Saturday, February 22, 2014

Old Dogs

You can't teach an old dog new tricks.  Or at least that's how the saying goes.  But I was reminded, today, that this particular saying, while oft-repeated and accepted as fact, isn't really all that accurate.  M is the beautiful brindle pit bull mix girl wearing the "pearl" collar in the picture above, and she belongs to D, who happens to be one of my very best friends.  

A quick word about D ... D's and my love of animals was one of the first, but by no means the only, thing we had in common, and over the years of our friendship, we've had a number of (often animal-related) adventures together.  Despite, now, being married and having two young sons, she has not ever lost her zeal for the rescue of any and all animals in need, and it is not all that much of a stretch to say that if I called her at this exact second (it happens to be after midnight as I type this) and told her that I knew of a rabid boa constrictor that was in need of rescue, and I needed her help to effect said rescue, she would be out of bed and in rescue mode in five minutes flat.  Of course, this exact scenario would never happen, because, for one thing, boa constrictors are reptiles, not mammals, and therefore they can't get rabies.  For another, it would take me close to an hour to get to her house from my house these days.  But you get the idea. 

As it happens, D and I were together when she saw Miss M for the first time. M was a ten week old puppy, up for adoption at the local Petsmart with a couple of her litter mates, and it took all of about three seconds for D and Miss M to forge their bond.  And despite D having had no intention of adopting a puppy mere moments before, it soon became clear that that was exactly what was going to happen. 

Except it almost didn't happen.  Why?  Because the humane society the next county over that had the puppies up for adoption was operating on a cash only basis.  Which neither D and I happened to have enough of (I happen to be one of those people who, in a blackout or world ending type of situation would be seriously screwed, because I barely ever have enough cash in my wallet to buy lunch, let alone a puppy ... I use my debit card for EVERYTHING!), and there happened to be someone else there eyeing baby M, which meant D couldn't risk putting her down and leaving long enough for us to go find an ATM, so she had to give me her debit card and her PIN number and I had to hightail it out of Petsmart and drive like hell to the nearest ATM to get enough cash out for the adoption fee while D stayed at the store, fending off all other potential adopters and maintaining a death grip on "her" puppy.  

It was all worth it, though.  M was, and is, one of those truly great dogs that movies are made and books are written about. She's good with other dogs, other animals, people, and children.  She loves everyone, and everyone loves her.  She's been a therapy dog (she and The Paragon were certified through Therapy Dogs International on the same day) and over the last three years she's been an amazing "big sister" to D's three year old son.  She was also the flower girl at D's wedding, and before that she helped D's husband M, propose (fittingly enough, at the dog park).  The "pearl" collar she is wearing in the photo is the one she wore in her starring role as flower girl.  

I saw M today for the first time in about two years, and when I did, there was no denying it.  M was not just "getting old." She is old.  But over the course of the day, she reminded me that old dogs can, in fact, learn new tricks.  In fact, they must. Because as they age, they can't do all the things they've always done, in the way they've always done them.  I was at D's house today for about six hours.  M spent a good five of those asleep.  She's deaf now, and doesn't see well anymore, either.  Like many senior citizens, she takes a handful of pills each day.  

But that doesn't stop her from taking the same joy she always has in the little things:  the deliciousness of the cheese her pills are wrapped in; the caressing hand of her favorite person, a person whose fingers instinctively know, after fifteen years of stroking this same brindle head, where all the best tickle spots happen to be; a shaft of sunlight warming the comfy bed that cushions her old bones from the hard tile floor.  

I watched her as she moved about the house (during the brief times she was awake) and was struck by how largely unaffected she seemed by her advancing age.  She is the same dog she always was, she just moves more slowly and sleeps more often.  She is an old dog, for sure, but she is learning new tricks every day, learning how to adapt to her increasing limitations, and she is doing so with a dignity and grace that is both inspiring and humbling at the same time.  

There is a fragile dignity about old dogs, and this is something I was reminded of when watching M today. Unlike humans, dogs don't peer anxiously in the mirror looking for signs of wrinkles or crow's feet.  They don't bemoan the creakiness of aging joints, or obsess about their own mortality.  They simply live each moment in the moment.  They take things as they come.  And they suck every last drop of joy out of every single moment of every single day.  

I don't know how long M is going to be around.  She's a large dog, and she's fifteen years old.  She has a heart condition. But I will say that as for today, she is looking darn good, and not feeling too bad, or at least it doesn't seem so.  She may be arthritic and stiff, she may be deaf, and nearly blind, but her tail still wags,  and there's not a thing wrong with her nose when a treat passes near it.  She may not be wearing a purple outfit and a red hat , but she is wearing pearls.  Well, they may be plastic beads, but they look like pearls, and M wears them proudly, as she should.  I just may get her a red hat to wear along with them.  I know she'd wear it well.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Freaky Friday

So far, this has just been "one of those days" where nothing seems to go as planned, and, as the post title suggests, everything is just a little bit freaky.  Including, and maybe even especially, yours truly.  Fortunately, The Paragon is managing to keep it together.  
You know the saying "The more people I meet, the more I love my dog"?  Yeah, this is SO one of those days.  Weekend, here I come! 

Hope your day is great!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Holy Dog! Does Alligator ALWAYS smell like this?!!!!

So yesterday, I ran to Petco on my lunch hour to pick up a few bully sticks for my office stash, because 1) we were out and 2) The Paragon was having severe jealousy issues because my friend K's Yorkie/Maltese mix puppy, C, was enjoying the heck out of his bully stick and he had nary a one to enjoy his own self.   

