Blame the dog

(Or How Dogs Change Everything)

There’s a sign hanging in the training building I have seen or heard with every trainer I’ve ever worked with: “It’s never the dog’s fault.”

It’s true. It’s not Helo’s fault if I can’t figure out how to get him to understand what I’m asking of him. It’s not his fault he’s a dog and not a person who walks on all fours.

But I blame him, and his predecessor Sunshine, for so much anyway. And it’s ok. I think my trainers will let me.

On April 15, 2006 I met my sister at the Hacienda Restaurant in Warsaw to collect a middle-aged Golden Retriever. Three days before I got the dog, I came back from Rome, having cancelled the wedding plans with the Great Italian A$$hole (it’s a great story, ask me about it sometime when we’re drinking adult beverages). It needed to happen, and one of the reasons it did happen was because I knew I had something waiting for me very soon.

I grew up with dogs, a dog specifically, a beautiful Lab from hunting trial lines who kept me sane and kept me safe from myself for more than a decade growing up in that house. But in my adult life in Fort Wayne, I had not been able to get (or was afraid to allow myself) a dog.  Sunny was the perfect dog to bridge that gap.

As I drove away from the restaurant, I looked into the rear view mirror and saw a scene I would see constantly for the next six years–that big soft red-gold head propped between the back seats, dozing as she watched out the window. That big sweet dog accompanied me to therapy sessions, got me off my couch and introduced me to my neighbors. My desire to give her more room led to the purchase of my house. 381512_10150514677219437_278700776_n

She slept under my desk in the bureau, and went with me to everything from fire scenes to school board meetings. She spent an afternoon with the Bluffton police chief while I covered a court hearing.

I know that her constant presence in my life healed my heart in a way I could not have predicted that day I watched her hop into my car. I know that what she nurtured in my soul prepared the way for A. When she became ill at the end, A came to my house and helped me put her on her bed. As Sunny was unable to stand or walk, my friend J came the next morning with me to take her to the vet. When it was time for her to cross the Bridge, I held her head in my lap and her leg in my hand as I thanked her and told her it was OK to go.

A week later, that little fuzzy ball of black fur with the speckled tan paws showed up, a polar opposite of that old Golden in every way possible.

With Helo, it became clear from moment one he needed a job. Sunshine possessed no motivation for anything beyond rawhide bones and belly rubs. Helo, though, he wanted to be with me all the time, assist me in whatever task I was doing, climb on my lap, chew on my hands and shred anything he could find.

Within a few months of his arrival, we were in obedience classes. We walked every day to the football field at a nearby college campus and I wore his furry little butt out with tennis balls and soccer.

When I moved in with A, Helo’s life became fields and groundhogs, barns to explore and new roads to run. But it wasn’t enough. So we got him another job (hopefully) and with it, more people for me to meet, friendships to build and adventures to have.

I blame Sunshine for so much of this, for starting me on this journey by being safe. I blame Helo for the rest of it, for needing so much more from me than I thought I could give.

In the book of Tobit, there is a dog. The dog came out with Tobit’s son and journeyed with him. That is all we know.

1426301_10151916285291743_240149804_nFor me, the dog has often led and I’m fine with that.

 

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Humans (and dogs) being

My training coordinator got my blood pressure up tonight with a simple message asking about a picture of my dog training yesterday. I’ll spare you the inside baseball discussion about the picture and what the issue was. She was concerned about the picture itself. I was concerned about the behavior the picture may have portrayed (funny thing about pictures–they may be worth 1,000 words, but they rarely tell the whole story).  We take a ridiculous amount of pictures while we train — cell phone cameras, actual cameras, whatever happens to be handy. The pictures provide, not just fun pictures of dogs, but also provide instant documentation of how we work and what the dog can do and has done. Anyway, someone else took the picture and at that moment in time, that split second, it looked concerning. My fear was that the picture was the whole story and that we were done.  It wasn’t. We’re not. We’re fine for where we’re at. Phew.

But I did not climb off that ledge for hours. And while Helo nonchalantly shredded a box in the living room, I worried.  Are we going to get this done? Is he doing what he’s supposed to be doing? Etc. etc. ad nauseum.

As a bit of a control freak, this whole training-dog-for-search work is SO hard for me. There is this whole other variable here, and it’s huge. It’s like 80 percent of the whole equation. I am, to quote our leader, a dope on the end of a rope. This largely depends on Helo, a 50-pound fur covered animal with his own reactions, instincts, desires and ideas. This is his show, his work. And I am having the worst time getting out of his way.

