Friday, December 30, 2011

Pre-Christmas vacation

Last week, Florian and I seized the day to go on a little road trip before the wackiness of the holidays and the busyness of his next semester.

We had always wanted to check out the hot springs of western Virginia, as well as the amazing-looking New River Gorge National River in West Virginia. 

We arrived at Warm Springs, VA Wednesday evening and decided to camp at Lake Moomaw. The great thing about Forest Service campsites this time of year is that no one's there. We had the foggy, chilly place all to ourselves and the dogs loved running around. 

The next morning, we set off to explore Warm Springs and the next town South along VA-220--Hot Springs. Although we didn't find the undeveloped hot springs in the middle of a forest somewhere like we were hoping, we did enjoy seeing the steam coming up through the pavement everywhere in Hot Springs. 

There's an old place called the Homestead where you can sit in a big hot pool for $17. We didn't do it because we didn't think they'd want three dogs sitting in their gorgeous hot pool, but it looked well worth it!

After exploring the Homestead--and leaving the van door open one second too long, then chasing Fozzie all over the manicured grounds as bemused construction guys looked on (he eventually walked right up to one of said construction guys after eluding us for 20 minutes)--we continued south and west to the New River Gorge National River.

Florian knows how I love stunning scenic vistas and dramatic landscapes, so he thought I would enjoy this National Park site in West Virginia. 

This place has everything. First a hike along the Tunnel Trail, about which signs at the Visitor Center said DO NOT, by any means, ever even THINK of going through the tunnels as they are VERY DANGEROUS. 

That should give you a good clue as to where we headed first.


Then, a hike on the trail down the side of the gorge, with a rocky craggy cliff face on one side and a steep drop-off all the way down to the river on the other.

There were a couple of moments where my heart stopped in my throat, like when Fozzie and Sandy stood on the very edge of the cliff...and Fozzie gave one of his intense ear-flapping shakes.


When we climbed back up the trail and got towards the top, we got into an area where the trail went through a canopy of rich green rhododendrons. 

That foliage--in December--combined with the cool misty weather and the incredible vista, made me feel like I was back in Oregon or Washington. 

The following day, after camping in a state park,  we checked out the Sandstone Falls, also along the New River. 

We finally got some sun for our drive up along the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most stunning drives around. Views for miles and miles, and trails everywhere. We got off to tire the dogs out on one that went up a steep hill next to a waterfall. 

We arrived home tired, refreshed, ready for family holiday madness, and grateful for the forward-thinking decisionmakers of yesteryear who set aside large tracts of land for open space, wildlife, ecosystem services, and recreation. May 2012 bring that sort of foresight back to public policy!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sandy's first REAL Christmas

Some of my Mom's incredible crafty Christmas artistry
The past few years, since we've been having Christmas at my aunt and uncle's place, dogs have played a less central role in the festivities. So on Christmas Day, as my dad started up the family van at my sister's house to make the trip out to my aunt's, and I asked him to stop off at my place on the way so I could pick up a couple of things, I wasn't even thinking that one of those things would be a dog. 

But when I saw Sandy in her crate, prepared to spend the afternoon there while we all ate and made merry, I just couldn't do it. It was a nice afternoon and the other dogs had their dog door and could enjoy it, and there seemed nothing more scrooge-ey than leaving a baby puppy in a cage all day. And when I climbed back in the van, my little bundle of joy in tow, my ever-indulgent parents didn't even protest. Right then I knew it was going to be a good Christmas. 

My aunt and uncle are incredibly indulgent and their house is incredibly nice, and I didn't want to take advantage of their indulgence or trash their house with my little ball of fire. So Sandy stayed outside and enjoyed the unseasonably warm afternoon until my aunt insisted that I bring her in. 

So while we ate and drank ungodly amounts of delicious provisions, Sandy got to bond with my sister, 

pilfer snacks from my mom, 

avoid kisses from me, 

and demonstrate her frogdog for all.

I can't think of a better way to realize the spirit of Christmas than to give a scrappy little former stray a day filled with warmth, food, family, and affection. 

Sure made things extra fun for us humans too. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

How to enjoy the holidays

I've always loved the holidays, probably because my mom loves this time and infused me with her appreciation from an early age. 

