The almost dog

Last month, I did a crazy thing.

It all started innocently enough on July 14 when my cousin shared on Facebook her local animal shelter’s post about a Mastiff-mix dog named Matteo. She commented, “Three dogs in a small house would be too much for us…but give this guy a look or a share. Love the gentle giants!”

matteo

Matteo

Look at that face! What’s not to love?!

I see dozens and dozens of posts just like this one every single week on Facebook from all over the country, and this particular dog was located more than 500 miles away from me. Something in his eyes drew me completely in, though, so I took the next baby step. I commented.

comments

If my cousin had made any other reply than the one she did, or made no reply at all, nothing would have come of it and we’d all have just gone on with our lives. But once the thing was set in motion, there was no stopping it.

On the Monday after she posted Matteo, she went to the shelter to meet him, and I followed along with her in my first-ever FaceTime conversation. Matteo was enthusiastic but not unruly, highly interactive with his visitors, and quick to sit for a treat that he took oh-so-gently. He even gave my cousin a quick kiss, which confirmed his considerable charm. I was sold. She was sold. We both so wanted this to be a love match.

On Tuesday, I made the decision to go meet Matteo and, with luck, bring him home with us, so my to-do list kicked into high gear. I had to figure out how to get there, how long it would take, how much it would cost, whether my homeowner’s insurance would allow me to have another dog, and so on. Did I have a collar and leash? A bed? A crate? Enough food to feed him? It was a 12-hour drive to get to him, and I knew he would be adopted quickly so I could not wait.

Fortunately, the shelter is closed on Wednesdays and no adoptions would take place, so I had a little time. There was a scramble trying to communicate with the shelter during their maddeningly limited telephone hours and open hours, but I was able to confirm before I left town that he was still available. So on Wednesday morning, I packed a bag, put the little dogs in the car, and off we went down the long, long road from here to there. I felt I was going on a blind date with every intention of coming home married. But I was ready, and I had the ring in my pocket in the form of Ruby’s old collar, fitted out with a shiny new tag for what I hoped would be my new big dog.

matteo collar

Put a ring on it

Two days of driving across four states later, I pulled up to the shelter half an hour before it opened on Thursday afternoon and waited nervously, very nervously. Matteo is so big, and my dogs are so small. We had no information about how he interacted with small dogs. I can handle a big dog and I already knew I’d love him, but the doggie meet-and-greet could go wrong in any number of ways, and that’s what was going to make or break this match. We all had to love one another or it wasn’t going to work.

The shelter is run by the city, and it is a busy, crowded, noisy place full of dogs and people in constant motion. I had a long wait and some paperwork to fill out before a volunteer finally brought Matteo out and put us together in a small yard. Just as he had with my cousin, he sat nicely for a treat and took it gently and allowed me to pet him without a single hesitation. He was frantic to be out of the kennel and out of the yard, so much so that I could not hold his attention without a treat in my hand. The shelter had named him Matteo at intake so the word meant nothing to him. There was no calling him to me or really, any interacting with him to be done at all except giving treats. I felt a chill.

Getting him together with my dogs seemed to be almost more than the shelter could accommodate. They insisted on having two handlers, one for Matteo and one for the littles, to ensure that no negative interactions occurred and that my dogs would feel no need to protect me from a strange dog. The female volunteer who took Matteo radiated anxiety about the meeting—her face seemed locked in a grimace of dread the entire time. The male volunteer who took my dogs, on the other hand, could not have been more blasé about the whole thing. He continually reassured me that all was just fine, while the female handler balked at each new iteration of interaction between the dogs. They progressed smoothly from walking past each other on leash to circling and sniffing each other on leash to moving around the yard together freely off leash to walking with me all together on leash. “That’s it, that’s as good as it’s gonna get for a first meeting,” the male handler said. “I think they’re good.”

My concern at that point was that Matteo seemed to want to interact only with the female handler and not with me or my dogs. There were no play bows, no nose-sniffs, no false charges or chasing around between the dogs, and Matteo never once initiated interaction with me. The three dogs essentially moved to separate areas of the large yard and ignored one another. I asked the female handler to leave the yard to let me see how Matteo would be with just us. With one last grimace, she walked out and closed the gate behind her. I turned to see Matteo running back and forth along the fence anxiously looking for her, and he would not return to us for the remainder of the visit.

