In Praise of Dog Walks

Recently I’ve been hearing talk from various quarters that walking your dog is not something you need to do every day or even should do every day.  At first I was curious about this idea, which frankly gob-smacked me when I considered it; but pretty quickly I lost interest in the notion and the reasoning behind it, and spent much more time considering the role that dog walks have played in my life and the lives of my dogs past and present.  That produced so many memories that put a smile on my face that I’m sharing them here.

When I first got a dog, in 1989, I lived as a renter in the top half of a house in the Beverly neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago.  The house had a yard but it wasn’t fenced and the house was situated on a busy street, with my apartment on the second floor; so everything I did with that dog, a Sheltie named Briar Rose, was done on leash and as a pair.  Two years later another Sheltie, Sander, joined us and then I took two dogs out on leash to potty; walked two dogs around the neighborhood before I went to work; and in the evenings took two dogs to the big neighborhood park a few blocks away, where we met other dog owners walking their dogs. 

Fast forward three decades and many dogs:  I still live in Beverly, but now in a small house with a very big back yard, all of which is securely fenced.  I own the house, and I own five dogs.  I still walk them – all of them – every day, several times a day.  We use the very big yard quite a lot, but nothing there has replaced our daily walks in and around the neighborhood, which offer so very many things. 

Here are a few of those things.

A change of view:  Years ago, I read a dog behaviorist/trainer who said that every dog should have an opportunity to leave its own property at least once every day.  The wider world calls to dogs, just as it does to us; I am convinced of that.  My back yard is a wonderful resource, and it allows all my dogs to race around and enjoy a degree of freedom that my first Shelties didn’t have.  But *outside* of my yard is where things get really interesting:  squirrels, other dogs, people, and even CATS perambulate and go about their business, and my dogs want to know about it!  We can go for long walks, or short walks; we can drive to other spots in the neighborhood and park the car and do our walk there, a mile or so from home – it’s ALL interesting. 

My friend Liz says that her dog’s cardiologist encouraged them to keep walking as long as possible, saying that the smells are good for the dog’s brain, and the fresh air and movement is good for dog and owner alike.  A stroller was employed to help when needed.  Who wouldn’t want to go for a walk with these cuties?!

Dogs with health issues and conditions seem to look forward to and enjoy their walks as much as any other dog, maybe even more.  My friend Lynne recently lost one of her Boxer boys to degenerative myelopathy, which is a heartbreak for the owner and such a sad way to wind down for the dog; but she has memories of the walks they took regularly even when his legs had quit on him.  When you can look back and recall your dog’s ears blowing in the wind, that was a lovely walk.

An aid to personal hygiene: Two things here:  one, I am not good at trimming dog nails, either with clippers or with a Dremel.  I can do it, I just don’t want to.  And my dogs would rather I not do it.  But walking a dog on city sidewalks a couple of times a day, an average of six days per week, will wear their nails down to a reasonable length.  Some tidying up might be necessary from time to time, but by and large I happily eschew the clippers and the kong stuffed with peanut butter that never really manages to distract the dog from what I’m about.  While I’m piling up the steps on my pedometer, they’re wearing down their nails on the concrete!

Two, I have one dog who does not believe that he should poop in our yard.  I would like to think this is a matter of fastidiousness on his part, but it is not.  Let’s leave it at that.  But if we don’t do our after-dinner, end-of-day walk (a very short one, but a walk), he will go stealthily into the kitchen at night when I am sleeping, and do his business there.  It’s easier to just put the leashes on and walk the walk!

An opportunity for the group – the ‘pack’, if you will – to be on the move, in what is probably the closest approximation of a canine hunting sortie available to us nowadays.  As I said, I have five dogs:  my two Finnish Lapphunds are both 9 years old; my two Border Collies are 13 and 2 years old; and my Sheltie/Pomeranian/SharPei (really!) mix is 8 years old.  They are a family unit and the number one requirement is that they live together in my household amicably.  Some of them are good friends; some are simply roommates to the other dogs.  But they all know that we’re a family, a unit.  The social nature of dogs is such a delightful thing to observe in this context.  And when we all go for a walk, the unit is on the move, not five individual dogs.  It’s a time of making and reinforcing bonds.

Opportunity to polish social skills:  Often when we walk in the neighborhood, we see people that I know, and I’ll stop the dogs so I can talk with the neighbor.  At that time, the dogs are not allowed to amuse themselves by digging holes in the neighbor’s lawn or by eating any substance they may be curious about from the sidewalk or being restless and making a cat’s cradle of the leash by winding around the other dogs until they’re all a ball of barking.  They are required to sit or stand or lie down and be calm and observe things until I decide we will move on.  Don’t tell me this isn’t a useful skill!

And sometimes there’s something in it for them:  recently we encountered my sister, who lives down the street from me, outside of her house.  She said she had dog biscuits in her pockets and every dog who would do a down on command could have a biscuit.  This caused quite a stir in the gang!  One dog, my Lapphund Siili, allowed that even though she’s been all around this wide world and seen so many things, she didn’t know how to down on command, and could she please just have the biscuit anyway.  Of course, Siili is a pants-on-fire liar about this, and as the other dogs were getting their THIRD biscuits for successful downs, she sighed and admitted that yes, she does know how to down, and she finally got her treat.  This interlude amused the humans and rewarded the dogs; what could be better?

Socialization ho!  I want my dogs to be able to observe goings-on and passers-by with equanimity and without panic or agitation.  That’s the socialization they get; and walks are a terrific way to achieve it.  I know people who take their dogs to big-box stores for this, and frankly, I feel myself on the verge of a panic attack in a Home Depot or a Menard’s and I would never expect my dogs to handle that environment with stoic calm.  Why should they?  I’m never going to send them in to pick up 25 pounds of bird seed and a lawn chair!  But a walk – absolutely, they should be able to regard people, animals, bus and auto traffic, and commuter trains from the safety of their on-leash position next to me (and to their canine family members) without anxiety or agitation.  I know my dogs are successful at this because Rowley, my 13-year old Border Collie, does not like busy streets (bus and truck routes) and although we avoid them in general, we do sometimes have to walk a short distance on a busy street, and he takes it in stride.  His ears may be pinned back and he is not having the time of his life, but neither is he freaking out – he handles it. 

My friend Kathy has two rescue Shelties, and she says that when Carmel came to her (from a quite unpleasant hoarding situation that offered her no socialization at all as a puppy), walks were the way that Carmel learned that the world outside her house and yard is a safe place.  Similarly, my Dee, who is from the same Sheltie rescue that Kathy’s girls are from, was quite anxiety-reactive when she arrived in my home as a young dog who’d had bad experiences with humans.  We walked, and we walked, and when she saw something that distressed her, I just made sure I was between her and the person/dog/situation and we kept on walking.  Walking with the group IS a safe space for my dogs.  Like Kathy’s Shelties, they know that.  Seven years later, the only thing that gets a rise out of Dee is the sight of a cat, and that’s not anxiety reactivity, that’s her prey drive taking over!

Walks can be training opportunities, too.  A trainer friend points out that the ‘parallel walking’ exercise is almost always effective in helping dog-reactive dogs gain comfort with the process of leash walking.  If you don’t know what ‘parallel walking’ is, check it out here:

Oh, the places you’ll go!  If I didn’t walk my dogs, I wouldn’t know the song of the red-wing blackbird, or what a vernal pool is.  Here Siili samples the water in the vernal pool at the nature preserve:

I would miss out on some of the most enjoyable features of Chicago, including the lakefront walking paths in Hyde Park. 

My dog-owning friends feel the same way.  The photo below is of Max, a rescue Sheltie, with one of his owners, Michael.  Michael and his husband Mark are some of the best people I know – you meet some really good people through rescue.  They had a rescue Sheltie named Petunia, who battled cancer for a good amount of time before she left them, and she was walked in a stroller when she couldn’t do walks under her own power.  And I know they never regarded it as a chore, but as a good day because Petunia was still with them.

And here’s Bertie, a Lapphund who is owned by a trainer and lives in a condo in Hyde Park and gets plenty of walks, including the really fun ones when they visit Cape Cod every summer!  Here he is on the beach of Lake Michigan, near his home.

A walked dog is a calm dog, and maybe even a tired dog!  It’s not just the body that gets exercise on a walk, the dog’s brain is engaged too, and nothing promotes healthy tiredness like mental exercise.  Here are Kathy’s two Shelties, after a 2-mile walk, which is a good outing for them! 

