After this video went viral in our household, (2 dogs and 3 humans) I thought I’d share it with the universe. It is a unity message, something we can all get behind!
Dogs and Animals
I’m writing this on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. I thought it was important to date this column because things are changing so fast!
I got up this morning, watched a snippet of the news, and then decided there was nothing I could do and that the best idea was to walk our dogs. They were nipping at my heels with excitement as soon as I put on my running shoes.
It was cold, but the rising sun was just beginning to warm the air. Walking out the door, the dogs were all in. There were a thousand smells, other dogs to bark at, and even a rabbit. Nellie, our eight-year-old Berner, took it all elegantly in stride. Maisie, our little but fierce terrier-chihuahua mix, really wanted to go after the rabbit. She strained at the leash, seeing herself as a wolf, even though she is all of twelve pounds.
Dr. George Sheehan, one of the early running gurus, wrote, “Never trust a thought come to while sitting down.”
I have tried to abide by that wisdom. When things are tough or seemingly out of control, I walk. The dogs are the best companions because they are so in the moment that it helps me keep perspective. I try to see the walk as they see it, the best part of the day, a chance to be outside on a beautiful New Mexico morning.
So we walked, and I let my thoughts ramble.
These last few days have been a reminder of one of the fundamental lessons the universe teaches: stuff happens. It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, or how busy or beloved we are: stuff happens. Mike Tyson famously said that everyone has a plan until they get into the ring and get punched in the mouth. Well, we just got punched in the mouth.
It happens out of the blue, often with little warning. To think otherwise, to believe that we are magically protected or that we have it all under control is an illusion. The dawning truth of the last few days is that we have little under our control.
I don’t think of that as troubling or depressing, it is just the way the universe works, and it is how life has worked going back forever. Wishing it were otherwise is like trying to wish away gravity.
All we can control is how we choose to respond to what happens. We can choose to be calm, while all around us people are hoarding toilet paper. We can choose to help others instead of obsessing about ourselves.
Even though we are “social distancing,” we can stay in contact with friends and relatives and help them stay calm.
We walked. Maisie tugged at her leash, eager for the next smell.
Nellie trailed behind, having been down this road a thousand times.
I thought about the other thing that crisis illuminates. We learn to really appreciate the now, this moment, this walk, knowing that the future (as it has always been) is uncertain.
A Zen story. A Zen monk is being chased by a tiger. He comes to a cliff and sees that the only way down is a large vine that trails down off the cliff into the fog below. The monk immediately begins to climb down the vine. To his horror, he looks up and notices that the tiger is climbing down after him. He looks down the vine and notices there is a boa constrictor, the largest one he has ever seen, climbing up the vine towards him. So a tiger above and a snake below. Then, he noticed on the vine a beautiful strawberry. He paused, picked the strawberry, ate it, and enjoyed it.
It feels as if we are surrounded by tigers and snakes, but we can also appreciate that at this moment, we are alive and well. We can enjoy the strawberry.
As we turned to go up our driveway, both dogs patiently waited for me to catch up. And I thought about one last thing, probably the most important thing that a crisis can teach us. That is to be kind.
A lot will happen over the next few weeks or months. We will be stressed and stretched. But through it all, we can be kinder to each other. We can take care of each other. We can remember that in times of trouble, we are responsible for each other.
Be Brave. Be Kind. Be Useful.
We have old dogs now. Our two Berners, Nellie and Tank are both approaching nine-years-old, which is getting up there for Berners. Nellie, the wiser of the two, would reject the idea of “old” and just think of herself as “mature.”
Old dogs are settled in their ways. They know the routine. Our dogs meet us in the morning at our bedside like they have since they were puppies. Nellie nudges me out the bedroom door towards the food dishes, as she has every day since I can remember. Interestingly, she is much less aggressive with her “nudges” than when she was a young dog. Then it was a friendly battle between our enthusiasms about the morning, who could get out the bedroom door first. She would bark and jump up, nipping at my heels, happy to be up and awake.
Now, knowing that I’m not a morning person anymore — nor is she a morning dog—, she is gentle but still insistent that we get going lest the whole morning be wasted.
Tank, true to his colors as the Beta dog, tags behind, a whine in his voice for he doesn’t like any shenanigans that might get in the way of him being promptly fed.