All my life, the few dogs I’ve worked with in either 4-H or in our home, it was about getting the dog to DO something. To sit. To stay. To high-five. Helo’s early life (his first 18 months with me) was largely getting him to do things. He is extremely good at doing. He aced his obedience classes. He will wait for me patiently outside a coffee shop for hours. He is, officially, a Canine Good Citizen. Helo is a very good dog.

But this thing we’re doing together, I’m asking him to BE something — a Search and Rescue K-9. I need him to be 100% dog, 100% of the time AND to use that dog-ness to perform a task humans cannot perform. I need him to be willing and able to work away from me, to use his nose and his instincts in an extraordinary way.  There is talk in our group of “putting obedience” on the dog after the beginning of the search training is done, like a title. It struck me the first time I heard it — “putting it” — as an odd thing. But it makes sense now. It is restrictive to their being.  The obedience work is merely so we can live with them, exist with them in social settings, so they know what’s expected of them in public. Because we weren’t planning on this little adventure we’re on, Helo and I did it backward. Now we’re having to go back and undo some of what I did before, what I put on him–Helo, obedient family pet.

This whole work is so amazingly difficult for me, the control freak, the person who works largely on my own. I pick my stories. I cover my beat. I design my class and I teach it.

I have to slow down with this. I have to be quiet, like ACTUALLY QUIET, while he works and let him figure it out. It makes me want to climb out of my skin. Of course, he senses it and the “good dog” worries that he’s disappointing me. See? It’s a vicious cycle.

If you’re reading this, and you’re prone to praying, throw one up for us, for me, that I’ll let him just be. It’s a lesson I need to learn in just about every area of my life anyway — letting those living, free-will-endowed beings around me just do their thing without me worrying about them every minute of every day. I never could keep them all safe and sound, protected and whole, and God knows I tried. It’s no different with the people I love than it is with my dog. I can’t control. I can’t change.

Helo’s not the only one learning how to “be.”

The limits of observation, part II

There are cases that I can’t forget, stories I’ve written that I wish for all the world I could unwrite, erase from my memory, look into that pen held by the Men In Black, or shake out of my head like the drawings on an Etch-a-Sketch. To be honest, most of the dead children, those I remember. (what is wrong with me, though, that I say “most” and not “all”? yikes)

Michael Plumadore is one of those stories. And when it snows, like it’s been snowing, and there are Christmas lights on the trees and bushes outside, and little girls are wearing Christmas dresses, I can’t forget him. I can’t forget what he did, what we couldn’t do as a community, and the limits of what I could do as a journalist. Hell, the limits of what is available to you as a fellow human being is the most maddening of all the particularly maddening things about life here, no?

Anyway, a little girl went missing at Christmas. I blogged about it then, as best I could, but packed it back up, buried it in the back of all the other homicide stories, the robberies, and the daily debris of my life as a crime reporter. But now, two Christmases later, I still remember her. I remember how I left work on a Friday night, mentioning to our police reporter that there was something weird about a “missing child” at that time of day, at this time of year. I remember coming back into the office at 6 a.m. the next morning, and hearing the county police continuing their search. I remember my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. I remember calling a police source, and asking if we could help, if it was time to say something to the public about this way-too-small-for-her-age girl and how she was not where she should be.I remember her little face, in the picture the police sent us, wearing her Christmas dress at the funeral of her grandfather. I remember posting those stories that day to the newspaper’s website. I remember listening all day to the scanner, my face buried in the soft fluff that was my old Golden Retriever who always accompanied me to the newsroom on those lonely Saturday mornings. I remember praying, praying, praying. I remember hearing them organizing volunteers. I remember them calling in the search dogs.

When I left that night, I went to church. It was Christmas Eve. By this time, the whole city knew. By this hour, this snowy evening, everyone was praying or begging or hoping. I lit a candle in the narthex. I prayed for her, by name. Someone asked me, she’s going to be found, right? She’ll be fine. I remember deciding right then to lie, at least partly. Yes, I said. They’ll find her. I sat in the pew, in the candlelight, thinking of so much that had nothing to do with Christmas, tears absolutely pouring down my face. Of course, I knew how this ended.

They found her alright. Cops cried on my shoulder the next day, at the press conference, where they told the city what we feared. As the story moved from the trailer park into the courthouse, becoming words on paper, hearings in cavernous rooms, drawing vultures like Nancy Grace into my world (she’s nuts by the way),  I remember just being stunned at this creature who did this. I was never in my life so grateful for a guilty plea. Only worthwhile thing that man ever did, I am damn sure. 

