Archive for the ‘Dog’ Category

Diva Dog

Almost any pet owner will tell you he/she has the smartest dog/cat/pig/parakeet around. We’ve all received YouTube videos of the singing/dancing/skateboarding dogs or seen the commercials of the wily cat who gets into mischief and blames the dog. Smart.

My dog is not so much smart as manipulative. She comes by her instincts naturally, which is to say, genetically, being a mix of two breeds. One, the Bichon-Frise (far right), is known for its crowd-pleasing prowess; the other, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, for its exquisitely refined sense of entitlement and connection to royalty.

My Molly (named after her Irish sire) has a sweet face: large, limpid limpid brown eyes, a pert black nose and a round jaw. She looks like a stuffed animal.

She is white  with red/brown spaniel ears and an apricot patch on her right flank. Her hair is neither Bichon curly nor Cavalier long and flyaway; it’s wavy and unusually soft like a cotton ball, according to one young neighbor. Her tail tells the tale of two breeds, neither straight out like a spaniels’ nor completely curled back on itself like a Bichon; instead, it’s a luxurious mane she carries just slightly above her rear end, almost like a flag that implies surrender–the other’s, not her’s.

Surrender they do: Molly the Cavachon is well aware of both her looks and her ability to turn on the charm (and turn it off as well). She is alternately eager and loving around people and mildly to strongly disinterested in dogs, with one exception: a small poodle named Ricky towards whom she shows a disproportionate amount of interest. Otherwise, dogs are of no use to her; they nip and fuss and sniff in ways that are vaguely unpleasant and gain her nothing. People, on the other hand are almost always good for attention, affection and, if she’s lucky, treats.

Although usually placid, Molly is easily startled; she can jump, back away, duck or run as fast as a whippet. Her reactions suggest abuse as a puppy, which is most emphatically not the case. She appears most comfortable with white small to medium-sized dogs, a bias that I admit doesn’t sit well with me. I wonder about false doggie memories instilled by a disreputable pet therapist while she was being whelped. But it may just be part of her m.o. to make use of exaggerated reactions.

Molly has a range of sounds that I never imagined in a dog. Her various whines and yips and barks and grunts are part of a language I’m still working to decipher. She has a sound for when she’s bored, when she has to go out, when she wants to play, when she wants more attention, when she’s hungry, when she’s afraid, when she’s playful, when she’s really hungry, when she’s tired, and when she’s absolutely starving. Like many dogs, she’s perfected the killer stare. She also has a decent size vocabulary, although fully half the words she knows are related to eating (hungry, food, eat, bone, breakfast, treat, dinner…you get the idea).

Because I worry about her getting fat, what with her food obsession, I make sure she gets plenty of exercise. This obviously doesn’t involve a romp at the dog park where (horrors!) we might encounter other dogs. Instead, we play fetch. Naturally, my dog can’t chase an ordinary tennis ball or even one of those over-priced things you find in pet stores. No, her ball of choice is a ratty plastic thing she found on the ground on which I infrequently use sandpaper to remove some of the more disgusting bits of detritus that have attached to it. Nothing else will  do except an oversized chunk of rock or occasionally acorns, none of which are sanctioned by her vet. As she appears deliriously happy when chasing these objects, I simply don’t tell him. I’ve also learned how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on dogs although I haven’t yet had to use it, thank goodness.

As my selectively social and highly privileged animal lives her life, barking at real and imagined passersby, playing up to visitors, interrupting my work with her various demands and cuddling up to me, I am overcome once again with an unreasoning love for this  singular creature that shares my house and my heart.

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Can empathy be taught? I asked myself this question when I read about a new program instituted in certain suburban high schools to combat bullying and harassment among young people, both of which are apparently on the rise. Instead of merely being shunned by the mean girls or humiliated by the bad boys – bad enough when you’re in puberty – you can have your mind messed with, your reputation utterly ruined and your family stalked and also humiliated via text, Twitter and on any number of social networking sites.  There have been reactions that have made the news (high school shooters and MySpace suicides) and many more that haven’t.

We accept that some people are more empathetic than others, that women are generally (although not always) more empathetic than men, that the whole concept of relating to one’s fellow person simply comes more easily to some than to others. Michelle Obama is scoring high points for being so genuinely interested in the people she meets. Her husband’s empathy quotient is harder to read even by those who support his agenda but he is connecting on some level. Dogs are supposed to be highly empathetic creatures although they are also into their version of self-preservation. I adore my dog but I’m not sure she cares whether I’m having a bad day if she wants to be fed right at that moment.

