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Dog Days of Summer

Summer has come, and it has wrapped us all up in a thick cozy lethargy, like heavy velvet curtains pulled straight out of the dryer and thrown right over our heads.  If you throw a blanket over a dog’s head, they will either run around excitedly until they outrun the
darkness and/or run into something (in the case of most Labs), calmly remove the towel with a deft bite-and-flick (in the case of most Shepherds), or stand there like a tiny senile ghost until someone comes along to help (in the case of most other dogs).  Dogs either
love this game or find it immediately tiresome.  Likewise, people tend to either love the summer, or spend it racing from one air-conditioned space to another, pausing just long enough to express their feelings to anyone within groaning distance.  Summer has turned us all into dogs, in other words.  Dogs with blankets on our heads.  And I love that game.

Otis…isn’t he just an Otis?! 🙂

Summer brings out the kid in me.  I wake up early and with a deep urge to go explore things, and after my day’s exploration I tend to postpone bedtime as long as possible (“I don’t WANNA go to bed!”)  I want to eat endless ice cream and drink only the sugary-est of cold bubbly drinks.  I want to frolic in parks, zoos, beaches and everywhere in
between.  Most of all, I crave the feeling, after a long day spent covered in my own sizzling sweat, of suddenly plunging into a pool of deep, cool water.  Some of the dogs I walk share my enthusiasm.  Otis, for example, is always eager to get outside, and is never for a moment daunted by the fact that he is jet black and covered in a thick layer of insulation formed by a few too many doggy treats.  Being a Lab, I’m sure Otis would appreciate a good plunge as much as me.  But alas, he’ll have to make due with a nicely air conditioned home.  That, and a huge water bowl in which I always float ice cubes for him to bob for after our walks.

Cooper & Caleb

Other dogs are initially as eager as Otis to go for a walk, but the moment I open the door to the street they stop in their tracks and look at me as if to say “you have got to be kidding.”  Cooper is an excellent example.  I’m not saying he’s not tough (he’s not very tough) but he is certainly a dog that appreciates being comfortable. Give him a choice between a rug and a down pillow for his nap, for example, and he’ll not waste time pretending to consider the inferior choice just because he’s a dog.  And the down-side of air conditioning is that it conditions you to a level of comfort which, unfortunately, can’t quite be guaranteed for you once you venture out of your habitat and into what I’ll presume to call the “real world.” And if you’re Cooper, you probably have no notion that the whole world isn’t as pleasant as the 68 degrees that lie over you and your down pillow.  It really is quite a shock to him, poor guy, when I open that door.  Just as it would be a shock if we then returned home to find that all of his favorite soft places were suddenly turned to cinder blocks.  I can’t say why Caleb, his brother and co-cool climate connoisseur, doesn’t react in the same way.  Maybe his bladder is smaller?  Maybe he likes the heat, like me?  Anyway, I sympathize with poor Mr. Cooper. It must be rough having air conditioning (sigh).  I’m sure glad I don’t have to deal with all that sweet, sweet comfort (whine).

Biggie (as in Biggie Smalls)

Rocco

Some dogs, like Torrey, Biggie and Rocco, are actually forbidden to leave the house if it’s too hot, for health and safety reasons.  I can’t say I mind chilling out and playing with them inside for a while, but it seems they’re missing out on the “dog days of summer.”  Aren’t the dog days supposed to evoke images of Bloodhounds on porches afflicted with near-fatal lethargy?  Or dogs that interrupt desperate naps so they can concentrate on panting for a while?  In that case, Cooper might actually be more suited for these dog days after all.  Place him in the traditional “dog days” tableau and he’d find the cool dirt under the deck in no time, while Caleb would be too busy scurrying around like a gleeful idiot (like me) and wasting the good shade.

The term “the dog days of summer,” in case you were wondering, is actually a classical astrological reference to the time of year when the star Sirius is in its ascendency, Sirius being known as the “dog star” for its prominence in the constellation Canis Major (Latin for “Big ole Pooch”).  Sirius is the brightest star in the sky during the months of July and August, and the ancients believed it drove people nuts.  The “dog days of summer” are thus a time when people and animals become a tad feverish and lusty–crazy, in other words.  So if you’ve noticed some disquieting or uncouth behavior (a man walking around with his t-shirt on his head, for example), then I think it’s fair to say the dog days have arrived.  Blame it on that big bright star in the sky.  It’s easier than blaming ourselves and our myopic lifestyles for a changing climate.  But I digress.

Delilah, in her Winter gear!

No doubt, summer is a nutty time.  Crime rates go up, markets are volatile, and revolutions tend to accelerate their spin.  Yet for every person you see running around like a pinball, cart-wheeling and jumping-jacking in as little flower-print clothing as they can legally wear, there is at least one person (and as many as one hundred) who stagger about glassy-eyed, as if unsure of whether they’re really awake or even alive.  Ever see a zombie movie that takes place in the winter?  Nope.  Think about it.  Summer = maniacs and zombies.  It’s a documented fact.  And it applies to dogs too.  Otis and Caleb have gone a little batty, but even they can’t compare to Delilah the Dachshund.  You’d think that being low to the ground and thus closer to the hot pavement would enervate her just the teensiest bit.  But no, she’s so eager to get out into the heat that she warms up in the
apartment when I arrive by doing a few extra laps around the living room.  She burrows in between cushions to escape the air conditioning, and shows off all the new dance steps she’s been practicing non-stop since I last saw her (Salsa and Meringue, mostly).  She’s decided that Sirius is the new alpha of her celestial pack, and pays homage to him by dragging me around like a sacrificial lamb.  But I am an unfit sacrifice.  For though I love the summer, my heart is not pure:  I happen to love the autumn, spring and winter too.

But summer reigns, and we poor creatures on this mortal heat coil are much abashed.  But what can we do?  The beaches are all standing-room only; city pools are by now mostly urine; the corner ice cream shop just went public on the NYSE, and prices are soaring.  Even the fireflies have begun blinking “SOS” in Morse code.  Seriously.  I’m not making any of this up.  I’m embellishing, sure, but my hyperbole pales compared to the actual facts:  it’s officially the hottest summer on record in the United States.  Over 3,000 local heat records were broken in the month of June alone.  It was the hottest Fourth of July in
Chicago in over 50 years. The warmest average temps ever recorded in a 12-month period (June-to-June).  With such a warm winter and spring, it’s easy to forget that the season is still young.  We still have August to go!  I’ve ruined two t-shirts with perspiration, and torn a third into an impromptu turban (okay so that was me, but Sirius made me do it).  Oh well.  Just remember that by the time we get out from under Sirius’ spell it will be the verge of winter, and we won’t even remember what being “hot” feels like.  Our poor pups will need sweaters and boots again.  We’ll say “come Sirius!”, but he won’t. He’ll be on the other side of the world, seeing how much Australians like playing the blanket game.

The Elevator Class (with Dogs!)

I’m not a member of what you might call the elevator class.  I trudge up each and every stair to reach my domicile, and no matter how heavy my groceries or books or weary bones are, no fancy mechanism is ever standing by to whisk me to my door.  So when I first started walking dogs in Chicago, I didn’t quite have my elevator sea-legs yet.  Of course I’d ridden an elevator before, and so I knew the most important information about them:  if you time your jumps right, you can either spring as high as you can only to land at the apex of your jump, or you can remain floating in the air for a half-second longer than your inner ear tells you that you should (depending on if you’re going up or down, starting or stopping, alone in the elevator or surrounded by people whose reproachful scowls don’t bother you, etc.).  Now, riding up and down hundreds or thousands of feet every day, I consider myself a very skilled rider.  But when I started, there was a lot I didn’t know.

The view from the elevator class.

These modern high-rise elevators are something special.  It makes sense that the luxury home conveyances of the super-rich should be very fast.  After all, these are people who are apt to say things like, “time is money,” and feel like they never have enough of either. They’ve worked hard for their skybox homes, and might resent the irony that such work so often keeps them away from its own reward. So it’s not nice to keep them waiting in steel boxes.  They need to get to the 35th floor pronto.  Makes sense.  It also makes sense that such people’s elevators, though very fast, should be extremely smooth and comfortable, much like the luxury cars that they leave on the ground below (and which take separate elevators, accompanied by personal valets).  It makes further sense that elevator technology would be remarkably advanced, since the elevator is a relatively old invention, millions of people ride in them every second, and most of these people spend the majority of their vertical trip in contemplation of the form, function and safety of the elevator.

Cooper & CalebIndeed, elevators may well be one of the most thoroughly considered appliances in history.  So yeah, it figures they’d be high-tech, fast and smooth.  I hadn’t thought about it before, but as I lay sprawled out on an elevator floor, in hind-sight and on my hiney, I took comfort in the neat logic of why my jump game had so dramatically failed. Because they are sooo smooth, I hadn’t appreciated the great speed (20 floors in less than ten seconds) with which these elevators accelerate. It didn’t occur to me that if you board an elevator with a happy furry friend and then squat down to pet this friend, you will in fact be squatting down at the exact moment that your body mass quadruples.  In fact, one doesn’t need to squat down:  if you just go soft in the knees, the sudden push downward will make the squat happen automatically.  Bend over to pet a dog, and that dog will be delighted by your surprise urge to kiss them.  Cooper and Caleb, a Poodle mix and a Jack Russell mix, respectively, love riding in the elevator with me for just this reason.  We usually have a large freight elevator to ourselves, and so naturally I do my best to turn it into a floating bounce house.  I recently noticed that there is a security camera in the corner of the elevator car.  If doormen are watching, I hope they are as amused by our goofy performance as we are.  I don’t begrudge them the laughs they get at my expense as I tumble through the atmosphere, because I like having these guys on my side, as I’ll explain.

Dogs can feel tiny shifts in the ground that presage an earthquake, supposedly, so I imagine their paws tell them when we begin to fly up two hundred feet in an instant.  I hope so, because otherwise the implications for elevators vis-a-vis their canine passengers are a little unsettling.  Do dogs think these are just magic boxes? That the doors are like curtains that close on one scene and open on another?