My mom is the most incredible artist, and every year she comes up with another incredible creative outlet for the holidays. When I was a kid, she made these Christmas candy trees--styrofoam cones covered with fragrant balsam tree sprigs and candy. She'd leave them in the lobby of our apartment building for all the kids. 

She made ornaments and angels, trees and wreaths, decorated the apartment until it looked like a Christmas wonderland. Helping my mom with all that stuff and just being surrounded by it brought me such cheer. 

Now, she is making the most artistic, beautiful mosaic flower pots. She's given me a few and I don't have plants that are really worthy of them, but I try to put them in prominent places anyway. 

My mom always loved decorating the apartment so much, I think it must be hard for her now that we celebrate Christmas here in Maryland at my aunt's house and we're not at the apartment to enjoy the wonderland she used to create. But I hope she feels, as I do, that what she created is still unfurling in the world. 

My parents have always been very materially generous with me and my siblings; we have never wanted for anything in the physical world. I know that for my parents, the material things they've given us have simply been manifestations of love. For a little kid, who doesn't understand abstract concepts like Love, food and toys and Christmas presents are obvious ways for a parent to express the almost unbearably intense love they have for their children. That habit died hard for my parents and they still send me delightful care packages and dog snacks all the time. 

But each year, the Christmas gift-giving gets a little less frantic and the emphasis shifts a bit more to other things. This year, we've decided there will be very few gifts. My parents are coming down with Dizzy and Barry and Elyse and Uncle Johnny, and we'll celebrate Christmas Eve with my sister and Christmas with my aunt. 

I'm certain that a few gifts will change hands--my sister has resolved to give the gift of abrasive soap to one and all--and my mom will make her devastatingly scrumptious nutty vegan meatballs. But the best thing of all is that we'll be together, and will get a chance to exchange the nonmaterial gifts we have learned about from an early age from our indulgent, dog-loving, generous, creative parents.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Frito Paws Wednesday

Happy Paw sniffing everybody! We are off for a few-day camping trip with the dogs and the van in the Virginia mountains...and maybe even some hot springs, if we can find them!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

So sad

I've been away from Blogville for a few days and when I returned today I encountered the horrifying news of what happened to Sandra and her Kissa-Bulls. On Friday night an electrical fire consumed Sandra's house, all of her possessions and five of her babies. 

I have no good words to offer that might alleviate the pain of that kind of loss; I didn't even know Sandra before I read of what happened on Emily's blog and several others of your excellent blogs, and saw the incredible effort organized by Amber at Mayzie's blog to organize help for Sandra. I do know, just from reading what I read on her blog today, that Sandra is an amazingly powerful and giving force of love in the world and has given so much to help animals no one else would help. For a person like that to experience such tragedy is just wrong, but sometimes life throws us things that are just wrong and all we can do is support each other more, love each other more, and help each other come out on the other side. 

I know that awful feeling of wishing you could turn back the clock but in lieu of that, there's a Chip in page to offer financial contributions to help Sandra through this amazingly difficult time. Please help out with whatever you can.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Nutcracker and Dogs

Florian is through with his Nutcracker season, and I am through watching, supporting, and yes even participating for this year. 

Since I met Florian I've seen scads of Nutcrackers but somehow it never gets old. 

I find the traditional story--of a little girl who is transported to a beautiful land where people wear colorful costumes and dance the traditions of cultures all over the world, where all those different cultures appreciate each other and dance together harmoniously and with big smiles--to be so moving. All these people are not at war with each other, they're not enslaving each other or taxing each other or exploiting each other, they're just dancing. 

All the more moving because the little girl finds, at the end, that it was all a dream. 

Even in the non-traditional Nutcracker we both did this year--where Florian danced the part of a sailor and of a tin soldier doll, and I acted a part that consisted solely of being angry and stomping on my stage boyfriend's foot--I get a bit choked up. 

OK, not during the sailor dance.  That one is just silly.

But the tin soldier and the ballerina doll are just inanimate dolls until they touch each other, at which point they come to life and dance.

For some reason as I stood backstage watching my little tin soldier and our beautiful friend Ashley, the ballerina, what I kept thinking about was--dogs. 

Little scrumpy baby puppy dogs like my Sandy, who want nothing more than to be touched and loved. 

