Sunday, July 29, 2007


And if you have ever had a moral pointed at you,
you know it is not a completely pleasant feeling.
You are grateful for being improved, and you hope
you will do better next time,
but you do not want to think about it very much just now.
--Edward Eager, Half Magic

Sometimes the learning curve isn't much of a curve; it's a gentle incline, or it looks strangely like the pattern on a tic-tac-toe board. And sometimes it rockets so fast your head is five miles above your body, which wanly waves, "hey, wait up!" from a distance so great you can't really see it down there.

It may seem as though life, or events, has done this to you, but part of what you may learn with such velocity is that you always do it to yourself.

That is all I might say for now about my experiences this week. I hope to reunite my head with my body soon, whenever I can get a winch and tackle that long.

A similar situation may be encountered if you happen to get a border collie in your life. Last evening, at the end of a rail trail walk--Nelly on leash since the turn-around point, because not even I am immune to successive achingly hard lessons--there was an older (oh, OK: older than me) woman who was walking from the other direction. I could tell, even from far away, that her white and brown dog had that border collie look: flag of a tail, springy step. The woman, too, could see that we were related by the blood of our dogs. And perhaps something else. We had each put up our dogs in our respective cars when she approached. I could tell instantly that this woman, out alone for a walk with her companion at 7:30 on a Saturday night as I was, was lonely. We people think we don't show what we are, so long as we concentrate to make a smile. But the heart beats in a transparent chest.

So we trade origin stories--hers came from the prison system in Zanesville, Ohio, a place I know well (Ohio, not the prison system), and I tell her about Nelly's parents from West Virginia. Naturally, we both found our dogs on the internet, that which brings together and puts asunder in equal measure, if you know what I mean.

She left me with the bumper sticker sentiment she had recently read on a car at the grocery store parking lot: "I got a border collie--what was I thinking?"

Either something, or nothing. Either you were lured into such foolish acts unawares, as I had been. Or you knew you were doing something self-destructive and you didn't stop, because there are times when self-destruction is exactly what you want: the more of it you taste, the more of it you crave, like an amount of ice cream you recognize as disgusting but the sicker you feel, the sicker you want to feel. (The human mind is a very strange thing.) If you loved a border collie once, then you will have to love one again. It seems a minor problem that they are generally smarter than you. It is not a minor problem. It is a rather large one. But don't worry: you will learn nothing from it.

Because we don't learn unless we want to learn, or unless we have been kicked so forcefully we are helpless not to.

From Nelly's point of view, I punish her several times a day. I forget myself, say "Good dog!" and reach to scratch behind her ears. As if it's a good thing. In her language, of course, I have just threatened her with bodily harm. As soon as I see her duck her head from my reach, I feel Homer Simpson-ish: Doh! I have very nicely made a poisoned cue out of "good dog." And I wish I had a coin for every person who believes their rescued dog had to have been abused by being hit by humans' hands in a previous life--Look: he always flinches when patted on the head!

When Nelly was on the elimination diet for her nonexistent allergies, I had to force her mouth open and shove a pill down her throat a couple of times a day; I was not allowed to give her anything but her kibble, so the Way of the Cheese was forbidden to us. I had to drag her from where she cowered in her crate--oh, she saw the evil in my eye at bath time--and put her under running water and neem oil shampoo. You don't know pathetic unless you've seen a wet 20-pound border collie mix with pink stick legs looking at you with pleading eyes: Will you stop torturing me now? Please?

Then she is back once more at my feet wherever I sit. She is adhering to her necessary schedule, which dictates that by 10:30 p.m. I go upstairs to provide sufficient bolstering on the bed. She looks into my eyes and licks my nostril as if I had never caused her such distress. Over and over. She lets go.

So this may be what I am meant to learn. I have no misconception that Nelly is truly forgiving me, or even that it is in the canine cosmology to do so. And I'm not even sure that I am doing the same to her after an episode of bolting in which I hear her yipping off into the distance after some creature she means to catch, and I have to go pick up my child in five minutes, and it now means wading through a sea of poison ivy and then a swamp to find her, but only after a half hour of cursing and catastrophizing. By the next day I see her smiling at the door, and I take her for another walk.

All I know is that this functions as forgiveness. And that behavior is everything. This is what I will remember in my new life to come, the one that has apparently just begun. Together, Nelly and I walk with Blake: "Mutual forgiveness of each vice, / Such are the Gates of Paradise." You, too, can visit paradise. So far as I am aware, it is located somewhere in my house.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sleeping Dogs

To be self-contained is a goal and a satisfaction. You have everything you need because it comes with you at all times. Everything else, then, is fillips upon the solid foundation of self-hood.

