Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cur de Lion

This has been a week of learning new facts about Cleo.  Maybe by now you’d think I know her pretty well, and I do, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of daily surprises. 

According to our trainer, for instance, Bedlingtons have the largest teeth in the terrier group.  Since she judges shows all over the world, I believe her.  In our class, there are a couple of other terriers, though most of the dogs are big guys.  We even have an English sheepdog which, I have to admit, I think is a bit of a lump.   I cannot imagine this dog having the sense to herd a flock of sheep if his life depended on it.  Thank heavens our trainer talked its owner into trimming the hair around its eyes.  It has suddenly started obeying visual commands.  Who knew that being able to see might help with that?

Cleo checks out the Chico art scene. 
It’s funny how much dogs and their owners grow to resemble each other.  I’ve always loved that scene from the animated 101 Dalmatians that pans across New York showing dogs and their people walking down the street or through the park.  The sleek, laid back, stylish Afghan with her sleek, laid back, stylish mistress.  The top-heavy matron mincing down the street with her Pekingese.  The gallomphing, down-at-heel artist with his large-pawed, jowly hound dog.  In class, it’s the same thing.  The man with the Jack Russell is good natured, but misses a lot of the instructions because his ADD has him gazing at the setter across the room.  The woman with the Australian shepherd can be counted on to tell her neighbors if their dogs are out of position.  The Vizsla’s owner gives commands with such intensity that every dog within ten feet of her jumps to obey.  And the woman with the English sheepdog…well, enough said about that subject.

This isn’t to imply that I have large teeth.   But Cleo and I are truly starting to work as a team.  I had no idea how much fun training would turn out to be.  It is very much a mommy-and-me kind of experience.  It is an active, engaging time for both of us that is one hundred percent about Cleo.  I think we both have enjoyed getting compliments lately.  We’re about to embark on our fourth 8-week session, so it’s about time, honestly.  When Cleo gets a “Good job!” from our trainer Pluis, or I hear “Nice follow through, Cleo’s mom!” it really does count for something.  Pluis doesn’t praise unless she means it.  And yes, she does call me “Cleo’s mom.”  She was very honest the first day of class to tell us all that she would learn the dogs’ names before the hour was up (she did), but that she would never learn our names (she hasn’t).  I have no quarrel with that whatsoever.  As I say, class is Cleo-time.

Pluis has started picking us to go first in an exercise.  Last Monday, she borrowed Cleo to demonstrate a new technique.  I felt like we had really arrived.  Cleo admires Pluis, so she was ecstatic when Pluis came over and took the leash from me.  She trotted with her to the center of the room.  But then, they turned around and Cleo realized that I hadn’t come along.  The laughing look fell from her face and she stared at me.  She went through the motions of the exercise, glancing once or twice up to Pluis, but for the most part, her eyes never left mine.  I kept smiling at her to reassure her.  When the demonstration was over, Cleo ran back to me and sat on my feet.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, this is not an anxious dog.  She adores people and will snuggle up to or play with any student who comes into the room.  She just feels best when someone she loves is very close by.

As we chatted about Bedlington traits (our dogs were all in prolonged down-stays at the time), Pluis mentioned that the lamb dogs have a reputation for bravery.  “That’s what they say,” I replied.  “They have the hearts of lions.”  Okay, well, that is, indeed, what they say, but I was pretty much just being loyal to Cleo.  I didn’t want to embarrass her; it’s a toss up sometimes how brave she will be.

As our daughter took us on a tour of the science building at Chico State last Wednesday, we passed by a glass case with a stuffed and posed mountain lion.  We stood in front of it for several minutes, commenting on the odd disjointed quality of its aggressive pose, springing after quarry, and the sleepy gaze of its glass eyes.  Cleo sniffed at a spot on the floor, oblivious.  We walked down the hallway.  While John and Sisarie used the restrooms, Cleo and I read the notice boards on the wall.  She turned—and stiffened.  A low growl started deep inside her.  It broke off, then started again.  “Rrrr-rowf,” she said.  I looked where her quivering nose was pointed.  From right up next to the case, the shape of the lion hadn’t registered.  But from her new vantage point of the end of the hall, she knew what she was seeing.  She let out a roar and surged toward the case.  We ran down the hallway and up to the mountain lion.  Cleo was flummoxed.  Again, from below the case, she couldn’t see the form.  Even more perplexing, there was no scent.  I picked her up and held her at face height with the lion.  “Grrrr.  Grrrrowr.”  Back on the floor again, she put her feet up on the glass.  Now she could see it, and told it, “Arr, arr, bar!”  If you’ve never heard a Bedlington’s bark, they are surprisingly big and deep.  There wasn’t an ounce of fear in her as she gave the lion what for.  She was completely ready to take it on, should it ever finish its leap.

