Into the Woods

A few months ago my dear friends gave me the best gift possible: my own set of keys to their cabin in the woods.  To a country girl who adores the smell of pine trees and the sound of the wind through their boughs, this was a ticket to paradise. A place I could shed the stress of owning my own business, write about whatever moved me and spend time with Harley, surrounded by the beautiful Santa Catalina Mountains.

Part of the experience of going to the cabin is getting there and today was no exception. The Arizona sun is brutal six months out of the year, beating down with a ferocity that can only be compared to a convection oven. It’s oppressive and hostile. But with the changing of the season, the sun loses her angry edge. Her light falls softer now, wrapping you in a gentle blanket of subtle golds.

Today, the sun was swaddling Harley as he rode quietly in the back of the Subaru.  The back seats were down as usual so he could stay close and be comfortable on his dog bed while we wound our way up the Mount Lemmon highway. Sometimes he sits in a sphinx position, watching the landscape change from saguaro cactus to open grass lands to ponderosa pines at 7,000 feet. As the sun warms his face, his eyes close softly and his head lowers, drifting toward sleep.

Not wanting to miss anything, he adjusts his long, lean body to watch out the front window. Sleep is a dogged pursuer. He puts his head on the shoulder of the passenger seat, resting his chin and jaw on the edge, his nose slanting upward. This is one of my favorite views of him. Completely relaxed, warm sun on his face, breathing softly. Occasionally, he’ll put his head on my seat and I’ll feel his whiskers gently tickle my cheek. If he’ll let me, I’ll massage the other side of his flews, soft fur with wiry whiskers.

I love going to the mountain and having him at my side makes it even more special. This is a mother-son trip. We’ll have lunch together on the picnic table on the deck. He’ll get my crusts and a few other bites. We’ll walk on the rutted roads, exploring paths we haven’t discovered yet. We’ll walk at his pace, stopping to sniff every pine cone and forage under every bush he finds interesting. He’ll stride along beside me, occasionally glancing up with an open-mouth grin to say, “This is great, Mom. Smells so good up here!” We’ll meander back to the cabin where we’ll get a drink of water and settle in for a late afternoon nap, a soothing finish after a rocky walk.

This weekend is as much about him as it is about me.  Getting back to my foundation in part means coming back to him. He has become a warm, slobbering, snorting cornerstone for me. He keeps me grounded and focused on what’s really important: loving and living every moment as it comes. No future, no past, just right now. I’m that person who can get lost in her own head, overwhelmed by possibilities, expectations, successes, failures, managing and controlling as much as I can. It’s no wonder that my stress overload indicator is a strong desire to take a nap.

Harley is the one who stops me in my mental tracks, who draws me back to the present and helps me recognize how wonderful it really is. Watching him rest peacefully on his side, breathing deeply, front legs bent delicately at the wrist, back legs stretched up to his chest in a perfect pike position, I can’t imagine how I would be different without him, where I’d be right now. But, you know, I honestly don’t care. I’m here, I’m happy, I’m at peace with myself and I couldn’t—wouldn’t—ask for anything else.

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Who’s Pullin’ My Tail?!

I shouldn’t be amused by this, but I am. I won’t win any Mother of the Year awards for telling this story, either. But we roll with humor in this house, so here goes.

Harley has developed a new habit of standing on his tail while he tries to rise from a reclining position. As he lifts his hips to begin the standing motion, he meets resistance at about six inches off the ground because his tail is under his own back foot.

Harley is a curler when he naps. Remember those folding wooden rulers carpenters kept close at hand? They were yellow and hinged at every six or eight inches. Yeah, that’s Harley with his tail wrapped snugly against his body. As with most naps, the problem starts when he wakes. As he languidly extends those long back legs, his tail usually ends up underneath one of his ankles or paws when they return to the napping surface.

This didn’t use to be a problem. He could rock this way or that to release the furry rope. He’s not the nimble boy he used to be, so subtle weight shifts are a thing of the past. (OK, let’s be honest. He’s never been that nimble. More gawky teenager still trying to figure out what to do with unmanageable arms and legs is closer to the truth.) Now, when his tail gets caught as he’s rising, he just tries to yank it out from under his foot and hopes for the best. It doesn’t always end well.

