Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lessons from Grover

I had named her Grover, after the character from Jim Henson’s “The Muppets.” Grover was at the time my favorite stuffed animal, my favorite TV character, and so the name of our dog. She was an enormous dog, at least 90 lbs, which included about 50 lbs of fur. She was part Afghan, supposedly, and the rest had to be Old English Sheepdog.

I had thought that my memories of her as a large dog were overstated because I was a small child; however, seeing pictures of her in my adult years has confirmed that she was a monster.

Grover could get out of any yard. My mother was pulling her hair out trying to build a pen for the dog to stay in where she wouldn’t jump the fence. All of this was to no avail, for we soon found out that she was climbing the fences we built.

She would haul her enormous frame up and over any size fence my parents constructed, and she would be off searching the neighborhood until she heard our car or truck come barreling down the streets.

In a flash, she would stop whatever she was doing and come running, sometimes from two or three blocks away. She would race to the pen, trying to get back in before my parents (usually my father) would catch her on the outside. Then she’d sit there, panting with tongue rolling, and give my dad her big doggie grin and an innocent look.

“What?” she seemed to say. “I’ve been here all day. I swear.”

We loved her anyway; well, Dad and I did. My mom probably could have done without. Most of my memories of Grover were of her causing hell, so you can imagine that it was Mom that had to deal with most of that.

Grover also had puppies. At the time, the spay/neuter movement was just beginning. Spaying her never seemed a priority, and so the inevitable eventually happened. She had nine puppies, and one died soon after birth. Of all of my memories of her, the puppies I only remember by pictures.

You would think as a young child this would have been the highlight, and I always wonder why it wasn’t. Maybe I loved Grover too much to have my only memories of her be of the six or so weeks we had her puppies.

Our basement had a terrible habit of flooding in that house. The type of flooding where the electrical outlets are up off the ground four feet and you still wonder if the water got high enough to electrocute you.

One night, while Grover’s pups were still under two weeks old, the basement began to flood. We had a whelping box down there, and we had no idea it was flooding. Grover worked hard to save her puppies, not surprisingly. What was surprising was how she did it.

She refused to bring the puppies up to the landing where it was safe unless she could bring them all up. Since she obviously couldn’t carry them all at once, she moved them a few feet at a time to the stairs. Then she moved them all up the stairs one step and one puppy at a time.

The result was that the water “chased” them up the stairs, to the point where one puppy was found wet. However, she got them all to safety without leaving anyone behind for more than a second at a time.

It must have made perfect sense to her. The puppies were one huge being to her, and she couldn’t process carrying one to safety, coming back, getting another, etc. The puppies were not puppies, plural; they were a litter, singular. They were one group instead of six individuals. Is it any wonder our dogs either accept us as part of the pack or don’t?

We are either part of their world, or we are part of everything else. And what rewards they have for us if we are part of their world!

In an emergency, we are never left behind for more than a second, and if we are going to go, we are going to go together.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Choosing the right dog...

Visit any library or bookstore, and you will find dozens of books on choosing the right dog for you. Usually these books are based on breed, and they will range from generic descriptions of dog breeds based on show standards to detailed checklists of each breed's tendencies towards things like required exercise and energy level, protection desire or capability (two very different things), and grooming/coat care requirements.

The problem is, though, the emotional aspect is often lacking. There is a lot of talk in some of these books about how you will feel about the dog. Let's face it - most of us know how we feel about dogs before we look for one.

There is a piece missing though...

How will the dog feel about you?

Make no mistake about it - dogs look for certain qualities in humans the same way we look for qualities in them. They are as much about finding "the perfect match" as we are!

Who hasn't known a dog that follows his owner everywhere, leash or not, traffic or not, like a shadow? Who also hasn't known a dog that will bolt at the sight of an open door and race three counties away if given the chance? Maybe you know a person or family who has had the pleasure and misfortune of both types of dogs - my family would prove to be an excellent example of this.

It is not always dependent on the breed either. I have seen wonderful rotties and German shepherd dogs, and awful matches of these same breeds, all within the same loving families.

The ironic thing is, we often blame the owners. We complain that they must not be giving the dog what it needs - and its probably true - but its probably less within their control than you might think.

Our shih tzu loves my husband, yet she is terrified of him walking towards her. Should he not walk through his own house? Should he assume that after the last six years of this unprovoked fear something different would happen if he took a different path through the three foot hallway? Should he shrink to appease her, taper off some of his 52" chest and slouch down to a more reasonable 5'11" height?

Absolutely not. People would call him nuts!

Yet she isn't the first dog and probably won't be the last to have this reaction with him. So he should keep that in mind before picking a dog that's known to be fearful or a submissive wetter.

We need to know ourselves, and be open and honest about ourselves, and then go out and chose a dog who chooses us. Not a dog that falls within our checklist score in some book that has been reprinted by six different publishers under thirty different authors.

But a choice of love, tolerance, and reciprocity!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Chocolate Lab Thinks She's Marley the Dog

For those of you not familiar with Marley, I encourage you to check out either the book or the movie - or better yet both. For those of you considering a Labrador, that advice goes double. Please get familiar with the story, and realize it could be you. Seriously!

