Mixing Basil Vinaigrette with Bacon and Dogs

Back a few months, when I was refining my list of goals for canine boot camp, the trainer wondered if I wanted to curb “counter surfing”. We both immediately acknowledged that with havanese, as long as you limit objects that can be used as ladders, there’s little need for training in that realm.

Once again, Bowie proved to be a bundle of vexation.

Normally, I don’t get excited about cooking. Last night, however, I was eager to prepare BLT’s, using lettuce from my garden and bacon sourced from a local farm. I had also been planning to make a basil vinaigrette with basil snipped from Megan’s garden. We could either jazz up the BLT with it or add it to the cucumber I picked earlier in the day.

It was an easy summer recipe, one that involved few bowls and pans and didn’t require the oven. What could possibly go wrong?

I have a little Black and Decker food chopper that I love, despite it habitually conking me in the head when I remove it from its high position in the cabinet (its top-heavy motor piece always separates as I lower the unit). It takes up hardly any storage space, does a satisfying job of mincing and pureeing, and is easy to clean. But it has been giving me a hard time lately — something is not lining up right, causing the top part to not sit properly. Of course I didn’t notice until I had added all the ingredients — basil, minced garlic and shallot, fresh lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. This was the first opportunity to make an oily mess in my prep area, which for most people means the entire kitchen (every surface and point of contact within that space.)

Transferring the vinaigrette to the dressing bottle was tricky and resulted in additional oily mess. While the bacon was sizzling in its pan and filling the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma, I cleaned up the second oily mess and chopped the cucumber. Mona and Bowie were only slightly satisfied with my offering of bits of cucumber — their noses were communicating more hopeful messages about available food stuffs. As the bacon pieces each arrived at that perfect degree of crispness I transferred them to a paper-towel covered plate. . . right at the edge of the counter. (See where this is going?)

Now ready to pull it all together I gave the bottle of homemade vinaigrette a good ‘n vigorous final shake, spraying green matter in every direction. Not only were there globs on the island, the floor, the ceiling, the cabinets, and everything resting on the island; but it was all over my face and arms, in my hair and ears, and sticking to my t-shirt. It smelled divine — as far as vinaigrettes go — but, well, it did mean I wasn’t going to be eating my dinner at the planned hour.

I dashed upstairs to do a quick shower and then skipped back down to clean the kitchen. . . and then I saw it. Or, rather, I didn’t. At the edge of the counter sat an empty plate. No paper towel and NO BACON. Bowie was just finishing up (because dogs don’t waste paper towels that are suffused with bacon grease).

So, here’s what I have. (A) I’m a slow learner where it concerns my doggies. This wasn’t the first time that Bowie made good use of my neglectful attitude. He has helped himself to things that I’ve (on occasion) left at the edge of the counter. He only needs it to overhang by about 1-mm. (B) I’m a slow learner in other aspects of my life, as well. Ask Megan about my bad habit of not tightening covers. And why does it always seem to be that the very items that need to be shaken up are the ones for which I leave the cap loose? (Juice bottles in my refrigerator are not to be trusted. Nor are the several cans of chalk paint in my craft area.)

And Bowie, other than exhibiting an increased need to slake his thirst in the quiet hours before even the earliest of birds is signaling a new day, is none the worse for his episode. He’ll not appreciate that it was very expensive bacon, and there’s no hint that he’s remorseful. Of course it is twelve hours later, so I’m not sure what I can realistically expect. I’m reminded by something that the trainer had said. In a different context (boot camp) I was expressing my worry that Bowie and Mona might be missing me. (In truth, I was more worried about Mona. She’s. . . . sensitive.) Jennie assured me that dogs very much live in the moment, so I shouldn’t worry. When I look at Bowie’s adorable little face with his crooked little teeth, I think, I wish I could be more like you. His ability to push “reset” gives him fresh starts over and over, all day long. Not a bad thing. . . unless it means you once again forget to tighten a cap on a bottle of vinaigrette.

Boot Camp. . . and a Peaceful Interlude for Sonny

When you own pets, it’s a natural law that if things are moving along without friction in one area, another area goes to shit. Expressed more politely, whenever a pet owner’s horizon presents hopeful signs of good health and just generally a mood of tranquility, something must happen to disrupt it.

