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My Nephew is Going to Israel

 

My nephew is going to Israel for his gap year between high school and college. It has become de rigeur for kids from orthodox Jewish schools to spend a gap year in a yeshiva or seminary (for girls) in Jerusalem, immersing themselves in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and maybe even the political realities of the Middle East. I wouldn’t want to spend a year in Israel, though, even now. I’m kind of addicted to familiar things. I could manage a week away, maybe ten days, tops. Though even that would strain Cricket’s anxiety disorder to the breaking point. Mine too. I’m impressed by all of these eighteen and nineteen year old kids who have the self-confidence to go to another country for a whole school year.

And the state of peace in Israel is always shaky; flair ups can come at any time. The recent violence at the holy sites could be forgotten by the time my nephew even gets on the plane, or it could grow into a conflagration. Many parents will send their kids to Israel during wars or uprisings. I don’t know why they feel so confident that their children will be safe, but they do.

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This is how I’d feel about it.

 

My nephew probably won’t be visiting a kibbutz, because there aren’t many left. Israel is a tech crazy country with some of the best medical research facilities in the world; it’s not a country of people living on collective farms, picking oranges, anymore. Will the boys get to meet the Palestinians who live on the other side of Jerusalem? Or visit the Knesset (the parliament) to hear arguments from politicians from the many different sides? Or will they spend all of their time studying Talmud and meeting other Jews? Maybe even only other American teens like the ones they grew up with, instead of the Russian or Ethiopian or French or Indian Jews who have found their home in Israel.

It took me a long time to even dip my toe into the waters of modern Israeli history, and I still can’t say that I fully understand the conflicts and points of view of everyone involved. I know that my support for Israel is tribal rather than logical, but then, I think that’s probably true of everyone, on either side.

I have seen and heard a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric recently, and some of it goes over the line into the anti-Semitic language used during the Holocaust. But I have also heard prejudiced arguments and comments from some Jews that are not only unconvincing but disturbingly racist in nature. Smarter and better informed people than me will have to figure it all out and find the compromises that will work. I don’t have answers, or ease, on this issue.

But what I do have is a deep understanding of the need to live somewhere surrounded by people who are like you. I grew up going to Jewish schools where we could each be who we were – the athlete, the musician, the artist, the brain, the druggy – and not be defined by everyone around us as “the Jew.”

I am an American Jew, though. America is my country, my home. This is where my family is, where my dogs are, living and dead. It would be nice to visit Israel, though, and see how it feels to be one among many, and no longer in a minority, surrounded by my people’s history, deep in the ground under my feet.

Unfortunately for me, the Jewish state is in the Middle East, in the desert, where it is too freaking hot. Maybe if the Jewish state were somewhere like Vancouver, I’d be more eager to go. I wonder how Cricket would take to traveling in a plastic crate under my feet.

puppy in October 018

I mean, she has fit herself into smaller places.

puppy in November 047

When she was a puppy.

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Look-a-likes

 

I have a friend whose 17-year-old daughter is like a facsimile of her, except that she does her hair and makeup differently (as in not at all) and dresses her own way. They’re like two identical dolls dressed by radically different children. There’s danger there, because my friend sees her own face so clearly on her daughter, and struggles at times to see her daughter as a separate person, with different characteristics, and needs, and limitations. The temptation to project yourself and your own feelings onto such a familiar face must be extraordinary.

“You sound just like your father.” I said this to my second oldest nephew recently, because I heard his voice from a distance and actually thought it was my brother. His voice had deepened significantly since my previous visit. The older one looks more like his father, and the younger one sounds more like his father, but neither one of them is just like either of their parents, even though there are those genetic matches, and habits they’ve picked up in how they phrase things.

I look very different from my mother, especially in body type. I am taller, with a bigger frame. I’m built more like my father, which does not feel good to me. As a teenager, I tried to starve myself down to the right size, so that I would resemble my mother more, and my father less, but it only lasted long enough to give me fainting spells and muscle cramps, and when I started eating again, the illusion of similarity disappeared.

My father is six-foot-four and over three hundred pounds. He used to be unspeakably strong, before diabetic neuropathy, two strokes, cancer, and age. My hair is brown with red highlights, like his was, rather than dark brown to almost black like Mom’s. My nose is more rounded, like his, my face is more Russian, like his, my skin color is peachier, like his, whereas Mom’s coloring is more Mediterranean. To other people it’s probably subtle to the point of invisible, but to Mom, and therefore to me, the differences are overwhelming.