Saturday morning, I sat in a cold-ish barn, drinking too much coffee while I looked at excel spreadsheets and phone trees, planning out my goal for search training for the  year.  The people to the right and left of me, these really interesting and generous and smart people, and their amazing dogs — their names are all over the witness list in that horrible case. They did try. They did something.

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that the case of  that sad little girl didn’t push me a bit into wanting to try to help. I told one of my judges at the time I felt like a carnival barker in hell, doing nothing more than publicizing the sad freak show.  I know, at some level, that my work as a journalist did help a bit that day. We got the pictures out, we pushed the community to want to  help, if just for one day or so, to look out for things larger than the sales at Macy’s. At least I have told myself that for a couple years now.

I just want to do a bit more. And to my very core, I am so very grateful for this weird opportunity to try. I am still a little disoriented by the way in which I found myself here, and the rightness of how it seems to me. Tonight, when I got home after an hour-long commute, I put on my boots and Helo and I went out into the snowstorm, working on our stuff in the driveway. We have a long way to go, but I promise the one missing a year or two from now: We will absolutely be ready.

The limits of observation

This post has been rolling around in my head for a week now, sometimes more put together than others. It woke me up this morning, along with a sunrise showing itself on the field behind our bedroom. It was a pretty solid thought right then, but after I let the dog out, got my computer up and running, then went outside to take a picture of the sunrise, and was greeted by a big wide canine grin asking for play time, I lost it again. This is my attempt to get it back. I think it’s a good one.

I think I’m nearing the end of my abilities to just stand by and watch. In 20 years as a journalist I have stood by and watched the ridiculous, the mundane, the terrifying, and the sorrowful. I have wiped many tears from my eyes in a quiet darkened car before I’ve called the story in to my editors (shhh, don’t tell them). It’s my job. I watch, and I try very hard with some success to put what I have seen, heard, smelled and touched into words safe enough for a family newspaper written to about an eighth grade reading level. I argue and cajole, badger, coax, ease and tease the stories out of those who think it’s too much to share, too little to be of value, or that which they are trying to hide. I work with amazing and talented people who do the same thing in words or in pictures, providing to our communities information they need to know, should be aware of or what they are entitled to understand. I know, absolutely, that what I do is important, in spite of what people often tell me in emails, phone calls, and face to face. It is my chosen profession and I do an alright job at it most of the time.

It fits completely with my nature, my inclination to stick my nose in where it absolutely doesn’t belong. (Have I mentioned how alike my cattle dog I am? Kinda spooky). But I am growing emotionally weary of being unable to do more, to stop it, to ease it, to smooth its rough edges, to make it better. Along with that ridiculous need to nose, I also very much want to fix it or help it.

And there is not usually a damn thing I can do about any of it. I couldn’t put the little girl back together when Michael Plumadore chopped her up. I couldn’t make it easier for the cops who cried on my shoulder the day after they found her. I can’t bring the families and friends and loved ones back for those who have lost. I light a candle. I pray. I don’t ask why, though, anymore, because there isn’t a why. Reason is not for this place. This is place is for survival and courage. But I am at a place where I want to do more, to do something, to do anything.

That desire intersects right now for me at a very strange and odd place –the aforementioned Australian Cattle Dog, this energetic, fuzzy-headed bundle of fur and brains and way too much boldness for his small size. An effort earlier this fall to find a new place to provide him with intellectual and physical stimulation of obedience/agility work escalated a wee bit and now I have my new thing, a way to do something, even in a small-ish way, a way that may not show any fruit for years.

I am training Helo for Search and Rescue work. He seems to have the easy part, for he is a  young dog and as we know, new tricks are the easiest for them. This old dog, though, I have to learn all kinds of stuff–scent theory, how the wind works, how not to ruin crime scenes, how lost people behave, and become a first responder. It is going to eat up time and energy, and more time. I spend my Saturday mornings now buried in rubble piles, hiding in woods, wrestling with much larger German Shepherds to help them learn and love their work, and getting my little guy acclimated to heights and holes, and trying to turn him into a barking machine.

The husband spent a lifetime chasing radio calls as a professional and volunteer in all kinds of emergency services and is becoming content to let the younger guys run into the burning buildings. I am quite sure he is a tad concerned I’ll lose my balance in this new thing and wear myself (or him out). It’s possible. But I married him in part for his ability to ground me, to keep me from floating off into dangerous orbits. I know with absolute certainty he has my back in this, in every way that’s appropriate and real.

