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The Dancing Raccoon

Out for a stroll.

Out for a stroll.

The other night when Mom and I took the dogs out for their last walk of the night, I heard a terrible squawking sound. I couldn’t quite place it, but it was a mix of a little girl being tortured and birds flapping their wings and leaves rustling. I was concerned, but when I looked up into the woods I couldn’t see anything to explain the sound, and the lights from the complex illuminate the area well enough that a screaming child and her tormentor would have been visible.

The scene of the crime (or, the backyard).

The scene of the crime (or, the backyard).

I thought it might be a cat fight or a strange bird ritual that I didn’t want to be a part of, so I turned the girls back towards home. The rustling sound came closer though, and, of course, I turned around to see what it was, and there was the dancing raccoon. He was skipping out of the woods like little red riding hood, without a care, until he saw the dogs. I don’t think of my dogs as especially frightening, especially when Cricket is keeping her barking to herself, but to this raccoon they must have looked terrifying, because first he froze in mid-hop, then he backed up on his tippy toes like a bad cat burglar, and then he turned and ran back into the woods.

The raccoon looked something like this (not my picture).

The raccoon looked something like this (not my picture).

I really wish I had a video of the dance. He was a bruiser of a raccoon, clearly eating a lot of the cat food left out for the now scrawny feral cats, but my little white fluff balls intimidated the poop out of him.

Who knew raccoons were so cute? (not my picture)

Who knew raccoons were so cute? (not my picture)

To be fair, it’s possible that he’d been spying on us for a while, for days or weeks or months, and had decided that the little white dog with the curly hair and the big mouth was clearly the devil in disguise. Cricket can really scream. I feel bad for the workmen who’ve been traipsing in and out of the complex for the past eight months, because Cricket barks at them every single time she sees them, and tries to break her leash and lunge at them from fifty feet away. Even Butterfly gets a few deep barks out before she calmly sniffs their pant legs.

Crazy barking Cricket!

Crazy barking Cricket!

The big raccoon had probably written out a schedule of safe times to cross the yard to get to the garbage cans in front of the Seven-Eleven, and we ruined his plans by going out at an unexpected hour. He was making such a racket on his way down the hill that I guess he couldn’t hear us until he was just a few feet away.

This was my first raccoon sighting on the premises in a year. We have a lot of wildlife behind our building: we have chipmunks and squirrels and butterflies and snails, we have tiny birds and fly over geese and feral cats and home grown cats, and of course we have the dogs. But the raccoons have been keeping a low profile, and I’m afraid that this particular raccoon will do his best not to let himself be seen again, at least not by me and my scary, scary dogs.

Who could be scared of these two?

Who could be scared of these two?

Passover for Dogs

 

I think the role of dogs in Passover has been woefully neglected. Cricket and Butterfly are my family, and they deserve a prominent role in such an important holiday, but I’m not sure what that role should be.

Butterfly and Cricket are ready for anything!

Butterfly and Cricket are ready for anything!

Leading up to Passover, there is an official search for leavened bread, or chametz, throughout the house, because you’re not supposed to eat, or even own, leavened bread for the weeklong holiday. When I was a kid, our dogs were very helpful with searching for old crackers under my brother’s bed, or half eaten candy bars in my book bag, or left over dog food in the corners of the kitchen. And then they would help with the ritual cleaning, done by candle light, where we would dump a handful of bread crumbs on the pristine floor and say a blessing as we swept it up, and the dog would lick the floor clean.

Dina, surveying the kitchen floor.

Dina, surveying the kitchen floor.

Samson, chewing on something more tasty

Samson, chewing on something more tasty, my brother

Delilah, intimidating the bread out of the house.

Delilah, intimidating the bread out of the house.

I may have to reinstitute this ritual, if only to clean up the kibble trail Butterfly has left throughout the apartment.

My favorite part of Passover is the Seder itself. All of the stories and songs make me feel like I’m living inside of a story book and travelling back in time. But the Seder is, first and foremost, all about the food.

