Friday, July 22, 2016

Squrrels and rabbits and cats. Oh My!

Niko operates with a clearly defined hierarchy of prey desirablility. Insects are fun, but too easy and not very satisfying in the long run, even the crunchy midsummer versions. Chipmunks occupy a slightly higher notch in his fantasy world, but they live mostly in slim wall cracks and rain drainpipes, which, while enticingly noisy, never yield a chipmunk.

Up one more notch are squirrels. Squirrels are very plentiful at this time of year, and Niko has a keen eye for spotting slight movements in the shadows. When a shadow moves, he stands stock still, feet firmly attached to the ground, with an intent gaze meant to terrify his opponent. My job is to stamp my feet and make threatening throat sounds. The squirrel will eventually saunter over to the nearest tree and climb out of sight. Sometimes Niko leaps and tries to climb the tree like southern hound dogs, but the squirrel knows this dog's limitations and sits securely out of reach, making rude and derisive noises.

Higher still: rabbits. Rabbits are very desirable
in Niko's prey hierarchy and the world is currently awash with young, naive, trusting, and, presumably, tasty rabbit souls; they graze on local clover without a care in the world. The other day Niko became fixated on a rabbit five feet to our right. This was a standoff; the rabbit ate, Niko froze. Down the block a little gang of three more rabbits headed our way. They drew near, then veered into the road, just to the left of our sidewalk position. They began a little circle dance, right in the middle of the road; around and around they danced. They whirled, stopped, and whirled some more. At one point they paused to do their bit to ensure the next generation, but that didn't take long. They gradually swirled off to a neighbor's bushes to engage in who knows what activities. Niko, meanwhile, continued to be concerned only with the lone rabbit to our right. We did finally part: I was firm, Niko was unwilling, the rabbit was unconcerned and turned its back on us as it foraged for sweeter clover.

Finally, we get to cats. Niko has never met a cat. A cat did approach him once. It plodded over in a friendly manner and started to rub on Niko's astonished head, but when Niko went down on his elbows to play, the cat changed its mind and hissed and spat, but, at the last minute, decided not to attack further.

We have two new cats in the neighborhood, brother and sister, both black and white. The male is friendly, and one morning as I let Niko out to greet the day, I spotted the friendly cat in our yard. Alas, Niko spotted it a split second before I did. Like a shot, he tore after that cat, who in turn tore back and forth by the fence, trying to climb or leap over it. It failed on both counts. He then stopped and turned to face Niko; all his hair stood perpendicular to his body as he doubled his size, his huge tail straight up, back arched, ears laid back. Niko was at his ferocious best, and at that point I decided I had better intervene, and stepped onto the terrace to mediate. I needed to save my dog's pretty face or the cat's life, I wasn't sure which.

And then, Niko just calmly turned away. He put his nose to the ground and went happily off on another errand, most likely pursuing a rabbit trail. The cat took stock, hesitated, saw his salvation, and ran off to the gap in the fence he had presumably entered through.

It all seems like a game to Niko. Did he think he had won and that was that? Is the point of the game to freeze? Stare? Chase?

Then last night, Niko got a bit of a turnaround We had bats hunting flying insects near the back door; We were in the yard for last outs, and the bats blocked our re-entry. Oddly enough, Niko was not intrigued by their soft fluttering and wanted to get in the house fast; he apparently didn't think games with bats would be much fun.

We have other wildlife in the area that would put Niko on his guard. Every few years we spot a neighborhood fox. There are raccoons and possums. And we periodically spot bears on the block. A neighbor sent photos around last week of a mama bear and her cub in his front yard, crossing the street in the direction of our house on their way home to the dingle that they would cross our yard to reach. I like the idea of bears passing by in the early morning,  me with my coffee and newspaper, my faithful dog sleeping on my feet, twitching and dreaming of his next exciting chase/freeze/chase encounter. How do these end in his dreams?

And now for something completely different: Niko loves his possums. He has three: One that still grunts, one that occasionally grunts, and one whose grunting days are over. They play fair and let him catch them, toss them up in the air, and entice visiting dogs with. What more could a hunting dog ask for?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Comfort and Joy

One February weekend it was -13 over the night and never got out of the single digits during the day. The next weekend to was +50 during the day; it is inconsequential what it was at night. The result was a yard that was muddy and squishy with patches of treacherous, rugged ice where human and others had tramped in the snow that fell during the in-between weekdays.

