Sunday, June 24, 2012

Metaphors for Life

Many years ago when I first started taking my dogs to classes, I didn't understand why people would take their dogs to class but not do dog shows. All that work and time and money, and nothing to show for it? I understood that some people just didn't want to show, but I didn't really get it.

I get it now.

Over the last year or so, I've come to the realization that I don't like showing one bit. Oh, I like titles, but I have terrible ring nerves, and that stresses out my dog, and then no one's having fun. And if neither of us is enjoying ourselves, then we have no business stepping foot in a show ring. Such an expensive ribbon is not worth the anguish. Period.

This revelation was bewildering. If not for titles, then why? Oh, sure - I enjoy spending time with my dogs. But I can enjoy spending time with my dogs from the sanctity of my backyard, and it's a lot cheaper to boot.

When we bought our house, I inherited it's garden (don't worry, it's related, I promise). I'd never been much of a gardener, but I've found I like having something to do while the dogs lounge on the deck.

At this point, it should surprise none of you that I have trouble sitting still and doing nothing. 

At first, I was terribly paranoid about pulling something up that was suppose to be there. Was that weird plant with the puny flowers a weed or something important? But as I got my fingers dirty, I started to relax. Eventually, I came up with with my own gardening philosophy. It went something like this:

The hell with what "should" be there.

Columbine, you can stay, but you have to let me call you "dragon's head" from now on.
Because of the awesome, that's why.

If I like it, it stays.
If I don't like it, I'm pulling it up.

Day lily, asiactic lily, whatever. They can stay. 

I've spent that last few months really looking hard at my dog training program, and I'm come to the same ruthless conclusion there that I did with my garden: if we like it, it stays. If we don't like it, it's going away.


Take classes, for instance. Do I enjoy them? Usually. Do the dogs enjoy them. Definitely! But from now on, we're going to be taking classes with more of an eye for what we want to do, instead of what we should be doing to earn titles. That's not to say we'll never end up in a show ring again - but if we do, I'm going to make damn sure it's fun for both of us.

"A ribbon? Can we eat it? . . . Then what's the point?"

That determination was easy. But I've found myself watching the dogs so much more closely these days, looking for cues to what makes them happy (because, let's face it, as long as I'm with them, I'm pretty happy). Sometimes, their happiness is pretty obvious.

I feel pretty comfortable labeling this "happiness."

Yep, I'm pretty sure this is the kind of happy people take drugs to get.

What about when we're not playing ball or taking walks or biking, though? These activities are a brief moment of each day. Can you call it a happy life if there are only brief moments of happiness surrounded by boredom - or worse, misery? Do I think it's a beautiful garden if there are only flowers?

I'm afraid not.

As I examined my dogs' days, though, I saw something new. Actually, I saw something that has probably always been there but that I had not noticed because I was not looking. It's a simple smile. Not directed at me like those grinning bully faces, but always into the distance. It seems to be a smile for smiling's sake. The kind of soft, personal smile you get when you step outside in the morning and the sun is bright and the air is clean and peaceful. It might be a good day, it might be a bad day, but here - in this moment - is a life worth waking up for. Worth living. Worth being happy.

I guess I must be doing something right. I don't know everything about dog training, and I don't know everything about gardening. But I think I've finally got the right idea.

Plant what you like. Grow happiness.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Artis Bene Moriendi

When the body that lived at your single will
When the whimper of welcome is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone - where ever it goes - for good
You still discover how much you care . . .
                                                                   ~Rudyard Kipling, The Power of the Dog

Photo by Paige.

The world has lost a little love tonight, and Katy the Bug has passed to wherever it is that good dogs go when they die.

Katy had fibrosarcoma, a slow growing cancer. It started in her leg, and metastesized to her lungs, and day by day, conquer more of her little body. It gave us plenty of time to scour our souls and ask ourselves the questions that all dog owners must face someday: what is a good death, and how do we know when its time has come?

