JD Allinder

Posts Tagged ‘Jane the bluetick coonhound’

March is the New May

In Posts on March 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

I don’t care if I’m a party pooper and spent the entire winter complaining about how warm it was (and it was warm – the Earth never froze, leaving Jane and me covered in mud when we should be keeping nice and clean and walking on water), I have to continue because the end of the season has been downright frightening, bizarre, surreal. People have been in shorts and t-shirts for over a week now, and yesterday the mercury reached 86 degrees. Last week we had extended, summer-like thunderstorms with tornadoes touching down in nearby Dexter and nearly wiping out an entire neighborhood. Temperatures have been 20-30 degrees above normal, and it hasn’t just been warm – it’s been startlingly and uncomfortably hot. In Michigan. In winter. Mosquitoes and ants are coming to life, daffodils and crocuses are in bloom, the grass even needs mowing. (I’ve never, ever, ever mowed in Michigan before the last week of April.) For one who’s grown to loathe warmth, I’m not just complaining because I’m inconvenienced. There is something strangely and weirdly wrong with the planet. When this latest change first occurred – ten or so days ago – I was astounded by the sounds of frogs, toads, and crickets.  And it keeps getting warmer. Today Annika and I walked the beasts in Montibeller Park in Pittsfield Township. We were all dragging because of the intense heat, which was exacerbated by the fact that trees are completely bare – they’ve only just begun to bud – and provided no shade. Later at Lillie Park, Annika found a tick on my shirt. A tick! In March!

If this is the new normal, people seem to be okay with it. Everyone appears happy to be bike riding in their bathing suits. News reports even use positive adjectives to describe this apocalyptic climate change like “nice,” “pleasant,” and “summer-like.” The fact that so few seem to care or mind just adds to the overall dreamlike quality of watching our climate changing so rapidly and so drastically. I’m genuinely disturbed. If Michigan is the new Alabama, I’m going to be extremely bummed (and so will Jane).

UPDATE: Ticks have been discovered tonight on both Annika and Jane. That’s three so far today, and, for the most part, we avoided deep woods and walked only on wide, heavily-traversed trails.

5

In Posts on January 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Jane turned five last week. Of course there’s guesswork involved with a rescue dog, but her chosen birthday is based on her original, post-rescue evaluation conducted in September 2008 by Dr. Laura Chamberlain of Mid-Michigan Equine Services at Broken Road Rescue, where Jane was nursed to wellness before coming to live with me. Jane’s got a lot more confidence than she did when we first met, and I hope that her memories of life before me are distant and vague, like something she read in a book. She’s still wary of strangers, particularly men, and doesn’t like being handled, but she trusts me entirely and even comes to me when I call her for a scolding (invariably for foraging). Like Georgia before her, Jane enjoyed a McDonald’s Happy Meal on her birthday, only now they come with apple slices (treated with something toxic, I’m sure, to retard browning). She was thrilled, and I got a Diet Coke and only felt slightly guilty for patronizing the vile provider of disease and status quo maintenance.

Jane’s doing quite well physically. She still enjoys 8-10 miles of walking/hiking daily, and I’ve reduced her daily calorie intake over the past year and a half, so she’s fit and trim. She’s a real beauty. She’s off-leash whenever appropriate (all woods walks and some city walks, i.e. parks, vacant land plots, etc.), and I think generally she’s satisfied with her lot. She’s still not much for affection, but she keeps an eye on me and demonstrates her love and devotion in other ways. I think we’re bonded for life.

This winter has been a complete dud. It’s my favorite season, and I feel totally robbed this year – the warmest in recent memory. There are many things I love about winter, and one of them is there’s no mud. With the Earth frozen, I get to enjoy three months of a clean dog, car, house, etc. We’ve had only a couple of frozen days this year – literally – so Jane and I have been up to our ears in spring-like mud. It’s very depressing. Few things make me more forlorn than a warm winter. The sun is already acting spring-like, and the normally still-hibernating raccoons have begun poking their heads out of their trees (providing great entertainment for Jane). While we’ve had a few cold days, I can count them all two hands, and we’ve haven’t had enough snow for  sledding or building snow people. I haven’t even shoveled the walk, just swept away the dustings with a broom. Such a disappointment!

Alive and Kicking

In Posts on December 13, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Moving into our fourth year together, Jane and I pretty much exist in concert with each other. I anticipate her needs, she finishes my sentences for me. We’re comfortable, like a well-worn pair of boots. She’s more or less satisfied with our living arrangement (though she insists I underfeed her), and takes care of the house with the pride of a peacock. She sleeps when I sleep, eats when I eat, and walks when I walk. Ours is a satisfying and inspiring example of interspecies symbiosis, though there’s a part of Jane or me or us that will forever puzzle me. Sometimes there’s a disconnect. Sometimes we just don’t completely mesh. Sometimes we seem like strangers to each other. Sometimes she looks through me like I’m not there, then two seconds later she’s giving me the full-body wag and dancing for my affection. In sum, Jane’s a nut.

And that’s all the more reason I’m thankful we found each other. First, I’ve got my own (pronounced) nut characteristics. For every quirk of Jane’s, I’ve got at least one of my own, and she takes them all in stride: she models unconditional acceptance. Second, I badly want Jane to be content and whole – truly satisfied as a dog, and a hound dog at that – and of course I feel I’m the person best suited to try and meet her needs. I guess I feel I’m more tolerant of differences than some or many, so that makes me a good companion for a quirky beast. But often, like when I (daily) scold Jane for foraging and she bows her head in pathetic shame only to instantly rebound from prostration to immediately commit the offense again, I find myself comparing her behavior to the behavior that I expect or desire from her, or the behavior I intrinsically associate with dogs. And this is wrong. Yes, she oftentimes puts a perplexing Jane twist on things – I constantly call her my odd duck – but I need to expand my definitions or ideas or concepts of what it means to be a dog, what it means to be a hound dog, what it means to be a dog who did not have the head start in life that she deserved, what it means to be Jane.

Back in fall 2008, Jane and I attended basic dog training classes at Northfield Dog Training in Ann Arbor. Our instructor was Adele, the same teacher Georgia and I had years ago. I was concerned about Jane’s apparent disinterest in me (what I’ve always referred to as her cat-like demeanor), and I asked Adele if it was something I should be concerned about. She told me that, yes, I should. It could indicate that Jane and I are not a good match, Adele told me. She warned me to give the relationship plenty of time, however. She said that Jane just might teach me more about dogs than any other I’d ever known. She was right. Jane has redefined dog for me. I only hope I’ve been able to as profoundly redefine human for her.

They’re Here!

In Posts on June 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm

The extreme heat broke mid-week. Wednesday was mild and windy – felt like I was on the coast. Jane and I spent most of the afternoon and early evening outside. We puttered around the garden, repotted some plants, and took a couple of long walks around town and down to the river. I love mild Michigan days when I can open all the doors and windows, air out the house, burn incense all day (my flavors du jour are dark chocolate and green tea), and move seamlessly between indoors and out. There’s something very life affirming about blurring the boundaries of interior and exterior spaces, and the ease with which that’s possible is one of the things I love so much about Michigan.

On Thursday, Annika and I took Jane and Duke to the 1,100-acre Crosswinds Marsh in New Boston. (I’ve written more about the property here.) I try to visit Crosswinds at least once per season, and we’d been talking about getting out there to witness spring’s explosion. We usually begin with the six-mile outer loop that perimeters the property, but this time we decided to take the four-mile inner loop because it cuts through the heart of the marsh and provides greater access to water for the dogs and shade for all of us. Some parts of the trail are boardwalks over wetlands, and others are open, grassy spaces.

It was a beautiful walk, but we were too late for the Chorus of the Frogs, which disappointed me. (I must remember to visit in May next year.) The dogs were warm, and Duke was especially energetic, but there were plenty of streams, creeks, and puddles for cooling and drinking. Shortly after the start of our walk, Annika and I both found ticks on our clothes. By the end, we’d each discovered three or four, and this put a serious damper on our fun, so much so that we headed home early to bathe our dogs in flea/tick shampoo. During clean-up I found four ticks on Jane and one lodged on the back of my thigh, and I’ve still not been able to shake the itchy scratchy heebie jeebies.

I moved to Michigan from the South in 1995. I didn’t see a tick until about 2005 or so, and that was a single parasite on Georgia’s neck, which I removed without incident. (Fleas have not been a problem, either. Georgia brought them home just twice in her lifetime, and even then there were just a few that were easily cleared up.) Jane and I found 20 or so ticks on us early last summer, and it looks like this year’s going to be the same. The ticks have arrived. (This one-page PDF from the Michigan Department of Community Health offers an overview of the five varieties of ticks terrorizing my adopted homeland.) Growing up in the South and dealing with the ticks definitely gives me perspective (Michiganders really freak out over them), but their sudden ubiquity is seriously disappointing and severely limits Jane’s and my exercise options. (Reason #57 why summer sucks.) I don’t treat dogs proactively for parasites (save deadly heartworm) because I feel they, like humans, get enough toxins in their systems from myriad sources. I want their life experience to be as natural and organic as possible – from untethered walking/running to raw, whole foods. After our infestation this week, though, I did treat Jane with a flea/tick preventive called Natural Defense made with peppermint, cinnamon, clove, and “other ingredients.” It certainly makes her smell good, but I’m not convinced it’s going to work. I also bought her a Preventic Tick Collar, which has generally positive user reviews, but I’m afraid to put it on her. Its active ingredient is amitraz, and I’m frankly much more afraid of that than I am ticks.  It’s so potent that I’d be cautious when handling my dog after putting the collar on her. We’ve made it this long without pulling out the big guns, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. When Georgia was young, a trainer gave me the excellent advice to give her a full-body exam every day. I followed this suggestion and have continued this routine with Jane (who’s much easier to inspect with her short coat). It not only keeps me physically aware of my dog, but it serves as a pleasant, daily bonding experience that subtly reinforces the hierarchy of our relationship (which needs to be regularly addressed).


As an aside, Annika and I were wondering if the tick enjoyed its own horror film. The only thing I’ve dug up is this 1993 grade-z schlockfest called, appropriately, Ticks. I’d say a new nightmare needs to be conceived. Perhaps I’ll pen it…

Springtime in Ypsi

In Posts on May 30, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Spring started off unseasonably cold, which is perfectly fine with me and preferred by Jane, too. Her dark, short fur, which seems more like a hide than a coat, offers little protection from sun and heat. Indirect lighting, like we enjoy most of the year in perpetually overcast southeast Michigan, and below 50 or so temps suit both the shorthaired quadruped and redheaded primate alike. There are few things I enjoy more than wearing mittens in May, and Jane’s been digging running puppy laps in sopping wet, knee-deep grasses around town. There’s actually just about a two-week window in May when the ground is waterlogged, the wild grasses reach the tip of Jane’s nose, and the sun spares us its direct rays. It’s such a short-lived period that I forget about it every year, and its return always genuinely surprises and delights me. Alas, it’s bittersweet, though: its energizing properties are tempered by the reminder that it’s the final respite before the long, hot slog of summer.

The crazy rains started about three weeks ago. It felt kind of like Florida as the storms rolled in like clockwork every afternoon. The sky changed, too, from its usual grey shell to massive and dramatic roils of churning condensation. Eventually, the daily thunderstorms morphed into a continuous deluge. I seriously think it must have poured for seven straight days without a pause. Jane’s never been fond of walking in the rain, but she’s had a much healthier attitude about it this year (which is convenient as she doesn’t have an option). We’ve been up to our ears in mud, but we’ve been able to keep up nicely with our daily exercise routine. Occasionally, though, like during that seven-day torrent, the sheer volume of water pouring on our heads seriously limited our ability to function. We set out one afternoon last week when the steady drizzle turned into BUCKETS of rain. The pressure was so intense that we could barely remain upright. We dashed onto the front porch of an abandoned house, and I swear in the 15 or so minutes we huddled there at least a quarter of an inch came down. It was insane.

We’ve had our share of flooding in Ypsi, especially in low-lying areas like Riverside and Frog Island, though nothing, thankfully, like places to the south – Missouri, Mississippi, etc. A couple of nights I lay awake in bed listening to the rain and thunder. Our house sits on a hill, so I’ve always felt protected from flooding save a little moisture in the old Michigan basement. Our current monsoon sparked a new fear in me, though, that the saturated ground would give way and my little house would go sliding away with Jane and me in it.

The extreme heat finally creeped in yesterday and brought with it tornado sirens, lethargy, and the impetus to fetch the window unit air conditioner down from the attic. It’s now installed and cranking out cool – Jane’s lying on her back in front of it – and I’m trying to adjust my DNA to tolerate the next three months of oppression. I know I sound like such a summer Scrooge, but my reverse SAD is completely biological. My Viking ancestors should never have ventured south of the Baltic Sea.

Jane Wednesday

In Posts on March 17, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Monday and Tuesday were especially busy this week, and Jane’s and my exercise routine suffered. We got out for a late, on-leash, two-hour walk around town Monday night, but Tuesday was a complete bust with me gone most of the day and our single outing a short zip through the neighborhood in the rain. Jane was a good sport – she’s fine with the occasional lazy day (it’s me who hates them most) – but I nonetheless promised her today was her day. It turned out to be a gorgeous one, too. Winter seems to have finally conceded its ongoing battle with spring, and the temps soared into the 50s today. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and all was well in the universe.

Jane, Annika, Duke, and I started our hike at Marshall Nature Area in the North Ann Arbor/Dixboro area. Despite the warmth, much of the trails were still covered in ice, though melted just enough to add traction. This was perfect for walking and added protection from the mud for boots and pads. Duke was in his typical state of transplendent euphoria; Jane tiptoed a bit, picked up a scent or two and wandered off, and acted intermittently engaged and bored. She loves the outdoors, but what she really wants is to move and track and tree. While she’s able to do this somewhat when we’re part of a larger pack, we also have to consider the needs of the other members, and this isn’t something that comes naturally for Jane.

If she had her way, Jane would have two or three hours a day to wander on her own. Next best thing, I think, is to wander with me. She loves being with Duke, but their on-the-trail objectives are not always the same. (I think I spend way too much time analyzing my dog and fretting over her not having her needs met, but I think it’s because I’m not convinced human/dog cohabitation is necessarily natural, and I’m continually trying to balance Jane’s primal needs with her safety and the reality of being a rescue dog living in the city.)

The best part of today’s outing was locating and crossing through the drain pipe that connects Marshall with the large, unnamed, UM-owned tract of land bordered by Earhart, Dixboro, and Plymouth Roads. (The pipe runs under Plymouth Road.) I’d heard of this drain pipe from an acquaintance named Trey who rides his dirt bike on the unnamed property (we really need a name for this place), but today was the first time I’d sought it out. Annika and I were unsure at first – Jane was, too – but we took the plunge and were actually kind of energized by it. It felt just crazy enough to be a real adventure. Duke didn’t question it at all; it was all in a day’s work for him.

