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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Samson and Why I Hate Halloween

 

When I was six years old we had a dog named Samson. We adopted him as an eight week old puppy from the shelter. We were used to more aggressive or standoffish dogs, but Samson was a black Labrador mix and had the Lab personality through and through. My brother and I would race off the bus from school to see Samson and play with him. He was the happiest dog we’d ever had and we loved him.

It could just be that he was still a baby, and hadn’t settled into dogdom yet, or maybe he just didn’t have time to cause trouble before he died.

We only had him for two months, until he was hit by a car, on Halloween. I’ve built up a long list of reasons why I hate Halloween: monster movies scare me; I had to touch peeled grape “eyeballs” in the dark at a Halloween party; I don’t like knocking on strangers’ doors; I prefer to choose my own candy; and I have PTSD, so every time someone knocks on our door or rings the doorbell to trick or treat, I feel like hiding under the bed.

I sound like the Grinch who stole Halloween, I know.

But the bottom line is that Samson was hit by a car on Halloween, and the two events have always been paired in my mind.

Mom’s not sure how he got out of the house, but she blames herself. She thinks she must have left the door open when she took the garbage out. When she realized he wasn’t in the house, she ran outside to look for him and a group of kids told her he’d been hit by a car and they’d carried him to the side of the road. His body was still warm, but starting to get stiff by the time Mom brought him up to the porch. I don’t know why he ran out into the street. Maybe he was following the trick or treaters. I don’t know. I was already in my pajamas and probably asleep.

My father insisted that my brother and I not be told that night, so we found out the next morning, after they’d already buried him in the backyard.

Something about the Samson story still feels unresolved, like a haunting. And I don’t know what it is. The traumatic event happened off screen. I didn’t see him getting hit by the car, and I didn’t see him die. I worry that Samson could have been saved if only I’d known that he needed me. I don’t have many narrative memories of him, just a feeling. Not so much a body memory as a soul memory. I feel, in some indistinct place in my heart, my face, my hands, that he was a joyful place in my life. And he was fleeting.

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Cricket’s Knee Surgeries

 

When Cricket was about a year old, we noticed that she sometimes limped, always lifting the same back leg. At first, I checked her foot for a burr or a nut shell stuck in her paw, but there was nothing. The limping was infrequent, at first, and then it was less infrequent. We took her to the vet and he gave her a vitamin supplement, like the one humans take for their bad knees. But it made her vomit.

Cricket didn’t seem to mind having walking problems. She’d just hitch up her leg, and keep going on three legs. But we couldn’t take her on long walks anymore and she couldn’t run and she couldn’t jump onto beds or laps. People kept telling me the problem would resolve on its own, but it didn’t.

The vet recommended doing an x-ray, to see the extent of the problem. Doing an x-ray meant putting her under anesthesia in the morning, then taking the scans and waiting for her to wake up. By the time we picked her up, she was dragging the vet tech down the hall to get back to us, scrabbling her toes on the slick floors, trying to go faster without much of a grip.

The vet showed us on the x-rays that the ligaments holding Cricket’s knee in place were stretched like an old rubber band, and the other knee was starting to show trouble as well. It’s a problem of little dogs, he told us, that the groove in the knee isn’t deep enough so the bones keep slipping out of place and stretching the ligaments that support it until they have no spring left.

The x-ray itself was scary to look at. My puppy splayed out like a dead frog in a specimen box. But, I saw the loosening tendons on the second knee and I was afraid that if we didn’t get her surgery on the first knee soon, she’d get to a point where she couldn’t walk at all.

The surgery itself was only a one day affair. No eating after eight PM the night before, go in first thing in the morning, anesthesia, shave the leg, paint it with yellow antiseptic, cut it open, build a groove in the knee so it fits like a lock and key, tighten the ligament, sew with black thread. Her bare leg was grisly and yellow for a few days after the surgery. And she was drugged and woozy and wearing the Elizabethan collar to keep her from chewing at her stitches.

 

It took about two weeks for her to start putting her foot down, then a few weeks more to build back muscle tone, because the bad leg was skinny and the good leg was getting muscle bound and tight.

I started doing massage on her after her stitches were out and her bad foot was willing to bear weight. We started with gentle stretching, hamstrings, quads, but mostly hips, where there was extra strain from compensating for the weak leg. By six weeks, she was running and jumping better than she had since she was a puppy.

For the next eight or nine months she was great. She got a lot of exercise and play time and I felt really good about how she was doing. But by September she was limping on the other leg. Mom wanted to wait, to see if we could get pet health insurance that would cover the second surgery (we couldn’t) and maybe look into another modality, like pet acupuncture or pet physical therapy. But Cricket was gradually limping more often and for longer stretches. When we finally took Cricket in for another x-ray, the surgery was scheduled for the following day.

Mom had a bad cold and as soon as Cricket was safely home, drugged to the gills, they both fell asleep. I went in occasionally to bring peanut butter covered pills for Cricket and Robitussin or soup for mom. I carried Cricket outside to pee and deposited her back up on the bed.

Cricket’s knees are perfect now. The only sign of the surgery is that her knees stop her before she can straighten her legs out fully, but it’s barely noticeable.

Whenever I think, maybe we shouldn’t have spent the money or put her through the pain of surgery, I just have to watch my mother take Cricket out for her morning joy run across the front lawn. It’s a reason to wake up each day, for all of us.