Not that I've achieved it. Though I have produced a fair quantity of sweat in that direction. But my dog is already there. I was thinking this last night, as I lay in a different bed at a friend's house. Because I was there, Nelly accepted this new place with no questions, hopping up onto the tall bed as soon as she saw me get into it, then turning around once, forming that almost perfect oval into which everything is tucked. She let go with a sigh--a sound that to me is ineffably sad, as if she'd said "Oh, well" to a lifetime of slights. But I know it doesn't carry emotion like that, although it may well be expressing satisfaction at being self-contained.

I myself have been suddenly thrust into a crash course on getting to my goal, because my world has just been detonated. The structure I had built, stone by stone, not consciously but merely by existing in the same space as another person, for seventeen years has just been announced a falsehood. Or something, since I may not have fully understood the explanation given me by someone who for the first time I have known him looked at me through eyes filled with cold hate. They scared me, those eyes. They were just like the hard, blank eyes of a dog who is about to leap, his mouth full of death.

And so everything I have known, and have wanted, is about to vanish. Life will be rebuilt from the ground up, absent the person I had pledged to do it with. And we had done it officially, the ancient way (something now bitterly regretted, I am given to understand), till death do us part. Actually, we were true to that part: the death that has occurred is of a life of shared hopes. They hit the earth with a dull clang.

And death is also appropriate to recall, because the immense pain--where a thin, sharp blade keeps going in, over and over into the same infected wound--is matched in memory only with one other. When my dog died, it had the effect of altering reality. The clouds seemed to stand still and stare. The blue and green outdoors vibrated, until I thought something was the matter with my eyes. I would see the wind lift the leaves of a bush and the sight gripped me. It was May, and the mourning doves came to torment only me: whoo-WHOO, whoo-WHOO with the volume knob stuck all the way high, so it echoed and echoed and echoed inside my brain and I wanted to shout Stop! Don't you know that I can't stand it? That I can't stand your reminding me every second that I live of what I lost? I can't stand it.

I feel this way now. It is impossible that this could be happening, this death of a life together. But now, as then, I have to accept that it is. Otherwise I will get lost in the hall of mirrors that is the recurrent waking dream: I am going to look out to the end of the drive, and I will see Mercy standing there, and she will be coming home from a long journey away.

But death is final. There is no heaven. When Nelly sleeps next to me, I touch her in the night. I am somewhat comforted.

["Nelly's World" is going on hiatus for a week or so. Please check back then!]

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Last night I read myself to sleep with Jon Katz. Or at least that was the intention, until I had to sit up straight to relieve the lurching in my stomach, and I was riffling through the pages to get past the disturbing image of a large man throwing a fit of anger and ignorance at a border collie, perhaps the most sensitive dog ever created by man.

I had resisted reading Katz for a long time--writers like me are the most sensitive people ever created by man--both because of this insecurity (What if he writes about dogs better than I can ever hope to?) and because everybody said I just had to. That is the surest way to get a person like me to never do something. Remember this.

If A Dog Year had been a movie, I would have been crying out, "No! Don't do that!" and "You blooming idiot!" to the screen. I might have turned it off or hidden my face in my hands. I can no longer witness suffering. And the bar on what constitutes suffering keeps getting lower. What has happened to me in my old age? My gut has gotten more and more tender, so that nothing more potent than the worldly equivalent of yogurt can be digested by it. I wonder how I will be able to re-visit Greece, the land of my ancestors where I had a rollicking junior year abroad lo these many years ago. Now, I fear, I would wander the rocky landscape with face averted, unable to watch anything but my own sandals, lest I see the overloaded donkey flogged, the mange-filled stray with his ribs showing and eyes pleading, the silver sharks with torn flesh, gasping to death on the deck of a boat. A beautiful country, reduced by me to the misery of its animals. There are other places in the world I daren't even think for one second about visiting.

All my life I have been labeled "too sensitive," but now it's beginning to get me in trouble. Everywhere I turn, my eyes fall on the dog who is being jerked by the neck, and who in an unseen second says, with his eyes, with his body lowered, "Why" or "That hurt" or "Please don't," and the message goes unheard. The human who is supposed to be caring for him does not even understand that something has been said--that something has been felt. Of course, I used to be one of those people too. One who operated from the inchoate assumption that dogs' necks are different
from ours.

That is what makes this state of affairs worse: who now could have assigned me the role of judge? How have I come to feel as if I'm drowning in a sea of ignorance and pain created thereby?