The phrase "good death" seems oxymoronic, standing on this side of grief as I am. When is it ever a good time to say good-bye to a best friend? How do you chose the moment for a friend to die? Katy, in a last mercy, relieved us of that burden, and chose the time of her death herself.

But was it a good death?

Photo by Paige.

Katy had a long life for a dog. I remember taking her places in high school with my brand new driver's license. Her stumpy legs wouldn't let her reach the window to stick her head outside, so I would crank the air. She would sit in the co-pilot seat, face turned into the artificial wind, grinning to rival a pit bull.

I used to take her with me to my grandparents. I'd let her sleep in the bed, even though I hate sharing my bed, and Katy always smelled a little like pee. I'd wake in the night, feel the delicate weight of her against my leg or my shoulder, and return to sleep reassured. Where ever Katy was, that was home.

Katy never met a stranger, as they say. Young or old, women, men, and inbetween, we were all worthy of Katy's respect and adoration. Except for me.

Katy loved me extra.

Photo by Paige.

What was good about this death? My friend is not suffering, but neither is she here. Looking over the last few month, and further back over the years we shared, I have no regrets. We gave Katy everything we had, and I hope she got everything she could have wanted: a full belly, a roof over her head, a warm bed. A life full of joy, love, and adventure.

It seems to me, looking back, that the way to create a good death is to have lived a good life.

And Katy lived a very good life.

Photo by Paige.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jai Goes Back to School

Jai and I may not have done much work with his reactivity since our first attempt at class, but we've still come a long way from where we were. We've worked hard on relationship building and impulse control, and Jai is a subtly different dog than he was two months ago. More confident certainly - a little more attentive, too. He's not the only one who's done some learning; I'm picking up on body cues that I hadn't noticed before. For example, Jai does, in fact, wag his tail almost constantly. Just not when he's even a little bit uncertain, which was apparently most of the first three months he spent here. On the other hand, he does typically carry his ears a little further back than most pit bulls, and pins them back harder when he's nervous. Or there's a camera pointed at him (same difference).

"Cameras eat pit bulls. Must not look, mustnotlook . . . "

Ears full forward - something that comes very natural to Rubi - is a bad sign for Jai. It means that he's running close to over stimulated. Canine body language never ceases to fascinate me. All dogs speak the same language, with different breeds having their own dialects, and individual dogs having their own signals and phrases that they use more than others. I could spend all day just watching dogs talk to each other.

Anywho, Jai had his first day of special needs class this week, and I couldn't be more pleased about the decision to place him in a less overwhelming class. He was still zombie-watching in the beginning with a little whining just for flavor, but unlike our first class, his anxious behavior decreased the longer we stayed. Instead of spending the whole time just trying to keep our brains in our heads, Jai was actually able to think and learn.

At one point during the hour, Jai and I got to walk around the room and play decoy dog. Jai was actually more concerned about the object in the room than the other dogs (in particular, there was a mop bucket that needed a good sniffing to before we could move on). This was rather validating for me because it means that I was probably right and it wasn't just the other dogs in the previous class that were too much - it was being in a new place as well. On the other hand, it also means that Jai probably isn't as well socialized as I had initially thought.

Jai at class with four other dogs in view. Note the hip bump and the blur tail.
Disregard the "cameras will steal your soul" ears.

I chose the place where we're taking classes, a local chain training company, based on the fact that I'm tired of driving all the way across the cities for classes. In exchange for less gas money, we're taking classes at a place I knew did not entirely mesh with my training philosophy. After so many reactive dogs, I'm comfortable advocating for Jai if the teacher wants us to do something I'm not comfortable with. Mostly what we need is a quite corner where we can do our own thing in the presence of other dogs.

The school's training philosophy is not nearly as bad as I prepared for. It's not uber-traditional, jerk and praise training. But it's not purely positive reinforcement based way I am, either. I'd say the cookie/correction ratio is about 50/50. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to label this force based training. If the dog doesn't do what you want - make them do it!

