Thursday, June 28, 2007

Reading Dogs, Dog Reading

The past few nights have been given over to the cozy pleasures of James Herriot's Dog Stories. I can still remember the sensation of private thrill when, decades ago, I sank down in the couch in the den to watch the man I thought was me: a fictionalized rendering, very PBS, of a Yorkshire vet in the Good Old Days.

I had wanted, like every other little girl who didn't know what to do with her overspilling passion for animals, or rather, those animals that weren't involved in either telling me what to do or making me feel bad in ever more inventive ways, to be a vet. By high school I had grown up enough to realize that it probably wasn't the tragedy- and drudgery-free endeavor I had dreamed, and also that biology and chemistry were not my friends. But I'd loved to watch that show based on James Herriot's books, imagining myself as the person who was immediately needed by the bitch about to whelp, the poor deformed calf, the lame drayhorse.

His book of stories is just like that, and you get the picture from a compilation of reviews this bestseller received, lined up on the first pages of the mass market paperback: "touching" is, hands down, the prize winner in the adjectival sweepstakes. And they are indeed touching. Unforced, unshowy, possessed of a modest dramatic arc in each. Comfort food.

There are stories that remind you why, sometimes as your dog is just, say, sniffing around the bedroom floor, you are suddenly gripped with an emotion so powerful and ridiculous-sounding it should always be kept to oneself: Oh, how I love you! This is triggered, strangely, by the way her back feet sort of turn out, a detail you've studied absently for uncounted time, and it ought to embarrass you to realize it's very much like the same blood-red feeling that flattens you when you see your child walking down the sidewalk toward you, sun in his hair.

Well, we won't go on about that any more, shall we?

There is a stack of books in my bedroom so high that if one more were added it would fall over (for those prone to mathematics, that's exactly nineteen books and one pamphlet). I keep pulling books out of it and getting partway in, and then for some reason feeling reluctance to read all the way straight through. I am not a quitter, contrary to my father's continual assertions. I will finish them. It's just that they give me too much to think about, and there are so many waving arms to this octopus I am trying to wrestle with--dog training; behaviorism and its history, implications, and future; humans' often bizarre attitudes toward the other animals (as well as to themselves; hence, the existence of Republicans)--that I go a few chapters in, then pick up something apparently unrelated, and go a few chapters in there, too. In search.

One book I did just get to the end of is the revised edition of Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash. I read a borrowed copy of the first edition many years ago, in Mercy's youth. One image got its sinewy fingers around my neck and squeezed. It was the part imagining a planet where humans are kept as pets by the more intellectually advanced creatures she named Gorns. Sometimes the Gorns do awful things, inexplicable to the humans: they suddenly punish them for peeing in the their water-filled porcelain bowls, or for eating pizza or trying to communicate with other humans. Some Gorns keep their humans chained outdoors and alone, so they become "socially starved" and even more unmanageable to the Gorns.

Donaldson's depiction, from the "companion animal" eye view, of what it's like to be kept by another species that doesn't understand the first thing about you (what you need for a fulfilled life; what you're trying to say so desperately) and that insists you live on their terms without ever having told you what those terms are, is heart-wrenching. The rest of the book is mainly sound science and common sense and dog training. It's also disorganized, and so blunt as to feel almost aggressive. (You can feel her boiled-over frustration with people's general stupidity about dogs, and if timing didn't permit her to actually write the revision as a direct rebuttal to Cesar Millan, then she was prophetic, because it reads in places as if she were in the ring with some of his insanities.) Finally, it's not about writing, even though some of her themes are worthy of Tolstoy. But I am in complete agreement with everything she says. It may well be the most important dog book ever written. And to think it was first published ten years ago: amazing on two opposing counts, one being that it makes the heart sink to realize that, although Skinner's operant conditioning has been known for at least fifty years, and Pavlovian conditioning for not less than a hundred--and discovered with dogs, for chrissakes!--Donaldson still has to remind people these are very useful tools. The other amazement is that ten years ago, she was in the very vanguard of a movement that since then has taken off and produced dozens of books. Not to mention conferences that twice yearly gather hundreds upon hundreds of people willing to pay, well, hundreds upon hundreds of dollars, to learn from trainers and researchers how to apply this science to their animals, and to the human animal too.

It's getting late, and I can't read when my eyes get this tired. Nelly has already decided to turn in. She lies at the foot of the bed, and I look over to see with bemused disbelief what she has chosen for a pillow: her dear head snoozes upon a copy of Murray Sidman's Coercion and Its Fallout. There will be more about books to come.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


One day fourteen years ago, I stepped from one world into another. At the time, I was not aware that I had done it. But I accomplished a very neat sci-fi trick: I stayed the same, physically, but I passed through an invisible wall separating one planet from its double. On this new planet, I would live as a Dog Person. (Previously, I had been a Person.)

