Thai Xing is the restaurant I choose when I want more than a delicious meal, when I want a haven. To me, it’s more akin to a garden than a typical restaurant. Taw Visittaboot, the creator of this experience, opened the restaurant in a row house tucked in the middle of a residential block of Florida Avenue—a busy, commercial avenue that traverses the city east to west with several blocks of old row houses that were once genteel and survived years of poverty to exist now in surprising counterpoint to the commercial sections on either side of them.
While there is a handmade wooden sign on the row house’s wall identifying Thai Xing, the sign is unlit, and nothing else marks the entrance to the restaurant, so that, even assuming you know the address, and even if you have been there before, finding the right door involves moments of hesitation, anxiety, faith. The first time I walked in I had a strong feeling that I might be walking into someone’s private house party next door to where I was supposed to be. And the most recent time I was there, once I’d located the right house, I walked down to the lower level, where I’ve always eaten before, to find it open but empty—everyone was up on the main level, where the restaurant has expanded to—but without any clear directions or markers as to where to go. The result? Once you have found the door, and opened it, and walked in among the candle-lit tables, the rich colors, the sketches and paintings, most of which I believe are Taw’s, the diners, and the spicy-sweet scent of the Thai dishes, you are hit with a sensation of relief and pleasure, as if you have stumbled upon a hidden oasis.
And then there is the food. There is no menu to order from, although you are asked whether you have any food restrictions when you make a reservation. Instead, all diners are served what Taw creates. The waitresses bring dish after dish to the table, most of them very spicy, each heart-warmingly delicious and existing in concert with the others. My favorites of my recent meal there were the cucumber soup and the squash curry. The cucumber soup, brought out early in the meal, was, unlike most of the dishes, not spicy. The thin, gentle broth had fragments of a leek-like vegetable, and in the middle, a cucumber log that, having cooked in the soup, was soft enough to easily slice with a spoon. (Have you ever had cooked cucumber before? I hadn’t.) The cooked cucumber was soft and watery, like the essence of cucumber—and stuffed within it was the surprise of minced pork. The plain broth, the refreshing, simple cucumber, and the complexly tangy pork existed in lovely contrast. And then there was the squash curry—the squash was meltingly tender but still in its skin, and the tactile scooping of the sweet flesh out of the skin, along with the sweet and spicy coconut-based curry with plenty of Thai basil lighty placed on it—it was perfection. I’ve loved Thai food for years. But every time I eat at Thai Xing I feel that all the other Thai dishes I’ve ever had have been but approximations of what Thai food is supposed to be. And that the dishes created by Taw are the real. It makes me happy to know that the restaurant exists as I go about my days, that it is only a reservation away.
Sometimes it’s when you least want a dog that you most need a dog. February is typically the hardest month for me to enjoy in D.C., even in an unseasonably mild winter like this one. It’s cold, the days are still short, and while you can hope for a crazy big snowstorm with snow days and sledding and snow forts and snow men, you’re more likely to get an icy mess that might, if it stays cold, turn the sidewalks into the corrugated, pitted menaces I remember from my childhood in this city, when I swear I spent weeks walking back and forth to school over rutted, treacherous ice flows. We had one of our more typical February weeks last week. A half a centimeter or so of snow dusted our landscape one morning, and then there was cold, and wind, and spitting rain. Most people stayed in when they could. And yet the dogs had to be walked. And so every day I headed outside, and not just to get to the car or metro or bus. And, thanks to the dogs, this is what the winter weather brought me: the sight of my old dog Pundit flipping onto his back at the first sight of that half-centimeter of snow and sliding down the hill in our front yard, just as he’s responded to every snowfall since we first moved into the house in 2000. A run with Cholula in the park so emptied of people by the spitting rain that we had our own quiet woods in the middle of the city. And this, glimpsed as I hurried the dogs home—the winter light catching one of my favorite architectural elements of the city—the turrets on the old row houses.
When I had my first telephone consultation with natural dog training founder Kevin Behan after Cholula attacked a little white dog, his primary advice was to teach Cholula to bark on command. As I remember it, he told me that if I could get her to bark on command, I could have her bark as soon as I saw her getting anxious about a dog, and the bark would release her fear and dissipate her need to attack. Or, as he put it in a recent blog post, “The point of training a dog to bark on command, is that it becomes a way to stress the dog, and then he resolves the stress by a clean, clear, deep bark. Why is this important? Because it gives the dog a way to express fear without having to act on fear.”
So it’s over a year later, and I still haven’t been able to get Cholula to bark on command. However, recently, after a hiatus of many months, I’ve started working with her again on this skill. Just about a year ago, I wrote about my earlier efforts. I didn’t seem to be making much progress, and so I eventually stopped working on it, except that during our walks, when she got overexcited about another dog approaching, I would bug her into pushing for food and as I did so I would say, “speak.” Just recently, a couple of times, when she was VERY excited about a dog on a leash, when I did this she let out a bark—not the full-fledged bark I’m looking for—more of a tortured, high-pitched “I’m freaked out and want to go attack that dog,” kind of bark, but it was a bark nonetheless, and so I realized that there was a little bit of energy flowing out of her into a bark and it was time to start up the bark training again.
During my early attempts to get her to bark on command—and these efforts went on for several months—she would stretch, paw the ground, and jump up on me in response to my command, but she never really opened her mouth. A combination of believing in Kevin’s theory and seeing Cholula’s efforts led me to visualize a blocked pipe running through Cholula—a pipe that should be open for her energy to move freely through her body into a bark but that was blocked with something like sandbags, bottling up her energy until it burst out unpredictably in moments of aggression, and keeping her from being able to translate my command into any kind of vocalization.