I probably should mention ... I'm a bit of a dog food / cat food freak.  The 2007 recalls were a big eye-opener for me, and though I had fed raw before, I made a renewed commitment to it after that.  First I went to pre-made (commercially available) raw food, and then when even some of those brands started having recall issues, I decided to eliminate about 98.8% (ok, this is a made-up number, but it's pretty close to accurate) of commercially-made food and treats for my companion animals.  It's kind of a PITA, but I sleep a lot better at night, and I don't spend any more money than I ever did.  In fact, when it comes to the cats, I know I spend less (considering that a 5.5 ounce can of canned cat food averages about $1.50 or more in most pet stores). 

But I digress.  Back on track.  As I was saying, I was in Petco yesterday, on an emergency bully stick run on behalf of The Paragon.  The treat aisle is one aisle over from where the bully sticks live, and normally when I'm there I grab a bag or two of Zuke's treats to have on hand, but I recently found out that Zuke's was bought out by Purina, and that fact gives me serious pause to say the least (they say nothing will change, but I only have to remember how things did change, and quickly, when Proctor & Gamble bought out Natura, to have a hard time believing that).  So I was looking for something else that I felt ok about buying.  Since the recent and ongoing jerky debacle, one of my main criteria is that it has to be made in the US.  

After a few minutes, I found something I'd never seen before:  Louisiana Alligator Jerky by Think Dog.  These are the ingredients:  Alligator, Whole Ground Potatoes, Maple Syrup, Barley Flour, Vegetable Glycerin, Canola Oil, Salt, Natural Smoke Flavor, Garlic, Rosemary, Sorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Mixed Tocopherols. A pretty short ingredient list, made in the USA, and it was alligator ... I was intrigued.  My dogs have never had alligator before.  Anyway, I bought 'em.  

The good news?  The dogs love them!  The bad news?  They stink like what I'd imagine the third circle of hell smells like on a good day.  I am not kidding - the stench is nauseating.  So I'm curious.  Is it something else in these treats (I can't think what?) or does alligator ALWAYS smell like this?  Because if it does, I can guarantee that after this bag is gone, The Paragon and The Flying Monkey will NOT be eating alligator again anytime soon.  Or ever.  

Do tell ... have you ever tried these treats for your dogs?  Or any other treats or food with alligator as an ingredient?  If so, how in the world do you stand the stench?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Of Dog Parks & Dimwits

The Paragon, The Flying Monkey, and The Cowardly Lion - ready to go to the dog park (cat butt photo bomb courtesy of The Diva) 
The weather here has been gorgeous lately, and I just can't seem to get enough of being outside.  (The previous few weeks, it has been gray and nasty, even though the temperatures have been in the forties and fifties, which I love, and I also know that the heat of summer, which lasts about eight months of the year here in Florida, is going to be here before I know it.)  So on Saturday morning, I suggested to my sister, K, that we take The Three Amigos (consisting of The Paragon, The Flying Monkey, and her Wheaten Terrier/Golden Retriever Mix, The Cowardly Lion) to the dog park.  

On the subject of dog parks in general, I am always a bit ambivalent.  I have, over the years, had more than a handful of "I can't believe I just witnessed this in real life ... surely I'm being Punk'd." moments.  Like the time, for example, that a twenty-something guy swaggered in with this poor, skinny little six or eight month pit bull on an honest-to-God chain  hooked on to some sort of home-made prong collar/choke chain thing.  I am not kidding ... it looked positively medieval.  Not to mention that taking a leashed dog (and I use that term loosely, shackled would have been a better word) into a big group of unleashed dogs is always a bad idea, anyway.  But that was not the worst part.  The worst part was that the poor dog was in heat, and this asshat (sorry, I have been trying, lately, to keep the four letter words to a minimum, but an asshat is exactly what this guy was; in fact, if Asshat were a country, he would be their Asshat King, or maybe their Asshat in Chief, and plus, it is technically six letters, so I'm letting it slide) had brought her there to, and I quote, "get her knocked up."  It was a head-desk moment to end all head-desk moments.  I can literally feel my blood pressure rising right now, and this was years ago.  

In any case, for this reason, and because of a dozen or so incidents in a similar vein (though that one did, then, and still does now, take the proverbial cake), I am always a little bit skeptical when I go to the dog park, wondering what craziness, poor judgment, or sheer idiocy I might encounter while there.  Suffice it to say, I don't go to the dog park all that often, probably two or three times a year, on average.  I hadn't been to this particular one, which is now the closest one to where I live since I moved back in July, for several years.  

This particular park is actually pretty nice, because it has three separate areas.  One really large area, a medium-sized area, and then a smaller area.  The medium-sized area is kind of a buffer zone / no-man's land between the large and the small area.  The small area is reserved, unofficially, for small dogs, although when we got there on Saturday, there were several small dogs in the large area, and since there weren't any really big dogs there, that seemed to be fine.  (The largest dog there was a Siberian Husky; most of the others larger dogs were about the size of The Cowardly Lion, which is to say, not terribly big.  (TCL weighs forty-three pounds or thereabouts.)

It seemed a little chaotic when we first got there, but the area is pretty large, and most of the chaos seemed to be at the far end, so as the middle, medium-sized, area was completely empty, we decided to go ahead on in.  The Paragon immediately started making the rounds, as he generally does in situations like these, while The Flying Monkey stuck close to me, and The Cowardly Lion tried to get up the nerve to play with the Sibe. He wanted to, but he is a bit cowardly, as you might imagine.  All was normal. 