This tunnel was a really great find because it creates multiple hiking possibilities by connecting Marshall’s 80 acres with the several hundred on the UM property.

Jane’s had an on-and-off limp the past couple of weeks. I’ve had her on heavy doses of Joint Rescue from KV Vet (best online supplier of animal supplies ever), and she appears to be on the mend. She may have just had a sports injury (that’s my hope) and recovered through rest and time. I think I’ll ween her off the Joint Rescue this week and see how she performs. Fingers crossed.

Snowmageddon

In Posts on February 2, 2011 at 7:59 pm

The biggest snow storm of the season blew through yesterday. Though we only ended up with a paltry six to eight inches, the anticipation and the storm itself were great fun. Annika and I took Duke and Jane for a two-hour hike through the woods along the Huron and got home just as the snow started falling.  We left the dogs at home to rest and ran out blizzard shopping to the Ypsi Food Co-op and the creepy ghetto Kroger on Michigan Ave. We tried a new recipe for vegan chili that really was more of a tomato bean stew, and I overcooked the cornbread and we had to scrape it from the pan, but it still felt like a proper, snowed-in, blizzard adventure. We stayed up late after eating, drinking wine and talking, and then went out for a walk with the pups in the middle of the mayhem.

The snow ended this afternoon, and the four of us got together again and walked around Ypsi looking at stuff, like this amazing snow person on Oak St.

And this beautiful and crazy ice sculpture a guy’s been working on in his Forest St. back yard. (We were able to access it by using the old grass alley that runs parallel to Forest and Oak between Prospect and River.) Click on this picture to see it full size. This is such a cool sculpture, and the thumbnail doesn’t do it justice.

It was pretty cold, but there were tons of kids in Riverside Park – home to one of the best sledding hills in Washtenaw County. The university was closed, so there were lots of college kids out playing in the middle of the day, too, which is always a nice sight. Jane enjoyed the deeper snow more than I thought she would. With her short coat, she’s pretty cold natured. She bounded through even the deepest drifts with gusto, though, never complaining about the cold or getting the dreaded frozen toes. She and Duke played well together, and she stayed relatively close to me throughout the walk (as opposed to yesterday when she ran off for a good five minutes to, apparently, feast on something extra rotten and dead). Unlike Duke who runs ahead and then back to us then away and then back again, Jane likes to move forward only (which is particularly problematic when her chosen path is perpendicular to mine). She hates back tracking. I called her back to me a good ten times today, though. Poor thing, it makes no sense to her, but she did it every time. It sometimes took extra cajoling, but she performed (often with a sigh) every time. I honestly think she has no idea why I do the things I do. I believe she thinks me completely random and arbitrary. I wish I could get inside that hound dog head. But I’m only human.

4

In Posts on January 19, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Jane’s four years old today. (Of course with a rescue dog there’s guess work involved, but her first post-rescue examination, conducted by Dr. Laura Chamberlain at Mid-Michigan Equine Services on September 19, 2008, aged her one year and eight months. So her birthday became January 19.) To celebrate, we took a ten-mile hike at Crosswinds Marsh with Annika and Duke. It was colder than I anticipated, and I’m afraid I didn’t dress warmly enough, but we made it through the walk in a little under three hours.

Overall it was a pretty mellow outing and, aside from Jane feasting on horse poop and Duke rolling in something especially stinky and dead, it was satisfying exercise for all participants. Jane disappeared from sight multiple times, but she always emerged from the brush or was found waiting around the next corner, and that is, I’d say, the single biggest difference in Jane the adult vs. Jane the puppy I brought home from Broken Road Rescue in 2008: she stays with me. She’s still got a strong desire to be off on her own, but she’s learned to do her wandering (and grazing) within earshot of my calls. Jane the four year old completely understands that we’re a pack and we stick together. I couldn’t ask for a better adult dog.

Something else that’s changed about Jane since her wild youth is her appearance. She’s put on weight, of course, but the shape of her head has changed. Rather than carrying it constantly in a relaxed, dome shape with limp ears, it’s more alert, erect, with ears pricked and pulled tighter. I know it sounds weird, but her head is often indistinguishable from a Lab’s when we’re on the trail. Annika has noticed this, too, and she suggests (and I concur) that the way Jane carries herself on our outings is more active and engaged. She’s certainly more confident than the skittish puppy I adopted. She owns the woods – or wherever we walk. It’s hers. And I believe a big part of that is simply telling her it’s so over and over. If you praise someone long enough, they eventually believe it. And Jane definitely thinks she’s the bee’s knees. I admit she’s a little spoilt, but I couldn’t care less. She deserves it.

Wild Thing

In Posts on January 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm

It’s been a terrific winter so far. We’ve had enough snow to keep the ground continuously covered but not so much that hiking is impossible. (I still haven’t taken the plunge and invested in a pair of snow shoes.) The daytime temperatures have been mostly in the mid-20s – my preferred range – and the nights bitter cold, which adds a sort of rustic romanticism to nesting. Jane and I are subsisting on strong tea, thick woolens, and an endless supply of good books. (Well, at least I am.) It’s all frightfully cozy, and how anyone cannot completely luxuriate in the rhapsody of winter is an idea I refuse to entertain. Bah!

Sweet short-haired Jane does get cold, though. While she never lacks vim on the trail (or the sidewalk), she does require a fleece hot from the dryer after two hours or so of running, walking, sniffing, hunting, etc. I’ve tried hunting dog sweaters and vests, but she refuses to even breathe if I put clothing on her. I don’t let her win many arguments, but that was one I (thankfully) had the wisdom not to pursue. Just like parents, human companions of dogs must learn to pick their battles. Jane reinforces that maxim on a pretty regular basis. In fact, there’s a part of her that, in spite of her maturity, I think will never be fully domesticated. Her breeding courses deep in the core of her being. She’s always torn between listening to my voice and following the call of the wild. When I give her a command, for example, there’s a beat (or two, or three, or four) before she responds. She weighs her options – every single time. There’s nothing reflexive or Pavlovian about her acquiescence. She mulls it over. I’d say about 90 percent of the time she’s cool with my requests, her wants are mine, and she understands we work together toward meeting our shared objectives on our outings. But that other 10 percent, she may as well be a wolf. Her instinct is louder than I am. Fortunately, she’s learned to let me take over physically in such situations, which is especially interesting to me. I cannot call her off a treed animal, for example, but she allows me to remove her physically with my hands. She trusts me enough to make decisions for her that she can’t make for herself.

That said, she’s infinitely better behaved and more fun when we’re on our own. We walk/hike with Duke and Annika at least once a week, which we all enjoy tremendously. Jane takes advantage of my split focus, though. I talk to Annika, interact with Duke, etc., and Jane sneaks off to eat poop and pretends she can’t hear me when I call. She does the same thing if I stop to chat with a stranger in the park. The minute my focus is off of her, it’s mutiny on the Huron. Last week while walking with Duke and Annika, Jane got into so much poop that when we returned home she promptly vomited it all over my living room rug.

The things we do for love.

Coonhound on Board

In Posts on December 27, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Rebecca recently left the following comment, and I thought I’d respond to it today:

Thanks so much for your insights. We have Hudson, a 9-month-old BTCH, and he is a handful. What do you do in the car? We have a GSP who has never been trouble in the car (it’s a Jeep Liberty, and she loves sticking her head out the sunroof, which does get some attention, but otherwise she’s great). Hudson seems very anxious in the vehicle, but only when it’s moving. He whines and brays with that deep voice of his; but mostly whining and jumping around. We tried sitting in the vehicle with him for a while, but it’s just not going anywhere. Any other ideas? How is Jane in the car?

Jane was anxious in the car for at least the first six months – maybe even the first full year. It was pretty challenging for both of us at times, particularly since we took several extended road trips together within the first few months. She continually paced and whined during the drives to our daily hiking spots around Southeast Michigan, though never on the return back home. (Rule number one for managing any unwanted behavior with a dog: exhaust her.) On long-distance trips she’d work herself into a terrible state and fill the car with her especially stinky farts. I’d have to stop after the first 20 miles or so whereupon she’d have explosive diarrhea. After that she’d pretty much settle down and sleep for the duration of the trip. I think with Jane there was a combination of coonhound excitement and nervousness from whatever horrible previous experiences she’d had. I’m guessing she’d had a few unpleasant surprises in her past that involved being transported in cars. Once she trusted I wouldn’t abandon her, the farting and diarrhea subsided. Curbing the pacing and whining just took a lot of patience and correcting. I use the forceful and curt “tsch” sound to let Jane know I want her to stop whatever the offending behavior may be, and she responds well to it. That correction has been the most successful tool in managing her whining. (Of course, there are many times when whining is appropriate – it’s important to let dogs be themselves.)

A big part of the coonhound’s pacing and excitement seems to involve movement. This probably explains why Hudson is only agitated when the Jeep is in motion. Jane is attracted to and stimulated by anything that moves. She’s lunged at falling leaves, shadows, bicycles, sleds, even, terrifyingly, a freight train. I think car travel might just be too stimulating for a coonhound while he’s still young – way too much stuff moving around out there. One effective technique I’ve used for changing Jane’s behavior is to use food to reward what I want her to do. I take my car through the drive-through car wash about once a week. This used to be too much for Jane. She’d howl at the brushes and spraying water and lunge at the windows with her gums pulled back. Finally I got the bright idea to feed her treats while going through the car wash – she’d always rather eat than attack – and it did the trick. I did this about three or four times, and the behavior stopped. She now associates the car wash with pleasure and sits as quiet as a church mouse.

Maybe you could try this with Hudson: correct his unwanted behavior – whining and pacing – with a “tsch” and then reinforce his compliance with a treat. If he’s as intelligent (and as food-centric) as Jane, he’ll figure out the jig pretty fast. You might also try exercise before riding in the car. A brisk 30-minute walk before going out might help take the edge off of his excitement.

Thanks for visiting Life With Jane. I’d love to see pictures of Hudson and your GSP and read about your experiences.

Let it Snow

In Posts on December 12, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Hooray for winter storms (especially in the fall)! Hooray for snow and ice and slush and wind and cold! Today is our first real snow storm of the season, and I feel like I’ve been waiting forever for it. It’s the promise of days like today that keep me going all through the spring and summer. We’re not getting hit like other parts of the Midwest (Southeast Michigan is beyond the lake-effect snow region), though we might still end up with a foot or so.

Jane and I just took a two-hour hike around Ypsi. It’s relatively warm – just below freezing – so the snow is wet. My boots are waterproof, but the rest of me got drenched. Jane was soaked to the skin, too, but she was energetic and curious and “on.” We covered some of our favorite neighborhoods and alleys, and then headed to Frog Island and Riverside Park where Jane ran free and chased (and nearly caught) fat and dazed squirrels and dug for frozen poopcicles.

We saw not  single dog out, which is a shame, because they especially enjoy a good gadabout on the first snowy day. There were three or four sledders on the big, terraced hill in Riverside, but other than that not a creature was stirring save the smokers outside the bars on Cross and Michigan. (Yay for finally getting smoke-free bars and restaurants in Michigan, but boo for allowing smoking on the sidewalks out front where my dog has to breathe in the secondhand smoke.) Jane enjoyed an extensive run on the south side of Michigan Ave. where the disused factories and strip malls have recently been leveled. There are multiple acres now (50? 75?) of cleared land and woods along the Huron and all the way up to the old Ford plant. The disc golf course and compost mountains along the river were engulfed in white, the wetlands frozen, and the giant winter grasses bent over to the ground. Jane was not only in and out and over and under every possible nook and cranny, she was extra attentive to my every directive, hyper aware of our working in unison. I only needed to leash her when we were on the streets. Otherwise, she was with me and aware of me and engaged and working. (Normally, this is where I digress and start talking about how much I love her and start speaking baby talk. I can’t help it. It happens frequently while we’re out on a walk/adventure. She’ll do something that I find particularly significant/exciting/moving – like staying with me on a long stretch without coercion – and I start praising her and I try to kiss her – a completely reflexive act for me – and she pulls away with embarrassment and disgust as if to say, “Not now!”)

Toward the end of our walk, we got pretty cold. There was a desolate field along Michigan Ave. where the wind was screaming so loud Jane couldn’t hear me calling. The sideways snow was sharp and wet and stung my eyes. There was nothing to absorb the fury but Jane and me. But we made it. We turned our heads down and plodded on.

We’re cozy at home now – Jane loves her creature comforts. CBC2 is playing beautiful, early Christian music. The wind is still screaming. I just trudged out in my long johns and dumped a couple pounds of seeds on the ground for the poor sparrows. (I don’t know how they survive.) Jane’s wrapped up and snoring in a fresh-from-the-dryer fleece blanket. The tea kettle’s whistling. All is exactly as it should be.

The Perfect Fit

In Posts on November 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm

These are my favorite boots. I live in them from October to June. They’re waterproof, mudproof, and they keep my feet warm even when trudging through deep snow. I’ve walked more than 2,000 miles in this particular pair, and they just keep getting better and better. The soles are protective, but also flexible like a moccasin allowing me to feel every twig on the ground, every contour of the forest floor, every piece of gravel on the city street. These dear old boots keep me constantly connected tactilely in a way I’ve never experienced with a heavy work boot, walking shoe, or sneaker. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I honestly consider these boots an extension of myself. A pair generally lasts about 3,000 miles, so I’ll have to replace them this winter, but I’ll keep this old pair for another six months or so, wearing them on the odd day now and then until the leather finally separates from the rubber, rendering them obsolete.

Jane and I have moved into a new stage of our relationship – our two-year anniversary was 30 September – and it feels a lot like these dear old boots (though I don’t anticipate having to toss Jane out come spring). We’re very comfortable with each other – contented with our routines, but flexible enough to handle life’s inevitable curve balls. We both get our needs met through a pretty much equal amount of give and take, respect each other’s boundaries and limitations, and have settled into a nice sense of cooperative, interdependent being. Jane’s the best dog in the whole world. And, aside from constantly grazing on poop and dead stuff, ignoring me when I call her, running away from me when I correct her, emptying the bird feeders and eating seeds until she pukes, continually treeing all the neighborhood cats, and baying at every car and pedestrian that passes the house, she’s really a model of perfection and a testament to God’s amazing handiwork. I could not ask for a more perfect companion.

I’ve been especially busy the past couple of months, and I’ve noticed how patient Jane’s become. Our first year or so I was always tending to her, training her, correcting her – I literally was not able to sit and watch a film or read a novel until after our first anniversary. She gives me my time and space now. Some mornings when I get up I realize my work load will keep me glued to my chair until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon – a less than ideal schedule for man and beast – but it is what it is, and Jane’s learned to accept it (albeit with a sigh). We still get our 2-3 hours of exercise every day, but we often don’t make it out until well past our favored lunch hour, and our time at home is more and more about me sitting in silence, staring at a computer for hours on end. I sometimes do my reading out loud, and then I sit with Jane and stroke her. She enjoys that. But when I inevitably return to my desk for another three, four, or five-hour stretch, she accepts it. The baby Jane was always underfoot. The adult Jane waits patiently at my side (er, on my sofa, rather). She’s all grown up and suddenly all we’ve experienced together has become our history. There’s a line that we crossed that separates Then from Now, but our crossing was imperceptible: I wasn’t paying attention. I feel like I missed the segue, like our metamorphoses or evolution or whatever hasn’t been adequately observed, documented, recognized, honored. And as comfortable as everything is now, I can’t shake the tiniest hint of loss and foreboding that’s wedged itself into my consciousness.

