Spring has been very slow to show itself in D.C. this year. After such a mild and snowless winter, March has brought us snow, and cold, and more cold, and then surprisingly this morning, more snow. These photos were taken on one of the warmest days we’ve had this month, one of the only days we could walk around without jackets on. We ice skated, climbed boulders, and shared ice cream. And we found these crocuses gloriously doing the same thing we were doing–soaking up the sun.
Pundit stank. Really really stank, especially in one spot along the side of his neck. It was too cold to use the hose in the back yard and I dreaded the amount of fur that would end up in our bathroom if we washed him in the tub. I never in my life have taken any of my dogs to be professionally groomed. Well, our neighborhood has a laundromutt, a storefront space where you can give your own dog a bath. For $20, I had a half-hour’s use of a high metal sink with a strong hose, warm water, an assortment of shampoos including “coriander,” “mango,” and “extra-sensitive”, various brushes and scrubs, and towels. I managed to get both dogs washed in that time, Pundit with a double scrub on his stinky spot. And afterwards? Their fur was so soft and fragrant! My bathroom looked just as it had before. I left all the mess at the store, there was nothing for me to wipe down or put away or rinse. There may be something absurd about a society in which this is a viable business–but taking my dogs to the landromutt made my day–even if the dogs were less enthusiastic:
What is the death of an old, beloved dog? It is an absence, it is silence instead of noise. There are no longer nails clicking across a wood floor or a bark when food delivery is delayed or a whine reminding of bed time or waking time, or eating time. It is the loss of a witness to the pleasures and pains of your daily life; more than that, it is the loss of a witness to your years, and what your years have brought you, what you have made of them and what you have lost.
When you think of that dog as your last dog, it is the end of an era of companionship, of having soft fur to stroke when things are hard, of having a wet nose thrust into your hand demanding a walk around the block when all you want to do is to pull the covers over your head. It is the end of an era of having a dog’s comfort when you need it, a dog’s joy to magnify yours—at coming home, taking a walk, or jumping into a cold river to swim. It is the end of an era of having a dog to care for who will be grateful for the care you give. It is the end of many hassles, but they are hassles you will miss every day.
My parents’ dog, April, died recently. She was very old and had been increasingly infirm in the last couple of years, and certainly they gave her a long and very happy life, so on one level there is nothing at all very sad about her passing. But we miss her.
Around the time my husband and I moved back to D.C., my parents, who also live in D.C., returned from the animal shelter with 20 pounds of flopsy mopsy terrier energy my mother named April. My mother thinks she was pure bred Tibetan terrier, and maybe she was. She was young but not a puppy when they got her, so we were never sure exactly how old she was.
That first year back in D.C., before my husband and I had Pundit, we would take April on walks in the woods with our dog Ubi and my parents’ other dog, Truck. Truck was a hound mix with a tremendously charismatic gravitas about him. He was calm and peaceful unless you tried to confine him—he would chew through any line attached to him—even metal—with manic determination, he once panicked in the car and chewed through both front seat seatbelts, although neither were confining him per se, and he took occasional forays from the house no matter how secured my parents made the fence. In his later years, after my parents had patched every hole he could wriggle through, he figured out how to open the latch on the back gate with some combination of nose and paw so that he could continue to take his jaunts through the neighborhood alleys. My parents attached a leash latch onto the gate latch. When the leash latch was hooked, he could not get the gate open, but whenever anyone forgot to put that leash latch back on after going in or out, Truck noticed immediately and off he went. Truck’s weak points only served to highlight an essential wild beauty within, and although you might laugh at his predicaments, the laughter was always undergirded with respect, even awe.
April, on the other hand, was a goofy ball of energy who, when she wasn’t killing any vermin she could catch, was just plain silly. Two early walks we took with her included one where she cheerfully waded through eight inches of snow in the woods until the snow balled around the long fur on her short legs and stomach to the point that she turned into a snow statue that could no longer move. We had to carry her back and soak off the snowballs in warm water. Another time, we were walking along a cliff high above Rock Creek when she leaped off it and tumbled into the water far below. We were gazing down at the water in horror when she popped out of the creek, scrambled up the bank, shook herself off, and started racing back and forth trying to figure out how to climb up to the narrow trail where we were standing.
Over the years, April took on different roles. As Truck aged and became increasingly infirm with arthritis, April became his companion and caretaker, checking on him, nuzzling him, curling next to him every night and licking his eyes and face clean every day. She took care of him until he was gone, and then she mourned, and then she became a calm and steady older dog who lived peacefully in my parents’ quiet house.