Watching the other students, I'd forgotten how refreshingly simple force-based training is! Your dog won't sit? Make them sit! Your dog won't stay? Make them stay! There's very little, if any, consideration given to how the dog it thinking or feeling or if the cookies aren't good enough or any other of dozens of factors that come into play when dogs try to learn. See problem = fix problem!

And yet, I do not regret the training path I have chosen. My dogs are not my minions to be forced to bend to my will. They are thinking, breathing individuals, and just because they can't speak English or spend money doesn't mean they are not deserving of respect. Not being human does not make them less. I can't do advanced calculus, but that doesn't give anyone the right to bully me into obedience.

I find that I sleep better at night believing that my dogs have free will, and I do not have - nor want - absolute control over them. My dog does not sit the first time I ask him? Big deal, that's his choice. I'll just have to make "sit" more appealing next time. I like that my dogs are my teammates and my friends. They play the game because they want to, not because they're forced to. It makes us happier all the way around.

L > R: Jai, Rubi, and Maus, my reactive  - but happy! - pit bulls. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Today, my friends, Paige and Laura, stopped by the horde house to take pictures and have lunch.

I stepped inside to get something, and when I came out, Paige said to me, "We were just commenting on how happy all of your dogs are."

Paige photo.

I think this is one of the best compliments I've ever received.

Paige photo.

I think that if I were to die today, and they wrote on my gravestone,

"She made her dogs happy."

Paige photo.

Well, that would be just fine by me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Day Eight: Miles to Go Before We Sleep

Favorite DogGear: Fetching Tags. Because I can't think of anything else, and Fetching Tags are awesome. Piper's tagline is "The Good One," and Rubi is "Sweet and Sassy." I know you wanted to know that.

Close Encounters on the Wild Side: red squirrel, loons, some big damn fish splashing around in the middle of the night, moose (fo' reals!), ticks, people. Holy crap, where did all the people come from?

Our first full day without rain, our last day in the Boundary Waters. Being in the BWCA is one of the few places where I don't mind getting up at almost the crack of dawn. Because it never fails to be worth it. 

Mist on Daniel Lake.

Prettiest Rorschach test ever.

There's less than two miles left on the Daniel Spur Trail, and it passes too quickly underfoot. Well, except for the parts that are washed out from all the rain. Those parts take forever to get through. But before long, we've come to the end of our trail. 

We'll take it with us. Promise. 

I never feel quite human coming out of the BWCA until I've showered, so that's our first stop: showers at Clearwater Lodge. From there, it's down to Grand Marais from some Sven and Ole's pizza. This stop is a traditional "We Survived!" celebration, not just for my family, but for countless backpackers and canoeist. This may be blasphemy, but I don't think their pizza is the best ever. Unless you've been eating freeze dried cardboard for a week. Then it's OMFGsogreatImaydiefromtheawesomeoverload. I split a piece between the girls; they think it's the best thing EVAR!

Grand Marais, as seen from Lake Superior.
It's there. You can trust me.

At the beginning of our trip, I describe the way I felt as like being on a roller coaster. I'll be honest, I don't handle roller coasters well; I get nauseous and dizzy and a little disoriented. Like getting off the roller coaster, I'm a little worse for wear after this trip through the BWCA. My knees, certainly, may never be the same. But in the fashion of roller coaster addicted everywhere, I think Rubi would agree with me when I say:

THAT WAS AWESOME! Let's do it again!!!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Day Seven: The Trail Changes

Favorite DogGear: Vetri-Repel Flea and Tick wipes - I had to apply them a little more often than the deet-laden stuff, but on the other hand, I wasn't putting deet on my girls. Worked great against the mosquitoes and black flies, not so great against ticks. 