My other label is "impatient." Perhaps the two things, sensitivity and impatience, go together. Because empathy with the pained is so unpleasant, I am impatient to have it end. I want people to look down at their dog and smile, because they have just noticed the good thing the dog has done, and then pay the dog for it. It's so simple, but it's a huge paradigm shift [a cliche, but the only thing that fits] for people who live in a punishment-ridden society, with parents who punished, and friends who punish, and a government that punishes. It's amazing to see how hard it is for people to do--even people who are in the midst of a dog-training session they paid for (as I was at yesterday), hearing a good trainer telling them that they have always have a choice to reinforce the good (she said, "Listen to what your dog is telling you, because he's telling you things all the time. But a dog who is continually ignored will stop speaking, and will start making decisions on his own") or to wait for something bad to happen--we only have eyes for this!--and then demand the short-cut to stopping it. The people all stood around while this was being told to them, jerking their dogs periodically, and nodding.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My Daughter Is a Predator

Every once in a while we get reminded that our projections are just that--an image we have placed on top of something. Something that then reasserts its independence against our will, and the paper tears, revealing its thin falseness. We project out of desire, or need, or pathology. And then one day, we are brought up short.

How often this happens with our dogs! I have a friend who got a new dog, after losing her first, deeply loved companion (they are sometimes called "soul dogs"; it's what Mercy was to me). Similar breed, of course: we are always looking, not for a replacement, but for a revivification of the dead. I am not breedist, except when it comes to border collies; I believe wholeheartedly in rescue, yet I have been tempted to buy, but only by a border collie. So there it is. Intellectually we know we have no business going back to the past, but we can't help it. We'll always want them back.

So this friend is slowly bonding with her new dog; it's tough, because the new one isn't the old one. Then suddenly, the new dog up and does something the old one never did: she attacks a playmate. And suddenly her dog is like a stranger to my friend--a stranger she isn't sure she even likes. And then she feels guilty for having this feeling. But she sees a distance between them now: the projection has been torn away. The new dog is, in fact, a new dog, with drives and desires that have nothing to do with the woman who keeps her.

Mercy was certainly a killer--woodchucks were an easy mark--but the chase part of the procedure was most alluring to her. Nelly, though; ah, little Nelly is a killer. She is driven to finish the job. As well she might. She is a dog, a wolf in pet's clothing.

Nelly is also a lapdog. When there is a loud noise, she leaps into my lap (uninvited--hot coffee whoops). I look into her sweet brown eyes and see a tender thing, a creature who needs my solace. And bingo: projection. "Nelly is such a sweet widdle thing!" So bonded to mommy!

Yes, but even more bonded to her genetic makeup. For her, prey trumps everything. And she is a formidable serial killer. One memorable day last winter, we were taking a walk together. Oops--my projection; that is what I thought was occurring. From her point of view, I had driven her to a place where she could hunt. And that is what she did, in some impenetrable briars, for three and a half hours. Darkness fell. Cold embraced the world. And I thought, This could go on all night. I pulled the car around to the point nearest the rabbit habitat and sat there, thinking about leaving her for the night twenty miles from home. I thought about lying awake all night worrying. I wondered if she'd really finally go lie down in the cardboard box I would leave for her, as suggested by the neighbor men at whose house I went to use the phone, lured there by the smell of my scarf. Feeling despair, I was just about to start the car and leave for home, when I saw a flash of white next to the bumper. Nelly, rabbitless. This time.

She has gotten her bunny, twice; one young woodchuck; numberless shrews; that hapless squirrel; and a ring-necked pheasant, the most tragic of a tragic lot. I didn't want any of it to happen. I suspect she has set her cap for a cat, too, but I am trusting that the cat's claws and similar weight will put it in the winner's corner, unless it is old and decrepit. And around here an old cat allowed outdoors has already been selected from the menu by a fox, a coyote, a fisher, an owl.

What I am worried most about, though, is Nelly's love of chicken. The kind that still wear their feathers. And I don't think this is because she sometimes gets some Bell & Evans in her bowl. (I'm sorry, I have to snicker derisively at the worried owner who thinks that giving "people food" is going to make the dog steal from the fridge; or similarly at the one who thinks if you give raw meat, the next thing you know they'll be killing all sorts of wildlife they wouldn't have if you just gave them that smelly brown stuff--it's not an animal! it's dog food!--from a can. I mean, think about it for a minute.) Now I have two friends who keep chickens, and if Nelly is ever around if they get out of their pens, they'll be ex-friends.

We went over to Bonnie's house yesterday, to take a little walk back into the woods. But once Nelly saw the new chickens behind their frighteningly flimsy fence, she dove into action. Hey, at least we finally found out where she had previously escaped from Bonnie's fenced yard--at 80 mph she showed us, running right underneath two different gates, both into and out of the yard, in her frantic search for the way to that delicious meal.

She can't help herself. She is not herself when she sees prey. Or rather, she is most herself: she is no longer my projection, sweet innocent girl, one who curls up with a sigh against my leg in bed, of whom I can imagine only ice-cream dreams. She took one look at those chickens and the hind brain came to the fore. I cannot let her have the chance to be near them again. Because where Nelly has the will, Nelly will find a way. And then the feathers will fly.