And then suddenly I realized that what I was visualizing was nothing more or less than her windpipe. That asking a dog to bark on command is asking a dog to control its breath—to breathe in and then breathe out in a bark rather than simply releasing air through its nose. It’s one thing for a dog to bark instinctively, and quite another for it to be able to respond to a command to produce a bark.
We’ve all heard of the many studies showing that breath work—through such efforts as meditation or yoga, for example, or even natural childbirth breathing techniques—can be key to reducing stress in people. In fact, last week in my yoga class I was trying to do something at the limits of my yoga abilities, and just after I’d made it up onto my hands, my yoga teacher said, “Now do it again without clenching your teeth.” She was completely right—my jaw was aching—when I’m trying to do something hard that makes me nervous, I have a tendency to clench my teeth and even hold my breath instead of working with the breath. Which is exactly what Cholula used to do when she saw a dog on a leash—I believe Kevin called it “lock jaw” when I first described to him how she would silently and with utter focus gaze at the oncoming dog, her entire face clenched.
Breath control, as I now think of bark on command, is much easier for some dogs than for others. Pundit is an example of a dog who picked this up with relative ease, even at the age of 12. But for Cholula, with her extreme inhibition and generally quiet nature, to ask her to bark on command is to ask her to leave all of her past coping mechanisms behind. To ask for transformation. A transformation that, as Kevin has said all along, could be key in truly resolving Cholula’s problems. Which is why I’m so excited about our recent progress.
I’m including links to three video clips below. (Note: my daughter filmed the clips of me working with Cholula, so you can hear her commentary in the background. Also, I’m fully aware these clips also show the limitations of my training abilities—I’m no expert, and my timing is not always right, etc. However, I want to share them not only because I think they reveal Cholula’s progress, but also because I think that Cholula’s extreme difficulty doing this and her slow progress towards it illustrate how, as Kevin Behan claims, getting a dog with aggression problems to bark on command gives it a way to release its stress without aggression and thus can resolve the aggression problem.
Video 1: Pundit Barks: One challenge I’ve had with training Cholula is that Pundit is fully aware that when Cholula and I go into the back yard for training, there are treats involved, and he wants to be part of it. While sometimes I can accommodate him as a training partner, with the bark-on-command work, it really doesn’t help Cholula when Pundit is only too willing to bark every time he hears me say “speak.” But when I put him inside, he stands at the back door and barks like a maniac until my irritated husband throws him back out with us. The only way I’ve found out of this cycle is to bring Pundit out with us, and then rotate the commands “bark” and “quiet” as I walk Pundit back towards the door. Eventually, I open the door, put him back in the kitchen, give him his “quiet” command and treat, close the door, and like magic, he waits for us inside without barking. So in case you are interested, here is Pundit barking and being quiet on command (what I hope eventually Cholula will be able to do). It also the method I’ve been able to use to enact Kevin’s promise that if you can teach a dog to bark you can teach him to be quiet.
Video 2: Cholula Working on Her Bark: This clip is from early in the training session. I include it because it shows some beginning steps she has to take to bark—she opens her mouth, she wrinkles her nose, she breathes out of her mouth—all pieces of the breath control she needs to bark—and all things that were beyond her last year.
Video 3: Cholula Getting Closer: This clip is from towards the end of the training session. Warmed up, she is actually huffing—that is, while it’s not quite a bark yet, there are times here where she opens her mouth, wrinkles her nose, and makes a noise! She is learning to respond to me with her breath. Also, at the end of the video clip I ask my daughter to back up so you can see Cholula’s body. This is because in this recent work with Cholula I’ve been goading her to get her to bark by lightly pinching her cheek. As she started opening her mouth in response to this goading in earlier training sessions, it actually appeared to me up front with her head that she might bite me—the wrinkling up of her nose, the opening of her mouth—the expression on her face was that of a dredged up frustrated hostility that she has worked to inhibit for too long. While it didn’t make me give up, it definitely kept my hands moving quickly. But then at some point I noticed that while her face was reflecting this intense struggle to release something she usually holds back, her body and tail were smooth, supple, excited, wagging. There is something about this work, hard for her as it is, that simultaneously gives her joy. And so we continue the work, in the hope of fully unlocking her heart.
February resolutions: Read more, write more, work with Cholula. I got so caught up with various unending projects over the holidays that it took me all of January to even approach finishing some of the things I’d started. In fact, the projects still aren’t finished, but now that it’s February, the Christmas tree has long been dutifully taken down and left on the front walk for the tree-recycling, the late holiday cards have long been mailed, and there are no major family celebrations or travel on the immediate horizon, I’ve decided to add back in these other efforts as well.
While the dogs have been more or less benignly ignored over the holiday season frenzy, I’ve been intermittently working on a couple of areas with Cholula–the sit-stay and down; the tug of war play; and yes, back to the bark on command–and I think I’m on the verge of some breakthroughs that with a little more focus I could describe here usefully.
In the meantime, I love watching our shadows run together, especially when the light hits so as to cast the shadow of her ears on the path before us. Does this look like a dog who still gets so anxious and befuddled by the short hallway that passes the door to the basement stairs that she still routinely stops, turns around, and backs up past the door with big awkard dog steps? And yet it is. Where does that quirk come from? And why does all the other progress she’s made in other areas not translate to any more normalcy when it comes to passing a closed door that happens to lead to some stairs? She is a work in progress, my Cholu, as we all are, as am I.