Damned dogs.

Karma

In Posts on September 10, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Karma died on August 21. He was a 12-year-old rescue dog who spent the last five years of his life with friends Paul and Heather up in Traverse City. I haven’t seen Karma in a long time – about a year and a half – but I’ll always remember his gentle nature, his desire to please and be near people, and his expert companionship on the trail. He usually slept with me when I visited, and he generally followed my requests and commands better than my own dogs. Sweet Karma.

Karma’s past is sketchy, but he definitely suffered some sort of physical abuse, probably prolonged. (Paul suspects there may have been some irreparable brain damage.) He was never able to fully recover, and I was always amazed at his ability to love and trust humans in spite of his setbacks. I think the first time I met him he was pretty much glued to me like a long lost best friend. Of course Paul and Heather’s love and understanding of animals – their general philosophies pretty much mirror mine – had everything to do with Karma’s rehabilitation and his success at becoming a necessary member of a new pack. I’m so glad he found P&H. Not everyone would be as patient with his quirks as they were. They were certainly challenged by dealing with Karma’s idiosyncrasies, but they never stopped loving him, and now they miss him terribly.

I have several memories of Karma, but the strongest is from a visit Jane and I took up north in December 2008. Jane had just been with me a couple of months, and she was an absolute wild thing. Paul and Heather had three indoor cats at the time (fearless old Mao has since died), and Jane spent all of her indoor time treeing them on desktops and bookcases. The only way to get Jane to calm down inside was to run her for three solid hours in the snow every day. (This holiday actually gave birth to the exercise regimen that we follow to this day.) The snow was deep, and the woods where we walked were hilly. Each morning I took Jane and Karma out for a two-hour run – Karma off-leash and Jane on a 20-foot lead. I’ll never forget Jane’s need to go go go go go – no time for resting or reflecting. She dragged me behind, knee-deep in snow, sweating buckets in the 20-degree deep freeze. And there was Karma, smiling, perhaps a little bit confused (his human companions were overseas), but up for whatever Jane and I dished out. He was so kind, so thoughtful, and he exhibited such tireless sportsmanship. Karma was a real gentleman.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of Georgia’s death. My cry didn’t last as long this year, and I realized that I spend more time now thinking about Jane than I do Georgia. That’s not to suggest that I don’t think of Georgia multiple times every day. Framed pictures of her remain just where they’ve always been throughout the house, and I still catch glimpses of her around every corner and in every shadow. Georgia’s taught me what it means to live with death. It’s still sadness, but it’s now mixed with a certain sweetness, joy, and hope that I can’t quite put my finger on.

“Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.”

-Edwin Hubbel Chapin

Lady Jane

In Posts on August 22, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Jane’s had less energy this summer than last. It’s difficult for me to figure out the cause of it. Is it because she’s a year older and settling into more even-tempered adulthood, or is it because it’s the hottest most miserable summer since the Mesozoic? She’s certainly sleeping a lot more than this time a year ago, and she shows disinterest and fatigue on the trail more than before. Again, it’s difficult for me to judge her energy level on the trail, because she’s always been partial to boredom. She hates any backtracking during an off-leash hike and would rather stay in bed than repeat the same outing two days in a row. If she’s sluggish on a walk, I don’t know if it’s a legitimate reaction to the heat or just lazy hound dog behavior. She thrives on novelty, so when her enthusiasm wanes, I always try to engage her in a chase/run or some other activity to pique her interest. At any rate, she’s a sweet baby, and she’s come through this challenging summer like a trooper.

Jane was bred before I adopted her. She was also neglected and possibly physically abused (in addition to the physical abuses involved in breeding). When she first came to live with me, she was a gangly, skin-and-bones puppy. Since then, she’s been cleaned up inside and out and fattened up, too. I feed her well – a variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables, mostly raw – and she gets tons of exercise. She really is a mature dog now. She’s content. She listens to me. Sometimes I catch her staring at me with worshipping eyes, and that makes me feel good (and a little embarrassed). She’s just physically matured faster than I anticipated. She seems to have gone from a puppy to a middle-aged adult in the blink of an eye. The other day we walked past a woman who whispered to her child, “Look at the old dog.” I wanted to say, “Actually, she’s still quite young. She’s just tired from the eight mile walk we just finished,” but I bit my tongue. Yesterday, a guy on the street said to me, “So, is she about eight?” (She’s three and a half.) Eight?! I was stunned, and also bristled a bit. I told the man her age and suggested that she looks mature because she was bred before being rescued. A woman he was with said, “Oh, that’s it; she’s matronly.” Matronly.

When I think of Jane pregnant, which I try not to do too often, it breaks my heart. She was such a frightened puppy when I met her, I honestly cannot imagine how traumatic that experience was for her. Human breeding of dogs is insanely abusive and antithetical to nature’s intentions. In the wild, canines engage in elaborate courtship rituals. It’s common for a female to have multiple suitors. The males engage in typical demonstrations of prowess, but it is the females who choose. The pair remain together after coupling, the male cares for the female during gestation, and often the two will live and hunt together for years raising multiple litters along the way. When humans insert themselves into the procedure, the bitch is tied to a post or wall. Often her head is immobilized so she cannot use her teeth to fend off the uninvited mate. With no courtship and no choice, the act is taken out of context for both bitch and dog. Neither is allowed to function as intended by the laws of nature. It is physical and psychological abuse.

The first several times I took Jane to the dog park after adopting her, she let any interested male mount her. When this happened, which was often, Jane did nothing about it. Her expression was completely vacant. I think she was conditioned to believe she had no say in the matter. Each time a male mounted her, I calmly (though firmly) removed him with a single, quick check to the neck. I followed it up with a loud “No!” and a toothy growl. Jane noticed. She watched what I was doing. Each time this happened, I told her she didn’t have to put up with that anymore. Eventually, she began parroting my behavior. Now she lets out a howl and bares her teeth when the boys get fresh — the way she should, the way she’s meant to. Much of what I do with Jane is try to correct the damage caused by her first year or so of human interference. I try to be forgiving and understanding of people who use other animals to satisfy their wants, but it’s so difficult when you live with the result of their ignorance.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” –Mahatma Gandhi


The River Wild

In Posts on July 27, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Today I learned where skunks go in the middle of the day. Jane showed me. Getting sprayed in the face didn’t seem to faze her at all. Much to Jane’s chagrin, we cut our outing short to come home and take a bath. Now she smells like skunk and shampoo. It’s always something.

I’d say Jane and I had our first real adventure over the weekend. Friday and Saturday were miserable. We got about six inches of rain (which we needed), but it was complicated by tornado warnings, heat warnings, flash floods, power outages, and downed trees. The heat was insanely intense, too. It was in the 90s even in the evenings, and the air was thick and heavy and difficult to breathe. Fortunately the sun didn’t come out for a couple of days, so the house stayed relatively cool and I didn’t have to close the blinds and feel like a shut-in. Jane and I managed to creep around town, and both of us seemed to be getting used to this exceptionally uncomfortable summer. We’ve worked our way back up to three full hours of exercise each day, and we’ve lately had some really great workouts, arriving home and falling on the floor like limp dish rags.

The rain was replaced by blinding sun on Sunday. After taking a dip in the Huron at Frog Island, Jane was sufficiently cooled to make the unshaded mile-long hike down to Highland Cemetery. Once there, we walked the half mile or so Native American footpath down through the thick woods and back to the river. At the foot of the trail, there’s a five-foot-wide opening in the brush where Jane can scoot down a steep, six-foot incline and into the river for a swim (or a stand – she loves standing, which always makes me think of bathing in the Ganges for some reason). Off leash, of course, Jane reflexively sprinted down the ledge to test the water. She was instantly sucked into it, though, as if it were some living, heaving beast. In a flash, she was being violently dragged away. I was stunned. (I’m pretty sure Jane was, too.) I called “come” several times, and, though she was paddling upstream with all her might, she was no match for the flood-driven current. My first thought was to run along the bank calling to her and following until she was able to get herself closer to shore. The bank along this particular stretch of the river is virtually impenetrable, though. (Georgia and I carved out a trail years ago, but it’s since been reclaimed by Mother Nature.) When Jane disappeared from view, I walked into the river. Fully clothed. From the time she got swept up until I entered the river was no more than 20 seconds, but Jane was already 1/8 of a mile downstream. She was facing me, paddling away, but still being swiftly carried down river. I walked along the river bottom, the water rising to my neck. Finally, the current picked me up and dragged me under. I’m a good swimmer, so I wasn’t worried about myself, but I was calmly panicked about my girl. I called to her the entire time I made my way down the river to her, and I found the best thing to do was give up and let the current carry me. When I reached Jane, I grabbed her collar (relief!) thinking I’d swim her to shore in the human lifesaving position. But as I reached for her, her whole body sort of floated to the surface of the water and gave itself up to me. All four of her paws were pressed up against my chest as my arms enveloped her like a baby. It all unfolded in slow motion, as stressful events sometimes do, and it was strangely, weirdly, beautiful. Something about her trust and giving up her body to me really moved me. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to her.

Of course I wasn’t really processing any of this until we arrived safely on the shore. We both shook off and stared at each other for a couple of minutes. It was then that I realized we’d had a real adventure, a bonding experience we’ll reminisce about when we’re old. We crawled our way through the quarter mile or so of thick brush back to the point of entry, Jane remaining at my (squishing) heels the entire time. And, despite being filthy, I was actually invigorated by the swim. So we hiked another hour.

Life with Elsa

In Posts on July 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Friend and neighbor, Elsa, has been staying with Jane and me the past week while her human companion, Elena, prepares to have a baby. Elena’s due date – July 4 – came and went, but still no baby. She was scheduled for labor inducement today, and I hope she and her doctor moved forward with that plan. I know how eager she is to have her baby boy – Griffin! – and start their new lives together.

In the meantime, Elsa’s been a welcome houseguest. She’s a perfect lady indoors and out. She’s sweet, thoughtful, attentive, and obedient. In many ways she’s the yin to Jane’s nutty yang. (And that’s not meant to be a criticism of Jane, even if it kind of sounds like one.) Elsa walks perfectly off-leash, instantly obeys all of my requests without complaint, and is grateful for any attention, exercise, and kitchen tidbits that come her way. She’s a great companion for Jane, too, and the three of us have been enjoying daily trail hiking and city leash walking.

Elsa’s a wonderful leader on the trail, followed by me in the middle and Jane at the rear with her nose to the ground, and, despite the heat – it was in the low 90s today – we’ve all been keeping up with daily eight to ten-mile lunch hikes. Jane is much more enthusiastic and engaged with a canine partner, and the two girls make a good team: Jane’s got the nose and Elsa’s got the speed. Today Jane demonstrated for Elsa the finer points of treeing.

Jane and Elsa have been friends since shortly after Jane came home with me in September 2008. Still very puppyish at the time, Jane groveled at Elsa’s feet when they first met, and Elsa demonstrated her alpha status with growls and nips to Jane’s upturned neck and belly. Even though they’ve both grown up and Jane’s developed tremendous confidence and (a little bit of) status, the dynamics of their public relationship remain the same. The minute Jane sees Elsa, she melts into a whimpering pup. That power dynamic completely shifts, though, in our house. At home, Jane stomps around like the boss, keeping a watchful eye over all her resources (eatables, creature comforts, affection), and evil-eyeing Elsa into total submission. Poor Elsa! Jane is really a bully – sometimes even demanding food from Elsa’s mouth – but Elsa’s being a good sport, and I’m being provided with new opportunities for teaching Jane about hospitality.

Elsa’s visit has helped me articulate some of the unique characteristics of Jane’s personality. Many of the things Elsa does are what I consider typical dog behavior. For example, she follows me around the house from room to room. When I fetch the leashes for a walk, she does a little spinning dance. When I work in the garden, she’s beside me the entire time, taking great interest in all that I do. Jane, on the other hand, doesn’t do these things. She doesn’t really care where I am in the house. When it’s time for a walk, she very calmly and pragmatically waits until the last possible second before she rises from her lie down and dispassionately moves towards the door. When I tell her I’m going to work in the garden, she gives me a look that says, “You go ahead and have fun. I’ll stay here on the sofa in the air conditioning. Wake me up when it’s time to hunt or eat.” Her behavior is often puzzling to me because it’s atypical to that of all the dogs I’ve ever known. I don’t know if her quirks are unique to her or typical of coonhounds. There’s just something very logical (for lack of a better word) about her. Elsa will endlessly chase pebbles thrown into the river. She understands that the pebbles are not alive, that she’ll never catch them, and that it’s just a silly game. Yet she loves it and throws herself into the activity with great relish. Jane, on the other hand, stares at Elsa and me like we’re insane. Her body language says to Elsa, “You’re not seriously chasing rocks are you?” Then, while we’re occupied in the game, she tries to sneak away into the woods to do her coonhound stuff – stuff that she’s intensely driven to pursue on her own.

When I first adopted Jane, I couldn’t understand why she was so different from all other dogs I’ve known. I found I didn’t always know how to motivate her, and that my ideas of fun and hers didn’t always converge. Like a parent who wants or expects his child to be something other than what he naturally is, I tried to make Jane conform to my expectations of what it meant to be a dog. But instead, thankfully, my love for her expanded my rigid definitions. She didn’t have to change to become a member of my pack, my pack principles had to evolve to accommodate her. I love Jane so much. Having Elsa here exhibiting all of her typical dog behavior has somehow made me appreciate Jane even more. If we know how to listen, animals teach us everything we need to know.

Summer in Hell

In Posts on July 8, 2010 at 5:36 pm

This week’s record breaking heat wave has raised misery to new levels. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Jane’s certainly aged from just a year ago. Last summer she never let the heat interfere with having a good time. This year she’s clearly struggling. Her dark fur and absence of an insulating undercoat have pretty much turned her into a wet dish rag.

Today is our fifth straight day of temperatures in the 90s, and I’m beyond uncomfortable. All of my senses seem warped. I feel jetlagged and confused. In a vain effort to keep the house cool, I’ve kept all the blinds closed, and that’s made me feel disconnected, like I’m holed up in a cave. (I hate not being able to see outside.) I feel trapped in some existential nightmare. Pretty dramatic, I know, but that’s how whacked out the extreme heat makes me. (Note to self: never summer in Singapore.) Jane’s right with me, and she hasn’t complained once about lying in front of a fan all day. We’ve got one window unit air conditioner in the bedroom, but after five relentless days of this oppression, our 120-year-old house is as hot as an oven.