The fact is, I didn’t and don’t look like my father. I have a full head of hair, and no beard. I am nowhere near as tall or imposing as he is, and my body language is very different. I wasn’t a smaller version of him, at any point in time. But when categories were being given out, my brother matched up more with my mother and I matched up more with my father, and that was that.

For a lot of people, there’s relief in being able to see a parent’s features in a child, if only because it proves parentage. That way you know for sure that the babies weren’t switched at the hospital, and the mailman didn’t get his genes in there without you knowing. But I wonder if looking nothing like your parents might be easier, as long as you are certain of their love and attachment, because then people can see you more clearly as an individual and not so easily confuse you with someone else. But then again, we all look for clues to who we are in the people in our families. We look for a great uncle with our particular inability to do math, or a cousin with our propensity to laugh until we fall on the floor crying. The balance between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in is so precarious.

I have two dogs instead of human children, and they are small, white-haired dogs. We will never show up in those side by side pictures of dogs and owners who look alike.

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“Wait, you don’t look like us?”

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“We need to lie down.”

When I was younger, we used to have black-haired dogs, so that was a little more like me. I especially felt like Dina, my black lab mix, was my familiar, even if we didn’t look exactly alike. I related to her “black dog” status, not the most desirable puppy at the shelter, not the right size or breed or coloring to be popular. There were lots of puppies like her at the shelter, and at every shelter. But mostly it was her personality, and her status in the family, that I related to. She cried desperately when we had to keep her downstairs in the kitchen as a puppy, before she was potty-trained. She escaped from every enclosure we made for her, but no one was willing to put time and effort and money into training her, or buying her special beds and toys and treats, or coming up with a set schedule for her. She was largely left to her own devices, like I was, and she was overwhelmed, like I was, and she developed some odd behaviors as a result, to try to comfort herself, like me.

dina smiles

Dina’s smile.

dina stops to sniff

Me and Dina (we even dressed alike).

A look-a-like was what I needed at that time. Someone I could think of as just like me, and still worthy of love and attention and care. Taking care of Dina taught me how to take care of myself. But by the time Cricket came along, I was ready for a dog who was not like me at all, but who needed me anyway. She was so assertive, and cute, and very high maintenance. She taught me that even though there’s a steep learning curve in loving someone so unlike yourself, there’s also a freedom in it. It’s so much easier to accept her strengths and weaknesses as they are when they don’t reflect on me. She’s her own person and I can see her clearly without judging her, or myself, quite so much. And that’s a relief.

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Cricket is her very own person.

Family Photo Albums

Earlier this summer, when one of my cousins came to visit from Paris, it occurred to me that she might like to look at the two or three family photo albums we have at our house that I’d been organizing and reorganizing obsessively. Both my French and American cousins spent hours poring over the pictures, and requesting copies, and Mom spent the next few days at the library scanning the pictures and downloading them to drop box, for everyone in the family to share.

My grandmother was the keeper of the family photo albums, and showed them to us as the only form of entertainment she could offer when we visited her. I loved the black and white pictures of serious people and children in sailor suits. I loved knowing that I was connected to this ongoing story and I wasn’t just a solitary blip in time.

I don’t know what it means that my grandmother created and kept the photo albums. She wasn’t a storyteller, she was a collector: colored glass, interesting people, recipes, and photo albums full of disconnected moments in time. When we looked through the photo albums at her house, she stood at a distance, and when we asked questions, she answered in one or two words, or not at all. She could only offer us the pictures, not the lives behind them.

After her death, my aunts divided up the photo albums and furniture and books. I don’t know if they looked through the boxes and made conscious decisions, or if they just put things where there seemed to be room. My French aunt took the blue and white sofas and put them in her country house, I have the old rocking chair with red cushions and a few photo albums, and the largest box of family photo albums was in my other aunt’s attic in Queens. Untouched. And after my cousin’s visit, I had to go get that box. I spread the photo albums out on the floor of the living room: a lot of them were falling apart at the binding, or had lost their stickum, and pictures were falling out the sides.

It was exciting to finally see so many pictures of my cousins as children, because they were all together each summer at my grandparents’ house in Lake Placid, even my brother was there one summer as a baby, but the house was sold the summer before I was born. We were rarely anywhere at the same time after that. One set of cousins or the other would visit, or my brother and I would visit our grandparents, but there were no big family gatherings again like those summers in Lake Placid.