This happened by walking into the Chester County, Maryland, humane society, at the culmination of a bed-and-breakfast weekend celebrating our first anniversary. All weekend long we had found ourselves engaged in a surrogate shall-we-have-a-baby discussion, though we wouldn't have known it. We were having the shall-we-get-a-dog discussion, because the other one was too blame scary. Our visit to the Eastern Shore had been literally haunted by dogs, which we took as a sign: the B&B had a resident labrador retriever; the farm where we went for a trail ride had just become home to a clutch of those Rolypoly Cute Puppies (TM), each a different color; when we went for a walk in an old graveyard, a beagle watched us from behind a stone. He was, I know now, an emissary from this other world.

As I am wont to do, I insisted upon carefully drawn up lists of pro and con. And then, because I already know what I want, I crumple up the opposing list and say the hell with it. If the humane society is open on our way home, I said, it'll be the final sign.

The black ball of puppy ferocity came home with us, and was named Mercedes for about two minutes, then became Mercy. Only she didn't have any. Our first "child" was about to become the product of a broken home. If we divorced because of her, though (she was not, ahem, a "husky/lab" mix as the shelter had said; she was almost pure border collie--does that explain it?), I was going to take her with me. I had already become her mother, even if I could barely stand her baby behavior, and would have demanded custody because I now could not stand the thought of living without her. I had started to put my foot through that invisible membrane, into the next world.

We had to hire a trainer, or a magician, or someone who could get this puppy from hell to stop chewing the electrical cords, the furniture legs, our shoes, our limbs; someone had to teach this dog that the hours between two and six a.m. were not intended for a command performance of her circus act. They were for sleep goddamn, goddamn it.

Nothing mystical was intended by the universe, I am sure, but it so happened that the friends we asked for advice helped change everything, in a spectacular way that is still, more than a decade later, changing everything for me. First, they lent us a video by someone named Dr. Ian Dunbar, and there was nary a rolled-up newspaper in it. It was, rather, kind of nice. We didn't have to hit our puppy, or show her who was boss; we had to give her treats, and we had to teach her that hands reaching into her food bowl presaged good things like the addition of a tasty tidbit and thus did not have to be shredded by little teeth.

The list of trainers these friends provided was sinply a list of names. And we simply, for no good reason, picked the third one. Polly.

A day later, an impish, pleasant woman was sitting on our kitchen floor while Mercy used her to practice one of her tightrope routines. Suddenly, Mercy yelped and backed away, looking surprised. What happened? I asked. Polly smiled beatifically. "Mercy nipped me, so I nipped her back." Holy cow. I hadn't seen a thing. Subtle, this was.

After talking with us for quite some time, Polly solemnly told us she had arrived at a diagnosis. We held our breath as she pronounced it: "Mercy needs the Park Cure." Oh my gosh. The Park Cure? Was it really that serious?

The next morning she picked us up in her Mazda and drove to Prospect Park, a few blocks from our Brooklyn apartment. I maybe had been there once or twice. Before we left the car, I started to afix Mercy's leash. "Oh, no," Polly said. "Let her out, and start walking." What? My little girl, whom I had never "taught" to come back to me? Wouldn't she Run Away? "Teach her that it's her job to know where you are, not the other way around." Polly knew things I did not know. Mercy followed me.

How can I tell you about how that park became our real home? How, when Polly became my friend, and her dog Smedley became Mercy's first great love, all I wanted to do was be with them? Every minute of the two hours we spent there each morning was like the great book of all knowledge being opened before me, and Polly reading bits of it out loud. She had gone to Wolf Park to observe wolf behavior. She had studied with Ian Dunbar. She had read everything serious written on dogs up to that point (which was nowhere near what it is now). She taught me about a new thing called clicker training, and it took Mercy three times to know the clicker was "charged up," and thereafter she learned new behaviors on the first trial. Soon I had about forty-five words or phrases she responded to. Polly showed me how to teach Mercy to "spell"--I'd say, "D-O-W-N," she'd do a down, and people would gasp. People are so silly. Her intelligence startled both of us: "Mercy is a Maserati," Polly said to me one day. "She is as fine-tuned as an Italian racing engine, and as easy to mess up." Thereafter it was engraved in my soul: Mercy is--was--a Maserati.

