Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Paws and pointe shoes

Used to be that I would get grumpy about rehearsals that would get in the way of Sundays with my Swiss ballet man. 

Despite the fact that we live together, we don't get to see each other all that much since we both work all week, on alternate weekends he has his son and they are generally off blowing things up and doing things boys do, and he and I often teach or rehearse in the evenings. 

This year, Florian is so busy working on his Master's thesis--in preparation for graduating in the Spring with his Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland--that he's decided to only do one Nutcracker. The fun, eclectic one with his old friend who has a ballet school in Great Falls, VA, which includes a sailor dance and a dance on crutches. 
Photo:Theresa D'Alessandro

His friend is such a good sport that she is even putting me in the performance this year (I don't know if Florian told her about the times I've come to his ballet classes and crashed into the piano after a series of turns).

Best of all, she welcomes dogs in her studio. 

Sandy loved watching the action and being there with all her favorite people. 

I don't know if she'll get a starring role in the Nutcracker this year, but she did make some good connections. Ballerinas love pit bulls!

I was impressed with how she waited so patiently while Florian rehearsed. Another success to add to her growing resume.

Friday, November 25, 2011


The Thanksgiving holiday tradition is rooted in old European and Native North American harvest festivals. 

I love the idea of celebrating the harvest, and doing so in a spirit of the utmost reverence to time-honored American culinary traditions.

 Every Thanksgiving dinner begins with Veggie Booty, which as we all know was brought by the Wampanoag Indians to the Pilgrims and saved them from famine that cold winter of 1621. 

Some zesty kale chips sprinkled with nutritional yeast, small amounts of which survived the trip over on the Mayflower, rounded out the appetizers. 

One thing the Pilgrims may not have known about was Celebration Roast with coconut sauce. This is a Stade family tradition that began the year my dad was in the hospital over Thanksgiving. We knew the very thought of such a thing would send him to the hospital even if he hadn't otherwise needed a quadruple bypass, so my Mom, brothers, sister and I took the opportunity to enjoy some ourselves. 

Then there's everyone's favorite, Brussels sprouts! 

The main course was Swiss fondue. Also apparently unknown amongst the Wampanoag, but what is Thanksgiving without a little taste of Switzerland?

So wonderful to enjoy a traditional family holiday in a way that honored what's best about our country--blended multicultural families, delicious vegetarian foods, and one rule: dogs MUST be at the table

What's YOUR favorite way to celebrate Thanksgiving? 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Enchanted hike

As I have mentioned, the best part about Florian's Sunday Nutcracker rehearsals in Great Falls is that the studio is near the Potomac and its vast network of trails. 

This past weekend's excursion was on a spooky, cloudy day when barely anyone else was out and about. 

Though I miss the amazing fall foliage, I find the combination of the clouds, 

 the spooky rocks, 

the few yellow leaves clinging to branches, and the dark water to be mysterious and beautiful. 

There is so much to marvel at in nature, at any time of year. Early in our relationship, it seemed Florian and I saw herons everywhere we went. It seemed somehow auspicious to me that they appeared for us so often, and it still does. 

Beavers are also symbolic for me, in a joyful way. A symbol of homemaking.  

Though thought of as pests and still killed by the thousands by Wildlife Services, the euphemistically-named office in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that kills wildlife at the behest of commercial interests, beavers are keystone species that create habitat for other species and are a foundation for entire ecosystems.

For our own part, I was glad that we could come into their ecosystem without disturbing them too much, a feat made easier by the fact that we left our own landscape architect--Fozzie--at home. 

Fozzie and Sandy have been getting into little--and a few not-so-little--scrappies lately, and given the possibility that the dogs would have to stay in the van for a bit while we were in the dance studio, I didn't want to chance leaving the scrappy pit bulls alone. 

There's also the fact that much as I adore Fozzie, walks are a tad more peaceful, easier, more relaxing without a certain little avid hunter along. 

Of course I felt guilty leaving him all alone while we went off on a fun hike, but after the last scrappy Fozzie was left limping and Sandy with crusty scabs on her neck so I didn't think the guy would mind one day of rest.

Sandy and Lamar are not the easiest dogs either, by any means, but Sandy, by virtue of her teeny tiny pocket pit bull size and her attentiveness when she hears her name, and Lamar, by virtue of his senior citizen status, both just strike me as almost impossibly easy to manage after two years of managing 65 pounds of lunging muscle in the form of a certain brindle beast. 

So I won't feel too guilty about this one hike with the "easy" dogs and my little ballerino, along with our friends the beavers, the herons, and yet another undiscovered place along the Potomac. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Leash Walk Stress and Tug

I have admitted on many occasions that I know it is best to walk your reactive dogs singly, so that each dog gets a chance to practice calmness around his triggers. 

Reactive dogs carry around a high level of stress and anxiety in general, and there is evidence that dogs in multi-dog households carry a higher level of stress as well. 

