Inter-Species Competition

There are whole days when I feel as if I’m engaged in an inter-species competition. That’s not to say that I don’t absolutely adore my two canine companions. They are my world. I have moments when my heart is so full just from watching them. They don’t even need to be doing anything. Just standing there watching me is enough to cause my chest to tighten with love. Sometimes I want to FaceTime my daughter and show her the cuteness of Mona or Bowie doing. . . well, nothing, mostly. But just look how “hopeful” Bowie is! (Bowie, meanwhile, is “hopeful” that I’ll sling his rope toy the length of the house so he can have throw rugs and chairs skitter out of his path as he sprints across the kitchen and into the living room, usually coming to an abrupt stop only by slamming into the couch. It is pointless to remind him each time of the predictable outcome of open-throttle indoor racing. The thrill of the chase exacts what to him seems an acceptable degree of indemnification.)

Recently (after three successful escapes — two by Bowie and one by Mona), I’ve altered our twilight and late night “potty runs”. No longer do we exit via the front door, which necessitates skillful navigation of stairs. Instead, we all traipse downstairs and exit through the basement, eliminating the risk that I will face-plant into the bushes or at the base of the front steps. And, obviously, I stand a better chance of remaining tethered to my end of the leash. It’s early, but the results are promising, even if Bowie still is inclined to charge out the door full speed. (I can hear the trainer’s voice reminding me, Be always in command. “With me, Bowie”. “Leave it, Bowie.”)

While the outcome of the daily smackdown is never a foregone conclusion, the win goes in my column tonight. As I’ve taken to doing, because I don’t like surprises (unless it’s one that involves Chocolate Town Special Cake made by Megan on my birthday), I push the curtain aside on the basement door and scan the backyard. No deer or rabbits within view. I open the door, Bowie charges and Mona prances. We make our way around the garden, heading further into the backyard, but I decide to glance behind us, toward the street. I catch movement on the other side of the line of pine trees. Yup, deer. And where there’s one, there are likely three more. As they do every night, they’re making their leisurely way along the ancient and invisible pathway.

I’ve seen them, but Mona and Bowie haven’t yet. I alter our own route so that I can be reasonably sure they won’t see the four deer when they emerge on their northward progression. Oh, but those canine noses don’t lie. The two little heads spring up at the same time, and two little noses lift. They’ve scented the deer, but can’t fix their location. Till they figure that out, Mona and Bowie stand still, but with noses twitching. I know I only have a couple minutes before the deer will be seen from our location. Before my charges have succeeded in triangulating the location of the deer, I tug on their leashes and coax them, promising a treat (because I’ve made a total mess of our boot camp gains, and achieve compliance using the path of least resistance.)

We take it one day at a time. Some days I win, some days they’re the ones giving each other high-fives. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s contest will be like.

But, just look at how stinkin’ cute they are!

Canine Contrition

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

It was the first thing I said to my daughter Megan after I arrived on foot back to our driveway. Mona, once again shackled, stopped behind me; her demeanor was one of contrition. Megan put her Jeep in “park” and then commented, “I feel the same way.”

It so happens that our house, situated in a former pasture, is a hot spot for deer. We’ve lived here for 24 years, and it’s pretty obvious to us that it’s on one of their well-traveled corridors. Depending on how readily available natural food sources are, they will wend their way from our neighbors’ woods, cross our private road and either approach to graze close to the house or steer further away and feast on our bordering arborvitae. With fruit trees lining our road, there’s plenty to nourish them in our little neighborhood and few predators to cause them real concern.

It was the last “potty break” for the night when I stepped outside with both dogs. I always keep Bowie’s leash taut, but I allow slack in Mona’s. She’s the “good child”. Before I had even completely closed the door, she shot off the steps, and gaining just enough traction, her body snapped around at the end of the leash. If I had had more than a mili-second to think, I would have released the leash. I didn’t, and her body shot out of her collar; with her own gift of a mili-second, she honed in on the four deer across the road. Given her superb sense of smell and her better-than-human sense of sight, she had precise coordinates. I heard rather than saw her make a beeline for them.

