Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dog Love

Must Love Dogs part 2: Dog Love

Dog Love is one of the purest loves that we are lucky enough to be able to experience in life.It springs from the intricate bond and special relationship’s that we share with our canine companions.Dog love is like a unique brand of magic; like all love, it is hard to describe with mere words, but can only be expressed through strong feelings of passion and devotion. Feelings that can only be shared by beings who have a deep, intimate relationship with one another. And the relationships that people have with their pets are usually more intimate than any relationship that they have with other humans. There is just so much more freedom and trust in a relationship with an animal; people have often expressed how much freer they are to be themselves, without the fear of being judged when they are alone with their pets. There are no pressures there, or contingencies on that love. Their pets are there for their people through thick and thin, through sickness and health, and for richer or poorer. Because of this “unconditional love”, people feel that it is a more guaranteed love, a safer love; especially in a country with a divorce rate of about 50%. Unlike people, dogs will not cheat on you, feel differently about you because your weight or looks have changed, or leave you because your status or income has lowered. Dogs would stay with you no matter what. They would live under the bridge with you, in a card-board box, eating out of trash cans if we asked them to; and they would never utter a single complaint about having to be asked to do so. Sure, just like our relationships with people, our relationships with our dogs can be complex, dramatic, and emotionally straining at times, but it is never because they want to cause you pain. They do not wake up in the morning with a plan on how to get back at you for a previous grievance. They do not smile at you while you feed them breakfast, masking thoughts of manipulation breeding in their furry heads. They are completely honest beings, and if there is something going on that is straining your relationship, it is usually due to a breakdown in communication some where. It is not because they are trying to spite you, or ruin your day. They have no ulterior motives. They are who they are, and this is the main reason why their love is so special. Because people can be sure that the love is true, that it is genuine. You can be sure that your dog is not just trying to get your money, or get into your pants.
I do not want to spend this whole entry outlining every single thing that makes Dog Love so special and unique. If you’d like to read one of the best pieces out there bringing all of the reasons we love dogs to light in a really inspiring way, I urge you to check out “Pack of Two” by Carolyn Knapp. As I said in Part 1, this is probably my favorite book of all time. It is such a nice, and easy read; it doesn’t get dry or technical. It has a perfect balance between information and personal tales, woven together in such a way that it makes the reader not want to put the book down. But, I think that there are a few reasons that can always be brought up in this discussion, and a few more reasons why Dog Love is so great that were not mentioned in the book.
The first reason, is of course the one already mentioned: “Unconditional Love”. Now, I both agree, and disagree with this theory. I think that the unconditional part of Dog Love has to be earned. Dogs aren’t just BORN with the idea that they have to live to serve humans, or to grovel unnecessarily at our feet. Dogs are perfectly capable of surviving on their own, without the assistance of people. (Just look at all of the strays in this country, or all over the world for that matter.) I mean, sure, when dogs are being selectively bred by people, and there are generations upon generations of tame and domestic dogs going to new homes every day, of course they are going to be OK with people. But there it is. Just because they are going to be tolerant of people, doesn’t mean that they are going to LOVE them. The love comes when those new dog owners take the time to get to know, train, socialize and care for that new dog. It’s when that magic bond forms that we get the Love. And other people will start to take notice of that special relationship that connects these two beings of different species too. And the building of this loving bond brings me to the next point of the Dog Love story:The intimate bond. As I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, most people have a more intimate bond with their pets (namely dogs) than they do with any other human that they have in their life. And I say mostly dogs, because cats usually don’t care enough to follow us from room to room as we go about our daily business, and animals like horses obviously aren’t in close enough quarters with us to get the chance to. (I don’t know anyone who allows their horse in their home, or lives out in their barn with their horse!) But dogs…our dogs tend to be with us EVERYWHERE. I can really only speak for myself (although I know many dog owners who are in the same boat) when I say that my dogs share my bed. They also insist on following me everywhere, including into the bathroom, when they are able. (Not out of separation anxiety, but just as a need to be close; they are herding dogs after all!) Some people wont be that open even with their spouses. I’ve heard of people who wont let their significant others ever even see them without makeup, but they’ll allow their dog to. I know I wouldn’t DARE to sing in front of any human being but I will sing at the top of my lungs when its just me and my girls. There is just such a sense of comfort being with your dogs; knowing that you can act like a raving lunatic who’s free from the institution on a day-pass, and they will never tell. They wont get on the family hot-line and blab about how awful you sing, and wont tell the neighbors on the other side of the fence what you look like naked. Sure, we will never be able to tell what they’re REALLY thinking when we do all of the odd stuff that we humans do, but we can be sure that their lips are sealed. And sometimes its just really nice to have a friend who keeps secrets so well. This also, brings me to my next point:Dogs are the BEST listeners. It’s true, they are. They will not only keep the things you say completely confidential (which, lets face it, we cant always be sure that our human friends are doing…) but they will also never judge what you say, or the feelings that you are expressing. On the contrary, as they will always be silent listeners, they really allow you to think and analyze what it is that you are discussing with them. They allow for a great deal of introspection, and really let you think hard about the task or issue at hand, without being critical of your solution. One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite shows. In the episode, the main character is trying to figure out what to do about a particularly difficult problem; one that is causing him terrible moral anguish. The characters pet comes to his human friend, puts his paws up on the sitting persons knee, and makes indistinguishable chirruping noises. The main character suddenly comes up with a solution and says to his companion: “I know you can’t talk. Pretending you can just helps me think.” His pet makes more chirruping noises. The main character replies “I’m going to pretend that I didn’t pretend to hear that.” I love this quote because it highlights why our animals can be such great therapists. They just sit, and “listen”. Even though our species language barrier filters out most of what we are saying to them, the fact is that they always LOOK like what we are saying is more important than anything else going on in the world. They just look at you with those big eyes, cock their heads, swivel their ears, and give you their undivided attention. Sure, they’re probably just waiting for key phrases that actually mean something to them (for my girls its “food”, “hungry”, “toy”, “ride” and “doggy store”) but seeing how attentive they are, when so many of our human counterparts just tune us out, is a huge confidence and morale boost. Someone cares enough to listen. And when we come up with a solution, or resolution, they are totally on board. No questions asked.
So, I think those are some of the main reasons why pets (and again, dogs in particular) are such loving companions. Especially in today’s world where the human race is becoming more and more reliant on technology, and therefore becoming more and more distant and separated. And of course, there are so many other benefits as well: dogs allow us to keep active, and therefore healthy; they introduce us to things that we may not have done before, and therefore they bring new people into our lives; and they give us something to always take care of. Even when parents leave us to live our own lives, and children grow up and move away. They are of course, an enormous responsibility, and just like with any brand of love, Dog Love does require time and effort; blood, sweat and tears. But nurtured and encouraged, the benefits are worth it.
I want to end this discussion of Dog Love with, I think, the most important point of all. I think that this reason, right here, is the number one main reason why we love dogs (and all of our pets) so much. As I mentioned before, Dog Love is thought to be unconditional. Love between people and animals is one of the purest and truest Love’s there is. And I think this is why:
I hear this quote mentioned at weddings, on T.V. and in books all the time. But when you think of it, and I mean really take some time to process what exactly is being said, I’m not sure that this is able to be applied to any relationships that people have with each other. Granted, I don’t think that it is supposed to be taken literally either. Rather, I think it is an ideal that any people in any kind of love should strive for. This is what loving someone should be about. But I find that it really and truly can be applied to our love for our animals. Only they, being truly honest beings, cannot put any negative attachments on their love. Dog Love is the love being mentioned in God’s words:
“Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous, love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. Love does not come to an end.”
So enjoy your dog love. Bask in it. Let it wash over you everyday that you are blessed to have your canine companions here with you. And know, as God said, Love does not end. And this is true for all love; Dog Love included. So if you have had to say good-bye to a dear friend, or if that time has not yet come, just know that your Dog Love will shine on forever. Those who are gone, live on forever in the hearts of those who remember them, as we are left with their paw-prints on our hearts and their Dog Love in our souls.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Black Sheep

