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2011 Reflections: The Miles Covered

Winter is back.  Chicago may have pretty lousy and erratic weather sometimes, but I’m pretty sure she’s still subject to just the one hibernal season per trip around the sun.  Yeah, I clearly recall a lovely spring and gorgeous autumn, and the parts of summer I remember were totally unforgettable.  It would seem, then, that I have completed a full climactic cycle in the position of pet sitter/dog walker. Climactic cycles, as I understand them, often occur in the course of what we call a “year.”  In other words, I’ve reached my one-year anniversary with Out-U-Go! Let me double check my math.  Yep. It’s time for reflection.  It’s time to take stock. It’s time to gush.

Follow my fuzzy digressive math if you will.  By my estimation, I walk anywhere from a fifth to a half a mile per walk, depending on the dog.  Some dogs are content to stroll leisurely to the corner and back. Josey leaps to mind in this category (the only time she ever leaps). If that big lovable wookie and I manage to make it around the block, it means she’s feeling particularly athletic.  Cooper the Basset Hound and I have never even made it to the corner, intent as he is on inhaling the whole world through his enormous nostrils.  On the other end of the spectrum sit Morgan and Barley, who would be remiss if they didn’t walk as fast as they possible could at every moment of our walk.  Those gals and I can dash around three city blocks, which I guesstimate is about half a mile.  Then there’s Mattie, who gets extra-long walks because she needs an extra-long time to take care of her business.  She and I must cover a mile at least.  Between these extremes, I’d say most walks go for an average of about a third of a mile.  So given an average of, say, 12 visits per day, let’s assume that I walk about four miles a day.  I’ve taken some time off and I’ve picked up a few extra shifts, so on the whole I’d say I’ve walked five days a week for about 50 weeks.  Five times 50 times 12 should equal the number of walks I’ve done in a year.  It’s a big number.  So big I want to double-check my equation.  Hold on a sec.

Yep, the math is sound, if approximate:  I’ve gone on about 3,000 walks and covered about 1,000 miles (I’ve probably biked 3,000 miles at least.)  I’d like to say I’ve walked 3,000 dogs all the way to Denver, though in actuality I’ve probably walked fewer than one hundred dogs total, and half of those only once or twice.  Of the remaining four dozen or so pups, I reckon I walk about half of those only occasionally, as needed by their pet parents.  Bisou the Shih Tzu, for example, may only get a walk two or three times a month.  Rocky and Rumpus are Fridays only, and Fridays always.  And so on.  In short, the majority of my thousands of walks have been with the same couple dozen characters.  Which means that, as you might expect, I’ve grown pretty darn close to some dogs over the course of climactic cycle number 2011.

I went home for the holidays and got the reception I have come to expect and crave from my own dear doggies.  There was wiggling, crying, flopping, hopping, jealous wrestling, toy bringing and dangerous, uncontrollable wagging.  There were two blurry tails every time I spoke, four loving eyes watching my every movement and eight eager legs following me around wherever I went.  There were the ridiculous attempts to climb slyly into my lap (as if they didn’t each weigh over 50 lbs and know better) and the near hysterics whenever I decided to sit on the ground to wrestle or play.  There were also lots and lots of long walks. The pack was as delightful as always, but I was shocked to discover that my sweet pups, paragons of canine virtue and, like everyone’s dogs, the greatest dogs in the whole world, were actually pretty lousy walkers. They pulled constantly, they tangled their leashes and they didn’t look back at me to see what I wanted or where I intended to go.  The problem is that I haven’t been around to walk them in years.  It occurs to me that over the course of so many miles, my regular dogs and I have developed a perfect symbiosis, with each dog internalizing my pace, patterns and expectations, while I anticipate their doggie needs and desires.  If other walkers fill in for me with my regular pups, they always tell me that they are all sweet and great on leash.  I’m the first to declare that my regular pups are inherently delightful, but looking back on how difficult some of our early walks were, I can’t help but feel I’ve encouraged their good walking manners over the course of our trek to Denver.  Or New Orleans.  Or Boston.  The destination would depend on the dog, and I know just which way to go.

Dogs are creatures of habit, just like people.  Callie surprised me today by leading us around a block we had never circled before, which is remarkably spontaneous behavior for a 15 year-old dog.  I like to mix up the route with some dogs if I think they like the mental stimulation, but I’ve found that most dogs have their territory and prefer to simply patrol and pee on it.  Some dogs cannot bear to depart from their well-worn paths, and I oblige them.  But if one is going to walk a thousand miles in the same part of the same city, one must find ways to keep things interesting.  For a while I looked at cars.  These are poor engines for a train of thought, so I soon switched to admiring houses.  Interesting architecture and historic buildings, even in the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School, are also limited in their ability to house my imagination. The seasons offer amazing entertainment, as do clouds, trees, gardens, squirrels and birds, city sounds and smells, and all the hustle, bustle and goings-on around town.  Nonetheless, I have by now taken up that great Big City custom observed (and duly ignored) all around the world: talking to yourself.  People talk to themselves all the time in Chicago.  They also sing to themselves.  By now I do both, and shamelessly.  Really I’m talking and signing to the dogs, but since they contribute no opinions or harmonies, I’m really reading both parts of the dialogue, so to speak.  If you see me, don’t worry: I’m not crazy.  I’ve just been around this block before.  A couple thousand times.

Morgan & Barley leashed up & ready to go!

I have the standard walk duration fixed in my internal chronometer, so that I hardly ever need to check my watch to see if we need to speed things up or walk a bit farther.  Over the holidays, however, my chronometer got reset to vacation time.  Today I did the whole standard routine with Morgan and Barley (the same as nearly every day for the last year), then happened to check my watch.  I was shocked to discover I was a couple minutes early. I felt like they probably sensed the routine had changed.  So thorough is our habitualization to each other that I was afraid the pups might have felt unsatisfied.  If they were, I didn’t see it.  I’ll make it up to them tomorrow anyway, just to be sure.