When you think about it, the Seder is organized as a series of small plates. First you eat a piece of matzo, then a nibble of raw horse radish. Then you make a sandwich out of matzo and horseradish and sweet apple and nut charoset. It’s a tasting menu that gradually builds. And all the way through there’s the wine. This would be Cricket’s idea of a good time. She’s always been a fan of small plates, and wine.

Just a little sip.

Just a little sip

and a taste.

and a taste.

Generally the next course at our house was a hard boiled egg, to represent life, with some salt water to represent the tears that are inevitable in life. Then gefilte fish, for sweetness, with some horseradish on top, to toughen you back up. Then matzoh ball soup with chicken and carrots and onions, just because. And then the rest of the meal came at once, with brisket or chicken or steak, a vegetable or two, some sweet potato tzimmes. And then for desert, a nondairy flourless chocolate cake, Ring Jells, and macaroons.

Every dog we ever had made it a habit to stretch out under the table during the meal, to catch anything that dropped.

We brought Cricket with us to my brother’s Passover Seder one year, before Butterfly arrived on the scene. Cricket was actually a good distraction for the kids, since we didn’t eat dinner until 10:30 at night. The kids were antsy and grumpy with the lateness of the hour, and it was a relief for them to sit under the table with Cricket, and murmur to her, and feel like she could understand them.

I think Cricket would have been very helpful with the search for the Afikomen, if she’d been invited to participate. There’s a custom to break the middle piece of matzoh and hide half of it somewhere in the house. The children search for it like a treasure hunt and get a reward if they find it. At my brother’s house it was an every-man-for-himself blood sport, but I would have loved if Cricket could have participated as part of a team, with some chopped liver smeared across the matzoh, so she could really use her skills to help her human cousins. She would have been especially happy to share in the reward, which, for her, would have been the chopped liver.

I’d really like for Butterfly to experience a Seder. It’s not that I believe she would understand the words, but the story is all about the escape from slavery to freedom: this year we are slaves in Egypt, but next year we will be free in Jerusalem. And Butterfly knows that story. She lived in a puppy mill for eight years, and now she is home, where she belongs. There should be songs for her to sing, to express the pain of her journey, and the happiness of the now. I’d like to sing those songs with her and celebrate that miracle. And maybe find some kosher for Passover chicken treats for her to eat between songs.

Butterfly has a lot to sing about!

Butterfly has a lot to say!

Candle Lighting

 

When we first moved into the new apartment, back in May of 2013, I promised myself a set of candle sticks for Friday night candle lighting. Usually I’m at synagogue for Friday night services and they light Shabbat candles for us there, but I thought it would be a milestone to light my own candles again.

Traditional Shabbat Candles (not my picture)

Traditional Shabbat Candles (not my picture)

I looked in a few brick and mortar stores, while we were looking for other things we needed, like shelving and couches and tables and other little things like that. But I couldn’t find anything. The ensuing online search was extensive, but I eventually found a set of candlesticks that I liked very much. And then I found out that the online store that advertised the special candlesticks had gone out of business, just leaving the web page up to taunt me. When the special candlesticks disappeared, I lost my nerve.

Candlesticks with attitude. Eek!

Candlesticks with attitude. Eek!

I used to be clumsy, or distracted, and sometimes I still am. I have memories of dropping lit matches into full garbage cans, dropping lit candles onto counter tops, setting tablecloths on fire, etc. My fingers would get numb and shaky in the presence of fire, and not act the way I’d trained them to.

Don't worry, that's just my house burning down.

Don’t worry, that’s just my house burning down.

I used to light the Shabbat candles in our house growing up. I’m not sure why my mom didn’t want to light the candles, maybe it was her way of rebelling against my father’s obsession with becoming more and more religious. So it became my job, and I didn’t feel like I could say no.