So we’ve had to be flexible in our exercise. I’ve trimmed about 30 minutes off each day’s walking, and we’re staying close to home. We’ve been crawling for an hour in the mornings along the river followed by an hour and a half in the evenings when we sometimes ramp it up to a light stroll. Jane’s doing okay as long as she can spend most of her time in the water.

Our evening walks have been mostly off-leash (there’s virtually no one outside) and Jane’s doing really well listening to me, staying with me. Our walks coincide with grazing time for the rabbits and groundhogs – it’s amazing how many of them have adapted to city living – and Jane lives for sniffing them out and chasing them into their holes. (I’m not kidding; it’s the only sport she really cares about anymore.) She’s gotten lots of exercise in these pursuits this week, and I’m so happy that this need of hers is being satisfied, but I’m careful not to let her overdo it. (I’m also careful not to let her catch a groundhog. She’s killed a couple of little ones in her time, but I don’t think she’s a match for some of the 20-pound mammoths I’ve seen.)

This afternoon I was working as usual – in front of the fan with all the blinds closed. When I took a break and peeked outside, I was stunned and excited to see it raining. I got dressed in a flash, and Jane and I took a glorious, full-speed march through the neighborhood and down to Highland Cemetery. It was really heavenly. For the first time in days I could breathe without discomfort. Jane had a little wiggle in her trot. Unfortunately, after 30 minutes the rain stopped, and we found ourselves walking in a sauna. The deer flies came out in full force and swarmed Jane’s front and back ends and tirelessly dive bombed my head. Jane was in full hunting mode, too, and I was afraid she’d have trouble walking the mile or so back home. Fortunately, we came upon a garden hose and I sprayed her down (which she hates, for some strange, unknown dog reason) and we made our way home. Our return trip was as hellish as our outbound was liberating. When we got home, my body was covered in slime. My clothes had to be peeled off like a second skin. Jane and I collapsed on the floor in front of the fan. Within minutes, though, she was recovered, begging for the calories she’d just expended.

Heat Waves, Ticks, and Gunfire

In Posts on June 9, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Spring and summer have lately been battling it out, which is very similar to watching a sad/tragic film over and over and hoping against hope for a different outcome each time: we all know how it’s going to end. Despite that, the two seasons have been duking it out with dramatic and sometimes extreme results. At the May/June convergence we suffered through ten days of unrelenting, record-breaking heat (90 degress! In Michigan! In the spring!), humidity, and assaultive, bore-a-hole-through-your-head sunshine. Sweet Jane took it like a trooper, but I noticed a marked decrease in her enthusiasm over the same time last year. She’s definitely an adult hound now, but I think she’s also a bit spoiled by air conditioning and feather pillows and frozen cow femurs.

During the heat wave – which was finally ushered out by genuinely frightening (and deadly) storms last weekend (which, interestingly, didn’t phase ordinarily skittish Jane in the least) – we maintained our daily exercise ritual, though we were definitely challenged by the uncomfortable heat, the insect and spider invasion, and the insane vegetation explosion (much of it itchy and/or thorny) that engulfed many of our frequented trails. We mainly stayed along the Huron where Jane could have near-continuous access to the water. She can still cover eight to ten miles in the heat, but only if allowed to swim a quarter of the distance.

On our way out of town one afternoon, we stopped at Peninsular Park, a five-acre wooded lot on the eastern shore of the Huron. It’s not a destination park – in fact we’ve only been once before – although it’s a very lovely little spot. The problem is the location. It’s in a high crime area. Actually, the park itself is a high crime area – I frequently read about daytime assaults there – and it’s such a shame. I think most of the criminal activity is connected to the several low income housing developments that surround the park. Some Eastern Michigan students live in the apartments, too. (A woman I taught with lived there when she was an undergrad. She told me she routinely heard gunfire and would lie on the floor of her apartment to better avoid being hit by stray bullets.)

Despite all that, it’s a quiet, little spot, and Jane finds it good for a half hour sniffabout. There’s access to the river for swimming, and, on this last visit, we checked out a vacant lot to the north of the park.

We both heard something large rustling in the brush, and I could barely make out the silhouette of a four-legged beast running parallel to us. My instant guess was it was a coyote or a feral dog, neither of which I’m afraid of, but the shadowy image coupled with the intense heat gave me a bit of a chill. We got out of there and checked out the disused paper mill and dam located at Peninsular Point.

Fortunately, the heat wave broke (with a vengeance!) and we’ve enjoyed more seasonable, reasonable weather. (Last night I even had to wear a sweater.) Jane and I have been digging walks in the rain, airing out the house, and gardening without feeling faint. Unfortunately, we’ve been besieged by ticks this year. In the past, I’ve picked up one tick every three or four years. Georgia only ever had one tick in the nearly 13 years we were together. I’ve already lost count of the number of ticks we’ve got this spring. I’ve had at least ten, and Jane’s had three or four. The other day we were walking through a field of tall grasses at Saginaw Forest, and three ticks came racing up my pants leg. It was kind of bizarre. I got them off and figured I’d stumbled on a nest. Later at home I found two attached to me, one attached to Jane’s ear, and one, strangely, on my living room wall. I’ve always laughed at Michiganders’ fear of ticks. (They’re widespread in the South where I spent most of my growing-up years, and I’ve always just considered them par for the course.) I’m getting a little freaked out over this, though. Maybe I’m finally becoming a local. There is a topical ointment for Jane that will kill ticks that bite her, but I’ve not elected to go that route yet. I hate treating parasites proactively. There are already so many toxins in a dog’s day-to-day life, and I don’t want to introduce more unnecessarily. So far I’ve been giving Jane full body exams a couple of times a day, and I think we’re going to keep out of deep woods environments (sigh) until late summer. Georgia and I went through this every spring: as the weather warmed and the insects and vegetation took over, we migrated, by necessity, back to city parks and manicured, faux trails filled with uptight, dog-phobic yuppies.

Summer…bah.

Kosch-Headwaters Preserve

In Posts on May 21, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Yesterday was rather warm – somewhere in the low 80s – and one of our first glimpses of the summer weather that’ll be here any day now. The parks were packed with people playing soccer, baseball, and basketball. Young lovers walked hand in hand along the river bank while overweight 40-somethings in stretchy outfits powerwalked ’round Frog Island. The line at Dairy Queen completely obscured the sidewalk and dangerously spilled onto Michigan Avenue. Jane and I, used to having the world to ourselves, were in shock.

We went to LeFurge for a post-lunch hike, but Jane was a sourpuss for the two-hour duration of the outing. She panted and sulked and refused to keep up with me. I know she was hot – I was, too – but she’s got to relearn how to exercise in the heat. We both must daily earn our calories. So I pushed her, she complained with hound dog stubbornness, and neither of us had a very nice time. Interestingly, though, she was completely engaged and excited during our evening walk around town. True, it was a bit cooler and the sun wasn’t boring a hole through our heads, but it was far from what I consider comfortable. It’s something I’ve noticed about her before – her interest in our evening routine. No matter what her day’s been like, she always marches on our night time walks, tail erect, ears pricked. We usually cover the same three or four miles of city streets and parks, and she’s perfectly content (which is antithetical to her daytime need for variety and novelty). I suspect she thinks our walks around town are part of our job, battening down the hatches, as it were, before we retire for our feeding and slumber.

Today was cloudy, drizzly, and 15 degrees cooler. We took advantage of the weather by visiting Kosch-Headwaters Preserve, 160 acres of woods, wetlands, and crop fields near the corners of Prospect and Ford Roads. This was just our second trip to the preserve. I stopped at the entrance a couple of years ago but was dissuaded (and dismayed) by the inclusion of dogs on the list of prohibiteds posted on the bulletin board in the parking lot. (There is a large, vocal, and perplexing pro-nature/anti-dog population in the Ann Arbor area.) A guy I see regularly on the trails behind St. Joe’s, though, told me a couple of weeks ago that the man who manages the preserve runs his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks there regularly. Empowered by this unconfirmed bit of guerilla hiking gossip, Jane and I took our first visit last week and our second today.

It’s a relatively small property, but diverse enough to be challenging, interesting, and fun to both man and dog. Jane loves it there. She’s fascinated by the hunting hawks – she seems to intuit that she might happen on a free meal if she zeroes in on their circling pattern – and the geese, ducks, blue heron, and numerous song birds. The woods are small, but easy to maneuver, and the crop fields are currently open for traversing, though very wet and muddy. There are patches that are a couple of inches deep in standing water, and some of the muddier trails completely swallowed my feet like quicksand. Jane especially enjoyed the fields of tall grasses. She ran through them like a puppy. It really made my heart glad.

Kosch-Headwaters Preserve abuts Springhill Nature Preserve to the north. Springhill is just 30 acres, and it’s virtually impossible to tell where the boundaries are. Jane and I ended up walking a good distance onto private property before a man emerged from an enormous farmhouse asking if he could help us. (When it comes to walking on private property, I follow English law. So far I’ve not ended up arrested or shot.) Springhill is bordered on the north by Berry Road. Berry is a dirt road, and, as we both love dirt roads – me for the views of country estates I’ll never be able to afford and Jane for the chance to flush a pheasant from the brush – we followed it east for about a half mile where it dead ends at Cherry Hill Road. There were lots of old farm houses on Berry, some situated on enormous properties with ponds and woods. Every house, every gate, and many trees, though, were papered with no trespassingkeep out, and attack dog signs. Almost every house advertised its home security system, too. Is there really that much rural crime or is it just paranoia? Here were all these lovely old country homes, but the people were locked up and barricaded inside. The vibe was distinctly out-of-sync with the setting. It was a little sad.

So we headed back to the preserves with the fussing geese and the sopping wet grass that kept Jane cool and hydrated. We had a really lovely time, and the Kosch-Headwaters Preserve is just stunning, but we probably won’t visit again until the fall. Today was perfect with the slight chill and intermittent showers. Soon, though, it’ll be too hot for my sensitive lady. She needs lots of shade and proper bodies of cold water for frequent bathing. Here comes summer…

Dolph Nature Area

In Posts on May 10, 2010 at 7:28 pm

What a beautiful weekend! It felt more like fall than spring (which is, obviously, fine by me). It was blustery and cold – not just chilly – with intense wind gusts (50mph?) and sub-freezing night time temps. Just lovely enough to put a spring in Jane’s step and keep me in a perpetual good humor.

If only the whole spring and summer could be so desolate and dramatic. The aforementioned winds blew all day Saturday and took down many trees in the wild as well as a sizable branch of an ailing crabapple tree in my back garden. (Which actually saved me the trouble of pruning. Thanks, Mother Nature.)

After cleaning up the yard debris, Jane and I went to Dolph Nature Area in Ann Arbor near the corners of Jackson and Wagner Roads. It’s a 57-acre plot with two lakes – First Sister Lake and Second Sister Lake – and a large pond. There are several wetland areas bordering the lakes and a mile or so of wooded trails featuring both hardwoods and evergreens. It was our first visit. (We tried visiting once in the winter, but there was suspicious activity going on in the parking lot, so we didn’t stay.) Jane loves novelty, so she enthusiastically checked out every nook and cranny. I even perched myself in a pine hoping Jane would tree me, but she just gave me that puzzled look that dogs give their human companions when they’re acting out of character.

I’ve been told by a friend that the water and land at Dolph are heavily polluted by industrial waste, but I can’t find any documentation to support that. It certainly looks fine, but I kept Jane out of the lakes just in case.

Unfortunately, Dolph is too small to warrant another visit any time soon. Jane and I combed the entire property – twice – in about an hour. The trails are unchallenging, and I couldn’t get the thought of toxic waste out of my mind the entire time we were exploring. I’m glad we checked it out, but it’s definitely the kind of place to check in with once per season.

We finished our afternoon at the lush and pristine Saginaw Forest across the street. We had the entire place to ourselves, and Jane ran freely and beautifully minded my commands. The sky spit rain on us from time to time, but the showers were always followed by blinding bouts of sunshine and cold breezes. I would have sworn it was late October had it not been for the foot-tall dandelions, the at-their-peak trillium, the almost-there-but-not-quite-yet lilies of the valley, and the absolutely exploding honeysuckle. Large swaths of trail were practically engulfed by honeysuckle, and I was almost overwhelmed by their fragrance. (I can’t imagine what they smelled like to Jane whose olfactory system is 1,000 times greater than mine.) I broke off a small branch of the flower (after asking the shrub for permission and subsequently thanking it) and carried it with me for a mile or so, smothering my face in it, becoming nearly intoxicated. I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jane smelled like honeysuckle?” I asked her if she’d like that, and she responded by laughing at me and immediately rolling in the fetid and rotting carcass of some less fortunate quadruped.

John and Jane: A Work in Progress

In Posts on April 16, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Jane and I went to LeFurge with Annika and Duke for our post-lunch walk today. It was a gorgeous afternoon – cool and breezy with a bright blue sky and little fluffy clouds. Spring is always a challenging season for me – it’s so indecisive, constantly vacillating between winter and summer-like conditions (with decided leanings toward the the latter, which fills me with dread) – but today was so mild – even chilly at times – that yesterday’s preoccupation with the encroaching inevitability of summer’s discomforts completely dissipated. I really can’t stand being warm. I don’t mean to be a grump – I realize the vast majority of people enjoy heat (a fact as perplexingly mindbending to me as the Mobius theory) – but the spring awakening, though beautiful, begins a season of melancholy for me. It’s ironic that when the world is reborn, I die a little bit. There must be others like me in Greenland or Siberia. I’d love to live with the white wolves on Ellesmere Island. Actually, I’d like to be one of the wolves on Ellesmere Island. I think I suffer from species envy.

At any rate, today was a fine day for walking in the woods, cornfields, and wetlands of LeFurge. The pups played well together, sometimes Jane leading, sometimes Duke. Like every Lab I’ve known, Duke keeps an eye on his people while on the trail. He occasionally runs out of sight, but he’s always just around the corner, waiting to make sure we’re following. He runs back and forth, constantly keeping tabs on all members of his pack. Jane has none of those instincts. She’s got her own agenda, and she really doesn’t seem to care if it’s aligned with ours. While I’ve been very successful in training her to keep up with me on the trail, she, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to follow the rules when others are with us. It’s very frustrating. The past few days she followed at my heels on our outings. Today she repeatedly disappeared in the brush and refused to acknowledge me when I called for her. She eventually came to me every time, but it was almost always with yelling and/or negotiation. Last week we walked with Annika and Duke in Saginaw Forest, and Jane disappeared for 45 harrowing minutes. She was walking parallel to us, maybe 30 meters away, when she just vanished. Like a bleeding watercolor, she’s got this amazing ability to be absorbed by the scenery. She literally disappears. She always returns to the spot where she left me, but that’s little consolation for the anxiety her absence causes. Last week’s disappearing act took me a couple of days to get over. I was so stunned, because I thought she was finished with all of that. I also took it very personally. I was deeply hurt that she would do that to me.

