A Christmas Coda for Koda

December 25, 2010 § 7 Comments

                                                                                                    Koda was a calm and quiet passenger.

Last month I had the opportunity to spend the day with a Siberian Husky named Koda. My adventure with Koda led me to meet Cyndi Michelena, the Siberian Husky representative for the Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue.  Koda is eleven-years old, and was never house-trained. Older dogs are more difficult to adopt out, as are dogs that are not house-trained, so the Whatcom Humane Society arranged for Cyndi and the SPDR to take Koda, in the hopes that they could find a home for him.

Cyndi is a devoted admirer of Siberian Huskies, and has worked with the breed for many years. She lives in a rural setting and has a special husky-proof enclosure (huskies are among the most athletic of dogs, and like most northern breeds, they are enthusiastic diggers; a normal fence cannot contain a determined husky). An avid runner, Cyndi runs with her huskies every day, allowing them to burn off some of their almost boundless energy. Cyndi hoped to adopt out Koda through the SPDR network, and that would be the best outcome, but she was prepared to foster Koda indefinitely. This was going to be a great situation for Koda, the only problem was that Cyndi is 150 miles from Bellingham, in Kitsap County. My part in this was easy; all Koda needed was a ride.

Emily Wyss, the Foster Coordinator at WHS, had told me that Koda was a gentleman and seemed mellow around other dogs, so I brought Iggy and Frankie along for the adventure. Koda stayed in the very back, on the other side of the dog barrier; I set up a dog bed back there for him, and when we led him to the car from the WHS kennels, he hopped right in. Iggy and Frankie rode in their normal positions on the back seat. The three dogs greeted each other through the grate, and exhibited no hostile signals.  We stopped at NOAH in Stanwood for a little exercise, and Koda was quite fun to walk with – he had little leash training, but was naturally gentle, and though he didn’t come when called, he did come when I kneeled down and opened my arms.

We stopped in Seattle and picked up my father, who rode along for human company. When I was eight-years old, Dad gave me Call of the Wild, by Jack London. That book, read at that time, is one part of what led to my fascination with dogs. Dad doesn’t have any pets, but enjoys spending time with mine, and refers to them as his grandkids. Like me, he was impressed by both Koda’s appearance and demeanor.

Koda was quiet the whole way. He sat up most of the time, but for at least an hour or so he lay down – he might have been sleeping. Even with Iggy and Frankie in the car, and Dad and me talking, Koda was a perfect passenger. When we got to Cyndi’s place, Koda went right up to her and let her hug him.

                                                                                                     Koda meets his foster-caretaker Cyndi Michelena.

Cyndi confided in me that she did not expect Koda would be adopted. She thought she could house-train him pretty easily, but even though huskies can live to be over 15, it was unlikely anyone would take him at age 11. She jokingly referred to this as “foster failure” – sometimes fosters come to live with her and never get adopted, or she grows attached and adopts them herself.

Over the next few days she took him to the vet and got him medication for his ears (he had an ear infection), she took him running with her other dogs, and taught him to sleep in a crate in her bedroom. He got along with her other 5 huskies, and seemed to very much enjoy the company of dogs and people alike. Cyndi found Koda to be a smart, polite dog, and she enjoyed having him in her pack. 

                                                                                                                       Koda fit in with Cyndi’s pack of huskies right away.

Then something happened that was as remarkable as it was unexpected. A family came to meet a different dog, a younger one, and realized they would really struggle to meet the exercise needs of a younger husky. They were very enthusiastic about this breed, however, and were excellent applicants in other regards. Cyndi introduced them to Koda, and he liked them as much as they liked him. The family considered it for a few days and then decided to adopt Koda. Less than three weeks after coming to foster with Cyndi, Koda went to live with his new family. 

                                                                                                             A perfect ending: Koda enjoying some affection from his new family.

Siberian Huskies have many very positive qualities – people like Cyndi Michelena are attracted to them for a reason – and they also have some traits that make them challenging as house pets. This combination has caused a particularly large incidence of purebred huskies in Washington’s animal shelters. SPDR handled 164 husky cases in 2009. Cyndi was kind enough to answer a few questions about Siberian Huskies, and the work she does with the SPDR.  

How long have you been fostering and rescuing Siberian Huskies?  I first fostered for Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue in February of 1999, a 3 year-old male named Thor.  I found out about SPDR when I became a member of the Puget Sound Siberian Husky Club in January 1999, 3 months after my first Siberian Husky died at the age of 16.5.  I kept my first foster.  I fostered a second Siberian in May of 1999 for Eastern Washington Siberian Rescue near Colville, WA.  I drove there to pick her up; after having her a few months and someone was finally interested in her, I decided I was too attached to her so I kept her too.

