JD Allinder

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Play Date!

In Posts on July 26, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Jane and ElsaToday was yet another gorgeous Michigan summer day: sunny, breezy, and completely life affirming. Jane and I slept late, ate breakfast, caught up on reading, and then walked to Riverside Park in downtown Ypsi for a play date with Jane’s best friend, Elsa. Jane worships Elsa, and she loves Elsa’s mom, Elena, who today brought hot dogs and blueberries for the pups.

The GirlsThe dogs ran and played, and Elsa once again demonstrated for Jane the joys of jumping off the pier into the river. Jane summoned the courage for a couple of leaps, but quickly grew bored and opted instead for chasing and treeing imaginary beasts.

Jane and Elsa Swimming

Elsa is a wonderful dog, and she and Jane truly form an extended pack. Jane respects Elsa’s higher rank, and Elsa likes the attention. Elsa’s very sweet to Jane, though she doesn’t hesitate putting her in her place when she thinks it’s called for. In many ways the two dogs are polar opposites – Jane’s a live wire while Elsa’s as relaxed as a Buddha – but they’re complementary and they’ve grown to, if not love each other, feel whatever the canine equivalent is.

I’ve been friends with Elena for four or five years. She lives in the ‘hood, teaches English, and loves dogs as much as I do. When we met, we both had mixed breed dogs – Georgia and Arlo – who were about the same age and temperament. Georgia was my first dog as a grown-up, and Arlo was Elena’s first. The foundation of our friendship, Elena’s and mine, was our intense, spiritual connection to our dogs. She and I are as different from each other as Jane and Elsa, but we share a respect, understanding, and deep need for communion with animals, especially dogs, and that’s always bound us together.

About a year and a half ago, Arlo suddenly got sick and died. Elena was devastated. She mourned Arlo’s passing for months. About the same time Georgia became ill. Unlike Arlo, Georgia’s decline was gradual. She took ten months to die. In some ways I’m thankful that I had those ten months to prepare for Georgia’s death. In other ways, though, I think Elena was blessed to have Arlo taken from her so quickly. I’d never experienced grief like I did when Georgia died. Nothing really prepared me for it either. I still haven’t got over it, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s just something I’ve learned to live with, just like Elena’s learned to live in a world without Arlo.

But then along came Elsa and Jane. Both are rescued dogs who’ve taught us to love again. The best part is that, just like Arlo and Georgia before them, Elsa and Jane have bonded, and Elena and I have once again bonded over our shared joy. I’m sure our new dogs will change our lives as dramatically as our first dogs did. Eventually, though, they’ll leave us, devastated. But we’ll rise from the ashes and love again and again until we finally join the whole pack in the sweet hereafter.

The Girls Again


The Unnamed Trail

In Posts on July 25, 2009 at 12:21 am

Today was a rather hectic day. My to-do list has been growing all week, and it’s now officially out of control. Jane and I still went out for our two-hour lunch walk, though. We never skip a day. In fact, the days when I’m especially busy or feeling stressed out are the days I most need to unplug from the grid and hang out with my dog in the woods.

Lady Jane

Today we walked the unnamed trail behind St. Joe’s Hospital in Ypsilanti. My friend, Elena – whose Alsatian, Elsa, is Jane’s best friend – took us there a couple of months ago. It’s such a great place. I was stunned that I’ve lived just a couple of miles from it all these years and never taken advantage of it. The trail doesn’t have a name, as far as I know, and relatively few people seem to know it exists. You enter by taking McAuley Drive around the hospital campus perimeter. Just past the ball fields on the left is a picnic area. There are rusted basketball hoops and a few picnic tables that are always empty. Park in the huge lot – I promise you’ll be the only car there – and walk east into the woods. Don’t be fooled and think you’ve arrived when you come upon a gravel foot path. That’s for wimps. Keep walking all the way into the woods and down until you reach the Huron. You’ll see the dirt foot trail running along the river. Jane and I always turn left and hike north first because this part of the trail kicks my butt every time, and I like to get it over with.