Let’s add sound to this image. He’s always been clear about the amount of effort it requires to lift his body from his royal sphinx position. It’s not really a groan so much as a prolonged straining sound, like he’s lifting a piano or doing a convincing Sisyphus impersonation. But when he hits that six-inch mark, his breath catches, sort of a “What the…Who’s pullin’ my tail?!” Then light dawns over Marblehead and he thuds back onto the bed or floor.

The look after tonight’s failed attempt was classic Harley. “Huh. Um, don’t laugh, Mom. Got my damn tail caught again.”

“It’s OK, buddy.  Need some help lifting that ass-end?”

“Nah, I got it this time. Thanks, though.”

And with another Herculean strain, he begins the lifting process—this time with his tail safely clear of the hefting apparatus.  He is up and pads toward the kitchen by way of his food bowl, stopping briefly to see if any nibbles have miraculously appeared while he was napping. Nothing has. He deserves a reward for that amazing effort so we shuffle over to the tin with Kathy’s homemade dog cookies, the ones with the peanut butter and carob icing he loves so much. A just reward for conquering gravity and his tail.

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First Crushes Are Hard

Helen at the glassHelen is in love. Hopelessly devoted to a boy who doesn’t even know she’s alive. Every night, she waits for him to return, hoping that this time, he’ll notice her, play with her. Even just glance her way, acknowledge her. But every night, she’s disappointed. She comes to bed reluctantly, dejected. Often, she’ll only stay a few minutes before she returns to the front door—under the guise of getting a toy to bring to bed—to make sure she didn’t give up too soon.

Helen’s crush is on a slippery fellow named Gordon. We’ve told her time and again, “Don’t get hooked on a gecko.  They have wandering eyes and sticky fingers. Plus, they eat bugs. And that’s just gross.” Still, you can’t help who you fall in love with. And she’s fallen hard.

Each night after bedtime pee call, she comes back into the house like a good girl, gets her drink then lingers in the foyer. Soon, tense with anticipation, she sits and stares at the wavy glass on either side of the front door, waiting for him to scurry up one side, feasting on the flying insects drawn to the light.

Helen & GordonHe doesn’t care about her. He teases her with his gravity-defying climbing, weaving through the wrought iron, his belly pressed against the glass. Sometimes, he sprints up and across the glass. She’s convinced this is the time he’ll play with her. She whimpers for him. She wiggles closer to the glass, following his every serpentine move, emitting a playful “woo-woo-woo,” hoping to get his attention. But, he ignores her.

Kathy tries to break it to her gently. She wraps her arms tenderly around her shoulders, as Helen drops her head in despair. Her ears droop, her eyes drop to her paws, her jowls slide forward as her crooked Boxer mouth forms a poignant little “o”.

Gordon shows his bellyHe’s not going to call. He doesn’t see how wonderful you are, what a great playmate you would be. Honey, he doesn’t see all the good things about you: your great problem-solving skills, your winning smile, shining personality, your fantastic physique. All he cares about are bugs. And the rumors swirling through the gecko community that you played too rough with a much bigger lizard and left him for dead by the front door. We know you didn’t mean it, but word travels quickly in the lizard community.

So Helen is left with longing and heartbreak. Lying curled at my feet now, she’s given up for another night. Her face is innocent and sweet, flews puffing softly with every exhale. I wonder if she’s dreaming of Gordon. I hope not. As her mother, I know she can do better.

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We Are Family

The modern family unit is complex and often includes members not connected by blood or marriage.  Same-sex parents, grandparents raising their children’s children, single mothers and fathers raising children with the help of their tightly-knit community.  All of these families are held together by a force greater than biology: Love.

Not surprisingly, the status of the dog as a member of the family has risen within this evolving structure. However, my dog Harley is not my son.  He is not a furry human who walks on all fours — but that doesn’t make him any less a member of my family.  To think of him as a small human would be to strip him of all the dog-ness that makes him his own special being.