But the great discovery was the dogs! All of these dogs I’d heard about over the years were finally visible. We are a dog family, no matter what else we are. My Grandmother, severe and moody, loved Rufus. My mom, skinny and lonely, had Minky by her side. Even the housekeeper, dour and apart, had Chihuahuas – given to her by my grandfather, for company – dogs that really did make her a part of the family. Dogs have magical powers to soften the harsh edges of life, and people. There was Lady, and Minky, and Rufus, and Hercules, and Bijou, and Sarika. The dogs were much easier to love than the people, but all of the people loved the dogs.

That's my aunt, mind-melding with a family dog.

That’s my aunt, mind-melding with a family dog.

Annie, the housekeeper, with Herculina.

Annie, the housekeeper, with Herculina.

Grandma with a puppy.

Grandma with a Momma and her puppy.

Mommy and Minky.

Mommy and Minky.

Rufus, guarding the house.

Rufus, guarding the house.

Through all of this, Cricket and Butterfly wandered around and sniffed. I don’t think they could identify which particular pictures were of their doggy relatives, but there were interesting smells everywhere nonetheless.

After-sniffing exhaustion.

After-sniffing exhaustion.

It’s going to take a while to scan all of these pictures, but it will be worth it, to keep the family narrative intact so that we all know where we came from and that we are different strands of the same complicated family story.

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!

Adventures with Tom Tom in Washington, DC

            For the second year in a row we packed the dogs in the car and drove down to Washington DC, to see my great aunt, to celebrate her 98th birthday. She is, if anything, sharper than she was last year. She loves to tell a good story, or to hear one, and she loves to laugh. I’ve seen pictures of her father, and she has his smile, and his almost giddy capacity for joy in the little things. She’s up on the latest political news in Washington and on the latest gossip from family and friends. She writes emails and reads newspapers and stays up late watching TV. And she loves, and is loved by, her grand dog (and of course by her human grandson as well).

Zoe is the lovey-doviest dog I’ve ever met. She is the granddog, and the doggy daughter of Mom’s cousin/honorary little sister. Zoe is a red-haired Cockapoo, twice Cricket’s size, with almost none of Cricket’s angst.

Zoe

Zoe

            My great aunt doesn’t travel anymore, so we only get to see her on these yearly visits. For the trip this year, Mom bought a GPS thingy, called Tom-Tom. She was mostly worried about driving in Washington DC, and getting lost on all of the one way streets and complicated highways, but we turned the GPS on as soon as we left our parking lot, in case Tom-Tom could give us a better route off of Long Island. Except, Mom being Mom, she didn’t want to take the route Tom-Tom had planned out. She didn’t want to take Tom-Tom out of commission either, though, so every few blocks Tom-Tom’s female voice would give us a new way to get back to the “correct” route, by taking a u-turn, or a side road, or a left turn into traffic when she really lost her patience with us.

            Eventually, we gave in, and listened to her advice about upcoming traffic and alternative routes. Tom-Tom said it would be a four hour trip, but it ended up taking six hours. Maybe Tom-Tom doesn’t take bathroom breaks into account, or screaming and vomiting puppies, or rain.

Sorry Butterfly, no hairdryers on the road.

Sorry Butterfly, no hairdryers on the road.

            Butterfly only vomited once on this trip, which is an improvement over the seven times she threw up in the car last year. I still had to clean up her dog bed, and the blanket spread out across the back seat, and use up half a roll of paper towels and a lot of dog-odor-vanishing-spray, but after that one clean up, at a rest stop in the rain, she was okay.

            Cricket was another story. Each time we stopped for a pee break, the girls got soaked and had to be covered in paper towels, which Butterfly liked, and Cricket disdained. Cricket much preferred drying herself on my jeans and then crawling behind my neck to finish drying herself on my hair. She was fidgety, and antsy, and trying to steal food and tissues through the whole trip. Ideally, I would have walked Cricket to the point of exhaustion before putting her in the car, but my point of exhaustion and hers have drifted further and further apart as my walking has become more labored.

            It was a relief when we arrived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where we were staying. First of all, they have dog friendly parks every few blocks, with benches, and outdoor garbage cans, and trees to sniff, and other dogs. Second, it’s all flat ground instead of hills. I’ve been living in hilly neighborhoods my whole adult life and I miss the flat ground where even I feel like I could walk forever.

At a certain point, you don't notice the rain anymore.

At a certain point, you don’t notice the rain anymore.

            If it hadn’t been raining for most of the trip I would have done more walking, because there are always benches to rest on. They need all of the benches, for the homeless people to sleep on. It’s a strange feeling, to see such wealth and upward mobility and achievement right up against a huge and obvious homelessness problem.