And then, as happens with dogs, April herself got old. For the last couple of years, she’d become increasingly ghostly, clicking around my parents’ house without fully acknowledging us, pooping wherever she felt like, walking only half way around the block and then only along the edge of my parents’ front yard. She became almost totally blind, and the last time I tried to walk her from my house, where she stayed for a weekend, I turned back after half a few steps because, not knowing the lay of the land, she panicked, and froze, and was miserable. At the same time, she happily poked around our yard that weekend. At one point, I couldn’t find her anywhere and finally found her down in the basement, down the rickety stairs that neither of my dogs will use, curled up on Truck’s old dog bed, which we had put out briefly in our dining room for Cholula and then abandoned in our unused basement until we got organized to get rid of it. I like to think that although Truck died nine years ago now, his faint scent on the bed lured her in her darkness down those basement stairs to curl up once again in the presence of her longtime partner.
For a dog who was a ghost of herself for her last couple of years, April still leaves a great hole of quietness with her passing. It is strange not to hear her nails clicking on the wood floors when we enter my parents’ house for dinner, or to watch for her coming through the half open swinging door between kitchen and dining room. Strange for them, I think, not to have to check with each other, “Did you put April out?”, to walk with her up and down the sidewalk in front of the house, to fill her bowl with dog food and keep her water bowl clean. They do see April as their last dog. For all her silliness, she filled the role admirably; she bore her best doggy witness to a part of their lives that, like most 17 or so year spans, had its share of worry and pain, but also joy and pleasure and excitement. They were well-lived years, and April, more than anything else, was there for every moment.
Pundit is fifteen years old. What’s that, 105 in dog years? When his hind legs slip out from under him at the bottom of the stairs or his leg floats behind him unnaturally as he walks around the block, it’s easy to dwell on all the things that Pundit can’t do anymore. Often, we have to impose his limitations; Pundit would play fetch until he couldn’t stand up, and so we only give him a few throws. Pundit would walk–slowly–until he collapsed, and so we have to decide whether to gear the walk to Pundit’s abilities or to leave him at home. Or remember, after he’s had a big day, to give him several days of rest. But for Valentines Day, I thought I’d catalogue what Pundit still does in his daily life.
He comes down for breakfast every morning to see what the chaos of three kids, five breakfasts, and three lunches being made will bring to the floor.
He hikes with the family.
He launches himself off his spindly hind legs into bed for the story. Through painful joints and fading senses, he fiercely dedicates each of his remaining days to his life with us, our brave Sir Pundit, Mr. P, Pundy-head, Pundy-Wundy, Pindo, Penda, Pandit. That’s what we got when we brought home a little scrappy ball of fur who had been abandoned in the woods 15 years ago.
If Pundit wasn’t a dog, I think he’d be a river otter. Scrappy, self motivated, and above all, playful. I was at the zoo last weekend with the kids. It was cold, even snowing a tiny bit, the best type of day to go to the zoo since almost nobody else goes. The river otters were out in the cold, doing what they do best–back flipping over and over into the water just because they could. Play river otters, play –
These creatures remind me, just as Pundit so often does, that it’s always worth it to go outside into the magnificence that surrounds us; and it’s always worth it to play.
January has come to an end. Once I started my resolution to push every day in January, I pushed every day except for two: one day when I had a stomach flu and the last day of January, when I was also under the weather—so I made sure to do a make-up day of pushing February 1 instead. Here are some things I noticed about the month of pushing, and about the exercise of pushing every day for a month.
First, it relaxed me to make daily pushing the goal instead of trying to measure progress by outcomes—is she barking on command yet? Is she heeling? Did X exercise work?—I made the focus of my training effort getting to the daily push, and as long as that occurred, I logged it in my mind as an accomplishment in and of itself, regardless of whether it led to any kind of breakthrough or felt especially good or not. (and I went easy on myself the two days I didn’t make it.)
Second, the daily pushing became a base level of training connection between me and Cholula that laid the groundwork for the occasionally more exciting pushing moments where breakthroughs happened. Some days, I didn’t have extra time or energy to give to the pushing, and so to keep my resolution I just pushed with her briefly out in the back yard for dinner, or took her food with us on our evening walk around the block and pushed at the bottom of the block. Typically, nothing special happened those days, except that we pushed. But I think that groundwork laid the potential for the days I did have energy to arrange hide-and-seek in the woods, as I’ve written about, or for the moment when, on a night I’d planned to give low-level pushing on the sidewalk, a rat ran across the sidewalk in front of us and turned things exciting for Cholula. While these exciting moments were when I felt we were making real progress in terms of bringing Cholula’s energy to me and away from various problem areas (running away, hunting small animals), I think most of them would not have happened had I not established the daily practice.
