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A tale of two dogs.

It seems like this spring has been particularly nerve-wracking for my friends and their dogs. First came Tucker, a goofy and beloved Dobe, diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. He wouldn’t eat. We pulled for him, we yearned for Tucker to eat. I came home each day and checked his owner’s blog, just to see if today was the day Tucker gave in and chowed down on something, anything, no matter how unhealthy. Any calories at all. And always it was the same: nothing. Maybe a bite or two, but not nearly enough to keep going. Still, a group of us were worrying and fretting and wishing so hard for Tucker and his owner that things would turn around, we kept hoping, kept wishing, as if our hope and wishes alone could pull him through.

Which of course they couldn’t. Tucker didn’t make it through. I cried when I read it, hurting for his owner but not for Tucker, not anymore. He’d gone where good dogs go, it’s just that people are never, ever ready for the gaping hole dogs and cats rip in our hearts when they go on without us.

I never met Tucker, but I cried when he was gone.

Then came Spike, a dog I had met. A small red irritated looking spot on his gum turned out to be a tumor that had invaded his nose. I panicked with his owner, my friend Liz. Thousands of miles away in body, in spirit I was pacing the floors in her flat, waiting to hear the results of one test after another, waiting to hear whether the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, was it operable? What could be done? Would he get to stay, or would he too go on?

In the end, he got to come home from the hospital, minus his nose. The day he got operated on I wanted so badly to e-mail Liz and ask for news, but I knew I couldn’t while I was at work because if the news was bad, I didn’t want to find it out there. I was giddy with relief when I got home and asked her for news and oh, glorious day, the surgery worked, he would be home on Monday. And on Monday I cried with relief and to see his poor, foreshortened face.

Spike isn’t my dog, but I cried when he came home.

And I think the reason that we get so attached to these animals that don’t belong to us is that we know that if these dogs, these well-beloved, well-cared-for, adored and coddled dogs, if they can get so sick so suddenly, if they can die, then our dogs can too. We root for them to pull through because if they can, then maybe when the day comes for our dogs, our dogs will pull through, too. Our friends’ dogs become talismans, touchstones, we pour our hope for health and longevity into them because to see a dog suffer, get sick, and finally let go is to know that some day we may find ourselves in this position and no one wants to do that.

So we hope and yearn for Tucker to eat, and we cry when he takes his leave, imagining that one day we, too, will be down on the floor with our dogs, begging them to take just one bite, to swallow just one little bit of food, to hang on, to stay with us. To be young and strong and charging around the yard again, to not make us deal with a missing bowl at dinner time, a missing head under our hands, a missing weight on our feet at bedtime, a hairy shadow that isn’t there. If beloved Tucker could leave his person, then our dogs can leave us, too, and will someday.

We cheer when Spike comes home, and cry with relief, because in our hearts we know that someday we’ll be waiting for the lab results, waiting to hear if anything can be done, anything at all, just so that we can bring our dogs home with us, whole in spirit if not in body, just so that we can keep them for a few years longer. We root for his recovery with all our hearts, and cheer each breakthrough, however tiny, however marginal, we cling to the fact that he came home to his person and the missing bowl, the empty collar, have been pushed back and away, no longer an imminent now but once again put off into the misty future.

Rest easy, Tucker. You are a good dog, wherever you have gone.

Good luck, Spike, and all my wishes for a speedy recovery.

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A breakthrough!

The little tabby finally let me pet her. That’s right, her. Whoops. At any rate, things are going quite well but I am not yet allowed to do anything but stroke her back, so we’re not yet at the “picking her up and bringing her in the house” stage. I do mean to pick up some frontline for her, though, as I think applying it will be similar enough to stroking her back that I can get away with it. It will make bringing her into the house way easier if I don’t have to worry about bug contagion.

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Two Manor Cats

I actually managed to get pics of two of the non-approachable Manor Cats this past week! Go me. They’re both tabby and white toms. ETA: Little Tabby let me get close enough to pet and examine and turns out to be a female. Whoops! Also she’s quite skinny and I suspect wormy, but while I may stroke her back now, I am not allowed to grab her yet. We’re working on it.