Touch them, and they come to life with wiggles and wags and endless snorty grunting kisses.

They don't ask for much and they bring so much beauty and joy into the world.

We have the power of life or death over them, and as much as we abuse that power they still give us nothing but love. Like the people who exist only in our dreams and our stories, they are always ready to smile, always full of joy and appreciation for us.

So when we got finished with our Nutcracker, we went straight home to our own little fairy tale. 

There we were covered with wet snorting kisses from our diverse little crew of people from all different backgrounds, all getting along and all animated and full of life and love for no other reason than that they were close to the people who care for them, just like the tin soldier and his ballerina doll.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hidden treasure

These Sunday hikes along a new part of the Potomac are becoming a pattern, and I'm not complaining one bit.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving was a gorgeous, warm day and the first few trail parking lots we came to were full. Undaunted, Florian took us to a new one off a side road. This time, I had the sense to document where we were. 

As always, Sandy was really good about staying with us and checking in, even when we saw other dogs up the trail. 

When I was a kid in the Adirondacks, we would often get a beagle who showed up at our house, having lost its way after straying off track at the Beagle-Hare Club up the road. 

Typical beagles! Those things will follow their noses forever.

I adore beagles, but am happy for now to have critters who stick around.

Are your critters creatures of the flock, or do they tend to wander? 

What about you pittie parents and fosters--do your pitties follow their noses on the trail, or stay close?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Florence Nightingdogs

Early last week, I was hit with my first cold of the season. 

"Southwest style" ceramic tile is so flattering to pit bulls
An interesting aside, it seemed I was getting sick all the time my first three years in this house, before we replaced the "Marmoleum" floor in our kitchen with ceramic tile. Yes, it's really called Marmoleum and it's supposedly eco-friendly as its made of recycled and natural ingredients, but I also happen to think it was moldy and laid down with nasty glue that made us constantly allergic. 

This little cold last week was shorter in duration and intensity than what I used to get, perhaps in part because I had the highest quality home health care you could ask for. 

Nurse Fozzie's bedside manner cannot be beat. 

Not content to just check in on his patient, he basically lay on top of me for the better part of the afternoon to ensure I stayed warm. 
Dr. Sandy meanwhile made sure all the equipment was in order. She did get a  little bit distracted by the humidifier.

In fact, this was the longest she's ever stayed in one place except when she's asleep. 

I'm sure she was just making extra sure it was working.

Meanwhile, Hospital Administrator Lamar was the highly qualified bureaucrat, standing sentry in the living room to make sure I wasn't bothered by any unwanted visitors.  

With this sort of medical team in place, it's no wonder I was all better in just a few short days.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fozzie leash walk success

The other day, Fozzie and I had a mini victory in our long-term learning experience of working with his leash reactivity.

We were walking along our block, and I saw up ahead my neighbor walking toward us with her very calm lab. She was walking slowly and talking on her cell phone, which was actually perfect for our purposes. 

I saw Fozzie start to tense, whine, and begin to launch and I automatically started to gather up his leash so I could hold on tight while I just got past them as fast as possible, but then I decided no--we were going to try a different way.

So while we were still about 40 feet away, I said a neutral "Whoops! OK, here we go!" as I turned around and walked rapidly with Fozzie in the opposite direction. 

He was still tense, but directed his attention away from the other dog and to his sniffing and the birds and the squirrels and everything else in his environment
pretty quickly. When I saw this, I turned back around and directed him to look at my neighbor's dog, who was still about the same distance away.

A little less ready to launch this time, but still very tense. So "Whoops!" again and we turned around and walked the other way. Got just a few steps away before I saw more calmness, then repeat. This time I stroked Fozzie gently telling him how good he was as he looked at the other dog. A bit of tension still, so around we went.

One last time we turned around and walked toward my neighbor, and this time Fozzie looked at the other dog, tensed and whined a little, but then went back to his sniffing and we were able to sail on by and continue on our walk.  

Lots of praise and love to our man this time--I learned long ago that Fozzie is way too stimulated on walks to eat treats most of the time--and a thumbs up to my neighbor, who knows about my ongoing struggle and is blessedly sympathetic. 