Monday, July 16, 2007


The most arresting thing the great Jean Donaldson said in all seven hours of speaking at a seminar I attended yesterday at the Albany Obedience Club was not about Nelly and her ilk. it was about me.

In a fascinating overview of evolution, genetics, and how they affect behavior in general and canine behavior in particular, she told us about the Medawar effect: what happens to an organism after its reproductive period is over is invisible to evolution. It just doesn't give a hoot what illnesses you gather unto your bosom. You don't matter anymore.

Oh, the tragedy. I am about to vanish!

We were a group of about forty (though maybe it was seventy, or thirty: I can't estimate to save my life), sitting in our folding chairs in the large space that on other days echoes back the bark of dogs in agility practice, or the bark of people giving obedience commands--or so my prejudice against competitive obedience imagines it. (When I was a girl, and dreaming of having my first dog, I knew I wouldn't TRAIN it. I would have a NATURAL dog, not a robot who existed to do my bidding. That was the dichotomy, as my fervid little brain had it. Ha-ha-ha. Oh-ho.)

Needless to say, the audience was almost entirely female. This has been the case at every dog conference and seminar I've attended. Anyone want to hazard a guess why? Maybe because women are charged with--and wired for--nurturing and educating offspring? Thus we would illustrate another example of animal biology that Donaldson put forth: a slight "misfire" of an instinctual behavior, which happens to all sorts of creatures. In this case, our instinct to mother is triggered by the wrong species, by a dependent who is not genetically ours.

In person, Donaldson was far less prickly than she is in print. She was extremely generous in not offending (though her message was always clear, if you knew how to hear between the lines). The only time she allowed any righteous anger to boil over was in talking about breeders who allow or encourage the reproduction of spooky, fearful, or aloof traits, the kind of thing that's described as a breed characteristic, as in, say, "cautious" or "not easily socialized to strangers." Think Akitas, for instance. This she viewed as nothing less than criminal. She said, about those breeders, "I'm gunning for you," her voice tight with barely suppressed rage. "I've been cleaning up your messes for thirty years." The deliberate breeding of such an animal (sixty or more pounds of reactivity, armed with tearing teeth) is akin to selling a Beretta to any member of the general public who has a notion to buy one.

At the same time, given the fact that there are probably some 40 million dogs in this country, there are at most 12 to 20 killings by dogs per year. The incidence of bites is in fact decreasing, even as the dog population keeps rising and we live in ever closer proximity to them. So why the hysteria about a "dog bite epidemic"?

This is what gets dogs killed by the thousand, even though parrots and horses bite people all the time and are never euthanized for it. I suddenly saw where Donaldson was going when she asked why. What a mind. What an answer. A fear this unfounded, this primitive, she believes, could only be inborn: a residual fear of wolves, fanged predators, left over from the last evolutionary bottleneck for humans 100,000 years ago. We have not changed essentially in that long. It's too bad we can probably not count on a time that distant in the future, when we will have established a more reasonable fear of things with wheels or of bathtubs, since both of them kill exponentially more people than do dogs.

I love going to these seminars. I love seeing women (because that is what most of them are) who are barreling into science and the truth, armed with big questions. That's because the answers to them are required by the well-being of the creatures we care for. Who says we're not animals?

I drove home and picked up some Mexican takeout on the way. We ate out on the stone patio on a lovely summer evening. We wandered down to the garden to see if anything had escaped the cutworms and the teeth of the deer. I glanced up to see Nelly taking a little stroll on top of the dining table. She had just eaten an entire package of sweets. Pistachio-sesame-toffee-white-chocolate. They had looked quite good from the picture on front.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bad Dog (Trainer)!

Training is hard work. It was so much easier when I didn't know anything.

Clicker training, as Polly showed it to me, was a cinch. Nothing to it--Mercy does something you like, click!, give her a piece of food at some point afterward, bingo, she remembers it for all time. (Well, Mercy did, anyway.)

The only difficulty then was remembering to bring the clicker with you. (In the Good Old Days, they had to be purchased in a toy store [mine was an alligator], not from the bin on a PetsMart checkout counter, or included with every swag bag at every seminar you attend, so now you have twelve.) Come to think of it, remembering to bring a clicker is still a difficulty.

The past ten years, though, have done everything in their power to make clicker training the arcane art is really is, and I've discovered I'm no artist. After shaping or capturing (those are technical terms, kids!) about five or six little behaviors with Nelly--Ask Nicely; High Five; Roll Over--I've virtually stopped teaching her new ones. Need I mention that Mercy knew ten times that many, including Shut the Door (with her nose), Circle Right and Circle Left, Stop, and dozens more cute tricks both useful and ornate? It suddenly seems so complicated, after all the explanations.