"Must Love Dogs" part 1: Black Sheep

I read a quote not too long ago, that said something like “one of the greatest joys in life is to find out who you are and what you are meant to do” or something like that. (I wasn’t able to find the original quote to refer to). I think it was well said, and I totally agree. But I think that there is something even more exciting than that...finding out who you are, and then finding people who are just like you. No matter what a persons interests are, there are always people out there who share them. Sure, it may be hard to find someone who enjoys collecting antique paperclips as much as you do, but sure enough, there are people that do. However, waiting to find those people who share your passion for various things in life can be one of the loneliest waits you may ever experience. Not having anyone to talk to about your love for something; having no one to share joys, losses, and sacrifices with; not having anyone who cares enough to laugh with you through the good times, cry with you through the bad, and to pick you up after things get tough. It’s beyond just your regular friends or family. If you don’t have people in your life who share the same passion that you do, life can be a very lonely and solitary road to walk. And it’s not your regular family/friends faults...its just that their passions and loves just happen to be something different. However, issues arise when those "regular" (and I don’t mean to insult anyone...maybe regular isn’t the right word? I just mean, familiar: friends and family who you know and love, and they know and love you back) friends and family members start not respecting you, or even mocking or ridiculing you because of your interests. Sure, it may start out as a bit of teasing (some of us who are passionate about some things can take it to the extreme; myself included!) but then turns into something more personal. The attacks become less funny, and more savage. It seems very akin to having your race, religion, or personality attacked. They’re attacking something that makes you, you. They are attacking your very core, the fiber of your being. It can turn very old, loving relationships into those hardly recognizable; relationships that become severed because of hurtful words or actions that can never be taken back. You’re hurt because these are the people who supposedly know you the best, love you the most. And yet they say and do hurtful things because they don’t think that you are "the norm". Usually, they are blissfully unaware that the things that have been said or done have hurt you that bad. They don’t know that you have been mortally wounded; that a sick feeling has crept into your stomach and tears have formed in your eyes. These situations are tough...tough to forgive, and tougher to forget. BUT, if you are lucky enough to be at the stage of your journey where you have found that magical group of people who share your dreams and passions, then the hurtful things that are said by others outside of that special group don’t hurt as bad. You know that even though you have been cut, your wounds heal that much more quickly when you have good medicine in the form of kind words and encouragement given by the people who understand you best.I think that if you find yourself if the category of "animal lover", as I do, you have challenges that make those listed above unique. Although I cant say for sure, as I’ve never walked this path, I think it is akin to being gay in today’s society: sure, people are tolerant (a lot more than they used to be) but you still encounter naive people who often misunderstand you because of their own fears. A lot of people just don’t understand...a lot of people think it’s a choice, or a "lifestyle", and do not realize that this is how you were born; how God made you. And again, these people may be in your own circle of friends and family. One of the good things, however, about being an animal lover is that you can find people who share the same passion a little easier, as there are so many of us out there. And what has sprung from our vast numbers is a very large and wide array of books celebrating the love and special bond between pets and their people. I don’t think that anyone has put what we animal lovers feel in today’s society better than Carolyn Knapp in her book (which is one of my all-time favorites, perhaps for obvious reasons) "Pack of Two":
...“Fall in love with a dog, and among non-dog people, you will see eyebrows raise, expressions grow wary. You’ll reach into your wallet to brandish a photograph of a new puppy, and a friend will say, ‘Oh no-not pictures.’...Attitudes like this can make dog lovers feel like members of a secret society, as though we’re inhabiting a strange and somehow improper universe....and at one point I said quite candidly, ‘I’m not sure I would have been able to face the loss if I hadn’t had he dog.’ This seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement to me-I tend to take my attachment to her (Knapp’s dog “Lucille”) for granted these days, as a simple and central fact of life-but Lisa’s eyes widened a little when I said it. She said ‘Wait a minute. You’re scaring me.’Scaring her? I looked at Lisa, aware of a sudden sense of dissonance, as though I’d just exposed too much. It was an uh-oh feeling: Uh-oh, she doesn’t live in that world, she probably thinks I’m a wacko. So I took a deep breath and tried to explain. This is a complicated task, trying to describe how a relationship with a dog can be healthy and sustaining and rich. It’s hard even trying to explain that the attachment does, in fact, qualify as a relationship, a genuine union between two beings who communicate with, respect, and give to one another. Unless you fall back on the one or two pat explanations we routinely trot out in order to explain the canine place in the human heart-dogs give us unconditional love, dogs are ‘good companions’-it’s hard to talk about loving a dog deeply without inviting skepticism. A lot of people, quite frankly, think intense attachments to animals are weird and suspect, the domain of people who can’t quite handle attachments to humans.…But I didn’t go into all that with Lisa. Instead, I used safe descriptions, clinical terms.…Lisa seemed to respond positively enough to this line of thought-‘right,’ she said at one point, ‘they are good companions;-but I was aware as I talked of a gnawing frustration, a sense of my own compulsion to hold back when I talk about my dog and to offer up what’s in effect a watered-down and fairly stereotypical view of attachment: dog as man’s best friend, dog as loyal and faithful servant. There are elements of truth to that view-dogs can be wonderful friends, they can be enormously loyal and faithful creatures-but those factors represent only one part of the picture, a limited and really rather arrogant fragment that concerns only the way dogs serve us, not the way we serve them or the ways we serve each other. Finally, I shook my head and said to Lisa, ‘You know, it’s been really important to me to learn not to pathologize my relationship with Lucille. People have very powerful relationships with their dogs, and that doesn’t mean they’re crazy, or that they’re substituting dogs for humans, or that they’re somehow incapable of forming intimate attachments with people. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it’s no less authentic.’Alas..... Lisa looked across the table and said, ‘You’re still scaring me.’”....
I read that passage and realized that I could not have expressed how I feel in better words than those. They have stuck with me since I first picked up the book over a year ago. This is exactly how most of us in the animal/pet-loving world feel...although we are often times not confident enough in our relationships with "normal" people to express it. And, as you can see with Carolyn’s discussion with her friend Lisa, even if we do get brave, frustrated or annoyed enough that we DO speak our mind, nothing that we say really sinks in.I think it is important to mention too, that just like with anything in life, there are variations of "animal lover". Just because you "own" an animal, doesn’t mean that you are immediately inducted into the "animal lover" club. I have seen my fair share of people come into training classes, dog shows, pet stores and vet clinics that share their home with animals, but really don’t see them anything except furniture that can move. They do what is necessary (sometimes, sometimes not) but really don’t care that much for them. Then again, you have people at the total opposite end of the spectrum who think that we shouldn’t even have animals as pets. I know some people who support PETA who think that the very idea that we "own" animals akin them to slaves and by keeping them in our homes we are robbing them of their natural rights and tendencies. There are also people who believe that every animal needs saving. Where do I fall? Where do most "animal lovers" in fact fall? Probably somewhere in between, though I of course can really only speak for myself. I do not see my dogs as objects or property that I own. And although I compete with them, I do not see them as ribbon-winning machines either. They are co-habitants of my home, and mostly like children. And although I will openly admit that yes, I see them as my kids, they are not treated like "human" kids are. They are loved like human kids, and respected as equals, but they are not babied or coddled. The first trainer that I ever worked for said that there are in fact appropriate ways to spoil a dog, without them turning into little monsters who think that they are in charge of your home and life. The key is to remember that they are a separate species, and as such, they have different rules and instinct that guide them through life. It’s important to know these rules and instincts so that everyone can co-habitate peacefully; it is not fair to have expectations of our dogs that are unrealistic. It is unfair to think that they will behave like civilized members of society without careful socialization, training and guidance. If you forget that your dogs are dogs, and treat them like small humans in fur coats, then you are asking to be constantly frustrated and upset with these confused beings who just want to share your home and your heart.However, there are many ways that we can treat our pets like we treat the other most loved members of our families that wont hurt fact, there are some things we can do that can improve their lives in many ways. So much of the pet industry now is dedicated to making "human" products for our furry friends, though so much of those products really aren’t applicable or useful to them at all. I mean, what dog do you know needs a high fashion bikini before going in to take a swim? Or what dog really cares if his bed happens to sit on a four-poster cherry bed-frame? But some products that have been carried over have made their lives happier and more comfortable. I, for example, spent quite a bit of money (more than I care to admit here...) for memory foam beds for the living room for both my girls. They also wear booties when they go out for hikes in the snow to protect their delicate pads from the cold, ice, and toxic chemicals found in salt. Some advances in other areas, in nutrition for example, have made our friends much healthier and happier. I certainly know that having my dogs on a much higher grade kibble made a difference, and an even bigger one was made when I switched them to raw. I also know that they will probably by healthier with less vaccines being given to them as well. THIS is what separates the real "animal lovers" from the "animal owners." Animal lovers treat their dogs with the same respect and courtesy that we would treat any human. And we are constantly improving their lives from what we learn every day. Not too long ago, it was thought that animals felt no pain. They were not given pain meds through routine surgery such as a spay. But now it is common practice. We realize that our pets are so similar to us, in so many ways, that it would be pure ignorance and would do them a great disservice to not treat them in the same ways. And real animal lovers WANT to learn; we are constantly educating ourselves to make sure we are giving our pets the best lives possible. But to reiterate, this is what separates us into animal lovers, animal owners, and everyone else. People who don’t give animals the same respect and courtesy as people, see us as people who cant lead normal lives, and therefore must turn our attention and love onto some being that really cant reciprocate. They are often the ones heard saying "It’s just a DOG" (see my "Just a dog" blog.) So, what do we as animal lovers do when society tells us that we are the "black sheep"? We do what we have always done. Smile. Ignore it. Go on with our lives. And we can do that for so many reasons...because we have found our niche' in life, and are happy and content. We have found those other happy and content people who share our passion for the furry beings who walk the path of life with us. And we know that at the end of the day, when all is said and done (no matter what was said, and what was done) we have those furry beings waiting for us at home to greet us and shower us with unconditional love. And finally, because we know how intelligent and sweet sheep can really be, and take being called one a compliment.(For the record, as many times as I have experienced the hurt feelings and loneliness mentioned in the first half of this blog, I have also experienced just as many compliments and "warm fuzzies" from friends and family too. My mom happens to be not only my hero, but my biggest fan. She has ALWAYS encouraged and helped along my love for animals; even when it has cost her more money and gray hair than she would care to admit! I even received a phone call from an Aunt just a few weeks ago, where she told me that she was so proud of my love for my girls, and how lucky they must be to have me. Now, I don’t know about that, but it really brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. And that’s the thing about friends and family, although they may think your crazy, and completely obsessed, you can always tell who really loves you...and as the Beatles so wisely said, "love is all you need".)

A ray of light through skies of gray...