Close Encounters on the Wild Side: ruffled grouse, loons, more ticks, my brother's socks, Canada geese

My legs are going to fall off at the knee. But hey - it's not raining and my boots are dry (this is my new standard of comfort). The sun even makes an appearance! And luckily for me, the trail evens out and there aren't nearly as many hills. 

We follow the shore of Rose Lake right up to the Canadian border, then turn south and will follow a 337 rod portage down to Daniels Lake. For those of you who don't speak canoeist, 337 rods translates into "A frickin' long portage." Luckily for us, we're not carrying canoes. (Quick fact: this portage was once the old Algar Smith Railroad, which used to transport timber from the Rose Lake area down to Two Harbors back in the 1920's). 

It's pretty clear when we reach the portage because there's a river in our way. 

You can see the current from the river pushing into Rose Lake.

We take a break before following the river south upstream.
My dad holds the girls.

We're making pretty good time, and it's another lovely day for hiking. Of course, the path of true adventure never did run smooth. In the next picture, do you see the rapid little stream ahead of us?

Yeah, that's not a stream: that's the trail.

Rubi says, "You have got to be friggin' kidding me."

It turns out that yesterday alone we got four inches of rain. Add that to the rain we've gotten every single day since we started, and water levels in the lakes alone has risen about twelve inches since we started our hike. All this rain fall has caused this normally tame stream to flood its banks and lose its damn mind.

Mind = blown.

Still, it's hard to be too annoyed when everything is so dang pretty.

And wet. Don't forget wet.

This is not the view up stream; this is the view across stream.
We literally cannot see the other shore.

Oh. Look. There it is.

The "trail" goes on like this for about a mile. Then things got really interesting. 

Someday, my pursuit of a good challenge will be the death of me. 

The was suppose to be a narrow foot bridge over one of the deeper tributaries flowing into our nemesis-to-dry-boots, but the overflow had washed it away. This meant that we had cross an area about six feet wide and three feet deep. There was no way around it: we were going to get our boots wet.

Or, at least, that was what my dad said. I said, "hell no!" stripped my boots and socks off, and rolled my pants up. I hadn't gotten my boots wet since the first day, and I wasn't about to now. Since the girls were going to have to swim across, I took their packs off and carried their gear to the other side, too. 

Once on semi dry ground, I had my brother unhook Piper, and I called her across. She did some wild ninja-Jesus move and managed to fly across the mini-river without swimming or getting wet. I'm still not sure how she did it, but color me impressed. 

Rubi is not ninja-Jesus. And Rubi, if you will remember from our little dock incident, is not a water dog. She does not swim. Ever. 

"Do you see this face? This is me telling you it ain't happening.
Now put the camera down and find another way."

Now, I could've just dragged Rubi into the water, and she would've figured it out. But it's not often that Rubi refuses to do something for me. It seems to me that if B tells me that she can't do something, I ought to listen to her. She's a good dog, she tries hard, and she deserves respect - not force. 

But still, how were we going to get across this damn river-stream? 

I reluctantly settled on carrying her across. When I got her, picking up Rubi was one of the "offenses for which you may get bitten." We've done a lot of body handling work and conditioning, but I wasn't confident that Rubi wouldn't freak out, start flailing, and drop us both in the drink. 

To my surprise and relief, once she realized that I wasn't grabbing her collar to pull her into the water, Rubi not only let me pick her up without protest, but she didn't move a muscle as I carried her to the other side and set her down safely. This may be because she was frozen stiff with terror from hanging over "deep" water, but I couldn't see her face, so I'm just going to go ahead and credit our success to good training and a relationship based on trust. 

Once we were both on relatively dry land, Piper proceeded to do celebration zoomies, because apparently, she thought we were all going to die. You really haven't lived until you've seen a boxer do zoomies on a four foot leash. 

Not much farther down the trail, we part ways with the Border Route. Instead of following it further east to Rove Lake and onward, we hop southwest on the Daniel Spur Trail. This trail will eventually take us out of the backwoods and on to Clearwater Lodge.  