Those are just some of the reasons why I love walks with my dogs.  I’ve always walked them and I hope I always will!  My dogs get a lot of enrichment in their lives:  they eat their meals from snuffle mats or treat toys or slow bowls; Mylo has two agility classes every week, while Dee and the Lapphunds each have a weekly Nosework class.    Here’s Siili, doing a search in a novel venue:

Rowley had to retire from agility last year due to the aging process taking a toll on his eyesight and back-end strength, but he gets out to herd ducks when we can.  And all my dogs have a chance to work on tricks and behaviors in an online class every Tuesday afternoon.  Dee practicing her ‘get in the basket’ here:

So even without walks, my dogs have all kinds of mental and physical challenges that they enjoy.  But there’s nothing like our daily walks.  They keep us connected to the world outside our home, and they keep us connected to each other in our family.

I get that people have reasons for not walking dogs; I get that some dogs might not want or enjoy walks the way mine have and do.  But I think of all the enrichment that my dog walks have added to my life, and I’m grateful.

Dedicated to Beau, who is gone but not forgotten, and who in true Sheltie fashion loved nothing more than a walk with his owner.  Miss you, Bobo.

Getting outside and being in nature is good for all of us.  Happy walking!

You Are Enough; You Have Enough; You Do Enough … Just BE

I have five dogs.  It’s a lot of dogs, to some; to others, it’s not so many and actually a nice-sized ‘pack.’  Being a single woman, let me tell you:  it’s a lot of dogs.  They all get along with each other to the extent possible – my two females will never form fan clubs for one another – and I manage them well in the space we have.  I love the group they form, and I love them individually.

They’re all herding-breed dogs (two Finnish Lapphunds, two Border Collies, and a Sheltie/Pom/Etc. mix) and they’re all intelligent and they all require work to do; so every week, I attend (and pay for) three agility classes; two nosework classes; and a tricks class.  It keeps me busy!  It gives shape to my week, which since I work from home, is something I value.  It gives the dogs one-on-one time with me.

And sometimes it’s just too freaking much.

This summer, the carousel slowed and came to a stop after a routine visit to my doctor during which she told me I have a heart murmur.  I’m 65.  I’ve never been told that; in fact, my cardiac health has been excellent until now.  However, my father died in his late 60s when he had a massive heart attack while out walking in our neighborhood.  So the information of my heart murmur did rock my world.  I started paying closer attention to symptoms I’d written off as ‘getting older’ or maybe ‘allergic asthma in Chicago in the summer’ and I let the fact sink in:  my heart is not working efficiently.  I have an echocardiogram scheduled for next week, as I write this.  I am hopeful that it will show the docs what’s causing the murmur; odds favor a valve issue of some kind, which would be unsurprising given my age and family history.  That could be treated effectively with meds, and I sure hope that’s what I will be told!

My eye doctor, sensing an opportunity to pile on the old lady, assured me that I am a candidate for cataract surgery and is planning to replace the lenses in BOTH my eyes.  He also has me scheduled for a glaucoma test next month.  Whoever said that getting old isn’t for sissies was 100% on the money!  I drove home from the vision center with a distinct sense that I was reeling, emotionally.

With that in the foreground, I looked at the scheduled dog classes on my calendar this week and I thought: ‘No.  Not now.’  So I drew a line through each of them, and I’ve been thinking about how important they are, in the scheme of things, to both me and my dogs.  I stopped entering my dogs in competitions a few years ago:  I know that I don’t enjoy trialing, and I know I never really did.  My ideal trial would be one given at a facility ten minutes from my house, at which I could show up for an hour or so with my dog(s) and then go home.  There are no such trials.  The effort involved in attending a trial is more than I’m willing to make.  (And don’t get me started on the dollar costs involved!)

So if I don’t trial my dogs, why do I train them – and train them to competition level?  Well, because we both enjoy it!  But I think we enjoy it up to a point, and I think I need to recognize that point now.  Having five dogs has meant that I am always doing something.  Group outings, group walks, training classes – it’s all about the dogs and activities, most days.  I don’t spend a lot of time just co-existing with them without directed interaction with them.  So I thought I’d give that a try for a few weeks, while I sort out the heart murmur thing and get everything lined up for the eye surgery.

I live in a small house with a very big back yard; my lot comprises about a third of an acre, which is not common in Chicago.  I’ve let a lot of the yard overgrow with whatever wants to grow there, so there’s a lot of dense shrubbery, a lot of self-seeded maple and mulberry trees, and a lot of birds and some urban wildlife enjoying it.  Another part of the yard is mowed twice a month and provides enough space to set up an agility course, should I want to do so.  (I don’t.)  Everything is securely fenced.  I decided that I could make more and better use of my own property to entertain and spend time with my dogs, and on doing that I found that the dogs were quite happy with that!  As anyone who has herding-breed dogs knows, if you put that dog out in a yard – even with other dogs – and leave them there, they will drift to the door or gate the way that sediment drifts to the bottom of a pool of water.  They will entertain themselves there only, paradoxically, if you are there with them.  But as I sat in the shade with my coffee and a book, they enjoyed the yard:  playing with each other, barking at things heard from the other side of the fence, investigating smells – being dogs!  Being dogs without any human being directing their activity.  I quite liked it, too.  I haven’t let this be a big enough part of our days.

It’s so easy, when you have dogs who ‘do things’, to get sucked into that doing and to make it most of what your life is with those dogs.  And I think in doing that, I was missing out on a lot, and my dogs were too.  I need my dogs to behave well as a group, but I also need my dogs to form relationships with the other dogs in the house and to build tolerance and familiarity.  The root word of that last, by the way, is ‘family’ and we are a family, first and foremost.  But the dogs need to be able to entertain and amuse themselves without my involvement, and they need to be able to interact with their family member dogs in a positive manner.  They can only do this if they’re given the space to practice it, and ‘dog time’ without being on command.

I know I enjoy dog sports and I know my dogs enjoy them too; I just don’t know the proper dosage for us right now.  I’ll discover that by trial and error, and in so doing I think I’ll discover aspects of my self and of my dogs that I haven’t been in touch with for quite a while.  I’m looking forward to it.  But obviously some changes are coming in my life, and I don’t know if I will be as involved in dog sports as I have been for the past 25 years:  I might just enjoy the company of my dogs, and the adventures of our outings and the tranquility of our time at home.  We might … just be.

It’s More Than ‘Just a Number’ …

My Border Collie Rowley is now somewhere past the 12-year mark and he is aging out of agility, and this is hard for me to accept.

Not like I can change anything about it, mind you, but it will take some getting used to.

I adopted Rowley from a Border Collie rescue group in January 2010 when he was probably 10 months old.  Maybe a few months older, but 10 months seemed like a good guess.  Rowley had shown up in the intake pen of a shelter in Hancock County, in western Illinois, in October 2009; there wasn’t any record of his surrender, so he might have been just dumped there.  He was a young dog, a puppy of about 6 or 7 months, it was estimated.  When his stray hold was up, the rescue group pulled him, got him on a transport and he went to a foster home, which saved his life – you know the saying about rescuing and fostering saving lives?  It’s true.  Every day.

I had been approved as an adopter by the rescue group a few months earlier, and I was considering adopting a Border Collie for the first time ever.  My Sheltie who was my current agility dog was nearing retirement:  at age 9, she had arthritis in one elbow that limited her mobility in the sport and caused her noticeable discomfort.  I wanted to keep on in a dog sport I very much enjoy, and I thought a BC would be a good dog with which to do that.  So I went to meet Rowley at his foster home in mid-January 2010, and I liked him immediately.  I had only owned Shelties, and a senior rescue Finnish Lapphund, up to that point, and a young BC was, well, something else!  Not that Rowley was crazy or hyper-active; he wasn’t.  From day one, he has been a dog who settles very well in the house, and who matches his energy level to the activity of the day.  The day after I brought him home, I took him to the training center where I had been taking agility classes for the last four years, so he could meet the instructor.  We both thought he would suit, and he started class the following week.

After a couple of years of weekly classes there, I added a weekly class at another training facility for him, so that he could see different equipment and be comfortable in more than one environment.  What a change it was to run Rowley after running Shelties in agility – it really was like going from driving a Mini Cooper to driving a Maserati!  I loved my Shelties, and certainly they were very biddable, but in Rowley, I found a dog who was intelligent, energetic, athletic, and would work as much as I asked him to.  It was a revelation!