After our tour of the campus, Sisarie took us home to see her apartment.  We were greeted at the door by her roommate’s small black cat.  Both Cleo and Faithful were mildly surprised to see each other, but Cleo has learned to speak some Cat from Rufus and Marvin, so she politely touched noses and backed away.  Faithful stalked into the kitchen.  Behind her, Cleo tiptoed into the living room and sat down in the middle of the floor, watching the cat.  The cat wound around Sisarie’s leg, then sat down, watching the dog.  In a sudden flurry, the cat charged Cleo who, tail tucked as tightly as it would go, flung herself up onto the couch.  Three humans told the cat to “Knock it off!”  The cat retreated a step or two.  Then, with a look of glee, it launched itself at Cleo again.  Cleo apparently forgot that the couch was pushed up against a wall, because she tried to escape the cat by going over the back of the couch.  If this had been a Roadrunner cartoon, there would have been a Wile E. Coyote shaped hole in the wall, but since this was real life, there was a thunk and a trembling dog stood on the back of the couch, pressed tightly against the immoveable wall, blinking at a hissing cat.

Sure, she has the heart of a lion.  It’s just that it’s Frank Baum’s lion.  What was I saying about dogs and their people?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Travels With Cleo

On Tuesday, Cleo is going to experience her first long car trip.  I’m really excited by the prospect.

Regular readers may remember that at nearly nine weeks old (exactly a year ago today, November 19th), Cleo weathered two plane trips, several car rides to and from airports, a stint in a hotel room, and a long wait at the airport with a brand new mom.  Her resiliency and courage throughout the whole ordeal left me in awe.  And, of course, jump started my love of our little girl.  The longest car ride she’s ever had with us has been about twenty minutes out to Garland Ranch.  On Tuesday, we’re driving up to Chico.

Chico, California is the pretty little town where our daughter is going to college.  To be perfectly honest, she is my step-daughter, but I enjoy laying claim to her and she lets me get away with it.  A little over five hours northeast of us, Chico is a fascinating combination of agricultural community and university town.  It’s the most populous city of Butte County which sits at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, one of the prime agricultural areas of the entire world.  Of the many crops Butte County is known for, almonds are probably at the very top.  If you want to sound like a real Chico resident, pronounce the nuts “eh-monds.”  See, the farmers shake the trees to harvest almonds, and if they really know what they’re doing, they shake them so hard that they shake the ‘ell out of them.  Insert rim shot here.

Upper Bidwell Park, Chico
Anyway, Chico is smack at the western foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  In fact, the city limits go well up into the foothills.  It was founded by a fellow who was a member of one of the very first wagon trains along what would come to be called the Oregon Trail.  I imagine him staggering out of the mountains after a brutal crossing and simply flopping to the ground, refusing to go a step further.  He could have chosen worse places to stop.  Several waterways feed Chico, most notably, Little Chico Creek.  And residents of the city thought highly enough of their founder that they named the massive park that divides the city in two, one of the largest municipal parks in the US, after him.  I cannot wait until Cleo gets to experience Bidwell park.

Of course, neither Chico nor Bidwell Park is the reason for our trip.  We’re going to see Sisarie.  She is almost at the end of her first semester at Chico State.  She already completed multiple courses at Butte College, the junior college close to Chico.  Butte is probably one of the best kept educational secrets in California.  They’ve got a terrific faculty, an intensive student support system, but coolest of all, they’ve won several national awards for sustainability, including the grand prize in the 2008 National Wildlife Federation’s Chill Out Contest: Campus Solutions to Global Warming and the 2009 National Campus Sustainability Leadership Award.  Sisarie loved this school and discovered a passion for biology and chemistry while she was there, including working on a project to create fuel from algae.   Now she is majoring in both sciences at Chico State (and doing very well, if I may brag for just a moment).  I see her being a role model for young women everywhere she goes.  She is strong, smart, hard-working and nobody’s fool.  She proves that the Sciences are very much a woman’s domain.