So one afternoon during the second weekend, when there was a whiff of spring in the air, a carefree attitude, and an overconfident mittens-free choice, a friend and I and Niko and one of his friends were playing in the yard; the time had come to wind up as the sun was going down and the air was taking on a more seasonable chill. There were children passing by the fence excited by the chance to be out of doors and Niko's friend was careening around the yard having triumphantly made off with one of his sacred bones. Niko couldn't decide - pursue the children? Retrieve his bone? And at that moment, I went down on the ice. I hit my head, bent my glasses, tore my hand, and knocked up a knee, one I had broken many years ago. I lay there, face and bare hands on the ice, unable to get up.
Niko practicing the laying on of
paws on my granddaughter

And here is the thing: before I knew it, Niko was by my side, sitting, then lying, pressing up against my body. I couldn't see him; I could only feel him. Fur. Warmth. Comfort. Breath.

Of course, I did get up and I turned out to be quite intact. But I can still feel the pressure of Niko leaning, body length, into my side. In mid-track, he ceded the bone to his friend and postponed the company of the children to another day. It is a very lovely feeling, remembering his presence in that moment as I lay there, fearful of what I would be able to do (or not do) next.

Blessed are the healers, for they bring warmth, comfort, and the breath of hope to the fallen. Niko's continuing state of grace has recently earned a loving and forgiving caress after I found a half-eaten lemon in the middle of the living room rug. Blessed are the thieving dogs for they bring laughter and joy into our lives. Amen!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Early Morning Walks

This comes close to the highlight of my day – my early morning stroll with Niko as the sun rises and the day comes to life. We step out the door around 5 or 7, although during these long nights of winter I admit to an occasional starting time of 8.  We live close to the center of town so our routes are predictable; we rely on paths, sidewalks, and streets the city has determined appropriate for walking. Each morning we cover two to three miles, an adventurous expedition for Niko, a meditative stroll for me.

If we are out early the squirrels are still asleep – to my delight and Niko's distress. As day becomes a reality, we meet others who are venturing forth for business or pleasure. Students emerge from dorms; this morning two fell all over Niko in mutual appreciation; one has two dogs at home she misses. Others pass by at a quick pace, heads down, wired to media and music. Some look warily at this fierce beast by my side, who often stands stock still until it is clear whether the passer-by will or will not stop to greet him.

Niko knows much more about the recent history of our path than I do. I am clueless unless there has been a recent snowfall and even I can figure out that a squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, or yet larger co-resident has preceded us along our path. Niko buries his nose in each fresh piece of information (whether seen by me as a paw print in the snow or only sensed by him through his superior number of receptors on, around, and in his nose area). His ability to read the newspaper of recent events is joyous; in the dog world the newspapers speak of only exciting, upbeat information.

Then there is always information in plain sight, discarded by humans along the way. Almost every morning I have to pry a wayward kleenex from his jaws, and there are of course the more obvious leavings – perhaps half of a donut, an oddly discarded sandwich, or a piece of detritus that is completely unrecognizable to me but irresistible to him. I keep watch for these pieces of street garbage and hope I spot them before he does. Recycling and trash days are particularly interesting.

We meet people and their friendly dogs; we exchange greetings and names and ages of dogs that we promptly forget. We meet people who claim their dog is friendly, but it approaches at top snarl and we detour and agree that maybe another day would be better (for what, I don't know). We often pass a homeless man with his dog Sweetie; we always stop to chat.

I was dogless for two-and-a-half months in early 2015; I vowed I would walk anyway, as I experimented with what it would be like not to have a dog. I managed two morning walks in that time. I strode purposefully. head down, greeting no one; I was totally uninterested in logging the pieces of food people had dropped along the sidewalks. People walking dogs did not stop for me, even though I wanted to shout out "Hey! I too had a dog, a companion on the street." I paid no notice of details along the way. And had no reason to reflect on what I passed.

But with Niko, I am all eyes. And I reflect, interpret what I see, draw meaning from it. Like the small print in the recycling bin this morning – how incredibly hopeful people are that they might have some influence and control over their lives. Imagine – someone makes, and people buy and install, squirrel-proof bird feeders. I am sure all the neighborhood squirrels came out to take a look at this empty box, hopefully unpacked and neatly folded and discarded, and took up the challenge; at this very moment they are most likely stuffing themselves with bird food dispensed from the box's former contents.