A couple of nights ago we went to see a movie, Paris Je t'aime, an indifferent and sentimental compilation. The best section in it was the monologue of a somewhat sad, middle-aged, Middle American woman visiting Paris for the first time and revisiting the what-ifs of her life. It was meant to be a tip-off to the sorrier aspects of her personality that she felt she could not leave her two dogs--clearly meant to be child surrogates--for more than a week. How pathetic, we are meant to think. At one time, I would have. When I was much younger, I remember thinking how yucky it was that some people seemed not to have relationships with people, but only with their dogs.

That was then. This is now.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


A little learning is a dangerous thing. Or maybe, only if your name is "Melissa." Last name "Pierson."

Nelly and I proceeded jauntily on our walk down the road. I was planning on a good hour, wherein we walk on-leash for about a half mile, then we loose the restraining device in order to trespass through some lovely woods for thirty minutes, then I spend ten minutes swearing at myself for my rank idiocy in not installing a foolproof recall in that white blur that's now only intermittently visible far off in the distance. She occasionally turns to see what I'm up to, and if it's looking for her, that's her cue to go flying off after something she pretends requires her immediate attention. Then I get tricky, employ some bit of blind luck, and get her back on leash, then we go home. Successful walk, exactly as planned.

This time, we weren't more than five minutes from the house when I spy what seems to be a "learning opportunity," aka sqashed squirrel, ahead in the road. I have been trying to compose a long poem about roadkill for some time, and may yet do so, but until now my efforts have been pitiful, filled with self-righteous anger--all I mean to point out is how curious it is that these relics of former life so often end up in supplicating positions, their paws outstretched in permanent prayer to a heaven that--whoops!--didn't see them. Over time they merge with the pavement, a patch of skin whose fur rises momentarily as a car stirs it into being by rushing past, then flat and gray once more.

This one was, I now have reason to hope, a little fresher. Nelly strained at the end of her leash (I have also been lax in teaching proper loose-leash walking, which I would have been forced to do had she been the fifty-pound dog I had wished for; instead, I rely solely on my laziness and some equipment in the form of a front-clip harness). Just prior to the walk I had finished my second reading of Jean Donaldson's fierce and inimitable The Culture Clash, about which I will have more to say. In the last chapter she states unequivocally that one must run through the "grades" of training: don't ask a kindergarten dog to do graduate-level work, or he'll fail. So what did Melissa think to do in this perfectly timed situation? Well, since I do precious little training, I felt I had to use what the universe offered. I thought, "What a splendid opportunity to use the Premack Principle!" [This is--cribbing here from a psychology glossary--a principle of operant conditioning identified in 1965 by David Premack. It says that a behavior that occurs reliably, or we might say, "naturally," can be used as a reinforcer for a behavior that occurs less reliably. Your kid wants ice cream? Of course he wants ice cream. When he cleans the toy room, the sudden appearance of a sundae will guarantee future toy-picking-up behavior.] Needless to say, I did not (because I could not) use it in a way that would have really benefited my desires for Nelly. I should have (if I could have) gotten her to come toward me before going to something she really wanted. But all I could do, and it was difficult enough, was to get her to sit. Bingo! I let her go to the squirrel.

She couldn't believe her luck. She picked that baby up, and then all she wanted to do was trot right home with it. I obliged; after all, this was her reward. Plus, I smugly recalled, this is a dog who primarily buries things. There's a rubber frog squeaky toy emerging from the dirt under the yew right now. The first piece of raw food I ever gave her, a chicken gizzard, was stared at for a while, then dispatched to the potted palm. I often find her bones buried in the couch, in our bed.

My dear, dear Nelly. Always with the surprises. That's her with her prize, up top. Soon, all that remained was a tail and a glistening sac of--what? I daren't ask. Even the head, a crunchy accompaniment to a fine, ripe repast, gone. Now she lies in her favorite spot of an evening, at the feet of the computer user. Every now and then a delicate . . . odor arises from her hindparts. The miracle of digestion, a little lesson in biology for me. Perhaps I have learned something more, too, eh?

What Nelly does not know at this moment is that as of tomorrow, her diet is going to get a lot stricter. Not only in terms of extracurricular snacks. But all that lovely raw meat, the lamb and chicken and beef bones, all the yogurt and fish and eggs, all that beautiful variety that made mealtimes a delight--no more. Processed kibble and dead cans. Doctor's orders.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Speak Dog

Let me be a heretic, from the point of view of a literature major, a writer, and, according to most, a member of the human race. "What sets people apart from animals," a stentorian voice is proclaiming in a voiceover to the National Geographic documentary showing a sea of humans moving down a city sidewalk (obviously this makes us highly eveolved, the ability to have made such a thing as a sidewalk, not to mention a city), "is the use of language."