Yet neither of our dogs eat as voraciously as they have in the past. Nellie sometimes skips meals altogether.
The rest of the day is a well-worn path, although now we’ve had to make some modifications. After breakfast, we walk. But now we leave Tank behind because he has trouble with his hind legs. He barks valiantly, but I’m pretty sure that he’s comfortable with an after-breakfast nap.
Nellie still loves our walks, although she’s now one-eye’d (cancer took her left eye) and limps (three surgeries on her back legs). She is a constant reminder that we are all “TABS,” that is Temporarily-Able- Bodied. She limps, I limp, we laugh.
Our walks are calm now. In the past, every dog, car, or individual caused an uproar of curiosity and leash pulling and often led to embarrassing moments (for me) like having two leashes wrapped around my legs and being taken to the ground by enthusiastic Berners.
Now, nothing really distracts. It’s just the sound of our breathing and the feel of old muscles loosening up after too much laying around.
The rest of the day is spent avoiding the heat of the summer and finding the cool places to sleep. This is rotating work as the sun climbs in the sky and descends in the west heating different areas of the house. Tank arises with a groan when it is too hot, finds the next cool spot and collapses and is deep asleep within minutes — a daily routine. I could tell the time by just knowing where they are sleeping.
We don’t play anymore. We try. I can get Nellie worked up to chase me around the house, but it’s not the same. The fierce desire to catch me has been replaced by the comfort of knowing that I’m now an easy catch. She merely has to wait me out rather than run from one end of the house to the other. It turns out, that’s fine with me.
At night, after the dishes are done and we settle down in the living room, Nellie is on the couch, as close to me as she can be, a 130lb lap dog. There she falls asleep, snoring as she has a right, as an old dog, to do.
Tank, depending on the heat and if there are thunderstorms, curls up on the floor next to us. This he’s done every night throughout his life.
When we go to bed now, Nellie inexplicably is out the dog door and prefers sleeping outside on the portal (part of a fenced-in yard). An old dog under the Milky Way and the night sky. Occasionally we hear a deep-throated “woof” as she warns the coyotes that she is still in charge.
We’ve all grown old together. We’ve worn down the same path, constant companions. We’ve had great times in the mountains, and had fun sliding in the snow.
I know they are looking forward, as am I, to winter and cold temperatures. And I know, I know, that our time together is finite. But that makes the “now” so much more precious and sweet.
We are TABS. We are old dogs. Let’s make the most of it.
Tank was anxious.
The Alpha dog, Nellie, was away for a while, resting from surgery and still in a cast, she left Tank in charge but was a little aghast.
It was, Tank knew, a big chore. He had the humans to care for and the little dog Maisie.
His first nights without Nellie he slept not a wink, nervous he was that he might have to think.
Night patrols were a thing he’d never done, because Nellie was vigilant, so Tank just had fun.
But now he paced, checking each room. He barked at the coyotes in snow ‘twas knee deep.
It was hard to sleep with so much to do, so he cut down his nap time from six hours to two.
A bit about Maisie, to round out the tale. She was a tenth of Tank’s size but as tough as a gale. She was bossy and playful and often quite a handful.
Tank wondered if she would do in a clutch, for she often passed out on a bed and slept like the dead.
The weeks before Christmas went by and were calm, and Tank felt that his job was going quite well.
Things began to fall apart one day in the snow. A truck hit a tree when he tried to back up. Tank barked and barked to give a heads-up.
The next morning was worse for there were crows on the roof, pecking and clawing and clacking away. Tank jumped up and down and made such a noise that his dad came running expecting a fray.
But the crows flew the coup. Tank thought job well done! His dad went back to work feeling a bit duped.
That night was no better and I’ll tell you why. There was cooking and baking and cookies galore! There were crumbs on the counter. There were cookies on the stove.
Tank knew what his task was. . . But he loved cookies too!
Watching the cookies was his task, though he thought it a lot to ask! For he had a stomach that cried out for food, for dog food and human food and food for the fish!
Eating was always his greatest, greatest wish!
His stomach was wary that Christmas Eve night, as he prepared for his task of guarding the loot.
He waited quietly for the house to go dark, and then he moved quickly with not even a bark.