Dogs have lots of faith in humans to facilitate the satisfaction of their needs and desires, though this must occur by inexplicable means. How come, a dog might wonder, it is the middle of the night, and yet the human can hit that little nob on the wall and suddenly its noon? How come I just peed on that rug, and yet it no longer bares the scent of my carefully-considered mark, even though all the human did was spray some stuff on it?  How come you gave me those disgusting treats when I was sick, and now I’m not sick anymore?  How come you hold my water bowl under that shiny stick thing and suddenly I have fresh water?  How come you put those drops on my neck, and I never get fleas?  How come we get into this little room where we play and sometimes get to smell strange people’s legs, and then when we get out we’re in a totally different place?  Presumably, dogs are untroubled by such questions.  Which is a good thing, because if they were, the answers would strain credibility.  Better to skip the bafflement and just go along for the elevator ride.

Why can't I push this button any faster??????

There are other hazards to elevator living, particularly when your front door is an elevator door.  In some of the houses I visit, the elevator opens directly into the apartment.  This is really cool, of course, but when you are trying to shepherd three tiny dogs into a small, windowless room that will carry them outside, it is all too easy to leave one behind.  Torrey, a Yorkshire Terrier, and Biggie and Rocco, Pomeranian siblings, are collectively about the size of my shoe.  They have a way of scampering hither and tither, both coming in to lick my nose and darting away to avoid their harnesses.  Sometimes I feel like a planet orbited by small furry satellites with erratic orbits.  One day recently, I opened these pup’s front door to take them out to walk (which is to say, I pressed a button shaped like an arrow pointing down) only to realize that I’d left my poop bags sitting by the door.  I turned around to get them, and when I turned back there were two dogs staring at me, with a closed elevator door behind them.  I paced and fidgeted as the elevator came back up, gnashed my teeth when the door opened to reveal total doglessness, and abused the “L*” button on the way down to the lobby, where Torrey sat waiting, and more than a little confused.  I had not, up to that point, picked Torrey up, since she is a little shy and likes her affection on her own terms.  But I didn’t hesitate to swoop her up and give her a big kiss on the head.

Another trick to high-rise living is doormen.  When I started walking in Chicago, the doormen didn’t know me.  Every day, in every building I entered, they greeted me cooly and forced me to sign the guest register.  They called for confirmation, and made me stand like a kid outside the principal’s office as they eyed me disapprovingly. Doormen, I figured, are naturally loyal and wary persons who jealously defend the exclusivity of a class to which they do not belong.  How pathetic!  I resented their grandiose vigilance at first, because I thought they were trying to intimidate me, like a bouncer, for the sake of their own egos.  By now, though, I understand that they aren’t so much protecting Ms. Smith in apartment 28B from the likes of a sulky, admittedly grungy potential thief like me; no, they are protecting their own jobs from the complaints of Ms. Smith if I should happen to violate the sanctity of her 3,000 sq. ft. palace in the sky.  By now, all the doormen know me.  I can walk past the log book and exchange pleasantries and small talk like every other regular mailman, plumber or wealthy resident.  I can stroll in to an enormous building, say “Hi Mike how was your trip?” or “James! Good to see you,” and be admitted into the inner-circles of the building’s micro-cosmic world.  I can even just flash a thumbs up.

The password to these buildings is whatever I happen to say, and though the rich people in the elevators act like they don’t know why I’m winking at them, deep down they understand that I am one of them: I am a member of the elevator class.

Dogs in Vogue: Greater Swiss Mountain Dog

Jameson the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog

You heard it here first: the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is the IT breed of the future. I hate that last sentence. It’s probably true, but it implies that a dog is a fashion accessory rather than a real and long-term commitment. Nor do I want to encourage people to seek out exotic pure-bred dogs rather than visiting their local animal shelter. Still, after spending the weekend with a seven month old “Swissie” named Jameson, I’m convinced that she and her kind are too good to remain secret for much longer. Inevitably you will start seeing Swissies all over the place, and with good reason. Let me break it down:

Swissies are very large dogs, similar in build to their Newfoundland or Great Pyrenees cousins. Unlike these jolly beasts, however, Swissies have a relatively short coat of beautiful tri-coloration, with black bodies and heads, white chests and paws and caramel colored legs and cheeks, with two sweet caramel drops over the eyes. They are mellow and proud creatures that are quick to smile, probably a demeanor learned from their original Swiss herders, or Senn, who created them and the three other breeds known as Sennenhund. All four of the Sennehund breeds are remarkably similar in appearance, size being the primary difference between them. The most famous flavor of Sennehund is the Bernese Mountain Dog, which are basically smaller, longer-haired Swissies. The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, in other words, is in fact the Greatest Swiss Mountain Dog Of All. And they can do it all. Developed, probably, from Roman war dogs brought through the Alps in the first century AD, Swissies were expected to herd, pull carts, guard homes and flocks, hunt, and really just do everything that was asked of them. Their big, deep, scary bark attests to their guard instincts, their love of fetching and order betrays their inner herder, and their incredible strength convinces you they could indeed pull a cart (the title “poor man’s horse” is well deserved). Jameson may only be a puppy, but she already amazed me with her tractor power. Likewise with her big bark. She barked at objects in the house that were new or had somehow changed. A suitcase left in the hall where none had been before, for example, prompted Jameson to bark and growl and look to me for cues on how to deal with the intruder. Since I was particularly unhelpful on the subject (I merely re-stated the obvious question “wuz that Jameson? huh? should we bark at it?”) eventually she determined on her own that the suitcase wasn’t a threat, wasn’t going to be scared off, and could always be killed later if necessary, after a nap.

So these dogs are beautiful, intelligent, loyal, versatile, protective (though sweet) and full of fun quirky personality. What’s the catch? According to their owners, there’s only about 5,000 Swissies in the whole country. Clearly there is a catch. Probably they are prone to health problems, right? Nope! They are relatively trouble-free dogs when it comes health, including the typical bugaboos of big breeds such as hip dysplasia and cancer. They are susceptible to bloat, but this can be prevented easily enough. They also tend to have attacks known as “lick fits,” in which the pups begin to obsessively lick everything around them including the air. While this may sound like an adorable episode of uncontrollable zest for life (or at least taste), lick fits are actually like seizures and, according to Jameson’s doting pet parents, actually rather scary. They are probably the unintended result of some quirky gene combination that comes with having a restricted gene pool for many generations (after all, pure bred=inbred). Jameson did not have any lick fits while I was with her, but the procedure was fairly straight-forward for if she had: calm her with soft words and gentle petting, give her a saltine cracker or a tums if she should swallow too much of the air while licking it. And prepare to get licked. But that’s it!

Otherwise, they are healthy dogs that can expect to have a relatively trouble-free and long life for a big breed. So again: what’s the catch? They can be active dogs and love to frolic and play (and though I try, I can’t over-state how strong they can pull: there’s a video of a Swissie pulling a 5,000 lb. cart) but are also mellow, lazy and often content to flop around for hours on end. They’re good family dogs and good companions, and as generalists, they’re good at just about everything they do. And of course they’re beautiful, with powerful and well-proportioned bodies wrapped up in short, smooth and beautifully colored fur. I couldn’t walk Jameson without being approached by some or all passers-by wanting to pet her or ask me what breed she was and where can they get one. Jameson, being a puppy, was delighted by this attention but Jameson, being a Swissie, also decided on occasion that the approaching person was something to scare off with a big booming “woof!”

Taking a nap!

So again, what’s the catch? Why are Swissies still so rare? It could be because they’re expensive dogs, and must be purchased from breeders which are still few and far between. It could be that they’re expensive to feed and deserve plenty of living space. It could be that they need a steady and confident hand to raise them, since they are confident, proud dogs and, as I’ve said, weigh as much as some humans and can tow your Ford. But still. Why are they so rare? After wrestling or playing or napping with Jameson on and off for a weekend, I count myself among the converted. And like anyone who’s in on a thing, I can’t help but be amazed that other people aren’t totally in on my thing.

Adopting is better, always. There are so many reasons why this is so that to list them all here would make all the above talk about Swissies seem like a tangent. And any one of these unstated reasons is reason enough to explain why there aren’t more Swissies in the world. I don’t want to encourage even one person to go to some obscure breeder in Tennessee and drop two grand on an inbred, instead of going to their shelter and falling in love with a critter that needs you and will love and devote itself to you for the rest of his or her days. But still, Jameson is an undeniably wonderful dog. Just as Goldendoodles, Labradoodles and all other kinds of Doodle are wonderful, sweet and lovable pets and are also obscure breeds that are enjoying a vogue, so too will the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog soon start appearing everywhere. Your neighbors will have siblings who have them. Your boss will not stop talking about his new one. You’ll start seeing them everywhere, and you’ll be wary of a fad like any self-respecting person, but inevitably you’ll concede that yeah, those are pretty cool dogs. Where did they come from? How come I never heard of them before now? And why is that one pulling a wagon full of kids and barking at a stump? And then you’ll remember this blog, and go get a Swissie from the shelter.

A Dog Walker’s Place in this World (and oodles of love for Sally!)

Sally - enjoying the good life!

Dog walking is not glorious work. No lives are saved. No progress is made. If I failed to  perform my duties, the world at large would not notice. On the other hand, if I were the greatest dog walker in the world (whatever that means), it wouldn’t count for much in any grand kind of scheme. Political prisoners and refugees would roll their eyes at me doing my professional best; policy makers and art dealers wouldn’t even bother to shrug. When I come home after a day’s walking, hypocrisy remains un-confronted and injustice scurries about free as ever. Rare and wonderful expressions of tropical life are at this moment about to be bulldozed into oblivion, and I do nothing to save them. I didn’t yesterday, and I probably won’t find time for it tomorrow either. For someone who likes to consider their scope wide their imagination fertile and their benevolence robust, a life walking other people’s dogs might seem like kind of a drag. Not so, I declare, and I’ll tell you why.