The unnamed trailThe trail winds a little bit, but it’s relatively easy going for about 3/4 of a mile. The scenery, steep hills on the left and the river on the right, is gorgeous. You’ll eventually come upon two or three springs that are spraying water across the path. That’s your cue to turn around unless you really want a challenge. Jane and I always keep going the last half mile or so, but it’s very tough. There are downed trees, rocky hills, mud pits, and jungle-like vegetation. Maneuvering this section requires squatting, crawling, and jumping. I’ve ripped  several shirts, been covered in scratches and bruises,  and fallen a few times, too. It is an intense workout. But if you’re up for it, it’s an awesome adventure. Jane and I actually ran into a guy on this part of the trail today. He was running. (There is no way I would run this trail.) The guy was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. The end of the trail dumps you out at the convergence of South Dixboro Road and East Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor. You can cross the railroad tracks and walk west to Gallup Park or north to Parker Mill Park. There’s another park to the east called Forest Park. According to the map, there’s limited or no access by roads. I think Jane and I might check it out next week.

We turn around at this point, me drenched with sweat, and hike back to our starting point at St. Joe’s. Instead of stopping at the car, though, we walk south along the river about a mile until we reach Dixboro Dam. This is a beautiful, lowlands walk that’s part meadow and part wetlands. The weeds are taller than I am, and the mud is deep, so long pants and boots are a must (as is a tick check after you get home). After exploring the dam, Jane and I head back to the car where we crash under a tree and share a gallon of water. The whole hike is less than five miles, but it takes two hours because of the challenging terrain. There are a few sub-trails I’d like to check out, and there are also deer paths through the brush along the railroad tracks that Jane’s curious about. I’m always too exhausted to explore them, though. I keep promising Jane we’ll explore further in the winter – that’s when I’m at my peak. On a cold winter day I can walk forever.

Jane on the trail

Highland Cemetery

In Posts on July 21, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Starkweather Chapel

The crown jewel of Ypsilanti is Highland Cemetery located at the corner of River Street and Clark Road. It is a gorgeous, 100-acre property filled with mature trees, rolling hills, and winding paths. Designed by James Lewis Glenn in the garden (or rural) style popular in the nineteenth century, Highland was dedicated on July 14, 1864. Highland is really the most beautiful and peaceful spot in the city, and its highest point offers panoramic views of the Huron River, the church spires and rooftops of downtown, and EMU’s campus beyond. The gravestones provide glimpses into Ypsilanti’s rich history, and I enjoy reading them, trying to connect the dots and paint pictures of people’s lives and their relationships to each other. Gravesites of note include Frederick Henry Pease, a professor of music at EMU and after whom Pease Auditorium is named; the Quirk family lot, patrons of the arts after whom EMU’s Quirk Theater is named; and Mary Ann and John Starkweather. After John’s death, Mary Ann was left with a small fortune. She donated her home at 130 N. Huron to the Ladies’ Library Association, contributed funds for the construction of Starkweather Hall at EMU (originally the Student’s Christian Association, now the Office of Graduate Studies), and funded the construction of Starkweather Chapel at Highland Cemetery, designed by Detroit architects George Mason and Zachariah Rice.

Highland Cemetery is hands-down my favorite walking spot in the city, and I’ve been visiting two to three times a week for over ten years. Jane enjoys Highland as much as I do, and we often take our lunch break walks there. It’s about a mile from our house in Depot Town, so the walk to and from offers a good warm-up and cool-down for both of us. The cemetery is home to an assortment of creatures including foxes (I once witnessed a mother fox nursing her pups), raccoons, groundhogs, deer, owls, hawks, opossums, and a variety of songbirds and insects.

The best part of Highland Cemetery is the 100 or so acres of undeveloped and unused land. The back of the property is bordered by a thick woods, and there’s a small opening between two small, tattered lion statues. This is the doorway to a secret world.

Footpath EntranceJust beyond this entry is an old Native American footpath – about half a mile long – that winds through the woods and down to the Huron River. There’s a flood plain before you reach the river, and this time of year it’s virtually impenetrable (though Jane and I plow through it getting muddy and scratched). Once you reach the river, you can follow deer paths south along the bank for about a mile. These paths are extremely difficult to navigate and are filled with overgrown brush and fallen trees. Jane and I stay off the deer paths during the summer – they’re more trouble than they’re worth – but will return again in the fall when we’ll work on carving out our route. (I’ve been working on clearing this path for a decade. So far, Mother Nature is winning.) As far as I know, I am the only person who uses these woods. I guess I kind of feel like they belong to me in a way, or that I have stewardship over them.