So she made it up to be by being the best dog in the world and staying by my side every day. I’ve even stopped communicating with her verbally the past few days on our woods walks, letting her choose to stay near me. Then today she started testing the boundaries again. There’s something about the presence of others that makes her think either the rules have changed or that I’m not paying attention. Frustration. I don’t want a robot. I want a dog with a free will. My dad sent me a copy of Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote several months ago, and I just got around to reading it last week. Aside from an unnecessarily protracted death scene, it’s a moving memoir of an intense human/dog connection. Kerasote’s philosophy of dogs is very similar to mine: they’re autonomous beings who need to be allowed to make their own decisions about stuff. (It’s a little easier in Kerasote’s case; He lives in the-middle-of-nowhere Wyoming.) Despite the necessity of Jane responding reflexively in certain contexts – we live in the city, etc. – I really want her to be her own dog. I don’t want to necessarily dominate her or have her respond with Pavlovian numbness to my every command or request. I want her to want to do what I want her to do. Maybe I’m just a control freak. Maybe I’m the one who needs to change. Maybe Jane’s patiently waiting for the day when I’ll finally see things her way.

Stinchfield Woods

In Posts on March 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Stinchfield Woods is, hands-down, my favorite hiking spot in all of Southeast Michigan. Located in Dexter on 777 pristine acres of rolling hills covered in hardwoods and evergreens (plus several hundred acres of additional adjacent land), Stinchfield Woods is the granddaddy of dog outings, the creme de la creme. At about 30 miles from home, visiting Stinchfield is a special occasion, too, which I like: it adds to the excitement. I’ve been hiking Stinchfield since 1996, and I never tire of it or take it for granted. Its majestic beauty always fills me with a hushed awe.

Jane and I visited yesterday after lunch, hiked about ten miles, and left exhausted and satisfied. We even discovered new trails – a special thrill as I thought I had every inch of the property committed to memory. It was a very special day for Jane, because it was her first time to hike the woods with complete liberty. During our first year together, she was always tethered to a 50-foot lead. In December, our last visit, she hiked sans lead but was weighted with a 15-pound backpack that kept her focused and unable to perform her amazing (and terrifying) vanishing act. Yesterday she did it all on her own. Twice she stuck her nose to the ground and took off running, but both times I was able to call her back. Sweet girl. She so desperately wants to run away, and I feel badly that I can’t meet that need of hers. She can run around me, parallel to me, and in front of me, but the hound in her wants to run away from me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to satisfy that desire of hers.

At any rate, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously, and I was exceptionally pleased by Jane’s obedience and restraint. The temperature rose to the upper 50s, and we worked up quite a sweat on the steep trails. Stinchfield’s trails are moderately to very challenging, so I don’t recommended them for beginners. There is a wide, mile-long “boulevard” of a trail with a moderate incline that bisects the property that is appropriate for the casual walker, hiker, or runner, but the best workout and the most beautiful views are found deep inside the woods, accessible only by secondary and tertiary trails and deer paths. There’s an old gavel pit in the middle of the site, and Jane and I hike out to it every time to take in the best view in Washtenaw County.

Yesterday we climbed down into the middle of the pit, and the temperature rose five or ten degrees. Jane loved nosing around in the tall grasses and weeds down there – I suspect it’s a rodent superhighway – and I spotted my first garter snake of the season. It lifted its head to check me out, then slithered away moving in and out of the dead grasses. I followed it for a bit trying to get a decent photo, and it stopped every few feet or so to stand up and rescrutinize me. When I suddenly heard several other snakes moving around underfoot I hightailed it out of there. As fascinating as they are, I respect the privacy of a nest. That’s a bit too up close and personal for me.

If you haven’t been to Stinchfield Woods, I strongly recommend a visit. It’s perfect in all seasons. (It’s especially nice and cool on hot summer days.) Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, carry food and water, and allow yourself to become completely lost. Trust me, it’s the tonic for all that ails you.

Fun with Duke and Jane

In Posts on March 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Although it’s technically still winter, spring-like weather has invaded southeast Michigan. Temperatures have been about 20 degrees above normal for the past week or so, and the melting snow mixed with last week’s heavy rains have turned most of our favorite trails into mudslides. We still walk them, though. It doesn’t seem to bother Jane much, and it’s actually easier on my calves than the deep snow. It’s just so…muddy. (Another reason why I always lament the end of winter, the only time of year when I feel truly content.)

Jane and I took our post-lunch walk this afternoon with neighbor Annika and her 18-month-old chocolate Lab Duke. We’ve just recently become acquainted with Annika and Duke, and they’ve joined Jane and me a few times on our outings. Duke is a very sweet dog – still a puppy, really – and has enormous amounts of energy. He’s faster and stronger than Jane – and they both know it – but she pulls rank with him over the really important stuff, like sticks, and he yelps like a pup receiving maternal correction. Duke is excellent on the trail. He keeps a tireless eye on Annika, Jane, and me, running back and forth. He probably runs two miles for every one we walk. Jane, on the other hand, has her own coonhound agenda. Sweet, sweet Jane.

Today we went to Marshall Nature Area, 87 acres of hilly woods at the corner of Dixboro and Plymouth Roads in Ann Arbor. (Here’s a satellite view.) Jane and I just discovered Marshall this winter, and we’ve been there about ten times now. It was Annika and Duke’s first visit, and they proved to be spirited companions. There are about four miles of established trails in the woods plus a few miles of secondary deer paths. There are also quite a few steep hills that provide a decent workout for both dogs and humans. Duke ran the entire time. Jane ran in fits and spurts, mostly with her nose to the ground searching for dead things with which to anoint herself (she was successful) and occasionally wandering completely out of sight. (Duke kept close tabs on her, though.) The walk was punctuated by the occasional wrestling match and game of tug. (Duke always won the former, Jane usually the latter.)

Beyond the nature area are an additional 100 acres or so of woods and wetlands belonging to Fr. Gabriel Richard High School. We traversed these trails, and the dogs enjoyed splashing about, harassing geese, and scrutinizing the occasional dead thing. Annika found a beautiful, intact deer antler. I discovered its companion but stuck it in a tree because Jane wanted to make a meal out of it. We wondered how the antlers came to be on the ground. The rotting carcass was nearby in the woods, but why would his antlers have been in a different location? Was he hit by a car and straggled into the woods to die, shedding his antlers on the way?

On the way home, Duke passed out while Jane rested her chin on the open window taking the full breeze in her face. They’re a pretty good match, Duke and Jane. It’s funny to me that Jane seems like such a mature dog next to Duke. I still think of her as my little puppy, but she somehow graduated into adulthood without my noticing. Their sweet little lives are so accelerated by human standards. A year for us is like a decade for them. Jane’s passed out on the sofa right now. While I’m writing this, I find myself missing her. I think I’ll go and join her.

Snow Day (again)!

In Posts on February 22, 2010 at 7:52 pm

We are enjoying some seriously kooky weather in southeast Michigan. Yesterday it was clear and calm with a steady temperature in the low 40s. Jane and I took an awesome eight-mile, off-leash hike along the Huron River, and I ended up stripping down to just a polo shirt and t-shirt (and I still sweated through both layers). It was a wonderful day – Jane and I felt really in tune – and we both got deliciously filthy from head to tail. During our walk, we took a three-mile detour along and around Ann Arbor’s Fleming Creek, known home to Michigan’s only venomous (and protected) snake, the Missasagua rattlesnake, and ran into a pack of nine dogs and four humans. This 13-member pack was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in the wild. The dogs and their people functioned as a single, hierarchical unit. I was really stunned. So was Jane. She’s certainly run into larger groups of dogs than that at the dog park, but those encounters are essentially with random, disconnected participants. This was entirely different. This pack was a well-oiled machine, and Jane had no option other than to offer herself up for critique. She was pretty unsure until I called her to me. Then she remembered I was her back-up and she started strutting and snorting, which made me so proud. My little girl is developing confidence.

When we arrived back at our starting point, we ran into guerilla hiker eco-activist Marty and his two dogs, Bella and Roxy. I’ve seen Marty around for ten years or so, and he’s always telling me about new hiking places. He shares my love of nature and my sense of entitlement to full access to it. While we were chatting, our dogs were milling about and Jane uncovered and started munching on poop or guts or something just as vile. I told her calmly but very firmly, “No. Nothing in the mouth,” and she immediately made eye contact with me, opened her mouth, and let whatever it was fall to the ground. Marty said something to the effect of, “I wish I’d trained my dogs as well as you have to not graze on garbage.” I couldn’t believe Jane and I were being recognized for obedience – especially in regards to our biggest challenge.

Anyway, yesterday’s spring-like intermission evolved into a light snowfall after dark, and by this morning it was a full-blown whiteout. I’m guessing we got eight to ten inches – maybe even a foot. Jane and I got out in the midst of the downpour – the best time ever for walking – and spent a couple of hours running through the streets and parks. We ended up at Highland Cemetery in Ypsilanti Township where the snow seemed especially deep. Jane ran and ran full force and I trudged along, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead. There is nothing like walking (or running) in deep snow. The workout is magnified tenfold.

Sweet, sweet Jane…

My Dog, Myself

In Posts on February 19, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I’ve been feeling under the weather the past couple of days. I was especially sluggish yesterday, and I only felt up for walking Jane on lead around the neighborhood. We walked at a decent clip for about an hour and a half, but that’s barely a warm up for a three-year-old hound. I promised her I’d make it up to her today, so this afternoon we went to LeFurge Woods in Superior Township, about five miles from home. LeFurge is 325 acres of protected woods, wetlands, and prairies, and Jane and I have carved out about a 1.5 square mile hiking route that spills over into private and cooperative farmland. We’re very respectful, and so far no one’s gotten after us. A couple of farmers wave to us, and I make sure Jane stays away from the free ranging chickens.

The sun was relatively high overhead today, and it felt even more like spring than the day before last week’s big dump. The sky was crystal clear, and I traded in my ski hat for sunglasses. It was beautiful, if a tad bittersweet, as the inevitability of the coming thaw always makes me sad. This is the time of year when I pine for an Arctic experience that I’ve never had yet somehow feel in my bones, much like Jane feels the call of the wild, I guess. My longing for the cold is primal. It’s in my DNA, and it springs from instinct, the part of me that can’t be tamed despite 4,000 years of civilizing.

Turns out Jane was the sluggish one today. Though she’s becoming better all the time off leash, she sometimes has days where she seems unenthusiastic – bored even – by our walk, and this can be frustrating for me. I know everyday can’t be Christmas, but I always feel satisfied on the days that she’s especially excited and engaged. There were a lot of new smells today uncovered by the melting snow, and I’m sure that’s what made her lag behind. I was really up for a speed walk, but Jane had other plans. I had to stop every few hundred feet and call her to me. Argh.

At one point, after having only been out for about half an hour, Jane scuttled off into the brush and wouldn’t come out. As I called to her, I could feel my temper rising. When she finally emerged, she was munching on a mouthful of contraband. I was so angry. I threw the leash I was carrying to the ground. I stomped and fumed. I yelled. In short, I completely lost it. I’ve been getting more and more frustrated lately over this habit of Jane’s – the only bad habit of hers that I’ve not been able to break. I give her the command “nothing in the mouth” dozens of times (hundreds?) each day, and she still takes every opportunity she gets – off leash or on – to eat everything she comes upon, especially poop (deer, rabbit, goose, etc.) and rotting carcasses. If I catch her in the act and give the command, she opens her mouth and drops her treasure on the ground. Five seconds later, though, she’s at it again. Nothing I do convinces her it’s not worth it, and it’s become increasingly challenging for me to manage my emotions when correcting her because she’s proven that she understands my expectation, knows the verbal command, and fully comprehends the concept of cause and effect. Today I reached my limit. I flipped out. After my explosion, I sat under a tree and took ten minutes or so to recover. Jane sat watching wearing her “I’m sorry” face. I finally got up, shook myself off, and we resumed our walk.

When we got in the woods, I started praying, asking for guidance in figuring out how to control this unseemly behavior of Jane’s. Immediately I saw the light: the only thing that I can control is my own out-of-control behavior. The irony of the situation was as clear as the sky. In my attempt to control my dog I had lost control of myself. I’ve been asking Jane to do something that I’m not capable of. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up and let her eat poop. It does mean, though, that my training objective is now twofold.

The Quiet Before the Storm?

In Posts on February 9, 2010 at 12:31 am

Winter’s my favorite season, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than an intense one – the colder and snowier the better. This year’s has been a dud. We’ve had zero snow days, and I’ve only had to wear long johns twice. Twice! On a good year, I’ll wear them daily for several weeks. There’s still a chance that Old Man Winter can redeem himself by showing up better-late-than-never and lingering into the spring (fingers crossed), but at this point that feels pretty unlikely.

Today was a picture perfect spring day. Jane and I took our routine post-lunchtime walk at Saginaw Forest in Ann Arbor. The sky was uncharacteristically cloudless, and the sun was a little brighter than it has been, a little bit higher in the sky. The mean temperature was in the upper 20s – which, thankfully, kept the mud frozen – but the intensity of the sun and the absence of wind made it feel more like April than February. The black squirrels were out in full force – I think they’re so cool – and the song birds were having a field day. (In general, I’ve noticed a relatively large number of robins this year, which indicates that food is more plentiful in the region than in winters past.) People were actually in the woods, too, which is rare for this time of year. We saw a couple walking hand-in-hand, two cross country runners, and a guy with a clipboard taking notes (a student?). We also ran into a young woman named Susan and her Irish setter, Henry.

Jane loved Henry. She sang for him and wrestled him to the ground and chewed on his ears. It was neat meeting Henry, because I was thinking just a couple of days ago that I haven’t seen an Irish setter in ages. They seem to have fallen out of popularity, and it’s a shame because they’re such handsome dogs. I’m a big fan of Jim Kjelgaard’s Big Red trilogy, which I mentioned to Susan (whose hair is the same color as Henry’s, by the way) and she and her husband have read and enjoyed the books, too. Henry is two years old, and he was adopted from an Irish setter rescue somewhere in western Michigan. (I forgot the name of the town.) Henry was a perfect playmate for Jane. Their energy levels were pretty even, and he liked to play like a real dog with Jane. (She loves rough play, which, for experimental reasons that I’ll maybe expound on another day, I don’t engage in.)

After we said goodbye to Henry, we walked several miles on our own. Jane remained off-leash and listened beautifully to my vocal and whistle commands. She’s becoming such a great companion on the trail. Just in the past few weeks I’ve noticed an increase in her attention to and interest in me. I think she finally trusts me.

Jane engaged me in a game of stick while we walked. I threw, she retrieved and chewed, we played tug-of-war – all while walking. She derived insane amounts of enjoyment from this and was exceptionally vocal about her delight.