My timing has always been perfect: perfectly bad. I moved to Hoboken just as it was about to take off real-estate-wise and drop me in the dust; same for Park Slope in Brooklyn; same for where I live now. Just made it!--not. Thus I jumped on the clicker training bandwagon right as it was trading up to a sleeker and faster model of conveyance, and I feel my skills are not quite adequate to this Brave New World of Positive Reinforcement. Now, it appears, you can't have bad timing, or you'll mess everything up: there are studies that prove you have an optimal three seconds (or is that two?) to deliver your reinforcer. Scads of books now contain complex and lovely recipes for Cordon Bleu behaviors, while my abilities are back in the Betty Crocker mix phase. There's ClickerExpo, where the most brilliant minds in the business are up on stage wowing you with the remarkable--nay, incredible--things that can be done with operant conditioning. And the the audience is just as awe-inspiring: handicapped folks who clicker-train their own service dogs; people who have fallen in love with animals whose behavioral difficulties, such as aggression, have driven them to find the only way to keep their beloveds alive.

All this has combined, I admit in shame, to shut me down. I haven't picked up a clicker in months. My timing, or something, is literally so bad that whenever I try to shape a new behavior, Nelly shrieks her impatience at me. (Um, yes, that's an aversive.) It all seems so difficult, and complicated, and scientific to a science-studies nincompoop: schedules of reinforcement, quadrants of operant conditioning . . . My brain starts slurring its words. And suddenly I get very lazy.

So now I've reduced my world to saying "Yes!" as an ineffectual reward marker--ineffectual because, of course, I use it twenty times a day in other contexts, and it ensures worse timing than the more precise click. It's the only cure for "forgetting" the clicker, though. I also make sure to get Nelly to sit and be quiet before I open the door for her to go out, but deep inside I know I'm probably reinforcing a behavior chain (she screams, then sits and quiets)--I know only enough to know I'm probably doing everything wrong, but not how to do it right. Or perhaps, as I suspect, I am lazy and dispirited and impatient. Training is hard work.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Chew on This

The closest thing I have to a religion is nutrition, according to one of the greatest authorities on such things (my husband). In my personal life, I hope to offset my secret fondness for Little Debbie products with a judicious deployment of beans, brown rice, and salad greens. It all began twenty-seven years ago, when I stopped eating meat. I just couldn't bear the thought of chewing and swallowing the corpses of sickeningly abused animals. But that's just me. Anyway, this development alarmed my mother, who thrust at me a copy of Diet for a Small Planet. It became my first bible (see above).

Polly, that great seer and Mercy's trainer, did the same for me in terms of canine nutrition. Under her guidance I read Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, and soon we were home-cooking our dog's food--meat, oats, and greens, a recipe derived with help from M.F.K. Fisher. (I'm sure, had Mercy known about the horrors of factory farming, she would have been sympathetic, to a point. She was that kind of dog. But she would have still eaten it.)

Further inquiries into the matter of canine nutrition brought us to the brave new--or, rather, old--world of raw meat and macerated vegetables. Once our dog went on a BARF diet, I never looked back. Why would I, with her gleaming white teeth (oh, all right: gleaming white broken teeth [learned the hard way about giving marrow bones to a dog who never says quit with anything remotely edible]), sweet breath, shiny coat that never needed bathing. Well, apart from those days when she daubed some doggy Chanel No. 5 behind her ears: carrion that was past its eat-by date; human shit that lurked in the denser bushes of Prospect Park.

The vaunted dog-human bond is really a result of a simple act: one party providing food to the other. I know this is not a popular view, but it's one that I've arrived at after careful thought. My extrapolation--that the love of a child for a parent is also fundamentally built from food--is not going to be more warmly embraced. But my relationship with Nelly is all about feeding her. I show my concern for her well-being by giving her the soundest, freshest, most wholesome meals I can. (And I do this for my son too, to my husband's consternation; he thinks I'm a freak. See above.) I take delight in her delight at crunching bone between her teeth; she enters a state of bliss I see at no other time, her gaze turned inward, her concentration pure. I also train her, and reward her, using food. Nothing else cuts it for little Nelly, except food on the hoof. That trumps everything for my petite huntress.

I can't not participate in this joyful giving. That's why the past four months have been dreadful, and the past three weeks a torture. In March, Nelly started scratching herself, more than a dog normally does, that is. It escalated. The floor was covered with her hair. Her normally glossy ears were soon nearly bald. I could see pink, inflamed skin.