Routine is comfortable, but it’s also dull.  Routine is easy, but it also sucks your time into a place with no memories. I try to keep things fresh.  On the report cards, for example, while I’m sure I haven’t come up with 3,000 different adjectives for the space after the line “after the walk my mood was…” I’m sure I haven’t written “happy” more than twice.  Novelty and spontaneity are out there, just waiting for you to notice them. The weather does its job at keeping us on our toes, and this winter’s uncommon temperance (in contrast to all the warnings that the next few months will be among the coldest and snowiest in Chicago’s history) has everyone pleasantly unsettled. So though I continue to meet and walk new dogs, though I continue to invent new nicknames and happy customs for my regulars, and though my super-regulars and I continue to fine-tune our symbiosis toward walking perfection, I can honestly say every dog is different, every day brings surprises and challenges, and every single walk continues to be interesting in some way.  I’m confident this winter will be easier than the last, since I was then living for the first time in a snowy place, learning to not get lost on my way around a new town, setting my internal chronometer and earning the trust and affection of my furry friends.  But easier does not mean duller.  I’m looking forward to another great year as a dog walker, as I’m looking forward to sharing my stories and adventures on this little blog.

So Happy New Year!  I’m confident 2012 is going to be the most interesting if not the all-around best climactic cycle ever.

Oh and P.S., many thanks to all those pet parents out there, on behalf of all my fellow walkers, for your thoughtful holiday cards.  They were all very much appreciated!

Are dogs dumb?

I think there is a pervasive tendency to consider dogs as being more complex than they really are.  Just as grandmas cannot help but brag about the fact their children’s children are by far the brightest, sweetest and most lovable people ever to exist, dog owners can’t help but overestimate the depth of their canine companions.  I don’t mean to sound disillusioned, but I think we should admit for a moment that dogs are actually pretty dumb.  It’s okay to say this to yourself; you can even say it right to your dogs face.  They won’t hold it against you.  Go ahead and try.  Just say “hey, Rover, you know you’re actually kind of dense.”  See? Rover doesn’t mind a bit. Or maybe he does, depending on how you said it.  Because, though dogs don’t actually speak English very well, they are incredibly observant of our behavior and moods.  If you had any animosity or scorn in your voice just now, ol’ Rover could tell. He could have even smelled the slight variation in your perspiration, hormone activity and any other bio-chemical corollaries to your agitation.  And if you really did insult him, then he is one very sad little being.  How could you?

Now tell him to go get a job.  Tell him to study his multiplication tables.  I bet he hasn’t. He’s just laying there wagging. Tell him to build a rocket ship and go to the moon. See, he can’t.  Dumb.  Yes it’s true that a Russian street dog named Laika was the first non-microbe to leave earth orbit, but she was only chosen because she was a stray from the streets and therefore tough, and also because, as a dog, she was deemed especially suited to long periods of inactivity. Very, very long periods, as it turned out, since poor Laika didn’t survive the trip.

Okay so maybe dumb is not the right word. Let’s say simple instead.  Dogs are simple.  Far from an insult, this is in fact recognition of one of greatest, most endearing qualities of man’s best friend: their straightforwardness.  Now every dog’s personality is unique, and some dogs (and even some breeds) are actually pretty nutty.  Trust me.  I get a mixed bag of breeds and a mixed box of nuts every day.  But in general, if there is any complication in a human/dog relationship, it’s a complication introduced by the more demanding species of the pair.  For unlike people, dogs don’t lie, they don’t flatter, exaggerate, resent, hold grudges, harbor regrets, entertain hypotheticals, hide agendas, pull punches, mix metaphors, niggle niceties or mask motives. They may not compose or perform symphonies (operas maybe) but neither do they typically start wars, steal elections, repress speech or cause, debate, deny and ignore climate change.  It’s just not their way.

Once I accidentally stepped on Homer’s foot.  Homer is very paw protective, so for him this was a big deal.  He yelped very loudly, and I felt awful.  But I think he recognized that it was an accident, and in my apologetic cooing and petting, all was quickly forgiven.  Or since dog’s don’t forgive (for if they could forgive, it would mean they could withhold forgiveness, and this implies a sophisticated capacity for sustained bitterness to which dogs are thankfully exempt), it’s better to say that Homer simply forgot the injury.  In fact he seemed extra happy at the sudden attention, and even relieved.

A while back I walked out a door with one of those pneumatic self-closing hinges, and it closed a little quicker than I expected and hit Poncho on the rump.  He jumped and then looked at me, and for a moment I swear his look said “hey, watch it.”  But of course it didn’t say that.  He doesn’t really understand pneumatics, nor the subtleties of ‘oops that was an accident.’  He looked to me not for an explanation or apology, but simply to ascertain how he should react.  He read my body language and facial expression, heard my soothing voice and was immediately put at ease.  If he looked and saw me snarling, he’d think I hit him on purpose.  I apologized, but it was already unnecessary.  As with Homer, Poncho’s forgiveness is implicit in our relationship, and given like a blank check to all minor offenses.  If I’d done it on purpose, he would have known for sure, just as Homer would have known if I’d intentionally stepped on his paw.  Both dogs would have then thought, hey, this guys a jerk and I’d better watch out. The only feeling I would have hurt would have been the general desire for self-preservation, including a natural tendency toward paw and rump protection and jerk avoidance. And who can’t sympathize with that.

When I leave a house after walking a dog, I always say little things like “bye buddy, be good” or “see you later Mr. Goof” or “good work doggyface.”  Honestly though, if I said nothing and just walked out the door, I think the pooch would feel exactly the same about me, the walk, and everything else. Dogs don’t really do goodbyes.  They just aren’t sentimental in that way.  They recognize patterns very well, and so if I ever dared walk out without giving Callie a treat, or having a nice cuddle fest on the couch with Sally, they might feel the absence of something they have come to expect.  I like to think that Bailey feels my absence, since I walked her almost every day for 8 months and then suddenly and with little warning her family moved and I stopped coming around. Does that mean she misses me? No, and I’d be guilty of anthropomorphizing her if I said that she did.  She would be very happy to see me again and she might dream about me in some simple doggy way, but she doesn’t long for things or people in the abstract they way people do. But she’s not a person, she’s a dog, and I should let her be a dog without burdening her pristine doggy mind with any human-type clutter and contradictions.  Dogs are wacky enough without taking on our own personal kinds of crazy.  They’re generous of spirit and thus pre-disposed to share our troubles, which I think is in large part why most nutty people (as in, most people) have pretty nutty dogs.  But a toothy grin is not a smile.  A wagging tail is no guarantee of contentment.  If your doggy is happy you’ll see it in their eyes.  You’ll know it like you know when it’s a sunny day.