Looking back, that’s the moment I realized Matteo was not going home with us, although it took me the whole rest of the evening to clarify that in my mind because I had invested so much time and treasure and emotion in getting there and meeting him and wanting this to work. But the fact was, no matter how I felt about him, he obviously felt no sense of connection whatsoever to me or to my dogs. He was not interested in joining our pack.

matteo

What a handsome boy

Despite all the effort expended, I chose to leave him there and drive home the next day, completing a journey of a thousand miles in 72 hours for what at first appeared to be, essentially, nothing.

It wasn’t for nothing, though.

I learned how big my heart is, and how much strength I have to do a very big, very scary thing for the right reasons. I also learned that my cousin and I make a formidable team and that I can count on her support 100%. I could not have done the thing without her.

When I got home, several people had just one question for me: “What were you thinking?!”

What I was thinking is, it’s been 9 years since I had a big dog that I felt could protect me and allow us to go places that I don’t feel safe going alone or with the little dogs. I was thinking, that absolutely beautiful boy got a raw deal by being dumped at that shelter, and I had the power to punch his ticket out to the sweet life. I was thinking, I can’t save them all, but I could save this one. I was thinking, I wanted to make a difference. And I almost did. If he had loved us back, even just a little bit, just for a moment, in that shelter yard, he’d be here with us now—probably snoring on the couch with the littles rolled up on either side to share body heat.

He was almost our dog. We were almost his family.

Matteo was adopted out the day after I got home, and I hope he now has the best life a dog could ever dream of—even better than the one I could provide. I hope he knows his name, and that he is loved, and that he is safe and happy wherever he is.

 

The corner of the heart

Back in 1998, country singer Collin Raye released a song called “Corner of the Heart,” which you can watch here. It has a good solid core idea, although the lyrics overall are weak, I think. Nevertheless, the chorus points to the fact that in most relationships there comes a time when one must choose to turn the corner—to recommit at an ever-deeper level to the other person, or to walk away.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to test this theory with another person in my own life. I have seen for myself, though, how it works.

From the day I got my girl dog, Reggie, she was, to put it mildly, a problem. She peed and pooped in the house, she ate her own and Rudy’s poo, she was an incorrigible mule on the leash, she tore up my stuff, and she chewed up and ate things that blocked her bowels. For the first two years of her life, I was in a nearly constant state of rage, frustration, and anxiety. I actually talked to my doctor at one point about getting some pharmaceutical help to deal with it (although ultimately decided not to go that route).

I admit, I did not love Reggie much for most of those first two years. Everyone who knows me got to hear all about my problem dog, and how miserable she made me, and how she was ruining my sleep and my carpets and my peace of mind, and how much I wished I could rehome her but how I just couldn’t because I’d feel too guilty letting her go to anyone else. There is no end to the variety of bad homes and bad owners for dogs, and neither I nor my home is perfect but we’re better than most. Besides, she could be so cute, and so charming, from time to time. I fell in love with her the first day I met her and was so excited to bring her home. But when she peed in the middle of my bed within minutes of arriving, I couldn’t help but think I’d made a terrible mistake.

After I stripped the blankets off the bed Reggie peed on, she promptly made herself comfortable in the laundry room.

After I stripped the blankets off the bed Reggie peed on, she promptly made herself comfortable in the laundry room.

When Reggie was about 18 months old, she developed a series of what appeared to be urinary tract infections. This led to the complete loss of her house training and pee everywhere—on the couch, on the bed, in the car, and on the carpets in every room of my house. It was a pee-a-palooza. It took several months and hundreds of dollars’ worth of tests to determine what was actually wrong with her, which turned out to be a congenital defect called a hepatic portosystemic shunt. She has an extra blood vessel on her liver that was shunting blood around her liver rather than through her liver to be filtered. Although she was very fortunate not to have suffered any long-term damage from her inadequately filtered blood those first two years, her life would have been significantly shortened if the shunt were not fixed.

Feeling guilty and hard-pressed but also hopeful that this could resolve her urinary problems, I opted to have the shunt repaired in 2011. It was a major operation, and Reggie struggled in her recovery.

In her crate immediately after surgery, her leg still wrapped where she had an IV and her eyes still shiny from the goop they put on them to keep her eyeballs from drying out during the surgery.

Reggie in her crate immediately after the shunt-repair surgery, her leg still wrapped where she had an IV and her eyes still shiny from the goop they put on them to keep her eyeballs from drying out during the surgery.