The fat white Shabbat candles never sat still in their candle holders, so I had to melt the bottoms a bit to make them stick in place. Lighting the wooden matches always made me anxious. If the strip on the box had started to wear down, because we got those huge boxes instead of pocket sized, I’d have to light the candle from the stove, and then worry about doing something ritually wrong by turning off the flame on the stove after the official Shabbat candles were lit.

I hated that fear of doing it wrong. I hated feeling like someone was watching me, just waiting to yell “Gotcha!”

There’s something universal about candles, in all religions, despite electric light being ubiquitous. The flickering, temperamental quality of candle light, or the heat or temporariness of it, seems to add meaning. The Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop doing things the way you always do them and be more conscious and aware, of your family, of nature, of love and joy. It’s a time to remind yourself that there’s more to life than work. I wonder if the flame of the candles is, in part, a symbol of how dangerous that rest day maybe be, or may feel, when you stop rushing around and start to really experience your life. There are a lot of shadows hiding behind our busy lives, and the light of the candles may illuminate them in a way we are afraid to face.

If I could make this ritual work for me, I’d want to light four candles: one for me, one for Mom, and one for each of the dogs. But I keep seeing the dogs getting burned and the apartment going up in flames.

There’s a custom in orthodox Jewish homes, and maybe in more liberal Jewish homes now too, of blessing each child on Friday night as part of the ritual of the Sabbath. I knew a family with six kids who did this, and it was a lovely thing to see. Each child went up to their father, in age order, and he closed his eyes and put his hands over the child’s head and said a blessing, including a special wish for each child.

Maybe I could adapt this ritual for my dogs, instead of doing candle lighting, and come up with a prayer to say for them once a week. Just the act of resting hands on their heads would have a calming effect. I could wish them good sleep, good poops, and exciting things to sniff.

"Go ahead, Mommy. I dare you to bless me." (That would be Cricket.)

“Go ahead, Mommy. I dare you to bless me.” (That would be Cricket, on the right.)

And eventually, maybe, I’ll find another set of candle sticks that captures my imagination and help me over the hump. And maybe a fire retardant table cloth to put under them wouldn’t hurt.

The Broken Butterfly

There’s a special value in rescuing a dog, beyond knowing that you’ve saved someone’s life, or feeling like a good person: a rescue dog is a reminder of the broken things in the world, and of how sacred they are. My rabbi told us that the broken pieces of the first set of tablets of the ten commandments – the ones Moses smashed when he saw his people building the golden calf – were kept in the ark along with the pristine final set of tablets, as a necessary part of the whole.

           Butterfly, with her missing teeth and adorable protruding tongue, her heart murmur and lumps and bumps, is an important part of the whole story. Not all dogs are born to happy families, or adopted by happy families, and taken to the vet each time they have the sniffles. Happiness is only part of the story.

Beautiful Butterfly

Beautiful Butterfly

          Butterfly was recently diagnosed with diabetes. She had a urinary tract infection back in the fall, but with antibiotics it went away. We were curious about why she’d gotten it, but assumed it had something to do with how low to the ground she was when she peed, compared to long-legged Cricket, who practically hovers in the air.

Cricket  hovering, with help.

Cricket hovering, with help.

          As soon as she started to pee in the house again in February, we took her straight to the doctor. The vet on duty did some tests, took an x-ray to rule out kidney stones, and gave us antibiotics for another suspected UTI. We wrapped the pills in chicken and peanut butter and hot dogs and all of her other standbys; we crushed the pills and mixed them with water and then with her food and parmesan cheese. We did everything we could think of just to get the antibiotics into her system, against her will. But not only wasn’t she improving, she looked sicker and sicker every day. She was noticeably lighter when I picked her up, she didn’t do her usual poopie dance, and she stopped waking me up in the morning, waiting instead for me to wake her up and convince her to go outside.

Butterfly, not eating? Cricket is unconcerned.

Butterfly, not eating? Cricket is unconcerned.

          My concern has always been her heart, because she has a prolapsed mitral valve and is at risk for heart failure. I knew this when I adopted her. But it’s a hard thing to remember when she is running and jumping and smiling at me. I was afraid that after a year of watching her flourish, I was going to lose her.