 

My Week with the Great Danes

Denali lounging on the couch!

Mt.McKinley, as everybody knows, is the tallest mountain in North America.  As anyone could tell you, it’s peak rests over 20,000 feet above southern Alaska.  Many people know this mountain by it’s indigenous name, Denali.  Some people also know that the summit was not reached until 1916, and that temperatures as low as -100 F have been recorded on it’s face. Relatively few people know, however, that
Denali is also the name of an enormous grey mass of Great Dane.  These few people are probably the same few people who know that Denali the Great Dane has a sister named Ella, and that Ella is a Lesser Dane, i.e. a puppy.  Hardly anyone, maybe a dozen people in the whole world, know that Denali eats about five pounds of raw meat every day, and that when you sit on a chair he has to bend his hind legs considerably to sit on your lap.  Which he often will.  And he will remain there as long as he likes, and so too will you.

Great Danes combine the power of a mastiff with the athleticism of a greyhound.  They were originally used to hunt boar, though it was quickly discovered that they could also bring down bears, rhinos, ogres and indeed whole castles.  Today’s Great Danes retain virtually none of their ancestor’s aggression, which is one of the principle reasons that most of us have not been eaten by Great Danes.  In fact, their massive size and pant-wetting bark is so completely intimidating that no potential burglar, intruder, assaulter or ne’r-do-well has ever discovered that Great Danes are in fact about as vicious as a baby bunny.  They are however very dangerous to baby bunnies, but I’ll get back to that.

I’m not a burglar or an assaulter nor intruder.  I’ve never been called a n’er-do-well; in fact I think I might even be considered an oft-do-well or at least an oft-does-okay.  Still, when I first arrived at the Great Danish Hall and approached the door key in hand, the two steel grey, icy-blue eyed Guard Danes inside seemed to consider me their worst enemy.  I felt a little weak in the knees when I heard those deep opera barks and felt the floor shake under me as nearly 400 lbs of dog hopped from the couch and rushed to the other side of a front door, which at that moment was both the flimsiest piece of wood
in the world, and the dearest work of craftsmanship to have ever saved my life.  But I’m a pro: I approach and win over 100 wary scary dogs before lunchtime.  Besides, I’d met the dogs before with their owners present–standard procedure before house sitting–and Denali had by the end of the visit given me a big slurp in the face, which is his way of saying “your existence does not offend me, and I therefore shall not devour you.”  Being a puppy, Ella thought I was her new best friend and licked me constantly, which is her way of saying “you are my new best friend and I will lick you constantly.”

Is there room for John in there?

These dogs live together with their loving parents in a one-bedroom apartment.  Their dog beds take up most of the floor in the bedroom, but when a single house sitter is staying over for the weekend, they share the king-sized bed with him.  They prefer to sleep right in the middle of the bed, but even if they can somehow be rolled, dragged or
leveraged to one side, some part of them, be it a leg or a snout, will inevitably reach over into the space you had intended to use for sleeping.  So long as you don’t mind snuggling up between the snouts and legs, you can sleep very comfortably in the skateboard-sized space between the heaving bodies.  That is, until Ella attacks.

Just a little "horsing" around

Ella the puppy, though herself enormous, is still smaller than Denali. She’s about the size of Mt. Whitney, the Southern California mountain that is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.  Despite giving up over four thousand feet in elevation and several million tons of mass to Denali, Ella routinely beats up her big brother, attacking him in his sleep, pinning him down, chewing on his neck and ears, and doing whatever else she can to fulfill her chief obligation as a younger sister, namely to be as annoying to her big brother as possible.  The unprovoked late night attacks can be a bit disconcerting for everyone. It is wise, when roughly a quarter ton of dog is snarling and grappling in the darkness right above you, to try to cover your vulnerable organs and move as little as possible. Denali makes a very pathetic, almost mournful moaning sound as he is being gnawed on, and when he decides he’s had enough (he is remarkably forbearing), he will retaliate and put his little sis back in her place.  She will remain in this place for about ten seconds, and then renew her assault. After round 3 or 4 of this, I begin to moan like Denali from my shelter under the blankets.

Look, our paws are the same size!

Other than Denali constantly sitting on me, Ella constantly licking me and our nightly wrestling matches, my Great weekend was remarkably incident-free.  Except for the following incidents:

1. I came back to the house after work and found that the toy bucket in the kitchen where the Great Beasts were confined had been broken into roughly 1,000 pieces.  This was not a flimsy bucket; the physical forces applied to it in those Great Danish jaws must have been roughly equivalent to those experienced by a deep-sea mollusk, when it’s being torn apart by Great Danes.

2. Taking them for a final evening walk before bed one night, it suddenly started to rain.  Stricken with a little bit of the “wet dog syndrome” (sudden irrepressible maniacal energy), I started to jog down the quiet, dark, wet street.  It seems the dogs also caught the wet dog syndrome, because they started to run faster and faster.  By the time we rounded the corner for home, we were all three of us sprinting at full speed.  I was laughing like a mad man, right up until the moment it occurred to me that I was totally unable to stop. I was no longer actually walking these dogs–I had become the carriage
in the classic run away carriage scenario.  With the wet street, the high speed and the pulling power of the dogs in front of me, the only thing I could do was to call out “woah!”. Somehow, this worked.  If it hadn’t, we’d probably still be running.

3. Coming home after another night walk, we were starting up the stairs to the front door when the dogs suddenly surged toward a bush.  Until that moment I had thought I was able to restrain them; this sudden concerted lunge proved that I had been mistaken. Both dogs were intently snapping at something, and when I finally managed to haul them off it I saw lying before me a quickly dying rabbit.  I assume the rabbit had seen us approach but had decided to remain still and trust his camouflage.  It had worked, because we practically walked right over him, and if he hadn’t suddenly lost his nerve and tried to
bolt, he might have survived the night.  As it was, about half a second of Danish snapping was enough to nearly sever his head.  The dogs were just as pleased with themselves as could be.  I cleaned up the carnage (this rabbit was 15 lbs easy) and then climbed into bed
with the remorseless killers.