            It rained all that day and the next, so that everywhere we went we brought puddles with us. It was embarrassing. We had to put our clothes and jackets in the dryer at the hotel just so that we could go outside again. Suffice it to say, this was not a sightseeing trip. It was a visiting trip. We were there to see Zoe and her mom and her grandma. A few glimpses of famous buildings was nice, but largely beside the point.

The dogs have taught me the importance of these visits. They know that you need to use all of your senses, and especially smell, to figure out where you are and who you love. You need to see and hear and smell and touch people in order to feel the connection instead of just thinking it.

Touch.

Touch.

            When we rode in the car over to my great aunt’s apartment, Mom and her cousin sat in the front seat of the car, and the three dogs sat with me in the back. I had Cricket standing on my shoulders, at first, and then on my lap (guarding), and Butterfly and Zoe squashed against each other, and me, along the seat. Butterfly was wearing her plaid jacket, and with all of the squishing and cozying somehow the jacket came undone and ended up under her on the seat.

            Butterfly did so much better this time. She didn’t pee once in my great aunt’s apartment. She even calmed down and relaxed next to Zoe during dinner. She followed Zoe to the kitchen for American cheese (Zoe’s favorite), and then they begged for food together at the table, and then napped tushy to tushy on the floor. Eventually, Butterfly slept under the piano while Zoe and Cricket hogged the scratchies.

Being around Zoe makes me dream of a three dog life, especially if Zoe could be the third dog. I don’t think I could sneak her out of DC, though, without helicopters and police cars coming after me. She is well loved.

A three dog walk.

A three dog walk.

            Overall, the trip went well, though I do wish I could have visited with Sunny and Bo before we left. But I’m pretty sure Tom-Tom would have had something snide to say if I’d tried to program her to take us to the White House; something along the lines of “U-turn! U-turn! U-turn!” GPS thingies don’t like being chased by secret service agents any more than humans do. So touchy.

The Barking Tour of Washington, D.C.

 

Back in January, we went to Washington, DC to celebrate my great aunt’s 97th birthday, a month late. She’s a very young 97, still my Grandpa’s feisty baby sister.

Mom visits her cousin and her aunt once or twice a year, and they’ve become very close. This is the cousin who lent us her NYC pied a terre after the hurricane when our power was out on Long Island. She and Mom are both painfully empathetic, and feel like they should have done more with their lives, even as they continue to choose to put their energy into other people instead.

A few years ago I gave Mom a list of questions and a tape recorder to bring with her on her visit to see her aunt. I’d been reading my grandfather’s unfinished memoir, and finding a lot of holes in the story, and I realized I had a potential treasure trove of information in my great aunt. I transcribed the tapes, listening over and over to get every word down, and I became very familiar with her voice and rhythm and the stories of her life. But I was looking forward to hearing from her in person. I was also eager to see her daughter and to meet her grand dog, Zoe.

We had to drive to D.C., because any other method of transportation, with both dogs, would have been untenable. I can’t even imagine the damage Cricket could do on a train.

We put the dogs in their harnesses, in their doggy beds, in the back seat of the car. Butterfly sat on her bed and drooled, but within seconds, Cricket was out of her harness and behind my neck in the front passenger seat. She moved around, as she usually does, between my neck, my lap, and her favorite spot, behind my back with her nose stuck behind Grandma’s shoulder. Her answer to anxiety is to stay as close to her people as possible.

Cricket the co-pilot

Cricket the co-pilot

The longest Butterfly had been in a car before, with us, was the half hour back from the animal shelter in November, so I didn’t know what to expect. She started out panting and drooling, but after half an hour she moved on to vomiting white foam.

Butterfly with her paper towel bib

Butterfly with her paper towel bib

We stopped the car, to clean and dry her bed, and to take both dogs for a walk to get some fresh air, but once Butterfly was back in the car the vomiting continued. Two and a half hours into the trip, I’d used up a whole roll of paper towels and half a box of tissues, and we had to stop at a super market for more.

Overall Butterfly vomited seven times.

We arrived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood at around four thirty in the afternoon and Zoë and her Mom came out to greet us. Butterfly was happy to have her paws on solid ground again. And even Cricket kept her volume at a low bark for the first meeting. We walked over to Zoe’s local dog park down the block, and met a lot of friendly and talkative Washingtonians.

Zoe demonstrated her unique poopie dance for us. She walked in second position plie, on her tippy toes, in a very large circle, before she finally felt ready to poop. Butterfly was fascinated by this variation. Where was the hopping and twirling? Why one big circle when you could do ten circles and a spiral?

Zoe is a Cockapoo, like Cricket, but Cricket is fourteen pounds and mostly white with apricot markings, and Zoe is 27 pounds, with red hair and a Golden Retriever-like personality. She loves everyone.

