January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
It is tempting to pretend nothing unexpected or unfortunate ever occurs with my dogs. I proclaim now, with no little modesty or humility, this is not the actual fact: if I have any expertise, or at least some small familiarity, with the care, feeding, and training of dogs, it has led me to understand unexpected (even disastrous) events do occur, and the proficiency of the caregiver should be measured not in our imaginary ability to avoid them altogether, but by how we address these events when they inevitably occur.
Taking satisfaction in the misfortune of others is a shameful, if ubiquitous, vice. I am chagrined to admit I find a regrettable relief in the discovery of dog professionals whose canine companions do not behave perfectly. I have no less positive an opinion of the people involved – I just feel less embarrassed by my own pets’ shortcomings. I used to cringe when my bullmastiff Iggy behaved poorly in public, but now I laugh, and use it as an illustration of behavior issues we need to modify. I invite you, dear readers, to revel in my tale of embarrassment, and use it as an antidote to whatever face-palming disaster befalls you thanks to your misbehaving dog.
Iggy was four years old when I adopted him, and had lived with two different families. Immediately before I took him home, he spent ten days at the Everett Animal Shelter, and then a day at the Northwest Organization for Animal Help. It was not surprising that Iggy came with a full complement of special personality traits, and the ones that did not involve the risk of injury or lawsuits I endured with joviality bordering on broadminded parental charity. I set very high standards for Iggy’s behavior and training, but I let his personality be. I let Iggy be Iggy.
Iggy doesn’t poop in his own yard. He has lived with us two years, now, and has pooped in our yard only twice, both times when he was sick. He poops twice a day, under normal circumstances, once in the morning and once at night, at least a few blocks from his own house. Iggy was not so regular when we first brought him home. Skinny, stressed out, and finicky, he didn’t eat enough, and didn’t like to eat at regular times. I fed him high quality food, made a game out of meal times, and put him on a strict schedule. I also added a tablespoon of pumpkin to each of his meals, which helps him poop at regular times (and also causes his farts to smell a little like Thanksgiving, albeit a disgusting dog poop-tinged version of Thanksgiving).
Iggy has powerful dreams. He yaps in his sleep, and sometimes his legs move like he is running. On occasion he growls or makes sounds like a child crying. My vet was concerned he might be having seizures, but after seeing him do it (Iggy sleeps at the vet’s office when giving blood), the vet agreed it is just dreams, albeit very active ones. Sometimes when the dreams are really extreme, I wake him, but usually I let him dream, reasoning that he has things to work out in his subconscious.
It had been raining for days, and I had been working long hours. It seemed like every night when I got home to walk Iggy it was pouring rain, and Iggy despises the rain only slightly less than he despises pooping in his own yard. I am the Human, and I am in charge, of course, so I walk him anyway, whether he likes it or not. But Iggy doesn’t poop in the rain. That is another one of his things. It rains here all the time, and Iggy does this pretty often. He has a good poop in the morning, then refuses to poop in the rain on our walk, then refuses to poop in his own yard, and so he holds it all night until morning when he we walk again. Bullmastiffs are usually counted among the giant-sized breeds, and their bodily functions are correspondingly giant-sized. Iggy gets very high quality food, which is relatively low volume, but he is a huge dog, and with the added bulk of the pumpkin, and waiting all night after skipping his evening poop, his morning absolution can be so big it requires two bags to collect completely.
One evening, after a walk in the rain during which Iggy did not bless the world with a night-soil deposit, I was working at my desk in the bedroom. Iggy came in to check on me. He sat, shook my hand with his paw and accepted a scratch behind his ears. Then, at my invitation, he hopped onto the bed to wait until I was done doing my work. He quickly fell asleep, which I could tell by his enthusiastic snoring. After a few minutes, he began dreaming. First came the yipping, then his legs moved a bit, and then some light growling. I smiled to myself and continued my work. After a few minutes, I heard him stir; when I looked over at him, he was looking back at me with an expression that suggested confusion mixed with embarrassment. He got up, shook himself, and jumped off the bed. Then I smelled it: dog poop mixed with Thanksgiving, and not in the normal, nearly lethal dose of flatulence that was his wont. Iggy had pooped in my bed while sound asleep. I didn’t yell, didn’t curse, just looked at the steaming train of slightly pumpkin-colored poop (as he had been lying on his side, it was not piled up like the normal result of a crouching dog – this was more like a poop snake) and asked him, “What the hell?”