4. At the end of the weekend, the downstairs neighbors (dear, patient souls that they are) asked me if, after this experience, I would ever consider getting a Great Dane of my own. Honestly, I couldn’t say. It turns out it’s a complicated question.  True, one does not need to own a range to keep these animals happy, since when they are not going on nice long traffic accident-causing walks around the neighborhood, they are actually just sort of like big pillows.  Or small sofas.  No, one does not need a huge house or a lot of land.  One does, however, need to be able to afford to buy 5 lbs of raw meat every day.  And like many pure breeds, Great Danes are also prone to certain ailments and cancers.  Vet bills could really add up, and prescriptions would likely cost more than for, say, a Dachshund.  So financially, I can only speculate that one day I could afford a GD.  Probably a Dane or a
family, but not both. Even given perfect health, one must also consider that Danes, like many large breeds, don’t live very long.  For that reason more than any other, I don’t think Ill ever own one.  They are such beautiful animals, so well-behaved and yet endearingly goofy, so loving and mellow and yet respectable as home defenders, so all-around great in every way, that it would be too hard to say goodbye after just 10 or
so years.  But given the opportunity to visit these two mountainous Danes again, I’d say “Great!”  Bunnies beware.

Absurd Dog Walking Events

In the past couple weeks, a number of absurd events have taken place with no one around to witness them but myself.  Or rather, no one but myself and various dogs.  And since these dogs and cats are themselves veritable walking absurd events, they hardly noticed anything unusual. It falls to me, then, to identify the absurdity and put it in its place.  If I do not, then absurdity may overrun the world (that is, moreso) and permeate my person.  If I don’t get this out of my system, in other words, I risk becoming King of the walking absurd events. Absurd events will flock to me, having heard that they can be as absurdly eventful as they please without repercussions.  They will see me from a distance as a place of refuge, from which they can plan their excursions into the tranquil land in which all people seek to live.  No I say!  Away!  This is my self-exorcism.  Begone silly spirits, and trouble this reasonable boring man no more!  Or trouble him only occasionally, when he needs a giggle or a chuckle or a chortle or a slap.  And then Begone again!

Okay, here goes:

I was walking Hurley, who looks like a cross between a pit bull and a seal.  He acts like neither of these animals though, for his true nature in fact resembles that of a feral hog.  He tries to eat everything he sees, in other words, from leaves to sticks to rocks to poop.  He is forever foraging, and will give anything the benefit of a tasting.  So there we were, walking down the street on a lovely autumn day, radiant colors in the boughs above us and paler matching hues in large piles in the gutters at our side.  I was futily scanning our path for anything Hurley really ought not eat (dead squirrels, discarded pills, other dogs) and he was darting to and fro, nose gliding over the ground, tail working like a rudder through the air. Everything was normal, in other words.  Then Hurley approached a large leaf pile, caught an intriguing scent, and stuck his head in to investigate.  And then, oh absurdity!  Hurley dove into the pile with all the grace and ease with which his seal ancestors dove into the sea.  And then he was gone. Completely consumed by foliage.  And I was left alone, standing on a quite, pleasant street with a leash in my hand, connected to a big round occasionally shaking and snorting pile of leaves.  I looked around for any other witnesses, but there was no one.  Had someone passed by, they might have reasonably asked me why I was attempting to take that particular pile of leaves for a walk.  Quite probably, they would have thought the situation absurd. I agree, good Sir!  Indict not the victim!  Hurley, when he emerged from his crinkly underworld, offered me a happy grin and then resumed his forage.  Je t’accuse Hurley, you silly land-seal.

The next event came disguised as a happy event.  One of my favorite times of any day is when I come back from walking Sally, give her a treat and fresh water, and sit on the ottoman to write her report card, place it carefully on the cabinet and then collapse backwards onto the couch where she lays waiting to have her belly rubbed.  It is our
little ritual, and I’ve even taking to allotting a couple minutes at the end of the visit for a real thorough and satisfying full Sally massage.  She has come to expect it, and will bark at me if I dare to merely pet her before rising to leave.  Sally is, I may have previously mentioned, as soft as a mink and madly, madly in love with me.  If anyone else ever walks her, I am furious.  She’s mine.  In fact, as I see it, my Sal Gal only boards at this place where I pick her up and drop her off, because my apartment doesn’t allow dogs. It’s very kind of the people she lives with to feed her and take her to the vet and walk
her when I’m not around, especially considering that they’ve been doing it for years before Sally and I ever met.  But it doesn’t change the fact that Sally is mine.  Got it?  Mine.  So anyway.  On this particular and peculiar day, I collapsed backwards as usual, expecting a couple of minutes of happy snorting snuggling and then a stubbly beard full of mink fur.  But Sally was particularly excited, and instead of lying on the couch as usual, she got up and stood next to me.  There is a gap of about a foot between the ottoman and the sofa, and over this gap my chin and neck lay like a bridge.  It is over this bridge that Sally then hopped her front paws, coming neatly to rest with her belly on my face, and front paws dangling inches above the ground.  Fortunately I had a chest full of air, or I might have been smothered.  Yet though I did not die, I know now how I would like to if ever given the choice.  I was effectively pinned to the cushions, arms flailing like a maniac and snorting and laughing into Sally’s soft fur belly, while she wiggled and writhed and made little abortive attempts to somehow climb off.  We stayed there a minute, and then I lifted her off and set her back on the couch.  And then re-wrote the report card to read, under the line “my favorite part of the walk had to be,” and wrote, “Lying down on John’s face.”  Just her absurd way of saying “he’s mine.”