Hiking north in the woods is a little easier – they’re not as dense – but you’ll run into a lot of mud except in the dead of winter. Beyond the north woods are about 15 acres of meadow and wetlands. It was on the meadow that Jane treed a groundhog yesterday.

Treeing JaneI felt sorry for the little guy (the groundhog, not Jane). I didn’t even know they could climb trees. The grasses and wildflowers on much of the meadow are as tall as I am this time of year, but the family who manages and lives on the property keeps small trails carved out. I’m not sure why they do this. Is it just for Jane and me? (We are the only people who walk back there, and they always wave to us.) At any rate, I have the highest regard for the caretakers. They’ve always made my dogs and me feel like welcomed additions to the landscape.

Cemetery Jane


In Posts on July 19, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I switched to a vegetarian diet in 1996, and shortly after that a friend of mine turned me on to the benefits of raw foods. The raw foods diet is based on unprocessed and uncooked plant foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, sprouts, seeds, nuts, grains, legumes, and seaweed. Raw foods maintain enzymes that promote digestion and absorption of food, and they assist in weight loss. Raw foods contain fewer trans and saturated fats, and they’re low in sodium and high in potassium, magnesium, folate, fiber, and phytochemicals. Many raw foodists believe that raw is the way God intended us to eat, and a recent study by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham links obesity to soft, spongy (i.e. processed, overcooked) foods. You can listen to a fascinating interview with Wrangham on this subject on PRI’s The World.

After I began incorporating more raw foods into my diet, I discovered the B.A.R.F. diet for dogs. B.A.R.F. stands for bones and raw food and is really simple: dogs should eat 60 percent raw, meaty bones and 40 percent scraps including fresh fruits and vegetables. This diet mimics the diet of wild canines like foxes, wolves,  jackals, and coyotes and keeps domestic dogs healthy, happy, and psychologically balanced. I began experimenting with B.A.R.F. in the mid-’90s with my lab mix, Georgia, eventually moving her to about 80 percent B.A.R.F., and she lived to a ripe old 14. She also maintained the teeth and gums of a puppy, my favorite byproduct of the B.A.R.F. diet. Dogs on the B.A.R.F. diet never require professional teeth cleaning. Canine dentistry is such a booming industry in the US because the majority of dogs are not eating a natural diet.

Jane loves B.A.R.F., and I’ve slowly been moving her toward a completely raw diet. We started with raw fruits and vegetables (which she loves) and boiled meats with brown rice. Eventually, I moved her to raw meats – venison, rabbit, turkey, chicken – and then raw meat with the bones, like chicken wings and turkey necks. (Yes, dogs can eat chicken bones as long as they’re raw. Canines have been living on fowl – bones and all – since the beginning of time.) This morning I juiced carrots, broccoli, celery, cucumber, and blueberries. I drank the juice and Jane got the pulp mixed with raw beef, ground flax seeds, and brown rice. Tonight she’ll have the same followed by a large meaty bone from the butcher. She gets one each night, and it keeps her busy, stimulated, and satisfied as a dog for a couple of hours. Feeding is a sacred ritual at our house.

Though B.A.R.F. is considered alternative in the United States (it was actually widely practiced before the introduction of commercial dog “food” in the 1930s), it’s still relatively mainstream in many parts of Europe, Africa, Australia, and Latin America where people generally take a more naturalist approach to interacting with dogs. Though I do supplement sometimes with low-cal kibble, Jane’s at about 80 percent B.A.R.F. If you live with a dog, I urge you to consider B.A.R.F. The majority of diseases dogs suffer from are caused by poor nutrition. B.A.R.F. really liberates dogs and returns them to a calm, natural state. Check out Give Your Dog a Bone by Dr. Ian Billinghurst. It’s the B.A.R.F. bible. Once you read it, you’ll never go back.

Jane loves B.A.R.F.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Lillie Park

In Posts on July 17, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Jane Pond Lillie ParkJane and I took our lunch break today at Lillie Park located at the southeast intersection of Platt and Ellsworth Roads in Ann Arbor. The little known park is 148 acres of woods, marshes, prairies, and three lakes: Haven Lake, Turtle Rock Pond, and Duck Potato Pond. Lillie Park is a model use of city property. A reclaimed gravel pit bordered by I-94 and US-23, the land could easily have been bulldozed and turned into a Wal-Mart. Instead, it’s been returned to its natural state and is lovingly managed by the Pittsfield Charter Township Department of Parks and Recreation. Lillie has playing fields, picnic areas, and several miles of manicured hiking trails. Best of all is the wildlife. Jane and I have observed beavers building their summer home, painted turtles sunning on logs, and (somewhat startlingly) a lone coyote hunting rodents. The park is also home to turkeys, deer, ducks, geese, muskrats, herons, snakes, mink, grouse, hawks, owls, squirrels, shrews, mice, chipmunks, osprey, opossums, raccoons, and a variety of songbirds and insects – all in the middle of the city! Every town should have a park like Lillie.