How did you start doing this?   In November of 2000, the member of the husky club that was the SPDR Siberian Husky Rep decided to step down so I volunteered to do it.  In December of 2000, I went to my ‘training’ — I still recall coming to the room where they had the new breed rep training with a paper briefcase that had several pockets inside so you could file within the briefcase.  One of the other people in the room took a look at it and said, “Oh, you will have way more dogs than that briefcase can hold.”   I had no idea how many Siberian Huskies were in shelters or being given up by their owners every year.  Well, my first full year, 2001, I had over 300 Siberians, Just in Western Washington, that needed new homes that year.  Most were in shelters … most I had to leave there as I did not have enough foster homes to accommodate that many dogs.  I had no Idea how horrible it was for homeless pets. 

How many have you fostered?   I guess you could say, counting Koda, I’ve fostered 8 — but pretty much most of them that came to my home I truly was unable to let them go to another home.

What other animals do you work with or have living with you?    I currently have 5 Siberian Huskies, 4 barn cats (two of which came from a feral cat rescue group), three horses (2 Thoroughbreds and 1 Paint) which are from places that no longer wanted them, and two house rabbits, one from a neglect situation, the other from our local Rabbit Haven sanctuary. 

What information would you like to share with people about Siberian Huskies as pets? You may be sorry you asked this one!   

Cats are often considered lunch; sometimes the same with small dogs.  Other no-nos include gerbils, hamsters, mice, rats, rabbits, ducks, chickens, etc.  Most Siberians have a prey instinct.

Abilities: Sledding, carting, running companion, agility, obedience

Shedding/Grooming: Be prepared for Excessive fur – the downy undercoat sheds in early to late spring.

Best with: Experienced owners, preferably exercise-active owners; minimum 6-foot fence, very secure and inescapable either by climbing or digging.

Not for:  People who don’t have time every day to exercise a dog; those who don’t appreciate a self-thinker; people in apartments (they need running room).

Pros and Cons: The Siberian Husky has a delightful temperament, affectionate but not fawning.  This gentle and friendly disposition may be a heritage from the past, since the Chukchi people held their dogs in great esteem, housed them in the family shelters, and encouraged their children to play with them.  Today, it is charming to observe the special appeal that Siberian Huskies and children have for each other. Siberian Huskies are alert, eager to please, and adaptable.  Their intelligence has been proven, but their independent spirit may at times challenge your ingenuity.  Their versatility make them an agreeable companion to people of all ages and varying interests.

While capable of showing strong affection for his family, the Siberian Husky is not usually a one-person dog.  They exhibit no fear or suspicion of strangers, and will greet guests cordially.  This is not the temperament of a watchdog, although a Siberian Husky may unwittingly act as a deterrent to those ignorant of their true hospitable nature.  If they lack a fierce possessive instinct, they also lack the aggressive quality which can sometimes cause trouble for the owner of an ill-trained or highly sensitive guard dog.  In his relations with strange dogs, the Siberian Husky displays friendly interest and gentlemanly decorum.  If attacked, however, he is ready and able to defend himself, and can handle the aggressor with dispatch.

The Siberian Husky is a comparatively easy dog to care for. He is by nature fastidiously clean and is free from body odor and parasites. He is presented in the show ring well-groomed but requires no clipping or trimming. At least once a year the Siberian Husky sheds his coat, and it is then, when armed with a comb and a bushel basket, that one realizes the amazing density and profusion of the typical Siberian Husky coat.  Some people feel that this periodic problem is easier to cope with than the constant shedding and renewal of many smooth-coated breeds. 

Chewing and digging? Siberian Huskies do their share.  The former is a habit that most puppies of all breeds acquire during the teething period, and it can be curbed or channeled in the right direction.  Digging holes is a pastime that many Siberian Huskies have a special proclivity for, but in this, too, they may be outwitted, circumvented, or if you have the right area, indulged.

 The Siberian Husky is an “easy keeper,” requiring a relatively small amount of food for his size. This trait, too, may be traced to the origins of the breed, as the Chukchis developed their dogs to pull a light load at a fast pace over great distances in low temperatures on the smallest possible intake of food.