This blog is about the very special visit with my girls that I was extremely lucky to have, while I was hospitalized at Mass General Hospital. I was there for 12 days total, and am now home; Im now able to see, touch, and play with my girls any time that I want. I will never take their presence and love for granted again...
I’m still here. Still playing the waiting game, still sitting in my room at MGH. But today’s different. Sure, I woke up at an unreasonably early hour, ate my standard breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and home fries, and I took a shower. But today something really special happened. Today I got to see my girls for the first time in over a week.I left my girls to go to work at about 20 mins of 10 last Monday, which was January 12. I just got back from seeing them; 7 days, 3 hours and about 40 minutes without any contact from my kids. I don’t know why, but it seems like the more you love someone or something, and the more you try not to forget it, not to let it slip silently from your memory, the faster it fades away. I can picture some random celebrity at any point in time. Remember what someone was wearing in some episode of a stupid T.V. show, but I have a hard time remembering what my Dad looks like. I forget the details of his face, how strong he felt when I hugged him, and how tall he was to me, even when I was wearing dress shoes with a bit of a heel. This time in the hospital away from my dogs is no different. I cant remember how soft their fur is; I cant remember the dark depths that their eyes portray; I cant remember the sound of their whine, or their barks; I cant remember the delicate way that their muzzles taper into a fine point where a obsidian black wet nose rests. But I can remember all of those things now, because I was lucky enough to have a mom who drove the ½ hour down and back to bring them for a visit, to have a Dr. who wrote orders that let me go off the floor, to have a nurse that took time out of her busy day to wheel me down stairs, a building over both down and back, and to have met a security guard that, when he spotted us, looked the other way and gave us another 5 minutes.I sat in Christmas-Eve like anticipation at the windows, waiting for my moms blue jeep to pull around the corner, to deliver to me my girls. Finally, I saw them. My nurse went out and spoke with her, and the next thing that I knew was that my mom was leashing them up and bringing them inside of the building. Luckily today is MLK day, and the Wang building, which is mostly out-patient care, was closed and empty for the most part. The girls walked in and gazed around curiously at their new surroundings. They have been in hospital like settings before, but obviously not here at MGH. I was sitting in a wheel chair facing away from the windows, staring avidly at my furry children that just walked in. I called them, and my mom dropped their leashes and sent them to me. Shelby immediately registered that I was sitting there and started jumping up and rubbing her face into my legs and hands (she was wearing her gentle-leader which I instructed my mom to put on her before coming-to prevent her from screaming!) Heidi walked over to me, but didn’t seem as excited to see me. Sure, she came over and said hello, but wasn’t wiggling out of her skin like Shelby was. This, I have to be honest, was quite a disappointment. Heidi is supposed to be my “heart dog”. That once in a life time dog that you bond with so tightly, and so quickly that they are the equivalent of soul-mates. Heidi sure seemed indifferent to seeing me. So I focused on Shelby some more. I let her jump up into my lap, and took off her gentle-leader. She was panting quite a bit, probably due to both excitement and stress. I cradled her for a few minutes in my lap, and kissed her all over her furry, white arrow-blazed head. I kissed her on her nose, and looked into her eyes. I looked at her mouth, and at her teeth. I wanted to look for as long, and as hard as I could. I’m still not sure when I’ll be able to see them again. Then, I turned my attention to my somewhat indifferent Heidi. I picked her up and cradled her too in my lap. She seemed uncomfortable at first. She doesn’t like much being held, but this was even more stiff this time. I rubbed in her ears, kissed her head too, and then released her. They were both now trying to get me to pet them at the same time. I only have two hands, both of which have IV’s in them. So, I decided to sit on the floor. Here they had a little more access to me. Shelby tried again to get into my lap and nuzzle me; Heidi backed up into me awaiting her belly and bum rub. I of course obliged both. The next 15 or so minutes was a snuggle fest: I asked Heidi to get on her back so I could rub her tummy more fully, and Shelby repeatedly put her paw on my arm and listened intently to what ever words came out of my mouth. I asked her how she was, and if Mumma was feeding her, and playing with her. I told them I missed and loved them, though I didn’t say out loud everything that my heart was bursting to say. There were a few other people there, and my mom, and I didn’t want to look like a complete lunatic.When the visit had to end (as the security guard could no longer ignore us, as his boss spotted us on the security cameras), my mom asked them to come away and went to call my nurse to have her come and get me. Shelby was whining, and Heidi kept staring at me, not wanting to follow my mom away. I watched as she walked them to the car, and loaded them in. I heard Shelby doing her crazy barking in anticipation of the next ride. I wasn’t able to see Heidi, but my heart has placed the image of her looking longingly out the window, back at me who was secretly and quietly dying inside. My mom waved by from the window, and then drove away. The security guard then handed me something: it was Shelby’s gentle-leader that had been ignored by both of us on the ledge of the pay phones. I held it, and remembered my new favorite quote: “I feel the same spiritual comfort holding a leash, as others feel holding a rosary.” While I waited for the nurse to come back and get me, all sorts of thoughts about my girls flooded my mind. I realized how much comfort that they give me on a daily basis. For example, how wonderful it feels to have the warm weight of Shelby sitting on my lap while I watch T.V. or nap. How much joy I get from seeing them chasing each other in a game of sheltie-herding-tag out in the yard, or on a walk. How comforting it is to have someone to talk to, even if its just cooing nonsense while I walk to get “snackies”” for them. How much faster I fall asleep when I have my face buried in Heidi’s snow white mane, and my fingers entwined in her pumpkin-pie colored hair. These are the very personal things that make my life with my girls so amazing. There are of course so many general things that make living with dogs a joy for people all over the world. I hope to elaborate on those later. They’re pretty much almost all summed up in “A Pack of Two”, my favorite book of all time. As for right now, I think I’m going to try and read some more (a new book that I bought at the Boston Show called “Dogs of Dream Time”). I’m going to try not to focus on how much I miss my girls, but focus on how lovely it was to have seen them; to have touched them. I’m also going to try hard and not focus on the fact that I expected them to be so much happier to have seen me for the first time in a week. Its hard for a human who loves something so much, to feel like they are not getting that same loving feeling in return. But we, well, I as a human, have to realize that I am loving dogs; and one of the brilliance of dogs as a species, and one of the reasons that they have been so successful in keeping their role as mans best friend, is their ability to adapt. I don’t doubt that were the circumstances different and both of us were gone, and they were left in a strange environment, they would be much happier to see me. I’m trying to remember if this was the case when we left them with Becky a few years ago when we went down to Florida. I think that they were both overjoyed to have us back, and to be back on familiar ground. Although dogs are masters of adaptation, they don’t really like the change that comes with it. So, although they are functioning, and happy now, as my mom is taking SUCH good care of them, I’m sure that they will be happier and a bit more content once things are “back to normal” and their entire pack (or maybe in their case, “flock” is back together.) See? Now I feel better already. I’m going to go back and hold Shelby’s gentle-leader or a little while, and relish every single dog hair that I can find on my clothes; a memento from our precious visit.

Halloween: A dog's perspective

So Halloween 2008 has come and gone. I have to say, that I was excited for this one. We have been at the house here in Methuen for 5 years now, but had yet to actually participate in Halloween as a tradition in the neighborhood. For the first year, we were so new and so busy getting the house ready to live and settle down in, that we just didn't do it. We just turned off all the lights, and put the TV on low. Since then, at least one of us has worked. Some years, we've both been gone. This was the first year that I put "Halloween candy" on my grocery shopping lest for the week, and made sure that our calendar was clear so that we could hand out candy. Now, if you are reading this and know me even a little bit, you know that I am NOT a fan of children. You're therefore probably really confused at why on earth I would take my hard earned money to buy candy and sit at home on a Friday night to hand it out to CHILDREN who knock at my door. Because its fun, that's why! Sure, I may not like kids on a regular basis, but I sure do remember what it was like to be one. I remember how much fun Halloween was, and thought it would be nice for the neighbors kids to come on over and get some candy...and meet the girls, and see that they are nice. You know, considering that usually when they see my dogs they are puffing themselves up, barking their heads off, and they are chasing them back and forth behind our fence. Sure, they're 20 pounds and look like some one left Lassie in the dryer too long, but any barking dog behind a fence can be scary. So, I put on their costumes (hotdogs: one ketchup, one mustard) and planned on them "greeting" the kids at the door (although behind an x-pen gate...I didn't want the kids to be freaked out, which they probably would be as two hotdogs came rushing out the door, jumping up at them, trying to "inspect" their trick or treat bags...). But, alas, as the night went on, we didn't have much success in showing the kids of the neighborhood how friendly the girls really were. We didn't get that many trick or treaters, you see. I don't know whether it is because we live on a short, dead end street, which lies off of a very busy main one. (I admit, this what I have been trying to convince myself is the reason...) Or whether it's because my neighbors all think we are antisocial, vicious dog owning Jehovah's Witnesses who don't celebrate anything. (Which, in actuality is probably the true reason, as we don't hang Christmas lights, send Valentines, and NEVER hand out candy...?)
But, as we had so little trick-or-treaters, I had a lot of time in-between the sporadic knocks on the door to think. I looked at Shelby, who was laying somewhat uncomfortably on the couch, owing to her lopsided buns, and then found Heidi who looked even more awkward trying to get upside-down with not only equally lopsided buns, but also a wiggly string of stuffed "ketchup" down her back. I looked at them and thought, they must think that people are INSANE. I mean, they see us doing weird things all the time, but this, this "Halloween" thing, must truly take the cake. So, I decided to ask my girls what they thought of this highly "colorful" holiday tradition of ours. Here's how the interview went:

Me: OK girls, Id like to get your opinion of that happened here the other night. It was our first time doing it, and I want to know what you thought.
Shelby: Oh, you mean the other night that was so embarrassing that we try and block it out of our little sheltie minds?
Heidi: Come on, Shelby. It wasn't THAT bad. Sure, it was...strange...but it wasn't terrible. You just think it was awful because those noisy things that live across the street won't fear you anymore.
Shelby: You're darn right! Here I am, trying to make those noisy things stay away from our house, and yard, and people, and...SPACE, and there she goes inviting them over...and FEEDING THEM! Don't lie to me, I SMELLED food. I KNOW what was in that bowl. I could smell it a mile away. And instead of giving the food to us, you gave it to THEM!!!
Me: Well, you see girls, on Halloween kids dress up and knock on people's doors and say "trick or treat". You don't want a trick, do you? So you give them a treat so they will go away. (I tried to explain it as simply as I could so they could understand...I didn't want to get into the whole "All-Hallows-Eve" schpeil where I'm explaining how the tradition went back centuries and blah blah blah)
Shelby: Oh yea, that sounds WICKED SMAT...You know those things that you have me chase sometimes, those "see-galls" or whatever they are...those things that fly?
Me: yes, the seagulls, but I don't know what...
Shelby: those noisy things, they're like those see-guls. You feed them, and they keep coming back! I try so hard to get them to GO AWAY! And now they're going to keep coming back! You fed them! They'll keep looking for food!
Heidi: Oh come on, Shelby. They're not so bad. One of them said that we were so cute, remember? I wish they could have stayed to pet us...I LOOOOVVVEE being pat...Maybe they would have rubbed my belly. Oooohhh....bbbeeelllllyyyy rruuuubbbbsss.....
Me: Heidi, are you purring?
Heidi: (a dreamy look on her face, a glazed look in her eyes) What? Purring? No, no....I'm..."growling". Happy growling. Yeah.
Shelby: Heidi, that's so ridiculous. Why would you want them to TOUCH you? I mean, hello? They're loud. And...loud. And they come near our house. I have to puff my self up, and do my big dog bark that makes me sound like a rottweiler to get them to go away. And you want them to stay?!?!?
Me: Ok, girls, lets get back to the topic here, Halloween.
Shelby: Ok, I'll get back to the topic. First, you dress us up as "hot dogs". I KNOW what hot dogs are. And they're for eating. I did not want to be eaten. And I did not see any food. Second, people knocked at the door. I HATE that! They're not allowed near my door! And then, they all looked weird. I mean, weirder than usual. I saw them and knew that I was going to have to try even harder to scare them away. I mean, clearly they were wearing things to make them look more intimidating. But I wasn't fooled. I would just have to puff myself up more, and then bark louder. But do you know how HARD it is to puff myself up wearing buns!?!?! And MUSTARD down my back!?!?! It was impossible! And then you put the collar that sprays sit-roe-nilla that I hate, so I couldn't bark. And THEN you gave them my food!!! I hated the stupid howliday. It was dumb...and I do not want to do it again!
Me: Well...Thank you....Shelby, for that, uh, "enlightening" take on Halloween. I'll take your views into consideration for next year. But what about you, Heidi? What did you think?
Heidi: Well, I thought it was ok. I mean, I wish the things that make loud noises would have stayed to pet me, and feed me. I was a little sad that I couldn't lay upside-down in my crate, and I'm not sure I'm a fan of the "give away food to strangers instead of feeding my poor, starving dogs" idea, so maybe next year we can change that. But it wasn't so bad. I liked snuggling with you at the end of the night when all of the things that make noise stopped knocking at the door, but It wasn't as nice when you squeezed me so hard I thought my eyes would pop out of my little sheltie head...
Me: Oh...I'm sorry about that Heidi...but see, on Halloween they put scary movies on TV, and, well...I haven't seen Poltergeist in a long time, and it freaked me out. I didn't realize I was squeezing the life out of you.
Heidi: That's quite alright. The important thing was that I got attention. I mean...that I made you feel better.
Me: Shelby, any closing thoughts?
Shelby: Yea, is it food time yet??

Clearly, my dogs are very opinionated about the whole Halloween ordeal. Not that I blame them at all. I mean, how weird must it be that suddenly, when night falls after a normal, just-like-any-other day, we grab our dogs and stuff them into costumes? I mean, sure, my girls wear coats when it's cold and snowing, and booties when the ground is icy or rocky, but the costumes that we often ask them to wear are not that dog-friendly. They restrict their movement, have weird attachments, and surely make them hot! Then, if that's not odd enough, people start knocking on the door! Now, if you're a dog-loving hermit like me, we don't get much company. Most of the time we go to other peoples homes because they want to avoid pulling dog hair out of their food (a condiment in my house), pulling dog hair off of their clothes (a new accessory for us) and avoiding the "doggy smell" (a wonderfully woodsy, outdoorsy musk). More oddly still, is that we don't invite these strangers in, but we have them wait at the door, and then hand over food! And then they leave! What MUST our dogs think of us? I'm sure, that in all dog-honesty (and we all know that dogs don't lie) that they are thinking the same things that they think when they see us taking showers, getting dressed, eating with silverware, and (very strange indeed) shaking hands instead of sniffing butts: That these two legged things might do things VERY differently than we do, but we sure do love them anyway.
And I sure do love my girl's right back.

The Colonial Shetland Sheepdog Club's Herding Fun Day at Sunflower Farm

Ok, so I guess this is better late than never
The actual even was on Sunday, October 12, but due to a little bit of a hectic schedule over the past week, I've been a little slow to post. (sorry!!)
A few weeks ago while checking my email, I got one that made me so excited I almost fell out of my chair. It was an email from the CSSC yahoo message board letting everyone know that there would be a "herding fun day" after the members meeting in September. With my hand shaking from excitement on my mouse, I continued to read on, hoping that two of my questions would have favorable answers: 1. it was a day that I could attend (a Saturday?!?!?) and 2. It was open to non-members. Working at the emergency vet hospital on Sundays has been one of my favorite days to work, but it is one of the harder days/shifts to get coverage for if someone needs a day off. So I was hoping it was on a Saturday, my usual weekend day off. Unfortunately, that was not the case. It was going to be held on Sunday, the 3rd. BUT...that WAS the day of my cousins wedding. The wedding was at 3 pm, and the clinic was going to run from 9 am to 1pm. I thought, "PLENTY of time to go and enjoy the day, and still make it home to get ready to attend the wedding." (Yes, I wanted to go THAT bad that I would plan on mucking around in sheep-poop and dirt the same day I was going to be dressing up for a family wedding!) Then, after realizing that I would have the date free, I checked to see if it was open to non-members. IT WAS!!! The price was a few dollars more, but of course, it was TOTALLY worth it! I have wanted to become a member for some time now, wanting to help the club that does so much for shelties, the people who love them, and of course for newbies like myself, but I don't have the time or money at this juncture to commit. Certainly what membership entails is nothing drastic and they certainly aren't asking much, but with my schedule for work and money constraints it isn't fair to other members if I ask for "passes". But, I try to support them whenever I can...and this was another perfect opportunity!
So, with my hands still quivering, I emailed the contact person practically BEGGING them to put me on the wait list for 2 open spots. But, with my girls having seen both sheep and ducks before (and not showing the herding prowess that I had hoped for) it was fine if I didn't get in. I just wanted to attend to see how everyone else's shelties did. I haven't seen too many shelties herd, with the exception of a few videos on YouTube, and was just as excited to see other peoples dogs on sheep, even if they weren't my own. I got a quick email back saying that the girls and I had been added, and that I would be notified with all of the updates. So, for the next few days, I religiously checked my email in hopes that we would get in.
It turned out, that the first attempt to hold the herding clinic was canceled due to the weather. That Sunday's forecast was heavy rain showers as the remnants of a tropical depression edged its way up the east coast. So, the girls and I were in, but we would have to wait a little bit longer to get our next turn on sheep.
The emails and posts between members and non-members alike went back and forth, trying to find a new date and time that would work for a majority of the participants…well, the human participants. Not that our dogs social calendars didn't matter, but they were a little more flexible, owing to the fact that most didn't hold full time jobs. And again, as I checked each email, I kept my fingers crossed that maybe this time it would be on a Saturday…
But, alas, it was rescheduled for Sunday October 12. I made up my mind. I would beg, borrow or steal in order to get the day off from work so the girls and I could go. Luckily one of the girls at work was looking to pick up more hours, so she took my Sunday shift, and I took an open one on that Saturday before. I emailed back when the coverage was final, and said that I would still most definitely be attending.
That morning, unlike the Sunday it was originally planned for, dawned bright, clear…and chilly! I had groomed the girls a few days prior so they were looking their fluffy best (you know, because it's important to be spotlessly clean and tangle-free when you plan on running around at a farm in sheep-poop!) I had also made sure that I had cleaned out my car so that I would be able to find everything that I would need for the day. We got up nice and early that morning, and took off. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the directions so I had to go back. (More unfortunately, I had forgotten their leashes, but didn't realize THAT particular fact until I got to the farm in Carlisle.)
We pulled in to a beautiful large fenced in farm area, and saw with delight that there were quite a few participants for the clinic. Some of who I know by name from having the pleasure of meeting them at other venues (agility mostly) and some who I knew only by seeing their kennel name, and knowing of their amazing reputation as exceptional breeders. I left my girls in the car, and brought my chair down to the small area next to one of the large fenced in fields where everyone was gathering so that the owners of the farm could explain what we would be doing for the day, and what we hoped to see. The two ladies who run the farm are WONDERFULLY sweet and knowledgeable, and were able to give us a lot of information on what they do, and why their farm was set up the particular way that it was. They work very closely with Carolyn Wilki of Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm ( who is a very well known, all positive herding trainer. (Does that name sound familiar? It will if you are a fan of Jon Katz's books about his experiences with his border collies of Bedlam Farm. She is the instructor he worked closely with for training his own dogs to herd; I'll be writing my next blog on his Bedlam Farm books, so keep checking back!)
Their sheep pens for herding testing and training are set up so that the sheep are in a large square pen that is surrounded by an even larger round one. Then, they have another large pen diagonally across in the corner of the large square field holding even more sheep. The first pen is set up so that the dog has ample space to run around the sheep, and is able to see them and become stimulated by them, but they are protected by their square pen so if the dog gets over-stimulated or a little too rowdy, they are protected at all times. When the dog develops more control, then the sheep can be let out of their square pen, into the larger round one, so the dog can experience driving the sheep in one direction or the other. What about the sheep in the far corner of the field? Their not forgotten! They are used as a reward for dogs who are interested in the sheep, and are successfully called off of the first flock. When they successfully leave the first flock, they are walked over to the second pen where they get to see…more sheep! They learn that just because "That'll do" is said, doesn't mean that the fun is necessarily over. It can also be used for dogs that are a little scared of/apprehensive around/ or not-as-interested in the sheep. The dogs can be brought into this larger pen with the sheep, on a long line, and see if their anxiety eases or their interest grows.
After listening raptly to what the ladies were said, the running order was decided, and we got our dogs. There were sables, blue merles, bi-blacks and tri's. It was really nice to see so many beautiful dogs, and how their people loved them. I brought my chair up to the outside of the fence so I could be right up close to the action.
Everyone's dogs did really well! In addition to having representatives for most of the beautiful colors of our breed, there was also a lot of diversity regarding the dogs' ages. There were quite a few young dogs who had never seen any type of stock before (although most did extremely well! One very memorable moment came when the youngest member of the bunch, a young puppy walked right up and kissed the nose of a curious sheep!) And there were a few, like my girls, who were a few years old. Again, the older guys did exceptionally well too. Age didn't seem to be a factor, but color sure did! One of the participants noticed that the sheep seemed to react differently to the bi-blacks and tri's than the sables and blues. The instructors hadn't noticed before, but they said that they were going to pay more attention from now on! The other thing that seemed to separate the younger dogs from old, was their fascination with the little "delicacies" of sheep-piles laying around the field. Some were more interested in the scat than the sheep! This of course, was completely normal, and a little funny at times too. One some of their little sweet and innocent faces, you could see the dilemma: "woolies in the pen, or poop on the ground…and do I roll in it, or eat it first?" As I watched one dog who was particularly interested in the doo, I was forcibly reminded of something my agility instructor had said to us a long time ago: how she would be filthy rich if she could figure out a way to make sheep-poo into a treat that dogs could eat and people would want to carry around in their pocket. She said that even the best trained dogs in obedience, with exceptional "leave-it's" lost their heads in a valley full of the most mouth-watering (I know, eeewww…) treats they had ever smelled.
My girls did what I sort of expected…ignored the sheep! I tried to keep the picture of them herding the sheep spectacularly around the pen, hoping to project this mental image into their little noggins, but to no avail. Heidi was up first. We put her in the large round pen, and walked around the smaller square one (with the sheep) inside it. I walked once around, and the instructor (seeing that she had no interest in the wooly beings, and only had eyes for me) handed me the crook, and put me inside the pen with the sheep. Still, Heidi walked around ignoring the sheep. She didn't really understand why I was in the pen talking to her, rather than outside of it FEEDING her, and voiced her displeasure. She barked, not at the sheep, but because she couldn't get to me, or the liver in my pocket. THEN she noticed that the instructor had cheese! It was all over. My dog had officially gone over to the dark side. Now, not only were the sheep I was petting and talking to invisible, but so was I! I walked out of the pen, gave up the crook, and my dreams of having a herding champion hidden somewhere in the fluff that is my girl, Heidi. But, I praised her, snuggled with her, and fed her all the same. That's what Sunflower Farm is all about. Praise. Positive reinforcement. It didn't really matter to me if Heidi was going to turn on to the sheep or not. It was about having an adventure with my dog, and enjoying some ever fleeting time with her. With both of them. Shelby was up next. I put my happy Heidi back in my square (car) and got my little one. Shelby was super excited and just looked like she wanted to work. I have been letting her "herd" (chase) geese at various locations close to home, and hoped that with all of this extra "herding" practice, that she would turn on to the sheep. I didn't, however, want her to chase the sheep as she chases the geese. As the instructors explained earlier that morning, herding and chasing are NOT the same. Herding dogs almost never run, and some don't really even look at the stock. Still, I was hopeful. Shelby got into the square pen, and also didn't seem to notice the invisible sheep. We did the same thing: walked around once, and then I was sent back in with the sheep. Shelby, unlike Heidi, was not frustrated at not being able to reach me or the snacks; she ran back to the fence and sat by it, where our chair was. I tried calling her and getting her "amped up" but she just went and sat. So, this time, the instructor had me put her on a long line, and "drive" the sheep around. She let them out of their square pen, and Shelby followed them. I wasn't, however, sure if she was following them because I was, and I had her on a leash, or if she was really driving them. I am hopeful, because she didn't try going the other way, or even stopping. She just followed them around. I truly think if I had started her earlier, or had the time and money now to spend to truly develop any instinct that she has, that she would be great at it. I don't call her my little BC in sheltie clothes for nothing. She's super fast, has great structure, and is seemingly unafraid. I was super pleased with her too, and showered her with praise, snuggles, and treats.
When everyone had had their turn with all of the dogs that they had signed up, we gathered around the small area outside of the field again, to chat about how everyone did, and what the next steps were. They gave us some more information about the farm, like prices, schedules and clinics, and then we had some time to ask questions. When the day was officially over, we packed up, said our goodbyes, and left Sunflower Farm for the day. The whole ride home my head (and camera!) was filled with what I saw that day, and my dreams that I still have for the future. I have DEFINITELY been bitten by the "herding bug"!