There is a famous Bible verse that extols the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Niko and I share all three on our walks: Faith that we will have a splendid time; hope that we will find adventures along the way; and love of just being companions along the way, together, pursuing our own thoughts, rejoicing and giving thanks for every step we take. Amen! And Happy Groundhog Day!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Face Book Choices

Every so often I feel embarrassed that my Face Book photos dwell almost entirely on my dogs. I periodically change course, put up a photo I like – what I call an artsy picture – trees, candles, snow scenes – and get practically no response. A few stalwart “likes” dribble in, but when I switch back to Niko (or previously, Dover), people show up again, hitting the “like” button with wild abandon and even leaving a note or two.

 I post pictures of Niko and his friends and predecessors because I am devoted to these friends and I am gladdened by their devotion to me. I find the pictures I post funny, touching, and above all else, I believe that our relationships with our dogs provide mirrors for our own lives and behaviors, our joys, our needs, our desires, our meaning. I suspect that many of Niko’s Face Book human pals feel the same way, and photos of Niko and other dogs stir deep and possible unnamed recognition of moments they have known. Or wish for.

I just finished a reading a book called Two Dogs and a Parrot by the well-known and highly-respected spiritual writer Joan Chittister. She is a writer with a sharp eye for justice and a deft writing style that makes her one of my heroes. The chapters are devoted to Danny, a rambunctious, playful Irish setter; Duffy, a golden retriever who had been groomed for the show ring, but he grew too tall and he was relegated to an unloved section of the kennel and destined for oblivion unless he was adopted; and Lady, a colorful and jaunty bird who showed more human characteristics than I ever thought possible for a bird.

And there it is – each chapter divided into a few of the dog’s or bird’s characteristic quirks, adventures, and misadventures with reflections on a few implied human counterpart behaviors, followed by a page or two riff of related spiritual and psychological insights. Some chapter subheadings are 


  materialism,                                                         play,


  and love.

So remember this: Dogs R us. Dogs are everywhere. Love me love my dog. 

And, of course, everyone knows that dog spelled backwards is . . . .

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A walk on my birthday

"What will you do on your birthday?" she asked.

To start the day, Niko and I went on a three-and-a half mile saunter around the streets of the town. I love walking Niko; he makes stops for each person or dog we meet along the way. If he sees a likely human, he will stand his ground and stare, until she or he, dog optional, stops to greet him. Should they not pick up the signal, he watches the poor benighted suspect recede into the distance and then returns his mind and feet to our journey.

There are many sights and, for Niko, scents along the way. We amble and consider different aspects of the landscape. He prefers rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, but he was mightily confused by this rabbit tucked away under a hedge. He backed away, extended his snout to top inquiry mode, bristled, and finally responded to my commanding summons to "Leave it!" and to "Let's go!"

As he was happily sniffing away and responding to the invisible call of the wild things, we passed a small stand of mayapple in a struggling, drought-struck garden; mayapple is a poisonous plant, but a delicate one when it is in flower. There were many different kinds of hydrangea in bloom; one I thought was particularly lovely, one just plain confusing, and several others in between.

We passed idiosyncratic front-yard art, stopped to check out a Scottie, a yellow lab, a recently-shorn golden retriever, and a miniature chihuahua. 

At one point one of Niko's beloved boys from down the street drove by and called out the window of the car to us; a friend calls this boy and his brother "Niko's empire." I thought I would never get Niko past that spot, but the car turned into the schoolyard and he eventually decided he would accompany me onward.

Hostas are the national plant of our town, and we passed lots and lots of hostas in various states of decline. Hosta can be quite beautiful, and that may be why it is so widely planted, but mostly, people plant with hopes of this (see left), but in fact, what they get, is this (see right).

We turn a last corner and are reminded that life  emerges even in the most untoward places.

We arrive home to discover that the second morning glory of the season has come into bloom by the back gate. It is time for breakfast – poached egg on toast or kibble.

And that is how the day started. It was followed by BLTs for lunch and lobster rolls for supper, friends, a new squeaky toy for Niko, and much pleasure in between and all around.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Free Gifts: Part III*

When Dover died in January, unexpectedly and way too young,  I was devastated. I had always thought he would be our last dog, perfect as he was and ready to accompany us in the older lane we were already traveling; we would all grow old gracefully together. We decided we would not have another dog, and – I lived with that very rational conviction for two months. No longer did I roam the streets with a dog at the end of the leash, stopping to exchange dog lore with others out for a stroll. No more nursing home visits; no more dog classes. In fact, I didn't even go out for walks - the few times I did go out to see what it was like walking without a dog I found myself imaging my arm outstretched, with an imaginary dog setting the pace, thinking of good names for dogs. I was very lonely.