          We collected some of her voluminous pee and brought it to the clinic to be tested, and made an appointment with a different vet. As soon as we met the new doctor he took a blood glucose test, to confirm the results of the urine test, which, he told us, showed very high sugar. In the office that day her sugar was over five hundred. It’s supposed to be under a hundred.

           I was relieved. I’d been so scared that this was heart failure, and she was dying, but diabetes is treatable. The doctor showed me how to give her a shot of insulin in the scruff of her neck. He also gave us a liquid antibiotic to try on her, instead of the dreaded pills, because the UTI was clearly being maintained by the diabetes and needed another round of antibiotics to wipe it out.

          Every morning, and evening, I give her a dose of the antibiotics which she hates, making angry toddler faces and sticking out her tongue, and I give her a shot of insulin, which she doesn’t seem to mind. Some days I do a better job than others. It still feels strange to stick a needle into her skin, and I can be too tentative, but mostly it gets done, and she’s improving.

          The rest of the day, I follow her around with pee test strips to see how the insulin is working.

          The first time I saw her run again after her diagnosis and treatment began, I thought my body would crack open from all of that joy.

Hopefully this is what she'll look like again soon.

Hopefully this is what she’ll look like again soon.

          There is a sort of halo of white light around Butterfly, that could just be the highlights in her hair, but the light could also be coming through her broken pieces. And I want to keep that light going for as long as I can.

Butterfly , spreading the light

Butterfly , spreading the light

Becoming Sisters

When Butterfly first arrived last year as an eight year old rescue dog, she saw Cricket as the all knowing mentor about things like poop, and stairs, and dinner time. But Cricket looked at her with suspicion and made it clear that everything in the house belonged to Cricket first: the food, the toys, and most especially the people. Cricket had been an only dog for six years and did not see any reason to change that. But I did. I wanted her to learn social skills, to calm down her protective instincts and to widen her emotional repertoire. She preferred to sit on her grandma’s lap and give the usurper her best death stare.

"Hello, Cricket!"

“Hello, Cricket!”

"What are you looking at?!"

“What are you looking at?!”

My job was to make sure that Cricket had no good reason to feel usurped. That doesn’t mean she never felt jealous or resentful, just that she had no good reason to feel that way. I had to make sure that Cricket didn’t run low on scratchies or treats or have her walks curtailed.

When Butterfly pooped in the house or looked at the stairs with terror, Cricket rolled her eyes. She lived like there was no other dog in the house, just a distant, annoying, buzz of noise that had no interest for her. But Butterfly ran a campaign of attrition. She was unremittingly loyal, and upbeat, and ignored every sign of Cricket’s disdain. Butterfly was the kind of friend anyone would want, but no one could quite believe they deserved.

"Are you down there, Cricket?"

“Are you down there, Cricket?”

Butterfly started to show her usefulness to Cricket by being the one who woke me up at the break of dawn to go outside. Cricket just had to yawn and stretch and meet us at the door. Butterfly also made chicken treats more available, by needing and responding well to training, so that if I was giving Butterfly treats, Cricket had to have some too, and again, without much effort, Cricket’s treat intake at least doubled.

But the biggest benefit of having Butterfly around is the unconditional love. Cricket can be snotty and grumpy and indifferent, and Butterfly will still look at her with devotion, follow her around, and pee where she pees. It has to be a nice ego boost.

I’ve caught Cricket, recently, snuggling up to Butterfly, purposely resting her head next to Butterfly’s tushy, for comfort and wonderful aromas. Cricket doesn’t find it quite as annoying anymore that Butterfly worships the ground that she walks on, especially because the worship has been tempered over time. If food or scratchies are being offered, Butterfly will shove Cricket out of the way to get first dibs.

Tushy to tushy.

Tushy to tushy.