Within five or ten minutes, though, things started to change. You know that feeling you get when something just isn't right?  Well, I had it.  About thirty feet away or so, a cluster of dogs had gathered around their humans (or some humans, anyway, whether theirs or someone else's) and one dog began relentlessly humping another while the other dogs nearby circled anxiously, and the people involved stood by and did absolutely nothing.  Well, that's not true.  They did worse than nothing.  They treated it like a sideshow.  Like entertainment.  They laughed and pointed and basically behaved as though they were completely oblivious of the tension that was brewing.  I didn't like it, and I definitely didn't want any of our dogs in the middle of it, so I suggested to K that we exit that area, go to the middle section, and just let our three dogs play amongst themselves.  

Which we did, and which they did, for fifteen or twenty minutes.  On the other side of the fence,  we watched a mild fight break out among the humper, the humpee, and the canine bystanders.  Fortunately, one or two of the human gawkers finally got it together and broke up the humpfest as well as the resultant altercation.  We were just about to leave, when a man came in to the middle area with his Australian Shepherd*.  K and I chatted with him a bit, and learned that his dog, I'll call him Rowdy, was a rescue, and a bit peculiar, something not out of the ordinary for this breed, which K and I know all too well, as we had one growing up.  

Frankly, though, it was not long into the conversation before I could tell (because I have known K since she was born, which is to say rather well, and I can pretty much tell exactly what she is thinking at all times) that K and I were thinking pretty much the same thing:  that it wasn't just the dog who was a bit peculiar. A suspicion which was borne out, and then some, when Rowdy's owner began calling the dogs on the other side of the fence over to the fence line so that ... wait for it ... Rowdy could chase them.  

And no, I am not kidding.  I wish.  Fence-fighting, as anyone who has ever dealt with it knows, is no joke, and this seemed, to me, a pretty darn good way to get one started.  Especially since Rowdy did not just want to chase the dog on the other side of the fence.  He wanted to bark and growl at it.  In fact, between the barking, the growling, and the very deliberate lie-downs, creep-ups, and intense stares, Rowdy looked very much like the classic picture of the herding dog he is whilst said dog is in the process of herding something.  Like, say, sheep.  Except dogs are not sheep, and the dogs on the other side of the fence did not very much want to be herded.  Nor did they want to be barked or growled at.  All of which poor Rowdy, his herding instinct now fully engaged, was oblivious to.  And which his not-so-intelligent owner was most definitely oblivious to.

All in all, it seemed a pretty darn good time to get out of there, which we did.  And I don't think we'll be going back anytime soon.  There are other places to take the dogs to run off-leash that aren't such a free for all.

What about you?  What is your opinion of dog parks?  

* Dog's name and breed changed to protect the not-so-intelligent owner of said dog.  I may also have changed the owner's gender.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Black & White Sunday

Yesterday, the weather was so gorgeous that it seemed criminal to waste it indoors. So after I got back from my riding lesson, The Paragon and I decided to head out to explore and take some photos.  Here are a few of them: 

 We are participating in the Black & White Sunday Blog Hop, hosted by Nola the Dachshund and Sugar the Golden Retriever.  Come hop with us!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dog Love

Back in the late 90's, I was, I'm not ashamed to admit, a huge Ally McBeal fan.  Something about Ally's emotional openness, her willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve, to risk anything for love, spoke to me.  I wished I could be more like her, then, and the truth is, sometimes I still do.  That heart-on-sleeve mentality resulted in a lot of heartbreak, (not to mention some truly great television), but all that aside, she had a great job, a great wardrobe, (for the late 90's anyway), a close-knit group of highly entertaining, albeit quirky, friends, and at the end of the day they'd all go down to the bar together and dance.  Sometimes, they'd even sing, with or without Vonda Shephard, whose career was largely launched by the show's success.  

Honestly, it was the singing (often accompanied by some truly inspired dance moves) that often made the show for me.  Who could forget John Cage singing Barry White tunes in the unisex, Elaine's endless "numbers," Robert Downey Junior as Ally's love interest, Larry Paul, crooning "Chances Are," or Larry and Ally sitting at her piano, playing and singing Joni Mitchell's "River?" But it was Vonda herself singing "I Only Want To Be With You" that always seemed to get me right in my twenty-something heart. It was, in a nutshell, what I thought I was looking for.  What could be better, I thought, than finding and falling in love with someone, and spending every single moment of every single day with that person, blissfully in love? 

Now that I am wiser, as well as, inevitably, older, I know that what I thought I wanted, then, isn't what I really want, or need, then or now, when it comes to a human soul mate.  I am more of a "let there be spaces in our togetherness" sort of person. I like my alone time.  No, that's not true.  I don't just like my alone time, I require it.  Like air to breathe, like water to drink, I need that time by myself to stay sane.  But for people like me, who, no matter how much we love the people in our lives, and treasure the time we spend with them, do need that alone time, solitude does have the potential to be lonely.  Unless, that is ... you have an animal companion to counteract the loneliness.  Which, of course, I do.  Five of them, in fact.  Aren't I fortunate?

To digress momentarily, one of my previous assistants was a Brazilian native who had come to the U.S. for college, and for whom English was, obviously, a second language. Thanks to her, I could, if we ever met, and it happened to be your birthday, sing you "Happy Birthday" in Portugese.  (G, I miss you!)  Anyway, G had a very natural flair for the dramatic, and if she was having a bad day, she would flounce into our friend A's office, throw herself down on the floor where his yellow Lab, Savannah, was lying in state on her bed, open wide her arms, and declare, passionately, "I need dog love!"  Of course, with her accent, it came out sounding more like "doghlauvve!"  Whereupon, she would cuddle with Savannah for a few minutes, and then rise, brush her clothing free of Lab hair, and return to her desk, restored. 

