Sunday, May 22, 2011

From Here to Eternity?

Cleo at Asilomar

The beach is the doggy version of Disneyland.  If you’ve ever taken a small child to the Magic Kingdom, you know what it is to take a puppy to the beach: the wide-eyed wonder of the first glimpse of Cinderella’s Castle, the miracle of dancing with Pooh, the overstimulation of the crowds and the shows and the sights, the sheer joy of downing a Mickey-shaped pancake, the unexpected friends waiting to share a boat ride through Pirates of the Caribbean or the bossy bullies who push in line for Indiana Jones, the temper tantrums when it’s time to leave and the sound sleep of the nap that follows—all of these are reflected in a dog’s trip to the Land of Sand and Sea.

One of the wonderful things about living where we do is that we’re only five minutes from the Pacific Ocean.  Actually, given that we live on a peninsula, we could head in three different directions and hit the ocean sooner or later.  Usually sooner.  To the south of us is Carmel Beach, designated by one travel magazine or another as one of the top five most romantic beaches in the world.  The arms of the beach embrace Carmel Bay with a tenderness that’s palpable as soon as you stand on the great dune that overlooks the water.  Whenever I go there, I always imagine the sense of safety and homecoming the first explorers must have felt as they rounded Point Lobos and got their first look at Carmel Bay.  Of course, that feeling would have been quickly dwarfed by their first glimpse of Monterey Bay, just a puff of wind to the north.  Carmel itself is a quaint faux English village, complete with cottages, postage stamp gardens and the profound inconvenience of a prohibition on street lamps.  One of its many claims to fame is the fact that, for a few years in the ‘80s, Clint Eastwood was its mayor.  It is also extremely dog friendly, thanks in part to another famous resident, animal activist and erstwhile songbird, Doris Day.  Today there are more canine residents than full time human residents in the town.

To the north of us is the opposite end of the spectrum: Marina State Beach.  Monterey Bay is shaped like a giant jellyfish.  The tendrils are the massive submarine canyon, a sister of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, carved by the Salinas River into the floor of the Bay.  Marina State Beach lies on the surface of the jellyfish, just below the centerline.  After spending a day doing volunteer beach cleanup there, one of my students exclaimed, “People have got to find somewhere else to have sex and shoot up.”  Ninety percent of the trash she found on Marina beach was used condoms and hypodermic needles.  You don’t see many tourists taking in the mid-bay beaches.  We don’t go there, either.

Our beach, or the beach I grandiosely refer to as “our beach” is Asilomar Beach.  If I continue with my somewhat whimsical descriptions of my neighborhood, and who’s to stop me, the Monterey Peninsula looks like the head of a teddy bear floating face down in the water.  Just where the right ear meets the top of the head is Asilomar Beach.  It nestles snuggly up against Spanish Bay golf course, one of the renowned Pebble Beach golf courses.  It is a perfect blend of windswept sand, craggy golden granite bones and grass dotted dunes.  Snowy plovers nest there, fighter squadrons of pelicans skim the waves, swallows do their air-dolphin act, herons fish and any number of kestrels, gulls, pipers, grebes and egrets strut, dive, and wheel in the pure joy of being alive.

Oh, to see Cleo take it all in!  The wide-eyed wonder at the open expanse of beach and ocean, the miracle of unfettered running and leaping, the overstimulation of a riot of scents on the wind and the crashing of waves and the joyful exuberance of dogs and their people, the delight of digging through sand to discover a pocket of water or of burying your nose in a pile of soggy kelp, the unexpected friend ready to share a gentle nose touch or the bossy bulldog who sends you scampering back to your parents, the temper tantrums when it’s time to leave and the sound sleep of the nap that follows. 

Even though we’ve been to the beach countless times by now, as soon as Cleo realizes the direction the car is taking, she begins to squeak with excitement.  She gazes raptly out the window, panting impatiently at the delay of a red light.  As we park, she presses her nose to the glass, trying to catch a peek of a dog or the shoreline.  When I open her door, she plunks into a sit with a “Hurry up and get the stupid leash on” attitude.