Recently, Sonny — our fifteen year old cat — decided to have emotional issues with his tail. He’s always been a bit fastidious, keeps himself well-groomed with that little raspy tongue of his. Of a sudden, he ramped up his vigorous tongue-grooming, and became obsessive about cleaning his tail. That may not be entirely true; what may be true is that we happened to notice a “balding” at the base of his tail where he had been aggressively grooming. (Likely, he had been making a sustained practice of doing this for quite some time, but we just hadn’t noticed, what with two frenetic barky dogs ‘n all.)

What followed was this:

Call the vet. Wrestle Sonny into carrier. Anyone who has done this knows that a 10-lb feline with typically restrained behaviors converts into a whirling dervish with demonstrably effective claws and teeth. He’s like a puffer fish, small and insubstantial until threatened. And then. . . the claws and teeth all of a sudden seem out of proportion to both the size of the creature and the known number of defensive weapons assigned to the species. Drive seven minutes to vet’s office (an uneventful ride nevertheless punctuated by pitiful emanations from “pet-friendly” carrier, a ride that also — nevertheless — results in one prostrated 15-year old cat. Well, he is fifteen years old. We’re aware. Fleas, perhaps? Nope, we’d know if that were it. Any new changes at home? Not really any permanent ones — just that Sonny should be enjoying more the absence of the usual stressors in the form of two energetic creatures of the havanese sort. Well, he is fifteen years old. Yup — still aware.

No visit to the vet’s office is complete without a prescription or two to clutch in one hand as you exit with your less-than-pleased feline squirming in the carrier that tilts starboard, port, bow, and stern in no discernible pattern. One doesn’t even try to walk a measured line in such cases. Just get to the car posthaste. Feeling much lighter in the pocket if only slightly less worried about Sonny’s emotional state, we quickly settle back into the quiet new (and short-lived) routine that had evolved while Bowie and Mona were at boot camp.

Meanwhile. . .

For two weeks, in a 24-hour/day program, Bowie and Mona learned how to behave in a socially-acceptable manner. Both had already been through multiple programs, and should have been prime examples of “perfectly behaved” canines. They weren’t. At boot camp they “learned” (or relearned): heel, come, sit, stay, leave it, off, and quiet (or, as I like to call it, “shoosh”). The reason why I sent both of them is not because both are out-of-control, but because the objectionable behaviors of each seem to become amplified when they’re together.

Beginning with a goal-setting session, the program is tailor-made so that the owner articulates what she wants to achieve with her canine companions. I stated that I wanted to be able to walk with the two of them together in public without drama (and resultant necessary apologies.) (See earlier post — “Boot Camp: Prelude”.) That, along with a wish to be able to open my front door to friends and family without excessive barking and threatening behaviors, were the two primary goals. By the time I dropped the two mini-beasts off, my goals had expanded. I wanted. . . well, let’s just say, I wanted perfection. Simply put, their halos should blind anyone who approaches. The overflowing of compliments would be more than I could bear. I had great notions of how this would play out.

For two weeks Sonny luxuriated in being the only non-human inhabitant in the house. He was chatty, he explored anew regions of the house that he’d long abandoned, and he was affectionate once more. And he didn’t urinate in places that he shouldn’t (like on beds and in baskets of freshly-washed laundry.) We reminded him regularly that the new normal in which he was reveling would end shortly and even though I had my own high hopes, he might not be so enthusiastic upon seeing the two noodleheads charging up the stairs. When should we break out the Gabapentin, I wondered. (Maybe when I headed out to pick up the mini-beasts.)

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy the two-week break. I was able to visit family in both the Berkshires and down the Cape, all without making complicated arrangements. But I missed my little monkeys, too! It made me smile to see the pictures that were uploaded daily. Bowie and Mona stuck together even when they had the freedom to roam, Bowie continuing to “resource guard” Mona, of course.