Just when it was time to leave, we ran into the endearingly-eccentric-though-well-to-do older woman with golden retrievers Becky and Jody. (We met her and her dogs in the woods near Radrick Farms in October.) She had a friend with her, and her friend had a retriever, too, named Indy. The dogs were all very sweet and affectionate, but Jane wasn’t too interested in them. I think they’re too dignified and well-mannered for my little rascal.

On our way home we heard on NPR that a winter storm is moving into southeast Michigan tomorrow. The snow should begin in the afternoon and continue for about 24 hours. They’re calling for 10 to 12 inches. I’m very excited, and I so hope the predictions prove correct.

Snow Day!

In Posts on January 8, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Though it’s been snowing pretty consistently for the past few weeks in Southeast Michigan, yesterday marked our first big dump of the season. Unfortunately, we were spared the brunt of late December’s pre-Christmas blizzard that crippled much of the Midwest and East Coast, so yesterday’s mini-storm was overdue and enthusiastically welcomed by Jane and me (and apparently only Jane and me).

It started in the morning, and, by the time we got out for our post-lunch walk, it had reached near whiteout conditions. Granted, the timing may not have been the most convenient – people were at work, kids were still in school – but I was struck by how few  were out enjoying it. There’s nothing more beautiful than falling snow, and, on our two-hour walk around town, we saw exactly five people and three dogs outside. Ba humbug!

We started our walk through Depot Town. All the shops and bars were open, but nobody was doing much business. Then we headed to Riverside Park where someone had apparently flattened out this probably-stolen (and curiously Western European looking) Wise Man into a makeshift sled. Not sure if that’s sacrilegious or not, but it made me laugh out loud. Viva Ypsi!

Jane was a wonderful off-leash girl all through the park, and the waterfowl poop on which she ordinarily attempts to graze was, thankfully, covered by a fresh layer of snow. She certainly could have dug for the buried riparian delights, which she often does, but she was too busy running up and down the riverbank giving the ducks and geese the what-for.

There was an unusually large number of geese at Riverside, and I felt a little sorry for them having to stay in the freezing water rather than huddling together on the shore, but Jane would allow none of them on her turf. Click on the picture below to get a better view of the gaggle.

After almost being run over by a salt truck on Michigan Avenue – the driver didn’t even apologize when I yelled at him – Jane and I walked through the overgrown wastelands on the south side of town. Even the decay of abandoned houses and crumbling factories is given a fresh new perspective when covered in still-falling snow. Like the geese in the Huron, though, I felt sorry for the homeless people squatting in the bombed out, disused factories between Michigan Ave and I-94. I could see their tracks in the snow, coming and going from openings in barbed wire fences and various graffiti-covered buildings. It’s amazing that there is so much blight and human suffering right in my own backyard. As much as I love the snow and cold, not being able to return to my warm, cozy nest – with its taken-for-granted electricity and hot running water – would sour not only my appreciation for the season, but for every aspect of life. I’ll never understand why some, like Jane and me, are so fortunate while others are seemingly cursed. The distribution of blessings sometimes seems so random and out of whack.

10 4 ’10

In Posts on January 1, 2010 at 8:34 pm

In celebration of the first day of 2010, Jane and I took a ten-mile walk at Crosswinds Marsh. (Actually, I walked ten miles, she ran 11 or 12.) Located in New Boston, Michigan, Crosswinds Marsh is one of the largest human-made wetlands in the country, and it’s a beautiful little secret. After Detroit Metro completed its expansion in 2002, the Michigan Department of Environmental Equality required the airport to create one-and-a-half acres of wetland for every one acre impacted by construction. They were also required to move away all threatened or endangered plants and animals to the new site. The result is the 1,100-acre Crosswinds Marsh.

Jane and I haven’t been to the marsh since late spring. (There’s very little shade, so summer hikes are out of the question.) It’s about 20 miles from home, so it’s not an everyday place. I’d been meaning to take her since the fall but, for whatever reason, never got around to it. Today was a perfect day for our visit, and it made the wait worthwhile. The temperature was in the mid-20s, which is my ideal for hiking. I can walk forever in the cold, and the 20s are still warm enough that I don’t require too many layers. There’s also a demarcation line in the 20s where people tend to stay inside. I like having the world to myself when I hike, and today’s cold fostered that sense of being in the wild. Most of the beasts are tucked away for the winter, too, which means there’s less competition for Jane’s attention. With fewer people and animals about, I’m better able to work with her off leash. Best of all about the 20s, though, is the frozen ground. (I’m not a fan of mud.) It’s amazing how just a few degrees can make such a difference. Yesterday it was 34, and the walking conditions were awful. The snow was wet and slushy, and the slop soaked through my pants and gloves. I was a wet, miserable grump. The planets were aligned today, though! Gorgeous. Walking was as smooth as glass. It was deeply satisfying to us both.

Crosswinds has 13 miles of trails, and Jane and I began with the six-mile horseback riding trail that circles the perimeter of the property. The trail is flat and wide – perfect for novice walkers – and we were the only ones on it. (No horses today, though plenty of frozen horse poop, which Jane, surprisingly, stayed out of for the most part.) Jane ran the entire six miles off leash (our four-mile interior walk was a combination of off-leash and 50-ft. lead), and she responded beautifully to my stop, wait, and come whistles and vocal commands. I was comfortable letting her walk about 300 feet in front of me. Beyond that, though, she seemed to sense that she was on her own, and I’d have to call her back. She got out of my sight twice, but she returned to my calls and whistles in under a minute. Jane loves walking with me, but her idea of with is very different from mine. She’d run miles ahead – literally – if I let her, so every day I try to convince her that being by my side is the best possible place to be. She understands in theory, but her migration and hunting instincts remain in fierce competition with my parameters and commands. There are days when I can’t believe that I’m seriously attempting to break a hound (a sensitive one at that), and then there are days, like today, when the walk is elevated to an almost spiritual level, and I think, “Wow, maybe I can actually do this.”



TGIF

In Posts on November 13, 2009 at 8:18 pm

TGIFThank God it’s fall. Literally. Everything is better in the fall. I have more energy, am less prone to melancholy, and just feel more comfortable in my skin. Many people, especially in Michigan where the average number of clear days per month in the fall is three, suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. I suffer from reverse SAD. It’s the blinding sun and rising mercury of late spring and summer that makes me want to pull the covers over my head. Most people think I’m crazy, so I don’t talk about it much, but I know I’m not alone. I think most members of my family, even though they all live in the South, prefer cooler weather, and I feel pretty sure there’s a genetic component at work. (We’re all fair skinned and have to avoid the sun.) There’s also a cultural component. Kids don’t mind the cold, and they love playing in the snow. Adults on the other hand do nothing but complain when the temperature dips below 50. (Adults even complain about the wind, which I don’t understand at all. How can someone not like wind?) As they age, kids generally adopt their parents’ views and start hating all weather that dares vary from some bizarre South of the Border ideal. When I was teaching elementary school, I made sure to get outside with my students every day, and I would frequently remind them to “Never stop loving the cold.”

Though it seems most people in southeast Michigan are afraid of weather, there are exceptions. There’s a burgeoning Northern European population sprouting in Ann Arbor (presumably around the UofM), and even on the bitterest winter days when I’m out hiking, I run into Swedes, Finns, and Russians popping out of bushes (literally) wearing big grins, rosy cheeks, and offering hearty hellos. My friends who live in Traverse City, Paul and Heather, have a healthy appreciation for cold weather as does (seemingly) everyone else up there. The times I’ve visited in fall and winter, people were outside hiking, skiing, and playing hockey.

Dogs, of course, love the cold. Even old, arthritic house dogs start frisking about this time of year, getting skunked and giving the ever-fattening squirrels the what-for. Miss Jane is no exception. She’s been working overtime hunting everything including mail carriers, bicycles, and garden rakes. We made such great progress over the summer – I guess because she was too hot and tired to be wicked – but the puppy in her has once again reared its beastly head. We’ve certainly had our challenges – like when she completely ignored me and took off chasing deer for two and a half hours – but it’s been good for me. I think I’d gotten complacent. And the wild thing who’s emerged with the shrinking days – sort of a reverse hibernation – has provided me with a loud and clear wake-up call: We haven’t arrived yet.

Prospect ParkI guess the biggest issue with Jane has been her not listening to me on the trail. We’ve been practicing off-leash walking since August, and she’s even worked her way up to two hours of complete liberty on our hikes. Lately, though, she’s taken to ignoring my commands, running off, and generally treating me with disregard. If I get angry, she slinks and sulks and grovels, but then two seconds later she’s right back at the offending behavior. Is it just a continuation of the terrible twos? Are the scents of fall simply more than a hound can handle? (A guy at the dog park told me he let his beagle out to do his business the other night, and the dog stayed gone until six the next morning!) At any rate, I’ve had to ramp up my vigilance to keep Jane safe and satisfied. We’ve had to start re-drilling basic commands (at which she rolls her eyes like a bored teenager, and then I get angry, and then she grovels – it’s a vicious circle), we’re spending more time on lead, and I’m constantly weighing her needs against my comfort level. Our daily exercise has gotten a lot more complicated. We’re not running through the woods with reckless abandon like we both want (and need). So it’s kind of frustrating. But at least it’s fall.

Nude Reclining

Indian Summer

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

Treein' a 'coon

Southeast Michigan got hit with a wave of Indian Summer early this week that sent everyone into an outdoor tizzy. The parks and streets were crammed with shorts and t-shirted people running, biking, and walking. Summer is my least favorite season, so I certainly don’t enjoy summer-like weather in autumn, but I don’t want to be a grump, so I keep my displeasure to myself.

Jane and I have been enjoying daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s, but this week we hit 70 degrees. It’s nice opening the doors and windows and airing out the house, but other than that it’s just a pain. When the weather’s cool, we’re able to walk at night in sketchy neighborhoods, through our favorite alleys, and into the parks along the river. (All the hoodlums vanish the instant the mercury dips below 50.) This week, though, saw the return of shady characters, especially in the parks. Jane and I made a quick detour out of Riverside Park two nights ago when we ran into a gang of teenagers who were obviously up to no good. Argh. Fortunately, things are cooling down again today. It’s a bit drizzly, and it looks like this weekend we’ll see the peak of fall colors.

Yesterday was the warmest of our Indian Summer days, and, despite my aforementioned feelings on the subject, Jane and I enjoyed a wonderful adventure. Jane loves adventure – novelty – and I do, too, but I can’t produce it every day. Some days (most actually) are just the daily grind – not a lot of surprises. Just like kids have to accept that not every day can be a holiday, dogs have to accept that sometimes exercise is just routine, maybe even dull. Jane’s cool with boring, routine exercise days; it’s me that they kill. I feel guilty if every outing isn’t punctuated by excitement, mystery, and intrigue (with a happy, exhausted ending, of course). Anyway, we got one of those rare days that can’t be planned – they just happen on their own – yesterday.

We started out at St. Joe’s Hospital walking north along the Huron River. We crossed over the river, walked along the railroad tracks, and made our way through Parker Mill Park. We took the walk ramp under Geddes Road to the north side of the park where there’s a hideous new picnic structure that looks like something from “The Flinstones.” (It’s obviously trying very hard to blend in with the wooded setting, but it misses its mark by a long shot. It just looks ridiculous.) At any rate, just to the west of the entrance to Bedrock is an almost imperceptible, narrow path running down the side of the hill and into the woods. (Marty the guerilla hiker told me about it.) Jane and I entered the path and walked along for a mile or so, expecting to run into civilization, but it just kept going. It snaked along a beautiful tributary, up across steep hills, even across an old, rotted bridge.

Rock Climbing Jane

At one point we even came upon this enormous, apparently disused field. (There’s a rusted gate at one end. Did it once contain grazing cows?)

We're not in Kansas anymore.

It was here that we met an older, somewhat eccentric (though obviously well-to-do) dog lady who was tromping across the field with her two middle-aged golden retrievers, Becky and Jody, and their giant labradoodle buddy Truman. I had no idea where I was and was pretty disoriented, so the woman (whose name I never got) filled me in with all the scoop and even took me off in the woods to show me her secret trail that runs on the opposite side of the tributary that Jane and I had previously explored. We ended up walking with and talking to this woman for about 20 minutes or so, and it was great fun. Becky was an especially sweet dog, and her instant crush on me made Jane insanely jealous.

We eventually said goodbye to the woman of the woods and made our way back the five miles or so to St. Joe’s. We were both exhausted – that special, satisfied kind of exhausted. We drove home in silence, all of our needs met.

I’ve looked up the area where we were walking online and it’s maybe a mile square of land north of Geddes and east of Dixboro Roads. Here’s a satellite view. It eventually runs into Radrick Farms Golf Course (which is rumored to be dog friendly in the off season), but looks like there’s a sliver of woods to the west of Radrick through which Jane and I could cross, undisturbed, and hike a couple of miles north to Matthai Botanical Gardens. But that’s another adventure for another day.

Year One

In Posts on October 1, 2009 at 12:07 am

Today is Jane’s and my one year anniversary. I mentioned this to a friend earlier this afternoon, and she marveled that it’s already been a year – said it seems like just yesterday Jane came to live with me. I know I’m supposed to agree – say that the year just flew by – but it does feel like a year. Jane and I have been together 24/7, and I’ve been highly conscious of her development and our bonding. It’s been a wonderful year, and I’m thankful that I’ve had as much time to spend with her as I have. I feel like we’ve accomplished several years’ worth of work.

Today began just like any other day. I rose early to drink coffee and read. Jane stayed in bed scratching and yawning for an extra half hour.

Sleepy Jane

After breakfast, she spent the morning lounging in the garden, alternating between napping in the sun and harassing the squirrels who’ve gone into overdrive getting their stores in order for the winter.
Jane lounging in the garden

It was a cold and sunny morning – every dog’s favorite combination (mine, too). After lunch we went to LeFurge Nature Preserve for a lovely autumn walkabout. Jane and I have been practicing about thirty minutes of off-leash walking every day, but today we did a couple of hours. We’ve been working off-leash mostly in fields, prairies, and parks. This afternoon, though, we expanded our repertoire to include the woods at the back of LeFurge. The woods were the final frontier for me – so many distractions – but Jane did great. I talked to her most of the thirty minutes or so, and she stayed close by me, sometimes following, sometimes leading. While I let her run ahead in open areas, I’m still not comfortable letting her out of my sight in the woods. She’s just such a hound. If she picks up a scent, she can vanish.

And speaking of hound, she’s become quite the bird dog, too. Though she doesn’t point, she’s developed patience and great stealth, and today she brilliantly flushed numerous pheasants in the brush along Vreeland Road. It’s really a joy watching her work.

On the prowl

After our outing, Jane rested and let me get some work done. Our routine really is like clockwork, and we rarely stray from it. This evening we took our pre-dinner walk around the city. We saw Pelu the puggle and played stick in Riverside Park. It got dark early – cold, too. The shadows were long, and the streets were empty. It’s my favorite time of year. I get the whole world to myself.

