April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Today 2 years ago I had to let go of my first ever dog, my beautiful little kelpie girl. I still miss her at my feet every day. She was perfect and sweet, and she brought a lot of friends into my life. Many, many years back, one of my friends wrote a story about her after a weekend trip.
Thank you Michelle, for agreeing to post your story on my blog.
And my beautiful Fin, I still will never forget you or leave you behind. Ever.
The bag was on the verandah and that could only mean one thing – we were going away! I’d often see Angi pack and my tail would droop lower and lower as she moved about the rooms packing and shutting things up. Would I get to go or would I be under the house with a chicken wing for company? Sometimes she would drag my bag out at the last minute, putting my food and leash into it as if I was some sort of afterthought. But not today! Today there was no doubt that wherever she was going, I was going too.
I gave the bag a sniff while she pottered around with last-minute human things. My bag still smelt like our trip to the sea, which could have been years ago or just yesterday. Sometimes having a short-term memory was a blessing but it could also be very frustrating, particularly if you were hungry and no one was about. It could feel like days since you were fed but it might have only been two hours ago.
Angi’s friend arrived in the blue car and gave me an absent pat on her way through the door. She always seemed in such a rush, and way too excitable. I know all about excitability being a kelpie. They fiddled around for ages trying to tie their bikes on the back of the car. Angi would occasionally turn to me and say, “Fin – stay”. Like I was going anywhere! I kept my eyes glued to them just in case they forgot me in the rush.
Finally they bundled my bag into the car and I got a prime spot on the back seat. There is nothing like the wind in your ears as the car goes along and I’m glad they remembered to wind down the window for me for a change – they could be so thoughtless sometimes. But this was turning out to be a great trip.
We drove for a while and then stopped to pick up another person who smelt vaguely familiar. She called my name and showed me her teeth in that way humans do when they are pleased. This reminded me of wonderful times past. I licked her face with enthusiasm but she responded by pushing me away with her arm. Some people really do lack decent social skills. Never mind – it isn’t their fault if they aren’t brought up properly I suppose.
I settled down on the back seat while the car rocked back and forth. The humans seemed to be doing a lot of looking through the back window at the bikes on the bike rack but no one seemed to want to stop the squeaking. Was I the only one that heard it? I tried a couple of times to see what was going on by squashing my face against the back windscreen but all I got was, “Fin – down” from Angi. “Fine,” I thought, “I won’t help!”
It was dark and I woke from a snooze when I felt the car slow down and turn into a driveway. The smells were unmistakable. This was a fun place for sure. Hazy memories of exhausted bliss were linked to what I could smell. The car stopped and the humans piled out of the car calling, “Come on Fin”. They didn’t have to say it twice.
–Michelle Riedlinger, 2004
June 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
Pinot is trouble. “Hello trouble!”, my neighbour says every time he sees her. “Hello trouble!”, or “Here comes trouble!”; this is one of my new puppy’s nicknames. I remember a Facebook post with a series of photos of catastrophes, earthquakes, floods, and the like. And then a photo of a border collie puppy in amongst the shreds of something now unrecognisable he has shredded. Meticulously shredded.
Pinot, one could say, is a little bit like that. Maybe I should have taken the momentousness of the question ‘Should I get a second dog?’ more seriously. Life was much, much easier with just one dog. And almost every day hears me moaning to the sky, or the earth, or a friend that I know nothing about dogs and training after all and what an idiot I was to fancy I could be a dog trainer. But hey, she’s a puppy. And as a friend of mine says, one of the ugly things we see in a lot of dog training is this intense obsession with control in so much of today’s life. We must control our partner, our children, our dogs, our cats. Puppy must learn controlled sits, downs, and whatever position. Puppy must sit when we say, every time we say so. Even if we say it a hundred times a day, and even if all puppy wants to do is go and explore the world with us.
Pinot is now almost seven months old and full of life. Here is what I have learned about her life in the two months we’ve lived together:
- Seatbelts must be chewed. Oh the pull on them and the texture; it’s all just pure chewiness.
- Four paws are for running. You must run, run, run on them, even when they get tangled and you fall over and even when someone somewhere in the distance implores you to come back.