The final absurd event happened just yesterday morning while walking Jackson and Poncho.  Both of these dogs are big and ravenous.  Ponch especially dreams only of one day actually catching a squirrel.  So great is his desire to take hold of one, that I doubt he’s given any thought to what he would actually do with one once he had it.  Bite it in two, probably.  Tear its head off, maybe.  I’m sure there would be blood and squirrel unhappiness.  So I do what I can to thwart his life’s great ambition.  It’s cruel I suppose, but then prudence often is.  Yesterday’s walk was proceeding like any other, then, with me leaning back at a 45 degree angle and the two dogs lunged forward with all their might toward those delicious furry milk bones on the trees, our physical forces averaged out to a slow walk, and though the dogs are probably capable of pulling me over and dragging me down the street if they really coordinated and concentrated their efforts, in that moment, like usual, I was in some semblance of control.  Then a squirrel darted across the sidewalk right in front of us.  The dogs surged forward and seemed likely to actually catch the reckless nut muncher.  This too is not unusual:  squirrels occasionally
miscalculate their trajectories, or needlessly abandon good hiding places when panic and dog proximity overwhelms them.  What happened next though was totally unprecedented.  Perhaps assuming that he had made a fatal mistake and had only seconds to live, the squirrel played his final card, so to speak:  he turned to attack.  I don’t know if desperate banzai charges are standard procedure for desperate squirrels, or if this one was just extra frisky.  Perhaps he’d long ago decided that when it was his time to go, he was going to take out as many of those big bully dogs as he could.  Really, I thought fight or flight applied to every other animal in the world before the common squirrel, even a large specimen such as this was.  Jackson and Poncho obviously shared these assumptions, because they stopped in their tracks, added an “l” to their “fight” (right after the “f”) and turned to run.  Sensing his advantage, the squirrel then seemed to do a victory dance.  This consisted of him (or her…how can you tell?) hopping around and spinning in circles in the middle of the sidewalk. Then he twitched and shook.  Then he fell over and seemed to have a seizure.  Whether he was motivated by desperation, elation, rage or rabies I cannot say, but both dogs immediately decided that, on second thought, maybe they didn’t want to catch a squirrel so bad after all. We crossed the street and proceeded in a stunned and humbled silence. We three redoubtable carnivorous and confident young males had all been sent away with our tails between our legs.  By a squirrel. Again, there was no one around to witness the absurdity, but in this case I think we were all okay with that.  We did pass by someone a few minutes later, and still a bit stunned and perhaps somewhat abstruse I said to them, “watch out: squirrel”.

That person probably thought I was crazy.  Absurdity had taken hold you see; it was reproducing.  But now my bruised funny bone has healed and I feel better.  I am normal, and can rejoin normal.  At least, until tomorrow, when I see all those dogs again.

Dog Bites

Occasionally when I’m walking or petting or even just talking to dogs, I feel a funny little flutter in my stomach.  Sometimes the flutter speaks of happiness and affection for my furry friend, but other times it feels more like a fight-or-flight misfire, sort of an instinctual deja-vu which reminds me that the animals in front of me–the animals I care for–are in fact large carnivorous beasts capable, some of them, of dismembering and devouring me if they were ever in the mood.  You know, that feeling.

There are a few rare dogs that will eat lettuce and baby carrots as treats (Hi Maverick!) but the vast majority hunger only for flesh.  Give your dog a bone and watch as your little cuddle muffin loses himself in the pleasure of the gnaw. Marvel at how easily his jaws break through solid bone.  Now bring this image in to context by picturing the animal that the bone used to belong to laying there next to Cuddles, who has just run down and killed this animal and now sits wagging and chomping away, covered in its blood. Cuddles! you shout, no!  Bad dog, no killing! But Cuddles ignores you; he’s absorbed in the crunch of his huge sharp teeth on the skeleton of his prey.  It’s enough to make you very, very glad Mr. Cuddles is on your team.  The very fact that we tell these predators to come, sit, lay down, etc. and they do what we tell them is truly amazing.  Sometimes I forget this, but then my stomach will flutter a reminder.

Just a couple days ago a four-legged energy ball named Hurley bit a nice neat hole in my shirt.  He was hopping up and down wanting to play (I’m not sure what game, maybe Lets Hop Up N’ Down®) but he got a little carried away, and carried away about four square inches of fabric covering my belly button.  I was surprised and disappointed, but it could have been worse.  He could have carried off my liver.  Good boy, Hurley, way to not eat my liver.  Now let’s play a new game: Domestication!®

Hurley likes me a lot (thank goodness) and the feeling is mutual, but he’s big and strong and I’m sure he could make my hand not useful to me for a long time, maybe forever, if he should decide to really chomp.  Technically his mouthiness is called a type two bite, and while it doesn’t hurt at all (he does it to express his excitement and affection), it creates a situation in which I want to keep Hurley happy so he doesn’t decide to hurt me. This kind of situation seems to work okay for lion tamers, but it’s less than ideal for pet owners.  Hurley just doesn’t understand the line he is toeing, perhaps because he’s never truly considered crossing it.  He’s like the silly cowboy in the Western who is always swinging his gun around and spinning it on his finger:  Hurley has a dangerous weapon (attached to his face), and he doesn’t get that while it’s kind of fun and thrilling to play with it, the audience is half expecting him or those around him to come to a bad end.  I hope he doesn’t shoot any more holes in my shirt.

Almost every walker I know has been bitten.  It’s never serious, just an inevitable result of close interaction with animals that have boundaries and buttons and limited means of communicating to us where they are.  I was bitten by Callie, and am not special in this regard.  Callie is an ancient Shepherd kind of dog, and in her progress through the decades she has left much patience behind her.  Also, she knows she is beyond reproach.  There are no time-outs for Callie, no scolding her or making her sheepish.  “No,” “bad” and “ow why” mean nothing to her.  Still, on the whole she’s a very sweet dog. When I walk in and squat down, she immediately comes and buries her head in my stomach and does a little happy dance while I rub her back.  Why then did she bite me? It was last winter and we’d just returned from a walk in the snow.  I started wiping her paws (standard practice) and had wiped three and was reaching for the fourth when she decided she’d had enough of that. Chomp.  She didn’t break the skin, but it hurt.  The shock and offense was greater than the pain, and when I told other walkers about it they all said, more or less, “you tried to wipe her paws?!” There was a long-standing memo out, and I missed it.  It was my fault, and I paid.  Callie holds no grudge I’m sure, any more than she seems to hold a grudge against every living thing she sees, as well as a number of non-living objects. And most of them never even thought of trying to wipe her paws.

Callie can’t chase squirrels or cars or children, so she chases them with barks as she rumbles down the street.  Lots of dogs love to chase. It’s part of being a recently reformed wolf (about 15,000 years recent).  Many of the dogs I walk go nuts whenever they see a squirrel or rabbit.  Sam and I once saw a family of deer, and he froze like a statue for a solid minute as wolfish neurons spanning eons rapid-fired behind his glassy eyes.  Most of my chase-prone dogs probably wouldn’t know what to do with their quarry if they ever actually caught it.  Mattie probably thinks squirrels squeak like toys.  Morgan would probably be content to just chew, shake and release.  But some dogs, like Hurley, Poncho, Fozzie, and many others, know exactly what to do. If they ever caught a rabbit, there would be blood.  I hold tightly to the leash.  And I never, ever, dress like a rabbit.