He stood in the kitchen where the cookies were kept, “Maybe just one?!” His stomach wept.
So up went his paws on the counter near the platter. But it made such a racket, indeed quite a clatter, that the house woke up to see what was the matter.
On went the kitchen lights and there stood Tank with a grin on his face, caught robbing the cookie bank!
“Oh, Tankie,” exclaimed mom, “we caught you in time. A few minutes more and the cookies would be gone.”
Maisie gave Tank a withering stare. Then she trotted back to bed, her tail in the air.
Oppressed and depressed, Tank thought to himself, This watchdog business is way overrated.
I warned of the truck, chased coyotes away! My reward should be plenty of cookies all day!
He grumbled some more, then gritted his teeth. He would prove to his family that he was no thief.
Tank slept cautiously ’til morning came, after all it was Christmas, and this wasn’t a game.
In swept the family as hungry as bears, completely aloof to all of Tank’s cares.
Tank opened his eyes and shook off his sleep, saw the family stood round him and jumped up with a leap. “Tank saved the cookies!” The mom called to all. “We avoided a brawl, you’re the best dog of all!”
Then Tank was given many a smile and a hug and just replied with a humble shrug.
Maisie harrumphed but then gave in with glee. And Tank was as happy as happy could be.
So the Christmas cookies were saved, and Tank was the hero, even Nellie would claim he was certainly no zero!
A dog’s job at Christmas is undoubtedly tense, with cookies and people one needs a sixth sense!
But Tank proved to his family he was up for the job and no matter what Maisie thought he wasn’t a slob.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year! May all the dogs and cats receive all the cookies they hold dear!
Wildfires and Pets
This article is about a crucial topic: Keeping your animals safe in this extraordinary wildfire season.
I’m writing this on a beautiful and cool morning, and at the same time we are in extreme drought conditions. To the north of Santa Fe, the drought conditions are called “exceptional” which is high as the scale goes.
If that isn’t enough, Santa Fe County has some of the most dangerous Wildfire-Urban Interface (Fire department-speak for homes in wilderness areas) in the country. The combination of terrain, fuel loads — types of burnable vegetation, mostly grass, piñón and juniper— weather conditions, and hundreds of homes in vulnerable areas are a volatile combination.
The other problem is that as Santa Feans, we have watched from a distance as big fires burned in the Jemez and north in the Santa Fe National Forest. We have not had the experience (like Los Alamos, or Colorado Springs, or California) of a big fire at our doorstep or actually burning into residential areas.
But it could be our turn next.
If this makes you a little nervous, welcome to the world of Santa Fe firefighters, who wake up every morning, check the weather, the sky and hope that today won’t be the day we get the “big one” that burns thousands of acres.
In one of my other vocations, (I live in Santa Fe, so, like most everyone else, I juggle at least four vocations) I am a volunteer firefighter with Hondo Volunteer Fire Department. Hondo sits southeast of town. One of our duties is inspecting homes to help homeowners figure out the best strategies for reducing the chances of a wildfire burning down their house. But one of the often-asked questions is what to do with our pets?
Here are my top tips:
1. Have a plan. It is important to not wait until there is a fire. A plan should include where you will take your animals. Dogs and cats can go to friends out of the fire zone, or to “doggie day-care.” A note: make sure that your dogs and cats are comfortable getting into a car so that you can do it quickly. If you have other pets, lizards, birds or snakes, (no comment) make sure you also have a plan for them.
Think about it this way: Imagine that your house might burn down or that you might not get back to your residence for up to 3-4 days. How would that influence your planning?
2. Be prepared to leave early. We don’t know how big or bad a fire could get or how fast it could spread. If you see or smell smoke or see fire, or a column of smoke wider than a mile in the distance, don’t wait for officials to tell you to leave. Leave early. Have at least two evacuation routes. Have a charged cell phone. It’s a good idea if you live in a vulnerable area to keep your car or truck full of fuel.
3. Next, coordinate with your neighbors. If you work and there is a fire that starts during the day, you might not be able to get back to your home to get your pets, either because of the fire or because the fire department is blocking access. (Now is the time to get to know your neighbors and have a community plan to take care of your animals!)