On the day I arrived to pick up my improved models, we had another training session. It felt like I was being trained to operate a complex and unfamiliar piece of machinery. I was very impressed with how compliant they both were. Nothing, however, about what I was instructed to do felt natural. This is going to take some getting used to, I mused out loud. Jennie, the trainer, did also point out — more than once — that at home they’ll test me. It’ll take some time (and consistency) to suppress their bad habits when they see and hear the same triggers in that same environment where they hitherto had honored no rules and essentially got away with everything.

After our lengthy lesson, we climbed into the car and headed home. And then we all took a nap.

Sonny, of course, has intensified his tail-grooming efforts, making clear that he is not happy. He truly believed that our home had been permanently rid of noxious pests.

Mona and Bowie, on the other hand, are happy to be with their mommy again, even if they’re a bit confused by her “firm manner”.

It’s a slow process, friends. I had a low moment about five days into their post-boot-camp training, and I now can’t remember if it was because of the f-ing FedEx truck barreling down our road or “exuberant” dogs on the rail trail. It’s really hard to re-train dogs with ingrained behaviors (and they’re not even that old.) Maybe a big part of the problem is that I have ingrained behaviors, too — I’ve allowed them too much freedom, but I also still reflexively tighten up on their leashes and tense when dogs approach us. They sense my level of anxiety and respond accordingly.

Like I said, it’s really hard. In a few weeks we will have our final follow-up training session. It would be unfair if I didn’t say that they are much better, and they do try to be good doggies. The trainer had such high praise, especially for Bowie — he’s very trainable, she assured me. And now when I say, Come, Bowie, come! he charges to me and throws his back end right down on my feet. I nearly weep.

We’re all trying here — that’s the message, even if Sonny remains unconvinced.

Canine Boot Camp: Prelude

It occurs to me that I haven’t supplied my followers with any canine updates of late. One can safely assume the reason for that is that the critters have been up to no good. Or, at least that statement applies to wonder dog #2 — Bowie.

Here’s how things stand with my vertically challenged bundles of vexation. Recently, I decided to sort out my problem of dog walking. If I were to distill their unruliness down to its most basic, it stems from their awareness that I’m not the one in charge, and the problem manifests most obviously when I walk them together.

It plays out this way: a moving speck in the distance is determined to be a clear and present danger. Typically, Mona will be the first to observe its presence, and announce by bouncing up and down and woofing. Bowie, before he has even processed this impending peril, lunges at Mona as if to say, Goddammit, can’t you just once let ME be the one who notices it first and I’ve got this — I don’t need your help in guarding my family. Mona responds by snapping back at him, and it all devolves quite quickly. I tighten up the leashes and with arms outstretched to the side, pull the whirling dervishes apart. I walk by the typically well-behaved (large) dog and its owner with an embarrassed sorry, and pick up my pace to distance myself from yet another example of my ineptitude.

“They need to understand that they don’t get to call the shots — you do,” the trainer Katie pointed out to me when I brought them for an “assessment” about a month ago, shortly after I took out an equity line of credit to pay for a two-week boot camp. . . for both of them. . . so that they can learn to behave in a socially-acceptable manner when out in public. Or when there’s a Door Dash delivery. Or when the FedEx truck barrels down our street. Or when Beverly (my new 82-year old Historical Society friend) knocks on the door (because her eyesight is so poor she can’t see the doorbell, which is entirely fine with me so I don’t point it out to her because. . . well. . . that would just be way worse.)

As part of my pups’ boot camp package, I was subjected to my own mini-training, and I must say that I derived great benefit from the experience. I arrived on a rainy morning with both dogs and was instantly agog at the facility’s luxurious accommodations. For starters, as I rolled along the undulating driveway past the various fenced sections (including what appeared to be residual evidence of an orchard or just pleasantly positioned apple trees), the upscale arrangement of living quarters and training yards cleared up any lingering questions I had about the eye-popping cost of the program. Bowie, Mona and I then spent close to two hours learning the new rules — namely, that I am the new sheriff in town.

I can’t speak for my shaggy trainees — I suspect that the under-breath mutterings emanating from the back seat as we rode home were comments such as WTF and Shit, the party’s over, but I left that day with renewed confidence. I was excited to try out my new skills.