On an unseasonable 70 degree day in late January, Cleo had her first beach adventure.  Being her usual affable self, she greeted and was admired by virtually every human she encountered.  On the rare occasions that the person didn’t stop to admire her, she paused and gazed after them as if trying to puzzle out what could possibly be the matter with them.  The socializing with people thing she pretty much had down from the moment she drew breath.  Socializing with dogs has been a slower process.  This first day, confined to her leash, she did alright.  She touched noses happily, but anything more assertive and she was cowering on Daddy’s feet. 

She manages a nose touch.
After several visits, we experimented with letting her off of her leash and she was most impressive, cavorting and leaping, running at our sides, never straying far from us.  One day, a gentle Golden Retriever came galumphing through the waves.  When he spotted Cleo, he turned sharply and started up the sand, tail wagging.  It was clear that all he wanted to do was say hello, but gentle as he was, Cleo tucked her tail between her legs and backed away from him.  As he came slowly on, she backed away more urgently.  One padding step forward on his part, three skittering steps backward on hers.  We were nearby and it wouldn’t have been a problem except for the fact that, for a reason known only to herself, Cleo turned and began backing towards the ocean.  Her expression turned from anxious to startled when she suddenly found herself ankle deep in cold water.  Unfortunately, rather than springing forward, she leapt backwards into deeper water.  “Honey!” I exclaimed, whacking my poor husband across the stomach.  Just at that moment, a wave broke over Cleo’s head, completely submerging her. 

I have three flashes of memory after that: Cleo swimming as if she were born to it, me taking a step forward, her making a mighty leap.  The next thing I’m completely sure of is that I am standing on the beach with a very wet Cleo in my arms, my jeans soaked from the knees down and my shoes squishing with saltwater.  For a moment she clung to me, her face buried in my neck.  Then she looked around.  Then she asked to be put down.  In an instant she was dashing back and forth, so proud of herself for having survived her first (and so far only) swim.  As we walked back up the beach, we passed a couple who had admired her on the way in.  The husband leaned down to her and said, “Well, not so fluffy now, are ya?”  She didn’t mind.  She just planted her soaking paws on his knee and laughed into his face.

With Daddy.
Yep, it's May 22nd.
Did I mention it can be a bit chilly here?
If you'd like to see Cleo in action at the Asilomar Beach, click here: YouTube video of Cleo

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lessons From My Dog: Part 1

May is always a busy time at our school.  For students, the end of the school year is so close they can taste the summertime freedom, yet they still have the hurdle of final exams to overcome.  For faculty, there are exams to be written and read, grades and progress comments to upload, last lessons to craft.  The awards ceremony, eighth grade rising up ceremony, senior graduation all must be planned and implemented—a weeks-long process that bears a significant resemblance to staging a Broadway play.  Between adolescent antsiness and teenage angst, Cleo and I are kept pretty busy.  If we’re not conducting stern conversational reminders of the three tenets of the school—honesty, respect and responsibility—we’re turning a listening ear, a damp nose and a fuzzy flank to reassure a student that the AP exams will not determine their future success or failure, that the heartbreak of the first lost romance will fade, that the school would never allow the evil substitute teacher to ruin their college chances, or that the faculty will surely allow them to make up the work they missed while they were away winning awards at the Intel National Science Fair.

When I first started as dean of students, I wanted to fix every problem a student or parent presented to me.  I have been accused of having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.  My sisters and I often comment on our shared need to “do” for others, to right perceived wrongs, to make the world safe for—if not Democracy, at least for those we care about.  It was an eye-opening moment when the facilitator of a stress reduction workshop I was attending turned to me and said, “You know, Joyce, I’m going to suggest a mantra for you: I am enough.”  She’d known me for all of three weeks.