Our family, March 2012

Like any other family member, he must contribute to the success of the family through support, love and communication. All of those things are possible only if I understand and accept that he will contribute in his own ways, in ways driven by his own evolution, by his rules of communication and his methods of expression.

As you build and grow your family, there are a few things to know that will help you better understand how different your canine family members really are and to be more open to giving and receiving love on their terms.

  • Dogs experience the world differently than we do. Their primary sense is smell, not vision. They use their mouths for a sense of touch and scent. Their sight lines are much closer to the floor than the ceiling. They hear pitches well above and below what we experience. The world is a smelly, noisy place to a dog. Be aware of how you contribute to the din and plethora of fragrance.
  • Dogs express affection differently than we do.  Humans love hugs and kisses. Being primates, we love being face to face, cheeks brushing gently, chests together.  We can still see each other clearly at about three inches. Dogs, on the other paw, prefer some space. Their vision blurs at about 13 inches and chest-to-chest contact is considered invasive and overly-assertive. Take the time to learn how your dog wants to give and receive affection. Don’t just assume he loves that kiss between the eyes or on the nose. Be patient and respect his wishes. And make sure others do, too.
  • Dogs are thinking, feeling beings.  Because they rely heavily on reading body language, dogs are sensitive to human emotions. They don’t need to understand our conversations to know that we are grieving, elated, defeated, unsure, happy, comfortable, sick or tired.  But this is a two-way street. Take the time to check in with your dog. Note changes in his eyes, the way he holds his head and tail, his activity level, his appetite, his general demeanor. Be sensitive to your dog’s moods and feelings. He might need a kind word from you once in a while, too.

Functional families require effort, patience, understanding and love. If you take the time to consider your family from your dog’s perspective, you might just find ways to strengthen the bonds that hold your family together.

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Banana Shake

I should be working. But who can resist two dogs playing tug o’ war with a banana? Helen loves her banana and has named it Anna. She keeps Anna close to her bed and often carries it from room to room. Harley’s not much of a toy guy anymore but this morning he was picking up every toy he could find.

Today is a good day for him. His active, playful days have become the exception rather than the rule so I left my laptop at the table and sat on the ottoman to watch the romping.

2013-05-27_09-03-26_450It started with Roger Rooster (RoRoo) cock-a-doodle-doing between Harley’s jaws. As he munched, Helen looked on with the pained look of a little sister unsure of what horrors her older brother had in store for her doll. Tiring of RoRoo, Harley unceremoniously spit him out, flicking his tongue like it had left a bad taste in his mouth. Helen hesitated, waiting to see if Harley was going back for RoRoo, then stealthily extracted the toy from between Harley’s feet.

At this point, I could see this was going to be a good long play session so I put Harley’s knee brace back on (he has a full ACL rupture). He waited patiently for me to secure the three straps and at the sound of the last one, he made a beeline for Anna Banana. Oh, it’s on now.

Anna isn’t just any banana. She’s a golf headcover. Every year, Daphne’s Headcovers graciously donates headcovers for Gabriel’s Angels fundraisers. This year, there were a few bananas in the selection. Pam Gaber, Gabriel’s Angels founder and best friend of Daphne’s founder Jane Spicer, declared the bananas “creepy” and “unsettling” and offered two of them to me for Helen and Harley. (In all fairness, it’s a little spooky to have a banana smiling at you with big eyes and a wide grin. Remember the ventriloquist’s doll from the movie Magic? Shudder….)

With the banana in his mouth, Harley worked his jaws up and down while wagging his tail slowly and daring Helen to come and get Anna. The subtle communication between them was a thing of beauty. And the dance began. Harley sauntered over to Helen and offered her the stem end. She slowly opened her crooked little Boxer mouth and bit down slowly, being sure to confirm that he really wanted to play with her. He kept the banana close to her face.

When she had a mouthful, he gave a small tug to indicate the game. Helen loves to play tug with him. Her eyes lit up with recognition and she gave a mighty tug in return. Unmoved by her tug, he slowly extended his neck and back and began to drag her across the room. She set her heels and tugged back, but found no purchase. She was on the dog bed, taking a magic carpet ride across the hardwood floor. Helen didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think she likes the rides because this is where she often chooses to hunker down during a tug o’ war match.