The first one is the one I think of as The Patriarch:
An adult cat, tabby with a white underside, lounges regally on his side.  You can tell he's an intact tom by his muscle tone and huge jowly cheeks.

The Patriarch is the most frequent full-grown visitor to my feeding station, and as you can see he hangs around the property a bit, too. His flight distance is about 20′, though, and this picture was taken in the dusk, from behind the fence, from a pretty good ways away, which is why it sucks. He’s OK with me and the dogs looking at him, as long as we don’t come too close.

The second one is Little Tabby TomGirl:
A young tabby and white cat peers over a step at the photographer.

Little Tabby TomGirl is, I suspect, going to be the next one I bring inside, if I can convince himher to come in before disease, predators, or cars get himher. HeShe started with a flight distance of 15-20 feet, but with the judicious and timely application of wet food and treats, I have worked himher down to 6-7′. Even better than that, heshe shows signs of wanting to approach me, but not being quite sure heshe can:
Little Tabby Girl pretends to ignore the photographer entirely and be fascinated with some foliage.
There heshe is doing that thing cats do, where they come to the edge of their comfort zone and then pretend they were about to do something else entirely, like sniff this here blade of grass. HeShe will also sit at the edge of hisher comfort zone and talk to me. Notice the tail up and tall posture, heshe’s dubious but not terrified!

One more, of himher nomming hisher wet food:
In this picture, Little Tabby Girl would quite clearly like the strange lady to stop moving around with the box on her face, and let her nom her wet food in peace.

Fingers crossed that I can get Little Tabby Tom in before something gets himher. HeShe so clearly wants to come up to me, wandering at that 6′ circle like heshe’s rubbing on something other than air, making blinky eyes at me, talking in hisher little voice. It’s so hard to be patient, but I’m trying.

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Jackson Pawlick is ready to go home, update on SpareKitty.

The problem is that at the moment, Mr. Jackson Pawlick needs a home to go to! He’s my friend E’s foster kitty. E is Roo’s Guardian Angel, who pulled him from the shelter, nursed his cold, put up with his horrible pee problems, and then dangled him under my nose. When I bit, she drove 8 hours to meet me in Ohio and hand Roo off, and the rest has been history! So you know with credentials like that, E is a supplier of quality retreadrescue felines. Of Mr. Jackson Pawlick, she says, “He’s 4-5 years old, healthy, UTD on vax, chipped, neutered, and negative for FeLk and FIV. He gets along splendidly with dogs and cats and children, has impeccable litterbox usage, and was 4-paw declawed.” What she does not mention are his enchanting green eyes and his fantastic whiskers.

Please click right here to read about Mr. Jackson Pawlick and see some absolutely enchanting pictures which prove my assertions about his eyes and whiskers. He is a handsome fella for sure, and I just want to hug him and smoosh gently on his magnificently be-whiskered face. He’s in Naperville, Illinois, so if you’re in the area or you know someone who is, and there is a deep need for a striking black and white kitty, well, there you go. Problem solved. You can thank me later.

For those of you who were wondering what became of the little tabby girl I sent off to Illinois not long ago, she had her kittens! One stillbirth, one runt, and three hale and hearty little beasts. Best wishes to Stinky (so christened because of an unfortunate and messy pooping incident on the way to the airport) and her babies, and to her owner, who is going to need all the help he can get in the period between when kittens become ambulatory and when they can finally leave for their new homes.

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Too much early morning love.

The scene: Manor of Mixed Blessings, 0500. A dark bedroom. I am asleep in the bed in the dark bedroom.