The largest struggle was with bacterial overgrowth in her gut, which gave her diarrhea. I had to keep her in a crate during the day when I was at work to keep her quiet, and it was bare empty because she would eat any fabric I put in there with her. She would poop all over her crate, then eat it, then poop it again. Every day. This pushed me to my lowest point of anger and disgust with her horrible habits.

Fortunately—by grace, evidently, because I can’t say it was by my conscious choice—this is when I turned the corner in my heart with Reggie. I finally realized that she was not “misbehaving” just to spite me and that her behavior was nothing she could choose to control. I stopped seeing her as a vexing burden I shouldered out of guilt, but rather as a small creature in my care who needed my help. In short, I stopped allowing her to make me suffer because I stopped seeing her behavior as any reflection whatsoever on me.

From that point forward, I willingly made arrangements to get Reggie out of the crate when she needed to go, even when I was at work, to break her coprophagia cycle and to help her heal. I administered her medications punctiliously, I kept her clean and dry, and I cuddled her close when she seemed to be feeling bad. I stopped seeing her accidents as affronts to me and damage to my home and started seeing them simply as a symptom that she was struggling. I did all I could to help her get better, but at the same time I accepted her for exactly the dog that she was instead of always pushing her to be the dog I wanted her to be and punishing her for not being that dog.

I’m happy to say that the surgery was 100% successful and that Reggie was once again fully house trained after all her medical issues cleared. She is in the very pink of health now and I expect her to live out her full normal life span.

She has not, however, become the dog I wanted her to be when I got her.

She’s become so much more than that.

reggie-bedlet

My best girl dog.

There was a time when I would have gladly handed Reggie over to the first person who came along and asked for her, but now I would not trade her for anything in the world. She is in my heart for life.

Kokatat

When I was a young newspaper reporter who needed to fill some time in between covering car crashes and jury trials, my editor would send me around to local businesses to do profiles on their products. One of those businesses was Kokatat, a manufacturer of paddle sports apparel and gear in Arcata, California. I toured the factory and spoke with the owner, who told me that Kokatat is a Yurok Indian word that means “into the water.” I don’t remember anything else I learned that day, but I’ve never forgotten that.

The word is on my mind tonight as I remember a day in 2007 when my mother and I took her Golden Retriever puppy Sunny to the river for the first time. We were staying at a small resort on the McKenzie River soon after Labor Day, and had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. My big dog, Ruby, had passed a few weeks prior and I was in mourning. Spending time with a boisterous 6-month-old puppy was bittersweet—so much life ahead of her, but she was not my dog.

Sunny was my parents’ second lifetime dog. They waited nearly four years after their first lifetime dog passed to get another puppy, and she was their darling baby from the day they laid eyes on her.

The second morning of our stay, I let my mother sleep in while I slipped out of the cabin and down to the beach with Sunny. It was deserted at that early hour, except for a flock of four or five ducks that were poking around at the waterline. Sunny had been down to the river the day before and had shown no interest in going in the water, so I let her off the leash. She nosed around and false-charged the ducks a few times, while they just ignored her advances. But when she wouldn’t leave them alone, they decided as a group to set sail downriver. Seeing them all swimming away from her before she’d had time to really even get to know them was too much for Sunny. She didn’t hesitate before splashing into the water after them. They kept going. And she kept going after them. And before I knew it, she was out in the middle of the McKenzie and heading downstream fast. She was just a puppy who had never even been in the water before.

My mother was too far away to hear me when I yelled, and yelled, and yelled for Sunny to come back. Nobody was anywhere on the grounds of our resort. There was a fence that ran all the way down to the waterline at the edge of the property, which Sunny had just sailed past. I clambered over that fence and I ran as hard as I could to keep pace with her as she shot downstream. I shouted and whistled and begged her to come back until I was hoarse, unable to bear the thought of losing another dog so soon, let alone this dog.

I don’t know how far I ran before she finally swam to the shore and plunged into my arms, but she made her way out of the water that day. I walked her back to our cabin and came in to find my mother just waking up. She’d had no idea what had just happened. Our relief was gigantic.

That night, as we were talking of this and other things, I started to cry. Mom asked me why, and it took me a minute to sort it out. Finally I told her, “Ruby would never have done that.” I missed my dog that ran to the sound of my voice. Sunny was not my dog and she never did that; I marvel still that she came back to me at all. But she did come to me the one time when it counted the most, and for that I will always be grateful. My parents’ love for their dog is a mighty force, and they deserved to have her for the full measure of her life.

