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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Full Moon

I'm no astrologer, but long-time interest in astrology has given me enough insight to know that the full moon symbolizes endings and completion. I'm not sure that that notion has ever been more true than now. The last few weeks have kicked some a** (sometimes via my loved ones) in terms of endings and good-byes, life-altering changes, burned bridges and some not-so-happy surprises. And it isn't the first time.

I have noticed over time that, as much as I resist change fervently, it occurs without warning and without the courtesy of awaiting input from me. That's life. Without change there could be no improvement, no forward movement. Without endings, no magical beginnings could ever occur. It would all be the same, all the time. Comforting, maybe. Stimulating, invigorating, the stuff of being alive? Not so much. I love that my age has provided me with at least some ability to be philosophical.

The pain of loss evaporates over time. I have learned that much. As much as we try to cling to the threads of memory, most of the details dissipate like smoke over time. At first we panic as we cling to them, but it's a natural process. We HAVE to let go or we don't heal. The more we do it, the better we get at it. It's how we eventually can look back and smile when we remember those we've lost. Even when those losses are by choice and not forced by death we can sometimes have those moments of happy memory.

Mourning is easy. It's not something that we think about and must orchestrate. It takes us over and takes us down. All we have to do is succumb to it until it allows us to surface once again for air. That's when the real work begins. The work of rebuilding the life destroyed in the wake of loss. Like any journey, it begins with one step, and then another. Sometimes those first steps are shaky and uncertain, but become more and more deliberate as the road ahead opens up before you. This is the important part. Deciding who you want to be and learning how to be in the world without your loved one.

And you really DO get to decide. With every end, a new beginning. With winter's passing comes the spring. How timely to think of it that way. As painful as things can be, eventually the sun comes out again and it can feel like seeing it for the very first time. It will warm your face and make you smile and remind you how beautiful life is, right now, and how much is out there waiting for you. You can do this. You've done it before and it just made you stronger and smarter. All will be well again, I promise.

For my loved ones who have suffered so much the last few weeks...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dominic

Tommy and Dominic share a bite
The conversation went something like this:

Me: "But Tommy...the puppy loves you!"
Tommy:  "I don't have time for a dog right now. And I'm NOT going to spend $1500 on a dog!"

I remember it like it was yesterday. My friend Autumn was working for a Doberman breeder and she convinced me that I should too. It didn't take a lot of convincing. She and I had fallen in love with a beautiful male puppy-the last one left. We knew and loved the puppy's parents (in fact we were both with the puppy's dad when he later passed away). But it wasn't just about that. It wasn't just that he was beautiful, it wasn't even about his amazing bloodlines. He was just...cool. He had swagger, even when he was just kicking back in his run, leaning against a run pad. He even made taped ears look good. He had been held by the breeder because he was spectacular and an excellent breeding candidate. But they were considering retirement. Autumn and I were in agony about the idea he might be sold, but neither of us was in a position to have another dog; I already had four, and Autumn had three.

"PLEASE pay attention to the puppy!" the breeder pleaded with Autumn before they went on vacation. The puppy took turns coming home with us. He hung out with our dogs, played with my daughter and did what puppies do. One night, I convinced Tommy, my boyfriend at the time (we broke up many years ago now, but have been friends ever since) to meet Autumn at the kennel with me. He fought the idea, but in the end he went to the kennel. It was the first time he met the puppy, and though Tommy wouldn't admit it at the time, it was love at first sight for both. Autumn and I exchanged looks, and I knew we had the same diabolical plan: Tommy could buy the puppy. As far as we were concerned it was a done deal. I mustered up my considerable manipulative skills and set to work.

In spite of Tommy's initial resistance (resistance is futile!), the puppy's considerable charms (and surprisingly little nudging from me) quickly won him over. How can anyone resist a Doberman puppy when they are all wiggly snoot and feet, with dorky taped ears? In no time at all, Tommy was sitting in the breeder's office with the puppy squirming on his lap, credit card in hand. Autumn and I were ecstatic, of course. I had a few concerns initially about whether I had set Tommy up for more than he was ready to handle, but he turned out to be a first rate doggie-daddy. He named the puppy Dominic after his grandfather. "The Puppy" finally had a name.

Tommy was right about how busy he was back then. He had a full time job working for an upholstery shop and he was the bass player in a band that toured regularly, sometimes for a month at a time in Europe. For the first few years Dominic spent that time with us, then his family took over the Dober-care. Either way, Tommy knew his faithful friend was happy and safe until he came home. In fact, with Tommy's love and devotion, Dominic never knew a day of pain; he always ate the best food always had his morning walk, always saw the vet when he needed to. Always. He never lacked for a single thing. He grew up to be as beautiful and wonderful as anticipated, thriving as the center of Tommy's Universe. A Doberman's favorite place to be.

We took Dominic to training classes with a local police chief. He was very impressed with him. I can't be sure, but I don't believe the chief ever charged Tommy for being in the class. Dominic was a quick study and reached maturity as a very popular pinscher. Tommy bought Gia to be his companion (and though her lines weren't quite as impressive as Dom's, she was pretty amazing in her own right). Tommy was as amazing with two dogs as he was with one. Eventually Dominic and Gia had a litter. I have seen and cared for a lot of puppies, but these kids were unforgettable. Not a dud in the bunch. Even the vet was impressed, and when we pointed out our 'runt', all he could do was shake his head and say "If that's your runt, this is one impressive litter".  I remember them well: Murphy (yes, my Murphy) Zara, Annie, Tia, Kristi and Fracas (who, for some reason we called 'Ficus'). And I remember how Tommy cared for them. They were always clean, always shiny. I found myself impressed again.