The logical thing to do, obviously, was throw money at it. Piles of money I didn't have. A vet in Ohio, on a visit. My vet here, three times. Tests, pills, fatty acids, ointments, shampoos. I went online and spent hours I also didn't have. It had to be allergies. As her misery increased, the vet convinced me that I had to try an elimination diet. I spent $80 buying cans and kibble from him. No more fresh meat. No more turkey roll or cheese treats. No sardines, eggs, yogurt. Only dead, processed food. I felt as if I had been told my child could no longer have oatmeal or apples, but must eat only Twinkies. For the sake of his health.

How was I going to get Nelly back on those ill-advised off-leash walks? I always brought chicken jerky and cheese--sometimes even Vienna sausage!--and this ensured her return in almost all cases but the presence of rabbits. Now I was going to give her a piece of kibble? Wow. What a reward.

The past two weeks, she took to incessantly licking her legs, opening sores on her joints. Finally my vet said he had exhausted his ideas. It was time for a veterinary dermatologist.

Also known as More Money.

How much I did not know, until I drove the eighty-five miles to her office, and stepped in. Uh-oh. Oriental rugs. Flat-screen TV. Granite counters, large staff. Fancy-pants individual-cup coffee brewer: Help yourself! It's "free." My heart truly fell in the examination room when I saw the personal framed photos of show jumpers. Those take big bucks to maintain, let me tell you. And I was going to be buying their hay and bell boots today.

The doctor was impeccably thorough. She had studied Nelly's chart. She asked a few questions, then examined her quickly. She took three scrapings from her ear, and in a few minutes called me outside to look under the microscope. Something was moving on that slide. "Your dog is absolutely loaded with scabies."

At that moment I wanted to throw my arms around her and say, I love you, and I'll even love your bill! The remedy was fairly simple, she said. Of course, it's possible you might have to be treated for scabies, too. (They are primarily carried by foxes, the vet tech told me; and now I am not surprised, because we are a hot spot for red foxes. Nelly even routed one from a den near the barn, and they did an intricate, fascinating ballet together in the front yard as we watched, breath caught, from the window, until the fox finally escaped over the fence. Thankfully Nelly did not follow.)

I paid the bill--what's $380 between friends?--and went out to the car. Then I thought of something and ran back in. "Say, can you please ask the doctor: Can Nelly go back on her normal diet now?" Yes, came back the answer. The feeling of relief was almost worth the money.

Last night she dined on lamb, beef heart, yogurt, and vegetables. I could taste her pleasure.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Behavior >>> Behaviorism

Guilt is such a great thing. It has the power to transform reality. You know you're not the only one to have made whatever egregious mistake you've made--but guilt makes you the unique malefactor!

So. I got mad when I was pushed to the edge by my toddler, who yelled "No!" to whatever simple request I made ("Come on, honey, it's eleven at night! Time to sleep"), or--my favorite--who would follow me brandishing a book, after I'd read endless numbers of books endlessly but had to take a break to, say, make a meal for the famished. "Read!" he would demand in increasingly loud tones. If I persisted in my efforts to feed my family, a now-sobbing three-year-old would then hurl the book at my knees.

(When he was much younger and stayed quiet in the Baby Bjorn only so long as I was moving, moving, down the sidewalks of Brooklyn--a shrill wail would erupt the second I put my hand on the doorknob of a shop or coffee bar--I imagined the ideal gift for him: a miniature buggy whip, the better to drive his mother on.)

I became a frustrated, tired old yeller myself. I got so angry when he spilled a cup of juice (I mean, the sixth cup of juice that day, after having pitched a fit about being too old for sippy cups and "Yes, I am too going to take it in the living room") or refused to pick up his toys. By god, I was becoming the frightening mother I remember shrieking at the childish me. And none of this was making me feel good. And none of it was working either.

It came very late in the game, the realization that I abjured this kind of punitive, aversive, and, let's face it, out-of-control behavior toward my dogs, but I practiced it freely with my child. I certainly knew how terrible it looked when I saw it: watching people screaming at their dogs, for no good reason (or for bad: they had neglected to train, but expected compliance all the same), in the park had made me feel sure I was really watching a thinly veiled home movie of their own treatment as children by their parents. And when I saw other mothers berating or belittling their children in public, it made my stomach churn.

What was I doing? It was crazy, and I only hoped I hadn't fucked up my child for good, made him insecure, or self-hating, or fearful.

I was certain I had. But a program of positive reinforcement, begun now, might wipe away the memory of some of that embarrassing and damaging stuff. Once again, the aforementioned Jolanta, exegete and guide to the world of being humane, informed me that indeed, people used clicker training on their children, only they might seek to hide it a bit, because the rest of the world seems to find it hard to think of a human as just another mammal. Hmmm. Strange. She told me of an online list called Clickakid.