I wanted Cricket to have a sister so that she would have someone to talk to, someone who could speak her language. No matter how much I love my dogs and try to understand them, there is a language barrier that stops important messages from coming through. Butterfly and Cricket know that language. A lot of it seems to be transmitted by the smell of pee. They sniff-in with each other multiple times a day, to see what’s going on, as if they are reading each other’s diaries.

The girls, intentionally, do things together now. They cozy up for warmth. They sit on either side of grandma’s rolling chair at the computer. They take turns eating at the bowls. They especially try to walk down the stairs at the same time, in the same place, so that they are piled on top of each other and jockeying for position. They do the same thing when they notice a strange pee in the backyard. They pull me forward like two horses pulling a cart, and then they both have to examine the pee at the same time, pushing each other out of the way, eventually smushing their heads together so they can both smell at once.

The facsination of pee.

The fascination of pee.

Cricket has attempted a play bow, though she still doesn’t know what to do after that, so Butterfly is trying to figure out how to grab a tug toy with her few teeth so she can play in the way Cricket likes best.

There was an incident one night recently when Butterfly managed to get in Cricket’s way, unintentionally, and Cricket was so angry that she made a screeching sound, like a car suddenly breaking on the highway. There was no dog fight, just the sound of Cricket’s outrage and then the scuffling sound of Cricket rushing under the bed to sulk. Cricket has a big mouth, but when push comes to shove she doesn’t really want to do damage.

But that incident made me realize that in more than a year, we’ve never had a dog fight. A few grumps here and there, but mostly smooth sailing. Maybe it has taken this long for Cricket to finally believe that there is room for two dogs here, and we are not going to get rid of her. I don’t know what she’s been thinking. She’s inscrutable when she wants to be.

Cozy time.

Cozy time.

I think Cricket would even protect her sister now. She won’t admit it, but she cares about Butterfly and would never let anyone hurt her. She still doesn’t think Butterfly should ever get more than she gets – of food or attention or outings or freedom – but she’s learned to tolerate a fair and equal distribution of goods, with Cricket being ever so slightly more equal.

The sherriff and her deputy.

The sheriff and her deputy.

Puppy On Call


 

            Cricket needs a job. She has a lot of excess energy, and uses it for barking and biting, and I’d like to find more constructive ways for her to keep busy. Some ideas that have come up in the past are:

·        Fitness trainer. She could help anyone build upper body strength and cardio, by pulling like an ox on her leash for three or four miles at a time. She might have a lot of one time customers, though, after an hour with her, I’m not sure we’d get follow up visits.

"Streeeeeeettttch!"

“Streeeeeeettttch!”

·        Assistant dishwasher at a restaurant, pre-cleaning the dishes. Except that any dangerous foods would have to be picked out before she got there, like onions and raisins and chocolate…

Cricket is an expert dishwasher. At least, Butterfly thinks so.

Cricket is an expert dishwasher. At least, Butterfly thinks so.

·        Ball puppy at a tennis court. Though I wonder if anyone would really want the ball back after she’d been carrying it in her mouth.

·        Carnival barker? I don’t think they really mean her sort of barking.

Nothing seemed quite right, and then I started thinking about my brother, the doctor. What if Cricket could do something in his field? I don’t actually believe she could go to medical school (anti-puppy prejudice!), but a hospital would be a fascinating place to work.

Doctor Dog (found online)!

Doctor Dog (found online)!

            Children in the hospital can get very lonely, especially at night, when their visitors go home and the noise quiets down and they are supposed to be asleep. I know dogs have been invited in during the day, but I think they could be even more helpful at night. I can picture the puppies wearing blue scrubs, and beepers at her necks. Puppies could be called by the nurses when a child had a nightmare and couldn’t get back to sleep, or when parents had to leave at bedtime and knew that the child would be lonely.

The human handlers could bring the dogs in and leave a jar of treats by the child’s bedside table, with a bowl of water the dog could reach.

            The job of the human handler would be to be as unobtrusive as possible, but also to know when a child and puppy combination would not be a good match. If the child was angry, at being in the hospital and poked and prodded, and lashed out at the dog, the human handler could remove the dog from harm and prevent the dog from needing to fight back.