- Waterbowls really are just dive pools in disguise.
- Chimneys are going somewhere you haven’t sniffed yet, so you must at least try and climb them. Even if then you and a lot of other things are black.
- You must let people know you reckon they are a bit of o’right by jumping up on them and grin. Sitting back and looking at them as if to check them out … oh no. You wouldn’t want them to think you think they look funny.
- Never let go of a tug toy if you can help it.
- Chicken are cool. Real cool. So cool you just must stare at them. Even touch them, if you can.
- Holes must be dug big enough to hopefully bury a sheep in it. You never know, you might find a sheep some day.
- Any dogs that still are there when you wake up in the morning are there for jumping onto and roll around with.
- If you are happy, just bark. No need to hold back on joy.
October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’ve been not getting around to writing posts apart from keeping up with the weekly photo challenge. In one of these little things that just suddenly happen in life, I’ve rather suddenly ended up with a foster dog. He is big, he is hairy, and he is lovely. But he has never had a day’s training in his life and is a strong 12-months old stubborn beardie.
He was going to be put down after his time in the pound was up, and now he is living with me and my friend Bill.
Speak of a big challenge.
I’ll post about our adventure of finding a home for Scruff, formerly known as Dougal … once I get time between trying to help him turn into a wonderful pet dog.
But in the meantime, meet Scruff, the beardie x:
If you have time, check out his stories on his Facebook page: Dougal the Dog Needs a Home.
September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment
The recent Wellington thunder and hailstorms have brought it up again. That old question of what to do when your dog is scared in a thunderstorm, or by fireworks, in earthquakes, etc.
As with anything dog and dog training, there are many different approaches around. Unfortunately, many of them are based on old-fashioned myths, such as totally ignoring the animal so as to not show any weakness as the “pack leader”. Another common one is to not provide comfort in order to not reinforce the fear.
In “Calming the fearful animal”, a video clip from one of Suzanne Clothier’s Relationship Centered Training seminars, she gives a reality check on the myth that we shouldn’t comfort a scared dog because if we do we only reinforce the fear.
Yes, don’t make the fear worse by panicking or overreacting, but don’t leave them out in the cold on their own either. Don’t be scared yourself (or if you are, try to not show it to your dog). Stay calm. Provide “meaningful comfort”, as Suzanne Clothier puts it.
And, most important of all, learn to listen when a dog tells you she’s afraid, so that you can work out how to manage it (i.e. don’t put the dog in that situation), or how to build her skills to deal with the situation in the long run. Because learning how to create a safe environment for our dogs is where the real answer to the question of what to do when our dog is scared lies.
If you need ideas on how to help your dog conquer their fear, Patricia McConnell’s booklet The Cautious Canineis a great starting point. Or have a look at the articles on Thunder Phobia and Sound Sensitivities collected on her website. Quickly accessible, practical, and helpful.
Here is me with my then almost ten-year-old kelpie. Always a quite shy dog, as her cancer progressed she felt stressed or scared more easily in more and more situations. Here she came to me after the neighbour’s dog at my friend’s place started barking and set off the other two dogs in the garden. Leaning and pressing into their human’s body is one of several possible avoidance behaviours for dogs. They use various body postures and signals to avoid activity or environmental factors that make them feel stressed or fearful. Then, I think, she was also not sure about the camera staring at her. But being able to lean into me, and me just putting a hand on her, always helped Fin to recover quickly from whatever scared her. If I had walked away from her and ignored her she would have likely crawled into a corner and taken much longer to recover.
August 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
One of the dog training books has just seen its tenth anniversary. Here is why Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs (2002) is still worth reading. Simply, in one sentence, because there still is so much misinformation out there about dog training and dog behaviour that contributes to the problems and miscommunications between humans and dogs and this still is one of the most readable, comprehensive, and scientifically informed books about dogs, their behaviour, and their learning.
The purpose of The Other End of the Leashis to increase our understanding of human and dog behaviour and to improve the relationships between people and their dogs. In New Zealand alone, the dog population is more than 700,000; and we are quite a little country. Dogs worldwide are an extremely successful species, so this is important.