There is one final characteristic of the Siberian Husky which I must point out — their desire to RUN.  There are many breeds of dogs which, when let out in the morning, will sit in the front yard all day.  Not the Siberian Husky.  Their  heritage has endowed them with the desire to run,  and their conformation has given them the ability to enjoy it effortlessly.  But, one quick lope across a busy street could be the last run that they enjoy, ever.  Because of this, I strongly urge that no Siberian Husky ever be allowed unrestrained freedom.  Instead, for their own protection, they should be confined or under control at all times.  Sufficient exercise for proper development and well-being may be obtained on a leash, in a large enclosure, or best of all, in harness.  If you feel that it is inconvenient or cruel to keep a dog thus confined, then the Siberian Husky is not the breed for you.

A good website to read all about who the Siberian Husky is, especially for a first-time owner, is www.homelesshusky.com.

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WHS+BBB=Rabbit Haven

December 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

Ed, Janet, and Casey, the triumvirate that guides Boundary Bay Brewery, happily allow the brewery vans to be used for transporting shelter animals along the delivery routes.  I am careful to adjust my hours so that Boundary is not paying wages for my volunteer time,  the animals get a much-needed ride, and we all get the satisfaction of helping a problem that needs helping. I work with a few shelters, but most of the time,  I work with Foster Coordinator Emily Wyss and the excellent staff at the Whatcom Humane Society. Emily calls and gives me the particulars, then I let her know what day I will be near the location to which the animal needs tranferring. If animals either won’t cope well with the noisy van environment,  or if the destination is not near a Boundary stop, then they ride with Iggy, Frankie, and me in our Subaru Forester, the Golden Sparrow. 

We have an account in Gig Harbor I had been meaning to call on for a while, and when Emily asked if we might transfer a large angora bunny to Rabbit Haven , I saw it as a good motivator to make the drive across the Narrows Bridge and visit the Tides Tavern.  Antoine was an excellent passenger. He was quiet, didn’t seem stressed by the ride, and even ate a little hay while we were stopped to deliver beer in Renton. Several rabbits have ridden along in the Boundary vans, and they all do well (unlike common belief, rabbits are not nervous; they are actually pretty calm) , but Antoine was the first one who has eaten along the way. Very chill rabbit, is my friend Antoine.  

Kristen, Bret, and the crew at The Tides were happy to see me, we got back some empties, and they are going to put on Cabin Fever or IPA in their next menu cycle! That made the business part of the trip very worthwhile.  Then I got to visit a remarkable place, Rabbit Haven, just a few minutes from The Tides.  

The video shows the kitchen and one portion of the indoor population of Rabbit Haven; it also has an outdoor section for feral rabbits (ever wonder what happened to the warren at Woodland Park? What is left of them now live at at Rabbit Haven). All animals at Rabbit Haven are altered. Sue Brennan, the founder of Rabbit Haven, said that Evening Magazine did a show on them recently and it stimulated a small uptick in their adoptions, but it caused far more folks to call wanting to surrender their rabbits. People are just not prepared for the amount of work it can take to care for a rabbit, or the fact that they live 8-15+ years, depending on size and living conditions. Rabbit Haven is a friendly place — they do not judge — but they also have limited resources. Currently caring for around 90 bunnies, they have to be selective about what animals they accept — visit their website for more information about adopting or surrendering a pet or pets (rabbits much prefer to live with at least one other rabbit). Be warned, Sue has very strict rules about adopting!

And This Dog Can Sing

December 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

It is not that I am a liar, exactly; it is more that I am a teller of stories. It is this habit which caused some of my friends and family to doubt me when I tell them of my more remarkable experiences (even the ones which are completely true), and that consequence which has made me promise myself to exaggerate no more! I no longer sacrifice the “unimportant facts for the good of the story…” as I once read Mark Twain describe his habit of embellishment. Please believe me, now, when I describe this series of events — perhaps another witness would remember them differently, but what follows is an absolutely faithful retelling of occurrences as I remember them; I know perfectly well this diatribe will test the average reader’s profundity, but my promise to relay only the truth requires that I describe exactly what happened as I recall it, however tempting it may be to edit some of the more outrageous happenings in the hope of greater credibility.

My dog, Iggy, understood about 5 human words when I first met him, but has since learned around 35 more. This is not a magnificent feat I admit. I have read of poodles and border collies which have learned more than 300 words. My dog, though, is a bullmastiff, and while a smart example of his breed, bullmastiffs are not renowned for their obedience or tricks. Understanding 40 words is pretty good for a house pet, and I am proud of having taught him most of them. Some of them, though, he has learned on his own, with no help from me. It is not Iggy’s ability to recognize human words that makes him special, however. It is his ability sing human words which makes him so remarkable.