For the past few weeks I have dutifully honored the recommendations that the trainer made at our collective pre-boot camp training session. The biggest change to our routine is that I walk Bowie and Mona separately. It creates two very tense moments each morning, given that I have to leave one dog behind when I head out the door for the daily walk. I feel awful. . . TWICE! But the huge upside is that I have been able to walk by other dogs without incident. No barking. No lunging. No need for an embarrassed sorry. It is a blessed phenomenon. I hope it lasts.

And now, as I contemplate all the ways I can enjoy my two-week stretch of freedom — travel down the coast to visit family and/or old friends, book a flight to Oregon to see my daughter, take several day trips (to museums, antique shops, libraries, and historical sites), take walks alone — I’m strangely battling feelings of guilt. When Katie explained that they have a no-nonsense “no contact” policy for the entire two weeks of boot camp, I reacted with a pssshhh, no problem. But I find that I’m already dreading that moment when I drop them off; I know I’m going to feel lonely without the constant annoyance of Bowie’s stealing my books and chewing on the corners, his streaking from one end of the house to the other when the FedEx truck arrives. I’m also worried about Mona’s timid demeanor — what if they take too heavy a hand with her when they “correct” her? She’s delicate. I imagine I’ll be overly “clear” with the staff when I deposit them at the beginning of their stint. In the end, this is what I can offer: I may be a perennial novitiate as a dog owner — I don’t always know how to behave when I take them among other people or dogs, but I won’t be faulted for my understanding of their personalities. As a dog owner, with me there’s a long learning curve. Please be patient.

Bridges

As everyone who knows me understands, I love to study the landscape when driving. It takes a real conscious effort to keep my eyes on the road, and there are several views that make such responsible behavior very difficult. As I’ve mentioned before, whenever I cross the Gillis Bridge on Rt. 1 between Salisbury and Newburyport — especially at either sunrise or sunset — my eyes veer from the path I’m traveling in order to drink in the beauty. What is it about bridges that stirs our sensibilities?

When I was teenager (and at the age where one would assume reason had begun to take hold), I often took long walks and even longer bike rides from my home high on Titicut Hill, a place that had amazing, long views in nearly every direction, but was envied by no one because of its proximity to a maximum security prison. For those wondering why on earth I would take long walks and bike rides in that setting, it comes down to this: you can live a cowed, circumscribed life behind locked doors, or you can shrug your shoulders and ask yourself, what are the odds — really — that an escaped prisoner will happen to be in the same space at the same moment as I? (Weirdly, and maybe inexplicably, I didn’t find it creepy, but rather reassuring when the patrol would follow slowly behind me on the service roads and field lanes.) As everyone who grew up around Alden Square knows, you did your best to assign the prison to a subordinate corner of your mind, and tried to have an ordinary childhood.

In my travels back then I would inevitably stop in the middle of whatever bridge I crossed. Living in Bridgewater implied that there was no paucity of bridges that spanned waterways. Most often, the water maundered lazily, affording my thoughts to likewise flow without hurry from one idea to another. Whether this habit translated into a lifelong fascination with bridges over water, or it was because of an innate fascination in the first place that led me — as if by magnetic force — to the middle spot of all those hometown bridges; it has been an enduring compulsion.

My dog Mona, however, does not share my affinity for bridges, and I trace it back to our first “journey” over a serious bridge. Soon after the completion of the new John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River in 2017, I was eager to walk the pedestrian trail connector that was included in the engineering plans for the replacement bridge. (The bike/pedestrian walkway had been proudly acclaimed as the first of its kind to be built into an interstate bridge.)

After parking the car, I set out with Mona from the Salisbury side of the William Lloyd Garrison Trail. We had gone barely fifty feet and she began sniffing around for a suitable place to “do her business”. Alas, her only option consisted of one thing — concrete. Soon her appraisal took on a desperate quality. I assumed (wrongly) as I coaxed her along that she would become less particular about bathroom accommodations. She tried to be a good sport about it, trotting along for a bit, then swiveling or zigzagging whenever her nose picked up a scent that only dogs can detect. Dissatisfied, she’d then continue on beside me. By now, we were about one-third of the way in our ascension of the bridge’s span. And, then, Mona’s relief was suddenly at hand (or paw). There, right there in her path, was the magic key to her deliverance. A single leaf. I watched — one can’t help but be interested when a dog is aiming for a single leaf. Mona skillfully arranged herself above the leaf and achieved a perfect dispatch. (Granted, the havanese — with those short legs — is already close to the ground.) I may have imagined it, but it did seem her eyes rolled toward heaven and she shuddered with (physical) relief.