Turns out I was hardly unique. There were lots of people out there who marched around with treat bags and clickers, giving their dogs the opportunity to learn advantageous behaviors in order to supplant the troublesome ones, all with nary a jerk or a yell. But they were still doing it the old-fashioned way with their kids, until one day the bolt of lightning arrived.

So, some days I put away the bait bag filled with cubed turkey roll, and I pocketed a bag of M&Ms. We had a bad situation out there on the tee-ball field: tantrums, unwillingness to listen or work or try, whining that he wanted to quit. But after making a list of goals together, my son and I headed out for the second game. Any effort he made in the direction of one of his goals got a thumbs-up--a visual Click!--and I ran out as soon as practical to deliver a reinforcer in the form of a sweet. I could see the other parents looking at me: What the hell is she--the candy pusher? Call child protective services!

The day of the third game, I couldn't find my son when it was time to leave. But he was way ahead of me, out at the end of the drive, having opened the gate so we could drive. "Mommy, I don't want to be late for tee-ball!"

Now if only someone would clicker train me.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Reading Dogs, Dog Reading, Part 2

There is more to be said on the subject of books. And don't worry, I'm not going to say it all.

I just feel that if Jean Donaldson is in need of some sandpaper for her rough surface, her opposite number, Patricia McConnell, could borrow a few splinters from the author of The Culture Clash. In both The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog, you can practically hear McConnell going back and forth, back and forth with the finest-gauge polisher. There are the preambles meant to catch the reader's interest by using Personal Illustrations; the hyperorganization; the sense that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Heck, here's the whole bowl.

Not that her books aren't still valuable and interesting for the general audience. I read 'em. I learned stuff.

But the book I pulled out of the pile today is the real thing: alive, full of teeth, inviting me down on the floor for a sweaty wrestle. As well as inviting me to feel relief and kinship: Holy shit, this person has walked much the same path I have been on.

I am aware of how that sounds. --"I am thinking the same exact thoughts as this celebrated, famously smart author!" But I can't help that. Because we essentially are, me and Vicki Hearne. Much as I also hate to think it.

If I had read Adam's Task before I wrote my second book, I wouldn't have been able to comment on how people who called the horse known as Clever Hans a fraud had missed the whole point: the abilities of the horse were truly astounding, even though they were the not the ones that people had been hoping for--the ones that people themselves have. No, the horse did not know mathematics, but his powers of perception were so much more subtle than our own we appear not even to be able to appreciate them. Hearne says exactly this in her first chapter, so I couldn't have said it myself ten years later without appearing to have stolen it from her. Had I known.

The reason I never read this book (published in 1982; my own in 2000) was that I was afraid of it. Afraid it would make me mad, and being mad is often, though not always, an unpleasant sensation.

My fear was based on hearsay: Domesticated animals, I was told Hearne believed, are happiest when they have a job to do--a job we can give them. This struck me as bunkum. Hurtful bunkum. Animals' "jobs" are exactly what ours are: to live. Domestication has occurred too late in the evolutionary continuum to make real functional difference. Contrary to the wishful thinkers, dogs don't do things to "please us"--they do things to serve their own ends, even if it sometimes appears they do our bidding willingly. Yeah, if doing it gets them something they need/want; or, alas, to avoid something they don't. Trust me on this (or trust Jean Donaldson).

I was moved to write about Hearne--and to jump up and down about Hearne--on the basis of the first fourteen pages. Her task is to widen out the discussion of animals, and to understand why the discussion has heretofore been kept artificially narrow. That's the question I find most interesting in all the world, and to hear her say it, in her clear and lovely prose, is like eating a meal after a fast.

But when I saw the dedication of this book, I almost couldn't make myself go farther. "For Dick Koehler, who taught me how to say 'Fetch!'" Dick Koehler, son and flag-bearer for William Koehler, originator of the Koehler Method, a system for abusing dogs in the name of training.

I am here reporting on Koehler on hearsay, too, because I don't know what it's going to take to make my stomach strong enough to read him first-hand. I have my reports on good authority, though, from a gifted trainer and brilliant friend, Jolanta Benal, who has educated herself in what not to do by direct encounter with this old-fashioned brutality, unfortunately still used today. You can dismiss everything he says, even if you don't know what he says, on the sole basis of his advocating "hanging" dogs--lifting them off the ground by the neck until they nearly lose consciousness (a miscalculation there, and they'll lose more than that). This is sadism, pure and simple, not dog training.

I've now gone a few pages into the second chapter of Hearne, and again I have to pause and let go: She's completely, strangely wrong that dogs "respect" our language. Huh? She says a police dog "understands many forms of human culture and has his being within them." This is not possibly true. There is nothing in a dog's development or biological capacities that would have caused this to come into being. We may want it to be so (in which case, Hearne is as guilty of anthropocentrism as those she often complains so eloquently about) and it may sometimes look like it is so (because dogs are such subtle sign-readers that they, like Clever Hans, appear to be "understanding our culture" when in fact they're trying to manipulate the human into giving them something good and tasty), but neither make it true.