I'm not going to hang out my shingle and quit my day job just yet, but I do think this was a bit of a breakthrough. It was all stuff I already knew, but the particular juxtaposition of circumstances and techniques I think set us up for success to a degree we don't often get. What I think really worked:

  • Giving Fozzie space from the other dog immediately, and having him direct his energy in the opposite direction
  • Keeping him moving rather than making him stop when he's all charged up
  • Turning back towards the other dog as a reward for calmness. Since I'm pretty sure Fozzie's reactivity is excitement-based rather than fear-based, this makes good sense.    

A strategy for long-term success, or a fluke? We'll have to keep practicing!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Unhappy scrappies

Now that the blood has been cleaned up off the bathroom floor, the scars have mostly healed, and Fozzie and Sandy are playing and romping about happily together again, I think I have enough perspective on the whole thing to tell the story of Fozzie and Sandy's recent not-so-playful interactions. 

One recent night I took the three dogs for a walk, as I had been doing uneventfully, and turned around sooner than usual as I was in a bit of a hurry. Fozzie and Sandy, frustrated by the inability to continue on their sniffing way, proceeded to attack their respective leashes with a vengeance, which vengeance they then transferred to each other. 

A harrowing several minutes later, my voice hoarse from screaming and with the help of two neighbors, we were able to extricate a slippery, blood-soaked Sandy from a trembling, huffing Fozzie and walk them up the hill to my house (I wasn't sure how best to thank them, but those neighbors got a care package with some organic soaps, energy bars, and sparkling beverages the next day). 

From the way they had gone at each other, I was sure there would be some hideous damage. But when I got them into the house and got Sandy into the bathroom, I was amazed to find that things weren't too bad. Some nasty lacerations and punctures around her neck, and a little chunk missing from her ear. Fozzie, as you might expect after a tall dog has a tiff with a short dog, had some decent gashes on his front legs. Nothing that couldn't be treated with some hydrogen peroxide, bacitracin, and hot compresses. 

This was actually the second of two tiffs between these two. A few nights earlier they had laid into each other when they were both on the bed and a bone was nearby, and a day later they got into it in the backyard over a stick. 

It was terrible to see two dogs I love hurting each other. I felt like the worst foster person in the world for not being more careful and protecting them from harm. But I did learn some things that will help me be a better foster person in the future, and will help me place these dogs into the right homes. 

I learned that dogs, just like humans, hold grudges. That just like humans, a fight makes another fight more likely, at least for some time until the tension resolves.

I also learned that Sandy, while she is generally well-disposed toward other dogs, has a tenacity that makes her difficult to extricate once her arousal crosses the line.

My real worry is that through having these experiences, Sandy learned to fear and be reactive toward other dogs in a way that she didn't know before. If I could have been a better foster parent, she may have had this predisposition but might never have learned this way of being.

Fozzie, I don't worry about so much. He's 2 1/2 years old, he's been snarled at by Lamar for the past two years, and seems not to have changed one bit--in either direction--in his responses to other dogs. 

I worry about the long-term consequences of not being able to give my foster dogs the best, most protected experience possible.  

But the reality for these dogs is that I am the foster person available to them at this time. And although these experiences were some of the worst I've had in a while, I didn't consider finding them another foster home or placing them in boarding (although I have redoubled my efforts to look for their forever homes). Though at times it fills me with stress, anxiety, and regret to have such high-maintenance foster pups, most of the time it is still rewarding to have around these complex little beings and to figure out how to do better by them while keeping myself sane.

The good news is that they are back to playing and romping and chewing on each other happily. I am interrupting the antics when they start to get louder and more intense, but the glee with which they greet each other seems to have returned to what it was. 

I so admire that resilience, that deep-seated good nature in these dogs. 
This is the scene on the sofa next to me as I write, less
than a week after the scrappies
Keeping their play at a more mellow level is surprisingly easy. When I interrupt them, they look at me with what looks like relief--like they're glad for the assistance in avoiding another painful altercation.

I realized a long time ago that the threshold at which I stop being completely calm and able to juggle things comfortably is two dogs, and if I take on more than that I will inevitably not have enough time or attention left over to do every little thing by the book every minute. 

But as I've thought with every foster dog and think now, being cared for imperfectly for several months is better than being dead. And I'm glad these two are alive, imperfections and all.