So on Tuesday we will begin our first great road trip with Cleo.  We’ll hit the road about 7 PM, after John finishes work, and head off for the Sierras—it sounds so romantic.  We’ll check into the pet friendly Holiday Inn, get a little sleep, then spend Wednesday with our favorite tour guide and our four-legged co-adventurer.  Wednesday evening it’s back in the car for the return trip to Monterey. 

Doorway at Chico State
I’m ridiculously excited about this thirty hour whirlwind, even more excited than I was to go to New Orleans.  I think it’s because I am so eager to share the adventure with Cleo.  I’m an anxious traveler by nature, but ninety-five percent of that has to do with leaving someone behind.  When I travel by myself, I’m confident that Cleo will be fine because John is there to take care of her.  But who will look after John?  Yes, yes, he’s a grown man who is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.  Don’t try to use logic to reason me out of my anxieties; they weren’t reasoned into me.  On the other hand, when I travel with John, even though I love every minute of it, I worry about Cleo.  Finding Jane, who puppy-sat Cleo while we were in New Orleans, has made a huge difference.  Cleo adores her.  After our return, Jane continued to sit for our neighbor’s dog for a couple of weeks.  Every time we ran into her on the street, Cleo practically strangled herself with her own collar.  The leaping and tail wagging and generally exuberant greetings were enough to tell the whole story of the level of care and love Cleo got while we were exploring the Big Easy.  Chico will be a whole different experience: I’ll have John and Cleo right there with me.  The boys, Rufus and Marvin, will be perfectly fine on their own for a day.  They have each other, and honestly, as long as they have a warm place to sleep, food and a litter box, they’re happy as clams.

So two more days of school before Thanksgiving break and our 560 mile roundtrip junket.  I remember last year’s break as if it were last month.  The day after Thanksgiving, I wrote in my journal:
“I’m sitting uncomfortably at the kitchen counter, a typing position that’s hard on my shoulders and elbows because I don’t want to leave Cleo, sleeping quietly in her crate with her head hanging out the open door, all by herself.  As my sweetheart headed downstairs to ‘be a musician,’ I had the sort of panicky recognition that I had no idea what to do with myself.  The last few weeks I have been completely dog-obsessed.  First researching the breed, then finding the right puppy, researching supplies, procuring supplies, reading Cesar Millan and the Monks of New Skete, watching dog training videos on YouTube and National Geographic Channel online, and finally, this week, playing with her, caring for her, working with her, and quite honestly just staring at her.   I was just looking through my Sent Items folder on my email and two-thirds of the sixty-seven messages were puppy related. 
November 19, 2010
“Yesterday, Thanksgiving, seemed to mark the first day that she was our dog.  It was the second morning I got up at 4-something to take her out, so John got up at 7:15 to feed her.  He came back to wake me with a cup of tea about an hour later.  He was both excited and, I could tell, a little shaken.  After waking Cleo up, taking her outside to pee and poop, and feeding her breakfast, he took her for a walk.  ‘It was a full walk, a real walk,  She kept up with me the whole way.  I didn’t slow down for her at all,’ he told me.  He had walked nearly a half hour, zig-zagging through the streets of the neighborhood.  ‘And she’s still completely full of energy.  She’s tearing all around the kitchen.’  He looked at me with something almost like dread and said, ‘If she’s like this as a little puppy, what’s she going to be like as an adult?’  
“Well, I’ve been wanting to get into shape.”
It has been such a quick year, full of the unfolding of life with Cleo.  She is sweet beyond measure, she makes us smile and laugh so many times a day, she is clever and quick.  And, oh my, yes!  She certainly does help keep us in shape. 

November 19, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's...or Wait Until Dark

Remember the commercial slogan, “Puppy Chow for a full year, till he’s full grown”?  I have no idea if they still use that jingle; I don’t watch commercials anymore.  I’ve thought about it many times since Cleo turned one, though.  It strikes me that there is just about as much insight into canine development in the slogan as there is nutrition in the food.  In the nearly two months since her birthday, Cleo has grown a little bit, filled out a very little bit, and matured a lot.  But more than anything, it’s in brain power that we see the most development in her lately.

Cleo is what our sitter calls “a reluctant eater.”  Every morning, John and I have to talk her into eating breakfast.  She eats a variety of the Wellness stew flavors, which she clearly enjoys when she deigns to eat them, with a side dish of Wellness kibble for both breakfast and dinner.  She doesn’t like them mixed; if the stew and the kibble overlap too much, she picks the kibble out, sucks the gravy off of it and dots the kitchen floor with the spitty nuggets.  She reminds me of the protagonist of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the young lad with Asperger’s Syndrome who has a meltdown if any of his food touches any other on his plate.  She does appreciate having dry kibble with her stew, just not in it.  And it has to be on a plate, not in a bowl.  This was our sitter’s discovery.  Cleo doesn’t care for the sensation of her nose tapping the edge of the bowl.