And in terms of results with Cholula? I don’t have a perfect metric to measure them (and part of the point of the daily pushing resolution was to intensify training efforts without adding the stress of success or failure), but all in all I think my whole family would agree that Cholula is doing fantastic. I can’t completely separate out the last month from the long, slow transformation Cholula’s made from the repressed, stressed dog she was when we brought her home two and a half years ago through my ongoing efforts to use natural dog training, I’m not trying to overstate the changes of just the last month, but she continues to be a softer and softer dog—my husband enjoys taking her out these days, my oldest daughter sits next to her on the couch, snuggling into her warm fur while reading, I no longer cringe when I see another dog approaching on the sidewalk. The past month has seen a flowering of all of these things. The photos are of Cholula hanging out by the side of a playground on an unusually warm day last week, flopping on the grass while the children played. Maybe, just maybe, she too will learn to play–or more precisely, as Lee Charles Kelly reminded me, remember how to play.
Since the unbelievable Snowmaggedon of 2010, when DC was buried in two snowstorms and school and work were cancelled for what seemed like weeks and we sledded and skiied and jumped off huge snow drifts into our snow-softened back alley–and left one of our cars parked in its own mini snow drifts out on the street for several weeks– D.C. has had so little snow that the kids have hardly had a chance to make a snowman or even taste it. February is coming, and it sometimes snows in D.C. in February, but I thought I should grab the chance to celebrate the little bit of snow that fell last week before it fades from memory–especially when a fluke 70 degree like today leads us to shed hats and coats and boots and play in the sun in the park. So here are a few photos of the dogs experiencing the little snow of January — I hope that in this coming month I will get the chance to photograph the dogs bounding across snowy fields, or plowing through huge drifts carved out along the city streets, but these are still pretty, yes?
The East Coast has had a cold snap, even bringing a tiny bit of snow to Washington, D.C. And Cholula and I have been out in the cold, pushing, keeping my New Year’s resolution. I’ve been mixing it up a bit, trying to increase the intensity of Cholula’s pushing. These are the events that successfully increased the intensity of Cholula’s push:
• A rat ran across the sidewalk in front of us late at night. When it disappeared, I pinched Cholula and she whipped eagerly around and pushed with at least some of the intensity she’d been sending the rat.
• A nail trimming: inspired by natural dog trainer Kevin Behan’s recent blog post, in which he describes using a nail trimming to bring out the energy in a repressed (and therefore problem) dog, I gave her nails a long-overdue trim. To trim Cholula’s nails, I take her to a wall at the park where I can sort of copy Kevin’s wall method. (For more on Kevin’s method for using a wall exercise to trim a dog’s nails without trauma, see Cholula Meets Kevin Behan—Post #1-the Nail Trimming from my and Cholula’s visit with Kevin in Vermont (complete with video). The photo at the left shows Cholula standing at the spot where I trim her nails. Since I’m hardly taller than Cholula when she is on her hind legs, I have found that the best way for me to copy Kevin’s wall climbing challenge is for me to stand on the bench, giving me height over Cholula, while I pull her up the wall, simultaneously making it more challenging for her to get there. I can’t do it nearly as well as Kevin (see above link to my previous post), but nevertheless, in the excitement of making it to the wall, Cholula lets me trim her nails. By myself, with no restraint–in complete contrast to my horrific two other nail trimming experiences with Cholula detailed in the above link, where it took several people to hold down a wild, thrashing, beast in order to trim Cholula’s nails. This time, I brought my fanny pack and food, and immediately after the nail trim had her jump down and push. Sure enough, she pushed with extra excitement, happiness, and vigor.
• Hide and seek. Kevin has recommended playing hide and seek with your dog in the woods in many contexts. The first time I tried it, I had Pundit with me, and since Pundit never leaves my side when we are outside, especially if I’m holding treats, his butt was sticking out of every tree I hid behind, but that didn’t seem to reduce Cholula’s excitement over finding me and pushing. It worked so well I went back a couple of days later with no Pundit, a hungry Cholula, and my son. We hid. Cholula found. She loved it! We loved it. And while M was disappointed that Cholula wouldn’t seek him separate from me—I’m not sure how to get her to see him as the prey to find—he had as much fun being out in the woods and looking for places to hide as Cholula did trying to find us. At one point, a massive, muscular dog whose bottom teeth stuck past her lips as she ran intimidated M, and he cried and backed up, which made the dog hone in on him with scary excitement. Cholula flew down the path to us and saved the day—not by attacking the dog but by turning herself into an irresistible prey dog, by racing towards the dog with a puppy zippy gait that made the dog chase her instead of my son. And then later it happened again, and Cholula did the same thing. I never know quite what to make of Cholula’s take on our kids. She has always been completely gentle with them, and yet this gentles is combined with a quietly insistent avoidance of too much interaction with them. Although she’ll stay on her couch if I sit on it, she usually jumps down if one of the kids gets on. And although she’ll sneak on my bed when I’m not around, she will never, ever, jump on any of the kids’ beds, even they are not there, even if we try to get her to do it. And one of the reasons I’ve been thinking of getting a third dog is that she won’t play with them (eg. My inability to get her to seek M). However, when M was emitting cries of fear at this big hulking dog threatening to run him down, Cholula came through. She usually won’t ever try to get a dog to chase her, and so I interpret her brief transformation into an irresistible object of attraction to that big dog as a selfless act to protect the family. Is this possible? What do you think? And how crazy an idea do you think it is to get a third, playful dog to play with the kids and hopefully bring out the play in Cholula?