Well, this is the Melissa Show, and I hereby give you the gong, Mr. Deep Knowledge. Other animals may not have speech, but they sure as shooting have language. We just don't happen to comprehend it, so in our highly intelligent human way, we say they don't have it. The reason we don't get it is that it's a physical language, and we are so mouth-oriented we even assume our pets are born knowing English: there's the guy talking to his dog--"Hey, now I thought I told you to come here!"--and looking miffed that his dog didn't answer back in a nice way.

The fact that we don't believe animals (I mean, other animals) have language puts us in the position of colonialists who find the natives to be little more than savages, speaking as they do in those unknowable grunts. But logic (oh, precious, precious logic) decrees that it is impossible for humans (and especially highly social ones) to have developed language alone among animals. Please, put this idea through the logic mill and see how it turns out.

Then I defy anyone whose logic is still malfunctioning to sit through a lecture such as the one Suzanne Clothier delivered recently in Saugerties, New York, and come out of it with an intact belief that canines don't talk. I only left there thinking I didn't know the half of it--and I already knew I didn't, due to my appreciation of, nay astonishment at, Brenda Aloff's extensive Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, which I believe should be the operating manual that comes with every puppy. She flashed slide after slide of dogs interacting, clearly communicating definite and not always simple information, on which she had overlaid colored lines to highlight the aspects of the body--compression, angle, tension, orientation--that were doing the talking. And she narrated each one: "Helloo! Wanna play, wanna play, wanna play?" [you can hear the black lab's accent here, right?]; "Listen, idiot, you obviously don't know how to ask politely. Get out of my 'personal space,' OK?" No matter how baroque, how TV sitcom, how Ann Landers it sounded, I would bet my last dollar that that was exactly the substance of the conversation.

She said that, in her experience, it was pathetic how few dog trainers, much less simple dog owners, knew the first thing about reading dogs' language. I believe it, too. It's horribly sad to think of a dog, or anyone, desperately trying to convey something to a person who can't hear them. For the emotionally unstable among us, it's a recurrent nightmare. And we make our dogs live in it all the time.

Ah, but our language is the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and Eliot; it has risen so high! Yes, and physical language is the language of Balanchine and Goya. Right? Go to the dog park. You might see some beautiful ballet there. Right now, Nelly and I are going to take a walk in the cornfields. I pray the rabbits are hiding and the fawns are well taken care of. Or else Nelly will have something quite concrete to say to them.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

After a Dog

I want to go where Nelly takes me. This is literal and metaphoric both. I want to see her up ahead on the trail, stopping suddenly, perceiving something I am too witless to see, then go crashing off after it. (I hear the chipmunks laughing at her: haha you can't catch me! Until, one day, she'll get one, just as she got one of the squirrels I believed were safe from her always: he made the mistake of trying to climb the side of the woodshed as if it were a tree, which of course it is not, being much smoother. He went flipping out into midair, and she was on him the second he hit dirt. He passed into nonexistence faster than a blur. Nelly is an efficient, if serial, killer. At least she had the decency to give him a Christian burial.)

People spend a lot of money and time to go to an ashram to get what I get from a thrown-away border collie/dervish mix rescue every day out in a field.

But Nelly takes me other places, too. Internally, she sometimes leads me to those squirm-inducing psychic rooms I do not otherwise want to enter, whose walls are painted with ugly questions about my sanity, my abilities, my obsessive fears. She takes me to the dark heart of my impatience. Or to the feeling that time is running through my hands and I am not doing anything completely enough, either working with my dog or accomplishing work worthy of the label "Day Well Spent." Certainly, though, following Nelly has helped me to master procrastination.

[A non sequitur here, but one I can't resist, since it is one of the topics that I mean to take on here at some point: The coyotes, as I write this at 10 p.m., just began howling in the acreage out back. There is no way to tell you what this sound fills me with--sadness, happiness, wonder, longing, and a whole bunch of questions. Were they celebrating something? Why had I not heard them in two months? Where did they go, spring break in Cancun? The sound clearly brings out something atavistic in Nelly, because she rises slowly to her feet, legs compressed in tension, and lets out a low, wavering howl herself. This is not anything she does in response to any other sound but this, and I don't buy that it's a reflex. I think it's a signal from that part of herself that belongs out there in the dark with the beautiful hunters. The ones who are three times her size.]