We loved the Marley story. And we once had a yellow lab that we loved dearly. After four years, she lost her battle with cancer at the too-young age of eight. We were devastated. She was a great dog. Her death affected us so deeply that we actually steered away from labs for quite awhile. It was as if we just couldn't bear to have one, our last tribute to our beloved Peaches.

As the years passed, though, it became harder and harder to resist the inevitable onslaught of ads and pictures of adorable round bellied lab puppies. So we compromised - we got a chocolate lab. Her name is Ripley.

Now it it important to note here that we did our homework. I had fallen in love over the years with many high-maintenance, high energy, intense breeds. I knew they'd be too much for the family to handle, and I responsibly passed them up. Dalmatians, border collies, Belgian malinois...all became just a daydream when the realities of what owning one of these A-type personality dogs would be like for the next ten to fifteen years. So instead, we got Ripley the chocolate lab.

Because we were being responsible.

Because we thought we knew what we were doing.

For about a month or two, it seemed we were right. Ripley was the sweetest thing. She came home and fell asleep under the baby saucer and we took pictures and oohed and aahhed. Little did we know it may have been the last time, ever, we would actually witness her sleeping!

She quickly grew into a ball of energy. She knocked over kitchen chairs and sliced open feet as she ran by us with force. She was the demise of many a screen, and she had her way with many a pool cover.

She always came when called but was the ultimate escape artist. There was no fence high enough nor any chains or collars strong enough to hold her in one place. I think some of them just unlatched themselves in exhaustion from her frantic pacing, simply surrendering to her energy.

She terrorized the neighbors' dogs in passive aggressive ways - she'd sneak over under the cover of dark and retrieve every dog toy within a half mile radius. She brought back things I was embarrassed to return - such as one half of a pair of $100+ running shoes or the neighbors sprinkler well cap.

She created games to tease the kids, like hunting for one particular stuffed animal in silence behind my son's back while he was lost in a video game...only to bark at him once she had it safely in her mouth and take off running like the bandit she was while he gave chase.

We do love her though - and we're finding out, we can handle her.

She has a lust for life and an energy that is contagious, and is the main reason for my recent path of pursuing a healthier, more active lifestyle. She is two years old now, and after an hour or so of strenuous exercise can contain her excitement for up to a half hour inside the house. This is great progress!!

We are very proud. (And we are still on speaking terms with all the neighbors, another plus.)

I have often said she could host her own blog, the incredible psychotic Ripley. If I had the time, I would write it for her, but she keeps me so busy entertaining her I don't think that will happen any time soon!

Instead, I will be posting about her travels and excitement in blurbs here and there, to keep you entertained but also to keep me sane. Mostly for the latter...

The Dog Effect

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about "The Butterfly Effect." The popular metaphor follows the theory that every single action in the world, no matter how small, has a profound effect on the rest of the world if given a long enough time frame. If a butterfly flaps its wings in New York, it may rain in San Francisco.

In 2004, a movie named "The Butterfly Effect" was released starring Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, and Amy Smart. The movie gave examples, sometimes to the point of redundancy, of how a slight change of events would change the course of history dramatically for the characters lives.

If a tiny butterfly flapping its wings has captured the imagination and curiosity of theorists, physicists, and philosophisers the world over, imagine the effect of a dog. According to the 2009-2010 National Pet Owners Survey carried out by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, residents of the U.S. owned approximately 77.5 million dogs.

77.5 million! 39% of all U.S. households own at least one dog. This means that almost four out of every ten houses has the potential of a "Dog Effect." A dog's actions are at any given time affecting at least a third of the United States.

"A dog doing what?" you may ask.

Doing anything!

Sniffing the air, snuggling on your couch, tearing up your neighbor's lawn. Imagine!

Think of all the times your life has changed because of a dog. There are obvious changes, such as bringing home a new puppy or saying goodbye to an old friend. There are dramatic impacts too, such as the sudden loss of a dog too young or the heartbreaking decision to end the life of a dog too sick or too old or in too much pain.

But think of all the little, tiny, inconsequential (supposedly) "dog effects" on your life. Maybe you crossed the street one night on a walk to avoid a close encounter with a strange or aggressive dog. Maybe you chose a different hotel on vacation due to their pet policy. Maybe you are never in your yard except to clean up after the dog.

Maybe its even more removed. Its possible that your laundry room door doesn't close properly because the previous owner's dog used to lay against it every night for ten years, forever throwing the hinges off balance. A minor annoyance for the rest of the door's existence, caused by some unknown dog.

Or maybe its a more positive impact.

Maybe your boss woke up in an awful mood, but then was surprised by the friendly wagging tail of his neighbor's poodle when he went outside to get the paper. Maybe when he went over to the neighbor's house to return the dog, she answered the door in a tiny nightgown and they made love on the foyer floor. And maybe because of this, his entire mood changed and instead of firing the secretary that day, he went in and gave everybody raises!

Before you scoff too loudly, remember that if a butterfly's wing flap can affect the weather across an entire nation, anything is possible by a dog.