Time magazine dog essay causes stir

An essay by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen from the July 2, 2007, issue of Time caused a stir and a growing pile of hate mail, it seems. In “Demoting the Dog,” Lisa describes how her dog went from pal to pet to pest after her daughter was born. That’s where the uproar began.

Click here to read the entire essay, including a link on that page to see Lisa’s rebuttal to the hate mail and a whole bunch of online comments hence.

A couple things struck me when I first read the essay. First, as a former animal shelter volunteer and former board member on the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, Lisa’s story is actually quite common. A lot can change between people and pets once kids are born.

While she will keep her dog for the rest of his life, other people in similar situations often give up their pets. What I learned all those years at the shelter is that noting the birth of children as the reason for relinquishment is only part of the story. Such pets almost always have behavior issues that people put up with until … they don’t. The baby then becomes a convenient excuse.

It’s the same with the “we’re moving” reason people sometimes use. At the shelter we used to joke, “Oh, yeah, and pets aren’t allowed in (insert name of state/city).”

That’s rarely the real reason, and it used to make me mad that people would dump pets like that.

But, after reading Lisa’s essay, I mostly felt sad for her dog and wondered whether a new home might not be the more compassionate solution. Surely, he has no idea why he’s suddenly the bad guy. He hasn’t changed. She has. Or, at the very least, the rules of engagement have. And, in life (and training), that’s not fair.

Happy summer! (photos)

After the many, many winter snowstorms came a higher number of spring rains than usual. So, we have lots more wildflowers than past summers. A couple days ago, I got out the camera and shot a few photos of the pups of summer 2007, including Lilly running her home course.

Lilly of the field

Lilly and Ginko enjoying summer.

Lilly in action on home course (I cued her and took photos at the same time … oh, dear).

In both cases, she’s collecting to turn into weave poles.

Reminders of love

Sometimes, out of the blue, there’s a moment of connection that catches me by surprise. Like love at first sight, except it happens it’s more a reminder than an instigation. It happens in a flash, but my heart recognizes it nonetheless. This summer, I find, some of these moments arrive as tactile messages. Call it … warm weather, warm heart.

Last week, while on a regular morning walk up to the school bus turnaround and back (about 3 miles), I asked Lilly to move off the road and sit while a car passed because we have no sidewalks on our rural roads.

She sat so close, right at my side, that her warm shoulder touched my leg. Then, she looked up and smiled.

This same event probably happens hundreds of times throughout the year, but in summer, I can feel her against my bare leg. And, last week, it struck me.

That’s the bonus of ditching the winter layers for a bit each ear.

Because I’m often barefoot, I can feel her breath when she sleeps under my desk while I work. Sometimes, she’ll even sack out completely with her narrow, unnaturally soft chin in the arch of my foot.

Or, while I’m making dinner, she’ll breeze by and sneak a kiss on the back of my legs.

And, it’s these moments of relaxed, but rock-solid bonding the remind me just how much I love Lilly. I wish I could splice this feeling (which I believe is mutual) into other timescapes when Lilly is feeling worried, stressed or anxious.

If I could recreate this bubble of love, maybe Lilly would let go and simply run for the joy of running an agility course.

Too darn hot!

I took the day off to volunteer at an agility trial today. I haven’t seen the news, but I suspect the temp hovered around 100 degrees. It was brutal. I don’t know how the dogs even ran. Just a couple quick notes … Being a worker bee that few know or notice is an interesting experience.

As a reporter by profession, I’m used to watching and listening to people … sometimes directly, sometimes not. In other words, I’m VERY used to being the stranger in the room.

I’m too tired to go into it, but let’s just say that some people never cease to amaze me.

Then, if you’ll allow just one more HUGE whine, I’ll add that at the end of a long day my ignition jammed up somehow, so my key would not start my car. I had to wait nearly 2 hours after the trial ended for my darling husband to come rescue me. His key did not work either, so he ended up practically tearing apart the whole steering section of my dashboard. He, then, pulled out the locking mechanism and found a way to start my car with a screw driver. I suspect that he essentially hot-wired it so that I could at least come home.

We’ll deal with the bigger problem later.

For now, I’m just hot and tired and glad to be home … even if it’s 3+ hours later than I’d hoped.

All hail Tom, my rescuer in chief!

No camp this year

After much consideration and feedback from “Take my poll, please,” I’ve decided to skip this summer’s agility camp in Colorado. I really want to go. Yet, I’m torn. So, I took the advice I often give my single friends about relationships … “You either know, or you don’t.” Waffling, any on-again-off-again tendancies, signal a problem when it comes to love (and marriage). Maybe it’s the same with agility training, or any kind of dog training for that matter.

When I left my first-ever agility class in tears, I knew I wasn’t a good match for that trainer. Yet, trying to be optimistic, I stuck it out for a while. Doing so may have set a bad foundation for me and for Lilly.

The animal communicator later told me that Lilly did not trust this trainer, but I knew that from day one. Lesson? Trust my gut.

So, since I’ve been dragging my feet about registering, that tells me I’d best stay home.

Instead, I’ll use that money to arrange private or semi-private lessons, where the focus can be on Lilly’s specific needs. In fact, I just registered for a one-night speed and motivation class. Lilly may not even get out of the car, but at least I can go learn strategies aimed at her issues.

And, maybe next year camp will feel more like a love connection.

Agility theme song (audio)

Thanks to the iPod nano that Lilly and I received as a prize for raising money last summer for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley I have a new appreciation for music lyrics. There’s something about being audibly cocooned with songs that allows me to hear the lyrics in a way I don’t if music just plays in the background. Here’s a song that struck me as a good agility road trip theme. So, in honor of all of you who will be traveling to big trials all over the country heading into Independence Day “weekend,” here’s a little tune.