Such misreadings, through the prism of our own desires, are worse than mistaken. They are dangerous. To the dogs we profess to love.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Fish Are Off-Topic

Happy Birthday to Us: What started out 230 years ago as a grand experiment in democracy, and the sort of battle in which one feels happy to root for the underdog, has turned itself upside down. The United States is now a corporate dictatorship and a mean bully (with a lot of competition in the arena) to the rest of the world. (This, by the way, is a fact.)

An appropriately American story appears on the front page of the New York Times today. Apparently the sturgeon of Florida have a habit at this time of year of leaping from the water. I dunno, some weird biological thing. Anyway, sometimes they have the gall to do it right on top of the many people who are plying their right to overrun every inch of space on the planet. And these boaters get hurt. Some terrible cynic might think, "Hmmm. Not entirely bad, in a general, not specific way: one of the very, very few incidents of another species taking some well-earned revenge." Not like, say, Florida's manatees, who graciously stay underwater, so they can be shredded to death by boats' propellers.

The American way of dealing with any problem of our own making: Kill them. Deer eating your hydrangea? Kill them. Geese making a mess of the condo's "pond"? Kill them. Wolves eating the elk you want to kill instead? Kill them.

Some day, someone is going to stand up and say, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: There are too many humans.

Every problem begins and ends with this.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


It is morning in Dog World. The dog (also known as The Lawmaker) has been fed, before any human of course, has been outdoors, and is now curling up on a pile of faux shearling for the postprandial nap. And this is when the person rushes to the computer, eager to check, not how Tokyo opened or the weather or the news from Aunt Marge, but when today's walk will be held.

Just as we do with our own children, the mothers of Dog World can see how fulfilling it is to our canine charges to have what are called "socialization opportunities." We can just call it playing with the pack.

Things develop for our dogs just as they did for us freshman year of college: we eye one another while brushing our teeth in the dorm bathroom the first morning, and by lunch in the dining hall, we've selected our likely allies. We have to, or we won't survive the first term.

Our dogs do it not by slyly eyeing the cool factor of the would-be friend's wardrobe, but by smell, and most of all, by proximity. Throw some dogs together for a while, particularly early in their lives, and they form a pack. Mercy had Smedley, first, and I knew her feelings for him by the motor in her tail. If she liked someone, her beautiful sweeping flag went back and forth, back and forth. But if she loved someone, she gave them Propeller Tail. All the way around, describing a full circle. And if they were an intact male, why then she made her whole body a propeller, or a top: lowered nearly to the ground, she would spin herself around while her tail went full circle, powered by the fumes of powerful pheromones.

Nelly has propeller tail for her mixed pack: four dogs. There's Willy the labradoodle (his owner, my friend Janet, wishes you to know that he was not purchased as a designer dog, or at least not by her; she is his third home). Dixie is Willy's "sister," who was found roaming the back roads of Ulster County by a dog warden savvy enough to have Janet on speed-dial. Dixie is a dead ringer for the dog star of Because of Winn-Dixie, and is now the star of many of her own personal dramas, usually involving people getting near the car when she's in it.

Not pictured now but soon will be are Nora, the first Leonberger I have ever met, and her housemate Malcolm, a flat-coated retriever who one day to his surprise found himself in the local SPCA. Bonnie is the person who rescued them both. Possibly because of their proximity to the members of her pack, or perhaps because they themselves are honorary pack members in her eyes, Nelly gives propeller tail to Bonnie and Janet as well. She also, um, screams. This is how Nelly expresses herself. She can't help it. She can't help it!!! Did I mention she's a screamer? Our trainer has dubbed her Sarah Bernhardt.

Nelly's pack is all four to five times her size. Do you think she knows this? Bonnie, before she got to know what stuff the indomitable Nelly is made of [something hard, but that screams], was worried that her dogs might "hurt" Nelly. Ha.

Today's walk was through a lovely bit of the earth's surface called Poets Walk. And the dogs were poets, feeling every mode of physicality, investigating every molecule of nature in their reach. They bounded across fields, disappeared into woods, paused in surprise as the Amtrak train roared heedlessly into and out of existence in a matter of seconds, yards away. In the small picture is the pack, before the walk. And in the big one is the pack after the walk, in Janet's car. Their tongues tell the story. It was a good day. From their perspective (always), and from ours (no one ran away, or ended up in the middle of the road, horns blaring, using up one of their 190 lives).

The walks started out for the dogs. But they ended up by addicting the humans. To see your dog this happy--it's a way of living, and of being happy yourself.