I’m coming to the keen understanding that I can’t fix everything.  In fact, growth, healing, resolution, each has to be a process.  One summer I attended the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute, a week long training program for teachers who are in a position of counseling students, but who have no advanced training in the field.  What they teach is the art of listening and reflecting.  While I can’t possibly fix a student’s relationship with a demanding, hyper-critical parent, I can allow that student to know that she is heard and understood.  In fact, the very fact that I don’t immediately start spewing advice or mouthing clich├ęs lets the student know that I hear her and even more important, that I have faith in her to effect her own solution.  It won’t be immediate, it won’t be painless, but it will be a process, and Cleo and I will be here every step of the way, if the student wants.

There is a kind of danger in deciding that your dog is going to be a therapy dog before you even meet her, in knowing that you wouldn’t even have gotten a dog if she couldn’t be trained as a therapy dog, because any other role for her would be unfair to every party that’s involved.  In the first several weeks of Cleo living with us, I experienced regular moments of despair, convinced I had ruined this perfect puppy.  If I was having trouble teaching her to heel, it was not due to her youth, but to my incompetence.  It meant I would never be able to teach her to heel, and a dog who can’t heel can’t pass therapy dog certification.  It was a catastrophe; she would be condemned to a life of loneliness, spending her days cooped up at home.  I knew what the books said, that you have to take charge when people first meet your dog.  The Sirius puppy training manual instructs us to have every visitor ask our dog to sit, down and roll over.  Visitors are not to enter the house unless the dog will obey these three commands from them.  Between school and home, Cleo met about three hundred people who had mastered none of these.  I was destroying her.

One day, a colleague, a true dog lover, swept up to Cleo, who was sitting on my lap, scooped her up and walked out of the room.  Until they were out the door, I had no idea what was going on.  Should I run after them, shouting, “What the hell are you doing with my dog?”  Or should I just relax and let them have a good time?  I opted for the latter.  When they returned about forty-five minutes later, Cleo was beside herself, four quarters of frantic energy.  It was as though her grandmother had taken her to the fair and fed her nothing but candy all day, let her skip her nap, then plopped her back in her parents’ lap when things started to get out of hand.  As I walked Cleo back to my office, a student ran up to me and said, “Your dog attacked somebody in the Quad just now.”  What!!  It seems that a student had been lying in the Quad during lunch, eyes closed, taking in the late fall sun when Cleo, unrestrained by my colleague, had exuberantly pounced on her, licking her face and nibbling on her nose. Okay, the word “attacked” might have been a bit strong for the actual situation.  A better phrase might have been, as my daughter would say, the student was “Tiggered.”  Oh, but I was convinced that Cleo had learned an indelible lesson; she was ruined.  And why?  Because I was too trusting and had simply allowed her to be snatched off my lap and into harm’s way.

Of course she wasn’t ruined.  And equally obviously, I’ve continued to make mistakes.  But she is a brilliant dog; she learns even when I’m clumsy.  Over the months, she has learned to heel.  And sit, down, come, stay and stand to greet.  Okay, we’re still working on that last one, but it’s a process.  More and more often, right after someone says, “That’s a beautiful dog,” the next comment out of their mouths is, “She is so well behaved!”  Believe me, I’m not taking credit for this.  What I am doing is trusting in the process.  Cleo is simply blossoming, unfolding, fully becoming her beautiful self.  This dog is a born therapy dog; she purely loves people.

This morning, I was sitting on the couch grading papers, Cleo napping beside me as the unseasonable May rain spittered against the windows.  Tump, tump, tump.  I looked down at Cleo.  Tump.  Tumpa-tumpy-whack-whack.  She was wagging her tail in her sleep.  Was she dreaming about the couple we met on our walk this morning?  Or about greeting her beloved daddy when he came home from his gig last night?  Who knows.  But that tail only gets going like that when there are people involved. 

There is beauty to the unfolding.  There is calm in being in the moment.  There is bounty in Slow.  It’s all a process.  And if you’re very lucky, one day you’ll be sitting on the couch next to your dog whose tail is wagging in her sleep.