Dogs are simple creatures. Their needs are few and easily met. Their feelings and concerns are all-consuming (if mercurial), and they don’t hedge in communicating them to us. They live in the present moment just like a fish or a deer or an enlightened spiritual guru, and so they cannot help but be completely sincere always. Everything they do, including sleeping (the thing they do most) is done with the utmost enthusiasm. I think this is why a sad dog is so pathetic: it is a sadness without comprehension but with total conviction, and so it reminds us of bereavement. A sad dog is like a lamp lying on its side: one readily imagines how easy it would be to set it right. And then when a dog is happy again, they are so earnestly happy that they change the whole atmosphere around them, radiating like a lamp with ease and purpose. And this is why I like walking dogs; because I make them happy. True, the happiness of a dog is a relatively small return on a human’s investment of labor, especially if the human is, say, a cancer researcher, peace broker, political activist, etc. But it is an immediate and palpable return. And it is contagious. I can’t always make people happy, since people are, taken as a whole, too complicated and too crazy to even define happiness. But I can almost always make a dog happy. And happy dogs can almost always make people happy, especially if you parade around with them in public so they can display their smiles and smile-shaped tails for all to see.

More than any other dog I’ve walked, Sally has claim to the highly-contended title of “My Favorite.” I left Sally in Oak Park and though I haven’t seen her in months, I wanted to dedicate a special blog to her; because Sally loves me. About the time I began my new big-city route, Sally’s family moved from their apartment to a new house with a nice yard. Coincidence? The running joke was that Sally was my girlfriend and that I would fight anyone else who dared to walk her, even if I was out of town or unavailable. I didn’t actually fight anyone, but I did make sure that every other walker/suitor knew that, though she wagged and smiled for them, she wasn’t really enjoying herself because she likes me and only me. Happiness flooded out of Sally whenever she saw me, from the simultaneous two-stepping of her front and back legs to the making of base camp on my lap. She moved as if possessed by an alien force. And in a way she was. For though she can enjoy nice weather, interesting smells, eating things and all the other little pleasures which are available to any creature, she would never, I think, reach the semi-ecstatic state I witnessed daily without the company of a human. And though I liked to think Sally required my special skills to reach the apex of her joy, she probably also appreciates the company of her owners too (just a bit). Awful nice of those lovely folks to take care of her for me between my visits.

Dogs are our creations and they need us. They like us automatically and resolutely. We are, quite literally, their reason for living. But domestication is a devil deal, for all its comforts and conveniences are alloyed with total ultimate dependence. And dogs, unlike horses or chickens or cats, can’t really hack it in the wild. Besides, they aren’t truly fulfilled unless partnered with the species which created them and then declared them their best friend. Like a boulder sitting on a mountain top, dogs are full of potential energy, (albeit joyous far-out psychic energy) and just need a friendly human to give them a nudge (and a petting) and set them rolling. And Sally got lots of petting. She is one of the softest creatures to have ever existed, rivaled only by newborn arctic foxes and the now-extinct Great Andean Tree Chinchilla. Her fur is so thick that when I stroked my hand from her head to rump, static electricity discharged like arcs of lightening into the room. Sally is smart, well-mannered and eager to please, without ever seeming fawning or undignified. She is wary of other dogs, but only because they remind her that she is one of them, and not the winsome sophisticated human lady that she thinks she is. In fact, if the soul of such a person were to somehow pass through the Twilight Zone and land in the body of a dog, that dog would probably behave just like Sally. And considering all the love and care Sally gets (not to mention the new yard), you could even consider such a reincarnation to be a karmic reward. If I ever become a dog, I hope I have as good a pal as Sally had in me. And I hope I deserve it, even if I never quite cure cancer.

John & Sally on their last day together!After my last visit with Sally, her owners left me a thoughtful and hilarious gift. All who saw it were jealous. I never got a chance to thank them, though I use it every day. It reminds me of all the fun times with My Girl Sally, and it works as a charm against feelings of superfluidity. In a culture obsessed with achievement, celebrity and clout, one has to argue in defense of a simple, modest lifestyle. I do not yearn for great wealth, don’t pine for power, or desire to join the addicts’ pursuit of the latest status tokens. I don’t even want to be famous (though, embarrassingly, I was on TV: http://www.wciu.com/youandme.php?section=home&assets=videos&assetID=10007938). In short, I am a shining example of my generation’s supposed hedonism, hyper-humanism, narcissism, etc etc. And it’s been working for me, if only for me. Primum non nocere: “First, do no harm.” This is the essence of the old Hippocratic Oath for doctors, and it seems like a good start for anyone. I never got around to aspiring to be a doctor, but I still consider the oath a worthy maxim. But what’s secundo? What comes next? That one’s tougher. I may only figure it out retrospectively, as I look back on my life as an old man. But in the meantime, dogs like Sally allow me to transform every day from an irrelevant laborer into a master alchemist as I turn thoughtless canine boredom into unlimited delight. Every day I usher a little joy into the universe, and with dogs like Sally, all I have to do is walk through the door. It’s glorious.

Ode to the Oak Park Park, Part 3

Raphael and Ramona were some of the most challenging and rewarding dogs it was ever my privilege to visit.  Raph is a Rat Terrier, which means that it is his purpose in life to tell every single squirrel he ever saw or thought he saw that he hates them, wants to hurt them, and would be at that moment climbing the trees after them to deliver a rapid series of squirrel-piercing bites if not for the fact that he was just barely restrained by a human several dozen times his size. Since I am not a squirrel, I was entitled to the pleasure of the other side of Raphael’s personality, which is the “I’m going to jump up and down in the general vicinity of your thighs until your thighs become a lap and then I will jump onto your lap and gaze into your eyes with all the love that I have not lost on squirrels” side.  Faced with such a gaze, I couldn’t help but lie and I swear that I had never harbored aided or admired squirrels in any way.  How could I not? Raphael is not only named after an artist but also bears a striking resemblance to the celebrity dog from the film “The Artist.”  I think people would be gushing all over him but for the fact that he is usually possessed by the above-mentioned berserker state.

Ramona is a Boston Terrier, the fifth example of the breed I’ve ever encountered and remarkably similar in temperament to the other four, just as she is remarkably similar to Raphael in coloring.  Unlike Raph, Ramona doesn’t care about squirrels in the least, but like Raph (and like all other Boston Terriers, I’m ready to assume) she has more energy than she knows what to do with and burns off some of it by dashing tither and fro trying to kiss you on the nose.  This kiss is less like a dog kiss than a human kiss, in that she’s not  slobbering all over you but rather jabbing her doggy lips at your own.  She was always a challenge to get a harness on since I had to first catch her and then try to hold her squirming body with one arm as I maneuvered the harness with the other.  Between Ramona and her brother Raph, just getting outside to where their energy could be properly expressed was an accomplishment in itself.  Keeping admiring passers-by from trying to fondle them was another challenge, since, as I said, they’re both adorable and, well, they match.  Not tripping on them heading down the stairs was also difficult, since the stairs were narrow and the dogs were all over them.  But though the challenges were many and great, the rewards were always much greater.  We had lots of fun rolling around, those dogs and I, and I wish them and their owner all the best.

Tsuki enjoying the snow!

Tsuki is a goof.  I can think of no other word to describe her.  The words “Chesapeake Bay Retriever” come close, and perhaps the Chesapeake Bay Retriever fan club has a single word they use when describing their dogs but are tired of saying “Chesapeake Bay Retriever.”  I have never attended a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever fan club and am not privy to the minutes, so I don’t know what this word might be.  I can imagine them standing around drinking Chardonnay and wearing boat shoes and talking about their “Chessies,” but to me this sobriquet suggests a rather nerdy breed (as in “Chess Club Members”) and nerdiness suggests great intelligence and less than great beauty, which, in my experience, is a very deceptive characterization of the breed.  So I’ll go with goof.  Tsuki always inspired linguistic adventurism in me, I really can’t say why. Whenever I walked in her door I called out “SOOOK!” as loud as I could, and over time this call emanated from farther and farther back in my throat, while my lips projected ever farther out into an effective bugle shape.  Eventually this call came to sound less like a name and more like a moose swallowing an oboe.  But Tsuki got the message and always came trotting up with a big goofy grin on her face.

A portion of Tsuki’s lower jaw was removed during cancer surgery, and this causes her nose to lean slightly to one side and her upper lip to hang down a little farther than it’s probably used to.  The overall effect is barely noticeable, and on the whole it only lends itself to the natural and correct conclusion, for anyone who sees her, that this dog is a goof.  She is also a terrible walker, at least if the goal of a walk is considered to be exercise in any form.  For Tsuki and I never made it around a full city block, intent as she always is on smelling every plant, tree, street sign or object we passed.  If the goal of a walk is to inhale the whole neighborhood, Tsuki is the champion.  She always looked at me with such a sad, dejected (and goofy) expression whenever I decided that she’d smelled a particular smell long enough, as if I was arbitrarily taking all her fun away. What I knew, however, and that Tsuki never could quite seem to imagine, is that there are always equally enchanting smells just a couple feet away.  These she would pounce on as if she’d just made a momentous discovery, and so we would progress down the street.  When she wasn’t sniffing she was “tsuking,” which is another linguistic novelty she inspired.  Whenever there was snow on the ground, Tsuki would writhe and burrow in it with more joyful urgency than any dog I’ve ever seen.  Her enthusiasm and her goofery (another new word inspired by Tsuki) was contagious, and sometimes I joined her for a roll in the snow or at least helped to bury her.  Tsuki is a really fun, happy, and endearing ball of goof, and I will always remember her when I soook at the moon.