Some cats are very sweet and fun to be with, but generally it seems to me that cats are well-behaved because he/she finds it to be in their interest, not because they have any special affinity for humans.  Basically, I think of cats as just shrunken tigers:  magically turn the average house cat back to tiger size, and sooner or later he’ll eat you.  I played with a bunch of young kittens once, and every one of them alternated between nuzzling and trying with all their might to kill me.  The fact that they couldn’t made it cute.  Play with puppies and you might get nipped or lightly chewed on, but the pup won’t try to make you dinner.  If a grown house cat scratches or bites, it can hurt a lot, even cause bleeding or leave a scar.  But a grown dog can cause much more serious injuries.  A cat biting is annoying.  A dog biting is dangerous.  Yet somehow, and much to our doggies credit, it’s easier to take for granted that dogs like and obey us.  Still, I think it’s worth remembering from time to time, in the pit of your stomach, just who it is we have sleeping in our homes. Tell Cuddles he’s a good boy for not eating you, and give him a bone.

 

Barks, Bites, and …..Porta Pottys?

Out-U-Go! Tallahassee joined the Animal Shelter Foundation (ASF) in the All Saints Hop Yard on September 2nd for “Barks and Bites” to benefit animals in need.  This was our first event and it gave us a chance to introduce Out-U-Go! to Tallahassee in a way that helped bring attention to ASF who works tirelessly for animals in our community.

We introduced the OUG Manifesto and explained OUG’s unique ability to be completely flexible for Tallahassee pet parents. We had the pleasure of having Greta (our first and totally fantastic pet sitter!) and her love-bug Honeyboo (OUG Tally’s first Chiweenie!) join us for the fun!

Grace serving as our "Welcoming Committee"...

Honeyboo!!

Tallahassee’s Top Dogs were joined by Kevin-Top Dog husband extraordinaire-with Grace the Dalmatian…the only dog we have, who could make it through the event without making tremendously bad choices. Three of our loyal supporters…Marcus, Renee and the lovely Miss Fiona-dog, hung out with the Out-U-Go! gang.

Miss Fiona!

We fielded dozens of questions including one about an exceptionally needy hamster! The hamster’s person was concerned that we would really not be set up or trained for extremely needy animals…

We explained our unique capabilities with OUG’s own Dog Walk University training under our belts and the Tallahassee Top Dog’s predilection for attracting less than mainstream animals.

In fact, the Tallahassee Top Dogs are practically a needy animal Special Ops unit!

Our own pets require an interesting skill set and exemplify the OUG motto for our pet parents, No Problem! Here’s the run down:

Bailey, our 7lb Calico with cat-patterned baldness, irritable bowels, and a skin condition requiring antihistamine ear cream that requires jujitsu moves to protect any skin you are particularly fond of.

Bruce, our big boned rat terrier- with an unidentified plant allergy  causing his bottom half to turn an odd shade of pink while scratching himself uncontrollably, requires daily oatmeal baths that need to air dry while lap sitting on his fluffy towel so he can catch up with the Kardashians.

Poor little Bruce... 😉

And then there is Delta…..a loveable lab mix rescue who refuses to eat anything that is not served in a pizza box and has only one hip ….requiring physical therapy, treadmill time (complete with her own custom doggie ankle weight), massages and bubbling in a hot tub to work the kinks out.

So a needy hamster that requires being worn in a hoodie for at least 13 hours a day……..NO PROBLEM!

After assuring the hamster pet parent we were uniquely qualified to care for her little love, we received the best question of the night…..Was Out-U-Go! the Porta Potty Company?

As we were situated right next to the Porta Pottys…and our name has OUT and GO in it…we really should have expected this……and really folks….couldn’t a pug who went on a Snausages binge be considered a portable potty unit?

Stay tuned for the exciting play by play coverage from Out-U-Go! Tally’s first Play Date in the Park on October 15th!

Peace-Love-and Belly Rubs!!

~  Out-U-Go! Tallahassee Gang

Breed Misconceptions

A typical German Shepherd

A few weekends ago I walked Ringo for the first time.  All I knew about him before I walked into the house was that he was a “Shepherd mix.”  For some reason my mind conjured an image of a mix of a Shepherd of the Australian variety, mixed with a Corgi or Beagle or something.  In my head, Ringo was 20-30 lbs, sprightly and lovable.  I was a little surprised when I opened the door, walked in, turned the corner and found myself standing eye to eye with Ischyrocyon hyaenodus, the North American BearDog thought to have gone extinct over 10 million years ago.

Now as everyone knows, Ischyrocyon hyaenodus was a ruthless carnivore.  Miocene herbivores were right to fear their terrible predation and seemingly insatiable appetite for carnage.  So of course I felt like quite a silly Cuyamacamelus to have just walked right into his lair, like a Meleagris gallopavo jumping right onto the Thanksgiving table.  I quickly prepared myself to be devoured by this fearful beast.

Yet the strangest thing happened.  Though Ringo (ringus spectacularus) did begin to taste my skin with his tongue in anticipation of his meal, he also began to oscillate his posterior caudal appendage, as if to signal something.  Then he began to lightly head butt me, burying his face in my chest and softly snorting like a contented Sus scrofa domesticus. What kind of strange pre-meal ritual was this?

It turns out that Ringo didn’t want to eat me at all! Eventually I pieced it all together: Ringo is a Shepherd of the German variety, probably mixed with a snuffleupagus.  He had no intention of eating me, but rather wished (amazingly!) to be my friend and just hang out for a while and have fun.  We went for a walk, skipped and hopped around the yard for a while, cuddled and nuzzled, and then said adieu.  There was no death involved; there wasn’t even the slightest bit of carnage.  There was only happiness and goodwill in such quantities that we each had some left over to share with others later in the day.  I felt like quite a lucky Anas platyrhynchos.

 

Dog Emotions

Max!