Jane and I used to visit Lillie Park frequently. There were some weeks during the winter that we stopped in for a couple of hours every day. Winter is the best, because the park is completely empty. There isn’t even any maintenance. It’s just Jane and me and the wild. The place really takes on a primal, every-man-for-himself feel, which I dig.

Jane wading at Lillie Park

The summer is a bit different. Though there still aren’t many people on the trails, I occasionally run into some, and many of them are not dog-friendly. I can never fully relax on the trails this time of year, because I don’t know who might be around the next corner. That said, I do play by the rules (mostly), but the park has so many of them: no swimming, no ice skating, no dog leashes longer than six feet, and this one, the most ridiculous.

No DogsI just think this is the most insane, micromanaging, dog-unfriendly rule I’ve ever seen in a park. Designated dog area? Huh? Canines are natural members of this ecosystem and were here long before people came in and carved out mulched paths for yuppie joggers with baby carriages.

So Jane and I don’t visit as much this time of year. As much as I love the park, I get bent out of shape over all of its rules. No one respects Mother Nature more than I do, but Lillie Park ultimately doesn’t want me interacting with her in a meaningful, authentic way. It’s a shame, because this is such a gorgeous plot of land.

Despite my mixed feelings, I hope you’ll visit the park. It’s especially bleak and unforgiving (in a good way) in fall and winter (and you’ll find me running through the woods with my off-leash dog). Also, if you’re a foodie, check out the Hyundai Asian Market in the strip mall across the street. It’s a great little Korean market with staples like various oils, rices, and tofus, but they also prepare foods on the premises like seaweed salad, black soybean salad, and the best kimchi I’ve ever had. Fresh seafood is delivered Fridays at noon, and the baked goods on the counter are amazing. The owner goes to Chicago each week and brings back these incredible breads from New York Bakery on Lawrence Avenue. The best is a simple white bun filled with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Jane and I split one after each visit to Lillie Park (and today was no exception).

Cherry Hill

In Posts on July 14, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Jane-Cherry-HillJane and I took our two-hour lunch break on this beautiful Michigan summer day at Cherry Hill Nature Preserve located at 6375 Cherry Hill Road. Though its address is Ypsilanti, the property is managed by the Superior Township Department of Parks and Recreation. Cherry Hill is approximately 160 acres of protected wetlands, meadow, and woods. I wear boots and long pants year-round at Cherry Hill, but you could probably get away with hiking or running shoes in the summer. I don’t recommend shorts, though, as some of the the trails can get pretty overgrown, and the mosquitoes and deer flies are out in full force. Many of the trails take on a labyrinth feel this time of year, but they’re pretty easy to navigate. Cherry Hill is a wonderful place for introducing kids to the great outdoors.

The most interesting walks at Cherry Hill are beyond the somewhat indiscernible boundaries of the property (and the ring of incongruous McMansions). There’s a 20-acre or so patch of wet, snake-filled woods to the north, and there’s at least a mile of private trails to the south that people have carved out for use on their own properties. It was on these private trails today that I ran into this curious deer.

Cherry-Hill-DeerFortunately Jane was preoccupied, so the deer and I got to observe each other in silence for about half a minute or so. Once Jane saw the deer, though, all hell broke loose. I let her chase the deer for a quarter of a mile or so, and I jogged along with her. We definitely earned our treats.

About ten years ago, Cherry Hill was one of my favorite places in the greater Ann Arbor area. It was very pure – just a tract of land left to its own devices. In the past few years, someone’s begun micromanaging the property. There are prefab foot bridges over creeks and signs all over the place about leashing your dog (whatever). This is nature lite. I don’t visit nearly as often as I used to because of this. I can still make great use of the land, but it just doesn’t have the same groovy vibe that it used to (and should still) have. It feels somehow corporate, like an antiseptic version of nature for people who are afraid to get dirty.