The day was not only beautiful, but a huge success. I think we all (even those who have been involved with the breed for YEARS learned a little something more about the wonderful dogs we choose to enjoy our lives with. Sunflower Farm is a beautiful place, not only because of its scenic location (enhanced by its rolling green fields bordered by trees blazing with autumn colors) but it is made even more so by the techniques that the instructors use, and the manner in which they teach. They treat every single animal (yes, including their sheep, which is so nice to see!!) and human with such respect and kindness. This is what we were really all here for. Sure, we were hoping to see some great instinct in the ancient zen-like art which is herding, but we were really here to strengthen and deepen our relationships with our dogs. We were there to enjoy the beautiful autumn day, and great company with people whom we share so much. Sure, we may be different in terms of what we do for work, our families, and where we live, but we are all strung together, woven with a wool thread that connects us: our love for our dogs. Dog people (and not to be biased, but especially sheltie people) are some of the kindest people I have met. It was such a pleasure to spend the day with such wonderful people, and, of course, the stars of the day: their amazing dogs!

Camping and Herding: an adventure

So, after our first try at herding, (which was an instinct test with sheep...which the girls seemed to FAIL) I thought Id give it another shot. But this time, there would be one BIG difference: we would be trying ducks rather than sheep. I figured ducks were much smaller and less threatening, and they seemed to move a little quicker, and maybe that would "turn on" their herding instincts, which I hoped were just dormant somewhere deep inside their little sheltie brains. So I decided to call upon the experts in the area, and posted to a couple of local dog boards asking if anyone knew of a herding instructor who had ducks. I quickly got a reply from a few people, (one of which has a VERY talented herding/agility/obedience sheltie) who all sent me information of a herding dog trainer in Maine. She would be holding a clinic in a few weeks. It was a Saturday clinic, and was advertised as a beginners introduction to herding, covering training, stock choice/work, and talk on competition and the life and ways of a shepherd. I thought that this would be PERFECT.
So, I immediately emailed to make sure that there was space for the two girls (which there was) and I sent off my check. I made reservations for a small cottage in Maine, a little ways from where the clinic would be taking place and was planning on heading up on Friday morning. We would explore the area on Friday day, and be well rested for Saturday mornings clinic. I should have stuck to THAT plan...We were having some changes at work that involved everyones schedule, so when I found out that I would be getting out earlier than I had been previously on Thursday afternoons I decided that I would go up to New Hampshire and CAMP on Thursday afternoon, stay in NH for most of the day Friday and then make the drive over to Maine late on Friday afternoon. So, I made reservations at a campground (that I had never been to before) for Thursday night.
I packed the car on Wednesday (except for the cooler) that way I could leave pretty early on Thursday afternoon after work. So that worked out pretty well. I just had to grab a few other things, the dogs, and hit the grocery store for some food. We were on the road, and ready to have our first camping adventure of the year. And boy, it WAS an adventure.
I got to the campground a little later than planned, but that wasnt a big deal. The problem that I encountered first, was that when I checked in, they explained (while pointing to the camp map) that "here is the area for parking, and there should be a WAGON here to load to bring to the campsite." WHAT?!?! Apparently I picked a site that was 300 yards into the woods, and would not have easy access to my car. I would have to walk back and forth through the woods if I needed anything. So, I pulled my car to the parking area, and parked. I found the wagon (which was about 150 lbs. itself!) and started loading it up. Oh, I forgot to mention: when I was being told the campground rules I had been told that as they are in bear country, it was very advisable not to EAT at the site itself. So now, I figured that after I loaded the wagon, and set everything up at the site, I would have to go back to the car to feed the girls, and to eat my own dinner. So heres how it went down:
I loaded the wagon with everything I would need at the site...pretty much almost everything in the car: tent, mattress, sleeping bag, dogs beds, lantern, flashlight etc. It was very hot and muggy, even here in Crawford notch, so loading it wasnt fun. Then I had both dogs on lead, and proceeded to drag the wagon along the very bumpy, windy dirt path into the woods. I set up the tent (which was a challenge, as it was new and I wasnt familiar with it as I was with my old tent) and then by that time, it was pretty dark. And then I ran into our second issue: it was VERY buggy. Where I usually stay (in Lincoln, on the OTHER side of the mountains) although the sites were also along a river, they were not wooded so bugs werent an issue. I was already being eaten alive, and it was only dusk. So then and there I decided "no fire tonight". I dragged the wagon BACK through the woods (so the next unlucky SOB's could drag it through the woods loaded with their stuff) and fed the dogs and ate dinner in my car...still being attacked by rabid, blood thirsty mosquitos. I was hot, and pissed off. The bathroom on the map was at the OTHER end of the path that my campsite was on, so after dinner we walked by our site to find the path that was on the map. It wasnt really a path at all. It was a small, I dunno, trail of strategically placed boulders that winded down the bank of a small stream, across a LOG and then up the opposite bank. I used the sink to wash the girls dishes, and then went back to the site, praying that I would not have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. The good thing about the site, was that as it was so close to the rushing river, I couldnt hear ANYTHING over the sound of the water, including my neighbors who had small kids. And no, thankfully I didnt have to go back to the bathroom.
The next morning was hot and muggy AGAIN so I very quickly packed everything up, loaded the wagon, and loaded the car back up. I took a shower and then very impatiently left the campground. Through the day, the girls and I meandered our way to a few of our favorite places: on the Conway Scenic railroad, swimming off of Bear Notch Road, and to the "doggy store" for some icecream. Then we started to make our way across the border to Maine. I have never really been through Maine properly, and although I had good directions, I bought a map to feel a little more confident. It took us about 3 hours to make it across Maine (which is beautiful, hilly farm country) to our cottage on the coast. This was MUCH nicer and more comfortable, and here is where I proceeded to kick myself for coming up early and having a miserable time camping. I grabbed something to eat, fed the dogs, watched a little tv and went to sleep with the cool Maine coast salty air breezing through the windows of the cottage.
The next morning was the start of the big day. I showered, packed up, and fed the dogs. It was much cooler here than it was the previous day in NH, so I put on some pants, my new blue muck boots, and (of course) a sheltie sweatshirt. I played a little frisbee with the girls to burn off some of thier steam, and then packed them up too. The womans house was a bit hard to find, so we missed the street that it was off of. Finally we made it (although a little late) and I entered her house and found myself being welcomed in to the small group who were there for the same reasons I was; all wondering if our dogs would blow us away with their herding skills, or leave us wondering if decades of breeding for asthetics over the ability to work had robbed our dogs of thier special abilities.
We ended the introductory meeting, and all went to get out dogs. I grabbed my chair, some water, and the girls, and we trucked up the hill to the pen. This part of the farm was beautiful. Instead of feeling like being in the middle of the woods (which was where the house was) we now were at what felt like the top of the mountain, cleared and penned. Large chunks of rock were jutting up through the grassy penned pasture. The instructure seperated the sheep, and had all of us come into the larger pen, so we could be along the fence of the smaller, where the dogs would be introduced to the sheep. There was a border collie that immediately turned on, and an aussie did as well. There was a canaan dog who had a unique style (the instructor was delighted, as she never had the ability to work a canaan dog before) and then my girls.
Mine were the only two to work ducks. We did them seperately, in between the dogs who were tested on sheep. Heidi went first. She was more interested in the ducks than she was the sheep, but looked a little afraid of them. The instructor said that she did have some instinct, and with some work, she would turn on. She was exibiting the correct pressure needed to move the ducks, but not scare them into scattering, and was always behing the center duck, therefore balancing the "herd". But it was not immediate, and she did not care to be lead around on leash after the ducks, not at her own pace, but at the instuctors. Still having her shoulder injury, and having her gait suffer because of it, shes a little slower than she would normally be. So although she did well, I did not feel that I had a budding working sheepdog inside of her. Which, althgouh I have been bitten by the herding bug, doesnt really bother me. Heidi is so good at so amny other things, and is such a special dog anyways, Im just happy that she tried it.
Next was Shelbys turn. Shelby was much the same, although with her, I stayed out side of the pen with my back to her (as shes very bonded with me, and wouldnt focus on the ducks if I was in there). She did just about the same as Heidi: showing a little pressure, and the desire to balance the stock, but she was nervous and a little afraid of the ducks. Again, I was told that she could also be turned on to the stock with some practice, but also, I didnt feel like I had my "border collie in sheltie clothes." The biggest thing that I wasnt really happy with was the way that my girls were handled with the ducks. They werent very comfortable with them, and a little nervous. But where I would have used a clicker and some treats to encourage them to go near the stock, she used the all too common "Ceaser Millan"-like technique of flooding: grabbing a duck and throwing it in the air at them, putting a duck in their face, holding the duck and dog at the same just didnt work, and made ME a little uncomfortable. I knew my girls were not in any danger of course (they were ducks after all) but I also knew that they werent going to get any better with their confidence around the ducks when they were being shoved in their faces. And, sure enough, their second time in the pen with them, the were shutting down, eager to get off their lead, away from this strange woman who was dragging them around after these scary feathered, quacking things.
So, besides the training techniques, all in all, I was very glad that I went to the clinic. I learned a lot about herding and stock especially. The handlers did an exercise where WE had to herd the ducks through a set of cones, and I really enjoyed that. I felt a stong attraction to the ducks, and felt like I could easily manage having a few of those around my yard. There were easy to read, and easy to handle. The day could not have been better: cool, slightly breezy, cloudy. Not too hot, no rain, not too much sun. The girls were exhausted and I knew wouldnt mind sleeping on our long drive home. Im still very interested in doing herding in the future, and now I think have the tools to get my next puppy started off on the right paw when it comes to introducing her to stock.
As for the girls, well, they did enjoy their nap on the ride home. As I write this, theyre where they usually are, in the hallway, sleeping, all the while waiting for me to ask them if they want to do something: eat? play? go for a ride? They are such talented, special dogs, that, sure, although it would have been great to have them both become the next sheltie herding champions, I of course love them no less. We will jut stick to the things that I know that they love: playing ball. Camping and hiking. Agility. And of course, snuggling. I do it all, of course, for them. We'll keep trying new things, trying to find new activities that they'll enjoy. But even if they never set foot in a ring again, even if theyre only ever just "pets" I know that theyre more than that. Theyre my furry children. And you always support your kids. You are ALWAYS proud of them. You ALWAYS love them. No matter what.