When I started in the sport of dog agility, in the early 1990s, it was rather different than it was now.  The art of handling was not yet developed, and it was pretty typical to run the course alongside your dog, directing it over each obstacle – kind of a ‘station to station’ way of doing the course.  Today, a friend tells me she has five different words to tell her dog what KIND of turn to make on the course; back then there wasn’t even an ‘around’ command, I don’t think.  The sport was in its infancy.  By the time I brought Rowley to class, it was more advanced, but my approach was still pretty basic.  I’m too linear to be comfortable with spatial visualization stuff, but Rowley learned quickly, and learned what I meant with my hand signals and verbal cues.  He learned to do what felt right to him, so he made me look like a better handler than I was.  He still does that.    

In his young years, we did some work on sheep, and I am pretty sure that his work of choice would have been that; but I couldn’t afford the time or the money to continue with it, so agility became his work, and he accepted that.  For eleven years now, he has done agility regularly, probably 50 weeks out of 52.  I once calculated that just in agility classes, he ran 300 courses a year.  We trialed a bit when he was younger, but the great majority of his agility time has come in classes.  And we have been blessed – I can’t think of it any other way – with his durability and good health.  His diet has always been excellent, and from the day I adopted him he has seen a chiropractor for dogs on a regular basis, which certainly helped him handle the physical demands of the sport.  I didn’t do the conditioning exercises that are now so prevalent, but he has always had a lot of off-leash exercise in open areas, and I think that helped him keep fit, too.

Have you ever watched a slow-motion video of a dog running an agility course?  You ought to – go to YouTube and find one and watch it.  It’s incredible, what their bodies do in the 40-60 seconds they are running.  Truly incredible.  When I consider that my dog has done that 300 times per year for more than eleven years, I’m staggered.

Last year Rowley started showing indications that his vision is becoming impaired.  His vet says that his depth perception is not very good anymore; this seems to be a normal consequence of the aging process.  He has trouble finding the entrance to a tunnel, now, particularly if the tunnel is a dark color and the contrast is not very sharp.  Twice in the past 10 months he has put a foot wrong, betrayed by his vision, when he was on the ascent of the dog-walk.  Neither time did he injure himself, but after the second occurrence (last week), I realized he should not do the dog-walk again.  He could too easily get hurt.  I’ve already lowered his jump height in the last couple of years, from the 20” he had to jump in competition to 16” and then to 12”.  Agility isn’t about jump height, and his shoulders don’t need that pounding.  But even with those adjustments, he occasionally slips on the artificial turf, and I realize that I’m running an old dog.

Don’t misunderstand me:  he’s not old in the sense that I expect him to not be around next year; but he most assuredly IS old in agility years.  My last agility Sheltie barely made it to 9 years of age on the course, and Rowley, a larger dog, is already well past that.  He’s old the way that I, at 65, am old:  yes, we certainly have vital years ahead of us, but neither of us can do things that we could do when we were half our current ages.  It’s foolish to pretend otherwise.  So when people say ‘oh, he’s not old!’ as I mention his aging out of agility, I am annoyed and I want to say to them ‘yes, he IS, and don’t deny him the respect that comes with that status!  He’s earned the right to be referred to as ‘old’ in agility terms; it’s not a way of disparaging him!’

It makes me sad, though.  As I said, I can’t do a damn thing about it – and no, I’m not going to see if canine testosterone supplements are the solution – but I have that ‘end of an era’ feeling and those are always bittersweet.  I have a young BC who will probably be a stellar agility dog, and already in classes he’s a lot of fun; but what I had with Rowley is something I won’t have again, and that’s the realization of possibilities I hadn’t dreamed of.  With Mylo, my youngster, I have a very good idea what he can do and how to get him there; with Rowley, I had no idea what he could do, until he showed me what we could do.  And even if we’re doing only a little bit of that now, we’ll keep on doing it for as long as he wants to be there, on the course, turning my garbled directions into the beautiful execution of a course.  Best boo-dog ever, and congratulations on being an old agility dog, you excel at that too!

Therapy Dogs: Could We Do It Better?

Several years ago, I saw a poster asking pet owners if they wanted to join a local program in which their dogs would be ‘therapy dogs’ and participate in ‘animal-assisted therapy’ that often involved visiting schools, hospitals, and other venues where the dog would meet, greet, and sometimes entertain the residents of that venue. 

I had been looking for some kind of work or pastime for Dee, my mixed-breed girl, so I signed up for the training classes, and after about six hours of the class time, she passed the test and was accepted into the program.  (This program is entirely local, and their certification is not the exam offered by the national therapy dog organizations.)  The training was loosely modeled on the Canine Good Citizen exam, and I have taken quite a few of my dog through the CGC exam, so I was familiar and comfortable with Dee’s classes.  The training methods were positive, with the occasional exception of a recommended collar correction; since Dee is enormously food-motivated, I can get her attention and if necessary bait her through just about anything, so I didn’t use the collar correction. 

After passing the certification test, we went to a number of programs as observers, as the rules required.  I think I started to see, then, some of the things that would come to bother me a great deal, but I was happy to be doing this with Dee and I didn’t look too closely at my scruples.  We finished the observation phase of training and asked to be assigned to a high school in a nearby suburb where the students were dealing with emotional or behavioral issues.  Every other week, we spent an hour there and different groups of teenagers interacted with the group’s dogs.  It was a rather unfocused program:  the organization wanted dogs to be able to perform tricks, which they would use when visiting children and seniors in hospitals, but that didn’t seem like enough for the teenaged kids in the high school program.  What were we supposed to be doing?  I asked, no one knew the answer.  I’m a compliance officer and my default behavior is ‘train them!’, so I suggested we train the kids in how to interact with dogs.  I started showing the students how to elicit certain behaviors from Dee with cues and rewards, and some of them were very good at it.  We had fun with that!

Most of the students in the program were from neighborhoods where dogs have at worst been weaponized, and in general are viewed as dangerous.  The program volunteers did several instructional sessions on how to avoid confrontations with dangerous dogs – and heard quite a few stories from the students of dogs they knew who had bitten people, or people they knew who had been attacked by dogs – but after that, the program seemed to stumble to a halt again.  One of the other volunteers spent several sessions showing the students how to brush and groom her Yorkie-Poo.  Watching this, I thought through an alternate educational module, which I then presented to the organization, called the RESPECT program.

Routine:         Dogs like a routine, where things like meals, walks, and bedtime happen every day at about the same time. Routines make dogs feel secure and comfortable in their homes.

Exercise:        All dogs need some amount of exercise daily. On-leash walks are one form of daily exercise. In a fenced yard, you can also play fetch or other games that allow your dog to run around.

Space:            All dogs need space, and all dogs are bothered by being crowded. Never force your dog to meet people or other dogs. Never let anyone grab your dog or bring another dog right up to your dog’s face.

Play:         Dogs learn through playing.  You can teach your dog good manners, and even tricks, by playing with them and rewarding the behaviors you want.  Set aside some time every day to play with your dog.

Exposure:     Dogs need to be exposed to things outside their houses and yards, but not in ways that make them feel frightened or overwhelmed.  Take your dog one new place every month, and take plenty of treats with you to reward your dog’s good behavior!  Your dog should be on leash for all outings.

Calmness:      Your dog needs you to be calm and not use loud or angry tones of voice to him. Negative emotions are very upsetting to dogs, making them anxious and fearful. Be calm around your dog.

Time:             Most of all, your dog needs your time. Owning a dog is a commitment of the time that it takes to care for and work with the dog.  Dogs can’t play video games, they need you to interact with them for some time every day.

I could develop every one of those topics into a multi-week training module.  In fact, I wanted to do that!  I thought it would be fun, and the kids would enjoy it!  But I wasn’t particularly surprised when the proposal went nowhere.  By that point, I’d seen enough to realize that I was in a bureaucracy, where the existing forms and routines were prized by the people who kept them going.  The Yorkie-Poo’s owner was offered the Group Leader position of the high school visitation program.  I took a break to attend to matters relating to my mom’s serious health issues.  Dee stopped doing her visits – I felt badly about that.

After maybe six months, I e-mailed the program and asked to be put back on the active participant list.  Dee had to renew her certification, so I drove her up to the North Shore to the program’s headquarters and we went through an exam similar to the one at the conclusion of her initial training.  She passed and we were approved to return to visits.