Sunny

Sunny

When we were at the cabin, Sunny would start each day by running into my bedroom and vaulting onto my bed. She would plant herself flat on top of me and enthusiastically lick my face to wake me up and I have to tell you: I have never experienced a better wake-up call before or since. I told my friends when I returned from the visit that the title of Best Dog In the World and the little tiara that goes with it had officially been passed from Ruby to Sunny.

Some time this summer, when nobody was looking, Sunny stepped to the edge of another river that she had no choice but to enter. A tumor in her spleen that had spread into her lungs was stealing her breath. She slipped silently into the water where the current took her, and she could not make it back to shore this time. My parents said goodbye to her this morning and sent her on her way to the Rainbow Bridge we all hope and dream awaits our pets and, someday, us.

My parents and their dog.

My parents and their dog.

She was a good girl, and much loved. She will live forever in our hearts.

Good dog. Stay.

Good dog. Stay.

Dog stories

Anyone who knows me well would tell you my life went to the dogs years ago, and I cannot disagree. This week, though, it’s really been all about the dogs, and a few of my readers love the dog stories, so here’s what’s been happening at our house.

Dog Story 1: Max

On Monday afternoon, I saw a little black Chihuahua playing in the street I was driving down, a one-block connector between the two main roads going through my town. I stopped and got out to see if he would come to me. Instead, he laid down and rolled over for a belly rub. I put my emergency car leash on him, picked him up, and knocked on the door of the nearest house. The woman who answered the door said yes, she knew the dog. His name is Max, he lives next door, “he gets out all the time” and bothers her dogs, and the owners “are not very nice to him.” I suggested he might be happier in a new home, and she agreed. “Then you never saw me here, okay?” I said. She smiled and nodded without another word.

Even with this tacit permission, I was not willing to just outright steal the dog. I went over to Max’s house and knocked on the door, but nobody answered. Seeing that the house sat on an unfenced lot so close to the traffic, I felt I had no choice but to take him home with me for safekeeping, after stopping by my vet to have him scanned for a microchip that I knew he wouldn’t have (he didn’t). They examined his teeth and testicles and said he appeared to be about 8 months old.

I introduced him to my dogs out in the backyard and, despite his youthful exuberance and intense sexual interest in both of them, they all seemed to get along reasonably well. Within a matter of hours, I was completely attached to the little guy. I’ve only ever loved three dogs in my life, but he could have been the fourth. For about 24 hours, in fact, he was.

little-dog

Even knowing that he has no ID, is not neutered long past the point when he needed to be, and lives in a ramshackle dump of a house with no yard in the care of people who don’t seem to have any interest in keeping him safe, I still couldn’t steal him even though I wanted to, badly. But I dutifully called the local shelter to report a found dog, and the receptionist told me someone had called about two minutes earlier to report a lost black Chihuahua. I promptly called the guy, who told me every single detail about this dog before I even asked, so I knew he was, in fact, the owner. He made a convincing case that he and his family loved Max and that he hadn’t slept a wink overnight for worry. After at least three minutes of non-stop talking about this dog, he finally paused and said in a ragged voice, “please tell me you have him.”

“I do,” I said after a pause that was probably a beat too long, and told him how I’d found Max in the street in front of his house and had picked him up to keep him safe. Feeling tears rise in spite of myself, I asked the guy if he would consider letting Max stay with me, since I have a fenced yard and other dogs he can play with and all. Absolutely not, he said; he just loved Max, and so did his kids. He said he’d bought the dog for his daughter “so they could grow up together.” I told him I’d bring Max back to him later in the day, and he thanked me profusely. He even offered to give me a reward, but I asked him instead to promise me he would get Max chipped and fixed right away and take really good care of him, which of course he said he would do.

When I took Max back, the owner was not at home. Instead, I was met at the door by an unkempt young woman who showed no interest in Max whatsoever and he showed none in her, either. I had to push him into the house and make her take the leash. When I said I was concerned that the yard was not fenced, she said, “yeah, I know but I don’t care. I’m just the babysitter.” Her charge was an infant on her hip, still in diapers and not even walking—this was the child for whom Max was purchased. Looking at the indifferent babysitter, the dilapidated house, the wide-open yard, and Max straining toward me at the end of his leash and whining, I deeply regretted my decision to return him. He clearly was neither safe nor well cared for in that environment, and I expect he’ll meet his sorry end in the middle of one of those busy streets one of these days. I sometimes wish my scruples did not so strongly compel me to try to do the “right” thing.