I’ve just read the book for the second time, and here are some of the points in the book that I like most. Actually I like the whole book the most, but anyway, here are some points.
- McConnell takes the viewpoint of an ethologist — observing, understanding, and respecting the innate signals in animals’ behaviour — and invites us to practice reading our dogs and honing our observational skills. While we are at it, she suggests, why not focus our attention on ourselves as part of becoming conscious of the differences between the behaviour of two species at work: canids and primates. The “contrast and compare” descriptions between humans and dogs are real eye-openers, at times real funny, but often times also real tragic.
- The power of learning to manage the space around our dogs in order to guide or control their behaviour.
- The concept of pressure: about how to use space and develop a sense of how close you need to get to another animal to begin to influence its behaviour. We often are way too much in the face of our dogs when training them and it is amazing just how much many dogs manage to put up with. But some can’t, and it would be good for us to become more like a good herding dog and know when to take the pressure off.
- The power of paying attention and becoming consistent with the words we use to communicate with our dogs and with our visual signals to them.
- The many passionate anecdotes that are absolute fantastic exemplifications of what McConnell describes. They make the book both a training manual and theoretical book about dog behaviour.
- The encouragement to find a coach for your dog training and dog handling. It’s a sport and like any sport not all of it is intuitive, so why not get a “personal trainer”.
- And, finally, if a bit unrelated, I love the cover photo, and am intrigued by it. A human in shoes and coat. And you can only see the shoes and the coat and a bit of the hand holding the leash. At the other end of the leash a black-and-white dog, mid-air, cheeky look straight into the camera. How? The only info about the photograph is that it is by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum Photos. I want to know more about the dog in the air. It just makes me go “God, how much I love dogs”.
I love how books always take you to other books. I must go and check out Elliott Erwitt’s several photographic books about dogs. There is To the Dogs(1992), Dog Dogs (1998), or Woof: I Love Dogs(2002). The tag line on Erwitt’s homepage (elliotterwitt.com) is “for life-like snaps”, and it looks like he really is fascinated with the lives of dogs.
Oh, and by the way, this book is also a great read if you are not that much into dogs, but are generally interested in animal behaviour and human-animal interrelations. There is, for example, also a lot about primate behaviour and research.
Just read and enjoy :)
August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
“[…] dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. There has never been a shortage of experts telling owners how to take charge of their dogs. When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was determined that he would be better behaved than Alexis. I decided I ought to find out something about training but was then shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This simply didn’t make sense to me—the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.”
— From John Bradshaw, 2010, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.
John Bradshaw is writing about dog training in the 1980s. But this idea of our pet dogs needing to be dominated at all times, because they are lurking in the corners of our houses waiting for our weak moments just to jump in and dominate us, is still one of the ideas governing a lot of dog training today. Just look at the still popular Cesar Millan. Or take for example Jan Fennell, self-proclaimed dog listener, who insists (and I mean really insists) that we must absolutely be the pack leaders with our dogs. Otherwise they’ll take over. All her protocols are geared towards so-called pack leadership. Her technique is based on ‘communicating’ with our dogs according to wolf pack principles. No mentioning that dogs are not wolves, nor have been domesticated from wolves by humans. Also no mentioning that we humans are usually not all that good at communicating within an extremely complex communication system of another species. ‘Dog language’ consists of visual, vocal, olfactory and probably many other signals. Most of us are not skilled ethologists, and we struggle understanding our dog’s body language most of the time, let alone ‘speaking’ it ourselves.
Whether Jan Fennell promotes a scientifically outdated model of dog behaviour matters, because the old “dominance” model of dog behaviour more often than not goes together with using (physical) punishment methods in training. Fennell does not promote physical punishment at all, but her work still supports a misunderstood idea of dominance. That kind of thinking will have consequences in how we behave towards our pet dogs. If nothing else, it makes us misunderstand so much of what our dogs are actually signalling — to their owners, to other humans, and to other dogs — and what they are trying to tell us. After reading her books I felt brainwashed. You must do this. You absolutely must not do that. Never. Trying to be with, let alone train, my puppy became a constant test of my “dog leadership” skills. But I’m not a dog. This approach of basing dog training on dominance is a shame. In Fennell’s case it’s a shame because the starting point of her method—how to train dogs and communicate with them in such a way so that they want to be with us and work with us—is so important.