Unlike me, G didn't have, at that time, ready access to dog love, Savannah notwithstanding, though she does, now that she's returned to Brazil, have a darling little Shih Tzu whom she adores, and now can get "daughlauvve" anytime she wants or needs it.  Anyway, the point is, dog love has amazing restorative powers.  Even a brief moment of communion with a dog who isn't yours can work wonders on a bad mood or a stressful day.  I have even heard of a hotel in Canada that has "hotel dogs" that they rent out to their guests who are away from home and missing their own dogs.  A brilliant idea, if you ask me.  Fortunately for me, I have ready access to dog love just about any time or day or night, even at work, since my amazing boss lets me, and anyone else who wants to, bring their dog(s) to work. 

But unlike is sometimes the case with humans, my dogs' constant presence doesn't make me feel smothered, despite the fact that The Paragon quite literally dogs my every footstep.  It is his mission in life to never be more than a hairsbreadth away from wherever I happen to be.  I am, you see, his polestar, his true North.  If The Paragon were a human, I would no doubt tease him mercilessly and very possibly report him for stalking or file a restraining order.  Because he's a dog, though, I find his devotion completely charming, and not the least bit intrusive.  (Well, sometimes I do, but hardly ever.) 

The Paragon was a rescue pup, so I'm not exactly sure how old he is, but when I got him in the fall of 2003, the vet estimated that he was about ten months old.  Which, as of late January or early February, would make him eleven years old.  Not terribly old, especially for a smaller dog, but nonetheless, our time together, which once seemed to stretch out in front of us almost endlessly (when Dakotah left us at sixteen, The Paragon was only four years old, a mere pup, really, I remember thinking then), now feels infinitely more precious because I am all too aware how finite it is.  

Don't get me wrong ... The Paragon is in excellent health.  But at eleven years old, I know that the time in front of us is shorter than that behind us.  There's just no way of getting around that, and it's a sobering thought, to say the least.  I have had dogs almost my whole life long, and I have loved them all.  But The Paragon is in a class by himself.  Always has been, right from the first.  I just can't imagine a time when he won't be here, and hopefully, I won't have to imagine it for many, many years.  In the meantime, I want to be conscious, without obsessing over it, of the fact that our time together is not infinite, and make the most of every day.  

So early this morning, when my alarm went off, I stifled a groan, and looked over to where The Paragon was lying, curled tightly in his blankets, The Flying Monkey tucked close in to his side.  His hair was mussed, his eyes were bleary, and he clearly was savoring the warmth of a cozy bed on a cold morning, but as soon as he heard my voice calling to him, his little tail started wagging a mile a minute.  He stretched long and hard, then rose to his feet.  His eyes shone with love as he licked my face. I laughed, and scratched his ears, and then he flopped over on his back so I could scratch his stomach, too.  In that moment, I couldn't stop myself from singing (not well, mind you) to my dog.  I tousled his head, and in a voice husky with sleep (and just a little bit from emotion) I sang:

I don't know what it is that makes me love you so
I only know I never want to let you go
Cause you started something 
Oh can't you see 
Ever since we met you've had a hold on me 
It happens to be true 
I only want to be with you 

It doesn't matter where you go or what you do 
I want to spend each moment of the day with you 
Look what has happened with just one kiss 
I never knew that I could be in love like this 
It's crazy but it's true 
I only want to be with you 

This year, my Valentine is a dog.  And you know what?  I could do worse!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Meet The Baby

What to say about The Baby? Well, I could start with the fact that I could easily have chosen The Train Wreck or The Money Pit as his moniker, rather than the one I did. This boy has been adventure, that is for sure! 

As The Diva and The Hunk both were, The Money Pit, er The Baby was a feral kitten. Unlike them, however, he did not have the good fortune to be discovered and rescued at a very young age, as they did. The Baby was not mere weeks old, but four months old, when I drove into the parking lot at my office early one morning and found him lying at the edge of the concrete, completely motionless.

I'll spare you the full details of the story of how, after calling about twelve different cat rescues (all of whom were full up, it being kitten season and all), I actually did find him a home, only to have them call me the very next day and ask me to come get him or they were going to take him to the humane society and turn him in. The reason? He was hiding under the bed. (Shocking, right? A kitten that was completely feral less than two weeks before hiding under the bed a strange environment? No WONDER they wanted to turn him in to the humane society!  Idiots!)

Needless to say, I went and got him immediately, and guess what? As soon as I called the name that I'd tried really hard not to give him, he popped out from under the bed, meowed sharply, and ran to me so I could pick him up, something he still does to this day. (Whenever I call his name, he will come running to me from wherever he is in the house, and then stand up on his hind legs so that I can grasp him under his armpits and lift him into my arms, rather like you would a human child.)

Anyway, after this failed attempt at finding him another home, I bowed as gracefully as possible to the inevitable, and brought him home with me, expecting full well that The Diva would unleash her wrath on not just The Baby, but on me as well. In a bizarre turn of events, however, she scarcely raised an eyebrow. It was The Hunk who went into a semi-tailspin, but being the easygoing guy he is, he snapped out of it soon enough. That was three and a half years ago, and The Baby is now four years old.