Roo: STARVING TO DEATH.
Me: Snrgbl?
Zille: ME TOO. I’M HUNGRY TOO.
Me: Grarfglm?
Roo and Zille: WE ARE HUNGRY TOGETHER. WE ARE THE WORLD. WE ARE THE CHILDREN.
Me: You’re not. You’re too hairy to be children and… hey, wait, the gate is shut.
Zille: What gate?
Me: That gate. The one you were on the other side of when I went to bed.
Zille: I see no gate.
Roo: STARVING TO DEATH WHILE YOU PEOPLE TALK ABOUT GATES.
Me: Roo, did you let this dog in here?
Zille: I was always in here. Can I lick your toes?
Me: You weren’t, you were locked out when I went to bed, and no.
Zille: I have no clue what you’re talking about. Also, I’m going to lick your toes anyway.
Roo: I AM GOING TO TAPDANCE ON YOUR HEAD UNTIL YOU FEED ME.
Me: WHY ARE MY GATES DOG-PERMEABLE AND ROO GET OFF MY HEAD.
Zille: I’ll tell you if you feed me.
Me: It is 0515. I am not getting up, it is the weekend, I have another hour to sleep. Roo, shut up. Zille, go have a chewie.
Roo: I WILL NOT SHUT UP I WANT MY LAWYER I AM STARVING.
Zille: I can’t get out, the gate is shut.

42″ gate, with a 7″ x 10″ cat door in it. I never heard it rattle but presumably she went over it. I think Tink taught her to do it.

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Cat Maintenance, or If I Die In My Sleep, You’ll Know Why

It is a sad fact of pet ownership that sometimes you must do things to them in the name of their health that they find unpleasant. This includes, in my household, nail trims, baths, and ear cleaning. Unfortunately I’m the only one here to do them, so the Usual Suspects have learned that when I head toward them with a certain determined gleam in my eye, it’s time to scatter. You haven’t seen hilarious until you’ve seen two Dobermans and a German Shepherd trying to disappear into the futon.

The dogs are pretty easy. They give me sad reproachful looks while I carry on with routine maintenance, and when I’m done they claim they’ll hate me forever but two minutes later have forgotten all about it. The cats, though.

The cats.

Aida needs her nails trimmed periodically. I did it last night. This is a huge production because Aida also hates me. I’m not sure why, she’s lived with me since she was 12 weeks old and it’s not like I beat her. When guests come over she hovers around them, telling them lengthy stories of neglect and abuse. But if I want to get near her to, say, trim her nails because the time has come when she is sticking to the upholstery in the house every time she tries to move, I have to sneak up on her while she’s asleep and towel her. Then, under a stream of loud Siamese abuse and threats, I must carefully fish each individual glossy brown paw out of the towel ball, taking care to keep the other three scythe-tipped paws and also her teeth safely sequestered, and clip the nails.

You know what they say, right? If you’re going to grab a tiger by the tail, don’t let go. I’m here to tell you, gentle reader, that if you must wrap a Siamese cat in a towel and carefully trim all 18 of her pointy as hell claws, you had better find a way to be five miles away before she gets out of that towel. What’s even worse than the whole set the towel down veeery carefully at arm’s length and then back rapidly away in the hopes that I will be long gone before she escapes thing is the part where she stalks me afterward. For a preference, she hovers at the edge of any light, the better to have her eyes reflect the fires of hell. She’s doing it now, and the nail trimming was more than 24 hours ago. She will not be swayed by processed cheese slices, which she normally devours, or cooked hamburger, or even cooked hamburger with a processed cheese slice melted on it. Nope. Nothing less than my fresh blood will do.

Meanwhile, because I have a death wish, I have cleaned Roo’s ears. You might not expect that the fine hairs that grow in cat ears serve any useful purpose, unless you own a Cornish Rex cat like Roo who doesn’t have them. Then you realize that those hairs are actually blocking a LOT of dirt which you must now gently and painstakingly clean from the cat’s ears. Roo does not like this. While normally his ears are large enough to pick up Radio Free Europe and you can look straight down the canals and see his tiny little walnut-sized cat brain, when he sees the ear cleaner and the cottonballs come out, he somehow manages to origami his ears into something the approximate size of a spitwad. Then I must wrangle him into my lap, pin him down, carefully unfold each ear, which is a two-handed job right there, and then somehow manage to swab it out with a moistened cottonball before he can refold it and suck it back into his head. In the meantime, he protests by falling over and playing dead and occasionally viciously gumming me. He’d get toweled for this if he had any teeth, but since he doesn’t and I don’t come out of it bloody but rather covered in cat spit, he is unrestrained and I get the full effect of his hateful gaze. It’s something like this.