Dog Story 2: The Wolf Dog

My backyard shares common fences with three other yards. One of them, which I’ll call North Neighbor, contains at least one and possibly more dogs (I never see it/them because the fence is so high, but I hear it/them barking all day most days). Occasionally my dogs and the North dog(s) will get into a barking match at the fence, which can get pretty loud.

While Max was with us and all the dogs were outside, I heard an uproar that sounded louder and much fiercer than what I usually hear from the North dogs. Again, I can’t see anything through the fences, but it sounded like there was a large and apparently aggressive dog in the yard on the other side, which I’ll call East Neighbor. Things calmed down quickly and I didn’t think much about it until later in the evening, when I took all three dogs for a walk and ran into East Neighbor out in front of his house. As we chatted, he mentioned that his son had just gotten a wolf hybrid dog, and my blood ran cold because I just don’t think that any good can come of crossing dogs with wolves and keeping the offspring as pets. He has three sons, two of whom live with him and one of whom is grown and gone, and he didn’t specify which one had the dog. I didn’t want to over-react and start peppering him with questions right then, but I got it in my head that a full-grown wolf dog was living right next door to me and that it had been the instigator of the kerfuffle at the fence earlier. I had visions of an enormous snarling beast coming right through that suddenly flimsy-looking fence and killing my dogs with a single snap. Okay, so maybe I did over-react a bit.

The next day, I caught the neighbor outside again and asked all my questions, adding that it’s actually illegal to own a wolf hybrid in our state. I said I was really concerned about my dogs’ safety, which he completely dismissed with, “but it’s just a puppy!” Yeah, but puppies grow into dogs, I said, and I don’t want any trouble for either of us because if the dog hurt another dog or a person, he would be liable for it. He would not take anything I said seriously, and I was appalled that a man my own age could not look just a little way down the road of life, imagine even a few possible scenarios that could be bad for him, and maybe consider taking precautions accordingly.

As we were talking, a car pulled up in front of his house and a young couple got out. A small fuzzy black dog ran toward us and East Neighbor greeted it affectionately. She was all soft paws and puppy breath and cute as she could be, all 10 or 12 pounds of her. “This is the wolf dog,” he said, and I felt my ears turn pink. “THIS?! This is the one?” He smirked knowingly and said, “told ya she was just a puppy.” And in fact, she did not appear to be any kind of a threat at all, let alone any kind of wolf. I felt foolish for a moment, but my point still stands: Any dog can bite. Any dog can be dangerous Any dog that runs loose can cause harm to people and other dogs, and is itself in danger. Which is why every dog should be kept under control, and “voice control” is never fail-safe.

I asked East to keep the dog restrained in his front yard when she visits (she won’t be living there), and to work with me to keep our shared fence in good repair, as much for my sake and that of my dogs as for his own. “You wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her,” I reminded him, and told him that I am only concerned because I love dogs, all dogs. He kept trying to brush off my concerns right to the end of our conversation, but he said he would consider not letting the dog run loose (I will believe that when I see it). He closed by thanking me for being a good neighbor, and I hope he meant that sincerely. I try to be.

Dog Story 3: The Floof

Last night I heard my dogs going absolutely nuts barking in the front room, and came out to see what was going on. I saw a guy across the street walking four large dogs together, which seemed to be almost too much for him to handle. On the other side of the street from him was a lady holding a small floofy dog, and I couldn’t tell by looking whether there was a confrontation among them or exactly what was going on. In a few minutes, the dog walker turned and went back the way he came, and I realized the lady was going door to door with the little dog, so I stepped outside to talk to her. She said she’d found him loose on the next street over and that she couldn’t keep him because she lives with all those big dogs the guy was walking. I said I’d take him in for the night, so we put him into my backyard and introduced him to my dogs with no problems.

I got him scanned at my vet’s this morning and he has no chip and no collar but he does have his nads, again, which I think is just unconscionable and tantamount to neglect. Fortunately, he is not nearly so disrespectful of personal space with my dogs as Max was, but he has already motivated Rudy to mark in the house for the first time in years and I am not sure I want to keep him because even though he’s just a perfect little sweetheart, I am so done cleaning up dog effluent.