So, stew and kibble for breakfast and dinner, kibble soaked in water for lunch and a late night snack.  I know, I know.  People are going to say we over-feed her, but she is so skinny it scares me sometimes.  I see pictures of show Bedlingtons and they are trim, but they have substance.  They’re solid.  Cleo is just a wisp of a girl.  Our vet tells us she’s fine, but I sometimes think I’m more invested in Cleo’s eating than she is herself.  On weekend mornings, we let her eat whenever she gets around to it, usually 2 or 3 PM.  Today, I decided to do a mini training session with her and gave her a couple of liver treats as we worked.  They seemed to jump-start her appetite, because once I broke her loose, she dashed for her food and gobbled it up.  On mornings when we’re on a deadline because we have to go to work, I use the liver treats to lure her to the food.  It works.  Sometimes.

This week, I’m going to see what happens if I allow her to skip breakfast (the most important meal of the day!) and just have lunch when she’s ready for it.  I’m sure she’ll be perfectly fine, but I don’t know how I’ll handle it.  I already obsessively feel her ribs multiple times a day as if she could lose weight from one hour to the next.

I think some of the lack of weight gain has to do with how athletic she is.  She loves to run, jump, climb, bounce, tackle and dig.  If you’ve never seen a Bedlington run, you would never suspect how fast they are.

But that’s not really what I had planned to write about this week.  There has been another change in Cleo since her first birthday.  She has always been beyond cute.  Right after remarking on how much she looks like a lamb, people usually follow up with a comment along the lines of, “She looks like a little stuffed toy dog.”  Now, though, there’s something else.  Ever since picking her up from the groomer last week, I can’t get over how beautiful she is.  It’s like seeing my little tomboy flower into Audrey Hepburn.  The refined face, the contemplative eyes, the glossy and perfectly tassled ears.  Alright, well, maybe the comparison stops with the ears.

Audrey Hepburn.  Or Cleo.  It's hard to tell.
Yet even that is not really what I meant to write about.  It’s the brain development that has been most noticeable lately.  Students who have dropped in to play with Cleo in the last couple weeks have spontaneously exclaimed, “She is so smart!”  Whether it has been the fact that she can find a hidden toy in the blink of an eye or that she has learned to respond to hand signal commands, they are really impressed with her.  In the last few weeks, John and I have enjoyed watching her cogitate.  We can almost see the wheels turning.  When she is faced with something she doesn’t quite understand, she stands very still and ponders.  Eventually she makes up her mind and either curls up for a nap or takes action. 

One of the most awesome moments happened this week as we were watching Jon Stewart on television.  John and I were sitting on the couch with Cleo happily chewing on her toy next to John.  As part of a bit on the show, a photo of a small white dog came up on the screen next to Jon Stewart’s face.  This was a still photo; there was no sound or movement from the dog at all.  In a flash, Cleo leapt up, tail out, legs stiff, and began barking.  She flung herself off the couch and rushed over to the TV, still barking.  She placed her front paws solidly on the screen and stretched her nose towards the dog photo, sniffing and barking alternately.  We hadn’t even realized she was watching the show!  We paused the image while she backed away, staring at it.  “It’s okay!  It’s fake!” we told her.  She stared at the picture for several more seconds, contemplating deeply, then turned her back on it, trotted to the couch, jumped up and snuggled into John, once again happily gnawing away at her chew toy.

According to psychologists, human babies are unable to recognize that a two-dimensional photograph represents a three-dimensional object until they are two years old or a little older.  Animal behaviorists suggest that it takes a considerable amount of intelligence in animals to gain that recognition.  To John and me, we feel like we’re seeing our puppy's brain develop right in front of our eyes.  And we can’t wait to see what the next days will hold.

Can we go home now?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

It All Comes Down to This

The world is a staggeringly vast place, and each of us is so tiny and insignificant.

Canyon above school
The rains have come again to Monterey, and with them, late fall weather.  Our glorious October days in the high 70s and low 80s ended overnight last week.  The high 50s are the best we can hope for in November.  I realize that this is nothing to moan about, and I’m really not complaining.  It’s just the reason that Cleo and I were out walking in the middle of the school day this past week.  A pause in the rain was just the excuse we needed for a two mile leg stretch. 