Which is nothing to the hateful gaze I get from him when it’s bath time, because occasionally he needs a scrub down, being (like some C-Rexen) prone to being a little oily and yeasty on occasion. Bathtime gets me first stared at angrily, then cursed inventively and loudly, and finally he comes for my face.[1] Still, ear-cleaning is not far behind baths on the List Of Things That Cause Roo to Plot Murder.

That’s two out of three cats plotting my death. I made a move toward Braxton earlier with the nail clippers and the towel and he laughed at me in a menacing fashion, so I’m leaving it for now. If I’m still on his good side, I just might survive the weekend.

[1] I JEST. HE WASN’T REALLY ABOUT TO TRY TO SUCK MY EYEBALL OUT, HE JUST WANTED TO ESCAPE THE BATH TUB SO HE COULD PLOT MY DEATH IN PEACE.

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You think you know somebody….

One of the reasons I cherish my dogs is that just when I think I know how they work, inside and out, and that I can predict their behavior consistently, they serve me up a surprise and it’s a 50/50 chance that it will be a pleasant one.

For instance, Tink. She’s been with me since she was 9 weeks old, I raised her and I train her and live with her and take her walkies and wrestle her for the pillows at night. Around 18 months or two years old, she started having hysterical barking meltdowns if she saw a dog who looked unfamiliar to her. This may have had something to do with her sucky vision, it may have been her hitting maturity, who knows. We worked the “Look at that dog!” game from Control Unleashed religiously, and that got us to the point where her hysterical barking meltdowns were manageable although still embarrassing, but at least I could distract her and get her out of the situation if I my vigilance failed so hard we got into a situation in the first place.

So for the past three, three and a half years, I have been watching for other dogs and fleeing if I saw one, and hopefully I saw it before Tink did. It was just one of those things, you know. Everyone you love has certain quirks that irritate the shit out of you but aren’t going to change, so you just learn to deal with them and view them as an integral part of the person you love, one that maybe you would rather do without but not if it meant doing without that person entirely.

Today, Tink and I went up to Chatham, where the 28th Massachusetts, Company B was having a Camp of Instruction, as was the Fredericksburg battlefield’s Washington Artillery unit. We wandered around some and then I saw two gentlemen with three collies between them, headed our way. I spotted them before Tink did and thought “Oh shit, better move out” so we walked away from the 28MA’s encampment toward the Washington Artillery, which was down a grassy road. Tactical error on my part, because after a few minutes, here came the collies, and this time they were between us and escape. Whoops.

I called to them when they were a ways away and said “She’s going to bark when she sees you, she’s mostly blind and nervous about strange dogs!” and backed us off the road so they could get by. Tink gruffed once when she noticed them, but… I said “Shhhh, it’s OK.” and she believed me and settled down. When they got up to us, one of the gentlemen asked if the dogs could sniff noses, and I said “Sure, if she’s all right with it” and said “Tink, you can say hi” and Tink proceeded forward confidently toward three strange dogs who were radically different from any dogs she has spent time with before, and she sniffed their noses and butts. She said a very polite hello without gruffing or having hysterics or anything, just some maneuvering to keep from being surrounded by the three of them, as dogs will do.

One of the collies, the oldest to judge by the grey on his face, was also mostly blind. She spent the longest time greeting him, the two of them carefully sniffing each other, inch by inch, from nose to tail, all totally relaxed and “hey I do this all the time” which may have been true in the collie’s case. For Tink, though, it was a first and I kept waiting for it to break out into barking, especially when one of the younger collies had a good excited bark at a jogger, but it never did. The dogs said hi to each other, and when they were done they ignored each other.

