Random Musings on Dogs, Photography, and the Vagaries of Life

Friday, April 30, 2010

Appreciating Tango...

...the dog, not the dance, although after years of ballroom dance lessons, I definitely have an appreciation of that as well (and of the people who do it well).

Tango is my canine "problem child." My husband, Mark, and I adopted him along with his sister, Samba, when they were 14 weeks old, and as we celebrate his 11th birthday on May 1, it seems appropriate to reflect on the impact he has had on my life.

I'll be the first to admit that our decision to adopt Tango and Samba was driven by our hearts rather than our heads. We saw them at an adoption show and they looked so much like Boris, our beautiful black Lab/golden retriever who had just died, that they made us cry. And that was that.

I remember sitting with Tango on my lap at the adoption show and thinking what a calm, quiet puppy he was; he hardly moved at all, even though a dog sitting next to me was trying to chew Tango's tail. Wow, I thought, this is going to be one easy-going dog. I was wrong.

Our first clue that Tango had "issues" came several days after he and Samba came home with us. Both puppies were sitting in our TV room with me when my husband walked into the doorway from a dark hallway. Tango jumped up and began barking like a banshee at Mark, and it took several minutes to calm him down. Needless to say, we were startled, never having seen such a reaction in a puppy before.

We soon discovered that Tango was also startled and frightened by Kramer on Seinfeld (okay, I can understand that), the sound of the dishwasher, the automatic ice maker in the refrigerator, umbrellas being opened, unfamiliar people, and even familiar people wearing items of clothing that changed their appearance. He also was terrified of Mark's black briefcase and large black plastic garbage bags. I remember being mortified and embarrassed when Tango backed away, barking, from neighbors during walks. I had never experienced anything like this before.

I asked our vet if he knew 0f any canine behaviorists in Maryland, and he didn't. He suggested that we enroll Tango in obedience classes, which we did. Tango did well in class, although he was obviously uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings. He "graduated" from beginning class and moved on to intermediate, where he easily did 3-minute "sit-stays" and 1-minute "down-stays" with me across the room. The only thing he would not (probably could not is more accurate, given his emotional/psychological make-up) do is "stand for examination," which involves someone--usually, but not always, the teacher--placing a hand on the dog's head and running it down the dog's shoulders and rump. Tango eventually would let our female instructor touch him, but any time she asked a man to assist in the exercise, Tango would back away.

We eventually stopped going to class because around the age of 2 or 3 Tango began displaying dog-aggression tendencies. He would almost always ignore the dogs around him but if one of them broke a sit-stay and came bouncing over, Tango seemed to feel threatened and would respond aggressively. I did my best to keep Tango focused on me and asked other handlers not to let their dogs get in Tango's face. Unfortunately, some people just didn't get it. One older woman with a little Yorkie-type dog would let her dog jump at Tango's face. I told her that Tango didn't like that, and her response was that her dog was just being friendly. I'd explain over and over again that Tango didn't see it that way. Eventually, it just got too stressful.

Over the years, I increased my knowledge of dog behavior issues. I read such books as Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Relationships with Dogs by Suzanne Clothier; Cautious Canine, Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash Aggressive Dog, and The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell; The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Nicholas Dodman; and Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention & Behavior Modification by Brenda Aloff. I attended seminars by Patricia McConnell and Sarah Kalnajs, and worked with trainer Liz Marsden. And I began putting the knowledge I acquired into action with Tango.

The good news is that it's helped. Tango will never be immediately comfortable with new human acquaintances and he will never like other, new dogs. So he will not get to interact with the occasional foster dog that spends time with us on his or her way to a forever home. He will not get to go to dog parks or for "play dates" with our friends' dogs. He will not get to go to "Yappy Hour," "Canines & Cocktails," or any other "dog friendly" events, where humans and their canine companions gather to socialize and enjoy a little "nosh"...often to raise money for a good cause. But...I can take him for walks without him lunging, barking, and growling at other dogs we pass. Thanks to patient, consistent, positive training--and some really yummy treats--I can turn his attention back to me. In fact, when we pass a neighbor's house and their three dogs run along the fence and bark at Tango, he will automatically look up at me instead of them. He also is more trusting of new people...especially if they'll throw a ball--his favorite item and activity in life--instead of trying to pet him. Basically, he seems more comfortable in his own skin.

The bad news is that I could have helped Tango even more if I'd spent more time addressing his issues. But with two other dogs who both had needs of their own, a full-time job (until recently), volunteer work for the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George's County, and other professional and social activities, I just couldn't focus all my attention on Tango. And I have to admit I sometimes feel guilty about that. But, to use a sometimes trite phrase, "it is what it is." I've done--and continue to do--the best by and for Tango that I realistically can.

I've told many people that if my husband and I had known about Tango's "issues" ahead of time, we never would have adopted him. But once he was part of our family, we felt we had made a commitment to him. And I'll never regret that decision.