Cleo has recently crossed over into the realm of ├╝ber-athlete.  A two-mile walk for me is more like a three-mile walk for her, what with all the running back and forth, zig-zagging and retracing of steps for a more thorough sniff.  Such an excursion used to tire her out for an hour or two.  Now, it just gets her warmed up.  A couple of months ago, a long walk at Garland Ranch left her in such a state of exhaustion that she didn’t get up from the couch all afternoon.  After that same walk yesterday, she came home to play a game with her kibble, racing up to her plate, grabbing a piece, tearing around the house with it in her mouth, stopping in the living room to wolf it down, then racing back into the kitchen to repeat the process.

The school's new land overlooks Monterey Bay
Anyway, last week we headed out along an unused road for a tour of one edge of the hundred acre plot of land which the school has recently acquired.  During the first Clinton administration, an Army base in our area was closed down and repurposed.  Large chunks of the property went to the surrounding cities, one massive piece was used to build a university, and other, smaller, plots were dedicated to other uses.  One of these went to us.  Over twenty years of bureaucracy later, the school finally received permission to take possession of the land last month.  The Army cut fire roads along the far edge of the land, so our champion cross country team finally has a home course.  The interior of the land has been designated an outdoor lab.  Students and invited guests will conduct observations and experiments on the native animals and plants that cover these one hundred seven acres.  In spots where non-native vegetation has taken root, they will explore the most practical ways of eradicating it and restoring the natives.

As I stood at the crest of a hill looking out over the new land toward Monterey Bay, clouds massing on the horizon, the sheer immensity of the world pressed in on me.  Cleo, sniffing along the fence line, looked so tiny.  She who starts at the rattling of Pampas Grass in the wind, yet who, in the moment I took my eye off her, sneaked under the razor wire fencing into rattlesnake heaven, how could I ever protect her from everything that might do her harm?  She seemed so small and fragile.  Life itself is so small and fragile.  I wanted to scoop her up and hold her tight so that nothing could ever frighten or harm her.  Of course, if I did, she would just kick and squirm and struggle until I put her down.  As far as she is concerned, there’s a wide world out there to explore, full of friends yet to meet.

TIny girl in a big world
I realize that some of this sense of tenuousness is coming from the fact that my nineteen-year-old stepson moved out of the house last week.  Granted, he moved out because we told him it was time for him to make his own way in the world, but we can’t help worrying for his welfare, even knowing that living on his own will be the best thing for his growth and development as a human being. He’s talking about joining the Coast Guard or the Navy.  There’s something unquestionably noble about serving one’s country, but I can’t imagine what seeing war first hand would do to him.  I guess the same things it has done to millions of young men, and now women, throughout history.

As Cleo and I walked down the hill and the horizon pulled in to the playing fields on our right and the tree lined campus on our left, a sense of perspective returned.  In the main office, several colleagues greeted us.

“Oh, you’re back from your walk.  Did you have fun, Cleo?”

“Hi, honey!  Ooo, you’re getting so sweet!  You’re not even mouthing me at all.”

Exploring is more fun with company
Everyone had to touch her and fuss over her, fondle her ears and smile into her eyes.  Small she may be.  Insignificant she is not.  She is loved and she is connected to others.  There are seven billion humans on the planet now.  One in seven billion seems barely worthy of notice.  The more we love, the more we connect with others, the less we are one in seven billion and the more we are a member of a community in which we are cared for as we care for those around us.

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the protagonist Oskar worries about his insignificance.  His father responds, “Well, what would happen if a plane dropped you in the middle of the Sahara Desert and you picked up a single grain of sand with tweezers and moved it one millimeter?...the Sahara is a vast desert. And it has existed for millions of years.  And you changed it!”

Since beginning to write this blog, I have heard from the moms and dads of Bedlington Terriers all over the world.  They reach out to connect in mutual love and admiration of the four-legged fuzzballs.   Wherever we go, school, beach, park, trail or neighborhood, we meet people who want to touch Cleo, exclaim over her, and love her.  Everything pauses and pulls into a point of contact.

The world is such a tiny spot, and each of us, in our connections with each other, is so precious.  Especially those four-leggeds.

Cleo on Halloween: The Leaping Fairy Dog
(photo by Cammy T.)