I’ve put an ad on Craigslist and knocked on several doors in my neighborhood but haven’t gotten any response yet. He appears to be a purebred and well-groomed Lhasa Apso, so I’m hopeful his owners are looking for him and he will be home with them by tonight.

He went out to do his business early this morning and got soaked when the sprinklers came on.

He went out to do his business early this morning and got soaked when the sprinklers came on.

And there you have it, all the Doggy Times in La Casita Bonita! I hope things calm down pretty soon because these comings and goings are more than a little hard on my heart.


Update, April 25: The floofy one, whose name is Cocoa, was picked up by his owner late last night, so I didn’t have to put up with another night of his whining in his crate. A happy ending for all!

 

The story of us

We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us. ~ Will Kearney, “On Losing a Dog”

This quote is from a story about a man and his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Dutch. The man is the author’s brother, James. I was moved by this account of love and loss, both for how it mirrors my own and how it doesn’t.

Like Dutch, my big dog Ruby lived with me for the best 10 years of my life before I lost her to hemangiosarcoma in 2007. I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that she was the best dog in the world, as is every well-loved dog. Raising her well, giving her a good life, and caring for her to the end are among the best things I have ever done, and I will always be grateful that she was my dog.

Ruby_kiss_2003

Me and my big dog.

Kearney says of his brother, “When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.” On this point, we differ. Ruby changed me profoundly for the better as she, too, gave me all the best parts of herself. And the best parts of me that she drew forth are still vibrantly alive, buoying me up through tough times. She gave me all she had, and I honor her gifts every day. I share them with my little dogs now, as well as with my friends and family and the world in other ways.

The little dogs, too, give me their best, and loving them keeps my heart open and warm and pliable even when it has every reason to shrivel up into a cold, bitter lump of nothing. Hey, I’ve been single for a long damn time, and while that has its advantages, to be sure, it does not foster open-heartedness as a general rule. I know that I cannot survive without an open heart, so in this respect my dogs are my lifeline.

little-dogs

Me and my little dogs.

People have always said that the greatest thing about dogs is that they love us unconditionally. I don’t think that’s true, actually, because I don’t know that animals actually feel what we call love. But I know that people do. And I think the greatest thing about dogs, and all pets, is that they allow us to love them unconditionally. The best human-animal bonds allow us to be who we were born to be: open-hearted, loving, understanding, trusting, patient, kind, and most of all, fully present. Most of us are too afraid to love other people that way, but we can love our animals that way because they place no barriers between themselves and our affections for them. Imagine how the world might change if everyone allowed themselves to love and be loved this way, sharing with one another “the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name.”

“My dog does this amazing thing where he just exists and makes my whole life better because of it.” ~ Found on various internet sites without attribution

I’ve had separate conversations recently with a very dear friend and with my mother, both lovely women, to the effect that their greatest contribution to the world is simply to show up and be themselves because that, in and of itself, is a gift that the world needs. My mother, in particular, feels on some days that because she has such limited mobility since her stroke that she doesn’t have much to offer the world anymore. But in fact, her mere presence is a tangible thing, strongly felt by family, friends and strangers alike—in exactly the same way that her Golden Retriever’s presence is felt by and influences everyone with whom the dog comes in contact.

My mom and her dog, Sunny.

Mom and her dog, Sunny, who makes her laugh.

Sunny has no agenda in her interactions with the world; she takes people just as she finds them and loves them all the same. All she has to offer in any interaction is only herself, and nearly everyone she meets finds that to be not only sufficient, but actually quite delightful. My mother, too, is finding that all she has to offer now is herself, and well into her seventh decade of life she is learning, I hope, that this is and has always been enough.

Whether your pet of choice is a dog, a cat, a hamster, a rabbit, a horse, a python, or any other sentient creature, this is the simplest and yet the most profound lesson that our animals can teach us: Be present. Be yourself. Be.

The baddest breed

I read today that PetSmart does not allow any pitbull-type dog to participate in its PetsHotel Doggie Day Camps.

petsmart-daycamp-requirements

The Huffington Post article by Arin Greenwood makes the case better than I can as to why this policy is absurd in theory and in practice, but it boils down to two things:

  1. Nobody can say for sure whether a mixed breed dog is a “bully breed” without a genetic test.
  2. Even if it is a bully breed, a dog is a dog is a dog.