But the high school program had fallen apart for lack of participants, so I put Dee in a program where the dogs visit the developmentally disabled students of a grade school in a nearby suburb.  That was a very different experience and Dee was at first unsure what to make of it, but with more visits she relaxed and grew to enjoy seeing some of the kids who were able to pet her and talk to her a bit.  On any given day, quite a few of the children weren’t interactive or communicative, and we never knew what the sessions would look like.  In addition to that, I was offered a spot in a Read To Rover program at a suburban library, and I accepted that. 

The library program was for children ages 7 through 12, and the format was simple and straightforward:  the kids would come in to the room that the library had provided for the program, would select a book, and would take it to one of the ‘reading stations’ where a program volunteer and dog waited.  The child would then read the book to the dog.  There have been many, many studies that show this ‘read to a dog’ format helps children develop reading skills and confidence, and I thought it was a wonderful program.

Dee thought it was B-O-R-I-N-G.  She wanted to do something!  She wanted pets!  And treats!  She was willing to work for them, but she was expected to just LIE there like a stuffed animal, she complained to me.  I saw her point.  I wondered how to remedy this, so she would like the program more.  But while I wondered, the option of her liking the program at all ceased to exist.  One evening a couple came into the reading room with their two children.  One, a girl about 7, was in the program; the other, a boy of about 18 months, clearly was not.  I was later told that the program rules prohibit children younger than 7 being around the dogs, but no one told this couple that on the evening when all hell broke loose.  While one parent sat with the 7-year old girl who was reading, the other parent attempted to rein in the toddler, who was very active.  And obnoxious.  More than once, the toddler and attendant parent were told to not touch the dogs.  Dee, who had had her ear grabbed very painfully by a disabled child in the other school the week before this, was eyeing the toddler warily at first, and then with animosity.  When he reached out again for her head, I put my hand down and said to the child ‘NOT her head, leave alone!’  Less than a minute later, he grabbed for her head again and this time Dee, with a scream that would have done a banshee proud, launched herself at the child’s face.

If I had it on video, it would be a textbook illustration of how a dog issues a warning.  No part of Dee made contact with the child, but her lips were drawn back showing all her teeth, and she was eye to eye with the little boy as she shrieked at him to leave her alone.  Knowing Dee, I’m sure the language would have been pretty blue if it had been English.  And now the parents, who hadn’t been controlling their child, were freaking out and the program people were freaking out and I was grabbing my dog and thinking ‘we need to get out of here, this is BS’ and when the dust had settled, we were out in the parking lot headed for our car and there had been a pretty spectacular FINIS written to our career in the therapy organization.

I back my dog one hundred percent, and I did from the instant it happened.  She did not bite the child.  She gave him one of her most unambiguous and emphatic LEAVE ME ALONE messages and she had every right to do so.  She was in no way wrong or even ill-mannered.  Shame on the parents for ignoring the safety rules of the reading program.  Shame on the library admin for letting them flout those rules.  Shame on the therapy organization people for not calling a halt to the program that evening because of that failure.  They set my dog up for an unpleasant event, and they set that child up to be traumatized by the consequences of their failures.

For some time afterward, I was too shaken by the events of that evening to think anything of it other than ‘thank goodness we’re out of that program, never again!’  But then I started to think of all the other things about that program that had bothered me, and to wonder if this is really what ‘animal assisted therapy’ should look like.  They never showed the slightest interest in educating the people that the dogs visited about dog behavior, dog care, or dog/human interaction.  The assumption was that the dog should accept any behavior the humans chose to inflict on it, and should be ‘bomb-proof’ enough to not react to it if it happened to be really stupid behavior.  Hey, how about not letting people do that to the dogs?!  We were told in training that people would want to hug our dogs, so our dogs should learn to tolerate that.  I call bullshit on that:  some dogs love being hugged, others will do anything to avoid it.  Why can’t you say to the hospital patient or the school student, ‘Dogs are nervous about hugs, but you can pet Rover like this’ and demonstrate a better approach?  Train the dogs to deliver teddy bears to the patients or students; they can hug those!  There are SO MANY WAYS to achieve the goal of making the humans better equipped to meet dogs; why was that absolutely outside the realm of consideration?

Now, of course, with COVID 19, the therapy group activities are on hold.  I don’t have any interest in the group and will never return to that form of activity for any of my dogs, but I shake my head at their short-sightedness and entrenched bureaucracy that keeps them from moving out of the 1970s and into the current age of amazing advances in dog training and behavioral studies.  I wonder if there are other animal therapy programs that do it better; I hope so, for everyone’s sake.

A Goodbye to My Best Boy

I used to own Shelties.  They were the first dogs I ever had, when I discovered dogs in the late 1980s, and for many years, they were the only breed I owned.  I had Shelties from pet stores, Shelties from breeders, Shelties from rescues.  Until I adopted a rescue Finnish Lapphund in 2009, it was all Shelties, all the time, at my house.

Beau passed away this week:  he was the last of my Shelties, and truly a bright light in that firmament.  When my Border Collie, Rowley, was about 3 years old, and all my other dogs at that time were seniors, I decided Rowley could use a canine companion of his own age, so we went to look at the available dogs in Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue.  It was a nice summer afternoon and the big fenced yard was full of Shelties, as it always is; there were two who seemed like candidates to come home with me and Rowley.  One was a sable boy with a very nice head that spoke to some good breeding in his unknown background; he had been picked up stray in another state and made his way to Illinois.  He was maybe 3 years old and was called Sonny.  The other was a 4-year old tri-color whose owner had gone into a nursing home, putting her Sheltie, Bogey, into rescue.  Sonny caromed around the yard, demanding the other Shelties play with him.  Bogey made his way over to me and sat in my lap.  ‘That one might be kind of a handful,’ the rescue director said, nodding at Sonny.  Well then.  ‘I’ve got a 3 year old Border Collie, my hands are already full,’ I said.  We took Bogey home with us and changed his name to Beau.


Even at the time, I could see that Beau was dazzled by Rowley.  He wanted to be with Rowley, and he wanted to be with me, and everything else was fine with him so long as he was with his BC and his person.  He liked the other dogs in the house just fine, but he loved Rowley.  He raced after him in a game in the yard that involved me kicking the soccer ball for Rowley and Beau barking at him – that was pretty much the entire game!  Rowley was fine with it, and seemed to enjoy having Beau along on our walks, outings, and games, so they became pals.

cal R and B

Beau also fit well into the household.  He was a perfect gentleman who displayed good manners at all times; he walked nicely on a leash; he didn’t quarrel with any other dogs; and if he wasn’t hanging around with Rowley, he was napping at my feet.  It was as if his wish, on finding himself in rescue, had been granted:  he had a home, a family, security and love, fun outings, and good health – and he knew he was a fortunate dog.  Even the small vicissitudes of life didn’t dim his happy gleam:  he once cut a back leg open to the ligament, and didn’t utter a peep as I, white-faced, rushed him up to the vet clinic where they rushed him into surgery and sutured it up.  He bore the obligate dental surgeries that are a Sheltie’s lot in life stoically.  He never refused a walk or a hike at the local nature preserve, where he and Rowley and Alex were allowed to be off-leash and explore the most wonderful things, the most disgusting things, the most vile things that were perfect for rolling in hurriedly before your owner saw you and shouted at you to get out of there!  An outing was followed by a nap, and a nap by a meal, and so went Beau’s days, in a canine equanimity that was comforting to see.  Rescue dogs came and rescue dogs went and Beau stuck close to Rowley and life was good.

the gang

I knew Beau was not a well-bred Sheltie and I knew this affected more than his conformation and dentition, but I was completely surprised by the first seizure, in January 2019.  Beau had just turned eleven.  It happened late one evening, and I, not having dealt with seizures in a dog (or in any form, for that matter) wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was a seizure.  It was.  Our vet weighed in and presented the probabilities:  in senior dogs, the onset of seizures is unlikely to indicate epilepsy and very likely to indicate a brain lesion or tumor.  Some other causes, related to organic failures, were ruled out by blood tests.  The brain lesion/tumor hypothesis could be confirmed by a consult with a neurologist, but at a really (to me) staggering cost:  thousands of dollars to answer a question without providing any solutions or remedies.  I decided to pass.  Over the next few months, as we tinkered with the Keppra dose and tried adding in Prednisone (with great benefit), the vet and I became comfortable with the tentative diagnosis of cancer somewhere in the brain.  It was something I didn’t want to look at directly, actually:  if I only glanced at it occasionally and increased the meds after a seizure, or added a Chinese herb combo that helped control seizures in canines, I could keep my dog – that’s what it felt like, anyway.  Beau continued to lead his happy, active, balanced life.  At one point he had a stretch of almost four months with no seizures, which was wonderful.  I knew the ‘thing’ wasn’t going away, but I had slowed cancer in another Sheltie, my Sander, and I guess a small part of me thought I could slow this, too, and give Beau the chance to die of an age-related malady before the monster got him.