I almost wanted to cry. Maybe Tink’s life can be much less circumscribed now, if we can go places where there will be other dogs without having a loud and embarassing temper tantrum. I’ll have to try it again sometime to be sure, but things are looking good right now. Today was one of those good surprises, one of those moments when I realize all over again that dogs are not static pieces of furniture, but living, changing, marvelously doggy beings with inner lives of their own.

Good dog, Tink. That’ll do.

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Zille goes to war, sort of.

Culpeper Remembrance Days are going down this weekend, and yesterday there was a Civil War encampment featuring Brigadier General William “Extra Billy” Smith at the Culpeper Museum. I had just enough time to get home from work, let the dogs out to potty, and then slap a leash and collar on Zille and load her in the car to go make nice with re-enactors, an important part of her training as the Sesquicentennial Emergency Backup Dog.

She did just fine, taking on hoop skirts, cooking fires, a hoard of small children wanting to pet her, and of course General Extra Billy Smith with a little initial nervousness that faded into, well…
A head shot of Zille, a sable German Shedder, yawning hugely to express her extreme boredom with Civil War encampments.

Once she had decided that this was actually not as interesting as she thought it was, I convinced her to pose with the General:
Zille, a sable German Shepherd, poses sitting next to General Extra Billy Smith, a grey-haired gentleman, clean shaven, who wears a grey-blue frock coat with a double row of buttons, grey trousers, and holds a brown beaver hat on his knee.  He is looking at Zille and smiling, tickled to death to be posing with her.  We will ignore the banner for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the background.

The only hairy moments came shortly thereafter, when a group of kids tried their hand at playing Graces. Graces is a 19th century game wherein two people each have two sticks apiece. The sticks are about 18″ long. There is also one be-ribboned hoop, and the goal of the game is to use your sticks to throw the hoop to your partner, who will theoretically catch it on her sticks and then throw it back to you. I’m sure you can see where this is going, given that Zille is Fetchy Dog Extraordinaire. She saw no reason why she should not also be allowed to join the game, since she would be WAY better at catching that hoop than any of the kids were. After I convinced her that I was not going to allow her to snatch toys from small children, she grumbled at me and went and sat on Extra Billy’s foot in the hopes that he would be sympathetic to her deep need to go join the game. Alas, the General ignored her plea.

Also present was the World’s Oldest Civil War Re-Enactor, I swear to God. The gentleman had to be at least 80, and he could talk the hind leg off a mule, which is how I know that:
1) His father used to breed and show German Shepherds.
2) Something about Zille’s ears and her color mean she’s a really good German Shepherd (He mumbled some, so I didn’t quite catch what about her ears and color make her so outstanding. But she does have Serious Ears on her.)
3) You must raise German Shepherds right from the beginning or they will be no-good curs.
4) You must “take German Shepherds to the water” to go swimming, or “they’ll go crazy.”

I’m now nervously wondering if the little wading pool I have for the dogs (in which Zille loves to splash around) is enough water to keep her from going crazy. It’s hard to say, so I think I might take her to the river some this summer, just to make sure.

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Zille has a great big brain, Tink has a great big ego, Beowulf has a great big heart.

Because Zille is quite possibly the smartest and most perfectest dog to ever come out of Blackthorn Kennel, I like to randomly pick new things to teach her. She soaks things up like a sponge and then she is all “my learnings, let me show you them!” For instance, it took her 5 tries to grasp the Window Test under the no-reward protocol[1].

Having a dog who is really bright and also really willing to work is a novel and fun experience for me. Tink, for instance, is pretty damn bright but she also has a great big ego, so she’s pretty sure that her ideas are better than my ideas. This particularly pertains to my ideas that require her to do something like sit still for more than 15 seconds when there’s a great wide world for her to sniff, or at least a cat for her to suck on. I have not been able to hit upon a single reward that she considers worth a 30 second stay, although she will go 20 seconds for the promise of tuggy with her stuffed snake.