Oh, and by the way, Alexis, Bradshaw’s dog mentioned in the quote above, was a Labrador/Jack Russell cross, and, in the author’s own words, a roamer, interested in the opposite sex. Bradshaw dedicated his book to Alexis, a “Real Dog”. One that had more freedoms than most dogs have today in our often overly controlled world, increasingly fearful of all animals and characterised by a stronger and stronger urge to control all things “nature”.
August 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
The other day I had to get a plumber. The floats in my ancient copper header tanks in the roof gave up, and the overflow turned into a domestic waterfall. So here we were, the plumber and I, crouched in the narrow space under my roof, him exchanging ball cocks & fixing aluminium plates to the outside of the tanks, me handing him tools, and both of us chatting away about everything under the sun. My dog Tuhi was sitting in the hallway, wondering about our feet dangling from the trap door. When we were suddenly joined by her eager little face, after she had decided to join us and, somehow silently, clamber up the ladder, our conversation, naturally, turned to dogs.
“I had a dog once”, the plumber’s story of his little, loyal fox terrier x began. And it ended on how, when he died, the plumber was “really cut up about it, eh”. “To be honest”, he said, “I was more upset than now, that my grandmother is dying. And I really love my grandmother. There’s just something about dogs that somehow makes it different, worse in a way.”
After the plumber had left, I cried. About the dog I once had. Fin only died recently, less than 4 months ago. I still hurt with the shock of this still-there-but-just-not-there-any-more feeling after the death of a loved one. I’m still not used to Fin’s absence, and it still often just suddenly hits me and makes me cry. (I actually scribbled the draft for this post in the car in the supermarket car park, after one of those moments.)
Since Fin died, many people have shared their stories of how sad it is when a dog in our lives has to go. Or a cat. It still amazes me just how touched we are by the loss of our four-legged companions. The many different and deep ways of animal-human friendships.
When Fin was dying of cancer I was struggling. I was reading around, looking for comfort in the experience, and for how to help a sick and ageing dog. I stumbled over a blog post by Patricia McConnell (a most wonderful animal behaviourist and writer) about when her dog Lassie passed on. She was inspired by the famous story about Hemingway challenging his friends to write the shortest story possible. He won the challenge.
Hemingway had written: For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.
Since then, summarising one’s life in six words has become part of life writing and storytelling.
Patricia McConnell wrote six words for her dog Lassie, and she invited her readers to do the same for their dogs and share it on this blog post. When I was hand-feeding Fin and we were in our grace period of being able to say goodbye, the many responses really helped me. Fin was my first dog, and I was shocked with how intense the experience of losing her was. I think losing our pets hurts so much, is somehow ‘worse’, because they are so much part of our being — just there, with us, around us, without words, without logic — that when they go they leave behind the memories of all the other losses in our lives.
People are still replying to McConnell’s invitation today — more than two years after the post. Recently, I added my six words for Fin and my life with her to Patricia McConnell’s post “Six Words”. Response # 335 :) Somehow it feels good to be on this site with so many beautiful expressions of the love dogs left behind — for us to continue to give.
I was going to add a photo of Fin in here. But then I remembered this drawing I made of her. A quick gesture drawing, done in maybe half a minute. In the evening of one of our last days together. She had had a good dog day. Snoozing in the sun, a day full of the pleasures of plodding at her favourite beach, being able to eat.
When I look at that drawing now, I can still feel her in my hands. My beautiful, beautiful kelpie. I hope I never lose that.
More stories about losing a dog and about how dogs touch our lives
A couple of weeks after I wrote this, I read this fine post about men and their dogs on Michael Baugh’s blog, about how the way men love their dogs might be different from the way women love their dogs.
A powerful piece of writing by Neil Gaiman about losing his first ever dog, Cabal, is here.
And then there is of course Fiona Apple’s Handwritten Letter About Her Dying Dog.