I have learned more about dog behavior than I could ever have imagined...information that has benefited not only me but also other people who have sought my input on their own dog challenges. And I have met some amazing people who I never would have met otherwise...people who have enriched my life in many ways. And I have seen Tango mature and develop into a wonderful, if flawed, companion. My mother once said, "It's not easy being Tango." I'd like to think that thanks to the love and work we've done with him, that "being Tango" gets easier all the time.

When I think of the number of people who would have given up on him--and given him up--I thank my lucky stars that my husband and I found him at that adoption show 11 years ago. It's been a challenging but enlightening ride...and it's not over yet. Like all of us, Tango is a work in progress...a work that will continue until the day he dies.

Happy birthday Tango!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Snug as a Bug...

While taking photos this weekend, I caught my friend’s Doxie Iris right after she crawled into the blankets on the futon. To me the image epitomized the saying, "Snug as a bug in a rug," which I can remember my mother telling me when she tucked me into bed, along with, "Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite."

"Snug as a bug" implies a sense of great safety, comfort, and contentment. And, apparently, the phrase has been around for centuries.

The "as X as a Y" format of the saying is common in the English language. The "X" in question invariably refers to a property that "Y" typically possesses. When it comes to the snug bug, it’s hard to imagine a place more congenial to snuggle down as a warm hearth-rug. The specific type of bug originally referred to remains a mystery, with some sources mentioning a cricket and others a carpet beetle.

The first-known written use of the phrase was the Stratford Jubilee during a celebration of David Garrick's 1769 Shakespeare festival: "If she [a rich widow] has the mopus’s [money], I'll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug." Similar sayings appeared in print even earlier: in Thomas Heywood's 1603 play A Woman Killed With Kindness ("Let us sleep as snug as pigs in pease-straw") and in Edward Ward’s 1706 The Wooden World Dissected ("He sits as snug as a bee in a box").

Benjamin Franklin used the saying as part of an epitaph he wrote in 1772 following the death of Skugg, the pet squirrel belonging to Georgina Shipley, the daughter of his friend, the Bishop of St Asaph:

Here Skugg
lies snug,
as a bug
in a rug.

Origins aside, I thought I’d share some more images that capture the sense of the saying.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Dreary Day Pick-Me-Up

This morning started off beautifully, but then Mother Nature pulled a fast one on us, and the sun disappeared. So I thought it was time for a visual pick-me-up. You can check out more of my favorite flower photos on my website: digitaldoggy.com.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kudos to a Real Dancing Dog

Given the name of my blog, how could I not share this wonderful video? And can I just say that I love the fact that Chandi is a rescued dog.

Thanks to John Woestendiek for bringing the video to my attention.

For more information on Dog Dancing--otherwise known as Canine Freestyle--check out the Canine Freestyle Federation and Wikipedia.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Of Hairless and Powder Puff Cresteds

I realized that so far the only dog photos I've posted have been of black dogs, and while it's true I have a weakness for black dogs, I thought I should start giving some equal time to dogs of a different hue.

Meet Fancy. She reminds me of nothing so much as some sort of garden sprite or canine gnome. In reality, however, she is a "powder puff" Chinese crested.

Now, if you're like me, you associate Chinese cresteds with those little naked dogs whose "hair" is limited to little leggings, a sort-of Mohawk do on their head, and a little pom-pom on the end of their tail. It turns out, however, that if it weren't for the hairier variety like Fancy, Chinese "hairless" cresteds wouldn't exist. According to Fancy's human mom, the hairless variety are the result of the mating of a hairless with a powder puff parent...at least when it comes to responsible breeders. Apparently, mating hairless Chinese cresteds to each other can result in offspring with skin problems.

So now you know.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Marching for the Animals

I can't think of a better way to spend time than surrounded by dogs and dog lovers, so I'm really looking forward to the Maryland SPCA's March for the Animals this Sunday (April 18). I feel very privileged to be sharing a booth with author Jen Carle, where she will be signing copies of her new book, Becoming Waldo, and I'll be signing copies of A is for Angel: A Dog Lover's Guide to the Alphabet and Black is Beautiful: A Celebration of Dark Dogs.

Interestingly enough, Jen and I have never met in person, having gotten acquainted as a result of our books and on Facebook. It's just one more example of how my love of dogs and my involvement in animal rescue and welfare issues has led to new and wonderful connections with people I would not have met otherwise. My life is definitely richer for it.

The March for the Animals runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Stop by and join in the fun. It should be a blast!

For details go to http://mdspca.org/events/mfa.html.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Passing of a Muse

Why is it that life's highs are so often counterbalanced by corresponding lows?

Sadly, the printing of my new book, A is for Angel: A Dog Lover's Guide to the Alphabet, an event that brought me great satisfaction, coincided roughly with the diagnosis of one of our dogs, Samba, with hemangiosarcoma. What made this coincidence particularly painful and ironic was the fact that Samba had been something of a photographic muse for me.

My husband and I adopted Samba and her brother Tango when they were 3-and-a-half months old, following the death of one of our first dogs, Boris. We discovered them at an adoption show of the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George's County and burst into tears. Black and fluffy, they reminded us so much of Boris as a puppy. We were smitten!