Josey

Josey is easily the most unusual dog I ever walked.  I walked her every day for over a year, and still find her baffling.  She is not a young dog, though her age is disguised by the fact that she is and has always been grey-haired.  Her long straight hairs also cover her old-dog body, so to look at her you might put her age anywhere between 2 and 45.  But to see her walk, you could only conclude that Josey is either ancient or under water.  It is as impossible to imagine Josey running as it is to imagine her biting someone, so mellow and sweet is her nature.  The poor girl seems to try very hard to focus on what’s happening around her, but any given task (walking up and down stairs, getting a drink of water, stepping onto the grass to pee, etc.) seems to take extraordinary pains of contemplation.  Josey is also encumbered by her ability to see ghosts.  I’ve written about this before; suffice it to say that she is forever looking over her shoulder and staring off into space, seemingly captivated by whatever phantoms she perceives there.  It’s possible that she has a speck in her iris or something that results in some blip permanently in her peripheral vision, and the fact that Josey’s attention span is no greater than a blip means that she is forever thinking “what’s that?” and then getting distracted by something else (like trying to remember which paw to step with next), effectively wiping the slate clean, so to speak, for the thought to re-emerge as if it were a novel discovery: “what’s that?”  I’m not saying Josey is stupid.  In fact she could be performing advance calculus in her head all the time for all I know.  Nor does she seem distressed by the overwhelming complexity of the world, since she is almost always smiling, wagging her tail slowly and generally projecting an air of calm bemusement, as if all the world was a midnight re-run.  I could say so much more about Josey but I think I would only be repeating previous blog posts, so I’ll just close with the one image of Josey I will most likely never forget:  when house-sitting with Josey one night, I was softly awakened by a slight sensation from the dark room (a noise or a movement of air, I can’t say what exactly) and when I opened my eyes I beheld not six inches from my nose the most unusual face I ever hope to wake up to.  The darkness of the room, the several seconds during which I forgot where I was and the extraordinary proximity of this large animal (Josey is a big tall Bearded Collie Mix) made me inhale sharply in what I proudly consider to be well-controlled panic.  I suppose if Josey was capable of looking at all menacing I might have screamed and emptied my adrenal glands, but something about her face was so disarming that relief came to me as quickly as the shock.  The very next thought into my mind was “Wookie,” for in that moment Josey looked exactly like an old grey-haired Chewbaka moving in for a kiss. Who knows how long she’d been watching me in the dark?  What a wierdo! But she’s a real sweetheart and a very good pal as well.

Sam

Sam the Yellow Lab pulled so hard that he broke his harness.  That was a sad day for me and everyone who walks Sam, because without that harness to restrain him, Sam pulls and lunges with all his might, practically strangling himself during the entirety of our long walks. Sam’s harness was unlike anything that any walker had ever seen, and for months no one could figure out how to put it on him.  Every day I allotted myself a few minutes of puzzle time before I gave in to Sam’s eager “let’s GO!” dance, hooked the leash up to his collar and prepared my arm for near-dislocation.  It became a game.  I’d think of some new approach to try, it would fail, and I’d put it off till next time.  Then one day, a brilliant walker named Sarah decided to Google the brand and found a nice diagram.  She shared the news and it spread like wildfire among Sam’s walkers, who rubbed their sore shoulders as they smacked themselves on the head for not having thought of that in the first place.  It turns out the harness wasn’t even really a harness, but rather a special dog seatbelt that just happened to work. And then when it broke, there was much wringing of hands and purchasing of ibuprofin.  For Sam lived in River Forest, a place that made Oak Park look like a slum.  Homes in River Forest don’t have lawns but rather Olympic soccer fields, and they have lots of deer available to trim them.  Sam loves deer poop as much as Cortes loved gold, and he always tried as hard as he could to pull toward wherever his nose told him there was a little pile of black deer berries waiting for him.  The only other way to keep Sam from choking himself in search of his strange treasure was to walk really fast.  This we could do because the streets  in Sam’s neighborhood are a quarter mile long (to accommodate five or six properties per block) and totally empty of other dogs and pedestrians.  So big jolly Sam and I often speed-walked or jogged, and since his walk was usually one of the last on my schedule, I considered it my last big effort of the day. We had lots of fun, Sam and I, and I could go on and on about our many adventures, but I have to go on and on about other dogs too.  So, bye Sam.

Callie

Callie, oh Callie.  Where to begin?  She’s one of Out-U-Go!’s oldest and most frequent critter clients.  She has been with Out-U-Go! so long that the owner of the company used to walk her, back before he was the owner of the company.  She’s one of the originals, and she has averaged at least three walks a day almost every day during that whole time.  She has so many walkers that during the Holidays, her wonderful owners (both busy doctors) left a stack of gift cards near the back door (right next to the big bowl of dog-walker candy) so that each of her many different walkers would all be sure to get one.  Callie is as professionally cared-for as a Panda in a zoo.  Unlike a Panda though, Callie has bitten most of her care-takers. As soon as you walk in her house, Callie begins to bark at you as if you were a dangerous intruder and not a friendly familiar person who comes at about the same time every day.  If she’s awake, that is. Usually she’s off snoring somewhere, but if you call her name loudly and often enough, eventually you will hear the barking echo.  With me, Callie always dropped the bluff toughness very quickly and rambled over to bury her face in my crotch (I never once left Callie’s house not covered in hair).  The time she bit me I was wiping her paws; I’d wiped three and was reaching for the fourth when she decided she’d had enough.  I told the story to other walkers and they uniformly agreed that trying to wipe Callie’s paws was a suicidal act, and that it was remarkable that I’d managed to wipe three before she elected to chomp on my hand.  Anyway, lesson learned.  Then it was out for a slow stroll around the block during which time Callie mostly just announced her feelings to the world tried to eat poop.  She was amazingly manageable on the walks, and it always reminded of a scene in the film “A Touch of Evil” where Orson Well’s character, an obese, cruel and unscrupulous border sheriff, a man who dominates every situation always gets what he wants, sits quietly mumbling and grumbling while another character  convinces him of something that we the audience know is not in his interest.  I’m not saying Callie is evil or obese (unscrupulous yes), or that I didn’t always have her interests at heart, but whenever she was affectionate or manageable (as she often was with me) I always had the same sense of getting away with something.  She’s the Godmother of Oak Park, and I will always remember her as such.

Kitty can’t.  It’s not Dora-ble.  Ernest Hemingway described his home town of Oak Park as a place of wide lawns and narrow minds, and as I walked its peaceful streets with two little pups trotting along by my side and these two awful puns tripping around in my head, I proved him right on the second count at least.  The lawns, for their part, are certainly impressive, more sculptured lawnscapes than mere plots of turf, though even in their stylized splendor they seem to me hardly as conspicuous as the massive heritage  architecture that sprouts from their midst.  Perhaps fine gardens were, in Hemingway’s day just as in ours, sine quo non for Midwest suburban gentry.  Considering the countless platoons of elite gardeners and landscapers constantly toiling to preserve these great vegetable moats, there can be no doubt but that they are indelibly linked to the economy of the area. Considering Hemingway’s birth home (I’ll just say the man did not come from nothing) it isn’t hard to imagine that he might take for granted the enormous homes and focus instead on attenuated minds that reside within.  Sometimes, while walking around under the shade of these mansions and the enormous trees that alone challenge them in age and magnificence, I imagined the children of these laborers and how they will blossom like the flowers that their fathers toil so hard to nurture, how the wages of maintaining such ostentatious wealth feed families and fertilizes the latest iteration of the American dream–and how the splendor of beautiful gardens is so meager compared to that of new American immigrant opportunities, yet so much less controversial.  Grand spaces lend themselves to grand thoughts, and often my mind beheld class relations, definitions of wealth, Versailles, Plato’s Republic, etc.  Sometimes I thought of these things.  But often I proved Hemingway right, and thought of puns.  My mind narrowed and I sang impromptu nursery rhymes and giddy ditties dedicated to the little creatures who walked with me, two little dogs named Kitty and Dora.

Dora & Kitty

Kitty can’t sounds like kitty cat.  Get it?  And look, I’d say, it’s a Dora!  The “ble” then came naturally; I couldn’t stop it if I tried. It’s a Dora-ble.  Get it?  The dogs seemed to love my doggerel, and didn’t even hold it against me that I called them my little doggerels. Because Kitty, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, and Dora, a Comparably Sized White Fuzzball (a new breed) are lovely dogs.  They were always so happy to see me that, in their competition to be the one and only dog I was petting at any given moment, they often overshot happiness and went straight to grief.  Usually Dora won this competition, as she won every tug-of-war as we walked down the street.  The leash in my hand, you see, was connected not to a dog but rather to the smaller leash that connected the dogs to each other, affording me the rare luxury of dealing not with two avid surging beasts but rather the remainder of their divided wills.  Dora usually got the better of her sweeter, more patient sister, and thus Kitty would try and try to smell a smell only to find herself moonwalking across the sidewalk toward the latest greatest thing that Dora had ever seen  in her whole life ever since the last thing a few seconds ago.  And so Kitty wants to smell that tree, but Kitty can’t.  Dora wants in mora.   Her narrow mind is focused on a wide lawn, without regard to what Hemingway would have thought.  And that, it seems, is the best way to really enjoy walking around in Oak Park.  Abolish high-minded thoughts of history or literature and just enjoy what’s in front of you.  If Kitty can than I can.  And if you can, walk with Kitty and Dora. They’re delightful pups and I’ll remember them fondly, as I will my time in that place generally.

And thus concludes my homage to my Oak Park Pack.  Except one.  In my next blog, Sally will get her due.

Saying Goodbye to Oak Park Dogs Part 2

Sorry!  It’s been weeks since my last blog post.  Much has happened in these weeks which I’ve been very eager to share, but unfortunately, I ended my last blog with the words “to be continued,” and thus forced myself into a creative corner.  At that time, I was just leaving my familiar walking grounds to start a new route in the Big City, and I felt compelled to eulogize my time in Oak Park by dedicating little paragraphs to each of the critters which I had come to know and care for so well.  But then, and perhaps inevitably, the little paragraphs turned into big long paragraphs.  It seems I bit off more than I could
chew, so to speak, without inflicting permanent carpal tunnel on my poor typing fingers or acute eye fatigue on any poor reader.  So I cut the blog off after a few dogs, foolishly thinking that I would get back to it soon and give each pup their due in the form of a
multi-chapter serial eulogy.  Like a wash of sun in a hastily snapped photograph, the strong (perhaps premature) nostalgia of those days blinded my foresight, and I ignored the fact that very soon I would have many other things to occupy my attention.  Like summer camp friends who promise to keep in touch, I really believed that the intimacy I felt with those dogs would continue undiminished forever. Then suddenly, I was assaulted by the first day of 7th grade (i.e. walking dogs in Chicago–hard to say which is nuttier).  I was
immersed in new furry friends and new startling stories, and my Oak Park pals seemed even more distant than the commute which separated us and prompted my departure in the first place.  It was very difficult to look beyond my glittering high-rise surroundings to the vague and distant suburbs.  In short, I created a situation in which writing was an obligation and not a joy, as it has been and should be.  Whenever I sat down to write, I tapped out sentences with all the enthusiasm of someone writing Christmas thank you cards in morse code.  I had forced myself into fighting against the true, terrible and mythically powerful emotion best known as “I don’t WANNA!”