I found Iggy at an animal shelter. I had gone there to meet a particular dog, a lovely 3-year old female Labrador mix named Gracie, and while she was a good dog, she was not the dog for me. On the way out of the shelter, I noticed Iggy, and asked to meet him. After a few minutes of typical dog-human pleasantries, he rolled over and let me stroke his belly and linguinal area. I sat down cross-legged and pet him as he clearly was inviting me to do, and then he crawled, all 85-pounds of him, into my lap, and leaned up toward my face. I thought he was going to lick me, but instead he sang into my ear, “My name is Iggy Pup, and… I wanna… be your… dog.” I looked at the shelter worker who was in the room with us, to see if she had heard it, but she gave no indication of anything being awry. She only said, as I expect she says to most people who meet the dogs there, “He likes you.” I looked at Iggy, and he grinned at me, but did not say anything else. Suddenly, I was not sure I was in any condition to care for myself, much less a dog or any other creature. As happens to people when they encounter dramatic situations, I had countless thoughts in seemingly no time. Should I see a physician, a psychologist, or perhaps a clergy? Was this a religious experience, or some sign of mental defect? Perhaps this was just a psychological manifestation of my own desire for a dog like Iggy? I settled on the last thought – surely this auditory hallucination was just a symptom of my attraction to this impressive animal. I filled out the paperwork, paid the adoption fee, and took Iggy home. And I put out of my mind all thoughts of hearing Iggy speak, or sing, in English.

Things were not perfect right away with Iggy. While he was getting used to his new surroundings, he growled at us a couple times, and he is a large, intimidating dog. My wife, Pia, found him frightening. She is a resolute personality herself, however, and joined me in reading books about dog training. We watched countless hours of DVD’s and Animal Planet television programs. We read three books about the bullmastiff breed in particular. One of them made a point we both found just a little startling: “…you may note this book has no section on training your bullmastiff in ways of guarding or protection. This is because no such training is necessary, or advised. Years of breeding have established natural instincts which will be more than sufficient in this regard.” I had not set out to get a guard dog, and we both found this piece of information interesting, but just a little disconcerting. We agreed to work that much harder on training and socialization.

We established a schedule and walked him three times a day. It was on one of those walks that things changed between Iggy and Pia. When they got back from their walk, Pia seemed distracted, even upset, and Iggy was stuck to her side as though tethered while she walked around the house. When she went into the bathroom, he sat outside the door and did not move until she came out. She had been crying, a very rare thing for her. I asked her what was the matter and she explained.

They were walking down a trail not from our house (it was daylight, just 2 or so in the afternoon), and as they rounded a corner on the trail, a drunken man, a transient, came crashing out of the woods, oblivious to Pia and Iggy. Pia was startled and frightened, but Iggy’s reaction was as if from a textbook on bullmastiffs: He lunged ahead to the end of the leash, turned perpendicular to Pia, and used his shoulder to hit the man right in the knees. The man fell over backwards and Iggy pulled Pia forward in order to place both paws on the man’s chest. Then, for the first time since we had brought him home, Iggy barked. Pia described it as a “sound so deep, I felt its rumble in my body as much as I heard it in my ears. It was almost subsonic, like thunder heard from a long way off.” She called Iggy’s name and he climbed off the poor drunken man. “I am so sorry,” said Pia – “you scared us both.”

“Dude,” said the drunk, “Dude…” and then began to laugh uncontrollably. Seeing he was not injured, Pia walked on, stopping when they reached the park which was their destination. She sat down and gave Iggy a rub, trying to grasp what had just happened, and what to make of it.

Here, I interrupted her. “Honey, I know it was scary, but it sounds like the man meant no harm – he was just oblivious – and Iggy didn’t actually hurt the man, either. He didn’t even try to bite him, right?”

“No, the man didn’t know we were there, and Iggy didn’t do anything wrong, exactly — it is just I –“ and she began to sob, her back and shoulders shaking. I went to her and wrapped her in my arms, while Iggy nuzzled her knee. “It is ok baby, it is all over, I know it was scary, but it is all over now,” I tried to console her.

“It isn’t that, I wasn’t that scared – it all happened so fast – it is now that I am scared. I think I am losing my mind. After we got to the park we sat and I petted him, just to calm us both down, and he… he… Michael, he sang to me. In English… I mean, I heard him, but I know it isn’t possible… I am going crazy, but… I heard him, as clearly as I hear you when you speak.”

“What did he sing?”

“He sang ‘I would die for you.’”

“Like the Prince song?”

“Yeah, like the Prince song. I guess it would be ‘I would die 4 U…” and then she giggled. I joined her, and our giggles changed to laughs.