Standing to Greet

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Touchstone

So much is revealed about people by their reaction to a puppy. 

There is a teacher at school with whom I work very closely.  He oversees one of the younger grades, and so we spend a lot of time comparing notes or updating each other on students’ academic, social and emotional well-being.  He’s in my office at least once every day.  I think of him as being compassionate, level headed and highly opinionated.  Before he left England, he taught developmentally disabled students and he still exhibits the patience and understanding that made him so good at that challenging work.  He grew up in the northern part of England, but moved around so much throughout his childhood and young adulthood that his accent is a patchwork quilt of diphthongs.  The word “herb” begins with a haitch, but the game Charades rhymes with Scheherazade. 

So shortly after Cleo’s arrival, this fellow came to my office to check in with me.  He gazed at the ball of fluff that was enthusiastically wagging her tail at him, and his lip curled with disgust.  “Hello, dog,” he muttered, then turned his back on her.  For days he ignored her.  Finally, one afternoon he paused on the way out my door and cast a chary look at Cleo.  “What is this thing?” he asked, gesturing towards the puppy with mild distaste.

“This is Cleo.  Remember?  The therapy dog in training?” I prompted.

“Huh.”  Cleo was looking particularly adorable at the moment, in full stuffed animal mode, but my colleague was singularly unimpressed.  He continued regarding her as if trying to puzzle out how anyone could possibly be interested in such a creature.  It’s not that he dislikes animals.  He and his wife have cats and chickens, and they are extremely fond of their own pets. 

And then I had an inspiration.  This colleague is a history teacher and the students love him for the way he brings history to life.  He is also an ardent spokesman for the underdog, for the disadvantaged or impoverished.

“She’s a Bedlington Terrier,” I said, assessing the climate.

“Mm,” he grunted, noncommittally.  Well, at least he was still looking at her; that was progress.

“Bedlingtons are from the home country—from the north of England.”

He laughed.  “Oh?”  Eureka!  He had turned back into the room.

The evolution of the
Bedlington Terrier.
This painting is from 1870.
I talked fast to keep his attention:  “People think that they were originally bred by gypsies and peasants sometime in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century to poach small game from the estates of noblemen.”  I had his attention now!  He was looking delighted.  “They’re really fast, like whippets, so they would race onto the nobleman’s land, grab a rabbit or a pheasant, and tear back to their owners before anybody even noticed.” 

And now he was downright grinning.  “It’s one of my people!” he exclaimed, laughing.  “What’s its name?” 

The Bedlington Terrier
Gustav Muss-Arnolt (American, 1858 -1927)
Hutchinsons Book Of The Dog -
Original Bookplate from 1935 Edition - Vere Temple - Bedlington Terrier
These three pictures are from
The Bedlington Terrier Club of America

Every time he comes into my office or passes us on our way into or out of the library, he makes a point of greeting us both.  Don’t misunderstand me.  He’ll never be a dog person, but sometimes, open-minded tolerance is the best we can hope for.

On the other end of the dog acceptance continuum is Donald, a senior with a questionable reputation.  It’s not that Donald has ever done anything illegal or even unsavory.  He is just unusual in our school for his snobbish attitude and frequent putdowns of those around him.  Over his five years with us, I have heard more complaints about his attitude from both teachers and students than any other student currently at the school.  He bitterly complained, then finally quit when the orchestra director made another student first chair for their section.  That student, by the way, has since played at Carnegie Hall among other prestigious venues.  Donald walks around campus with a look on his face as though everything and everyone around him smells of unwashed feet.  It used to be that when I greeted him, he merely looked at me with a mildly hostile stare.