Humans experience so many emotions.  I suspect if one catalogued every word ever uttered to try and describe a feeling from every language that has ever existed, as well as every significant grunt or groan, the result would still be far short of what any single person feels in a lifetime.  The full spectrum of a dog’s emotions, on the other hand, would probably fit nicely between the covers of a good children’s book.  Despite their relatively narrow emotional capacity and unexpressive faces, I swear I’ve seen dogs that look wistful, avaricious, truculent, and even slightly romantic.  Probably most dog lovers are guilty of projecting emotions in this way. It’s irresistibly easy to paint with our vast emotional spectrum on the simple canvas of a furry face.  Anyway, the dogs don’t seem to mind.  At least, no dog has ever looked especially piqued when I told them they seemed dogmatic.

Today I walked Max the giant Black Lab for the first time, and we were instant friends.  I liked him (he could tell), and he liked me (I could tell).  He did a little hoppy-wiggly dance to express his joy, and then when I squatted down on my haunches he gave me lots of little uppercuts in the chest with his nose.  This performance was emotionally intense, but all fit within the purview of the word “happy.”  Max even gave little whimpering cries which almost sounded sad or even elegiac, but no, still just “happy,” albeit perhaps pushing the boundaries of “too happy.”  I’ve seen a similar dance from my own Lab, Marty, on many occasions, and to an outsider unfamiliar with dogs, it must look like my walking in the door after a long absence causes the poor creature to experience excruciating seizures.  Marty makes a noise like a yelp-howl, falls violently to the floor where she writhes around for a moment, only to hop back up with the urgent need to try and nuzzle/burrow her way into my torso, then she steps back to spin in a few circles and then expands the circles into laps around the living room.  Then it’s repeated, from the top.  It’s all just Marty’s attempt to define “happy.”

Max wasn’t quite that overcome, but then we’d just met. Max’s parents were home taking care of the sick baby.  If you’re a human of the non-sociopath variety, the sight of the final two words of that last sentence probably made you feel something on some level, and might even be enough to make you feel lots of things on a very conscious level if you let them.  But not poor Max.  There were many primal as well as very subtle emotions floating about the house, and maybe Max could sense that something was going on but couldn’t really sympathize, as much as it is in his sweet nature to try. Like a toddler watching Hamlet, Max probably just wondered why everyone was so tense and worked up, and wished the world would be just plain old happy.  A nice brisk walk must have been a welcome relief for Max.

Yet the walk was emotionally intense too.  We walked by a house that had a small, very territorial dog fiercely yapping about our impudent proximity to his yard.  At least that’s what I heard.  Max probably heard “unhappy” and “angry” with every bark, and maybe even “righteously indignant,” though probably not.  Max casually strolled over near the fence and this little dog actually tired to bite Max’s nose through the slight crack in the gate.  I thought “what gall!” from this little thing half Max’s size, and was eager to forget it and move on. But no, suddenly Max’s ebullience turned to irascibility, and his hackles proclaimed his bellicosity.  Max wanted to fight. I’d put a treat in my pocket before I entered Max’s house just in case he needed winning over (ha!), and I decided that I’d give it to him once we got to the corner, and let the milkbone taste of solace eclipse his umbrage. When we got to the corner, I decided that he should probably have to sit first. I said the word and he did it (miraculous!  but more on that another time), and then I gave him the treat.  Then a pat on the head. Next thing I know Max was laying on his back right in front of me in the middle of the sidewalk.  I pet his belly and rubbed his chest, which is a great way to calm Labradors (perhaps because they are so nostalgic for the cosseted days of their puppyhood), but the look on Max’s face was one of the most curious I’ve seen on a dog in a long time.

Maybe the effrontery of the other dog had taken a greater emotional toll than I thought. Maybe the contrast between one pernicious moment and another pleasant, in rapid succession, overloaded Max’s intricate lattice of emotional circuitry, and he became impassive.  In any event, as he lay there having his belly rubbed, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye as if he expected something from me, like another treat, a hug, or even a touch of chastisement.  He looked like he was mollified by my rubbing his belly, and simultaneously circumspect at the great vulnerability of his position.  I kept trying to calm him, stroking his chest and telling him not to mind that little rapscallion back there, but he kept looking at me with one wide nervous eye, his mouth closed tight.  It was the face of a creature vexed by many intense emotions.  Not a face one would find in a children’s book.

We kept walking, and Max soon slipped back into plain old happy.  At least I think he did. Max tended to look like he was smiling, like most Labs and many other breeds.  Maybe inside he was lost in an emotional jungle, but outwardly he just wore a big goofy grin. And that, I think, is the dilemma: dogs may look like they’re always smiling, or always sad, and maybe it isn’t true.  Maybe it’s good we project so many complicated human feelings on our pets, because they feel much more than their simple pet masks reveal.  I don’t know if dogs can feel guilt or boredom or nostalgia or pride, but wagging/not wagging and grinning/not grinning are surely not sufficient markers for how they really feel.  I don’t know how many emotions dogs are capable of; maybe it’s 100, maybe it’s only 5 as some have suggested.  Maybe they feel things one at a time, or maybe they can feel everything at once, which is what puts my Marty so near insanity every time I see her.  You can combine 3 primary colors and make quite a spectrum.

Whatever they feel, they are very interested in how we feel. This, I think, is the greatest evidence that dogs aren’t simply happy/sad playful/angry automatons.  They study our faces intensely, trying to puzzle out what we’re feeling, and how they should feel in turn. In fact, studies have shown that dogs automatically look at one side of our asymmetrical faces, probably in an attempt to understand our thoughts and feelings as clearly as possible.  The only other species that is known to do this to us, is us.  So perhaps when Max was laying on the sidewalk staring at me with that funny expression, it was because I was wearing a pretty funny expression myself, and he was just trying to figure it out. We were chasing each other’s emotional tails.  And it’s not a chase either of us is ever likely to win.

 

A Eulogy for Dudley

The first time I met Dudley, I was afraid.  Boxers are formidable looking dogs, built like backroom prize fighters from the rough parts of the last century.  They have long muscular legs, deep chests and thick, powerful necks fitting their savage-looking faces—faces that whisper “pug” and scream “pugnacious.”  They look like they could run down a wild boar, pin it to the forest floor and hold it there until a German aristocrat arrived with a thick spear.  Which is, I imagine, what they were originally bred for.