Cricket’s Second Training Class

 

 

We tried another training class when Cricket was a year and a half old. She’d been getting bad reports from the groomers for biting and general recalcitrance, and Mom had heard about this teacher from a friend of a friend and we decided to make the effort to try again.

The new teacher ran her school out of a small store front. The floor was rubbery and easy to clean, and the room was big enough to take six dogs per class with two owners each, with a row of chairs for the non participating owners.

The teacher had a long haired German shepherd who came in for the first class to demonstrate what the training could accomplish. He stayed quietly in his crate until he was called. She showed us how they played tug of war with a flexible flying saucer, but as soon as she said drop it, he did, and sat down like a gentleman. Then she showed us some of his tricks, like being shot and playing dead and coming back to life. But most of all she showed us that he listened to her. He was well behaved and happy. She never yelled at him or, God forbid, hit him, or sprayed him with a water bottle.

She talked about how to teach a behavior by capturing it as it happened and naming it and rewarding it. So instead of forcing him into a sit or lie down, she’d wear her treat bag and click when he did what she wanted and name the behavior until he recognized the name.

She wore the treat bag attached to her belt loop. It looked like a mini-fanny pack, but she wore it in front so she could reach the treats easily. She showed us how to press the clicker and immediately feed the treats to the dog to reward the correct behavior.

I already felt like a failure before the class started, because most of the other students were continuing on directly from puppy class in the fall. Cricket was older than the other dogs, but she didn’t mind. She’s not much of a shame puppy.

There was a Golden Retriever, who liked to roll over into submissive position every few minutes, and a German shepherd who wore a kerchief at his neck. There was a black lab, second to the Golden in submissiveness, but more playful. And then there was the Mastiff, this enormous bull of a dog, with a chain collar around his neck, because he was stronger than both of his parents. His bark was deep and loud, especially in the small room. And then there was Cricket, the oldest and smallest dog in the class.

The teacher sent us home with a list of things to buy, including a new harness for Cricket, which would be our third attempt to switch over to a harness from a collar and leash. Cricket has a Houdini-like talent for escaping the little vests in the middle of the street.

Cricket actually enjoyed training, at home. She loved the treats. We finally discovered one brand of chicken treats that worked every time, even when everything else was hit or miss, so we bought in bulk. But once we got to class, it was as if the treats had gone rancid, even though I’d cleaned the treat bag and filled it with fresh treats right before class. Cricket would sit there and pant at me and not hear any of my instructions, and even if she took a treat in her mouth, she’d spit it onto the floor.

Oh, and she climbed out of her new harness within the first few minutes of class.

The teacher called Cricket relentless. It wasn’t a compliment. She also said that I wasn’t holding my ground enough. I wasn’t matching her relentlessness the way I should be.

Cricket learned how to sit and stay and, sometimes, to lie down on command. She learned that she loves chicken treats. I learned that teaching new skills to a reluctant student is torture, and that I’m not good at being consistent. I learned that I hate the sound of the clicker and that I’m not built to be a dog trainer.

My one real success, though, was mat training. I placed the mat on the floor and gave Cricket her treat when she stood on it, even with one paw. Then she got treats for sitting on the mat. Then, she got treats for staying on the mat. Cricket loved this game. She loved the endless treats she could get just for sitting there and staring at me. She could stay on the mat for almost two minutes at a time, as long as I gave her a days worth of treats to make it worth her while, and as long as nothing more exciting came along, like the mailman.

 

 

Cricket and the Cat

            Cricket had a crush on the male cat down the street a few years ago. He would stand on his corner, and she would pull on her leash trying to reach him, and in response he’d do a long, slow, stretch next to the fire hydrant. Sometimes he’d stretch out in the middle of the road and roll on his back to scratch against the pebbles, while she watched from the sidewalk, stuck with me on her leash.

I had never really noticed the cat until Cricket noticed him. He was black and white and grey and his belly was too big for him. His day was filled with rambles from house to house, looking for food or adventure. He was in no hurry, though he could run when he had to, like when the mourning doves suddenly dive bombed at him one day for reasons known only to them. He was basically the same size as Cricket, small for a dog, but big for a cat. Sometimes, I’d see him standing on his front porch, waiting for someone to open the door, but then I’d look again and it was really the cat statue my neighbors keep on their porch.

I don’t know what Cricket would do if the cat actually accepted her attentions. He used to let her sniff his butt as he walked slowly across the street. He wasn’t interested in her butt, though. Do cats sniff butts the way dogs do?

I admire his nonchalance. I admire the way he seems to feel so comfortable in his skin, so unrushed in his life. He visits with people and doesn’t worry about being rejected.

It’s odd how much Cricket likes cats, when she can be so standoffish with other dogs, or frightened by them. It is almost impossible for Cricket to like a dog who likes her. The other dog’s interest and affection seems like aggression to her. She reads enthusiasm as attack.

One night, when Cricket was out on her walk, she saw the cat a hundred feet ahead of her, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. He saw her, too, and instead of turning away, he ran straight towards her, but then right at the end, he veered off and jumped up onto a neighbor’s lawn.

I don’t know if he meant to come to her and got scared off at the last moment, or if he meant to taunt her, or to run past her but misjudged how close he got.

I felt so hurt for her, for this unrequited love, this come-here-go-away cat. I wanted her to be the princess at the ball, loved by the cat of her choice. I was absolutely over identifying with my dog.

Even now, when she sees the cat stretched out on his lawn, she pulls to get across the street to him. He lazes on his back, like a cat centerfold, and looks away.