I caught a breath of fresh air when I realized that the intermission had become long enough to require explanation, and I was excited again to write both the above apology and then anything I wanted after that about my new city dogs.  But now, wouldn’t you know it, I feel like writing about my Oak Park dogs again.  I’ve started thinking about them, and the act of typing my thoughts has oiled up the gears, so to speak, to the point that I feel capable of fulfilling the prophesy “to be continued.”  This is a lesson I seem to have to learn over and over again:  the only cure for a bad case of “I don’t WANNA” is a strong dose of “just shut up and DO IT.”

So I apologize for my premature apology.  Lack of foresight, once again.  Here, then, is part two of my ode to the Oak Park Pack.  It’s shorter than it ought to be in every case, but “DO IT” is a medicine best swallowed quickly.  Here goes:

Charlie

Charlie is a King Charles/Cocker Spaniel mix, which means that he is a little more precious than a purebred Cocker and a little more rowdy than a purebred King Charles.  He’s adorable of course, and whenever I walked through the door he came bounding up to me with a huge smile and an urgent need to roll around on the ground like a trout at my feet.  I would rub his huge soft ears (a trait typical to both of his bloodlines, and seemingly enhanced by the combination) and he would coo and fall into a sort of ecstatic trance.  Then we’d go outside for a nice long walk, and then suddenly Charlie would turn from a perfect domestic cuddle-dog into a crazed feral beast.  His drive to eat any and everything off the ground and intimidate other dogs was so strong that eventually I felt it prudent to mention it to his Pet Parent.  She shocked me by explaining that Charlie had been rescued from a shelter, and according to the shelter staff, Charlie had been surviving alone on the street for over a year!  The crazy outdoor behavior I took to be a deviation from normal sweet domestic pet composure was, in fact, Charlie’s default mode.  The idea of a cute little critter like Charlie fending for himself on the street is almost as incredible as the quickness and ease with which he turned from a street dog into a happy mellow house pet.  Whenever I see a stray dog, living like so many do off of scraps and trash and resilience and craftiness, I will remember sweet, cuddly, adorable little Charlie.  He is a real sweetheart, but also much more than he appears to be.

Mattie

Mattie the Boxer is by far the most beautiful dog in the world, or at least you would come to that conclusion if you walked her around Oak Park.  We always went on very long walks and the great majority of people we passed couldn’t help but compliment her, or compliment me on her.  Naturally, I pretended she was mine so I could bask in her celebrity.  It might be her sweet face that endears her to people, or maybe it’s her trim muscular build or speckled auburn coat, or perhaps her enthusiastic nature.  Probably it’s some magical combination of all that and more.  People of all backgrounds and walks of life–from blue-haired grandmas to purple haired rebels–would regularly stop and admire her or ask me what kind of dog she was.  I’ve written about Mattie before on several occasions, so I’ll just say that, over the course of a year, Mattie went from a very shy and nervous rescue into a sweet, snorting and amazingly affectionate dog.  I’m glad I was able to witness her grow in confidence and sociability, and every time she came running up to meet me at the door, turned around in circles wagging her whole torso and then sat on my feet looking backwards up at me with big wet loving eyes, I marveled to think that this was the same shy dog I’d met a year ago.  Mattie was a real pal, and I’ll always remember her for being a beauty through and through.

Homer covered in snow!

Homer is a Bearded Collie Mix and a real gentle pup.  Aside from Callie, Homer is the only dog to ever have bitten me, and it was really just a case of me startling him and him swinging his head (a head which encases surprisingly sharp fangs) to catch the offending intruder, in this case, my hand.  We were both startled, really, and he sheepishly slunk off to await the moment, about ten seconds later, when I would call him and he could come be my happy friend again.  During those ten seconds I carved in bronze a lesson I had already learned but forgotten, perhaps cheated on throughout the years with my own dogs, and put completely out of my mind that day when I saw sweet, soft and totally harmless looking little Homer resting in the corner:  don’t startle a dog.  Even if he looks like a muppet and acts like a teddy bear, he still might respond roughly if he is suddenly jostled by an unknown force.  It’s amazing to think, of all the dogs I’ve walked, that the composed and dignified Mr. Homer is the only one to have nipped me (except Callie, but she’s a special case as I’ll explain). I won’t forget the lesson again, and I won’t forget Homer, the way he stamped his rear feet when I pet his rump as he burrowed into my lap, the way he would wipe his own sensitive paws on a towel on the ground because of a mutual understanding that having them wiped was too distressing.  He was and is a class act.  I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  So long Homer the Gnomer.  I wish you and your human all the best.

Rocky and Rumpus are a Beagle and a Chocolate Lab, respectively, who were always a pleasure to walk.  Rumpus was lone king of the manor for the longest time, and then one day I walked through his door and voila: Rocky.  Both pups are sweet as can be, and though I was happy to meet Rocky (and he was clearly very happy to meet me), I was a
little apprehensive.  Rumpus, you see, can be a handful, and adding another dog (and clearly a very energetic dog at that) seemed like quite a challenge. Rumpus happens to be a martial arts master.  There are legends of tiny ancient men living in bamboo dojos on the tops of sacred mountains who could withstand the gusts of a hurricane while balanced on their toe, so great was the concentration of chi energy within their spindly frames.  Just as these sensei could focus the breath they inhaled into an iron obelisque which passed
through their hearts into the heart of the earth which even a cavalry charge of raging ronin could not move, so too could Rumpus remain completely immobile despite the desperate efforts of a dog walker to get him away from the center of his attention.  And that was always food.  In short, Rumpus is both ravenous and strong.  But it goes beyond that.  He tried to eat everything (seeing a walk as simply an opportunity to graze) including sticks, dirt, poop, etc., and was amazingly, almost surreally difficult to discourage in this.  A train
engine could not pull him away from an old french fry.  So having another bouncy dog along to distract me precisely when I most needed to focus my chi to keep Rumpus-san from doing catastrophic things to his digestive tract, well like I said, it seemed like quite a
challenge.  But Rocky had an amazing effect on Rumpus.  One has to be careful when introducing a new dog into an old dogs home.  It takes time for them to get to know each other.  But Rocky’s sudden appearance showed me that however much time they needed (48 hours?), they’d had it.  Rumpus, patient old kung fu master that he is, had already resigned himself to being petted only after Rocky for ever and ever, since Rocky immediately tries to climb the leg of whoever comes over, and barks incessantly and exactly like a seal with a megaphone the moment your hand leaves him to dare give Rumpus a quick pat on the rumpus.  Rocky’s shenanigans, in other words, made Rumpus act much calmer and more dignified, as if to highlight the contrast in self-control.  So it was great.  Walking them together was fun, playing inside with them was fun, and sharing a wink with Rumpus that said “we share the respect of great martial arts competitors who have dueled for weeks with poisoned spears atop the lily pads of the lake of harmony, but man get a load of that guy, he’s a nut and barks like a seal,” was fun too.  (Winks can say a lot.)  I’ll miss those dogs.

Marty and Sweetie are a couple of Wheaton terriers who looked very similar but were actually a very odd pair.  The dogs lived in separate rooms of the house since they had a history of trying to kill each other, needed to be walked separately, fed and treated separately, and medicated to help alleviate their fratricidal urges.  It sounds very
intense on paper and was always a challenge, but the amazing thing is how happy and friendly they were in real life.  Marty was a classic goofball.  You couldn’t see his eyes through his shaggy hair, so the only way you could tell when he was really looking at you was when his tail started thumping back and forth at 65 beats-per-second and his
big grin turned even bigger.  He was the older, bigger brother, and was very low-key.  Sweetie, on the other hand, was a wacko.  She would always do what I came to call the Praying Mantis Dance when she saw me, in which she balances improbably on her hind legs and flings her front legs up straight up beyond her head, only to flick them down
together at 650 beats-per-second.  You may have seen versions of this dance in little tiny dogs, but never has so large a creature so successfully mastered the maneuver.  Her front paws got so far behind her head that she was effectively dancing toward me armpits-first.
Her big smile was the only thing that told me that she wasn’t trying to flick magic dust on my head or mate with a fellow tarantula.  She just wanted the highest possible five.  It was adorable.  But I’m sure Marty didn’t think so.  I imagine her energy was part of the reason
they had a history of fighting.  Well, long story short, eventually these two learned to live or at least walk together without fighting. I’m sure Marty still finds her the annoying little sister, but Sweetie just can’t help it.  I enjoyed my time with these two and I look forward to seeing Sweetie’s Praying Mantis Dance on You Tube someday.

Sally, oh Sally.  Where to begin?  On second thought, Sally will need a blog devoted to her alone.  I’ve written about her before on several occasions, but there is so much more to say so I’ll leave off here for now.

Once again this is getting too long.  So, to be continued!  And soon.