I pursued Mona after having handed a psychotic Bowie off to Megan. Galloping across my lawn, the road, and into Pam’s yard, my rising panic stifled my will to curse the fact that I hadn’t laced up my L.L. Bean perfectly-suitable-for-snow boots. The flapping footwear slowed me slightly, and until I could get Mona in my sights (with the flashlight that Megan had hastily handed me in the Bowie-for-flashlight exchange), I was bound to completely spiral in my thoughts. I had only suspected that the deer were close by, as it was very much in keeping with their visiting hours, and the level of canine excitement suggested that the deer were nearby. Either that, or Pam’s semi-feral cat Louie was lurking. (Highly unlikely that late in the day, however; Louie was his most predatory early morning; I often see him strutting back home with his trophies before I’ve even had my morning coffee.) It really is remarkable how many thoughts can run, end-to-end and piling up on each other, through the mind of someone in full panic mode. The first thought to ambush me was that a coyote had darted out of the woods and grabbed her. By the time my flashlight had found Mona, sitting motionless about 20 feet away from the four calmly staring deer, I had convinced myself that I would find her lifeless body, having been kicked in the head by one of the deer, or — even worse, I think — she’d be nowhere in sight.

When my flashlight picked up the glitter of two little eyes, I was overcome with relief. “I’ve found her!” I yelled back to Megan, who didn’t hear me. She had jumped into her Jeep with Bowie, and was earnestly trying to position the headlights on the space between our house and Pam’s.

With a stern, Sit, Mona!, I approached “the good child” and slid her once more into her collar. Note to self: tighten the collar. Second note to self: resume training for recall and stay.

My panic and subsequent relief had whipped up into a frothy consistency in my stomach, resulting in nausea. Yes, I wanted to throw up.

Battle Over the Trash Barrel

Sure, a second dog is a good idea. Gives the first one a companion. I bought that. . . and, so, there’s Bowie.

That no one ever consulted the pet with the most seniority — Sonny, of the feline sort — has led to a fair degree of resentment, as well as pee and poo deposited in undesirable locations. It hasn’t been so long a time that I don’t remember Sonny’s deviousness where it concerned my sweet Scout. He used to lie in wait around a corner, crouched and ready to ambush my gentle little kitty. She had no use for him, but from her current vantage point on high, she must be smiling and thinking about the beauty and rightness of poetic justice.

Bowie builds in quality time every day — multiple times a day — so that Sonny should never feel neglected. He appreciates Sonny in ways that are unrecognizable to him, that make him anxious. Because of the said level of “appreciation”, Sonny has taken to over-grooming his tail. You should see what that looks like these days!

It all has me thinking about the pecking order that establishes itself, quite naturally. No amount of cajoling, psychologizing, gating, or sweet-talking seems to alter the course of domestic history. At present, Bowie is enjoying an outsized degree of supremacy. He drubs little Mona, he corners and harasses Sonny, and his general swagger — both in home and out in public — suggests that, despite the yearned-for results of bootcamp, I am at the end of his leash, not the other way around.

Admittedly, I haven’t been as consistent as I should be in order to make the usual commands stick; things like sit, stay, leave it, off, come, get-out-of-the-trash, drop-the-poop. Outside of the home, progress is more discernible, but the signs inside are discouraging. I have an improvised gate at the bottom of the stairs on the main level (with a heavy tool bag wedged against it), my deck has another gate, one that is free-standing. (It is only a matter of time before Bowie discovers that if he paws at the edge or noses it, he will gain blissful admission to the free world.)

The most frustrating signal that I’m losing the battle concerns the trash barrel. Once upon a time I was able to have a tall kitchen trash barrel, no lid, open to the elements. In my stubbornness, I have failed (thus far) to concede that a small barrel under the sink is my only remaining option. Instead, I have a lidded stainless steel one to which Bowie recently learned how to gain access. At first he would tug on the plastic liner, which would bring the goods up and into the lid, causing the lid to lift. In answer, I readjusted the liner so that it wouldn’t extend outside the barrel. From my standpoint, it made for a messier affair internally. However, Bowie’s determination led him to re-think his mission and come up with a more creative mode of access. Hence, the “flick and dive”, meaning he would flick the lid with his nose and thrust his head in with one smooth move. My counter-move has been to place a hand weight on top of the barrel. Obviously, he’s going to figure out how to nose it off, and I’ll be confronting what I know must be done: place a small barrel under the sink. . . and then rig a fail-proof lock system on the doors.

This is where I fall on my own sword, my friends.

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.