It was to be Gia's only litter; she developed an infection and needed to be spayed. The puppies were sold to carefully pre-screened homes until only Murphy was left. Then the conversation went something like this:

Tommy: "There's a guy in Rutland who's into dog sports and he wants to buy Murphy. I think he might be into breeding too."
Me: "Yeah? Is he a good guy?"
Tommy: "Yeah, he sounds great. He would pay good money for him too. Or you could just keep him, and I would end up paying most of his medical expenses for the rest of his life." (a fair assessment of the situation!)
Me: "What do YOU want to do?" (hopeful!)
Tommy: "Dammit...come get your dog."

It was so Tommy.

Gia passed away suddenly at the age of six, and it was just Tommy and Dominic again. Or more accurately, tommyanddominic. Years go by as they do. Time moves us forward. We grow and change. Tommy opened his own upholstery shop and gave up his music. Tommy's business, perhaps due to karma, has always been in the black. He and Dominic continued on their comfy routines. Dominic always looking and acting much younger than his age.

A couple of years ago, I noticed for the first time that Dom was slowing down. I told myself he was fine. Dom had never been frail; he was a solid wall of Doberman to an imposing degree. Tommy noticed it too, though he didn't say it often. His walks in the field became much-loved visits around the neighborhood. Comfortable beds, though always a priority, became more so. Tommy catered to his aging friend's every need without complaint, always putting him first. That's who Tommy is.

About a week ago, Tommy started calling me about Dominic's health. I could hear the frantic edge just beneath the surface, but Dominic had pneumonia and there was nothing I could do. I imagined what he was going through, the now-frail Dominic fading in front of him. Still, I held fast to the idea that if he could recover, he would be fine.

Dominic passed away in Tommy's arms this morning, surrounded by his family and in his own yard. He would have been thirteen on May 19th. It doesn't seem real. In the end, it isn't about the money we spent, or bloodlines. It isn't about certificates on the wall. It's about who they are. That's the part that touches us, and never lets us go.

RIP my friend.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mythunderstanding

I read an article the other day in which a dog trainer stated "I can't imagine any training situation in which I would employ a prong collar". I'm glad she said it that way. There was an addendum to the article that went on to ask "How hard a jerk on the collar is enough to have the desired effect of suppressing behavior without mentally or physically damaging the dog?" as though "jerking on the collar" is part and parcel of prong collar use and suppressing behavior is ever a desired goal. And even more disturbing to me "...if you punish in anger and your violence is reinforced, you are likely to get violent more, and more easily." HOLY CRAP. Do people really believe that this is what a prong collar is all about? And shouldn't a trainer have the education to know better? Having said that, if someone can't imagine a positive and practical use for this tool and has only been exposed to violence (!?) and misuse, then I agree: Don't include a prong collar in your box of training tools. You don't understand it well enough to use it humanely. But please, be self-aware enough to refer out any dog that doesn't fit within the limits of your training abilities.

It seems to be a very common thing these days: Using words like "cruel", "pain" and "never", and describing horrifyingly incorrect applications as "techniques for prong collar use" and then using this misinformation to perpetuate X, Y or Z training philosophy to the exclusion of all else. Look, if you don't like something, that's fine. If you think it's mean, to YOUR understanding, then that's your prerogative too. But if you are a teacher/trainer, then you have an obligation to educate yourself well enough to give factual information to your clients and NOT just perpetuate myths because they are convenient. Even if you have no interest in using a prong collar, you should at least make the effort to learn the truth about them instead of continuing to recycle the same misinformation. I like to tell horror stories as much as the next guy (okay, probably more than the next guy) but I don't try to pass them off as something they aren't.

So you train pets, and maybe do an AKC sport or two. The vast majority of dogs that you work with would never make it as a working dog because they don't have the temperament, and that's as it should be. Everybody's happy and you can go right on hating prong collars. But what do you do when a client has a tenacious, drivey working dog? You know what I mean, the confident kind that's powerful and strong and physically insensitive. How much do you think this dog gets walked, when, even after lots of training, there are still moments when this dog takes it's owner for a drag after a cat or squirrel? How happy do you think this dog is when he's permanently relegated (aka "managed") to doggie prison (the back yard), given to a shelter or killed because he's too much for his owner, all-positive training isn't cutting it and his owner is out of his or her depth? This is the side the issue that I've seen too often. Add to this the blame that gets aimed at the owner because their dog doesn't fit in "the box" and you probably are looking at a dog with a fairly limited life-span. As trainers, you have a responsibility to do better by the dogs in your care and the owners who come to you and pay you for your help. You have more responsibility for those lives than you do to adherence to a limited set of principles. Many of the best trainers I know don't like prong collars, but they can at least imagine a positive application and understand the need to be flexible when dealing with living and unique individuals.

Let me be clear here: This isn't my favorite tool. I agree that it's easy to abuse. What I object to is the perpetuation of misinformation by people who are in a position to know better and properly educate their students, and the perpeutuation of misinformation by people who don't have a clue simply because they lack the experience. As always I turn to Susan Clothier for common sense. She doesn't like prong collars either but understands (albeit reluctantly) they still have a place: Training With The Prong Collar 

Ms. Clothier doesn't just say "These are mean and you're a cruel S.O.B. if you use them". She has the wisdom and experience to share her opinion honestly but can add a real education based on an accurate understanding, not just incendiary and incorrect propaganda.