Anyway, I don’t want to be too down on the place. It is beautiful and home to a zillion creatures. If you visit after 6:00PM you’ll get to see tons of rabbits, groundhogs, and raccoons. In the afternoon it’s mostly deer and insects.

There’s no body of water at Cherry Hill (though creeks flow in fall and spring), but if you walk about a quarter of a mile west on Cherry Hill Road, just where the dirt and paved portions of the road meet, there’s a gorgeous lake to the south. Jane and I just discovered it last week, which is one of my favorite things about hiking: you can traverse the same trails year after year and keep having new adventures. Here’s Jane after a much needed swim.

Jane-LakeThis lake is one of my new favorite spots. It is pristine. It’s shady and breezy. It’s perfect. If anyone has any information about this lake, please fill me in.

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

In Posts on July 12, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Took a much needed break from mind boggling work this afternoon and headed out to LaFurge Woods and Wetlands for a two-hour hike with Jane. LaFurge is a beautiful, protected property just north of the Prospect and Geddes intersection in Superior Township. It’s managed by the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and covers approximately 350 acres. The best part about it is that relatively few people use it. It’s definitely one of my secret happy places (and just two miles from downtown Ypsi!). Here’s a view from the big hill taken on this gorgeous Michigan summer Sunday.

viewLaFurge is great in all seasons, but it’s almost always muddy, so long pants and boots are a must year-round. It’s also exceptionally buggy this time of year. (Jane and I were severely harassed by mosquitoes and deer flies today.) If you’re new to hiking or just want an easy nature walk, the manicured trails are super easy. From them you can observe turtles, snakes, and dozens of bird species including, from time to time, swans and geese. (I’m bummed that the visiting swan couple has moved on. I was hoping to see their chicks.) 

Jane and I enjoy the woods behind the wetland area. They’re just about 1/4 mile square, but there are no trails, so maneuvering them can be moderately challenging. I have never seen anyone in these woods. If you want rugged nature, this is the real deal. Tromping through them for 30 minutes or so provides us with a decent workout, and then Jane’s ready for a dip in the pond. She actually goes all the way under the water. She dives, torpedoes, and then jumps up throwing her head back and spraying water on her back. She looks like an elephant. She is such a nut.

janepondThe preserve is bordered on the north by a dirt road called Vreeland. It’s about a mile long, and Jane and I enjoy walking to the end and back. It’s really quite beautiful. I love walking Vreeland the best, because it’s a million miles away from the city. I swear I’m in Kansas. There are a few houses on the road with chickens and horses, and sometimes people drive by and wave like they do in small towns Up North. Also on Vreeland is Conservancy Farm, an organic co-op garden. When no one’s around, Jane and I walk on this property too (shhhh) and also the woods behind it. I really can’t help it. I’m a guerilla hiker. So far no one’s ever yelled (or shot) at me.


Walk This Way

In Posts on July 11, 2009 at 4:39 pm

I was visiting family in Georgia recently, and one of my sisters said, “I believe exercise is the solution for everything.” It’s a simple statement, but it’s also profound because it’s so true. If I’m feeling down, I need exercise. If I’m sluggish, exercise wakes me up. If I’m feeling scattered and pulling out my hair over a work or school project, exercise chills me out and defrags my brain. I’m not a runner, not particularly skilled at sports, and I’d rather have all my teeth yanked out of my head than spend twenty minutes in a gym. But I can walk, and walking is a huge part of my life.

Cesar Millan offers a three-part strategy for creating a happy, balanced dog: exercise, discipline, and affection (in that order). He says dogs should be walked at least one hour each day. I agree. Jane and I walk thee hours every day, covering eight to ten miles. This sounds like a lot to some people, but wolves often run eight to ten hours a day and have been observed running 22 miles without resting. Our eight to ten miles is relatively small beans, but the benefits are immeasurable. Walking drains us both of energy, bonds us, and reinforces our pack structure. Walking satisfies Jane as an animal, a dog, and a blue tick coonhound. It quashes her anxiety and keeps her physically and psychologically balanced. Walking keeps me calm-assertive and Jane calm-submissive. 

Just got in from a moderately challenging eight-mile trek along the Huron River. It was hot, humid, and muddy. I’m filthy. So is Jane. She got to hunt and migrate and watch, listen to, and observe me. We’re both exhausted, we’ve earned our treats, and we’re just a little bit closer than we were this morning. Every outing further cements her rehabilitation and our bonding (and makes her crash so I can get some work done).