One day we woke up! Tom and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously – maybe we should think about another dog. Within the week, I mentioned it to a friend who has corgis, who talked with others in the corgi world, who knew people in the golden retriever world, who had heard that there was a year and a half dog in lower right Massachusetts in need of a new home. I emailed, talked on the telephone, and emailed some more. We arranged a visit to meet and greet, but – only to look. A friend said to himself. "Yeah - I bet. You are going to drive two hours and just LOOK at a golden retriever? I bet!"

So, Niko joined our household that day.  Golden retriever #5 for us. And what a dog. His first job on arrival home was to greet two small and curious children who came into the yard to check him out; he took one look, lay down, belly up – and lay his head in their laps; whenever he sees them, in the yard, on the sidewalk, even the middle of the not-too-busy street around the corner, he sinks to his knees, rolls over, and tells them how glad he is to see them and asks - "Where have you been all day?" When we meet other dogs on the street, he is friendly and eager to exchange dog-ID scents, even with the ones who want to shred him to bits as their owners cross the street, leading them by at top snarl but a safe distance.
Niko in visiting mode.

He is a natural visiting dog.

An unsuspecting cat asleep in the flower box.
Does he have drawbacks, things to learn? Definitely. The unguarded peanut butter and honey sandwich on the all-too-low table is mine, not his. (Too late on that one! But – he and I are both learning.) On walks, he is much too interested in stalking chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and cats (in increasing order of perceived desirability). And we have to remember, he is still an adolescent, and we need to stay out of his way when he goes into one of his maniac moments, circling the yard at top speed and with deep pleasure.

But - he is our new perfect dog. At first I felt unloyal thinking this way, but a friend pointed out – we don't get stuck in the past. Niko is our perfect dog, no apologies. In reverse order, so were Dover, Mungo II, Jonah, and Mungo I. I am so thankful that such an abundance of canine perfection has graced my life.

Where did that sudden turnaround in our mindsets come from? The swift move from a call of the head that we were too old for a new dog, to a call of the heart that there was a definite dog space in our household needing occupancy.  And - that there were people who knew people who knew people who knew people - all at the ready to help when we needed them? Chance? Coincidence? Free gift? Grace? Even . . .  amazing grace? 

Do they all mean the same thing and we just choose different words, depending on our beliefs and views? I think so. My choice is free gift, and for that, to whoever offered the gift of enlightenment, the gift of changing minds, the gift of new life, the gift of friends, the gift of taking chances, I say "Thanks."
Niko invents a new game. His entertainment value is huge.
* Free Gifts, Parts II and I:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Free Gifts: Part II

It was snowing, of course, and snowing fast and furiously, but when a torrent of snow flying by the window caught the corner of my eye because of its beyond-belief abundance, I stopped to cast a closer look. I saw two small children, neighborhood boys, working their way up our as-yet-unplowed drive. They heaved shovels full of snow to the side, into the air, onto each other, up onto the wall of accumulated snow that was taller than they were, and they were having a great time. I laughed out loud at their exuberance, their enjoyment of an often bemoaned task, and their gift to us as they rearranged the snow.

About two weeks prior, two snowstorms back, when my dog Dover was in his final illness and keeping very close to the house, I had urged him (to no avail) up the path to his old haunt by the back walk, for a change of scene for him and a hope of evidence of higher energy and a possible road to recovery for me; thus he would gladden my heart. Minutes afterwards, these same boys appeared at the back gate and asked to come in and play with Dover. Dover saw them and and immediately bounded up the path in top greeting mode, his unbridled joy overpowering any reluctance he had shown just minutes before. The boys had no idea he was ailing; they loved him and threw tennis balls for him, and he responded. 

The gift of their presence and Dover's response did indeed gladden my heart.  

Free gifts come in many guises, unbidden, and always as surprises. They reach deep down into places we sometimes forget we have and remind us that – in spite of many indications to the contrary – this is the way the world works. 

Life is short, and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.*      

*Henry Frederic Amiel