Iggy did his best impression of the Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman, offering up a doggy version of a shrug that seemed to say, “What? Me Worry?” and then left the room, his embarrassment passed in classic canine-timeline fashion. After cleaning up and changing the sheets, I went and found the Iggster sleeping noisily in the living room, not at all impacted by the odd occurrence of a few minutes past. The next day we visited the veterinarian, just to confirm what I already knew: The Poop Incident of 2010 was not an indicator of any physical health issue.
Poop happens, and I take some small satisfaction that Iggy’s only accident with us occurred while he was asleep, and not responsible for his actions. This was not some kind of active rebellion, just a sub-conscious reaction to… what? I do not know. I still try to get him to poop in the rain, and still try to get him to get him to poop in his own yard, and am still flummoxed by his intestinal and attitudinal fortitude. Iggy is Iggy, and I love him when he is perfect, so I love him when he poops in my bed.
December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment
Wonderful off-leash walk today on trail network between Fairhaven park and I-5. It was muddy but sunny, and we saw lots of coyote sign, several other dogs, nice people, and Frank and Igg were were very good and very happy. They woke up briefly to eat and go outside, but have otherwise been asleep all day and night. It feels good to really wear them out.
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.”
December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
Two Journal Entries, 10 months Apart
Saturday, February 6th, 2010, evening.
We adopted Frankie on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010, from the Whatcom Humane Society. Kathleen, Krista, Emily, and Marian all helped us end up with him – I am afraid we were the most careful of adopters. I also asked Angi at Tails for advice about the Iggy/Frankie dynamic, and found her thought encouraging and reassuring. His full name is Frankie Doodle. The first night, Iggy was not comfortable having Frankie here, and wanted to inspect and investigate him all night long. By last night, Iggy was comfortable and while he enjoys playing with Frankie, there is no longer anything like obsession. We found a field today that was mostly fenced and practiced some basic, informal recalls on a long line, then let Iggy and Frankie loose. It went very, very well. They investigated and marked separately and together for several minutes, and then Frankie started jumping up and nipping Iggy softly and playfully. Iggy gave in and the dogs played a spirited game of chase for 10 minutes before Iggy gave up and investigated a patch of mud. Frankie took the signal well and the game was over, both dogs were tired and happy. We were very surprised by how high Frankie could jump. He is very, very athletic – not something we expected but it is a welcome development. Pia and I agreed completely that Frankie will fit in well, is already fitting in – and that we are very happy with our choice.
Also did a more intensive and thorough assessment of Frankie’s knowledge and temperament. We took both dogs shopping to Petco and Clark’s downtown pet shop. Interestingly, Frankie’s love of car rides seems to make Iggy more comfortable. Also, though Iggy is often stressed being left in the car when Pia goes into a store for a minute, he seemed much more calm when left alone with Frankie in the car. In the stores we visited, we ran into several dogs, a few puppies, children, and adults. Frankie liked them all, and was gentle and good-natured during our whole day. We purchased a coat for him, and a new leash, a flat collar, and a martingale collar.
We spent some time testing to make sure Frankie doesn’t know some things we might have missed. We tried different words for basic cues and different hand signals, but our initial impression proved accurate: Though a good-natured 4-year old dog of above average intelligence, Frankie has not been taught anything, not even ‘sit’. We came home and worked on leash work and sitting, not by precise cue, but in response to general situations, as in when coming up to the handler for affection or a treat. Iggy tried to help…
Tuesday, December 7, 2010, Night.
Frankie passed his American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test this evening. We took the test at the NOAH training center. It was the last day of the NOAH CGC class, and the instructor let us take the test with the class in exchange for a small donation. Iggy and Pia came along, and this turned out to be a little troublesome. Frankie was confused about them being there but not being in the room, and then when Pia was in the room, he wanted to be close to her and me at the same time. Though Frankie had completed the walkthroughs in our living room many times, he was so distracted by the environment of the training room that he wouldn’t even sit for me during the warm-up period. It seemed we had no chance at passing – we took the test, but mostly for the practice. Once the instructor announced the test was beginning, Frankie went through a sort of attitudinal transformation. He sat, he focused, he heeled, he watched me, he stayed until called… it was as if he knew when the real work began. Frankie passed. We have a lot of work left to do.