So time went on, and Beau showed the effects of aging and of the disease and of the meds he was on:  he became bloated from the Pred, and his respiration got raspy, and he tired easily in warm weather.  Still, he was right at my feet when the dogs and I settled down in the living room every evening.  He still went on the long walks at the nature preserve, until earlier this summer those became too much for him.  That was a sad day for me.  I kept looking for him and he wasn’t there.


And in April, the seizures went from bad to vicious.  I was shocked by the violence of them, and by the frequency:  he had one about every four weeks now.  And his recovery from them was slower and less complete every time.  I started to see behavior that seemed to indicate mental deficiencies and confusion, although as our vet pointed out, we couldn’t tell if the seizures or the disease caused it.  Beau reached a new stage in his deterioration, and I know that if I had seen this Beau next to the healthy Beau of two years ago, I would be shocked by the change; but it was so gradual and Beau so faithful to our routines, that I didn’t notice the full extent of it – until another seizure would occur.

The final seizure, on Monday night (August 3), was more than any dog should have to endure, and I carried Beau out to the car and we drove to the emergency vet clinic.  I am very thankful that I was able to be there and bid him farewell and make his death peaceful.  It was one of the hardest partings I have ever had, and I’ve owned a lot of dogs and sent many of them to the Bridge.

But I also keep finding myself repeating this:

Vintage Motivational Quote Poster. Don't Cry Because It's Over S

It did happen!  I had the best dog!  Beau never ‘did’ anything, he had no titles and wasn’t a performance or sport dog, he was just my dog, and that was enough for both of us.  He’ll be my dog forever, because we both agreed to that.  That’s pretty rare!

I had the vet at the emergency clinic cut a tuft of hair from Beau’s ruff, and the next day, on our walk at the nature preserve, the other dogs and I stopped by a bench on the west shore trail, and I let the wind carry the hair into the brush and woods.  I can feel Beau’s presence in several places, and the preserve is one of them.  Now when we pass that spot on our walks, I stop and say hi to Beau.  I wish he could be with us physically, and there’s no doubt he is too soon gone, but he’s still my best boy, and Rowley and I are still his lodestars.

How lucky we are, the three of us.

My heartfelt thanks to my friend, the artist Nana Nishigaki, for this drawing of the two amigos.  This too makes me smile.


And another thank you to the talented amateur photographer who took this photo of Beau one day last winter at the preserve.  I’m so glad to have this.

Goodbye, Peekaboo, and the End of an Era

The remaining Merle Girl has gone:  Peekaboo died on June 11 of this year, and the character of my dog family has changed.  Not because Peeks was a personality or a force in the household, but because she wasn’t.

Let me explain.  I’ve written about the Merle Girls before, and about the third canine ‘charity case’ in my home, Charlie Bear.  I took all three in when they were seniors – about 12 years old for Charlie, and 12 years old as represented by their breeder for the Merle Girls, who were apparently littermates.


I’d taken in quite a few senior dogs before that:  I started in 2000, when a neighbor left Angus, a 10-year old Sheltie, in my care and never returned (I knew it was a dump when it happened and was happy to have Angus, who was a sweet little guy).  Later I took in other Shelties:  Rudy, an entirely delightful character who fit in with my crew wonderfully; and Good Guy, who just needed a place to nap away his last years; and Banjo, who made me laugh with his enormous enthusiasm for life in my pack; and Irwin, who went for walks with us and squeaked his toy vigorously in the back yard until his heart gave out.  I adopted a 9 year old Finnish Lapphund, Heikki (Mike), who introduced me to the breed, which I love, and to chronic tick disease, which I loathe.  All those dogs were cherished family members and all of them had good times with me and with my own dogs then in residence, from Sander to Sunny, Pippi, and Shiri, and Rowley and Beau.

Charlie and the Girls were a whole different category of adoptees, and if I realized it at the time, I certainly didn’t know how that difference would manifest in my house and my dog family.

For one thing, the three of them were probably unadoptable as pets.  Charlie was a Pomeranian cross – the rescue thought Pom x Sheltie, and although I never saw any Sheltie in that guy, I’m pretty bad at guessing breeds.  Charlie was found on the streets in New York – Brooklyn, I think – and he was blind from untreated KCS (keratoconjunctivitis sicca), and he was a train wreck, structurally, and most of all, he was a crabby SOB of a dog, even when he was enjoying himself.  He wasn’t about to join any group, and he had no use for any of my dogs; once he communicated that, they returned the sentiment wholeheartedly.  For a while I blamed myself for not making a more hospitable environment for Charlie, but that was nonsense.  Charlie would have been Grumpy McGrumpypants anywhere he landed.  He didn’t want to bond with me, either; he didn’t want to be petted, he didn’t want company, he wanted you to put the food bowl down and then get lost.  Because he was a determined, resilient little dog, this was sort of amusing, but I never developed any kind of bond with Charlie, and I provided him with room and board and kept him safe without enjoying his company, or he mine.

The Merle Girls were bred by a hoarder and they were not well bred.  (Shocker, eh?)  Posey was a sweetie, and the more ‘normal’ of the two, in that she could interact with people and enjoyed their company.  She had been bred who knows how many times, and was still intact when she came to me; the rescue vet wasn’t keen to do spay surgery on a bitch who had encapsulated mammary tumors that likely were malignant.  So she remained unspayed, which became a feature of her relationship with one of my dogs, and occasionally she and Alex would go off into the underbrush in the back yard and play Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin.  This wasn’t something I liked at all.  It encouraged Alex’s marking (in the house!), and generally wasn’t conducive to a harmonious ‘pack.’  I took to keeping the Girls separate from the other dogs most of the time.

And Peekaboo – how to describe Peeks?  I have never met a Sheltie like her before and I hope I never do again.  Peeks had the flattest affect of any dog in my experience, and her range of emotions went from terror to mild anxiety.  I’m serious.  She had virtually no normal dog reactions, she sought no interactions, she was comfortable only with her sister.  I’d say it was heartbreaking but really it was infuriating, because it was so clearly due to truly awful breeding, compounded by the most unenriched environment possible.  I don’t know the hoarder who surrendered Peeks and Posey, but when I learned last year that she had died, I was relieved – for the dogs who would be spared the miserable lives that she provided.  Hoarding is a mental illness, or an aspect of one, of course.  How I hate to see animals pay the price for human problems like that.  At first, friends who had successfully rehabbed Shelties from mills and hoarders, Shelties who had pronounced kennelosis, suggested things to try with Peekaboo to get her out of her emotional corner of fear.  Maybe if Peeks had been younger, some of those things would have had results, but she was 12 when she landed in my house, and the window of opportunity had slammed shut long ago.

In May of this year, Peekaboo was doing poorly and an x-ray showed a tumor on her lung.  Three weeks later, she collapsed and it was clear that she had nothing left, so we made the trip to the vet clinic for the euthanasia visit.  She followed her sister and Charlie into the Great Beyond, and I went home to a changed house:  no more boarders.  It feels different.  Truth:  it feels better.  I’m glad I was able to provide care for Charlie, Posey, and Peeks, but I wish they could have had more – their lives, even in my house, were not lives I would want for any of my dogs.  People did badly by those three, and that saddens me.

Right now, I have five dogs:  Rowley (rescue BC) is 10; Beau (rescue Sheltie) is 11; Alex and Siili (Finnish Lapphunds) are both 6; and Dee (rescue Sheltie mix) is probably 7.  Beau has serious health issues, and has signs consistent with a brain lesion or tumor.  (I don’t want to pay the enormous sum for a complete neuro workup, which would answer questions but change nothing.)  He’s doing well on anti-seizure meds, but the prognosis isn’t good.  I will have a hard time when Beau goes:  from the day he came over and sat in my lap, in the rescue director’s big back yard, I have loved this little guy, and he has been an integral member of my dog family.  I am sorry that he probably won’t get those ‘old dog’ years that so many before him have enjoyed here, and that I hope Charlie and the Girls enjoyed in their own way.