Saying Goodbye to Oak Park Dogs Part 1

Time to say goodbye.  As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus proclaimed, and the great poet Kermit eloquently reaffirmed, the only constant is change.  After more than a year walking dogs in Oak Park, I’m moving to Chicago.  Or rather, since I already live in Chicago, I’m going to walk dogs near my home instead of commuting to work every day.  It’s a big change.  Though I will certainly miss the dogs I’ve seen nearly every day for over a year, I think I will miss freeway traffic comparatively less in the long-run.  It will be bittersweet to leave, but I suspect the sweet aftertaste will endure longer.  For though I have formed wonderful, strong relationships with my Oak Park Pack, I have no doubt that I’ll form new and equally rewarding relationships with my new Chicago dogs (ChicagDogs?)  The real consideration is commuting: commuting on the train with my bike is inconvenient for myself and my fellow passengers; commuting in my car through some of the country’s worst freeway traffic erodes my faith in the future of the human species and pummels my benevolent nature under the kicks of despairing brake feet.  I don’t want to get to work every morning, and home every evening, with nausea in my soul.  Besides that, riding my bike around my own neighborhood and down towards the massive splendor of downtown Chicago, well that’s just lovely. It’s trading a negative for a positive, and maybe it’s also change for change’s sake.  Because, though my Oak Park routine was comfortable, it was still routine. Heraclitus and Kermit would approve of this change, even if my Oak Park Pack might not.  At least at first.  Yet I’m sure they’ll fall in love with their new walker, because I happen to know that they are lovely dogs.  Just lovely. Oh how could I ever leave them?  What have I done?  How will their new walker know just where to walk or pet them?  Will they all waste away longing for me?  Are they eating?  Heraclitus was just a dumb old Greek guy and Kermit is just a stupid frog and what the heck do they know?  You see, I have moments of doubt.  I’m a little possessive, and a lot loyal. I’m susceptible to effusions of sappy motion.  Sometimes I prefer what’s comfortable.  I’m very dog-like, in other words. And I find it hard to leave my pack.  So what if change is the rule. Rules suck.

But what’s done is done.  I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about my new pack, but at present I’d like to give a quick roll-call of the lovely pups I’m leaving behind.  I’m sure they won’t read about themselves, for literacy was not something I was able to impart to them during our time together.  So maybe this is more for my sake then theirs. But in any case, here they are, my pals:

Snuffy & Fozzie Bear Inside the house

Snuffy and Fozzie Bear were two very special dogs. They are a credit to the beauty of mixed-breeds, and the challenges and rewards of adopting dogs. Snuffy is a Pitbull/Husky mix, and though I know how difficult that is to imagine, you’ll have to take my word for it when I say she looks just like a Pitbull/Husky mix.  Fozzie Bear (FB) is a sort of brindled German Shepherd/Something Else mix (maybe Dingo?) and together they form a little pack that consistently turned heads when walking down the street. Snuffy, outside of the unfortunate and incorrigible need to kill anything that she cannot clearly perceive, understand or anticipate (a distant plastic bag blowing in the wind, for example, would arouse truly murderous urges) is really a very sweet dog.  Not many people get to see her sweet “I love you” gaze and big happy grin, nor the adorable way she paws at you when you stop petting her for a moment.  Most people would indeed find such images hard to conjure, given that the face she projects to the world is one of a rabid and hysterical ball of furious fur.  

Snuffy & Fozzie Bear Outside

She wears two collars, a harness and a muzzle whenever out of doors, all secured to my arm with a double set of thick leashes. FB has a similar arrangement but doesn’t really need it, since as the mellow alpha dog he is content to just mark things and look cool.  On many occasions, however, I could sense him rolling his doggy eyes as I struggled to control and redirect the focus of Snuffy, who in her desperate and brutal hatred of squirrels, bikes, pedestrians, other dogs, helicopters, and things that moved, turned her attempts to bite things on me, him, and occasionally nearby trees.  Her muzzle, in other words, saved both FB and myself (not to mention most of America) from total gnawing destruction.  But once back home, she was a doll.  Both dogs took about a month to really warm up to me, but then everything about them said “I like you.”  They could be challenging to walk, but were always a great way to start a day.

Jackson & Poncho

Jackson and Poncho.  Jackson is a big Great Dane/Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, a big wiggly monster, and a total coward.  He barks like a feral beast whenever anyone passes by his window, but whenever I walked through the door he commenced bunny hopping, running laps around the living room (including detours onto the couch and crashes into my legs) and, after I corralled him enough to give him a good
how-you-doing pat on the rump, dancing around in a way that would be unsuitable for immature audiences. He was terrified of thunder, construction and garbage trucks, but don’t tell anyone I told you, because he wants so badly to think he’s tough.  His brother Poncho was a dog trained by parolees as part of a rehabilitation program, and still has a tough edge to him.  He loved to run right up to me when I entered, turn around and sit down right in front of me so that 1) I would rub his chest and neck and 2) his brother Jackson wouldn’t try to come around.  Jackson, being the bigger and dominant dog, would inevitably snarl and growl at Poncho, who would abandon his position to go swing his blankie around like a bullfighter.  He was a very fairly-behaved walker and much sweeter than he looked (like a giant pit bull/weasel mix) but was also a notorious multi-pooper.  These two together always gave me the most fun and enthusiastic welcome, and also peed and pooped far more every day than most elephants do in a given season.  They have completely disproved the laws of relativity and the conservation of matter because each of them expelled twice their body weights every day, and yet neither one ever disappeared or turned into a black hole.  They were also the most set on their walking route of any dog I’ve ever seen.  Jackson would pull frantically back toward his normal patrol of the neighborhood, having no interest in exploring even two steps beyond his own scent trail. They had the most well-stocked treat cabinet of any dogs in the county, and were always well treated.  They were really some of my favorites, and really good pals.  They fought like grizzlies for my attention and once while wrestling with them I lost my keys (for half an hour–they were under the couch), but otherwise they were just pure goofy goodness.  I walked them almost every day, starting from my very first day on the job.  Every part of our routine had become so automatic and easy that it’s hard to believe it’s all over.  Our visits were like self-contained little worlds.  I think I will miss them most of all.

Morgan & Barley sitting pretty!

Morgan and Barley are two other mixed-breeds, and two other from-day-one friends.  I covered more ground with them than any other dogs because they were so quick and athletic that we could explore half the neighborhood in 15 minutes.  Our routine also became entrenched, though they took longer to get the hang of things since when I first met them they were still puppies, just on the cusp of doggy adolescence.  By the end of our time together, they were habituated to sit in their crates before I even asked them and then lay down at my feet before I even told them; these were the two steps their humans (who will also be missed) recommended I enforce to save my thighs from being scratched and my eyes and groin from being kicked or nose-jabbed.  The very notion that they would resist their incredible hyper elation at my arrival and lay down calmly before I said anything other than “hi girls” was like a daily miracle played out before my eyes; it is a testament to their sweet natures, our good rapport and the sheer quantity and regularity of my visits to their home.  

Morgan & Barley covering the miles!

They learned to stopped pulling at the leash and wandering any and every which way on our walks; stopped lunging after things and tying me and each other up in their leashes, and generally started behaving like the beautiful, pleasant and mature dogs that they were meant to be.  No dogs grew up better or made me prouder, and no adoption story had a happier ending.  I’m grateful I got to see it all happen before my eyes.  They’re on their way to being the coolest pack of dogs in the world, and their loving and conscientious parents are well-rewarded for their efforts.  Incidentally, probably no entities on this earth have listened to me sing more than those two pups, since I sang to them constantly every day.  They never complained, and I that’s probably a miracle in itself.

Roxie-Roo the Newfiepoo

Roxie is the dog I most want to have someday, and also the dog that is, in my opinion, the best prototype for a new breed.  Part Newfoundland, part Poodle, I took to calling her “Roxie-Roo the Newfiepoo,” and no I’m not ashamed to admit it.  She is still a puppy, though she is easily 70 lbs and wonderfully mature.  Not to say that she isn’t a total and incorrigible goofball, because she is that too, oh yes.  She always danced and wiggled when I walked in and gave me big hugs, and few dogs were ever more huggable.  She wasn’t the best walker, simply because she was so strong and eager to dash off and explore absolutely anything, but I didn’t really mind because I enjoyed being with her so much that I wanted to go off and explore everything too.  We would often run through the park across the street from her house, even though she almost always tripped me by dashing in my path, running into my legs, trying to climb on my shoulders or just running way, way too fast for me to keep up.  I never enjoyed almost tripping more.  Of all the not-from-day-one pups, Roxie was my favorite.  Can I have favorites?  Well how could I not, after how much fun we had together?  Roxie loved nothing more than finding a nice stick in the park and parading around with it, until she found a better or bigger stick, and then upgrading all the way home.  On several occasions she dragged whole limbs for several blocks, but she was so happy that I couldn’t say no. Next to gathering lumber, Roxie loved treats.  She earned them well too, since her “shake” involved flinging her whole arm through the air in a wide pitcher’s arc, and her “down” involved jumping up in the air, assuming the proper sphinx-like “down” position mid-air, and then landing with a big thud. It never failed to make me laugh, just like the waddle of her big Newfiepoo butt down the street never fail to make me smile.  Though she loved her treats, she also sometimes required that I open her mouth for her and place them between her jaws (and then shut her mouth for her) as if she were a mannequin.  I don’t know why, but then that was just her way and I was so charmed by it that I was all too happy to oblige.  I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Roxie is a one of a kind, and I hope to one day again meet one of her kind.

To be continued…

The Importance of a Tail Wag

Nola

I’m house sitting again, this time for a couple of lab and shepherd mixes named Mona and Nola.  Nola is a plump, giddy critter who loves walks more than even her desperate yelping and wiggling can express. She lives for attention, and will leave delicate long blond hairs all over the various parts of your body that she nuzzles or lays on.  Her name stands for New Orleans Louisiana (LA), where she was found as a stray, rescued and brought up north.  I’ve found it very difficult to say her name without affecting a strong southern drawl and imagining long weekends on a care-free bayou, and by now I don’t even try.  Her reclining skills are on par with even the most indolent southern dogs (see photo), but she can only relax if you are touching her, or at least looking at her, or at least nearby.  She can wag convincingly even curled up in a ball, and she has found this to be the most effective way to warm up the bed for me before hopping off to dutifully sleep guard (as opposed to stand guard) when I climb in to rest.  If a burglar were to come in she would bark hysterically until the intruder agreed to pet her, and if he did not, she would employ her one and only martial arts move:  the nose flick.  This maneuver, by which she uses her snout to deftly fling an idle hand on top of her head for maximum petting potential, is not rare among caress-dependent dogs.  Yet nor can it be taught, even by the greatest nose flick black belts.  Nola is just a natural lover.