Jane Resting

Jane and I walk/hike/jog, preferably on the trail, two hours each day at lunch and another hour in the evening. I really believe that, like my sister said, exercise is the answer for just about everything that ails us. Used to be, before the Industrial Revolution, that people got their workouts naturally. Now, because we’re so far removed from our natural animal state, many of us don’t even know what exercise means. I see it as finding whatever it is that you enjoy – birding, gardening, house cleaning – and doing it often. You don’t need special equipment or clothing. Just move. Interact and be physical. It’s Mother Nature’s miracle cure.

50 Feet of Freedom

In Posts on July 10, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Hounds are notoriously clever, strong, and stubborn, and Jane is no exception. She can open doors and climb fences, and, when given a command, she still doesn’t always reflexively obey. Instead, she seems to weigh her options. Though she’s learning that my commands are not debatable, her instincts sometimes prove stronger than my alpha status.

I do quite a bit of city walking, but I do even more on the trail. While I share my life with a dog for many reasons, one of the most important is for companionship on my daily excursions/adventures in the wild. I love nature and I love getting dirty, and dogs are all about getting filthy and running in the woods. Unfortunately, hounds love the wild so much that, given the chance, they’ll follow a scent for hours or even days. They can’t help it. Though Jane’s recall is improving, she still cannot be trusted to return to me 100 percent of the time (particularly if she’s treeing a raccoon).

Jane Treeing

Since I wanted her to be an off-leash hiking companion, Jane’s zealousness on the trail proved problematic for me. Per the recommendation of my Up North friend, Paul, I outfitted Jane with a backpack and weighed it down with water bottles, treats, and a collapsible bowl. While she looked really cool wearing the backpack, and it did weigh her down giving her a good workout and helping me maintain control over her, it ultimately proved cumbersome and kind of unnatural.

I finally hit upon the workings of a solution when I found a 30-foot leash at Mantis Pet Supplies on Michigan Ave. in Ypsi. (Please shop there. It’s a locally-owned, family-run business, and they have the best dog and cat products in town.) The 30-foot leash was great. It allowed Jane additional freedom both on the trail and in the park, and it enabled us to spend more time focusing on migrating and hunting. Unfortunately, the leash was made of cotton, so it would stiffen when wet, and it ultimately frayed and snapped. In my search for something better, I landed on the holy grail: The Best Dog Training Leash. Sold by a really cool guy in Maine, the BDTL is a whopping 50-feet long, one-inch wide (as opposed to the wimpy half-inch cotton lead), and, here’s the kicker, made of nylon. It’s practically indestructible, doesn’t freeze, doesn’t snag on stumps and rocks, and weathers the elements like Teflon. I’m not one to get excited about products, but I really can’t say enough about this awesome training lead. Jane and I have put hundreds of miles on this leash since buying it in February, and it’s still in mint shape. I love it so much, in fact, that it’s the only leash I use. On city walks, I coil it around my arm and keep her at my knee and then gradually increase her liberty when we come to a park, field, or other green space.

My goal is to eventually do away with this leash (gimme another year or two), but for now, it’s a lifesaver. It has revolutionized the way I exercise with my dog and has proved an invaluable aid in our training and bonding.

50 feet

PETA-Approved Hunting

In Posts on July 9, 2009 at 9:14 am

I’ve loved the company of dogs since I was a kid. I’ve never had a fear of them. When I was in fifth grade, I used to fantasize about living on Dog Planet, and I still sometimes fall into Robinson Crusoe-esque daydreams of surviving in the wild accompanied by Friday (who in my daydreams is a dog, of course). Though I enjoy reading about different breeds of dogs, I’m not a breed-specific dog lover. In fact, I have a strong preference for mutts. Not only are they unique and more closely aligned with their ancestors who first moved in with us over 15,000 years ago, mutts generally enjoy what James Herriot referred to as “hybrid vigor.” They live longer and enjoy better overall health than their purebred peers, and mutts are just more natural – products of authentic canine courtship and mating independent of human intervention.