Over the years, Samba posed for many photos, including Halloween portraits, Christmas cards, and the cover of my book Black is Beautiful: A Celebration of Dark Dogs. There's something serene and soulful in her expression in that cover shot that will stay with me always, as will the photos taken of her in the snow and on her bed just a week before she died.

Before Samba's diagnosis, I had never heard of hemangiosarcoma, but desperate for any information that might help us help her, I scoured the web, and quickly learned that it is discouragingly common...and deadly. Despite the removal of her spleen, site of the original tumor, Samba succumbed just one short month after diagnosis. But during the course of my information search, I discovered a source of hope for all dog lovers: the National Canine Cancer Foundation, a non-profit organization that funds grants for researchers investigating the prevention, treatment, and cure of cancers afflicting our canine companions. So in an effort to channel my grief, I established a fundraising page in Samba's memory on the NCCF's website. I encourage you to read her story there and make a donation to the cause if you're moved to do so.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Seeing through the Eyes of a Rescued Dog

Since fostering rescued dogs has been a fairly significant activity in my life over the past few years, I thought I'd share the following reflections based on my experience with one of these wonderful dogs...reflections that were originally posted as part of the blog of the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George's County:

Sometimes we forget that the ordinary, everyday world can be an exciting, surprising, and even scary place…when seen through the eyes of a dog just rescued from the concrete confines of the shelter. Objects, environments, and situations that we ignore or take in stride can cause very different reactions in a recently “liberated” canine.

Take Kourtney, one of our recent foster dogs, for example. When she arrived at our home, she was afraid to even come inside, much less go up or down stairs. A couple of days later, having mastered the stairs, she noticed a life-sized statue of a small puppy standing near the wall in our den. She crouched down, belly to the floor, stared, and began to growl. I had to turn the statue on its side and hold it in my lap before she would approach to sniff it. We repeated the process several times before Kourtney was completely convinced that this very still dog who showed no appropriate greeting behavior wasn’t a threat.

One night while I waited for what seemed forever for her to “go potty,” in the backyard, Kourtney spotted a cicada as it flew clumsily onto a low-hanging trumpet vine branch. She watched it intently for a moment and then made her move, knocking it to the ground and pouncing on it with apparent glee.

And the next day was the day of the pinecone. While on a walk, Kourtney suddenly froze in that position that suggests uncertainty about whether to advance or retreat. I couldn’t figure out what had spooked her, but then noticed a pine cone lying in the dirt. She stared, circled it, and stared some more. Tentatively, she touched it with her nose, only to jump back in surprise at the sensation. She circled some more, touched it again, then gingerly picked it up and carried it proudly for a few moments as we walked before dropping it as if it were of no further interest.

Kourtney’s stay with us was characterized by such small but momentous discoveries…discoveries that I feel blessed to have share with her. Ahhh, to see through the eyes of a rescued dog.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Time for Reinvention

Sometimes it takes circumstances beyond our control to make us go beyond dipping our toes in the shallows to taking that great leap of faith into the deep end. In my case, Maryland's budget crisis and the resulting loss of my communications job essentially forced me to reassess my goals and explore some new directions that I hadn't had the courage to do before.

So here I am, investigating ways to combine my passion for animals (especially dogs), writing, and photography. In some ways, I've been preparing for this transition for some time. My professional life has centered on writing and editing for years, while photography has interested me since I was in high school. And dogs...well, I've loved dogs pretty much as long as I can remember. From Boots, the $12 pet store puppy (purchased long before we knew about the ugly realities of puppy mills) who lived to be almost 18, to Boris and Natasha, the first dogs my husband and I added to our family, to Tango and Samba, our first rescued dogs, and Ceiligh, another rescue who joined our pack three years later, dogs have been--and continue go be--an important part of my life. And these "family dogs" have been joined over the past 5 years by a series of 17 or so foster dogs, for whom our home has been a way station on their road from homelessness to adoption.

At some point after becoming involved in the world of animal welfare, I became aware of something called "Black Dog Syndrome," which is the term used to describe the difficulty facing black shelter dogs trying to find forever homes. As someone who has lived with black dogs for more than 17 years (and counting), I had difficulty understanding the prejudice facing canines of color and felt the need to do something about it. So 2 years ago I published Black is Beautiful: A Celebration of Dark Dogs, a book of photographs of black dogs of all shapes, sizes, ages, and breeds. My goal was twofold: to inspire people to appreciate the beauty of black dogs and to raise money for the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George's County, the organization with which I volunteer.

Inspired by my canine "models," I embarked upon a new project: A is for Angel: A Dog Lover's Guide the Alphabet. This book features photos of dogs whose names begin with specific letters of alphabet, along with their stories, as told by the people who love and live with them. A portion of the proceeds of this publication will also be donated to selected animal welfare organizations. Both books are available on my website, DigitalDoggy.com, the newest brick in the road to my reinvention.

So...I've taken the plunge and am on my way. I may not be sure of my destination, but I'm excited about the journey. And I welcome your company along the way.