Greenwood also points out that this discriminatory policy, which PetSmart only vaguely justifies, helps add to the stigma against bully breeds, which die by the millions in this country every year because they cannot be rehomed.

Ironically, PetSmart’s nonprofit division—PetSmart Charities, which describes itself as having the mission of finding “a lifelong, loving home for every pet”—recently released a report cheering the increase in pet adoptions but lamenting the barriers that stand in the way to reducing euthanasia.

This is a rather chilling excerpt from the report’s intro:

“The public continues to vastly underestimate the number of pets who are euthanized annually in the United States. An estimated 8 million pets enter U.S. shelters every year and only 4 million ever find homes. Cats, kittens, Chihuahuas and bully breeds are particularly at risk for euthanasia.”

The fear and loathing of pit bulls runs deep. Looking for statistics on dog bites in the U.S., I came across DogsBite.org, a site so rabidly (ahem) biased against pit bulls that it might almost be funny. Unfortunately, from what I can find online, it appears their central premise is correct: pitbull-type breeds are most often involved in dog bite injuries and fatalities. The second most-guilty breed in that category is Rottweilers. As many of you know, my first dog was a Rottweiler who never hurt a soul, but she frightened a lot of people just by being the breed she was. I had a client once who literally shook with fear just seeing her sitting in the back seat of my car when I stopped by his office to say hello. He wouldn’t come within 20 feet of the car and contorted himself to avoid turning his back on her. I was embarrassed for him; she was just sitting there, not doing anything but looking at him.

But I digress.

What I want to say is, I personally don’t like pit bulls as a breed (although I have liked individual ones when I got to know them). I think they have, with few exceptions, an exceedingly unattractive body type, from their blocky heads to their weirdly attenuated toenails and whip-like tails. Generally speaking, I don’t trust them, I’m afraid of them, I doubt I would ever own one myself, and I’d be nervous living next door to one (more for my dogs’ sake than for my own, because my two little terriers, believe it or not, can act exceedingly aggressively when they’re on their own side of the fence).

All that said, I grieve for the plight of all pit bulls in this nation and this world, where their innate characteristics—courage, physical size and strength, protectiveness, “gameness”—have been perverted into dangerous aggression by too many careless owners for personal gain, to the horrible detriment of the breed. A Facebook friend of mine who reposts stories of shelter dogs in need of rescue from being euthanized includes dozens of pit bulls every week. Most of them are puppies or very young, and most of them have no chance of getting out of the shelter alive no matter how sweet their temperament or how highly the shelter staff recommends them. Their breed alone dooms them. And I have to acknowledge that this is, in part, because people like me who own and love dogs won’t even go near them.

baby-pitbull

I have to admit, the blue-grey ones with the blue eyes and white socks are awfully cute. And there’s almost nothing cuter than a pit bull puppy.

A pit bull is just a dog, the same as any other dog, despite the myths surrounding it. I know that in my head, but can’t stop the convulsive clutch of fear I feel when I am out walking my dogs and we encounter a loose pit bull. “This dog could kill both my dogs. It could kill me.” I can’t help thinking this. I would think the same if we encountered a loose German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Chow-Chow, Akita, American Bulldog, English Mastiff, Cane Corso, or St. Bernard. All these dogs would scare me spitless in uncontrolled circumstances. Then again, so would any nondescript cur that comes running and snarling at us. Breed and aggression are not inherently linked.

But my personal feelings are simply that, and I don’t have the right to impose my own fears on other people or other dogs just to make myself feel safer. Therefore, I don’t support breed-specific legislation that prevents people from owning certain breeds of dogs, nor do I support rules or regulations that say that only certain breeds of dogs are acceptable or welcome. I’ve been denied rental housing and told by prospective landlords that my well-mannered, well-trained dog posed an unacceptable risk solely because of her breed. Ha.

Ruby_kiss_2003

What a beast.

I do enthusiastically support education on how to be a good dog owner and I would support laws that punish people for allowing their dogs to run loose, or to menace other people or animals. People who mistreat, mishandle or misdirect a dog should not be allowed to own one. Preventing dog bites and dog-bite-related fatalities is a job for people, both those who own dogs and everyone who interacts with dogs.