Like I said ... it's been an adventure. Remember how I said I could easily have nicknamed him The Train Wreck or The Money Pit? Both would have been right on point, for different reasons.
The wheezy rattle I heard in his lungs on that first day persisted for months. It took multiple courses of antibiotics to get rid of it, and to this day, even though he doesn't have any infection, he will still wheeze a bit if he's been playing hard, and at night, he snores. Then, of course, the antibiotics unsettled his stomach and killed his appetite, and he needed every last calorie I could get into him. So he had to be on mirtazapine to kick-start his appetite, but this made him completely sketch out, so then we had to play around with the dosage to get him to a point where his appetite increased without the sketch-out effect. When things were still only marginally improved after two strong courses of antibiotics, my vet suggested a chest X-ray to be sure he didn't have a chest mass.

He didn't, but it was months, and thousands of dollars, before he was well. Truthfully, I credit the L-Lysine supplementation and a raw diet far more than I do the multiple courses of antibiotics, not that it really matters. The numerous broken picture frames, broken lamps, broken dishes, well ... I was just glad he never broke his neck. Paw prints on the windows, my foot. I swear that cat can walk on the ceiling!

Also, perhaps because he spent the first four months of his life almost literally starving to death, The Baby could also have been nicknamed The Beggar. I don't permit my dogs to beg for food while I'm eating, and with the cats it had never really been an issue. The Diva does like to try to stick her head in my cereal bowl if she can, but she is also well-mannered enough to wait patiently until I'm finished, knowing that if she does, I will allow her one or two dainty licks before taking the bowl away. The Beggar, er The Baby, is another story altogether!

He begs relentlessly, and despite numerous not so subtle hints, he never seems to get the message. He's also an opportunist, and woe to the person who foolishly leaves a plate unattended while he's on the prowl. Whatever it was will be gone when they return, with hardly a trace left behind, as though the food simply vanished into thin air.

He's not fussy, either. He will eat literally anything, from mushrooms to pizza crust. I don't, for the record, make a habit of feeding him these things, although now, after three and a half years of working on it, he will usually, now, sit quietly under my chair while I'm eating, and I will occasionally reward him for staying there by slipping him a tiny bite of something, just to reinforce him sitting there quietly on the floor as opposed to parading around on the dining room table. I love my cats, but I draw the line at table or counter strolling. (Ya gotta draw one somewhere, and that's where I draw mine!)

You may notice that all of my cat stories say something, somewhere, about "I wasn't planning on getting a kitten," or "I hadn't intended to keep him," or something in that vein. Well, yeah, and I hadn't intended to keep The Baby, either. I worked harder to find him a home than I really wanted to, since it didn't take me long to fall in love with him, but I did feel that two dogs and two cats was plenty in an 1,100 square foot house, even if the dogs were pretty small. I still feel that way, even though now we've moved, and gained an additional 800 square feet in the bargain. But sometimes fate or destiny, or even sheer stupid sentimentality, wins out.

He nearly sent me to the poor house and/or the loony bin more than once during his first year, and he still tries my patience more than any other animal in the house. I have often said I am not sure if he's just really dumb, really stubborn, or really smart. The truth is, I'm still not sure, and I guess it doesn't really matter. The Baby is who is he is, and I really wouldn't have him any other way.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Meet The Flying Monkey

"What's wrong, buddy?" I asked The Paragon one evening in February of 2008. I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and The Paragon was curled up next to me, dozing, when all of a sudden he let out a deep sigh. Not entirely unusual ... dogs do this all the time, and it doesn't necessarily mean much of anything. Also, I try very hard to be cautious about projecting emotions onto my companion animals. It's all too easy to do, blank slates that they are, but it doesn't always serve them well to do so.

This time, though, I was pretty confident that the heavy sigh meant that The Paragon was sad. In fact, I was positive of it. Positive because I knew how sad *I* was ... and The Paragon had just as much of a reason to be sad as I did. The previous month, his declining health had forced me to make the painful decision to euthanize Dakotah, my beautiful, sweet, loyal braniac of an Alaskan Malamute mix. After sixteen years together, the void he left in my life was indescribably large, and I knew that The Paragon was feeling much the same way.

After all, Dakotah had been The Paragon's big brother, his teacher, his mentor in many ways, not to mention the very best pillow in the entire world. I had already decided I wasn't getting another dog ... for a long time, maybe not ever. The last few months of Dakotah's life, his declining health had taken its toll on me, both emotionally and physically. Seeing a dog that had always been so healthy and vibrant become increasingly feeble and infirm was painful to watch.

Also, Dakotah was a seventy plus pound dog, and I am a 5'1" person. When he could no longer rise easily, I was the one who had to lift him to his feet. When he couldn't walk down the steps from the porch to the yard anymore to go to the bathroom, I had to carry him. He also hadn't slept through the night in at least four months. As is common in elderly dogs, he seemed to have his days and nights reversed. During the day, he slept just fine, but at night, well ... not so much.

Suffice it to say, in the weeks after his passing, my heart ached, my back ached, and I was completely exhausted. Getting another dog was honestly the last thing on my mind. Dakotah was irreplaceable, after all, and the truth of the matter was that even, perhaps especially, when he was perfectly healthy, Dakotah was a Challenge with a capital C. The Paragon, on the other hand, was easy-peasy. I would have given anything to get Dakotah back, but that wasn't possible, and since I already had the best dog in the entire world sitting on my couch, why, you may well ask, would I even dream of rocking the boat?

The truth is, I wasn't planning on it. But then The Paragon sighed that heavy sigh, and could barely muster a half-hearted wag of his tail when I inquired as to what was wrong. So I started thinking about it. A lot. And I decided that if I was going to do this, I didn't want another Malamute or Husky, or even a Shepherd, three breeds I've always loved and felt a huge affinity for. Since The Paragon had come into my life, I'd learned first-hand the joys of dogs that come in smaller packages, and I thought that maybe a dog his size, or maybe a bit larger (say the size of a Cocker Spaniel) might be ideal.