Combine two reactive dogs on a leash walk, and the potential for stress is high. Key to working with reactive dogs is working with them sub-threshold. With the higher stress levels generated by just being around other dogs, your reactive dog is going to be near-threshold before he even sets eye upon the bicyclists or other dogs or other things that trigger him. So you've got even less time to whip out your treats and countercondition, or just turn around and go the other way. 

I say all this, but when it comes to walk time, I just don't always walk my talk. 

The whole idea behind getting Sandy was so she and Fozzie could be each others personal trainers and I could walk solo with Lamar. 
But sometimes Fozzie and Sandy just look at me too piteously when I leash up Lamar and I can't bear it. So I leash up all three of them, and we walk together on a specially chosen route that sometimes has no other dog walkers along it. 

And lo and behold, sometimes--like when there are no other dog walkers--we do just fine! All three are pretty calm, not that much pulling, and most of the time OK when we pass people of different sizes, shapes, ages, and speeds, on bicycles and with strollers. 

When we do see another dog? Utter disaster. Usually I am frantically trying to distract Fozzie's attention, with some success until one of the others looks at the other dog and barks. Fozzie then inevitably looks, then rears, lunges, barks like a crazy man, and grabs the nearest leash and tugs at it furiously. Sandy or Lamar is now being dragged by the leash, and responds by snarling and trying to get away (Lamar) or getting into the tug too (Sandy). 

I've known other leash tuggers, but none quite so intense as Fozzie. The metal leash is a great solution, but not on the multi-walks when there are other nylon leashes available to grab. 

Our friends at In Black & White have written eloquently of Alfred's similar favorite game of leash tug. I am wondering who else out there struggles with this one, will admit to being reduced to a flustered frazzled whimpering yelling or sputtering Bad Dog Owner at those moments--and better yet, who has a solution? 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tennis Court Impulse Control

You have probably gathered that Fozzie's greatest remaining training challenge is his overexcitement on leash when he is exposed to things in the outside world, coupled with his frustration at being restrained from meeting those things. What usually results is a spirited game of leash tug of war to which his foster mom is not a willing party, and which only ends when I grab him by the harness and give him a brimstone-laced Sit!

Lately I've been making a concerted effort to work on this by taking him to environments that are likely to be stimulating and allowing him to practice being calm. The other night, I took all 3 dogs for a walk together along a trail near us. Not the most brilliant way to practice being calm, though I must say that even then, as long as I had my cheesy snacks, I was getting nice sits out of Sandy whenever I asked for them, and even Fozzie would tune in as long as there was nothing tooo exciting going on.

After our walk, I wanted to take Fozzie alone a bit so we could work on just calmly observing the environment and refraining from acting out. The perfect opportunity presented itself when I realized we were parked right next to a tennis court. 

There were a bunch of men on the courts running around, jumping, grunting, hitting balls, and talking loudly. There were a few guys lounging on the benches outside, talking loudly to friends as they showed up. Watching all that, who wouldn't get excited?

So we put the other dogs in the van, and Fozzie and I just watched. He did perfect Sits and Watch Mes in exchange for cheesy snacks as the guys ran, grunted, and talked loudly. I explained to one of the guys outside the courts what we were doing, and when we got closer to him, Fozzie gave his leash that Look like he wanted to grab it so bad, but I was present enough to issue a quick Sit! and an equally quick cheesy snack when he did.

An aside: the man was intrigued when I brought out the clicker, and started talking about that show on Animal Planet! He said how incredible it was what the lady was able to do with a clicker and all sorts of dogs. For all the times I've heard people talk about that OTHER TV dog trainer in passing, this was the first to mention Victoria Stillwell. Yay!

In any case, I was so proud to be with my big bully man and to have him sitting so nicely in a challenging environment for him. Way more proud than the time recently I was walking all 3 dogs and a passerby said something to me, and Fozzie AND Sandy both started furiously tugging on their leashes, and there I was on a busy street grabbing at their collars and yanking them away from each other and cursing a mile a minute. I know, brilliant. Roll up that newspaper and gimme a good smash.

It's really not rocket science. Its a matter of getting out and practicing frequently, with just Fozzie. Maybe he really would make progress if I could just do this consistently.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A less interesting skin ailment than I was hoping for

During the warmer months, Lamar tends to get these awful, itchy, crusty skin rashes that look kind of like mange in some spots, but even worse in others. 

In the past, I've found a flea or two or a bunch and have learned that our Latrell is just very sensitive to these things. Just one bite and his rear half breaks out into an inflamed mess. 

This summer we had the same problem but I saw nary a flea. So I thought it must be just a heat rash, and gave him some tea tree oil baths which seemed to alleviate the inflamed spots. It was only temporary relief though. I thought wading in salt water on the beach for a week might really bring relief, but no such luck. The crusties were still as crusty as ever.