I’ll always adopt rescues, but I don’t want any more boarders.

Charlie Bear came in the spring of 2014; the Merle Girls arrived in the summer of 2015.  Looking back, I think I did expect them to become family members, but they never did.  They remained boarders for the time they had here, and it was good time:  Posey died (probably of cancer) in May 2018, Charlie died (of old age) in October 2018, and Peekaboo died (of cancer) in June 2019.  While they were here, they received excellent care in every way, but they simply weren’t members of my family.  I don’t know that they would have been members of any family.  I think with dogs like that, the best solution for their later years is a senior sanctuary.  I wish there were more such organizations.  I donate to the ones I know about, and I hope you will too.  Not every senior dog can be a pet, but every senior dog deserves comfort and ease in its last years.  Here are some places you can help make that happen.

Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary:

Silver Muzzle Cottage:

House With A Heart:

Forever Loved:

Grand Paws Senior Sanctuary:

Wise Tails Senior Dog Sanctuary:



Take it off — take it all off!

You’d think someone who has owned Shelties for 30 years would be able to groom a dog.  And you’d be right – if by ‘dog’ you meant ‘Sheltie or any breed of lesser coat.’  My Shelties were often rumpled, disheveled, and happily unkempt, but I could and did bathe and brush them regularly.  It wasn’t until I got a Finnish Lapphund that I met my Waterloo in that area.

A lot of people tell me that they enjoy brushing their dogs.  They say it’s relaxing, for them and for the dogs.  They say things like ‘Oh, I just watch tv for an hour or two and brush Fido at the same time’ – they make it sound like knitting, or some other pastime that engages the hands and produces beautiful results.

I’m not one of those people.  I don’t like brushing my dogs and I never have.  I like to have my dogs clean, with their coats in good order, but if it requires more than minimal effort, I’m not the person to call on for that effort.  I wondered about this, recently … I have done plenty of things that were time-consuming, that required patience and precision, and I enjoyed doing them.  Years ago, I would spend hours with a dear friend (now deceased) and the two of us would smoke cigarettes, drink iced tea, and work on counted cross-stitch projects.  Finicking and precise work, but I loved it.


So why can’t I bring that mind-set to dog grooming?  After all, I mocked myself, it’s not like you ever had a bad grooming experience!  And then I realized that yeah, I had.  I developed my aversion to this form of personal hygiene through my childhood experience of my own grooming!

Until I was in the third or fourth grade, I had long hair.  Waist-length long hair.  My mother wasn’t about to let a 7-year old child run around with hair that long blowing in the breeze, and so every morning she would corral me, stand me in the dining room, and brush out my long hair and plait it into two braids.  My kindergarten picture (Kohn School, fall of 1960), which thankfully has been lost in the mists of time, shows an apple-cheeked little Dutch girl with glossy dark hair in two braids, which have been looped up and tied with colored ribbons near the ears.  The stern, uncompromising line of bangs across my forehead speaks wordlessly to the intention of the hairdresser to be done with this chore and on to others.  That was exactly how my mom approached our daily ordeal.  She had a husband to get off to work and three daughters to get off to school, and all she wanted was to get my hair in order and get me out the door with my schoolbooks and signed field-trip slip.  All I wanted was to be able to cut my hair.

This is why I don’t believe my dogs enjoy being brushed.  How can they – I hated it!

When I adopted a Finnish Lapphund in 2009, his coat was unlike any Sheltie coat I’d ever encountered.  I found a groomer nearby and three time a year, Heikki (Mike) would spend the afternoon with Rose.  Mike had ehrlichiosis, and he was 10+, so he tired easily and Rose, the groomer, would work on him for a bit, then put him in a kennel in the drying room, and work on him again a bit later.  Mikey never seemed unsettled by his visits to Rose, and he came home looking and smelling wonderful.  When I let his coat go and didn’t get him to Rose in time, he looked like a lumpy quilt.  But when he spent the afternoon with Rose, he looked lovely!


But when Mikey passed on, and Alex joined my family, I had a heck of a time getting his grooming needs in hand.  I assumed Mikey’s groomer would now be Alex’s groomer, and that would have been the case but for an unfortunate wiggle incident at one appointment that resulted in Alex’s scrotum being nicked by the clippers.  Any thought that he would willingly return to the scene of THAT crime was soon banished, and I started the search for another groomer.  One very nice woman was an hour’s drive from me; that got old pretty quickly.  The next salon was caught up in a kerfuffle on social media when a day-care customer alleged that the salon owners had put a shock collar on her dog, to curb its barking.  Ugh.  I didn’t schedule further appointments there.  I found a very local groomer who did a great job, but who also made me feel that my neglect of Alex’s coat should be reported to PETA, or maybe DCFS, and all my dogs rehomed to more caring owners.  Not up for a serving of guilt with my grooming bill, thanks.

Then I went into the “I Can Do This Myself” phase, which lasted about 18 months.  I assembled the tools, even buying a very nice dryer, and dedicated a space in the house to the project, and declared that I would get Alex’s coat into the condition it should be in.  It was rather like a person with $150K in credit-card debt announcing that NOW she can live on $10 a day, just you watch!  In other words, delusional.  The tools are the right tools, but I don’t wield them.

Thank goodness, a friend responded to my kvetching about this recently by calling her groomer, and making an introduction, and I then made a grooming date at that shop in a nearby suburb.  The groomer, who is around my age, had definitely seen and done a thing or two, and she introduced herself to Alex, sweet-talked him for a bit, and then plunged her hands into his coat.  “What you have here,” she said, “is a year – more than a year, maybe two years – of old coat.  It has to come out.  And then he has to come in once a season so it doesn’t get like this again!”

And come out it did.  I returned to collect Alex that afternoon, and when I saw his back end, I said “ack!”, or something along those lines.  The groomer shrugged.  “Had to come out,” she said, “but it will grow back.”  I made a return date for 3 months in the future and took my clipped Lapphund home.

alex clipped

Since then, I have not only made my peace with Alex’s abbreviated coat, I have grown to love it.  I doubt I want to keep it quite this short, but I know I want some form of a clip done on him at least twice a year, and I know I want to keep the hair on his belly and underside clipped very close.  It’s so much easier!  When he goes tearing through the high grass at the nature preserve, and digs under the leaf mold in the woods there, and wades into the mud-bottom lakes, it’s so much easier to remove the evidence of that from his reduced coat.  We’re both happier.  I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I am not able to groom my dogs, and I’m glad to know that there are people who will do it for me.  And to those lovely people I say, don’t spare the clippers!  It will always grow back!


Our No-Good Very Bad Horrible Day; Also, Why I Hate Trialing

February 23, 2019 —  Updating with accurate, albeit belated, info…
Someone was kind enough to collect my scoresheets from the NACSW trial on February 16 and deliver them to me, and from them I learned a couple of pretty significant (to me) things:

Yes, we NQ’ed in Exteriors when Alex marked in the search area.  It is what it is.  Dogs who indulge their love of odor through marking as well as sniffing are at risk for that NQ.

In Vehicles, we actually passed and got a Q!  There was indeed only one hide, and Alex found it.  I am, as promised, very surprised.

In Interiors, we passed two of the three rooms!  Yes, he false-alerted in room one, but room two was a Clear room — the first I’ve encountered in NW3 trials — and with no alerts, and my calling ‘finish’ with less than a quarter of a second on the clock, we got it.  I’m going to pretend it was more than inadvertent and take pride in passing a Clear room.  Good job, Alex!

Also in Interiors, we found both hides in room three, so we passed two of the three rooms.

I pulled him from Containers, so that was a scratch.

Over all, not a great score, but my dog worked REALLY well under the circumstances.  Yes, those circumstances include the fact that I didn’t like the trial site and I was driven nuts by the wait times and the logistics of the running order (WTF was that starting dog #8 shit, anyway; it should have been dogs #1 and #18 starting — okay, never mind) — but Alex was a STAR!  Yes he was!



February 16, 2019

Alex has come very close to getting his Nosework 3 (NW3) title from the National Association of Canine Scentwork (NACSW), but today he took a giant step … backward.