Why I dont date

This is another email from a friend of mine. Its probably one of the funniest (and true!) emails Ive read about real dog people. Enjoy!

You know you've waited too long to find a mate when:
--you think stripping is something you do to a terrier
--you meet a guy named Bob and instantly visualize purple and goldrosettes
--you think nothing about loudly discussing studs and bitches in a fancy restaurant
--the first thing you notice about a guy is what breed of dog he has (ABSOLUTELY!)
--your biggest turn-off is a guy with an obnoxious untrained dog (THATS THE TRUTH!)
--you have ever ruled out a guy as a prospective date based on the breed of dog he owns (MANY TIMES!)
--you dismiss all the guys your mother introduces you to as "not breeding quality"
--you never could stick to a diet to impress a guy, but you can do it to get through that TDX track
--your only nice jewelry features either dogs, dumbbells, or rosettes (or agility jumps equipment!)
--you have a video on how to artificially inseminate your dog but last watched a dirty movie in junior high school
--when you talk about "scoring" you mean how you did at last weekend's obedience/agility trial
--your dog has more letters after his name than the last ten guys you've dated, and actually completed obedience school
--you think that maybe your current guy has potential if you use the proper combination of positive reinforcement and the occasional well timed ear pinch
--you "people watch" at the mall by making mental lists of the conformational faults each passer-by has to contribute to the gene pool
--you think if you ever did marry and have children that you wouldn'thave to buy a playpen because you already have an extra x-pen. And why buy a crib?? Crates are cheaper and they're enclosed on all sides (But TRUE dog people are reading this and thinking "children? ICK!!")
--you give all of your married friends child-rearing advice based on your extensive background in dog training
--your mother's worst fear is that you'll have a child and make it wear a pinch collar
--your mother's second worst fear is you'll get married and your dog will be in the wedding party (No, this isnt my mothers worst fear, as she already knows this is a given)
--you actually have friends whose dogs HAVE been part of the wedding party
--when your cousin tells you how much her wedding costs you think how many show-quality puppies that could buy you (wedding coming up in Sept!)
--all of your friends always include your dog in any invitation they issue to you. Of course, you reciprocate because you only have doggy friends left....the others have stopped inviting you places because you insist on bringing the dog!
--when you read the personal ads you skip past the vital statistics and rule out any that don't say "animal lover"
--you know your dog's cholesterol but not your own
--when you lament to your friends about chronic yeast infections, they know you're talking about your dog's ears
--you last had a professional portrait done for your high school graduation, but you just spent 50% of your dog's purchase price having his done by the best canine photographer in the country
--you and your dog use the same kind of hairbrush, and you never can keep straight whose is whose
--you spend 8 hours grooming your dog for a show the day before, and1.25 minutes ponytailing your hair the morning of the show.
--you think that people with bad bites shouldn't be allowed to breed
--your mother is ecstatic to see you browsing the aisle with the haircoloring, after hounding you for three years to try highlighting to be disappointed when she finds you are looking for peroxide to"touch up" your Clumber's drool marks
--when someone mentions single bars, you wonder if they are talking about utility or agility jumps
--when you go "clubbing", you have your choice of the all-breed club, the Specialty club, the obedience club, or the tracking club
--you once made earrings out of old rabies tags, and all your friends wanted a pair

Definitely send a comment if you have any to add!!!!

NADAC: The career saver!

A mild limp. A more severe limp. Consults. Surgery. Lots of money. The end of a career. The end of playtime. Those were all of the things that my girl Heidi has been faced with since late March of last year. What started out as "oh, she probably just pulled a muscle" quickly turned into "Oh my God, life as Heidi knows it is over."
We went to many wonderful orthopedic surgeons for consults on why she was limping so severly, and they all seemed to have their own, and very different, opinions. My mom and I were torn between what to do for her: go the conservative management route, and let her heal on her own? (essentially keeping her quiet and not allowing any fun sheltie activities for 6 months atleast) or try the surgical route and try to fix her (still with a quiet time for recovery, but possibly having her back to normal sooner). We opted the surgical route. Unfortunately, to no avail. The surgeon who performed the arthroscopic proceedure found nothing substantial. Both elbows looked good, but her tendons in her shoulder were angry looking, and inflammed. But nothing to suggest the loss of most of the range of motion in that shoulder. We were lost.
Its been over a year now, and we're still dealing with the same issues. We did PT with her, and have restricted her activited (no hard ball/frisbee playing, no jumping off the couch, no stairs etc.) And perhaps most devastating of all, NO AGILITY. The constant slamming on her front end when taking jumps, scurrying down the A-Frame, and sloleming through the weave-poles would do more damage to her shoulder, and would put her future mobility in jeopardy. If we kept on with agility now, she may not be able to enjoy the less stressful, less impacting things that she loves in her later years; like hiking, obedience, and playing with her toys. I couldnt risk doing that to her. Not for a game. No matter how much she loves to play, and no matter how good at it she is.
Heidi has always been the less athletic of the two, but she DEFINITELY has more drive and work-ethic. She wants to do anyting for you...anything that you ask. She would absolutely be a PAX dog, if her career were able to continue. She works wide, so she has great distance skills and hits her weave entry EVERY TIME, ar ANY angle. She is amazing to watch.
But now, ending her career, and so certainly was dissappointing. Of course I dont have Heidi just to work her. Shes my family, my child...a little piece of my soul. As much as we both hated it, I had to pull her from competition and practice, forever, to keep her healthy, happy, and mobile.
Or so I thought!
Thats where NADAC comes in. I started researching other agility venues other than the AKC to see if there was SOMETHING that Heidi would still be allowed to compete in. And I found it! NADAC has wonderful options for dogs that, for one reason or another, may not be able to jump. They have the tunnelers course (which ONLY has tunnels) and the newest game, HOOPERS. Hoopers is a game where a hoop (usually a hula-hoop) is attatched between two jump stantions. The hoop rests on the connecting piece between the two stantions on the bottom, or in the absence of the connecting piece, on the ground. The dog just needs to run through the hoop! NO JUMPING!
When I first saw the course, I figured it was just like any other Jumpers course, but with no weaves, and the hoops instead of jumps. But when I went to my first trial last month what I learned (thank you to the judge who let me walk the course, even when I wasnt entered!) was that you have to do a non-test exercise (a set of jumps that must be taken in a certain order) and then a test (also jumps that must be taken in certain order) and then repeated a certain number of times that is dependant on the level/class you are in. A better summary can be found here:
Usually Im not fond of strategy games (which is why I have shown in AKC only for so long) but this was fun, and simple to follow. The judge gave good direction, and almost everyone Q'd. The dogs who didnt usually just ran by a hoop because they had never seen them before!
I was not only extremely excited that there were options for Heidi to come out of retirement and to compete in something new, but the venue was much smaller and less crowded. There seemed to be much more of a calm and non-competetive air that AKC lacks. Alot of my friends who also compete in CPE tell me this is how it seems there as well. There was a whole table of food, and all they asked for was donations. I think when my girls and I start showing in NADAC in the fall, our sheltie-shaped cookies will become a staple at that table!
And yes, I mentioned showing the GIRLS in the fall! Dont think that Shelby will be forgotten about! Not only will Shelby be able to compete in the same classes as her sister, but she will also have the other fun options as the regular classes that she is used to (Standard and Jumpers) AND some fun new games as well (touch n' go and weavers).
Im so excited that there are people out there who thought of these wonderful options for people like me and dogs like Heidi who just weren't ready to hang up our running shoes and baitbags yet.
We'll start trialing this fall, and will of course update on how we do!