Given my preference for mixed breed dogs, it’s somewhat ironic that I should end up with Jane the bluetick coonhound. But, as many dog lovers will tell you, often it’s the dogs who do the choosing. Jane is a beautiful dog with a lean, muscular body, velvety coat, and picture-perfect sad eyes and droopy jowls. People comment on her frequently. We’re stopped on the street every day with questions about her breed, and, when we’re riding in the car, other drivers routinely flirt with her. She is a traffic-stopper. This originally bothered me a little bit. She was so wicked and difficult during our first few months, and yet she continually received praise from strangers who were judging her solely on aesthetics. At times I almost wished she were ugly so that she would be judged on her merits and not her looks.

John and Jane

Bluetick coonhounds, primarily bred in the South (they’re the state dog of Tennessee), are designed to hunt raccoons, especially at night, and chase them up trees. When they “tree” their prey, they howl and bay (loudly) until the hunter comes along and shoots the creature down from the tree. (Raccoons are hunted for food, for their pelts, and also for sport.) In Cesar Millan’s second book, Be The Pack Leader, he writes about the importance of fulfilling your dog’s needs first as an animal, then as a dog, then as whatever breed he/she is. So in other words, at some point during each day, I have to satisfy the bluetick coonhound in Jane. I’m vehemently opposed to guns and hunting, but I did learn a few tricks to keep my hound’s bloodlust sated in the books  Professional Gundog Training by Joe Irving and Hunting Dog Reference Book by Vickie Lamb. With techniques culled from these books and others (including Millan’s), I trained Jane to follow traditional gundog whistle calls, to track, and to flush. (We’re still working on pointing. I don’t know if she’s got it in her.) We work on the trail so she can follow fresh scents, and we often hunt in the dark so she can exercise her superior night vision. Mostly Jane and I just migrate (which satisfies the animal and dog), but she’s always on the look-out for a quick hunt – even on a short walk around town. If she sees a squirrel (enemy number one) in the park, I let her tree it, call her off with the whistle, and give her praise. This keeps her DNA satisfied and also trains her to manage her instincts and contextualize her behavior. The best part, though, is that no animals have to be killed in order for Jane to be completely fulfilled (though there are quite a few irritated squirrels, groundhogs, and rabbits around Ypsi).

Six Months

In Posts on July 5, 2009 at 6:07 pm

When I adopted Jane, Candy from Broken Road Rescue told me to wait at least two weeks before I even considered assessing my new living situation. Though I had spent the previous 13.5 years with a dog perpetually at my side, nothing really prepared me for life with Jane. She came with baggage and (pronounced) quirks, and I certainly had my own. Though she seemed content enough with her new home – she immediately claimed the sofa as her throne – she treated me with the regard of a foster parent. With no knowledge of her past, I had to connect the dots: she was thin, had probably been abused (she was afraid of hands), and had been bred (another form of abuse). At 18 months, she had probably not enjoyed many comforts or much consistency outside of her two weeks or so at the shelter. Despite this, I somehow expected her to seamlessly enter my world and be my new BFF.

The two weeks had come and gone when I realized that I was living with a wild thing – an untrained hunting dog with boundless energy and a grocery list of neuroses. I enrolled her in obedience classes at Northfield Dog Training, Ann Arbor’s best canine academy and began poring over dog lit. I had been through all of this years before with my first dog, the beloved Georgia, but that was a really long time ago. All of the memories of Georgia’s insane years were buried under the much fresher and sweeter ones of harmony. I have to admit that even though Jane was a wake-up call beyond my expectations, there was a certain energy in those early days that I thrived on. Like breaking a horse or raising a child, training a dog bonds you together. But the bond is very, very gradual – especially with a dog like Jane who’s got an uncertain past.

Out of all the reading I did during my honeymoon with Jane, the most valuable was Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan. I had never seen Millan’s TV show, and I was skeptical because he has no formal training, but Cesar’s Way – his first and best book – was a tonic for my uncertainty and anxiety. He reminded me why I had made the choice to share my life with a dog, but more important, he reminded me that Jane was a dog. I think over time I began to think of Georgia as human. We were so connected (emotionally, spiritually, physically) that each of us was really an extension of the other. But Jane, as shocking as it was to me at the time, was just a dog. She had no connection to me, didn’t speak my language, and didn’t care. Rather than discouraging me, this revelation gave me determination and drive.

So, I began training Jane with vigor, and, after about six months, the lightbulb in her head went off. She got it. She bought into the program. She’s now my dog until Fate separates us. She’s still insane, but I think the difference is that we now love each other.

My Grrrl