Thursday, September 21, 2017

Dogs Go Camping

Dogs go into complete decline when they see their person fiddling with clothes and suitcases, rattling keys, or, worst scenario from the dog's point of view, closing up the back room and heading for the treat supply while continuing to the door. "I'll be right back!" I always tell Niko, whether I am headed downtown for a brief errand or going to Minnesota for two weeks.  That makes me feel better, but I have no idea what he makes of it other than to know that I am going somewhere that he isn't and the floor is falling from his life.

Yesterday, I went through the first stage of this process, but then I boxed up some of Niko's food. There is no hiding the sound of kibble being transferred – and it got his attention in a twinkling. I put it into his sack, along with a few bones and tennis balls. He knew in that instant that he was going on an adventure, his mood did a u-turn, and, when the RV camper pulled up to the back gate and his friend and protege Sunny emerged to greet him, he knew life was good and he embraced it with wild abandon. The four of us got into the truck, and off we went to the sort-of-local state forest and camp grounds.

The park is only 45 minutes away, and when we got there, Deb secured the camper and Niko surveyed his new world from the top of the picnic table. Things smelled wonderfully to him, We ate (kibble and yogurt for the dogs, lobster rolls for us), and went for a walk. We had forgotten towels, so Niko and Sunny could only look longingly at the water. On our return to the site, the sun was setting and boding well for the next day. Deb made a campfire, and together we four felt happy and secure in the dark and silent forest.

Sleeping was interesting. Niko, a prodigious sleeper, took over 75% of my bunk, and promptly conked out; I did what I could. In fact, I did sleep. I heard three owls – a screech owl, a barred owl, and one that I am still trying to identify. No coyotes. No bears came knocking at our door. At 3 AM, the dogs traded bunks. I know this because I lay directly in the path of the exchange: first, I felt Niko climb over me to attain the next level up, and then Sunny took a flying leap down to my level. At 4 AM they exchanged places again, this time for the rest of the night.

The coffee was fantastic! We packed up, went for a walk, let the dogs enjoy the lake (we had found some towels), got into the truck, and set off for home.

A Celtic Blessing, adapted

Be the eye of the creator dwelling with you, 
The foot of a friend in guidance with you, 
The shower of company pouring on you,
Richly and generously,
  Each day and each night
  Of your portion of the world.

Friday, April 7, 2017

An Easter Dog

Today marks the second anniversary of our visit to Niko at his place of birth. We went to visit him on his home turf, just to take a look. As a friend said, “Yeah, Nancy and Tom are driving two hours to “just look at” a golden retriever! When we rang the bell and he ran to greet us at the door I knew in an instant that he was meant to be mine. I was worried that Tom wouldn’t be so sure, as he had favored looking for a puppy rather than adopting a full-grown dog. I encouraged Niko to hang out with Tom, and it did the trick, even though I already knew he was the dog of my life and there was no way I would leave without this beautiful dog at my side. 
So we popped him into the car and discussed new names on the two-hour drive back. He came with the name Knox, but I needed a two-syllable name to call him out the back door when it was time for supper. I was partial to the biblical J names, but Tom – not so much.  And I couldn’t quite let go of Izzie, even though the name was already claimed by a sweet boy two doors down the block. But somewhere the name Niko popped out of my memory, and that was that.

Niko adapted quickly to our household. The neighborhood kids came to greet him and helped him feel welcomed, loved, and at home.

The transition was not all smooth sailing. Later on that day Niko looked around and began to wonder when he was going home. He went on a hunger strike for a few weeks, he would not get back into the car on his own, and he showed other behaviors that I thought were due to separation anxiety. But his good nature, his idyllic puppyhood and adolescence, and our patience, tricks, and subterfuges paid off. He went back on his feed, entered the car again (but only from the left side, never the right, even to this day), and began to see our house and yard as his kingdom. He passed his canine good citizen and his therapy dog tests in short order.

Here is how Niko changes my life:

  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t be visiting people in nursing homes, some who had had vibrant lives once, and some who are alone and forgotten. People whose eyes brighten when Niko rounds the doorway to their rooms.
  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t know the kids on our block, and our neighbors would have fewer errant tennis balls in their yards.
  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t be walking 2-4 miles a day, greeting other people and their dogs.
  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t be offering students the chance to remember the dogs they left behind and taste a little bit of home as they stop and make eye and hand contact.
  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t laugh nearly as much. Studies show that the very act of smiling and laughing leads to a happier sense of the moment.
  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t have a raft of dog friends, old and new, who know exactly what I am talking about.
  • Without Niko, I would have fewer Facebook friends, different Facebook friends, fewer funny photos and videos posted by Facebook friends.
  • Without Niko, I wouldn’t be dog bait to every passing dog on the street because they know my pockets conceal (or so I thought) dog treats.
      So April 7 is Niko Adoption Day. It was two days after Easter, and he is my Easter dog.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Where is Mr. Rogers When You Need Him?

Walking downtown today to meet a friend for breakfast, I passed one of those signs that are springing up all over our town. I can read one third of the sign, and envy those who can read double or triple that.

No matter where you are from, 
          we are glad you're our neighbor.

An image of Mr. Rogers immediately sprang into my mind’s eye, Mr. Rogers, that gentle soul who brought up many generations of children with his TV show and introductory song – “Won’t you be my neighbor.”

We need Mr. Rogers now. We need gentleness, welcoming, kindness, generosity, honesty. Are these values still treasured, sought after, in this country? Today’s newspapers note that in a neighboring town, the neighbor signs are being stolen.  They also report that while the process of rounding up and deporting immigrants is escalating, the official word is that the process will be more humane than a previous plan. How so? There is an oxymoron in there somewhere.

My father’s father and mother immigrated to this country from Belgium during the time of famine and economic hardship. In fact, emigration from Belgium was even encouraged t
o ease hunger and hardship. In this country, they worked as bartenders and loom repairers and thus were able to establish themselves and their seven children comfortably into a lower economic class life style. There is very little to know about their early history, because records were not kept for poor immigrant families. Yet, to my surprise, I stumbled upon some letters, written by some of my father’s older sisters in their later, more comfortable years, deploring the fact that the neighborhood where they lived was being settled by a new wave of immigrants, possibly from the south of the US, and referring to their new neighbors in pejorative and denigrating terms; they wondered if they should move to avoid the taint of these new arrivals in their neighborhood.

How quickly we forget our previous hardships, our humble beginnings, how people already in residence mistreated our own immigrant predecessors.

I’m with the neighborhood signs. And Mr. Rogers. And my dog Niko. who is an icon for the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.* He and his friend Sunny delight in each others’ company, and, when resources are tight, find it in themselves to share the bone.

* Self-control when the plate is unguarded is, I admit, a bit of a stretch.

Lacking a better alternative, Niko and Sunny decide to share.

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 . . . .