4. NEVER tie your pets up! NEVER let them run free thinking they will figure out what to do. In a big fire they will be just as terrified and confused as you are.
5. Especially if you live in a vulnerable area, consider having an emergency preparedness kit for your pet, including supplies (and water) for up to two weeks, collars and tags with proof of vaccinations.
A note about smoke. Often, we don’t get a fire, but we get the smoke from distance fires. Remember, pets are affected by smoke the same way humans are. If your pets are young and healthy, they can tolerate smoke for a few hours. But if they are older or sick, smoke can exacerbate illnesses. Just like humans, consider keeping your pets indoors with windows shut if it’s smoky outside.
Finally, worrying about stuff like this is built into the DNA of firefighters. And we want nothing more than to be wrong about the big one being out there. But most importantly we want you and your pets to be safe!
Well, today you are in luck. Recently I heard that Sweden was a serious dog-loving country, and as your intrepid columnist on all things Dog, I thought I should investigate.
First off, my wife Laurie — controller of all budgets — laughed when I mentioned that I should fly to Sweden to see first-hand their dog culture. That was how determined I was to bring you this story. But, chastened, I fell back on plan B. Instead, I interviewed Tobias Gustavsson, the Manager of Scandinavian Working Dogs in Stockholm. Tobias works all over Europe, Canada, and the United States training working dogs.
A quick note about Sweden: It’s about the size of California, but with a third of the population. (Ten million vs. thirty-five million).
And, a spoiler alert: It’s good to be a Hund (Swedish for Dog).
According to Tobias, for hundreds of years, Swedes have had a close relationship with their dogs. Of course, we, like most dog lovers, have a close relationship with our three dogs. But the difference is that dogs in Sweden are trained. Tobias pointed out that having untrained dogs or dogs that just live in the house or the yard seems just weird to Swedes. I imagined him sitting there with his three German Shepherd mixes calmly sitting at his feet, while our two Berners and our rescue dog, Maisie were going crazy barking at the UPS guy.
Swedes take their dogs everywhere, although like in the US, Swedish dogs are not allowed in cafés or shops because of dog allergies, although that seems to be changing.
In Sweden, there are working dog clubs in every little town. This tradition goes back almost one hundred years. It’s a rarity in Sweden to have a working dog that is not part of a club. It is, and Tobias stressed this, very organized. The average dog owner knows a lot about dogs. They train and work with their dogs on a regular basis.
The Swedes also seem to be crazy about dog obedience and agility games. The waiting lists are long, and it takes a lot of work and time to be accepted into the competitions.
Almost every dog, if they are part of a club or their humans want to breed them, are required to take an intelligence and personality test at seventeen months. Since 1971, all those results have been stored on a national Data Base to help individuals choose puppies.
A note: Our free-wheeling American dogs, Nellie, Tank and Maisie, would not do well with any test. They just wanted me to tell you that. No tests!
But what did intrigue our dogs was the amount of walking they do in Sweden. It is a dog walking paradise. In Sweden, most land is open to walk on, even “private” farmland. It’s a Scandinavian tradition called “freedom to roam.” (Quit grumbling, you private property folks, it works for them!) Everyone walks their dogs — Tobias walks and runs with his dogs up to 9 miles a day. (This led me to think, no wonder their dogs are so obedient, they’re exhausted!)
Finally, I asked Tobias how Sweden deals with stray and abandoned dogs. In the US it’s estimated that over seven million animals enter shelters yearly. He said that it is simply not a problem they have. There is only one government-funded shelter in Stockholm that receives strays and prepares them for adoption.
If this was the case, I thought, Sweden must spay and neuter most of their dogs. But Tobias told me that neutering is not a routine procedure. When a male dog becomes stressed by other dogs in heat is the only time they will turn to neutering. To help tamp down aggressive behavior, they focus on training. The belief in Sweden is aggression is learned behavior, and it is the dog’s owner who is responsible.
What struck me by the end of the interview was a cultural commitment to close companionship. Tobias emphasized that keeping dogs physically and mentally stimulated was thought of as a daily responsibility for dog partners in Sweden.
By the time I was done writing this column, our dogs had their bags packed and Swedish flags festooned their collars. They were ready to go. I told them to settle down; they couldn’t handle nine miles a day!