Once inside her house, Zoe galloped across the floor and leapt onto her seeing chair to watch the neighborhood through the window. I’ve been told that she barks, but I’m not sure I believe it of her. She has only one flaw, like Butterfly, occasionally she still poops and pees in the house. Her trainer taught her to respond to the words “potty outside” to help her differentiate between doing her business on the dining room carpet and out in the backyard. But that sounds too much like “party outside” to me. I’m afraid Zoe does her business in the house to get ready for the big party outside. She’s a very social girl.

Mom’s cousin is a devotee of take out menus. There is a precious folder in the kitchen with a menu from every restaurant in Washington DC. We ordered in and the dogs had Chicken Satay, Zoe’s choice.

Three girls eating all in a row

Three girls eating all in a row

After a night’s sleep, or collapse, at the hotel, we went back to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and walked around town with the three dogs. Everyone knew Zoë. We stopped in one store after another where the owners offered her and the girls special treats. There was the kitchen supply store and the children’s book store and the furniture and chotchkes store. You could tell it was a dog friendly neighborhood because there were silver dog bowls full of water at regular intervals along the street. Eventually, we sat at an outdoor café and fed the dogs pieces of our grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Cricket and Butterfly at the book store (Zoe's on the other side of the door)

Cricket and Butterfly at the book store (Zoe’s on the other side of the door)

Zoe and her mom were approached on the street to volunteer in a program where kids learn to read by reading to dogs. Zoe would be perfect for the job. There’s just nothing indifferent or mean about her, and she would love the attention.

We were a funny looking group: Mom’s cousin in her ankle boot from a recent foot injury, me with my awkward stomping walk, and the dogs pulling in three different directions. But we had a good time and wore ourselves out completely.

After a nap, though, we were ready for the big event, dinner with my great aunt at her apartment. Zoe is an experienced elevator rider, but my girls were still struggling with the moving wall that tried to catch their tails. As soon as the elevator door opened on her grandma’s floor, Zoe raced down the hall to get to the apartment as fast as possible. She was clearly her Grandma’s girl. She slathered on the kisses and then ran inside to find the living room rug with the raised squares that was clearly designed for doggy back scratching.

Zoe's magic carpet

Zoe’s magic carpet

The girls followed Zoe into the apartment and sniffed every corner. Cricket started to bark, but her new people barked back, and she was shocked into silence, for a little while anyway. When we started to eat dinner, cooked entirely by my 97 year old great aunt, the dogs spread out on the floor of the dining room to rest. There were two different types of chicken on the table, which eventually led to whimpering that, surprisingly, did not come from either of my dogs. It was Zoe.

Zoe’s whimpering woke the other dogs and they started begging for chicken and searching through the bowls of dog food in the kitchen for other hidden treasures. Meanwhile, the humans listened to stories about the Carp that lived in the Bathtub, for years, and had to be shifted out of the tub whenever one of the humans actually needed a bath. I could hear my Grandpa in his little sister’s voice, his sense of humor, his magical glee about the absurdities of life.

I wish I could show you the raised eyebrow she adds to every story, but I’m not allowed to take pictures of her. She does exist though, I promise.

On our last morning in DC, Mom’s cousin took us on a driving tour of the city with Cricket barking her commentary on the Capitol building, the White House, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial and everything in between.

We were there before the inauguration, so we got to see the porta-potties being lined up along the mall. Cricket barked at them too.

When it was time to leave, I gave Zoe a big hug and soaked up as much love as I could. The whole time we were there, Cricket never had a bad moment with her cousin. They ate together and slept together and walked together and Cricket, who growls at every dog she meets, couldn’t think of anything growly to say.

Butterfly slept in Cricket's bed the whole way home

Butterfly slept in Cricket’s bed the whole way home

Butterfly took a few drops of Pepto Bismal for the trip home, and Cricket was dosed with the doggy version of an anti-anxiety medication, so the seven hour ride home was largely uneventful, which gave me time to think about the trip. Zoe and her Mom and her Grandma were wonderful. The city was fascinating. Butterfly made a great impression with her little pink tongue. But Cricket was still struggling.

Except, there was one moment in the car during the drive around the city that morning. Butterfly was on my lap in the back seat, with Cricket stretched out next to me, temporarily quiet. Somewhere along the way, Butterfly rested her head on Cricket’s back, and Cricket let her stay there.

It’s a place to start.

Cricket, on my lap, and drugged

Cricket, on my lap, and drugged

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.