After the incident on the way to the park, things were much different. Our routine of walks, training, and affection had ended Iggy’s occasional growling, and Pia no longer had any fear of him. In fact, their relationship became so strong I sometimes jokingly accused her of stealing my dog. Iggy listened to Pia when she asked him to do something, and she practiced various obedience exercises with him every day, just as I did. Iggy went everywhere with us, and when he was home alone for a couple hours, we were confident (rightly so) that everything in our home, especially our cats, would be as we left them. Iggy became our sentry, and our referee. Though a guard dog was not something I had ever wanted or looked for, and was not something I felt we needed, I admit it was a nice feeling to know he was there to watch over things. If Pia and I occasionally quarreled, Iggy ignored it. If we raised our voices in anger, however, he whined and whimpered, and went through a series of classic canine calming signals: he would yawn, then turn in a circle, then lick his lips and pace, then yawn again. We still argued sometimes, but we made sure to do it calmly – and this calmness allowed us to settle things more quickly, which allowed for fewer secondary arguments, which caused fewer arguments of any kind. Iggy had become a marriage counselor, and a very good one.

As our routine solidified, and our love for Iggy grew, neither Pia nor I thought much about his verbal expressions of the past. We were satisfied with his daily behaviors and habits, and I think it was just easier to not think about the previous oddness. Then one evening, an hour or so after we had walked him, he barked at us while we sat watching a movie. He had never done this before, and rarely barked at all. He got up from his bed, crossed the room to where we were sitting and let out a loud “Rruufraouwww!” then trotted to the door and nuzzled it, making it clear he wanted out. This type of demanding behavior is not something we find acceptable and I gave him a small verbal correction, a simple “Hey!” – Not too loud, just disapprovingly. Iggy came and sat right in front of us, cocked his head, and – I do not know a better way to describe his expression – looked like he was trying to work out a calculus problem. His brow furrowed, his ears pricked up, and his lips curled a little, not in a growl, but in concentration. Pia and I looked at each other and she spoke first, “He just pooped an hour ago!”

“I know, and he has had plenty of exercise…” and then Iggy sang to us. In English. He slipped in out of key, and the actual tune was barely recognizable. His voice sounded like a tuba that had been filled with gravel, and his face looked pained, as if this was the most difficult thing he had ever done, but he sang loudly, and with passion: “I feel the earth… move… under my feet” and then he barked again. Pia and I jumped up, stuttering and sputtering – “Did you hear…?” “What the hell…?” And when we were standing, Iggy began using his body to push us toward the door. Like cultists enthralled by a modern prophet, we moved outside with him, too stunned to do anything but move where we were herded, onto the lawn, and away from the house. Then, as we got to the middle of our yard, the earth actually did move. The ground shook, dogs barked up and down our street (though now that we were safely outside, our dog was totally silent). Car alarms started going off, and we heard windows breaking, and things falling off our walls inside the house. Pia and I held each other as the ground shook, and Iggy leaned into us both, to steady us or to be comforted by us, I am not sure which — probably both. When the earthquake was over, the sirens began. Police, fire, and ambulances could all be heard. Added to the car alarms, the cacophony was deafening to us humans, but poor Iggy contorted on the ground trying to cover his ears with his paws. “C’mon buddy… let’s go inside.” I stroked his shoulders and the three of us headed indoors.

Books and CD’s lay fallen on the floor. A favorite floor lamp had fallen on its side. Our television had fallen from its stand, smashed to uselessness. The picture window in the living room had shattered, countless slivers of glass exploded onto the couch and chair where Pia and I had sat minutes earlier. Strewn amongst the glass were large chunks of lathe and plaster, fallen down from our hundred-year old ceiling. In the interest of forthrightness, I admit it is doubtful we would have died from the glass and plaster. It would not be accurate to say Iggy had saved our lives by singing a Carole King song to us. I am confident, however, that he saved us both from great injury. Pia and I perused the damage for a moment and then looked at Iggy, who was now sitting in front of us, looking like a normal dog. Pia said what we were both thinking: “Why does he only sing sometimes? And if he can sing, why doesn’t he talk?”

Iggy answered her, then. First he made a noise something like a growl mixed with a bark, but his ears were back and he was looking up at us with an expression of love and submission. We had rescued him, his look told us, and he would rescue us. If people approached Pia in a scary way, he would put himself in front of her. If an earthquake was coming, he would sense it and warn us. As he had sung to Pia, he would die for us, and as he had sung to me, all he wanted in return was to be our dog. Then his eyes narrowed into a look of total concentration and he sang to us in that same gravelly-tuba voice, “Every time I try to tell you, the words just come out wrong… So I’ll have to say I love you… in a song.”

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