So I started looking. And not long later, I found The Flying Monkey, (aka The Monkey aka Monkey Face) who was, obviously, just about the antithesis of Dakotah in every possible way. Weighing only six and a half pounds (nine and a half now ... she was pretty skinny when I first got her), she was a lot smaller than what I was looking for, but once I met her, I just had a feeling she was going to be exactly the right fit.

Fortunately, my instincts were correct. From the first, The Paragon and The Monkey got along beautifully, and in fact, not once in six years has there been even a ripple of jealousy or dissent between the two. They are great companions for one another, and as for me, choosing to adopt a dog that was as different from Dakotah as she could possibly be turned out to be exactly the right thing to do. There were no painful comparisons to be made between the two, so I was free to enjoy this new dog in my life without all of that baggage. And enjoy her I did, and do, in so many ways.

The Paragon is, it is widely accepted in the circles in which we travel, the sweetest dog on the planet. The truth, though, is that in her own way The Monkey is even sweeter. She is a snuggler extraordinaire, of the marathon variety. If you want to, you can snuggle her just about to death. She is happy to be held for hours on end, if you have the time and the inclination, her tummy to your chest, her head on your shoulder, and just lie there quietly and be with you. If holding her on her back like a baby (she's just about the size and weight of a newborn human infant, which is to say the perfect size for cradling in such a fashion), is your preference, that is fine, too. As long as you keep the snuggling coming, The Monkey is on board.

The Monkey is a soulful creature, fond of staring off into middle distance thinking, it often appears, all sorts of deep and profound Monkey thoughts. Her fairly pronounced under bite often lends her a somewhat dour expression, but she's really a very "up," happy, fun-loving, and truly funny dog. When she gets excited, for example, she starts to sneeze uncontrollably, making everyone around her laugh. And when she's excited to see you, she will literally launch herself into the air, (one of the main reasons why her nickname is The Flying Monkey instead of just The Monkey) trusting that you will catch her.

All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better companion for The Paragon, or a better second dog for our family. The Monkey is a very easy dog in almost all respects, and in fact the day that we drove to her foster mom's house to pick her up, a two and a half hour drive away, she joined us at an outdoor cafĂ© for lunch, sitting in her carrier on her own chair, as perfectly composed and well-behaved as though she did it every day. From the first she fit in perfectly, as though she was always meant to be a part of our family.

The Monkey was a breath of fresh air and a reason to smile and laugh in a very sad time. Her sense of comic timing is excellent, and if someone is stressed or upset, she will first try to love them out of their bad mood, but if that fails, she will resort to her silly antics to snap them out of it. She's the jester in this family's court, and we feel so lucky to have her around to make us smile.

* Note:  I am not sure what's going on with Blogger tonight, but the picture I wanted to use kept being stripped off, somehow, so I changed it out for this one.  I also see in my Gmail that some comments came in and were made to the original post, which I had to delete. Sorry about that!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Diva Mischieva

Lest you all think that The Diva does nothing all day but sit around thinking of ways to further her plot to achieve world domination, I will tell you a secret.  She also has a sense of humor.  One of her favorite games is to, as soon as she sees me with the camera up to my face, rush over and stick her face right up to the lens.  I can't tell you how many pictures I have that are closeups of her eye, or the inside of her little pink nose.  This one, though, I actually really like.  It kind of seems like she is winking at me, doesn't it? 

* We are Blog Hopping with Snoopy and the gang today. Join us, won't you? 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Back In The Saddle

On Saturday morning, I rose early (at least for a Saturday), fed the felines, walked the dogs, and gave them their morning treat.  Then I showered, dressed in worn jeans and a long-sleeved cotton shirt, wrapped my hair into a messy bun low on my neck, and pulled on a pair of tall brown boots I hadn't worn in over six years.  It was a gloomy gray day, fifty degrees and threatening rain, but I was elated.  I was going riding. I was also, I admit, a little nervous.  It had been awhile.   

In fact, the last time I'd worn these boots was in the summer of 2006, for an hour long hack through Central Park on the back of Gillespie, the same horse I always rode when I visited the Claremont Riding Academy on West 89th Street on the Upper West Side.  Those of you who watched Sex and the City back in the day (or any of the endless reruns for that matter), may remember the episode when Charlotte goes out for a ride in Central Park, her first time on a horse since having been thrown years before.  The stable she went to was the Claremont. 

I had discovered the stable by chance on a visit some years before, and anytime I found myself in The City, (usually once, sometimes twice, a year for several years running), I would leave my travel companions sleeping, and steal out each precious morning before dawn to grab a cab to West 89th, tack up Gillespie, and exit the Academy by means of the electronic garage door operated by the stable's manager. She'd watch from the window of her office, and when a rider was mounted up and ready, she'd hit the button for the door, and down the ramp we'd go, out the door to the street.  

Once down the ramp, we made a right turn and from there it was a block or so, in city traffic (not as busy as it would get later, as I usually rode out at about seven am, but still, it is the city that never sleeps, and even for someone who'd grown up around horses, riding in city traffic is a new experience), to get to the bridle paths.  And again, even for someone who had grown up riding all sorts of horses in all sorts of places, this was a different experience altogether.  To ride through the hushed quiet of Central Park in the early morning, with only the occasional far-away honk of a taxicab horn or bark or a dog to break the near-silence, and then to see the skyscrapers of the famed city rising out of the mist above your head was something special, almost a religious experience in fact, and something I feel so fortunate to have memories of, since, now, The Claremont is no more.  

