me in the driveway, so I called his name and scanned the backyard – it’s about the size of one-and-a-half football fields with an island of trees and bushes at the 50-yard-line. I heard an awful hiss. Behind the island, I saw Gryffin and a groundhog in a nasty stand-off. Gryffin was leaning toward the groundhog, barking, devising his plan of attack; the groundhog stood tall, hissing, searching for an escape route.  I ran toward them, screaming, “Gryffin, come!”  He didn’t. I don’t remember how, exactly, I broke up that fight, but I did, and both animals retreated unharmed. I like to think Gryffin would have been the victor had they fought, but groundhogs are ruthless.

I found Galen on our deck, lying in the sun and watching the groundhog. I know Galen saw it, because her eyes were tracking its movement toward the house. I’ve seen her sit on the deck and watch deer traverse the yard.  Sometimes she watches the rabbits, but usually she chases those. She chases birds, too. And I have seen her run after groundhogs that were too far away — despite her incredible speed – for her to catch. She’s brave in the, “I can be brave when I know you can’t hurt me” kind of way. I yelled at the groundhog, sending it scurrying to safe haven under the shed.  If Galen had decided to take it on, I would have put my money on the groundhog.

Galen, a lover, not a fighter.

My little girl doesn’t have the killer instinct her brother had.

No matter what Galen does – or doesn’t do – I’m always comparing her to Gryffin. In living with her and loving her, she keeps Gryffin alive.