Just to be clear: I am in favor of education. I am in favor of rescue. I am in favor of dogs. All dogs. I am not in favor of discrimination against animals that have done nothing wrong.

raise-them-right

As for PetSmart , I get my dogs’ food there because they’re the only chain that carries that particular brand, so I’ll probably keep shopping with them. But I will never patronize their day camp. I take my dogs to Camp Bow Wow, which has a more enlightened policy about what kind of dogs they welcome: “Every dog must first complete an interview process so we can see how they interact with other dogs. They must be over four months old, must be spayed or neutered if they are over 6 months old, and must be current on their Rabies, Bordetella (for canine cough), and Distemper vaccinations. Additional vaccinations may be required based upon regional location. They must be in good health, flea/tick free, friendly to all dogs, and generally love to play.”

Fair enough.

Flash and burn

I’ve been working hard this past couple of weeks to master flash photography for fun and profit. I’ve invested in light stands, a shoot-through umbrella, and what is unflatteringly referred to in the business as a slave unit (a flash on a stand that is remotely triggered by the camera). Putting all these pieces into play effectively to do what I want them to do has proved to be a challenge with a nearly vertical learning curve.

I admit that I don’t have much of a mind for mathematics and physics, which would come in really handy to figure out how to use one’s available strobes to effectively fill a given space with even, diffused light that both illuminates and flatters the subject without creating any harsh shadows. I also admit that I’ve become quite soft from using a digital camera that calculates all that stuff for me and is supposed to return beautifully lit shots every time without my having to do anything more to it than aim it at my subject and press the shutter-release button.

Ha.

My Nikon D3100 is considered an entry-level DSLR, but I tell you what, it is essentially an entire photo processing lab all by itself, and there are hundreds of setting combinations one might use to achieve nearly any effect desired before the shot is even taken. It’s quite remarkable and incredibly sophisticated compared to, say, the first SLR I ever used. I have spent hundreds of hours studying and experimenting with this camera, and still don’t know all that it can do. And oftentimes I struggle to make it take the photo I want it to take because even the finest, most sophisticated equipment can only do as much as the person operating it knows to tell it to do.

One small example is adjusting white balance in the camera to suit the available light in the scene. Different light sources have different color temperatures—fluorescent light is on the cooler end of the spectrum and more on the blue side, whereas incandescent light is warmer and more yellow/orange. These hues will tend to be most noticeable in the lighter or white areas of your photographs. And it’s not always obvious which white balance setting you should use, nor which will give the best result, and you can’t rely on the camera to choose the right setting.

Case in point: I wanted to photograph my freshly groomed dogs sitting on a white blanket on the couch in my living room. The room was lit by a 150-watt incandescent light, and in the auto mode, the camera also determined that flash was needed. Here is the first shot of my very, very reluctant models.

flash

The camera managed to capture both light sources to rather poor effect, as you can see the cooler/bluish flash light just behind and to the right of the dogs clashing with the warmer/yellowish incandescent lamp light coming from the left.

So, since I’m shooting under incandescent light, I should select the incandescent (or “indoor”) white balance setting, right?

incandescent-wb

Oops, no. Talk about overcompensating! The dogs no longer care about me or my stupid white balance issues, thanks ever so, and collapsed in resignation the moment I pulled the camera away from my eye.

Well then, perhaps the flash setting for white balance is what I need. I goosed my nearly boneless dogs up one last time and tried to get them to smile, to no avail. Rudy is wearing his “all freaked out” face (you can tell by the way his ears are levered out in the R for Rudy semaphore signal).

flash-wb2

Ta-dah! Flash it is! At least I have now determined what setting to use in my living room at night, as this is exactly how the scene appeared to my eye through the viewfinder.

I tried to take one more shot just for good measure, but the dogs had lost all interest in the photo shoot and, apparently, in life as well by this time. There was no moving them to pose for me any further.

flash-wb

Now, I know what you’re thinking: the second and fourth photos above are actually the same image, but one was just tweaked in Photoshop to illustrate my point. No, they are actually two separate, unmanipulated images straight out of the camera.

This sort of flash performance (and initial disappointment, and tinkering, and losing the shot I really wanted because I had to adjust the camera three times) is why I am kind of starting to dislike it. Great flash-lit pictures are possible, of course, but my heavens, I don’t know if I have the patience to learn how to take them because it seems to me that as soon as I master the tricks for one type of situation, the next one in which I need to use flash requires some other solution entirely. It’s time-consuming and frustrating.

Rudy knows what I mean.

so-done

“oh god, please, no more pictures, even if I am perfectly coiffed”