When I first heard Bill Clinton exclaim: “I feel your pain” I was a little taken aback. What pain was he able to feel, I wondered. The shock of a young man diagnosed with a fast-acting terminal disease? The anxiety of a family on a downward economic slide? The fear of woman on the run for her life in the middle of the latest ethnic warfare? What kind of pain were we talking about here?

I sense what Clinton was saying: I can empathize. Whether and how this affected his style of governance is something I’ll set aside for now. But he somehow engaged in the task of putting himself in someone else’s shoes of trying to sense how they might feel.

Of course he couldn’t have literally known what it might be like to fully experience living someone else’s life unless he were living it. We can’t know what its like to be living in Gaza or in a refugee camp in Darfur or even as a high-schooler with a lisp or a limp or an odd way of relating to people unless we’re in the moment. Even then, people react differently depending on their emotional makeup. We’re all unique that way, which makes this whole business of relating somehow trickier.  I can’t tell you how many people said after my husband was killed on 9/11, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Some of my angrier friends who had lost loved ones used to retort, “No, you can’t.” I’d only say, “You don’t have to.”

The fact is: you don’t have to imagine the specifics of a horrible or difficult situation or the origins of the anger, fear another person is experiencing because, frankly, what purpose would it serve? Instead, you might recognize the sorts of feelings and impulses a person in such a situation might have; somewhere along the line, we’ve all had similar feelings. You base or adjust your actions and words to take those feelings into consideration, so that you do no harm. There’s compassion involved and also a willful putting aside of your own interests and desires, even if you can never truly understand what it might be like to feel like an outcast or feel threatened or feel terror. Then there’s the whole idea that you might be able to modify your behavior in a more sympathetic manner. It seems like a lot of work, more like empathy isn’t “just” a feeling but also a way of thinking. Which means, yeah, it could be taught and we’re all probably due for a refresher course.

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Beset by bills, dismayed over depressed savings and tense ahead of tax time, I turned my attention to the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual display of dogs. Some of it has to do with the fact that I love dogs; I’m fascinated by the ritual involved in judging best of breed and best in show and by not only the dogs but their owners, trainers and handlers.

There are any number of contests and competitions about dogs, ranging from the most professional to the really ridiculous.  At the top of the heap stands (sits? stays?) the Westminster show, two days of mind-boggling logistics , cramped quarters, endless grooming and very specialized judging at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This invitation-only competition has, thanks to savvy marketing, become quite the event and it’s where anyone involved in breeding dogs wants to show. The dogs are grouped according to the primary function for which they were originally bred (i.e. sporting group, working group). They are then judged within their breed as to how they conform to an ideal set of standards involving general appearance, movement, temperament, and specific physical traits. The best in show is presumably the dog that most closely matches the ideal.

Obviously much of this is subjective, albeit the judgments are made by people with keen eyes and years of training. In past competitions, popular sentiment (the roar of the crowd) hasn’t always conformed with the judges’ decision. But recently, audience hearts and judges’ minds were both won by scrappy little contenders, who were considered, well, underdogs going in. Last year, Uno, became the first beagle ever to win Best in Show, making doggy history and turning out to be just so doggone adorable. Uno made the rounds, appearing not just at high-falutin’ locales like the White House but also at children’s and veterans’ hospitals and at various schools; he even rode in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This year, more dog history: Stump, the Sussex Spaniel, came out of retirement to become the oldest winning dog ever. At ten years old and even allowing for new calculations based on longer-living dogs, he’s well into middle age. Talk about inspirational!

Westminster winners of the past have been enviably gorgeous animals, elegant and almost inaccessible, the purebred we ogled while our lovable mutt napped next to us on the couch. Uno and Stump, also purebreds, nevertheless seem like regular dogs, an image reinforced by images of Uno happily wagging his tail and braying and reports that Stump likes to hang out in bed with his best friend JR.  It’s nice that in these troubled times, where anger over perks and bonuses and ill-gotten gains have ignited an unpleasant kind of class warfare, at least some of our top dogs have come down off their pedestals to hang with the rest of us.

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‘Tis a new year of diminished expectations which means technically, I don’t even need to make any resolutions for 2009. No one really expects me to keep them. In fact, no one seems to expect anything of me, or themselves or anyone else – except if your initials are BHO, in which case you are expected to save the world, save us from ourselves and stop smoking. No extra credit for those six-pack abs, buddy and sorry but last November is so last year.