It was an interesting day.

The trial site was about 30 miles from me, so a 40-minute drive.  I got up at 5 am so I would have time to take all the dogs out for a decent walk before breakfast; it didn’t make up for the fact that they were to spend the day alone, and that is one of the biggest reasons I dislike trialing a dog:  the other dogs sit home alone.  I have a petsitter who comes in and gives them a break and some cookies but still …

I put Alex in the car at 7.05 am and headed off for the trial site.  When we got there, the parking area was one of the least attractive spots I’d seen in a while.  This matters, because at NACSW trials, you crate in your car.  I did a NW trial at Alpine Valley once, and it was a beautiful venue on a perfect spring day, a pleasure to sit in a lawn chair on the grass next to my car, with Alex in his travel crate beside me; and I guess I think all NW trials ought to have that combination of great weather and delightful environment.  Ha.  Today’s parking lot looked like something found in an Eastern Bloc country in the 1970s, and Chicago’s February weather was happy to add insult to injury.  With temps in the upper twenties, I was not only crating in my car, I was sitting in my car with the engine running for a good part of the day.  Lovely!

And this is a big deal because of the pace of NACSW trials.  There are 35 dog-and-handler teams entered, and two judges.  Interiors, in NW3, comprises three separate rooms/searches.  So one judge is assigned to Interiors, and that generally takes up his/her entire day; the second judge will run two searches back to back – today it was Exteriors and Vehicles – but even so, that moves faster than the molasses-in-January production that is Interiors.

On checking in, at 7.50 am, I found that Alex and I were number 28.  Ugh.  The briefing was held from 8.30 to 9.30, and the first dogs started searching at 9.45.  Dog #1 went to Interiors, and Dog #8 went to Exteriors/Vehicles.  With twenty dogs to go before Alex and I were called, I told one of the trial volunteers that I was going to the Starbucks that my GPS said was less than four miles away, and did she want me to bring her anything?  No, she said, but I should ‘hurry back’ because sometimes things moved faster than anticipated.  She had clearly been bogarting *that* joint.  I got back at 10.15 am and Alex and I were called for Exteriors/Vehicles at 12.05 pm.  My dog had been in the car for five hours, albeit with frequent potty and walk breaks, but how much can you walk in a gravel parking lot in an industrial-type area, and in 27-degree weather?  My dog was bored out of his mind, and I couldn’t blame him.

We crossed the start line in Exteriors and less than fifteen seconds in, Alex alerted and was correct.  I felt a lightening of my spirit:  things were off to a good start.  He wanted to work, he was working.  He paused to examine a shrub closely, and at the instant that I pulled him away from it, he lifted his leg on it.  Alex likes to mark things.  If your dog marks in a search area in a Nosework trial, you NQ that search.  Twenty seconds into our first search, and there went any hope of the NW3 title today.  That lightening of my spirit fled the scene.

On to Vehicles, where Alex gave a very good impression of a dog who was bored and didn’t have any interest in the proceedings.  Twice he stopped at a spot on one of the vehicles and his nose went into overdrive, and twice I thought he would alert, and twice he stopped and seemed to say ‘meh’ and moved on.  He did eventually alert, correctly; but we finished the search of the three vehicles with only that one find, and if there was only a single hide on those three cars, I’ll be very surprised.  It’s possible – there can be one, two, or three hides in a NW3 Vehicle search – but I think it unlikely.  Back to the car.

More vehicle time:  another two hours.  My own boredom was becoming intolerable.  (Hell is boredom, for me; I’ve never been any good at dealing with it.  Penned in my car on an ugly grey cold day in February, my resources are scant.)  At 2 pm we were called for Interiors.  Three rooms, and I planned to let Alex work off-leash for all three.  In the first room, he headed for the opposite wall and on a small item of furniture there, he alerted with a paw-scrabble and a look at me.  Too bad there was no hide there!  No treat, NQ Room One, move along to Room Two.  Search time was two minutes for each of the three rooms and at 1.59.77 in Room Two, I called finish without a single alert, or anything resembling one, from my dog.  No idea if we’d just encountered our first ‘clear’ room in NW3, but I’d be pretty surprised if it was.  In Room Three, I left the leash on and walked him around the room in something closer to a search pattern than his random desultory examinations of the first two rooms had been.  He found two hides, correctly, and I called finish to end it there.

Going back to the parking lot, we were told that Containers would be starting at 2.30 pm.  Twenty-seven dogs to go before Alex and I got to that start line; search time on Containers was 2.5 minutes.  Say 3.5 minutes per dog, with the shuffling in and out in addition to search time.   Over 90 minutes.  Alex and I would get to Containers at 4 pm, and based on his truly awful performance so far, I could only guess what he would do there – take a dump on a box, maybe?  I didn’t think our no-good very bad horrible day would be redeemed in Containers, so I pulled him from the lineup and we were home by 3 pm.

Alex was ‘off’ – actually, WAY off – all day, and I have seen this before, and I know the training dilemma it presents to a handler:  how do you re-start your dog, re-motivate your dog, when the dog has mentally checked out and is barely going through the motions?  I know the answer, I have been training Alex for five years.  I take him home, return him to his group, get them all some outdoor play time, and let Alex restore his equilibrium in his own time.  He’s not the less-than-stellar search dog he was today; but neither is he a working dog.  When the Search Dog Foundation is desperate for recruits, the cry does not go out: ‘get us all the Finnish Lapphunds you can find!’  Alex loves to sniff, and he hates to be bored, and when boredom short-circuits him, the love of sniffing isn’t strong enough to overcome it.  (Besides, he wears that nose 24 hours a day, he sniffs all he wants whenever he wants!)  I felt the same way in grammar school, and the look Alex gave me in Room Two of Interiors was the same look I gave my fourth-grade teacher when she told me to put away the library book I was reading under my desk and open my spelling workbook.

So no NW3 for us today, but I’m with Alex on this:  that was the most BORING day inflicted on us in quite some time!  Does it have to be that way?  Can’t they get a better logistical arrangement of dog-handler teams, somehow?  What about having the handlers report in staggered groups of twelve:  first group at 8 am, second at 10 am, third at noon.  Can that brain-numbing blather from the trial CO; put it in a written handout and make everyone sign it when they check in.  We’re adults, we’re in NW3, we really don’t need to be told to not let our dogs meet other dogs.  GMAFB.  Walk-throughs?  Video the damn things and show them to each group of arrivals on a TV.  There have got to be better ways to run a trial than what we experienced today!  (I am not taking a swipe at the host club or any of the people working the trial; they were all terrific and nothing they did caused any of the down-time.  NACSW’s trial model has that down-time built in, and isn’t it time someone proposed a solution to that?!)

Me, I’m going to only enter trials in the spring and fall months, and only go to scenic venues on days of perfect weather.  At this rate, Alex will be 12 before he gets that NW3, but who’s in a hurry?

burlington in crate

The End of an Era? — Not So Fast!

February 12, 2019

When Beau developed a seizure disorder last month, I was – and remain – devastated at the thought of losing him much sooner than I had foreseen.  I’ve mentioned in other posts how hard this is, but one of the reasons it walloped me is because Beau is my last Sheltie.

From 1989 until 2009, I owned *only* Shelties.  I raised them from puppies (Briar Rose, Sander, Sundance, Pippi, Shiri); I rescued them as seniors (Angus, Rudy, Guy, Banjo, Irwin).  My neighbors referred to me as ‘the Sheltie lady.’  All Shelties, all the time, that was my house!


beau and banjo


sander 043

In 2009 I adopted a senior Finnish Lapphund, Heikki (Mikey), and for the first few months he was in my house, I would start with surprise on catching a glimpse of him and have a ‘what’s that?’ reaction for a split second:  he wasn’t a Sheltie!

mike on biomat

Then in 2010 I adopted a young Border Collie (Rowley), because I needed an agility dog and I didn’t think I could find a Sheltie with the temperament and structure for it; and anyway, I had long wanted a BC.  So Rowley has been my agility dog ever since, and he is, no question, the best agility dog ever, bar none.  If he had a better handler, he would have piles and piles of advanced titles!  But we get by and he loves his twice-weekly agility classes.


After that, when Mikey left us, a young Lapphund came to stay, and introduced me to Nosework and other things Lappy, and now I can’t imagine my life without a Finnish Lapphund!