So honestly, you coulda knocked me over with a feather when he glanced into my office as he walked by the door one day, stopped dead in his tracks and gasped, “Look at the puppy.  She’s so cute!  Mrs. Sherry, may I come in and say hi?”  I could barely get out the words to tell him yes.  That first visit, he stayed for half an hour or so, playing with Cleo, patting her, cooing over her (yes, cooing).  The next day, he knocked on my door.  This time, he had a classmate in tow.  “I found her in a corner of the library crying.  Is it okay if we come in and talk to Cleo?  I think it will make her feel better.”

Over the last several months, Donald has visited Cleo, and by extension me, pretty regularly.  Not every day, but at least twice a week.  He snuggles with Cleo, taking on the role of her older brother, wrestling with her, helping to teach her not to chew on people, sometimes just looking at her.  And while he’s there, he talks to me.  He tells me about his college acceptance struggles, his anxieties about the future, his successes in class, the things he finds interesting in the world, all the many details that he worries about every day.

One afternoon as we were talking, Cleo fast asleep, splayed out across Donald’s lap, the academic dean came into my office for a conference.  “Hey, Donald,” said the AD in a hearty, man-to-man tone.  “Nice dog, huh?” 

Donald’s eyes did not leave Cleo’s sleeping face as he cradled her in his lap, gently stroking her tummy, but without missing a beat he whispered, “I love this dog.”

Sometimes, what a puppy’s unconditional acceptance reveals is a carefully guarded sensitivity.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It Takes a Pack to Raise a Puppy

Cleo came home the week before Thanksgiving, an ideal time in the life of my school as we had classes only two days of that week.  This allowed us to dip our toes in the water without, hopefully, overwhelming a little girl who had known her new pack just a scant couple of days.  I had reservations about taking her to school so soon, the long days in the office, the exposure to such a variety of people, the possibly conflicting standards of appropriate behavior.  I still wonder from time to time if I have complicated my life by allowing her training to include such a wide range of input.   But after long consideration, I decided that it was better for her to come to school with me, even if it meant periodic crate time while I was in class, than to be confined to her crate for several hours while John and I were at work.

And so, the therapy-dog-in-training was introduced to her new workplace.  Let me just say that when Jan Balladarsch told me, “This little girl has never met a stranger,” she was not exaggerating.  Cleo adores people.  A human being is an instant friend in her eyes.  Can ya ask for anything more from a therapy dog?  I think not.  When our vet first came to check Cleo out, I mentioned to him that I was training her to be a therapy dog.  He laughed and said, “Training her?  Is that a joke?”  She does have abundant natural talent.  Certified therapy dogs have to prove themselves, though, and certification is not only what I promised the school, but also what I want for both Cleo and my students. 
To be certified with Therapy Dogs International, a dog must pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test and then be evaluated by an approved TDI gatekeeper.  Cleo will need to prove that she can:
  • Accept a friendly stranger (Check, and probably an unfriendly one, too.)
  • Sit politely for petting (Part of the time, and if you count trying to slobber all over your hand as “polite,” then about three-quarters of the time.)
  • Accept grooming from a stranger (Bedlingtons have to be groomed because they have hair rather than fur.  This is both a great blessing as that’s what makes them hypoallergenic, but also a mild curse as their soft puppy hair is the dog world’s answer to Velcro.  It attracts all burrs, sticks and oak leaves in a three mile radius.  Anyway, check.)
  • Walk well on a leash (Okay, we’re working on this one.  The world is a very exciting place full of possibilities and some of us just can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.)
  • Walk through a crowd (This is a daily activity, but again, some of us—not mentioning any names—have trouble understanding that we may not be the center of every single human being’s universe and feel the need to greet vigorously if we are ignored.)
  • Sit, down and stay on command; come when called (This is the focus of the training class we’re in now and progress is pretty good.  Have I mentioned she is one smart little girl?)
  • Interact positively with other dogs (Okay, we’ll come back to this one; for the moment, we plead the fifth.)
  • Stay alert, but not aggressive, at loud noises or unexpected distractions (Let’s just say that we’ve made huge progress here—it helps that the school’s maintenance department head drives his Cushman past our window several times a day and that the gardeners make weekly visits with their two-stroke engines.)
  • Calmly accept medical equipment like wheel chairs and crutches (Haven’t tried this yet, but my instinct is that as long as there are people attached, Cleo won’t have a problem.)
  • Prove the ability to “leave it” (It’s a work in progress.)
  • Confidently and calmly accept supervised separation from me (I can only say that she has plenty of visitors while I’m in class and that she loves going on walks with her Auntie Kim and several devoted admirers.)