In the spirit of setting the bar low enough for me to crawl under, I hereby resolve:

  • …to refrain from offering my opinion about whether Caroline Kennedy should serve as New York’s junior Senator even if asked. Not that I’d ever be asked because if I were, I’d only be reminded that as I live in New Jersey, my opinion is irrelevant .
  • …to consider long and hard any and all offers to work for the new administration.
  • …to stop resolving to give up sugar. Why should I? Sugar is a mood elevator and an anti-depressant and it certainly enhances the taste of anything chocolate.
  • …to stop obsessing over my dog, except have you seen my dog?
  • …to keep trying to solve the Middle East crisis – at least in my head, since no one’s asked me for my opinion.
  • …to find inner peace. I hold over this resolution from year to year. Obviously, I haven’t found it yet. Check back with me in June.

As my friend Dave suggested, have a Very New Year!

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The Joy of Looking

It’s hard to believe that there’s anything left to say about the joy of owning a dog. There are literally thousands of articles, dozens of books, and countless Internet sites on which owners wax rhapsodic about their canine friends. I do it myself with a piece called “Sit/Stay” elsewhere on the site. Between the slightly precious and precocious best-seller “Marley and Me” (now available in a children’s version) and a set of heart-tugging essays in the August issue of “O” Magazine, we should have completely exhausted the subject. Dogs=unconditional love=antidote to loneliness=happiness=improved quality of life for dog and owner. Or: Americans= self-indulgent=multi-billion dollar pet-care business=preference for pets over people=indifference to world suffering. Okay, we get it. And yet, my inner cynic keeps getting seduced by the sight of my silly little dog romping through her life and mine. Stupid, I say to myself, to feel so strongly about something that will live maybe fifteen years, something that is not human. And yet…and yet…watching her run free in the spacious backyard of the tiny house I rented for a month, watching her explore and test herself and yes, learn, watching her fall deeply asleep every night, exhausted after a day spent as near to her owner as she needs to be yet as far as she wants to be – it’s making me happier, healthier, calmer, nicer around humans as well as animals. So here’s my equation: Indulging your dog with spa days or customized outfits, especially when it busts your budget=foolish. Enjoying moments with one creature who gets the concept of happiness and knowing you’ve contributed to that=priceless.

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The Human Animal

Last week my dog and I were off the mark. She had an ear infection and a sore paw; my hip was bothering me. I was crabby all week, predicting everything from shots to surgery to life in a wheel chair down the line. She was slightly annoyed, which meant she’d scratch her ear or shake her head; however the rest of the time, she seemed happy and content. Which got me thinking: we study animal behavior to understand how and why other species behave as they do, an academic area known as ethology. We also look at such behavior to compare and contrast it with human behavior; studies have shown that basic biological influences are at work throughout all species. And my own non-scientific study of my dog Molly’s behavior has left me convinced that, despite all those obedience classes, she is disposed to being both willful and manipulative, possibly a consequence of her being so good-looking. In that respect, she is an awful lot like people I know and others I read about on the gossip pages. On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to hold a grudge, obsess about things she can’t control, seek retribution, plot revenge or choose to harm others and then justify her actions. Perhaps we humans have evolved but sometimes I wonder if somewhere along the road, we missed a turn.

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Good Dog. Now Do Good.

We grownups sometimes weigh down our children with our own hopes, dreams and aspirations. Maybe that’s true with our pets too. I thought my Molly would make a great therapy dog, even though her priorities run more to bones, balls and sunny places to sleep. I believed that beneath her fun-loving exterior lay the focus, discipline and heart required to provide what the evaluators describe as “emotional support and comfort” to those in need. And so we trained and took classes and trained some more. Sunday she passed the fifteen-part test. After more paperwork and a standard visit to the vet, she will be issued a picture ID and certified to work at a variety of facilities across fifty states and a few other countries. Molly seems to know she’s accomplished something, what with all the treats and praise coming her way, not to mention hugs from one very proud mommy.

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Doc Knows Best

My dog Molly had a bout of diarrhea so I took her to the vet yesterday. The doc on duty recommended an antibiotic, which I fed her with dinner. About an hour later she started to scratch furiously; her heart rate increased and her temperature rose. She was pretty frantic and so was I, especially when she finally slowed down and collapsed in a heap, breathing rapidly. I frantically phoned the vet, who’d just left the office; the nurse said to watch the dog and call in the morning. Molly seemed okay after awhile so I waited until today to call the vet and ask him if it could have been the medicine. Unlikely, he assured me, which was interesting because, I mentioned to him that I’d looked up the drug on an Internet animal health site and read that there could be side effects such as itching, racing heart and elevated temperature and even (oops) diarrhea. But since that didn’t jibe with what he was reading in his medical textbook and since he’s the doctor, I let it slide and went out to walk the dog.

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