It closed its doors in 2007, and the building that had been home to countless horses since 1892, when it began its life as a livery stable, is now, from what I hear, a school of performing arts, and The City, at least in my view, is less of a magical place.  Truth be told, I haven't been back since that summer of 2006.  That last morning, I dismounted from Gillespie, ran the stirrups up their leathers, and walked him around the perimeter of the ring for five or ten minutes to cool him down.  Then I patted his neck a last time, and handed him off to his groom.  "I'll see you next year, buddy," I said to him.  I had no idea I'd never see him again, and I haven't been on the back of a horse since. 

Until today.  I had my first riding lesson in many moons at a show barn about thirty minutes from my house.  It was a decent-sized barn, twenty or thirty stalls or so, each horse more gorgeous than the last.  I was in heaven, the kind of heaven only other horse lovers understand.  I made friends with a sweet gray barn cat named Pickles, and had my lesson on the back of Viktor, a handsome bay gelding with whom I am already in love.  I spent an hour in the saddle today, at a walk and a posting trot, trying to remember to keep my hips open and in a vertical line with my ankles, my heels lower than my toes, and my seat bones directly over my heels.  In short, my body was trying to relearn the things that used to come second nature to it, but no longer do, and that my brain had never forgotten.  

A solid seat is the foundation of any riding discipline.  I had one once, and I mean to get it back.  I got a start on Saturday, and it felt amazing.  My seat bones are sore, and my leg muscles are protesting, but I was as happy during that brief hour as I've been in a long time. I hope Gillespie, wherever he is, would be proud.    

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fish Tank For Sale - Cheap!

My little blue Crowntail Betta fish, Suma, went to fish heaven yesterday.  She will have plenty of company there.  Fish, I've discovered, don't live very long.  Not exactly earthshattering news, but as I never really had fish of any kind until pretty recently, and since I had heard of Betta fish living three to five years or more with proper care, I did not expect Suma, her tank mates, or my two male Veiltail Bettas, Murray & Chai, to swim over the Rainbow Bridge so quickly, or in such quick succession. 

My fish adventure (and I use this term loosely ... unless you define adventure as endless trips to the pet supply store for filters that wouldn't filter, heaters that wouldn't heat, and live plants that made the lifespan of a fruit fly seem epic) began about a year and a half ago, when a co-worker, very randomly, came back from lunch one day and set a small round cup containing a blue male Betta fish (Murray) on my desk along with a container of Betta food.  He could never really say what prompted his decision to go out to lunch and come back with a live animal, but as I now, apparently, had a pet fish, I thanked him somewhat bemusedly, and then I made a point of doing some quick research to find out what kind of care my new buddy needed, as my only fish experience prior to this was a goldfish my sister won for me at the county fair one year when I had to stay home in bed with Strep throat, and a pair of gourami that a classmate had given me for a birthday gift in the fifth grade. 

My time, I should mention, with those fish was brief ... the goldfish, Bubbles, lasted weeks, the unnamed (at least to my recollection) gourami perhaps months ... and maybe it was the brevity of the experience, or the fact that the fish in question seemed devoid of all personality, but while I was sad when they died, I was not burning to repeat the experience.  I only wish I had remembered that when Murray came along.

Murray was a beautiful Betta fish, with the long flowing fins common to the males of his species, and he lived, for the little over a year we shared together, in a four gallon filtered and heated tank on the desk in my office.  I enjoyed him, I don't mind saying.  And perhaps it was because, given the fact that he was sitting mere inches from me for longer hours each day than I really care to think about, but I really felt I got to 'know' him, and that he had a personality I hadn't realized fish were capable of.  Sure, the fact that he immediately swam to the front of the tank as soon as I came in the door of my office each morning and flipped on his tank light was undoubtedly due more to fact that he knew it was time to eat than because he was excited to see me.  Yet at other times of the day, I would look over and see him at the front right side of his tank (closest to my office chair) just looking at me.  Maybe he thought I was there to entertain him, instead of the other way around?  I'm not sure, but whatever the case may have been, I found his meditative swimming and curious exploration of his environment engaging, and he certainly made long, boring conference calls more interesting. 

So much so, in fact, that a couple of months after Murray came along, I ended up bringing home another Betta, an unsexed baby no longer than my thumbnail, who looked more like a tadpole than a Betta fish, very much on a whim.  No, really, it wasn't a whim.  It was pity, is what is was. 

Have you ever seen displays of Betta fish in pet stores?  Regardless of the quality of care the other fish in the store may be getting, the care of Betta fish in pet stores everywhere is almost uniformly bad, from what I've seen.  While the other species of fish are housed in filtered and heated aquariums, Betta fish are housed in small cups, alone. This is because they are not schooling fish, like most of the ones kept as pets.  They are, instead, highly aggressive towards each other, as their nickname, Siamese Fighting Fish, suggests.  Female Bettas can, if the tank is large enough, and there is enough plant cover, be kept in "sororities," of several females, but males cannot be housed together ever, and since, I guess, it wouldn't be economical or practical to house that many Betta fish in proper-sized tanks in pet stores, they are left to languish in these tiny cups, swimming round and round in water that rapidly develops toxic levels of ammonia from their waste.  I have never yet seen a display of Bettas where at least two or three were not dead or dying, and so on the day that I brought home Chai, the baby Betta, I walked by, saw him there in a cup of filthy water, and just couldn't leave him there. 