The parting of trails.

I can't say I was sorry to the the Border Route go; the Daniel Spur Trail was higher ground and not flooded out. Still, it's sad to know that the trip is almost over. 

Onward and upward! The adventure's not done yet!

The Daniel Spur Trail curves along the southern shore of Daniel Lake, and it's at one of the campsites on the lake where we spend the night. 

Lake Daniel and one of my favorite campsites of the trip.

The hammocks come out, and we all settle in for some well-earned rest.

This is what heaven looks like.

And later on, we're treated to the most amazing sunset of the whole trip. 

Each day, a new amazing: best part of the trip,
hands down.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Day Six: Okay, Who Pissed Off God?

Favorite DogGear: Big Anges's little Agnes sleeping bag. Being a boxer and a pit bull, I was worried the girls would get cold out in the woods. I looked for a decent dog bed for them, but couldn't find anything. So I bought a child's sleeping bag. The Little Agnes I got is good to 15 degrees F, and the perfect size for two 50lb dogs who like each other. Between their sleeping bags and their Chilly Dog coats, the girls stayed nice and toasty all week!

Close Encounters on the Wild Side: ticks, mosquitoes, and slugs, oh my. 

It's raining. Not the gentle, easy rain rain we've come to know and tolerate, but pouring, punishment-of-god rain. I'm just glad I upgraded my tent before this trip. And applied about ten pounds of seam sealer. Eesh. 

But hey - at least my boots are dry. 

Between the rain and my fat old lady knees, we decided to hunker down and lay low for a day. This means we're spending the day at probably the homeliest campsite I think I've ever seen in the BWCA. It's tiny and over grown and right on the trail and none of that really matters because we're all stuck in our tents hiding from the wrath of the gods anyway. 

I don't know that I can write a whole other entry about what it's like to be stuck in a tent in the rain, so instead I'll touch on some of the commands that have been useful for the girls to know on out trip. 

Let's Go - Our general let's move out cue. It means walk in front of me at a normal pace with a loose leash. 

Easy - Slow down to the pace of a snail so that I can get around, down, over, or under what ever obstacle is in the way. Or, if you're the girls, it means "slow down to the pace of a snail for no reason until mom tell us we can go again."

Wait - At home, this is my general "stop moving until I release you" cue. Up here, it's been getting quite the work out. It's been particularly useful for getting over fallen trees on the trail. The girls have to jump over these, but if they jump while I'm still at the starting line, they get yanked around by the leash. So now I tell the girls to wait, stagger, trip, or fall over the dead fall, and then release the girls to jump over it. Rubi and Piper have gotten so good that they don't really need me to cue the wait anymore: the stop in front of any dead fall they'll need to jump over and look back as if to say, "hurry up, lady, you're holding us back." The tree has become their cue to wait. Good girls!

Move - This is my "get out of my way fast before I fall on you" command. The girls know what "move" means because it's what I say right before I fall on them. They're smart girls. 

Recall - I haven't had to use it, but I'm sure it's important. The last thing I want is one of my girls lost in these woods. 

The rain finally lets up enough that we can refill our water bottles and -ahem, use the facilities. I bring my camera because what's a journal post without a few pictures? We may be stuck at the saddest little campsite in the Boundary Waters, but, well, there really aren't any ugly places in the BWCA. 

Rose Lake cliffs, just down the trail from our campsite.

View from the latrine.

View inside my tent. :)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Day Five: Significance

Favorite DogGear: REI dog packs. Tough, wearable, and stable - not nearly as difficult to size as the reviews make it seem. Twenty-five miles and not a blister or wear-spot on my girls. That's what's important to me; the rest is just icing. 