Mona

Mona is a very different dog.  She is trim, picturesque and independent.  She likes to be pet on occasion, but she won’t come looking for affection, and when Nola inevitably comes barging between her and her belly rubs, she defers to that jealous golden dumpling as happily as grandpa deferring to grandma in the kitchen.  Her tail hardly moves (which is fine because Nola wags enough for two) and she often has a suspicious, quizzical look as if in a perpetual state of deja-vu.  I quickly gave off trying to convince her than I’m not a Soviet spy.  The name Mona is short for nothing, but I can’t say her name without thinking of moan.  As in, adj: a prolonged sound of lamentation or complaint.  Poor Mona.  For though she is a very sweet and happy dog, she sometimes makes me sad.

If you were you to meet her you might not immediately notice the way that the degenerative mylopathy has begun to paralyze her rear legs. You would probably notice the little boots on her rear paws, but if she was sitting or standing normally, you wouldn’t suspect that she wears them because she so often drags her rear legs that she would rub
her paws raw were it not for the protective shoes.  After living with her for several days, you would get used to carrying her up and down the stairs, and cleaning up after her occasional lapses in bladder control.  You’d be happy to help her up onto her couch, or straighten her legs and uncurl her paws beneath her.  After a week or so, you would hardly bat an eye when squeezing her lower belly in the back yard to force her bladder into action, and might even get used to inserting the Q-tip into her anus to stimulate the gland and help her evacuate.  You would get very good at strapping her into her harness and connecting her to her cart so that she can go for walks, and you would feel pride in her, and not embarrassment, when people on the street stopped and stared.  No doubt you would come to love her dearly, all the more if you had actually raised her from a puppy.  You
would spare no effort or expense in preserving the pleasure of her company as long as she remained reasonably happy and healthy.

Defining “reasonably happy and healthy,” however, would certainly become ever more difficult.  John Steinbeck was born in Oak Park; his birth home and museum are just down the road.  I think of the scene in “Of Mice and Men,” where one farm hand pressures another older worker to put down his old dog.  The smell of the old dog moves the man to
offer, with the cruelest generosity, to put him out of his (whose?) misery, quickly and immediately.  The old man is heart-broken to lose his long and faithful companion, but gives in to the social pressure of the bunkhouse and retreats to his cot where he cries quietly as the shot comes in from outside.  There’s a sadness and inevitability about
the scene which is typical of Steinbeck and indeed of any end-of-life situation.  It’s clear in the story who the bad guy is, but to be honest, if I didn’t know Mona (let alone raise her from a pup), if she was nothing more than a prognosis on paper, I think I might be as cold
in my prescription as the fictitious farm hand.  She’s undeniably past her prime and only getting worse, so encouraging the Pet Parent to look past sentimentality and say goodbye almost sounds reasonable, or at least practical.  Whose benefit are you considering by prolonging her life: yours or the dogs?  Will you wait for organ failure?  Multiple organ failure?  If saying goodbye is too hard, then for mercy’s sake, let someone else do it.  I struggled to hold back tears as the vet gave our family’s young rescued Weimaraner, George, a final injection, because I was afraid my tears would make him uneasy in his last
moments, and his comfort was at that time the only relevant concern. That’s why I stroked him gently as he breathed his last, and it’s why, when all I knew of Mona was a long list of troubles and needs, I felt both hard and soft as a calloused farm hand.

It isn’t only Mona that needs lots of care.  Mona’s human has never been away from her for so long, and so was understandably nervous about leaving her with a relative stranger while she flew around the world on business.  I have never had a moment’s doubt about the scope of the responsibility I’ve been entrusted with.  Mona has been a loving and loyal friend for a decade, and like most dogs, probably the one constant and reassuring fixture in the midst of life’s innumerably trials and changes.  Such is the nature of having a canine companion, and so I can imagine the sea-sick grief her owner felt the day she first noticed her limping, and the light-headedness she felt driving home from the vet amidst echoes of “incurable” and “degenerative.” Shortly after moving in to the house, I went next door to introduce myself to the nice neighbor who I was to call upon if I needed anything.  Toward the end of our conversation, she leaned in and whispered to me “she has spent so much money on that dog!”  Of course I can understand how, to an outsider, vet bills would stand out as major characters in Mona’s story.  Steinbeck’s farm hand would doubtless rant and rage upon hearing the sums.  But I am, now, no longer an outsider.  Every day I’m more and more oblivious to how unusual, how demanding, how impossible Mona’s situation is.  Not just because it’s my job, or because I can fathom the scale of the trust placed in me, but because the time I’ve spent curled up with Mona stroking her soft neck and telling her, telling myself, that she is happy, that she is doing okay, and that if I just try hard enough, I
can keep her well forever.

Mona has good days and bad days.  On good days, she just looks stiff, and maybe a little tipsy.  On bad days, she drags her legs straight out behind her and sometimes falls into a sitting position and can’t pull herself out.  She also drags her boots off, and one bad day early in my stay when I was both struggling to win Mona’s trust (in addition to being naturally reserved, I think she also has an instinctual wounded-dog mentality and so feels especially wary of new people) while trying to give the pups as much outdoor time as possible, Mona’s poor paws got quite chapped as she avoided me in the yard.  There was
no blood, but the little scratches have since gotten worse.  I’m horrified.  Mona’s boots are not only perfectly positioned to collect dirt and mud as she drags around but also, being of a wetsuit-like material, trap in moisture and create an environment in which nothing
can heal.  Several times a day I wash her paws with soap and water, dress and medicate them, and duct tape them into freshly washed and dried boots.  I don’t let her play in the yard very much, and I carry her around more than she would like.  Mona’s mom knows about the scrapes and was not overly concerned (she was even good enough to console me about them), but it hurt to look at them.  I hate them.  I feel as if they are the embodiment of her illness, and if I can just fix them than she will be just fine.  She’ll dash around the yard and up and down the stairs like a puppy, and I’ll finally get see her wag her tail.  That alone would be reward enough for every effort on her behalf.

I never realized how important tails were.  They’re like neon Time’s Square marquees announcing a dog’s mood and interest to us dense and self-preoccupied humans.  I think dogs are much more observant of body language than we are, and by now Mona has gotten the message that I like her and will protect and care for her as best I can.  I can sense
a relaxing of her posture lately; a softness in her shoulder and neck muscles and side-out rotation of her big pointy ears.  She’s no longer watchful of me as I approach her from behind, is delighted when I start to pet her without warning, seems to hop into my arms when I bend over to cradle and carry her, and leans into me for many kinds of support.  She’s lately begun playing with her toys more, and even challenging Nola for cuddling rights. I wish I could just once see that little furry appendage on her backside beat out a “yes yes yes,” but I’ll have to make do with the look in her eyes to tell me that she is happy.  “Smiles” can be deceiving (think of dolphins and crocodiles), and people are surely self-deceiving.  Still, those eyes don’t lie.  Even though I know that she is not technically healthy, I’m convinced that Mona is happy and will be happier still when mom gets home.  Her sores notwithstanding, she seems to be doing well within the new relative scale imposed upon her by her condition.  And what is her condition?  Just words on paper, to an insider.

I used to affect cheerfulness so that she wouldn’t perceive the frustration her disability imposes.  Because it’s not her fault if she pees on the floor, and so on no account should she feel guilty about it.  But by now, I don’t have to pretend.  I’ll gladly do whatever I can to summon the image of a wagging tail.  When I curl up next to her and pet her and tell her about how I like her and how she is a good girl as she softly licks my hand, in that moment she is happy because I am telling her the truth, and I am happy because I’m proud of her and the comfort I’ve been able to give her.  In that moment her well-being is real and palpable; her disease is completely forgotten. Just like with my George, her comfort is all that matters, and I know that her comfort is attainable.  So when does one draw the line? Would I know it if we’d already crossed it?  Maybe to an outsider it would be clear as ice.  But maybe the bad guy in the Steinbeck scene isn’t the farmhand with the gun, but the old man who too easily gives in.  Maybe inevitability is the real villain, and we should strive to defy it as long as we can.  I don’t know; it’s very hard to see.  I know only that for me now, as for Mona’s mom, it is painfully difficult to imagine that Mona’s beautiful wagging tail will ever stop.

Breed Stereotypes & Love at First Sight

Today I met a handsome and exotic stranger.  His name was as handsome and exotic as any lathered onto a paperback romance hero: Diego. Though our paths crossed only briefly, I know there was something there. Something magic.  It was as if we’d met before, though I’m sure I’d remember if we had.  When I walked through that door, there were sparks.  It flutters my chest to think of it, and I know the feeling will endure for years.  Oh that large muscular physique.  Ah those dark eyes and rich, shiny hair.  The grand, inviting smile. That adorable, articulate little tail.  Yes, you could say I met my match.

We’d been set up on a blind date of sorts.  I was a bit anxious.  I had a personal bio for him, but it was unusually brief.  All I knew before I met him was his name, age, address, and three simple words: “Gentle,” “Giant” and “Rottweiler.”  Since the word “Rottweiler” had already activated “giant” in my imagination, I focused on the “gentle” part.  My eyes kept referring to this word as I approached his front door, as if to make sure it didn’t disappear, or somehow turn into “savage.” No doubt his owners think he’s gentle, but I had my doubts.  I did what any “human, normal and nervous” would do:  I referred to my catalogue of stereotypes. Rottweilers are a breed known for being proud and protective of their homes, families, army units and junkyards, and typically not fond, therefore, of strange men coming round to put leashes on them.  I know that the environment in which a dog is raised and the manner in which he’s trained and socialized has far more to do with his disposition than any characteristics supposedly typical of a breed.  Mean people often times choose pitbulls and choose to raise them poorly, while no pitbull has ever, ever actively chosen to be antisocial or dangerous.