One place Nelly has led me is intellectual. Specifically, to the science of behaviorism, but not so much its content (I struggle with it, having the sort of mind that can't keep terminology straight) as the truly bizarre human behavior it triggered. I believe B. F. Skinner was right. Everything he said and formulated was right. In exactly the same way that what Copernicus said was right, despite the fact that the merchants of the status quo were vitriolically upset by his beliefs. That they denied it did not mean it was not true. The same absolute obviousness most of us now feel adheres to Copernicus or to Darwin also appears to me to adhere Skinner, and what he posited about how organisms learn and thus live in the world. It's the same obviousness that radiates from the Democrats (for the most part, though don't get me started on their co-optation); better yet, let's say "from Dennis Kucinich." So why the great resistance, people? I will leave this question for now with this: It's all about resources. Just happens to be one of Skinner's points, backed up by anthropologist Marvin Harris, if you want another side to the story. To distill it down to its simplest factor: If you want to understand why people resist the truth, look at what they stand to lose.

The next subject to which Nelly will lead me, I think, will be language. Hers, ours, and the apparent incompatibility of the two. (This will draw a line back to what I learned by hearing Suzanne Clothier speak the other day.) But first, Nelly is leading me, backwards all the way, toward the bathtub. There I will douse her with neem oil and hated water, in the vain hope of conquering the allergies that have made our lives a small misery for the past four months.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Small Package >>> Big Things

A dog is a vehicle. And a vehicle takes you on an odyssey. Of course there's never any way of knowing where you're going. This strange fact about life sometimes hits me on the back of the head, and some days I wail David Byrne-like, "How did I get here?" How was it that I found myself yesterday not doing any of the million three hundred sixty-seven other things I could have been doing, but rather, sitting all day on a folding chair in a firehouse with fifty other people (mostly women; almost always mostly women in these things) who paid $100 to listen to Suzanne Clothier tell us about dog behavior?

There was another dog, long before Mercy, longer before Nelly. She was not a transformative event, however; instead, she was a Christmas present. A bichon frise--my mother insisted upon a dog who would not leave hair on the living room carpet, as well as one with the cachet of rarity (this was 1967)--who arrived from the breeder smelling of baby powder. She was the soul of sweetness. And how shockingly we repaid her for it. The paperback book on dog care we bought instructed us on training matters: a rolled-up newspaper to swat her for any infraction; accidents in the house required us to force her nose into it, no matter that it was after the fact, no matter that the only thing she learned thereby was that her people went inexplicably nuts sometimes and hurt her. She stayed sweet. This is the rebuke that returns, stinging, in my memory of her.

I don't know if it's any excuse that pretty much every dog training authority in those days gave the same advice. So it had to be correct. (We are always looking for someone whose voice carries the ringing tone of certainty. It is a sound that so fills the head it silences any squeaking sounds of protest that might arise there.) So we left her as a small puppy, crying awfully, down in the kitchen alone at night, with an alarm clock for company. I put my head under my pillow to drown out the sound. When I attained a defiant age, I would sometimes provoke my mother's ire by bringing her up to bed with me. Where she belonged all along.

I could tell you more about how we, assuredly fine people, treated this beautiful white creature. Only I can't quite bring myself to say some of it now. I have to wonder if every hour I now spend in seminars with famous trainers, people who have studied canine behavior and language, needs and modes of learning; if every dollar I spend on books and treats and clickers and toys and agility classes, is really an attempt to atone for the unintentional misery we brought to a small fluffy dog, dead now for years.

In Medias Res

There was no way to ever guess I would one day have a dog small enough that she could fit her entire tongue up my nostril. I am not a small dog person. Just as I am not an Italian driving moccasin person. Or a golf person. These are the things that make you who you are, or who you'd like to think you are, which is more to the point. These are code, or a military uniform, which you do not don to serve a government with which you do not politically agree.

Small dogs used not to occur to me as dogs, really. I could never say this out loud, but I would think it of those rodent-like creatures whose hair mopped the floor and whose tails were a counterbalance for the face end, if you could even tell them apart: Freak, I would silently mouth. A dog, on the other hand, was a minimum of forty pounds, and you could see their eyes (nor were rubber bands with little bows on them required to hold back their hair so you could do so). A real dog did not squeak. It was not an ankle-biter; if it wanted, and you deserved it, it could reach a far more critical piece of body farther north. A real dog was like Lassie, or Rin Tin Tin, but was even better if it was not a ward of the AKC. A real dog was my Mercy, who had up and died on me and ripped out my heart in the process.

Which is why, when I got Nelly (not as a replacement; there could never be a replacement), I kept waiting for her to get bigger. When would she hit twenty-five pounds, thirty? Goodness, she was coming up on a year and she was still under twenty! Clearly, I needed to feed her more. Finally she grew so wide, though no taller, that the vet issued stern commands. Nineteen and a half, and no more. That was Nelly. She was going to be, resolutely, who she was--and who might that be, o eternal mystery?--and no other. She was going to make me change my mind. About a lot of things.