So I decided it was time to bring the old guy to the vet. I'm never thrilled when its time to bring a pup to the vet, but there is one small part of me that's excited at the prospect that I might learn something new, encounter a new disease or condition or humane restraint technique or remedy that I can then use for all the other dogs I encounter in classes or as fosters or on my grooming table. 

I even went to a different vet, as the one we usually see, a wonderful man who does house calls and sometimes charges me nothing, I knew would not be very concerned about the skin rash and would probably just tell me he didn't know what it was but that it would go away on its own. 

I really wanted to learn something new here, so I went to a practitioner who was well- recommended, but surely more aggressive than my relaxed family vet.

She came through on my expectations, but in all the wrong ways. She was perplexed as she saw no fleas or evidence of fleas, but said the scabs look like a flea reaction and that was the most likely answer, given the number of flea infestations she's seen this year. She told me to put Lamar on Frontline or any of those products that poison the dog's entire bloodstream, bathe him using a shampoo with chlorhexidine gluconate, and put him on cephalexin. 

Although I expected that this would be the outcome, I felt I owed it to Lamar to at least try to get to the bottom of his chronic condition and try to do something for his health and well-being. 

The problem is that mainstream medicine is not oriented toward producing well-being, and even the best-intentioned doctors are not trained in treating the whole organism. I guess I hoped that this new vet would look at Lamar's skin and say "Lamar, you must be feeling anxious. Let me listen to your concerns," and prescribe a diet featuring wheat grass juice and blueberries and a daily regimen of organic lavender oil pedicures. 

I did what she prescribed, though I didn't have the heart to do a full course of cephalexin --we quit after a few days because it just seemed so silly to throw an antibiotic at an unknown condition "just in case," like the mainstream medical profession loves to do so much of the time. 

The skin ickies have gotten better, but they probably would have gotten better anyway with the cooler weather, and I probably could have saved a trip to the vet and just been a bit more diligent with the tea tree oil or hunted around for some other home remedies.  

So it was a learning experience, though a different one than I was expecting. From now on, in the absence of any holistic vets in this area, we'll stick to our humble, less-aggressive vet in appreciation of his humility and his attitude: that not every condition demands an allopathic "cure," and human and animal bodies have a remarkable ability to heal themselves.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Balmy Weather and Barmy Dogs

With Sandy in her crate on the days I work in the office, and the evenings busy with talking to dog training and grooming clients and teaching classes, I worry at times that a certain young woman is not getting adequate stimulation for her young mind and active body. 

Though I do generally get a chance for a leash walk for at least most of the dogs, with Sandy I feel a lot less guilty if I can get her some stimulation of a more intense variety. 

With the weather balmy like it was last night, the early darkness was no deterrent to some wild times in the comfort of our own yard and deck. 

Fortunately, Sandy is an easily amused youngster and found endless delight in the pile of tennis balls I keep back there. 

After we'd tossed the tennis ball up and down the deck stairs a dozen times--and having eaten a few too many samosas with Hoisin sauce, I even enjoyed joining in the chase--we got into some tennis ball bouncies right on the deck. 

Don't laugh, but I just discovered recently that the way to get a really fun dog action shot is to snap randomly in the midst of the action rather than waiting for the dog to do something photographically exciting. 

Whether she was learning to juggle

or just focused with feverish intensity on those spherical chartreuse prey species with the strange bouncing motion

Sandy certainly got nice and tired and made her mom feel like a better person. 

And even a slightly better photographer.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

More autumn splendor

Fortunately Nutcracker rehearsals have not entirely gotten in the way of all opportunity to enjoy this amazing weather we've been having. 

Sometimes, when Florian has a rehearsal out in Great Falls, VA, I'll meet him there with the dogs and we'll go for a lovely walk somewhere like River Bend State Park. 

There's a gorgeous, popular trail near the Visitor's Center, but for obvious reasons we opted for the road less traveled (anyone know if Robert Frost was a reactive dog owner?) which went along the Potomac. 

Gorgeous trail, lots of opportunity to flap and swim and splash in the water. Lamar and Sandy even got in a little stick time!

The autumn leaves for some reason fill me with joy more than usual this year. Or maybe its the joy of having such wonderful dogs, with gorgeous autumn-themed coats, to enjoy them with. 

I have always loved rivers, gorges, lakes, and streams. In New Mexico, I was never far from the Rio Grande and I lived right next to the (usually dry) Santa Fe river. Portland, too, is built around a river.  

When I returned east I was sure I would miss all that natural beauty, and I couldn't imagine I would find just as much of it here.
But I also didn't imagine that I'd find a spontaneous, adventurous Swiss dude who would motivate me and the dogs to check out every cool-looking natural area on the map in search of autumn colors and swimming holes and incredible skies and spooky rocks galore.

Of course it helps that right out my back door I have a view of all my favorite things: autumn leaves, wild nature, and a big open space for the dogs to run free.