Pitbulls lead the list of breeds with the most fatal attacks in the U.S., but Rottweilers, like Diego, come in second.  Rottweilers are actually no more likely than any other breed to bite someone, but if they do bite, that bite is far more likely to be serious or life-threatening.  The same with pitbulls.  They’re just very effective biters.  It’s why people who like scary mean dogs choose those breeds, and an unfair reputation (read stereotype) for breed-wide viciousness is created. It’s an ugly cycle, and it feeds into yet another ugly cycle: people to see rottweilers and pittbulls, refer to their stereotypes and feel duly afraid; the dogs then sense the person’s uneasiness and start to feel uneasy themselves, and a tense situation is born (of folly) in which the dog is much more likely to bite.  That bite is much more likely to be serious, and get lots of attention from irrational people who (like all people) like to see their biases confirmed.  Knowing all this, and knowing that I knew it, I still felt a little tightness in my gut as I opened the door, far more than if the sheet had said “Golden Retriever, extremely vicious.”  It’s stupid and indefensible, but I confess it to be true.

And then the magic happened.  I discovered, in short, that Diego’s info sheet was brief because it already contained all the essential information. He was a Rott, he was a Giant, and his name was certainly Diego because as soon as my lips made this sound, his Gentle came gushing out.  If someone had walked into the room with their stereotype glasses on, they might have thought I was being mauled.  Well I was, but only with kisses and friendship. “Rottweiler” had evoked images of tiny uncaring bloodshot eyes, a short powerful muzzle full of grinding carnivore teeth, and myself, going through life without an arm.  Now the word “Diego” evokes images of huge happy smiles, giant prancing teddy bears and rainbows made of candy. Still, I’d recommend adding a “very very” to his description. You could put it anywhere and it would still be true.  He is a “very very gentle giant,” just as he is a “very gentle and very giant,” and a “gentle giant (very very).” Nonetheless, we got lots of glares and stares as we rumbled around the block.  People pulled their children close, rolled up their car windows, and reached for their rosaries. If we’d walked near a bank, they would have given us sacks of money and taken cover.  If a pride of lions had escaped from the zoo, they would have seen us and run back to hide under the elephants. Submerged in the same ignorant fear from which Diego had just heroically hauled me, they could not see past the fabled monster to the big cuddly ragamuffin.  If only we nourished, protected and encouraged our dogs as well as we do our stereotypes, the Diegos of the world would be free to be their delightful selves.

Speaking both as a lover and a walker of dogs, I declare Diego to be one formidable beast. I’ve walked a huge St. Bernard, two Great Danes (simultaneously) and a Mastiff that weighed over 200 pounds.  I’ve walked a Boxer, Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd, all bad-mannered and all at once. None of this prepared me for Diego’s awesome horsepower. He really was every bit my match.  For though other dogs are capable of strong lunges and sudden, surprising projections of mass toward squirrels, scraps or smells, Diego is the strongest dog I’ve ever walked by far. While other dogs can jerk and pull, Diego is more of a tractor: he has one speed (thankfully, slow) and there is very little that can stop his progress. Rottweilers were bred to pull carts. Diego could pull much more than a cart.  Take any commercial where they show off a truck’s amazing diesel power by towing a couple yachts or trailers full of lead across the screen, replace the truck with a comparably-sized black and brown dog, and you have some idea.  I wanted put a saddle on him and ride him home.  I could have, and he’d probably have let me. Good thing I’d forgotten my saddle, because that kind of behavior is against specific company policy.

I don’t recommend anyone go out and randomly pet the nearest Rottweiler, Pitbull, German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, Akita, Presa Canario or Malamute. They’re all powerful animals, and devotedly project the will of their masters.  If their masters are at all belligerent, it’s safer to assume the dogs will do with teeth what their humans do with harsh words and gestures.  If you wouldn’t pet the human, don’t pet the dog.  But keep in mind that most people could use a good (proverbial) petting, and the very absence of such affection is likely a cause to their spitefulness.  Sure, it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised, and you never know what a person or dog has been through or where they’re coming from (enough to know where you yourself are coming from).  This is a lesson I’m happy to learn, again and again and again.  I wouldn’t bet my arm on the next Rottwieler I see being as snuggly as Diego-Bear, but you never know. You really never know.

Walking in a Dog-Loving Winter Wonderland

I started my last blog with the words “well winter is back.”   I was wrong and I’m sorry. Winter wasn’t back at all.  It was 45 degrees when I wrote that, a full climate warmer than the 25 degrees which are presently struggling to sustain life and happiness.  I’m afraid I offended Boreas Greek god of the cold north wind with my hasty talk, and he has descended like a chunk of ice upon our blissfully bare heads.  I’m sorry Boreas.  I’d sacrifice a goat or something, but you’ve already frozen them solid.

Excuse me if I’m being a bit dramatic.  I don’t actually hate winter; in fact, I’ve come to see it as a season much worth having.  It makes spring sweeter, summer richer, provides time for intimate indoors time, yadayadayada.  But really. In California, where I grew up, and where I went home for the holidays, we whine about the drizzly 50 degree winters. Folks love to gripe, especially about the weather, especially about winter, and though this is true all over the world, I think it’s no where more true than in Chicago. With one Midwest winter under my belt (not a great place for it actually) I could hardly restrain my smugness when one of my fellow spoiled west-coasters bemoaned the temporary absence of gorgeous weather.  For I know what cold is.  I have encountered the infamous “snow.”  I have experienced the amazing phenomenon known as “icy streets,” and driven disconcertingly in a direction quite distinct from than the one I’d intended.  I’ve walked through air so despotic and cruel that it convinces liquid to just stop mid-drip and turn itself into a deadly dagger–whole buildings into terrifying arsenals–to frighten anyone brash enough to defy its rule.  I have not bothered to bring in groceries from the car on occasion because, somehow, they’re already in the fridge.  I know that “winter weight” refers to a layer of insulation necessary for survival, or in my case, to a sudden loss in weight because I just can’t seem to take in enough calories to fuel four months of constant shivering.  I’m growing a beard (or trying–hurry up!) not because it makes me look deep and sophisticated (it makes me look stupid and crazy) but because it counts as an extra layer in a place where one counts layers, and that extra wool helps keep my jaw from falling off.  And if my jaw falls off, how will I complain about the weather?

Charlie!

My dogs, on the other hand, don’t seem to mind.  Take Charlie, a King Charles/Cocker Spaniel mix.  He is small, wiggly, cuddly, dome-headed and dumbo eared.  In other words, he’s a lap and sofa critter, practically the opposite of what you’d picture when you thought of a robust and outdoorsy kind of pup.  As such, I didn’t think below freezing temperatures and snow drifts higher than his head would much appeal to him, and I expected to have to insist that he leave the house with me at all.  Charlie has surprised me though, and charges around the street with his usual happy energy, as if the frigid lifeless tundra was actually a winter wonderland.  His huge paws keep him from sinking in the snow, and his enormous ears work like a built-in scarf.

I think the winter smells are just as interesting for dogs as any other season’s, since what smells that are there to be smelled smell quite distinct from the bland smell-less snow. Judging from Charlie’s reaction, the yellow snow probably stands out to the dogs even more than it does to us humans.

Roxie looking very serious.

Down the street is Roxie the Newfoundland Poodle (Newfidoodle?)  When I first met her back when the weather was nice (remember?) something told me she would love the snow.  Maybe it was the fact that she resembles a yeti (which everyone knows is a snow sasquash), or maybe it was because she always prances, leaps and bounds as if through deep drifts everywhere always.  I was right, and she has been truly in her element.  She looks adorable with snow covering her snout and seems to know it.  She looks at me every five seconds as if to say “can you believe it? this is great!”  We play a game where I pick up a clump of snow and she freezes and says (with her eyes) “oh my gosh! You wouldn’t…” and then I toss it high in the air and she either leaps to meet it (and looks so dashing midst the shower of glittering crystals) or she lets it crash to the sidewalk and then pounces on all the debris.  We dash around so much that I sometimes break a sweat. She has so much fun, in fact, that she tries to bring all the snow back in the house with her.  I swear, it would take a large comb, a blow dryer and an hour to actually dry that big shaggy beast. Fortunately her owners know how it is.  How could they not.

Roxie having some fun!

This is the biggest problem with winter.  It takes extra time to put on and take off doggie boots and sweaters, clean snow-packed paws and noses, and avoid or clean up after bringing the elements back inside with us.  All this means less time for walking, but then again unless you’re Roxie, less time in the cold is just fine.  The winter routine seems to work out well in fact, because dogs do their business quicker, it’s easier to pick up after (because it’s instantly frozen and also removable with just a quick scoop of the underlying snow) and cold dogs are usually all too happy to get rubbed down with a warm towel.  On the other hand, all the salt in the roads really seems to hurt doggy paws, and not a day goes by that some poor pooch doesn’t limp pathetically.  I’ve come to hate the salt for this reason, and because despite all the hundreds of trillions of tons that Chicago and Chicagoans dump during the winter, it only works up to (or down to) a point.  If it gets too cold, the streets are still covered in extra-salty ice.

I’ve made it my goal to not slip on the ice even once this year.  This is quite a challenge, and there have already been some close calls. I slipped three times last winter, and each case was a painful embarrassment.  One second you’re walking and smiling, and the next you’re about four feet shorter in the middle of the sidewalk where you find surprising pain (in whatever parts of your body took the brunt of the fall–you fall so suddenly that you don’t have time to choose), public humiliation (and everyone acts as if they’ve never slipped and you are the world’s biggest jerk) complete disorientation and paranoia (how did I get here? can I trust anything anymore?) and a big nose in your face because evidently, it’s playtime.  Three slips isn’t that bad, I tell myself, seeing as I’m walking large and lunging beasts who have four-wheel drive and an inability to fathom the effects of their winter glee on the large animal perched so oddly upright, precariously balanced on just two paws.  That, and ice is really slippery.  If you know what I’m saying than you know what I’m saying, and if you don’t, then trust me.  And keep it in mind if you ever visit a place that has a real, honest to Boreas nose-burning spine-stiffening poop-freezing winter.  It can be rough, but at least I have Roxie and Charlie et all to cheer and warm me up.