*Authors Note: This blog was origonally posted last June. Due to health issues of my own, we have not started competition yet. The issues are still unresolved, so I am unsure when we will finally be able to begin, but you can be sure I'll tell you all about it!

Dunbar vs. Millan

This is an article that was posted on one of my sheltie message boards. Lately I have been finding myself biting my tounge so hard it hurts when I hear people around me talking of how they are going about training their dogs. I bite my tounge because NO, Im NOT an "expert" in dog training, and I dont want to get into a shouting match over whats the best way to parent your puppy. But having worked at training centers WITH my very good friends who I DO consider expert trainers (,,, reading many publications (books, magazines, articles etc.) and of course training my own dogs I have come to form my own opinions of dog training. Of course your own experience, your breed of dog, and your INDIVIDUAL dog all shape your opinion of what you think is the "right" way to train a dog. Having a soft breed like shelties, I ABHOR the way that harsh, "old school" trainers train simple behaviors. I think if theres a kind, gentle way to get your point across and have your dog learn a behavior, why not try that first? Why go to the harsh techniques of rough physical handling, pinch and e-collars? Especially with a puppy? Why, when there are proven ways of nicely asking your dog to retrieve that dumbell, would your pinch your dogs ear? We encounter positive reinforcement so often in our every days lives, but we just dont think about it.
Think about it: if you have a sucky job, you go to it because of the fear that if you DIDNT then you wouldnt have any money to pay your bills: no food, no shelter, no clothes. So you go to the sucky job because you are FEARFUL of the consequences. You feel miserable because you hate your job, AND you are stressed because you hate it. This is how old school, negative reinforcement training works. Now imagine you have a great job (like I do!) that you love. You are not only being rewarded because you are getting paid (just like with the sucky job) but you have the added reward of doing something you like. You feel great, and no longer worry about not making bill payments. This is positive reinforcement. Why not try this with our dogs? Make a job (i.e. trained behavior) something that rewards them (with their favorite toy, a treat, the ability to chase the bunny in the yard, etc) AND make it something that they look forward to doing for you the next time you ask? I mean, this works all across the board. How do you think they train the whales and dolphins at Sea World? The last time I checked, they dont make pinch collars for killer whales, and shock collars are pretty dangerous under water. And what about kids? Why do you think Super Nanny is such a popular t.v. show? If only people realized that thats what they should be watching for dog training instead of this tough guy Millan. I mean, what would happen if they put on a show where the child care taker they brought in picked up the child who just drew on the wall and spanked them, and then bodily threw them into their crate, er, I mean, room? I dont think that that would fly with the FCC never mind the general public. Yet we still see this on the NGC....
I also want to say, however, that I am also not "purely positive". Of course there are always consequences and punishment...but it ALWAYS has its time, place, and severity. If Shelby, who is 5, breaks her down-stay to go chase and bark at the kids across our dead end street YOU BET there is going to be a consequence. I dont want her to get into the habit of thinking its ok to break that stay just because THIS TIME we're on our own, dead end street. What if next time she breaks it and we're at the park on the Lowell-Laurence Boulevard, with 4 lanes of traffic? Sure, just like people, dogs make mistakes. And just as if it were a child, the consequence has to fit the crime. It's not like Im going to pick her up and smack her around...she just might have her collar grabbed and then repositioned back into her down-stay. THATS IT. Thats all it takes for my girls. Sure, that may not work for your pain-insensitive, large bouncy American Bulldog, but again, you have to take into consideration your experience, your breed, and your individual dog.
My biggest problem with Millan is that it seems to be a "cure all, cure forever" mentality to his training aggressive dogs. And I dont think thats true. I worry that there are people out there who have "rehabillitated" their dog aggressive dogs who now think its ok to take them to an off leash dog park and think that everything is going to be ok. Let me tell you something: everytime I walk my girls, I always walk with a few essentials: poop bags, my cell phone, a can of Direct Stop and (if that doesnt work) a pocket knife. If my girls are EVER put into a situation in which they are in danger of getting accosted by another dog, you bet your ASS that that dog is going to get a face full of Direct Stop. And if that doesnt stop them, then theres going to be trouble. Especially since Ive started working in the ER and seeing first hand some of the AWFUL injuries that dogs can sustain from agressive dog attacks, I will stop at nothing to protect my girls. Im worried that Millan is potentially increasing my odds of my having to one day step in to protect my girls.
Sorry for digressing, but I just wanted to give a little preface before the article. I just want to make where I stand known, to show why I would post this particular article. Enjoy!