Mona seemed, if not happy, at least willing to continue our journey. I, of course, felt the need to reach the pinnacle of the bridge’s span. (For those unfamiliar with the Whittier Bridge, it is a substantial one over a sizable river.) If I could get to the bridge’s midpoint, I knew I would be rewarded with an exquisite view of Deer Island, which sits in the middle of the Merrimack, suspended charmingly between two small bridges. To this point, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was picking up. But, by the time we reached my goal and turned to face Deer Island to the east, the wind was howling. I wanted to enjoy the moment. I tried to enjoy it. I just couldn’t, and in all fairness to my 12-pound little girl, the situation demanded that I — for once — accept that not every bridge is well-suited to reflective thought. We turned and headed back down the bridge, Mona in good spirits, but — no doubt — making a mental note to object with every one of her twelve pounds if I ever, ever tried to take her on the Whittier Bridge again.

Merrimack River looking west from RR Bridge trailhead at Old Eastern Marsh Trail (Salisbury MA)

Bowie’s Few Minutes of Freedom

Do you ever have those occasions when — after the horse has cantered gleefully out the barn door — you wish your “thinking fast” part of the brain had given way to the “thinking slow” area. . . but maybe at lightning speed? A fifteen minute ungraceful lurching through the still deep snow this morning was a result of one of those moments.

As much as my two dogs Mona and Bowie enjoy our daily walks, the restrained pace is a poor substitute for the freedom to run unhindered. These days they rarely have such opportunity (especially with the amount of snow that keeps getting dumped on us), so today — because the surface is just hard enough for them to run across without breaking through — I tried to simulate the experience as best I could by placing each of them on a long lead and running beside them up our private road. If you have dogs, you can probably relate to this: as soon as I began running, they thought, oh, fun, let’s play chase. The first obstacle, literally, was a maple tree that they decided to encircle with their long leashes. My solution was to follow behind. . . and go round and round as they continued round and round. This moment was the first in which it would have been wise to pause for a moment, reflect on alternatives to chasing two dogs round and round a tree.

Having successfully liberated the maple tree, we returned to our backyard, where I was able to pry the gate open to our new, fenced-in garden area. After unclipping my two excited pups, I sat on my bench and watched them chase each other and wrestle with all the freedom they could wish for. Their joy made me smile.

When I decided playtime was over, I clipped the two pups back on their leashes and headed out through the gate. That move was a signal to resume the game of chase and wrestle, or rather, chase and wrestle-wrestle-wrestle, quickly converting two dogs and two leads into something resembling a tumbleweed. Seeing that one of the leashes was wrapped around one of Bowie’s back feet, I reflexively — and here’s where I would have enjoyed the benefits of slow (rational) thinking — unclipped his leash BEFORE grabbing his collar. Thus freed, he dashed off across the yard, the leash having miraculously fallen away from his foot and the rest of his body. As Mona strained to join her brother at the end of a now tangled skein of two leashes, I set off in pursuit of the wily Bowie. By now, he was nearly to my neighbor’s front door, but he suddenly had second thoughts. I used his indecision as an opportunity to flip the script. I’m not proud of it, but I essentially dangled Mona as bait.

Oh, Mona, aren’t you just the best little doggie?! Let’s go play! And I ran with her toward our house. She, of course, was thrilled, thinking she was about to have Mommie to herself. She bounded along and bounced up and down. Bowie streaked straight as an arrow right at us. I threw myself at him as soon as he was close enough. Collapsing in the snow, we were now our own contorted arrangement, and both of us were breathing hard. I had no back-up plan if I had failed — it’s doubtful you can pull that trick a second time. A subdued trio then climbed the front yard and re-entered the house. God, I hope all my neighbors didn’t just witness that.

So, I’ve signed up Bowie for boot camp. It can’t come soon enough.

an exhausted Bowie after his fleeting moments of freedom