Close Encounters on the Wild Side: loons, more moose poop, squirrels, chipmunks, humans (so strange), eagle

I am falling apart. My knees have swelled up to grapefruit size, and I'm pretty sure someone filled them with sand because there's a rather . . . gritty sensation when I try to bend them. I twisted my left ankle. There's a raw patch on my lower back from trying to shift the weight of my pack off my shoulders. One of my toes has a blister on it. And I haven't had this may bruises and bug bites since I was eleven.

And each ding and scratch - well, they were 100% worth it.

Today, we walked up. Up and up and up the trail went, tempting us with glimpses of what we might see, but not surrendering any views worth standing still for.

A glimpse of Partridge Lake, where we camped the last two days. 

'Course, they were still pretty cool glimpses.

Then, we turned a corner, and it seemed like the whole world lay gallantly at our feet.

My brother takes in the view of Rat and Rose Lakes.

In her book, Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz talks about how much dogs understand about death. She believes - as do I - that they have some rough understanding of the concept. To support her theory, she points to the balcony aversion: " . . . dogs reflexively withdraw from true danger, be it a high ledge, a rushing river, or an animal with a predatory gleam in its eye. They act to avoid death."

If this is true, then Rubi must be suicidal. Every time we come to an overlook, she rushes to the edge, and it seems that only the leash stops her from taking the plunge. When held back, she take long moments to stare out over the forests and lakes. I know that her eyes are about as god as mine without my glasses - that is to say, not nearly as good as the camera lens. I can't help but wonder - what does she see out there, in the washes of green and brown and blue?

Rubi looks out across Rose Lake.

In contrast, Piper gives the cliffs edge a wide berth and takes our rest stop as an opportunity for just that - the chance to squeeze in a quick nap. I wonder if the difference isn't a breed trait? Rubi is an excellent example of the pit bull breed: what they should be, and what happens when they are not treated as they need to be. Pit bulls were bred for centuries to throw themselves into danger. Perhaps you could say that their sense of self-preservation has been suppressed. Is this why Rubi seems oblivious to the threat posed by the cliff's edge? I have never wanted more to know what my dog is thinking.

Oh, I know what she's thinking here!
She's thinking, "Food? Yes? Now?"

The girls pose for me in front of Rat and Rose Lakes.

My dad checks out the view.
This picture is how I will always think of him: tall, strong, a little larger than life.
He's pretty much my superhero. 

Unfortunately, we can't stay here forever, and it's not long before we're back on the trail.

What's the saying? If you're not the lead sled dog, the view never changes?

But after that first spectacular overview, the trail just gets more scenic. The cliffs along Rose Lake are widely agreed to be the most beautiful part of the Border Route Trail, and it's not hard to see why.

Rose Lake, near a little un-named lake where we stopped to eat and refill our water bottles.

Taking a rest near the un-named lake. 

A different perspective of the cliffs around Rose Lake.

Eventually, we come to a point where the only place to go is down.

See that rocky cliff over there? Remember it, it comes back.

And what a down it was! Squished between Duncan Lake and Rose Lake is the aptly named Stairway Portage Falls.

The Falls. 

View from the top.

My favorite picture of the Stairway Portage River. 

After the . . . adventure . . . of our last river crossing, you can imagine how relieved we were to find a foot bridge.

Oh, thank god. 

From there, we started to climb up again, almost straight up the side of a cliff. And once again, the work was more than worth it.

See tht cliff over there? Yeah, that's where we were for the last overlook.
This is the view from the cliff in that picture. Kind cool, huh?

The other side of Rose Lake.

With views like this, it's easy to feel insignificant. After all, this forest that seems so big to look at is only a tiny part of the Northwoods, which is just a tiny bit of the world. It's like looking up at the stars and knowing that the space you take up in the universe is less than a grain of sand on an ocean beach.

Instead of insignificant, though, I feel grateful. As if I've been given a gift - a fantastic treasure - that I do not deserve. After all, what have I done to earn such beauty?

This is the same feeling I often get when looking at my dogs.