In the absence of wild boar to subdue, most boxers become very sweet, goofy and altogether lovable pets.  They have a coherent and untroubled temperment to match their healthy, naturally proportioned frames.  They are great dogs for young families, wandering bachelors, single ladies, junk yard proprietors, nice suburban couples or yes, German royalty.  They are an excellent choice for enthusiastic first-time dog owners as well as lovely additions to established domestic packs.  One could make a strong case for boxers as the best all-around breed.  I’ve known boxers since I was a child, seen them raised up from puppyhood and come to love even their faults.  The greatest of these, as far as I can tell, is that they make you love them dearly, convince you that you’ve found a loyal friend forever, and then, one day, without permission and contrary to everything you’ve come to expect from so vibrant and optimistic a creature, they die. Last week my pal, Dudley, passed away.

When I first walked through his door and saw him slowly sit up on the far side of the room, I wondered what it was going to feel like when he tore my arm off.  Bad, I thought.  Real bad.  I wondered, will it
be the right arm or the left?  Will he give it back?  Should I just leave it like a lizzard leaves his tail?  Will I still have to walk
him?  It was my second day on the job and I was suddenly convinced it was far different from the one to which I had applied.  That job seemed fun, whereas this job seemed underpaid by several million dollars an hour, with a bit more terror, gladiatorial combat and impending death than I’d noticed in the description.  Dudley just stood there waiting for me to approach.  No barking, no wagging, just statue posing.  As I came near I struggled not to stare into his amazing ghostly white and unblinking eyes; eyes that made me wonder if he was either completely blind or if, in fact, he could see everything, from the sweat beading on my forehead to the fears in my heart.  He seemed to leer like the coldest most inveterate judge, sizing up my past and future iniquities, waiting to devour my the
tender soul like a milkbone.  The first time I met Dudley, I was scared.

How could I anticipate all the good times we’d have?  All the long
walks, long talks (one-sided though they were) and many dateless
memories; the seasons turning in the background but the gladness and
ease of our time together unchanging.  My daily visits with Dudley
seem to run together as I look back, moments merging through months
like a beam of light piercing through a calendar folded accordion
style.  When I’d come in he’d either pop up like a gopher from the
same spot where I first saw him, or he’d remain in a snoring lump
until he heard my voice or felt my approaching footfalls.  Sometimes
he’d only wake (with a wag) when I held my forearm near his nose to
let my scent draw him back to earth.  We had our little routines.
Dudley would come back from a walk and instantly begin to drool in
anticipation of the treat he knew I’d give him.  Every day he would
crane his neck and kick-kick-kick his paw when I scratched his neck
just the right way, and over time it seems I could only ever scratch
his neck in just the right way.  Sometimes he’d kick his paws without
my even petting him, as if my very proximity tickled him.  He’d snort
with the deepest animal satisfaction as he wiggled like a trout on the
grass, and when weather permitted, I’d wiggle on the grass right
beside him and try to glean some of his strange rapture.  All these
moments, built one upon another, day after day, looked forward to and
fulfilled and missed and regained and missed again.  And now only
missed.

Dudley was very old for a Boxer, and his health had been in a gradual
decline.  I can’t say I was surprised when I heard the news.
Sometimes when I came in he’d be slow to rise.  The effort of getting
up would bring on coughing fits which shook my hand as I gently pet
his back in a frustrated attempt to soothe.  Sometimes he’d slip on
the last stair descending to the street, and I’d have to hold him and
guide him.  His ‘accidents’ were becoming almost daily occurrences for
which he was never scolded, nor ever repentant.  He made massive lakes
that started in and formed tributaries and bays on their way to
the living room; lakes that took up half a roll of paper towels and
plenty of precious walk time.

Then our walks got shorter and shorter.  Captain Dudley faded quickly
enough that I thought it could come any day, yet just gradually enough
that I wondered if maybe he wouldn’t be the one to finally overcome
that one great Boxer character flaw.

Some dogs are so loving, so happy to be around people and so eager to
please, that you swear they’d live forever if you could only train
them how.  Just keep saying “stay,” and they’ll never ever go.  I’ve
long thought that I would live my life with a series of dogs, and I’ve
already buried five of my own.  I know Dudley’s people were prepared,
and I’m sure that he had the best, most comfortable end possible.
Still, I keep thinking of new titles for Dudley that I’d like to share
with him next time I see him.  He started out as Captain Duderly, but
every day brought new accomplishments and ribbons on his lapel.  He
was Lord Duders the famed collector of rare flowers; Herr Dudermeister
the foul-mouthed and brilliant theologian; Dudely-dee, retired air
force pilot and amateur clown; and Vice-Chancellor Duds, gambler and
confidant to the king of Monaco.  He wore every hat with good humor.
Who is going to fill in as Secretary of Agriculture?  No one else is
qualified.  He was my pal.  I know he looked forward to our walks; I
hope he enjoyed them, the neck rubs and treats, enough to offset his
troubles and aches.  Considering how scary he was to me at first, I
really can’t imagine a gentler dog.  I never once heard him bark,
never growl, never anger.  I still have both my arms, and with them I
type:  Bon Voyage Capt. Dudley, you will be missed.

Rest in peace, dear Dudley. May heaven have a stuffed animal waiting for you!

Minneapolis, Minnesota, this Blog’s for You!

Woof, meow and greetings!  This blog goes out to all ourMinneapolis,MNpeeps and followers who are curious about starting your own dog walking business.  We’re coming to your city next to show the right person how it’s done!  Out-U-Go! is on the prowl for our next Top Dog!  Viking country…here we come!

WhyMinneapolis, you ask?  After coming to terms with our Bears vs Viking rivalry, we studied the lay of the land, the people and the pups and kitties that make up the great gopher state.  We think it has has the nuts and bolts to make our next Out-U-Go! territory!  Of course, having the right statistics and numbers behind us is only half the battle—the other half is finding the right person to own and manage their very own dog walking business!

Like starting any business, starting your own dog walking business means having: financial stability, an entrepreneurial spirit, a love for pets (and an equal amount for their humans), a positive mental attitude, an incredible work ethic and personal dedication to be successful – the best in the industry!

Fortunately in our world, owning your own dog walking business and becoming a Top Dog also means spending your days and nights dedicated to all things furry.  Also, it happens to be a booming industry.  Really, a pretty great career and fun way to make a living.

If you think you’re a good fit, we encourage you to sniff around our website and get in touch with the Out-U-Go! gang soon! http://franchising.outugo.com/

Woofs & Wags,

Cara Haugh

Top Dog of Franchise Development & Support

Out-U-Go! Franchising

708-383-7905 ext. 151