After a fifteen-foot drag, Harley adjusted his grip, giving Helen a split second to grab and go. She sprinted out to the Arizona room, and turned to urge him to chase. No problem, he was out there in a split second. This time the tug game involved death shakes. Helen thrashed her head from side to side with incredible speed, her ears and jowls flapping, guttural groans and growls emanating from her deep chest. Harley held fast and waited for his chance to shake.

When it came, he moved more slowly but with amazing power. He lifted Anna and Helen off the floor with a few long sweeps of his head from left to right. Holding on tight, Helen made a run for the door, cuing Harley that the game was moving back inside. He gave up his grasp but followed her back to the dog bed inside.

She waited for him and offered Anna for another round. Tired, he took a light grip on the toy but resisted her urging to continue the game. He’d had enough for the morning. It was nap time. He hopped up on the couch and turned circles until he found the right spot.

Satisfied with his playtime and feeling the food coma of breakfast coming on, he settled in for a morning snooze. I found my spot right beside him and enjoyed the sounds of his slumber. Heavy sighs, flews fluttering, and breath whistling through his incredible nose.

Within seconds, Helen joined us on the couch. She flopped down on her hip and extended her strong legs forward. She was happy for a rest, but she was a spring, coiled and ready for play. But soon, her eyes got heavy and her ears relaxed. Her sleepy puppy face emerged. It was nap time. If only I could stay with them. I do love a good morning nap.

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The Bone Yard

When I was a kid, I played in the dirt—a lot. Like many kids, I enjoyed drawing figures in the dirt, making mud pies, and constructing and demolishing mounds of earth. There was a certain Pig-Pen quality to me and that only got worse when I discovered my love of catching.

PIC_0506So you can imagine my joy when Harley let me help him bury a bone today. During the past two years, he’s developed a habit of hiding his bones even before he’s had a chance to chew on them. He takes the bone, looks around to see if anyone else is interested in his bone, checks for other bones he can return and claim later, and by this time, the rivulet of slobber has started running onto the floor.

I invite (read: usher) him to the front door so he can start the selection process for the bone’s short-term residence. He checks the corner by the orange trumpet vine. No good. He’s already dug a body-sized hole there for cooling off during the long Arizona summers. Besides, too obvious. How about over by the bougainvillea? No good. Too pokey. Those thorns are more than an inch long and they reach out and grab you if you even look at them. Maybe under the half-dead jasmine? Nah. He pees over there. And so does Helen. Girl pee. No thanks. No good options out front.

So today, I thought he might like to chew in peace, so we went out back into the Arizona room. (For you Midwestern folks, it’s like a screened-in porch but without the stairs and with tile and some soil and plants.) I opened the slider and let him step out on the saltillo tile. He took a few steps then turned and looked at me. “You didn’t think I was going to chew this thing, did you?” Silly me. Of course not. I followed him out into the Arizona room to watch the selection process.

He is decisive today, going right for a place along the slump block wall in the corner by the door. Harley’s digging skills have never been in question. He uses his spade-shaped paws deftly to rearrange the large cedar chunks we use as ground cover. It’s his covering skills that seem to be lacking, or at least not playing to his strengths.

This part has always fascinated me. He digs with his paws but covers with his nose. That’s not such a bad plan unless you have a nose with cracks and fissures that won’t heal. The last thing he should be doing is what every dog loves to do: stick his nose in holes and dirt.

He’s got the start of a nicely shaped but shallow hole. And, as always, he drops the bone in the small hole and starts to cover. He’s never mastered the idea of digging the hole wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the bone. Like his mother, his math and spatial skills are suspect.

Nose to the cedar chips, he starts to move them up and over the bone. It’s painful to watch, knowing he has such a tender nose. I approach him and put my hand on his shoulders. “Want some help, bud?” He stops the bulldozing and turns to look at me. “Uh, sure.”