For dinner I made Jane’s favorite – sweet potato casserole (with blueberries, apples, and assorted raw veggies and ground flaxseed) – and a butcher bone bigger than her head for dessert. It was a great day, just about perfect. I couldn’t ask for a better one, nor a better dog. I am blessed.

The Doctor is In

In Posts on September 18, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Jane had her annual physical today at Ypsilanti Animal Clinic. Though she’s been to the clinic a few times in the past – a quick check-up when I first brought her home, a stitched wound in the winter – this was her first annual. (Last year’s was performed at Broken Road Rescue by Dr. Laura Chamberlain of Mid-Michigan Equine Services.) She was surprised to be going for a car ride so early in the morning (we usually don’t go out until lunch), but she gladly accepted what she thought was her good fortune.

She recognized the clinic when we arrived and showed no signs of distress as some dogs do. We walked around the building so she could sniff the markings of others and add her own to the mix. When we went inside, she waited patiently with me while I stroked her and periodically rewarded her with oatmeal treats. (I always bring along lots of treats to try to make visiting the doctor a more positive experience.) When the male vet tech came out to weigh her, though, she became visibly afraid. She was terrified of his hands and wouldn’t go near the scale. I coaxed her on to the scale and held her while the tech got a reading (64 pounds). When he led us into the examination room, Jane was still nervous and wanted nothing to do with him. He talked to us briefly, and then Dr. Kunoff arrived. MSU-trained, Dr. Kunoff is a wonderful veterinarian: calm, sensitive, patient, and a real dog lover (with a sweet spot for hounds). Dr. Kunoff has been at the clinic since 2001, and I hope he stays around forever. I’ve been visiting Ypsilanti Animal Clinic for years, but they’ve never been able to keep good doctors. My favorite, Dr. Muns – she performed a wonderful fatty tumor removal on Georgia – left years ago to join a large animal practice, and I haven’t connected with any of the other doctors since. It felt like a revolving door for a few years until Dr. Kunoff arrived. He’s such a good fit. He’s part of our community, and, most important, Jane trusts him.

Dr. Kunoff and Jane

Dr. Kunoff said Jane’s heart is in great shape (exercise!), her teeth are awesome (B.A.R.F!), and that, overall, she “looks great.” She received vaccines for kennel cough, distemper, and rabies, and then had blood drawn for her heartworm test.

Heartworm Test

I fed her oatmeal treats throughout the ordeal, and she really was a trooper. She even gave up and allowed the vet tech to handle her. (He was also very gentle.) I was actually surprised by her reaction to the vet tech. She was frequently afraid of me when I first adopted her, but she so completely trusts me now – including all the choices I make for her – that I forget sometimes about her fear. Despite her confidence with me, dogs, and people she knows, she can still be spooked by strangers, especially males.

I recently read two books about canine fear Scaredy Dog! Understanding and Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog by Ali Brown and Help for Your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde. Brown’s book is awful. Devoid of research, it’s all anecdotal and poorly written. (My elementary-aged students communicate more effectively.) Wilde’s book, while still imperfect (top-notch dog books are extremely rare), is the less emotional of the two, and I was able to cull a couple of tidbits out of its 400-plus pages of definitions and exercises. One thing I definitely learned is that Jane is not what both authors call a “reactive” dog. While she’s certainly got fears and quirks, she would not be labeled a fearful dog. I also learned that Jane’s mistrust of people is not necessarily indicative of abuse in her past. It could also be the result of not being socialized. Rather than paraphrase, I’m going to simply transcribe Wilde:

“Lack of Socialization: When a dog displays fearful behavior around people, it is often assumed that the dog was abused, especially if her history is unknown. But in fact, a lack of early socialization is the more likely culprit. Many behaviorists believe that this early deficit is the primary reason dogs develop fear issues, especially toward strangers, other dogs, or new environments. Remember that dogs have a genetically programmed fear of the unfamiliar, an instinct designed to keep them safe. The engagement of that response is almost wholly avoidable by making most things dogs will encounter – dogs, people, places, sounds, touch, and movement – familiar through early and frequent exposure.” (9)

Of course I don’t know if this is Jane’s case or not, but I have been told that some people who keep hunting dogs do not treat them properly. They’re often considered things and not sentient beings and certainly not members of the family (which is all they really want). I have no idea what Jane’s first 20 months were like. I do know that the past 12 have been pretty good, and I hope and pray that, in time, she’ll have no memory of life before me.

Saginaw Forest

In Posts on September 16, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Entrance

Jane and I took our lunch break today at Saginaw Forest, one of Ann Arbor’s best-kept secrets. Located on Liberty Road about half a mile south of Wagner, Saginaw is 80 acres of woods, wetlands, and prairies, and it’s adjacent to another 20-30 acres of private property (where we hike as well). Though the forest is a private research and teaching facility owned by the University of Michigan and managed by the School of Natural Resources, it’s open to the public and features several miles of established trails, deer paths, and deep-woods walking for the adventurous. It is a gorgeous, pristine property, and very few people seem to know about it or use it.

The property was given as a gift to the UofM in 1903 by Regent Arthur Hill and his wife, Louise, both of Saginaw. The gift of the property coincided with the inaugural year of the School of Natural Resources, and the faculty and students began long-term forest planting that continued until 1937. The result is 55 acres of native and exotic species and home to a vast array of wildlife including, believe it or not, wild boar, some of whom carry the pseudorabies virus which, while not deadly to humans, has been known to kill dogs and cats. (Thankfully Jane and I weren’t attacked by wild rabid boars today. Wouldn’t that have been an adventure?)

Today was an absolutely perfect day for a visit to the forest. While still summer, there was definitely a hint of fall in the air. It was crisp and breezy and just enough of summer’s oppressive edge was taken off so as to put quite a zing in Jane’s step.

She’s not the only one. When we came upon a field of wild flowers blowing in the wind, I couldn’t contain myself: I took off running. The sun was high overhead, but the shadows were long and full of promise. Jane ran along beside me, thrilling in the now, and I know she understood. I know this might sound dramatic, but I almost started crying – truly. My heart was so filled with the joy of fall. It’s my season of rebirth.

Saginaw Forest Pond

Despite the nip in the air, it was still warm and sunny enough to work up quite a sweat. We walked long and hard, and I ended up running a couple of miles, too. About halfway through our romp we stopped at Third Sister Lake where Jane refreshed herself.

Third Sister Lake

We were both exhausted after a two-hour plus outing. The weather and the overwhelming feeling of optimism that it engendered turned Jane into a wild banshee (really) and made me push myself just a little bit harder.

If you decide to visit Saginaw Forest (and if you live in the area, you definitely should), there are several points of entry. Though the easiest is the gated entry on Liberty, there’s no parking at the gate or on Liberty. There are also no sidewalks on Liberty, and the traffic moves pretty swiftly, so, in other words, if you want to access the woods, you have to work for it. (Which is probably one of the reasons why no one’s ever there. It’s not a park, and it’s not convenient, but that makes it more special. Going there always feels like an adventure.) I drive about 500 meters south of  the entrance to Westview Way and turn left. It’s an upper middle class subdivision, and it feels kind of awkward parking there, but I do it anyway. Streets are public. From the car I walk in the grassy ditch along Liberty until I reach the entrance to the woods and then run across the street. (Cars really fly through there. Easy does it!)

Jane on the trail

A Post About Poop

In Posts on August 31, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Coprophagia is the ingestion of one’s own feces or the feces of another animal. There are several theories about why canines (and other animals) engage in this inconvenient behavior. It has been suggested that coprophagia is a consequence of curiosity  in young animals where they use their mouths to explore the environment. Another theory suggests that the behavior helps the animal establish specific intestinal flora in the gut, and some scientists believe that eating feces compensates for some nutritional deficiency by utilizing the deoxycholic acid present in the waste. I don’t know if my opinion on the subject is original or unconsciously informed by an amalgamation of all the reading I’ve done on canines over the past decade or so, but I’ve come to believe coprophagia, at least in canines, is used for survival. While canines don’t hibernate, much of their prey do, and the winter months can be especially brutal. With minimal vegetation and fierce competition from birds of prey, canines are able to obtain enough nutrients from the scat of others – deer droppings, for example – to see them through ’til spring.

It’s really an amazing adaptation method, and canines are specially designed from head to tail (literally) to accommodate it. The ability to safely ingest scat begins in the dog’s mouth where the presence of large amounts of lysozyme, which destroys pathogenic bacteria, are in the saliva. (Human lysozymes are found in tears, saliva, mucus, and breast milk. Interestingly, children raised on formula have three times the rate of diarrheal disease since lysozymes provide protection from pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and pseudomonas.) The dog’s digestive tract is much shorter than ours: 20-80 cm compared to our long and winding road  of 1.5 m. The dog’s food, including ingested poop, passes within 24-48 hours. (Humans can take up to 72 hours.) Additionally, the dog’s stomach acid is highly corrosive. With a pH of 1-2, as compared to humans’ 4-5, the dog’s stomach acid kills most of the bacteria ingested and explains why he can safely eat raw meat, bones, carrion, and, yes, poop.

Jane eats poop. I know all of the above information, because when my dog exhibits a particular behavior, like copraphagia, I turn to science for answers and, hopefully, comfort. Unfortunately, no amount of science buffers my disgust of eating poop. I know it’s natural, and necessary in certain contexts, but it’s gross! I went through this with Georgia, and she eventually outgrew the habit or so feared my response to poop eating that she figured it wasn’t worth it. Jane’s not there yet. Her response when I see her mouth chomping on cat scat, duck doo doo, or deer droppings, and take off running toward her screaming “No! Stop! Eww! Gross!” is to chomp faster, to delight in as much of the delicacy as possible before I reach her. In other words, in her mind, whatever punishment I dole out – and she knows it’ll never be anything more than me screaming and stomping (and gagging) – is worth it.

She doesn’t eat her own poop, thank goodness. (I’ve heard of very few dogs who do this, and I suspect it’s indicative of an untreated neurosis.) She also doesn’t eat dog poop, though she’s of course got a healthy interest in sniffing it, which is normal – that’s how dogs learn about each other. Last winter she exhibited a fancy for coyote caca, but I was successful in breaking her of that. (We ran into coyote scat just this morning near St. Joe’s hospital. Jane sniffed it and moved on.) Like most dogs, Jane hates cats but wants to eat their poop. I’ve been pretty successful in curbing this craving, though, too. Same with deer scat: she’s into it, but I can call her off of it pretty easily. The big problem, though, the Holy Grail in her mind, is goose poop. I don’t know what’s in it, but she will risk life and limb for goose poop. It’s doggie pate. Georgia loved it, too. (I got her off it as a youngster, but she returned to it in her old age.) Jane’s lust for the stuff shows no sign of abating, and, where we live, it’s in abundance year round, especially in grassy areas along the river. The problem is somewhat easier to manage in the winter – goose poop is easier for me to spot on snow and ice than it is on grass – but Jane’s hankering for the stuff is only magnified with the falling of the mercury: Goose poop pops are a special, winter-only delicacy. They’re the truffles of the dog world.

Jane ran into the neighbors’ yard this morning and downed a mouthful of cat scat. Yesterday she got into a pile of doo doo of unknown origin in the brush alongside the dirt road where we were enjoying a lazy Sunday stroll. Tomorrow it’ll probably be something else – another day, another dookie. I will keep screaming, pulling out my hair, gnashing my teeth, and keeping my fingers crossed that, in time, Jane’ll develop a more discriminate palate and realize that the B.A.R.F. I lovingly feed her at home beats (paws down) the poop she purloins in the park.

Jane the Coprophag

Hallelujah

In Posts on August 21, 2009 at 2:25 pm

My Hero

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I didn’t feel grumpy as much as I just felt disconnected. I laid there tangled up in blankets, staring at the ceiling, immobile under a canopy of Is that all there is? Finally I called Jane’s name. (She sleeps in the living room.) After a pause, she appeared – dopey-eyed, tail swinging in a slow, lazy wag, unable to contain her excitement to see me again but expressing it in her characteristic, slow as molasses, hound dog way. That’s all I needed to get out of bed, turn on NPR, grind the coffee beans, brush the teeth…

But I couldn’t shake the feeling. I sat down to work on a report for work and then moved on to a lesson for a student I tutor. A violent storm passed by. The black-eyed Susans took a beating. A bag of lawn clippings I’d left under the chestnut tree was tossed across the lawn, emptying its contents along the way. (Chestnuts don’t grow well in Michigan, by the way. I think it’s too cold for them.) When it was time for our regular lunchtime outing, I kept working. I was busy. I told Jane I’d make it up to her later. I showered and left to meet my student. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, but I was in a fog. I kept the windows rolled up. I didn’t listen to music. There was no traffic on the road. My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number.

When I got home from tutoring, I was wracked with guilt. Jane didn’t care; she was ready to go. She’d waited patiently all day, so I took her out straightaway. It was a beautiful afternoon. It was warm, but a steady breeze provided relief. The morning storm had chased away the humidity that made the earlier part of the week unbearable. We walked past Barry on his riding lawnmower. He smiled and waved, looking like a set piece from “Blue Velvet.” We walked the “gralley” – a disused alley that’s returned to nature – and down to Highland Cemetery. Jane ran off-leash for thirty minutes or so, never straying too far, always keeping an ear out for me. She wore herself out hunting groundhogs.

Hunting 'hogs

We slipped through a hole in the fence and went to St. John the Baptist Cemetery across the street (Why is there a separate Catholic lot?) where Jane met her guardian angel.

Jand and Her Angel

Jane got pretty hot, so I rinsed her off using one of the garden hoses that are scattered here and there around the cemetery. She hates when I hose her down (even though she loves swimming and walking in the rain), but it never fails to renew the spring in her step. We finally headed back toward town where we saw this really cool bus parked behind the Corner Brewery that appears to be someone’s home.

The Love Bus

I thought for awhile about how great it would be to live on a bus with Jane and spend our time driving around visiting interesting places like South Dakota and Alaska. (Yesterday I daydreamed about living on a houseboat with Jane.)

We continued on to Frog Island where several people were working in the community garden and a group of  guys were playing soccer, yelling at each other in Spanish. Some kids were playing fetch with an off-leash pit bull. I checked to be sure I hadn’t forgotten my pepper spray.

We crossed the tridge to Riverside Park where a few hundred people were setting up for the Heritage Festival. Riverside and Frog Island host festivals almost every weekend in the summer, but Heritage is the granddaddy of them all. Jane jumped off the pier into the river – she’s really proud of being able to do this now without too much hesitation – to the delight of a man and his two children.

We crossed over Michigan Avenue and walked through the southside ghetto. The Vietnamese men were out playing their hackey sack/volleyball/soccer game. We ran into Kokhang walking Pelu, Twinkle, and Berkeley. Kokhang thinks the men might be Cambodian. Jane loves Kokhang. He always has chicken for her and makes her perform tricks for it. He’s taught her to shake and to high-five. She also loves Berkeley – a rescue mutt flirt who delights her by chasing her round and round. I love Pelu, a fat little Buddha of a puggle who’s my second favorite dog in the world. We have a very special friendship. Whenever I see Pelu he runs up to me and lays on his back at my feet like an offering. Of course this makes me gush and shower him with praise and treats (so I’m sure it’s a completely conditioned reaction).