And that's how the other four (female) Bettas, including Suma, came to live with me.  They, and, of course, all the various paraphernalia relating to their proper care and feeding.  Chai, who turned out to be a male, lived alone in a five gallon tank.  The females resided in a shared 20 gallon tank that was divided into fourths by means of acrylic dividers, each section equipped with its own filter and heater.  As of yesterday, though, it was just little Suma who was left, all by herself in a 20 gallon tank.  Frankly, she seemed pretty happy in there.  Healthy, too.  Until yesterday evening when I got home from work, went over to her palatial tank to feed her, and she didn't swim eagerly to the top as she usually did.  Suma, I was sad to discover, had left the building.

And I, well, I am done with fish.  Costing on average about three dollars each, they cost me, all told, more time and money than I really would care to ponder too much about, what with the large tanks, the dividers, the substrate, the plants (I finally went to silk plants, since the live ones kept dying and the plastic ones apparently damage their fragile fishy fins), the heaters, the filters, the various water conditioners, not to mention the test kits to test said water to ensure the parameters were optimum for their health and well-being.  All, as it happens, for naught.  My little finned friends had the best care I knew how to provide, and still they perished.  Murray was the first and was with me the longest:  over a year.  The others averaged about six months or so.  Far too short a time to justify the time and expense I spent caring for them.  Perhaps this seems like a mercenary viewpoint, but frankly, I just don't think fish are my "thing."  Plus, while I couldn't say I loved any of them, I was fond of them, and their domino-like deaths, one after the other after the other these last few months, has been sad and somewhat demoralizing.

Yep, I'm done with fish.  But just so I'm not tempted, I'm getting rid of the last remaining tank.  So, yeah, like I said:  I've got a 20 gallon fish tank for sale ... cheap.   And by cheap, I mean free.  Along with enough water conditioner, fish food, and fish vitamins to start a small pet store. 

What?  No takers?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Meet The Hunk

A handsome man with a well-developed physique.  (This is the slang definition of "hunk," according to  Yep, when it came to deciding upon a moniker for a certain brown mackerel tabby cat, I definitely nailed it.  I mean, come on ... just look at those whiskers!  Those adorable nose freckles!  Those dreamy green-gray eyes!  (Ok, so I know you can't tell what color his eyes are in a black and white photograph, but they are, in fact, a particularly enchanting combination of green and gray in most lights, except for in direct sunlight when they turn a stunning topaz yellow that would make Edward Cullen jealous and Bella Swan swoon.)  Indeed, if The Hunk were a human, he would be, I am here to tell you, a catch, and those eyes, by the way, are no small part of that appeal.  In fact, when he was a six week old, recently-rescued feral kitten, it was those eyes that first captivated me, drew me in, and made me abandon all reason and common sense, not to mention face the wrath of The Diva herself, and invite him into our family.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I became enamored of The Hunk’s many other charms, but the truth is that it was those captivating eyes, as well as his inordinately sweet and gentle disposition, that really made it impossible for me to give him up, despite the fact that a friend of mine had found a home for him with a work friend of her husband’s.  Even when it became clear that The Diva was about as pissed off as she had ever been in her life, and was intent on taking it out not just on our hapless Hunk, but also on me, The Paragon, and any other living being in a fifteen mile radius, I could not let him go.  I kept telling myself she’d adjust, and mostly she has, but sometimes when I see her curled up asleep somewhere with a satisfied look on her little Diva face, I imagine that she is dreaming about a time Pre-Hunk, when she didn’t have to worry about being pounced on or unintentionally mussed up by her much larger brother, who, though he loves her dearly, plays too roughly for her taste. 

It isn’t just me who is a helpless slave to The Hunk’s charms, though.  He has achieved nigh-to-celebrity-status at our vet’s office, and has been known to make the front desk ladies and the female vet techs nearly have an attack of the vapors, so overcome are they by his striped handsomeness.  In truth, everyone loves The Hunk, but the thing about The Hunk is … when it comes to humans, he really only loves me.  And while this makes me worry about him sometimes, (what would happen to him if something happened to me, for example?) it is still very flattering. 

Starting at about a year old, The Hunk also took up a very special place in our household – that of Watch Cat.  What, exactly, he is watching for, is usually not clear, but unlike The Diva or The Baby, his watchfulness is very purposeful. He is not just gazing at the scenery, or captivated by an errant falling leaf, a squirrel darting up the nearest tree trunk, or a bird flitting by.  He is WATCHING.  For whatever, whenever.  And nothing is going to escape his notice, you can bet on that.  He may dart under the bed or nearest piece of heavy furniture in response to whatever it is that may be out there, but not before warning everyone in the house that they would be wise to do as he plans to do, and take cover.  If we fail to heed his advice, then fine, but it will not stop him from WATCHING. 

 One of the main things The Hunk watches for, though, is me.  If I go out to walk the dogs, get the mail, take out the garbage, or whatever, I know that when I return, he will be sitting by the front door, peering through the window awaiting my return.  This is never so endearing as when I arrive home at night from work, often late, often both mentally and physically tired, and see his little face in the window, watching for me. 

There is a quote by Jean Cocteau, which goes “I love cats because I love my home and after a while, they become its visible soul.” 

This is true, I think.  My house is not grand, but it is home, and as such, it is my sanctuary.  It’s the place I miss when I’m away, and look forward to coming back to, not so much because of the dwelling itself, but because of who is there awaiting my return.  And as much as I can’t help but smile and be cheered by the welcoming barks and furiously wagging tails of The Paragon and The Flying Monkey, it is the quiet, yet enduring, presence of the felines of the house which ensure that the heartbeat of our home is never silent.  The people of the house come and go, and so do the dogs, but the cats never leave, and it is The Hunk’s expectant presence, somehow always there watching and waiting for me to return, that touches my heart in a particular way I can’t really explain.