I lift the bone from its shallow well and lay it beside me. He’s not too sure about that. “Don’t worry, Bud, I’m not going to take it or give it to Helen. Let’s make this a little deeper, eh?” I dig through the four-inch layer of cedar chips, down to solid dirt, making the hole deep enough and wide enough to accommodate his bone. I pick up the bone and let him smell it again, then drop it in the hole. “That’s better, right?” He steps forward to inspect my work, looks at me with an approving smile, then begins to shovel chips over the bone. I join in the effort and we cover the bone in just a few seconds. He lifts his head and assesses our work. Surveying the site, he sees an area to the right that isn’t quite up to spec. He steps over to the area and begins to sniff. He turns and looks at me, then back to what I now see is a thin spot in our coverage. I rearrange some chips, pile on a few more, then move aside so he can reassess. He approaches again and gives an approving snort. We’re finished here.

This was the best 10 minutes of my day. I love watching him think. I love watching him realize that I’m cooperating with him. The ease of our partnership is comfortable. It always fits, loose and forgiving. Although we won’t be going into the construction business any time soon, I think we’ve built a pretty amazing relationship. Nice work, Bud.

Posted in Canine communication, Harley, Senior Dogs | 12 Comments

Hearing Voices

Admit it.  You talk to your dog. And he talks back. Harley and I have full conversations about important things like where to go for our walk today, how his knee feels, what he’d like with his kibble for breakfast. With Helen, we talk about her toys, what happened during her day, and how much she loves her big brother.

Yes, that's slobber between his eyes.  Sigh...

Yes, that’s slobber between his eyes. Sigh…

For me, Harley’s voice is that of a 15-year old boy: deep and hesitant.  I can almost hear his head bowing, eyes look up, feet fidgeting, hopeful I’ll give him the keys to the car. I imagine there is a Lennie Small quality to his speech. Simple, uncomplicated by reason or detail.

His sentences are short and to the point. His tail sways low and slow, an ellipsis between his thoughts.  “Hi, Mom…. Uh, Mom? Can I have some of that?” Or, “Uh, Mom? … Are you gonna eat that?”  Or my favorite, usually delivered around 2:00 a.m., “Uh, Mom….  I gotta pee.” This one comes with a lick in the face and large head and neck reaching as far onto the bed as possible.  If the situation is really serious and I’m slow to wake, that’s followed by a huge paw slapping at the mattress by my head. I’m up now.

Helen, our strong, athletic tomboy.

Helen, our strong, athletic tomboy.

In contrast, Helen, our little tomboy, has the enthusiasm of a 5-year old boy, voice high and breathless after sprinting in from the playground after recess. She is so excited to share her news that she often repeats words, loses her train of thought or just starts another thought before finishing the first.

For example, when I return after a long day of appointments, she meets me at the door, anxious to tell me about what she and Foxy the Fox, Heidi the Hydra or Roger the Rooster did that day. Her tail’s circle wag winds her up tightly until she just can’t hold it any longer, an exclamation point to her thoughts:  “MAMA! MAMA! I missed you!! I-I-I uh, um played with Heidi and RIPPED OFF ANOTHER HEAD! It was—Mama it was, it was SO MUCH FUN!! And then—and then, Harley and me sat in the sun. He even—MaMa, he even let me have the good bed for awhile! WOW, MaMa, I MISSED YOU! Wait here! I’ll go get RoRoo! Cock-a-doodle-doo!!  Cock-a-doodle-doo!! Cock-a-doodle-do!!” (Yes, the rooster noise is in the toy and repeats three times. Didn’t regret that purchase until I stepped on RoRoo on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night….)

Kathy and I enjoy our conversations with the kids. I don’t consider it anthropomorphic –I  consider it an integral part of family life. Whether or not Harley and Helen understand the words we speak, they understand the intent and underlying meaning. The tone of our voices, our posture, our emotions, our touch, our smell, all tell a story—one that they interpret and respond to.

Every night before I go to bed, I kiss Harley on a spot between his eyes and tell him, “Good night, my sweet prince” and as I run my fingers across his head, I hear, “‘Night, Mom. Love you.” as he snuggles down to sleep.

I love you, too, buddy.

Posted in Canine communication, Harley, Helen, Senior Dogs | Tagged , , | 4 Comments