When Jane and I got back home, I realized we’d been out for over three hours. I was parched, and we were both hungry. It was only after I was preparing dinner that I realized that the disconnected emptiness I’d been consumed by earlier in the day had been replaced by endorphin-fueled peace, rest, and contentment. I can always count on Jane to put things into perspective for me, to get me back on track. I guess she’s my guardian angel.

The Best Girl

Dog Day Afternoon

In Posts on August 16, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Huron Jane

It’s miserably hot today. I’m not complaining, though, because it’s been such a mild summer. It’s really been perfect: warm, sunny mornings, afternoon showers, cool nights – it’s felt more like spring than summer. Today is a different story, though. The dog days have finally arrived. This is typically the warmest week of the year – summer’s unforgiving climax – but I’ll be rewarded next week as we begin our downhill slide toward fall. I am not a summer person. Never have been, never will be. This may be one of the reasons I get along so well with dogs: they’re as invigorated by cold weather as I am.

Despite my abhorrence of heat, I refuse to let it lick me. (I try never to allow the weather to interfere with my objectives.) So I slather on the SPF 70, keep myself hydrated, and brave it (relatively) uncomplainingly. Jane’s not a fan of heat, but she’ll still hike five to eight miles if she’s got continual access to a body of water where she can swim. The Unnamed Trail is perfect for days like today, because it runs parallel to the Huron River and much of it is shaded by mature trees. So that’s where we headed for this afternoon’s lunchtime outing.

After arriving at our starting point at St. Joe’s, Jane and I made our way through the woods and down to the river as usual. Rather than heading north like we always do, Jane tugged me south. So I followed. Sometimes it’s good to let the dog lead. Like children, dogs can be empowered by making choices. Jane took me off on a short sub-trail that we rarely travel and out to the railroad tracks. We don’t often walk by the railroad tracks this time of year, because there’s no shade. But this is what Jane wanted to do, for whatever reason, so I went along. We walked north along the tracks for about a half mile and then had to walk on a trestle where the tracks cross the river. We made our way across despite this warning.

No Trespassing

The sign both confused and irritated me. First of all, whose private property were we on? (They’re railroad tracks!) And what’s the harm in our walking there? We were being respectful, minding our own business, and having an adventure.

Outlaw Jane

Once safely across (and avoiding prosecution) I walked on, still following Jane’s lead, for about another quarter mile. We came to another overpass, much smaller and narrower, and made of stone. Jane led me off the tracks and down the east side of a brush-covered embankment (whereupon my feet got tangled in the remnants of an ancient, rusted fence and I fell flat on my face). Once down the hill, we were greeted with the sound of a swiftly running brook (I was instantly transported to childhood – North Carolina – mountain springs) and the sight of this beautiful stone bridge and boardwalk.

Secret bridge

I felt as if we’d entered a secret, magical place. It was silent, save the sound of running water, and a little bit mysterious, too. We followed the boardwalk over swamp and peat for about half a mile out to the Huron.  At the river we happened upon this shelter.

The Love Shack

Despite being covered with knife-carved devotions of undying love and requisite Kilroy scribblings, this weather-beaten, graffitied shack had a good energy about it. The plywood remains were surely saturated with memories of secret rendezvous. If those boards could talk!

After following the winding boardwalk for another mile or so, Jane and I took a deer path through a small copse that dumped us out on a paved trail in Parker Mill Park (which eventually converges with Gallup Park). We jumped back in woods, though, and followed a hobo path that led us back out to the railroad tracks. We crossed over finding ourselves at the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant. From here we walked west, parallel to Dixboro Road, and then back into the woods again along the Huron, walking two or so miles south to our starting point at St. Joe’s. It was one of the best adventures Jane and I have had yet (she gets full credit for it), and it’s especially interesting to me that it took place on the most miserable day of the year…

When we got back home, I checked the map to discover that our secret find is known as Forest Park. I’d seen it on the map before and had been curious. You can park your car on Geddes at the entrance to Parker Mill and walk or bike your way through to Forest Park, but I prefer Jane’s back door discovery. We will be visiting again soon.

(And now I have to give a shout out to Ann Arbor. Though complaining about the gentrification and dominant bourgeois culture of A2 is one of my favorite pastimes, the city must be commended for dedicating so much land to nature. Ann Arbor’s commitment to green makes it a truly livable city.)

Breakthrough!

In Recent Posts on August 12, 2009 at 1:19 am

Jane walked with me for thirty minutes off-leash today. It might not sound like a big deal, but it’s a huge turning point for us. Huge. The bluetick coonhound is notoriously stubborn and difficult to train, and Jane is no exception. Their noses are always in the air (or on the ground) and when they pick up a scent they follow it – sometimes for hours. Their hunting instincts are so strong that they’re almost impossible to trust on their own.

That said, I knew what I was getting into when I adopted Jane. I researched the breed and realized she’d be a project and not just a pet. But what a wonderful project she is! There’s nothing finer than watching a dog bend to your will – no matter how slowly – and not just buy into your program, but celebrate it. And Jane is doing just that. It seems every few days we turn another corner, and today’s was the one I’ve been thinking would never come.

I enjoy living with dogs for many reasons, and one of the biggest is I dig their enthusiasm for exercise. They’re not only always ready for adventure, they require it – multiple times each day. Dogs keep me on my toes. They’re my personal trainers. Hiking is my favorite exercise – and it often turns into an adventure – so dogs and I are a good match. My last dog, Georgia, and I walked thousands of miles of trails in several states (I think her paws touched at least 15 ) and the bulk of it was leash-free. Absolute liberty is the only way to truly provide a dog with what she needs physically and psychologically, and the higher level bond that develops during untethered walking cannot be achieved when man and beast are connected by a leash.

I tried exercising Jane sans lead the first week I brought her home. It was a disaster. She ran away for an hour. (Fortunately we were in the woods.) After that she learned to climb the back yard fence and run away. (I can’t tell you how many times I chased her through the neighbors’ yards in my pajamas.) So not only did Jane have to be on leash on all of our outings, she had to be on a tie-out in her fenced-in garden. I eventually discovered the 50-foot leash for our hikes, and Jane finally assumed co-ownership of the house and yard and promised she’d stop running away. (I can’t explain how I know this to be a fact, but it is. It was after our six month anniversary. Maybe she held her head a little higher or began assuming the role of super watchdog, I’m not sure. I just know that one day she looked at me and I knew she wanted to stay and wouldn’t climb the fence again. And she hasn’t.)

Walking on the trail was a different story, though. In the early days I’d drop the 50-foot leash on the ground and run behind her. She still got away twice. The first time the leash was frozen and snapped (I was using a cotton lead – never again) and she took off for an hour despite my commands and whistles. The second time, we were in Stinchfield Woods in Dexter, and I was jogging along behind her trailing leash, and she bolted – vanished. Just like that, she was gone. An hour later I received a phone call (my number’s on Jane’s collar). She was wrapped around a tree in someone’s back yard. This episode really scared me. “Never again,” I told her. And I’ve kept my word.

Until today. We were walking in the field behind Highland Cemetery, and I’m not sure why, but I instinctively knew it was time. I took off her leash. And she didn’t bolt. She sat looking at me, waiting for my command. So I gave tons of them. I sent her off to check out trees and then called her back. I let her run 500 feet or so in front of me, and then gave her the whistle command to wait, and she did. Every time. Once I let her walk pretty far – maybe an eighth of a mile or so – and then I gave her the commands wait and sit with the whistle. She obeyed. Then I gave her a come signal, and she came flying at me with the biggest, sloppiest smile, her tail spinning like a helicopter. It was written all over her face: she was proud of herself. If she could speak English, she’d have been screaming, “I get it!” She does get it. I can’t believe it.

After our thirty minutes of success, Jane went back on lead and we walked together another hour or so. We’ll try it again another day. I’m really proud of Jane, and I feel good knowing we’re on the right track.

Jane's Booty

The Dog Park

In Posts on August 7, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Jane at Swift Run

Jane and I paid our first visit to Swift Run Dog Park, located on the southwest corner of Ellsworth and Platt Roads in Ann Arbor, on our second day together, back in October of 2008. We took a three-hour leash walk around town on the afternoon I brought her home from Broken Road Rescue, but it did nothing to tire her or quell her nervous energy. It was obvious to me that what she needed was to run off leash – to completely exhaust herself – but I couldn’t let her run untethered either in the woods or the parks near my house. I have a fenced-in yard, but to Jane it was nothing more than a place to sniff about and do her business. Fortunately, my neighbor Brent told me about Swift Run.

Swift Run, or just the dog park as I’ve always called it, was a godsend. It’s ten acres of fenced meadow where Jane could run and run and run until she fell over from exhaustion.

Grazing Jane

We visited five days a week, rain or shine, for about six months. For two hours I walked laps around the perimeter while Jane followed or ran around with her buddies. We worked on basic verbal and whistle commands and made numerous human and canine friends, settling nicely into a sort of dog park scene. On sub-freezing afternoons I’d huddle with other dog parents, sipping steaming lattes, discussing such earth-shattering topics as the pros and cons of rewards-based training and the consistency of our dogs’ poop.

Jane and Pal

During this time of dog park bliss, I began reading Cesar Millan’s books. In his first book, Cesar’s Way, he says that the dog park should never be used as a substitute for a walk. He specifically says the dog park is not a place for dogs to work off excess energy. In fact, Millan says dogs should be walked for an hour prior to visiting the dog park. I trust Millan – he’s is a truly gifted behaviorist – so Jane and I started dividing our two-hour visits into one-hour walks at Lillie Park followed by one-hour romps at the dog park. (The two parks are right across the street from each other.) Not only did this add variety to our lunchtime outings, it provided me with a better workout and satisfied Jane’s hunting instincts. The walks in Lillie Park had a much greater impact on our bonding, too, because we were working in concert on a shared goal. Connected (literally, by a 50-foot lead) Jane and I migrated and hunted and, most important, communicated. It was on those lonely, bitter, winter walks through Lillie that Jane started making sustained eye contact with me, anticipating my moves, and reading my mind. It was on those walks that I’d get snappish with Jane when she wouldn’t listen to me and then apologize with kisses, and it was about that time that I started falling under her spell. Those are wonderful memories that I cherish. It was so cold, and Jane was so beautiful and energetic and undisciplined…

Eventually, our visits to the dog park got whittled down to half an hour every day, then a few minutes every other day. Now we hardly ever stop in. Jane can’t stand it anymore. When I force her to go she sulks around like a bored teenager. She really acts like she’s too cool for it. I took her today, and she shuffled around behind me for fifteen minutes before walking to the gate and giving me a “Can we go now?” look that I swear was followed by an eye roll. When we walked across the street to Lillie Park, she perked up. When we got in the woods her tail went up, she treed imaginary raccoons, and she even convinced me to veer off the trail, jump over ditches, and run through a field of weeds taller than I am. Her bored teen facade was replaced with an ear-to-ear isn’t-this-the-life grin.

Smiling Jane

Apocalypse Wow!

In Posts on August 1, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Keep Ypsi Ghetto

Though Jane and I walk most afternoons in a natural setting, like some of the place I’ve written about, we walk in the city every day, too. Our schedule is two hours at lunch on the trail and an hour in the evening around town. We’ve covered just about every inch of Ypsilanti on our walks and are intimately familiar with the better neighborhoods like Normal Park, College Heights, and the Historic East Side. We know all the alleys of downtown, Depot Town, and the student ghetto. We even sometimes snoop through the township neighborhoods as far east as Ford Blvd. I’m equally at home in the city and the country. In fact, I’ve always longed for both simultaneously. The only place I’m not comfortable is the suburbs – too middle-of-the-road, indecisive. I like extremes: hot/cold, black/white, city/country.

I rescued Jane from rural Bath, Michigan, where I’m guessing she was someone’s abused, bred, and discarded hunting dog. Besides being a country girl, she was pretty skittish and high strung when I adopted her, and the city freaked her out. She was definitely a fish out of water. The first thing we did the day she came home with me was walk down Michigan Avenue. She jumped ten feet at the sound of every passing truck, but I held on tight (and held my breath) and kept at it.

Today Jane’s an expert city dog. We use the 50-foot leash around town, and she moves seamlessly between a coiled-up heel at my knee and greater liberty where it’s appropriate. She’s especially fond of overgrown lots and alleys, and one of our favorite places to walk is south of Michigan Avenue between River Street and Huron River Drive. It’s an abandoned tract of property bordering the river where time stands still.

Jane Ghetto

There’s an empty strip mall, winding roads, and two or three of what appear to be disused factories. It’s really bizarre, because it’s this enormous stretch of city property left completely to its own devices. It’s creepy and post-apocalyptic – the perfect setting for a zombie movie – but there’s also a certain melancholy beauty to the decay. It’s illustrative to me of the transience of our culture, a reminder of how fluid civilizations are. Our empire is crumbling like countless others before us, and Mother Nature is reclaiming her turf.

Urban Hunting

I’m completely comfortable exploring urban decay, and I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood. I like it. (I far prefer the bombed-out, cracked-out New York of the ’80s to the Disneyfied, glass tower, family-friendly theme park it’s devolved into.) There’s a stark beauty to things and places left behind, forgotten. And the trash lives on. You can’t kill it. It returns to nature. It becomes repopulated by birds and vermin and frequented by prostitutes, drug addicts, and assorted homeless people and eccentrics.

Keep Out

If you walk south of this particular property and cross the river, you come upon an overgrown park, ball fields, and the shuttered Ford plant. This place is really strange and always colorful. Hookers in platinum wigs mix with men drinking and fishing by the river and hipsters and Phish-heads playing disc golf.

Urban Decay

Lately there’s been a group of Asian men (I think they’re Vietnamese) playing an interesting game that’s sort of a cross between volleyball and hackey sack.

volley sack

They play really loud Asian pop music and let their children run around unattended. To add to the surreal feel of this place, the ground is covered in the late afternoon with feeding groundhogs. Not just one or two, but dozens. (I fell into one of their holes the other night. I’m lucky I didn’t break a leg.) The whole scene feels like a David Lynch film, like it shouldn’t be happening in real life. But you know, it is happening in real life. It’s my life. And as bizarre and unconventional as it is, it’s beautiful and strangely comforting and valuable. I often forget that I’m a participant in this post-urban subculture sprouting on the grounds of capitalism’s failures. I think I’m just observing everything, taking pictures, and making mental notes. Then someone speaks to me – like the obese man on a go-cart who passed me last night tromping over an overgrown baseball diamond, or the biracial pre-op trannie meth-head I stumbled upon a couple of weeks ago sitting in the weeds reading (apparently stolen) junk mail and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – and I realize that I’m a player in this absurdist masterpiece.

Rise Up

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