And in 2014, I adopted a mixed-breed, Dee, who turned out to be mostly (44%) Sheltie but is not anything like a Sheltie in the overall package.  Biddable and gentle?  Ha ha, not Miss Dee!

dee with buffalo horn.jpg

And somehow, in that, Beau – who joined us in 2012 – is now the only Sheltie I have!  I’ve been giving away a lot of my Sheltie-themed stuff, since I’m not really a ‘Sheltie person’ anymore … and I haven’t worked a Sheltie since I trained Shiri in agility, so many years ago.  But when I thought of having no Shelties in my family after Beau, I was gobsmacked.  And watching the Masters Agility Trials at Westminster recently, I was reflecting on the fact that Rowley will turn 10 in a few months, and at some point he won’t be as active in agility as he is now; and that made me sad, too.  I’ve trained my dogs, and trialed them some, in agility since 1993.  I have no plans to stop doing agility anytime soon.

And then the two pieces fit together perfectly and showed me a picture of the future:  I will get an agility Sheltie!  Beau will NOT be my last Sheltie, and I will start a Sheltie puppy in agility in the near future!

Wait a minute, the buzzkill side of me said, a second Lapphund is joining your family this year.  Do you want to have five dogs even post-Beau?  I gave my buzzkill side an admonitory smack.  I’m not going to start a 6-year old dog, one with whom I have no training history, in agility.  I have plans to start Siili in nosework, which I believe she will enjoy.  If she enjoys it to the extent that Alex does, I will trial her as I trial him.  Siili is an awesome dog and will add a lot to my group, and I look forward to her arrival this spring, but she is not my next agility dog.


Rowley is still my agility dog, there is a ‘no vacancy’ sign on that position this year, and most likely next year too.  But then …?

bl t.jpg

So I went to the website and looked for breeders near me, and then I started ruling out the breeders near me.  Too many of them have lines from a particular Big Name Sheltie Breeder in this area that I want to avoid:  I had one of her dogs, and his structural issues were as bad as his breeder’s lack of ethics.  No more of that.  (Let me just ask:  if YOU had a 2-year old dog from a breeder, and that dog’s sire was conclusively diagnosed by biopsy with a heritable autoimmune disease, and the breeder did not tell you because she ‘didn’t want you to worry’ – would you consider that breeder an honest person?  I wouldn’t, and I didn’t.  And that wasn’t even the half of it.  Oh no, not going near THOSE bloodlines again, ever.  My mistrust extends to the breeders who bred to the kennel of my dog’s breeder.)

So that’s where it is:  I’m on a puppy list for a spring 2020 breeding by a kennel that has some really nice-looking agility Shelties on its website.  I’m looking at other breeders, too, and asking them about their dogs.  I’m a bit perplexed by breeders who have no website or social media page:  that’s such a good way to find out what and how they breed, and pedigrees tell me more than any sales pitch.  If you’re a hobby breeder and have no cyberspace profile or presence, what would induce me to consider your dogs, if I’m a person who wants certain things in a dog?  Oh well.  I’ll keep on looking!  I’m in no hurry.   Have you seen the video on FB of Amy Brastad, age 92, doing an Excellent Jumpers run with her Sheltie at an agility trial?  She’s not just my hero, she’s my role model!

How’s Beau Doing?

February 11, 2019:  Just Checking In

Beau has been on the Keppra for 10 days now, and he has not had a seizure since the one on January 28, which was the third of three that month.  This means he is 13 days seizure-free, and I have to assume the Keppra is working.  I’m very grateful for that!

There are some other little things that are not so reassuring:  he saw his chiropractor this past weekend, and Dr. H found that while Beau’s head was not on crooked (the chiro’s favorite term for out-of-alignment conditions in the cervical vertebrae region), Beau’s head was giving off a lot of heat, which is not normal.  I see clear discharge from his eyes, which is not normal for him; I have to clean crusts of ‘tears’ from under his eyes.  And his snoring has become the sound of his breathing now, particularly after he’s had exercise — it sounds like his nasal passages are not clear.  I don’t know what this means, but I know what it could indicate, and that makes me incredibly sad.  Our dogs are too soon gone even with normal lifespans, and sometimes we are in such a period of ‘this is great, everything is harmonious and happy’ that we wish we could hit the ‘pause’ button on time.  But time is inexorable, and I can only keep the wonderful experiences of Beau and the Boyz and Dee in my heart as they turn into memories, and diverge from reality.  It sucks, but it’s better than nothing.
And for today, Beau is having a chicken wing for breakfast, and going to the nature preserve with us to explore the snowy woods.


February 4, 2019

As I noted in my last posting, I have a ‘seizure dog’ now.  And his veterinarian is not sanguine about the outlook or the reason for those seizures:  it’s very likely that Beau has cancer, somewhere in the brain.

In other words:  there’s maybe a 15% chance that the seizures (three in 16 days) were caused by late-onset idiopathic epilepsy.  The much greater chance, weighing in at 85%, is a brain tumor.  You can’t like those odds!

How can we find out for sure?  Well, for an expenditure of somewhere around $6,000, Beau could have a neuro consult and a complete neuro workup, including an MRI.  The MRI would show us, pretty conclusively, any tumors in or on Beau’s brain.  It might even show enough to allow the neuro staff to identify the type of neoplasm, and if we knew the location and type of tumor, the likely behavior and progression of it could be predicted.  But I have a lot of gaps in my store of knowledge, and I’m going to live with this one.  Six thousand dollars can buy a lot of quality-of-life things, like dog training classes, and vet visits, and really good treats, and tanks of gas for the car to take us to the nature preserve, and the Ag HS fields, and a whole bunch of other things that Beau loves and enjoys.  He would not enjoy an MRI.  So, no.

The less scientific way to find out, of course, is to wait and see.  Beau started on Keppra (levetiracetam) to prevent seizures, and it will work until it doesn’t work.  In other words, at some point the cancer will become too powerful to be reined in by meds.  If that happens, Beau will have seizures even while on the anti-seizure med.  We can increase the dose of Keppra then, and hope it prevents seizures for a while longer; the nice thing about Keppra, as opposed to phenobarbital or potassium bromide, is that it’s possible to give really high doses, because the drug doesn’t appear to affect the liver or liver enzymes.  It has to be given more frequently than other meds, and Beau started at 250 mg every 8 hours.  The frequency of dosing is due to the fact that levetiracetam breaks down rapidly in the body, with an elimination half-life between four and six hours.  Beau doesn’t even need his blood levels monitored.  All in all, it’s a terrific alternative to potassium bromide and phenobarb.  One vet told me it’s the go-to drug for seizure control now.

What Beau’s seizures are not:  they are not caused by liver disease, kidney disease, or a thyroid disorder.  Those things can cause seizures in dogs, but a seizure is never the only sign of kidney disease, etc.  Always, other symptoms accompany the seizures, and the malfunction of the organ can generally be seen in bloodwork.  Beau’s CBC/chem panel contained no anomalies.  His SDMA test, which is an early detector of kidney disease, was one point higher than the same test done two years ago.  Beau, a Sheltie of very poor breeding, probably has kidney disease in his future – or if he doesn’t, that’s only because his future won’t be long enough to allow renal failure to develop.  Goody goody gumtrees for that, eh?

No, all the indications are that cancer has developed in Beau’s brain.  I would like that not to be the case, and if he has managed to be in the small percentage of dogs who develop idiopathic epilepsy at age 11, I will be thrilled.  Well, okay, less than thrilled, but happier than the cancer option makes me.  But eighteen dogs have found their way to me in the past 30+ years, many of them seniors, and all but the five now living here have passed away while in my care.  I certainly know what death looks like, and more importantly, I know what a good life looks like, for my dogs.  Even in managing to defy some daunting odds with Sander (who lived with a malignant oral tumor for more than seven years) and Heikki/Mike (who lived with ehrlichiosis for more than four years), I never kept a dog alive when they had lost the things they loved in life.  A life with no joy is no life.  So when the veterinarian told me that one of the signs of advancing brain cancer is inappetence, I knew with certainty that when Beau doesn’t want to eat, it will be time to make the decision about quality of life and time remaining.

But that’s not today.  Today he seems unchanged; today he goes for walks and car rides and tucks into his meals with great enthusiasm.  Today he gets his three daily doses of Keppra in sugar-free Jello pudding.  Today, Beau is happy and life is good.  Dogs have got this mindfulness thing down pat, don’t they.