Tom Petty “Big Weekend” from album Highway Companion

The chorus lyrics go like this:

I need a big weekend. Kick up the dust.
Yeah, a big weekend.
If you don’t run, you rust.

Sigh, Zip, Slip

You know you’ve been a home-body when the simple act of putting on pants with a zipper or shoes that tie causes jubilation in your dog. It was a long winter here in Colorado. The snow started in October and remained fairly steady through just before Memorial Day. Thanks to three huge back-to-back storms around the end-of-year holidays, we had 7+ feet of snow on the ground at one point. Needless to say, we didn’t get out much since clearing our football-field-long driveway takes some doing. I didn’t realize how much my hermit status affected Lilly until the sound of a zipper begain causing chaos in the house.

It took me a while to realize what made her so happy, but she’d matched the sound of a zipper with going somewhere. I live in sweats at home, but I never wear them in public. Lilly figured that out.

It’s the same with shoes that tie.

I tend to flop around the house in slip-on shoes, unless we’re going to town.

As an experiment, I started putting my shoes on in the master bathroom, which is tucked in the corner way on end of the house. I untie them, put them on and tie them up as slowly as I can to mitigate sound. Yet, even if Lilly is at the other end of the house, she still comes running.

I know that part of her response is conditioning to my routine, but clearly her hearing is spot on, which makes me feel like a dolt, when I holler for her outside. And, from now on when she ignores a “Come,” I’m not buying it.

Lilly must notice all kinds of little habits I have. The latest one I discovered is that I must sigh heavily before I push away from my desk and get up. I sighed dramatically a few days ago, and Lilly came running. I had no plans to get out of my chair, but the sigh triggered her arrival.

So, while I struggle to find the tiniest patterns to predict Lilly’s reactions to the world, it seems she’s already cornered the market in studying mommy.

The best reason to “Watch me”

We teach our dogs “Watch me” for a number of reasons. I, for example, mostly use it to distract Lilly from anything that might upset her. Since her list of scary things is ever growing, we spend a lot of time looking at one another. Truth be told, she passes the better part of every day monitoring my every move and every word. Lilly is the queen of watching me. Yet, there’s a bigger reason we want our dogs to watch us.

On page 177 of her book “Animals in Translation,” Temple Grandin, PhD, explains it like this: “Through all the years dogs have been living with humans they’ve developed a lot of ability to read people, to know what people are thinking and what they’re likely to do. We know this from research comparing dogs to wolves. Even a wolf who was been hand-reared by human beings never acquires the ability to read people’s faces the way any normal dog does. A human-reared wolf mostly does’t look at his master’s face, even when he’s in a situation where he could use his master’s help. Dogs always look at their owner’s faces for information, especially when they need help.”

When I read that, something clicked.

Yes, I want Lilly to focus on me when she’s scared, rather than the trigger-du-moment. But, I also have a responsibility to use my face to instruct her. Not only does this highly sensitive border collie read every inflection of my body, but she reads my face too.

I’d best learn to be a better actor real soon.

In the book, Grandin often discusses these topics in relation to animal aggression, especially towards people. On that same page, she says, “I think that as dogs were learning how to read us, we were learning how to read them. The reason dogs don’t hurt people more often is that dogs and people belong together.”

So, “Watch me” is more than an attention-getting cue. It’s a healthy way to convey partnership and to say, “It’s you and me, kid.”

No wrong … no right

Last year, I interviewed the director of canine resources from Guide Dogs for the Blind. As you may know, they breed their own service dogs. I shared a little background on Lilly with her, and in support, she basically said that there are some dogs who come out of the package and you can do nothing wrong. With others, she admitted, you can do nothing right. Since I often wonder what exactly I did to mess Lilly up, this perspective provided some comfort.

What if, Lilly simply is what she is. What if, the teeter incident, the motivation waning, the outright fear, have nothing to do with my green mistakes and have everything to do with her body chemistry, her brain development, her rough start in life.

Then, again, I’m sure there are countless green mistakes that may have taken root and ruined everything.

Perhaps I needed a tougher dog as my first performance dog. One that could weather my mistakes. Maybe a big-boned, not-so-bright dog would have been a better choice than my fine, tiny, smart, high-strung girl.

But, as I’ve said before, I did not set out to get an agility dog. I adopted a dog, who needed agility.

Lilly and I began training for the sport when she was about 15 months old in summer 2005 because I didn’t know better than to wait. The plan was to begin trialing this summer. Unlike others we started out with, who have been competing for a year already, I had no desire to rush Lilly into the ring.

And, yet, I still had my eye on summer 2007. Almost two years of training seemed just right for a couple of girls like us who didn’t know what the heck we were doing.

Maybe that’s why this so-far-lovely summer feels off. I had big plans, and they’ve been torn asunder.

Lilly sings (audio)

One night while watching “Mrs. Doubtfire” on TV, Tom and I started doing that classic “Hello” she does with whipped cream on her face … just to crack each other up. Well, it really got Lilly going, and she started to howl. We’d never heard her do that before, but the more we laughed and the more we “hello’d,” the more she sang. Now, we do it nearly every night as a pack. Tom and I do the “hellos.” Lilly provides the melody, and Ginko does the background yip-yip-yips. Check out this recent recording (about 15 seconds).

Lilly sing attempt 2

Since then, she expanded her howling triggers to other exciting things, like going to Gigi’s classes or pulling into the farmer’s market lot. If the windows of the car are down, people stop on the street and stare.