Helo and I may never find anything, but by golly we’re going to try. I owe it to him to give him a job, and I owe it to myself, after all these years of watching and standing by, to make an effort to do something.

 

helo on the pile

60 words left to use

How shall I use them?

I am trying to read and write more…not writing for public consumption, and stuff I have no intention of ever showing anyone. Feeling like I need to, so I tried to write 1,000 words tonight.

I still have a few left.

I’m on my porch, listening to the crickets and sipping some very good bourbon. I don’t know why, but tonight, I decided, was a special occasion. Helo’s sitting somewhat contentedly at the edge of the porch, listening too. I’m sure he hears so much more than I could even imagine. His ears are like little satellite dishes, always going, always listening, turning this way and that. So cute.

I miss my family–my nephew and niece and the one that’s not yet born. I wish I was at the country home with the boy, who’s probably been in the hot tub and looked at the stars. You can see stars there. You can’t from my house–too many lights. And the sirens are drowning out the crickets right now.

The city’s been a violent place lately–lots of shootings, fights, etc. I joke that I don’t care till someone’s charged, but it really has been noisy on my end of town.  The boy spent Sunday on a manhunt in another county, looking for a murder suspect.

World gone mad, I guess.

But for now, I am sitting on my porch, sipping Van Winkle bourbon (told you it was the good stuff). The sirens have faded a bit and I can hear the crickets again, and my CD player has shuffled onto Jakob Dylan (preceded in the lineup by his father, of course).

Helo’s laying down now, and I’ve used my 60 words and then some. Hope you didn’t mind my sharing.

Night, ya’ll.

I speak dog

It’s been almost two weeks since I came home and found Sunshine unable to stand and in the midst of some type of seizure. It’s been nearly two weeks since I had to put her to sleep.

It’s been almost one week since I acquired another dog, this one a 25-pound fluff ball that is allegedly a Australian Cattle Dog, a “blue heeler”. He’s currently dragging around a knot in his mouth and batting a lacrosse ball across the living floor with his paws. Multi-tasking, I guess.

I hadn’t meant to get a new dog quite so quickly. And I wasn’t sure if I should. But the puppy needed a home and I needed a dog, and well, sometimes that’s all it takes. His coat came in black and his tail looks like he dipped it in a bucket of white paint. He has tan paws and a grey speckled nose. Who knows what color he will be in six months. He’s soft and wicked smart. When we walk somewhere new, he puts himself in my footsteps (heeling, herding me) with his little ears cocked all serious, trying to keep track of his charge.

I need for you to understand how completely different this animal is than my Sunshine. But this season of my life, preparing for a wedding and to join lives with someone else, is totally different than the one I just left. Fitting, I guess, that Sunshine would take leave of me at this particular point.

This new dog, Helo (the Helo monster, Little Fluffybutt, Mr. Barky Pants), is our dog. We, the couple, A and me, had to have a series of conversations about whether I was getting a new dog before we get hitched, when we were getting hitched, what kind of dog was I going to get that was going to be allowed to live in the house, what did he want in a dog, what did I want in a dog, what were we going to feed it, who was going to be its vet, blah blah blah…Exhausting and totally foreign.

I haven’t had to ask someone about what I want to do in my personal life (other than my priest or out of politeness) for most of my years now. Totally strange to have to do it … I told my sister that some of those conversations were like Sunshine’s last gift to me, prompted by her death and the impact that her dog soul had on my life. Those conversations grew me, grew the relationship and I know I’m not any good at having them, or even thinking about having them.

I told my sister about how it seems God knows I speak dog, not in a wow-is-she-a-really-good-dog-trainer way, but in the way that I learn more from them, or find they prompt some strange spiritual work in me that may not get done othewise.

The Sunshine season of my life, as I outlined earlier, was a place where I carved out space for myself to rest and to trust, something made so much easier by her calm and easy way, her love of naps and the way she just was happy hanging out.

I’m not sure what the Helo season is going to look like, but it’s already busier and I’m spending less time on the couch. It’s going to be a season of more intention and conversation, of better planning and discipline and it is the first thing A and I have done together.

He’s given up on the lacrosse ball (thankfully) and is now gnawing on a rawhide A bought him. I wonder what he’ll teach me tomorrow.

P.S. I’m using the Monks of New Skete‘s methods to work with him (Orthodox dog…)