Here are some other hiding spots we found:
So far, I’ve kept my resolution to push with Cholula every day in January except for one stomach flu day when I was mostly bedridden. I’ve been fitting it in at different times–sometimes before work on the morning walk, sometimes when I get home from work either on or after an evening walk–and every now and then I have to use my fall-back of pushing during our late night stroll right before bed.
And another wall has fallen. After pushing in the back yard one weekend morning, Cholula played tug with Pundit. And then a couple of days later, she did it again. I don’t have a picture yet–the two-dog tugging doesn’t last long, and I haven’t been in the right spot with camera at the ready when it happened, so I had to use this older photo of Pundit with his oldy besty BFF Callie to illustrate. I would looove to put up a photo of Cholula and Pundit tugging together soon.
I’ve written about Pundit and Cholula’s relationship on this site before. But basically, while Cholula and Pundit have always mostly gotten along okay, between Cholula’s fearful, high-anxiety and sometimes aggressive response to other dogs when she first came to live with us and my misunderstanding in the beginning of how significant her dog-aggression issues were, there were a few bad moments–maybe four–when Cholula attacked and pinned Pundit very aggressively after being aroused by something–once Pundit tried to hump her, another time the sight of a different dog by our front gate while we were out on the sidewalk so sent her into an aggression spiral that she attacked Pundit just because he happened to be standing next to her. Then there were a couple of food-related incidents. After that, they became very wary of each other for a while–while on walks they would sniff companionably, in the house they would not lie down in the same room or go anywhere near where the other one was eating. Slowly, over time, they have softened towards each other–Pundit will walk over and lick the corners of her eyes sometimes, or even play bite her shoulder, and she will lie calmly until she eventually walks away. But for them to stand eye to eye over a toy and tug–that is a whole new level of trust and intimacy for the two of them.
This is how it happened. Cholula has been becoming more and more interested in playing with me, and so I’ve been playing our funny, stop and start game of catch or tug of war with a floppy stuffed toy she has just about destroyed. In Natural Dog Training, Keven Behan recommends playing tug of war as hard as your dog will–and always letting your dog win. One of my first breakthroughs with Cholula, over a year ago now, was finally getting her to play tug. And I always let her win. But one of the challenges of creating the space for Cholula to play has been that Pundit, aged avid player that he is, always wants to play too, and he’s much better at all of it than Cholula–hones in the on the ball or tug toy with 100 percent of his attention and energy–and Cholula won’t compete. So I either have to put him in the house or play so they are taking turns–a throw in one direction for Pundit and then, while he’s chasing his ball, a throw in the other direction for Cholula. In the past, whenever Pundit has gone for the tug toy, Cholula has dropped it immediately and backed off. Game over. But this past week, Pundit grabbed my end of the tug toy, I let go, and Cholula hung on! Playing tug with Pundit! It didn’t last long. One thing about Pundit is that if he has the tug toy, he will never ever lose. No matter how strong the other dog is, Pundit will simply hang on and let himself be dragged around until the other dog finally gives up. He won every time last Christmas with his dear friend Callie (see photo). So Pundit hung on and Cholula let it drop. But she tugged it first–and then she willingly tugged with me again and then a couple of days later she held on again for a few rounds when Pundit grabbed the other side. Since Kevin suggests you always let your dog win at tug, and I know Cholula will never beat Pundit, I only let them play a couple of times and make sure to follow up with some rounds without Pundit where I let Cholula win.
It’s true that there is nothing especially useful about this new breakthrough–but it brings me great happiness because I did not think Cholula would ever be brave or relaxed enough to hold on when Pundit tugged. But maybe that is a key piece of the story for truly training and reforming a problem adult dog–to bring them to a place where they can discover that brave, relaxed platform–a space they may not have experienced for years– from which they can really, truly, learn new ways.