Walking with a fan.
She heels better with her mom...
  • Exhibit no sign of aggression or disturbance with running or playing children (This will be the toughest, not on the aggression front, but on the disturbance front.  She wants to join in, no matter the size of the child.  That’s fine if you’re sixteen and 5 foot 10, but it can be scary if you’re three and your eyes and the dog’s are at the same level.  You see those teeth coming at you and it doesn’t occur to you that all the dog wants to do is lick the snot off your face.)
  • Show a willingness and even interest in “Saying hello” or being placed in the lap of a stranger or otherwise made available for petting (Ding, ding, ding!!  We have a winner!)
So those are the tasks of the therapy dog.  From time to time I fret that I will prove incompetent in this whole scheme, but then I remind myself to trust in Cleo when I can’t trust in myself.  Besides, she’s only seven months old.  The path before us is long and curving, and full of fascination and the unexpected.  It takes a pack to raise a puppy, and I have faith in ours.

On her first day at school, I limited her encounters so that she wouldn’t become over stimulated.  She met mostly adults and mostly avid dog people.  She met Carol, the school’s librarian, whose desk is just feet from my office.  Carol is one of those rare people who make you feel good just being in their presence, whether you’re two-legged or four-legged.  She’s kind and caring, but also arch and funny.  And she has the best sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met.  She laughs at all my jokes.  Carol came in with Cammy, psych teacher, tech guru and the exemplar of what it means to be a teacher.  She is constantly developing, always expecting more of herself.  The phrase, “Good enough” has no place in her lexicon.  She takes a sharp interest in the lives of everyone around her and remembers details of conversations she had five years ago. Cleo thought they were both wonderful.  She chewed on their fingers, licked their noses, showed off her pink squeaky pig, accepted all of their admiration, then toddled over to the corner and peed on the rug.

She met Kim, a marine biologist whose many rings and bracelets completely fascinated Cleo.  She wanted to taste each one, but settled on jumping up and trying to catch Kim’s gesticulating hands, a game they both still seem to enjoy.  Kim and I have long discussed the merits of different dog breeds and both the pleasures and the responsibilities of dog ownership.  Well, we’ve discussed, argued about, celebrated or cried over pretty much every event in our lives for the last ten years, so when, after meeting Cleo, she paused at my office door and said, “You done good,” we were all pretty happy.

Late on the first day, we went to visit Chuck, the head of school, in his office.  Chuck and his wife Elizabeth have raised a number of gentle, beautifully behaved Labs.  Some they’ve not only raised, but rehabilitated after rescue.  They pour love, patience and consistent discipline into their dogs, and the result is as obvious as a Lab’s swinging tail.  Buck, often given the appellation “the Wonder Dog,” was a gentle spirit who was awarded a therapy dog certificate just for being himself.  The bond between the man and the Wonder Dog was one of those once in a lifetime connections and Buck’s death a few years ago was heartbreaking.

When Cleo and I walked into Chuck’s office, his eyebrows went up and he exclaimed, “Ah, here she is.  The Texarkana star.”  Cleo stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him.  Chuck was born and raised in Atlanta and still retains a regional spice in his speech.  Although the Texarkana accent could hardly be further from the Georgia one, I think Cleo recognized the sounds of her origins.  It must have been comforting to her, only a few days into her California conversion.  She walked up to him and sniffed his pant leg.  When he reached down to pat her, she immediately started chewing on his fingers.  At least she didn’t pee on his carpet. 

It was a good first day.