Zille, on the other hand, is not only nearly ego-free, but she really wants the ball. What ball? Any ball. She doesn’t care. She just wants that spherical object, preferably thrown. She’s a perfect storm of intelligence, lack of ego, and an easily manipulated drive. Zille wants to be a Good Dog (lack of ego), she Wants The Ball (toy drive), and she has the brains to figure out what you’re telling her really, really quickly. So tonight we worked on two new skills during fetchy: go out! and STOP!

“Go out!” means “Move 10 feet away in the direction I’m pointing, and then face me for further direction.” “STOP!” is pretty self-explanatory, it means “Freeze in your tracks.” So far I’m just working “STOP!” when she’s approaching, because then I can use body language (lean forward, put a hand out like a traffic cop) in addition to my voice to cue her. I’d like to work it until I can use it to stop her motion in any direction, though. You can see how it can come in handy, especially combined with “go out!” and at some point I intend to add “right” and “left” in there. I don’t have a deep need per se to be able to direct my dog around like a radio controlled car, but Zille’s big ol brain needs SOMETHING to do and I can see situations where it would come in handy.

I wish I could find a way to make Tink as thrilled about learning things as Zillekins is, with Tink’s horrible vision and the likelihood that one day she’s going to quite suddenly go blind entirely when her right retina detaches, it would be fantastically useful to be able to give her verbal cues on where to go.

I don’t know if these differences are breed differences (Doberman vice German Shedder), breeding differences (a breeder who does not focus on mental soundness and ability vice one who does), or personal differences (Tink vice Zille); it’s likely that it’s a combination of all three. And it’s not that I don’t cherish my clever, hard-headed, dramatic Tink for who she is. She will always be my best buddy, but it’s nice to have a dog who doesn’t constantly ask me “why?” when I ask her to do something.

Beowulf doesn’t ask why, but he doesn’t have a great big brain, just a willing heart and the same lack of ego Zille has. He is, however, way more sensitive to disapproval from people than Zille is, and she’s pretty handler-sensitive. He will learn, but you have to break things down very small and be very patient with him, and if you sound anything but pleased then he wilts and gets confused. He’s a Good Dog and an easy one to get along with, but at the same time it’s great to have a dog who mostly grasped “STOP!” in one fifteen minute session and never once wondered if she were doing things wrong or looked as if she were getting confused.

I supposed I’ve rambled enough. I couldn’t really help it, it’s been a great week with the dogs, who have been exceptionally well-behaved and pleasant to live with. I’m probably jinxing myself saying that, and tonight and tomorrow they will decide to be absolutely awful because even the best relationships have their rocky periods when epic games of Bitey Face Ruler Of The Futon are played endlessly at all hours, but what the heck. I got some Good Dogs, y’all.

[1] THE WINDOW TEST IS WHERE YOU SHOW THE SUBJECT TWO PILES OF SOMETHING DESIREABLE, ONE OBVIOUSLY SMALLER THAN THE OTHER. THE SUBJECT MUST CHOOSE THE SMALLER PILE TO GET THE BIGGER PILE. THE “NO-REWARD PROTOCOL” MEANS THAT IF THE SUBJECT SELECTS THE BIGGER PILE, THE SUBJECT DOES NOT GET EITHER PILE. I USED ZILLE’S DINNER KIBBLE, HELD IN MY OPEN HANDS, WITH ONE KIBBLE IN ONE HAND AND THREE KIBBLES IN THE OTHER. AFTER 5 TRIES TO LEARN THE NEW RULE, SHE WAS CONSISTENTLY TOUCHING MY ONE-KIBBLE HAND INSTEAD OF MY THREE-KIBBLE HAND.

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Science never ceases to amaze me

Cat Brain: A Step Toward the Electronic Equivalent. Science discovered cats are 83 times faster at cognitive tasks than our current best supercomputer, and decides to build a computer that works like a cat’s brain.

This can only end in tears. I’m picturing success, after many years, only to find that the computer only does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and demands food, sunbeams, and petting before it will even consider ignoring your request.

Tip of the hat to Rinalia at For the Pit Bulls, who found the article.