            The puppy-on-call room would have to have treadmills, and fake grass to pee on, and a water fountain to drink from, one for the big dogs and one for the little dogs. There could be a play circle filled with tennis balls and chew toys, and mats and beds to sleep on between jobs.

The dogs could do rounds earlier in the day, to meet the children currently in the hospital, and help the doctors with sniffing diagnostics, and then the dogs would be on call at night.

            But now that I think of it, I’m not sure this would be a great job for Cricket. She’s a bit more of a me-me-me dog, rather than an aching-to-be-of-service-to-others dog. Now Butterfly, she’s a whole other story. But her scrubs would have to be a light pink.

Butterfly is very patient.

Butterfly is very patient.

And very Zen.

And very Zen.

            Maybe Cricket could work for the police? Drug sniffing? Recapturing escaped prisoners? She’d be great at catching anyone resembling a leaf or a stick.

"Gotcha!"

Cricket always gets her leaf!

ESP in Dogs


 

            We have a history of ESP in my family – not big stuff, just little things – like knowing when a relative is about to call (before Caller ID), or knowing when a timer is about to buzz.

            Dogs take these little bits of irrational knowledge for granted. They don’t think it’s strange that they can guess when it’s Grandma’s car driving up in the parking lot, or when, without my saying a word or doing anything significant, they know I’m thinking of taking them for a walk. They accept that there are connections and electricity in the air that carry unspoken information, and they don’t rebel against it as eerie or irrational, the way humans do.

            I read an article that said dogs can track our eye movements to read our intent, so that what we interpret as ESP is just heightened attention to our behavior. And, to a degree, I believe that a lot of what we call ESP is really a heightened version of the senses we already have. Someone who seems to have ESP may simply be very good at collecting the information of their five senses, remembering that information, and interpreting it.

Cricket, the observer

Cricket, the observer

Butterfly prefers to absorb information unconsciously

Butterfly prefers to absorb information unconsciously

            But I also believe that there is a level of energy in the world that is beyond every day life. There is a magic that can crop up between people, and dogs are naturally more attuned to these electric and magnetic fields than humans are.

            One night, a few years ago, a friend of mine was in trouble. I don’t know why I knew or even if I knew that he was struggling. Maybe it was a coincidence that I’d emailed him that day. But when he wrote back, he sounded suicidal. He wouldn’t come out and say that, and maybe he would never have acted on it, but I was worried. I wrote back to him and added a note to his cat that she should keep an eye on him and let me know how he was doing.

            Dina, my temperamental black lab mix, usually slept up in my room, but that night, she slept in front of the computer, and then peed on the floor in front of the hard drive. She was getting older, yes, and in a few months she would be regularly incontinent, but not then, not yet. I choose to believe that she had received a message from my friend’s cat and was doing her best to send her own reassuring message in return.

Dina, feeling the vibrations.

Dina, feeling the vibrations.

            Cricket seems to have ESP sometimes too. I have these episodes, when I get tired, where I can’t speak well. I can hear what I mean to say in my mind, even though sometimes my thinking is also garbled in these episodes. I seem to run out of the air necessary to form words with full articulation. But Cricket understands me.

"Yes, Mommy. I understand."

“I’m listening.”

            I could be saying “I…eh…ugh,” out loud, but she knows that I mean “I think it’s time to take the dogs out to pee.’ And she will stand right up and yawn and stretch and come over to my knee, ready to go. Butterfly hasn’t figured out my gobbledy gook yet, but she trusts Cricket to know best and follows her lead.

We think of ESP as magical because we don’t understand how it works. But maybe the magical element of ESP in dogs is not just that they have different abilities than we do, but that they love us enough to use them to communicate with us. I wonder which idea is more frightening: that dogs are smarter than humans in certain ways, or that dogs love us, whether we deserve it or not.

Peaceful, happy Cricket

Peaceful, happy Cricket

Love.

Love.

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