~The Anti-Cesar Millan
Ian Dunbar's been succeeding for 25 years with lure-reward dog training; how come he's been usurped by the flashy, aggressive TV host?Louise Rafkin
Sunday, October 15, 2006
It's late afternoon at Point Isabel, prime time at the Bay Area's popular off-leash dog park, and the man some call the most innovative in the field of dog training weaves unnoticed through the two- and four-legged throngs. No one recognizes the slight, snow-haired man dressed in Berkeley-esque traveler's clothes (well-pocketed shirt and cargo pants) as Dr. Ian Dunbar, the man who wrote the book -- rather, six books -- on pet dog training and the guy who developed one of the earliest puppy-training courses in the country. Dunbar is 59, and though he's been away from his native England for decades (since 1971), he carries the air of an English gentleman. Occasionally British colloquialisms slip into conversation. "I was gob-smacked!" is how he explains his recent shock over a case of dog-owner ignorance.
With an eager border collie obsessively dropping a ball at his feet, Dunbar scans the Point Isabel regulars. It's hard to imagine he's not passing judgment on particular behaviors, but mostly he smiles at the four-legged passers-by. Thirty-five years of studying dogs has not dulled him to simple joys.
"Bay Area dogs are so cool, so friendly and polite," he says. When a brown fluff ball approaches jauntily and sniffs his pant leg, he genuinely gushes. "What a cute puppy!" Then an incessant barker demands attention. "We've heard," he says firmly to the lab. "Haven't you got anything else to say?"
Though they probably don't know it, Dunbar's training methodology has probably influenced the pet-owner relationship of almost everyone here at the park. He says he was the first to preach the once revolutionary idea of training puppies off leash (formerly only those six months and older were thought trainable) and also says he was the first to stuff food into a Kong (the conical shaped rubber chew toy and object of desire of most chewing-age puppies), thus saving table legs and Italian loafers worldwide. More important, his methods and theories have saved dogs' lives. Dog training is his passion, but it's not simply because he finds a well-trained pet a thing of beauty.
Training, he says, saves dogs' lives.
"Without training, the life of a puppy is predictable: chewing, soiling the house, digging up the garden, followed by a trip to the shelter where, if it's lucky, it gets another try," he says, wearily. "Without training, that dog will be dead in less than a year."
There is a quiet battle being fought in dog-training circles, and Dunbar, though he didn't pick the fight, represents one side. The mild, very mannered Dunbar is armed with degrees and scientific study: a veterinary degree and a Special Honors in physiology and biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College of London University, a doctorate in animal behavior from the psychology department of UC Berkeley and a decade of research on the olfactory communication, social behavior and aggression in domestic dogs. All this, plus decades of dog-training experience.
Impressive, yes, but his opponent in this training controversy is backed by big business, Hollywood celebrity and, even worse, some say, the power of charisma. Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the Dog Whisperer, has his own television series on the National Geographic Channel and is churning out a burgeoning enterprise of videos and books. The subject of a recent New Yorker profile by Malcolm Gladwell, Millan is often photographed on high-tech in-line skates, leading a pack of pit bulls, rottweilers and German shepherds. The sexy Millan's dog-handling credentials include an upbringing on a Mexican farm, an "uncanny gift for communicating with dogs" and his Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles. There, with a pack of 50 dogs, he rehabilitates wayward canines.
Besides foreign roots, there is little these two men share, except, as Dunbar points out, the bedrock belief that all dogs can and should be trained. If this were a dogfight, it would be the unlikely match between a pit bull and a border collie -- unlikely, because those who know dogs know the border collie would simply leave. In this case, however, those watching the fight keep pushing the smart dog back in the ring. Top dog trainers nationwide have expressed dismay that Millan is the current face of dog training, and most say that Dunbar should be the one with the empire. It's a perennial conflict in training discourse. Are results best achieved through rewarding good behavior or punishing bad?
Millan subscribes loosely to the idea of the pack, a dogs-as-wolves theory that had long ago fallen out of favor with many trainers. Touting dominance by pet owners, and the dictate to create "calm submission" in their charges, Millan says owners are essentially pack leaders. "I teach owners how to practice exercise, discipline and then affection, which allows dogs to be in a calm, submissive state," he explains when asked to clarify. "Most owners in America only practice affection, affection, affection, which does not create a balanced dog.
"Training," says Millan, "only teaches the dogs how to obey commands -- sit, roll over -- it does not have anything to do with dog psychology."
In his recent best-seller, "Cesar's Way," Millan writes that there are only two positions in a relationship, leader or follower. "I work with dogs all the time that are trained but not balanced." Included in Millan's repertoire is a snappy touch that he claims mimics a corrective response by pack leaders, "alpha rollovers" (forcibly making a dog show its belly), and submission to being rear sniffed.
"Never heard of that," says Dunbar when asked about bottom sniffing, but he is loath to completely discount Millan. Indeed, both trainers advocate any techniques that are humane and work for the dogs and the owner.
"He has nice dog skills, but from a scientific point of view, what he says is, well ... different," says Dunbar. "Heaven forbid if anyone else tries his methods, because a lot of what he does is not without danger." "Don't try this at home" messages are flashed throughout the show, and in September, the American Humane Association requested that the National Geographic Channel stop the show immediately, citing Millan's training tactics as "inhumane, outdated and improper."
Writer Mark Derr, in a recent New York Times editorial, went as far as to call Millan a "charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior."
Nicholas Dodman, program director for the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and author of "Dogs Behaving Badly," goes even further. He calls Millan's techniques "abuse." A TV producer claiming his dog was injured while training at the Dog Psychology Center is reportedly suing Millan.
While distaste for Millan might be growing, Dunbar focuses on discounting the myths such training ideas foster. Dogs aren't wolves, Dunbar says, generations of evolution separate the two animals. "Learning from wolves to interact with pet dogs makes about as much sense as, 'I want to improve my parenting -- let's see how the chimps do it!' "
Dunbar claims compliance, the goal of all dog training, is most often achieved through positive training methods. His lure-reward methods -- using treats and praise -- have an even higher rate of success if there is puppy socialization. Indeed, puppies put Dunbar on the dog-training track. In 1981, after buying an 8-week-old malamute, Dunbar sought a puppy class. He cast out as far as Sacramento and Carmel but came up with nothing. At the time, common understanding was that dogs couldn't be trained until they were 5 or 6 months old, but from his studies, Dunbar knew dogs were learning behaviors long before that. Though his academic interest was in dog olfactory research and sexuality ("dog humping," he shorthands), Dunbar soon found himself venturing out of the ivory tower. He found that he enjoyed educating pet owners and began developing a training program using positive feedback, games and treats.
Sirius Dog Training, as Dunbar called it, showed proven positive results from early off-leash training. His classes, and the resulting video, were embraced by trainers and owners alike. Many say Sirius spurred the demise of punitive, punishment-based training that was the vogue after World War II. In 1993, Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers whose mission is to promote better training through education.
The return to dominance training such as Millan's, Dunbar says, is a disservice to dogs more than anything else. Though Millan gets results, Dunbar notes that most people don't have Millan's strength or skill, and even fewer keep dozens of dogs. "I teach methods that a supervised 4-year-old can use," Dunbar says. Having been called as a witness in high-profile Bay Area bite trials -- he was one of a team who evaluated one of the dogs involved in the deadly attack on Diane Whipple in 2001 -- he is all too familiar with the violent underbelly of dog aggression. Fear, he underscores, doesn't train a reliable dog.
Claudia Kawczynska, editor of Bark magazine, is one of Dunbar's many fans. "It's irritating to see Millan treated as the expert. Ian is an animal behaviorist with decades of experience," she says, "He should be where Millan is." Kawczynska likens the Millan cult of personality and popularity to the anti-science, anti-academic sentiment she sees prevalent in American culture and politics. "Millan lived on a farm, so what? He's good looking, but he's not smart about dogs. It seems people don't want their experts to be educated."
Dunbar refuses to comment on whether his lack of profile is due to his weighty credentials, though a Millan fan on Gladwell's blog says the backlash against the Dog Whisperer is "because Malcolm had written about the unschooled Millan rather than a string of PhDs that the average person has never heard of -- and never will."
Jean Donaldson, director of dog training at the SFSPCA and author of "Culture Clash," a book about the human-dog relationship, views the history of dog training in pre- and post-Dunbar eras. "Ian is the man," she says. "He revolutionized the field." She, too, thinks Millan is tapping into something deeper in the current culture -- and his machismo is only part of it. "It's a backlash against political correctness," she says. "People are angry and life is frustrating and [when] someone tells them it's all about dominating something smaller and weaker? They'll go for that."
"Dunbar puts training in the owner's hands," says Aishe Berger, co-owner of SF Puppy Prep, a puppy day care facility that promotes Dunbar's theory of early socialization. "His methods are based on science and learning theory, not the kind of 'magic' touted by the gurulike Millan."
But if the magic works, who wouldn't want magic?
There's the catch: Since Millan's program has gained popularity, Donaldson reports, the SPCA has been flooded with calls from confused and frustrated owners who want her to decipher -- and give them the scoop -- on Millan's "mysterious pinch."
Dr. Patricia McConnell, author of "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in Your Best Friend" and the animal behaviorist on Animal Planet's "Petline," goes as far as to say that Millan has put dog training back 20 years. "Dunbar is a world authority," she says, "and he should be the one with the celebrity."
Dunbar doesn't argue with that. Though he hosted five years of a TV training show in England, "Dogs With Dunbar," Hollywood never bit on it, or on his other ideas, several of which are tinged with the odor of ever-popular reality TV. "Shelter Dog Makeover" ("We'd groom them, train them and find them a new home!") and "Train That Dog" (trainers compete to train a dog to do various tricks and obedience trials in the least amount of time) were two he thought most promising. Dunbar says Animal Planet mucky-mucks said they turned tail at his foreign accent, but he doubts that was the real truth. After all, the channel vaulted to popularity with hosts from Down Under.
As for books, of which he has sold hundreds of thousands, his first experience in publishing colored his view of New York representation. Dozens of publishers turned his first book down, but the one who finally came through soured him to New York publishing. He bemoans the editing that was done on his work, and the publishing experience itself disappointed him. The numbers of books sold, he said, never really added up to what was reported -- and what he knew himself had moved.
Some local experts lament Dunbar's failure to go mainstream, citing his unwillingness to lose control over every aspect of his work, including editing.
For himself, Dunbar has almost given up on the megamedia, though he says he could name 20 excellent and attractive trainers who could make a show fly. He's got other ideas. One groups experts from many fields -- a psychologist, a puppy trainer, a hostage negotiator and a grandmother with the wisdom of life experience -- who would be presented with a problem such as a husband who won't come home from the bar after work. Each expert would devise a plan and the favorite would be implemented on the show.
"All training is negotiation," Dunbar says, "whether you're training dogs or spouses." Indeed, a recent article in the New York Times titled "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage" hit a nerve when the author, Amy Sutherland, who writes on exotic animal training, admitted using training techniques on her partner. Dunbar agrees with Sutherland's premise that training is training is training. "You can instill fear in your kids and get them to mind, but they won't function better in the world and your relationship will suffer greatly," he adds.
"Problems that need correcting are the thin end of the wedge," he says, "with dogs and people." It doesn't take much, he claims. A smile, a kind word. "You don't have to give M&M's all the time. People -- and dogs -- are dying to be trained."
Dunbar has a 23-year-old son, Jamie, a wooden dory river guide, with his first wife, Mimi, and says his family configuration is "very Berkeley" -- both his current wife (and former dog-sitter), Kelly Gorman, and his ex-wife are on friendly terms. Gorman, also a trainer and a founder of Open Paw, an international humane animal education program for pet owners and shelters, has done a good job of training him, he reports. Currently in the midst of giving up his much-loved cigars, Dunbar muses that Gorman is actually the better trainer of the pair. Two of the couple's three dogs are hers: Dune, an American bulldog, and Ollie, a rescue from Chicago Heights Humane Society. The third, Claude, a 110-pound rottweiler-coon-hound mix from the SFSPCA, is what Dunbar calls a "special needs" case. "We train him one day, and the next day we start over again. He's more than not bright."
Despite a lack of publicity, Dunbar's recent talk on dog aggression at a local bookstore brought out a full house of fans, many with pen and paper at the ready. With little sign of any training controversy, there is, however, evidence of Dunbar's status as local cult leader by the standing-room-only crowd. During his hourlong lecture, Dunbar explained the physiology of dog aggression in a way that showcased his British humor. He easily charmed the audience with jokes and witticisms; his dog impersonations, including a rear view, full-bottom wiggle, kept the audience enthralled and grinning. Though every move he made was carefully watched and met with nods of knowingness, at times he looked a tad silly. He giggled, he gushed and he panted. Having just returned from Tokyo, he contorted his face in an impersonation of a Japanese dachshund. Could an American TV audience have embraced this kind of goofiness?
At the end of the hour, Dunbar had to leave to get ready for yet another seminar, this time in the Midwest, one of the few left to which he has committed. With 850 full-day seminars behind him, Dunbar is winding down touring. He's considering living in southern France or traveling for pleasure, one of his passions. He's passing his baton to others who will no doubt continue the struggle over dog-training particulars. But without Dunbar's engagements to drive the sales of his training guides and videos, it's easy to imagine that flashier, more commercial materials will easily eat up his market. Whether those will reflect his ideas -- or Millan's -- it's hard to say.
At least half the audience still has questions for the expert, but despite raised hands, Dunbar uses the last minute to reiterate his training philosophy. "We need to thank our dogs for being good," he says, launching into a wrap-up more spiritual than practical. "Every morning I give thanks for waking up -- the alternative is not so good. Too often, we forget to be thankful." Clearly, he's from Berkeley, not Hollywood.